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Part Two, Chapters 5-9


      Simon carefully folded his phone shut and fumbled it back onto his bedside table, painfully alert and yet mentally stunned, like a deer in the headlights. One thing was clear, though, even in this state: there was no point in trying to get back to sleep, especially when his alarm was going to go off in a little over an hour anyway. It was two-thirty in the morning and he was up for the day. The thought nearly bowled him over with exhaustion. "Jesus, Archer, your timing is ass," Simon groaned under his breath, rubbing his face with both hands.

      Stubble rasped under his palms, and as if that were its cue, his bladder woke up and starting poking him. Simon groaned again and slapped off the alarm, stumbling out of bed and towards the bathroom, stripping as he went. His sweatpants and underwear joined yesterday's, left to rot wherever they fell.

      Jeremy apparently on the run, leaving behind a rat-like duplicate to be arrested in his place, and now the sudden specter of Viktor Karpol turning this from a cop farce into something much darker—it was too much to deal with all at once, especially with his brain as numbed as it was. Simon temporarily dismissed the whole mess in favor of getting himself into a hot shower as quickly and painlessly as possible.

      Once in the shower, Simon stuck his head under the spray and shut his eyes. His hair plastered itself to his forehead and curtained off his eyes. Wet, it was almost long enough to touch his cheeks; Simon vowed, as he did every morning, to get a haircut the moment that the goddamned Rappaport 'operation' was over and done with.

      After a minute or so spent in silent communion with the hot water, Simon shook his head and scraped back his hair. His brain started to slog along again, poking gingerly at the edges of this new complication. Did he believe it? Yes, he decided after a moment, he believed it. Viktor Karpol had the money, the connections, and the tenacity to pull the entire world down on Jeremy's head, if he so chose. And, as little as Simon liked to admit it, Karpol had a reason.

      Plus, people didn't just wake up one morning and start pretending to be Jeremy Archer—yes, ha ha, a certain Irishman to the contrary, Simon thought, thank you, brain—and even if they did, they didn't usually do it with Jeremy's full knowledge and apparent approval—yes, again, a certain Irishman to the contrary, thank you, brain—without a good, sound reason. Like, say, doing Jeremy a favor. A big one.

      Finally, and most essentially, Jeremy hadn't seemed to be lying. Of course he'd just woken Simon up in the middle of the night, which might have addled Simon's perceptions—but, Simon grudgingly had to admit, Jeremy didn't often bother to lie to him. Besides, what would be the point of lying to him about this? All he'd asked Simon to do was make a phone call—

      Now that he thought about it, Simon didn't like the sound of that phone call one bit. It was a perfectly innocent and even important thing to do, if everything Jeremy had said was true... but if even one part of Jeremy's story was a lie, then Simon would be sliding into a seriously gray legal area. If it was actually the law that was hot on Jeremy's tail, Simon would be aiding and abetting a criminal in his illegal activities—yes, in a different way than usual, thank you, brain.

      Simon was torn. He remained flummoxed by the problem until he was out of the shower and shaving, and then it came to him so abruptly that he nearly cut himself: he knew an easy way to check up on Jeremy's story, didn't he? Simon smiled at himself in the mirror and rinsed off his razor. Sure he did.

      It was still fully dark but already disgustingly humid when Simon left his apartment, shortly after three. The day was shaping up to be a scorcher; Simon was still sweating lightly from his shower and his jeans were sticking to his legs by the time he got down the stairs. He started the Jeep, then jacked the air conditioning up to full and stuck his face into the cool blowing air for a full minute before he put the Jeep into reverse. Summer in DC was hell, pure hell; not for the first time Simon mentally threatened to chuck it all and move to Alaska.

      Since he was out and about almost two hours early, Simon treated himself to a seriously unhealthy fried breakfast and then got a bag of assorted fried things to go. They were still steaming when he pulled into the lot at work, and he left two of them with the poor schmuck who'd been stuck with security duty at the gate; the rest he carried into the building with him, dumping them ceremoniously in front of Johnny. "Fried shit for you!" he announced. "Give Dave some, if he snaps out of it."

      "Huh?" Dave said, blinking rapidly.

      "Hot damn," Johnny said, digging into the bag with alacrity. "Might almost think you liked me or something."

      "Couldn't have that," Simon said. "Hey, good morning, Stone. I note that you are still here!"

      Dave shrank in his seat. "Please don't kill me," he said.

      "Nah, you get a pass because I turned up so early," Simon said, feeling magnanimous. "However, if you're still here in an hour, I'll kill you then. How's that sound?"

      "Like a threat," Dave said uncertainly. "Can I have some hash browns before I die?"

      Wordlessly, Johnny leaned back and held out a cardboard sleeve over his shoulder. Dave leaned forward and snagged it. Simon grinned and left them to their negotiations.

      He turned up the specific piece of paper he was looking for after only ten minutes of searching his desk drawers, which, for him, for this desk, was about as good as it got. Particularly since he'd made a vague effort to hide the paper from prying eyes and thus ended up hiding it from himself, as well.

      The piece of paper had ten random strings of letters and numbers written on it. The first two had been crossed out. Simon could only hope that first of all, the rest of them still worked, that second of all, their owner would be willing and able to communicate with him, and that third of all, she didn't just tell him to go piss up a rope. He carefully typed the third string into his email program and appended, then settled in to amuse himself.

Long time no annoy the shit out of me. Developed lung cancer yet? Enough small talk.
Need an unofficial favor, will owe you two unofficial favors. Good rate of exchange.
- S. Drake

      Simon studied the email, then sighed heavily, deleted the first part, and sent it. As fun as it might be, it probably wasn't the way to renew their friendship, or whatever it was that they had; he crossed off the third line on the sheet of paper and hid it from himself again.

      After that, it was just a matter of waiting to see who would pop up to annoy him first. The Norton Fowles front was silent, for which Simon was profoundly grateful; Upstairs was also silent, which Simon chose to take as a good sign. Jeremy didn't call back, not that Simon was expecting (or wanting) him to. The responsibility of the phone call that Jeremy had dumped onto Simon's shoulders niggled uncomfortably at him, but he didn't want to take the plunge there until he'd heard back from Langridge. Who was, of course, also being uncommunicative.

      Attempting to dismiss the whole mess—both messes—Simon settled in to get some pointless work done. Approximately two pounds of paper were waiting on the corner of his desk, fresh from the Portuguese translator in the other wing of the building. It promised to be excruciating reading. Simon kicked his feet up onto the corner of his desk and got down to it.

      Dave went home a few minutes before five, narrowly saving himself from death at Simon's hands. Sandra arrived and sent Johnny home. Nate came in an hour later, tiptoed in to deposit a fresh cup of coffee on Simon's desk, and tiptoed back out. Mike came bombing in. Simon stopped breathing a couple of times out of sheer boredom. And still, no one called. No one sent email. Simon was beginning to feel somewhat unpopular.

      He finished reading the translations around nine and actually went to the trouble of filing them himself, just to have something to do. Once they were filed in the proper places he tapped his fingers irritably on his desk, then kicked himself around and sent Upstairs a progress report.

      And still no one got in touch. By eleven, Simon gave up on the entire world and went out to get himself lunch, even going so far as to offer to buy the others lunch just to feel popular again. It worked nicely, and Simon returned to base just before noon laden down with bags and drinks.

      His cell phone finally rang just before one and Simon snatched it up in relief. He didn't recognize the number. Even better. He flicked his phone open. "Templar."

      "Mr. Drake," Dorothy Langridge said, enunciating each syllable coldly and clearly: Mis-ter Drake.

      Simon cringed and grinned simultaneously. He couldn't help it. It was so Langridge. "Langridge," he said. "And here I was beginning to think you were just going to ignore my cry for help."

      "Believe me," Langridge said, "I'd have loved to. And yet I have gone to all the trouble to find a working payphone, just so that I might ask you if you are an idiot."

      "Gosh, Langridge, I don't know. Am I an idiot? Why don't you tell me?"

      "In point of fact, Mr. Drake, you are an idiot. What on earth do you mean by sending such a cryptic email to an official CIA email address? Do you have any idea how many of my fellow spooks are going to take an interest in it?" Langridge paused in her diatribe long enough to light a cigarette. Simon heard the ratchet of her lighter. "I am going to be under light observation for weeks, damn you. This does not precisely put me in any mood to help you with your unofficial favor."

      "Aw, Dotty, you haven't even heard what the favor is," Simon said, putting his feet up on his desk and shutting his eyes. An exasperated exhalation from the other end of the line told him that his shot had hit home. Simon almost laughed.

      "Well," Langridge said after a pause and a second exhalation. "As long as you have me on the line, you might as well tell me what this is about. I could use a good laugh at someone else's expense."

      "You're a prince, Langridge." Langridge smoked hard, like it was the most important thing she was doing at any given moment, and listening to her wring the enjoyment out of it almost made Simon wish he had a cigarette of his own. Even one of Jeremy's faggy flavored things—Simon banished the thought, but it had already killed most of his good mood. "Do you remember the last time we met?"

      "You say that as if I could possibly have forgotten," Langridge said acidly. "Believe me, I remember."

      Simon opened an eye and glanced at the open doorway. No help for it. "You weren't the only person who got in trouble that day. Remember that?"

      "Yes, I remember that," Langridge said.

      "Well, that other person called me this morning and suggested that, uh, the events of that day have come back to bite him in the ass. In a big way. ... Jesus, listen to me, I sound like a spook myself. This kind of paranoia is going to make me old before my time."

      "As I recall, Mr. Drake, a touch of maturity would not hurt you any," Langridge said with asperity. However, she was also starting to sound interested. "And I suppose you want me to confirm or deny his story?"

