Part Ten, Chapters 42-47

      "Specs, time?" Simon demanded, rapping his knuckles on the top of his riot helmet, sitting on the van's floor at his feet. Outside the rain continued to slash down unabated, pounding on the van's metal roof and forcing Simon to raise his voice.

      Nate glanced down at the screen of his laptop. "Nine-thirty-two, Templar."

      Simon nodded. "All right, folks," he said, looking around. They were crouched in a loose circle in the back of the van, which was parked even further away than it had been the night before, hidden behind a screen of overgrown grapevines; there was a significant hill and a low fence between them and the garage. "Our target time is ten o'clock, but if Volpe doesn't try to push it and arrive early, I will eat this helmet without ketchup." Simon thumped on the helmet again. "Here in ten I'm going to send Texas out to make our initial reconnaissance. The rest of us will stay in here until such time as Texas informs us that Volpe and his crew have arrived and finished doing any scouting that they plan to do."

      "Won't that be cutting it close, Templar?" Sandra asked, snapping a rubber band onto the end of her braid.

      "Yes," said Simon. "However, we'll just have to hope that the negotiations take some time, as we can't run the risk of being spotted before Volpe enters the garage. The best way to minimize that risk is to send Texas out by himself, as he is this team's designated stealth bastard, and, I might add, possesses one or two unfair advantages."

      "Sweet talkin' gets you nowhere," Johnny said sagely, touching the goggles that hung around his neck again, as if to reassure himself that they were still there. Alone amongst them all Johnny was already wearing his balaclava, most of his ugly mug lost to view.

      "Once Texas gives us the high sign, we will make our way to the back of garage with all due haste," said Simon. He glanced up at the roof of the van. "The rain will help cover any noise we make, thank Christ, but still, keep it as quiet as you can. Stonewall, if this is a problem for you, don't hesitate to lag behind. I would rather make this entrance at less-than-full strength than tip off the people in the garage."

      Dave nodded. Like everyone else in the van he was wearing full ROS body armor, bulletproof military vest, shinguards, and all; it made even a stringbean like Dave look intimidating. "I'll be fine, Templar," he said, his face extraordinarily calm. "I can be quiet."

      Simon nodded. "Good," he said. "But just to be safe, I want you to stick as close to Springheel as you can and watch where she puts her feet. Okay?"

      "Okay, Templar," said Dave.

      Simon glanced back at Johnny. "You want to take your shield, or have someone else bring it to you?"

      Johnny shrugged. "I'll take it. Keeps the rain off."

      "Okay." Simon leaned over to look at the laptop's screen. "Everything okay on your end, Specs?"

      "Everything's fine, Templar," Nate said, paging over to a different window. Every two seconds the antenna sent out a blip—currently it was saying HELLO WORLD over and over again, which was apparently hilarious to geeks—and even as Simon watched, the antenna said HELLO to the WORLD again. Nate nodded and switched back to the goggle-cam. "The antenna's still broadcasting and the network's still in place. We're good."

      "Good," said Simon. "I want you to doublecheck that signal every few minutes, just to be safe."

      Nate nodded and pushed up his glasses again. "Already on it, Templar."

      "Christ, you're all great at this shit," Simon said, allowing himself a brief grin. "I don't know what you need me for." The grin fell away as Simon sank back into ready mode. "Once shots are fired from inside the garage, we will pile in. I want Texas to go first, since he has a role to play, and I want Honda to follow him to do the shouting. I'll go third. Stonewall, you'll come after me, and Spring, I want you to bring up the rear. For all I know you won't even make it inside the garage, but that's all right, because you've got the best rear-guard action I know of, shut up, Honda. Any complaints, speak your piece now."

      Mike sniggered and made a desultory grab for Sandra's ass. Sandra smacked his hand away. Threat averted, Sandra's hand darted across her chest, checking her holsters. She had two guns, one loaded with wax rounds at her hip and one loaded with real rounds inside her Velcro'ed kangaroo pocket, and one of the two riot batons dangling at her other hip, ready for a cross-draw. "Got it, Templar."

      "No complaints? Awesome." Simon looked around, trying to think if he'd forgotten anything. The others were quiet, watching him, every one of them in identical military black and combat boots—even Nate, who looked like a kid playing dressup. It hadn't gotten any less fascist-creepy. Simon fought down a quiver of disquiet and scratched the back of his neck. "Okay, then. Let's do this thing, whatever the hell it is." He paused long enough to let the ripple of reaction run its course, then knocked on his helmet again and pointed at Johnny. "Texas, gear up and go. I want you in place inside five minutes. If you're not going to make it, then I want to know why."

      "No problem," said Johnny, pulling up Jeremy's goggles and settling them into place across his eyes, adjusting one of the dials on the side. He picked up his helmet and put it on, then flipped down the faceguard. Faceless and anonymous, he picked up his riot shield and slung it over his shoulder like a turtle's shell. "Someone get the door," he said, his muffled voice doubled by the speakers on Nate's laptop, like an echo.

      Dave reached up and pulled down on the handle, popping one of the back doors open. The hiss of the rain redoubled in immediacy. One hand on his riot baton, the other holding his riot shield, Johnny duckwalked past Nate, paused on the van's threshhold, and then eeled out into the rain. He vanished within seconds. His splashing footsteps lingered for a second or two longer before dying away.

      "Shut that thing, Stone," Simon said. Dave obligingly pulled the door shut, blocking out the rain again. Simon pushed back his sleeve and checked his watch, watching the seconds spin away.

      He'd been timing Johnny for about a minute when Johnny's flat and oddly choked voice rasped out of the computer's speakers. "Over the fence," he said. "Nobody." The image on the computer's screen changed from green to blues and purples, shading to yellow on a few edges. "Nobody," Johnny said again, and switched the image back to green.

      Simon ignored the image on the computer screen, preferring his watch. Thirty seconds later, Johnny said, "Top of the hill. Nobody. ... Nobody." Beside Simon, Sandra shifted restlessly, then checked her braid again; Mike was staring off at nothing, his mouth forming silent words. Nate was enthralled by Johnny's heads-up display, and Dave was perfectly still by the van's back door, utterly and freakishly Zen about everything.

      It was almost two minutes before Johnny spoke again. "I'm in place," he muttered, the need for quiet turning his rough-edged voice into a hellish lupine growl. "Nobody around that I can see." Nate's screen went infrared as Johnny panned the goggles across the area. "Nobody," Johnny rasped, and flicked the goggles back to night-vision.

      "You all saw that," Simon said, his voice conversational. "Texas got from here to there in just about three and a half minutes, and that's with all the extra precautions he was taking. We can do it in three. Hell, we can probably do it quicker than that, as you guys are the best."

      "Gonna take a short prowl, look around," Johnny muttered. The image on Nate's screen began to move again as Johnny eased through the overgrown rows of grapevines.

      Simon closed his eyes and took a long, deep breath, centering himself and quashing his mild case of nerves. Right now, in here, with these people, he was fully in his element and in control of his world, no matter what else might be going on out there. He never felt so alive as he did in moments like these. Simon flexed his gloved fingers, then reached blindly out to touch his riot helmet, reassuring himself that it was there. "Let's put on our hoods, folks," he suggested, and enjoyed the immediate rustle of fabric that followed.

      His own balaclava was in the big front pocket of his vest. Simon pulled it out, then pushed the little SIG back in; like Sandra and Johnny he was carrying double, a big gun with wax rounds in the real holster and his hideout gun, loaded with real rounds, in his kangaroo pocket. Simon rolled the balaclava up and pulled it down over his face, tucking the bottom into the top of his turtleneck. He didn't open his eyes. The sight of his team in facemasks was something he intended to avoid for as long as he could.

      "Shit, if we ain't lookin' like a bunch of ninja," Mike said, snickering.

      "Or like we're about to rob a convenience store," Sandra said dryly.

      Simon let his eyes drift open. The sight was about as disquieting as he'd been anticipating, but the unease faded quickly: even hooded, Mike was still Mike, obviously different from Sandra, next to him. Dave, on the other hand, had only become eerier, his weird, luminous eyes now floating disembodied in space. "I'm going to have to vote for the convenience store," Simon said. "Well, except Honda. He's half Japanese and he can be a ninja if he wants. I'll give that my leaderly seal of approval, if only because I like the idea of bossing around a ninja."

      "Aw, yeah," Mike said cheerfully. "Chicks totally dig ninja."

      "News to me," said Sandra.

      "Well, I meant, you know, girl-type chicks," said Mike, flapping both hands. "I didn't mean you—"

      Simon ducked his head, sputtering out a laugh—he couldn't watch. There was a thump and a yelp from Mike, but the altercation didn't last long. Everybody was in business mode.

      "Nobody," Johnny reported, his voice still a low growl. "Back door's open an inch just as promised, no static. Ain't gonna show myself to look in, but things seem quiet. I'm settlin' in."

      "Roger that," said Nate. "No static on our end. Waiting for your signal." Nate was wearing his headset instead of a balaclava, and the normality was refreshing. Simon shut his eyes again and settled in to wait, listening to the endless pounding of the rain.

      The wind picked up briefly, spattering rain against the windows. Grapevines scraped against the side of the van, probably damaging the paint they'd paid to have put on a few days ago; Simon opened his eyes about halfway, reassured himself that everything was normal, and shut his eyes again. The wind died back down a moment later.

      Nate's soft, infrequent typing ceased. After a moment, Nate made a little noise and started punching keys. "Specs?" Simon said, not opening his eyes. "Problem?"

      "I don't..." Nate let the sentence trail off there, his fingers clattering over the keyboard.

      Simon opened his eyes, a sizzle of apprehension making the hairs on the back of his arms stand up. "Specs," he said again, low and urgent.

      "Hold on, it's rebooting now," Nate said. Behind his glasses his eyes were wide, but his voice was still calm. "It's probably just... crap!"

      "Tell me what's going on, Specs," Simon said, making it an order. Any kind of profanity from Nate, even a mild one, meant that something was seriously wrong.

      "I'm getting an error from the antenna," Nate said, his fingers flying. Onscreen the HELLO WORLD window was about half-filled with HELLO WORLDs and half-filled with ##NETWORK ERROR##s. Even as Simon watched, another ##NETWORK ERROR## blipped onscreen. Nate swallowed. "That's—that's—the antenna is still functioning and broadcasting signal, but it's lost contact with the wires—" He broke off there, his eyes rolling up into his head as he stared up at the van's roof. "Oh my God, I think maybe the rain knocked the wires loose," he said, his voice hushed and full of dread.

      "What are the chances of that?" Simon asked, letting one hand drop to the topmost clasp of his right shinguard.

      "It's not supposed to happen but I guess if the rain and wind were hard enough..." Nate trailed off there, punching keys. "The network is definitely gone," he said, nerves thrumming underneath his too-calm voice.

      Without further ado Simon ripped off his right shinguard and went to work on his left. "I'll handle it," he said. The second shinguard followed the first, and Simon unbuckled his weapon belt and let it fall with a thud. "Tell me what to look for, Specs."

      "Ah..." Nate punched a few keys, seemingly at random.

      "Specs!" Simon snapped his gloved fingers under Nate's nose. "Talk to me."

      Nate shut his eyes and swallowed. "The antenna is a little black box glued onto the roof by the skylight, around the left side of the garage," he said. "If the wire's come loose then it'll be hanging from the edge of the roof, or else on the ground—I think Jeremy stapled it into place. Find the wire. It'll split into two parts near the end, and the very ends will be stripped metal."

      "Find the wire," Simon repeated, rearing up onto his knees and ripping himself out of the military vest. The vest thunked heavily to the van's floor, leaving Simon in his shirtsleeves.

      "There are two holes in the lowermost part of the antenna box," Nate said, rattling off the information at a high rate of speed. "Poke one end of the wire into one, and one end into the other—it doesn't matter which is which. There are screws which are supposed to hold the wires in place when tightened. If you tighten the screws they ought to clamp the wires in place, I guess the weather worried them loose, I should have double-checked—!" It was nearly a wail by now; Nate broke off there, panting.

      Abandoning his body armor in a pile on the van's floor, Simon leaned past Dave and grabbed the back door's handle. "I'll fix it, Specs," he said, his voice staccato and controlled. "Hear me? I'll fix it. I need you to calm down. The rest of you stay here and get ready to go. Spring, you're in charge until I get back. Texas gives you the word before I come back, you go and do this thing without me. Specs, tell Texas I'm coming so he doesn't shoot me."

      "Roger that, Templar," Sandra said. "Go."

      "I'm gone," said Simon, and he hit the doorhandle and threw himself out of the van.

      The initial onslaught of the rain nearly sent him reeling, forcing him to catch himself before he lunged for the fence. The blood-warm rain battered at him like a thousand tiny fists, soaking him to the skin, and his combat boots sank up to the instep in sucking mud. Simon threw up both arms to protect his face and bulled through the overgrown grapevines, using his weight to break through. Vines snapped across his forearms. Roots ripped out of the earth as his boots caught under them. Simon sucked in a breath through the thin fabric of his balaclava and hurtled on, just barely in control of his own velocity.

      The fence loomed in front of him so suddenly that he nearly ran full-tilt into it. Simon grabbed the topmost rail and vaulted over without slowing, landing badly on the far side and nearly falling. He staggered for a few steps, caught his balance, and ran for the top of the hill, trying to stay low.

      At the top of the hill he stumbled to a stop, breathing hard, and shaded his eyes with one hand to keep out the rain. The abandoned farm spread out below him, banded on the horizon by the racing white lights of the A7. The garage was a large animal huddled in the midst of the undergrowth, dim yellow light spilling from its filmy plastic windows, almost absurdly inviting in comparison to the hot, wet night. Simon fixed his eyes on the skylight, huffed out an acknowledging breath, and raced pell-mell down the hill, arms up to protect his face.

      Even two years' worth of untended overgrowth couldn't withstand his momentum. Simon plunged through the night, running downhill so fast that he was nearly falling, barely able to see for the rain that lashed at his face. Johnny was out here somewhere but Simon never saw him, hardly even looked for him, intent on the garage and his rapidly-approaching deadline.

      Three feet away from the sides of the garage, the undergrowth petered out. An accumulation of empty fuel barrels formed a rough pyramid on one side of the garage, tall enough to allow a determined someone to scramble onto the wet roof from its top. Simon staggered to a halt at its base and looked wildly around, searching the night for the wire.

      In the end, the wire found him. A gust of wind blew the rain into Simon's face and lashed him across the face with the end of the wire, which stung like a bitch even through the thin fabric of his hood. Simon grabbed the wire before it could hit him again, wrapped a turn of it around his left hand, and scrambled up the unstable pyramid of barrels before his self-preservation instinct could kick in.

      Somehow he made it to the top without falling or knocking over the barrels. Simon sprawled out on his stomach on the edge of the roof, his legs still dangling in space as he clawed for purchase. Whatever the garage was shingled with, it was rough and sticky to the touch, like rubber—the first bit of good luck that Simon had had all day—and he was able to swing a leg up and clamber onto the roof without killing himself. Simon made sure he still had the wire, then inched upward on his belly, heading for the skylight and the small black shape he could just barely see to the left of it.

