Part Six, Chapters 19-21
Simon lunged forward and flicked on the bedside lamp, kicking his way free of the covers. Jeremy winced and held up a hand to shield his eyes from the light. "No point in trying to get back to sleep now," Simon told him, grabbing his discarded jeans off the floor. "Oh, and by the way? Nice hair."
"Mm? Ah." Jeremy ran a hand back through his flattened hair, putting it back into order with a ridiculous lack of effort. "And a good morning to you too, Simon."
"Morning!" Simon said, digging in his duffel for clean underwear. "If you want into the bathroom before I go shower, now's the time."
"Yes, all right," Jeremy said vaguely, slithering out of his own bed. "I'll just be a moment."
"Put on the coffee, too," Simon told Jeremy's retreating back. "They've got one of those little coffeemakers in there."
"Lucky for you, isn't it?" Jeremy asked, shutting the bathroom door with a firmness that couldn't quite be classified as 'slamming'.
Simon paused and straightened up, looking askance at the bathroom door. "Not a morning person?" he called. "Is that why you picked this career path?"
"Why on earth do you want to banter at this ungodly hour?" Jeremy called back through the door. "If I start your bloody coffee, will you stop?"
Simon snickered and let it go, pulling a rolled-up shirt out of his duffel bag and flapping it around until most of the wrinkles fell out. The coffeemaker was muttering placidly by the time Jeremy surrendered the bathroom, so as far as Simon was concerned, all was right with the world. He locked the door (a gesture which he admitted was largely symbolic) and threw himself in the shower.
By the time Simon unlocked the door and came back out (after fetching himself a cup of coffee, because Simon had his priorities in order, and after putting on his clothes, because Simon was also nobody's fool) Jeremy was already dressed and waiting, gazing out of the window at the bleak and half-empty parking lot. "Good God," Simon said cheerfully. "The man owns casual pants."
"Mm? Oh," Jeremy said, brushing one hand absently against his thigh. He didn't turn around. "Yes, it's true. I have been known to dress down when appropriate. On occasion there are even synthetic fibers involved, although I always get such a rash after."
"Lies," Simon said. "Lies and calumny." He paused, considering. "Wait, what's calumny again?"
"Something to do with slander, that's all I know," Jeremy said, shrugging. "Are we going to go wake the others?"
"I thought about it, but no," Simon said. "There won't be anybody to let us into Annadale until eight" Jeremy coughed into his hand, pointedly "legally, and we've got a long-ass day ahead of us, so we might as well let them sleep while they can."
"It's your call," Jeremy said, waving that away.
"That it is," Simon said, putting his coffee down long enough to wriggle into his fresh shirt and hunt up his sneakers. "So," he finally said. "Think you're ready for this?"
Jeremy was silent, which was not precisely what Simon had been expecting. Just as Simon was about to repeat himself, Jeremy laughed, a breathless little sound without much humor in it, and said, "No, I most certainly am not."
Simon hesitated. He'd offhanded himself right into another one of those sudden conversational minefields, apparently, and as far as he was concerned it was too early in the morning for this sort of maneuvering. "That's fair," he said carefully.
"You needn't worry," Jeremy told his reflection in the window, flapping a hand vaguely in Simon's direction. "Ready or not, I'll do what you've hired me to do. Really, I know very well that it's his own fault, if he'd been more careful or chosen a better class of client..." Jeremy's voice trailed off, first into a hushed whisper and then into nothing at all.
"Yeah, well," Simon said. "As long as you don't go running off to explain that to your ex in some kind of, of convenient reconciliation, we're all"
"Don't," Jeremy snapped, his shoulders jerking into a straight and defensive line. "Either trust me or don't, Simon, I really could not care less which, but either way you can bloody well stop joking about it."
"Whoa," Simon said, taken aback. He fell back a step and held up his hands in surrender. "Sorry. Sorry. Jesus. I didn't mean anything by it."
"Didn't you?" Jeremy asked, but he sounded more tired than sharp, and then he heaved a deep breath and forced himself to relax. "I apologize," he said. "I'm afraid I'm a bit on edge."
"Yeah, I'm getting that," Simon said. "And now, see, I've got a problem, because I really mostly want to tell you to suck it up and deal, but I'm getting the feeling that this is one of those times where I ought to be all diplomatic and understanding in order to avoid starting some kind of, of international incident or something."
The pause that followed was uncomfortably long, long enough to make Simon wonder if he'd finally pushed Jeremy too far, and then to get cranky with himself for giving a damn if he had. "Mm," Jeremy finally said. His reflection developed a faint smile. "I suppose I could, what was it, 'suck it up and deal', but I also thought you said 'never on the job'..."
"Oh, yeah, you're gonna be just fine," Simon said, snorting. "Come on, we've got an hour before we're supposed to leave, let's go have a horrible greasy breakfast somewhere."
Jeremy's reflection made a face.
"Fine, then," Simon told him. "I'll have a horrible greasy breakfast and you can watch me eat, like you apparently like to do. And we'll talk. I want to pick your brain."
"Pick my brain," Jeremy echoed. "That sounds a bit serious. Also, disgusting."
"Yep," Simon said, chugging off the last of his oily motel coffee. "It's put up or shut up time, Archer."
"Ah." Jeremy inclined his head, for a moment oddly grave. "Very well, then." And, finally, he turned around.
By the time he and Jeremy returned from their (extremely productive) breakfast most of the rest of his team was clumped up around the back of the van, clutching styrofoam cups of their own and looking sleepy. "Guess what, folks," Simon said, bombing into the center of the group and flinging a companionable arm around Nate, who was nearest. "I got the call!"
Suddenly he had everybody's attention and nobody looked sleepy any more. "It's tonight?" Sandra demanded to know. "He's moving tonight?"
"Tonight," Simon confirmed. "Twenty-four hours from now this is all going to be over, one way or another. Of course, I'm hoping that it's the way that involves us having him in cuffs and singing like a bird, and hell, with awesome guys like you on my side there's no way I won't get what I want. 'Cause you spoil me and all."
"It's gonna be a looooong day," Mike told no one in particular, stretching.
"Oh yeah," Simon said, wrenching open the back doors of the van and crawling in. "Loooong day. Enjoy the ride, kids, because as soon as we get to Annadale it's business time."
The parking lot was almost completely deserted when Mike drove in; it was barely eight in the morning and most of Annadale's employees wouldn't be in for half an hour yet. Once again Mercy Kane was waiting for them out front, shifting nervously from foot to foot. Instead of her clipboard she was clutching a large and unwieldy cluster of keys, almost too large for her hand to close around. "Morning, Mercy!" Simon called as he jumped down, and despite having watched the van pull in, Mercy squeaked and dropped the keyring onto the pavement with a loud and unmusical jangle.
"Hoo boy," Sandra said under her breath, watching Mercy go scrambling after the keys. "I feel like I ought to be apologizing on behalf of my gender or something."
"Eh, don't worry about it," Simon said, slinging an arm comfortably about Sandra's shoulders. "You're all the apology for the female gender I'll ever need."
After a moment of consideration, Sandra punched him in the ribs hard enough to make him cough.
"Simon," Jeremy called over the back of the front seat.
Simon twisted around, still rubbing his side. "Yeah?"
"We're going to go park the van some place a little less obvious, just in case," Jeremy said, gesturing absently at Mike, in the driver's seat. "I wouldn't put it past our friend to do a reconnaissance run."
Simon whistled through his teeth. "Yeah, good idea. Think we need to leave someone in there to babysit? 'Cause, you know, we do learn from our mistakes."
Jeremy smiled faintly and considered this. "It depends on where we end up parking it, I suspect. I'll handle it."
"All right, you do that." Simon waved a hand at Jeremy and then slammed the van's back doors, following Mercy up to the glass double doors and into Annadale Labs.
"It's okay, Mercy," Simon said for about the fifth time. "We'll call you if we need you."
"Mr. Timmins said I should help you guys with anything you needed?" Mercy said doubtfully.
"And I can't tell you how much I appreciate that," Simon told her. "But right now, what we need is fifteen minutes or so to get things underway. And coffee. Is there coffee available?"
Mercy brightened. Simon almost felt guilty. "I can make coffee!" she announced.
"That would be wonderful," Simon said, meaning it. A brief stab of that guilt made him add, "I kinda hate to ask you to do the receptionist's job, but I guess you're the only other one here"
"It's no trouble!" Mercy proclaimed. "There'll be coffee and stuff in the kitchen, if you want it?"
Manfully, Simon refrained from asking about the 'stuff', figuring that he probably didn't want to know. "You're a lifesaver, Mercy," he said instead, briefly patting her shoulder. She felt as fragile as a baby bird under his hand. "And now we've got a lot to do, so we'd best get started..."
"I'll be in the kitchen or my office if you need me?" Mercy said, promptly twittering off. Simon sighed, mostly in relief, and shut the door to Conference Room C behind himself.
"Makes me tired just to listen to her," Johnny said.
"She means well," Simon said, "and if she tries to make a career out of building security that'll end up being her epitaph." He made his way around the table and sat down.
The door to the conference room opened and Jeremy came in, carrying a small hard-sided case. He was followed by Mike, who was just now stifling a jaw-cracking yawn. "The van's safe, stashed a few buildings over," Jeremy said, taking his own seat next to Simon's. "I don't think we'll need anyone to babysit it just yet, but if you'd like, I'll make certain it hasn't been tampered with later on."
"Great," Simon said. "Do that. Later. Anything else I need to know before we get started?" No one said anything. "Well, then... uh... guys, I really don't know how to tell you this," Simon said, folding his hands on the conference table and looking around. "I mean, this is really hard for me."
"Here we go again," Mike said, tossing his pen up into the air and catching it. "Ten bucks says it's something like 'I think I got served decaf at breakfast by mistake zzz'."
"It's really sad when a grown man has to resort to manufacturing artificial suspense to add a little spice to his monotonous life," Sandra said in agreement.
Nate glanced at them, frowning, then looked back at Simon. "... what?"
"For the next ten hours," Simon said, and paused, and put his hand over his eyes, "Archer's in charge, folks." Quickly, before anyone could do much more than blink, Simon sat up and slapped his hand on the table. "No one knows more about how to catch this guy than Archer does, and I can't find any significant flaws with his proposed plan of attack, so I'm going to let him execute it. If he tells you to do something that you think is fishy, by all means come ask me about it, I'll be in here for most of the day."
"Coordinating," Johnny said.
"Right, coordinating," Simon said, ignoring the irony that might or might not have been present, given that it was Johnny. "Also somebody's got to call Restructured and Hank's team up at Nova and give them a heads-up, and that's me. Any questions? Problems? Heartfelt bitching?" He paused just long enough to look around at everyone, discovering a lack of objection to this latest development that was (if he were honest with himself) a little unnerving. Even Rich only looked mildly put out, and Simon was convinced that Rich could maintain that particular baseline cranky expression of his through anything, up to and including orgasm, not that he really wanted to think about that ever, because it was Rich, and therefore, ew. Since no one was actually screaming, Simon nodded, thumped his knuckles on the table, and swiveled his chair around to face Jeremy's. "Floor's yours, Archer."
"Just what I always wanted, a floor," said Jeremy. Instead of starting right away he fell silent, glancing about, and one by one Simon's team fell silent in his wake, waiting. It was a nice trick, in Simon's opinion, and he thought he'd have to try it at some point. Once the room was quiet, Jeremy kicked his chair around and sat up, folding his arms on the conference table. "This morning I asked Simon what the optimum outcome for tonight would be, in his opinion. He told me that what he would like more than anything else in the worldI paraphraseis for you lot to catch our friend as he's leaving, with the stolen materials clearly in his possession, with no shots fired and no harm done to anyone. He said something about a textbook bust, I don't know, I'd mostly stopped listening by that point."