      "That's about the size of it," Simon said, thumping his fist against his leg.

      On the other end of the line, Langridge was silent, except for the nearly-subliminal sound of her breath. Simon shut his eyes and waited. "I'll see what I can do, Mr. Drake," Langridge finally said. "Keep an eye on your personal email."

      Simon blew out a relieved breath. "A prince, like I said, Langridge. I owe you."

      "Big time," Dorothy Langridge said, with some satisfaction. "You have no idea. Forget taking it out of your hide: I am going to have you stuffed and mounted for my trophy room before all this is over."

      "Gosh, that's kinky, even for you, Dots," said Simon. "Still, guess it has been a long time since I've had a good mounting—"

      "—one more word along those lines and I will throw up, Drake," Langridge said sharply.

      "And we wouldn't want that," Simon said, feeling generous. "Thanks, Langridge."

      "Don't thank me," Langridge said. "I hate it when you thank me. Also, try to never contact me again. You bring me nothing but trouble."

      "Aw, Langridge, I thought that's why you liked me so much," Simon said, but Langridge had already hung up, and for the second time that day Simon found himself talking to an empty line.

      Simon had barely closed his phone before Mike appeared in the doorway, eyes alive with curiosity. "Who was that, boss?"

      "No one," Simon said, snapping his phone back into its belt clip. "Old friend, doing me a personal favor, which is shorthand for none of your goddamn business. What's up?"

      "Oh, uh, actually I was just gonna go have a piss—"

      "—not on me you're not—"

      "—aw, boss, that's not what you said last night," Mike said, faking dejection. "Anyway, it's just that you never said why the OPR wanted to see you, so I've totally been drinking myself into a stupor in mortal terror or some shit?"

      "Oh, right, sorry about that." Simon said, kicking his chair around and waking up his computer. "Turns out it wasn't about you anyway. Congratulations. You're safe as houses."

      Mike sagged against the doorframe in theatrical relief. "Oh, awesome, boss. If I'm going to get into shit with the OPR I want to know what I'm in trouble for, you know?"

      "Yeah," Simon said, rolling his eyes. "Me too."

      "So what'd they want?" Mike asked, straightening back up.

      Simon shrugged. "The guy wanted to clear up a few things about Farraday's death before we actually go to court. No big deal."

      "Ooh," Mike said dubiously, his face pinching shut in a wince. Like most of Simon's team, he was at least partially aware of the real circumstances behind Farraday's death. "Any, uh, any problems?"

      "Hope not," Simon said. "Go pee. Somewhere else, please. And by 'somewhere else' I don't mean the mat room."

      Mike, failing utterly to take the bait, glanced over his shoulder. "Yeah. Uh." He glanced back at Simon, chewing on his lower lip. "Yeah." After a false start, Mike tore himself out of the doorway and left Simon alone.

      The afternoon crawled by. There was silence on all fronts, for which Simon was mostly grateful; right now, after the events that had dogpiled on him yesterday, he found himself welcoming a little boredom. Despite his early start he grimly stuck it out as long as he could, eventually giving up around four, when he caught himself dozing off in front of his computer. Shaking his head to clear it, Simon shut his computer down and went out into the main room. "I'm out, Jesus," he said. "Honda, go home when Texas gets here, Specs, go home when Stonewall gets here, Springheel, why are you still here?"

      "Because I just love my job," Sandra said, pulling off her headphones and depositing them onto the table. "Mrs. Murchison on the third floor was just now sharing her recipe for chicken popovers with the crazy tinfoil lady on the first, and as a chick I am always interested in recipes and clothes and shit."

      "Goddamn, but I love the crazy tinfoil lady," Mike said reflectively, chewing on his pen. "Once this is all over I'm gonna go back to Brooklyn and ask her to marry me. We can have us a whole passel of mongrel babies. Dress 'em all in tinfoil."

      "Anyway," Simon said, jumping in before Sandra could actually tear Mike's head off. "Spring, go home, and don't forget that we're rolling the shifts forward on Friday. Anything I need to know before I head out?" No one said anything. "Great," Simon said, clapping his hands. "Get some rest. See you guys tomorrow."

      Simon's first priority after getting in the door was to crank the air-conditioning down another two notches. His second priority was Langridge's email, and accordingly, he headed for what was laughingly called his 'office'. Simon used his home computer so seldom that he had to clear a stack of old, paid bills off the keyboard before he could boot it up. Last year's tax return winked at him from the middle of the pile. Some day he should really file or shred most of this stuff.

      The computer booted up with a surprised sound. The monitor was covered with dust; Simon frowned at it and swiped his hand across the screen, leaving behind a clean swathe of glass. He swiped as much of the rest of the dust off as he could, then beat his hand against his jeans leg until it was reasonably clean. The ensuing dust storm made him cough, and there was now a gray smear on his thigh, but the monitor was visible, which was really all he could ask for.

      His personal email account was bulging with spam and junk, but nothing that looked like it was from Langridge lurked in the mess. Just to be safe, Simon paged through everything that had fallen into his inbox that day. Nothing. Simon sighed and deleted the entire contents of his inbox, then settled in. Might as well poke around on the internet until Langridge's email arrived.

      At five, with no email from Langridge in sight, Simon left the computer on while he ate dinner (the cold remains of last night's pizza). Nothing was waiting for him when he came back except a stray spam mail promising to add three inches onto his dick. Simon opened it anyway, just in case Langridge had a sick sense of humor. 'The ladies will love u', the spam mail informed him. "The ladies already love me," Simon informed his computer, deleting the email.

      Langridge still hadn't emailed him back at six, so Simon left the computer running while he showered again. When he returned, showered and wearing his last clean pair of sweatpants, his email inbox promised to sell him Viagra, cheap replica watches, and discreet male encounters. Simon checked them all, just in case. This was starting to get very, very old.

      By the time seven rolled around Simon could barely keep his eyes open. He'd gotten one more spam mail, this one promising to add four inches to his dick—the offers just got better all the time—but that was it. Nothing from Langridge. "To hell with it," Simon finally said, shutting down his computer and going the hell to bed.

      Addled by his unceremonious wake-up call of the night before, he slept like the dead for nine hours. When his alarm went off at four a still-exhausted Simon thrashed his way up and out of that deep, dark sleep and dragged himself into the bathroom more asleep than awake, so sluggish that he nearly dozed off again leaning against the wall of the shower.

      It took twenty minutes in the shower and two cups of coffee to make Simon feel even vaguely human, and he was still dragging ass when he dropped down in front of his computer in his underwear and started work on his third cup. "Come on, Langridge," he muttered under his breath, booting up his computer.

      The spambots had been busy overnight. Simon had no fewer than ten emails promising him this or that, but the third one down was from a dlang2121, entitled re: favor. The shock of recognition tingled in Simon's fingertips.

      The email was short and to the point:

Drake -
It is my considered opinion that your friend is indeed in a hell of a lot of Russian trouble.
- Langridge

      Simon stared at the single terse line for close to a minute, as if willing it to magically cough up more information, which he was too stupefied to process anyway. His mind clutched at the words and then slid right off. Eventually he caught himself at it and smacked the mouse, deleting the message without bothering to respond. Langridge wouldn't thank him for it.

      Entirely on autopilot Simon shut his computer down, eased out of his chair, and carried his half-empty mug into the kitchen, chugging down the last of the coffee before rinsing out the mug and putting it in the dishwasher. Shutting his eyes, Simon leaned forward against the rim of the sink, the metal of it cold through the front of his underwear. Gooseflesh prickled up along his bare belly. A hell of a lot of Russian trouble.

      Your friend.


      Simon shook his head sharply, trying to dispel the mental fog. After three weeks of sleeping funny, it was getting harder and harder to do. It was only a matter of time before he did something catastrophically stupid because he was so tired—he'd done it before—and he could only hope that whatever it was this time, it didn't screw him over with the OPR or kill Jeremy or something.

      Simon slapped his forehead, hard enough to sting, driving the fog back a few inches. "Jesus," he said, more to get himself moving than anything else. It worked. He padded out of the kitchen and went to get dressed.

      By the time he sat down on the foot of the bed to tie his sneakers, he was not precisely awake, but he could see awake from here. It didn't look inviting. All he could see from here was the fact that Jeremy was in trouble, on the run, possibly running for his life, and it was Simon's fault—Christ, the phone call!

      Simon grabbed for his cell phone, then hesitated. Sure, he could call Jeremy's 'service' at not-quite-five in the morning and root her out of bed, but there was just something so wrong about it. From Simon's admittedly cops-and-robbers viewpoint of the world, this cloak-and-dagger nonsense was just too Hollywood for words. How would Karpol's thugs get onto her anyway? Hell, Simon himself had once spent a couple of slow days trying to track down her location, and even with Nate's help he hadn't been able to narrow her hiding place down much further than 'Colorado or maybe Utah'. At the time he'd thought that that was a strange place for someone like Jeremy to stash his answering service, then gotten frustrated and given up. What resources did Karpol have that Simon didn't? ... other than the willingness to extract answers through violence. Shit.

      Simon thumbed his phone open with no further ado and punched in the number from memory. The phone started to click in his ear as the signal bounced through the relays, seven, eight, nine of them; there was a pause, and then the phone started to ring.

      Half-listening to the ringing, Simon went over to the dresser and picked up his wallet and keys, distributing them to the appropriate pockets. He clipped the empty cell-phone clip to his belt. The phone was still ringing. Simon closed his eyes, picked up his gun, and got the holster settled inside the back of his jeans, the barrel of his gun a comforting pressure against his tailbone. The phone was still ringing.

      Dressed now, Simon pulled the phone away from his ear and double-checked the number, just to be sure; he was so tired that he didn't want to swear to anything, but he was almost positive he hadn't misdialed. And the phone was still ringing...

