Part Four, Chapters 14-17

 

      "Yes, sir," the woman on the other end of the line said, her voice going hushed with awe. Simon had not believed until this very second that a woman so credulous could possibly exist in Manhattan. "What can I do for you?"

      "I need to speak to Judith Tamson," Simon said. "Is she by any chance available?"

      "Just a moment, sir, I'll check." She sent Simon into phone limbo; Simon settled back in his chair, closed his eyes, and waited. After about a minute she picked up the phone again. "Transferring you now, sir," she said, breathless and pleased.

      "Thanks," Simon said, half a second before he was thrust back into phone limbo and out again, like getting ducked underwater.

      "Curator's office, Judith Tamson," a second, brisker feminine voice said. "Can I help you?"

      "I sure hope so," Simon said. "As I told the lady who answered the phone, my name is Simon Drake, with the Federal Bureau of Investigation—"

      "—yes, that's what Maxine said," Judith Tamson said, much less awed. Not suspicious yet, but very, very neutral.

      "Anyway, the reason that I'm calling is that I need to get in contact with, ah, Ethan West." Simon crossed his fingers. "Mr. West recently endowed a gallery at your museum, correct? The Cathedral Hall?"

      "Yes?" Still neutral.

      Simon thought very fast, made a couple of (probably unfair) snap judgments about Judith Tamson, and let his voice drop half an octave. "Ms. Tamson, let me be honest with you: as Mr. West is not actually a resident of the United States, acquiring his unlisted phone number through official channels would require me to negotiate a hell of a lot of diplomatic red tape. I don't have time for that, and so I'm hoping to avoid it." She started to say something. Simon cut her off, quickly. "Now, I'm not asking you to give me the number that you have for him. I realize that that probably wouldn't sit right with you."

      "You're right, it wouldn't," Judith Tamson said. The words were sharp, but the tone was vaguely mollified.

      Simon crossed his fingers. "What I am going to ask you to do is this, Ms. Tamson: I'd appreciate it if you would call Ethan West at the number you have for him and pass on a message for me. If he chooses to call me back, that's wonderful. If not, I'll start cutting red tape. Either way, I promise I will not bother you further."

      On the other end of the line, Judith Tamson was silent. Simon waited, his nerves on edge; if she decided to challenge his authority she'd find out he didn't have any—"I suppose I don't have a problem with that, Mr. Drake," she finally said, reluctantly, like it hurt to admit that. "I'll leave the message with his service, but it must be close to midnight in the UK. He may not call you back until tomorrow."

      Simon clenched his free hand into a fist and pumped it in the air. Yes. "That'll be fine, Ms. Tamson."

      "Very well." Judith Tamson made a little breathy sound. It sounded annoyed. "What is the message, Mr. Drake?"

      "Ah, yeah: please ask Mr. West to call Simon Drake as soon as possible regarding Jeremy Archer," Simon said. He waffled for a moment, then gave her his cell phone number; he could hear the scratching sound as Judith Tamson wrote it down.

      "Regarding Jeremy Archer," Judith repeated. She read his number back to him, flat and unimpressed.

      "That's right," Simon said. "He can call me at any time. That's my cell."

      "Hmph. I'll call and leave the message before I leave the museum tonight," Judith said. "I can't say for certain when or even if he'll call you back, of course."

      "Guess that's just a risk I'll have to take," Simon said.

      Hanging up his phone, Simon checked his watch. It wasn't quite 6:30. Had Sandra been informed by now? Knowing Upstairs, the answer was probably yes. Simon steeled himself, took a deep breath, and called her cell. Sandra answered her phone on the second ring with an urgent and distressed "Boss!"

      "Gosh, Spring, I'm guessing by the sound of your voice that you've heard the news already," Simon said, aiming for 'cheerful' and maybe, at best, hitting 'nonchalant'. "But, uh, let's skip the sympathy and the poop-flinging, all right? Where are you?"

      "I'm here," Sandra said. "I mean, in the office. I just got done talking to Upstairs—"

      "Who all knows so far? Texas and Specs, right?"

      "And Stonewall," Sandra said. The distress in her voice was fading fast. "He got in just a couple of minutes before you called."

      "You mean to tell me he actually took twenty-four hours off, like I told him to? Wonders never cease," Simon said. "Anyway, go ahead and tell Honda when he gets in, it's not like he's not going to find out in a hurry anyway. Buuuuut, that's not why I called. You get off around eight or nine in the morning, right?"

      "Right," Sandra said. "That's when I've been leaving, anyway. I may have to step up my hours now that, you know, it's just the five of us again."

      "Right," Simon said, wincing. "Anyway. I was thinking maybe we ought to get together tomorrow morning once you get off work. Have breakfast. Something like that. You up for it?"

      "Yes. Yes, I think that sounds like a good idea," Sandra said. "Why don't you come over to my place? I fry a pretty decent egg, all things considered."

      Simon hesitated. "I'd really prefer to speak to you alone, Spring," he finally said.

      "Mike ought to still be here at the office, if that's what you're referring to," Sandra said, irritated.

      "Yeah, actually, it was," Simon said, relaxing. "I was just checking, 'cause, you know—"

      "He does not live with me." Sandra's voice climbed, getting a little sharp.

      "Yuh huh," Simon said, now actually grinning, despite everything. "That why he keeps answering your phone?"

      "Once! He answered my phone once! And I kicked his ass for it afterwards!"

      "Yeah, okay, you keep telling yourself that, Spring, because it's totally hilarious when you doth protest too much and all. Tomorrow morning? Eight-ish?"

      Sandra heaved out an irritated sigh. "Eight-ish, my place," she said. "I accept donations of fresh baked goods, preference given to bagels or cinnamon rolls."

      "What the hell, I'll even bring three, so Mike can have one when he gets home—"

      "I hate you, boss," Sandra said evenly, "and some day I will have my revenge."

      "Whatever keeps you going, Spring. Whatever keeps you going."

      She couldn't exactly bang her phone down, but the connection cut off with a loud clap of plastic on plastic: she'd smacked her cell phone shut. Still smiling a little, Simon closed his own phone, considered it for a moment, and then went in search of a clean shirt and his sneakers; what the hell, he wasn't doing anything right now, he might as well go get his hair cut.

      On the way home from the barber shop he stopped in at a Target and picked up a cheap pay-as-you-go cell phone and the largest reloadable phone card they sold, just in case. The gift cards by the cash register caught his eye on the way out, and he threw a prepaid Visa into the stack as an afterthought.

      Simon was sitting in front of the television not really watching a movie and nursing his second beer when his phone finally rang, at a little past midnight. He pulled his phone off its clip and checked the number. The digits made absolutely no sense: an international call. Simon sat up, muted the television, and answered his phone. "Simon Drake."

      "Mr. Drake." The voice was older, wearier, deeper, and lacking the sardonic edge of Jeremy's, but the accent was exactly the same. "I must say, this was an unlooked-for surprise."

      "Yeah," Simon said, closing his eyes. His heart was suddenly hammering and he had no idea why. "What can I say? I'm just full of surprises."

      "Mm," the other man said, the sheer familiarity of the sound making Simon shiver. "Tell me, is this a good time for you to talk?"

      "Not really," Simon said. "If you'll give me a number where I can reach you, though, I'll call you back in about half an hour?"

      "Of course." The other man read him off a number—American, with an area code that placed it in New York City. Simon couldn't say he was surprised. "I'll be expecting your call."

      "Talk to you then," Simon said, folding his phone shut and abandoning his half-empty can of beer on the coffee table. He grabbed his keys and his sneakers and hit the door running, his heart rate still just a little up.

      Fifteen minutes later he was halfway across town, parked outside a twenty-four-hour grocery store with a row of pay phones in a pool of dirty yellow light against the front wall. The first two didn't work, unsurprisingly, but the third gave him a dial tone; Simon fished his new phone card out of his wallet and punched in the number that he'd been given.

      The pay phone clicked eight or nine times before ringing, and someone picked it up on the second ring. "Answering service," the woman on the other end of the line said, just to complete the picture of Simon's deja vu.

      "Uh, yeah," Simon said, putting his hand over his other ear to mute the late-night traffic. "My name is Simon Drake and I'd like to leave a message for Ethan West, please."

      "I can take that message for you," the woman said, typing something. "Your message?"

      "Tell him that I'm returning his call and I'd appreciate it if he'd call me back as soon as possible," Simon said. He leaned in and read off the number on the pay phone's faceplate. "That's a pay phone. I don't know if it makes a difference."

      "It shouldn't," she said. "I'll pass that message along as soon as I can."

      "Thanks," Simon said. He hung up, then put the phone card back in his wallet and put his wallet away.

      The pay phone rang less than two minutes later, the harsh sound loud enough to make Simon jump a little. He grabbed the receiver, his heart unaccountably in his throat; the parking lot was nearly deserted and a stockroom clerk on a smoke break, forty feet away, was the only person in sight, but still Simon hunched forward over the pay phone as if he were shielding it with his body. "Yeah," he said, clearing his throat. "Simon Drake."

      "I assume that this is a better time?" Ethan West said neutrally.

      "Yeah, I think so," Simon said, glancing over his shoulder. "Sorry about earlier, but I didn't really want to have this conversation on my cell phone, just in case. This should be okay."

      "You'll forgive me, Mr. Drake, but this seems like an unusual amount of scruple on your part," Ethan said. "It doesn't particularly fill me with confidence."

      "Yeah, I get that," Simon said. And now that he'd actually come right down to it, he had no idea how to say it. He hesitated, then equivocated. "I, ah, I don't know how much of this you're aware of—"

      "I believe I'm aware of most of the salient details," Ethan said, cutting in on him.

      "Then you are still in touch with him," Simon said, blowing out a breath. He propped his forearm up on the top of the pay phone and rested his forehead on it, staring blindly down at his own feet. "I was hoping you were. I figured that if he was still talking to anyone, it'd be you."

      This time, the hesitation was on Ethan's end. "Clever," Ethan finally said, faintly amused. "He doesn't precisely call every day, but yes, word does filter back to me on occasion. Why? Were you looking to get a message to him?"

      "No," Simon said. He shut his eyes. "I want to help him."

      "Mm," Ethan said, noncommittally. "As I recall, Mr. Drake, he asked for your help already—"

      "—and I fucked it up, yeah, I know," Simon said. It came out louder than he'd been intending, and he choked and lowered his voice. "Jesus, believe me, I'm aware of that."

      "All right," Ethan said, after a moment. "Putting aside the question of blame for a moment: when you say 'help', you mean... what, exactly?"

      Simon glanced over his shoulder again. The stockboy had gone back in and the parking lot was still empty, except for the little huddle of employee cars off at the far end of the lot. Simon put his head back down on his arm. "I don't know," he said. "What do you think he needs? Tell me, and I'll do it."

      "Ah," Ethan said, plainly startled. "I'm not entirely sure what good the FBI could—"

      "Actually, uh," Simon said. Belatedly he became aware that his hands were shaking. "I can't help him officially. I'm talking personally."

      "Personally," Ethan repeated.

      "Personally," Simon confirmed. He swallowed and added, "Anything."

      Ethan was silent again. For a brief moment his silence was so complete that Simon could hear not only the hiss and pop of international transmission but something that sounded like an opera recording, playing at so low a volume as to be nearly subliminal. Whatever it was, it was pretty. "I see, Mr. Drake," Ethan said, after several seconds of silence. "In that case, perhaps you and I need to talk."

      Simon couldn't help it: "I, uh, thought we were talking," he said.

      "Yes, I suppose we are," Ethan said, clearly not amused. "May I be honest, Mr. Drake?"

      "Sure," Simon said, shifting. His hip bumped into the plexiglass shield that surrounded his pay phone, startling him. His eyes flew open, then closed again. "Go ahead. Hit me."

      "Personally, I have always been of the opinion that Jeremy places a little too much trust in you," Ethan said. "On the one hand, his judgment is generally sound, but on the other, I fear that he's letting the physical component of your relationship influence him unduly—Mr. Drake?"

      "Sorry," Simon wheezed, still coughing. "I, uh. Wasn't aware you knew about that."

      "Ah." Ethan fell silent, courteously giving Simon time to recover.

      Simon coughed a few more times, then swiped at his watering eyes and cleared his throat. "So, uh," he said. "Uh, yeah. You were saying."

      "Ah, yes. As I was saying, Mr. Drake, you may very well be completely sincere about wishing to help Jeremy, but in order to do so, you need my help—and I have no particular reason to believe you'd be of any real use, or, indeed, to trust you at all. Particularly not after you left poor Annabelle hung out to dry like that."

      "Guess that's fair," Simon muttered, scrubbing his free hand over his eyes again. "So..."

      "So if you want my help, you'll have to convince me to give it to you," Ethan concluded, his voice still cool. "And I do prefer to do business in person, Mr. Drake. I always have. Tell me, do you think you can get away?"

      "Any time," Simon said confidently. Being able to say that felt like passing his first test. "I'm free and ready to go. Just give me the word."

      Ethan made a little 'hm' sound that might have been approving. "Well," he said. "That's more than I'd expected from you, frankly. I'll call around and make a few arrangements—I should get back to you by tomorrow evening. If I were you, I'd be packed and ready to go by then."

