Part Three, Chapters 10-13
It was close to six by the time Upstairs dropped Simon off, just outside the Special Ops wing. The ride back had been silent and uncomfortable; Simon had given up on staring out the side window after a while and just shut his eyes, cursing himself nine ways to hell for being such an unimaginable idiot. "There you are," Upstairs said, pulling up at the door. It was the only thing he'd said since leaving the riverbank.
"Thank you, sir," Simon said, and got out of the car. Upstairs drove sedately off without another word, his car disappearing around the back of the building. Simon fumbled in his pocket, fished out his ID, and let himself into the building and into the stale, cool air.
He was almost an hour late for his shift, but instead of heading directly for the saferoom, he veered off into the men's room closest to the outside door. He caught a single glance of himself in the mirror, flushed and disheveled and grimy, and then he stuck both hands in the cold water and caught his breath in an unsteady hiss.
By the time Simon finished splashing cold water on his face and running his wet hands through his hair, he felt almost human again, if a bit wet. He dried himself off as best he could, then turned to throw the handful of paper towels away and made the mistake of meeting his own hunted eyes in the mirror. It stopped him in his tracks.
He was already overheating again, a sheen of fresh sweat gleaming on his face, and the painted concrete wall was cool and dry when it rose up to meet him. Simon leaned weakly against it and shut his eyes, then gave in and let his head fall, resting his forehead against the cool surface.
"Shit," Simon said under his breath, lifting his head and letting it fall back again. Thunk. The impact jarred him and woke a raging ache in the muscles of his neck, but knocked his thoughts back into alignment; leaving his eyes shut Simon reached up and splayed both hands out against the wall, letting the wall hold him up for a few precious seconds longer.
"Hey, boss," Sandra said, raising one hand as Simon let himself into the saferoom. "You're running a little late. Everything okay?"
"Eh," Simon said, shrugging. He caught the door and eased it shut. "Had a meeting with Professional Responsibility. That'll take the starch out of your dick, you know?"
Sandra said nothing for a moment, although her gaze sharpened until Simon found himself forced to look away. "I suppose it would, in theory," she finally said. "Is it anything we need to worry about?"
Once again, caught, Simon hesitated. "I'm not sure, Sandy," he finally said, hating himself for it but needing to go ahead and get the idea out there. "I want to say no, but I can't."
Sandra hissed in a breath, but didn't say anything. Simon forced himself to meet her gaze, and this time it was Sandra who flinched. "Let me know if there's anything I can do," she said, looking down at her hands.
"Actually, now that you mention it, yeah, there is: keep your head down and stay out of this," Simon told her, pushing himself away from the door and heading for the dubious sanctuary of his office. "It's all high-level politics now. The fewer of us who end up getting peed on, the better."
"What?" Dave said in confusion, surfacing.
Simon laughed under his breath, despite everything. "Nothing, Stone," he said. "Also, your timing is as perfect as ever, and by 'perfect', I mean 'ass'."
"What?" Dave said again, piteously, like he already knew he wasn't going to get an answer.
After half an hour's halfhearted work, the surface of Simon's desk was once again clean except for the random stains that littered the fake wood veneer. Nate poked his head in to say hello and then got to work; accordingly, Simon told Dave to go home. Fifteen minutes later, he told Dave to go home again. It was all so normal that it felt positively surreal.
He dealt with his email purely by rote, emptying the inbox of all its petty concerns. Once that was done, he shut his computer back down and kicked his chair around, folding his hands on his desk and staring down at them. After a moment he unfolded his hands and cupped them around an empty double handful of air, thinking hard.
Right now, he had three problems. Simon moved that empty handful of air to the left. His first problem was the official Rappaport operation. It almost wasn't a problem at all. Rappaport was the very definition of makework, and Simon's team was more than equal to the job even without his supervision. Sooner or later Rappaport would turn up, or he wouldn't, and either way it didn't really make a difference to Simon. So: Rappaport was his first problem, but right now, there was nothing he could do about it but wait. Simon parted his hands. Okay, then. Let it go.
Simon moved his hands back to the center of the desk and cupped up another handful of air. His second problem was Professional Responsibility and Norton Fowles, and that was without a doubt his biggest problem right now. Unfortunately, it was now almost completely out of his handsSimon let that handful of air go, dimly pleased by the symbolism of itand it had snowballed into something a lot bigger than just him. Something political. So: Norton Fowles was his second problem, but right now, that problem rested firmly in Upstairs' hands. Okay, then. Let it go.
Simon picked up a third handful of air and moved it to the right. His third problem was Jeremy and Jeremy's current problem with Viktor Karpol. Technically it wasn't Simon's problem at all, except for the part where he had to accept a lot of the blame for creating the situation in the first place, a thought which left a bitter taste in the back of his mouth. But Jeremy had gone to ground who knew where, and even if Simon had known how to get hold of him, there wasn't anything he could do to help. So: Jeremy and Viktor Karpol were his third problem, but right now, Simon was helpless to do anything about it. Okay, then. Let it go.
Simon opened his hands and let that final handful of air go, then abruptly snapped both hands shut again. There was something he could do there, wasn't there? If only to satisfy his own curiosity. He couldn't do it officially, but...
Pushing his chair back, Simon stood up and headed out into the main room. He already knew what he was going to see, and he was not disappointed. He strode right over and grabbed the oblivious Dave by the back of his shirt collar. "Da-ave," he half-sang.
Dave yelped and nearly fell right out of his chair, arms flailing. "I was just shutting things down!" he protested, once he recovered. "I swear! I'm heading out right now!"
"Great!" Simon said. "It's always so nice when you listen to me, Dave."
Dave paused and tugged experimentally against Simon's grip on his collar. "Um," he said.
"Nope," Simon said, mimicking a cheerfulness he was almost feeling. Something about picking on Dave always made him feel better. "I'm not letting go until all nineteen of your computers have been shut down."
"That could, um, be a problem," said Dave, "since I only have five."
"Oh, my bad, you only have five computers over here, Jesus Christ," Simon said. "Something is very, very wrong with you."
"And two of them are already turned off," Dave added. The computer in front of him went black and he turned off the monitor. "So, um."
"Okay, tell you what, I'll compromise," Simon said, feeling magnanimous. "You shut down two more computers and we'll call it even."
"I'd kind of like to leave that one running," Dave said, twisting awkwardly in Simon's grip and pointing to the one behind him. "If that's okay with you?"
Simon swung his elbow up and over Dave's head, manually turning Dave's chair until Dave was facing the other way. "Will you leave it running and go home?"
Dave grabbed the armrests of his chair and rode the spin out. "Um," he said, blinking. "Yes?"
"Will you promise not to try and get into it from home?"
"Then you may leave that one running," Simon declared. "See how easy I am to get along with? Aren't you lucky I'm not a hardcase?"
Dave ducked back under Simon's arm and shut down a second computer, then leaned way back and punched off the monitor attached to the one that was still running. "Okay," he said, tugging against Simon's grip again. "They're off."
"Awesome," Simon said, spinning Dave around in his chair just because he could. Dave yelped and slammed both feet down, putting on the brakes and nearly choking himself on his own collar in the process. "Okay!" Simon said, adjusting his grip. "Now stand up." Dave, smart enough not to protest, got warily to his feet, ducking under Simon's arm again and pulling his shirt even more sadly askew. "Get your briefcase," Simon said, pulling Dave to the left. Dave reached blindly down and picked up his briefcase. "Okay," Simon said. "Now I am going to walk you out of the buildingno, no, I insist. Come on." And he headed for the door, towing a hapless Dave stumbling backwards in his wake.
Having made his point, he let go of Dave's shirt collar once the saferoom door had closed behind them. Keeping one wary eye on Simon, Dave paused long enough to yank his shirt back down and tug his collar back into place. "Um," he said.
"No, you're not actually in trouble," Simon said, jerking his head towards the exit. "You're just heading for a burnout and I cannot afford to lose you, now or ever."
"Walk and talk," Simon said, pushing lightly at Dave's shoulder to get the guy moving.
Dave obediently fell into step beside him, still tugging at his wrinkled collar. "I'm fine," he said, although he didn't sound certain.
"Yeah, okay, I will give you that. For now, you're fine," Simon said. "But I don't know how much longer you can keep this shit up, and I don't intend to find out. Okay?"
"Okay," Dave said, ducking his head.
Simon sighed and clapped Dave on the shoulder, a move that made Dave squawk and duck like he was expecting to be hit. "The team needs you with us, Dave," Simon said, squeezing his shoulder. "I need you with us. And I need you sharp. Okay?"
"Okay," Dave said again. He looked a little bug-eyed. It was a look that Simon was not unaccustomed to.
"And if you waste all your awesome on a piece-of-shit job like Rappaport, I'll kick your ass," Simon said genially, opening the door for Dave. "There. Go home. Come back tomorrow morning."
"Um. Yeah. Okay," Dave said, squinting against the setting sun for a moment before edging out into the light. Despite his general geekish pallor he failed to burst into flames on the spot. "G'night."
"Night, Dave," Simon said, leaning against the door.
Dave hesitated at the edge of the portico. "Did you need something else?"
"Me? Nope," Simon said. "I'm just going to watch until you get into your car and go home. Just to be certain."
"Oh," Dave said faintly. He took a step or two backwards, then turned around and trudged out to his car, tugging at his shirt.
Simon watched him go, smiling just a bit. Once Dave's car pulled out of its spot and headed for the security gate, Simon stepped out into the evening and let the door close behind him, pulling out his cell phone. Just after seven; just after five, Mountain Time. It only took a few seconds of dicking around with his phone to get the number he needed.