      Abruptly, Simon snorted out an embarrassed laugh. It was nearly five Eastern time, which meant that in 'Colorado or maybe Utah' it wasn't even three—Jeremy's 'answering service' was probably too deeply asleep to hear the phone. Maybe she'd even turned off the ringer. "Yeah, that was bright," he said, jabbing the CALL CANCEL button. His voice was just a little uneven. He tried not to notice.

      Deciding that he'd try again once he got to work—where he could also double-check the number—Simon snapped his phone back into its holster and jogged back out into the main room, letting himself out the front door and into the sauna.

      "Oh, Christ," Simon said, stopping dead in the doorway.

      Johnny stared mournfully back at him from behind the monstrous pile of labeled CDs that was taking up the entire south half of the conference table. "Yeah, guess what," he said, yawning. "Newest batch of surveillance-camera footage came last night. Honda threatened to shoot the courier."

      "Didn't we just do this last week?" Simon said peevishly, getting himself moving again. The door thudded to behind him. "Why does it take so many CDs?"

      "Um," Dave started to say, looking up from one of his monitors. The man had three, not counting the laptop. It was sick.

      Simon held up a finger, forestalling him. "Rhetorical," he said, as kindly as he could.

      "Oh," Dave said. Behind him, the largest computer hitched, groaned, and shut itself down with a descending whirring sound. The computer he was in front of spit out one of the CDs; Dave pulled it out and stuck in another, then put the first one away in its case. It joined a sadly small pile of CDs on the floor by his foot.

      "Times like these I'd gladly give up most of my civil liberties just for a single copy of a facial-recognition program that worked more than thirty percent of the time," Simon said to no one in particular. "I mean, seriously, Big Brother can watch this shit all he wants if it'd save us the trouble."

      "Un-American," Johnny noted, yawning again. "Oughta tell the ACLU on you."

      "Always knew you wanted me to infringe your civil rights personally," Simon said, edging towards his office like the pile of CDs was threatening to jump him. "I gotta go make a quick phone call and deal with the daily crap and then I'll help with that. Okay?"

      "Okay," Dave said distractedly, already buried in footage. The largest computer rebooted and whirred back up. He ignored it.

      Simon escaped into his office with a definite feeling of relief, thumping into his desk chair and pulling open the dented top drawer of his desk. As always, it was a rats' nest of dead pens, old memos, and mostly-useless office supplies; Simon sighed and raked everything haphazardly to the front, then insinuated his hand past the pile of crap and wriggled it into the back corner. His fingers touched paper. Simon caught the envelope between his first two fingers and tugged it out.

      The envelope was torn and battered, so crumpled by now that it would never lay flat again. Some of the oldest creases were going soft and furry with wear. Almost but not quite two years ago—Jesus, had it actually been that long?—the envelope had held his electric bill; a certain someone had fished the empty envelope out of Simon's trash and written a phone number across it in a small, precise hand, crossing the sevens. Actually reading the number was beginning to be something of a challenge. Simon had to smooth the envelope out and pin it to the desk with both hands to check the digits. The ink was starting to fade, particularly on the creases. It was a little unsettling, that fading ink.

      Pinning the envelope down with one hand as best he could, Simon fished out his phone with the other and flipped it open, double-checking the number that he'd typed in earlier. As he'd suspected, it was correct. Ignoring the twinge in his belly, Simon hit REDIAL and put the phone back to his ear. He'd let it ring until someone answered, dammit—picking up the envelope, Simon shoved it back into the drawer and pushed it all the way to the back, shoving the drawer's contents back in after the envelope and doubtless crumpling it again.

      The phone was still ringing when Simon pushed the drawer nearly shut (it didn't close all the way any more) and turned his attention to the pile of paper that had been in the inbox this morning. Manipulating the pile one-handed was a challenge, but still possible, and he worked his way through the pile while listening with half an ear to the ringing.

      By the time he'd signed the last piece of useless paper and put it on the corner of the desk, the phone was still ringing. Of course, it wasn't even six, so it was still just around four in Colorado. Simon vowed to try again at lunch and hung up.

      After dropping off the papers in the outbox, Simon snagged an armload of CDs from the table and carried them into his office. Each one contained about half an hour's worth of high-resolution footage from one of three surveillance cameras overlooking a street in Brooklyn; thank Christ that the cameras were motion-activated, or there would be three times as many CDs on that table out there and no one would sleep again, ever.

      Simon put the stack on his desk, plucked a CD from the top, and shucked it out of its jewel case, scowling. This was a bullshit job. He knew it. They all knew it. They were 'cooperating' with the NYPD in a 'support position', doing all the eyes-and-ears work while the NYPD did the actual footwork—it was a PR stunt, a goodwill gesture, and it had been foisted off on Simon and his team because Simon had been shot in the chest six months ago. The latest casualty always got the cushy bullshit jobs. Simon almost, almost wished that someone else would hurry up and get shot.

      Unconsciously he touched the slight depression on his chest that was all that was left of the wound. He'd healed, done his physical therapy, and returned to work, running at close to ninety-five-percent capability after two months. Two months after that, four months after Farraday shot him, Simon was closer to ninety-nine percent, with barely a twinge and a dent left to remind him of the bullet. Six months down the road he was fine, better than fine, and itching to get back out there and do something important. Simon stuck the CD into the drive on his computer and vowed to raise hell if Upstairs tried to assign him any more desk work after this.

      The street flickered to life on his monitor, and Simon glanced at the sheet of mug shots to refresh his memory, then settled in to watch the parade of humanity. It was dull, dumb, repetitive, brain-killing work, and three weeks of it had left Simon's brain numb in more ways than one. In order to avoid front-loading too much work onto the day shift he had to keep switching people around, day shift, night shift, day shift; just when he was starting to get used to one sleep schedule, he'd have to trash it and start all over.

      They were all tired. Simon, filling in the blank spots in the schedule as well as supervising, was flat-out exhausted. Sometimes he could fight it off with coffee and needless physical activity, but sometimes he couldn't. And tomorrow he'd be pushing the shifts forward and staying up an extra eight hours—the thought nauseated him.

      "Christ, Archer, next time I see you I ought to pop you one," Simon muttered, fast-forwarding through a useless bit of the video footage and trying not to let himself think about the possibility of there not being a 'next time' at all.

      Outside in the other room his team members came and went. Simon noticed every time someone arrived for the day, because to a man (and woman) they all groaned aloud at the sight of the CDs piled high on the table; he noticed every time someone left because they were in such a hurry to go that the saferoom door slammed shut behind them. Other than that it was just Simon and the footage and a dim, nagging worry.

      Despite his palpable longing to take a break and get away, when lunchtime rolled around Simon only noticed because Nate popped up in the doorway and asked if he wanted anything from Subway. Out in the other room Mike bellowed in mock outrage. Simon surfaced long enough to laugh at them both; Nate scurried off, red around the ears.

      Simon watched the last ten minutes on the CD currently in his computer—two women sitting out on the stoop and fanning themselves just energetically enough to keep the motion-activated video cameras from shutting off, around here the excitement just never stopped—then ejected it, racked it into its case, and added it to the small but growing stack of CDs that had already been vetted. Kicking his chair around, he pulled his cell phone from its holster and hit REDIAL, listening to the phone on the other end ring while he stretched the morning's soreness from his muscles.

      No one answered. Simon couldn't say that he was all that surprised.

      He tried again when he got home at four. No one answered. Simon sighed, put the phone down on his bedside table, ate a bowl of cereal, and went to bed.

      The answer, so simple and clear, dawned on him with enough force to wake him shortly before his alarm was scheduled to go off at four the next morning. Simon scrubbed both hands over his face and laughed rustily aloud. Of course: when Simon had started dragging his feet, an exasperated Jeremy had made enough time to call and give the red alert himself rather than depend on Simon to do it. It would have taken him, what, thirty seconds at most? Jeremy's 'answering service' had been long gone by the time Simon had even thought to write to Langridge, let alone by the time Langridge had written him back.

      It was simple, plausible, and just like Jeremy, especially the part where he'd let Simon worry for twenty-four hours rather than call him back and inform him of the little change in plans. The relief of it (plus eleven hours of uninterrupted sleep) dropped a little backbeat back into Simon's groove. Not even the thought of staying in the office until midnight tonight could put more than a minor dent in Simon's newfound serenity.

      He did make one last attempt to call, though, on general principles, right before he headed out the door. No one answered.

      "Stone!" Simon said, letting the door slam shut behind him and snapping his fingers impatiently until Dave finally looked up. "How long have you been here, Stone?"

      Like something in a neo-Pavlovian experiment Dave immediately developed a hunted expression, hunching his shoulders. Simon found this pleasing. "Since six yesterday," Dave said warily. "PM. I promise."

      Simon looked at Johnny. "Is that true?"

      "Far as I know," Johnny said, shrugging.

      "Great!" Simon said, clapping his hands. "Texas, go home. You get a twenty-four-hour vacation, aren't you lucky? Stonewall, since you seem to be so inclined to never sleep again, I want you to stay as long as you can—five PM would be optimal but I'll take what I can get—and do the footage while I run the headphones. I'll get someone to take you home if I can. Specs and Springheel will turn up at some point this evening, Honda will come in around midnight, we all know this drill by now, Texas, why haven't you left yet?"

      "Enjoyin' the performance," Johnny said lazily, pushing himself up and out of his chair. "See you tomorrow, boss."

      "Not if I can help it," Simon said. He clapped Johnny on the shoulder as Johnny went by, then took the still-warm chair, picked up the headphones, and settled in. Johnny flapped him an absent wave and left, the door shutting behind him.