      "Not a problem," Simon said, exhaling in relief. "Anything else I need to know?"

      "Mm. Well. I trust you don't have a problem with, ah, less conventional means of transport? I do think it would be best if there weren't a record of your departure from your country, given the circumstances."

      Simon shut his eyes. "No problem," he said. "Actually, I was about to suggest that. I'll leave it up to you."

      "Good," Ethan said. "Oh, and by the way, I suggest you leave your official identification and such at home. You'll be traveling in the care of people who prefer to avoid attracting the attention of the law."

      "Already planning on it," Simon said. "I mean, I'll feel a little naked, but... yeah. I know what I'm getting into here."

      The little pause gave Simon ample time in which to kick himself for the blithe overconfidence. "Do you, Mr. Drake?" Ethan finally asked. "Do you really?"

      "Well, when you put it like that... no, I guess I don't know. But I'll, uh, try to be open to new experiences?"

      "I suppose that's the most I can ask for, Mr. Drake," Ethan said. "Tomorrow evening, then. What number shall I use?"

      "Oh! Uh. I've got a safe cell," Simon said. He dug the instruction sheet from his new cell phone out of his pocket and read off the number. "It's one of those pay-as-you-go ones, and my name's not associated with it yet."

      "Mm. I see you've given this some thought," Ethan said. "Very well, I'll call you at that number tomorrow."

      "I'll be ready," Simon promised.

      "Well, then. I suppose I'll see you soon." Ethan paused and made a little sound which might have been a laugh. "Good night, Mr. Drake."

      "Yeah," Simon said. "G'night."

      The phone clicked in his ear, the connection cutting off; Simon stood in front of the pay phone and swayed gently for a second or two before hanging up himself. Leaving his fingers curled around the pay phone's handset, he took a few deep breaths, steadying himself before he trudged back to the Jeep and let himself in.

      He closed the Jeep's door. The dome light went out, leaving him in darkness. Simon put his hands on the steering wheel and let his head fall back against the headrest, staring blindly up at the Jeep's canvas top. "Jesus," he muttered, his voice unduly loud in the silence. "What the hell do I think I'm doing?"

      After a few moments in which no one answered him, not even himself, Simon lifted his head and started the Jeep, pointing its nose towards home. He wasn't sure how well he'd sleep, since he was currently acclimated to sleeping days, but he had six hours before he had to start getting ready to have breakfast with Sandra. He thought that maybe it'd be best to try.

      Simon was lounging in the hallway by Sandra's door when she got home, a bag of groceries cradled in the crook of her arm. "I see you beat me here," Sandra said, jingling her keys.

      "Guess so," Simon said, straightening up. It was closer to eight-fifteen than to eight. He'd been there for several minutes. A white bakery bag dangled from his fingers and he saluted her with it. "So... where's Mike?"

      "Do not even make me hit you over the head with the groceries," Sandra said coolly, unlocking her door. "There are eggs in here and giving you a concussion with them would be satisfying but kind of wasteful."

      "Yeah, yeah, yeah," Simon said. Sandra toed her front door open and edged in and Simon followed, glancing furtively about. There were no overt signs of Mike's occasional occupation that he could see, much to his regret. "So I guess what you meant to say is 'he's still at the office, boss'?"

      Sandra put the bag of groceries down on the tiny kitchen counter and started rapidly unpacking its contents into a little pile. "You can take it that way if you like, yes."

      "Here." Simon put the bakery bag down on the counter, neatly filling up the very last square inch of space. "Bagels and cinnamon rolls. You know. Peace offering." He paused. "Three of each."

      Sandra sighed and punched Simon in the side, her fist glancing off his hipbone. Simon yelped. "Ow, damn," Sandra said, shaking her bruised hand. "I always forget to compensate for your height. Anyway, stop being such a bastard and go put some coffee on."

      "Oh, hey, that's the magic word," Simon said, rubbing his hip. The coffeemaker was on the other side of the kitchen, which in Sandra's kitchen was about half a step away; Simon leaned over and opened the cabinet above the coffeemaker, fetching out the half-empty can of coffee. Behind him Sandra was still rattling around, folding up the empty grocery bag and putting it away before redistributing the food on the counter.

      Neither of them wanted to be the first to bring it up, so for the first few minutes, they worked in silence. It was strained at first but rapidly became almost companionable; Sandra broke eggs into a bowl and ripped open a little paper package of fresh sausages, and Simon finished putting the coffee on before leaning past Sandra to snag the bread knife and slice the bagels. "You know," he said, balancing one of the bagels on its edge, "they say that bagel-related injuries have surpassed falls as the number one cause of injuries in the home?"

      "Goddamn, but we're a yuppie society," Sandra said, reaching past him to turn on one of the stove burners. Simon obligingly shuffled aside. Sandra banged a frying pan down on the burner. "Bagel-related injuries," she repeated, snorting.

      "Yeah, that does sound kind of ominous, doesn't it?" Simon carefully shifted his grip on the half-sliced bagel before he could add himself to the statistic and finished slicing it in two. "Toaster?"

      "Use the broiler," Sandra said, stepping aside and pulling open the oven door. It dropped with a bang and she twisted the knob to BROIL. "You think I have room in here for a toaster?"

      "What, you expect me to rough it?" Simon asked. He sliced the second bagel and stuck all four halves in the oven, then kicked the oven door up.

      Sandra stepped back into place, the slightly-open oven door pressing against her stomach. "Yes, well, you start paying me more and I'll get a bigger place," she said.

      "Hell, Sandy, all you gotta do is start charging Mike rent," Simon said, and then found it prudent to remove himself from the kitchen before Sandra could kill him.

      "Food," Sandra announced a few minutes later, carrying two plates out of the kitchen and depositing them on the postage-stamp-sized kitchen table. Her voice was still a bit terse, but now well within the range that Simon thought of as 'she'll get over it'.

      "Oh, hey, awesome, smells great," Simon said. He dropped the magazine he'd been leafing through—it was a Cosmopolitan and he hoped like hell she hadn't actually caught him looking at it—and got up, easing his way past Sandra and into the kitchen. "Coffee," he said in explanation. "Need me to bring anything else while I'm in here?"

      "No coffee for me," Sandra said, pulling out her chair and sitting down. "Get me a glass of orange juice instead. I need my sleep."

      Simon fetched a cup of coffee for himself and a glass of orange juice for Sandra, carrying them back into the breakfast nook and putting them down. Sandra pointed her fork at the other chair. "Sit. Eat. I don't want to talk about anything until I've eaten, just in case I lose my appetite or need to kill you."

      Simon sat and picked up his own fork. "That's fair." He dug into his eggs with real appetite—he hadn't felt much like eating last night, for some reason—and made a pleased sound. "Damn, food's good," he mumbled around his mouthful of food.

      "One might almost think I was a chick," Sandra said, ripping her bagel into pieces.

      Pleasantries over with, Simon got down to the real business of eating. It was good, and he was starving. Sandra's apartment was even smaller than his, but it was a pleasant place to be, especially in the morning light; for a few moments Simon had nothing weightier on his mind than enjoying his breakfast. It couldn't last.

      Without conversation to slow it down, breakfast was gone in ten minutes flat. Sandra piled up the plates and carried them into the kitchen, dumping them in the sink and running some water over them. Simon fetched himself some more coffee. "You want some more orange juice?" he asked.

      "I'm good," Sandra said. She turned off the water and abandoned the dishes in the sink. "Let's go sit back down."

      "Yeah," Simon said, carrying his coffee back to the breakfast table. Sandra followed.

      They both settled in at the table. "So," Sandra said, folding her hands together on the table in front of her. "Apparently you won yourself a six-month paid vacation and you didn't even have to kill anyone to get it."

      "That's the long and short of it, yep." Simon blew on his coffee, looking down at it instead of at Sandra. "Upstairs tell you why?"

      Sandra looked down at her hands, flexing her fingers. "Not in so many words, but it's not like I don't know, boss. You covered for Archer on the Farraday kill and got caught at it."

      "It's more complicated than that," Simon said, "but... yeah, basically. Did he explain Norton Fowles to you at all? The political bullshit?"

      "Just that Fowles was the one who kept picking at your story until it came apart."

      "Yeah, well, he did that, but he did it because he's got a hate on for Upstairs, basically," Simon said. "He's trying to use me as a bludgeon to hammer Upstairs, aaaand I'm sad to say that I handed him the opportunity to do so."

      "Yeah, that you did." Sandra reached across the table and plucked Simon's mug from his hands, taking a sip of his coffee. "Does Upstairs know? About the cover-up?"

      Simon winced. "You know what, I hate that word," he said, reclaiming his mug. "It's so, so Washington Post. But, yeah, the answer is 'more than I'd like him to'."

      "Mmph."

      "Yeah." Simon looked away. "He doesn't know exactly what went down. But I seized up at the wrong moment and now he knows something." A vague ache seized Simon about the temples and he reached up to rub it away, his hand cupped over his eyes. "I don't actually think he's mad at me, that's the worst part. I mean, he's been with the Bureau for how long? He knows how the machine works. It's just that... in a sick kind of way, I think I broke his heart."

      Sandra hissed in sympathy. "God, paternal guilt."

      "Yeah. Jesus, and it works, I feel like shit about it." The ache refused to let up. Simon gave up on it and turned his attention to his coffee instead, burning the roof of his mouth a little bit. Outside a cloud scudded aimlessly across the sun, dyeing the room gray for a few moments.

      The cloud eventually drifted away. Sandra heaved a sigh and pushed her hair back behind her ear. "Okay. So. Moving on. I'm trying not to get pissy with you, because yeah, you kinda deserved this, but it's not like I don't get why you did it."

      "Yeah," Simon said. "I mean, Jesus..." He broke off there, made an aggravated gesture, and drank more of his coffee.

      "Probably best not to tell me, yeah," Sandra said. "I mean, it's not like I can't put the pieces together, but... well, that's the problem. We were all there, and none of us are stupid. We all pretty much know what happened, even if you never told us in so many words. If OPR ends up calling the rest of us onto the carpet in your absence, we could all get in trouble."

      "No," Simon said, holding up his hand. "That's not true. You may suspect you know what happened, but none of you actually saw it and that is God's honest truth. The only people who were there when Farraday died were me, Archer, and Farraday. Archer's not around, and Farraday's not going to be talking unless Fowles uses a ouija board."

      "Yeah, but—"

      "But nothing. If they start pressing you, you need to harp on that. You didn't see it happen. You didn't arrive until after Farraday was dead. None of you did."

      "But—"

      Simon leaned forward and put his hand on Sandra's. Sandra shut up with a little startled yip. "I'll go down for this if I have to," Simon said. "Seriously, Sandy, you know me, you know I get off on taking responsibility, right? So let me do it. The rest of you take care of yourselves and you do it with the truth: you didn't see it happen."

      "Yeah." Sandra heaved out a breath. "I'll get with the others tomorrow and make sure our stories are straight. They'll be okay, though. Seriously, some of us are pretty canny, boss."

      "And some of you are Nate," Simon said, trying to grin.

      Sandra glanced up at him, then half-smiled. "Right."

      Simon nodded and drank some more coffee. "Take care of my team, Spring," he said, carefully not looking at her. "Upstairs has promised that he'll look out for you guys while I'm gone, and the man does keep his word."

      "The problem is that six-month absence, you know," Sandra said. "That's a hell of a long time at our level."

      "I know." Simon caught his mug in both hands and swirled the remains of his coffee around, watching it instead of Sandra. "Upstairs promised me flat-out that he'd unsuspend me the moment that he thought it was safe," he said. "That could be as little as a month from now."

      "And if it's not?" Sandra's voice was flat. Simon couldn't tell if he was imagining the challenge in it or not.

      He took a deep breath and looked up at her, pinning her squarely in his gaze. "I'm not stupid, Spring," Simon said, keeping his voice matter-of-fact with an effort. "I know this is one hell of an opportunity for you—"

      "Oh, Jesus fuck," Sandra said, dropping her face into her hands. "You think this is about politics for me? Is that it?"

      "Well... yeah? Sort of? Not primarily but deep down in your little weasel heart?"

      "You know, I ought to be offended, except that you're right," Sandra said, lifting her head. "Actually, I think I'm going to be a little offended anyway. I so seldom get the chance."

      Simon held up both hands by way of apology. "Yeah, I put that badly, and I'm sorry. I know it's not your first priority or anything, but either the thought has already crossed your mind or you're a lot stupider than I, personally, think that you are."

      "I think Norton Fowles has you seeing politics everywhere you look, both above and below you," Sandra said, "but you're not wrong. However, in my defense, I thought it and then I felt bad about it."

      "Well, don't. I thought it too." Simon tilted his head back and drained off the last of his coffee, considered another cup, and then put his empty mug aside.

      "And... what did you think?" Sandra's voice was neutral.

      "I think that if I'm out for more than three months, it would be unfair to bump you back down to being my second-in-command," Simon said. There. It was said.

      Sandra watched his face for a moment, then inclined her head. "All right, we agree," she said. "So... how do we handle this?"