"Durango Police Department," the woman on the other end of the line said.
"Yeah, hi," Simon said, shutting his eyes. "I'd like to speak to someone about a missing person, please."
"Yes, sir, please hold."
Simon held. Simon also edged back into the slanting shadow of the portico and sat on the low stone wall there. It was still hot from the sun, but not unpleasantly so, and there was a sluggish breeze blowing; Simon thought he could smell rain on the way. Wishful thinking, maybe.
His phone clicked. "This is Sergeant Powell," a voice said. "How can I help you?"
"Ah, yeah," Simon said. "My name is Simon Drake, and I'm with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Having said that, let me stress right now that this is currently a completely unofficial call, but if you'd like to check my bona fides, you can call the Washington DC branch at any time and ask about me."
Sergeant Powell chewed on that for a moment. "Ah, what'd you say your name was?"
"Simon Drake," Simon said again. "I'm with Special Ops, out of the main branch. The switchboard can confirm all that for you."
"Okay," Sergeant Powell said, warily. "Why don't you tell me what you need and then I'll decide what to do from there."
"Sounds good to me." Simon rubbed the back of his neck. "Like I said, right now this is completely unofficial and off the record. What I need to know is if you've had a missing person reported in the last few days with the first name of Annabelle or something similar."
The silence from the other end of the line told Simon a lot more than he was currently happy to be hearing. "Sir, at this time I'd like to call and confirm your identity before proceeding," Sergeant Powell finally said, managing to kick Simon in the stomach from two time zones away.
"That's fair," Simon said, hunching forward to stare at the ground. "Once you've done that, I'd appreciate it if you'd call me back at this number. It's my cell."
"Got it," Powell said. "I should get back to you shortly."
"Thank you," Simon said, hitting the CALL CANCEL button with his thumb and folding his phone closed.
It was close to ten minutes before Simon's phone rang again, long enough that the breeze had picked up and started to freshen. Simon snapped his phone open. "Simon Drake," he said.
"Agent Drake," Sergeant Powell said, somewhat less wary now. "I'm sorry it took me so long to get back to you, but I wanted to run this by my captain before proceeding."
"No need to apologize," Simon said. "I completely understand. And judging by your reaction, I'd say that the answer to my question is 'yes'."
"Ohh yes," Powell said. "I did not even have to stop and think about it. One Annabelle Lamb was reported missing last Thursday, and let me tell you, an FBI agent calling out of the blue to ask about it is only the latest weird circumstance attached to this case."
Simon winced. "You know what, I'm not sure I like the sound of that. Can you fill me in?"
"Sure can," Powell said. "The report was initially filed last Thursday, at around three in the afternoon, by one, ah, Shawna Traviston, she's Ms. Lamb's caretaker"
"Caretaker?" Simon said, blinking.
"And there you hit weird thing number one," Sergeant Powell said, not without some satisfaction. "Apparently Ms. Lamb is a paraplegic and normally confined to a wheelchair, although according to Ms. Traviston she does well enough for herself that the hospice only looks in on her twice a week."
"A wheelchair?" Simon said, his voice nearly cracking on that one.
"Absolutely. She's got one of those really fancy expensive hydraulic onesI mean, we're talking about one of those big chrome sonsabitches that cost about as much as a decent car and look like something out of a sci-fi movieas well as a more standard wheelchair that's kept folded up in the closet for emergencies. And that's where weird thing number two comes in: we know this because they were both still there, in her apartment. Her big one was all plugged into its recharging station and everything."
"So it's unlikely that she just decided to go somewhere without telling anyone," Simon said. "I mean, unless she crawled."
"Yep," Powell said. "Given that fact, we decided to waive the twenty-four-hour rule, especially since she could have disappeared any time between Monday evening, when Ms. Traviston last visited, and Thursday afternoon, when Ms. Traviston discovered her missing."
Simon shut his eyes and sent up a silent, selfish prayer to whoever might be listening: please, please don't let her have vanished on Wednesday. Please, not during that twenty-four-hour period when he'd been waiting on Langridge. "Any sign of a struggle?" he asked, instead.
"None at all," Sergeant Powell said. "The apartment was clean and in perfect order. Nothing appeared to have been stolen, either, except weird thing number three: a suitcase and a selection of Ms. Lamb's clothes."
"A suitcase?" Simon said, grabbing onto this idea with a lunatic hope. "So she could have done some kind of runner"
"which brings me to weird thing number four," Powell said. "I won't lie to you, that's what I thought, too. Some lady goes off with her boyfriend on the spur of the moment, forgets to tell anyone, it's happened before. But then an officer actually went out and spoke to Ms. Lamb's neighbors."
"Uh oh," Simon said. The momentary fizzle of hope died.
"Oh yeah," Powell said. "First couple of neighbors didn't know nothin' about nothin', but the third one tells the officer not to be ridiculous, Ms. Lamb's not missing, the poor thing's in the hospital. She knows this, of course, because she saw the ambulance on Wednesday afternoon, and the two uniformed paramedics carrying an unconscious Ms. Lamb out of her apartment on a stretcher."
"Oh, Jesus," Simon said weakly, hunching over and folding an arm across his midsection.
"Yeah, a local nursing home did have an ambulance stolen on Wednesday morning, before you ask," Sergeant Powell said, oblivious. "We found it abandoned outside the city early Thursday morning, figured at the time it was joyriding kids with weird tastes. I ask you, Agent Drake: what kind of asshole goes to that much trouble just to steal themselves a crippled woman?"
"I don't know," Simon said, because he had to say something. "Any luck tracing her from there?"
"Not much," said Powell. "I mean, if they transferred her into a car from the ambulance, by now she could be anywhere. We've put out the alertthere are people watching for her at every airport from here to Albuquerque, hell, the local Bureau has the alert if you want to look it upbut the sad fact of the matter is that her abductors had a twenty-four-hour head start before anyone even discovered she was missing. The best news I can give you right now is that her body hasn't turned up anywhere."
Simon nodded dumbly, then remembered that he was on the phone. "Yeah," he said. "So... Wednesday afternoon."
"Right," Sergeant Powell said. "Somewhere around two PM local time. I gotta tell you, if you guys want to pull rank and take this one away from us, you're welcome to it."
"I doubt it. It wouldn't be me in any case," Simon said, dropping his head until the fringe of his hair nearly touched his knees. "I'm only trying to check out a story here."
"Huh," Sergeant Powell said. "Anything that might be important?"
"I wish I were at liberty to say." Simon sounded like he was choking, even to his own ears; he forced himself upright, then pushed himself to his feet. "Thank you for your time, Sergeant. I'll let you know if anything turns up."
"Yeah, I've heard that from the feds before," Powell said, without too much malice. "I appreciate the thought, anyway. Anything else I can do for you?"
The breeze lifted again and Simon lifted his face into it, staring unseeing at the clouds gathering in the west. "I think that's it for now," he said. "I appreciate your taking the time to talk to me."
"No problem," Powell said. "Good luck." He hung up.
Simon folded up his phone and put it back in its holster, his mind elsewhere. The smell of rain was everywhere now, thick and close, and thunder muttered unhappily in the distance as Simon swiped himself back into the building.
The storm broke an hour or so later, exploding over DC with a vengeance. The part of Simon's team that was currently in the saferoom kept glancing uneasily at the tiny casement windows every time that the sky lit up outside; Nate went into extreme data-protection mode, saving his work every time he so much as paused for breath.
Simon sat in his office and barely heard any of it. Even when Mike came staggering in, soaked to the bone and bitching, Simon only vaguely noticed. Ostensibly he was going over the latest stack of transcribed recordings, but he kept catching himself having 'read' five or six pages without having read them at all; his mind was stuck in an endless feedback loop of my faultfucked upmy fault.
Now that he knew what to look for, he'd gone out and pulled the report of Annabelle Lamb's abduction off the Bureau's internal network. It didn't give him much that was new, beyond a vague description of the mysterious Annabelle: medium build, brown hair, green eyes. Some help that was. Someone thought they'd seen her at the Albuquerque airport, but it had turned out to be a false alarm. Someone tried to link her disappearance to his own pet theory about a serial killer stalking the four-state area. Someone asked if there were any recent photos of the abducted woman. Someone confirmed that there were not. It was all useless.
Simon shook his head sharply, went back a couple of pages in the transcriptions, and started over. He'd debated pointing Upstairs to the police report, but in the end, he'd decided against it; now was not the time to abuse Upstairs' good nature by pursuing lines of inquiry not directly related to his official assignment. Besides, if he did that, he'd have to explain how he knew why this woman was important, and that led inevitably back to the last topic in the world he wanted to be discussing and the secret that was at the core of everything. It was all so complicated, all of a sudden. How had Simon ended up in this position, anyway?
He'd done it to himself, that was how. Two years ago he'd made the mistake of getting personal with entirely the wrong person, so to speak, and then he'd made the further mistake of trying to maintain a professional relationship with the same goddamned person. Step by step he'd tracked the mud of his personal life back into his professional life, and now that everything was going to hell the two were so inextricably tangled up that he couldn't cut anything free, not even to save himselfSimon smacked the top of his desk hard enough to make the palm of his hand sting and interrupt the conversation in the other room. And now he was sitting here feeling sorry for himself when he was the one who had directly endangered the lives of not one, but two people, one of whomadmit it, Drakewas a friend.