      Thought rapidly became impossible. While things were quiet at five in the morning, they'd started to pick up at six, and by seven Simon's head ached from trying to follow three different surveillance microphones at once. The trick was to unfocus: stop listening to the words and just let the sounds flow by, listening for anything that might be Rappaport's accented whine or his girlfriend's particular variety of shrill Portuguese or the grunting of the particular thugs that chose to run around with Rappaport for no real reason that Simon could determine. Simon was capable of maintaining that state of unfocus for a short while, but something would always make him tune back in every few minutes. He wished he had more backup. He took a couple of aspirin with his next cup of coffee.

      Dave kept up the flow of CDs in and out of his computer, looking more and more drawn as the day went on. His cheeks shadowed over with stubble, the bags around his eyes went puffy and dark, and his eyes themselves just got wider and wider as Dave lost himself in the video footage; he barely spoke, although sometimes he'd reflexively glance in Simon's direction if Simon moved. Simon took to occasionally snapping his fingers at Dave just to make sure Dave was still alive in there.

      Finally, right around noon, when the noise from the headphones was reaching its atonal apex, Simon looked up just as Dave ejected a CD. Simon checked his watch, then rubbed his face with both hands, the movement momentarily attracting Dave's attention. "Jesus, Stone," Simon said, his voice thick with disuse. "You look like something out of a refugee camp and I'm the one that's got to look at you over here. It's completely unfair to me. Take a break. Order us a pizza or something and then go wash your face."

      Dave blinked at him, slowly, then nodded and turned back to his computer. More or less accustomed to Dave's little weirdnesses by now, Simon just waited; after about five minutes Dave pushed his chair back and unfolded in a series of cramped and jerky little motions. "Pizza's on the way," Dave croaked, eventually getting himself upright. He put a hand on the back of his neck and cracked it twice. "Can I have some of those aspirin?"

      "Christ, take four, just watching you stand up is making my spine hurt," Simon said, pushing the bottle in his general direction. Dave took it, fumbled off the lid with unsteady hands, tapped out a few aspirin, and headed for the door. The stiffness in his stride was already starting to smooth out as he left. Simon shut his eyes and let himself fall back into the morass of noise.

      Sandra showed up around three, technically a couple of hours early, but Simon was more inclined to kiss her feet than to scold her for it. Gladly he abandoned the headphones to her and fled into his office, where he finally, belatedly got to dig into that morning's paperwork. Stuck in the middle of the pile was a plain brown interoffice envelope, so light that it might well have been empty, addressed only to Simon's box number in Danielle's handwriting; intrigued, Simon abandoned the rest of the pile and pried open the glued flap, eventually shaking out a single piece of paper with PERSONAL : CONFIDENTIAL rubber-stamped in red at the top and no salutation at all attached to the two terse paragraphs.

      After having had my ear to the ground all week, I have decided to take the offensive and call an official meeting with the Office of Professional Responsibility to discuss Norton Fowles' harassment of and ongoing private interest in you. It is in our best interests to move quickly. Once you have shredded this document, call Danielle and tell her what time on Monday would be acceptable to you. I will make it happen.

      This is only a formality. I stress this: this meeting is only a formality. I believe the best defense is to openly force Mr. Fowles' superior to hear of and acknowledge his behavior towards you; you need only attend to answer any questions that I may personally put to you, and of course to simply be officially present at a meeting that concerns you. Everything else is my concern.

      The note, unsurprisingly, was unsigned. Paranoia reigned in the halls Upstairs.

      "Ongoing private interest?" Simon said, furrowing his brow. This was the first he'd heard of any ongoing private interest, an uncomfortable thought at the best of times (unless, of course, the lady was pretty) and a seriously unsettling thought when it came to Norton Fowles. He'd actually thought the matter closed—he'd assumed that Upstairs would handle it without Simon needing to do anything else, like he usually did. Apparently not.

      That particular unsettling thought was followed quickly by a more annoying one: Monday? He'd be working the night shift by Monday—crap, there was no help for it, was there? Simon got up long enough to drop the paper into the shredder by his desk and then picked up the desk phone, punching one of the white buttons on the bottom row.

      Danielle snatched up the phone before it could ring. "Hello, Simon," she said. "What time were you thinking?"

      "Christ, Danielle, I'll be working nights on this Rappaport operation by then," Simon said, shutting his eyes and swaying forward against the lip of his desk. The wood dug into the front of his thighs. "So, I guess, I don't know: four in the afternoon? Any time after that."

      Danielle made a little acknowledging sound and typed a note. "That should be acceptable," she said crisply. "I'll get back to you Monday morning with the actual time of the meeting, but it will be no earlier than four. Try to come up here a few minutes ahead of time and he'll walk you up personally."

      "Right," Simon said, wincing at nothing. Office politics. Ugh. "Anything else you need from me?"

      "Not at the moment," Danielle said, her tone warming slightly. "We did receive notification from Scotland Yard that the arrest report we requested on Tuesday was no longer to be considered valid, although other charges may or may not be pending. Did you want a copy of the notification, or will it be enough just to know it exists?"

      Despite everything, it made Simon crack a smile. "Send me a copy if it's not too much trouble," he said. "No hurry. I just want to gloat a little. Pointing and laughing is good for the soul."

      "I can do tha-at," Danielle said, drawling the last word softly as she got distracted by making a note of Simon's request. "Enjoy your schadenfreude, Simon."

      "Whoa, whoa, Danielle, you don't have any proof that I'm into those weird German sex fetishes," Simon said. "And I'm pretty sure that publicly confronting me with my alternative lifestyle constitutes sexual harassment—"

      "Ha!" Danielle said. "Sexual harassment. You only wish." On that note, she hung up.

      "Hey," Dave said, knocking on the wall by Simon's door an hour or so later, swaying gently in place. Out in the main room, voices buzzed. "Nate's here, so... I'm going to take off, if that's okay? If I take off now I can grab a ride home with somebody..."

      "Go, go," Simon said, hitting SEND on his latest email and flapping a hand at the saferoom door. "Do not come back until six AM tomorrow. Seriously. Just because I won't be here doesn't mean that I won't authorize Springheel to kick your ass on my behalf."

      "Okay," Dave said, starting to move away.

      Simon whistled sharply through his teeth. "Dave!" he called.

      Dave drifted back into the doorway. "Huh?"

      "What time are you allowed to come back, Dave?"

      "Um... six AM tomorrow?"

      Simon gave him a desultory round of applause. "Very good. Now, for my next question: what will you not be doing before six AM tomorrow?"

      Dave was starting to look harassed. "Coming back here?"

      "Very good," Simon said. "Next question: if you come back here before six AM tomorrow, who will be kicking your ass for it?"


      "Tell you what, I am impressed now, because I did not think you'd be able to retain this much information in this state," Simon said. "Final question: is Sandra capable of kicking your ass to my satisfaction? Given that she's out there right now, I suggest you consider your answer very carefully."

      Dave swallowed. "Um. Yes?"

      "Great! Read it back to me, Dave. Tell me what your current standing orders are."

      "Um." Dave ran a hand through his hair, which behaved for a microsecond before starting to straggle across his forehead again. "I'm not supposed to come back before six AM tomorrow or Sandra will kick my ass."

      "The man's so smart I just can't stand it," Simon told the world in general. "Bonus round! What day is tomorrow, Dave?"

      Dave looked blank.

      Simon groaned and slumped forward, putting his face in his hands. "Tomorrow is Saturday, Dave," he said, muffled by his palms.

      "Oh," Dave said. "Okay. Can I go now?"

      "Go," Simon said, not looking up. After a moment, Dave shuffled away.

      Simon finished up his emails and went back out into the main room, ruffling Nate's hair before dropping into the chair opposite Sandra. "Hey," he said, kicking his legs out under the table and picking up the other set of headphones. "If you see Dave before six AM tomorrow, kick his ass for me, okay?"

      "Okay," Sandra said, distracted. "Am I allowed to break bones?"

      Simon thought about it. "I find that acceptable," he finally said, "as long as it's only one leg. Both legs and he might have trouble getting up to fetch more CDs to watch, and he needs everything else."

      "Got it," Sandra said. She made a note on the pad in front of her. Simon craned forward, but was disappointed to discover that the note had nothing to do with Dave's leg, broken or not. Sandra drew a circle around the little notation and dropped her pen onto the table. "I was thinking I'd run out around eight and get us food from that rotisserie-chicken place," she said. "You know. Roast chicken, stuffing, mashed potatoes, corn-like shrapnel, biscuits, maybe some actual green stuff. Fake 'real home cooking'," she concluded, with appropriate air quotes.

      Simon's stomach growled with a speed and urgency that startled him. "I guess that's a 'yes'," he said, crossing an arm protectively over his belly and pressing down to quiet it. "Jesus, that sounds really good, actually. I've been on pizza and Chinese takeout for too long."

      "I'll get a whole chicken just for you, then," Sandra said, with a sympathetic smile. "Mike'll probably scavenge your leftovers later, eat whatever you don't."

      "In that case, remind me to thoroughly lick everything before I stick it in the fridge." Simon put the headphones on and settled in.

      Aided greatly by the food, so like real food that he could barely stand it—Sandra had even brought him a carton of milk, and after looking at it askance for two seconds Simon had nearly inhaled the stuff—Simon limped valiantly over the nineteen-hour finish line shortly before midnight. "Christ, I don't know how Stonewall does it," he said weakly, slithering down in his seat and scrubbing at his eyes. "I feel like I just finished starring in a Russian ballet. You know. Hobnailed boots, tractors, large women shaped like barrels calling you 'comrade'."