      The little black box waited for him, a pinpoint of red light glowing on its surface, its stubby little antenna jutting jauntily towards the sky. Simon pulled himself up to the box and squinted at it, shielding it from the rain with the bulk of his body. On one end there were two holes, presumably for the wires in his hand to slot into; there were two screws on the top of the box that intersected the holes. When tightened down all the way they would press the wires against the metal bottom of the box and complete the circuit.

      Simon frowned at the screws, then stripped the glove from his right hand with his teeth. He poked the two ends of the wire into the two holes. The red light winked out and a green one lit up. Simon heaved out a sigh of relief.

      Motion from inside the garage startled him. Simon froze. Bran drifted into view and paused—from this vantage point Simon could really only see the top of Bran's head and his shoulders—and then slid back out of sight. Simon ground his teeth and turned his attention back to the box.

      The screws were going to be a problem. When Jeremy had attached the wires he'd screwed them down until they were flush with the box's surface, presumably using some sort of tool; in his haste to get down here Simon had neglected to bring anything like a screwdriver with him. He jammed the ball of his thumb against one of the screws and tried to force it to turn. It refused to budge, even when Simon tried the edge of his thumbnail on it. Letting go of the wires meant that they slithered free of the holes and made the red light flash. Simon stuck the ends of the wire back into the box and mentally ransacked his pockets, hoping for a decent substitute screwdriver.

      Headlights splashed over the garage from the far end of the road. A car was turning in—"Shit," Simon hissed under his breath, flattening out behind the raised lip of the skylight and putting his head down. Hopefully the rain would help to hide him. If Volpe's people saw him up here, he'd be lucky if all he did was fuck up the deal.

      "Awright, I see yeh," Bran said from within the garage, his voice rich with both satisfaction and nerves. He moved into view again, a cell phone pressed to his ear. "I want yeh t' park the car a good twenty meters away. I'm nervous, me." His laugh was a flat and twitchy thing. "Park out there an' walk in, an' there better not be more'n the three of yeh."

      The car purred up the drive, turned halfway around, and stopped at more or less the demanded distance. The engine shut off. For a moment nothing and nobody moved, then one of the car's back doors opened and an umbrella bloomed in the newly-created space. Volpe's secretary stepped gingerly out of the car, grimacing as his foot splashed into a puddle, and raised the umbrella aloft. Battista Volpe himself ducked out of the car and under the umbrella a moment later, the expression on his face somewhere between grim and disgusted.

      The door on the other side of the car opened and a third man got out, apparently insensible to the weather. Simon froze, then instinctively ducked his head, hiding the pale flash of his eyes from view. The third man had slicked-back hair, deep-set eyes with black circles underneath them, and the dead, weaselly face of a psychopath; he wore a long black trench coat and a suit that was way too sharp and ill-fitting to be Italian. Russian, almost certainly. Simon put his gloved hand over his face to hide his eyes, peeking out between his fingers.

      The Russian slid around the back of the car to join Volpe. For a moment none of them moved, all three of them staring at something within the garage; it was impossible to read their expressions from here, but they didn't precisely look happy. After a moment Volpe shook his head in distaste and stalked forward. His assistant jumped and hurried to catch up, keeping the umbrella over his boss' head at the expense of his own; the Russian drifted along in their wake, head bowed to deflect the worst of the rain. They disappeared from Simon's view, vanishing under the edge of the roof.

      Simon stayed down, afraid to so much as shift his weight. He kept the wire pressed into place with his bare hand, for the moment not bothering with the screws—he'd wait until they were a little more distracted to try again. "So," Bran said, somewhere below. "Here we all are, then."

      "The chauffeur will stay with the car," Volpe said. Simon couldn't see him, but the secretary wouldn't have a voice that deep, and the Russian wouldn't have that accent. "He will not interfere."

      "Awright," Bran said. His voice was loud and quavered slightly with something that was either nerves or misplaced hilarity or both. "Seems y' kept yer part of the bargain, so! Allow me t' introduce yeh to th' famous Jeremy Archer!"

      "We've met," Volpe said, with obvious disgust.

      Jeremy said nothing. In fact, no one said anything. The rain picked up, hammering down on the roof and on Simon's back alike; after a moment Simon risked rolling up onto his elbows and peeking in through the skylight.

      The plastic was old and filmed with white on the edges, but Simon's eagle's-eye view of the scene was clear enough. Volpe stood just inside the door of the garage, casually holding his hands just far enough away from his sides to demonstrate that he was carrying nothing; behind him, his secretary was shaking the furled umbrella dry, his eyes firmly on Bran. The Russian stood three paces from Volpe, in the same empty-handed pose.

      Bran and Jeremy were in the middle of the garage, ten feet apart—Simon froze, making a helpless little croaking sound before he could stop himself. Jeremy sat slumped and apparently unconscious in an old wooden chair, bound to it by multiple turns of duct tape that glittered dully in the light from the Coleman lantern. His ankles were taped to the chair's front legs, and another few turns of duct tape had been wrapped around his head to serve as a makeshift blindfold. Jeremy's white t-shirt and beige pants were filthy with dust and blood. Somewhere along the line he'd taken a hell of a beating.

      Bran stood planted in one spot, with a large and ugly gun trained on Jeremy's battered face. "Lemme tell yeh how it's gonna be," Bran told Battista Volpe, baring his teeth in something like a grin.

      "Then there is a point to this charade," Volpe said, already exasperated. "Very well, get on with it."

      Bran's fingers flexed on the grip of his pistol. It wasn't the small gun he'd threatened Jeremy with before; this one gleamed in the lamplight, both larger and showier. He studied Volpe for a moment, still sneering, then glanced at the silent Russian. "Zdrastvyteh, Alexei," Bran said. "I know yeh speak English."

      The Russian winced a little. "Better than you speak Russian," he said, his accent thickening every word into a clotted singsong soup.

      "Oh, aye, and considerin' I can't say but 'hello' and 'goodbye', that's easy enough," said Bran. The hilarity that underscored his voice was getting clearer by the moment. Bran jerked his head at the unconscious Jeremy. "So, are yeh here for him, then?"

      "I might be," the Russian—Alexei—said phlegmatically.

      Bran shifted slightly, enough to see Jeremy without quite taking his eye off Alexei. "Sent yeh all this way just for him," Bran marveled. "Can't bloody fathom it."

      "It is not my place to ask why something is done," Alexei said. "Only to see it is."

      "Course it is," said Bran, grinning. "Think yeh could say y' speak for Karpol while yer here?"

      Alexei shrugged. "I would not like to presume this," he said.

      "Oh, aye, and yer just his pitbull, then," said Bran. "Awright, lemme put it another way. Everything yeh see and hear while yer here, yeh'll report back t' him?"

      "Of course," Alexei said, raising both eyebrows, like that should be obvious.

      "Fuckin' brilliant," Bran said with savage satisfaction. "I want yeh t' tell him somethin' for me, then."

      The Russian said nothing, simply waited expectantly, and after a moment Bran's confident smirk wavered a bit. "I want yeh t' tell him that I never gave him up, not bloody once," Bran said. "I've not failed him, no matter what it seems like."

      For a moment all was silent as Alexei chewed this statement over. Finally Alexei looked over at Volpe, still standing there and fuming at being ignored. "Do you think that is supposed to be his apology?" Alexei asked Volpe, raising both eyebrows.

      "That is beside the point," Volpe snapped. "This is ridiculous. Dragging us out here to this... this place, just so you can put on your little performance—just tell us what it is you want in exchange. I'm prepared to pay you whatever you ask, within reason." He snapped his fingers at his secretary, who reached into his jacket.

      "Nah, nah," said Bran, waving his free hand. "Y' can put up yer checkbook, there. Don't care about yer money."

      "Then what do you want?" Volpe said, exasperated. "I am a busy man and I have no time for nonsense."

      Bran snickered. "Sure yeh do," he said. "When it comes t' him, y' got all the time in the world. Everyone's heard about what he did t' yeh. Y' can't afford t' let him get by with it, can yeh?" Bran paused, looking from Volpe to Alexei and back, his cocky little smirk fading. "Tell yeh what I want," he said. "I want a bloody promise, that's all."

      "A promise," Volpe repeated, making a face like the word tasted bad. "All right. What is it?"

      "Not from yeh," said Bran. He pointed at Alexei with his free hand. "From him."

      Alexei stirred. "As I say, I have no authority—"

      "Horseshit!" Bran spat, instantly enraged. "He bloody well sent you here t' retrieve this bastard, didn't he? There's your fuckin' authority! Either y' make me this promise or I'll blow his fuckin' face off, and y' can see how much yeh like carryin' a fuckin' headless corpse back t' Russia with yeh!" Snarling, he stabbed the gun at Jeremy's face, making Simon's heart pause in his chest.

      Alexei fell silent, considering this. The expression on his face never changed. "If that is situation," he finally said, "I believe that it would not be out of bounds for me to... negotiate." Simon abruptly realized that he wasn't breathing and whooped in some air.

      "Awright," Bran said. The rage vanished on the instant. "Fuckin' brilliant. Let's negotiate. First, though, I got somethin' for yeh. Take it t' him for me, free of charge, like."

      "Yes?" Alexei said.

      Bran's free hand dropped to the pocket of his cargo pants and popped the snap. "I'll do this slow-like," said Bran, sliding his hand into the pocket. Volpe and Alexei both watched his hand, Volpe tensing in anticipation, the Russian seemingly not caring. The object that Bran pulled out was approximately the size of a paperback book, wrapped in a white plastic bag; he stooped to drop it onto the floor at his feet, then kicked it across the garage. It clattered over the concrete to land at Alexei's feet. "That's for him," Bran said. "Fetched it for him the bloody minute I got out of the clink, I did."

      Alexei swept up the bag and unwrapped it, then pulled out the little gray box and the Zip disk. "This is what?" he asked, apparently unimpressed. Simon swallowed.

      "That's the swag from the Annadale job," Bran said. "I got away with it free and clear, but got nicked before I could turn it in."

      "It is year late," Alexei noted, popping open the box and studying the fake bullets inside.

      Bran hissed out a breath between his teeth. "Oh, aye, s'why it's a freebie. Got some pride, me."

      Alexei snapped the box closed and put it back in the bag. The Zip disk he barely glanced at before tossing it in the bag as well; bundling up the bag, he stuck the packet into his trench coat. "I will deliver it," he said. "Will it please him? I cannot say." Despite everything else Simon felt a dim stab of relief: whatever else came of this night's work, the loaded disk might yet make its way to Karpol.

      "Aye, well, that's where the promise comes in," Bran said. "I wanna hear it from yeh direct: I wanna know that there's no bad blood between me and yer boss." He gestured at Jeremy with the gun again. "I fetched him for yeh fair and square, and in exchange, I want my fuckin' job back, and no hard feelin's."

      Alexei rumbled out an uncertain sound. "I cannot promise."

      "Oh, aye, yeh can, and no mistake," said Bran, the sudden softness in his voice more threatening than all his bluster. "'Cause if yeh don't, yeh can't have him. I'll blow his fuckin' head off before I let yeh."

      The rain let up, suddenly and nearly completely. Simon's wet clothes clung to his back, rapidly growing uncomfortably cold despite the hot, damp air. He didn't dare move, not even to pluck his shirt away from his clammy skin—any motion might draw someone's eye, any noise might catch their ear, and in his haste to repair the wiring Simon had wound up trapped on top of the garage roof without so much as his keys to defend himself with. He was so bitterly angry with himself for this uncharacteristic lapse that the sound of Volpe's voice didn't register—"HE'S NOT MY FUCKIN' BROTHER, YEH FUCK!" Bran screamed in response, startling Simon so badly that he jerked back and nearly pitched himself off the roof.

      "No?" said Volpe, his voice thin. "And yet I am told you grew up together in the same house, calling the same man 'father'? That is a brother."

      Suddenly Bran was jittering back and forth, caught in the clutches of his ancient, thwarted, insane rage. The muzzle of the gun juddered around in a tight circle. "An' what the fuck would you know about it, aye?" Bran hissed. He stabbed the wavering gun at Jeremy. "He slunk in like a fuckin' alley cat and nicked what was rightfully mine! Everything I ever had!" Bran jabbed the gun at Jeremy again. "My own fuckin' father prefers him t' me! And yeh think that since we lived close by for a few years that I'm havin' yeh on? Oh, aye, he and I are just havin' our little joke? Well, fuck yeh! I oughta shoot him right here and now, just t' prove t' yeh how little he means t' me!"

      "By all means, shoot him," Volpe said. He was very still, not wanting to provoke Bran too far, but still he contrived to sound bored. "I want him dead, if you'll recall, you idiot."

      "Aye, well, maybe I oughta—"

      "Go ahead," Volpe said, still bored. "And then perhaps you'll do me the favor of explaining how you managed to find him so quickly when all my men could barely pick up his trail. A man with his apparent resources and you found him mere days after entering the country? How would you even know to begin looking in Genoa? I cannot buy into this. Especially if you hate him so much, as you say. Surely he would not expose himself to someone who hated him, not at this time—but to a brother, certainly. A brother he would call."

      Bran curled his lip at Volpe, still twitching. Volpe affected not to notice, but gestured languidly in Jeremy's direction. "So," he said. "Go ahead. Shoot him. I would like very much to see this."

      A taut silence fell. Suddenly Simon was having trouble breathing, nearly light-headed with apprehension. Twenty feet below him Bran was nearly shaking, and Simon willed him to just give up, fire at Volpe or at the ceiling, and end this stupid charade—but then his ears picked up an unfamiliar noise and Simon went still.

      Bran was laughing, a cracked and rusty sound. At first it was barely audible, his shoulders shaking as he tried to control it, but then he gave up and bayed out a laugh right into Volpe's face, the sound spiraling madly up and out of control. Behind him Jeremy stirred, finally struggling back to consciousness with a faint groan. "Oh, aye!" Bran cried, ignoring Jeremy entirely. "Aye, he called me, yeh've the right of it! He had himself a little plan, he did! Thought that if he stretched his fuckin' hand down from heaven and offered t' get me free of Karpol, I'd forget everything and lick his fuckin' boots in gratitude!"

      Simon froze even as Bran threw his arms wide, nearly howling with laughter now. "I ain't that kinda forgivin', me!" Bran cried, thumping his chest with his free hand. "Sure an' maybe he could wrangle summat—and have me in his debt for the rest of my life? Always remindin' me of it wi' that nasty sweet smile of his? Fuck a bunch of that! I'll square things with Karpol me own way an' get me revenge on this fuck t' boot!"

      Jeremy lifted his head a few inches, like it hurt. "Bran," he rasped, coughing. "Bran, don't—"

      "Aah, yeh fuckin' wee bastard," Bran snarled, darting two strides forward and slashing Jeremy across the face with the front sight of his pistol. The chair skittered backwards an inch or two, its legs screeching on the concrete floor; Jeremy's head snapped to the side and a thin line of blood welled up on his cheek. Simon stifled his hiss of dismay. "Fuckin' beg all yeh want," Bran sneered, dropping back again. "Told yeh once I'd see yeh dead and I intend to. Fuck yer plans."

      "Please don't," Jeremy said, his voice low and hopeless. "I never—" His head fell forward again, the blood running down his cheek.