      "We don't have to," Simon said. "Right here, right now, you're already on the spot. Upstairs is going to be watching. I dropped a couple of words in his ear about how well you handled things when I was in the hospital—"

      "You did?" Sandra said, unable to keep the surprise out of her voice.

      "Christ, of course I did," Simon said, a little irritated. "We both know that you're not going to stay on my team forever."

      Sandra put a hand over her mouth, doing a bad job of hiding her little smile. "Well, I did," she said, "but I wasn't aware you were so eager to get rid of me—"

      "Yeah, yeah, cry more, it gets me so hot," Simon said. "But, seriously. I'm on your side in this, okay? Sooner or later you're going to move on up and get a team of your own, and if this suspension knocks me out for six months, well, it'll be sooner. Agreed?"

      "Agreed," Sandra said.

      "Just one thing," Simon said. "Team Templar, as the name might suggest, is mine, and it's going to stay mine. Unless, you know, I end up getting fired or dying or something. When you move up I'll be happy to advise you on putting together your own team, but you can't have mine."

      Sandra's mouth twitched. "That's fine," she said. "I mean, I like the guys a lot, but I think it would create a lot of unnecessary problems if I took it over."

      "Yeah," Simon said. "For one thing, your boyfriend might not like having you as his boss—" and then he jerked back, letting Sandra's fist pass harmlessly a few inches in front of his nose.

      Sandra sat back down, looking for all the world like she hadn't just taken a semi-serious swing at him. "That," she said, "and I'm not particularly interested in trying to fill your shoes. I'd like to lead a team that won't be comparing me to someone else all the time."

      "Ooh, good point," Simon said. "I'm a hard act to follow."

      "Or a unique one, anyway," Sandra said. She leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes, pushing her hair back behind her ear again. "Well, that was all fun and entertaining. So what are you going to do with yourself while you're on suspension? Upstairs mentioned that you might go back to the Academy for a while."

      "Uh, well, that's the other reason I wanted to talk to you," Simon said, trying to keep his voice light.

      Sandra picked up on the false note with disconcerting speed. Her eyes popped open, then narrowed. "Oh, God. Whatever you're about to say, I'm going to hate it, aren't I?"

      Simon took a deep breath. "No, no, you're not," he said, "because the conversation that we're about to have, we never had. Okay?"

      "No! No, it is not okay! Who do you think I am, Rich?" Sandra threw up both hands in frustration, then slumped down in her chair. "Okay. Jesus. Hit me. What?"

      "We're not going to have had this conversation?"

      "Far as I'm concerned it never happened," Sandra said, irritated. "Unless it pisses me off so bad that I pitch you out the window. What?"

      Simon looked down at his hands, picking intently at one of his fingernails. "Well, uh. I'm on suspension for at least a month, right?"

      "Right..."

      "So. Uh." Simon folded his hands together white-knuckle tight and spat it out. "I'm going to Europe to find Archer," he said, as fast as he could. "He's in a world of trouble right now and it's my fault—"

      He got no farther than that before Sandra lunged straight out of her chair and decked him. She pulled the punch at the last possible moment—her fist connected with his forehead and not with his nose—but Simon's head still snapped back and his chair skittered back a couple of inches. "Jesus Christ!" Sandra said, throwing herself out of her chair and stalking off a few paces.

      "Ow," Simon said, shocked. His eyes were wide and watering and his headache was back out in force.

      Sandra crossed her arms tightly across her chest and glared out at her living room. "I cannot believe what a giant fucking idiot you are—"

      "No, seriously, ow," Simon said, curling a hand over the back of his neck. The muscles there twanged in affront. "My neck hurts like hell—"

      "Good!" Sandra said, throwing her hands up in frustration. "I can't believe—you can't seriously—I could believe this kind of stupid shit from Mike, but I never thought I'd catch you thinking with your dick!"

      "... what?" Simon said, freezing with his hand on the back of his neck.

      Sandra whipped around and pinned him with her stare. "You heard me!"

      For a long moment the silence stretched taut between them, then Simon dropped his head to the table and folded his arms protectively over it. "Christ, does everyone know about it by now?" he said, his voice muffled. Sandra didn't answer, and after a moment, Simon's head popped back up. "How long have you known?"

      "Known for sure? For about—" Sandra checked her watch "—ten seconds?"

      Simon stared at her for a minute, his head pounding. "Oh, Jesus, I walked right into that, didn't I," he finally said, grabbing his temples.

      "If it's any consolation, I don't think anyone else has figured it out," Sandra said. The anger was already leaching out of her voice, but she turned her back on him again anyway. "Men can be pretty clueless about these things."

      "Rich knew," Simon said. The bitter tone in his voice didn't startle him at all. "He, uh, caught us at it once."

      "... oh, God," Sandra said, half fascinated and half repulsed.

      "Yeah. I guess I'm lucky he didn't tell Karpol about that. Hell, some days I'm half-convinced Rich sold Archer out to Karpol out of sheer jealousy oh God that's so gross I don't even want to think about it," Simon finished, all in a shuddering rush. "But I swear to you this isn't about getting laid, okay? ...will you come sit down? And not hit me again?"

      Sandra flapped her hands one last time and then spun around and came back, sitting down. "So. Where were you, that Rich could catch you at it?" she asked.

      Simon winced away from her, already anticipating the next outburst. "Mat room," he muttered.

      "The mat room." Sandra's stare was flat and accusing. "Tell me I heard that wrong, boss."

      "You know, Spring, I wish I could—"

      "The mat room!" Sandra said, baring her teeth in a disgusted grimace. "Goddammit, Simon, I use those mats for sparring—that's disgusting!"

      "No!" Simon said, waving his hands frantically. "No, Christ, no! There was no, uh, no mess, okay? Nothing got on the mats! Seriously! You have not been thrashing around in anything!"

      "Now I feel itchy," Sandra said. She scratched her shoulder for emphasis, wrinkling her nose. "Holy crap, talk about unsanitary."

      "The janitor mops in there every couple of days anyway," Simon muttered, scrubbing the back of his hand over his uncomfortably-warm cheeks.

      Sandra eyed him for a moment, then sighed. "Tell me the two of you are at least being safe."

      "You know what, I'm going to pretend you didn't say that because augh things I do not want to discuss with anyone ever, but yes, thank you, I'm stupid but not that stupid," Simon said. Now he was certain that he was red in the face. "Can we move on now? Please? There's some stuff you need to know."

      "Oh my God, I hope not—"

      "Christ, not about that!"

      Sandra subsided, still idly scratching her arm. "Okay," she said. "Keep in mind that I am only temporarily tabling my God-given right to give you hell about this, however."

      "So noted," Simon said. "Okay. So. You want to know why I'm going after Archer? This is why..."

      The whole situation with Karpol, the thing with Annabelle, everything: it took almost five minutes to explain. By the time Simon was done he was sweating, just a little, which irritated him—what the hell was wrong with him?—but the suspicious look in Sandra's eyes had faded and vanished, replaced with something that might almost be sympathy. "I see," she finally said.

      "Yeah," Simon said, looking away. "It's just... it's my fault. And I'm going to step up and take responsibility for it."

      "It's not your fault," Sandra said, her anger flaring a little. "The actual situation is Rich's fault, not yours, and as for this Annabelle thing, no one can blame you for wanting to cover your ass when it comes to dealing with a criminal—"

      "I can," Simon said bleakly.

      Sandra subsided, although she was still unhappy. "Okay," she said softly. "But I think you're beating yourself up over it a little too much."

      "Maybe," Simon said. "And if he was just another criminal, even one we'd worked with, yeah, I'd totally agree with you. But he's not. You know? He's—" Simon floundered for a moment and settled on "—my friend."

      "Your friend," Sandra repeated. "Okay, your friend, I'll be nice and allow that phrasing."

      "Yeah, okay, good."

      Sandra's eyes glinted. "Your special friend."

      "Oh, Jesus." Simon shuddered and dismissed the whole mess with a wave of his hand. "So, uh, as long as we're not having this conversation, there's some information I don't want you to have."

      Sandra eyed him for a moment. "All right," she said. "What?"

      Simon twisted around and grabbed the pen and paper from beside Sandra's phone. "This may or may not be the number of the cell phone I'll be carrying while I'm in Europe," he said, writing down the number of the prepaid phone. "Don't call it unless it's vital. I'll be leaving my real phone plugged in at my apartment so that I can call it and check my voice mail without its battery running down—you can call that one instead."

      Sandra tilted her head, watching him write. "Okay," she said dubiously.

      "And this—" Simon added the number for Ethan West's answering service "—is a number that you are most emphatically not supposed to have. If you call it, there's this certain guy in England who's going to kick my ass and strand me in, in Poland or something. But if there's a real, tremendous emergency, or if I call you screaming for help: call it." He tore off the sheet of paper and held it out.

      Sandra gingerly took it, holding it like it was germy. "You really know how to make a girl feel confident in your decision-making skills," she said. "Anything else?"

      Simon fumbled around in his pocket and produced a key ring, which he slid across the table. "Keys: apartment, mailbox, desk, and truck. Not that I think you'll need any of this stuff, but I want you to have it in case you do."

      "Uh huh," Sandra said, flicking through the key ring and pausing at the fifth key. "What's this one?"

      "Oh. There's a little fireproof safe in the closet in my office at home," Simon said. "All my vital docs are in there."

      Sandra wiggled the safe key back and forth on the ring, then sighed and dropped the ring to the table with a clatter. "That doesn't precisely make me feel any better about this. Nothing says 'everything's going to be all right' like telling me where you keep your will."

      "Yeah, well," Simon said. "Consider it 'preparing for every contingency'. Come on. I'm a planner. You know that."

      "Yeah." Sandra sat back. "Yeah, I know."

      Simon drummed his fingers on the table, then pushed his chair back and stood up. His head still hurt, and his neck still hurt, but the relief of being almost done with this chore was enough to make him feel pretty good anyway. "I think that's it," he said. "I'll call you when I can, just to let you know that I'm okay. Okay?"

      "Do that," Sandra said, standing up. "For the record, I still think you're insane, but I get that this has something to do with salving your precious masculine ego—"

      "Hey," Simon said, stung.

      "—and I also get that it's important to you, for several reasons, one of which is named 'Jeremy Archer'," Sandra finished, putting her hand on Simon's chest. "Just... be careful. All right? And if you need anything that I can get away with giving you, feel free to ask. I can always laugh in your face if I need to."

      "Yeah. Thanks, Spring. You're the best, you know that?" Simon slung an arm over her shoulders and gave her a one-armed hug that was only slightly awkward.

      "Believe me, I know," Sandra said, patting his chest. "Come on, I'll walk you to the door."

      "Yeah, I guess I'd better get out of here before Mike comes home," Simon said. Sandra smacked him.

      Simon was back home by nine-thirty in the morning, before the worst of the day's heat hit. He shut the front door behind himself, locked it, kicked off his sneakers, and then fell back against the door and took a deep breath; then he let it out, pushed himself upright and got to work.

      Most of his clothes were already clean, so packing was a snap. After a moment of consideration, Simon settled on his battered duffel rather than the larger suitcase. He had no idea where he was going—Jesus, for all he knew he was going to Russia and would therefore probably freeze to death—so he tossed his bomber jacket on the bed and called that good enough. The duffel he stuffed to capacity. If he needed more or different stuff, he'd just buy it there. Wherever 'there' was.

      When he was all packed, he carried the duffel and his jacket out into the main room and tossed them on the couch. He fished out both his cell phones and plugged them in, putting them on the table beside his landline, then went into the kitchen and poured the rest of the milk down the sink, not letting himself think about why.

      Half out of necessity and half out of a need to stay busy, Simon spent the next hour or so cleaning the place straight down, even going to far as to locate and use the vacuum cleaner. He ran and emptied the dishwasher, then emptied the last few bits of perishable food out of the fridge and chucked the trash out of the kitchen window and into the dumpster. An hour later he'd actually gotten around to throwing out or filing the contents of the pile of errant papers in his office, preparing as best he could for—he let himself admit it—a long absence.

      When the place was cleaner than it had been since Simon had moved in several years ago, Simon took a last, satisfied look around, then went into his office and closed the door behind him. Dropping to his knees in front of his desk, Simon unlocked the upper file drawer and pulled it out as far as it would go, then lifted it up off its rails and pulled it the rest of the way out, setting the drawer down on his desk chair.

      The black plastic bag was duct-taped to the inside of the desk's drawer housing. As hiding places went, it was pretty crappy, and Simon knew it, but somehow he'd never gotten around to devising a better one. It didn't matter now in any case. Simon picked at one edge of the duct tape until it came loose, then ripped the whole package free and tore open the plastic.

      The pistol was clean in every sense of the word: it was brand-new, had only been test-fired a few times, and didn't exist on any registry or database known to man. Six years ago, in the chaos following a major arms bust, someone in the Bureau had put it in his pocket and walked off with it, as tended to happen in the midst of chaos. It had found its way to Simon a few weeks later; he'd put it in his own pocket and brought it home, and it had been taped to the inside of his desk ever since, not existing, just in case. The extra magazine and the ankle holster did exist, in theory, but Simon had paid cash for them both six years ago and he wasn't too worried about those coming back to haunt him.

