Part Eight, Chapters 30-37
Simon rolled carefully out of bed late the next morning, expecting to ache like a bastard and feeling somewhat let down when he didn't. Putting his left hand down on the bed prompted a bolt of pain to flare up his arm, though: there were patches of reddish-brown bruise encircling his left hand like a bracelet, patterned like the rope.
His left hand seemed to be the only real casualty. He'd taken four Advil before collapsing into bed and they'd apparently killed off most of the incipient muscle pain. Simon flexed his hand and hissed a little, then flexed it again.
"Wounded?" Jeremy asked, startling him.
Simon looked up. Jeremy was tucked neatly into an armchair on the opposite side of the room, half-hidden behind a newspaper with his legs kicked casually out in front of him. "Nah," Simon said, rolling his left hand into a loose fist. "Couple of bruises, nothing serious."
Jeremy flicked the corner of his paper aside and raised both eyebrows at Simon. Simon held up his hand. Jeremy winced in sympathy. "That'll be attractive tomorrow, I'm certain."
"I'll live," Simon said. "How about you?"
Jeremy's little smile was wry. "Allow me to put it this way: I'll be trying very hard not to shrug for a while."
"See, that's what stage-diving gets you," Simon said, then hesitated. "Seriously, you okay?"
"Oh, yes," Jeremy said. "A bit sore, but it's nothing to worry about. I'll be right as rain in a day or two."
Simon massaged the swollen palm of his hand and flexed his fingers again. The more he worked at it, the more easily his hand moved. "We sure are a couple of tough guys," he said.
"None tougher," Jeremy said.
"So, what's the plan, tough guy?"
Jeremy nearly shrugged, winced, and abandoned the movement halfway through. "For the present we'll lie low and keep our faces off the street, at least until the initial uproar fades."
"Yeah, sounds like a plan." Simon let his hand drop. "And after that?"
The corner of Jeremy's newspaper rose again, hiding his face. "I've a couple of things working," Jeremy said. "For the moment, though, I've cut off all communications. It seems safest."
Simon eyed the uninformative blank wall of Jeremy's newspaper. "You aren't nearly as subtle as you think you are," Simon finally said, heading for the bathroom.
Two more Advil and a shower later, Simon was feeling pretty good, except when he banged his hand against something. "So, any word on Annabelle?" he asked, wandering back out into the main room in his towel.
Jeremy lowered the paper again, started to say something, and stopped. The expression on his face grew so thoughtful that Simon hiked up his towel in purest self-defense. "Guess you're feeling more like yourself," Simon said.
"Mm," Jeremy said, just barely smiling. "In any case, to answer your question, I'd actually got word several hours ago. Annabelle's safe with Ethan."
"Oh, good." Simon picked up his duffel with his wounded left hand, wincing, and dropped it on the bed. "So now that she's out of the equation, we can concentrate on getting Karpol off your case."
"Or you could go home," Jeremy said from behind him.
Simon paused, then turned around. "What?"
In lieu of shrugging, Jeremy made a lazy gesture with one hand. "Annabelle's safe. You've more than atoned for your lapse. You're welcome to go home and take your friends out of danger, if you want."
"No," Simon said, immediately, without thinking. He caught himself and flapped his free hand helplessly. "I mean... well, okay, I guess I do mean 'no'. I'm not going yet. In for a penny, in for a pound, right?"
Jeremy was silent, watching Simon, hiding behind that meaningless little smile of his. Rattled, Simon hitched up his towel again. "It wasn't ever just about Annabelle anyway," he said. "I'm also here because I have to take some responsibility for Rich, remember?"
"I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that you feel that way," Jeremy said, looking away. "Would it change your mind at all if I told you that I consider you absolved of your responsibility?"
"No!" Simon shoved his damp hair out of his eyes. "You can't do that anyway," he said. "It's not about what you think I'm responsible for, all right?" He hesitated. "Do you want me to go? Is that it?"
Jeremy looked back at Simon, his eyes tired. He sighed. "I'd like you to be out of the line of fire, as it were," he said. "But I must admit that I take some comfort from having you here."
"So... I'm staying," Simon said uncomfortably, getting a better grip on his towel. "So shut up about it already."
Jeremy laughed under his breath and held up both hands in mock surrender. "All right," he said. "I just want you to know that it's an option."
"Yeah, it's the coward's option," Simon said. Now that that was decided, he turned back to his duffel and fished out a clean pair of underwear. "Besides, all I'd be doing back in Washington is sitting around my apartment suffering from boredom and random attacks of, of paranoia," he said, adding a clean shirt to the pile. "Might as well be here, being of some use to somebody."
"Which you are," Jeremy said, touching two fingers to the nape of Simon's neck. Simon, who hadn't even heard him get out of the chair, stiffened in surprise; Jeremy, affecting not to notice, ran his fingers down along Simon's damp spine. Simon shivered. "Did I remember to say 'thank you' yet?" Jeremy asked, his fingers coming to rest on Simon's tailbone, half an inch away from the top of the towel. "Honestly, I don't know where my manners have gotten to."
Simon shut his eyes and leaned his head back, his skin still tingling in the wake of Jeremy's fingers. "Actually, no, I don't think you did," he said, his voice uneven.
"Appalling," Jeremy said, laughing under his breath. "I don't know how I'll ever make it up to you."
"I'm sure you'll think of something," Simon said. Jeremy tugged at the top of the towel; Simon let it slip an inch or two. "Also, hi, it's good to have you back, where have you been?"
"Oh, here and there," Jeremy said, running those fingers the rest of the way down.
There was only so much lying low that Simon could stand. He put up with it well enough for a while (aided greatly by having Jeremy's undivided attention) but on the evening of the third day, what little of Simon's patience remained snapped with an audible twang. "I'm sick and tired of being cooped up in this room," he announced, pushing the remains of his dinner away. Idly he flexed his left hand; the bruises had darkened to blue and purple over the course of the last three days and were starting to fade again, yellowing around the edges. "I mean, I get why we're lying low, Jesus, but I haven't been out of here in three days except to use the weight room."
"That's rather the point of the exercise," Jeremy pointed out, maddeningly calm. "And here I thought I'd been sufficiently distracting. Oh, dear. I shall have to try harder."
"You're trying enough as it is," Simon shot back. "Look, once it gets to be fully dark, let's get Mike to come pick us up and take us over to the other hotel, assuming Sandra hasn't killed him yet. Not that you're not, uh, stimulating company, but a change of place and face is just what the doctor ordered."
Jeremy's eyes drifted away as he thought about it. "All right," he finally said, resigned. "Actually, why don't you go without me? I should probably go ahead and get back in touch with a couple of people, and I'm certain I'd be extraneous in any case."
"You think it's safe?" Simon asked.
"Well, no." Jeremy smiled faintly. "But things are happening even without my input, and I can't just hide forever." The little smile curled in on itself. "After all, I have a career to resume."
"Is that what you call it in British?" Simon said, pushing his chair back and standing up. "I'm gonna call Mike. Maybe we can get up a poker game or something. Have some beer. Christ, that sounds great right about now."
"It rather does," Jeremy said, distracted. He was already fetching out his little address book and his latest cell phone, a glossy red monstrosity with a scratched-up case. "Have a good time, and do be careful when you're outside. It'd probably be a good idea to wear the hat."
Simon snorted, picking up the room phone. "Yes, Mom," he said.
"I am going to kill them all," Sandra announced, flinging the door open in answer to Simon's knock.
Simon just grinned and eased past her, Mike vaguely sheepish in his wake. At some point during the last three days his team had deigned to let the maids in; the clutter was contained in little piles in the corners, at least in the main room, and the air didn't smell quite so pervasively of human any more. "Chin up, Spring," Simon said, heading for the coffeemaker. "Archer says you can probably resume your shopping and sightseeing tomorrow, assuming you're careful."
"Three days," Sandra told the world. "I have been cooped up in this suite with these guys for three solid days. By this point I'd almost walk right into Volpe's headquarters, if only to enjoy some sophisticated conversation before they shot me."
Simon poured himself some coffee and carried it over to the conversation pit. "I know what you mean, Spring, but you've got to admit Archer has a point. Any of those assholes could have seen your face."
"It's not like any of them were looking at it," Sandra protested. "In that dress? They were all too busy ogling my tits."
"Aw, bull," Mike said cheerfully. He kicked off his sneakers by the door and threw himself onto one of the couches. "Half of 'em were probably checking out your ass instead."
Sandra paused. "Point taken," she said, "but my initial point still stands."
The door behind Simon clicked open and Johnny ambled out of the left-hand room, still yawning. "Yo, boss," he said, blinking sleepily.
"Yo, Texas," Simon said. "How's all this enforced confinement treating you?"
"Eh," Johnny said, shrugging. "Catching up on my sleep."
Simon glanced back at Sandra. "See, you ought to take Texas' example to heart, Spring. Go Zen. Become one with the imprisonment and let it pass through you, and all that stuff."
"Right," Sandra said. She snorted. "Now get him to tell you about the desk chair that he and Mike broke during their scuffle yesterday."
"I was caught up then," Johnny said. "Plus he deserved it."
Mike hooted and went for him; Simon threw a leg over the arm of his overstuffed armchair and drank some of his coffee, a dispassionate spectator at the fight. "You know what, kids, I had an idea," he said the next time he could get a word in edgewise.
"Oh boy," Mike said, grabbing Johnny in a headlock. "He's got an idea!"
Instead of fighting his way free, Johnny caught Mike's arm in both hands and pulled it down an inch or so. "Got my boots on," he noted mildly.
"You got your shoes off," Johnny said with great patience. "You make me stomp on your foot and I'm gonna break somethin'." As if to illustrate his point, he cracked the edge of one bootheel against the floor. An inch and a half of stacked wood striking the floor made a pretty hellacious racket, andSimon craned to checkleft a small dent behind.
Mike's face sagged. He pretended to consider for a moment, just to salve his ego, then threw up his hands and backed off a pace. "Yo," he said. "I been told."
"Anyway, kids!" Simon said brightly, shifting in his chair until he could stick a hand in his back pocket. "What I was thinking was that if we're going to be stuck in here anyway" he pulled out a fresh pack of cards that he'd bought at the hotel gift shop and held it up "we might as well pretend it's Saturday, right? Let's play some goddamn poker."
Nate stuck his head out of the back room, as if summoned. "Poker?" He looked back over his shoulder. "Hey, Dave, poker."
"Poker?" the as-yet-still-invisible Dave said. "Sounds good."
"Sounds pretty fucking awesome," Mike said reverently. "Course, we got no beer."
Simon tossed the cards onto the coffee table. "Then I nominate you to go get us some, Honda," he said. "Assuming Italians drink beer, anyway, 'cause you can't drink wine with poker."
"Gotta be something," Mike said. He bounded to the door and stomped back into his sneakers. "I'll be back in half an hour. You guys start without me and I'll cry or some shit."
"Half an hour," Simon said, making a show out of checking his watch.
It was close to two AM by the time Simon got back to his own hotel. He had a nice little three-beer buzz on, nothing overwhelming, just enough to smooth out the edges of his evening and blunt the remaining ache in his hand. Cognizant of the time, he eased the door open as quietly as he could, slinking in.
The room was dark, but Jeremy was not asleep. Rumpled and barechested he sat at the little table, exactly where Simon had left him, the hideous red phone still glued to one ear; he glanced up as Simon edged in, waggled his fingers in greeting, and then went back to tapping the pen against his lower lip. "Mm-hmm," he said, staring off at nothing. "Yes. Yes. You can count on it."
Simon eased the door shut behind him and kicked off his sneakers, listening to Jeremy's half of the conversation with half an ear. "I suppose you'll just have to trust me," Jeremy told the person on the other end of the line, a hint of a laugh threading through the words. "No? Even after I gave you my word? Well. That's your prerogative, I'm sure."
It sounded so much like something he might say to Simon that Simon couldn't help but grin a little. His eyes were quickly growing used to the dark, thanks in no small part to the glowing screen of Jeremy's phone; Simon shucked off his shirt and stuffed it into his duffel, then wriggled out of his jeans. "In any case you've time to think it over," Jeremy said. "Believe me, it'll be worth your while."
The person on the other end of the phone buzzed something, then went silent. Jeremy pulled the phone away from his ear, looked at it, and then folded it closed. "He hung up on me," Jeremy informed Simon, putting the phone down.
"Who was it?" Simon asked, most of his mind occupied with the thorny question of whether to put on pajama pants or just sleep in his damn underwear.
Jeremy laughed. "Just another acquaintance I can't trust worth a damn," he said. "Aren't they all, these days?"