      Bran looked at Volpe, his feral eyes glittering. "Yeh still think I won't shoot him?" he said. "Y' can just think again."

      Wary and watchful, Volpe opened his mouth to say something that never came. Alexei coughed pointedly, drawing all eyes to him as he finally broke his intent silence. "I must ask you do not kill him," Alexei said, apologetically. "Orders were very clear. I am to return with him, alive, if at all possible." He shrugged. "What can I do?"

      Bran went still. "Oh, aye?" he said. "That so?"

      "It is so," Alexei said. "Viktor wishes to drop word or ten in his ear, after all, and he cannot do so if ear is dead."

      "Aye, suppose not," Bran said thoughtfully, studying the semiconscious Jeremy.

      "Viktor will surely forgive you for earlier disappointment," Alexei said. "Fine gift you have brought him. He wants this man very much—"

      "Oh, aye, I'll bet he does," Bran said, nodding. "S'only Jeremy fuckin' Archer, after all, he's fuckin' famous, isn't he? Diddled up Viktor Karpol, can't be allowed t' get away wi' that, aye?"

      "It is true—"

      Bran's eyes glittered. "And he's a brilliant thief t' boot? Better'n me, even?"

      Alexei shrugged. "I have heard this said."

      "Heh. Powerful thing t' have yer hands on, yer an important fellow like Karpol." Bran scratched at his cheek, grinning absently. "Y' wanna hear somethin' funny, Alexei?"

      "If I must," Alexei said impassively.

      "Y' know what it is if I let Karpol get his stinkin' mitts on this fucker? Y' know what that is?"

      Alexei hesitated long enough to parse the slang. "It is what?" he finally asked, sounding honestly curious.

      Bran's grin fell right off his face. "Poor fuckin' job security," Bran said, and before anyone could move he shot Jeremy twice, once in the chest and once in the face.

      The shots were ear-shatteringly loud in the enclosed and echoing space, the second impact splattering a fan of dark blood and whitish stuff over the barrels behind Jeremy's head. Jeremy jerked against his bonds, the chair rocking back onto its hind legs, his head flying back—Simon got one brief, horrible look at the gaping meaty-red pit in the blindfold where Jeremy's eye had been—and then the chair went over and Jeremy fell heavily to the floor like a dropped sack of meat. His head hit the floor with a crack and he convulsed against the duct tape like a man having a seizure, even as his t-shirt soaked through with red and blood pooled under his head. The chair scraped on the concrete as Jeremy's spasms dragged it around, then he went limp, and the awful sound stopped.

      Simon's mouth fell open, but he found himself unable to so much as croak. Enough adrenalin exploded into his system to electrocute him, a wave of static roaring through his mind and pinning him in place. Below him Volpe shouted something and Alexei ducked down and stuck a hand into his trenchcoat—and then the back door slammed open and his team piled in, guns out, right on cue. Sandra skipped back from Jeremy's still and bloodied form, taking it in and dismissing it in the same heartbeat.

      "Arrestate!" Mike roared, making a huge gesture with his free hand as if to wave in their reinforcements. Four guns snapped out in near-perfect sync—

      —five guns, as Bran shrieked out an infuriated sound and whipped his gun towards them—

      —Johnny's massive Desert Eagle thundered like cannonshot, twice, making Simon's ears ring, its muzzle flash nearly blinding him.

      Bran whipped halfway around like he'd gotten struck a glancing blow with a car and fell heavily to the floor, his scream turning into a horrible choking sound. He hadn't even hit the concrete before the barrels behind him exploded with a roar. A wave of heat so palpable as to be solid hit the roof under where Simon lay, making it bulge upwards. Simon's eyebrows frizzled instantly even as the plastic window next to him warped and started to melt.

      A flaming barrel came within a foot of flattening the Russian, and a second hit the wall a few feet away from Volpe. Simon's team jerked up their riot shields half a second before the rusty hail of shrapnel hit; Mike was still bellowing "Raggruppamento—" when Johnny reeled back into him, and then they were pulling back, Sandra with her hand on Dave's shoulder. Volpe was jogging backwards in his haste to get out of the garage, his secretary was already running full-tilt for the waiting car, and Alexei was retreating with an odd side-skipping gait that allowed him to watch both behind and before him, his gun in hand.

      A second barrel went up a moment later and Simon snapped out of his shock. Around him the roof was deforming, the rain-wet shingles steaming fiercely as the fire parched them. They'd go any second—baring his teeth Simon ground the pad of his thumb down onto one of the screws with all his might. The groove in the screw's head tore his thumb bloody but the screw finally consented to turn an infinitesimal bit, and when Simon let go of the wire, it held. It wouldn't hold for long, but hopefully it would be long enough—Simon took one last agonized look at Jeremy's still-bound form, half-hidden behind a screen of flame, then threw himself over onto his back and went skidding down the crumpling roof on his ass.

      He reeled headlong down the stack of fuel barrels, taking huge, ridiculous, splay-legged steps, and hit the ground hard, stumbling, falling over, and tumbling into the undergrowth. He sprawled out in the cold mud, which sucked eagerly at him as he dragged himself upright. Somewhere in the distance several people were firing shots and a car's tires were squealing as Volpe and his people got the hell out of there; Simon could hear Mike bellowing something else in Italian, sounding exasperated. Shuddering as another wave of adrenalin slammed into him, Simon sucked in a shaking breath and fled the burning garage before it could explode again.

      Barely twenty feet away Simon nearly collided with a faceless, helmeted, black-jacketed form. It caught him with both hands and Simon's atavistic terror made him shy away for a heartbeat's worth of time before he could get hold of himself. Behind them something else in the garage blew up, fire jetting from the gaping holes where the windows had once been and turning the faceless figure's helmet into a reflection of hell. "Templar!" the helmeted form screamed over the pandemonium, revealing itself to be Sandra. "Templar, are you okay?"

      Simon swallowed and bobbed his head, then realized some other answer was in order. "Yes!" he yelled, grabbing at Sandra's shoulder. "Come on, we've got to get out of here before the real police come!"

      Sandra nodded and shoved at Simon's back, pushing him towards the hill. "Go!"

      Forcing everything out of his mind but the next step, Simon ran back up the hill. All around him there were faceless black shapes, crashing through the undergrowth, most of them using their riot shields to clear a path before them. Simon couldn't tell them apart or even manage a headcount, but he'd seen them all leave the garage, so he put it out of his mind and concentrated on running.

      A final explosion rocked the night behind him, this one setting off a chain of smaller explosions that cracked like a string of fireworks. Simon risked a single brief glance over his shoulder as he breasted the hill: the garage was a fireball forty feet high, every last inch of it outlined in flames. There were no figures silhouetted against the glow, and even as Simon watched, the roof fell in with a roar and a spiral of sparks.

      Simon threw himself into the back of the van, unmindful of his waterlogged clothes or the wide streak of mud that he left behind him. "Are we all here?" he yelled, too crazed on adrenalin to modulate his voice. "Sound off, people!"

      Mike snatched open the driver's-side door and threw himself in, yanking off his helmet and balaclava. "Yo, boss!"

      "Yo," Johnny said, scrambling up after Simon. Sandra came after him, nearly dragging another helmeted figure—it took Simon a moment to realize that that had to be Dave—and Nate squashed himself into the far corner to get out of their way. To a man they ripped off their helmets and hoods the instant they got into the van.

      "One, two, three, four, five, six—" Simon thumped his own chest with a wet, muddy sound "—Honda, get us the fuck out of here!"

      "On it!" Mike cried. He grabbed the steering wheel, took a single long, deep breath, then started the van and pulled out at a measured, unexceptional pace. The steering wheel creaked in his fists, the only outward sign of how hard he was controlling his urge to step on it.

      Simon fell into a huddle against the back wall and scrubbed at his arms, his teeth chattering. Soaked through and plastered in mud, with the adrenalin rapidly leaching from his system, he couldn't stop shaking. Even his heart was thudding irregularly, hard enough to hurt his chest. "Oh, Christ," he said. "Everyone's okay? Tell me everyone's okay!"

      "We're all fine—" Sandra started to say, then she got a good look at Simon and hissed out a breath. "Jesus, Templar," she said, snatching the hood off him and pulling at the hem of his turtleneck. "Come on, let's get you out of that stuff, you're chilled enough!" She snapped her fingers at Nate. "Specs! Where's that blanket?"

      Nate dove under the front seat, looking for the blanket. Simon, now shuddering so hard that he couldn't even make his hands work, let Sandra yank his sodden shirt off over his head and throw it aside. Sandra studied him for a moment, then shrugged out of her vest and settled up against his bare chest, wrapping her arms around him. She was only somewhat damp and still hot from running, and after a short while the radiant heat of her body seeped into Simon's and quelled the worst of the shaking. Simon's heart calmed. Nate dug up the blanket and dropped it over Simon's shoulders; Sandra pulled it around them both.

      "Templar's half-naked and cuddlin' your girl, Honda," Johnny reported.

      "Knew it was too good to last!" Mike whooped, strain making his voice crack.

      The van's wheels hit real asphalt. Somewhere far behind them fire engines were tearing down the road towards the shell of the garage, sirens going. Simon shut his eyes. "Christ, Archer," he said weakly, and then all the stuff he'd been working so hard to repress smacked him between the eyes and he shot bolt upright, nearly dislodging Sandra. "Did anyone see Archer get out?" he demanded to know.

      Everyone looked at each other. "I didn't," Dave said after a moment, his voice uncertain.

      "Nope," said Johnny.

      "Me neither!" Mike called from the front seat.

      "I'm sure he's fine, Templar," said Sandra, trying to get him to settle back down.

      "Fine? Jesus Christ, he was duct-taped to a chair! That crazy fucker shot him twice! I saw him do it, Spring! I saw the blood, okay?" Simon was shouting at her by the end and he couldn't make himself stop.

      "I know!" Sandra shouted back, grabbing his shoulders. "I saw that too! Jesus, Templar, I don't know! But he told us to go before we got caught and we're going!"

      Simon deflated, shouted down. "Yeah," he said, squeezing his eyes shut. "Christ. Sorry, I didn't mean to shout at you, Spring."

      "It's okay, Templar," Sandra said, settling back up against his chest. After a moment, Simon put his arms around her, just because he felt like he needed to.

      Mike stuck to the back roads and kept their speed down to a number that would be sedate even in the States. How much it cost him to throttle himself back like that, Simon didn't know. The drive took close to an hour, most of which Simon spent semiconscious; somehow, despite the constant howling of sirens in the distance, they made it back behind the gates of the villa without so much as getting looked at twice, let alone pulled over or arrested. Criminals could and did get clean away from crime scenes all the time—Christ, Simon knew that well enough—and yet, here on the other side of the fence, it felt like every eye was on them. It was a minor miracle when Mike pulled the van into the garage, out of sight. Simon needed that miracle. He needed it a lot.

      By the time Mike shut the van off they were all calm, nearly somnolent, the hyper-focus of game-on mode having long since faded away. Simon's team crawled out of the back of the van like they were sleepwalking, carrying the discarded bits of their gear, tracking mud everywhere. Simon slid out last of all, still clutching the blanket around his shoulders and cringing at the touch of his soaking-wet pants.

      "Go get in the shower, Templar," Sandra said. She was making a neat stack of her gear and Simon's on the floor of the van, preparing to carry it all in. She added Simon's sodden, muddy turtleneck to the pile, adding "You need to get warmed up before you make yourself sick."

      "Yeah," Simon said, picking at his pants. "And Stonewall needs to get online and keep an eye out."

      Sandra glanced around. "He's already gone, Templar. Probably in front of the computer already, knowing Dave."

      "Oh," said Simon. He closed his eyes and opened them again. "Good. That's good. ... none of you got hurt, did you?"

      "Everybody's fine," Sandra said. She snapped the rubber band out of her hair, wincing, then scruffed at her sweat-damp hair until it fell out of its braid. "Nate set it all up so that the explosion went... away from us. You're the only one who got damaged, you've got a little..." She touched Simon's cheek where the wire had hit it, which stung.

      Simon winced away from the touch. "So nobody's hurt," he said.

      "Well," Sandra said, looking away. "None of us."

      "Yeah," Simon said faintly.

      Sandra eyed him for a moment, then put a hand on his shoulder and pushed him bodily towards the door. "Shower and dry clothes now, Templar. Stonewall can handle the computer without you for half an hour."

      "Yeah," Simon said again, shuffling along. "Yeah, that'd be good."

      Simon peeled himself out of his wet pants and underwear and abandoned them in a pile on the bathroom floor. He glanced at himself in the mirror and immediately regretted it: his face was flushed like he'd been out in the sun too long, bits of black ash flaked away when he touched his crisped eyebrows, and blood was crusted on his cheek where the wire had struck it. His eyes were flat and haunted. Moving mostly on autopilot Simon took three Advil, then crawled into the massive white tub and turned on the hot water.

      The tub filled around him, the water warm, then hot, then too hot. Simon adjusted the temperature once and then gave up on it, staring blindly up at the ceiling while the water deepened, graying faintly as it soaked the dried mud off his skin. Eventually it got deep enough that he could float and Simon turned off the tap, wincing a little at the sudden, echoing silence. The raw spot on his thumb stung, and his burned face stung—Simon sat up long enough to run cold water over a washcloth, then lay back and draped it over his face. The cold felt good, as did the excuse to shut his eyes and not think about anything. Heat soaked into his muscles and worked them loose, aided by the Advil. He'd be sore in the morning, but right now he was fine. Just fine.

      Exhausted, Simon dozed for a while—how long, he wasn't sure—and only came back to himself when the grayish water was lukewarm around him. His skin was clean and a healthy, parboiled pink. Simon pulled the plug to let the tub drain, then ducked under the shower long enough to knock the last of the mud off. The hot water stung on his face. Simon winced away from it, his eyes watering.

      Once he was clean and dry, with a towel slung around his hips, Simon bent over the sink and sluiced his face with cold water until it was aching and numb. He still had eyebrows, he was dimly pleased to see, although they weren't quite as thick as they had been and the lashes around one eye were a bit shorter than usual. Simon prodded at his burnt face, avoiding his eyes in the mirror. Maybe Sandra had some face cream or something. He should ask.

      Once clean, the scabbed-over cut on his cheek was thin and of no account. It'd heal on its own in a few days. Simon leaned in to inspect it and twitched back as his mind threw up the matching image of Bran slicing open Jeremy's cheek with the front sight of his pistol; the image was random and disconnected, however, and Simon was able to force it away with a minimum of effort. Simon stuffed his wet and clammy things into the hamper, hung up the towel, and shut off the bathroom light.

      It was close to midnight by the time he staggered back out of the bathroom. The urge to collapse right into bed and sleep for fourteen hours was strong, almost overwhelming, but instead Simon stumbled around, getting himself dressed again. The day wasn't over yet. Simon laced up his sneakers and left his room.

      The hallway was dark and quiet and Simon stuck close to the wall, oddly embarrassed by even the nominal amount of noise that he was making. Outside the clouds hid the moon and disgorged a slight, desultory mist that beaded up on the windows and obscured the view. The lights in Johnny's room were off, as were the lights in Nate's; light shone under the door of Dave's room, though, and Simon knocked lightly and let himself in.