Simon bared his teeth and flexed his aching hand. If only Jeremy didn't get under his skin so damn badlyyeah, dumping the blame off on Jeremy, that was a really classy move. Sure, Jeremy got up in Simon's face like it was part of his religion, but Simon was the one who let him. No, Simon's current predicament was all his own fault, and Jeremy's current predicament and its complication was also largely Simon's fault, and that was the truth, as much as it made Simon feel sick to admit it.
Glancing at his watch, Simon discovered that it was shortly after eleven. He shook his head a little and tried to make his eyes focus on the paper in front of him, then snarled under his breath and slapped the folder shut. Picking up his empty mug Simon drank down the dregs of his stone-cold coffee, then abandoned the mug to its fate and stumbled out into the main room. "You kids got it under control here?" he asked, grabbing his temples as a headache burst around him. "Little as I like to admit it, I'm pretty fucking well all in. I'm going home."
The desultory conversation died. For a moment they were all silent, all three of them staring at him like he'd sprouted horns. "We're good, Templar," Sandra finally said, shifting in her chair. "It's late. Hardly anyone's moving around up there and there are two of us on the headsets if that changes. Go home and get a little extra sleep. You sound like you could use it."
"Yeah," Simon said. He shut his eyes, swaying on his feet. "Christ, I feel like shit. How much longer is this going to go on?"
"Forever, probably," Mike said equably, plucking at his damp t-shirt. "We all died and went to hell and we just don't know it yet."
Simon shuddered. "Oh, Jesus, don't say that, I could almost believe it right now."
"Yeah?" Mike perked up. "Long as you're feeling credulous, I could use a salary review"
"Sandy, pop him one for me, will you?" Simon said, rubbing his eyes. The smack and the yelp were almost instantaneous. "Thanks," he said.
"Any time," Sandra said. Mike whined a little. Sandra ignored it. "You need a ride home or anything? If you're getting sick..."
"I'm not getting sick," Simon said. After a moment's thought, he added, "I don't think." He dropped his hands and sighed. "I'm just tired, is all. I need some of whatever Dave is on."
"No, you don't," said Sandra. "One ticking burnout bomb on this team is enough, thanks."
It wasn't quite midnight when a rain-spotted Simon let himself into his apartment, almost five hours early. Technically he'd barely been at work for seven hours, but those seven hours felt more like fourteen. Moving was like wading through glue. The feedback loop of accusations in his brain had dimmed to a vague, nauseous sensation of guilt.
Too tired to wait for delivery, let alone cook anything, Simon settled on a bowl of cereal for dinner, leaning against the counter and wolfing his food without bothering to turn on the lights in the kitchen. He chased his dinner with the rest of the orange juice, drinking it straight from the carton.
Stripping out of his jeans and shirt woke phantom itches all over his body, and Simon threw himself into the shower to get rid of the dried sweat. Once he was clean and dry and relatively comfortable, Simon dug around in his medicine cabinet until he turned up one of Sandra's Ambien, which he'd stashed in an empty Advil bottle for just such an occasion as this. The Ambien was so old that it had probably turned into a chunk of white chalk, but right now Simon thought he'd welcome anything that might give sleep an edge. He washed it down and threw himself into bed, setting the alarm just as a precaution.
The ancient Ambien took forever to kick in, if it ever kicked in at all. Simon stared at the ceiling and wallowed in my fault my fault my fault until the mental voice faded and diffused and either exhaustion or Ambien dropped him into blackness; the next thing he knew it was two in the afternoon and the sun was in his face, and he felt so rested and alive that the entirety of Monday might have been nothing but a bad, bad dream.
"Oh, man, kids, I feel pretty good," Simon announced, kicking open the saferoom door at a little past three. "Sleep is a positive thing. Who knew? Apparently not Dave."
"What?" Dave said, surfacing from what looked like a fairly serious computerized coma. After a moment, his eyes focused. "I sleep!" he protested.
"You know what, Dave, I feel so good that I'm not even going to take issue with that blatant lie," Simon said. "Anything big going down?"
Johnny snorted. "Not a goddamn thing," he said.
"That your official progress report, Texas?" Simon said, patting Johnny's head and getting a handful of prickles for his trouble. He whistled and scrubbed his knuckles up the back of Johnny's neck. "Damn, you get your crewcut sharpened or something?"
"Yeah, on Friday," Johnny said. "Felt like a goddamn hippie."
"Man, that feels great," Simon said, getting both hands into it for a moment. "Like petting a bulldog or something, you know?"
Johnny put up with it for a little while longer, then ducked and swatted at Simon's hands, snickering. "You wanna fondle a fresh haircut, get your own," he suggested.
"Jesus, I totally need one, too," Simon said, getting in one last ruffle before heading for the coffeemaker. "Hope you don't have a problem with working for a goddamn hippie, Texas."
"Hey, you cut me in on some of that free love shit, I'll deal," Johnny said, running a hand back over his hair and putting it back into place, not that it looked any different when he was done.
Simon toasted him with a mugful of coffee. "Free love, my ass, Texas. You want some of this, you gotta buy me dinner first," Simon said, patting his hip, and then escaped into his office before that particular conversation could get any worse.
The pile of paper on his desk put a damper on his good mood. Simon put his coffee down, braced himself, and attacked the pile, expecting to have a PERSONAL : CONFIDENTIAL envelope leap out at him at any second. It was almost a letdown when he got down to the bottom and had seen nothing worse than a reminder that the back parking lot was going to be closed for resurfacing next week. No news was good news; Simon chucked out most of the pile, ran a much smaller pile of papers out to the outbox, and then settled in with his email.
Nothing horrible was lurking in his email, either. It only reinforced his confused conviction that the events of Monday had been a bad dream. The Missing Persons report was still lurking on his desktop, but in the clear light of Tuesday afternoon it gave him no more than a slight twinge of remorse. Simon shut his computer down and went to help Johnny with the headphones.
He'd been at it for about half an hour, sunk deep into his unfocused trance, when Dave made a little noise. For a moment Simon thought he was just hearing things, or that he'd heard something over the headset and it had confused him, but then Johnny twisted around in his seat to look at Dave. Simon pushed his headphones down. "What's up, Stone?"
Dave looked up, blinking. "Uh." He touched a few keys. "It's probably nothing."
"You know, if you told me that you just found Rappaport, it'd make my entire goddamned year," Simon suggested.
"What? Oh! No, nothing like that," Dave said. "It's definitely not Rappaport."
"Aw, damn, way to get me all het up for nothing," Simon said, disappointed. "Oh, well. Carry on."
"Yes, sir," Dave said absently, already sinking back into his oblivious trance.
Simon sighed, picked up a pen, and threw it at him. The pen bounced off Dave's forehead, leaving a blue mark; Dave made a sound that Simon could only classify as a 'squeak' and threw his arms up to protect his head, a moment too late. "Don't call me 'sir', Stone," Simon said.
Dave hesitated, then lowered his arms, revealing a reproachful look so piteous that it made Simon grin. "Um. Sorry," Dave said.
Sandra turned up about four with three bags of Chinese takeout dangling from one hand. "Food," she said, dumping the bags on the table. Johnny made a little noise and dove for them.
"Hey, Sandy," Simon said, leaning forward to watch Johnny pry the lids off containers and flip open cartons. He claimed a spork and the first carton that came up fried rice, raised his eyebrows at the spork, then shrugged and dug in. "You ought to go rub Texas' head," he said around a mouthful of rice and shrimp. "It's awesome."
"Yeah, Sandy's allowed to rub my head, she wants," Johnny offered, poking an eggroll into his mouth like a cigar before continuing on his prospecting. Dave pushed himself away from his computers and wandered over, lured by the smell of food.
Sandra ran an exploratory hand over Johnny's head. "Oh, nice," she said, scratching the back of Johnny's neck. "I love freshly-cut man hair. It's like petting a horse."
"Goddamn, you wanna keep doing that, I ain't gonna kick," Johnny said, closing his eyes the rest of the way. Dave took the opportunity to make off with half of the remaining fried things and a carton of plain white rice.
Sandra laughed. "You need a lady friend, Texas," she said, squeezing his shoulders. "Jesus, you're like wire under there."
"Aw, man," Johnny said, nearly groaning it. "Do that again."
"I feel like I'm watching something I shouldn't ought to be," Simon told Dave.
"What?" Dave said, looking up from his food, a shrimp tail poking out of the corner of his mouth.
Sandra pursed her lips and set about rubbing Johnny's shoulders. "Your problem is that you have a filthy mind," she informed Simon, even as Johnny nearly melted under the table. "I think you all need lady friends."
"Oh, yeah," Simon said, picking up an invisible pen and writing on the air. "I'll pencil her in somewhere between 'work fifteen hours' and 'sleep eight hours'. Every lady wants a man who'll devote a whole fifteen minutes a day to her needs."
Sandra rolled her eyes. "No matter what I say next, this conversation is eventually going to devolve into a discussion of the relative merits of hookers and strip bars, isn't it?"
"Well, maybe not," Simon said. "Mike's not here. And also, in my position as team leader, I strenuously protest the fact that I was not offered the first backrub."
"You don't get quality hookers in DC anyway, 'less you're a senator or better," Johnny put in. Sandra smacked the back of his head.
By the time Nate turned up, Simon was back in his office, going through the pile of new transcriptions with a much higher rate of success; after all that sleep, he was focused enough to be bored to death by them. "Hey, boss," Nate said, poking his head in. "What's up?"
