Part Five, Chapters 15-18

      It was a small sound, and if Simon hadn't been half-listening for it he'd have missed it amidst the general confusion. But he was listening for it, and so when Rich made the little satisfied noise at his monitor Simon heard it over (or perhaps under) everybody else talking. Simon half-smiled, leaned forward, picked up his empty coffee mug, and banged it on the table twice like an impromptu gavel. A hush fell. Heads swiveled towards him.

      "So," Simon said, cocking an arm over the back of his chair and looking over at Rich. Heads swiveled towards Rich. "What have you got for us? Got us a target?"

      "Sort of." Rich flicked the backs of his fingers against his laptop screen. "I've got it narrowed down to three and I don't think it's going to get any narrower."

      "Three, huh. I think we can handle three," Simon said slowly, considering this for a moment before surfacing again. "Okay. Give us a quick rundown. I'm so sick of this waiting game I could just puke."

      Rich nodded, scooping up his laptop and bringing it to the conference table. Before he could actually get started there was the brief ritual of plugging the laptop in (Rich's devotion to preserving his laptop's battery charge at all times being close to obsession) and Simon seized the moment to scoop up his coffee mug and go refill it.

      "The biggest problem is mutual funds and crap like that," Rich said abruptly, shoving his glasses up with the heel of his hand. "It's not like I can just look at a list of individual investors and peel a name out of that. Like Future Secure, just for example, is listed with about forty different mutual funds, and of course none of those funds just happened to invest in all the other targets to date. That'd be too easy."

      Simon paused long enough to bring his coffee back to the table. "Okay, because investment shit is incredibly boring, let's skip the gory details unless we need them. You say 'three', well, I trust you and your legwork. Give us the rundown."

      "I don't actually think it's going to be Restructured," Rich said. "They fit everything else, but there was that thing—"

      "—with what's-his-face selling their big secret thing to, uh, whatever the name of their big competitor was, right," Nate broke in, nodding furiously.

      Rich blinked owlishly at him for a long moment. "Right," he eventually said. "But my point is that that was only about six months ago, so their security is still insanely tight and they're really jumped up. I think it'd be more trouble than it's worth for our thief."

      "I'd have to agree," Jeremy said slowly, fiddling with his empty mug. Everyone looked at him. After a moment, he looked up. "Assuming he has any say at all in which targets he hits, he wouldn't go for that."

      Rich hesitated, then nodded at Jeremy. "Anyway, next up is Annadale Labs. Personally, I don't like that one so much, but I like it better than Restructured."

      "Why don't you like it?" Sandra asked. She was fiddling with one of her nails but looking at Rich.

      "Because I like Nova Research a whole lot better," Rich said. "Fits everything right down the line and it's the kind of thing that Karpol usually goes for. Small, portable security tech. They're trumpeting little hints about their new fillip on the biometric scanner left and right."

      "Bio-what-tric?" Mike asked.

      "Biometric," Rich said irritably, flapping a hand. "Things that read personal body signatures. Fingerprints, retinal scans, all that sort of thing. Their new tech can tell when a user is under a lot of stress, like from a hostage situation or a theft attempt, and can react accordingly—it's paydirt for Karpol, given his MO."

      "Yeah," Simon said, sipping his coffee. "What's Annadale doing?"

      "Something with silicon bullets," Rich said. He scowled at his laptop. "Bullets that deliver a light electric shock on contact, act like a taser for better stopping power, something like that."

      "What?" Nate said. "That's ridiculous, silicon shatters too easily—"

      "—well, they must be working around it," Rich said, talking right over Nate until Nate subsided. "I don't know the details."

      "Okay," Simon said. "So... give us the odds as they stand."

      "I'd say seventy percent on Nova, twenty on Annadale, ten on Restructured," Rich said. "From what I've got now. I'm confident it's going to be one of those three, though."

      "Okay," Simon said again, thinking fast. Finally he nodded once, sharply, and knocked on the table. "Okay! Here's what's going to happen next. Nate, go down to the library division again and get blueprints for all three companies. We'll take a look. You three—" he gestured vaguely at the rest of the table "—start looking 'em up. Mike, take Restructured, Johnny, take Annadale, Sandy, take Nova. Rich probably has the basic stuff already but I want histories, news articles, that sort of thing. Don't contact them directly yet, we don't want an idiot stampede. Rich, you are the man, take the next hour or so off, we'll call it a mini-vacation. Archer, you, uh, I don't know, sit there and look pretty."

      "I can do that," Jeremy said, just barely cracking a smile.

      "Blueprints!" Nate cried, backing into the room with three fresh new mailing tubes clutched in his arms. His glasses had fallen seriously askew at some point and now hung precariously from the tip of his nose, and he ended up bashing himself in the face with the end of one of the tubes to push them back up.

      Simon sighed and rescued the tubes before Nate could do himself any actual damage. "Thanks, Specs. Okay, folks, wrap up what you're doing and let's take a look."

      Jeremy stood up and started clearing off the table, whisking papers back into their folders and moving them off onto the empty desk by the front door. Simon dropped the tubes on the end of the table and pulled the endcap off Nova Research with a soft hollow pop, shaking the rolled-up printouts into the palm of his other hand. "Scoot 'em back, folks," he said, spreading the blueprints out over the table and nudging people's laptops back.

      Nate hurried around and took his usual spot. "I didn't look at them too closely but Nova's pretty small, as far as these go; they've only got three actual labs in the building."

      "Mm," Jeremy said, already absorbed in the blueprints with his chin in his hand and one finger crooked over his lips. "Is this a high-rise?"

      "Yeah," Nate said. "Ummm... nineteenth and twentieth floors, it says here. One lab and management on nineteen and the other two labs on twenty."

      "Are they leasing this space, then?"

      "I... guess so? I mean, they sure don't own the whole building..."

      "Mm," Jeremy said again, a line appearing between his eyebrows.

      "What?" Simon asked.

      "I don't know," Jeremy eventually said, still frowning. "There are both advantages and disadvantages to that." The line between his brows smoothed out after a moment. "But I refuse to tender an opinion until I've seen all three."

      "Fair enough," Simon said. "Anything you want to know about that we can be checking on?"

      Jeremy nodded. "I need to know how many floors the building has total, please. And... hm. I assume there's building security in addition to Nova's own, I'd like to know about both. Actually, I'd be obliged if you could find out who else rents in the building—a complete list would be ideal, but if not that, then the renters on the floors immediately below and above. Oh, and also if there are any empty, unrented offices, particularly on the floors closest by."

      "And would you also like a pony, while we're at it?" Simon asked. "I hear ponies are all the rage in Cannes this year."

      "I'm on it," Sandy said, ignoring Simon in favor of leaning back in her chair and digging out her cell phone. "Can we start the idiot parade now, boss, or should I be sneaky?"

      "Hm," Simon said. "Start with the building owners. Don't go directly to Nova yet, just in case."

      "Got it." Sandy popped open her phone.

      Simon picked up the next tube and pried it open. "Let's go ahead and take a look at Annadale while Sandy handles that." Nova Research vanished under Annadale Labs as Simon unrolled the second set of blueprints.

      "Mm," Jeremy said, spreading his fingers out on the new blueprints. "That's fairly... dull."

      "Judging from their mailing address they're in one of those suburban-sprawl complexes," Rich put in.

      Jeremy touched the outline of one wall, as straight as an arrow. "They share this wall with another company, I believe." He let his fingers wander out along the outline of one of the connecting walls, all arbitrary dents and bumps. "It's much too straight in comparison with this one."

      Simon frowned, then stood up, craning over the blueprints to get a better angle. "Yeah, that does kinda look like half a building, now that you mention it."

      "Ground floor," Jeremy mused. "Not many windows, but a single story."

      "So tell us what you want to know about this one," Simon said.

      "If they share this wall, and if so, who with," Jeremy said, tapping the long straight line. "Mm. If it's a complex, as has been suggested, I'd like to know if it's gated, how many buildings like this one are in it, and if it comes with its own security. Also what kind of exterior lighting and parking surrounds the building."

      "Got it," Johnny said, settling back in his chair and fetching out his own battered cell phone. It had an ominous dent in it. Simon was reasonably sure that dent was Mike's doing, but he couldn't remember for sure.

      "Wanna take a look at Restructured?" Simon asked, already popping the end cap off the third tube.

      "Why not?" said Jeremy. Simon shook the blueprints out of the tube and rolled them out, adding yet another layer to the impromptu tablecloth.

      "Those are less than three months old," Nate said. "Apparently they did a lot of renovating to up security after the thing—whoa."

      "That's impressive," Jeremy agreed, shaking his head a little. His fingers traced absently over the newly laid walls and gates stretching like rows of soldiers across the building.

      "Think it'd keep you out?" Simon couldn't resist asking.

      Jeremy frowned slightly at the blueprints. "No," he finally said, "but it would be an extremely expensive hassle for my employer. Judging from where they've placed their new walls, I'd have to say that their security consultant knows what he's doing."

      "That's different," Sandra said, rolling her eyes.