"Judging by the state of your address book, yes, they are," said Simon, giving up on the pajamas and draping his jeans over the top of his duffel. "Advil and then bed, I'm thinking. You coming?"
"Mm. You sound cheerful."
"I am, actually." Simon groped his way towards the bathroom. "I had a good evening and I've got a pretty sweet little buzz on. Christ, but I needed that. You should have come."
Bedsprings creaked softly in the room behind him. "I suppose it might have been entertaining," Jeremy said. "But I did get an awful lot accomplished while you were out."
"Awesome," Simon said. "Tell me about it in the morning."
The bruises on Simon's hand had developed some interesting green patches by the next morning, the deepest of the purples starting to fade. Simon studied his hand in the mirror while he shaved, fascinated. The patch of bruise around the heel of his hand had the rope pattern printed clearly across it, and not just the rope, but the seam of the climbing glove. "Christ," he said, then snickered and ran the razor under water.
By the time he finished up in the bathroom, breakfast had arrived. "Good morning, Simon," Jeremy said, already inspecting the tray. "There's no rush, but when you've got a moment, I'd appreciate it if you could go pick up my messages."
"Sure, no problem," Simon said, picking up last night's jeans and putting them back on. "I'll get Mike to run me over there."
"Whenever you have a moment," Jeremy said dismissively, picking over the strawberries in the bowl with a frown.
Breakfast over with, Simon got on the room phone and summoned Mike. "He'll be here in fifteen minutes," Simon said, hanging up the phone. "You need any papers while I'm there?"
Jeremy started to say something, then hesitated. "Actually, yes, that might not be a bad idea," he said, picking up the little notepad. "I doubt they'll have anything interesting to say to me, but you never know."
"Could be good for a laugh, too," Simon said. "I bet Volpe is just furious."
"Furious," Jeremy repeated, like that hadn't occurred to him. "Yes, I expect he is. And probably rather frightened, as well. I can't imagine Viktor Karpol is any too pleased with him at the moment."
Simon whistled out a low, sliding note. "Damn, wouldn't want to be him right now."
"Wouldn't want to be him at all, actually," Jeremy said pleasantly, tearing off the sheet of notepaper and holding it out.
The guy behind the newsstand's counter saw Simon coming from half a block away. By the time Simon got there, the counterman already had a briefcase flat on the counter, a sour look on his face. "Came this morning," he said. "Now they come in the mornings, too."
"Great, thanks," said Simon, pausing to rifle the racks of newspapers. Jeremy had asked for the same five Italian newspapers that Simon was accustomed to fetching for him, as well as a London Times, a New York Times, and, somewhat improbably, a Paris-Match. Simon made a stack of newspapers in his arms, detoured to the wall of magazines to get the last title, and dumped the whole shebang on top of the briefcase. "And those, please," he said, dropping a twenty-euro note onto the counter. "You know what, I hate coins, keep the change."
The note vanished like magic, as did about half of the counterman's frown. "Thank you," he said, already counting out euro coins from the register and dropping them into the front pocket of his apron. Simon hugged the stack of newspapers to his chest and picked up the briefcaseit was oddly light, this timeand headed back down the block to where Mike was double-parked.
"Delivery service," Simon announced, booting the hotel room door open. Unsurprisingly, there was no answer, not even after Simon had kicked the door shut again; he checked the bathroom, just as a matter of course, determined that there was, in fact, no Jeremy inside, and abandoned both the briefcase and the newspapers on the table.
Jeremy came back a little over an hour later, wearing that leotard thing again, sweating from his workout. "Ah, thank you," he said, scrubbing a towel up along the back of his neck while he toed his shoes off. "I'll just have a shower and then get down to business."
"Sure, no problem," Simon said, squinting at him. "You know, far be it from me to question your godawful fashion sense, but most people work out in plain shorts and a t-shirt, thereby avoiding looking like a tremendous faggot. Were you aware of that, or is this some kind of huge revelation for you?"
Jeremy laughed a little, peeling the leotard's shoulder straps down. "Well, yes," he said, "but for one thing, the unitard offers better support with fewer seams, and for another, I can wash it in the shower and have it dry completely in under ten minutes. I can also then roll it up into a bundle smaller than my fist, and I am trying to travel lightly."
"Yeah, but there's 'light' and then there's 'stupid'," Simon said, watching Jeremy peel himself out of the damp unitard with a certain amount of appreciation. True, the leotard was ridiculous, but it had some advantages.
Jeremy's little smile curled on his face. "Oh, heavens, the American doesn't approve of my fashion choices," he said, heading for the bathroom with the top half of the unitard dangling loose about his hips. "It's like being advised on my choice of wine by a mumbling toothless fellow who lives in an alley."
"Yeah, well, so's your mother," Simon said, picking up the remote and unmuting the television.
"Not a thing," Jeremy finally said, dropping the last section of the last paper onto the large, untidy stack at his feet. "I suppose the time for negotiation is over."
"I was at least expecting a 'fuck you' or something," Simon said. The afternoon was wearing on and Simon had given up on the television an hour ago, now just lying around bored out of his mind. "Or, you know, unveiled threats to make you sleep with the fishes."
Jeremy smiled and scooped up the entire stack of papers, dropping it onto the table. "I expect they'd rather just shoot me," he said, sounding not at all worried about this concept. "In case you're wondering, I don't intend to give them the chance."
"No, really? Why not? Sounds exciting," Simon said. "At this point I'd almost welcome a little mayhem. I am bored to death."
"Are you going to go back over to the other hotel tonight, then?"
Simon tossed the remote up into the air and caught it again. "Yeah, probably," he said. "Unless you want me for something."
"Mm. Well. I tend to want you for many things," Jeremy said, "but I expect I can spare you for a few hours. Particularly if you're willing to get rid of this phone for me."
"Sure." Dropping the remote onto the bed next to him, Simon dropped his arms to the mattress above his head and vented a huge yawn. "I was thinking I'd go over there for dinner," he said, still yawning. "You want to come?"
"I think I'd best stay here," Jeremy said. "Things to do, and all that rot. I'll just call down for room service later."
"Whatever works for you," said Simon.
Jeremy absently rifled through the stacked-up papers, glancing at headlines. "We probably ought to switch hotels in the morning," he said. "It's been four days, after all."
Tucking his hands behind his head, Simon shut his eyes. "Yeah, good idea," he said. "I'm gonna take a nap. Wake me at five?"
"Of course," Jeremy said. "Any preferences as to how?"
"I'm gonna go on downstairs and wait for Mike in the lobby," Simon said, picking up the everpresent Redskins cap and putting it on. A two-hour nap piled on top of a largely-inactive day had left him feeling a little groggy. He yawned again. "You sure there's nothing you need before I go?"
"I'm fine, I'm fine," Jeremy said, dismissing Simon with a little flick of his fingers. "I'll see you when you get back, and we'll see to moving on in the morning."
Simon shook his head, trying to dispel the mental fog that was eddying steadily about the perimeter of his brain. "Yeah," he said. "Okay. Have fun or whatever."
"I'll try," Jeremy said, his smile flickering on and off.
Simon let himself out into the hallway and jogged off towards the elevators, hoping that the motion would wake him up a little. The hotel they were currently in was kind of run-down and ugly, the carpet thin and faded under Simon's sneakers; he wouldn't mind getting out of here. Of course, there was no guarantee that they wouldn't move to some place worse, but at least 'worse' would mean a change of scenery. Simon caught the elevator and headed down to the lobby.
The lobby was fairly crowded, with a short line of tired people waiting at the desk to be checked in. No one seemed to be just sitting around, though, and after a bit of careful checking Simon decided it was probably safe enough. Mike would be pulling around to the little side door that opened onto the tiny parking garage; Simon headed over there. Something, a bit of stray memory, was nudging at the back of his mind. Simon couldn't quite call it up to the light.
The little hallway that led to the garage was completely empty. After checking to make sure that Mike wasn't already there and waiting, Simon leaned against the wall and tried to put his finger on what was bothering him. He was pretty sure that he'd done everything that he'd meant to doSimon patted down his pockets, making sure he had everything. His wallet was there, as were his keys. His cell phone was clipped to his belt. The little SIG was strapped to his ankle
That stray memory nudged at him again, a bit more pointedly. Simon hesitated, then patted his pockets down again. Wallet: was it something to do with his wallet? Probably not. He had the correct set of ID, the room key, and a decent amount of pocket money. Keys: he had both his own personal keys (for no real reason besides being uncomfortable about leaving them behind) and the room key, so that wasn't it. He didn't need a car key. Cell phone: clipped to his belt, despite the fact that he probably wouldn't be able to use it. He'd called home to check for his nonexistent messages earlier this afternoon, so that wasn't it
"Oh, goddammit," Simon said, slapping his forehead: Jeremy had asked him to get rid of the red cell phone and he'd forgotten to grab it. Simon pushed himself back up and headed for the elevators, grumbling under his breath. At least he'd remembered before he left. If Mike showed up, he'd just have to wait.
Simon rode back up to their floor, fishing the room key out of his wallet. Jeremy was going to give him shit about thisor worse, he wouldn't. The thought of Jeremy being all understanding was almost enough to make Simon turn around and leave again. Almost, but not quite. Simon swiped himself back into the room. "Sorry," he said. "I forgot to grab that cell phone for you..." He trailed off there.
The white t-shirt and beige pants that Jeremy had been wearing not five minutes ago had been thrown across the back of a chair. The briefcase that Simon had fetched that morning was lying open on the table, empty. Jeremy himself was motionless in the center of the room, wary and resigned, caught in the process of putting on his jackethis black jacket. Like a blast from the past he was dressed in sleek black from head to toe, right down to the sunglasses threaded through the collar of his black t-shirt. "Simon," Jeremy said, putting his jacket the rest of the way on and smoothing the lapels down with both hands. His voice was even. "To be honest, I'd forgotten asking you to take it. How sloppy of me."
"Yeah, I guess so," Simon said, carefully shutting the door behind himself. "So. Uh. I can't help but notice that you're dressed to go out, and once again wearing all black, despite your once telling me that wearing your trademark asshole colors out in public would basically be a, a huge signpost saying HERE I AM in neon letters. So."
"So," Jeremy echoed.
Simon put his room key back in his wallet, and his wallet back in his pocket. "You were trying to get rid of me," he said.
Jeremy sighed. "Yes, I was," he said. "I'm meeting with an extremely nervous fellow tonight, and the only way I could talk him into meeting me at all was to promise, repeatedly, to come alone. I suppose I ought to have run the idea past you, only I was certain that you'd argue with me, despite having promised not to do so."
"Yeah, well, duh," Simon said, leaning against the door. If Jeremy wanted to leave the room, he'd either have to go through Simon or over the balcony, not that he was entirely incapable of either. "I mean, you want to appear to be alone, that's your business, but there's no reason at all that you shouldn't have backup anyway. Jesus Christ, that's my jobI do that shit for a living! If you'd given me even an hour's notice I could have had you within an invisible net with a two seconds' response timeinstead you tried to ditch me and run off by yourself while every criminal in the, the European Union is on the lookout for you, pardon me, I'm not exactly over that part yet!"
Jeremy looked away from Simon, fiddling with his cuffs. "I take your point, Simon," he said, his voice clipped. "And if I thought there was any real danger whatsoever, I assure you that I would have consulted you in a heartbeat."
"You made Johnny stay off the street for three days just because it's 'better safe than sorry'," Simon pointed out. "I like how 'better safe than sorry' applies to everybody but you."
"If I'd told you what I was planning to do and yet still insisted on going alone, would you have let me?" Jeremy shot back.
"I don't know. Maybe." Simon thumped one fist against his thigh. "I guess my point is that maybe you should have trusted me enough to try!"
Jeremy was silent. Simon's words echoed in his ears, making him more uncomfortable by the second. "Uh," Simon said. "But seriously, that 'inscrutable' crap really gets old. You never tell me shit unless you think I need to know, and you try to do everything yourself unless you can't" Simon broke off there and clutched at his head with both hands. "Christ," he said, his voice uneven. "Is this what it's like to work for me?"
"More or less," Jeremy said, his voice still neutral.
"Mmph," Simon said. After a long moment he straightened up and pulled his phone off its clip, dialing a number. Jeremy watched him, silent.
After two rings, someone picked up the phone. "Hello?" Sandra said, confused.
"Hey, it's me," Simon said. "I want you to call Mike and tell him to come back. I've got something I need to do tonight after all."
Sandra's voice went sharp and wary. "Is there a problem?" she asked.
Simon very carefully did not look anywhere near Jeremy. "No, no problem," he said, sort of hating himself for it. "Just something I forgot to do earlier. I'll see you guys tomorrow, okay?"