The laugh was weak, but it was there, just a faint ripple in the morning air. Jeremy smiled slightly. "Now, if this were a building with better security, I would be concerned that he is somewhere inside the building already. However, there's no point to that, not with Annadale. Annadale Labs is, er, more hole than cheese, if you follow me. I am... let's call it eighty-five to ninety percent sure that he's not here yet."
"But not a hundred percent," Sandra said.
"No, not a hundred percent, and I intend to take precautions against that eventuality," Jeremy said, inclining his head towards Sandra. "Unfortunately, it's hard to be certain about anything just yet. I need more information. I need an in. And by noon, with your help, I hope to have it." He paused, briefly, and glanced at Simon. Simon shrugged. Jeremy nodded at Simon like that had been informative and/or reassuring, which Simon privately doubted.
Jeremy's attention returned to the others. "What I need to find, then, with your help, is his entrance point and his exit point. They will not be the same. It's one of the first things we both learned: never leave the same way you entered. ...as I believe I've said about a hundred times by this point."
"Yeah, give or take," Simon said.
"So I'll be getting most of you to help me with that, but I have a different job in mind for you two," Jeremy said directly to Rich, flicking his eyes sideways at Nate. "You see, Simon wants his thief to leave the building carrying stolen materials, which means that we'll have to let him take something. However, I see no real need to let him have the actual prototype. No call for it. Mr., er, Timmins, was it? At any rate, Mr. Timmins has taken the actual prototypes and design specs to a nearby bank and put them in a safety deposit box, where I can only assume they will be safe enough. What I need from you, then, is a convincing set of forgeries."
"Forgeries," Rich repeated, flatly.
"Mm," said Jeremy. He looked at Nate. "Simon assures me that you have fairly extensive machine-shop experience, so..." He slid a hand into his jacket and came back out with a gray plastic case, which he put on the table and slid across to Nate. "There's room in there for three bullets. I need you to mock up the best fake 'silicon bullets' you can using the lab shop and materials. Keep in mind that the thief will probably be in a hurry and looking at them through goggles of some sort, so there's no need to make them utterly perfect."
Nate picked up the little gray case and flicked it open, squinting down at the little empty depressions in the foam rubber lining. "Sure, I can do that," he said, his forehead wrinkling in thought.
Jeremy's attention returned to Rich. "As for you, I would like you to take this empty Zip disk," he said, and paused, reaching into his jacket again, "and turn it into the deadliest viral weapon that you can muster on such short notice." He skimmed the Zip disk across the table to Rich, who automatically fumbled it, dropping it into his lap before coming back up with it clutched in both hands. "I'm sure you'd have much better ideas than I would about what, exactly, to put on that disk. Think about what you'd like to do to Karpol's computer system and then do it. Call it a backup plan in case our friend does manage to get away with the items in question."
Silence fell. For a long moment Rich chewed on the inside of his cheek and stared down at the Zip disk and scowled instead of saying anything else. Finally, he looked back up at Jeremyand, disturbingly, he came within a hair's breadth of smiling. It was not a pleasant expression, hovering as it did somewhere around predatory. "I'm on it," he breathed, running his thumb over the crooked bit of masking tape serving as a label. His hands flexed on the disk's plastic case. "I've been wanting to do something like this for years. I'll assfuck his network so bad that it'll take a team of fucking spelunkers to dig it out of the smoking hole it'll become."
"Man, now I'm almost hoping he does get away with the disk," Mike said. "If only because I totally want to be there when Specs Two single-handedly destroys the entire fucking internet and catapults the world into a new dark age and shit."
Rich jerked out of his happy place at that and shot Mike a disdainful glance. "I'm a hell of a lot better than that," he said. Mike hooted. "No, seriously," Rich protested, now actively irritated again, as usual. "If I can't turn Karpol's network into slag without doing serious collateral damage I'll turn in my fucking badge, okay?"
"Hey, I'm not trying to bust your balls or nothing," Mike said, holding up his hands in surrender. "Shit, if nerds ain't the touchiest people."
"Children," Simon said genially, trampling over Rich's retort before it could properly form. Rich subsided grumpily, still clutching the blank Zip disk in both hands.
"The rest of us will look for things that are out of place," Jeremy said, after a quick nod at Simon. "You two" he gestured at Johnny and Mike "I'd like you to go around inside the building and search the ventilation system thoroughly. Look for holes drilled in the duct floors, missing gratings, little piles of metal shavings... you know what to look for already, I'm certain."
"Yeah, like thieves all up in their business taking a quiet nap," Mike said. "What if we find him?"
"Arrest him?" Jeremy said, arching an eyebrow. "But that reminds me: on the off-chance he is lurking about, prompt communication is vital, so I'd like us all to wear these headsets of yours. I went ahead and brought them in."
"You see anything suspicious, scream like a girl," Simon confirmed. "Minute we stop laughing at you, we'll be there all guns out like an NRA barbecue."
"Ms. Leone," Jeremy went on, "I'd like you to check all the various storage areas in the building. I doubt he'll actually be in one, but he may have stashed some things; I'd like you to open boxes, look under tarpaulins, check cabinets, all that sort of thing. I trust I don't have to tell you what to look for."
"Easy enough," Sandra said. "I'll need a flashlight."
"I've got one," Nate said, looking up from his fascinated contemplation of the empty gray plastic box.
"Works," said Sandra.
"I'll be working my way around the outside of the building," Jeremy said. "And of course Simon will be coordinating his little... heart out from here."
"Bitch, bitch, bitch," Simon said cheerfully. "I'll pitch in after I finish the bosswork."
"How gracious of you!" Jeremy said in feigned surprise. "Are there any questions? No? Wonderful."
"Let's do this thing," Simon said, because that was what he was supposed to say, and it didn't feel right to let someone else send his team off. "You finish the job Archer gave you, you let him know, he'll find something else for you to do. You got a problem with something he tells you to do, you come to me. Well? What are you waiting for? Let's set this mousetrap!"
Two minutes later he was alone in the conference room with a bunch of empty coffee mugs. Alone at last, Simon swung his feet up onto the conference table and fished out his cell phone. For a moment he stared blindly at it, running his thumb absently along one side, considering his options. "Better the devil you know," he finally muttered, bringing up his contacts list.
The other phone rang three times before someone picked it up, assaulting Simon's ear with road noise. "Hank Hall," the voice on the other end of the line rumbled over the sound of the car's engine.
Simon shut his eyes. "Hank," he said by way of greeting. "Simon."
The temperature on the other end of the line cooled off a few degrees. Simon scowled at nothing. "Templar," Hank Hall finally said in gravelly acknowledgment. "This the call, then? You get the tipoff?"
"Gosh, it's good to hear from you too, Hank," Simon said. "Yeah, our contact in the CIA rousted me out of bed this morning. It's going down tonight."
"Good, that's good," Hank said brusquely. Simon couldn't tell if he was being dismissive or if he was honestly distracted by the traffic, but either way it wasn't exactly making Simon's morning. "Sooner this wild goose chase ends, sooner I can be back at headquarters doing my own job instead of yours."
"What can I say, Hank," Simon said, working really hard to sound unconcerned. "All I did was ask Upstairs if there was a team free to work backup on this one, and for some reason your name just came right up."
"Lucky, lucky me," said Hank. "There anything else?"
"Well, as much as I'd like to chat, Hank, I've got a hundred other things to do this morning, so I'll let you go. Good to hear from you," Simon said, hitting the disconnect button with his thumb, "you uptight asshole."
He allowed himself a moment to just stew in his bad mood before flipping his phone open again and trying to remember where, exactly, he'd stored the Restructured number that Mike had given him. Eventually he found it in the R's, labeled as Rstd, and not for the first time Simon vowed to buy one of those stupid little keyboards for his cellphone just so he wouldn't be tempted to use all these abbreviations. He always forgot what they stood for within five minutes of painstakingly typing them in.
The owner of this phone snatched it up on the first ring. "Gavin Tigano," he said, running his name together until it sounded like a single word, gavintigano. No wasting time with this gentleman, apparently.
"Ah, yeah," Simon said. "My name is Simon Drake, I'm with the FBI"
"FBI, yes, sir," the voice's owner said, interrupting him in his anticipation. "But you're not the..." The voice trailed off. Simon could hear paper shuffling. "...Mike Takemura that called me earlier?"
"Mr. Takemura works for me," Simon said, sort of vaguely impressed despite himself. This was the first guy he'd run into all week that seemed to be even mildly on the ball. Of course, remembering Restructured's new security system, it made some sense that the man who'd installed them would be at least somewhat capable. "Unfortunately I'm not in the office today, but if you'd like to call the home office, any number of people there can vouch for me"
"Thanks, I'll do that," Tigano said. "No offense, you understand, but this is the first real security threat we've faced since I was hired five months ago, and I refuse to take any chances with my career and my reputation potentially at stake."
"Hey, none taken," Simon said. "Anyway, as you've probably guessed, I'm calling to let you know that it'll be tonight, wherever he chooses to go. I'm sure Mr. Takemura told you as much, but our analysis shows that it's highly unlikely to be Restructured"
"Highly unlikely but not impossible," Gavin Tigano said, trampling over Simon again. "In any case, it's the perfect opportunity to field-test some of our new safety precautions, so we'll be treating this potential threat with the utmost seriousness."
"I'm glad to hear it," Simon said, actually sort of meaning it despite his rising bemusement. "Feel free to call me if you need anything"
"I appreciate your offer, Mr. Drake, but I have absolute faith in our new security precautions. Can't afford not to."
"Fair enough," Simon said. "Good luck to you"
"Thanks, but if I have to rely on luck I've done something wrong," said Gavin Tigano. "Still, I appreciate the heads-up. Good morning" and the phone clicked off with a decisive bang.
Simon looked askance at his phone for a long, long moment before folding it up and putting it back in its belt clip. His cordless headset lay on the table in front of him, waiting; Simon picked it up and put it on, flicking the power switch to 'on' and plucking absently at the microphone. "Hey, folks. We here?"
"Yo" "Yeah" "Yes" "I seem to be" four voices said, more or less simultaneously. It made Simon laugh.
"So I hear," he said, when he caught his breath. "Hey, Shadow."
"Yes, Templar?" The undercurrent of amusement in Jeremy's crackling voice was very clear.
"How much do you think you'd charge me just to break into Restructured and give their security guy a much-needed arrogance adjustment? Because, I mean, damn."
"Mm," Jeremy said, sounding vaguely amused. "I'm not certain you ought to be soliciting criminal acts on an unsecured network, STemplar."
"Hoo, sounds like Templar met Gavin-Tigano-my-shit-don't-stink," Mike said, laughing. "Man ain't never once let me finish a sentence 'cause he was too busy flogging his own cock, if you follow me."
"I can only wish I didn't," Sandra said frostily.
"That was indeed the extremely confident gentleman in question," Simon said, digging out his laptop and popping it open. It pinged cheerfully. "Spec Squad not online with us?"
"Nah, they're all locked up in one of the labs safe as houses," Mike said. "Specs Two said it would just be a distraction and plus we might startle Specs into cutting his finger off or something. They've got their cells if you need 'em."
"Fair enough," Simon said. "Anyway, I'm going to send Upstairs his progress report; scream if you need me."
After five minutes or so Simon had grown accustomed to the constant low-level din that was echoing in his ear; four people simultaneously searching a building and broadcasting their efforts made a fair amount of noise, but after nearly four years of ignoring 'high spirits' that often bordered on homicide, Simon found it almost painfully easy to set this particular ruckus aside.