      Mike, crouched in front of the tiny fridge, stuffed an entire cold chicken drumstick in his mouth before loading his arms full of little styrofoam bowls and toting the whole mess to the table. "So go home already," he said around the jutting drumstick, rapidly spreading out his armload of leftovers like he was dealing blackjack. "We got it covered, boss. For real."

      "Need someone to drive you home?" Sandra asked. "I suspect Nate could use a break and some fresh air—"

      "—ha ha, no," Simon broke in. "That's okay. Seriously."

      "Actually, I was thinking about hitting the 7-11 and getting a monster Coke," Nate said. "I could follow you home and get my Coke on the way back. You know. Just to make sure you make it."

      "Really, it's not necessary, I'm okay," Simon said. "Besides, then who's going to follow you back to make sure you make it?"

      "Yeah, actually, do that, Specs," Sandra said, overriding him. "For my sake, if not for his."

      Simon snorted. "I'm fine," he said, but he was too tired to argue, even too tired to care. Gathering his legs under himself he marshaled his strength—he'd need all of it just to get up.

      Simon woke early on Saturday afternoon with the sun defiantly in his eyes, four hours before he had to be back at the office. He'd slept for close to thirteen hours. He felt like he'd been beaten with hammers.

      Groaning, he threw himself out of bed and yanked off the sheets in almost the same motion, rapidly assembling a pile of laundry in the center of the room. He threw on an old t-shirt and a pair of swim trunks—laundry day attire—and five minutes later toted the whole mess out into the molten Saturday afternoon, wincing his way to the laundry room to stuff everything into two washing machines. He didn't even have to wait for them. It was Saturday and yet no one was using the laundry room; it was that hot out.

      Simon had his shower, ate some breakfast, ran the dishwasher, braved the heat to run put his clothes in the dryers, gritted his teeth and did fifteen minutes of housecleaning that he didn't dare put off any longer, sprawled in front of the television for half an hour and drank two glasses of ice water, emptied the dishwasher, fetched his laundry hot out of the dryer and tried very hard not to sweat all over it as he lugged it home, dumped everything on the bed, and dealt with it, remaking the bed last. That done, he ran the cold water and threw himself back into the shower for five minutes, then put on real clothes to go buy groceries and toiletries and put gas in his Jeep. Everything absolutely necessary to the cause of surviving this hellacious schedule for another week was done by four PM, and Simon celebrated by breaking into the orange juice and drinking half of it.

      He felt like crashing for another couple of hours, maybe having a beer or two. Instead, working on the theory that the FBI could afford better air conditioning than he could, Simon drove into work early and went down to the firing range. It was nice and cool and non-sunny down there in the windowless basement, and after ten minutes, almost chilly. Simon spent forty-five minutes punching holes in paper targets. He felt a lot better when he was done, the muscles in his arms tingling and lightly sore.

      A photocopy of Scotland Yard's sheepish 'disregard that' notification was waiting on his desk when he got in, on top of the usual piles of paper. Simon was first startled and then briefly, vaguely ashamed; he'd barely spared a thought for Jeremy in two days. Of course, he reasoned, he had his own problems to deal with, and worrying about Jeremy would help exactly no one. And the notification was funny. Simon filed it in with the original arrest report and tucked it away to entertain himself with later.

      Twelve hours later, at five in the morning, Simon drove himself home, the streets nearly empty. It was still humid and unpleasant, and nothing on this earth could have induced Simon to turn off the Jeep's AC and roll down the windows, but in comparison, it was almost nice. By all rights he ought to have been worrying about something or another, but he drifted into his apartment in a state of nearly Zen-like calm, left a trail of discarded clothing leading from the front door to the bedroom, took a couple of aspirin and a couple of vitamins, and slid into the clean sheets with a little groan ten minutes after he walked in the door. It had been so long since he'd had the luxury of going to bed when it was dark.

      Five minutes later he was fast asleep, sprawled out across the bed to maximize his surface area. His mind drifted to Jeremy and away again just before he nodded off, and those thoughts turned into weird and lazy dreams that he only barely remembered—but remembered fondly—when he woke.

      Sunday was an 'almost' day. Simon woke feeling almost rested. The day's work was almost inoffensive. The weather was almost not terrible. Simon almost didn't think of Norton Fowles—or of Jeremy—at all.

      The highlight of the day was finally getting through the pile of CDs on the table and gladly chucking them all into storage, which was to say, the mat room. It took all three of them, Dave and Nate and Simon, working zealously to winnow through the mess while the others manned the headphones, but shortly before three in the morning Nate ejected the last CD from his drive. "And there was much rejoicing," he said, sleepily.

      "Yaaaaaay," Dave automatically added, poking at one of his computers.

      "We're done with footage until, uh, Thursday," Simon said, nodding. "Stonewall, why are you still here?"

      "I've got nowhere else to go," Dave said, so plaintively that Simon thought he was serious for several seconds.

      That morning, when Simon got home, he reluctantly set his alarm for three PM in order to make his meeting on time. He fervently hoped that Danielle would email him about the meeting time, or even send another of those PERSONAL : CONFIDENTIAL messages, but he had the sinking feeling that she was going to call him, instead.

      The charge on his phone's battery was running low; Simon plugged it in and put it on the bedside table, where it sat quietly and glowed blue. Its battery life seemed to be getting shorter. The phone was getting old. Simon patted it like a dog and fell asleep watching the eerie blue glow pulse across the ceiling, thinking idly about a getting a new phone, something rugged and manly-looking. One of those quasi-military ones with the heavy rubber outer casing. Something that could survive being run over by the Jeep.

      As if to punish him for having disloyal thoughts, his current phone jerked him out of sleep just after ten AM. Simon grabbed the phone and promptly smacked himself in the eye with its flying cord, turning his groan of complaint into a yelp of startled pain. "Templar," he rasped, rubbing his watering eye with his free hand.

      "I know you were sleeping, Simon, so I'll make this quick: your meeting is at 4:45 this afternoon," Danielle said.

      "4:45," Simon repeated, blinking rapidly.

      "You got it," Danielle said. "Go back to sleep."

      "Awesome," Simon said, snapping the phone shut and dropping it back onto his bedside table. He set his alarm ahead an hour, collapsed back into the hot place on his pillow, and was snoring again a minute later, his lashes still wet.

      Upstairs was already waiting for him when Simon got off the elevator shortly after 4:30, and Simon automatically stuck his arm between the doors to keep the elevator from leaving again. Upstairs lifted his hand, glanced at his massive steel watch, and then let his hand fall back to the head of his cane. "Let it go," he said—pronounced—with the air of a man making an executive decision. "I believe we'll wait a few more minutes before heading up."

      Simon obligingly let the elevator go free and settled in opposite Upstairs, leaning against a filing cabinet and stifling a yawn. "How long is this likely to take, do you think?" he asked.

      Upstairs frowned, giving this question heavy thought. "I can't predict with any accuracy," he finally said, as if somewhere in that massive skull he had been consulting charts, running numbers, and firing incompetent accountants. "Obviously the best result is to be had in a short meeting, however, so let's hope for that."

      "Right," Simon said, trying not to sound tired. The yawn came back in full force and Simon gritted his teeth, forcing it out through his ears instead; Upstairs did not so much as glance in his direction, but Simon couldn't shake the feeling that he'd noticed anyway. Silence fell.

      "Something you might find interesting came to my attention this morning," Upstairs said after a moment, his voice carefully, heavily offhand.

      "Yeah?" Simon said, shaking his head and coming back from his drifting reverie. "What's up?"

      True to form, once confronted, Upstairs decided to temporize. "I have always kept one ear to the ground with regards to your freelancer," he explained, shooting one cuff, then the other, then carefully bracing his cane on the floor between his feet. "I find it both expedient and prudent to keep a few flags placed here and there. Mostly to keep him honest regarding our agreement, you understand, but also simply on general principles."

      "Archer," Simon heard himself say, as if from a long way off. "So that's why the arrest report caught your attention?"

      Upstairs nodded approvingly. "Quite," he said.

      "So..." Simon tried to brace himself. Suddenly the roaring in his ears was back, louder than ever, and his stomach was a knot under the arch of his ribcage. "So what's this tidbit?"

      "This morning, during the routine lights-on headcount in the maximum-security wing of McCreary, the prison guards came up a head short," Upstairs said, delivering this news with a certain ponderous relish. "Which was odd, because during the last headcount before lights-out yesterday, they had their full complement."

      Simon blinked, the roaring in his ears subsiding as quickly as it had come. "What's that got to do with Archer?"

      "It's apparently caused a tremendous uproar, which is unsurprising," Upstairs said, unwilling to be swayed from telling the tale in the manner he'd chosen to tell it. "No one can quite figure out how the fellow was subtracted from the prison population, but it seems that subtracted he was. A certain man by the name of Bran Lindsey—does the name ring a bell?"

      Simon's head jerked back so fast that he nearly hit his head on the wall behind the filing cabinet. Of all the things he'd been prepared to hear, that was not one of them. "Lindsey?" he finally managed to croak, his eyes wide.

      Upstairs cast a glance in his direction. "You seem unduly startled," he noted mildly.

      "No," Simon said, shaking his head violently and reaching up to rub the back of his neck. "No, it's just that... coming so hard on the heels of Archer's 'arrest', I can't help but wonder if there's a correlation." Like, say, jumped-up Russian thugs with a long, long reach, he didn't add.

      "Ah," Upstairs said, apparently mollified. "Yes, I'll admit that had occurred to me as well. I had thought perhaps Mr. Lindsey had heard of Mr. Archer's arrest and taken what he considered to be appropriate steps, but if that is the case, I have no idea where he would have gotten the information. According to the warden Mr. Lindsey received a single letter every week, but the contents were generally cheery and uninformative, and nothing in the last letter seemed out of place or even really different, save that two days later, Mr. Lindsey went missing."