      His jaw set, Simon carried the whole mess into the kitchen, pitching the shredded plastic bag out into the trash before fetching out his kit and settling in to clean what was already the world's cleanest handgun.

      Half an hour later Simon added the holstered pistol to the little pile on the couch. He'd had a short night the night before and three weeks of hard road before that, and it was all beginning to tell on him; unplugging the prepaid phone, Simon carried it into the bedroom with him and plugged it back in there, then fell into bed. He was asleep within minutes.

      The prepaid phone's annoying default ringtone woke him five hours later. Simon scrambled for it, bleary-eyed. "Yuh," he said, scrubbing at his eyes. "Simon Drake."

      "Mr. Drake," Ethan said. The connection rendered his voice faint and tinny, but still he sounded cool and awake despite the fact that it must have been close to two in the morning on the other side of the Atlantic. "Are you ready to go?"

      Simon swung his legs out of bed and sat up. "Yeah," he said. "I'm all set. So, uh, where am I going?"

      "Do you know where the Potomac Airfield is?"

      "Not a clue," Simon said, reaching for his jeans, "but I bet I can look it up."

      "Most likely," Ethan said. "At any rate, that is indeed where you are going. Your pilot should be waiting for you in the lobby—try not to keep him waiting more than an hour or so."

      Simon winced. "Whoo. Guess I better hurry, then. What's his name?"

      "I'm told that his first name is 'Charlie' and that he tends to wear a red baseball cap," Ethan said. "As for his last name, I have no idea."

      "Huh," Simon said. "That's not really... reassuring."

      "I wasn't aware I had to arrange for your transport and reassure you in the bargain, Mr. Drake," Ethan said with asperity.

      "No, I was just saying," Simon said. "I mean, I'm going. Coming. Whatever."

      "Mm. Very well, then. I shall see you when you get here, Mr. Drake. Good luck." Ethan West rang off without another word. The phone made scratchy sounds in Simon's ear before jittering over into a dial tone.

      Simon frowned, folding up the phone. "Good luck?" he said.

      He called for the taxi from his prepaid cell phone, then went back into the bedroom and dressed, still thoughtful. He put a little more care into dressing than was strictly necessary, his loosest jeans and a decent button-down shirt over a t-shirt; layered under his bomber jacket, the shirt and t-shirt should carry him through most climates that weren't arctic. The loose jeans would hide the ankle holster. It still didn't take more than five minutes to dress.

      Simon trotted back out into the main room, hoisted up the right leg of his jeans, and strapped the ankle holster on. It was tight and heavy, like an ankle brace gone wrong. The weight felt strange, but the little SIG was invisible under his clothing, and that was the best that he could ask for.

      The extra magazine, a box of .40 cartridges, and a pared-down cleaning kit went into one end of his duffel, and that was that. Simon slung the bomber jacket over his shoulder, picked up the duffel, then dumped both things back on the couch and went to turn the thermostat up to 80. No sense in air-conditioning an empty apartment. Simon picked his things back up and let himself out, locking the door behind himself.

      It felt like it should mean something, leaving his home behind to head out into the unknown. It didn't, really. Simon ran down the stairs and out into the parking lot without a qualm, heading for the main drag and the motel that was a block and a half away.

      The taxi picked him up in front of the motel fifteen minutes later. "Hey," Simon said, slinging himself into the back seat. "Dulles, please."

      "Sure, mac," the driver said, bored as hell. "You want me to turn up the a/c, let me know."

      Simon, sweating, undid an extra button on his shirt. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, that'd be good."

      The taxi let him off in front of the airport twenty minutes later, only nominally gouging Simon for the trip. Simon paid, tipped decently, and headed into the airport, uncomfortably aware of the pistol strapped to his ankle.

      The air conditioning hit him like a wave of frost and Simon shivered. It was getting on close to eight and the airport wasn't particularly crowded; the people that were still there weren't paying much attention to anything. Simon headed past the ticket counters and into the closest bathroom, closing himself up in a stall.

      Five minutes later he left again, taking the escalator down to the baggage claim. Here it was busier—some plane or another had just landed—and Simon had to thread his way through the crowds to the exit and the taxi queue there. Simon tossed his jacket and his duffel into the back of a taxi and climbed in after them. "Hey," he said. "I need to go to the Potomac Airfield, it's out 210?"

      "Yeah, I know where it is," his second cabbie said, flicking on the meter and pulling out of the queue. "This time of night it shouldn't be more than fifteen, twenty minutes."

      "Awesome," Simon said, settling in and closing his eyes.

      The Potomac Airfield was already lit up like a supermarket parking lot even though the sky wasn't completely dark yet. The cabbie let Simon off in front of a long, low white building and gouged him again, bringing Simon's cash reserves down to a single twenty and a handful of singles.

      Lowering his duffel to the ground, Simon ran a hand through his sweat-damp hair and took a look around. He'd never been to a private airfield before, but it looked about like he'd expected: a single long runway, a couple of anonymous buildings, and a bunch of tiny planes lined neatly up on the grass to either side of the runway. Simon picked up his duffel and headed into the building.

      The lobby, on the other hand, looked nothing like he'd expected, not that he'd really had any idea what to expect. He'd expected something with concrete floors and big, echoing ceilings like an airplane hangar; instead he got something that looked like the lobby of a reasonably nice hotel. He'd barely had a moment to look around before a guy wearing a red baseball cap heaved himself up out of one of the chairs, dropped his magazine onto the table, and came over. "You Simon?"

      "Yeah," Simon said, blinking at the use of his first name. "That's me. You Charlie?"

      "Yep," Charlie said, nodding. "Sure am. Damn, you sure took your time getting here—anyway, come on, I'm all fueled up and ready to go whenever you are."

      "Sorry about that—had to wait for a taxi," Simon said. "I need to do anything before we go?"

      "Nah, just get settled in, I'll take care of the rest," Charlie said. He led the way out the back door of the lobby and along a row of quiet, parked planes, all tied down like horses. Simon nearly tripped over the first cable and stuck closer to Charlie after that.

      Charlie pulled up in front of a little white plane that looked, to Simon's inexperienced eyes, like pretty much every other little white plane on the airfield. "How long's our flight time?" Simon asked, ducking under the wing.

      "Eh, four hours, about," Charlie said.

      Simon paused. "That's it?"

      "Yeah, that's it," said Charlie. "Course, it helps that we don't have to stop and refuel."

      "Hell, I don't know where we would stop," Simon said, laughing a little. "Some aircraft carrier?"

      Charlie pulled the passenger door open, then paused with his hand on the handle and blinked at Simon. "Huh? Nah, we'd just stop in Tennessee somewhere, probably—why, where'd you think we were going?"

      Simon hesitated, sensing a trap. "Where are we going?"

      "Corpus Christi." Charlie pushed his baseball cap back and scratched his thinning hair before helpfully adding, "Texas."

      "Ah. Huh. Okay." Simon ducked his head and stepped up into the tiny passenger cabin, his duffel bouncing along behind him. "Someone else arranged this flight for me, so I didn't know..."

      "Nah, s'cool, I knew that," Charlie said. "Go ahead and put your stuff away and get seated, we'll probably take off in fifteen or twenty minutes." The heavy door swung shut behind Simon with a whuff of displaced air and chunked solidly into place.

      The cabin only had two seats in it, side by side, with a locker behind each one; one of the lockers was open, so Simon put his things into that one and closed it before settling in. The plane was small but long on leg room, which was a pleasant change from commercial aircraft.

      The passenger compartment was separated from the cockpit by a thin curtain. The radio was already squawking, broadcasting its weird aircraft code; outside the plane Charlie said something to someone, laughed, and then opened the other door and swung in. The little plane settled slightly on its wheels. "You all settled back there?" he said.

      "Yeah," Simon said. "Stuff's in the locker."

      "Great," said Charlie, pushing the curtain aside and confronting Simon with a daunting world of dials and gauges. Formalities over with, Charlie turned his attention to the radio, which was shortly drowned out by the roar of the engine. It sounded really close, in a way that the engines of big airplanes never did. Simon resisted the wimp's urge to put his hands over his ears.

      The short ride to the runway was bumpy, to the point where Simon nearly clocked himself against the wall of the plane. The field had been smooth underfoot—why it felt like a minefield inside the plane, Simon had no idea. At least the runway was reasonably smooth going, although the actual takeoff left Simon's stomach tumbling about twenty feet behind him. A little plane like this one really brought home the idea that there was only a thin double layer of metal between Simon and thirty thousand feet of empty air. It was about as close as Simon would ever get to flying by sticking out his arms and flapping them really hard.

      After a while the ride smoothed out somewhat, and Charlie dropped the curtain between them. The world went dark as pitch. "You want the cabin lights on?" he asked, yelling to be heard over the noise of the engine.

      "Nah!" Simon yelled back. "That's okay! I'm gonna try and sleep!"

      "Okay!"

      Battered by the engine noise and still a little unnerved, Simon settled back in his seat and folded both hands over his cranky stomach; ten minutes later, much to his surprise, he dozed off, lulled to sleep by the noisy drone of engine noise and radio chatter.

      Some unknown amount of time later, Charlie yanked the curtain back. Simon jerked out of his doze, startled. "We're about twenty minutes out," Charlie said.

      "Great," Simon said, scrubbing at his eyes. His face was sticky and his mouth tasted like paste. Hopefully, when they landed, he'd be able to grab a restroom somewhere. Actually, what he'd really like to see when they landed was someone waiting there to meet him. Yeah. That would be great.

      The actual landing was just about as horrible as Simon had been expecting. He rode it out with his jaw clenched and his hands white-knuckled on the armrests, his stomach rolling over lazily in his belly; he was about five seconds from throwing up when the plane came to a rocking halt at the end of the runway.

      "Okay!" Charlie said. "You can go ahead and get on out here—just make sure to go straight away from the plane instead of towards the front or rear. I'm gonna run up to the pumps and refill the tank. Hope you had a good flight!"

      "Well, I didn't throw up, so I guess I did," Simon said, deliberately letting his voice get almost drowned out by the engine noise. He fetched his things from the locker, grappled with the passenger door in confusion for a minute or two, finally figured out how to get it open, and stepped out into a sauna so incredible that it stole his ability to breathe for a few seconds.

      Simon left the plane behind, trotting towards the edge of the runway. He barely got clear before he dropped his duffel and his jacket to the grass and shucked out of his shirt, tying it around his waist. His t-shirt was already damp and getting damper. That done, he pushed his hair back with both hands and took a look around.

      This time of night, the buildings were dark and shuttered, although the runway was still well-lit and a few lights glittered off in the distance. Simon picked up his things and picked his way around the side of the building, hoping against hope there'd be a restroom or an open lobby or something; he didn't find either, but he did find a green taxi, parked in an dark and otherwise empty lot with a guy sitting on its hood.

      The guy looked up at the sound of Simon's footsteps. "Hey!" he called. "You happen to be Simon?"

      "Yeah!" Simon called back, jogging over (and immediately regretting it, as the mild exertion made him start sweating in parts he didn't even know he had). "Hope you didn't have to wait too long, my plane just landed."

      "Eh, it's cool, it's all on the meter," the cabbie said, grinning.

      "In that case, I sure hope someone else is paying you." Simon glanced around. "Christ, let's get that thing running and get some a/c going before I melt into a pile of slime."

      "Oh, yeah," the cabbie said, sliding off the hood. "Welcome to Texas."

      At this time of night, Corpus Christi was nothing but a sea of ugly yellow and blue lights that smelled faintly of garbage and salt water. Their route took them past something that looked like a factory gone berserk. "Oil refinery," the driver said, even though Simon hadn't asked.

      "Huh," Simon said, not interested. "It supposed to be on fire like that?" The taxi's air conditioning wasn't really up to the job, unfortunately, and he was sweltering in the back seat and picking at the heavy fabric of his jeans. The skin under his ankle holster felt positively slimy. Little tendrils of cool air drifted in from the front, and Simon ducked his face into the nearest one and shut his eyes.

      The air conditioning was just beginning to catch up when the cabbie pulled up in front of a nondescript little house. "Here you go," the cabbie said.

      Simon eyed the house askance. By this point he had no idea what he was expecting, but still, somebody's house wasn't it. "This is it?"

      "Hey, that's the address I was given," the cabbie said, waving a piece of paper. "I can call and confirm that if you want me to, but I promise this is it."

      "Nah, I'll give it a try." Simon gathered up his things. "Do me a favor and stick around until they let me in, just in case?"

      The cabbie flapped a lazy hand at him. "Sure, bud, no problem. It's all on the meter anyway."

      "I pity the poor guy who's going to get stuck with that bill," Simon said, getting out of the cab.

      Lights were still on inside the house, at least, and the porch light was on, throwing a dim light over the cracked and uneven front walk. Picking his way carefully along, Simon ducked a low-flying moth and made it up onto the porch. Pushing the doorbell set off a immediate and frantic chorus of baying and yelping from inside the house, making Simon jump; inside the house some guy started yelling at the dogs to shut up. It had no effect on the ruckus.