      Everyone else was already there, sitting wherever there was room to sit, ranged in a loose half-circle around Dave. No one was talking. They had all cleaned up and changed, much like Simon, and much like Simon, they looked exhausted. Half of them didn't bother to look up when Simon let himself in; Sandra, curled up against Mike's chest on the bed, didn't so much as open her eyes. Simon shut the door behind him, taking care to do so quietly. "Hey, folks."

      The answering mumble of "Hey, boss" was quiet and dispirited. Simon put his hand on the back of Dave's chair. "Anything yet, Stone?"

      "Nothing yet," Dave said, his eyes intent on the screen. Alone amongst them all, he seemed to be wide awake, enraptured by the laptop he was staring at. Every few seconds he pressed the space bar with great gravity, intent on the screen, waiting for something to happen. "I'm not really surprised, though. It's possible no one will stick it in a drive until it gets back to Russia."

      "Or at all," Nate added gloomily. He was curled up in the overstuffed chair in the corner, barefoot and tousle-headed. It made him look about twelve.

      "Or at all," Dave agreed. He ran his hand through his damp hair. "If you want to go to bed, I can handle this. I'll come wake you if something starts to happen...?"

      Dave trailed off there; Simon was already shaking his head. "Although I am tired," Simon said. He looked around the room, meeting the eyes of everybody who would look at him. "I know we're all tired. Fuck a whole bunch of post-mission debriefing, that's what I'm thinking. It's not like we're going to have to write this one up. I'll sum up: you're all terrific and it is as much a privilege to work with you as always. Now piss off and get some sleep."

      "What about you, Templar?" Mike asked. He was stroking Sandra's hair, not really paying much attention to what his hands were doing.

      Simon glanced at Dave's computer—it was all gibberish to him—then picked his way over to sit on the foot of the bed. Sandra obligingly shuffled her feet out of the way to make room. "I'm thinking I'll hang out here for an hour or so, just in case, and then crash," Simon said.

      "I'm too tired to get up and go to bed," Sandra said, yawning. "I'll stick around for a little longer."

      "Guess that means I'm stuck," said Mike, not sounding particularly put out about this.

      Simon let his head fall back to thunk against the wall. "In that case, Spring, I'm about to feel really bad about asking you if you've got anything in your girly toolbox that I could put on my face."

      "Mm?" Sandra lifted her head and cracked her eyes open, then hissed and sat up. "Are those burns?"

      "Yeah," said Simon. "A little matter of a fireball to the face. No big deal. Happens every day."

      Nate winced. "Sorry, Templar."

      Something about his tone of voice gave Simon pause. "It's not your fault, Specs," Simon said carefully.

      "Yeah, but—"

      "It's not," Simon insisted. He held up his hand so that everyone could see the abrasion on his thumb. "It's no one's fault. Archer screwed those wires down so tight that I shredded the fuck out of my thumb trying to screw them down any tighter, see? Those wires should not have come loose, and I, for one, am convinced it was a freak accident."

      Some of the guilt leached out of Nate's eyes. "Okay, Templar," he said, leaning his head against the wing of the chair. Johnny, perched on the top of the bookshelf next to him, leaned over and rumpled Nate's hair.

      Sandra slid off the bed and pattered sleepily off. Mike whined a little and made a perfunctory grab for her as she went by; she smacked his hands lightly aside and squeezed his shoulder before vanishing into the indigo room, heading for violet. Watching the two of them made Simon tired, so he shut his eyes. It was a mistake: the memory of flames erupted in the darkness behind his eyelids. Simon winced, sat up, and rubbed his eyes.

      "You okay, boss?" Johnny asked.

      "Yeah, I'm good," said Simon, dropping his hands into his lap. "Little sore, is all." He hesitated, then decided not to say anything else. He poked at his thumb instead, inspecting the little laceration and the forming scab.

      Sandra reappeared a minute or two later, carrying a tube of something clear and greenish. "Aloe gel," she said, dropping the tube into Simon's hands.

      "Thanks, Spring," Simon said. Sandra nodded and climbed back up onto the bed, settling up against Mike's chest like she'd never left; Simon climbed down, wincing at the stiffness in his muscles, and headed for the blue bathroom.

      The metal clownfish that he'd joked about a lifetime ago hung on the walls. Simon blinked at them, certain for a moment that he was hallucinating, then spun on his heel. The bathroom was painted like an aquarium, right down to the sandstone tiles on the floor—Simon snorted out a tired laugh and headed for the fancy glass sink. His skin was starting to feel hot and tight again, so he sluiced his face down with cold water, patted it dry, resigned himself to looking like an idiot, and spread a thick layer of aloe over the burns.

      His skin sucked up the gel like a desert absorbing rain; two minutes later it was gone, absorbed, barely even leaving a shine behind. Simon smeared on another layer, then stuck the tube in his pocket and left the bathroom.

      "Glossy," Mike said in general approval, watching Simon climb back up onto the bed. "Like strawberry Jell-O bukkake. With lime bits."

      "Yeah, get bent," Simon said with no real malice. He raised his voice. "I assume nothing's happening, Stone?"


      "That would be a yes," Simon said. The laugh he got in return was pretty perfunctory, and then everything went quiet. No one felt like talking, least of all Simon.

      Letting his head fall back against the wall again, Simon shut his eyes and willed his mind to go blank. It wasn't easy. Whenever he relaxed his iron control, his memory flung up a disconnected image of the fireball boiling up towards him, or of Bran snarling and pulling the trigger, or of Jeremy's head flying back to show Simon the bloody pit of his right eye—Simon forced the wayward images away. It got easier, after a while, and finally Simon's mind uneasily consented to empty.

      Folding his hands in his lap, Simon picked idly at the scrape on his thumb and replayed the events of the evening from the start—or he tried to, at least. He was fine—detached, even—until the moment at which Bran pulled the trigger, and then Simon's heart clenched like a fist. The memories harried Simon's mind around in ever-darkening circles until he was aware only of the godawful mental slide show, and of the pressure on his chest, like drowning.

      "Templar?" Sandra said, worried. "Did you say something?"

      Simon snapped back to himself only to discover that he'd slumped forward into a semi-fetal ball, one fist pressed to his chest to mitigate the ache. "I'm going back," Simon rasped, blinking down at his crossed legs. He had to swallow to fight down the lump in his throat.


      "I'm going back to the garage," Simon said again, sitting up and sliding off the edge of the bed. "Mike, where are the keys to the van?"

      "On my dresser," Mike said, at the same moment as Sandra said, "I'm not sure that's a good idea—"

      Simon's head snapped up. He had no idea what the expression on his face looked like, but it shut Sandra up in a hurry, whatever it was. "It's been—" Simon checked his watch "—close to two and a half hours, and it'll have been closer to three by the time I get there. If there are still any fire trucks or police cars there, I swear I'll just drive by and come right back. I'm just... I'm going back. I can't just..." He trailed off there and made a helpless, frustrated gesture. "I have to go see for myself. That's all."

      Sandra's worried expression was so wholly sympathetic that Simon had to look away before he embarrassed himself. "Do you want someone to come with you?" Sandra asked, pitching the question as neutrally as possible.

      "No," Simon said, heading for the indigo room. "I want you all to stay here where it's safe. Get some sleep if you can. I'll be back in an hour or two." Leaning into Mike's room, Simon snagged the keys off the dresser.

      Now they were all awake; now they were all looking at him, with varying amounts of confusion and hapless pity on their faces. "Are you sure—" Sandra started to say, then shook her head and overrode herself. "Be careful, Templar," she said instead.

      "Hey, I'm always careful, except when I'm not," Simon said, trying to smile and failing miserably. "Stonewall, is it all under control?"

      "No problem, Templar." Dave prodded the space bar again. "In theory I don't even need to be sitting here, since it'll set off an alarm if anything happens."

      Simon nodded and stuck the keys to the van in his pocket. "If you need anything, from anyone, you ask for it. Okay? What you're doing right now is the most important thing that's left to be done."

      "Okay, Templar."

      "My man, Stone," said Simon, and then he left the blue room, heading for his own. Halfway there he broke into a run.

      A fine mist was still falling as Simon jockeyed the van out of the garage. It was a bulky, slow, clumsy vehicle at the best of times, and the mist made it hard to see no matter whether the wipers were going or not; Simon left the wipers set to intermittent and babied the van down the gravel drive. The darkness was nearly total, aside from his headlights.

      He was well underway before he realized his mistake in coming alone. It was late, the roads were empty, and there was no one along to distract him; driving the van required little more than perfunctory attention, which left his mind free to dwell on whatever it liked. Blunted pulses of guilt and anger pummeled at the back of his mind, accompanied by jumbled recollections and scattered memories. Simon couldn't fight them off. By the time Simon hit the A7, he was sunk so deep into a numbing black fugue that he could barely feel his hands on the wheel, his mind plodding around and around in painful circles.

      "Jeremy's dead," Simon said aloud, trying the thought on for size. He wanted to think otherwise, but the duct tape, the bullets, the fire—he'd seen the spray of Jeremy's brains on the barrels behind him. The thought didn't hurt much yet. There was still that stone in his chest, but that was just a harbinger. A placeholder.

      The exit came up and Simon took it, barely aware he was doing so. He drove by the farm, keeping a careful eye out for official vehicles. He saw none. If there were policemen or firemen still up by the garage, they were sitting there in total darkness, which didn't seem likely. Simon couldn't even see what was left of the garage.

      Simon drove on, parking the van in the same place they had left it two days or a lifetime ago, when they were first here to rig up the garage and set the trap. The mist clung to him the instant he stepped out of the van, condensing coolly on his face. It felt good, Simon dimly realized. He paused by the van's side, absently rubbing his chest, and tried to think of the best plan of attack. In the end, he gave up and headed down the road.

      As it turned out, his scruple was almost entirely unnecessary. Cars were parked here and there on the roads and the driveway itself, most of them blocking one another off; a handful of gawkers had braved the weather to stand around and do their thing, huddling in little clumps and conversing in low, awed tones. Occasionally someone would wave a hand at the remains of the garage.

      Simon slowed. If this had been his crime scene, he'd have seeded the crowd with his own people and told them to keep a lookout for anyone behaving suspiciously. Arsonists liked to return to the scene, he knew that much, and here he was, burnt face and all. Not for the first time he wondered just what the hell he thought he was doing—then he drifted into the crowd and made his way forward.

      There was almost nothing left of the garage. One corner and half a wall of its skeletal, blackened frame still stood, but most of the garage was a heap of ash and burnt wood; coals still glowed here and there. The vines had withered away in a circle around the garage, some of them festooned with firefighting foam. Simon stopped a safe distance away from the remains and looked the garage over. There was no sign that the garage was being treated as a crime scene. Yet. That was a good sign, although ultimately meaningless: just because they hadn't found a body in the wreckage yet didn't mean they wouldn't find one tomorrow.

      The wind picked up a little, blowing a desultory swirl of sparks towards the circle of onlookers. Most of them flinched back, including Simon. His nostrils filled with the smell of smoke, burnt rubber, and deceased gasoline. Simon turned away, kicking absently at the tarmac, noticing for the first time the twisted metal scattered around. The remains of exploding fuel barrels, probably. Simon stuck his hands in his pockets and poked one of the chunks of metal with the toe of his sneaker, too numb to think about much any more.

      Simon flipped the chunk of metal over, then paused, frowning. Something, some memory, some something was nudging at the back of his mind. Simon turned back to look at the remains of the garage, to see if anything there would jog his memory; it looked the same as the last time he'd looked, and the stray bit of information still refused to rise to the top of his mind. Simon forced his mind open and emptied it, staring at the glowing coals and waiting.

      After a couple of minutes, the wind rose again and brought with it the information that Simon had been trying to recall. He smelled smoke, certainly, and burnt rubber and all kinds of petrochemicals, but what he didn't smell was burnt pork. Simon's job had only brought him into contact with that smell once, but he'd never forgotten it. The firemen would be familiar with that smell, and would have torn the garage apart if they're smelled it, and this place would be an official crime scene now.

      Barely daring to hope—his mind still mocking him with the image of Jeremy's right eye exploding in a bloody haze—Simon squinted against the breeze, studying the burnt wreckage to see if it had anything else to offer. One of the blackened timbers abruptly split in the middle, exposing the glowing orange center and sending up a swarm of sparks. They rose in a crackling swirl, winking out one by one, except for the one that reversed direction in mid-air, dropping again, pausing, then rising, pausing, dropping...

      Entirely on autopilot Simon swung around and walked back down the drive, very carefully thinking about nothing at all. It took him five minutes to reach the van and then he walked on past it, up the hill; once he'd crested the hill and dropped out of sight, he turned into the vines, found the fence, and jumped it. Mud squelched under his sneakers. He ignored it.

      The long, winding dirt track that led down the hill to the farmhouse was deserted, completely hidden by the tangles of overgrown vines. Simon ambled along, stubbornly taking his time, refusing to do anything that might suggest his heart was in his throat, even after he rounded a gentle bend in the road and saw that spark again.

      The smell of smoke didn't hit him until he was ten paces away, and Simon came to an abrupt halt, squinting against the darkness under the farmhouse's ramshackle porch roof. After a while a face and a shape evolved from the darkness—"Simon," Jeremy Archer said tiredly, taking another long drag on his cigarette.

      Simon stuck his thumbs into his beltloops and looked away, waiting until the tidal wave of shock and relief stopped roaring through him. "Hey," he finally said, sounding a bit more gruff than he'd meant to. "People can see the light of your cigarette from the garage, you know."

      Jeremy pulled the cigarette from his mouth and studied the glowing tip. "Can they," he said, manifestly disinterested. "I suppose I ought to do something about that, oughtn't I." Shutting his eyes, he took another long drag, momentarily lighting his face a hellish orange.

      Kicking absently at the hard-packed dirt of the trail, Simon studied Jeremy out of the corner of his eye. Jeremy still looked like hell—his split lip was puffy and bleeding heavily, his arms were covered in bruises and abrasions, and the hand that held the cigarette was streaked with blood—but he was undoubtedly alive, unless Simon was hallucinating. The center of Jeremy's t-shirt was a red, torn ruin, through which unmarred skin shone like a beacon; the long cut on Jeremy's cheek was smeared and crusted, but not all that bad, underneath the dried blood. Simon picked his way over to the porch and found a sheltered place to sit, a good ten feet away from where Jeremy stood. "You could have called or something," he suggested, after the silence started to grate on him.

      "I'd meant to," said Jeremy. He dug in his back pocket and came out with something. "Unfortunately I managed to fall on my phone when Bran shot me." The cell phone hit the porch about halfway between them, the hinge shattered, the two halves of the plastic shell now connected only by a single yellow wire. Jeremy looked away, sighing out smoke. "I'm afraid it's quite dead."

      Simon reached over and picked up the damaged phone, poking at the buttons. He managed to eke out a single, weak flash, but nothing else. "Yeah, okay," he said, tossing the phone back onto the porch. It skidded over and hit Jeremy's shoe. "I guess that was that loud crack I heard." Simon hesitated, then damned himself for a coward and added, "I thought it was your skull hitting the concrete."

      Jeremy reached down and picked up the phone, putting it back in his pocket. "In that case, I expect its death only worked in my favor," he said, still not all that interested. "So, that was you on the roof, then?"