"All right," Sandra said, still sounding a little suspicious. "Tomorrow, then. Call me if you need me."
"Yeah." Simon shut his eyes. "Yeah, I will. Sorry, Sandy."
"It's no problem," Sandra said. "Later."
Leaving his eyes shut, Simon folded his phone away and stuck it back on its clip. "Okay," he said. "So now we're both a couple of, of secret-keeping assholes, and don't think I don't see the irony in that, as it is huge and hideous. I don't know where you're going or what you intend to do when you get there, but I'm going with you. I'll wait wherever you tell me to wait, and I'll stay out of sight, but goddammit, I'm not letting you walk into trouble alone."
For a long, long moment, Jeremy was silent. "All right," he finally said, sighing. "Just... promise me that you'll stay out of sight. If he discovers that I haven't really come alone, that's when things might get dangerous."
"All right," Simon said. "Give me the red phone, and let's go."
Jeremy handed over the phone without another word.
Jeremy waited in the shadows of the tiny parking garage while Simon dropped the phone down a sewer grating and ran down to the taxi stand to fetch a taxi. Five minutes later the cab pulled up in front of the parking garage and Jeremy slid out of the shadows and into the back seat with a quick economy of motion that minimized the time he spent exposed to Milan. "Malpensa, please, Terminal One arrivals," he said, and the driver grunted and swung out into traffic.
The ride out to the airport was long and passed mostly in silence. Simon stared resolutely out the window, watching Milan go byat some point in the past two weeks he'd learned to cope with the crazy drivers, a thought which gave him some pauseand Jeremy remained folded into his own seat, gazing quietly down at nothing. Once or twice during the trip he started to say something, stopped, and went silent again. Simon didn't bother to ask him what he'd been about to say.
Malpensa was lit up like a Christmas tree and crowded nearly to capacity. The driver let them off in front of one of the terminal entrances, accepted a folded bill from Jeremy with another grunt, and drove away. Without looking back at Simon Jeremy headed into the massive parking garage opposite the terminal. Simon followed.
Jeremy took the stairs up to the third floor, pausing at the top to look around before heading off into the rows of parked cars. He dipped one hand into his pocket and came out with a blocky black electronic key; pointing it in the general direction of the rest of the parking garage, he pushed one of the buttons. Somewhere off in the distance, one of the cars went mip-mip! in answer. "There we are," Jeremy said, heading that way.
Two more pauses and two more mip-mip!s later, they stood in front of one of the sweet little sports cars that Jeremy seemed to favor. This one was red and sleek and looked like nothing Simon had ever seen; a quick glance at the hood confirmed that it was, apparently, a Lotus. "Huh," Simon said, touching the car's side. "Elan?"
"Elise," Jeremy said, giving Simon a quick, distracted smile. He opened the door and slid into the driver's seat. "It's unlocked."
Simon wrestled with the passenger seat until it deigned to slide back and make room for his legs, then got in. "Where are we going?" he asked, buckling his seatbelt.
"A fair ways," Jeremy said, which was no answer at all.
Jeremy paid the car's parking fee and took them out of Malpensa at a measured and perfectly legal pace. Milan lay somewhere off to the south and east; after a brief jog to the west Jeremy headed almost directly north, quickly abandoning the highways and larger roads for the darkness of the countryside.
The minutes went by. The world went darker around them, trees and hills off in the distance. The road was empty both before and behind them, not another car in sight. "Hey," Simon finally said.
"Mm?" Jeremy said, eyes on the road. The expanse of a lake yawned off to their left, glittering faintly in the moonlight.
"So... why are you all, uh, back in black, to coin a phrase?" Simon asked, flapping a hand at Jeremy's ensemble. "I mean, that seems kind of unnecessarily dangerous."
Jeremy laughed under his breath, guiding the little Lotus over onto yet another smaller road. "Well, yes, it most likely is," he said. "But it's also something of a show of strength, if you will. If I were to show up in anything else, I would look, well. Less than perfectly confident, if you follow me. Like I was hiding who I was because I was afraid."
"Yeah, I follow you," Simon said. "I just also think that sounds kind of stupid. I mean, you've got half the goddamned Mafia after you"
"not the Mafia, Simon"
"I'd think that would make a person a little less than perfectly confident," Simon finished, stubbornly.
"Oh, it does." Jeremy was silent for a moment, watching the road. "It's just that now is not a good time to show it."
"Huh," said Simon. "Okay. It's your show."
"That it is," Jeremy said.
Twenty minutes later Jeremy pulled the car off the road and parked on the graveled shoulder, shutting off the engine. "Stay in the car, please," he said, unbuckling his seatbelt.
"Okay," Simon said, ducking his head to look out the window. Far, far in the distance he could see the headlights of rushing carsit looked like a highwaybut all around them was darkness. As his eyes got used to the darkness the shape of a small building slowly evolved out of the night, a few hundred feet away. It looked like a warehouse, or maybe a barn. Simon couldn't tell.
"I don't believe I should be more than half an hour," Jeremy said. "Roll down the windows. If I need you, I'll shout."
"Okay," Simon said again. He rolled down both his window and Jeremy's, then settled more comfortably into the passenger seat. "I'll wait here. I don't know where else I would go."
Jeremy glanced around, then huffed out a little laugh. "I don't know where you would go either," he said. "I'll be back shortly." He patted Simon's thigh and got out of the car, dropping the keys on the driver's seat before shutting his door and heading off, towards the warehouse or whatever that was. Dressed all in black like he was, the night swallowed him within three steps, leaving Simon completely alone.
Simon counted to a hundred, then picked up the keys and stuck them into his pocket. Gritting his teeth he eased the door handle up, holding the armrest tightly in his other hand; the latch disengaged with a soft and oddly meaty sound, the car door springing open less than half an inch. The dome light came on. Simon reached up and turned it off.
Simon slid out of the car and onto the gravel shoulder, shifting his weight slowly to keep the gravel from crunching underfoot. He nudged the door shut until it caught, then abandoned the car, taking exaggeratedly slow steps until he was off the gravel and into the grass.
The little building was too small to loomtoo small to do anything but huddle. Simon found a road about a hundred feet in and turned to follow it, his sneakers nearly silent on the cracked asphalt surface. Breathing slowly and shallowly through his open mouth Simon crept up on the building, pausing about twenty feet out to drop smoothly into a crouch.
A dim light burned inside, spilling out of the crack under the nearest door. The building itself was in sorry condition, Simon now saw, its unpainted sides heavily blotched with rust and dirt; around the corner from the door a bit of the metal siding had rusted away entirely, leaving a long jagged lace-edged hole eaten into the wall. Dotting his hands off the ground for balance, Simon edged up to it, following the light and, soon, the soothing sound of Jeremy's voice. Crouching to one side Simon put his cheek nearly against the wall, glancing sideways through the hole and into the building.
The light came from a guttering Coleman lantern that threw huge, ridiculous shadows out around itself in all directions. The flickering made it hard to see at first, but Simon persisted, and after a moment he grew used to it; the room leaped into being like a magic-eye poster.
"left him in the car," Jeremy was saying, his voice confident, pleasant, and calm. He was standing in the center of the warehouse with his hands thrown casually out to the sides, like it was entirely his own idea. "I'm here alone, as I promised."
The other man bared his teeth, his posture half aggression and half nerves. There was less than a hand's span of space between the two of them, the other man all up in Jeremy's face, andSimon frozehe had the muzzle of a small and ugly gun jammed so hard up into the underside of Jeremy's jaw that it had forced Jeremy's head up, leaving Jeremy speaking to the ceiling over the other man's head. "Oh, aye, I shoulda known yeh'd pull some kind of shady bullshit," Bran said venomously, his familiar lilting accent like a punch in the gut.
"Oh, Bran, don't be ridiculous," Jeremy said, gazing up at the metal roof of the ugly little warehouse. He had on that vague little smile of his, which was the same as no expression at all. "If I were trying to pull something shady, I wouldn't have told you he was there at all. I'm only starting like I mean to go on." He paused. "Which is to say, honestly."
Outside in the damp heat of the evening, Simon shuddered once and then froze again. Bran had his finger crooked over the trigger and was so obviously nerved up that his shoulders were quivering; in this state he was liable to paint the wall with Jeremy's brains if a car on the highway had a blowout. Or if Simon did anything at all, including cough.
Bran glared at Jeremy for a moment, then prodded him with the gun, forcing his head up a little higher. "Take off yer jacket," he said. "Slowly, mind."
Jeremy's hands drifted up, almost dreamlike in their slowness. "I'm unarmed, Bran," Jeremy said softly, curling his fingers around his lapels. "Just as I promised." His jacket slid off his shoulders, an inch at a time, and slithered gradually down his arms until it hung from his fingers. "I'm going to drop the jacket now," Jeremy said, his voice still soft. "There's not much in it, but I wouldn't like the sound to startle you."
"Bet y' wouldn't," Bran sneered. "All right, drop it, then, and I'll try not t' shoot yeh when yeh do."
"Much obliged," Jeremy murmured, shutting his eyes. His fingers uncurled and the jacket slipped from them, piling up around Jeremy's feet with a whisper. Jeremy's hands drifted back up, displaying his bare forearms for Bran (and Simon) to see. "There," Jeremy said, letting his eyes drift open again.
"All right," Bran said. He jerked his own chin back, studying Jeremy with an odd combination of loathing and newfound confidence. "Yer a fuckin' idiot, yeh ken."
Jeremy's hands curled slowly shut in mid-air, to either side of his face, but his expression didn't change at all. "Why?" he asked. "Because I trust you?"
"Trust me!" Bran cried, his voice cracking. "Trust me t' kill yeh, then! Have y' got any idea how much I hate yeh?"
"Oh, I rather think I do," Jeremy said. "Why'd you come, then?"
Bran's upper lip curled, baring his teeth. "'Cause y' got somethin' up your sleeve," he said. "Y' bunged me int' prison and then sprang me right back out again, and I won't be wanderin' around wonderin' what yer up to."
"Ah," Jeremy said, like that was at all reasonable. "And also I did promise you a perfectly ridiculous amount of money."
"Don't care about that," Bran promptly said, shoving the gun up until Jeremy made a little helpless choking sound.
Jeremy swallowedSimon could see his throat working from hereand waited until Bran's gun hand relaxed a bit. "In that case, what if I promised you that I could get you free of Viktor Karpol? How about that?"
Bran's eyes went wide, then narrow. "Y' don't know anything about it"
"No," Jeremy breathed, so softly that Bran automatically quieted just to make out what he was saying. "That's true. I don't know why you originally agreed to work for Karpol, or why you allowed yourself to be chained to such a punishing schedule, or anything. But I do know that I can get you free, if you'll only work with me."
"Work with yeh!" Bran nearly spat the words, his face twisting in automatic revulsion. His hand danced the sign of the Cross over his chest, his knuckles brushing against Jeremy's chest in passing. If he knew he was doing it, he gave no sign. "Shows what yeh know, y' fuckin' wee faggot! Whatever yeh've got in mind, y' can just forget all about ithe'd never stop lookin' for me a day in his life, and he's got eyes in damn near ever' country"
Jeremy let his eyes drift closed. Incredibly, his little smile widened. "He wouldn't if he thought you were dead," he said.
"Oh, yeah, what're yeh gonna do, invite him to my funeral?"
"Agree to help me, and I'll tell you," said Jeremy.
"Fuck yeh!" Bran twisted his wrist upwards, the muzzle of the gun dimpling the soft skin under Jeremy's jaw. "And even if I was 'dead'" the word came out sounding like deid "what am I supposed t' do for money? Can't bloody well work for a livin' if word might get back, yeah?"
"Well, you see, that's the thing," Jeremy said. Bran subsided into a sullen, angry silence and Jeremy went silent with him, and for a moment the world was so quiet that Simon could hear them both breathing. "I need you, Bran," Jeremy finally said, cajoling and soft. "I can't do it without you. But neither of us work for free, do we, and no one knows better than I do what your skills are worth."
For a long moment, Bran was silent, watching Jeremy through eyes that were no wider than slits. "Yeah?" he finally asked, unwillingly dragging out the word. "How much are y' plannin' on payin' me, then?"
Jeremy's eyes drifted open, nearly black in the flickering lamplight. His little smile was soft and oddly sure. "I'd pay you approximately seventeen million pounds," he said. "In legal, laundered, tax-free funds, to boot."
The sheer idiotic size of the figure startled both Bran and Simon into shocked and gaping silence. Jeremy's smile only widened, his fingers flexing absently in mid-air. "With that much money at your fingertips, you'd never have to work again if you so chose," he said. "You could lay as low as you liked. Karpol could go on thinking you dead for the rest of his life."