      "Well, to be fair, most of these companies aren't trying to protect against someone like me in the first place," Jeremy said, sounding almost apologetic. "They're chiefly looking to prevent inside jobs. And the occasional brute-force smash-and-grab."

      "Still," Sandra said stubbornly, and then her attention was grabbed by the phone at her ear and she turned away. "Ah, yes, thank you, let me give you our fax number—"

      "So can we rule out Restructured, do you think?" Simon asked.

      Jeremy didn't answer right away, steepling his fingers in front of his face. Finally he said, "If he has any sort of say at all, yes."

      "Do you think he's got a say?"

      "I'd... think so," Jeremy said, and then his eyes cleared and he looked at Simon. "I don't know."

      "Well, that's just nine shades of helpful," Simon said. "Man, am I glad I dragged you all the way to the States for this."

      Jeremy closed his eyes and spent a moment or two just breathing deeply, with his forehead touched to his clasped, upraised hands. Simon waited patiently, letting the sound of the various phone conversations going on around them fade to background noise. It wasn't until the fax machine in the corner whirred to life that Jeremy's eyes came back open. "It won't be Restructured," he said, flatly. "You might wish to give them some sort of heads-up, but they are almost certainly not his target."

      "Huh," Simon said. "Tell me why not."

      "I've never met this Karpol or even heard much about him, but anyone who's managed to consolidate and hold that much power for that long didn't do it by ignoring the experts he's relying on. Whatever else your thief is, he's an expert."

      "Huh," Simon said again, and waited.

      "On the other hand," Jeremy said, rushing right ahead to fill that empty space in the conversation just like Simon had hoped he would, "either he's being paid very well or Karpol holds some sort of leverage on him. He's certainly not freelancing, either. He does work for Karpol directly and take orders, after a fashion."

      "Huh," Simon said for the third time, figuring it was working for him so far. "Why?"

      "He's moving too fast," Jeremy said. "One job of that size a month, all over this ridiculously oversized country of yours—"

      "—just on general principles: hey now—"

      "—I'd never work on that kind of punishing schedule unless I was being paid an absurd amount or had no choice," Jeremy said, ignoring the weak sally, "and it also suggests to me that someone else is handling the preliminary footwork. He's a tool, or, if you'd prefer, part of a team effort, which suggests to me that Karpol isn't just terribly interested in listening to his opinions."

      "I think you're contradicting your own case there, hoss," said Simon.

      "If I had to guess," Jeremy said, ignoring that too, "I would say that your thief was sat down by some mid-level flunky and given this same choice that your Specs Two has laid out for us. Either Nova, Annadale, or Restructured, his choice, and in that case..." Jeremy trailed off there and pinched the bridge of his nose, lightly. "... in that case, I believe he would pick Annadale."

      "... Annadale?" Simon echoed. "Not Nova?"

      "Again, it's a bit premature of me to make this call, but based on what I know now, Annadale. I'll be able to make a more educated guess once my questions are answered."

      "All right," Simon said slowly. "Tell me why."

      "It's the location," Jeremy said. "High-rises are trouble. Too many floors, too few exits from the building. If something goes wrong he's trapped himself in an oversized box and doesn't even have the luxury of going up instead of down, unless he has a helicopter waiting. Given enough time he could fix that, but he hasn't got enough time. And..." He trailed off there.

      "And?" Simon prompted.

      "He has a tendency to panic," Jeremy said, almost unwillingly. "If something goes wrong, he panics. When he panics, he tries to escape. And he knows that. Just by being in a single-story building Annadale has a thousand exits."

      "Huh," Simon said. He looked at Rich. "What do you think?"

      "I can't argue with that," Rich said, in a voice that very plainly said he wished he could.

      Jeremy sighed. "I agree that the prize at Nova Research is much more in keeping with previous—and again, I know next to nothing about this sort of industrial crime or about this Karpol. It's just that... I know him. And I believe he'd pick Annadale."

      "Crap," Simon said, drumming his fingers on the tabletop and thinking. "Okay, let's not make any firm decisions until Archer here gets his questions answered."

      "I believe it'll all come down to one thing," Jeremy said. "The security detail outside Annadale. If there's a strong security presence, or a decent fence around the whole complex, or parking lots that are well-lit at all hours, I may well change my vote."

      Simon looked at Johnny, who was just now folding up his cell phone. "Tell us," he said.

      "No fence," Johnny said, clipping his phone back onto his belt. "Complex doesn't have its own guards, although a police car drives by on the hour, sounds like."

      Jeremy took a deep breath. "Therefore, unless their internal security is amazing: Annadale."

      Simon hesitated for a long moment, then nodded. "Annadale." He paused, looking at Rich. Rich made a faint irritated sound but didn't seem to have any sort of protest to make. "That's that, then," Simon said, clapping his hands together with a sound like rifleshot. "Time to start the idiot stampede, folks. Mike. Call Restructured, get their security head on the phone, brief him about the potential problem. Stress that we're ninety percent certain they are not the target."

      "Right, boss," Mike said. "Are we gonna call them and let them know when the guy is moving?"

      Simon chewed on that for a moment. "Why not? Yeah, we'll do that. Sandra, call Nova, same thing without the ten percent part. Tell him that I'm on the phone right now trying to arrange for a field team to come help keep an eye on them."

      "I'm on it," Sandra said.

      "Johnny," Simon said, and then stopped and thought. "Call Annadale. Don't get too chatty. Just brief their security chief about the issue—"

      "Your thief may be working with or leaning on one of their employees," Jeremy hastened to add.

      "—and tell him to keep a lid on it," Simon finished smoothly. "Let him know that we'll be coming in tomorrow morning."

      Johnny grunted (it sounded vaguely like surprise) and reached for his phone again.

      "I'm going to go talk to Upstairs," Simon said, taking a deep breath. "After you make those calls, I want you all to go on home. Tie up your loose ends, get things settled, pack a bag, get some rest, and be ready, because if I get an email from Langridge telling me that he's moving tonight, I want you all at the airport within the hour, no questions. If not, be here by seven tomorrow morning—" suddenly he was talking right over a chorus of muffled groans "—and we'll fly out first thing and get set up properly. That all applies to you too, Archer. Any questions?"

      Everyone was silent. Jeremy, Simon noticed, was actually hiding a faint smile behind his folded hands.

      "Let's do this thing," Simon said, surrendering with relief to the familiar rush of finally doing something. "Get on it. Texas, you live closest to Archer's hotel, drop him off on your way home. I'll call you guys if there's any word."

      "Hall, sir?" Simon was saying dubiously into the phone not five minutes later, even as he checked his email inbox and found it empty. "No, sir. It's just that we generally don't see eye-to-eye... no, sir. That's fine. Now, about Cincinnati..."

      By the time he got off the phone, ten minutes later, everything was quiet from the main room and Simon nodded in approval. Upstairs would handle sending Team Hall to Seattle to keep an eye on Nova Research, his own team's flight to Cincinnati was dealt with, there was a plane and pilot on call if they needed to go tonight... Simon slung himself into his desk chair and fished out his cell phone. One last thing to handle, and he thought he'd best do it directly. Or he wanted to do it directly. One or the other.

      "Langridge," the voice on the other end of the phone snapped. "Who is this? How did you get this number?"

      "Nice to hear from you too, Langridge," Simon said cheerfully, enjoying the nice warm glow of oneupsmanship in his belly and making a mental note to give Rich either a raise or an appreciative pat on the back. "Sorry to have to resort to calling you, but I'm not able to reach my computer at the moment." It was technically true, since in order to reach his computer he'd have to turn his chair almost all the way around.

      "Mr. Drake," Langridge said, imbuing his name with such a chilly lack of enthusiasm that Simon actually winced through his grin. "What a pleasant surprise."

      "Aww, Langridge, you sweet-talker you," Simon said. "Anyway, I don't want to waste your time with idle chitchat, so I'll just get right to the point."

      "Also a pleasant surprise, Mr. Drake."

      "We've managed to pinpoint what we believe is the next target and we're flying out soon," Simon said, trying to keep things nonspecific, just in case. "So I'm going to be away from my computer for the foreseeable future—"

      "—and I suppose you want me to call you when this fateful email lands on my desk," Dorothy Langridge finished for him.

      "Yes, please," Simon said. "On my cell, the very instant you get it, I don't care what time of day or night it is. Hell, I hope you get it at three in the morning just so you can call and wake me up, if that'll make you feel better."

      "Fine," Langridge said, after a frost-covered pause. "But I want to make one thing absolutely clear, Mr. Drake: you owe me for this."

      Simon shut his eyes. "I owe you, Langridge," he admitted. "The more warning you can give me, the more I owe you."

      "We have a deal, then," said Langridge, thawing a bit. "I'll call you. Oh, and Drake?"

      "What?" Simon said, scowling a bit at that peremptory Drake.

      "Good luck," Langridge said abruptly, and the connection shut off with a bang and a beep before Simon could say anything else.