      "Mail, huh," Simon said slowly. "Postmarked from where?"

      Upstairs smiled tightly. "I thought you might ask that," he said. "Postmarked from any one of seven cities around the United States, apparently at random, but always written in the same hand and signed with the same name. Would you care to hazard a guess as to what that name might be?"

      Simon, who could think of several possibilities, each one more interesting than the last, nevertheless said, "No, sir, with all due respect, I don't think I could. What was it?"

      "Ethan," Upstairs said. "And yet cursory handwriting analysis suggests the handwriting is feminine. Isn't that interesting."

      Simon shook his head slowly in sheer admiration. "It really, really is," he said. On a hunch, he added, "What was the postmark on the last one?"

      "Durango, Colorado," Upstairs said.

      Bingo! Simon crowed internally, his brain replaying for him Jeremy's dry, harried voice: well, if you must know, it's a red-alert code. Outwardly, however, he only said, "Well, I can't imagine that Mr. Lindsey is going to cause us any trouble—after all, I wasn't even the one who ultimately arrested him, more's the pity—but I'd be glad to dig those files out of cold storage if anyone needs them. We still have all of Archer's analysis."

      "You'll be pleased to know that I have already made that offer on your behalf," Upstairs said, checking his watch again. Simon checked his own: 4:47. "Well!" Upstairs said, obscurely pleased. "Shall we go? We have a meeting to attend."

      The Office of Professional Responsibility hadn't changed since Simon's last visit, but the brisk receptionist was marginally more polite in the face of Upstairs. "Mr. Hart is waiting for you in his office," she said, taking her hands off her keyboard long enough to fold them neatly in front of her.

      "Thank you, Cheryl. I know the way." Upstairs swept majestically—and slowly—around the side of her desk, his cane working erratically at his side. Something in the way the man moved had always reminded Simon of ocean liners, not that he'd ever felt it prudent to mention this. Accordingly, Simon smiled at the receptionist (half out of habit and half out of sheer bullheadedness) and bobbed off like a tugboat in his wake.

      The silent gray hallways were still the same, although Simon could see the occasional window, far off at the end of any hallway that stretched off to his left. Eventually the too-close hallway opened up into a small waiting area, presided over by yet another neatly-kept older woman; "Go on in," this one said, with a small, professional smile. "He's ready for you now."

      "Thank you," Upstairs said, limping over to the door, pulling it open, and half-blinding Simon with a blaze of light. Through an effort of will, Simon managed to avoid raising a hand to blot out the late-afternoon sunlight, although it was a near thing. A neat trick, too. For a moment the two figures in the large office were entirely backlit in the wash of sunlight, which proclaimed the status of the office's owner more clearly than any expensive office furniture could have.

      Like Upstairs, Baker Hart was a section chief, and Baker Hart resembled Upstairs physically, to boot: a large, heavyset man somewhere in his late forties or early fifties, close-cropped hair just starting to run to gray and expensively-suited frame just starting to run to fat. While Upstairs wore his war wounds in the form of the cane that ticked rapidly along at his side, Baker Hart wore his in the form of a neat semicircle of flesh missing from the upper rim of his right ear. As they entered Baker Hart looked up, seemed to smile—with the backlighting, Simon couldn't be sure—and stood up, spreading his hands in bluff, effusive greeting. The man wore a vest and an honest-to-Christ watch chain. Norton Fowles, lumped silently in a side chair like a slumping scoop of mashed potatoes, looked like the fussy clerk he was in comparison, his missing left arm half-hidden behind him.

      Upstairs took his sweet time limping across the none-too-vast expanse of the office to Hart's desk, which Simon suspected was for his benefit. By the time Upstairs reached the desk, shook Baker Hart's hand, and completed the usual how's-the-wife-how're-the-kids-how's-the-golf-game routine, Simon's eyes were used to the glare and he'd had a moment to glance around. "Baker, this is Simon Drake, one of my team captains," Upstairs said, bringing the pleasantries to an end.

      "Pleasure," Baker Hart said, shaking Simon's hand. His voice was so deep and warm, his handshake so firm, that Simon almost wanted to trust him. "Have a seat, let me just get these blinds."

      Simon took one of the two chairs in front of the desk. Upstairs lowered himself into the other. Baker Hart slid out from behind his desk and moved across the wall of windows from one side to the other, pulling the blinds. It was an unmitigated relief. Simon blinked rapidly as the brilliance fell away, leaving him in gloom, but he resisted the urge to rub his eyes. "Now, then," Baker Hart said, returning to sit behind his desk and lacing his fingers together. "What's the issue? Why are we here?"

      "The issue is that one of my employees has been subjected to a certain amount of harassment and inquiry without regards to protocol," Upstairs said, thumping the butt of his cane on the floor once, like punctuation. "I expect to at least be informed when the Office of Professional Responsibility decides to take an interest in one of my subordinates, and yet the first I heard of this was when Simon called my office to ask if I knew why he was being asked for an interview. An interview, Baker."

      "I see," Baker Hart said. He and Norton Fowles traded swift glances. "You must understand that Mr. Fowles is allowed a certain amount of leeway in how he chooses to accomplish his tasks—"

      "Of course I understand that," Upstairs said with just a touch of glacial irritation. "However, Mr. Fowles has overstepped his bounds. Again. If he found something that was worthy of further investigation, it was at that time he should have brought it to you, instead of attempting to trick Mr. Drake into incriminating himself in some manner. I do not mind investigation, Baker, but secret interviews are far, far over the line."

      "While I tend to agree with you—" Baker Hart started to say, but just then Norton Fowles shifted and cleared his throat, and both section chiefs glanced at him with something like amazement. "Yes, Norton?" Baker Hart said, after a pause.

      "Allow me to apologize for that," Fowles said, his voice reedy and thin by comparison. "It was not my intention to, hm, make Mr. Drake incriminate himself, as you put it. I was merely tacking down some tiny details at the time, things I considered so generally inconsequential that it did not seem... hm... worthwhile to open the can of worms involved with an official inquiry."

      "Inconsequential," Upstairs said heavily. "Insinuating that my employee or his eyewitness may have fabricated their statements, Mr. Fowles? Somehow I do not consider that inconsequential."

      "I'm afraid that Mr. Drake mistook my intention," Norton Fowles protested. "At that point the interview was almost over and I was just, ah, thinking aloud. I do tend to be a little overly suspicious. It comes with the job. I'm very sorry that he was confused." That hard little smile of his flashed and vanished. Simon tried not to grit his teeth.

      "I see," Upstairs said, after a moment. "And are you now satisfied? Have you tacked down your 'tiny details'?"

      "There's no need to be snide, Carstairs," Baker Hart put in mildly.

      "I assure you that should I choose to be snide, you'll know it," Upstairs said, equally mildly. "Well, Mr. Fowles?"

      "If I may explain—" Norton Fowles began.

      "Please do," Upstairs said.

      "The plaintiff in this suit is, mm, how should I put it, very heavily and personally involved," Fowles said. "She was also a lawyer at one time—albeit not a very skilled one—and currently has a large amount of time on her hands. Hers is not the most difficult of complaints that has ever been brought against the Bureau, but she and her lawyers are throwing an amazing amount of dirt and chaff at us, just to see what sticks. Any little niche in the dark corners of the law that she can exploit, she has exploited. There is absolutely no question in my mind that if I leave any little detail unexamined, she will find it, grab onto it, and peel it back. I don't wish to leave the Bureau or Mr. Drake vulnerable in any way—"

      "Yes, and your dogged thoroughness on Mr. Drake's behalf does you credit, I'm certain," Upstairs said, breaking in. He glanced at Hart. "That was my being snide, for the record, Baker."

      "So noted," Baker Hart said, his voice still mild.

      "But you still haven't answered my question," Upstairs said, turning his attention back to Norton Fowles. "Are you now satisfied?"

      Norton Fowles was quiet. Aware of the two section heads glancing in his direction, Simon forced himself to furrow his brow. Finally, with a sigh, Norton Fowles shut his eyes and shook his head. "I wish I could say that I were," he said. "The fact of the matter is, the more I dig, the more things simply fail to add up. If I may—"

      "If these are new concerns, it's unfair of you to spring them on us without warning," Upstairs said immediately.

      Baker Hart glanced at Upstairs again. "You're the one that called this meeting, Carstairs. For God's sake, let's just have this out and get it over with." Upstairs harrumphed, but settled, both hands on the head of his cane, his eyes glittering unpleasantly. Baker Hart waited a moment, then looked back at Fowles. "All right, Norton," he said. The tone of his voice sounded like a warning, Simon was secretly pleased to note. "Let's hear it."

      "Before I begin, I want to say that I sincerely do not believe that Mr. Drake has, hm, actually set out to deceive anyone," Fowles said, turning halfway around to pick up a manila folder off the table behind him. "Mr. Drake had been shot in the chest less than two weeks before the incident in question, after all, and he was re-injured during the scuffle that occurred and questioned shortly afterwards. While I believe that it was perhaps, ah, a dubious judgment call on Mr. Drake's part to have accompanied his team at all—" Simon's nostrils flared with his sudden need to protest heatedly and at some length "—I also believe that his recent prior injury certainly contributed highly to any, ah, mental lapses and irregularities on his part. That being said."

      "Yes, that being said," Upstairs said impatiently. "Your concern for Simon's mental health is touching, Mr. Fowles."

      "I'd like to call your attention to these photos of the scene," Norton Fowles said, flicking the folder open neatly with the stump of his left arm and plucking a sheaf of large photographs off the top of the pile of papers. He let them cascade out of his hand onto the clean surface of Baker Hart's desk, Cole Farraday dead in front of Simon all over again, in technicolor and in plural. "If you'll note the official time-and-date stamps, you'll note that these were taken by, ah, one Ms. Sandra Leone, who is Mr. Drake's second-in-command, and who was left in charge of the crime scene after Mr. Drake left to seek medical assistance."