When he closed his eyes he could sort the various noises out: the soft crunching sound of Jeremy's shoes on dry grass, punctuated by the occasional rustle of bushes; Mike and Johnny carrying on a desultory conversation while chairs screeched into place and vent covers clanged open; Sandra opening door after door and shuffling cardboard boxes around, cabinets clattering open and banging shut with rhythmic speed. Simon smiled and turned his attention to his laptop, putting his thoughts in order. Arrived in Cincinnati with no static, he typed. The local bureau was cordial enough about the loan of a van and some equipment
He was almost done, frowning at the completed email and trying to decide if he'd left out anything important, when an ear-splitting screech and bang nearly made him jump right out of his skin. "What was that?" he demanded, grabbing the microphone of his headset in one hand. "People, talk to me!"
"Well, I'll be buggered," Jeremy said in his ear. "... er. Please, no volunteers necessary."
"Aw, damn, way to get me all worked up for nothing," Mike said, just as Simon had known he would. "What's up, Shadow? You find something?"
"One of the larger vents out back has had three of its four bolts cut and replaced, as I have just discovered by knocking it out of its frame," Jeremy said. "That's just sloppy, if you ask me. He's so confident no one's onto him that he's still breaking by the book."
Simon clenched his hand into a fist, his skin suddenly tingling. "You've got an exit? Or an entrance? What?"
"I'm not sure which," Jeremy said, sounding oddly breathless. In the background there was a dull thudding, and then a drawn-out screech that sounded a lot like the last one. "It could be either. I'll need to find the other one in order to be able to have a chance of telling you."
"So it's here," Simon said. "It's definitely Annadale. He's coming here."
"He's coming here," Jeremy said in agreement.
"... aw, God, I'm so fucking hard," Mike said all in a gleeful rush. "Hey, Shadow, you sure you don't need a volunteer?"
"Well, see, I could call Restructured and Nova, let them know that they're off the hook, but frankly I don't feel like doing either of them any favors at the moment," Simon said, leaning back in his chair and touching two fingers to one of his earpieces. "Besides, there's always a slight chance we might be mistaken, and I'd sure hate to look like an idiot. Better safe than sorry, right?"
"As you say, er, Templar," Jeremy said to the accompaniment of banging metal. "Anyway, there, that's got it. The vent cover is propped back into place for now."
"So what are we going to do about it?" Simon asked.
"That depends," Jeremy said. "If it's the entrance, we'll want to leave it alone. If it's the exit, well, that's different."
"So I guess we have to find the other one!" Simon said. "C'mon, folks, let's do this thing. We are gonna catch ourselves a thief. Well. Another one."
"Guess then we'll have the complete set," Johnny said. There was the familiar screech of a chair being shoved along, followed by a metallic bang. "Kinda like salt and pepper shakersFUCK!"
"Texas!" Mike shrieked over the sudden and ear-splitting din, and Simon was already out of his still-spinning chair and halfway across the room. In his ear Mike was still bellowing, "FBI, freeze, drop your weapon and stay right where you are" and Sandra was yelling "I am en route" and Simon threw the conference room door open and yelled "Honda, Texas, you speak to me goddammit" while drawing his gun and he only vaguely noticed Mercy Kane in the hallway with her mouth open as he blew past her...
"False alarm!" Johnny yelled a moment later, gasping for air. Simon screeched to a halt, breathing hard. A second later Johnny was howling laughter in his ear, that high-speed revving breathless laughter that always came on the heels of a close call, and he choked it out again, "False alarm! Oh Jesus, oh crap, I'm fuckin' sorry, false alarm, there was a fuckin' raccoon in the vent, I pop in and he's maybe six inches away from my fuckin' nose..."
Simon whooped out a relieved breath and half-collapsed against the wall. "Oh, Christ, Texas, don't you pull that shit on me," he said, but he was already catching the hysteria and his shoulders were shaking. "Nearly had a fucking heart attack, scared the hell out of Ms. Kane..."
"Scared me so bad I fell off the goddamn chair, scared the fuck out of Honda," Johnny said, still wheezing. "Scared the fuck out of everyone including the fuckin' raccoon, aw crap, I'm sorry."
Simon heaved a deep breath and straightened up. "Whoo. No harm done, assuming you didn't hurt yourself."
"I'm good," Johnny said, swallowing once and catching his breath. "Landed on my ass but that's what it's for."
"A raccoon!" Mike cried. "A fucking raccoon! Holy shit, just when I think the security around here can't get any worse I find out they can't even keep out the animals..."
"Poor thing," Sandra said. "If I woke up with Texas' ugly mug in my face I'd sure as hell have the fuck scared out of me."
"Or into you," Johnny said, making Mike whoop again.
Simon rolled his eyes and started ambling back towards the conference room, raising an apologetic hand at the terrified Mercy Kane as he went by. She stared owl-eyed at him before peeling herself off the wall and fleeing. "Well, that was all extremely exciting," Simon said, closing the door behind himself. "Sure hope you enjoyed that display of consummate professionalism, Shadow."
Jeremy was silent.
"Shadow?" Simon said again, stopping.
"I need to get onto the roof," Jeremy said, his voice low and urgent.
"Found it," Jeremy said after a tense five minutes. Simon exhaled loudly, abruptly realized he'd been pacing, and made himself stop.
"Well, I'll be damned," he said, dropping into the nearest chair. His momentum carried him halfway around on the chair's oiled casters and he didn't pay any attention. "What have you got?"
"He's unbolted one of the big vent covers up here, right off what I can only assume is the main air-conditioning unit," Jeremy said, speaking a little rapidly. Gravel crunched under his feet, somewhere. "I found two of the three missing bolts, so I think he'd originally left it wedged shut like the other one. Either it fell of its own accord or the raccoon knocked it askewit's hanging open now. I can see right down into the main ventilation shaft."
Simon shut his eyes and slid down in the chair, wriggling his shoulders deep into the thick padding of the chair's back. "So we've got the entrance, and we've got the exit. I'll be damned."
"You needn't sound so surprised, SiTemplar," Jeremy said, piqued. "I think I'm hurt."
"I'll buy you an aspirin," Simon promised. "Hell, I'll buy you a whole bottle, and not the generic kind, neither, because that's just the kind of generous guy I am. Now, for the bonus round and the brand new car: which one is the entrance?"
"This one," Jeremy said without a moment of hesitation. "It's perfect. Can't be spotted by a police car doing a drive-by or by anyone on the ground. It could sit wide open for months before someone noticed. He could go in this way and spend hours inside without anyone being the wiser."
"Are you sure?" Simon asked. He dug his fingers into the chair's padded armrest. "Tell me you're sure."
"I'm positive, Simon," Jeremy said. Simon didn't even bother to remonstrate with him about using his real name over frequency, just bit his lower lip absently. "Templar," Jeremy said a moment later, correcting himself, and then he laughed, soft and low. "Trust me."
"You know what, I think I will," Simon said. "So what now?"
"Well, first of all, the rest of you can stop for now," Jeremy said. "Templar, are you free?"
"Hell no," said Simon. "Just cheap. Bu-ut, I'm also not busy at the moment. What do you need?"
"A business park complex like this one will have a central maintenance facility," Jeremy said. "I'd appreciate it if you'd go over there and suggest, in your own inimitable fashion, that they stop whatever they're doing and come fix the broken vent cover on the back wall immediately. Oh, and don't mention the one on the roof."
"And by 'inimitable fashion' you basically mean 'threats, pressure, and general thuggery'?" Simon asked.
"Without a doubt."
"Oh man, can I come?" Mike broke in. "C'mon, Templar, let me come, I haven't gotten to be a general thug in weeks!"
"You need him, Shadow?" Simon asked.
"No, no, for the moment all I need is myself," Jeremy said.
"C'mon, then, Honda," Simon said, heaving himself to his feet. "Let's go pull some rank."
"Aw, yeah," Mike said, sounding deeply satisfied. "Man, I just love pulling my rank."
The maintenance guys folded like paper pretty much the instant Simon showed them his badge. Feeling a bit sorry for Mike (the poor guy hadn't had time to thug at anybody) Simon left him there to escort the maintenance team back to Annadale's building. He patted Mike's shoulder as he left. "Don't let 'em dawdle," he told Mike, loudly enough to ensure he'd be overheard. "Matter of national security, after all." Then he jogged back to Annadale Labs feeling pretty damned good about things.
He found most of the rest of his team in the rearmost lab, Lab F, the one with the safe in it. Jeremy was slowly pacing a path back and forth across the middle of the room, alternately counting on his fingers and looking up at the ceiling. Simon, curious, also looked at the ceiling. It was white acoustic tile. He didn't feel enlightened.
"Hey," he said, pulling the door to behind him. "Maintenance is on their way as fast as Mike can kick their asses along. What's up?"
Jeremy held up a peremptory finger, silencing him. Mulishly Simon shut his mouth with an audible click of teeth and ambled over to lean against the workbench next to Johnny, who was watching Jeremy pace. "Give a guy a little taste of power and he gets all dictatorial on your ass," Simon told Johnny, who shrugged.
"I can't imagine you're referring to yourself," Sandra said.
"Course not," said Simon. Jeremy dug his goggles out of his jacket and put them on, and they all watched this process in momentary fascination before going back to waiting. "I can handle a little power," Simon went on. "I'm talking about other people. Whose names start with a 'J'." Johnny glanced at Simon and cleared his throat. "And aren't Johnny," Simon promptly clarified.
Jeremy came to a halt directly under one of the ceiling vents and looked up, the room's fluorescent lights sheening off the black glass of his goggles. "Mm," he said under his breath, and then looked back down, turning a full circle on his heel and studying the room.
"It's like attending the ballet or some shit," Simon told Johnny. Johnny grunted.
Jeremy frowned, crossed to one of the desks, stooped down to look in its kneehole, then straightened back up, still wearing that distant and distracted frown. Simon was just about to demand an explanation when Jeremy abruptly left the room, heading out into the back hallway without a backwards glance. Simon looked at Sandra, rolled his eyes, and followed.
"Anybody ever tell you you look like a Cylon in those goggles?" he said to Jeremy's retreating back. "All you need is that bouncy red light."
Jeremy paused, his hand on a doorknob. "A what?"
"Never mind," Simon said. "What's up?"
"I'm setting up your trap," Jeremy said. He tried the doorknob. It rattled, locked. Jeremy frowned absently down at it and dug around in his jacket, coming out with his lockpick gun.
"I can go get the key from Mercy" Simon started to say, but Jeremy stuck the metal pin into the lock and pulled the trigger and twisted his wrist in almost the same moment. There was a rapid metallic buzzing sound and then the door swung open.
"No need to bother the lady," Jeremy told him, sounding a bit smug.
Simon snorted. "That can damage the lock, you know," he pointed out, more to be an ass than anything else.
Jeremy paused. "As a matter of fact, I did know that," he said. "Fancy that." And then he vanished into the newly unlocked room.
Simon naturally followed him. "But of course I guess you don't care about that" he started to say, and then broke off as he rather abruptly found himself nearly nose-to-nose with Jeremy, wedged into a small supply closet. There was barely room for both of them to stand inside.
"Well, hello," Jeremy said, fighting down what looked suspiciously like a smile. "Fancy meeting you here."
Simon hesitated, then reached blindly behind himself and shut the door with a click, plunging them both into darkness. "You want to watch it," he said, quietly. "You're coming within an inch of busting my balls in front of my team, and I won't put up with that." He paused. "... shit, did the door just lock again?"
"Yes, actually," Jeremy said.
"Well, crap," Simon said. "Guess I've done smoother things in my life."
"I suppose so," Jeremy said. He tilted his head, or something, and the faint seam of light seeping in under the door caught fire along the glass surface of his goggles. "I assure you I had no intention of, er, 'busting your balls', Simon. I was only a bit preoccupied."
"Yeah, well, see that you don't," Simon said, edging back half an inch or so. His shoulders bumped against the locked door, stopping him. "See, when I say you're in charge, I mean that I'm in charge. Only you're more in charge than anyone else who isn't me. Follow?"