      After a while, the din didn't so much lessen as it did relocate, moving generally away from Simon and towards the back yard. Now that the dogs had apparently been corralled, a smiling middle-aged lady opened the door. "Hi! Come on in," she said, beaming. "We've been expecting you."

      Simon turned around and raised an acknowledging hand at the cabbie, then stepped into the house. It was run down and smelled strongly of dogs, cigarettes, and old books, but it was air-conditioned, and that was all Simon cared about at the moment. "Hey," he said. "Not to skip the formalities or anything, but you got a bathroom I could use?"

      "Sure!" she said, pointing. "Down that hallway, first door on your left." She patted his shoulder as he went by.

      Simon followed her directions, found the dingy bathroom, and shut himself in. He didn't even bother to take off his t-shirt before sticking his head under the cold-water tap, sluicing away what felt like multiple layers of wet and dry sweat; by the time he'd cooled off, his hair was sopping wet and his t-shirt was soaked with water. He couldn't bring himself to care. Simon untied the shirt from around his waist and managed to wedge it into his bulging duffel, negotiating patiently with the zipper until it deigned to close.

      By the time he let himself back out of the bathroom, the woman had disappeared and her husband had taken her place. He had the squinty and distrustful look of a middle-aged thug, as solid as a concrete brick, his red face pitted with old acne scars and his scalp showing through his close-cropped hair. "Hey," he said, nodding to Simon.

      "Hey," Simon said. "So—"

      The man immediately held up a warning hand. "Lemme give you the ground rules, right off," he said, his voice brisk but not unfriendly. "We don't wanna know your name, and we really don't wanna know your business. We're just going to take you for a little ride, and once you're gone, we're gonna forget we ever saw you. It's better for everyone. Okay?"

      The perverse urge to just come right out and tell these people that he was FBI nearly strangled Simon. It would be hilarious, right up until the point where they shot him. Instead he nodded. "I assume that's a mutual thing," he said.

      "Yep," the man said. "You don't need our names either."

      "I can deal with that," Simon said. "Are we going now?"

      The man glanced at his watch. "Yep," he said. "If you're ready." His wife came trotting out of the kitchen carrying a paper grocery bag and favored Simon with another sweet, motherly smile before vanishing into the attached garage. Her husband glanced at Simon, then jerked his head at the garage door. Out in the back yard, one of the dogs started barking at nothing; Simon just shook his head and followed the woman into the garage, her husband bringing up the rear.

      The man drove and his wife sat placidly in the passenger seat, her hands folded over the paper bag. Simon sat in the back, his duffel on his knees, trying not to appear too curious; the silent, awkward ride was mercifully short, at least. Five minutes later they turned into a large boat dock, poorly lit and nearly deserted. The night sky was festooned with tall masts, ticking lazily back and forth like metronomes. "Sure, a boat," Simon muttered under his breath, watching the boats bob up and down on the water. "Why not?"

      "Huh?" the guy said from the front seat.

      "Nothing," Simon said. "Talking to myself. So which one's yours?"

      "One at the end there," the guy said, tilting his head at a small, nondescript powerboat with a grayish hull. He pulled the car up at the foot of the dock. "She'll get you boarded while I park the car." His wife ducked out of the car, still carrying her paper bag. Simon opened his door and followed, carrying his things.

      "Could you hold this a moment?" the woman said, handing Simon the paper bag without waiting for an answer. Simon clutched the bag awkwardly to his chest with the arm that was carrying his bomber jacket. The heavy bag was cool and sloshed in a promising manner. The woman put her hand lightly on the side of the boat and vaulted in, making it look easy. "There we are," she said. "If you'll just hand me your things one at a time, I'll get them all stowed, and then you'll have your hands free for boarding."

      Obligingly, Simon handed her the bag, then his jacket, then his duffel. She vanished into the tiny cabin, arms full. Simon, left to his own devices, eyed the boat askance. He did not do boats. He was a Midwestern boy at heart, and he could count the number of times he'd been on a boat on one hand. If he tried to jump in like she had, he'd fall on his ass—and that was a best-case scenario, one that didn't involve him falling into the water and getting squashed against the dock.

      After some grumpy consideration of his options, Simon grabbed one of the pilings on the dock, stretched his leg out as far as it would go, and managed to get one foot on the boat's pitching floor after some groping around. Quickly, before this could get any more farcical, he threw himself out after his questing leg and stumbled aboard the boat with a minimum of lost dignity. There were seats in the back of the boat. Rather than push his luck, Simon picked a dry one and sat down.

      The woman reappeared, carrying something in either hand. "Care for a beer?" she said, dimpling as she smiled.

      Simon's breath exploded out of him in a relieved rush. "Oh, Christ, yes," he said. "And also you ought to know that you're an angel, just in case no one's told you that recently."

      Giggling, she handed him the can, cold as ice and already sweating lightly. Simon felt better already. Settling more comfortably into his seat, he slung one arm out along the back of the boat and rolled the can over his forehead, sighing shakily as the cold stabbed daggers straight into his brain. The woman took one of the other seats and popped open the other can. "You look like you needed that," she said archly.

      "Ma'am, you have no idea," Simon said. He popped open his own and slugged down about half of it. Heavy footsteps thudded down the wooden dock behind him; Simon glanced over his shoulder just as the woman's husband jumped heavily aboard, rocking the boat, and busied himself at the instrument panel.

      The boat roared to life a couple of minutes later and slid out of its berth, heading for the open ocean. A light and cool salt spray stung on the back of Simon's neck. Closing his eyes, he took another pull on his beer; out on the water it was cooler, and with the beer and the breeze conspiring to keep him cool, it was almost pleasant.

      The lights of Corpus Christi dwindled behind them. Simon checked his watch. It was close to midnight DC time, or almost eleven PM here. He'd been traveling for five hours already and had only just left his own country, and that, only technically. He had a long way to go yet—God knew when he'd actually get to England. Simon glanced out over the lapping water of the Gulf of Mexico and finished off his beer.

      For the most part they clammed up and left Simon alone with his thoughts, which was okay with him. Eventually the woman roused herself and offered him another beer, which he refused, and a Dr Pepper, which he gratefully accepted, purely for the caffeine; she spent most of the rest of the trip watching the waters around them while her husband snorted and muttered and guided the boat first in one direction, then in another.

      An hour or so since they'd left port, the boat slowed to an idle and then shut off, leaving Simon's ears ringing in the sudden silence. Simon sat up and looked around: there was nothing but empty, open water in all directions. His nerves prickled. "So," Simon said. He tried to speak softly, but he sounded far too loud in the sudden silence, and he winced and lowered his voice. "What now?"

      "We wait here," the man said. "Don't worry, we're not gonna hit you on the head and throw you overboard."

      "Thought never crossed my mind," Simon lied.

      The other man grinned. "Sure."

      Ten minutes later, Simon's ears picked up the faint growl of another outboard motor, heading their way. Both the man and his wife went still, scanning the horizon; they weren't precisely tense, but Simon hunkered down anyway, just in case.

      The sound of the other boat drew closer, and closer yet, and finally the rising sound of the motor cut off. Out here away from the lights of the land the night was almost black; Simon still couldn't see the other boat, but he could hear the wavelets lapping against its hull, wherever it was. A voice drifted across the water, soft and careful. "└Hola?"

      Immediately the man relaxed. "Hola," he called back, equally soft. His wife jumped to her feet and rooted around under the seats, pulling out what looked to Simon like long square pillows on ropes; these she tossed overboard, where they hung against the side of the boat.

      The other boat finally hove into view, drifting alongside their own. Someone in the other boat threw a rope across, which the woman caught; belatedly, Simon realized what they were expecting him to do, out here in the middle of the ocean, miles from shore. "Oh, hell," he muttered.

      "Don't worry," the woman said, flashing him a smile even as she and her husband hauled the other boat in. "It's just like stepping over a low wall. We'll get it all nice and steady for you."

      "I hope so," Simon said, watching the other boat come alongside. "I'm pretty boat-stupid."

      She laughed. She had a nice laugh. "'Boat-stupid'," she repeated. "That's funny. I'm going to use that."

      "Feel free," said Simon. "No charge."

      She laughed again and vanished down into the little cabin. The other boat bumped up against the white bumpers and came to a halt; her husband lashed the rope to a little knob that was bolted to the side of the boat, making it fast. Two figures waited in the other boat, indistinct in the night. "Hey," one of them said, his voice richly accented. "Any trouble?"

      "Not a bit," the man said, spitting overboard to punctuate it. "Quiet tonight. Too hot for the coasties, maybe."

      "Let us hope so," the other man said. His grin was a flash of white. "Our package?"

      "Right here." The man turned to Simon and waved him over. "You wanna step on over, we can hand you your things."

      Privately, Simon was none too certain about that—about any of this, really—but he figured that arguing would be impolitic at best. The boats were lashed tightly together, bobbing up and down in sync. Stepping over was actually as easy as she'd promised: Simon grabbed the side of the first boat, swung a leg over the two sides and the padded bumpers, and stepped over, coming upright with no problems at all.

      The woman came up from below, carrying Simon's things. "Your jacket," she said, handing it over, "and your duffel, and here's some food for you. Just part of the service." She laughed again, low in her throat.

      Simon's stomach growled as he took the paper bag. "Oh, man, thanks," he said. "It's been a long time since I've eaten."

      "I figured as much," she said, still laughing. "Best eat the sandwiches first and save the dry food for later. I don't know where you're going, but it sounds like a long trip."

      "Yeah," Simon said. The ropes were untied and cast away, and the boats started to drift apart. "Yeah. I'm starting to get that idea."

      The boat he'd come in floated away and lost itself in the night sea. It was a little disconcerting, how quickly Simon lost track of it. The two guys in his new ride were huddled together by the wheel, talking to each other in low tones and ignoring Simon entirely. Simon carried his things to the back of the boat and found a dry place to sit down.

      The new boat was slightly larger and more battered than the first one. Somewhere off in the distance, Simon heard the first boat's engine start up again; the sound made one of the two men look up, then glance in his direction. Simon thought he smiled. "We take off in, eh, five minutes," the other man said, holding up a hand with his fingers spread. "We travel for maybe an hour, maybe two. Okay?"

      "Sure," Simon said, stacking his duffel and his jacket on the seat next to him. The boat's pilot went back to talking with his companion. Simon leaned down and, under the pretense of retying his sneaker, checked the little gun on his ankle holster, making sure that it was riding loose. He wasn't particularly worried—he didn't feel terribly threatened at the moment—but, still, who knew what these guys might do with him if the Coast Guard showed up? Simon tugged the leg of his jeans back down and tied his other shoe, then sat up and opened the paper bag in his lap.

      There was a turkey sandwich on top, neatly bagged, and some potato chips. Simon's stomach growled again, louder this time. Ripping open both bags, he devoured the contents, not particularly caring what they tasted like. Once his stomach had been pacified, he rooted around in the bag, taking inventory: several granola bars, a generous handful of beef jerky, some more potato chips, some homemade cookies in a Baggie, and three bottles of water. Excellent, if worrying: it was enough for two or three smallish meals, which didn't bode well for his upcoming travel time.

      The boat's motor started with a low, throbbing growl. A fine spray of salt water stung Simon's cheek. He edged away from the motor and rolled the top of the paper bag closed again, then settled in to wait.

      The two men in the second boat were, if anything, even less interested in Simon than the couple in the first boat. The one at the wheel hadn't looked at him once. The other one, the one who had spoken, glanced vaguely in Simon's direction every time Simon moved, their eyes never quite meeting.

      Forty-five minutes or so into the trip, the one at the wheel hissed something under his breath and shut off the motor, letting the boat splash to a silent stop. The other one looked back at Simon, touched a finger to his lips, then spread out a hand and pushed it downwards: be quiet, stay put. Simon edged down in his seat and stayed quiet.

      The boat rocked, wavelets slapping against the side with little hollow thuds. The two men in the front of the boat hunkered down, both staring off to one side. Simon wondered if it was port or starboard, and if he cared. Eventually, just when the tension was about to drive him crazy, Simon heard the dull rumble of another motor, even bigger than the one behind him; running lights drifted through the night almost at the horizon, a searchlight sweeping the ocean at their head. Simon went very still.

      Five endless minutes later, the bigger boat was out of sight. The two men in the front of the boat stayed down and quiet, though, and so Simon did the same, half-shutting his eyes and listening with all his might; he lost track of the larger boat fairly quickly, but it was still a good while before one of the men blew out a relieved breath and stood up. The motor behind Simon roared to life again.

      Mexico, when it came into view, was not so much actual land as it was a black space on the horizon where there were no stars. The boat ran parallel to the coast for a while, then abruptly cut in at a narrow little strip of beach that glowed faintly blue under the starlight. The man at the wheel cut the motor at the last possible moment and ran the boat's nose directly up onto the beach, cutting an angled ditch in the sand with a hissing sound. The other man jumped out and turned to offer Simon a hand.

      Simon handed him the paper bag. "Here," he said, and then grabbed the side of the boat in his newly freed hand and vaulted over, landing on the sand with a little scuffing sound.

      The man laughed, faintly, and handed the bag back. "You see the path there?" he asked, waving a hand at the trees.