      Upstairs gave the photographs a cursory glance. Simon looked from left to right, fascinated a little despite himself. Baker Hart picked up one of the closest photos, mimed a little shudder, and fastidiously let it drop. "In and of themselves, these photographs are innocuous," Norton Fowles said, plucking a folded piece of paper out of the folder. "However, I took the liberty of having both Recreations and Ballistics visit the site and put these photographs into context for us—"

      "Oh, God, Norton, my budget," Baker murmured under his breath, not without some humor.

      Ignoring him, Norton Fowles unfolded the paper with a snap of his wrist and let it drift down onto the desk, mercifully covering the photographs with stark black-and-white line drawings and tiny little hand-lettered labels. "This is, ah, an aerial view of the warehouse in question with the scene overlaid, as you can see," he said.

      "I can see that," Upstairs said ominously. "This is also the first time I've seen it. Baker, I must protest—"

      "No, no," Baker Hart said, still mildly. "Now I'm curious. Let him have his say, since you called this meeting and Norton went to all the trouble of preparing for it. I promise I won't ask for an official response from you or Mr. Drake today."

      Upstairs snapped his jaw mulishly shut and turned his attention back to the map. "As I was saying," Norton Fowles said, tapping the paper. "As you can see, this would be the body of Cole Farraday in the position in which it was found. Ms. Leone has officially stated that the body was not moved or tampered with in any way beyond a check for a pulse, surely a formality in this case. This—" Fowles drew his finger around a vast and vaguely triangular splotch, carefully, almost lovingly detailed, which made Simon a little sick to his stomach "—is, ah, the spray of blood, bone, and brain matter that came from the exit wound in Mr. Farraday's skull. As you can see, Mr. Farraday staggered back a few feet before collapsing, which is certainly not unusual, and is consistent with statements."

      He paused, as if to give Upstairs time to protest. Upstairs made an impatient little gesture. Norton Fowles nodded, his finger moving on. "Here is Farraday's gun, a .22 pistol. Ballistic tests proved that it was both the gun that was used to shoot Mr. Drake two weeks before and the gun that was stolen from, ah..." He paused again. Simon gritted his teeth, refusing to be led into the gap, and after a moment Norton Fowles sighed and consulted a paper still in his folder. "Adams, Mackenzie, Procomo, Attorneys at Law, coincidentally the law firm where Diana Fontaine was employed at the time."

      "Not so coincidentally, I think we can assume," Upstairs murmured under his breath.

      "Ms. Fontaine denies having anything to do with the theft, of course, and an actual break-in did occur around that time, but your point is, ah, well taken," Norton Fowles said, with a thin little slice of smile. "The attorney to whom the .22 is registered has also officially identified it as his, but this is all tangential to the actual point that I wish to make."

      "And that is?" Upstairs said.

      "The point is this," Norton Fowles said, pointing to a tiny black splotch on the paper. All three of the others craned in to look at it, Simon just as confused as the rest of them. "A small amount of blood of a different blood type from Mr. Farraday's," Fowles clarified. "In fact, it matches Mr. Drake's blood type and is consistent with his statement regarding the reopening of his wound and his fall at that time."

      Upstairs arched one eyebrow. "So... everything is consistent with statements made? I'm failing to see your point."

      "I, ah, was just getting to it," Norton Fowles said, almost humbly. Something about that humble tone made Simon apprehensive. Fowles put the folder down on the desk and started flicking through it one-handed. "If I may refer back to the official statements—or may I paraphrase?"

      "Refer to the statements, please," Upstairs said shortly.

      "Of course," Fowles said, bobbing his head. He selected a sheet of paper, put it on top of the pile, reached up to adjust his glasses, and then picked up the paper. "In his statement, Mr. Drake clearly states, 'Farraday dropped his gun during the struggle. It fell and landed a short distance away.' He then goes on to describe the fight and continues, 'When I fell, Farraday shook away from me and ran after his gun. I picked myself up and ran after my gun. While I did not see Jeremy Archer at that time, I did see my gun moving towards me along the floor, as if it had been kicked or slid back in my direction. I picked up my gun and turned to face Farraday just as Farraday picked up his gun and turned to face me. He was bringing his gun up, so I also brought my gun up and fired.'" Norton Fowles cleared his throat and looked at Simon. "Is that correct, Mr. Drake?"

      Simon almost strangled on it, but he managed not to say anything. "Mr. Drake and I will not be making statements at this time," Upstairs said testily. "Get to the point."

      "Ah, hm," Norton Fowles said absently, flipping the sheet of paper over. "I refer to the statement made by one Jeremy Archer, real name unknown, Mr. Drake's eyewitness and the only other witness to this shooting: 'Simon and Farraday fought for a moment, and Simon made Farraday drop his gun somehow. It fell to the ground, bounced once, and slid, winding up a little ways away.' And further: 'Farraday spun and ran for his dropped gun. When I saw Simon coming in my direction, I realized all at once that he must be after his gun, so I put it on the ground and slid it to him. He ran over, picked it up, and turned to face Farraday. By that point Farraday had also reached his gun, picked it up, and turned to face Simon. At the time I was unsure as to which of them fired, because they both brought their guns up at once, but then Mr. Farraday's eye—the interviewer notes a brief pause here—blew out, and he dropped the gun, staggered backwards, and fell.'" Fowles paused, as if for emphasis.

      "Close call, I see," Baker Hart murmured in vague sympathy.

      "I, ah, I'm not certain about that, sir," Norton Fowles said, putting down the piece of paper and adjusting his glasses again. "You see, these statements are almost perfectly similar. Nothing about the one contradicts the other at all, and yet, there's the sort of variation you'd normally expect from two disparate witnesses. But the facts, sir: both these statements contradict the facts."

      Upstairs was silent. Simon, his stomach clenching, was also silent. Baker Hart glanced at both of them, then back at Fowles. "Very well, Norton," he said, a little more warmly than before. "How?"

      "Look at where the blood spray from Mr. Farraday's head begins," Norton Fowles said, tapping the large irregular shape. "And look where the blood splotch from Mr. Drake's chest is. Both testimonies have clearly stated that Mr. Farraday's gun wound up a short distance away, and that when he broke free, he 'ran' for it—but judging by this spray, Ballistics concludes that he was right around two feet from Mr. Drake's clearly-marked position when he was shot. He would not have to 'run' for that. He'd barely have to turn around. Indeed, I might almost call it 'arm's length' from Mr. Drake's position, and the measured length of Mr. Farraday's arm, taken during his autopsy, confirms that."

      The room was silent. Norton Fowles paused, this time almost surely for effect, and then touched the black-and-white drawing of Cole Farraday's body, almost reverently. "The autopsy also raised the second issue, namely, the bullet's angle of entry. According to both statements Mr. Drake and Mr. Farraday 'turned to face one another', both trying to shoot the other, when Mr. Drake fired. If that was so, the bullet should have entered Mr. Farraday's face straight on—but the autopsy shows that it entered his face at an oblique angle. To be precise, Cole Farraday had his face turned almost eighty degrees away from the gun in question when the bullet entered his eye socket and exited—not through the back of his skull, but, ah, through the opposite side. This is, of course, reinforced by where the bullet from Mr. Drake's gun was eventually found, which is to say, here." Fowles traced a line through the rendering of the mess to the little circled bullet, at the mess' far edge.

      Baker Hart's brow furrowed. "Huh," he said.

      "Furthermore," Norton Fowles went inexorably on, "if we connect Mr. Farraday's blood spray, Mr. Drake's blood splotch, and the bullet's angle of entry, they form a nearly-perfect right triangle, suggesting that when the bullet entered Cole Farraday's skull, he was looking not here, from where Mr. Drake claims to have fired—" Fowles touched a vague dotted circle on the diagram "—but, in fact, here." Norton Fowles' finger landed with a meaty thump on the little splotch of Simon's blood. It was pure theater. Simon was in no mood to appreciate it.

      "That is odd," Baker Hart said after a moment. "Do you have a theory, Norton?"

      "No, sir," Norton Fowles said, radiating both contentment and innocence. "I merely find these things odd. Mr. Drake was badly wounded and shaken at the time, and Mr. Archer no less so; I'm sure that the situation was much more confused than these clean statements would lead a jury to believe. As a fellow member of the Bureau, I know quite well how these things can get... muddled, and I'm certain that even an agent of Mr. Drake's experience can occasionally slip and, ah, unduly influence the eyewitness report."

      "That is a specious charge," Upstairs stormed, but Norton Fowles was certain of himself now and rode right over him: "The fact also remains that nearly half an hour passed between Mr. Farraday's confirmed time of death and Ms. Leone's call for official backup. Half an hour, despite the fact that both Mr. Drake and Mr. Archer were wounded at the time—and Mr. Drake and Mr. Archer did not reach base and the medical facilities here until fifteen minutes after Ms. Leone's call, despite Mr. Takemura's, ah, fabled driving record. They were not en route during that half an hour, unless Mr. Takemura got lost on the way, which seems unlikely. Now, there are ways to account for this, of course: Mr. Drake had to make sure that Mr. Farraday was dead and that Mr. Archer was all right, I'm certain, and recollect his team from a maze-like situation, and so on. Still, however, half an hour. It doesn't sit right with me. But, as I said, my job has made me a little overly paranoid." His smile sliced on and back off. "In fact, I'm sure all these things have simple explanations that I'm overlooking. I've spent so long staring at these things that I am, perhaps, a little, ah, snowblind?"