Bran came to before Simon could, shaking his head violently to snap himself out of it. "Oh, yeah, so y' say," he said. "Where's this money comin' from, then?"
"I own a thriving gemstone-import business under the name of St. John Thawte," Jeremy said. "All perfectly legal and aboveboard, privately held, and the company's assets were worth slightly over seventeen million pounds at the close of the business day two weeks ago. Mr. Thawte is an absentee owner, however, and none of his current employees have ever seen him." Jeremy paused there, rolled his hands into loose fists once more, and cleared his throat, the skin of it working around the muzzle of the gun. "The company's yours if you can present certain documents along with an ID and papers that identify you as St. John Thawte. Help me, and the documents are yours."
Bran snarledthe sound had a touch of desperation to it nowand ground the gun up into Jeremy's jaw. "Yer havin' me on! Why should I believe that buncha hooey"
"You don't have to believe me," Jeremy said. "I can prove it to you."
"Yeah? All right, yer so smart, yeh go on and prove it, then."
Jeremy hesitated, his little smile going wry. "I'm afraid I'll need my cell phone," he said, his voice apologetic. "It's in my jacket."
Gun still jammed up under Jeremy's jaw, Bran glanced sideways down at the jacket on the floor, then curled his lip in disgust. "Guess y' got a problem, then," he said. "'Cause I won't be pullin' the gun away, will I now?"
"That's easily enough solved," Jeremy said. His hands strayed down an inch or so, the little motion exaggeratedly slow. "Come down with me. It ought to be child's play for the both of us, oughtn't it?"
Bran studied Jeremy's face, pure and simple curiosity warring with old hatred in his expression. "Slowly, mind," he finally said. "Y' start jerkin' about and I can't guarantee what'll happen."
"Oh, yes," Jeremy said. "Slowly. Of course." His arms drifting out for balance, Jeremy lowered himself towards the floor, floating down onto one knee with a slow and easy grace that entirely belied the gun still thrust up under his jaw. Bran went with him, equally slow, equally easy, for a moment Jeremy's shadow in almost every way... after a slow and breathless eternity they knelt opposite one another on the dirty concrete floor, so close as to be breathing each other's air, Bran's free hand on Jeremy's knee for balance. "I'm picking up my jacket now," Jeremy said softly against Bran's cheek. His hands wafted down like falling leaves.
"Yeah," Bran said, equally softly. Jeremy's hands landed on the material of his jacket and curled into it, lifting the jacket up and off the floor. He brought it around in front of himself and reached inside the pocket"Slowly," Bran rasped, nudging the gun up in warning.
"Slowly," Jeremy agreed, his voice now a bare and soothing whisper. To Simon, still frozen outside, it seemed that his hand didn't move for close to a minute, and the eventual production of the silver phone from the black of the jacket looked like a magic trick. "I'm going to drop my jacket again," Jeremy added.
"Right," said Bran.
Jeremy let the jacket fall back onto the concrete without a second thought. Cell phone in hand he rose again, bringing Bran with him, like some sort of weird and courtly dance; once they were both upright again Jeremy lifted the cell phone, bringing it up to the level of their faces. "I'm going to open the phone now," he said. "I'll call a number and put it on speaker, so that we both can hear."
"Just do it already," Bran snapped, the enforced languidness of the past few minutes finally getting to him.
Jeremy shut his eyes and flipped the phone open with his thumb. "All right," he said. Without looking away from Branor, at least, without looking away from the space slightly over the top of Bran's headJeremy punched a number into the phone's keypad, blindly hitting the buttons. The phone clicked and connected; the sound of the phone on the other end of the line ringing carried clearly over the speaker both to Bran and to Simon, outside.
After two rings, someone picked up the phone. "Jeremy," Ethan said, his voice grave and entirely unmistakable.
Outside in the dark Simon exhaled slowly through his open mouth. Bran, for his part, winced like he'd been hit, his little breathless 'huh!' just barely audible; Jeremy glanced down at Bran, then away again. "Ethan," he said, sounding just as calm as if there weren't a gun forcing his jaw half-shut. "Would you please tell me what I asked you to do yesterday?"
"Of course," Ethan said, his disembodied voice metallic and flat with distance. He paused, papers rustling. "You asked me to access one of your safety-deposit boxes and fetch out the papers in the folder marked 'Thawte Gemstone Importers, Ltd.St. John Thawte'. I have those here. You also asked me to have Teddy begin preparing the best possible set of identity papers under that name, under the assumption that pictures were to be taken later. I've done so. Teddy is working on them as we speak." Ethan paused again. "Is that all?"
"Yes, Ethan. That's all." Jeremy glanced down at Bran again. "I'll speak to you again later."
"Very well," said Ethan. The papers rustled again. "I'll be waiting for your call."
Jeremy flipped his phone closed, severing the connection. Bran was absolutely silent, his mouth half-open, shock and outright pain predominant on his face; Jeremy closed his hand about his phone and let it drift back down, his hands once again held out to either side. "You see?" he said. "Ethan will give you those papers and the identity if I tell him to do so, and then the money is yours."
"Yeh..." Bran stopped and swallowed, his eyes narrowing. "Y' did that on purpose, yeh bastard..."
"I suppose it would be useless to deny it," Jeremy said. "You may not trust me, Bran, but there's no one in the world whom you and I both trust more than Ethan."
Bran's snarl was reflexive and desperate. "I'm not going to"
"You don't have to," said Jeremy. "If you insist, you can meet with Teddy on your own and have Ethan mail you the papers. You needn't lay an eye on him if you can't handle it."
Thwarted, Bran went silent, glaring at Jeremy with renewed loathing. His shoulders were still as taut as wire; with lunatic concentration he began grinding the barrel of the gun up into Jeremy's jaw, driving Jeremy's head back and marking the flesh there. Jeremy's eyes narrowed slightly, the only outwards sign of what must have been pain. "What do you say, Bran?" he asked, his voice still impressively even. "Will you help me? In exchange for my getting you free of Karpol and paying you somewhat upwards of seventeen million pounds?" When Bran did not answer, only bared his teeth and continued bruising Jeremy's jaw, Jeremy shut his eyes and dropped his voice to a low and confident murmur that only barely carried to Simon. "I need you, Irish," he breathed. "Help me now and I swear it's the last time you'll ever have to see me."
"Hah," Bran spat. "Fuckin' likely." The gun stopped moving and pulled back maybe half an inch, leaving a ring of reddened skin printed neatly on the underside of Jeremy's chin. Bran considered Jeremy in silence for a moment, then sneered at him, something like triumph lighting in his eyes. "Yeh want my help that bad?" he asked, a sudden, taunting, sing-song note in his voice. "Yeh want it that bad, yeh can blow me, too. Right here and now, on yer knees, yeh want it that bad."
Outside, Simon jerked back, then bared his teeth and ground one white-knuckled fist hard against the flesh of his thigh to keep from snarling. For a moment Jeremy was quiet, not quite looking at Bran's crazy, gloating face; then he closed his eyes and laughed, a low and weirdly intimate sound. "Oh, Bran," he said, still laughing just a bit. "Did you actually think that demand would even slow me down? Me?" They were less than a hand's width apart and Jeremy's hand drifted across that gap, drawing two fingers up along the obvious shape outlined against the front of Bran's pants.
Bran nearly folded in half in his terrified haste to get away from that hand. Wheezing like Jeremy had punched him in the stomach, Bran whipped away so fast that Simon barely saw him move at all, only registered that suddenly he was four feet away with the gun pointed at Jeremy's face instead of jammed up under his jaw; Jeremy lowered his head for the first time and met Bran's eyes across the newly-formed gap. He was smiling. "I'll do it, you know," he said. "If that's what it'll take."
"Fuck yeh," Bran said shakily, his eyes wide and rolling like a spooked horse's. "Fuckin' nasty arsebandit, yeh'd like that, wouldn't yeh." He yanked the gun off Jeremy and shoved it into the thigh pocket of his battered cargo pants, then scrubbed his hands together like he was washing them clean of invisible filth. "All right, fuck yeh, I'll help yeh, just don't fuckin' well touch me again, yeh filthy bastard."
"Thank you, Bran," Jeremy said, apparently wholly pleased. He leaned down and picked up his jacket, shaking off the worst of the dust before shrugging back into it and putting his cell phone away.
Simon hesitated for a moment, then rolled back half a step and eased away from the building, not daring to rise to his feet until he was a good twenty feet away. There was just enough moon to light his way as he groped his way back to the car; his heart was still thudding along when he got there, though, leaving him disinclined to get back in. Instead he leaned against the car's side and folded his arms across his chest, staring up at the stars.
Twelve minutes later by Simon's watch, Jeremy melted out of the darkness a few feet away from the car. He was wearing that small and meaningless little smile again, his hands stuffed casually into his pants pockets, not a hair on his head out of place. "Well, then, that's that," Jeremy said. "I'm sorry that took so longI do hope you weren't too worried."
Simon ran a hand down his face with a long, drawn-out scratchy sound. "You know what," he said, "let's just not even pretend that I didn't follow you and see most of that."
Jeremy was silent for a long, long minute, most of his casual attitude leaching away. "Ah," he finally said. "How much of it did you see?"
"Enough," said Simon. "More than enough. Jesus."
"You know, I rather thought my sixth sense was trying to tell me something, but I honestly thought you'd keep your word and stay in the car," Jeremy said, looking away. "Ah, well. I suppose I ought to be angry with you, but at the moment, I'm only glad to have an excuse to ask you to drive us back."
Simon nodded, even the opportunity to drive one of Jeremy's expensive and zippy little cars failing to distract him overmuch. "Yeah," he said, pulling the Lotus' keys out of his front pocket. "I'll drive, that's fine."
Jeremy smiled, quickly and unconvincingly, and went around to get into the passenger's seat. Simon adjusted the driver's seat and folded himself into the tiny car, fiddling with the mirrors and adjusting the tilt of the steering wheel; Jeremy waited patiently, gazing out of the side window and into the night. "On further thought," Jeremy said, "I suppose I'm not surprised. It seems very... Simon of you, to have followed me despite everything, including your promise."
"Yeah, well, if there's one thing I'm awesome at, it's being myself," Simon said, slotting the key into the ignition. He buckled his seatbelt, put his hands on the wheel, paused, and added, "How'd you know he wasn't serious about it?"
"About blowing him," Simon made himself say, an echo of that impotent rage boiling up again. "How'd you know he didn't mean it?"
"Ah." Jeremy put on his own seatbelt, fussing with the shoulder belt until it lay just so over his chest.
After three or four sick seconds, Simon said, "You didn't know, did you."
"He was raised in the Catholic church in accordance with his family's wishes," Jeremy said, maintaining his breezy tone only through obvious effort. "It's not a religion that sits easily with his, ah, preferences. So I suppose you could say that I didn't know for certainbut I hoped."
"Would youno. Never mind. It doesn't matter." Simon started the little car, its engine roaring eagerly to life. "I probably don't want to hear the answer anyway."
Jeremy fished around inside his jacket and came out with the little square silver case, extracting a cigarette and his battered metal lighter. Poking the cigarette into his mouth, he put the case away and flicked the lighter's wheel. "No, probably not," he said quietly, trying and failing to light his cigarette, his hands shaking so badly around the lighter that they snuffed out the flame.
Drifting towards wakefulness the next morning, Simon slowly became aware of a constant and warm weight pinning his arm to the bed, a sensation so utterly novel that he woke up the rest of the way just to investigate it.
Jeremy was still asleep, his head resting on Simon's bicep, one of his own hands curled catlike in front of his face. Simon lifted his head from the pillow and blinked foggily down at Jeremy, trying to recall if he'd ever seen this before. He was pretty sure that he hadn't: Jeremy's habit of being awake and dressed before Simon woke up was so thoroughly ingrained that even last year's concussion hadn't broken him of it. Of course, after yesterday...
Jeremy had a mild case of bedhead going on, which just about doubled the weirdness factor. Simon reached up and pushed a bit of Jeremy's hair back into place. Jeremy's forehead creased slightly, the cadence of his breath changing; Simon went still.
Still mostly asleep, Jeremy ran his fingers through his hair and then draped that arm over his hip. His breathing and face both smoothed out again. Asleep, his face lost most of its expression and all of its animation; the skin around his deep-set eyes looked lightly bruised, as did the corner of his mouth. And under his chin there was a shadow
Simon nudged Jeremy's chin up with his thumb, the better to see. The bruise nestled in between the twin curves of Jeremy's jawbone was large and vaguely circular, dark red starting to shade to purple; there was a tiny patch of unbruised skin in the center, turning the circle into a fat ring. The bruise on Simon's hand, in contrast, had faded to ugly yellows and browns, only tiny dots of purple remaining. Simon put his hand on the side of Jeremy's throat to compare, then stroked his thumb up over the ring of bruised skin.