"Ah, yes, I always forget that you speak Simon English," Jeremy said. "So, please, translate that to the Queen's English for me: what is it that I've done wrong, and what should I do to remedy this?"
"Next time I ask you a question, you stop, and you answer it," Simon said. "That's all. I don't ask you questions because it's my hobby. I ask because this is my job, I'm in charge and I've got the right to know."
"Fair enough," Jeremy said, after a pause. "For the record, I apologize."
"Sure," Simon said, twisting halfway around so that he could look over his shoulder at the door. He could just barely make out the doorknob, silhouetted by the light coming in under the door. "Now, I'm sure that being locked in a dark storage closet with you has its positive side, but it's a positive side I don't really want to explore right this moment, what with being on the job and all. We need to switch places or something so you can let us back out?"
There was a taut little pause and then Jeremy's hand settled lightly on Simon's waist, the tip of his little finger sliding under the waistband of Simon's jeans. It barely hit skin before Simon bit back a squawk and grabbed that hand, peeling it away; Jeremy twitched his hand back and out of Simon's grip, then reached past his hip and twisted the doorknob. The door sprang open an inch or so. "It's only a closet," Jeremy said, his little curling smile now plain in the sliver of light. "It doesn't lock from inside."
Simon opened his mouth, shut it, opened it again. "I hate you," he finally said. "No, really, I really hate you."
"I suppose I deserved that," Jeremy said, slithering bonelessly past Simon and back out into the hallway.
"Someone really did a number on this vent," the maintenance chief said, shaking his head. "I mean, look at this, these boltholes have had most of their threads stripped. What'd he use to take the bolts out, a crowbar?"
"Mm," Jeremy said noncommittally, obligingly tilting his head in to study the indicated bolthole. Simon, waiting a few feet away to lend some official threat to the discussion, didn't bother. "So..." Jeremy said, trailing off.
"So I can't really fix it without taking the entire assemblage out," the maintenance chief said. "And I can't do that in less than two, three days."
"Ah," Jeremy said. He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, considering. "What's really important is that we reattach this vent cover in such a way that it can't be easily or quietly removed," he finally said, opening his eyes again.
"I can weld it into place," the chief said dubiously. "It won't be pretty, but it'll sure as hell hold"
"Unfortunately, it also has to look like no one's touched it," Jeremy said apologetically.
"Oh," said the maintenance chief. "I can fill the boltholes with epoxy, I guess, use that to hold the bolts in. It's crap as a long-term solution but it'll hold pretty well for a while."
Jeremy considered this for a long moment, turning one of the sheared-off bolts over and over in his hand. "That will have to do, then," he finally said, handing the bolt back to one of the waiting maintenance men. "Thank you very much."
The conference room was flooded with the midday sunlight by the time they returned to it. "I could be wrong," Simon said, sinking into his chair with some relief, "but it sure sounds to me like you've got a working plan."
"I rather think so," Jeremy said. "What time is it?"
"Uh..." Simon checked his watch. "Little after eleven. We'll break for lunch soon, but we've got time to hash out your plan before we do."
"I'd really prefer not to have to explain twice," Jeremy said. "Could we possibly get the others in here"
"Unfortunately, you're going to have to," Simon said, overriding him. "I want to hear your plan before you throw it out in front of the others, so that I can veto if I have to."
Jeremy hesitated, his face going blank and still for a moment. Then he nodded. "All right."
"Not bad," Simon said, once Jeremy had finished. "I like it. As long as we have enough time."
"That's always the consideration, isn't it?" Jeremy asked wryly. "I'll handle the welding myself. I wouldn't want to ask anyone else to go up there."
"There's only one thing I'm going to have to insist on changing," Simon said.
"And that would be...?"
"I want you in the van with Specs and Specs Two, and I want you to stay there," Simon said. "We'll all have headsets, so you'll still be in contact and able to help, but under no circumstances are you to leave that van and enter the area. Not even if he's getting away, which he won't, because we're awesome."
"May I ask why?" Jeremy asked.
"Because I don't want him knowing you're working for me," Simon said. "You're my secret weapon, Archer. In case we failhell, even if we succeedI don't want him walking away knowing that you've been collaborating with us."
Jeremy was still for a moment. "And you also don't want to run the risk that I might intercept him and warn him," he finally said, like it hurt him to drag that sentence out.
"I wasn't going to say it," Simon said. "In fact, I'm pretty damned convinced you wouldn't do it. But it's something I have to consider."
"Mm," Jeremy said, noncommittally.
"It's my job," Simon said. He caught himself actually attempting to justify his official decision and got a little cranky about it, but as long as he'd started... "I have to consider everything, Archer. Not just your finer feelings. I have to consider the risk that someone's going to get killed tonight, and that it might be one of my team. I don't not trust you, don't get me wrong. But the only five people in the world I trust without reservation are the people on my team, and for all that you've been one hell of a lot of help, you're not one of them."
"Mm," Jeremy said again.
Simon sighed. "Come on. What do you want from me?"
Jeremy's smile flashed on and off like a lightning strike. "Do you really want me to answer that question, Simon?"
Simon started to say 'no'. He really did. And then he paused and considered the question, looking at it from all the various angles. Finally he shrugged. "Some day? Yeah. Not now, not tonight, but some day when this mess is all over and we've sorted the baggage? Tell me."
Jeremy was silent, studying Simon from across the conference table. His smile, when it came this time, was slow and real. "You do live dangerously, Mr. Drake," he said.
"It's all part of the job," Simon said, picking up his headset and putting it on. "Let's get the others in here."
Despite Simon's almost desperate need to watch Jeremy attempt to cope with McDonald's food, the closest source of lunch turned out to be a little sandwich shop, and in the interest of saving time, Simon gave in. The team ate a hurried lunch and piled back into the van. "Go ahead and get things started without me," Simon told Jeremy once Mike turned into Annadale's parking lot. "Do your thing. Whatever that is."
"Actually, I plan to spend a bit of time standing about with my arms spread wide looking like a lunatic," Jeremy said. "Are you positive you don't want to watch? I'm certain it would entertain you no end."
Mike pulled the van up in front of the building and put it in park, waiting. "Much as I'd love to watch you make a fool of yourself, I need to do some boss crap real quick," Simon said, hopping out of the back of the van after the others. "Go on and 'measure' without me. I'll survive somehow."
"We'll go park the van elsewhere," Jeremy called after him. Simon flapped a hand vaguely in Jeremy's direction and headed in, waving absently at the receptionist as he headed back to the conference room to check in.
The email he'd been expecting was already waiting when he logged in:
As per your recommendation I gave Accounting the go-ahead to pay off the rest of what we owe your consultant. I hope you're certain about this. Personally, given the nature of your freelancer, I feel that it may be premature, but generally your judgment in these matters proves sound. And, after all, it's your quarterly budget to beggar.
"Can always count on Upstairs to be supportive," Simon muttered to himself before reading on.
I'm afraid I've got some bad news for you, though. Word from On High. Maculhy's been in contact
Simon read the rest of the email in a mounting state of disbelief. "Hell with this," he finally muttered to himself, shutting everything down. "Don't I have some real work to do?"
"You want the camera here?" Nate said uncertainly. A warm breeze was blowing across the roof, ruffling his bangs. "I mean, I can do it, but wouldn't it be easier just to mount it over there in the corner?"
Jeremy reached up and tapped the side of his goggles. "The problem is that if he stops long enough to examine the rooftop for electrical current, he'll spot the camera if it's over there. If you put it over here the camera's power draw will be lost in the air conditioner's and he won't be able to see it."
"Oh!" Nate nodded vigorously and shoved his glasses up. "Okay, I get you. That's why you got me to stick the other camera under the computer monitor like that."
"Exactly," Jeremy said.
"Should we close this vent cover back up?" Simon asked, nudging one of the sheared-off bolts with the toe of his sneaker.
"Leave it," Jeremy said. "If he discovers that it's fallen open and hasn't been put back into place, it'll just reassure him that no one's spotted it yet."
"Plus then the raccoon can get back out!" Nate said happily, and both Simon and Jeremy turned and stared at him until he turned pink and went back to fiddling with the camera.
"Gratings," Mike said, holding up two medium-sized squares of something that resembled matte-black chainlink fence. "Specs says the black stuff will rub off if you handle it too much, so keep that in mind."
Jeremy's arm snaked out of the open vent and took them, turning them slightly to fit diagonally through the square opening. "Mask?" his disembodied voice said from somewhere inside the ceiling.
Mike grabbed the welding mask and gloves from Johnny and held them up for Jeremy to take. They vanished into the ceiling and then Jeremy stuck his head out. "Hang about, I need to distribute these things and then I'll come back around for the tank. Tell Ms. Leone to go ahead and turn the fan on as high as it'll go."
Johnny nodded and loped off. Thirty seconds later the air conditioner's giant fan roared to life, loud enough to make the building settle a bit, blowing Jeremy's hair back as he leaned out of the open vent to take the welding tank from Mike. A couple of little black things that looked suspiciously like dead bugs or raccoon droppings blew out of the open vent from the other side and Simon couldn't help but grin.
"Let me see if I've got this straight," Simon said. "You want"
"Emptied aluminium cans and coarse sandpaper," Jeremy said, handing the tank back down to Mike. There was a large pinkish dent in his forehead from the welding mask and he looked a bit damp and smoky. "Oh, and a tube of epoxy. I know I saw one in the workbench."
"What the hell for?"
"Insurance," Jeremy said shortly. Then he relented, even before Simon could tell him to get the hell over himself. "There's just the slightest possibility that he might, with luck and speed, get through one of those gratings before we realized what he was up to. The least I can do is make it impossible for him to do so without making a racket."
"Okay, so that explains the cans," Simon said. "But the sandpaper?"
"He can't slither over a sufficiently rough surface the way he can slide along polished metal," Jeremy said. "Sandpaper will chew his suit to bits. Not as badly as brick, but I can't precisely brick up these sub-shafts."
Johnny, already rifling through the workbench in search of the epoxy, whistled in appreciation. "Nasty."
"I do what I can," Jeremy said, handing down the welder's gloves and mask. Mike took them.
"Empty Coke cans and sandpaper," Simon said, shaking his head. "Christ, and here I used to think you were all fancy and high-tech. I think I was more impressed with you back when you were some kind of supervillain. Now you're just the, the, I don't know, MacGuyver of crime."
"Well, Simon," Jeremy said, crossing his arms on the vent's edge and resting his head comfortably on them, "if I worked for the government and had trillions of dollars handed to me by sufficiently paranoid taxpayers, I suppose I could invest a couple of million dollars into some sort of highly-engineered vent-blocking apparatus that only functioned seventy percent of the time. However, I'm not, and I only have a few hours to boot, so I'm afraid I'm stuck with embarrassingly low-tech solutions that actually work."
"You know, I think that was a subtle dig at our beloved government," Simon told Mike.
"You know, boss, I think you're right," said Mike. "I for one am all hurt and shit."
By the time Rich tottered out of the lab he'd commandeered his hair was standing straight up all along the right side of his head, a sight Simon was familiar with but never failed to find amusing. "Nice hair, Two," he said affably, smoothing Rich's hair back down for him. "I sense a lot of general hair-pulling in your immediate past."
"One might go so far as to call it 'a hair-raising assignment'," Jeremy said dryly, earning himself a patented Specs Two glare, which he ignored. "Is it finished?"
"Oh, it's finished," Rich said rustily. He swallowed. "I don't even like touching this goddamn Zip disk with my hands and nothing can save that laptop, but it's finished."
"My man, Specs Two," Simon said, slapping him gently on the back. "Pass over the disk and go get yourself something to drink. You've earned it."