      Simon squinted, took a step or two forward, then squinted again. Eventually a faint, pale stripe resolved out of the undergrowth, and Simon nodded. "There," he repeated, pointing at the path.

      "Yes, there," the other man said. "You must follow the path to the top. Someone will meet you there."

      Simon hesitated. The other man's smile faltered a bit. "You must follow the path," he repeated. "My friend and I, we will leave now."

      "Right," Simon finally said, shifting his grip on the paper bag. The sand crunched under his sneakers as he headed for the path; behind him the two men pushed the boat back into the water and started it back up with a roar. By the time Simon hit the treeline, the boat was gone.

      It was monumentally dark under the trees, and after a moment of thought, Simon pulled his cell phone off his belt and flipped it open, washing the area with the dim gray light of the phone's little screen. The path, barely as wide as Simon's shoulders, followed the curve of the hill, gently sloping up and to the right. Simon glanced around, then set off, holding his phone angled down at his feet.

      The bushes to either side of the trail kept snagging on his duffel and his jacket, until Simon found himself hugging the bundle of his things to his chest; the night was viciously hot and damp and the light of the phone attracted insects, which seemed to find Simon's sweat delicious. After ten minutes of this, Simon hated everyone and everything in the world, but particularly himself and Jeremy. If there had been any way to go back, he gladly would have taken it—fuck a bunch of faggy Englishmen anyway.

      The insects eventually grew to be too much. Simon stopped long enough to close his phone and let his eyes get used to the dark again. The sandy path was just a shade or two lighter in color than its surroundings, its ragged edges evolving slowly out of the night. After a few cautious steps, Simon found himself able to follow it fairly well.

      He almost walked right out into the clearing before he noticed that it was there. Simon came to an abrupt halt five feet from the treeline and squinted, his nerves suddenly on full alert. A massive airplane bulked silently at one end of the long clearing—no, runway—and the firefly lights of four cigarettes winked and darted under the plane's nose. Now that he was still, he could hear the faint sound of conversation and laughter, drifting in like the breeze.

      Simon dropped lightly to one knee and checked his gun again, making sure it was still riding loose and clear in the ankle holster. His finger dotted lightly off the safety switch. Simon frowned. Leave the safety on, or prepare for the worst? Leave it on. He switched everything to his left arm, freeing his right, and stood back up.

      Flexing his fingers, Simon took a deep breath and stepped into the clearing, feeling his way across the empty darkness towards the lights of the cigarettes. When he was halfway there they heard him coming. All four cigarettes paused in midair, then one broke away from the group and headed towards Simon, drifting along at hip level. Eventually the man carrying it became apparent, a silhouette against the night sky. "Simon?" he said, giving it the Spanish lilt: see-mohn.

      "Yeah," Simon said, unsettled despite himself at being so expected in this clearing in the woods in the middle of nowhere.

      The man jerked his head back at the plane, made a little 'come on' gesture, and headed back the way he came. Simon hitched up his stuff and followed.

      The closer they got to the plane, the bigger it looked. Its shape was odd, bulky and bottom-heavy, nothing like the passenger planes that Simon was used to; a huge curved doorway gaped open in its midsection, the door resting on the ground. As he and his guide walked past the others, they all threw their cigarettes on the ground, stamped them out, and followed.

      Simon's guide stopped at the open door and switched on a flashlight, pointing it at the door. There were steps in the middle, leading up into the belly of the plane; his guide ran the flashlight up the stairs once and then waited. Taking the hint, Simon picked his way up the stairs and into the plane.

      The flashlight flicked back off, leaving Simon alone and in darkness. His nerves prickling, Simon fetched out his cell phone again. The dim gray light picked out the edges of enormous crates, stacked two and three deep and lashed to the walls with thick canvas-covered chains. What it did not pick out was any sort of seat whatsoever.

      A faint, bone-deep rumble sounded from the wings to either side. A moment later, a sickly green light came on, just barely bright enough to see by; glancing back out the door, Simon saw the plane's wing lights come on. He flipped his phone shut and headed towards the back of the plane, looking for a place to sit.

      He was quickly coming to the conclusion that maybe the seats were at the front, instead, when one of the crew came trotting by, intent on something else. Simon put out a hand and stopped him. "Where do I sit?"

      "Ah?" the man said, giving Simon a sick grin. "Ah, no habla ingles..."

      Simon fumbled for a moment, then waved his hand back and forth. "Uh, sit? Seat, chair?" Groping back to his two years of high-school Spanish, Simon tried, "La silla?"

      "Ah!" The man laughed, half at himself and his incomprehension. "No," he said, and then pointed to the empty space between two of the large piles of boxes. When Simon didn't immediately move to occupy the little alleyway, the man frowned and pointed again, more emphatically.

      Simon held up his hands in surrender. "I'm going," he said, stepping back into the empty space. The other man smiled in relief and darted off, leaving Simon eyeing his new nest dubiously.

      "Yeah, this is great," Simon muttered, kicking the side of one of the crates. The chains clunked dully inside their canvas coats. The metal floor looked clean enough, but it was still a bare metal floor. Simon scowled at it, then put his jacket on the floor and gingerly sat down on it. It'd have to do. Simon wedged his duffel under the chains behind himself, which gave him something of a cushion to lean back against and ensured that his stuff would be nominally safe, then put the paper bag in his lap and waited, grumpily. If he ever made it to England, he was going to have to have words with his travel agent.

      A few minutes later the faint green light flickered back off, leaving Simon in darkness. The massive engines came to life with a choked roar that threatened to loosen his kidneys. Simon braced his feet on the crate opposite, just in case.

      The big door rumbled shut with a wheeze of ancient hydraulics and the plane lurched forward, rocking Simon back against his duffel. Simon winced and locked his fingers together behind his neck to give it some support; between Sandra decking him this morning—yesterday morning?—and the strain of the constant, random travel, it was really starting to ache. If this kept up, he'd dig the Advil out of his duffel.

      After a lumbering run down the runway, the massive plane threw itself at the air, missed, bounced on its wheels a couple of times—ow—and then heaved itself headlong into the air again, dragging itself airborne with a clumsy force that squashed Simon against the floor. His stomach rolled over again. Simon clutched at it with his free hand and concentrated on his new mantra—don't throw up, don't throw up—until the plane settled in, wallowing along in the air with all the grace of a cow flung from a catapult.

      After five minutes passed without Simon becoming either a pancake or a fireball, he let his feet fall again. Working entirely by touch—he didn't want to drain his phone's battery any more than he had to—Simon located a bottle of water and his little bottle of Advil. He took four, then settled in to try and doze.

      Eventually, some hours later, a bit of faint sunlight started to filter in through the high, tiny windows. The belly of the plane was still gloomy, but Simon could see well enough to maneuver, if not well enough to do anything else. It was cooler at this altitude; Simon dug out his shirt and put it back on, then turned his attention back to his bag of food. He ate the other bag of potato chips and a granola bar, then finished off the bottle of water he'd opened last night and took two more Advil.

      His neck ached. His legs ached. His back ached. Succumbing to his need to stretch, Simon got carefully to his feet, grabbing one of the chains just in case. The plane shuddered and groaned around him, the engines coughing and roaring in a highly disconcerting manner, but the floor was still reasonably steady; after a moment Simon let go of the chain and groped his way out into the main aisle, following the prodding of his bladder. Surely there had to be a bathroom of some kind around here somewhere. Simon hoped so, in any case, because he didn't really feel like peeing into an empty water bottle.

      The cargo compartment was even bigger than he'd thought it was. It seemed to take ten minutes just to reach the front of the plane and the honest-to-Christ stairway leading up to the cockpit—but no bathroom. Simon eyed the cockpit door, then decided against it and headed back towards the tail of the plane.

      In the end he found the bathroom, or what passed for it, half by luck and half by smell. The little chemical toilet was enclosed in a closet at the very back of the plane, as far away from the cockpit as it could get; Simon, reeling back from the physical presence of the stench, did not blame the designers at all. Still, it would beat the bottle, if only somewhat. Simon sucked in a lungful of air, shut himself in, and did what was necessary, sipping just enough air through his teeth to prevent himself from passing out.

      His head was spinning by the time he fell back out, gasping for air. "Kill my travel agent," Simon muttered, wiping his hands frantically on the legs of his jeans.

      Bored out of his mind, Simon took to wandering around in the cargo hold, studying the crates without any real interest while he stretched his legs. When the appeal of random, pointless wandering started to dim, he went back to his niche and sat down to rest.

      Eventually, he became aware that large chunks of time were starting to vanish. Simon had spent most of his travel time dozing in short, unsatisfying bursts piled on top of three weeks of hard work—he was exhausted. Occasionally he would rouse himself enough to glance at his watch, only to notice that an hour or two had vanished while he stared fuzzily at the walls. He grazed on the contents of his bag of food without really tasting them, washing them down with swallows of lukewarm water from the second bottle. He was starting to develop the dull, tight headache of caffeine withdrawal. He was too tired to really care.

      When the plane hitched and coughed and started to drop, Simon thought he was imagining things. He'd been half-convinced that he had died and gone to hell, and this plane was it. The chemical toilet was a pretty decent argument in favor of this theory.

      The landing gear dropped with a resounding thud that would have scared the shit out of Simon, had he not been so dazed. As it was, he barely had enough time to brace his feet against the crate before the plane hit the ground and bounced. Simon nearly fell onto his side, catching himself on his forearm at the last moment. A rivet smacked into his funny bone. Simon yelped, suddenly a lot more awake.

      The plane bounced twice more before the brakes locked with a screeching sound that threatened to pop Simon's eardrums. The entire plane shuddered, hard enough that one of the crates at the front of the plane fell off its stack and burst, sending its contents flying; the plane went slewing sideways, fighting to stop, and suddenly the air was full of thousands of little blue pills. It was hailing drugs. Simon threw his arms up to protect his head; he so, so did not even want to know.

      Eventually the plane came to a halt. Simon lowered his arms, blinked twice, then rolled gingerly to his feet. Pills crunched underfoot, nearly pitching him right back down again. Up at the front of the plane, someone cursed volubly in Spanish. Simon could only agree.

      Simon had just finished pulling his duffel free of the chains when he heard the crunching footsteps coming his way. One of the pilots appeared and nodded, his smile anxious. He nodded at Simon, then pointed back towards the cargo door. "So," Simon said, picking up his jacket. "I guess that means that this is my stop?"

      "Yes?" the pilot said uncertainly, taking a step back and glancing towards the cargo door. Other people were crunching through the thin layer of pills that covered the bare metal floor, rattling chains and heaving crates around. Simon slung his jacket over his shoulder and picked his way carefully towards the open cargo door.

      After so many hours in the cool dimness of the plane's belly, the heat and sunlight hit him like a sledgehammer. Simon winced away from it, his eyes watering. For a few seconds, all he could see was the glare. Eventually his eyes started to get used to it and the landscape came into focus—Simon was immediately sorry.

      The plane sat in the middle of a vast, drab, hard-packed plain, the unrelieved tan of desert sand. In the distance, behind the plane, Simon could see mountains, but out here the biggest feature was a small cube-shaped shelter built from corrugated steel. The heat was insane. It was too hot to sweat—the air sucked moisture directly from Simon's body, leaving him feeling as dry as one of the chunks of beef jerky left in his paper sack. "You have got to be fucking kidding me," Simon said, looking around and licking his lips.

      Behind him the plane's crew were unloading some of the smaller crates, stacking them inside the little steel shelter. Simon, seeing the logic in this, headed over there himself. Underneath the steel roof, out of the sun, the desert heat was slightly more bearable. Simon pulled up a crate and sat down, watching the crew unload the plane.

      The plane was even uglier in full daylight. For one thing, someone had once painted it sky blue from top to bottom—all the better to evade notice while in the air, Simon assumed—but the paint was ancient, faded, and peeling, revealing huge swathes of rusty steel. It looked like a pregnant whale. A sky-blue pregnant whale. Looking at the thing, Simon was amazed that it still flew at all, let alone that he'd trusted himself to it.

      One of the crew put down the last crate and paused to swipe a dirty bandanna across his forehead. "Yeah," Simon said, stripping off his shirt again. If he was out here for much longer, he'd probably take his jeans off, too. "So I guess you're just going to leave me here?"

      "No habla ingles."

      "Yeah, I was afraid of that," Simon said.

      The crewman stuck his bandanna back in his pocket and waggled his fingers at Simon. "Bye-bye," he said, grinning.

      "Yeah," Simon said, expressionless. He raised a hand. "Bye-bye to you too. It's been loads of fun."

      The crewman disappeared back into the belly of the plane and the cargo door hitched shut with a grumble. Watching the plane take off was a lot more entertaining than experiencing it from the inside—sky-blue, pregnant, bouncing whale—but once the cough of its engines had faded into silence, the reality of the situation became clear: Simon had just been abandoned inside a rusty metal shed in the middle of the desert somewhere, with only a single small bottle of water. Just thinking about it made him thirsty.

      After ten minutes in which no one showed up, Simon decided that his dignity could go fuck itself and shucked off his jeans and sneakers, unstrapping his ankle holster. He was still not comfortable—nothing on earth could have made him comfortable, except perhaps the next ice age—but he felt slightly better for having done it anyway.