      "Get some dinner," Simon muttered to himself, flicking off the lights in his office. "Go home, pack a bag, get some sleep—"

      He broke off there. Jeremy looked up at him briefly, nodded in greeting, and then went back to marking up one of the blueprints with a red pencil.

      "Goddammit, Archer, didn't I tell Texas to take you home?" Simon said. "What—"

      "You'll want to give this to the other team," Jeremy said, overriding him crisply. "I can't be in two places at once so I'm making note of the places they'll want to watch. I can't guarantee that they'll catch him, mind you, but if they look after the spots I've marked up, they should at least prevent him from stealing anything."

      "Ah," Simon said after a moment, leaning over Jeremy's shoulder to look at the blueprints. Nova Research was sprinkled liberally with red arrows and x's, complete with several lengthy notes in Jeremy's small, precise hand. "Good idea, but hell, if he does hit Nova I'd almost rather they fail to spot him. If he's not warned, we'll have another chance in a month. If he figures out we're onto him, though, I don't know what's going to happen."

      Jeremy's pencil, which had paused, moved on after a moment. "I leave it to your discretion whether or not to give them this, then," Jeremy said, blocking out a rectangle in red and filling it in neatly.

      "Sneaky bastard," Simon said, not without some affection.

      "Mm," Jeremy said. "I suppose that goes for both of us."

      "Guess that leaves it up to me to take you to your hotel," Simon said with a huge put-upon sigh. "Let me know when you're done—"

      "I don't think you'll catch him, not this time around," Jeremy said, as calm as you please, like all he'd said was yes, Simon.

      "What?" said Simon, taken aback. "Why not?"

      "Well, first of all, Annadale's a sieve," Jeremy said, putting the pencil down. "And secondly, easily panicked or not, he's still—he's still quite good."

      "But we've got an ace up our sleeves, which is to say, you," Simon pointed out.

      "And he's doing something he's been doing all his life, while I've never attempted to catch anyone before, let alone him," Jeremy said. He was twisting the Nova Research blueprints into a thin roll, keeping his hands busy and keeping his eyes on his hands. "You'll stop him, of that I have no doubt. Throw a massive scare into him, throw Karpol's scheme into confusion, all that sort of thing—but he'll get away."

      "Bullshit," Simon said confidently. "You are massively underestimating the skill and sheer class of my team. We'll catch him and look pretty doing it. That is, unless you plan to sell us out and tip off your ex, in which case we won't catch him but we'll still be damned attractive—"

      Jeremy looked up at that. His eyes were bleak. "Don't."

      "... yeah, okay," Simon said, looking away. "I won't."

      "Thank you," Jeremy said, his voice absent and cool, sliding the blueprints into their mailing tube and capping it. He held it out towards Simon, looking at the floor.

      Simon automatically took it. "I'll, uh, give this to Hank tomorrow before we go," he said awkwardly. "Not that his team could find their own asses with a flashlight and a map, but still."

      "That's entirely up to you," Jeremy said. "Shall we go? Or I suppose if you're terribly busy I could call a cab..."

      "Pfft," Simon said, setting the mailing tube on the empty desk at the front of the room where he'd be sure to see it in the morning. "If I don't give you a ride back to your hotel how are you going to buy me dinner?"

      It took a moment, but finally he heard Jeremy laugh behind him.

      Mike grabbed the roof of the van in both hands and hung from it, his legs going limp, his spine crackling loudly as he stretched. "Jesus God," he opined, "this ain't a fit hour for man nor beast."

      "Whiner," Simon said affably.

      "It is six forty-five in the fucking morning, boss. I am entitled to whine."

      "Well, yeah, I didn't say you weren't. I'm just stating a fact, Whiny McBitcherson."

      Mike sniggered and stood back up, swinging the driver's side door shut again. Simon turned around, scuffing a hand through his hair. At this time of the morning motor pool was not only deserted but flooded with a weird light, the rising sun just now starting to compete with the flickering fluorescent bulbs overhead. The light was almost unearthly, one that (in Simon's own personal unshared opinion) made most white folks look like they were made out of Silly Putty and turned Mike a funky shade of raw chicken.

      He glanced towards the exit bay and got a faceful of lightly smoke-scented morning breeze for his troubles. Jeremy was standing just outside on the exit ramp having himself a nice little breakfast cigarette in lieu of actual food. "I said I was sorry," Simon called.

      "And I said it wasn't a problem," Jeremy called back, glancing over his shoulder. "I'm certainly not in any danger of starving to death."

      Simon wandered over to join him, out of sheer boredom. "Maybe you can get something to eat in Ohio. I hear they have food there now."

      "Oh, lovely," Jeremy said, dropping the butt of his cigarette and stepping on it. "Corn."

      "And beef," Simon said. "Maybe even corned beef."

      Jeremy drew in a breath, like he was going to say something, and then stopped and eyed Simon curiously. "If I were to say 'Ah, the Midwest', would you be more likely to agree with me or tell me that I had no right to be saying such things about your beloved country?"

      Simon thought about it. "Actually," he said, "I'd probably start by pointing out, in a deceptively mild tone, that I'm a Midwesterner myself."

      "Really! So is this some sort of homecoming for you?"

      "Contrary to your weird British ideas about America, there's more than one city in the Midwest. Hate to break it to you."

      "Now you're just inventing things," Jeremy said. Nate struggled in through the interior door, carrying a square equipment locker; Jeremy raised a hand in greeting, calling, "Do you need a hand?"

      "I got it," Nate said breathlessly, rolling his shoulder to keep his duffel bag from falling off. Simon sighed and went over to take the equipment locker away from him anyway, just in case. Nate immediately grabbed for the duffel. "Thanks, boss," he said, blinking rapidly. "Rich should be right behind me."

      "Right," Simon said, carrying the box over to the back of the van and setting it gently down on the metal lip. "How much crap is he bringing?"

      "Just a briefcase," Nate said. "Well, and his stuff."

      "Amazing," Simon said, shaking his head. "Maybe we'll have room for everything, assuming Texas doesn't try and bring a howitzer."

      "Nope," Johnny said, ambling in from outside. "Brought my prom dress, though. Figured you wouldn't mind."

      "Hey, you in pink taffeta, what's not to love? Where's Sandy? Usually she's the first one here."

      Johnny shrugged and heaved his own duffel into the back of the van. "We gonna armwrestle for shotgun?"

      "Hell, no," said Simon. "I called it ten minutes ago. You wanted it, you should have showed up earlier."

      "Morning," Sandra called, backing through the door carrying one end of a footlocker with a briefcase balanced somewhat precariously on top. Rich, at the other end, lifted a hand before grabbing the footlocker again and wrestling it through the door.

      Simon glanced at Nate. "Just a briefcase, huh."

      Nate flushed. "I, uh, must have missed that one."

      Simon turned around. "Okay, suitcases out of the back, folks. C'mon, chop chop, I really want to get to Cincinnati before I die of old age."

      "Why would anyone want to go to Cincinnati?" Mike said plaintively, wrestling his gym bag back out of the van.

      "Deja vu," Jeremy murmured, stepping out of the van.

      "Yeah, well, your vu's going to get a lot less deja in a moment," Simon said, stretching. He raised his voice. "We all set?"

      A chorus of sleepy but generally affirmative mutters rose in answer, and Simon nodded. "Right. Honda, Texas, get the footlocker. Spring, can you get the little one? Thanks. Anyone need help? No? Okay, you know the drill, folks. Stick together and try not to shoot anyone, I don't care if they are airport security."

      "Awww, but boss—!"

      "I mean it, Honda," Simon said. "C'mon, let's hustle, our flight supposedly leaves at 8:15."

      "Oh, joy," Mike said, but he shoved the van's keys into his pocket and grabbed one end of the footlocker.

      "Come on, then. Game faces. Let's do this thing." Simon glanced around. Sleepy-eyed businessmen in suits were streaming towards the airport, most of them towing little wheeled suitcases behind them and not paying a jot of attention to anything except where they were going (and in some cases to the phones attached to their ears). Time to give them a wake-up call, Simon thought, and set off towards the airport at a ground-eating stride, his team fanning out into a purposely grim-faced wedge behind him. Simon caught a look at Mike's 'I so totally eat babies' face in the polished surface of the elevator doors as he went striding past and nearly cracked up.

      The automatic doors hissed open barely a heartbeat before Simon went slamming through, and he experienced a momentary surge of adrenalin-fueled glee. "Christ, I love my job," he muttered under his breath, driving through the early-morning crowds with his team in his wake, some of them actually jogging to keep up. He dug his ID folder out of his jeans pocket and flipped it open without breaking stride.

      The lines at airport security were already long, even at this ridiculous hour. Businessmen. Simon ignored them, heading instead over to the bored-looking security guard watching the exit gate. The guard blinked once and straightened up, his hand dropping to hover near his gun. Simon was sure the motion was meant to have been unobtrusive. "I'm sorry, sir," the guard said warily, "this gate is for exiting passengers only, you'll have to go to the back of the line—"

      "FBI," Simon said, flicking his ID folder up and enjoying this way the hell too much. "Simon Drake."