Rich nodded, too wiped out even to grouse, and put the Zip disk down on the table, giving it one last little possessive little pat before he stumbled off. The masking tape label was just barely curling at one end, nearly obscuring the final 's' in 'Design Specs'; Simon half-expected the disk to be smoking, but it wasn't. "I'll go put this in the safe with Nate's fake bullets," he said, picking it up gingerly and bearing it off like a particularly unstable letter bomb, which, in a sense, it was.
"I mean it," Simon said sternly. "Just tell me which keys are which and then go home."
"Well, if you're sure?" Mercy Kane said, clutching the enormous keyring to her sparse chest with both hands. "I mean, I want to help? Mr. Timmins said to?"
Simon sighed, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath, then reached out and closed both hands over Mercy Kane's twiglike biceps. She squeaked in surprise like a mouse. "MercyMs. Kanethe best thing you can possibly do for me right now is go home, lock all the doors, and stay there until tomorrow morning," Simon said, digging down deep for enough earnest sincerity to sell this. Judging from the blush that flooded Mercy Kane's cheeks, he found it. "This man is dangerous, Mercy. I think we've got a plan that'll keep him from hurting anyone, but I can't be sure, and I'd never forgive myself if I fucked up and let you get hurt, okay?"
"O-okay," Mercy Kane said in a tiny and breathless little voice, too small to even contain a question mark. Her fingers fumbled through the keys. "They're... they're all labeled? But here's the front doors, and the back door, and here's Lab F?"
"Thanks, Mercy," Simon said with all the warmth he could muster, gently taking the keyring before Mercy could drop it again. "I really appreciate it. You've been a huge help."
"You're welcome?" Mercy Kane saidaskedand not for the first time Simon bit back the urge to ask, well, I don't know, am I?
"Aw, man," Mike said, collapsing into one of the chairs with a huge whoofing sigh and squinting against the late afternoon sun. "Are we done?"
"I think we're done," Simon said in wonder. "How about that."
"I'm sure there's more we could do, but right now I'm too bloody wiped to think of anything," Jeremy said in agreement, closing his eyes. "Either it will work, or it won't."
"Here's what we're going to do, folks," Simon said, clapping his hands and effortlessly reclaiming the mantle of 'in charge' from Jeremy. "Archer here assures me that he won't be lurking around beforehand"
"he wouldn't want to risk drawing attention to himself by loitering," Jeremy put in, his eyes still closed. "He might drive by once, but I doubt he'll do anything else."
"so I don't think we need to get in position for a while," Simon went on, as if Jeremy hadn't said anything. "I want us back here and in position by ten o'clock tonight, which is probably way too early, but I want to be on guard from full dark onwards. That gives us about five hours. Let's go grab some dinner and head back to the motel for a few hours. I want you all to rest up, as much as you can. It's going to be a long night."
There was a vague tired rumble of agreement from everyone. Simon looked around. "Any questions? Everybody clear on what they're going to be doing tonight?"
A few heads around the table nodded, but that was about all the reaction Simon managed to eke out of them. He waited a moment, and then nodded, dropping his voice. "You guys? You guys are awesome. All of you. Yes, even you, Archer, stop looking at me like that. If we can just keep it up we'll bag this bad boy without breaking a sweat. We get back to DC with this joker in cuffs and dinner's on me. Hell, I'll even spring for the strippers."
A faint and tired laugh rippled through the room. Mike sniggered sleepily and said, "Woo!"
"Okay, okay," Simon said, snapping back to normal and making a broad herding gesture with both arms. "C'mon, let's get out of here. Eat something. Up, up, up, c'mon, let's go, out the back door, one at a time..."
Simon had barely managed to swipe the room key through before Jeremy pushed past him and collapsed face-down on his bed. "I'm exhausted," Jeremy said into his faceful of pillow, half-heartedly trying to scrape his shoes off without actually sitting up to deal with them. "Unless you have a strenuous objection I'm going to sleep for a bit. Would you wake me at nine?"
"No problem," Simon said, stretching. "I'm way too keyed up to sleep. Always am. Will it bug you if I go shower?"
"Go on," Jeremy said. "I'll have one before we go."
"Hey, don't take this the wrong way or anything, but thank God for that," Simon said, flapping a hand pointedly in front of his face. "Shit, the way you've been sweating you'd think you'd been working for a living or something."
"Once again I marvel at your keen grasp of the obvious," Jeremy said, eventually giving up on his shoes.
Simon snorted and grabbed one of Jeremy's ankles. "Didn't your mother ever teach you never to put your shoes on the furniture?" he asked, yanking Jeremy's shoe off for him. Jeremy flopped his head to the side just enough to watch him quizzically, one tired brown eye peeking out of the folds of his thin pillow. "I mean," Simon said, trading one of Jeremy's ankles for the other one, "it's not like you could make the furniture in here significantly uglier" he pulled off Jeremy's other shoe "but it's the principle of the thing."
"Thank you?" Jeremy eventually said.
"You're welcome," Simon told him, dropping his shoes by the foot of his bed. "I'm not going to do your pants, so don't even ask."
"You're a bloody tease," Jeremy said comfortably, shutting his eyes. Simon smiled to himself and leaned over to flick out the overhead lights.
By the time he got back out of the shower Jeremy was a little huddled shape under the blankets, silent and still. Simon stood blinking in the bathroom doorway until his eyes got used to the dimness and then gingerly picked his way over to the foot of his bed, groping for the clothes he'd laid out. After a moment of thought he left his shirt laying where it washe was still sweating slightly from his showerand just wriggled into his pants, then eased around the corner of his bed and sat down on it, reaching automatically for the remote on the bedside table.
The television popped on with a faint sound and a crackle of static, and Simon muted it quickly before the volume could catch up. The picture on the screen evolved out of the darkness, painting the room and Simon a dirty flickering blueish-gray. Simon put the remote back down.
On the screen a couple of anonymous women were standing around in a generic kitchen, silently being a little too enthused about something. Simon proceeded to ignore them, instead staring down at his hands in the faint and flickering light. He flipped his hands over and opened them, gazing at his palms, then rolled his hands back into loose fists and stared at his knuckles. He let his mind go empty, watching his hands move, clearing his mind.
Then he began at the beginning. He ran Jeremy's proposed plan of attack through in his mind again, looking for holes. There were always holes. Over and over Simon ran himself and his team through their paces, poking at every corner, trying to break out. In the end, he decided he was satisfied. There were holes and he could see them, but as plans went it was pretty good. Not airtight, but what was? And hell, he even had a back-up plan of sorts now. Just in case.
He exhaled, long and slow, and folded his hands together before glancing at the clock. A little after seven, the red numbers told him. He glanced past the clock at Jeremy. Jeremy's eyes were open, gleaming blue in the light from the television, watching him.
The back of Simon's neck prickled, and then just as quickly as it had started, it stopped. "Can't sleep?" he murmured, unwilling to disturb the peace by speaking louder.
"Apparently not," Jeremy murmured back a moment later. "Odd. Usually I can sleep through nearly anything." He sighed and rolled over, staring at the ceiling, his face composed in the flickering light. "I suppose this isn't 'nearly anything', however."
Simon laughed under his breath and looked back at his hands. "Sorry," he said.
Jeremy slid a hand out from under the blankets and rubbed his face, making a scratchy little sound. "I don't see what you're sorry about."
"Me neither," Simon said after a moment. "Forget I said it. I'm not sorry at all."
Jeremy huffed out a faint laugh. "Now that's more like the Simon I'm used to."
"Yeah, well," Simon said, leaning back against the headboard and staring up at the ceiling. "It'll all be over soon. We can sleep after that."
After a moment Jeremy laughed again, putting an arm across his eyes. "And I suppose we can always catch up on our sleep once we're dead," he said. Then he frowned. "Do you know, that sounded particularly bad under these circumstances?"
"Eh, don't worry about it," said Simon. "We're always slipping up and saying really tasteless things by accident before a mission. This kind of anticipation really makes you overanalyze everything you say at the same time it makes you prone to say even stupider shit than usual."
"I suppose so," Jeremy said.
"I mean, hell, you heard Mike this afternoon," Simon said. "Everything he says from now until tomorrow morning will count as either sexual harassment or a death threat or both. It's just how he copes with tension. Don't worry about it."
"Mm," Jeremy said. "And he differs from the normal Mike how?"
"Normal Mike talks about food sometimes."
"Ah," said Jeremy. He was silent for a long moment before adding, "I can't shake the feeling that I've forgotten something."
"Yeah, I know how that is," Simon said. "I don't think so, though. I've gone over your plan about fifty times now and I can't really see any holes. Pretty good plan, really."
"Mm. Thank you. It's kind of you to say, at any rate."
Simon snorted softly. "I'm not trying to preserve your overblown ego, Archer. I said it's a pretty good plan and I meant it."
"Then thank you," Jeremy said. "I can only hope it works."
"Yeah," Simon said. "Still think we won't catch him?"
There was a long pause before Jeremy rolled back over, propping himself up on his elbow. "Yes," he admitted. "I'm not sure how he could get away, but I can't help but believe that he will, somehow. An article of faith, if you will. It's like how, when you're very small, you believe that your father can do anything: I believe that he'll get away just because I can't even conceive of the alternative."
"Huh," Simon said. "Good God, did it get philosophical in here, or is it just me?"
"I suppose I sound very silly," Jeremy said, flopping back down.
"I don't know," Simon said, rubbing his face with both hands. "I mean, on the one hand, yeah, you totally do, but... do you believe in luck?"
"Yeah. Do you believe you're lucky?"
Jeremy considered this for a moment. "Well, largely I believe that I create my own luck through being prepared, but... yes, I suppose I do believe I'm lucky."
"See, I can't help but think of this one guy... okay, see, back when I was a little bitty field agent"
"do you know, I find it very hard to believe you were ever small, Simon"
"shut up and listen, Archer, I'm trying to be profound here."
"Ah. My apologies."
"So, okay, I was... twenty-three, twenty-four, something like that. And my team leader is this real old-school white-shirt-and-tie hardcase, thirty years with the Bureau, doesn't like any of us one bit except for the part where he'd take a bullet for any of us without even thinking about it, right?"
"Mm. I know the type, I believe."
"Yeah, they're out there. Anyway, it's like you said, you make your own luck. And I did, and I was racking up a nice string of arrests, getting lucky, getting luckier, and one night, real late, we're sitting in a car together on stakeout and there's nothing to do but talk, so we did. And he tells me how good it is that I'm lucky."
"And I agreed, because I was, you know, even if half of my luck was preparedness and half of what was left was having balls of steel, right? And he laughs a little and tells me that there's nothing out there scares your average criminal more than a lucky cop."
"Because, he says, you can prepare all you want but when it comes right down to it everything hangs together on luck. Being in the right place is luck. Finding the right time is luck. Spotting important details is luck. Going left first instead of right is luck. All that stuff. Luck is like the glue that holds your skills together."
"... you were right, Simon, you are trying to be profound. It's so charming."
"Eat me. Anyway. Then he tells me that luck makes its own luck. You're lucky, you get a reputation as being lucky, criminals start thinking you're lucky and react to you like you are, and it just makes you luckier. Christ, if I say 'luck' one more time it's going to stop sounding like a word at all. But anyway, you get my point."
"I think so," Jeremy said.
"So my point is, I'm lucky. I'm damned lucky. I've got a rep in the halls for being lucky that almost equals my rep for being awesome. And you say you're lucky, and frankly, after what I've seen of you, I gotta believe it." Simon paused. "So maybe that's what it's going to come down to. Is he luckier than the two of us or not?"
Jeremy was silent for a long, long time. "I don't know," he finally said.
"Me neither," Simon said. "I mean, I have faith in my team, and I firmly believe that we are going to catch this asshole red-handed. But just because I believe that with all my heart doesn't mean that it has to happen."