      A small blue oblong fell out of one of his cuffs and bounced on the hard-packed ground. Simon reached down and swept it up: one of the pills from the broken crate. Pfizer, it said on one side, and VGR 100 on the other. Surprised, Simon laughed aloud. "Oh, Jesus Christ," he said, bouncing the Viagra tablet in the palm of his hand. He'd caught a ride to... wherever this was... with a gang of hard-on smugglers—Simon glanced over his shoulder at the stack of crates, then snickered again and tucked the stray pill into the end of his duffel bag. Hey, waste not, want not.

      Unfortunately, the amusement of sharing a shelter with enough illegal Viagra to bring his nation's capitol to a standstill didn't last for long. Not expecting much, Simon pulled out his phone and flipped it open. No bars. What a shock. Simon angled it one way, then another, and much to his surprise got a single, wavering bar. He stared at it for a moment, watching it appear and vanish; he'd been so sure he'd never get reception out here that he didn't know what to do with it now that he had it.

      There wasn't really anyone he wanted to call, assuming he could maintain connection for more than a few seconds anyway. Simon thought for a minute, then pulled up the phone's GPS function. He wasn't sure he wanted to know, but he might as well find out.

      The phone went quiet, searching. Simon opened his last bottle of water, drank off a mouthful, and capped it again. The connection dropped again, and the phone beeped out an error message. Simon restarted the search.

      Eventually, through luck, the phone managed to stay connected to the satellite for just long enough to inform Simon that he was somewhere in southern Morocco. "Thrilling," Simon said, slapping the phone shut.

      The sun slid slowly downwards, although the afternoon didn't get any less hot because of it. The plain was still a barren wasteland of cracked hardpan and loose sand. Simon, under cover of the steel shelter, was out of the sun and the wind alike, but he was still baking in the heat, bored out of his mind, and starting to become paranoid. He had a little less than a half a bottle of warm water left, and once it was gone... This was not a situation he'd ever expected to find himself in.

      "I'm stranded in the Sahara," Simon informed the little steel shelter. "They do not cover situations like this at the Academy—oh, Christ. Now I'm talking to myself." He shook his head and drank some more water.

      Finally, an hour or so after the cargo plane had lumbered off (and about half an hour after Simon had shaken the last few drops of water out of the bottle), Simon heard the faint drone of an approaching plane. It failed to register for a moment, but once it did, Simon hopped down off his crate and pulled his jeans back on, as unpleasant as the necessity was. Not only did he not particularly want to be caught with his pants down, so to speak, the jeans were necessary to hide the gun—Simon checked it, too, then stepped into his sneakers.

      He was tying the second one when the little light plane skimmed overhead and bounced to an energetic halt on the plain. If Charlie's plane had been small, this one was tiny: it was all wings and almost no body, and it barely looked large enough for the pilot, let alone the pilot, Simon, and the five crates of illegal erections that were sharing the shelter with Simon. Was this his ride? Simon hoped so. At this point he'd gladly wedge himself into a cargo bay just to get out of here.

      The plane turned in a tight circle and skittered back to where Simon was waiting, coming to a halt a few feet away from the shelter. The propeller on the front spun to a halt. Simon waited. A few moments later the door on the side of the plane opened and the pilot dropped out, pulling off his helmet—no, Simon corrected himself, her helmet. His latest ride was pretty, in a certain tough and bony way, with brown hair that had been severely chopped off at her jaw. "Hallo!" she called, flipping back her hair. "You must be the, euh, the passenger?"

      "Christ, I hope so," Simon said. "These crates belong to you?"

      "One crate," the new pilot said, heading back to the tail of the plane. She did something—Simon couldn't quite see what—and part of the tail folded away, revealing a small and crooked hidden compartment. "The rest we will leave here."

      Simon looked back at the pile of crates. "I sure hope those little blue bastards can stand the heat," he said dubiously.

      "Oh yes, I think so," the pilot said. She stood back and frowned at the open compartment. "Will you be so kind as to bring one of the crates here?"

      "Hey, in exchange for a ride out of here, I can stand to be your drug mule for a few minutes," Simon said. He crouched down, got his shoulder under one of the crates, and hefted it with a grunt. It was lighter than he'd been expecting, but still heavy enough to make him stagger under its weight. "You want it in there?"

      "Oh, yes, I think it should fit," she said, standing aside and flashing him a smile. "They have, in the past."

      Obligingly Simon staggered over to the plane and heaved the crate at the open compartment. It didn't want to fit. "Ah, I see the problem," the pilot said from behind him. "If you can lift a little, the opening becomes larger."

      "Grgh," Simon said, eloquently. He sucked in a breath and heaved, the muscles in his shoulders bunching; the front of the crate skittered up along the tail of the aircraft and suddenly popped in, the wood of the crate scraping against the angled sides of the opening. Simon heaved again, lifting the tail end of the crate over his head and shoving it in. The crate went banging in and came to rest at an angle inside the compartment. The plane skittered forward an inch or two like Simon had goosed it. "Good enough?" Simon said, flexing his fingers.

      "Oh, yes, that is good," the pilot said. "If you will just go get your things..."

      "Right, right," said Simon, going back to the shelter to grab his duffel and his jacket. The dregs of his food he abandoned to its fate; he wasn't hungry, just desperately thirsty and tired of carrying the bag around. Maybe someone else would get some use out of it, although it was probably rude to offer salted beef jerky to a man who was dying of thirst.

      The compartment was closed again. Even knowing that it was there, Simon couldn't see it; he didn't know whether to be impressed or unsettled. "Your things will fit in the space behind the second seat," the pilot said, gesturing towards the door. "Please put them away, then have a seat and put on the, euh, the headphones. Otherwise we will not be able to speak."

      Simon craned his neck, looking into the plane. It was just about as tiny as he'd thought. The second seat was actually behind the pilot's seat, and there were controls in front of it—"I guess I'm not supposed to touch the controls," he said, glancing back over his shoulder.

      "Ah, no, I would not suggest it," she said, smiling. "We will pretend that you are my copilot, but perhaps you should not try to be, yes?"

      Simon stepped up into the plane, ducking under the low-hanging ceiling. "That's definitely a good idea," he said, half to himself, leaning over the back of the copilot's seat and stowing his things.

      Once he was properly harnessed and headphoned—a process which took a thoroughly embarrassing amount of time to achieve—the pilot swung into the seat in front of his and pulled the door shut behind her, pulling on her helmet. "Ah, there," she said, her voice crackling slightly. "Can you hear me?"

      "Yeah, no problem," Simon said, frowning down at the controls. He wasn't about to actually touch them, but there wasn't really any other place to put his hands. He ended up lacing them together in his lap.

      "Very good," the pilot said, flicking switches and consulting gauges. "Your pardon. I will have us in the air in a very few minutes."

      Simon leaned back in the copilot's seat and let his head fall back, staring at the roof of the tiny plane. "You're French, aren't you," he said.

      "Ah hah. Yes, but I am told my English is good," she said, laughing a little. "You may call me Marie-Claude, if you like. It is not my name, but for this, I believe he will do well."

      "Fair enough," Simon said. "My name's Simon."

      "Yes," Marie-Claude said, fiddling with something. The plane started up with a high whining roar. "This I already knew."

      They were in the air almost before Simon knew it. Marie-Claude's little plane was so light and quick that it darted into the air like a bird, barely dragging on Simon's stomach at all. Simon leaned back in the copilot's seat and eyed his control stick askance: it was moving in time with Marie-Claude's own, like there were ghost hands guiding it. "So where am I going this time?" he asked, reaching up to touch the microphone out of long habit.

      "Calais!" Marie-Claude said, cheerfully. "It is in the north of France. We must also land once to refuel—this plane, he is speedy, but he does not carry so much gas."

      "So... how long?"

      "Euhh... four hours? Perhaps?"

      "Great," Simon said. "Mind if I get some sleep? I'm freaking exhausted."

      "Please, you must suit yourself," Marie-Claude said. "I will be speaking on occasion, but I am speaking to towers, not to you."

      Simon put his head back and shut his eyes. The tiny plane shuddered lightly around him, but nothing could disconcert him too much any more. "That's fine," he said. "Wake me if you need to."

      How long he slept for, Simon didn't know. Time was rapidly ceasing to lose any meaning at all. Voices droned pleasantly in French in his ears, one of them Marie-Claude's, and the plane rocked around him like a hammock. He woke only when the plane touched down, bouncing lightly down the runway like a stone skipping over water. The sun was low in the sky on one side of the plane; on the other side of the plane, purple twilight was starting to shade down to darkness. "Refueling?" he said groggily.

      "Yes indeed," Marie-Claude said, far too cheerfully for Simon's current state of mind. "We will be here for, euh, perhaps half of an hour? If you would like to stretch your legs or have something to drink—"

      Simon was out of the plane like a shot. The man at the snack bar either didn't or wouldn't speak a word of English, but Simon still managed to acquire a bottle of cold water with minimal fuss, charging it to his prepaid Visa. Simon sucked down the first half so fast that he managed to give himself a cold headache. It was wonderful anyway.

      Now that the initial edge of his thirst had been taken care of, Simon carried the bottle back outside to where Marie-Claude was supervising the refilling of her tiny plane's gas tank. "Better?" Marie-Claude asked, raising one eyebrow.

      "Oh yeah," Simon said, taking another long drink and wiping his mouth. "If I could only get some coffee, I'd be in heaven."

      Marie-Claude waved a hand. "Pssh, coffee is easy. One moment." Leaving the sleepy-eyed attendant overseeing the plane, she sashayed off towards the main building; Simon watched her go (with a certain level of appreciation) before trotting after her.

      By the time he caught up, she was in the pilot's lounge, negotiating with a large copper cylinder that didn't look much like any coffee maker that Simon had ever seen. It was hissing at her—Simon placed the sound at approximately the same time that Marie-Claude turned back around, a tiny cup in either hand. "Here you are," she said, handing him one cup of the espresso. "I will not fly without two shots or more, myself."

      "I love you," Simon said, with perfect sincerity. "Can I have another?"

      Marie-Claude smiled and handed him the other cup that she was carrying, then turned back to the machine.

      They were underway again fifteen minutes later. Simon's caffeine headache was gone at long last, and he was alert again; it wouldn't last, but he was determined to enjoy it while it did. The little plane flew low and fast, and from Simon's vantage point, was almost all windows. The twilit view was immense and exhilarating. "What country is this?" Simon asked, touching one of the earpieces of his headset.

      "This is the south of France," Marie-Claude said. She glanced out of one of the side windows. "She is pretty, no?"

      "Yeah," Simon said under his breath, putting a hand on one of the side windows. After a moment he shook his head, clearing it. "I don't think I've ever flown this low before."

      "This plane, he is not quite, euh, what is it, an ultralight? At any rate, he will not go so high." The little plane banked sharply to the right and the world spun dizzyingly around Simon. Simon swallowed and braced both hands against the sides of the tiny plane. "He will also not go so far, alas," Marie-Claude concluded cheerfully, bringing the plane back to rights.

      "Hey, as long as it's far enough," Simon said, swallowing again. "How far away from Calais are we?"

      "Two hours? A bit more, perhaps."

      "Great," Simon said, settling in. Even two shots of espresso couldn't make headway against his exhaustion for too long, and his head was beginning to fog up again. "I'm gonna watch the view go by until I fall asleep."

      "You may feel free," Marie-Claude said. "You are, euh, what is it, in good hands."

      Simon napped, woke, watched France fly by below him, napped some more, and woke again. It was fully dark now and the countryside below him was black, studded with lights. It could have been anywhere. His body had either acclimated to this craziness or simply given up on reminding Simon what a bastard he was for putting it through this. He felt fine. Lazy and calm. A large city of some sort slid by on his left—all Simon could really see was a clot of lights—and then all was darkness again.

      Eventually another clot of lights appeared on the horizon in front of them. "That is Calais," Marie-Claude said, easing the plane over a bit. "We will be landing in twenty minutes, and I would ask a favor from you."

      "Sure," Simon said. "What is it?"

      "There is a, euh, what is it, a clipboard? On the wall to your left? If you would fetch it out, please."

      Simon groped around on the wall and found the clipboard, hung on a peg. "Okay, got it."

      "When we land, I will turn on the lights, then say some numbers to you. You must write them down. You will see the openings for them." Marie-Claude sounded amused. "We must convince the ground crew that you are my copilot, no?"

      "Ah," Simon said, squinting at the clipboard and determining that he couldn't see a damned thing. He patted the edges of it and found a pen. "Okay?"

      "You may also put your hands on the control stick when we land, although you must not try to move it," Marie-Claude said. "This is not necessary, but it is clever."

      Simon watched the control stick move for a moment. "You know what, I think there's such a thing as too clever," he finally said, hugging the clipboard to his chest.

      The spot of light on the horizon grew and fractured, until parts of it were sliding underneath the belly of the plane. Twenty minutes later Marie-Claude was skipping the little plane neatly down a brightly-lit runway and bringing it to a halt. Simon's stomach didn't so much as mutter.