Jeremy's eyes fluttered open and focused, but otherwise, he didn't move. Simon glanced up at him, then back down at the bruise. "Yeah, that's attractive," Simon grated out, his voice still thick with sleep.
"Mm," Jeremy said, lifting his chin a little more. His eyes drifted half-closed, leaving him watching Simon from under his lowered lashes.
Nudged by some instinct older than he was Simon leaned down and put his mouth on the bruise, making Jeremy hiss in surprise and catch his arm; the bruised skin was strangely warm, nearly hot, like it was feverish. Simon shut his eyes and ran his tongue over that weird heat, then woke up a little further and wondered what the hell he was doing. "Dibs on the shower," he said, pulling back as casually as he could.
"Fair enough," Jeremy said after a moment, lifting his head to free Simon's arm.
Having gotten off to a weird start, the day showed no inclination to get back to normal. Firmly back in his anonymous beige and white Jeremy attempted to carry on like usual, but the bruise under his jaw tugged at Simon's eye every time Jeremy moved his head, reminding Simon of just how dangerousand how weirdeverything had gotten. As a result, Simon kept losing track of the conversation. "What?" he said, looking up in confusion.
"I asked if you were planning to stare at it all day," Jeremy said, patiently, lifting his chin as if to give Simon a better look at the ring of bruised skin.
"Oh." Simon coughed and looked away. "I guess so, huh?"
Jeremy touched the backs of his fingers to the bruise, frowning. "I suppose there's no covering it without makeup."
"Have you got makeup?"
"Not with me," Jeremy said, letting his hand drop. "And I dislike the stuff in any case. Although I'll admit it does have its uses."
"Oh yeah," Simon said. Helpless to resist, he added, "It brings out your eyes and accentuates your lashes, for one thing."
Jeremy raised one eyebrow. "Spoken like a man who knows."
"Eh, I only know what I read in magazines," Simon said. "So! What's the plan?"
After a long and thoughtful moment, Jeremy shrugged and let the subject drop. "Bran's fetching something for me. It'll likely take him a day or two to lay hands on it, so..."
Bran's name made Simon grind his teeth, a fact which he manfully tried to hide. "So," he repeated. "So what?"
"So right now it's a question of acquiring certain things in advance of the day," Jeremy said. "What we ought to do now is check out of this hotel and carry all our things over to the suite. We can discuss things there, as a group."
"Right," Simon said, pushing his chair back and standing up. "Sounds like a good idea. In that case, I'll go summon our Mike-ly steed." He slid around the side of the table, heading for the phone; as he went by Jeremy reached out and trailed his fingers over Simon's hip. Simon crashed to a stop. "What?"
"Mm? Nothing," Jeremy said, letting his hand drop. The smile he offered Simon was entirely opaque.
Sandra read down the list in her hands, frowning, then flipped over to the pictures. "Well, no, none of this should be a problem," she said. "I know most everybody's sizes."
"Excellent," Jeremy said, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees, his eyes gleaming. "Mind you, no one will be looking too closely at the bottom layer of clothing, so you've plenty of leewayand as for the more iconic items, I've contacts who'll be acquiring them for us."
In direct contrast to his languid manner of the morning, Jeremy had been bristling with excess energy ever since they'd arrived at the suite; the sheer force of his sudden personality shift had kept anyone from asking about the bruise under his chin, although Simon had seen most of them notice it. Jeremy's eyes flicked over the room, taking them all in. "All right, then, next question," he said. "I need someone who can shout a fair amount of memorized Italian without a noticeable accent. Who here is best with languages?"
Half the people in the room pointed at Mike, including Mike, who pointed at himself with both hands for emphasis. "Man, I am so good at accents, you have no idea," Mike said, letting his hands drop again. "I am way totally a man of all ethnicities."
"Despite the impression he may have given you over the years, he really can be counted on," Simon put in.
"Good to know," Jeremy said, controlling his little smile. "I'll put you in contact with your language coach in a couple of days, then."
Mike perked up. "Is she hot?"
"Yes, Archer, is she hot?" Sandra asked, still consulting the little file of pictures.
"I suppose it depends on your definition of 'hot'," Jeremy said. "Also, on your definition of 'she'."
"Aw, man," Mike said, slumping back in his seat.
Jeremy switched his assessing gaze over to Johnny, his smile fading again. "Tell me," Jeremy said, "if I can secure you access to a machine shop, can you reload your own ammunition?"
"Whoa," Simon said, sitting up. "Whoa. Whoa."
"Yep," Johnny said, paying no attention to Simon at all. "Need brass, though."
"Of course, you'd just have to let me know what you'd need"
"Why does no one ever listen to me when I say 'whoa'?" Simon asked Sandra, aggrieved.
Sandra glanced up. "I don't know," she said, "but as interim team leader I officially hate you for not having previously put a stop to this behavior."
Having found no sympathy on that side of the room, Simon glanced to the other side. "Why do I have to take so much lip from you people?"
"What?" said Dave, blinking. Simon subsided, entirely thwarted.
Jeremy coughed. "Actually," he said, "the reason that I ask is that I find myself in need of a large number of blank cartridges. They're nearly impossible to get hold of in this country without leaving a hellacious paper trail."
"Not blanks," Johnny said.
Jeremy blinked. "No?"
"You want to fire a gun without killin' anybody? That it?"
"Not blanks," Johnny said. "Wax bullets. Works better."
Jeremy held up both hands in surrender. "That I'll leave up to your discretion. I'm sure you know more about the subject than I do."
"Probably," Johnny said.
"That's settled, then," Jeremy said. He let his hands drop. His eyes darted swiftly left, catching Simon's for just a moment before Jeremy put on his most innocent smile and turned to Nate. "So, let us say for the sake of argument that I wanted to blow up a building"
"Whoa!" said Simon, jerking upright again.
Eventually the meeting, such as it was, broke up. Nate and Dave retreated to the minibar, Nate already scribbling on a legal pad and chewing on his lower lip. Sandra found a pen somewhere and started making notes, referring to the photographs every few minutes. Johnny spent a few moments in intense consultation with Jeremy, then announced, "Gotta go back up to that firin' range, scavenge our brass. Honda, you up?"
"Yeah, sure," Mike said, hopping up. Alone amongst Simon's teammates, he was at a loss for something to do. "Can we shoot some more shit while we're there?"
"Plan," said Johnny. He took a look around the room while he fished a toothpick out of his shirt pocket. "Anybody else comin'?"
Sandra looked at Jeremy. Jeremy shrugged. Sandra looked back at Johnny. "I'll come," she said. "I can do this shopping tomorrow."
"Anybody else?" Johnny asked. "Boss? You bored enough to come?"
"Bored? Me? Nah," Simon said. "I'm totally looking forward to spending a couple of hours doing absolutely nothing. As you guys can see by the muzzle-shaped bruise under Archer's chin, every time I acknowledge that I'm bored, the universe decides to sucker-punch me just for maximum irony points."
Every conversation within earshot died away. As one the members of Simon's team looked over at Jeremy, who turned a completely blank gaze on Simon. Simon, relatively content with his petty revenge, settled further back in his chair and got comfortable. "Guess what," he added. "The guy who gave him that is theoretically on our side."
"You'll note that he didn't actually shoot me," Jeremy said, his voice noticeably cool. "He just needed to assert himself a bit."
"Guess he did that," Simon said.
Jeremy's habitual little smile was nowhere in evidence. Instead, his face was utterly blank, almost serene in its lack of expression; mentally, Simon braced for impact. "Oh, come along, Simon," Jeremy said, his voice ever so slightly sharp under its bland pleasantness. "You may as well drop the other bomb while you're about it. Go ahead. Tell them who it is."
"Well, since you asked so nicely," Simon said, nettled. "You folks remember once upon a time when we were chasing after some guy who was pretty much Archer's exact double? And later we found out that that was because he was Archer's foster brother, who also, coincidentally, hated his ass like poison?"
"It's true," Jeremy said. "Bran and I have... come to terms, I suppose you could say."
Sandra's head came up as she picked up on the obvious problem posed by Bran's involvement, which Simon had been expecting. "I thought he despised you," she said. "Why is he so willing to work with you now?"
"Self-interest," Jeremy said flatly. "He has almost as much to fear from Karpol as I do. More, perhaps. If he helps me now, I've assured him that he'll end the day with Karpol off his back and enough money to keep it that way."
"Ah," Sandra said, looking unconvinced.
"Let me put it this way," said Jeremy. "I've bought him. He'll stay bought."
Sandra hesitated. "Ah," she said again, sounding a little more convinced this time.
"And if it makes you feel any better, I don't intend for your paths to ever crossexcept once, for approximately ten seconds," Jeremy said. "I'll tell him nothing he doesn't need to know." He paused there, looking around the room, meeting everyone's eyes in turn; then he smiled and shook his head. "I trust him, but I see no reason why the rest of you should have to."
"I suppose that's fair," Sandra said. She still didn't look entirely convinced, but she'd run out of handy protests. "Are you sure this is a good idea?"
Jeremy's nod was immediate and definite. "Absolutely," he said. "For several reasons. And, well." Jeremy shrugged. "He is my brother."
"Among other things," Simon muttered, too softly for anyone else to catch.
Jeremy vanished into the back bedroom with both of the techs, Nate already beginning to say really uncomfortable words like blasting caps and accelerant and C4, Dave just tagging along out of curiosity. The rest of the team packed up their guns and left, heading out to the creepy abandoned farm where they'd done their shooting last week.
Simon settled into his chair and listened to the conversation coming from the back bedroom with half an ear. Eventually he started to hear slightly less uncomfortable words, like don't actually want anyone to be hurt and give them plenty of time to escape; Nate's side of the conversation got so technical after that that Simon tuned it out.
Sighing, he let his eyes unfocus, flexing his hands against his thighs. Foremost in his mind was that petty, balked irritation, and underneath that, a pervasive sense of unease. Simon half-shut his eyes and banished first the irritation and then as much of the unease as possible, letting his mind go empty. He was out of his depth and not in control of anythingChrist, but he hated not being the one in control of thingsbut that was no reason to stop using his brain.
So. Simon spread his hands out. The only person in this room who trusted Bran at all was Jeremy, but in a sense, Jeremy was the only one who had to. Even if Bran did attempt to sell Jeremy outwhich Simon wouldn't put past the crazy bastardSimon and his team wouldn't be caught in the crossfire that would result. So: if Jeremy wanted to place his trust in a crazy bastard, it was his business.
A stray memory drifted to the top of Simon's emptied mind: Jeremy saying Bran's fetching something for me. A day or two, Jeremy had said. It seemed to Simon to be a fair barometer of Bran's mental health. If the item in question (whatever it was) simply failed to show up, then Bran was wisely distancing himself from the whole matter, and Jeremy would just have to think of a different, less crazy plan. If the item showed up, then either Bran was on the level or Bran was following his revenge trip all the wayand if Bran were really out for revenge, he'd just have shot Jeremy yesterday and called it done. None of this was terribly helpful, but it was interesting. Simon resolved not to worry about Bran's intentions until after he'd given or failed to give Jeremy whatever it was.
The rest of the plan was... only marginally insane, except for the part where it relied on Bran, who was insane. If everything went according to plan, then it would actually be significantly less dangerous than rescuing Annabelle had been. Of course, Simon was far, far too canny to think that everything would go according to plan. Still, even if everything went to shit, his team would be safe, and he would be safe, if, perhaps, feeling a little guilty. He prodded at this feeling for a moment and decided that it was acceptable: he was here, doing everything that Jeremy asked him to do. If something happened to Jeremy now, it would still be Simon's fault, but Simon would rest secure in the knowledge that he'd done everything he could to prevent it.
Simon sighed out a breath and shut his eyes, letting his head fall back. That bone-deep sense of unease still pulled at him, but he was able to deny it, for the most part. Jeremy's pleasant English voice hummed just above the threshold of Simon's hearing, too soft for Simon to make out any of the words; Simon dozed off still listening to it, his hands folded loosely in his lap.
"Can you see?" Jeremy said some unknown amount of time later, waking Simon from his impromptu nap.