"The sky, clouds, various aircraft," Simon said, flipping a page. "Alternately, absolutely nothing. What's up with you?"
"Today, not much," Nate said, glancing over his shoulder. "But I'm supposed to go give my deposition tomorrow? Devlin thing?"
Simon smacked his forehead. "Shit, I completely forgot," he said. "What do you need from me on that?"
"I should probably go home early and get some sleep," Nate said, wincing. "I hate going to court enough as it is."
"Yeah," Simon said, blowing out a breath. "Christ. Okay. Do that. We'll get along without you for a while."
"I can stay," Dave called from the other room.
Simon shut his eyes in exasperation. "No, you can't," he said, raising his voice.
Dave bobbed up in the doorway opposite Nate a moment later. "No, seriously, I've got something working, I'd kind of like to stay in any case," he said, the very picture of earnest innocence.
Simon eyed Dave and that look, then sighed. "Will you at least go crash in the mat room for a while?"
"I can do that," Dave said. "I mean, I've got something working, but there'll be hours where it's just... working. Like how computers do." He made a vague and frustrated gesture that took in a circle of air in front of him.
Simon glanced at Nate, who was nodding in perfect understanding. "Okay," Simon said, looking back at Dave. "Stay. But seriously, I want you to crash when you can, and I reserve the right to decree how long you have to stay at home depending on how long you're here. Okay?"
Dave bobbed his head. "Okay," he said.
"What do you have, anyway?" Simon asked.
Dave glanced over his shoulder at his computers, chewing on his lower lip. "I kind of don't want to say just yet?" he said. "I mean, it's probably something, but I don't know how much of a something, and I really, really want to see where it goes before I commit to anything."
"You know, I'm really learning to hate it when my team members tell me that," Simon said. "Okay, fine. If it turns out you're hiding something vitally important from me, I will kill you."
"Okay," Dave said, vanishing from the doorway.
Simon looked back at Nate. "I'm beginning to think that that threat is losing some of its power over Dave," he said.
"I guess some day you really ought to kill him, just so he knows it's not an empty threat," Nate said.
The evening dragged on. Mike turned up and stripped the fridge bare of cold leftover Chinese food with the thoroughness of a plague of locusts. Nate sneaked out at eleven like he was doing something wrong. Dave vanished into the mat room for a couple of hours, only to reappear, drawn and scruffy, when one of his computers started chiming. Simon resisted the urge to go over there and check up on him, since chances were pretty good he wouldn't understand what was going on anyway.
Dave was still there at five when Simon was preparing to go home. Simon sighed and hunkered down by Dave's side. "How long have you been here, Stone?"
"Twenty-three hours," Dave said, eyes on the screen.
Simon rested his forehead on the armrest of Dave's chair. "All right," he said, resigned. "You're a big boy now and I'm tired of fighting with you over this. The minute that Nate turns up, you go home, okay?"
"Okay," Dave said, typing something. "Actually, I can go nap for a couple of hours as soon as I get this process running. Maybe ten minutes."
"Good," Simon said, standing up. "Do that. And please God don't kill yourself."
"I'll really try not to," Dave said, still staring at his monitor. Gibberish reeled off his fingers and spilled across the screen. Simon squinted at it for a minute, then gave up and went home.
Simon could hear the heavy humming thump of the printer from the hallway outside when he turned up on Wednesday evening. He closed his eyes, pausing with his hand on the door handle. Please don't let that mean what I think it means, he thought, and then pushed on in.
A thoroughly bemused Johnny was turned halfway around in his chair, headphones on. Nate was sitting at his own computer in his shirt and tie, his suit jacket draped over the back of his chair; as the door opened he spun around, already looking guilty.
"Jesus God," Simon said, stopping just where he was. "Dave. Are you still here?"
"Yes," Dave said. He looked like hammered shit, but he sounded pretty awake. In fact, he sounded pretty damn snappy, like he was wired halfway to hell on something. The printer dropped another page and he plucked it out, adding it to the very large pile of papers in front of him. "As soon as this finishes printing, I need to talk to you," Dave said, watching the next sheet of paper get sucked into his printer. "And after I talk to you, I'll go home for as long as you want me to. Swear to God."
"Ohhh, Christ, but I hate the sound of that already," Simon said. "Have you really been here for thirty-five hours?"
"Yes," Dave said again. "I took a couple of naps, though. And I had a lot of coffee. I put a couple of bucks in the kitty."
"You know what, I think that's the least of my worries right now, as much as I hate to say that about coffee," Simon said. "How much longer is that going to be printing?"
"Half an hour?" Dave said, shrugging. "Something like that."
"Okay," Simon said. "I'll go do the nonsense, then. Come grab me as soon as you're done."
Dave picked up the freshly-printed sheet and added it to his pile. "Will do."
"Thirty-five hours," Simon told the room at large, shaking his head. "Thirty-five hours."
This time, since he wasn't expecting it, the sealed interoffice envelope with the PERSONAL : CONFIDENTIAL memo in it jumped right out of the center of the pile and bit Simon on the ass. Already dreading it, Simon broke open the seal and pulled it out:
It was like getting punched in the stomach. Simon stared at the memo, willing it to magically contain more information. As it was, it could mean anything at all, but probably nothing good. Trying not to think about it Simon dropped the memo into his shredder; he felt a little better once it was gone, but only a little. He handled the rest of the papers without seeing them at all, and answered his email in a like state. Outside the printer continued to thump with monotonous regularity.
He was staring at his monitor and not seeing it when Dave appeared in the doorway, clutching what appeared to be an entire ream of paper to his chest. "Boss," Dave said.
"Stone," Simon said, blinking a couple of times and looking up. "Right. What have you got for me?"
"Could we go somewhere else to talk?" Dave asked, his eyes straying to the empty hinges that had once held up Simon's office door. "Somewhere a little more private?"
"Stone, I don't have any secrets from my team, you know that" Simon broke off there as abruptly as if someone had kicked him in the crotch. That wasn't true any more, was it? Christ, had it ever been true? Simon shook his head sharply and stood up. "But okay, we'll play it your way," he said. "Come on, we'll go find us a niche."
"I'd appreciate it," Dave said. He took a couple of steps backwards and stood there, waiting impatiently. As Simon went by Dave fell into his wake, still clutching his papers; Simon could feel Nate and Johnny staring after them as the door closed. He didn't want to think about that right now. He didn't want to think about any of this right now. As far as he could tell, he didn't have a choice.
The little courtyard just past the vending machines was empty; it was close to six and almost everyone else had already gone home. It was hot and close outside, but bearable, at least in the shade. Simon picked his way to the far corner, made sure he could see both doors, and then stuck his hands in his pockets. He didn't turn around. "Okay, Stone," he said, staring off at the far door. "What's got you so fired up?"
"I broke through the security protocols on Rich Story's computers," Dave said. "Yesterday, actually, but I had to play it safe until I made sure I was actually in and home free."
Simon blinked, swiveling to stare at him. "Wait, what?" he said.
Dave took a deep breath and started to repeat himself. "I broke through"
"I heard you," Simon said, interrupting. "I'm justyou were still working on that? All this time?"
"Yes?" Dave said, confused. "I mean, no one ever told me I should stop, so I kept poking at them whenever I had a moment..."
"Is that why you've been pulling these crazy hours?" Simon asked, aghast. "Jesus Christ."
Dave hunched his shoulders, ducking his head over the heavy pile of papers like he was trying to protect them with his body. "I thought it was a priority?"
"Well, yeah, but... I... oh, Christ," Simon said. He yanked a hand out of his pocket and clutched at his temples, getting a grip on himself. "No, okay, I'm doing this wrong. Seriously, Stone, that's amazing, and as soon as I get over being startled I'm going to be really impressedokay, okay, there it goes, yeah, I am now totally in awe, holy shit. Tell me everything. Well, okay, not everything, I'm computer stupid. Summarize it for me. Use small words."
Dave straightened back up, looking hopeful. "Well, basically all you need to know is that one of his computers got shut down only after it started chewing up and deleting his security protocols, so his security wasn't airtight any more. Like how a padlock doesn't work quite right if a large chunk of it is missing."
"I understood that," Simon said. "Amazing. So you were able to get in that way?"
"Eventually," Dave said, nodding. "It's way more complicated than that, but that was basically it. Once I got into one computer, it was pretty easy to get into the others. I haven't broken the protection on those CDs yet, but that's next."
Simon shut his eyes and heaved out a huge, relieved breath. "You are the man, holy crap. We've got access to his stuff again?"
"Some of it," Dave said warily. "I mean, a lot of it got deleted or partially deleted. Some of it I can patch back up, given some time. Some of it is just... gibberish. And some of it is completely gone."
"Still, that means we have some of it back now," Simon said, taking another deep breath. "Christ, I can't tell you what a relief that is. So, what's that you've got there?"
"This," Dave said, glancing down at his burden. "Um. This is the reason I wanted to have this talk privately."
Simon went still. "Oh."
"Yeah. Um." Dave hefted his armload of paper. "This is, um, almost everything he ever sent to Viktor Karpol." Simon froze, his face turning to stone. Dave made a little frightened noise but the words kept tumbling out anyway. "He had it all in a hidden fileit started in the middle of a page and I don't know how much got eaten by the deletion, but I don't think it was much, given where the file starts"
Simon held out his hands. "Let me see." He though he sounded calm enough.
Wincing, Dave handed over the pile of papers. It was depressingly heavy. "I really only skimmed it," Dave said. "But there's, um, there's a lot there. And there's something weird about it."