      "Yeah," Simon said.

      Jeremy's expression remained dispassionate. "Given your behavior in the past, I can't say I'm surprised." He wasn't even smiling when he said it.

      "Hey, no, it wasn't like that," Simon said, stung and unnerved. "The heavy weather managed to work the wires free from the antenna box thing. The whole network went down—I had to go reconnect the wires before Nate hit the button and failed to blow anything up."

      "Ah," said Jeremy. Not even this news served to ruffle him. "I expect I owe you a round of thanks, then."

      "Well... yeah," Simon said, floundering.

      "Thank you, Simon," Jeremy said, in exactly the same tone of voice he might have used to thank Simon for passing the salt.

      Simon subsided. His rising bafflement was starting to make him angry; he tried to quash the anger the best he could. "You could sound a little more grateful," he suggested.

      "No," said Jeremy, reaching up to rub his temples. The butt of his cigarette jutted out from between his first two fingers. "No, I really couldn't, Simon. Not right now."

      "Christ, give me a foothold here!" Simon said, aggravated. "Don't just stand there being all grim—did something go wrong? Is that it?"

      "Not that I know of." Jeremy ground the butt of his cigarette out on the sole of his shoe, then flicked it out onto the roadway.

      "Then... what?" Simon hesitated, then added, "Also, I'd be kind of remiss in my duties if I didn't point out that that's littering."

      "Mm," Jeremy said, and fell silent.

      Simon waited for ten seconds or so, then held up his hands in surrender and said, "Okay, I'm sorry, obviously now is not the time for banter."

      "No, not particularly."

      "Yeah. Sorry." Simon gave it another five seconds, then accepted that he wasn't going to get an answer. "So... why are you still here? It's been three hours—why haven't you come back to the villa?"

      "I'm waiting for Bran," Jeremy said. "We agreed to meet up here when we could."

      "He's a little late, you know," Simon pointed out. "Are you sure he's coming?"

      Jeremy finally smiled, sort of: it was thin and wintry and vanished in a heartbeat. "No," he said.

      "Ah." Simon paused and considered this. "But you have to wait anyway," he said, trying on the words for size. "Just in case. Because you said you would."

      "Exactly," said Jeremy.

      Simon followed Jeremy's gaze, looking off down the road. "He didn't die in the fire," Simon said, after a while. "If you're worried about that."

      "I suppose I'm not really worried, per se, but still, it's nice to know." Some microscopic amount of strain left Jeremy's battered face. "After all, if I was able to get out, then he ought to have been able to escape the fire while walking on his hands."

      "Yeah," Simon said, looking down at his hands. He hesitated, then said, "Okay, look, I have to know how you did that. I mean, you were duct-taped to the chair, I saw you get shot in the face, I saw what was left of your eye..."

      The sound that Jeremy made might have been a laugh or just a huff of irritated breath. "Cheap special effects," he said. His suit jacket sat folded on the porch by his foot; Jeremy stooped, dug around in it for a moment, then flipped something towards Simon. It hit the porch with a rustle and a clunk.

      Simon picked up the length of duct tape and studied it in the faint light. Whoever had crafted the blindfold had covered most of the inside with cloth, leaving only two thin strips of adhesive to hold the blindfold on. Simon flipped the blindfold over and looked once again into the bloody pit of Jeremy's right eye, now not attached to Jeremy's head at all. This close up, he could see the plastic from the blood bag, and the blackened remains of the special-effects explosive, contained in a little metal cup. "Sneaky," Simon said, turning the blindfold over and examining the second, larger blood bag on the back, this one flecked with both fake blood and something that looked and smelled like oatmeal. A few of Jeremy's hairs were caught in the adhesive. "Where'd you get these?"

      "From a hobbyist in Milan," Jeremy said. He'd produced another cigarette from somewhere, and his lighter ratcheted, briefly lighting his face. "He believes we're shooting some sort of independent film. Those and the one on my chest came in the same box with the license plates and the iPod, actually."

      "Huh." Simon tossed the blindfold back onto Jeremy's jacket. "Is the rest of that stuff makeup, too?"

      "Oh, no. The rest of it is quite real." Jeremy studied his blood-streaked hand in the light from his cigarette. "Your pardon, I take that back. I'm fairly sure this is just corn-syrup runoff."

      "So... what? You let Bran knock you around a little before he taped you to the chair?"

      Jeremy tilted his head to the side. "Yes?" he said, like that was a stupid question. "I had to look like I'd put up a fight, after all, and I expect Bran enjoyed doing it."

      Simon snorted. "Well, shit, I guess so," he said.

      "Better to let him work out his aggression that way than to let it continue to build up until he decided to shoot me for real," Jeremy said, with another of those thin, frozen smiles.

      "Guess so," Simon said, subsiding. "So how'd you finesse the duct tape? Same way?"

      "Same way," Jeremy confirmed. "Lined with cloth and slashed open on the side facing away from Volpe. It was a matter of ten seconds to rip free once it was safe to do so, assuming I didn't mind trailing banners of duct tape after me."

      "Well, when the alternative is burning to death, sure, who'd mind?" Simon fell silent and looked Jeremy over. He was battered and smelled like smoke, but he didn't seem all that hurt. "So," Simon said, shifting. He sounded awkward, which only served to make him angry at himself. "You okay? Only lightly toasted?"

      "A bit crisp, yes." Jeremy meditatively feathered the fingers of one hand through his hair, which was oddly short on one side. "I expect a week or two of lying low should put me to rights," he said. "Well. And a haircut."

      Simon's hand flew to his pocket. "Here," he said, pulling out the half-full tube of aloe gel and tossing it onto Jeremy's jacket. "It's Sandy's burn stuff. I forgot I was carrying it."

      "Mm? Ah." Jeremy stooped to pick it up, studying it in the dim light. Sticking his cigarette into the corner of his mouth, Jeremy opened the tube and squeezed a fat worm of aloe gel onto his fingers, smoothing it onto his cheeks. "Ah," he said again, nearly sighing it.

      "Yeah, you're welcome," Simon said, watching Jeremy spread the stuff over his forehead. "Don't mention it. Happy to help."

      Jeremy capped the tube and tossed it back to Simon, who caught it. "Thank you, Simon," Jeremy said, without so much as a twitch to acknowledge the sarcasm.

      "Jesus, you're no fun any more," Simon said, aiming for levity and missing.

      Whatever slight softening the conversation had wrought on Jeremy's demeanor, the weak joke destroyed it. "You'll pardon me, I'm sure," said Jeremy, his voice once again wholly devoid of inflection. He leaned against one of the porch supports and breathed out smoke, one cool shoulder turned in Simon's direction.

      "Christ, I'm sorry!" Simon said, throwing up his hands in exasperation. "It was just a joke, dammit—I don't know what else to say!"

      Jeremy's eyes drifted about half-shut, the smoke from his cigarette eddying about his face and obscuring his features. For a long moment he was silent, either considering what Simon had just said or simply ignoring him; finally Jeremy opened his mouth to say something and then shut it again, straightening up and going still.

      Simon blinked at him, then looked out at the road again. A skinny figure was making his way towards them, his steps quick and light, continually glancing from side to side like he expected an attack at any moment. Bran pulled up about fifteen feet from the porch, his jacket flung over his shoulder, a wide stripe of soot smeared over one cheek. He had a fake-blood stain to match Jeremy's on his shirt, high up on his belly. "Jesus, but I thought those looky-loos'd never get," he said, and then noticed Simon and shied back a step. "Aaw, Christ," Bran spat in disgust. "What's he doin' here?"

      "I expect he's come to make certain that I'm still alive," Jeremy said, flicking his half-smoked cigarette into a puddle by the side of the road. "Hallo, Irish."

      "Aye, well, good thing someone gives a toss about yeh, then," said Bran, still scowling. "Anyroad, I've done what yeh asked. Gi' us what yeh promised."

      "That you have," Jeremy said. "Have you a phone I could borrow? I'm afraid I fell on mine and broke it when the chair went over."

      "Oh, that's just bleedin' deadly, innit." Bran hawked and spat off into the overgrown vines. Digging around in one of the pockets of his cargo pants, Bran produced a battered silver phone and hucked it overhand at Jeremy, who snapped it neatly out of the air. "Go on, then."

      "Thank you, Irish," Jeremy said, punching a number into the phone and putting it to his ear. There was a pause, during which Simon stayed quiet and Bran glared hopefully at Jeremy, and then Jeremy closed his eyes and summoned up a real smile from somewhere. "Ethan," he said, with a rush of relief. "It's done, then."

      The faint buzz of Ethan's voice carried clearly to Simon and turned Bran to stone. "Yes," said Jeremy. "Yes, I think so. In any case, the job's done, and I'll pay what's owed. The fellow ought to be in touch shortly—you'll know him because he has the proper names." Jeremy paused to listen, then smiled again. "Tell her that her faith in me is underwhelming."

      Bran shifted impatiently. Jeremy's eyes flicked up, then back down. "In any case, I must go," Jeremy said. "... yes, I'll be fine. I'll be in touch if I need anything." Ethan said something else, something which made Jeremy smile again, and then the smile faded from Jeremy's face like smoke and he hung up. "There you are," he said, pitching the phone back to Bran. His voice was stuck in neutral again.

      "Awright, fair enough," Bran said, putting the phone away. "Right. I'm off, then. And if I haul my carcass all the way t' England and find yeh've been havin' me on, I'll put one in yer head and one in yer gut for real."

      "I wouldn't dream of it," Jeremy said, rubbing his eyes. "Goodbye, Bran. Take care of yourself."

      "Go an' fuck yerself, yeh tosser," Bran said, almost pleasantly. He headed back the way he'd come. Simon and Jeremy both watched him go until the night and the mist swallowed him and hid him from sight.

      Jeremy sighed. "Charming as always," he said, mostly to himself.

      "Yeah, he's a real sweetheart, I'm gonna marry that man some day, just you wait and see," Simon said sourly. "You know what really chaps my ass?"

      "Mm?" Jeremy said, uninterested.

      "You just paid that asshole something like twenty-five million dollars to knock you around and pretend to shoot you," Simon said. "He hates your guts and yet it was him that you went running to for help in cooking up this scheme. Me? Who does not, under normal circumstances, hate your guts all that much? You couldn't even be bothered to tell me what to expect, let alone give me a say in the proceedings."

      Jeremy shrugged. "Well," he said. "He's my brother."

      "Well, okay, yes, but I'm..." Simon trailed off there, uncertain how to finish that sentence.

      "You're what?" Jeremy asked, looking at Simon for the first time, his face completely expressionless. "You're just this guy. Remember?"

      Simon flinched back from the sheer matter-of-factness in Jeremy's tone. "Okay," he said after a moment. "Maybe I deserved that—"

      "It's possible." Jeremy swept up the jacket at his feet and put it on, buttoning it up over the hole in his t-shirt. "Thank you for all your help, Simon, and please convey my immense gratitude to your friends," he said. "Feel free to hang about the villa for a few more days if you like, but I expect you'll want to be heading home. Leave behind anything you don't want to take with you. If you should need anything that's not quite legal, I expect Ethan will be happy to help."

      "What?" Simon said, caught flat-footed. "Where are you going?"

      Jeremy jumped down off the porch. "To lie low," he said.

      "But—Jesus, you know, you can come back to the villa. It's plenty low." Simon pointed up the road. "I've got the van. It's right there."

      "Mm. No. I don't think so. I've been through rather a lot in the past few weeks, and I believe I'd prefer to do my initial recuperation somewhere where you aren't about to be a prick at me." Jeremy paused to light another cigarette, exhaling a cloud of smoke and flipping Simon a casual wave over his shoulder. "Do give me a call some time, though," he said, walking away. "I expect I ought to have my network back up and running within the week—the number I gave you should start to work again then." His voice drifted back to Simon through the mist, even as Jeremy himself blended with the night and vanished; he was entirely lost to sight by the time he finished the sentence, and then he was simply gone.

      "Hey!" Simon said, bolting to his feet and racing after him. Jeremy was nowhere to be seen—"Hey!" Simon yelled. There was no answer. Simon pulled up a few feet down the road, looked wildly in all directions, and then threw up his hands in exasperation. "Jesus Christ," he told the night. "Archer, you frigging drama queen!" No one answered this charge. He was alone, with nothing left to do. After one last look around, Simon gave up and headed for where he'd parked the van, muttering under his breath.

      They were all still in the blue room when Simon got back, although half of them had fallen asleep. "Hey," Simon said, letting himself in and closing the door behind himself. Sandra woke with an unladylike snort, which startled Mike awake; Mike's startled "Huh!" woke Nate, who twitched upright in the armchair with a yelp. Despite everything Simon was suddenly hard-pressed not to laugh. "That? That was really cute," he said. "You guys should put together a comedy routine on the off-chance that we all get fired for this shit."

      Sandra ground the heels of her hands into her eyes. "Well?" she said, yawning. "Did you find anything?"

      "Yeah," Simon said, yawning in automatic response.

      Sandra waited patiently for Simon to elaborate. When he didn't, she sighed. "What did you find, Templar?"

      Simon took a deep breath. "Archer's okay," he said.

      "Oh, good," Sandra said, slumping back down against Mike's chest. On the other side of the room, Nate went limp with relief.

      "Apparently it was all a big staged production for Volpe's benefit?" Simon said, leaning back against the closed door and hooking his thumbs in his beltloops. "Anyway, Archer's fine, so is his asshole of a brother, and they've both taken off in different directions to lie low until such time as Karpol forgets about them. Also, that garage is serious toast. Remind me never to get on Nate's bad side."

      "Mmph." Sandra blinked her eyes open with an effort. "So he's not coming back?"

      Simon shrugged. "Nope, seems he's not," he said. "Archer said we're welcome to stay for a few more days, and that we should just leave behind anything we don't want to take with us. So!" He slapped a hand against his thigh. "Folks, I know you all just hate the idea of ditching this scenic country, but I'm thinking we ought to go the hell home before we get caught at this. We're done here."

      "Goddamn, sounds good," Johnny said.

      "Woo hoo!" Mike said, sleepily happy. "Two weeks in Italy and I didn't get dragged to a single museum—I cannot believe I got away with that shit. I don't need culture, a'ight? On account of me not being yogurt and all."

      "Texas did enough museums for all of us," Sandra said, pushing herself back upright.

      Simon, switching tracks, glanced over at Dave. He hadn't so much as moved since Simon left, still sitting there poking the space bar. "Nothing yet, Stone?"

      "Nothing yet," Dave confirmed.

      "All right, then." Simon looked around the room. "Folks, I'm back safely and everything is now fine. We are, in fact, a huge success, and Archer said to tell you all thanks. So: thanks. Now get out of here and get some sleep already, Jesus, it's like being surrounded by Rip Van Winkle."

      For a moment no one moved, probably all too tired to get up and go to bed. After a while Sandra slid off the blue bed and stretched, and the little motion triggered the general exodus. There was a lot of groaning and yawning. Simon looked back at Dave. "You said it'll set off an alarm if anything happens?"

      "Yes?" Dave said, blinking.

      "Then go to bed," Simon said. "If it wakes you up, come get me pronto, but I'm guessing that if Rich's bomb is going to go off at all, it's going to go off tomorrow morning, after Volpe's people manage to dig up a Zip drive. You might as well sleep now, while you still can."