Simon lifted his head and blinked groggily. Jeremy was standing behind the chair opposite Simon's with his arms crossed on its back, regarding Simon coolly through the opaque black glass of his high-tech goggles. When Jeremy wore his usual all-black getup, the goggles looked appropriate, possibly even necessary to the look; against the backdrop of Jeremy incognito, however, they looked nothing short of ridiculous. "See what?" Simon said, blinking again.
"Yeah, I see it, it's working!" Nate called from the room behind Simon. He sounded excited, like a kid with a new toy. "Looks like you woke up Templarwave for the camera, Templar!"
"What?" Simon said again, pushing himself up. Jeremy's little smile turned self-deprecating, and he tapped one finger against his temple. Simon scowled at him. "You've got a camera in there too?"
"Not a very good one," Jeremy said. "But, yes, I've a pinhole camera in the right lens, and a small radio transceiver back near the ear. I hardly ever use them because I tend to work alone."
Simon eyed the mirrored oblong askance. Its surface was not forthcoming, and Jeremy's eyes were entirely hidden behind it. "Hey, Specs," Simon finally said, raising a hand.
"Hey, Templar!" Nate said from behind him, way too amused. "Isn't this great? I can see and hear what Jeremy's doing fromum, actually, what did you say the range was?"
Jeremy turned his head, scanning the room with those sci-fi goggles. "I've only ever tested it up to about a quarter of a mile," he said. "I'm sure the range is greater."
"Oh," Nate said, vaguely dejected. "That's not really all that far. We'd better test the range before we do this for real."
"Ah, well, I'm sorry to have disappointed you," Jeremy said. The opaque shield of his goggles scanned back across the room, moving over Simon without stopping.
Simon watched him do it, considering. "So," he said, thoughtfully. "In theory Nate can now see and hear what you're doing from halfway around the world."
"Mm?" The goggles turned back in his direction. "Yes, that's the idea."
Simon shook his head in wonder. "Man. Think of how happy Scotland Yard is going to be when I get Nate to hand them the number of that frequency. Bet there's a commendation in there for me."
Jeremy's head stilled. "Mm. Good point. I shall have to change the frequency I'm using once we're out of this mess."
"Aw, Templar! Why'd you have to go and say anything?" Nate said, hurt.
Two days later, when Simon stopped by the newsstand to pick up a couple of newspapers and Jeremy's messages, the counterman pushed across not a briefcase, but a small and battered paper bag. "Now more people come, also delivering messages," he said, grumpy. "I am not a post office."
Simon, his senses on full alert, picked up the bag and peeked inside. The bag contained a locked metal cashbox, of the kind found at any office-supply store, and no key. Thwarted, Simon rolled the top of the bag shut again. "Yeah, I don't know," he said. "I'm pretty sure this one was just a one-time thing, but I guess you never know."
The counterman grunted, picking up the little pile of Simon's newspapers and starting to ring them up. "Hey," Simon said, after a moment. "The guy that dropped this offwhat did he look like?"
"The guy who dropped this off." Simon waved the bag. "Was he a pale guy, kinda blond hair, pissy expression?" Simon mimicked Bran's habitual scowl as best he could.
The description rang no bells with the counterman, but the scowl made his eyes light with recognition. "Yes," he said, pointing at Simon. "Like that."
"Awesome," Simon said. "Just curious." Fishing out his wallet, Simon picked a fifty-euro bill from among its contents and pushed it across the counter. "Keep the change," he said. Hey, it wasn't his money.
"Your best friend sent you a birthday present," Simon announced, once he was safely back inside the hotel room and the door was shut. It was a slightly nicer hotel than the last one, but only just; in Simon's near-expert opinion on these matters, only the truly astonishing breasts sported by the desk clerk made this hotel in any way memorable.
Jeremy raised both eyebrows and accepted the bag from Simon. "Well," he said. "That was quick."
"He didn't send the key, though," Simon added, putting the newspapers down on the table. "Guess that would have been too mannerly of him."
Jeremy slid the cashbox out of the paper bag and turned it over in his hands. Whatever was inside made a clunking sound. "Why on earth would I need the key?" he asked, distracted. "Sending the key along only ensures that anyone can open it. That's hardly the point."
"Okay, point," said Simon. "So what's in there? Knowing Bran, it's probably a bomb."
The box stilled in Jeremy's hands, which gave Simon a small and mean little burst of pleasure. "I certainly hope not," Jeremy said, after a moment.
"Well, yeah, I hope not too, but doesn't he have IRA affiliations? Seriously. It's a bomb. Don't shake it."
"Mm." Jeremy turned the box over again, frowning. "Actually, I suppose that, in a sense, you're correct."
"Now you're just trying to scare me," Simon declared, pulling out his phone. "I'm going to check my messages."
"All right," Jeremy said. He put the cashbox on the table and went to poke around in his suitcase.
Simon threw himself on the bed and called his regular cell phone. Checking his messages like this had become second nature to him, not least of all because it always went the same way: Simon called his phone, negotiated with the menus, learned that he had no messages, and hung up. It shouldn't have been a surprise. The only people who called him on a regular basis were his teammates, his boss, and his boss' secretary, and his teammates had better ways to get in touch with him.
Neither Upstairs nor Danielle had called since Simon had been suspended. Simon didn't like to think about that. If he weren't in Italy he'd call Danielle and try to get a sense of what was going onin a way, it was good that he was here, because bugging Danielle could only be counter-productive. It wasn't like Upstairs had forgotten him. Christ, if anything, it was the opposite.
Simon keyed in his passcode and waited for the nice automated lady to tell him he had no messages. "You have... one... new message," she said instead, much less surprised by this than Simon himself was. "Message one. Tuesday, June 30, 8... 43... PM."
Simon waited, his stomach all in a clutch. If it was Upstairsinstead, it was just about the last person Simon had been expecting to hear from. "Mr. Drake," Dorothy Langridge said, her voice clipped and cool. "Because I have apparently gone soft in the head, I am calling of my own volition to inform you that whatever your freelancer has just done has caused an immense uproar back in the mother country. There are some heavy hitters en route to somewhere in Italythese are mop-up artists, Mr. Drake. If you have any way of contacting your freelancer, tell him to leave the country, or failing that, to be very careful." There was a brief pause, and then Langridge huffed out an irritated breath. "This has been my one display of altruism for the year, Mr. Drake. I hope you'll appreciate it, but I doubt you have the brains or the manners to do so." Her phone rattled in his ear.
The automated menu lady came back, pleasant and anonymous. Numbly Simon negotiated his way through the menus, deleting Langridge's message and dropping the connection. Suddenly and for no good reason the phone felt explosive in his hands; Simon held the power button down until the phone shut itself off, then snapped the phone shut and dropped it onto the bed.
"Is there a problem?" Jeremy asked.
Simon looked up. Jeremy had a pair of strange little hooked metal tools in his hands and the cashbox on the table in front of himself, but for the time being he wasn't doing anything with any of them; instead he was watching Simon, intent. "Yeah, maybe," Simon forced himself to say, rubbing a hand down his face.
A thrum of energy ran through Jeremy like electricity, pulling him upright. "Do you need to go home?" Jeremy asked, putting down his tools. "I can have you on a plane in an hour, if need be"
"No," Simon said. "No, it's not that kind of problem. It's not really about me at all."
Jeremy hesitated, still taut with anticipation. "What is it, then?" he asked.
Simon blew out a breath. "That was someone who's hooked into our Russian friend's computer network. Apparently Volpe's little fuckup at the opera caused a shitstorm to go down, and there are some big-time hitters on the way down to, uh, mop you up, as it were."
The news wiped Jeremy's face clean and left it blank. "I see." He looked down at the little cashbox, then started picking up his tools and putting them back in their little leather case. "In that case, I believe that the time has come to leave Milan," he said, his voice brisk. "Wouldn't you say?"
"Can we do that?" Simon asked. "I mean, is there any reason we need to stay?"
"None beyond convenience, now that Annabelle is safe," Jeremy said. He put the leather case back into his suitcase, followed by the unopened cashbox. "Call your friends," he said. "Tell them to pack their things and get ready to go. I'd like to be underway within the hour."
"Sandy says to tell you that they'll be ready to go by the time we get back," Mike said, pretty much the instant that Simon slid into the back seat of the car. "I just gotta turn this car in and get some kind of van. Otherwise I can't take all of us plus our stuff, and I think Nate would totally cry if he were parted from that monitor."
"All right," Jeremy said. "I'd like you to take us into town and drop us off a block or so away from the newsstand. Once you have the van, come back and pick us up. I need to put a few things in motion."
Mike put the car in gear and bumped on out of the parking lot, melding seamlessly with the chaos of traffic. "Will do," he said, checking the rearview mirror. "Shouldn't be more than, uh, forty-five minutes, an hour."
Simon settled back and dispassionately watched the Milan traffic go by. It was funny how it didn't look quite as insane as it had at first. Mike drifted through it like an old pro, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel and occasionally snickering as someone behind him went insane with horn-honking fury; on the other side of the car Jeremy pulled his hat down to shade his eyes and looked down at the seat between them, hiding his face from the casual scrutiny of passersby. His hands were folded neatly in his lap, andSimon checkednot white-knuckled in the slightest. Jeremy's relative calm was contagious. Simon's own sense of hyperalertness faded.
"Oh, hey, I meant to ask," Mike said, startling Simon. "What about the taxi? Do I just leave it there or what?"
Jeremy glanced up, then back down. "Yes, that should be fine," he said. "I'll tell its owner where to find it once we're safely out of the hotel." He paused. His forehead creased and then cleared again. "I don't believe we'll be needing it again, no," he said, with an air of finality.
"Kay-o," Mike said. A tiny space opened up in the lane to his left and he wedged the car into it, whistling tunelessly under his breath to drown out the yelling.
Mike dropped them off a good two blocks away from the newsstand and screeched back off into traffic. Jeremy made for the dubious shelter of a building overhang with alacrity; Simon looked around, ascertained that he did, in fact, know where they were, and then followed, tugging the Redskins cap down over his eyes. "What's up?" he asked, carefully putting himself between Jeremy and most of the traffic.
Jeremy gave his human shield a distracted smile and reached into his jacket. Paper crinkled under his fingers. Jeremy shut his eyes, nodded, and pulled his hand back out. "Will you do me a favor?" he asked.
"Sure," Simon said, a little thrill of nerves making the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.
Jeremy nodded across the street. "Go over there," he said. "Walk by the newsstand and make sure everything looks normal. Don't go near it, just walk by and then come back. I'll wait here."
"Yeah," Simon said. He glanced across the street, then said it again. "Yeah." His mind already largely occupied with the reconnaissance ahead, he patted Jeremy's shoulder, then stepped back and lost himself in the traffic. The hordes of Milanese pedestrians gave way for him only grudgingly, but eventually he was swallowed up by the crowd. The light changed and Simon crossed the street, safe in the midst of the pack.
The foot traffic swept him onwards in the general direction of the newsstand. Soon enough Simon could see the familiar dirty white awning on the opposite side of the street; the awning was not on fire or anything, which Simon counted as a good sign. Slowing a little, he drifted towards the edge of the crowd.
The counterman was there, leaning both arms on the counter and staring out at traffic. He looked bored. Another good sign. All around him the city was bustling; Simon couldn't see anyone loitering, although there were several people sitting at the little cafe' that butted up against the back of the newsstand. None of them looked familiar, but Simon resolved that maybe he and Jeremy ought to come around from the back of the block, just in case.
Simon let himself be carried along to the traffic light and across the street, then shifted from one crowd to another and crossed the other street at the intersection, preparing to make the block. If the guy behind the counter saw Simon walk by, he didn't give any sign; there was no one loitering on the other side of the newsstand, either. Simon relaxed, fractionally, and sped up. He could be back to Jeremy in five minutes.
Out of habit Simon kept an eye out all the way back. No one was paying him any attention at all, including those people who really ought to be, like the guy who stepped on his foot and the woman on the cell phone who nearly ran into his back. By this point Simon was used to the casual assault that passed for interaction around here, and he barely glared at either of them, too intent on making the block and getting back to Jeremy. He wasn't nervous, not precisely, but Jeremy's obvious dislike of being out in public had rubbed off on him by now; he'd feel a little better once he had Jeremy safely stashed away somewhere, like a valuable artifact. Simon snorted at himself for this silly turn of phrase and sped up a little further. The corner where he'd left Jeremy was in sightbut, as Simon discovered not a moment later, it was unoccupied.
Simon ground to a halt on the corner and glanced from side to side, his heart rate speeding up just a bit. The people behind him made their displeasure known and surged around him on both sides, obscuring his line of sight. Simon fought his way to the overhang where he'd left Jeremy not ten minutes ago; deep in the back of his mind a warning bell was starting to sound, but right now he was fighting not to listen to it. Putting his back to the wall Simon pulled out his cell phone and flipped it open, scanning the area over the top of it. No Jeremy. Those warning bells were getting louder.