"You mean, besides the fact that an FBI agent with a decent security clearance was funneling it to the Russian mafia," Simon said flatly.
"Yeah. Um. Besides that," Dave said. "There's a line at the bottom of every page, if you look, it says 'PROPERTY OF THE FBI CONFIDENTIAL DO NOT DISTRIBUTE OR REPRODUCE'?"
Simon looked at the top sheet, which appeared to be part of the FBI's payroll record. The first name and salary listed was 'Delacroix, Annette' and the page number at the bottom was 36; Dave was right. Not too much was missing. Also, Annette Delacroix was pretty severely underpaid for a field agent. Stonefaced, Simon checked the bottom of the page. "Yeah, I see it. What about it?"
"Well, that's weird," Dave said. "None of the original documents have that line on them. As far as I can tell Mr. Story went through and added that line to every page he ever sent to Karpol, by hand."
"And?" Simon said.
"And it's weird!" Dave flapped his arms in a helpless gesture. "There are some hidden characters in that line, toostuff that doesn't show up or print unless you highlight itbut it's just... a bunch of gibberish. It might be a PGP key or a long password or something, but if so, why stick it there before sending it out? There has to be a reason!"
Simon shut his eyes for a moment. "See, Dave, that's what I'm counting on you to tell me."
"Yeah," Dave said, subsiding. "I'll figure it out eventually. But, um, I guess I don't have to tell you how potentially explosive that is, right there."
"Yeah," Simon said. "No, you don't. I get it. Thanks for your discretion. I won't let it out of my sight until I can personally hand it over to Upstairs."
Dave nodded. Now that he'd said his piece, the crazed look was starting to fade from his face, leaving him gray and exhausted and wearing two days' worth of reddish stubble. "Oh, boy, I really need some sleep," Dave said, making a noise that was probably a laugh.
"Uh, yeah, yeah, I'd say you do," Simon said, forcing himself to come back from the small, angry place where he'd gone and pay attention to business. "If I tell you to go home and not come back for twenty-four hours, will you do it?"
"Yeah, um, I think I will," Dave said, rocking back on his heels and nearly staggering. "I mean, I'm done. That's the big thing, done. If I come back tomorrow evening, I'll get here just in time to help with the next batch of footage"
"oh, Christ, don't remind me"
"and I'm so wired it's going to take me like three hours to relax enough to sleep," Dave said. "So, uh, yeah. I'll take it. If that's okay."
Simon shifted the stack of papers to rest in the crook of one arm and slapped Dave on the back, nearly knocking him over. "Dave, my man, I would give you a week off right now if it were mine to give. Which it is not. But yeah, take twenty-four hours. Get a lot of sleep. Come back tomorrow evening. Also, I love you like a brother and I swear to God I'll never threaten to kill you again and mean it."
"I guess I can't ask for more than that," Dave said. His smile was small and tired.
They split up in the hallway outside the saferoom: Dave trudged off towards the parking lot, his keys jingling in one hand, and Simon watched him go. Once he was gone, Simon hefted the papers against his chest, gritted his teeth, and let himself back into the saferoom.
Sandra had arrived at some time while Simon was away, and given the wary way she was looking at Simon, someone had filled her in. "So," she said after a moment, nodding at the pile of papers that Simon was carrying. "What's up?"
Simon held up his free hand. "Give me one minute and then I'll explain," he said. "Swear to God."
Sandra's eyes narrowed, but she nodded. "One minute," she said.
Simon carried the papers into his office. There was exactly one drawer in his desk that still had a working lock on itall the others were currently broken, thanks to Sandra having gone after them with a crowbar when Simon was in the hospitaland it was that drawer into which Simon deposited the document, covering it over with a handful of blank papers as an afterthought. Simon shut the drawer, locked it, and tucked the key into his back pocket. It would do for now. "Time?" he called.
"Fifty-two seconds," Sandra called back after a moment.
"Oh yeah, I'm good," Simon said under his breath. He tugged on the drawer's handle, double-checking to make sure that it was locked, and then headed back out.
"Well?" Sandra said, the instant that Simon reappeared.
Simon took a deep breath. "A few hours ago, Stonewall broke open Specs Two's computers," he said. "We're back in."
The shock shut them all up. Johnny was the first to recover, whistling long and low. "Daaaamn," he said. "Only took him, what, six months?"
"Yeah, something like that," Simon said. He'd never felt less like laughing in his life, but he laughed a little anyway, a small, mostly humorless sound. "Apparently we never told him to stop."
Sandra glanced aside, making some rapid mental calculations. "He's right," she said after a moment. "We never did. Or, at least, I never did, and I was the one who got him started."
"Yeah, I didn't tell him to stop either," Simon said. "And now apparently he's done it."
"So we've got all of Rich's stuff back?" Nate said, nearly bouncing in his seat. "We have access again?"
Simon held up a hand. "Some," he said. "Don't get too excited, Specs. Stonewall says that a lot of stuff got completely or partially deleted before the plug got pulled."
"Still, holy cow, that's great," Nate said, deeply, nerdily impressed. "I didn't think it was possibleI thought for sure that stuff was gone forever!"
"Yeah, me too," Simon said, glancing over at Dave's lair, currently dark and silent. "Anyway, I sent him home for no less than twenty-four hours, seeing as how he was here for close to thirty-six."
"Thirty-six?" Sandra said in disbelief. "That's a record."
"It is also completely insane and under other circumstances I'd kick his ass for it," Simon said. "But apparently he was putting in all that overtime because he was trying to break into Rich's computers, so maybe he'll work normal human hours from here on out. We can only hope."
"So what was that pile of papers, then?" Sandra asked.
Simon hesitated, weighing his decision. "This goes no further than this room," he finally said, leaning on the words. "That is an order. Word of this gets out and we are in such deep shit, I don't even want to think about it." Sandra nodded impatiently. Simon checked Nate and Johnnyboth quiet and attentivethen squeezed his eyes shut and sighed. "Rich kept a log file of everything he ever funneled out to Karpol," Simon said. "That's it."
"Oh, Jesus," Sandra said weakly, collapsing in her chair. "That huge thing?"
"That's not all of it, either," Simon said. "Part of it got chewed up when Rich's computers were deleting themselves. See why I don't want anyone finding out we've got that?"
Sandra nodded. "So what are you going to do with it?"
"Keep an eye on it personally until I can dump it on Upstairs tomorrow afternoon," Simon said. "I've already got an appointment."
"You going to go through it?" Sandra asked, raising both eyebrows.
Simon jerked his eyes away, staring into the corner. "I don't know if my heart can take it," he said. "But yeah, I'll probably look through it. I... I have to know. You know? I have to know just how deeply Rich put us in the shit. Because I feel responsible."
Sandra snapped, "Oh, bullshit"
"I said I feel responsible," Simon snapped right back, overriding her. "Not that I am. Okay?"
Sandra twitched back, startled. She bit the inside of her cheek, then sighed and made herself relax. "Okay," she said.
"Yeah," Simon said, heading for his office and its dubious sanctuary. "Sorry I snapped at you, Spring. Texas, go home. Specs, stay as long as you can handle, but don't hurt yourself, and take off that tie before I strangle."
In the end, he ended up dicking around with the transcriptions for almost an hour before he could force himself to look. He didn't want to know, but he needed to know so goddamned badfinally, growling under his breath, Simon dug the key out of his back pocket and fetched the pile of papers out of the drawer. Glancing up at the empty doorway (and wishing like hell the door was still there to give him some privacy) Simon dropped five pounds of paper on his desk, cleared off the empty sheets that he'd covered it with, and settled in.
Two hours later Simon marked his place, deposited the whole stack of papers both read and unread back in the drawer, and locked it. Numbly he ran a hand over his face, then headed for the door.
Mike had arrived at some point while Simon's attention had been engaged. Simon hadn't even heard him come in. Judging from the expression on Mike's face, half cringing and half angry, the news had continued to filter down; he and Simon stared at each other for a moment, then Mike tore his eyes away and looked down. "Bad, huh," Mike said, his voice a little rough.
"Mm," Simon said distantly. "I'll be back in a few minutes. Hold the fort."
"Yeah," Mike said, but Simon barely heard it, heading for the saferoom door and freedom. The sun had set and the hallways were empty and echoing; somewhere off in the distance the maintenance crew was running either a vacuum cleaner or a floor polisher, filling the air with a fine humming susurrus. Simon marked the noise with half an ear and headed for the courtyard.
It was still hot and damp outside, but bearable in the early evening. Simon sucked in a lungful of clean air, held it for two seconds, then let it back out; he still felt dirty when he was done, but a little less so. And he was only halfway through the pile. Only halfway. Simon took another deep breath, then went back inside, turning towards the main building and the humming sound.
The sound of the floor polisher echoed confusingly throughout the building, but it wasn't too hard to track it to its source: two guys in coveralls pushing the heavy machine around the cavernous main lobby. "Hey," Simon called, pitching his voice loud enough to be heard. One of the maintenance team looked up, frowned, and elbowed the other, who jumped and shut the polisher down. The silence that followed was huge and stunning. "I know one of you guys has to have a pack of cigarettes on him," Simon said, glancing back and forth between them. His voice echoed in the silence. "Even if neither of you do, you know someone in this building who does. I'll pay ten bucks for any pack that's more than half full, as long as I get a lighter out of the deal too."