      Dave looked dubiously back at the screen of his laptop, then poked the space bar again. "You're probably right, Templar."

      "I am right," Simon said, "and if you don't get out of that chair by the time I count five, I'll kill you. Okay?"

      "You can't kill me in Italy," Dave said, flustered. He slid out of his chair and tottered upright, though, which was about all that Simon could ask for.

      Simon considered this for a moment. "What, you're immortal, but only in Italy? How does that work?"

      "No, I mean—" Dave hesitated. "Never mind," he said, padding off towards the ridiculous aquarium bathroom.

      "Trust me, I didn't intend to," Simon called after him.

      By the time Simon made it back to the white room, his ass was seriously dragging. And sore. He left a trail of clothes behind himself as he moved from the hallway door to the bathroom door, too tired to put them in the hamper, almost too tired to take them off at all. Just struggling with his damp jeans threatened to make him pitch a fit like an overtired toddler. Simon restrained himself, just barely.

      He washed his face in cold water one more time, then spread on another thick layer of the aloe gel, using up the tube. Simon made a mental note to buy Sandra some more, or at least foist her off with a five-dollar bill or a cup of coffee or something, then dropped the empty tube in the trash, took another three Advil, and stumbled off to bed.

      Turning the lights out plunged the room into darkness—real darkness, not the ambient blue-gray glow of moonlight. The cloud cover was still heavy, rain blatting lazily against the room's two skylights. Simon crawled in between the cool sheets and groaned aloud. He was exhausted. He was beyond exhausted. Being awake was painful. And Simon could not for the life of him switch off his brain and fall asleep.

      Simon scrubbed at his eyes, then went back to staring up at the froofy-ass canopy of the giant white bed. Their final conversation kept playing over and over in his mind, which was already numb with exhaustion. Whatever had been going on back there at the farm, Simon was unable to comprehend it. Every repetition of the scene saw it get darker and thicker, like mud, as Simon drifted slowly down towards a state of half-sleep; it didn't get any clearer, however, and Simon benefitted from no sudden, startling insights.

      A thumping noise from one side of the room yanked him back to consciousness like a dash of water to the face, and Simon was up on his elbows before the sound even died away. "Archer?" he said, awash in relief. "Jesus, that is just like you, waiting until I'm damn near asleep—"

      No one said anything. Jeremy failed to appear. Simon hauled himself up a little bit further and squinted, trying to see into the shadows gathering at the corners of the room. There was another faint thump, and then the dim bar of light under the door to Johnny's room flicked off. Simon blinked. "Oh," he said, and let himself fall back into the pillows.

      He woke up again barely five hours later to a dull, gray morning and someone pounding on his door. Simon lifted his head from the pillow and made a face. "Yeah," he rasped, shoveling his hair out of his eyes.

      "Templar, Stone says to come right away," Nate called from the other side of the door. "Someone's triggered the machine-killer!"

      Suddenly, Simon was wide awake. He kicked free of the covers and swung his legs out of the bed, wincing at the residual soreness in his muscles but too focused to pay it any attention. "Tell him I'll be right there!"

      "Okay, Templar!" Nate pattered away. Simon heard him stop and thump on Johnny's door.

      Simon grabbed his jeans off the floor and kicked his way back into them, making a face at the slight damp patches hiding along the seams. Scrubbing a hand up along his stubble, Simon winced, then decided that shaving was right out of the question today; he ran his fingers through his hair, called it good enough, and headed for Dave's room, still barefoot.

      Sandra was already there when Simon knocked and let himself in, but Simon barely spared her a glance before going to lean over Dave. "Stone," he said. "Tell me what's happening."

      "They put the disk in a drive about, uh, ten minutes ago," Dave said, glancing at the clock on his computer's taskbar. The alarm must have woken him: his hair was a reddish rat's nest and he hadn't put a horrible shirt on yet, although he'd managed to acquire pants, fortunately for everyone's sanity. His eyes were completely mad with anticipation. "I don't know if they've figured out what's going on yet. I don't think so. The files look like the real deal if you don't look too closely."

      "So what's happening now?" Simon put his hands on Dave's shoulders and gave them an encouraging squeeze.

      Dave didn't quite wince, although he did duck his head a little. "The computer they used was connected to the internet," he said. "It sent me a little squirt of data to acknowledge that it had been triggered, then started tagging everybody that that computer had ever been used to communicate with. The virus is out and working now—it's too late to, say, unplug the first computer and stop it."

      Simon's rush of vicious triumph was almost visceral. Behind him the door opened and Johnny came in. Simon ignored him. "So tell me what all that stuff means," he commanded, stabbing a finger at the rapidly-scrolling window in the middle of Dave's computer, which was filling with gibberish faster than Simon could ignore it.

      "Well, that's..." Dave trailed off, then pointed to something else. "That's..." He trailed off again, then shook his head. "Most of it is just bookkeeping," he said. "I mean, it's important to me, but it's meaningless to most people. What you need to watch is this number, here." Dave tapped the rightmost column, which currently read 52. "That's the number of computers that the machine-killer has identified as potential targets and started installing itself on." The number jumped to 65 even as Simon watched.

      "That many?" Simon said. "Already?"

      "Some people leave their computers on all night," Dave said, with a sheepish glance at the array of laptops spread out across the desk. All of them were, of course, on. "But really, I mean, that's kind of slow. It'll go up a lot faster once people in Moscow wake up and start turning on their computers."

      "Kind of slow," Simon repeated. Mike popped in from the indigo room, still knuckling sleep out of his eyes, followed by Nate. The number jumped to 81. Simon shook his head in wonderment. "So," he said. "What's the next step?"

      "Right now I just let it run," Dave said, glancing at the scrolling window. "I'll let it run freely for, uh, probably about forty-eight hours, unless the number of infected computers goes way higher than I'm expecting. I'll need to hang around here and keep an eye on things, just to make sure."

      "Okay," Simon said. "And after two days?"

      "I'll alert the right people to the virus and release the patch," Dave said. "I can't guarantee that the virus will take out all of Karpol's machines—"

      "I can," Simon said grimly, remembering that monstrous pile of paper that Langridge had dumped on him. Thinking about Langridge jogged his memory—"Oh, shit," Simon said, dropping into a crouch. "We're taking down Karpol's network via email spam—I bet there are like forty spooks already running around CIA headquarters trying to make sense of this huge spike in viral emails. Hell, I bet we'll take out some computers at the CIA if they're not on the ball." He paused. "Langridge is going to be so pissed. Or maybe think it's hilarious. I'm not sure."

      "Better hope she never finds out it was you," Sandra said dryly.

      "Better hope the CIA never finds out it was us," Simon said. "Stone, when you put the patch out there, make it as anonymous as you can, okay?"

      Dave nodded, most of his attention on the window. "Already in the cards, Templar," he said. "Everything's already as anonymous as I can make it. I mean, we might be in some trouble if they're able to analyze people's coding styles, but since it's mostly mine overlaid over Mr. Story's, I think we'd be okay even then."

      Simon straightened up and dragged over a chair, the better to watch. The number in the window was 102. Simon permitted himself a nasty grin.

      Simon sat around and watched for a while, as the number ticked steadily upwards. It had been fascinating at first—and sweet revenge, to imagine what was happening out there—but there was only so long he could sit around watching nonsensical numbers before he remembered that he'd only had five hours of sleep on top of a long, long yesterday. "Is anything likely to change in the next couple of hours, Stone?"

      "No?" Dave said. Unlike Simon, he was still fascinated, probably because he knew what all those numbers meant. "I mean, I don't think so. It's just going to spread for a while. It hasn't even started destroying computers yet. It's still preparing."

      "In that case, I'm going back to bed." Simon stood up and slung his chair back under the desk. "Send someone to wake me if anything changes, but otherwise I'm just sitting here watching numbers go scrolling by, and I need my beauty sleep."

      "Aww, boss, I don't know how to tell you this, but I've always thought you were pretty enough just as you are," Mike said, right on cue.

      "Those of you who want more sleep, go get it," Simon said, ignoring Mike. "The rest of us have nothing of importance to do today, thank Christ. Dave, you need anything, food or whatever, you ask for it. Okay?"

      "Okay, Templar," Dave said, eyes once again glued to the scrolling window.

      "And someone fetch the poor guy a shirt," Simon said, heading for the door.

      Simon woke up just before noon. Four more hours of sleep had gone a long way towards fixing what ailed him, and a shower fixed most of the rest; now all he needed was coffee to make him wholly human. Simon headed for Dave's room.

      Nate was, once again, asleep in his clothes on Dave's rumpled bed. Dave's hair lay a little flatter and he was actually wearing a shirt this time, but he still looked pretty awful. "Morning again, Stone," Simon said, shutting the door loudly enough to jog Nate back to consciousness. "I'm guessing by the state of your demi-beard that you haven't been paying sufficient attention to your personal hygiene this morning."

      "What?" Dave said. "Oh. Um. No. I'm kind of afraid to leave the monitoring software alone. Just in case something goes wrong."

      Nate sat up and took off his glasses, rubbing his eyes. "Hey, Templar," he said, his voice gritty.

      "Oh, hey, morning, Sleeping Beauty," Simon said. "Do I need to chase you back to your own room again?"

      "I'm fine," Nate protested. He slid off the bed and pattered over, leaning over Dave's shoulder to check the window.

      Simon, thus reminded, also checked the window. The number he'd been told to watch stood at 1153. Simon blinked, looked away, and then checked it again. 1153. "Is that number right?" he said, tapping the offending number. "Has the virus really found over a thousand computers with parts of Rich's file on them?"

      "Apparently so," Dave said, scratching at his cheek. "I don't find that number unreasonable."

      "Huh," said Simon.

      "If it goes significantly over three thousand, then I'll be worried," Dave said. He picked up the tail of his shirt and rubbed away the fingerprint that Simon had left behind, making the laptop's screen fluoresce into rainbows for half a second. "But given the scale of Karpol's suspected operations, a thousand is nothing."

      Simon blew out an appreciative breath. "Man, talk about grabbing a tiger by the tail."

      "Tell me about it," Dave said, with a jagged, nervous laugh. "About an hour ago the number jumped by over three hundred in one go and scared the shit out of me until I realized it had either hit Karpol's personal machine or some higher-up's, you know, someone who issues orders from on high to a whole bunch of employees?"

      "Jesus," Simon said, swaying in place. "That's a rush."

      "It'll probably do that again, too," said Dave. "Although by this point I don't know how many new machines it'll find. It has to be hitting a lot of duplicates already."

      Simon looked at the screen again. 1158. "Yeah, it's slowing down some," he said. "Anyway, I'm gonna go grab some lunch. Are you hungry? 'Cause I'll bring something up for you if you want."

      "Yes, please," Dave said fervently. "Anything. And coffee. Please."

      "That's my boy," Simon said, socking Dave on the shoulder. "Nate? You wanna come with?"

      "Um..." Nate looked at Dave. "If you want to run take a quick shower, I can watch it for five minutes?"

      Dave plucked at the front of his shirt and thought about that for a while. "Maybe after I eat," he finally said.

      "In that case, I'll come with you, Templar," Nate said.

      "Right," Simon said, heading for the door. "Let's go, then. I'm starving."

      "Well, shit, I hate to let it go to waste," Mike said, scowling at the open fridge.

      Sandra sighed, kicking her feet absently. For lack of anywhere better to sit, she was perched on the island. "I don't actually feel comfortable here without Jeremy around, is the thing."

      "Yeah, and I don't feel comfortable about wasting a whole pound of pancetta," Mike said. "I mean, this is the real deal here."

      "Foodie," Sandra said accusingly, although she ruined it a moment later by laughing. "Hey, Templar."

      "Hey, kids, let's not stoop to namecalling," Simon said. Nate slid by him and headed for the fridge. Simon propped his elbows on the counter and considered his options. "So am I on my own for lunch or has Julian Child over there whipped up something marvelous?"

      Mike thumped his forehead with both hands, groaning. "Goddamn but I am never gonna live this shit down," he said. "It's just me at my place, so either I cook or I starve, you know? Ain't yet found myself a properly subservient woman, you know how it is."

      Simon automatically glanced at Sandra, who shrugged. "What?" she said. "He's right. He hasn't."

      "Yeah, okay, point," said Simon, looking back at Mike. "But, see, I live alone too, and yet you don't see me jumping at the chance to cater this event, do you?"

      "I didn't jump, Templar!" Mike squalled, affronted. "Maybe hopped a little, but shit, you wanna eat Texas' cooking?"

      "I don't know. Does Texas cook?"

      "I ain't gonna win this fight," Mike declared. "So to hell with you. Make your own lunch."

      Simon shrugged, playing the graceful winner, and headed for the breadbox. "Someone's PMSing," he noted in passing. Mike flipped him off, snickering.

      After checking the level on the coffeepot and finding it acceptable, Simon set about assembling two sandwiches from what was left in the fridge. The supplies were beginning to look a bit picked over, but he was successful in producing something that looked at least edible and filling; Simon packed Nate off to the blue room with one and bit into the other. "So what's up with you guys?" he said around his mouthful of bread and prosciutto. "Besides ragging on our superstar chef, that is."

      Sandra shrugged. "Not much, actually. Which is kind of nice, now that I think about it. I was thinking that after lunch I'd go see about calling that cargo company and booking us our flights home."

      Simon paused, then swallowed. "Yeah, that's a good idea," he said. "Give Stonewall his forty-eight hours, since I don't really want him stuck on a plane over the Atlantic with the machine-killer still propagating, but all in all I think I'd feel better if we got out of here soonest. No matter what Archer said."

      "Yeah, same here." Sandra looked around the gigantic kitchen, mimed a shudder, and went back to kicking her heels against the island. "Do you want to fly back with us, Simon? Or is there some reason you'll need to leave separately?"

      Simon ate another bite of his sandwich while he considered this. "Go ahead and book me in with the rest of you," he said, digging out his wallet with his free hand. "But I don't want my real name on a passenger manifest for even a day or two, since I left the country on the down low without an alibi. So, uh." He put his wallet down on the island and flipped awkwardly through it one-handed, eventually scrabbling out the Iowa driver's license that identified him as 'Simon Moorhead'. "Book me with that one," he said, skimming it towards Sandra.

      Sandra picked the license up and studied it. "Good picture," she eventually said.

      "I know, Christ, if only my real license looked anywhere near that good. Anyone who saw my DC license would think I was tweaking." Simon stuffed more of his sandwich into his mouth.

      Sandra turned the license over to inspect the back, her face neutral. "How good a fake is this?" she asked.

      "Good," Simon said, swallowing. "I flew here from England on it with no problems. It's made by the same guy that makes all of Archer's stuff."

      "What are you going to do with it once we get back home?" Sandra tucked Simon's fake ID into her shirt pocket.

      "Christ, I don't know. Have it framed as a souvenir? Live a double life: hero of the FBI by day, male stripper by night?"

      "Be still my fuckin' heart," Mike said, clutching at his chest and staggering.

      Simon shook his head sadly, then glanced at Sandra. "He talks such a good game, but he's never once come through and stuck a twenty-dollar-bill down my pants."