      "No, no," Baker Hart said absently, turning the diagram around and studying it. "These are all good points, Norton. I just have one question."

      "Sir?" Norton Fowles said, tilting his head. Light sheened from his glasses.

      "About this Archer person: you said 'real name unknown'," Hart said. "Why is that?"

      "Ah." Norton Fowles bowed his head and touched the bridge of his glasses with one finger, like a salute. "Jeremy Archer is a known felon who works under many aliases, sir. He is also an associate of Mr. Drake's and has, in fact, worked for the Bureau in an official capacity before, under Mr. Drake's aegis."

      "With my informed consent," Upstairs rumbled, breaking out of whatever trance he was currently in.

      "What sort of felon?" Baker Hart said, frowning.

      "Burglar, sir," Norton Fowles said. "Burglar, sneak thief, and, of course, confidence man."

      "Huh," Baker Hart said again. "Interesting. And that's the only witness?"

      "Yes, sir," Fowles said.

      "Hm." Baker Hart studied the diagram for a few moments in silence, then carefully folded it up. "Norton, may I send this with Carstairs so that he and Mr. Drake can prepare their counter-statement?"

      "Of course, sir," Norton Fowles said, bobbing his head. "I have copies."

      Upstairs led the way to the elevator in an injured silence that contrived to be vast, enveloping the numbed Simon as he plodded along in the man's slow, hitching wake, hating Norton Fowles with every inch of his being that he could spare. Damn the man anyway—no, thought Simon, the man only put things together from evidence. That's his job. This is my fault. I thought I'd get away with it. I did it to protect Jeremy but I'll never be able to explain to anybody why...

      The elevator doors closed on the two of them. Simon opened his mouth, but Upstairs immediately held up a hand like a policeman stopping traffic. Simon shut his mouth again. Upstairs nodded once and selected not the second floor, but the parking garage below the first. Simon opened his mouth again. Upstairs' hand snapped up again. Simon closed his mouth.

      They rode in stiff silence down to the garage, where Upstairs handed his keys to the man in the booth, who checked them against a list, checked Upstairs' ID, and trotted off. They waited for Upstairs' car in silence. Once it arrived—it was a massive dark blue sedan, which surprised Simon not one bit—the valet opened the passenger-side door for Simon while Upstairs limped around and settled himself behind the wheel. Simon settled in and buckled his seat belt, moving entirely on autopilot. Upstairs got himself and his cane settled to his satisfaction, started the car, and waved to the man in the booth, who obligingly raised the bar. The wheels bumped over the severe-tire-damage spikes and out into the heat of the early evening.

      Once Upstairs had pulled out of the lot and onto the road, Simon opened his mouth again, already ducking his head a little. Upstairs shook his head. Simon closed his mouth and subsided in concentration, thinking hard.

      They rode in silence for a few minutes, out to one of the closest branches of the Potomac. It made Simon think of Farraday, but, Simon had to admit, most everything would, right now. Upstairs parked illegally, dropped an FBI—OFFICIAL BUSINESS placard in the front window, and led the way away from the car, until he and Simon were a good thirty feet from it and standing on the little bridge overlooking the river, roasting gently in the evening sun. It was kind of pretty, despite the heat. DC was full of tiny, pretty spots like this one, if you knew where to look. "Well, Simon," Upstairs finally said, almost gently.

      "Yes, sir," Simon said. He sounded pathetic and wanted to kick himself for it.

      "That man's certainly made himself quite a case from the gory details, hasn't he," Upstairs went on. "Do you have any idea how any of this came about?"

      "No, sir," Simon said. "I mean, Farraday did, uh, twitch a lot, sir. Especially under stress. I suppose it's not impossible that his head jerked to the side at exactly the wrong moment."

      "That's certainly possible," Upstairs said. "And, of course, Norton Fowles may not believe any of those things he said about your being... confused, but frankly, it could very well be true." He held up a finger. "No, don't argue with me."

      "I wasn't planning to," Simon said truthfully.

      "Mr. Fowles is attempting to use the power of suggestion against us, in essence," Upstairs said, looking away over the green bend of the river. "And Occam's Razor, of course. Personally, I've always found Occam's Razor to shave less and less finely the more chaotic a scene is, and this scene sounds chaotic in the extreme."

      "Sir," Simon said.

      Upstairs glanced back at him. "When Farraday dropped his gun the first time, did you actually see where it went?"

      "I didn't stop to measure the distance, if that's what you're asking," Simon said carefully. "I wasn't watching when he fetched it back. I just know that it fell and bounced. For all I know he was able to just lunge down and pick it up, and the delay was in casting about for it."

      "Good," Upstairs said. "That's good. What we need to do here, Simon, is construct a plausible scenario that contradicts Mr. Fowles' unspoken assertion that Mr. Farraday was, in fact, simply executed in revenge, possibly shot by someone else—say, this convenient criminal—while you held him helpless."

      Simon sucked in a hot breath. "Sir, I wouldn't—Archer wouldn't—"

      "I know," Upstairs said. "You wouldn't do such a thing. I know that very well."

      "Sir," said Simon, "about Norton Fowles—"

      "He's a bitter old man who wrongly believes himself to be underpromoted and underutilized," Upstairs said, needing no further prompting. He drove the butt of his cane into the gravel with a crunching sound. "Thirty years ago he and I went through the Academy and started as field agents almost together, and even then the man's skills were limited. He's never forgiven me for getting the jump on him back then, and once his accident derailed him into the Office of Professional Responsibility, he's been attempting to be a thorn in my side ever since. And usually failing." Upstairs glanced in Simon's direction and smiled wryly. "I assume that answers your question?"

      "Yes, sir," Simon said, blinking.

      "I, of course, never said anything of the sort," Upstairs said in conclusion, looking away again.

      "Yessir." Simon mopped his brow with the back of his hand. "How'd he lose his arm?" he asked, out of sheer curiosity.

      "Slipped and fell under a garbage truck while pursuing a suspect on foot," Upstairs said.

      Simon pressed his lips together in an attempt not to laugh. For one thing, it wasn't funny—okay, it was—and for another, it was the sort of dumb-luck accident that could happen to anybody. Even to Simon. Except it wasn't: a garbage truck, Christ. "Heh," Simon finally said, kicking at a bit of gravel.

      "I'll admit to finding the humor in the situation myself, even if it's a little unbecoming to admit it," Upstairs said. "I never liked him. He's the sort that takes refuge in the rules because he hasn't got any talent for anything else."

      "You know, I'd gathered that," Simon said. The pain in his midsection was easing. The next few days would suck, and he might end up with a pretty mighty black mark on his record, but Upstairs was being so calm about it—"So what happens now?" Simon asked.

      "I'll construct an alternate scenario that takes into consideration the things we've spoken about here," Upstairs said. "It'll thrash around in Professional Responsibility like a dying fish for a few days and then Baker will order all of Norton's research marked confidential and destroyed, because no matter how badly Norton wants to damage me through you, Baker is not going to let Diana Fontaine's lawyers see these documents or even learn that they exist. Norton's made his point and rubbed my nose in it a little, or so he thinks, Baker will look at me askance for a while and think that I owe him a favor, and you will probably be officially reprimanded for going back on duty while injured too badly to properly handle the situation that arose. In one way that will not look good on your record, but in another, it will look quite good, if you follow me."

      "Yes, sir," Simon said, letting out a breath that he hadn't known he was holding.

      "In the grand game of office politics, Special Ops lost a little ground," Upstairs said, shrugging. "And I certainly wouldn't have let you go haring off injured if I'd known before the fact, so I suppose that I am officially a bit upset with you. But as long as there's nothing you're not telling me, Simon, it'll all come to nothing in the end." He paused. "Is there anything you're not telling me, Simon?"

      Simon, who hadn't been expecting it, jerked and took half a step back. Caught out without a ready lie, startled, he hesitated. Then he caught himself hesitating and kicked himself, but it was already too late. The silence stretched thin between them, Upstairs' eyes going wide, going narrow, and then going wary and just a little sad, an expression Simon had never seen on him before—"Ah," Upstairs said heavily after a moment, looking down.

      "Sir," Simon protested. "Sir, it's not—"

      Upstairs held up his hand, still looking down. "Don't," he said. "I don't want to know. It's better if I don't."

      "Sir," Simon said, subsiding.

      "I invested a lot of trust in you, Simon," Upstairs said, after a moment that felt like forever. "Right from the start. You've never let me down before."

      "I know, sir," Simon said, almost inaudibly.

      "Whatever it was that made you finally decide to abuse that trust..." A car roared by and Upstairs turned his back on Simon to watch it go. "... well. I hope it was worth it."

      "I..." Simon looked at the uninformative spread of Upstairs' broad shoulders under the gray fabric of his suit. "I'd like to think so, sir."

      Upstairs nodded. "In that case, you realize that I can't promise anything," he said. "I'll do what I can, and in all likelihood it will turn out the same in either case, but if the evidence is against you for any reason..."

      "I know, sir," said Simon. "I, uh, appreciate whatever you can do for me."

      "I'll do what I can," Upstairs repeated. "You've been my fair-haired boy for years, after all, and the consequences of your actions therefore reflect directly on me and on the quality of my judgment. While ultimately my loyalty is to the Bureau..." He trailed off there.

      "Yes, sir," Simon said. He'd never felt quite so small.

      "It's too hot out here," Upstairs said, though he hadn't managed to break a sweat even inside that suit of his. Without turning back towards Simon he limped off, crunching slowly back towards the heat-shimmering mirage of his car. "Let's go back to base. I believe we both have some work to be doing."

      "Yes, sir," Simon said again, trailing after him, scuffing his feet through the gravel and leaving twin trails behind him.