The maintenance guys glanced at each other, confused but not really surprised. Then the taller one shrugged and stuck his fingers into his breast pocket, coming out with a hard pack of Marlboros. "You're in luck," he said, his otherwise-reedy voice bearing the growling hallmark of the pack-a-day smoker. "I just ripped into this one an hour ago." He tossed it at Simon.
Simon caught it and checked: four cigarettes missing and a cheap butane lighter tucked into the empty spot. "That'll do," Simon said, unbuttoning his own breast pocket and tucking the pack away before reaching for his wallet and rifling his bills. "Fuck it, here's a twenty, keep the change."
The maintenance guy raised both eyebrows at the twenty, then pulled out his own wallet and tucked it away. "You're ever in the market again, look me up," he said. His grin was unpleasant and vaguely feral, or maybe it was just Simon's imagination.
"Yeah," Simon said, flipping them a wave over his shoulder, already heading out. A moment later the floor polisher revved back up behind him.
He went straight back to the saferoom. He was careful not to look at anyone. Instead he headed right for the coffeemaker and the little cabinet it stood on; he hunkered down in front of it and poked around for a moment, then gave in to the horrible yet cosmically appropriate impulse and fetched out the heavy black mug that was lurking, dusty and unused, in the very back of the cabinet.
Simon carried Jeremy's mug into his office and put it down on the desk, then unlocked the drawer and fetched out the pile of papers again, turning back to his marked place, halfway through. Closing his eyes he fished the hard pack out of his shirt pocket and shook out the lighter and one of the cigarettes, poking the cigarette into his mouth and negotiating with the cheap lighter until he got a flame.
The first harsh lungful didn't even make him cough. Simon opened his eyes and stared at the glowing coal for a moment, breathing out the smoke that he'd just sucked in, wondering when this bad habit had gotten to be so easy. Outside in the main room Nate was turned halfway around in his computer chair, watching Simon with an expression halfway between shock and dismay. The corner of Simon's mouth turned up. He toasted Nate with the burning cigarette, then stuck it back into his mouth and sucked down another lungful.
The weird and distant calm of nicotine tingled through him. The length of ash on the end of the cigarette grew. Simon tapped the ash off into Jeremy's mug, spent a bitter moment appreciating how right that was, and then went back to the file, leaking smoke through his gritted teeth.
He went through the papers, slowly, tapping the ashes into Jeremy's mug and stubbing out the dead butts against its thick ceramic side. The cigarette debris in the bottom grew thicker. The taste in Simon's mouth grew worse. Occasionally he cleared his mouth out with a swig of cold coffee, then went right back to the cigarettes. The pile of pages in front of him shrank.
Eventually Simon became aware of a slight shape in the doorway to his office and looked up, his latest cigarette caught between his first two fingers. "There's coffee up," Nate said timidly, holding the glass coffee pot clutched against his chest like a shield. "Do you want some more?"
"Yeah," Simon said, carefully turning over the topmost page so that only its blank back showed. "Yeah, Specs, that'd be good. Hit me."
Nate edged in, carrying the pot, and nearly poured coffee into Jeremy's mug. He yelped and jerked back when he noticed his mistake, almost sloshing coffee onto Simon's desk, which would, in some ways, have been a relief. Nate mumbled an apology and filled Simon's mug instead. "It's not so good, huh," he said awkwardly.
"Nah, coffee's always good," Simon said, switching his cigarette to his other hand so that he could pick up his mug and have a sip. "Or were you talking about something else?" Nate hugged the coffee pot to his chest and gave Simon his very best wounded-puppy look. Simon sighed. "You're going to stand there and continue to make awkward conversation until I tell you how bad this stuff is, aren't you?"
"Boy, I sure am, boss," Nate said, trying to laugh. "I'm glad you saved me all that trouble and got right to the point."
Simon stubbed out his latest cigarette and dropped the dead filter into Jeremy's mug. "Sit down," he said. Nate put down the coffee pot, pulled up the visitor's chair, and obediently sat, the expression on his face almost comically intent. Simon eyed him for a moment, then picked up the pile of papers that he'd already read through. "You sure you want to know?"
"Well, no, I'm not," Nate said, blinking. "But... yeah, I'd like to know."
"Suit yourself," Simon said, thumbing through the stack. A closely-typed page headed 'Waxman, Nathan Daniel' popped out at him and Simon pulled it out, dropping it onto the desk in front of Nate.
Nate picked up the paper. A single glance at the top and his face fell, so hard and so fast that it nearly broke Simon's heart. "Oh," Nate said, clutching at the paper until it wrinkled, reading down the page.
"I knew that man for seven years," Simon said, no longer bothering to hide the bitterness. "I always said he was a vicious little knee-biting bastard, but... Jesus Christ, I had no idea how right I was."
"These are my medical records," Nate said, his voice tiny and hurt. One hand fumbled at the collar of his dress shirt, which was still buttoned all the way up to hide the scars.
"I know," Simon said, closing his eyes. "Want a cigarette? Trust me, it helps."
"I don't smoke, Templar," Nate said, still in shock. Then his eyes snapped into focus. "... wait, you don't smoke!"
"Yeah, well, tonight I do," Simon said. He shook another cigarette out of the pack, noting in passing that he was down to about five, and held the pack out.
After a moment Nate nodded and took it, fumbling a cigarette out with shaking fingers. Simon lit them both. Nate held his awkwardly, sipping at the smoke instead of inhaling, and still he started coughing. It made Simon smile a little, despite everything. "Jesus, look at you," he said, taking a drag on his own. "You smoked once in high school to impress some girl and ended up throwing up on her, didn't you?"
"At least Rich didn't tell Karpol about that," Nate said, coughing again and staring at the cigarette in his fingers. "I'd never live it down."
"Yeah," Simon said, breathing out smoke. He didn't say anything elsehe didn't feel like sharing any of the things that were going through his mindand the silence was awkward but companionable for a minute or two. "You know," Simon finally said, talking mostly to the ceiling, "there was a time in my life, like a year and a half ago, when I thought I had a pretty good handle on who was trustworthy and who wasn't."
Nate nodded. "I know. Everyone on the team was trustworthy. Everyone else wasn't."
"Six of us against the world," Simon told the ceiling.
"Criminals beware." Nate smiled wanly and took another cautious mouthful of smoke.
"NowJesus, I just don't know any more," Simon said. He sighed. "It's late, Specs. You should probably go home and get some sleep. Come back in the morning."
Nate leaned over and awkwardly tapped his cigarette against the rim of Jeremy's mug, knocking off the ash. "I'm tempted to go to a motel instead, you know," he said. The sour note in his voice made Simon shut his eyes. "Since apparently Karpol has my home address."
"Hey," Simon said.
"I know, it's stupid," Nate said. "I mean, he's had it for years, apparently, there's no reason he'd suddenly do anything now"
"Hey," Simon said again, leaning on it. "You seriously think that he's going to try and start shit with us? Like, ever?"
"He did with Rich," Nate said, studiously watching his cigarette burn down instead of looking up at Simon.
"Nah," Simon said. "Nah, he didn't. He got Rich to start shit with Rich. That's worlds away from actually throwing down, and you know it."
Nate shrugged one shoulder. "I guess."
"Nate, they're thugs with cheap guns," Simon said. "How can they compete with us, even if they wanted to? They can't, and they know that. We are better-funded, better-trained, better-equipped, and, I might add, vastly better-looking." Simon jabbed the butt of his cigarette at Nate. "Frankly, I expect you to go home and sleep like a baby, knowing in your heart that you and your mom are safe as houses under the outstretched wing of, of the American bald eagle. Fuck them all. They can sneak around all they want, but the minute they poke their noses out of hiding, we are going to kick their asses."
After a long moment, Nate sighed and glanced up at Simon. "So, should I applaud or just salute you now? I don't actually know what's appropriate here."
"Just go home, smartass." Simon flopped out in his chair. "And put that cigarette down before you hurt yourself, Christ." Nate smiled wanly and held out his half-smoked cigarette. Simon plucked it from Nate's fingers, considered it for a moment, then stuck it in his mouth and stubbed out the butt end of his own. "Only got five left," he muttered.
"And I don't think you're allowed to smoke inside the building anyway," Nate pointed out, standing up and picking up the coffee pot.
"Yeah, well, you don't tell anybody and I won't have to break all your fingers," Simon said. "Go home. Come back in the morning."
"I'm going, I'm going," Nate said. He carried the coffee pot out of Simon's office.
Simon watched him go, what little smile he'd managed to summon up for Nate's sake fading and vanishing. He wished he could believe his own bravado. Between what was happening to Jeremy right now and what had happened to Langridge in the past... whatever, as long as Nate slept well tonight. Right now, that was what mattered.
An hour or two later, halfway through the last cigarette, when Simon was so deeply shell-shocked that he thought nothing at all could startle him any more, Simon hit the last page and found himself with Jeremy's old FBI file at his fingertips once again.
It shouldn't have come as a shock. And really, after a nasty little jolt, Simon realized he wasn't actually shockedafter all, Jeremy's file was just about the last thing that Rich had had a chance to send to Karpolbut, still, it left him angry all over again. And more than angry: unsettled. Some things were etched into his psyche too deeply to ever be erased. "Goddammit, Rich," Simon muttered, shutting his eyes and sucking so hard on his cigarette that it left him lightheaded.
Blindly he turned the last page over, finishing off his readthrough of the Karpol document. He checked his watchclose to one AMand then stubbed out his cigarette. His clothes reeked of smoke and his mouth tasted like he'd been licking sidewalks. Simon shuddered and rinsed out his mouth with cold coffee, once, then again.