      The security guard ground to a halt, frowning at Simon's ID, then twisted halfway around. "Hey, Walt, it's the FBI. What the hell did you do now?"

      "I pirate mp3s," said the pudgy Walt, apparently unimpressed with the joke. He waved a clipboard at Simon. "Been expecting you. If you and your party will just step over here, I'll get you sorted out." Mutterings arose from the long line of commuters behind them, which Simon and Walt alike completely ignored.

      "Do you pirate mp3s?" Simon asked. Behind him a series of slithery noises and hollow thumps heralded the en masse dropping of luggage. "I mean, I've got actual important work that I'm supposed to be doing, but if a bust's gonna fall right into my lap..."

      "No, sir, I am a paragon of virtue in every way. Hell, I obey laws that haven't been passed yet." Walt handed Simon the clipboard. "All your guns have trigger-locks on them?"

      "Yep," Simon said, reaching for the holster at the small of his back. "Bust 'em out, folks." Six holstered guns hit the table in front of Walt, who barely blinked, just pulled them out of their holsters one by one and checked to make sure that the trigger-locks were in place and locked. The bored commuters in the next line over were now definitely less bored. Simon could tell because they were all trying to pretend they weren't staring, something that most people were so bad at that it made them look like spooked cows.

      "Hokay," said Walt, slapping an orange sticker onto each holster with jaded efficiency. "I'm guessing you know the drill: don't show 'em, don't pull 'em unless you gotta, and for God's sake don't shoot any holes in our planes, they're falling apart as it is. Any others?"

      "I think that's it," Simon said, looking (as was usually necessary) at Johnny.

      "I'm clean," Johnny said.


      Johnny made a face like he'd had a momentary cramp. "Swear."

      "Yeah, we wouldn't want to carry any undeclared armaments onto the plane," Mike said virtuously. "That would just be wrong and shit."

      Walt turned to look at Jeremy, the only one without a gun on the table in front of him. "You got one?"

      "No, sir," Jeremy said pleasantly. "I'm afraid I'm completely unarmed." Simon resisted the urge to snort.

      Walt shook his head sadly. "Well, sir, that's no good," he said. "You hang out with heavily-armed gentlemen—and lady, pardon me, ma'am—like this, you ought to get yourself a piece, just so you can blend in, you know?"

      "Oh, it's hardly that simple," Jeremy said, still pleasant. "I'm in protective custody."

      "This is really not the time, Archer," Simon said through his gritted teeth.

      "Yeah?" Walt said with vague interest. "You some kind of important witness or something?"

      "I'm afraid we're not at liberty to say," Simon said, cutting that little flight of misplaced fancy off at the root. He finished scrawling his signature across the bottom of the sheet and handed the clipboard back. "You need anything else from us?"

      "I think we're done," said Walt. "You folks have a good flight now."

      Simon picked up his gun and shoved it back into its place against the small of his back. "Thanks," he said absently, his mind already on the flight ahead of them. "You too."

      Walt had apparently heard it all before, because he just waved them on.

      "Simon Drake, FBI," Simon said again at the boarding counter, flicking open his ID. "I think you're expecting us. We'd like to board first and we'll need to keep these lockers near us."

      "Yes, sir!" said the abnormally cheerful young lady behind the counter, her fingers already stepping delicately over the keys. "This flight isn't quite full so I'm sure we can accommodate you! I'll let the gate crew know. If you'd like to have a seat over there?"

      "Well, hell, that was easy," Simon said. "Sure. Thanks."

      "Have a nice day!" she chirped, beaming a happy smile over all of them before Simon managed to round them up and herd them away.

      Mike shivered. "That is some kinda crime against nature, that there."

      "Yeah," Simon said. "Christ, you know how much coffee I'd need to drink to be that perky?"

      "I don't think I could handle you being that perky," Sandra said, rising up onto her toes and stretching. "I'd probably have to bust you one. Speaking of coffee, think we've got time to grab some before they seat us?"

      "I wish," Simon said mournfully. "It's almost seven-forty. They'll be shuffling us onto the plane any second." He glanced over at Jeremy, currently gazing peacefully out of the massive plate-glass windows. "Hey, it's a fabulous new adventure for you, Archer: you get to try flying coach like a normal human being."

      "I suppose it would ruin your fun if I told you I've done it before," Jeremy said over his shoulder, putting a hand on one of the heavy steel struts.

      "Yeah, and you don't want to do that," Simon told him. "It's not even eight in the morning and I've only had one cup of coffee. You really want to play along with my little whims right now."

      "Ah," Jeremy said, after a pause. He turned around and clasped his hands in front of his chest. "My goodness," he intoned in a voice halfway between 'sincere' and 'BBC announcer', "what a fascinating new experience this will be."

      Simon eyed him askance for a moment, then snorted. "Shit, that was about the least convincing thing I've ever heard. You'd think that you'd be a better liar, being a big-time criminal and all."

      "Oh, I am," Jeremy said, turning back to the view. "I'm just not trying very hard."

      "Window seat!" Nate cried, diving into one of the rows of three and claiming it. Back here the plane was still empty, although people were starting to move about in first class.

      "Dibs on the aisle," Simon said, "on account of my long legs and all, so I guess that leaves the middle seat for Archer." He poked Jeremy in the small of the back. "You are getting the full working-class-stiff experience today, whoo boy."

      "I'm thrilled," Jeremy said dryly, sliding into the row and settling into the seat next to Nate. "What's next? Lunch at McDonald's?"

      "And a room in an anonymous chain motel that you have to share with another person," Simon informed him with no small measure of triumph. "I am expecting you to break out in hives at any second."

      "Mm." Jeremy folded his arms loosely across his chest. "I do feel a tad itchy, it's true."

      Simon wedged himself into his tiny seat, letting his knees spill out into the aisle now before the flight attendants came along and made him tuck them in. "Comfy?" he asked Jeremy, blatantly stealing the armrest.

      "Very nice," Jeremy said. His elbow slid sneakily over to nudge against Simon's bicep. "Quite cozy, in fact."

      "Man, I love the cozy," Mike cried from the row ahead of them. "Best thing about flying like this is I get to cuddle up to Sandy all the w—oof!"

      "Boys who want to keep their testicles keep their hands to themselves," Sandra said primly.

      "Awww, man," Mike said, sounding oddly breathless. "Can I keep one ball if I just use one hand?"

      "That's a fascinating premise," Sandra said, and Simon heard her crack her knuckles. "Would you care to test it?"

      "Smart answer's no," Johnny put in, "in case you're wondering."

      "Hate you all," Rich muttered from across the way. "Can we not do this in public?"

      Simon sighed and conceded the point, as passengers were starting to stream in and take the seats around them. "Rein it in, folks. Let's try not to get shot by jumpy air marshals who think their new powers extend to settling sexual harassment suits."

      "But Sandy's totally making my work environment uncomfortable!" Mike said. Still, he settled down.

      Simon regretfully wedged his knees in behind Mike's seat, clearing the aisle for the other passengers. "Yeah, you and I will be sharing a room, since I can't justify inflicting you on anybody else," he told Jeremy nonchalantly. He was pretty sure he was hitting just the right offhand note. "Usually I get one to myself, but hey, them's the breaks."

      "Mm," Jeremy said, equally casual. "I do hope you don't snore."

      For a moment, Simon was seized with the lunatic urge to ask I don't know, Archer, do I?. Instead he shrugged. "I dunno. Never stayed awake to find out."

      "I suppose you have a point there, Simon," Jeremy said, closing his eyes and letting his head fall forward. "Now, if you don't mind, I think a catnap is in order."

      "For once, you and I agree on something," Simon said, settling back and shutting his own eyes. Jeremy's arm was still warm against his own; it was the last thing he was conscious of for a while.

      The woman standing outside Annadale Labs looked more like a girl, scrawny as a reed, hugging her clipboard uncertainly to her chest and shifting from foot to foot. Simon nudged Johnny as Mike parked their borrowed van out in front. "That who you talked to?"

      Johnny grunted. "Nah. Some guy on the board."

      "Christ," Simon said. "Maybe that is their security chief. Think they hired her right out of junior high?"

      "Be nice," Sandra said severely.

      "Oh, I plan to," Simon said, beaming at her. "Trust me, I'll be so nice she won't know what hit her."

      Sandra eyed him for a moment, then flung up her hands in surrender. "That's worse," she said.

      "Yeah, 'worse' is totally my official plan now," Simon said. "Hey, Archer, you seen everything you need to?"

      "Mm?" Jeremy glanced over his shoulder. The momentary sheen of light off his sunglasses nearly blinded Simon, who scowled and blocked it with his hand. "For now, yes. I'd like to drive about some more on the way out."

      "I think we can handle that," Simon said, letting his hand drop again. "Okay, everybody out, and behave. Let me do the talking for now. Remember that we are representatives of the United States government and the government does not need to look any more psychotic than it already does, Honda."

      "Man, why are you always singlin' me out?" Mike asked plaintively. "Just because I'm all crazy. That's discrimination. I could sue or shoot you or some shit."