      "I, for one, am pleased by this lack," Sandra said dryly, even as Mike yanked out his wallet and started rifling ostentatiously through it.

      After lunch, Simon poked his head into Dave's room long enough to ascertain that nothing of any substance had changed—the number now stood at 1204—and then went back to his own room and threw everything that was nominally his onto the bed.

      Sandra had put his barely-used ROS gear in the closet, out of some chick urge to put everything neatly away where it belonged. Most of it Simon piled neatly on the riot shield. The black pants and turtleneck he decided to keep, though, dumping them on the floor with the rest of his dirty laundry; he dithered over the combat boots for a while before deciding to postpone that decision and putting them in a third pile all by themselves.

      His own ID papers and the 'Trent Darcy' ID papers went into the pocket of his duffel, out of sight. Simon was sitting crosslegged on the floor disassembling his hideout gun and trying to decide what to do with it when someone knocked on his door. Sandra let herself in. "Here's this back," she said, skimming the 'Simon Moorhead' ID at him.

      Simon swatted it to the floor, then picked it up and slotted it back into place in his wallet, completing the image of 'Simon Moorhead'. "Thanks, Spring," he said. "So tell me, is it wrong to sort of want to take those boots home with me? I mean, wearing combat boots seems kind of tacky if you're not in the military or, alternately, in college and majoring in 'asshole', but they're really comfortable. Also, I don't know, seriously manly."

      "You think that's tacky?" Sandra said. "I'm thinking about taking mine back with me, too."

      "Whoa, hello there, Butch." Simon considered this. "Actually, now that I think about it, that's kind of hot."

      Sandra sighed, slumping back against the doorframe. "That's what Mike said."

      "Of course that's what Mike said." Simon leaned way back, flailed around until his fingers landed on the combat boots, and moved them into the 'going home with me' pile. "So what's up with our flight back?"

      "We'll go out on Monday morning," Sandra said. "We'll fly through Frankfurt—don't ask me why, all cargo goes through Frankfurt, it's a thing—and get back into DC at some ungodly hour about sixteen hours later. Sound good?"

      "Good enough," said Simon. "How well do they X-ray you? Have I got any chance of taking this gun home with me?"

      "Not without a suitcase that locks and an awful lot of hassle," Sandra said.

      "Crap." Simon hefted the half-assembled SIG and considered it. "I'll think of something," he decided, putting it back down. "Anything else I need to know?"

      Sandra shrugged. "Not that I know of." She pushed herself up and thumped on Simon's door. "Catch you later, boss."

      "Yeah," Simon said, distracted. Sandra shut the door behind herself.

      Simon finished sorting through his things, moved the stack of ROS gear to one of the couches in the conversation pit, and lugged his laundry down to the laundry room, a lengthy endeavor. Having to walk a quarter of a mile just to wash his clothes was something that Simon was not going to miss at all. The turtleneck and pants were still soggy to the touch and already starting to smell unpleasant. Simon dumped in an extra half-cup of detergent, just in case.

      Once back in his room, he stood in the center of the cavernous white space and surveyed every inch of it. He didn't think he'd forgotten anything, since his eye didn't fall on anything that jogged his memory. Simon put his clean clothes in a pile on one of the chairs in the conversation pit, vaguely half-in and half-out of his duffel bag, stood the combat boots at the foot of the chair, decided that he was done, and headed out.

      Dave had snatched a shower at some point, although he still looked pretty haggard. The empty dishes from his lunch still sat in a stack on the corner of his desk, abandoned; Nate was nowhere to be seen but Johnny was flopped out in one of the armchairs, staring up at the clouds on the ceiling with his hands tucked behind his head. Simon raised a hand in Johnny's direction, then went over to peer at the laptop's screen. The counter read 1054. "Uh," said Simon.

      "Huh?" Dave said, looking up from one of his other laptops.

      Simon pointed to the offending number. "Isn't that lower than it was?"

      "Oh! That's right, you didn't..." Dave scooted his chair around and squinted at the window. "The counter hit fifteen hundred machines infected, so I went ahead and triggered the second phase. Every time the virus finishes killing a computer, it decrements the counter by one."

      "So eventually that counter will go back down to zero," Simon said.

      Dave considered this, then made a seesawing gesture with one hand. "Once they figure out what's happening, they may start pulling the machines' plugs to try and stop the process. That'll fuck up the counter bigtime."

      "Huh," Simon said, scratching at his cheek. His stubble itched almost worse than the light burn did. "So what'll happen if they do that?"

      "Well, the hard drive won't be fully erased, but there's no stopping the virus right now without reformatting the computer, which would destroy all the data on it anyway," Dave said. "And the virus finds and eats Mr. Story's file first, just in case."

      "Okay, hang on, hang on, just a second," Simon said. He grabbed the back of Dave's chair in both hands and closed his eyes. "I need to take a minute to properly appreciate the spectacle of Rich assfucking Karpol from beyond the grave." Simon swayed back to the full length of his arms and let his head fall back. "Mmmmm." Straightening back up, he opened his eyes. "Okay, I'm done."

      "Ain't it a thing," Johnny said, behind him. "Ain't it just a fuckin' thing."

      Simon checked the counter just as it jumped from 891 to 620. Simon blinked. "Jesus, that was fast."

      "Well, they all simultaneously got the signal to start deleting," Dave said. He paused for a moment, letting his head fall forward like he was praying. He sighed out a long, deep breath, then folded his hands together in his lap and looked back up. His expression was crazily serene, like some kind of warrior saint. "We'll actually destroy all fifteen hundred of those initial machines in something under twenty minutes," he said. "I can't even begin to count the number of laws I'm breaking here. Fifteen hundred machines in sixty-two countries, twelve languages, and twenty minutes."

      Simon exhaled shakily. "If you say that again, I will probably come in my pants," he said. "So don't say that again."

      "I've never felt so powerful in all my life," Dave said reverently. Then he blinked. "Uh. I mean about Karpol. Not about your pants."

      "Well, Christ, I hope not," Simon said, cracking up.

      The counter stood at 230 by the time Simon let himself back out of Dave's room. Once out in the hallway Simon allowed himself a moment of reverential awe, slumping back against the wall and staring unseeing out of the windows with his mouth gaping open—then he shook himself, stood up, and headed down the hallway to the black room.

      The door was unlocked, the room beyond it a perfect cave. Simon closed the door behind himself and groped along the wall for the light switch, his eyes superimposing explosions of static over the utter blackness; by the time he found the switch and flipped it, his eyes had already grown as used to the darkness as was possible and Simon nearly blinded himself. He shielded his eyes with one hand until they adjusted, then went in search of the other light switches.

      A couple of minutes later the room was as bright as it could possibly get, which was to say, not very. Some kind of crazy art-deco chandelier hung over the bed, all chrome and mirrors and frosted glass—if that thing ever fell, it would impale whoever was sleeping below it like the Sword of Damocles—and the rest of the room was lit by recessed halogen lights. Even with all the lights on, the black walls and ceiling failed to look cheap or at all faded. Either the paint job was very new, or very expensive, or both.

      Simon glanced at the bed, noting the rumpled covers casually flicked back at one corner as if Jeremy had only gotten up to use the restroom and intended to come right back, then turned his attention to tossing the room. He didn't bother to cover his tracks. In a strange way, he was certain that Jeremy expected this of him.

      Jeremy's suitcase still sat by the dresser, about a third full of clothing, mostly fancy underwear and socks. Simon picked up the suitcase and dumped it out on the bed, then tossed it aside. Stirring the contents with one finger, Simon ascertained that there was, indeed, nothing in there but the smaller articles of clothing. He picked up the suitcase again and spent a good five minutes going over it in detail, opening all the pockets, comparing the inside to the outside, looking for hidden compartments or loose spots in the lining. He found none. That didn't mean that they weren't there, but after five minutes Simon ran out of ideas. He shoveled the clothing back into the suitcase and put it more or less where he'd found it.

      Two of Jeremy's fancy black linen suits hung in the closet, a pair of black shoes set neatly under them. A third suit, rumpled and smelling faintly of sweat, had been stuffed into a canvas laundry bag that hung from the pole. Simon, vaguely curious, pulled down one of the clean suits and poked through it: it was well-made and felt expensive, but had no tags whatsoever, not even in the pants. There was nothing in the pockets, and as far as Simon could tell, nothing sewn in the lining, either. Simon put the suit back on its hanger, making only a vague effort to make it hang right, and put it away. As long as he was at it, he checked the shoes, too. No identifying markings, but all the sorts of details that screamed 'money', combined with odd soles that were made out of something that wasn't exactly soft black rubber, but felt kind of like it. Simon caught himself being fascinated with the soles of Jeremy's shoes and made himself put them down, feeling like an idiot.

      The briefcase Jeremy had taken with him. The dresser yielded nothing but a small stack of folded silk t-shirts, both white and black, the material so fine that the entire pile was no taller than Simon's palm was wide. Simon pulled the stack apart anyway, just to make sure there weren't papers hidden between them, then dumped the t-shirts back into the drawer and closed it.

      The only thing left in the bedroom was the obsidian-and-chrome desk. The little silver lockbox sat on it, the lid still ajar. Simon flipped it open: empty. Dropping into the desk chair, Simon started pulling out drawers. He found all kinds of pens and notepads and other assorted office supplies, but nothing of any real interest, not even wedged in the back.

      He was beginning to run out of ideas. Simon headed for the glossy-tiled echoing cavern of the bathroom.

      The signs of Jeremy's occupation were stamped on the bathroom, too, but only lightly. The black towels were hung crookedly on the rack, and a few abandoned toiletries stood here and there, all foreign, all expensive-looking, all jarring against the black-tiled expanse. Simon idly picked up the froofy shampoo, read the label, and put it down again. Rummaging through the cabinets yielded him nothing of interest, just a razor and some kind of equally froofy shave gel, which Simon put back.

      Wandering back out into the main room, Simon plunked into one of the armchairs in the conversation pit and closed his eyes against the too-bright light above. There was nothing here that Jeremy couldn't just walk away from, but all the same, he'd left a lot of expensive things here. And he'd told Simon to leave behind anything that he didn't want to take, so... Jeremy would be coming back here, sooner or later, in order to clean up.

      Simon turned this conclusion over in his head a few times. It was an interesting conclusion, but not terribly useful. He was done here, having done exactly what he'd come to do, and he needed to get home before Upstairs noticed that he was gone. He couldn't just hang around waiting for Jeremy to turn up—and he wasn't going to, either, Simon hastily amended, grumpy at himself.

      Turning sideways in his chair, Simon scanned the black room. Jeremy had left behind no notes, no incriminating items, no stacks of banded Euros, no nothing. In short, tossing the room had netted Simon nothing but a bit of distraction. The total lack of dramatic gestures was in itself comforting, though. Simon got up and turned the lights off, then let himself out of Jeremy's room.

      Late that night, after dinner, he went back.

      The virus counter had stabilized in the low thirties, much to Dave's satisfaction. Things were quiet on the viral front now, with occasional bursts of activity as people who hadn't turned their computers on all day finally did so. Dave had managed to tear himself away long enough to have dinner with the rest of them, and now he claimed to be thinking about sleeping, although Simon would be surprised if he actually did so.

      Everyone crashed early by mutual agreement, intent on catching up on their sleep. By the time Simon let himself out of his room and padded barefoot down the hall towards Jeremy's room, the lights were out in every single room. The air conditioner covered the sound of his footsteps nicely.

      It was so dark in the black room that there was no chance of Simon's eyes adjusting to it, but he didn't want to turn on the lights and spoil this odd mood that he was in. Accepting the stubbed toes and barked shins in his near future, Simon groped his way over to the chair nearest the door and dropped his bundle of clothes onto it, then used it to orient himself towards the bed. He gingerly edged in that direction, his hip bouncing off a couch in passing. Fortunately, the couch was well padded.

      For the space of a few vertiginous moments, the darkness that Simon groped through might as well have been unbounded, infinite, and empty. The only thing that existed for certain was the cool marble floor under his bare feet—a little too cool, making Simon shiver. Finally his outstretched fingers brushed against the edge of the bed, and Simon stopped a bare inch before his toes could have collided with the raised dais that the bed stood on. Simon grabbed a handful of covers, stepped up onto the dais, and slid carefully into the exposed space that Jeremy had left behind when he got up the morning before.

      The heavy comforter and the black sheets were icy against his skin for a minute or so before they consented to take on the heat of Simon's body. Simon burrowed into the black bed and breathed deeply, aware first of the silence, and then of the faint scent of Jeremy's hair stuff lingering on the pillow.

      It served to focus his mind just as well as he'd been hoping. Settling into Jeremy's spot Simon gazed blindly off into the blackness and called to mind the events of yesterday, dimly pleased at how easily and clearly they came to him. Simon began at the beginning and went right through, carrying the memories into sleep with him even as they dimmed and diffused and became dreams, instead.

      He slept like a rock for close to twelve hours. His infrequent dreams were strange, wandering things, sometimes pleasant, sometimes not; for the most part he simply slept, too deeply asleep even for dreams.

      At some point during that long, deep sleep, his mind alphabetized the confusing welter of images from the past few days, sorted them into their little boxes, and labeled each box with a clear explanation. Simon woke in a darkness as absolute as that in which he'd fallen asleep, his face itchy and dry enough to flake, two days' worth of stubble nearly lacerating his palms when he rubbed his face, and discovered without surprise that everything finally made a kind of sense, just a couple of days too late.

      Simon rolled onto his back and opened his eyes, gazing blindly up at the ceiling. "Oh," he said. "Oh."

      Later on, looking back, Simon could never say exactly when his new grasp of the simple facts as they stood developed into a full-blown comprehension of the situation, only that it did.

      The black room, with its oddly soothing windowless black walls that kept out the rational sand-blasting of the sun, encouraged navel-gazing introspection of a sort that Simon usually snorted at. Simon's resistance was already low, though, and he didn't bother to fight it this time, wandering into the bathroom deep in thought. By the time he'd finished showering and dressing, the world had turned silently on its ear, ninety degrees to the up, leaving Simon possessed of an understanding and a newfound resolution that didn't scare him quite as much as he thought that it ought to.

      He put his hand on the doorknob, paused for a moment to inspect that resolution, then opened the door and stepped out into the morning-bright hallway, nearly blinding himself again. By the time his eyes adjusted, his time in the black room seemed like a particularly stupid dream... but his decision was fundamentally unshaken. It didn't even look stupid in the clarity of morning light. Simon filed this realization away, then closed the door behind himself and went in search of lunch.

      Not even lunch with most of his jeering, laughing, tomato-throwing team could change Simon's mind, although the impromptu tomato fight certainly took his mind off it for a few minutes. "Welp, guess we won't be havin' those for dinner," Mike said cheerfully, wiping tomato guts off his t-shirt and flicking them into the sink.

      "Yeah, no, gross," said Simon. "Also, I'm sure it goes without being said that either you guys clean that up or I start busting heads, right?"

      Sandra clamped a hand over her eyes, her shoulders dropping in defeat. "We definitely need to go home before anything worse happens," she said. "What kind of a life am I Ieading, where I need to explicitly state things like 'don't throw overripe tomatoes at each other inside the kitchen of a multi-million-dollar villa that we're technically squatting in'?