Outside in the main room, things were quiet. Simon could hear people shifting around, but no one was actually talking. He shuffled the Karpol document into a folder that didn't have a hope of actually containing it and locked the folder away in his desk drawer, making a mental note to retrieve it before he went home; he had no intention of letting that folder out of his control before he personally placed it in Upstairs' hands tomorrow. His bladder nudged at him. Simon stood up, his stiff joints making the rise awkward, and as an afterthought picked up Jeremy's ash-filled mug. Disposing of the evidence, he thought, not really amused.
Sandra and Mike both looked up as Simon came out of his office. They were sitting on opposite sides of the conference table, both in headphones, barely paying attention to each other. "You kids behaving yourselves?" Simon asked. It came out as a croak and he winced.
"Yeah," Mike said. He kicked Sandra's foot under the table. Sandra kicked him back.
"What for?" Simon asked, carrying Jeremy's mug towards the door.
Contrary to his normal habit, Simon showed up for his meeting with Upstairs a good fifteen minutes early, the Karpol document clutched to his chest. It still smelled like smoke, a fact which Simon was valiantly attempting to ignore. "Hey, Danielle," he said. "There any chance I could sneak in a bit early?"
Danielle glanced at the fat folder, then favored Simon with a cool, calculating look. "That depends," she said.
"Yeah? On what?"
"Is that bad news?" Danielle inclined her head at the folder.
Simon looked down at it, flexing his fingers. "Yes and no?"
"Then I suppose you can and can't sneak in early," Danielle said, then relented. "I'll ask, but he's kind of in a bad mood," she said, turning back to her computer. "You can go have a seat over there and I'll let you know."
"Thanks," Simon said. He didn't budge. After a moment Danielle sighed and picked up the phone.
Upstairs' office was as dark as ever, blinds drawn against the afternoon sun, and Simon paused in the doorway to give his eyes the necessary chance to adjust. The bulky shape of Upstairs shifted behind his desk; a moment later, his desk lamp clicked on, half-outlining him in dim yellow light. "Simon," Upstairs said. His gravelly voice was noticeably cool, or maybe that was just Simon's paranoia talking.
Simon kicked the door shut and held up a hand. "Sir, before we get started on anything else, I really need to dump this on you," Simon said, all in a rush, hefting the folder with both arms. "It's important."
Upstairs hesitatedSimon could almost see the mental gears re-aligning themselvesthen inclined his head. "All right. What is it?"
Simon crossed the room and finally, finally put the massive folder down, abandoning it on Upstairs' leather desk blotter. "Dave Brassoff finally managed to break open Rich's computers," he said, patting the folder's cover. "That right there is a master log file of almost everything Rich ever funneled out to Viktor Karpolsome of the file got eaten by the deletion, but I think it's largely complete."
"I see," Upstairs said, flicking open the folder and glancing at the topmost page. After a moment, he closed his eyes in pain and pulled the folder shut, moving a heavy brass paperweight on top of it. "Who knows about this?"
"Myself and most of my team," Simon said. "You, now. No one else that I know of."
"Mr. Brassoff hasn't informed IT of his success?"
"Not to my knowledge. I can call and check."
"In a minute, yes," Upstairs said, tabling the idea with a wave of his hand. "But first: did you look through this?"
"Yes, sir, I did," Simon said. "Dave skimmed it while it was printing, but he claims that he didn't read it in too much depth. Given his mental state at the time, I'd be surprised if he remembers much."
Upstairs settled back in his chair and touched a finger to his lips, thinking. "How bad is it?" he finally asked.
Simon took a deep breath. "Sir, it's pretty bad," he said. "Rich told me that he sent as little as he could get away with, but I'd have to say that was a lie. He's compromised a lot of sensitive information."
"I see." Upstairs was quiet for most of a minute, his fingers steepled in front of his face, his brow furrowed. "I'll reserve judgment until after I've looked through it for myself," he finally said. "I'll have to take this higheris Mr. Brassoff available now?"
"He's probably still at home," Simon said. "Or, at least, he'd better be."
Upstairs nodded. "Call him now," he said, nudging the desk phone towards Simon. "Find out if he told IT anything about this. If so, I need to know who he told. If not, tell him not to inform anyone else, including IT. For the time being, I want this to go no further than it has."
"Yes, sir," Simon said, picking up the phone. "I'm guessing he hasn't told anyone. He's been recuperating at home ever since telling me and he seems to be pretty aware of, of the implications."
"Let's hope so," Upstairs said. After some hesitation, he moved the paperweight away and started flipping through the Karpol document, frowning, while Simon punched Dave's cell phone number into the phone on the desk.
"Okay," Simon said, hanging up the phone. "Sounds like we're good. Or as good as we can be with a hot potato like that one sitting between us."
"So it does," Upstairs said, marking his place and flipping the folder closed. Even that brief exposure to the Karpol document had left him looking about ten years older. "As for the rest of your team..."
"They won't tell anyone," Simon said. "I made it an official order, and you know as well as I do that they're trustworthy." Most of them, anyway, now, Simon didn't add, trying not to glance at the folder on Upstairs' desk.
Upstairs nodded. "Good," he said. He put the paperweight back on top of the folder. "This will be... unpleasant, to say the least. Mr. Story managed to do a lot of damage."
"I know, sir," Simon said, looking down at his hands.
"What's worse, of course, is the timing." Upstairs massaged his temples with both hands. "If I'm to deal with Norton Fowles with any success I need the administration to be looking the other way, and your role in the Richard Story mess is distressingly central. You'll be the focus of a lot of attention at precisely the time that I had wanted you to be out of sight and out of mind."
"Yes, sir," Simon said.
"And, of course, I certainly can't put off dealing with this issue," Upstairs added, patting the paperweight. "I dislike throwing around the phrase 'matters of national security'it smacks of cheap jingoismbut, well, there it is, and I don't think anyone can argue with the invocation of the term."
"No, sir," Simon said.
"In short, this leaves us both in a nasty predicament," Upstairs concluded. He nudged his chair around and folded his hands together, staring resolutely at the closed blinds. "Simon, I am placing you on paid suspension until such time as the Fontaine court case is resolved or dismissed."
Simon's stomach contracted into a shocked knot so tight that he folded in around it, clamping his arms over his belly. "What?" he croaked. "Sir, that's... that'll be months from now!"
"I'm aware of that," Upstairs said testily. "I'm also aware that Norton Fowles very sincerely believes that he has found evidence of some grand conspiracy on your part, and furthermore, our little talk on Monday has left me aware that he may not be entirely incorrect. Originally I intended to suspend you only to placate Baker and deflect Norton, but... when the administration On High turns the spotlight onto the Richard Story mess, the very convincing complaint that Professional Responsibility has leveled against you is going to be literally the first thing they see, and if they do not see you being restricted or punished in some way, they will want to know why. And once they take an official interest in your case, Norton Fowles will have carte blanche to pick and pry at you for as long as he likes, and nothing Baker and I can do will stop him. Do you understand?"
"Sir," Simon said numbly.
Upstairs shut his eyes. "Neither Baker nor I want Fowles to keep picking at your case," he said wearily. "Anything he uncovers from here on out will ultimately only harm the Bureauhe's providing Diana Fontaine's lawyers with vast amounts of ammunition, and he doesn't care, as long as some shit ultimately sticks to me." Upstairs spat out the rare profanity with visible distaste. "Baker and I could have fobbed Norton off, given enough time. But once the administration sticks its nose in, our little under-the-table deal turns into the kind of three-ring conspiracy circus that wins Pulitzers for reporters. If I suspend you, it will look like something is actively being done" Simon could hear the bitterness even over the roaring in his ears "for just long enough to get us through the Richard Story mess. After that, Norton will again be just a lone voice in the wilderness."
Simon ducked his head, pressing the heels of his hands against his eyes until he saw stars. "Sir, it's not that I don't understand," he started to say.
Upstairs held up a hand for silence. Simon felt it more than saw it. "Let me be honest with you, Simon," he said. "I called you here today in order to suspend you for the duration. The sudden existence of this document" he tapped the folder "only confirms that my decision was the right one. I realize it's hard to believe, but ultimately I am suspending you to protect you."
"I know that, sir," Simon said helplessly, still grinding his palms into his eyes. "It's justwhat about my team?"
"Ms. Leone is more than capable of leading them for the duration of the current operation," Upstairs said. "I'll speak to her after we're done here and let her know. In the long run... well. You have my word that I'll look after them."
Simon let his hands drop. "Am I at least allowed to speak to them?"
"I'd prefer it if you wouldn't do so officially or on site," Upstairs said, "but on your own time, I can see nothing wrong with that."
"On my own time," Simon repeated, looking away. "And what am I supposed to do in the meantime?"
"I believe that that is entirely up to you, but your career-related options are more numerous than you think," Upstairs said. "Go back to the Academy and enroll in a class. Apply for one of the out-of-state intensive courses. If you play your cards right you'll come back with a better jacket than when you left."
"I suppose so," Simon said, defeated. "So..."
"If I can recall you to active duty earlier, I will," Upstairs said, his voice as gentle as it ever got. "But putting you on paid suspension is just about the best thing I can do for you, right now. If I leave you on active duty, I'll just be making a target out of you."
"I know," Simon said. Abruptly he stood up, still hunched forward over the knot in his stomach. "I guess really I made a target out of myself, huh?"
"That's the impression I'm getting, yes," Upstairs said. "Do you still think it was worth it, whatever it was?"