      "Okay, you know what, us just sitting here in the parked van is starting to look weirder by the second. Let's do this thing. You guys hang by the van until I call." Simon opened the van's back door with no further ado and climbed out.

      The early afternoon sun hit him like a sledgehammer and he squinted against it, irritated. DC had been overcast when they flew out; Cincinnati was clear and ten degrees warmer, already through a warm front that wouldn't hit DC until that evening. "Afternoon!" he called, loping across the half-empty parking lot while his team collected themselves behind him. The woman waiting for him flinched a little, drawing in her shoulders. She didn't start looking any older as Simon got closer. How old was she? Twenty-three? If that?

      "Simon Drake, FBI," Simon said once he was in conversational range, sticking out his hand.

      She shifted her clipboard into the crook of her left arm and gingerly shook his hand, leaving Simon with the definite impression that he could snap her arm like a twig just by pumping her hand too vigorously. "I'm, ah, Mercy Kane?" she said, hugging her clipboard to her chest again. Simon resisted the urge to tell her that she didn't have to do that if there was nothing there for him to ogle, regretfully deciding that it would probably be a bad idea. For one thing, she would probably die of embarrassment. "Can I see...?" She trailed off there, making a little nervous gesture with one hand instead of actually finishing her sentence.

      Simon stared at her in mute confusion for a second before he abruptly realized what she must be asking for. "You sure can," he said cheerfully, digging his ID folder out of the front pocket of his jeans and flicking it open.

      Reaching out a diffident hand Mercy tugged on his ID folder, already wincing back a little like she expected him to rip it out of her hand, and it was half out of surprise that Simon let her have it. Balancing it awkwardly on her clipboard she tugged a pen out of the clip and started copying down the information, and Simon grudgingly awarded her a point for not being a complete idiot. "Mr. Timmins, er, that's Darrell Timmins, he's the head of security here?" she said, or asked, and Simon had to bite his tongue to keep from saying well, hell, I don't know, is he?. "He said I should show you around and tell you anything you needed to know? So just let me know what you need and I'll do my best to help you?"

      "Excellent!" Simon said, flashing her a smile. She flushed and clutched at her clipboard again. Simon turned it down a couple of watts. "That's great, Ms. Kane, I really appreciate your help... hey, can I call you Mercy? Would that be okay?"

      "Sure?" Mercy said faintly.

      "Great!" Simon said. "Hey, Mercy, can I have my ID back? I need that, you know."

      "Oh!" She fumbled his ID off the clipboard and held it out. It wasn't quite shaking. Given the way this interaction had gone so far, Simon was pleasantly surprised.

      "Anyway," he said, tucking his ID back into his pocket. "So, Mercy, let me take a wild guess here. Mr. Timmins thinks this is all a big wild goose chase, doesn't he? Because if he didn't it'd be him standing out here and not you, is my guess."

      Mercy immediately went a shade of red that put Nate's best efforts to shame. Got it in one, Simon thought with a certain grim amusement. She started to stammer out some kind of explanation, but Simon held up his hand and she squeaked a little and stopped.

      "It's okay, Mercy," Simon said, as kindly as he could. "We'll just have to change his mind, that's all."

      "Yes, sir?" Mercy said doubtfully.

      "That's the spirit!" Simon said. He almost put a conspiratorial hand on her shoulder, but then decided it would probably crumple her spine. "Anyway, Mercy, what we need first is a conference room of some sort, so that we can explain the problem to you in more detail. Think you can find us one?"

      "I think I can do that?" Mercy said, sounding a bit stronger now that she had a definite task to focus on (but not, Simon noted, strong enough to stop from turning every sentence into a faltering question). "Would you and your team like some coffee?"

      "Yes, please," Simon said fervently, turning around to wave the rest of his team over.

      Ten minutes later Simon had both his conference room and his coffee, the latter brought to him by a receptionist whose disdainful attitude towards Mercy was so painfully obvious that it made Simon's teeth ache. The mysterious Mr. Timmins had almost certainly selected Mercy as his liaison because he knew it would send a very definite message. That was fine. Simon wasn't averse to sending a couple of messages of his own.

      But first things first: "Everybody, this is Mercy Kane, she's been assigned as our liaison to security," Simon said once they were all seated and coffee'd, gently stressing the last bit. He saw Sandra's eyes narrow slightly.

      Mercy lifted a diffident hand in greeting. "Hi?" she said.

      Simon tried to keep on looking benevolent. "I'll just introduce everybody quickly, but you don't really need to worry about it, okay, Mercy? You'll mostly be dealing with me."

      "Okay?" Mercy said, sounding a bit dubious. She glanced around, her eyes wide and uncertain. Like a frigging baby deer, Simon thought.

      "Anyway, that's Mike and Johnny there, they're general-purpose tough guys," Simon said, waving a hand at them.

      "Hey," Mike said cheerfully. Johnny grunted. Mercy nodded, still wide-eyed.

      Simon pointed. Mercy's eyes helplessly followed his hand. "Down there at the end, that's Rich and Nate, they're our tech experts."

      "Hi," Nate said, waggling his fingers. Rich echoed him. Mercy twitched out a smile.

      "This is Sandra," Simon said, putting a hand on Sandra's shoulder. "She's my second-in-command—if she tells you to do something, you can consider it to come straight from me."

      Sandra cut her eyes at Simon, then reached past him and took Mercy's hand. "It's nice to meet you," Sandra said, vaguely shaking the limp noodle. "Don't worry, they're loud but they're harmless."

      That was enough to surprise a tiny giggle out of Mercy, and for a moment she clutched at Sandra's hand like a lifeline. "Nice to meet you?" she asked. Simon could just see Sandra resisting the urge to say is it? are you sure?.

      "And that is Jeremy Archer, he's a civilian and a specialist in this kind of thing," Simon finished up, pointing across the table at Jeremy. "If he tells you to do something, check with me first, he's a dangerously loose cannon." He was already kicking himself for saying it before he'd even quite finished—Mercy's eyes were huge with deer-like credulous fright—but the strain of coddling her was starting to annoy him.

      "Ah, yes, that's me in a nutshell, dangerously loose," Jeremy said, putting a hand on his chest and inclining his head. At the other end of the table Mike made a choking sound but managed to restrain himself. "How do you do, Ms. Kane. It's a pleasure to meet you and I assure you that I'm not nearly so awful as Mr. Drake would have me sound."

      By the time he finished this little speech a blush was crawling up Mercy Kane's cheeks. She honest-to-God simpered at Jeremy, one hand fluttering up to touch her hair self-consciously. Simon only managed to stop himself from laughing by biting the inside of his cheek. "Oh, yes, and he's English, in case the accent didn't tip you off," he said dryly.

      "It's very nice to meet you?" Mercy told Jeremy, her eyes nearly shining. Sandra nudged Simon's knee under the table and he twitched his head down in minute acknowledgment, trying not to snicker.

      "Anyway, let me just give you a quick summary of why we're here," Simon said. Mercy nodded earnestly, pulling her pen out of the clipboard. Simon glanced at Jeremy, calculating. "Feel free to jump in and supplement my account, Archer," he said, with a momentary tickle of amusement as Mercy's eyes immediately leapt back to Jeremy.

      "I'm sure you'll cover everything," Jeremy said, raising a lazy hand in acknowledgment, "but I'll take you at your word."

      "... and that's how things stand," Simon finished. Mercy was staring at him, rapt and utterly convinced. Then again, it would probably be easy enough to convince Mercy that the entire Russian army was poised to invade Cincinnati, particularly if he had Jeremy and his English accent primed to leap in with an acerbic little comment now and then.

      "I see!" Mercy said. "Of course I'll help! If you'll just tell me what you need?"

      "Well, we'll certainly have to take a good look around and see what's what," Jeremy said. Mercy's head swiveled back towards him in fascination. Now that she was no longer looking at him Simon nudged Sandra's leg under the table, waited a beat, then tipped his head at the door.

      "But first, could you be a dear and show me where the restrooms are, Mercy?" Sandra said right on cue, standing up.

      "Oh!" Mercy said, plainly startled, stumbling to her feet. "Of course! They're just down this hall here, I can show you?"

      The door closed behind Sandra and Mercy, and for a moment, everything was quiet. Then Johnny put a hand over his face and made a little snorting sound and choked-off laughter swept through the room. "Oh, Christ," Simon said, snickering a little himself, "what the hell is it with women and English accents?"

      "I haven't the faintest idea," Jeremy said, amused, "but I've never been above taking advantage of it."

      "Well, hell, that's okay, I plan to take advantage of it a little myself," Simon said before abruptly sobering. "Quickly. Archer. How's the security here from what you've seen? No guesses. I need something firm enough to bludgeon people with, and now."

      "Execrable," Jeremy said, just as suddenly serious. "Utter crap. I haven't seen the actual labs or the storage facility yet, but from what I've seen so far I could quite possibly walk out of here at the end of the day with their precious prototype in my pocket and save our friend the trouble."

      "You willing to stand behind that statement?"

      "I'll stand behind it and back it up with evidence if you like," Jeremy said decisively.