"Mm," Jeremy said. "Well, now I feel worse than ever. Thanks ever so."
"Hey, any time," said Simon. "Think you can sleep now or do you want another bedtime story?"
"I can't say I think much of your taste in bedtime stories, Simon."
"Hey, I do a rousing rendition of 'The Three Little Drug Traffickers'. I mean, my impression of the big bad FBI agent who huffs and puffs and blows their meth lab in is all the rage back in DC."
Jeremy laughed, softly. "I think I'll pass, thank you."
"Hey, your loss," Simon said. "I can turn off the TV if it bugs you."
"No, that's all right," Jeremy said. "I rather like the light. It's peaceful, in its way."
"Yeah," Simon said. "You going to be okay without getting some sleep? I mean, I'm counting on you to come through tonight."
"I'll be fine," Jeremy said dismissively. "Most of the rest of the plan is up to you and your team, anyway."
"Yeah, I guess," Simon said. "But still, hey, I'm just sitting here killing time, let me know if I can do anything to help. Within reason."
Jeremy paused. "You could let me blow you," he finally said.
It took half a second for that to sink in before a rush of heat washed over Simon. "Yeah?" he said numbly, sinking down slightly.
"No, no, don't worry, I won't insist," Jeremy said, still just exactly as casual as he'd been a minute ago. "You said 'never on the job' and I am willing to respect that."
"Yeah, well... good," Simon said, his cheeks still burning a bit. He brought his knees up, camouflaging his extremely direct physical reaction.
"It would, however, be a lovely distraction from my worries, and it does tend to pass the time." Jeremy rolled over away from Simon, facing the far wall. "Plus I must admit I rather enjoy doing it."
After a moment, Simon laughed, a very little. "Christ, you never let up, do you."
"Of course not," Jeremy said. "I wouldn't want you to get complacent."
"Complacent," Simon said, snorting. "Like I was some kind of, of cow in a meadow or something. In any case, all other things being equal, I'd be afraid you'd mess up my edge. I need to be sharp tonight. Hungry."
"That's entirely fair," Jeremy said. "Superstitious, but fair."
"Shit, I just spent like ten minutes telling you how I secretly believe in luck," Simon pointed out. "If you hadn't already pegged me as superstitious, you're dumber than I give you credit for being."
"I take your point," Jeremy said, and he laughed a little and pulled the covers up. "The offer stands, however."
"We catch him tonight and I might just take you up on it," Simon promised. "I'll kick myself for it after, of course."
"That's your prerogative," Jeremy said. "I'm going to try and sleep again. Wake me at nine."
"Will do," Simon said. "Because, I mean, Christ, even if I was sleepy ten minutes ago I'm sure as hell not now."
"You're welcome," said Jeremy, sounding a bit smug, and then he fell silent.
"That's done, then," Jeremy said, rolling out from under the narrow table folded down from the van's side wall and sitting up. Dust clung to one of his sleeves, white and powdery against the black, and Jeremy slapped at his arm until it was reasonably clean again. "Is it still working or did I knock something out?"
Nate thumbed on one of the monitors and frowned at it, his nose less than two inches from the glass. "Still looks good," he reported after a moment.
"In that case I can report with some assurance that no one's tampered with the van," Jeremy said, glancing at Simon. "As far as I can tell we are good to go."
"Good," Simon said, squinting at the darkness beyond the windshield. The van was parked inside the closed-up loading dock of one of the buildings next to Annadale's, well within range of the headsets' cordless connection but nowhere near the actual lab. It was perfectly safe, but Simon's nerves had been honed to that cold, sharp edge and he kept checking, just in case.
After a moment he looked back around at his team, sitting or squatting on the van's bare metal floor in a loose semi-circle, all save the techs, who had chairs and were, therefore, temporarily the tallest people around. "Everybody who's going in got their vests on?" Simon asked, thumping the ceramic plate over his heart.
"Hell, yes," Mike said, thumping his own. "You think I'm doing this without a vest, you're fucking nuts. Far as I'm concerned Kevlar's the best girlfriend I ever had."
"Got mine," Johnny said.
"Yes," said Sandra, "although if I stop a bullet with my tit plate again I'm going to wish he'd just killed me."
Mike sniggered. "Tit plate," he repeated, and made a vague grab for Sandra's chest. She backhanded his hand aside without even looking at him.
"That was classless even for you," Rich informed him.
"Yeah, well, I always strive to hit new lows, Specs Two," Mike said. "It's like a hobby of mine."
"Hit another new low near me and I'll nail your testicles to the van floor," Sandra said, smacking Mike's shoulder in a generally friendly fashion.
"Hey, I've got an idea, how about we don't castrate each other," Simon said brightly, overriding Mike's whoop of glee. "What time is it?"
Rich glanced at his watch. "9:57, Templar."
"Okay," Simon said. "Okay." He glanced out the side window one last time, letting the rush of excitement flow through him and dissipate before he knocked his knuckles on the floor of the van. "I'm going to go over it one last time, because I'm anal like that, shut up, Honda. According to his files it's highly unlikely that he'll begin before about one in the morning, but we're going in now because I'd hate for this to be the time that he varies his routine. Everybody wears headsets at all times. I want us to keep up the chatter, just so we stay in touch and stay alert, but keep it quiet, just in case."
He paused long enough to put on his own headset, and after a moment the others followed suit. Simon glanced at Rich. "Let's test 'em now."
"Right," said Rich, spinning around to face his own console. "Templar."
"Here," Simon said into the microphone.
Rich nodded. "Honda?"
"Yep," said Mike.
"Here," Sandra said.
Rich frowned for a moment, making a few minute adjustments to one of the dials in front of him. "Again."
"Here," Sandra said again.
"That's got it," said Rich. "Texas."
"Yo," said Johnny.
"Online," Nate said, fidgeting with his microphone.
"Myself," Rich muttered, fussing with the dials before raising his voice again. "Shadow."
"Here," Jeremy said, his hand cupped over the microphone.
Rich looked at Simon, pulling his headphones down to hang around his neck. "We're good to go, Templar," he said.
"Good," Simon said, nodding once and pulling his own headphones down. "Springheel and I will leave the building first and let ourselves into Annadale via the back door. As per Shadow's suggestion we will be in the supply closet just outside Lab F, where we will stay until time."
"Hoo, Templar's in the clo~set," Mike half-sang. Simon tried not to grit his teeth too obviously.
Sandra promptly popped him one, making him yelp and grab his shoulder. "With me," she pointed out. "Which kind of negates your joke."
"Aw, man, why does Templar always get the babe?" Mike asked plaintively, effortlessly switching jokes in midstream. "I mean, no offense, Texas, but you ain't really my type. Being an ugly bastard and all."
"'Cause he's the leader?" Johnny pointed out. "And so's your momma."
"Honda and Texas will sit just inside the back door there," Simon said, ignoring the chatter and pointing over his shoulder. "I don't want you in the van because I don't want you distracting the techs. When Shadow tells you to move, you leave the loading dock and get into position, as quickly and quietly as you can. Stay low."
"We will totally be like ninjas or some shit," Mike said. "Low ninjas. Really low."
"Specs, Specs Two, and Shadow will all stay in the van," Simon said. "Specs so much as clears his throat, you all shut up and prepare to listen. Once things start to happen I want silence on this frequency except when reporting in, because we all need to be able to hear Shadow. Got me?"
"Yep," Johnny said, poking a fresh toothpick into his mouth.
"I love you guys," Simon said, clapping his hands together with an echoing sound like a gunshot. "Try not to let him shoot you, because I need you all. If you up and die on me, I'll kill you. Let's do this thing. Springheel, Honda, Texas" blindly he reached behind himself and opened the back door of the van "go."
"Cozy," Sandra muttered under her breath, shining her flashlight around, picking out boxes of printer paper and post-it notes in the yellow circle of light. "I'm beginning to think you do have some kind of ulterior motive for locking us in here together, Templar. Did I miss us playing 'spin the bottle' or something?"
Mike snickered in Simon's ear. "I knew it," he said happily. "Hey, Spring, babe, you need me to come over there and defend your honor, you just holler."
Simon rolled his eyes and edged himself downwards, easing himself into a sitting position wedged into one corner. "She could beat the shit out of me twice before you even got here and you know it," he said, wriggling back as far as he could. Sandra settled in in the opposite corner and slithered out of her jacket, rolling it up. "You two in place, Honda? Texas?"
"Yep," Johnny said. "On account of how we moved all of about ten feet. Hell, I can see Specs through the windshield from here."
"How are the cameras, Specs?" Simon asked, ignoring Johnny.
"Looking good," Nate said. "No static so far."
"Headsets are still all in contact," Rich added before Simon could even ask.
Simon exhaled. "Okay," he said. "Now we get to sit around for three or four hours. Gosh, Shadow, aren't stakeouts exciting?"
"I have never been so busy in all my life," Jeremy said dryly. "I'm certain that there are three or four entire square inches of the inside of this van that I haven't memorized yet."
"Aww, Shadow's starting to sound just like one of you guys," Simon said. "We've corrupted him. Good work, team."
Sandra finished blocking the crack under the door with her rolled-up jacket and slid the cover of the flashlight back, turning it into a small battery-powered lantern. "Just what the world needed," she said, standing the flashlight up on one of the lower shelves. "Another whiner."
"We can't all be tough chicks like you, Spring," Mike said. "Hell, it's probably a good thing. I wake up with tits some morning and I'm not gonna leave the house for a week."
"Only a week?" Johnny said. "You got no imagination."
"Whoa, hey, my TMI alert is going off," Simon said. "Plus judging by the specific silence I'm hearing, I think you've probably killed Specs."
"I'm not quite dead," Nate said, automatically. He did sound a little breathless.
Just as automatically Mike added, "'E's getting bettah!"
"That's not how it goes," Rich protested angrily.
"Yeah, well, here's the thing," Mike said. "No one really cares but you."
"You could at least try" Rich started to say, but right about then Simon tuned him out, having heard this entire argument before.
Sandra rolled her eyes at Simon and dug in her pocket, coming out with a pack of cards. "Gin?" she asked, holding them up.
"You're a godsend," Simon said, holding out his hand for the deck.
"All's I'm saying," an aggrieved Mike was saying ten minutes later (just as Sandra swept up Simon's discarded three and used it to magically produce gin) "is that, you being English and all, you could at least oblige us with a couple of lines in the original language."
"I'm afraid I really can't," Jeremy said apologetically.
"Aw, c'mon!" Mike wailed. "Why not?"
"I've never seen the movie," Jeremy admitted after a pause.
Even Simon had to stop and join in the general "Whaaat?" that that admission produced. "How the hell does one get to be your age in an English-speaking countryin England!and not have seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail?" he added, picking up the cards and shuffling them. "That's like growing up in America without eating Happy Meals or something."
"Assuming your comparison is exact, I'm better off for it," Jeremy said with asperity before relenting. "I just never got around to it. I do lead a busy life."
"Not even as a kid?" Nate asked, in much the same hushed and horrified voice that he might use to ask if the deceased had suffered long. "I mean, it was... when did it come out, Two?"
"'75," Rich promptly supplied.
"Over thirty years ago," Nate concluded. "And you've never seen it?"
"I'm afraid not," Jeremy said, with impressive patience. "My parents were of the sort who didn't believe in television or other un-Godly pursuits."
"Ewwww," Mike said, even as Simon quietly perked up his ears. "Aw, man, I didn't know they had those in England."
"It's been my experience that they exist everywhere," Jeremy said. "And at any rate, it isn't as if my access to television increased after I left home. Quite the opposite, in fact."
"He's never seen the Holy Grail," Nate said in general awe. "That's so strange."
"Have you seen any Monty Python?" Simon asked, dealing out the cards again.