"Can I get back to you on that?" Simon said, making a weak attempt at a grin, and he stumbled towards the door, light, and more freedom than he technically wanted.
He went straight home, making the drive without paying any attention to it. It was too much to comprehend and so he didn't even try, just kept himself moving forward.
His apartment smelled unpleasantly of yesterday's cigarette binge, the clothes in the hamper having infected the entire place. Regardless of the heat Simon threw open all the windows, still not letting himself think about it, running on impulse and reflex alone. The need to get back out of here, to do anything but sit around and stew, was almost overwhelming; guided by nothing more than the vaguest whim Simon went back into his bedroom, stripped off his jeans, and changed into shorts and a t-shirt, putting his sneakers back on when he was done. He hit the streets a minute later, his front-door key in the zippered pocket of his shorts.
Simon had never been much of a runner. He was capable of moving fast, but his build had always favored size over speed, and he was more than willing to go along with it. For the most part he maintained his fighting weight through good genes, forgetting to eat, physically restraining his team members, and the occasional bout of guilt-induced sit-ups in the mornings. Still, nothing worked better to clear and focus his mind than sustained physical exertion, and right now Simon craved both that and the exhaustion that came along with it.
He was sodden with sweat within seconds, flicking his wet hair out of his eyes. The sun beat down on him without pity, so bright that Simon could barely see; he narrowed his eyes against both sweat and sunlight and kept going, pounding over the pavement, his heart thudding reproachfully before settling down to business. The muscles in his calves went as hard as rock. Simon welcomed the discomfort, worked through it. Now that ninety percent of his attention was consumed by the physical work, the enormity of the situation could and did start to unpack itself in his mind, expanding like one of those trick cans full of spring-loaded snakes. His whirling thoughts started to sort themselves out.
Suspended. He'd been suspended. And suspended for the duration, to boot, a serious thing; the last guy that Simon knew of who'd been suspended 'for the duration' had killed his own wife and eventually gone to prison for it. Diana Fontaine's case was unlikely to be settled in less than six monthsif Simon was going to remain on suspension for six months, he might as well resign and go to work as a security guard somewhere. It'd do less overall damage to his career.
A stop sign loomed on his right and Simon turned left rather than cross the street, only subconsciously noting which street he was on. He flicked his hair out of his eyes again and scrubbed his arm over his forehead, dashing away sweat. If he ran more than two or three times a year, he'd own a sweatband. As it was, he just plowed grimly on.
No matter what Upstairs had promised, there was no way that his team would still be there waiting for him six months down the road. Six months in career-time was an eternity. The best Simon could hope for was for Sandra to take over and hold the team togetherbut then he'd face the choice of bumping her back down to second-in-command or leaving her in control of his original team while he put together another. Neither choice was appealing, and Sandra wasn't the type to go quietly in any case. Simon knew very well that being his second-in-command wasn't the end of her career arc; the others might well be content where they were, but Sandra was on her way up, and usually Simon was wholly in support of her goal. Not when it meant that she'd be stepping into his position, though.
Simon was breathing hard now, his chest heaving as he fought for air. The air was heavy with humidity and resisted him, making him work to pull in every breath. He only had a vague idea as to where he was; he'd never actually been this way before. An apartment complex slightly nicer than his own sprawled to his left, with so many air-conditioning units running that it sounded like the building was breathing. Cars swept by on the other side, the Dopplering rise and fall of their tires on the pavement only dimly registering.
Maybe Upstairs would be able to call him back sooner than that, though. Maybe Simon would only be out for a month or so before Rich's legacy blew over and the OPR found bigger, newer, juicier targets. A month was survivable. Hell, two months might be survivable. Simon would hate every minute of it, but he'd survive and still get his team back at the end. It was only when his suspension edged up towards the three-month mark that he'd really start to get replaced. Like a flat tire.
Simon staggered and slowed to a walk, gasping, his heart thumping heavily. The muscles in his legs had relented and loosened back up, and then gone past 'loose' and into 'jelly', trembling with exertion. For a moment Simon thought he might drop to his knees. He gritted his teeth and pushed through it, kept moving. At the next intersection he turned left again and forced himself back to a jog.
At least his suspension meant that he'd never have to deal with waiting for Rappaport again. If he was really lucky his team would continue to track Rappaport for two or three more weeks, working according to Simon's last orders; the longer the team spent on Rappaport's trail, the less time Sandra would have to flex her own boss muscle. That was good. Bad for Sandra, but good for Simon. One of his three big problems had just gone away, vanished into thin air.
Simon hit a traffic light and turned left again. His shirt was wet all the way through and he plucked irritably at the collar, pulling it away from his neck; the fabric sucked unpleasantly at his skin but finally deigned to come away, letting in the faintest breath of a breeze. The slight and tiny pleasure of it was nearly enough to make Simon shiver. Instead he dropped his shirt and pounded on.
In fact, in a way, the second of his three big problems had also gone away. Simon's suspension was a powerful weapon in the conflict with Norton Fowlestoo bad it was a weapon that cut both ways. The more Simon thought about it, the more he thought that going back to the Academy or even out west to a training clinic was a good idea. Get him out of the way, out of touch, and Fowles wouldn't be able to pick at him. Upstairs was right: out of sight meant out of mind. After a while, the suspension would simply be his punishment. Even Fowles couldn't argue with that too hard, particularly not with both Upstairs and Baker Hart ranged against him.
The next street was large, busy, and familiar, lined with stores and restaurants. Simon turned left again, completing the square; he had to dodge around other, slower pedestrians now, but if he just went this way, he'd be home in ten or fifteen more minutes. He'd have a shower, do a load of laundry, get the stink of cigarettes out of his apartment, and then find some way to kill the rest of the eveningunconsciously, Simon slowed.
His third problem, though: that one wasn't going anywhere. Sooner or later Jeremy was going to call him again and confront him with his failure to warn Annabelle, a failure for which Simon could do nothing but apologize, as much as that rankled. That was, assuming Jeremy was still in any position to call himassuming that Jeremy was still alive.
Simon pushed the uncomfortable thought away, then gritted his teeth and increased his pace, the muscles in his legs screaming. The light at the next intersection changed against him and he stumbled to a halt, bending over and putting his hands on his knees, wheezing with his head down. The other people waiting for the light to change glanced at him in something like sympathy, or possibly just simple disbelief: it was far too hot for that kind of physical exertion.
The worst part about it was the guilt. He hated the guilt. He just wasn't used to fucking up, especially not in a dangerous situation, and he'd fucked this one up pretty hard in the name of protecting himselfsure, that was important, but he'd put a woman's life in jeopardy just to protect his own career, and some people might call that a messed-up set of priorities.
The light changed. Simon glanced left and right out of sheer habit, then jogged out into the intersection, moving a bit slower now, lost in thought. He could just barely see the rooftops of his own apartment complex, mostly hidden behind other buildings. Ten minutes, if that. The discomfort and the sweatiness became so utterly complete that they faded into the background and Simon ran on, moving easily now, lost somewhere in the zen of running for the sake of running.
He couldn't do anything to fix the damage he'd done, either. If he still had access to his authority he might be able to do something to help find and save this mysterious Annabelle, but he didn't even have that any more. She had almost certainly been moved out of the country by now in any case, and Jeremy had gone to ground somewhere else entirely, and without Jeremy's 'answering service' Simon had no real way of getting in contact and nothing to offer even if he had. Without the might and power of the United States government behind him, Simon was just one guy with a few skills. What was he going to do with those? Fly to Europe, find Jeremy hidden in the midst of millions of Europeans like a real-life Where's Waldo puzzle, and offer to shoot people on Jeremy's behalf until the problem went away? It might workit was just stupid enough to workbut it would put Simon firmly on the wrong side of the law and endanger the job he didn't actually currently have, and anyway, in order to do something so stupid, he'd have to be...
The immensity of the realization stopped Simon in his tracks in the parking lot, and he had to grab for the railing to keep himself upright. It was a completely idiotic option, but it also certainly was an option, and a new one, to boot. Twenty-four hours ago Simon had been so certain that the only option available to him was to wait and see what happened next. Well, he'd done that, and he'd seen everything that was important to him get stripped away. Now he was at loose ends for the first time in years. He was on suspension. He was free.
Simon trudged the last few steps and hauled himself up the stairs to his apartment, his mind on fire. His apartment was a sauna, but the smell of smoke had dissipated; he closed the windows, stripped off his sodden running gear, and threw himself in the shower, dousing himself with cold water and yelping in shock. His mind cleared, reshuffling the facts and laying them out in a cool, clear, new order.
Right here, right now, he had the perfect window of opportunity to personally atone for his fuck-ups. He was free to do so. Was he going to man up and do something to set things right, or was he going to continue esteeming his career over his real responsibilities? Over somebody's life?
By the time Simon stepped out of the shower, the apartment had cooled down and so had he. He put on a clean pair of jeans and ran the contents of his laundry hamper down to the washing machines, then came back and booted up his computer. Five minutes of negotiating with Google and consulting various websites first jogged his hazy memory and then provided him with the number he needed. Simon closed his eyes for a moment, aware of the chasm in front of him, aware that if he did this there would be no going back to the moral high groundthen he opened his eyes and dialed the number.
"Oly Tamson Museum of Architecture," said the pleasant female voice on the other end of the line.
Simon hesitated for a moment. "Ah," he finally said. "Yes. My name is Simon Drake, and I'm with the Federal Bureau of Investigation"
It really was a lot like jumping off a cliff: only the first step was difficult.