      "Good. I may take you up on that." Simon rapped his knuckles on the table. "Even if Springheel stalls we don't have long, so listen up. When those two get back I'm going to hand you off to Mercy and get her to show you around. I want you to keep her occupied for as long as possible—I figure she's going to want to cling to you like a lovesick barnacle anyway—and ruffle as many feathers around the office as you can in the process. Get her to take you everywhere. If someone protests, tell 'em you're under orders and that they can come talk to me, I'm in Conference Room C."

      "Done," Jeremy said, nodding once.

      "Good," Simon said. "Now. How good a pickpocket are you?"

      By the time Mercy and Sandra returned the atmosphere in the conference room was relaxed once more and Simon was leaning back in his chair, fiddling with his pen. "Hey, there you two are," he said. "Anyway. I think the next step is pretty obvious, don't you, Mercy?"

      "Yes?" Mercy said, her voice firmer than Simon had heard it be so far. Apparently Sandra had been doing some reassuring. "I think you'll need to look around?"

      "Absolutely right," Simon said approvingly. "But we don't all need to go, do we? Really, it's Archer there who needs to see the building security all up close and personal, so would you mind showing him around? The rest of us have other things we could be doing."

      "Of course!" Mercy said, color burning in her cheeks again. Excitement over the opportunity that had just been tossed in her lap stripped all the doubt from her mind and all the question marks from her speech. "It's no trouble at all!"

      Jeremy flashed her a private little curving smile that came harrowingly close to making the hairs on the backs of Simon's arms stand up. "You're a dear," he said approvingly, pushing his chair back and standing up. "I trust I won't be too much trouble—" He stumbled as he stood, lurching ungracefully into Mercy's side (and, surprisingly, not breaking her in half like a matchstick). Simon, who'd been watching for it, saw Jeremy's hand dance about Mercy's skirt pocket for half a heartbeat before a flicker of blue slid neatly up his sleeve. "Oh dear," Jeremy said, regaining his feet and clucking his tongue. "I do beg your pardon, I'm afraid I'm a touch jet-lagged..."

      "It's no trouble!" Mercy squeaked brightly, now so pink that sweat was actually breaking out on her forehead. Simon felt momentarily sorry for her. But only momentarily. "Please excuse us? You can call the receptionist on the intercom if you need anything else?"

      "Thanks, Mercy," Simon said, smiling. "We'll be fine. Take your time."

      Mercy jerked her head down in an absurd little half-bow half-curtsy and nearly stumbled into the door before she managed to open it. Jeremy followed her out the door, already smiling and saying something else—but the blue thing slid out of his sleeve and into his hand again and he threw it underhand back at the conference table. Mercy Kane's Annadale Labs photo ID landed on the cheap wooden table with a soft and plasticky clatter. Simon swept it off the table and into his lap.

      The moment the door clicked shut behind Jeremy, Simon turned to the rest of his team, the smile falling decisively off his face. "Welcome to the runaround, boys and girl," he said, tapping the stolen ID card on the table. "The head of security thinks he can fob us off with Mercy Kane and this half-hearted attempt at cooperation."

      "Yeah, this is all pretty much bullshit," Mike drawled, craning his head to look at Mercy Kane's ID with interest. "No one's properly scared of the FBI any more, that ain't right."

      "It's not," Simon said, "and I'm not going to stand for it. For one thing, we just don't have the time." He flicked the stolen ID at Sandra, who caught it in both hands. "Take that and go poke at things. Split up. Lift up vent covers, look in closets, poke at computers, ask uncomfortable questions, test locks, let yourself in anywhere that card will let you go. I want you guys to politely piss off as many people as possible. If they say anything about it, you just tell 'em you're under orders from the guy in Conference Room C."

      "You're going to get her fired," Sandra said, closing her fist around the card. "I hope you know that."

      "She doesn't have a future at this company and you know that as well as I do," Simon shot back. "Hell, even the receptionist treats her like a retarded cocker spaniel puppy that can't be trusted not to pee on the rug. Plus since the security chief sent her to us knowing what she was like, he can't be surprised when we eat her alive."

      Sandra eyed him narrowly. Simon spread his hands. "I'll take full responsibility. I'll admit that I played her like a fish and that none of this was her fault. But in order to do that I need to root Mr. Darrell Timmins Head Of Security out of hiding. He wants to play games with us?" Simon paused and smiled thinly. "All right, I'll play."

      "All right," Sandra eventually said, looking down at the card. When she looked back up, her eyes were gleaming. "You want us to make trouble."

      "All the trouble you want—but politely," Simon said, nodding. "And hey, if you find out anything useful, bonus."

      "I do love my job," Sandra said, the beginnings of a smile on her face.

      "Great," Simon said. "Go on out there and make a couple of people hate theirs."

      They left. Simon settled back in his chair to wait.

      Gratifyingly, he only had to wait twenty minutes or so before he heard the thudding, puffing sound approaching the conference room like an oncoming train. Simon linked his hands together behind his head and waited.

      The hydraulic system on top of the door prevented it from slamming open, but that didn't stop the guy from trying. The man who thumped and huffed his way into the room was in his fifties somewhere, built like a brick wall and just about as red—Simon could read the incipient heart attack in that face like it was written on his forehead—and walked with a cane to offset his pronounced limp. His iron-gray hair was cut so close to his skull that Simon could see the angry flush of the man's scalp right through it. Former cop, Simon decided, and didn't bother to sit up.

      Snorting like an offended bull the man stumped to a spot opposite Simon and slammed his free hand to the table between them, leaning forward like he intended to intimidate Simon right out through the back wall and into the parking lot. "What in the hell do you think you're doing?" he grated out.

      Simon waited a beat just for the insolence of it, studying the apparition opposite him, letting the guy really stew. "Darrell Timmins?" he finally asked.

      "I'm Darrell Timmins," the red-faced man snapped.

      "Well, Mr. Timmins," Simon said, sitting up and folding his hands neatly on the table in front of him, "apparently I'm doing your goddamned job for you."

      Darrell Timmins didn't quite go purple like Simon had been expecting, but it was a close thing. He jerked back like Simon had taken a swing at him, working up a good head of steam, and Simon gritted his teeth knowing very well what was likely to get swung at next. "Son," Darrell Timmins pronounced, and there it was, "I was with the Cincinnati Police Department for nineteen goddamned years—"

      "Yeah?" Simon snapped, steamrolling right over that bluster before it could really get settled in. "What were you, the guy in the little white hat who ran the donut cart? Because given what I've seen of your security here I can't imagine you doing anything else."

      Now Darrell Timmins went purple. For a moment he was so furious that he couldn't even talk properly, so Simon stood up lazily, unfolding to his full height and leaning forward, bracing both hands on the tabletop. "I'd apologize for interrupting your day, but, frankly, I don't care. So! What can I do for you, Darrell? Looking for a refresher course on basic building security? Because I'm not the man for that, really, but I've got people working for me who could teach you a thing or two—"

      Timmins' breath roared out of him in a growl. "You've got no business here, interrupting people doing honest work, and I want you and your goddamned little nosey-parker friends out of my facility right now," he growled under his breath, pointing one thick finger at Simon. "I never liked the Feebs when I was walking a beat and I'll be damned if I put up with you now."

      Simon paused, narrowing his eyes at the hulking apparition opposite him. "Fine," he finally said. He didn't take his eyes off Darrell Timmins for a moment as he unclipped his cell phone from his belt and jabbed his thumb at the buttons.

      "Archer," Jeremy said in his ear a moment later, sounding vaguely surprised.

      "There's a Mr. Darrell Timmins here who says he wants my 'little nosey-parker friends' out of his facility now," Simon said with heavy irony. "I can't imagine him meaning anyone other than you. Come on back to the conference room."

      "Ah," said Jeremy. "Of course. We'll be right there."

      Simon broke the connection without another word and folded his phone back into the belt clip. "Anything else I can do for you?" he asked, sitting back down and leaning back in his chair.

      "I want all of you out of here," Timmins growled, chopping his hand through the air. "I handle the security here, not some bunch of jumped-up kids with toy badges—"

      "—my badge is real enough, as you'd know if you'd taken the basic precaution of calling the home office to confirm it," Simon broke in, "and you know what? I really don't think I like you taking all of these mean little jabs at my tender years. It hurts my feelings."

      "I don't give a shit," Timmins informed him.

      "That's too bad," said Simon, almost enjoying this. "See, Mr. Timmins, that means I don't give a shit how many years you spent walking a beat. You're a civilian now. And this here badge I got out of a cereal box—" Simon touched his pocket "—makes me a genuine bona-fide member of the FBI, and that means I outrank you so hard that you couldn't reach high enough up the ladder to touch the sole of my shoe. You don't scare me, and you don't intimidate me, and if you make one more uncalled-for crack about my age I will cut you out of this operation entirely and quite possibly have you escorted off the premises. Is that clear?"

      Timmins started to bluster something else but Simon cut him off. "I said, is that clear, Mr. Timmins?"