Completely at a loss, Simon glanced down at his cell phone and realized that it was still off. He punched the power button and went back to looking around while the phone sang a cheery little tune and booted itself up. No sooner had it started booting up than it chimed happily, nearly giving Simon a heart attack; 1 New Text Message, the screen said. Trying not to clutch at his chest too obviously, Simon called it up.
Meet me there?
Simon scowled at his phone. Meet him there? Where? ... for that matter, how the hell did he know that it was Jeremy that sent the message? He had no idea what Jeremy's current phone number was; anyone with a non-American phone could have sent that message. Still, there was only one 'there' Simon could think of. Snapping his phone shut, Simon melded back into traffic, heading for the newsstand. If he'd been alert before, now he was almost painfully so. The faces in the crowd around him jumped out into clear and absolute focus. Simon imagined he could hear them all breathing.
Jeremy materialized at his side between one heartbeat and the next, for the moment just another person in the crowd. Simon hissed out a relieved breath through his teeth. "What" he started to ask, and then stopped; Jeremy wasn't paying the first bit of attention to him. He was walking just briskly enough to keep himself a pace or two in front of Simon. A woman in a business suit shunted in between them and Jeremy let her do it, distancing himself just a little more.
Simon looked away, gazing carefully out over the heads of the people in front of him instead of watching Jeremy. Still, now that he'd spotted Jeremy, Simon remained aware of him, like a blip on the radar. All right, if Jeremy wanted to play it that wayJeremy headed for the newsstand, and Simon slid out of the crowd and went to stand around the side, out of sight. He pulled out his phone again to give himself an excuse to be there.
"I just gave" the counterman started to say.
"Please accept my condolences on the sudden death in your family," Jeremy said, smoothly cutting the other man off. Paper crackled as Jeremy pulled the envelope out of the inside pocket of his jacket. "I understand it requires you to close up shop and leave the city for at least two weeks? That's a tough break indeed."
For a moment, there was silence, punctuated only by the rustle of paper. "I see," the counterman finally said. "I am to go immediately?"
"So I understand," said Jeremy.
The counterman appeared around the corner a moment later, intent on the spinning racks of newspapers. Spotting Simon, he jumped, then swore under his breath in Italian and clutched at his chest. "Sorry," Simon said, waving the phone. "Just checking my messages."
"Yes," the man said, already distracted. The envelope stuck up out of the pocket of his apron, its flap folded awkwardly back to display the thick sheaf of pink bills inside. He grabbed the first rack and toted it back around to the front of the newsstand, then returned for the other one.
Two minutes later the newsstand was an anonymous white huddle in the middle of the sidewalk and the man was pinning a handwritten note to the front. Jeremy was nowhere in sight. Simon hung around and 'checked his messages' until the counterman shucked off his apron and balled it up around the envelope, then headed off down the street. He didn't look back once.
Simon looked left, then right. No Jeremy. Operating on a certainty, Simon closed his phone and headed back the way he'd come. He was halfway there when his phone buzzed again, and Simon flipped it open to display another text message:
When M. comes, come one block south, stop at corner.
South? Simon looked around, frowning, then fought his way out of the crowd again and argued with the keypad until he managed to type:
Whic way is south
Not caring enough to fix the typo, Simon hit 'Send'. The answer didn't come right away, leaving Simon with the indelible mental image of Jeremy raising a snide eyebrow at the screen of his phone. A minute or so later, when Simon was almost up to the corner, his phone finally buzzed:
Simon folded his phone away and found himself a convenient place to lean, out of the way. After a long, careful look at his surroundings, Simon pulled his Redskins cap down to hide his eyes and settled in with his phone.
Simon laughed a little. Text messaging was rapidly losing its allurehe was not patient enough for this shitso he simply typed
and sent it.
A few seconds later, his phone buzzed.
I thought so.
Simon fought down a smile and deleted the message.
Fifteen minutes passed, tortoise-slow. Simon kept one eye out for anyone paying an undue amount of attention to him, but after a while it was just a formality. Most of his attention was focused on every van that rolled past, hoping that the next one would be the one that pulled to the curb with Mike at the wheel; Italy wasn't quite as minivan-happy as the US, fortunately, so Simon wasn't driven entirely to distraction.
Despite the fact that Simon was watching for it, the van that finally did pull to the curb still managed to startle him. Simon eyed the spectacle askance. He'd been expecting some kind of rental-agency minivan, not a battered white windowless thing that lacked only terrible spray-painted logos to belong to a shady plumber, or alternately, lacked only a FREE CANDY sign to belong to a child molester. Still, it was definitely Mike behind the wheel, grinning like a madman. He waved at Simon, then leaned over to unlock the passenger-side door. "Yo, boss," he said as Simon climbed in. "Your stuff's in the back. Where's Archer?"
"South a block," Simon said. He crawled over the front seat and into the back. "Christ, Honda, where'd you get this thing? Steal it off a florist?"
"I kinda sorta bought it," Mike said, snickering and putting the van back into gear. "Which way's south?"
"What? Oh, Jesus. I don't even want to know." Simon settled into the back seat, giving up on a seatbelt after a token search. The way the rest of the van looked, he was surprised it had a second set of seats at all. "Towards midtown."
"Right," said Mike, gunning the van twice to warn off scooters and then pulling out into traffic. Neither of them paid a moment's attention to the ensuing honking.
The van crawled up to the appointed corner, hindered by floods of uncaring pedestrians and the occasional rampaging Vespa. Simon ducked down and scanned the streets through the windshield, hoping to catch a glimpse of Jeremy, or at least a glimpse of that white fedora of his. The crowds surged around the van like the tide, however, and Simon couldn't pick Jeremy out of them at all.
Mike stopped at the light like a good citizen, apparently pissing off the taxi behind him. Two seconds after the van had rocked back on its wheels the passenger-side door jerked open and Jeremy threw himself in, closing the door behind him; he glanced over his shoulder, confirming Simon's presence, and then put on his own rudimentary seatbelt. "Back to the hotel, I think," he said, affable but brisk.
"On my way," Mike said, hitting his turn signal. "So what was that all about?"
"Playing it safe," said Jeremy. He hesitated, then undid his seatbelt again. "Alternately, jumping at shadows. If you don't mind, I believe I'll join Simon, if only to get away from the windows."
Simon obligingly scooted over. Jeremy slid over the front seat with as much grace as possible and sank into the dimness of the back of the van. Casually, as an afterthought, he dropped his hand to Simon's thigh and gave it a squeeze, his hand gone again almost before Simon registered the touch. Simon strangled on his little yelp of surprise. "You okay back there, boss?" Mike said, glancing at Simon in the rearview mirror.
"Yeah," Simon said, his voice a little uneven. "Archer just stepped on my foot, is all."
Jeremy's arch little smile was quite nearly a smirk. Simon did his damndest not to pay it any attention.
The rest of them were sitting around down in the parking garage of the hotel degli Alberti, their bags heaped haphazardly around them. The tableau made them look like refugees, although Nate's giant monitor and Dave's little laptop tended to spoil the illusion. They all looked up as the horrible van pulled into a man their expressions were priceless. Simon wished he had a camera.
"All right, folks," Simon said, kicking open the back doors and dropping out. "I want to be out of here in double time, load up and let's go. I claim shotgun by divine right. The rest of you can decide who gets the back seat in any manner that you see fit, although I do draw the line at casualties."
Nate peered into the dark interior of the van. "Looks like we can put three people into the back seat," he reported. "So two of us have to sit on the floor with the baggage."
"Not it," Sandra and Johnny said, almost in unison. They glanced at each other. Johnny raised his hand and Sandra solemnly high-fived him.
"Actually, I'd also prefer to sit in the back seat, if no one minds," Jeremy said. "I'll need access to a window in order to give directions."
Dave looked up from his laptop. "Um, what? What are we doing? I'm sorry?"
"Consigning you to sitting on the floor, apparently," said Nate.
Dave blinked. "Oh. Um. Okay?"
Johnny picked up the two duffels nearest him and hopped up into the back of the van, stuffing them up under the back seat next to Simon's own duffel and Jeremy's things. Something like a bucket brigade formed behind the van as Simon's team jammed their belongings into the back; Jeremy watched this process for a moment, then went around to the far side of the van. "Have you got the keys to the taxi?" he asked Mike.
Mike shifted in the driver's seat and fished around in his front pocket. "Yeah, here you go," he said, handing over a keyring. "Tell him he needs to get his fucking wheels aligned, it's like driving some chick's vibrator or some shit, not that I'd know anything about things like that. Being a manly man and all."
"Mm," Jeremy said, accepting both the keys and the sentiment with raised eyebrows. "I'll be certain to pass that on."
"Yeah, you do that," Mike said, snickering.
The taxi was parked over against the far wall. Jeremy went over and unlocked the passenger-side door, crawling halfway in; Simon watched him incuriously, most of his attention focused on getting the van packed up without significant casualties or excessive horseplay.
Eventually everybody was in the van except Simon and Jeremy. The techs found places to sit in the back, Nate sitting on one of the wheel-wells, Dave crosslegged on the floor with his laptop in his lap. "Yo!" Simon called. "We're ready!"
"Coming!" Jeremy called back. He shut the taxi's door and jogged over, hopping up into the back of the van. "Pardon me," he said, edging past Nate. Sandra scooted over, making room for Jeremy in the back seat. Simon shut the van's back doors and ran around to the front, climbing up into the passenger seat.
"Where am I going?" Mike asked, starting the engine.
"Take the A7 south, all the way out of the city," Jeremy said.
Once the van was safely underway, Jeremy cleared his throat. "If you could grant me a few moments of silence," he said, "I need to make a couple of quick calls."
No one had actually been saying much, but they obligingly went silent anyway. "You heard the man," Simon added.
Smiling absently, Jeremy dug his latest cell phone out of his jacket pocket and dialed a number. "Sergio," he said, after a moment. The voice on the other end of the line buzzed. "Yes. Yes, we're done with it. It's parked in the garage under the hotel degli Alberti. The keys and a token of my gratitude are in the glove box. Thanks ever so."
Jeremy hit the disconnect button, sipped in a quick and nervous breath, then dialed another number. "It's me," he said. "I am shutting everything down. I'll re-establish in a day or two." He hit the disconnect button again.
"Ain't this a movie," Johnny noted under his breath, glancing at Sandra.
"Welcome to my life," Jeremy said, distracted, already dialing again. Someone answered the phone; Jeremy's voice went quick and staccato. "Yes. Tell him that the Russians are coming. Tell him to get out of the city immediately. My drop box has been closed. Take whatever precautions you feel necessary, but keep this line open." This time Jeremy slapped his phone closed to disconnect it, staring off into space with a disturbing lack of expression on his face. "There," he said after a moment.
"Bran?" Simon asked, very carefully keeping his expression neutral.
"Oh, yes," Jeremy said. "Any one of the incoming Russians might already know his face. Best to get him out, as well."
Simon shifted uncomfortably in the front seat. "Unless Bran's working with them," he pointed out. "Hell, for all we know he's the one that called them in."
"I suppose that's possible," Jeremy said. He reached into his jacket and fished out the little black address book. "That's why I sent our friend at the newsstand on walkabout, after all. Bran knows he has a connection to me, so... well, it's best to be safe."
"So you don't actually trust Bran, then," Simon said, twisting around in his seat until he could see Jeremy.
Jeremy's eyes skittered away from Simon's. "I trust him to a certain extent, yes," Jeremy said, slowly, like he was handpicking every word. "But there's no need to be foolish about it. And closing up my mail drop should also serve as a layer of protection in case Bran is forced to give me up against his will."
"Uh huh. Yeah. Right. 'Against his will'," Simon said, unable to resist adding the fingerquotes.
"One more phone call, I think," Jeremy said, exhaling. He flipped through his address book and dialed a number, then took, held, and released a deep breath before hitting the CALL button and putting the phone to his ear. "Ah, Matteo," he said, suddenly lazy and congenial. "Would you happen to know anyone off the top of your head who could run me to Malpensa tomorrow evening? I'm afraid Milan is getting a bit too warm for me, so a dignified retreat is in ordermm-hmm. Ah. I see. What? Oh, yes, back to the homeland, you know how it is. I suppose events have conspired to make me a bit homesick." Jeremy laughed, a lighthearted sound that was completely at odds with his face. "Oh, no, you needn't bother to call me back, I'm just about to switch phones. I'll call you this evening. Of course. Goodbye, Matteo."