There was a brief pause. "I don't believe so," Jeremy eventually said. "I've heard of it..."
"Heard of it," Simon repeated. "What kind of a sorry excuse for an Englishman are you?"
"A busy one?" Jeremy suggested. "I've simply never acquired the habit of watching television. I've always had other things to do. More pressing."
"What about movies? You've got to have seen movies," Simon said.
Jeremy laughed a little. "I haven't been inside a movie theatre at all for over five years, STemplar. And even then it was mostly just a convenient and dark place to make a trade. I haven't the faintest idea what was playing."
"It's not human," Nate moaned.
"I'm just... busy," Jeremy said. Simon could hear vague slithering noises in the background, as if Jeremy were shifting on the van's metal floor. "I only have a few more years to make my fortune before I lose my edge. I suppose once I've retired I can sit about and find out what I've missed."
"You're weird," Simon said cheerfully. "Dammit, Spring, stop discarding crap I don't need."
"Sorry, boss," Sandra said. "Wait, no, no I'm not."
Sandra stood on her right foot and propped her left foot up on the shelves over Simon's head, stretching. Simon shut his eyes and tried not to look up at the arch of her spread legs above him. "What time is it?" he asked instead.
"Just after midnight," Rich said. "All three of us are watching the monitors, Templar. We won't miss him."
"Never crossed my mind that you would," Simon said. "How's everybody holding up?"
"I'm a bit stiff," Jeremy said. "Still, as hiding places go, this one is almost luxurious."
"I'm good," Johnny said.
Mike groaned, long and low. Simon assumed (or hoped, at least) that he was stretching. "Yeah, I'm cool," he said when he was done.
Sandra dropped back into her crosslegged position, linking her fingers together and stretching her arms straight up above her head. "Another game?" she asked Simon.
Simon shook his head, wrapping his hand around his microphone to muffle it. "It's getting a little too close to time. Let's stop and turn the light off."
Sandra nodded and picked up the flashlight, flicking it off. Simon's eyes dazzled in the sudden lack of light, little staticky supernovas exploding in the sudden darkness; Sandra's knee shifted against his as she reclaimed her jacket and slid back into it, and suddenly it was all he was aware of. He reached out and patted her knee, and she touched his hand briefly before falling still.
"So," Simon said, settling back against the corner of the shelves and shutting his eyes, "I vote that someone tell us a story."
"I vote Shadow," Mike immediately said. "No offense, guys, but I've heard all your stories by now."
"Yeah, I agree," said Nate. "Two and I can keep an eye on the monitors. Tell us a story, Shadow."
"Motion carried," Sandra added.
"A story?" Jeremy said, laughing a little. "Oh dear, and here's me without my Brothers Grimm. What sort of story were you looking for?"
"Personal anecdotes? Always good," Simon said. "Me, I'm always up for stories that make you look like an idiot, but, you know, whatever you've got."
"Oh, one of those," Jeremy said. "I haven't very many, of course, but... hm. Well. All right. Shall I begin?"
"Any time you're ready," Simon said.
"Very good," Jeremy said. He paused and let the silence stretch out for a second or two, and when his voice picked up again it was softer, just a low and lulling sound in the night. "Once upon a time"
"Oh, now that's just classy," Simon said, laughing in the darkness. "You tell the man to tell us a story and we get a for-real fairy tale."
"I try," Jeremy said. "Once upon a time, in a land far, far away"
"Shouldn't that be 'a long time ago'?" Rich muttered, but so softly that it barely intruded.
"Nerd," Mike said happily.
"there was this painfully skinny fourteen-year-old boy who desperately needed a bath, a haircut, and about four meals," Jeremy said. "The boy was a runaway who lived mostly on his wits, which I must admit were not as good at the time as he thought they were, and he survived via petty theft and other assorted sordid crimes."
"Seventh son of a seventh son?" Nate asked. "I mean, if it's a fairy tale."
"Third son of a king?" Simon added, just because.
"Fourth child out of six, actually, and all of them dirt-poor," Jeremy said. "If you keep interrupting I shall never get anywhere."
"Shhhh," Simon said, as if he hadn't been the last one to interrupt. "I wanna hear the story."
"At any rate, one day the boy was loitering around a very expensive neighborhood looking for things to steal," Jeremy said. "Unfortunately there were no cars parked on the streets and all the local shopkeepers watched him with eagle's eyes if he tried to go into the shops, so he wasn't doing very well. He was just about to leave and go commit his crimes elsewhere when he noticed one of the grandest houses had a window that was standing just a little ajar, opening out onto the back garden."
"Oh oh," Johnny said. "Witch's house. Happens all the time."
"Mm," said Jeremy. "Getting over the fence was easy enough and the boy found a convenient shrubbery to hide in"
"You must bring us a shrubbery!" Mike cried in a soft falsetto, making Simon snort with laughter.
"and he crouched there and studied the window for a few minutes, and he noticed something very strange about it: there was a nearly invisible wire strung across the opening. Now, a boy who was truly wise would have taken that as a bad omen and left the house alone, but our hero was very hungry and, as I said earlier, not very bright, so instead he pulled a battered old knife from his pants and clipped the wire, bending it aside. After that, opening the window was easy, and the boy crept across the room like a mouse, pocketing expensive things, at least until he took hold of the doorknob and was promptly hit with enough voltage to knock him unconscious."
Someone sputtered with laughter and that set the rest of them off, Simon biting the inside of his lip to keep from laughing too loudly. Even Jeremy was laughing a little when he went on. "The boy woke up later in a strange bed, wearing someone else's pajamas, with his own clothes nowhere in sight. He may not have been very bright but he also wasn't completely stupid, and so he decided that he should definitely get out of this odd house right away. And he tried. And this time he made it all the way down the hallway, managing to avoid a tripwire and a particularly obvious motion detector, before falling afoul of, of all things, a pivoting stair riser. At any rate, he went arse over teakettle down the back stairs, once again knocking himself unconscious."
"Oh, man, I like this story," Simon said. "It's 'The Little Dumbass That Couldn't'."
"I thought you might like it," said Jeremy. "At any rate, this time when the boy woke up he was back in that bed, in those same strange pajamas, but there was also someone else in the room with him, waiting for him to wake up."
"Oh, wait, I know this one," Mike said. "The evil witch, right?"
"Naw, enchanted princess," Johnny said. "Maybe she looks like a teapot or something."
"What?" said Mike.
"Well," said Johnny, and Simon could supply the shrug even without seeing it. "British."
"Actually, it was a boy just a little older than himself," Jeremy said. Simon grew very still. "The older boy looked very unhappy and scowled at the boy when he awoke, and he didn't say a word to him, just went to the door and opened it and called for someone. The third person, when he arrived, turned out to be an older man, very trim and fit, and after laughing at the boy for a good five minutes proceeded to question him closely about the traps he'd evaded, wanting to know how he'd seen them and what he'd done to avoid them, and after a fit of sullen silence the boy finally felt guilty enough to answerand all this time the older boy stood behind the man, scowling at the boy as if he were very angry indeed."
"There are way too many 'he's and boys and stuff in this story," Nate opined.
"Shall we go ahead and call the boy 'Jeremy', then? It isn't as if I'm fooling anyone."
"Okay," Nate said, quietly.
"As long as you're doing that you might as well just tell the rest of it straight," Simon added, shifting slightly to scratch his back against the shelves. "As fairy tales go this one kind of sucks. No witches or magic animals or anything."
"Really? I'd thought it had its own peculiar charm," Jeremy said. "But, well, as you will, Simon. At any rate, he was impressed by me, apparently. And also amused, which I couldn't blame him for, after the day's slapstick routine. So he made me a perfectly amazing offer: if I wanted I could stay, live there with the two of them, and have a home, as long as I allowed him to, er, teach me a trade, as it were. He warned me that it would be a ridiculous lot of work, but that I would be fed and sheltered and cared for, and even if I turned out to have no aptitude, well, he would make arrangements for me to do something else instead. He had contacts and such everywhere. I suppose I'd found my fairy godfather, as it were."
No one said anything when Jeremy paused this time, and after a moment, he went on. "At any rate, I didn't even have the chance to say yes or no before the other boy started protesting. He didn't want me there, not at all, I was just some street brat, how did he know I could be trusted at all, on and on and on. It didn't change his mind, though, and eventually the other boy went storming out and he turned back to me and waited for an answer." Jeremy stopped and laughed, a little. "I thought he was a pedophile, of course. But, well, by that point I'd been on the streets for four years, and I'd spent those four years consorting with damned near every sort of criminal and pervert already, and I thought that a pervert with a mansion for me to live in and food for me to eat beat out the other sort of pervert by a long shot. So I said yes."
"... I don't know if I like this story any more," Sandra said, shifting uncomfortably, disturbing the air around Simon. He could hear her twice, once in person and once, tinnily, through the headphones, like an echo. "I spent two years working down in Sex Crimes"
"Oh, no, it's quite all right, it turns out I couldn't have been more wrong," Jeremy said quickly. "The other boy was his adopted son, all properly legal and aboveboard, and while he couldn't precisely adopt me, he treated us both just the same. Which his son hated, of course. Suddenly there was this other boy living in his space and stealing his thunder, so to speak, and the longer I stayed and the better I got, the more he resented me. He'd never had a rival or any serious competition before, and then I turned out to have, er, something of an aptitude for my craft."
"So you were better than he was," Rich said, almost like it was an accusation.
"Not just then," Jeremy said. "He'd been living there since he was two, after all, and he'd been actively training for a little over ten years. I had a lot of catching up to do. It was probably a good thingif I'd been better than he was from the start, he would never have forgiven me."
"Go on," Simon said. Jeremy in this sort of sharing mood was rare enough that he was determined to milk it for all it was worth.
"Right," Jeremy said, clearing his throat. "At any rate, he despised me for years. I kept hoping he'd come around, because... well, I idolized him, to be frank. And I knew it bothered his father that we didn't get on. So I didn't give up. I did everything I could think of to win him over and eventually" and here Jeremy paused, significantly, and the hairs on the back of Simon's neck abruptly prickled "well, I did."
"So what happened?" Simon prompted after a long and breathless moment, trying with all his might not to imagine the truth behind that one simple damned sentence. Is he your rival, your brother, your ex-boyfriend? he'd asked Jeremy, prodding for informationit felt like months ago. Yes, Jeremy had said.
"Well, nothing much right at first. Five years went by, making me nineteen. I was happy. I had a family that I loved. I was good at what I did, better than he was at most things" Jeremy laughed a very little "which he didn't like at all. But neither of us knew just how good I actually was until my master put an arm about my shoulders one afternoon and told me I was a better thief than he had been at my age. He sounded so proud that I nearly swelled up and burst from it."
"Uh oh," Johnny said, his unused voice like gravel.
"Yes, of course he overheard that," said Jeremy. "In a household full of sneak thieves you really ought to simply assume you're being overheard. At any rate, that was the last straw, apparently. That night, he, ah" Jeremy coughed, once "let us just say he beat hell out of me before taking everything in the house that he considered hishundreds of thousands of pounds' worth of equipment and moneyand leaving. He never came back. It nearly broke his father's heart, but, well, he was an adult and he'd made his choice. His father is quite a one for personal responsibility."
"But you've seen him since then," Simon prompted, softly.
"Oh, yes. We, ah, kept tabs on him the best we could over the years. Worse than I am or not, he's still extraordinarily skilled, and he's done quite well for himself. More so, in some ways, because he simply doesn't have the same scruples that I do. At any rate, we do travel in the same circles, loosely speaking, and about five years ago we happened across each other at a gallery opening in Barcelona." Jeremy paused. "It was unpleasant, to say the least."
"Ooh, were there punchin's?" Mike asked, straining for levity and not quite making it. "I like punchin's," he added uncertainly, and fell silent again.