      This time Timmins' response was cut off by the door opening, and Simon mentally awarded Jeremy a bonus point for his perfect timing. Actually, thinking about it, he suspected Jeremy might have been listening at the door. He wouldn't put it past him, anyway. "Archer," he said, immediately dismissing Timmins in favor of Jeremy and Mercy, who was more or less trying to hide behind Jeremy by this point. "Tell me."

      "It's even worse than I thought," Jeremy said crisply, ignoring Timmins entirely. "Poor Mercy here couldn't find her keycard, but it hardly mattered. I don't think there was anywhere in the building we couldn't go. The actual safe is a laugh. It isn't even bolted down; a strong man with a dolly could wheel it right out of the building."

      "Par for the course," Simon said. "And the other thing I asked you for?"

      "Don't you dare ignore me!" Timmins roared, obviously going for volume to try and make his point. Jeremy spared him a single cool glance and then his hand flickered over the table, leaving a small Lucite cube shining in a pool of afternoon sunlight right in front of Simon. Timmins' bluster snapped off like a light and something like shock registered in his eyes.

      Simon picked up the cube and held it up to the light, appreciatively studying the odd dull gray bullet encased in the plastic. "Nice," he said, turning the cube over, watching it gleam.

      "According to the label these are the design schematics," Jeremy said, tossing a Zip disk down after it. Timmins came alive enough to make a grab for it, but Simon got to it first, tucking the Zip disk into his back pocket before turning his attention back to the cube. "It was a simple matter," Jeremy went on, as if nothing had just happened. "One of the techs had the combination to the safe written on a bit of scratch paper in his desk."

      For a moment the tense moment held, stretching out. Mercy Kane was staring at the back of Jeremy's head, her eyes huge and wet with betrayal; Simon was trying to ignore her, studying the little Lucite cube instead. Jeremy stood calmly at the head of the table, waiting.

      Darrell Timmins, on the other hand, slowly shrank, some of the redness fading from his bulldog's face. Finally he broke the stalemate, heaving out a thick and unsteady breath and kicking out one of the chairs, settling into it like a landslide. "All right," he said. "You've made your point. Call off the rest of your people and we'll talk."

      "I was hoping you'd see it my way," Simon said, putting the little cube down on the table. "Archer."

      "Mm?" Jeremy said.

      "You and Mercy go round up the rest of the crew. Come back in five." Simon's eyes flicked from Jeremy to Darrell Timmins and back. "I need to have a word with Mr. Timmins and then we'll get things properly underway."

      Jeremy inclined his head and turned to go, Mercy dragging her feet after him like a kicked puppy. Once the door clicked shut behind them, Simon looked back at Timmins. "If you want to explain yourself, now is the time."

      The older man ran a hand over his close-cropped hair. "Annadale's been in business since ninety-one or so," he said without further preamble. "Three, four years ago we had a big fire. Completely destroyed the building. The board moved us into this place because it was cheap, kept telling us it was temporary, it was temporary... wouldn't even give me enough cash out of the budget to buff up the security to basic levels because this place is so goddamned temporary."

      Simon nodded. He'd known about the fire and the rest made sense. "Explains a lot."

      "Frankly, it'd be doing me a favor if someone did break in and steal that gizmo," Timmins said, nodding at the Lucite cube parked in front of Simon's chair. "Maybe then the head honchos'd wake up and realize that this place is a security nightmare. Might get me fired, but hell, I've got it documented to hell and back that I've been complaining about the impossibility of securing the area for three years now."

      "Technically, someone already did steal it," Simon said, picking up the cube and reaching out to put it down where Timmins could get at it. Timmins took it and cradled it absently to his chest; Simon dug out the Zip disk and passed it over. "I'll put the fear of God into your board before I go, if you want me to. Little quid pro quo. I don't know why it is, but people fall over themselves to believe bad news from total strangers that they won't listen to when it comes from their own employees."

      "Ain't that a fact," Timmins said after a moment, studying Simon wearily. "I'd be obliged. They keep assuring me that this little doodad here is our ticket to piles of cash and a better facility. Maybe if you weigh in they'll actually start meaning it."

      "No skin off my nose," Simon said. "But in the meantime it's this place we've got to turn into a gigantic thief-trap, and we've got maybe a day to do it, if we're lucky. Once my team gets back here we'll see what we can do, and I'd appreciate your cooperation."

      Timmins was silent for a while, weighing Simon with his eyes. Finally he looked away, huffing out a breath. "Suppose it is my job."

      "Glad to hear it," Simon told him, leaning forward and extending his hand. "I'm Simon Drake."

      His hand hung in midair for only a second or two before Darrell Timmins leaned forward and took it.

      "Springheel, 115," Simon said, winging her a hotel keycard, which she caught. "Honda, Texas, 117." Mike lazily knocked Johnny out of the way (and into the wall, with a thud) in order to catch the flying card. Simon barely registered it or the tired kicking fight that followed. "Specs and Specs Two, 119, and try not to blow any fuses this time," he said, taking pity on the techs and just handing the card to the exhausted-looking Nate. "And Archer and I are in 121," he finished, waving the last card. "Door's open if you need anything, but you better need it and not just want it real bad. Get some sleep. I want you all ready to go by 7:30 tomorrow morning, no, groaning isn't going to change my mind, so knock it off. If we're lucky we'll have two more days to set things up, but, you know, somehow I don't think we're going to get lucky."

      His team answered him with a chorus of generally unenthused murmurs before shuffling (and occasionally punching) their way off to their rooms. It was late enough that the western sky was only just barely still pink and nobody was looking particularly perky any more. Simon glanced at Jeremy, silent and waiting with his leather jacket flung negligently over his shoulder. "You wanna break us in," Simon asked, waving the card at him, "or should I just go ahead and do it all legally?"

      Jeremy was tired enough to actually look vaguely exasperated. "Considering I've just spent the better part of three hours helping to bolt a safe to the ground, Mr. Drake, I encourage you to put that keycard anywhere that excites you."

      "Touchy, touchy," Simon said, sliding the keycard through the card swipe attached to 121. The door opened on a motel room almost exactly like every other motel room that Simon had ever crashed in on the job: two queen-sized beds with ugly tan bedspreads, a ten-year-old television, and not much else. It smelled of cleaning products and ancient cigarette smoke. Simon bowed Jeremy in with all the grace and irony he could muster. "Welcome to your home away from home, Mr. Archer. I do trust the amenities are to your satisfaction."

      "Oh, I am charmed," Jeremy said, sliding past Simon and into the room. He looked almost completely out of place in the midst of all that inoffensive aging shabbiness: sharp-edged, tailored, and altogether too new, despite the film of sweat still drying on his forehead and the subtle patches of dampness making his t-shirt cling to his chest. Jeremy dropped his jacket and his bag on the bed nearest the bathroom and moved on to investigate the facilities, his expression neutral.

      Simon ambled in after him, picked Jeremy's things up, and threw them onto the other bed. "Whoo, damn, you need a shower," he said, putting his own duffel bag down. "I can smell you from here."

      Jeremy reappeared just in time to catch him at it, but apart from a raised eyebrow, he didn't mention it. "I most certainly do," he said, plucking at his t-shirt and wrinkling his nose. "Some of us didn't spend the afternoon 'coordinating' things from a comfortable chair, after all."

      "Are you bitching, Jeremiah?" Simon asked, watching for the twitch of Jeremy's eyelid, which wasn't long in coming. "I think you're bitching! I'll be damned. Another couple of days of this and you'll sound just like one of the team. Only one who's picked up some kind of fake English accent because he thinks it'll piss someone else off."

      "I do wish you wouldn't call me that, Simon, it's a ridiculous nickname," Jeremy said in resignation, stripping his t-shirt off over his head. Simon turned back to his duffel, grinning. "At any rate," Jeremy said, "unless you plan to 'coordinate' yourself into the shower before I have a chance at it..."

      "Go, go," Simon said, flapping a hand at the bathroom. "You stink. I'll shower in the morning."

      Jeremy vanished into the bathroom with an armload of his things, closing the door behind him. The shower started up a minute later. Simon kicked off his sneakers and sat on his bed, automatically putting his cellphone on the bedside table and his gun in the drawer beneath it, evicting the Gideon Bible to the second drawer. He set the alarm for 6:30, picked up the remote control and fiddled with it while considering flipping through the channels, then dropped the remote on his bed and bolted for the bathroom door, flinging it open and getting a faceful of soap-flavored steam for his trouble. "Holy crap, that's your real name!" he yelled over the din of the falling water.

      From inside the shower Jeremy yelped in surprise and did something that looked suspiciously from Simon's viewpoint like recoiling and nearly falling over, the shower curtain rippling as some random body part smacked into it. After a moment the curtain pulled back a few inches and Jeremy stuck his head out, his wet hair all slicked back tight against his skull. "What?" he said.

      Not willing to be denied his triumph Simon pointed an accusatory finger at him. "Jeremiah! That's your real name, isn't it? It is!"