      "Here we are," Marie-Claude said brightly. "Please be consulting the clipboard." The overhead lights went on, momentarily dazzling Simon; even though he couldn't quite focus on the papers yet, he made a show of looking at the clipboard. Once his eyes cleared, he found himself looking at a lot of little boxes and French text. The top sheet of paper was about half filled in.

      Marie-Claude wheeled the little plane off into the grass and parked it in a slot. The high whine of the engine whirled down and cut out. "Are you ready?" she said.

      "Yeah," Simon said, picking up the pen. "I just go down this first empty column, right?"

      "That is correct," Marie-Claude said. Her fingers flicked over the complicated instrument panel and she started rattling off numbers. Simon wrote them down—he had no idea what any of them meant, but he wrote them down anyway. Outside the plane, a member of the ground crew threw a line over the nose of the little plane, tying it down. He barely spared Simon a glance. So far, so good.

      "One five seven two six dot five seven," Marie-Claude said. A thump from behind Simon heralded a second line landing on the plane's tail. "And that should be all, no?"

      "Yeah," Simon said. He put the clipboard back on the hook. "We all done here?"

      "Oh, yes, we are quite done," Marie-Claude said, shucking off her helmet and unfastening her harness.

      Accordingly, Simon took off his headset and wriggled clumsily out of his own harness. "What about the cargo?" he said, pitching his voice a little low, just in case.

      "It stays where it is," Marie-Claude said, equally low. "Someone will remove it in five or six hours. I am only the pilot."

      "Ah." Simon twisted around in his seat and reclaimed his things. His duffel and jacket were a bit cold. It felt nice. "So now what?"

      "Now—" Marie-Claude booted open the door and turned sideways in her seat "—we shall go ride in a taxicab."

      "Oh," Simon said. "Joy."

      They left the little light plane being fussed over by two members of the ground crew and headed down along the runway, past the lobby. A little staircase led down to street level and a handful of cabs, huddled together outside a small stand that reminded Simon a little too much of the steel cube in the desert. Marie-Claude headed for one of them. Simon followed.

      Slinging herself in the back seat, Marie-Claude said something in French to the cabdriver, who nodded, threw his cigarette out the open window, and took off like a bat out of hell. Simon, who'd still been negotiating the open doorway, fell heavily back into his seat and yanked the door shut just before a second taxi could slam it shut for him. "Christ!" he hissed. Marie-Claude looked unruffled.

      The rest of the ride was, not to put too fine a point on it, terrifying. Simon clutched at the door and the seat beside him as the taxi careened through the narrow (but fortunately uncrowded) streets. At one point the taxi screamed so close to a pedestrian that Simon could swear that he heard the whisper of the man's pants rubbing against the taxi's side; the man yelled something after them and took a swing at the taxi with his motorcycle helmet, narrowly missing. "Does everybody in France drive like this?" Simon asked Marie-Claude, trying to sound cool.

      "No, no," she said. "Most of them are much worse."

      Simon blinked, then narrowed his eyes. "You're just fucking with me, aren't you?" The startled look on her face made him quickly revise that: "Messing with me, sorry. Uh. I meant that you're joking."

      "Oh!" She looked relieved, which really did not do Simon's ego any favors. "Yes. Yes, I am... fucking with you, as you say." She pronounced it focking. Simon thought that was kind of cute.

      A few minutes later, they ran out of city. Beyond the streetlights Simon could see nothing but long docks and choppy water, nearly invisible in the darkness. "That is La Manche, your, euh, English Channel," Marie-Claude said, waving a hand at it. "Sometimes, when there is sun, you can see England beyond."

      "So I'm almost there, thank Christ," Simon said, staring out at it. The taxi jogged left and Simon's face smacked into the window, leaving a noseprint on the glass. "Ow," he muttered, rubbing his nose.

      "Yes, but 'almost there' also means 'not there', no?" Marie-Claude said. The taxi turned sharply into the port area, running along one of the smaller docks. "Ah," Marie-Claude said, glancing out of the window. "Here, we are almost there."

      "So we're not there?" Simon said, still rubbing his nose.

      "Yes, ha ha," Marie-Claude said. She snapped something at the driver, who braked with such alacrity that Simon nearly brained himself on the back of the seat on front of him. He only barely managed to catch himself in time.

      "Jesus, my reflexes are shot," Simon said, grabbing his duffel. "Is this it? Where am I going?"

      "Yes, this is the place," Marie-Claude said. She handed the driver some money and got out. Simon followed her, quickly. God forbid he still have one foot in the car when the driver decided to take off. Marie-Claude was already heading away, moving down a steep little wooden staircase towards a different section of dock.

      The damp boards of the dock echoed hollowly under Simon's feet, sometimes squelching. For the second time in—two days? two days—Simon could smell salt water in the air. Marie-Claude walked briskly ahead of him, heading for the end of the dock and giving Simon another moment to appreciate the view. The boats here were small, mostly pleasure craft, but bobbing at the far end of the dock—"Is that a seaplane?" Simon said, craning his neck.

      "Yes, yes," Marie-Claude said. "That is your next ride—hallo?"

      "'Ullo!" a male voice called from somewhere behind the seaplane's open engine compartment. A man ducked into view, holding a large wrench. "You got my passenger, then? Excellent!" he said, ducking back behind the open door and muffling his unabashedly English voice. "Time for our ride to miraculously work again!"

      "Yes, this is Simon," Marie-Claude said. She turned to Simon and smiled, even as an alarming banging sound echoed from the seaplane's engine. "Well! This is where I will leave you, yes?"

      "Guess so," Simon said. He shuffled his duffel into his left hand and stuck out his right. "Thanks a lot, Marie-Claude, or whatever your real name is. You've been just about the best company I've had on this goddamned trip so far."

      Marie-Claude took Simon's hand, then rose up onto her toes and kissed him on both cheeks, a rapid, practiced one-two one-two maneuver as steady as a drumbeat. "It was a pleasure," she said, dropping again. "I wish you luck—" and she stepped past him and headed back up the docks, towards the staircase. Simon turned to watch her go.

      "She's a one, idn't she," the man said, almost at Simon's elbow. Simon jumped. The man just grinned and stuck out his hand. "Name's Tom, it's a pleasure."

      "Simon," Simon said, shaking Tom's hand. "So, are we ready?"

      "Right away," Tom said. "Go ahead and hop in, I'll just close up the bonnet."

      'Hopping in' proved a little more complicated than Tom had made it sound. Simon eyed the bobbing seaplane. To get in, he'd have to step onto the nearest pontoon—Simon hefted his duffel and threw it into the plane, then put on his jacket. Hands free, he grabbed the nearest wing strut and put a tentative foot on the bobbing pontoon. Once it touched, he threw the rest of his body after it. The move had served him well enough in Texas and it didn't fail him here, although he still felt pretty stupid.

      Getting into the plane from the pontoon was just a matter of stepping in. Simon shoved his duffel under the seat and did up his seatbelt; outside the plane Tom slammed the hood shut and edged along the other pontoon until he could climb up into the pilot's seat. "This ought to take not but half an hour," Tom said, turning a key. The seaplane's engine caught and revved. "Half an hour and you'll be on England's shores!" Tom shouted over the sudden noise.

      "Thank God," Simon said, slumping in his seat as the seaplane taxiied out of the harbor.

      Tom, one of nature's great talkers, kept up a light and steady stream of chatter as he piloted the plane northward. Simon grunted in most of the right places, but it was getting harder and harder to pay attention. He was filthy, hungry, thirsty, and most of all, tired—he'd embarked on this odyssey almost twenty-four hours ago, and that wasn't even taking jet lag into account. The thought was mind-numbing.

      From up here, in the dark, England looked exactly like France, a thought which Simon was smart enough to keep to himself. The seaplane banked lightly to the right, sweeping around the lights of a city on the coast. "That down there is Dover," Tom shouted. "Welcome to England, such as it were!"

      "Are we landing there?" Simon shouted back.

      "Ha! No, no, don't know how I'd explain you!" The seaplane was running along the coast now, leaving Dover behind. "No, we've a little rendezvous in the middle of bloody nowhere!"

      "Never would have seen that coming," Simon said. Tom burst out laughing. Simon himself didn't find it all that funny.

      Ten minutes later the seaplane was skimming low over the waves, England bulking dark on Simon's left as the seaplane touched down, throwing up huge sheets of water to either side and hiding the land from view. It was a rough, dragging landing, pontoons being not as accommodating as wheels. Simon's stomach pressed back against his spine and shuddered.

      "Nice landing, what?" Tom said cheerfully, twisting halfway around in his seat to grin at Simon. "No worries, we're just about there."

      "Great," Simon said, kneading his belly. He was almost glad that there wasn't anything in it. "Now what?"

      "Now that," Tom said, cutting over to the left and a dim swath of beach, barely visible.

      "Huh," said Simon. "Deja vu."

      "Eh?"

      "Nothing."

      "Suit yourself," Tom said. At the very last minute he slewed the seaplane sideways, and one of the pontoons grated up onto the beach with a rasping sound. The seaplane jerked to a stop. Simon's stomach flipped over again.

      "Now, then," Tom said, blithely unaware. "Your ride ought to be hereabouts—" Up at the head of the beach, a car flashed its lights once, dazzling Simon's eyes. "—and there we are!" Tom said, pushing his door open. He jumped out onto the pontoon, sand grating under it, and pulled open the door to the passenger cabin. "Out you get," Tom said. "Need a hand?"

      "Nah, just hold this," Simon said, holding out his duffel. Tom took it. Simon grabbed the wing strut and swung carefully back out onto the pontoon, stepping from there onto the squelching sand. "England at last," he said, taking his duffel back. "I feel like I ought to kiss the ground, except for the part where I'd get sand in my mouth. Thanks for the ride."

      "Not a problem!" Tom slammed the passenger door shut again. He put his shoulder against the wing strut and heaved; the plane slid forward a few inches, slithering through the wet sand. "Best of luck, what?"

      "What what," Simon said dizzily, heading up the beach towards the car that he could barely see silhouetted against the night sky. Behind him sand grated again as Tom pushed the plane back out to sea.

      The figure standing by the side of the car raised a hand. "Good morning," it said. "You must be Simon—"

      "Yeah," Simon said, trudging through the sand. Up here it was dry and loose, and it dragged at him, shifting under his weight and pouring into his sneakers. Every step was harder than the last, and his duffel felt like it weighed a thousand pounds. "Do me a favor: just tell me how long this part of the trip is going to take, and reassure me that it's the last part."

      "Oh, it is that," the man said. "I'll have you to Mr. West in three hours, just about."

      The soft sand gave way to hard asphalt under Simon's feet. Unprepared, he staggered. "Hallelujah," he said, once he caught himself. "Mind if I sleep on the way? I've had it."

      "Not at all," his driver said, opening the back door for Simon. "Mr. West said you'd likely be quite tired."

      Simon tossed his duffel bag into the back seat and crawled in after it, almost literally. "Yeah, well, he ought to know," Simon said, sinking down into the plush seat with a groan. "Also, hey, nice car."

      "It is, isn't it?" The driver started the car and backed up, turning the car around; Simon dozed off again almost before the car was straightened out.

      Now that he was less than three hours from his destination—and had spent much of the past day sleeping in short bursts—Simon was having some trouble staying asleep and an equal amount of trouble staying awake. He kept struggling back to consciousness, glaring blearily out the car windows, and then drifting back off. The man driving the car did so in silence, only occasionally humming or tsking to himself. Simon had no idea what time it was, nor did he care, but the roads were reasonably empty. He told himself that they must be making good time. He fell asleep again a minute later.

      He didn't snap back to full consciousness again until the car slowed almost to a stop, the wheels bumping up a slight incline. By the time Simon sat up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes, grimacing at the sweaty grime on his face, the car had rolled into a large garage and come to a halt, parked next to two others. The garage door rumbled down again behind them. "We here?" Simon said, his voice rough.

      "Here we are," the driver said, unlocking the doors.

      "Great. Christ, finally." Simon sat up, his back crackling, and let himself out. His legs nearly buckled under him. Gritting his teeth, he rode it out; once his legs deigned to support him again, he turned around and fetched out his duffel bag, then slammed the car door. "So. Now what?"

      "Now I suppose you might as well come in and make yourself at home," a familiar voice said from behind him.

      Simon spun around, nearly losing his balance in the process. "Ah," he said, rustily, unable to believe what he was seeing. Jeremy was standing there, backlit by the lights of what looked like a large kitchen—no. Not Jeremy, although the basic shape of the man in the doorway was exactly the same, as well as the hipsprung way he stood and the loose, quick way he moved. Simon would have recognized that body language anywhere, although he'd have put the wrong name to it. It was positively eerie. It also confirmed that he was, indeed, in the right place.

      "Welcome to England, Mr. Drake," Ethan West said, his voice even and dry. "I trust you had a good trip?"

      Simon shut his eyes, swayed on his feet, and gave up. "Oh, Christ, fuck you," he said weakly, no longer giving a shit if he offended the man or not.

      After a moment Ethan laughed under his breath and came forward, finally relieving Simon of his thousand-pound duffel.