"Oh, no, he was perfectly polite, which was worse, really," Jeremy said. "There were far too many people roaming about and we both had, ah, business to transact later on, so neither of us wanted to call too much attention to ourselves, you understand."
"Oh, the tragedy of the criminal's life" Sandra said.
"Shh," said Simon, and he put a warning hand on her knee. "I want to hear this." Sandra subsided.
"There's not that much to hear, if I'm to be honest," Jeremy said. "Eventually he cornered me by the buffet and spent a while quietly accusing me of the most horrible things, some of which were true, I must admit, but most of which were just... paranoid fantasies, if you will. I believe he thinks he hates me. I don't think that's quite true. I think it's much more complicated than that. Isn't it always?"
He paused, as if waiting for an answer, and after a hypnotized moment Simon said, "Huh."
"At any rate," Jeremy said, "then he told me that if he ever saw me again, he would kill me. I believed him. And then he left, and I haven't seen him since, as you can tell, because I'm still alive."
"Yeah," Sandra said after a pause. "I don't like this story any more."
"I'm terribly sorry," Jeremy said. "Er. And they all lived more or less happily ever after, the end."
"Shit, I'm gonna have nightmares now," Mike said. "Thanks a lot. Couldn't you just tell another story with a dick joke in it?"
"I sense that I have offended," Jeremy said, suddenly as dry and breezy as ever. "Very well, I'm certain I have something a little less fraught to share"
"Uh," Nate said.
"Specs?" Simon said, suddenly all on edge.
"Oh crap," Nate said urgently. "He's here."
Simon sat bolt upright and grabbed the microphone of his headset. Across from him, Sandra stopped breathing, and he could dimly hear the rustle of Mike and Johnny surging to their feet. "Talk to me," he urged softly.
"Got him on camera one, square on the rooftop. He's just standing there," Nate said. "Looking around. He's got on goggles like Shadow's and some kind of, I don't know, ninja mask thing, it's covering his face and hair."
"Stupid," Jeremy said, his voice suddenly almost taut enough to quiver. "Stupid. Covering his ears, impeding his breathing, reducing the mobility of his head and neck"
"He's touching the side of his goggles," Nate reported, breaking in on Jeremy without a qualm. "Looking around again. He doesn't look nervous or anythingokay, there he goes, he's going in."
"It's going down, folks, it's going down," Simon said, easing himself to his feet as quietly as he could. "Silence on frequency except for reports. Shadow, count us down."
When he spoke again Jeremy was calm, even a bit remote. "Team two move out on my mark," he said. "In five. Four. Three. Two. One. Mark. Team two, go. Thirty-seven."
"Gone," Mike said, and Simon heard a door open and close and the faint scuffing of running feet. Sandra drifted to her feet beside him, touching his shoulder once and then letting her hand drop.
"Twenty-eight," Jeremy was saying in his ear, almost dreamily slow. "Twenty-seven. Twenty-six. Twenty-five"
"We're in position," Mike growled in a low choked voice, even as Jeremy droned on in the background. "In the bushes, at least partially behind trees, and flat on the ground, waiting for signal. Sight line to his exit point is clear."
"Twenty-one, good, twenty. Nineteen. Eighteen. Seventeen"
Simon clenched his fists in the darkness and hissed a breath through his teeth as his stomach turned over. Beside him Sandra was quivering, disturbing the air. Simon put a hand on her shoulder and she fell as still as stone, not perceptibly breathing. "Nine," said Jeremy in his ear. "Eight. Seven. Six"
Someone swallowed on frequency. Simon had no idea who it was. "Four," said Jeremy. "Three. Two."
"Vent cover is opening," Nate said.
"One," said Jeremy. "Mark."
"Vent cover is open," Nate reported in a breathless voice. "I don't see him yet. He's probably looking aroundokay, we have a rope, rope is falling, I see an arm..."
"Come on," Simon breathed, not sure why he was saying it or what he meant by it but needing desperately to say it anyway. Sandra put her hand over his, digging in her nails.
"And he's coming out of the vent," Nate said. "I've got him clear on camera two. He's dropping, dropping... on the ground now. Looking around."
"Oh, God," Jeremy said, his voice ringing with some throttled emotion for just a moment before he choked it back. "No. Never mind. I'm fine."
"Touching the goggles, looking around againokay, he's going for the safe. He is kneeling in front of the safe." Nate's play-by-play was delivered in a soft, intent voice. "Studying the safe. Okay, he's turning the dial, there are no tools in evidence"
"either he's been in here before or he had someone on the inside," Jeremy said. "He knows the combination. Might have gotten it off the same piece of paper I did."
"Good," Simon breathed. "That's less time I've got to wait."
"Their security is for crap," Rich said. "I am activating the air conditioner now, Templar." Half a second later the building's huge air conditioner roared to life. Simon nodded, although no one could see him.
"Safe is open," Nate said, his voice going taut and throttled. Simon stopped breathing. "He's got the disk and the box now," said Nate, nearly choking on the words. "He's opening the box, looking at the fake bullets... still looking... looking at the diskoh thank God he's putting both things in the pouch on his back. He's taken the bait, I repeat, he has taken the bait."
Simon opened his mouth wide and heaved out a deep and silent breath, and beside him he could just barely hear Sandra doing the same. "Team one ready," Simon sighed after a moment. "Ready to move out on your mark."
It was Jeremy instead of Nate who picked up the litany, soft and urgent and accented in the night. "He's closing the safe and resetting the dial. Checking his hands. Looking about again. All right, he's returning to the rope, climbing back up"
"whoa," said Nate.
"Easing himself back into the vent feet-first," Jeremy said, not paying any attention. "That will make your window eleven seconds long, team one. Eleven seconds long."
"No problem," Simon breathed.
"He's all in," Jeremy said. "Get ready."
Simon reached out and put his hand on the doorknob. The metal was cool against his palm. "Ready," he whispered on the exhale, and just like that, he was.
"Rope is going, going, gone," said Jeremy. "Wait for it, wait for it, waaaaaitvent cover has just dropped back into place, he is moving into the mousetrap, team one ready to move on my mark, on three, two, one, mark"
Simon twisted the doorknob and the supply closet door eased open onto a dimly moonlit hall, almost shatteringly bright after the darkness of the closet. In the background he could just barely hear Jeremy counting again, but it wasn't important, it wasn't important at all, what was important was sliding down the hallway in long, silent steps, easing open the door to Lab F, waving Sandra through
"five," Jeremy said. "Four. Three"
Sandra drifted across the room like a ghost, taking up her position to one side, sliding her gun from its holster and aiming it at the ceiling just where it met the far wall. Simon crept three steps in, so incredibly grateful for the roaring air conditioner to cover the noise, and did the same, baring his teeth in the night.
"One," Jeremy said. "And mark. Specs Two, end the noise, please."
The air conditioner cut off with an appallingly final sound, making Simon's ears ring with the total silence. He needed to swallow. He didn't dare swallow. And then half a second later came the noise he'd been waiting for, a sound that filled him with an incredible rush of triumph: the loud metallic clang of the thief's hand rebounding off the vent cover. Very clearly, in the still night air, Simon heard him say, "Ouch, shite."
"FBI!" Simon roared, gladly, finally filling the night with sound. "Freeze! We have you surroundedyou are under arrest! You will not attempt to draw a weapon, you will not move, you will not breathe unless I say it is all right!"
"Team two, stay down," Jeremy said urgently in his ear at almost the same time. Simon ignored him. "The vent should be too tight for him to get at his gun but I can't swear to it."
"Do you hear me?" Simon bellowed.
"Ah, Jesus, I hear you!" The voice was oddly accentedjaysis!high and thin with panic, and best of all, not moving. "I hear you, I hear you, ah Christ" key-rist!
"You will not attempt to escape down the side vents!" Simon roared, taking a step or two to the side, just in case. The muzzle of his gun remained rock-steady, pointed at the ceiling. "They have been closed off, as has the vent cover in front of you. You will listen to me very carefully now. If there is any deviation from my instructions, I will shoot, and you had best believe that my weapon is of a sufficient caliber to punch through the ceiling. Do you understand me?"
"Ah Christ, ah shite, yes, yes" The disembodied voice in the ceiling was muffled, panting so hard with fear and adrenalin that Simon could almost believe it was weeping. He thought, briefly, that he'd like to believe that.
"And if you should get any bright ideas about shooting at me, let me tell you right now that there's a second person in here covering you and two more a short distance away. I advise you to come quietly. Are you ready to listen to what I want you to do?"
"Christ, I'm bloody well stuck!" the voice wept in panic. There was a faint clatter that made Simon's finger tighten on the trigger. "There's some kind of glue on the vent, it's snagged me, hang about a bloody second, I give! I give!"
Simon rolled his eyes, then narrowed them. "What did he say?" Jeremy said urgently in his ear. Simon gestured blindly at Sandra, who started quietly relaying the thief's words. "That's not right," Jeremy started to say, and then Mike broke in with "... what the hell?"
"What?" Simon said. "What?"
"I said I'm bloody well stuck ah Christ don't ye shoot I'll come all quiet-like just give me a bloody moment"
"Something's coming out of the vent," Mike said, his voice quivering with controlled nerves. "Some kind of liquid, I can't tell, wait, it's fucking smoking"
"he's burning his way through the epoxy," Jeremy broke in urgently. "Get him out of there now, he's trying to burn his way out"
"YOU WILL STOP" Simon roared at the top of his lungs, but the night was sheared in two by the screech of bending aluminum. Simon swore viciously and put a bullet neatly through the ceiling, but the rapid thudding assured him that it was too late.
"He's out! Came tumbling out, landed on his feet" Mike cried, and then his voice slammed up into the same booming threat that Simon had been wielding a moment ago. "FBI! Freeze! If you do not"
Two flat cracks split the night. Simon and Sandra bolted for the back door even as a third, deeper shot echoed off the wallsMike, probably, maybe Johnnyand a second later Mike bellowed again: "I SAID FREEZE! SHOOT AGAIN AND I WILL DROP YOU, YOU SON-OF-A-BITCH!"
"Oh Christ," someone said in Simon's earhe thought it was probably Jeremybut he was already wrenching the back door open, heading out into the night, and he didn't have time to be reassuring. He'd barely emerged into the outside air when another one of those flat cracks popped almost in his ear. Simon automatically threw himself onto his belly and at the exact same moment someone made a horrifying whooping choking sound in his ear, and there was a thud, and Mike shrieked "TEXAS!" and opened fire.
"Shit!" Simon snarled, his stomach doing a nauseous roll in his belly. "Honda! Honda! Cease fire! I SAID CEASE FUCKING FIRE!"
"Aw fuck, I'm shot," Johnny said in a shocked little voice.
"You hang on," Simon snapped into his microphone. "You stay down and you hang on. That's an order!"
"Ohjesusfuck," Mike panted, all one word. "He's gone, I don't know where he went, I am commencing pursuit"
"Like fuck you are," Simon snapped, cold as iron. "He is armed and dangerous and we have a man down, you will pull back, that is an order. Do you understand me?" Mike was silent, gulping for breath. "Do you understand me?" Simon half-yelled.
"Yes, boss," Mike finally said, under control again, for the moment. "Dropping back now."
"Good," Simon said. "Texas? Texas, speak to me!"
"Got my vest," Johnny said on an outrush of relieved breath. "Hurts like fuck, gonna have a big-ass bruise, but he got my vest, I'm okay, anybody want a bullet?"
"Oh thank God," Sandra said shakily. "Boss?"
Simon spent a moment studying the trees, wanting with all his heart to chase after this fucker, bring him to bay, drag him down"Pull back," he finally said, and balled his free hand into a fist, thumping it on the ground. "Pull back. We lost him. He's gone."