      "Congratulations, you've just summed up the basics of my job," Simon said dryly.

      Sandra's head fell to the granite countertop with a thump. "Oh, my God," she said, folding her arms protectively over her head and muffling her voice. "That's it. I quit. I'm going to go marry a senator and be a political hausfrau. My mother will be thrilled."

      "Man, I ain't never thought about running for office before," Mike said, reappearing with a mop and a huge grin.

      After lunch Simon took himself off to his room—his own room, the white room, the explosion of sunlight—and called his cell phone back in Washington to check his messages, expecting none. Instead the automated lady on the other end of the line informed him that he had... one... new message, and then the line clicked over a recording of someone smoking so furiously at Simon that he could hear the crackle of the coal burning the cigarette paper. Simon winced, a shamefaced grin creeping up on his face.

      "Well," Langridge finally said, her voice uncommonly hoarse. She sounded tired, and put out, and unimpressed, and utterly Langridge. "I am assuming that you had something to do with that, Mr. Drake. I know you think I'm a senile old battleaxe, but I remember that conversation quite well, thank you, and if I ever see you again I shall exercise my old-lady rights and snatch you baldheaded. You are in so much trouble, young man. But, in the end, only with me." She paused long enough to suck down another lungful of crackling smoke, then blew it out in an irritated sigh. "I hope that a man of your obviously limited intellect is capable of comprehending just how lucky he is," she added, and then the phone banged down with an authoritative whack.

      Simon deleted the message and folded his own phone shut, overwhelmed with relief. "Thanks, Langridge," he told the walls of the white room. "And yeah, I think I am. You know. Capable of that."

      The second phone call didn't come for almost an hour, when Simon was laying on the couch that didn't have ROS gear on it and finishing up his book. Simon glanced at the screen, saw a number that didn't make any sense whatsoever—international call—and sat up so fast that he went lightheaded, snapping his phone open with a flick of his wrist. "Archer?"

      The world-weary laugh told him all that he needed to know about that, and then some. "I'm afraid not, Simon," said Ethan. "I'm told that I sound quite like him, though—"

      "—or that he sounds like you, but I met him first, so you're just going to have to suffer," Simon finished for him, flopping back down on the couch. "Oh, hey, and while I've got you on the line, allow me to thank you for not stranding me in Romania. I mean, I know it was tempting—"

      "Tell me, do you ever shut up?" Ethan asked, mildly enough.

      "When the mood strikes me," said Simon. "So what's up? I doubt you called just to hear the dulcet sound of my voice."

      "Heaven forfend," Ethan said, with a delicate little shudder that Simon could sense all the way down in Italy. "I actually have three things to say to you—do you think you can stop squirming long enough to hear me out?"

      Simon almost said something snide in response to that, then thought better of it. He shut his mouth and waited in silence, trying very hard not to crack up. After ten seconds or so of silence, Ethan sighed heavily. "Oh, yes, very funny."

      "I try," Simon said modestly.

      "At any rate. The first thing I wish to say to you is, of course, thank you. I'll admit I didn't have high hopes of your being of any use at all—"

      "—you know, I gathered as much—"

      "—but I'm told that in the end, you came through quite admirably. So: thank you."

      "Yeah," Simon said, weirdly touched. "You're welcome. I, uh, I appreciate it."

      "My God, it has manners," Ethan said, politely amazed.

      Simon snickered. "You really know how to stroke a guy's ego," he said.

      "As you'd say, Simon, I try." Ethan paused, either to collect his thoughts or to come up with a new round of insults. Dimly, in the background, Simon could hear the faint buzz of what sounded like television news. "The second thing I wish to say to you is more of a general assurance that everyone at this end of this mess is currently well."

      "Yeah?" Simon said, unsure of who all 'everyone' meant. "I'm guessing you mean yourself and Annabelle, at least."

      "At least," Ethan confirmed dryly. "Annabelle should be returning to the States and resuming her duties within the week, although she'll be shifting her base of operations somewhat drastically and we'll be adding a few more layers of general security."

      Simon nodded, even though Ethan couldn't see it. "Good to hear," he said, and then before he could think better of it, "And Jeremy?"

      "Currently well," Ethan said.

      Simon waited a second, then sighed. "That's all I get, huh."

      "I'm afraid so."

      "Figures," said Simon. "So... what's the third thing?"

      "Ah, yes." Ethan paused and shuffled around some papers. "The, ah, tangible expression of my gratitude."

      Simon frowned. "You mean... like a reward? Seriously, that's nice and all, but it really isn't necessary—"

      "You may think of it as a reward if you like, but I'd prefer if you thought of it as my paltry attempt to expedite your exit from my life." Ethan's voice was very dry. "I've hired you a plane back to the States."

      "I... uh." Simon floundered. "We kind of already have one."

      "Well, now you have a better one, because I'm in no mood to attempt to smuggle that damned gun of yours across country borders again. It departs Malpensa at approximately noon on Monday, although since you and your group will be the only passengers, it will wait on you to a certain extent. Have you a pen handy?"

      Simon sat back up, patting his pockets even though he knew that he wasn't carrying anything. "Crap. Hang on."

      "Hanging," Ethan said, pleasantly enough.

      There was a little writing desk in one corner of Simon's room that he'd barely looked at. Simon jogged over and dropped into the desk chair, yanking open the middle drawer and digging out a pen and a notepad. "Okay," he said. "Hit me."

      "Mm. Tempting." Ethan cleared his throat. "As it is a privately-chartered jet, there's no baggage screening or security checkpoints of any sort, save US Customs on the far end, and they tend to be somewhat... diffident when it comes to people who are able to afford private jets. I, for one, would be quite surprised if they so much as opened your bag." He gave Simon the flight details and a brisk summary of how to get to the private terminal; Simon jotted it all down. "I did take the liberty of registering you under the 'Simon Moorhead' name," Ethan finished. "Your ID should be more than good enough for that."

      "Got it," Simon said. "Only one problem."


      "My friends were kind of counting on, ah, editing the passenger manifests after the fact—"

      "I'm afraid they'll need their real passports to re-enter the country, but if you give the pilot the names you'd care to have substituted, he'll see to it." Ethan chuckled. "My God," he said, "what a conversation to be having with a man of your employment."

      "Yeah, well, you know what Jeremy says," Simon said, capping the pen and dropping it back in the drawer.

      "Jeremy says many things, Simon."

      "Christ, doesn't he just." Simon rolled his eyes. "But the one I was referring to was 'needs must'."

      "Needs must when the Devil drives," Ethan said, somewhat subdued.

      "Yeah," said Simon. "That." He paused, groping for something else to say, and ended up asking, "So, has St. John Thawte come by to pick up his identity and his money yet?"

      "Mm? Ah. Not yet," Ethan said, without so much as a significant pause. "Jeremy says that the fellow's most likely traveling slowly. Fair enough. That'll give Teddy more time to perfect the blighter's identity kit."

      Ethan didn't know—Simon slung an arm over the back of his desk chair, grinning like a demented loon. Jeremy was the same the world over. "Yeah, well, hope everything goes okay there," Simon said. "Anything else on your mind?"

      "No, no, I believe that's all." Ethan shuffled his papers again. "I suppose I ought to let you get back to what you were doing. Unless there was something on your mind?"

      Simon came within a hair of asking Ethan to pass a message on to Jeremy, then stopped himself. It wasn't time for that yet. "I think I'm good," he said instead. "Listen, thanks for the ride home, and I'll do my level best to never darken your doorstep again."

      "How very kind of you," Ethan said, and then he hung up.

      Simon folded up his phone and put it away, what remained of his smile fading quickly. Tearing off the top sheet of paper, he stuck it in his jeans pocket, then went off in search of Sandra.

      The rest of the weekend passed in a slow, dull, dreamlike haze. Simon felt like he was watching time go by from a distant vantage point, rather than actually existing in it; occasionally something would happen to engage his full attention—his team was downright brilliant at that—but five minutes later Simon would be merely observing the world again. He caught up on his sleep, and then some.

      The skin on Simon's face dried up and peeled off, exactly like the aftermath of a mild sunburn. Sandra hissed and tried to press a tube of some girly scented face cream on him, a little too late to do him any good; Simon refused it, contenting himself with scrubbing off the dry skin in the mornings and letting his beard grow. By Sunday night he was a scruffy blue-jawed thug with an odd, localized tan and a thousand-yard stare. His team never mentioned it, but they noticed. Conversations lagged when Simon wandered in and picked up again when he left. He paid it little heed.

      Most of his attention was directed inwards. The decision he'd come to upon waking on Saturday morning was not to be taken lightly, and thus Simon spent most of his time battering at its walls, trying to break it down or, failing that, to find its weak spots. In the end his resolution still stood firm, somewhat the worse for wear but still standing. Simon still wasn't as frightened by it as he felt he ought to be. In a weird, distant, too-calm way, he was looking forward to it.

      The virus sputtered along until Sunday, taking out another fifty or sixty machines after the initial apocalyptic takedown. Dave released both the worldwide alert and the patch at noon, with Simon's absent blessing, then shut down every last computer in his room and slept for sixteen hours.

      Simon didn't go into the black room again.

      Jeremy didn't call.

      Early Monday morning they threw everything that was theirs into the back of the van and left the monstrous villa behind for good. Simon (who had finally shaved that morning, with a lot of wincing) was entirely relieved to do so, and he was pretty sure he wasn't alone in that. A couple of them turned around to watch the villa recede in the van's back windows, but most of his team remained facing forward, anticipating home.

      The trip from the villa to Malpensa International Airport was close to three hours long, even at autostrada speeds. For the most part, it was a quiet ride. How much of that had to do with Simon's vague presence, he wasn't sure, but he was sure that no one was going to confront him about it. The only person who was likely to was Sandra, and she was too tactful to do it in front of everybody. He hoped, anyway.

      They didn't actually reach Malpensa until close to noon. Mike parked the van in one corner of the garage, dropped the parking-lot ticket onto the seat, and left the keys dangling from the ignition. "Merry Christmas, assholes," he said, cheerfully enough, hauling his duffel out of the back. "Don't say I never did nothin' for you."

      "Long as it's not going to rebound on you, Honda," Simon said.

      "Nah," said Mike. "Don't think my name ever got attached to it. Paid cash and everything."

      "Yeah? In that case..." Simon patted the van's lightly-scratched black side. "Godspeed, little doodle."

      "Don't do anything I wouldn't do," Mike added, ambling off towards the stairs.

      The charter company's offices were in a tiny low white stucco building that crouched in front of a massive airplane hanger like a frightened dog. Five minutes after they presented their IDs at the front desk they were being politely escorted to an aggressively new airplane with raked-back wings and a pointed nose cone. The closest they came to airport security was the fellow who double-checked their IDs against a list before running out the stairs for them; Simon, once again wearing his little SIG in its ankle holster, was both bemused and relieved by the lack.

      The plane was just large enough for eight massive beige leather armchairs, four in a group around a conference table and four in two rows in the back. It wasn't actually the nicest plane Simon had ever been on; that honor would have to go to the plane he'd taken to Reno/Tahoe two years ago, back when Jeremy had been nothing more than a temporary pain in his ass. Still, it beat the hell out of flying air-courier class or coach class, to say nothing of pregnant-bouncing-whale class. Simon collapsed into one of the seats at the back, fumbled out his seatbelt, and gazed peacefully out the window at the bustle of Malpensa while the rest of his team argued over seats.

      They were airborne less than twenty minutes later, and left Italy behind an hour or so after that. Simon sat up and craned his neck to watch Italy disappear in the distance; "Good riddance," he declared, falling back into his seat with an authoritative thump.

      It was a long, long day, a long flight, one in which the sun never quite managed to set as the airplane chased it across the Atlantic. Simon spent most of the flight either staring out of the window or trying to get some sleep. Most of the rest of his team passed the time playing aggressive four-handed poker around the conference table and occasionally shouting at each other; Dave tactfully picked the seat farthest from Simon and settled in to poke at his little palmtop computer, frowning. Simon didn't ask.

      After six hours or so of light and unsatisfying sleep, Simon gave up, fetched himself a double shot of espresso from the incredibly complicated espresso machine in the tiny kitchenette, and went forward to join the others. "Hey, folks," he said, leaning against the side of Sandra's seat. "Who's winning?"

      "Sandra," Nate said. "'Cause she cheats."

      "Biggest cheatin' cheat what ever cheated," Mike said in agreement.

      "I don't cheat," Sandra said, offended. "I'm just not going to look the other way when you all but show me your cards."

      "Cheater, cheater, pants on... uh, heater," Mike said. Sandra flipped him off.

      Simon took a meditative sip of his espresso, which was strong enough to kill a horse, just how he liked it. "She does play to win," he said. "You guys should know that by now."

      "You want us to deal you in?" Johnny asked, folding his cards onto the table. "Give you my seat, if you want."

      "Nah, that's okay," Simon said. "I'll just spectate for the time being. It's been a long... Jesus, has it really been a month?" He stopped to think about it. "Guess it has, more or less. Damn."

      Sandra went around the table gathering up everybody's discards and settled in to shuffle the deck. "Pretty successful month, I'd say."

      "Yeah," said Simon. He fell silent and watched them play poker for as long as it took him to finish off his coffee. The plane's engine droned on, a higher, whinier sound than that of a 727. Outside the sun still hadn't managed to set, and the Atlantic was a rich, unbroken grayish-blue underneath them. Eventually his little cup was empty and Simon carried it back to the kitchenette, rinsing it out in the postage-stamp-sized sink. His mind was elsewhere.

      He almost turned to retreat to his seat at the back of the plane. He got as far as looking in that direction. Instead, he caught the edge of the tiny sink in both hands and asked himself, one last time, if he really meant to go through with this. The answer was still 'yes'. Simon nodded to himself and went to poke Dave. "Yo, Stone," he said, raising his voice to be heard over the engines.

      "Huh?" said Dave, looking up at Simon and blinking. Now that they were heading back to the States, Dave was once again wearing what Simon thought of as a normal shirt. Vacation was over, apparently.

      "What's up? Anything you can't put off for a minute?"

      Dave glanced down at his palmtop. "Nothing much," he said. "I'm mostly just looking at the numbers from the virus run. Extrapolating from data. Not for any real reason, I guess. Just to know."

      "That's cool," Simon said. "I like it when my people know things. Can you come up front for a sec? I need to talk to everybody."

      "Sure, Templar," said Dave, shutting the lid of his palmtop. He had to fight with his little retractable table before it deigned to retract and let him stand up, but eventually he freed himself and followed Simon over to the conference table, taking up a position behind Nate's seat.

      Simon waited until the current round was done, then reached past Sandra to thump on the conference table. "Sorry to interrupt you guys, but I need to talk to you here for a minute."

      Johnny swept up the cards, tapped the deck on the table twice, and put it down. "Sure," he said.

      "'Sup?" Mike said, twisting halfway around in his seat so that he could see Simon. He was down to three dollars on the table and the distraction made him look positively cheerful.

      Now that they were all looking at him, Simon found himself at a loss for words. Where was he supposed to start—at the beginning, he supposed. They were waiting on him.

      "Folks, before we go any farther, there's something I need you all to know." Simon hesitated, then shook his head. "About Archer and me."