      The pause that followed might almost have been a little too long, Jeremy squinting at Simon through the steam. "I am trying to have a shower here, Simon," he finally said, running a hand back over his hair to clear out some of the water that kept running into his eyes.

      "Ha!" Simon crowed. "I was right! That is your real name! No wonder you're always bitching when I call you that!"

      Jeremy rolled his eyes. "Can we possibly talk about this later, Simon?"

      "Sure, Jeremiah," Simon said happily, slamming the door shut again.

      Simon was still vaguely smirking at the television by the time Jeremy let himself out of the bathroom, pink and damp in the middle of a cloud of steam, barefooted, barechested, and, for once, wearing his own pajama pants. Jeremy, his face set carefully to neutral, picked his way past Simon's bed towards his own, momentarily blocking the muted television.

      "I'm right, aren't I," Simon said, flipping through the channels and feeling pretty damned pleased with himself.

      Jeremy slid his discarded clothing into his bag, not looking at Simon. "I suppose there's nothing I can do to convince you otherwise," he said.

      "Nope," said Simon. "Because I'm right. I can tell. For one thing, my instincts are totally awesome, and for another, every time I call you 'Jeremiah' you get all pissy and your right eye twitches." Jeremy's right eyelid twitched, right on cue. "See?" Simon said, pointing. "Just like that!"

      Jeremy sighed and reached up, massaging the twitch away. "There's no point in arguing with you, then."

      "None at all," Simon said. "So what's your real last name?"

      "Leave it be, Simon," Jeremy said.

      "'Jeremiah Leaveitbe'? That's a pretty stupid name. I can see why you changed it."


      "All right, all right," Simon said, now just smug as hell. "Jeremiah."

      Jeremy squeezed his eyes shut, stifling the little tic and regaining control of himself. "What do I have to do to make you stop?" he eventually asked, in a voice that Simon really wished he could classify as plaintive but had to admit sounded more suggestive.

      "Eh," Simon said warily, shrugging. "If you don't make a federal case out of it I'll get bored with it in a couple of months, probably."

      "Oh, well, that's just lovely, isn't it?" Jeremy asked no one in particular. The shower started up in one of the adjoining rooms and they both glanced in that direction for a moment; by the time Simon looked back Jeremy had that familiar thoughtful expression on his face and Simon got ready for the next hurdle of the evening.

      "You are such a prick sometimes," Jeremy said, almost purred, like he approved of Simon's theoretical occasional prickhood, and two seconds later he was slithering astride Simon's lap, his knees barely denting the tired old mattress as he thoroughly blocked Simon's view of the television. "Still, I have a couple of ideas as to how to make you stop—"

      "Yeah?" Simon said, knowing that he really, really needed to stop this now—but maybe not just quite yet. Jeremy's chest was still steaming not three inches from his nose and he was radiating heat like a furnace. Simon could feel it seeping through his clothes.

      "Well," Jeremy said, "for a while, at any rate," and then his damp hands were cupped around Simon's face and his mouth was on Simon's and he smelled like expensive soap and he tasted like nothing else on earth but Jeremy—Simon let himself enjoy the performance for a few more seconds before he put two fingers against Jeremy's bare shoulder and pushed him back.

      "Not now," he said, brushing Jeremy's hands away from his chest with some regret.

      "No?" Jeremy asked, raising an eyebrow as he settled back.

      "No," Simon said softly. "Not on the job. Not ever on the job."

      Jeremy twisted halfway around, looking at the door. "Is it because of the noise?" he asked, looking back at Simon. "Because if that's the problem I assure you we can work around it—"

      "No, it's because of the job," Simon said. "My job. Which is, I hasten to remind you, about a hundred times more important to me than you are. As long as I'm here, I'm working. That's all."

      Jeremy looked at him for a long moment, blankly curious. "Ah," he finally said, and slithered off as easily as he'd slithered on. "As you will, then."

      "That's right," Simon said, shifting around until he found a more comfortable position to sit in. "As I will."

      Jeremy had settled in with an oversized book of some sort (from the title it was something about computer security, which by all rights should have made Simon all kinds of nervous) and Simon had lucked into the last forty-five minutes of The Maltese Falcon on one of the motel's random movie channels when the shouting started.

      Simon glanced up at the wall behind the television, sighed a little, and picked up the remote, turning the volume up a couple of notches. Jeremy continued to eye the wall uneasily for a moment before looking back at Simon. "Er..."

      "Shut up," Simon said. "No talking during The Maltese Falcon."


      Simon picked up his spare pillow and whipped it overhand at Jeremy, who fended it off with a raised forearm and persisted, saying, "But isn't that..."

      "Specs Two, yes," Simon said rapidly, hunching his shoulders and staring at the television. "He is a very shouty little man, it happens all the time, I'm not their daddy, Nate is a big boy and can handle himself just fine, now shut up Bogart is talking."

      "A very shouty—" Jeremy broke off there and stared at Simon in amazement. Simon, wholly absorbed in the movie, barely noticed, and the shouting crested a few minutes later and died away without shots being fired or anything.

      Simon sighed in satisfaction and shut off the television as the credits started to roll. "You ready to get some sleep?" he asked, rolling to his feet and unbuckling his belt.

      "Mm?" Jeremy asked, looking up from his book. His eyes, of course, went right to Simon's hands working at his belt, and Simon sighed and turned around rather than let him watch the unzipping part. "Any time you are," Jeremy said from behind him, sounding amused.

      "What's so funny?" Simon asked, kicking his way out of his jeans and diving under the covers before Jeremy could get any ideas.

      Jeremy was silent, absolutely radiating amusement, his little twisted smile irritating the hell out of Simon just by default. "What?" Simon repeated in vague exasperation, reaching up to turn out the light.

      The room went dark. Jeremy's little smile vanished into the blackness, to Simon's general relief. After a moment, his voice picked up where his smile had left off, murmuring, "'A very shouty little man'."

      "What?" Simon said, confused and blinking in the darkness.

      "'A very shouty little man'," Jeremy repeated, although it still didn't make any sense to Simon until he added, "Honestly, Simon, I never thought I'd hear you talk about one of your teammates in that manner."

      "... I said that?" Simon asked.

      "You most certainly did," Jeremy told him. "While the television was going and your Specs Two was shouting in the other room."

      Simon hesitated, trying to remember. He vaguely recalled the shouting, and Jeremy refusing to shut up, and that being incredibly annoying... "Now you're just making things up," he said loftily. "Go to sleep, Archer."

      Jeremy laughed softly. "Yes, all right," he said. "Sleep well, Simon."

      Simon's cellphone blared and Simon jerked out of his half-doze, grabbing for the phone out of pure reflex before he consciously realized what the noise was. His hand landed on the ringing flashing phone and almost at the same moment Jeremy's hand landed on top of his, pinning his hand and the phone to the table.

      For half a heartbeat they stared muzzily at each other in the bare blue light of Simon's phone and then Jeremy pulled his hand back. "Of course," he muttered, his voice thick, "it wouldn't be mine..."

      Simon pulled his phone towards him and flipped it open, its screen lighting up and illuminating a tiny area around itself with dirty gray light. The circle of light was just large enough to hold Jeremy and himself, letting the edges of the room recede into nothing. "Drake," he said, suddenly and totally awake.

      "Mr. Drake," said the voice he'd been waiting to hear. His stomach rolled slowly in anticipation. "I do hope I woke you."

      "Good morning, Langridge," Simon said, watching Jeremy watch him. "Good news! You woke me."

      "Oh, I'm so glad," Dorothy Langridge said briskly. "After all, it's almost six in the morning. I thought you might already be awake and that would ruin all my fun."

      "Aww, Langridge, don't be that way," Simon said, glancing at the clock. 5:56. He looked back at Jeremy. "Wouldn't it have been just as much fun to root me out of the shower instead?"

      "Now that you mention it, yes, that would have been extraordinarily satisfying," Langridge said. "But I'll take what I can get, Mr. Drake, and speaking of things that I have gotten..."

      Simon clenched his free hand into a fist. Two feet away Jeremy watched him like a hawk, his eyes luminous and extraordinarily serious in the faint gray light. "It'll be tonight, then."

      "Tonight," Langridge confirmed. "Both of the phrases you were looking for, Mr. Drake. It crossed my desk less than ten minutes ago, timestamped at about 5:20 AM local time."

      "You're a vicious old battleaxe, Langridge, but you're a wonder," Simon said. "I owe you."

      "You most certainly do," Langridge informed him. "And I certainly wouldn't hold out any hopes of my not collecting, if I were you."

      "You know, Dotty, knowing you like I do, I fully expect to pay out the nose for this," Simon told her. "... thanks."

      "You're welcome, Drake," Langridge said, and her phone banged down, severing the connection. Simon winced a little.

      He folded up his phone, cutting off that weird gray light and plunging them both into darkness again. Or very nearly. On the outside of his phone the little blue bar glowed its silent message of date and time and connectivity, and it was just enough to pick out Jeremy's watchful eyes and the curve of his cheek, hovering in the darkness.

      "It's going down tonight," Simon told him, and Jeremy shut his eyes and shivered, turning his face away.