Simon, fascinated, watched Jeremy fold the phone away. "Isn't Matteo that guy who's been telling everybody and their mother that they should sell you to Karpol for a profit?"
"Oh, yes," Jeremy said. "I'm so hoping that he attempts to sell that bit of information to someone. Would you mind rolling down your window?"
"Huh?" Simon twisted back around to blink at his window, then cranked it down. The wet heat of Milan slapped him in the face like a dead fish, ripe with exhaust. "What's up?" Simon said, squinting against the onslaught.
Jeremy leaned forward and put his hand on Simon's shoulder. "Tying up a loose end," he said, leaning past Simon to stare out the window. The van rolled on past a street corner; Jeremy's other hand flashed past Simon's ear, pegging the cell phone neatly into a sewer grating as it flashed by. Jeremy patted Simon's shoulder and sat back. "There we are."
"Right," Simon said, rolling the window back up.
After half an hour or so, they left Milan behind them. South of the city the land gave way to anonymous farms and little villages, like and yet unlike rural areas of America; sometimes Simon forgot what country he was in until a highway sign in Italian forcibly reminded him. Sandra spent a lot of the journey with her arms folded on the seat in front of her, staring out the front windshield at the scenery, such as it was.
Eventually Jeremy also leaned forward, directing Mike off the A7 and out into the countryside. The hills weren't quite as dramatic out here, rolling gently away from the road instead of spiking dramatically up towards the Alps. The farms fell behind the van and vanished, replaced by tracts of forested land.
"So where are we going?" Mike eventually asked, even as Jeremy directed him off one small road and onto a road that was even smaller. "I mean, shit, if this ain't the back of beyond out here."
"It's not much farther," Jeremy said.
"A'ight, awesome," Mike said. "Course, that's not what I asked."
Jeremy gave him a quick, distracted smile. "No, I suppose not," he said.
After a moment, Mike burst into a ripsaw laugh that startled everyone in the van. "Aw, shit, he did it again," he said, still giggling like a loon.
"Mm?" Jeremy said, blinking in mild confusion.
"Where are we going, Archer?" Mike asked, grinning widely enough to show most of his teeth.
Simon snorted. "Yeah, good luck with that, Honda. Might as well be trying to armwrestle a snake."
"It's possible that I simply don't want to spoil the surprise," Jeremy said, all injured patience. "But if you must know, we're going about halfway up the hill we're currently spiraling about."
"Christ!" Simon said. "That was an answer! How'd you make him do that, Honda? You got some kind of inside dirt on his mother?"
"Guess it's possible I'm just that awesome," Mike said, guiding the van around a long curve in the road. "Or maybe it's 'cause I've got like five years of experience at prying answers out of closemouthed people, huh, boss?"
"Vote for the latter," Johnny put in.
Simon put a hand over his eyes. "Okay, you guys, seriously, I'm hurt"
"Why?" Sandra said. "They're right, you know. It is like pulling teeth to get a straight answer out of you, sometimes."
"No," Simon said patiently. "I'm hurt because they're comparing me to Archer."
"Whoa, shit, you're right, that was totally unfair and hurtful of me," Mike said, pulling a shocked face. "Man, I'm an asshole. Guess an apology is in order, huh?"
Simon, sensing a trap, let his hand drop. "Let me guess"
"Goddamn, Archer, I'm totally sorry about that," Mike said, confirming Simon's suspicions before whooping off into a hyena laugh.
"Yeah, thanks," Simon said sourly, the words almost lost under Mike's whoops.
Jeremy shifted forward, crossing his arms on the seat back behind Simon. His forearm brushed lightly against the back of Simon's neck, probably on purpose. "There should shortly be a white stone gate coming up on the right," Jeremy said, raising his voice to be heard. "We'll be turning in there."
Mike laughed himself to a choking stop. "Gotcha," he said, still grinning. "White stone gate, huh? Sounds fancy."
"Oh, yes," Jeremy said absently, sitting back. His fingers ran up the back of Simon's neck as he pulled away, definitely on purpose this time, making Simon have to fight not to shiver even as the skin on the back of his neck prickled.
It was Sandra who spotted the white columns first. They stood to either side of a hardpacked white gravel drive, the heavy wrought-iron gates between them open to the road; a low white stone wall ran away from the columns in both directions, vaguely boxing off the land beyond. The gravel drive curved off into the trees. "Is that it?" Sandra asked, pointing. Mike promptly slapped on the turn signal and slowed.
"That's it," Jeremy confirmed. "If you'll stop just beyond the gate, I'll pop out and close it."
"I can get it," Simon offered. "I mean, since I'm in the front seat and all."
Jeremy fished his little black address book back out of his jacket. "Thank you," he said, distracted.
The van turned off the road and crunched onto the gravel, precipitating a little surprised yowp from the easily-startled Dave. Mike brought the van to a halt ten feet inside the gate; Simon pulled open the door and hopped out, the gravel shifting under his sneakers. Up here in the hills the air was cooler, if still damp, and carried a faint, pleasant tang of both wood and salt. Simon headed for the gates, looking around.
There was a covered keypad set flush with the stone of the right-hand column. Simon put a hand on the nearest gate and gave it a little push, just to make sure; it didn't budge under his hand. Right. Electronic gates. Another crunch of gravel announced someone else's exit from the van behind him; Simon ignored it in favor of investigating the keypad, hoping against hope that there would be a button plainly marked CLOSE THE DAMN GATES or something.
"Some day I expect I'll remember that Americans say 'no, thank you' when politely declining an offer," Jeremy said, amused. "As I was intending to say, Simon, I've the gate codes here, so I'll have to close the gate myself."
"Yeah, I'd just about figured that out," Simon said, falling back a step. Jeremy stepped past him and flipped up the plastic cover, pausing to refer to his address book. Simon put his back to the van, making sure he was between Jeremy and Mike's rearview mirror. "While I'm here, Archer," Simon said, pitching his voice both low and soft. "Stop with the goddamned secret touching already. It's one thing when it's just us, but that's twice now you've damn near molested me right in front of my team. You know I'm not going to stand for that."
"Mm," a distracted Jeremy said, pausing long enough to punch in a six-digit code. The keypad beeped obligingly and the gates shuddered, starting to swing ponderously closed. Jeremy glanced over his shoulder at Simon, his little smile crooked and worrisome. "Really," he said. "Not even a little?"
"No," Simon said, irritated. "Not even a little. I have to work with those people in the future, you know."
"Oh, yes, I know," Jeremy said, watching the heavy gates swing shut. "And I suppose this means you also won't want to share a bed once we're all under the same roof?"
Simon spluttered, caught off guard. "Hell no," he said, when he could, glancing over his shoulder to make sure no one was watching. "Christ, if we're all going to be in one house I want you to keep your hands to yourselfI'd think that ought to be obvious."
Whatever Jeremy had been about to say was interrupted by the clang of the gates meeting in the middle of the drive. They locked together and swung into position, sinking heavy iron rods into the ground and falling immensely, eternally still, like they'd never moved at all. "There we are," Jeremy said, consulting his little book again. "Let me just set the alarm and then we'll get a move on."
"Quit avoiding the subject," Simon said.
"Oh, I'm not." Jeremy typed another six-digit code into the keypad and was rewarded with a series of beeps and a single, ominous, deep-throated thrum from the gates. Jeremy sighed, shut the little book, and made it disappear. "I assure you, Simon, I'll act with as much decorum as I feel is necessary"
Simon snorted. "Oh, yeah, that says a lot."
"As hard as it may be for you to believe, I don't actually want to destroy your carefully-constructed life," Jeremy said sharply. Helpless not to, Simon hunched his shoulders and glanced behind himself again. Jeremy's voice dropped to a husky murmur. "They won't notice," he said. "The ones who were going to notice noticed a long time ago."
"Yeah," Simon muttered, scruffing a hand through his hair. "You know what, I've been discovering this."
"I've something of a sixth sense for knowing when I'm being observed in any case," Jeremy added, his little smile firmly in place once again. "Believe me when I say I'm actually being quite carefulwell, shall we go?"
"Yeah, let's," Simon said, both unnerved and vaguely, dimly relieved. He'd just started to turn around when Jeremy brushed casually past him, heading for the gravel drive. For just a heartbeat of time Jeremy's body was between Simon's own and the sight line of the van, and Jeremy reached down and gave Simon a hard squeeze right through the denim of his jeans.
Simon choked on his next breath but Jeremy was already gone, heading back towards the van as if nothing whatsoever had happened. Simon fought down his irritation and followed Jeremy, stopping for half a second in the van's blind spot to make a few necessary adjustments.
The gravel drive wound through the trees. In some places the forest was so overgrown that ferns brushed against the sides of the van with little whispering sounds, but the trees themselves were neatly cut back, their branches arching overhead.
After a minute or so Simon could see a vague lightening in the trees ahead of them. Behind him, Jeremy shifted, leaning forward to cross his arms on the seat back again. This time his arm barely brushed Simon's shoulder, which was something of a reliefbut he was also radiating a cat-like smug contentment, which Simon could feel without even turning around. "There we are," Jeremy said cheerfully, as the van burst out of the forest and onto the immense, manicured lawns. "I'm afraid it's not a real Italian villa, only a modern recreation, but it's fairly attractive for all that."
"Jesus Christ," Simon said, too shocked to hold the outburst back. Half the hillside had been bared to form the grounds for the immense white building that swept forward in two giant wings to enclose a plaza as large as any in Milan. Mike whistled under his breath, the van slowing to a crawl; in the back of the van Nate and Dave were craning forward to see. Simon shook his head, sharply. "Okay, you've had your surprise, Archer. Want to tell us what's up with this?"
"It belongs to, erm, a satisfied customer," Jeremy said, still radiating triumph. "I've worked for him on three separate occasions in the past, and we've developed something of a rapport over the years. At any rate, he once told me that the place was mine if I ever felt that I needed a vacation, and so today I called and took him up on it."
"Can you trust him?" Sandra asked, glancing from the villa to Jeremy and back.
Jeremy waved Sandra's question away. "I believe so. He's as rich as Croesus and completely barking mad to boot, but in the useful sort of way. I don't believe Karpol or Volpe could possibly offer him enough to interest him, even if they did somehow figure out that I was here. The villa itself is wired for phone and internet and alarmed halfway to hell. I believe it'll be safe enough."
"In that case," Sandra said, "my only question is: why didn't you bring us here sooner? My God."
"Yeah, Archer," Mike added. "Way to hold out on your buddies."
Jeremy laughed a little. "Unfortunately, it isn't all that convenient to Milan and my support network, and to be honest, I hadn't thought of it until today."
The villa was only getting larger as Mike wound up the long gravel drive. Simon's frame of reference kept insisting on comparing the long, low building to a mall, which felt kind of impious, for all that it seemed true. Simon fought off a moment of American shame and said, "So what's this guy's name?"
"I'd rather not tell you," Jeremy said. "He's in South Africa at the moment in any case, so you needn't worry about meeting him. Technically the villa is closed for the season, so we'll have to fend for ourselves."
Eventually they ran out of driveway and wound up in the massive circular driveway that encircled the plaza. Jeremy directed Mike around the back to a hidden garage. "Wait here a tick," Jeremy said, letting himself out of the back of the van; he disappeared around the side of the garage and returned a moment later, carrying a garage-door opener. He pointed it at the garage and the nearest door rumbled up, revealing an empty slot. Mike trundled the van on in and parked it, turning off the engine.
Jeremy handed the opener to Mike, who clipped it to the van's sun visor. Simon let himself out of the van, stepping down onto concrete so new that it still gleamed white; his team spilled out of the back, carrying their bags and gaping about them. Jeremy vanished into the back of the garage. A moment later an alarm system chirped twice in welcome. "There we are," Jeremy said, reappearing. "If someone will just hand me my things..."
Johnny hopped down, carrying Jeremy's bags. "Yo," he said, tossing Jeremy first the briefcase, then the suitcase. Jeremy fielded them both neatly, one after the other. Johnny ducked back into the van, fetched Simon his duffel, and then went back one last time for his own bag.
Nate had his chin hooked over the top of the enormous monitor, which he was having to use both arms to carry. "Okay," he said, sounding a little choked. "Where are we going, and can we go there now before I drop this thing?"
"Need me to get it?" Johnny asked.
"I'm good as long as we go now," Nate said grimly. Johnny eyed him askance for a moment, then shrugged and picked up Nate's duffel bag.
They followed Jeremy up a set of three steps and into a vast, dim space that revealed itself to be a kitchen once Jeremy got the lights on. It was even bigger than Ethan's kitchen, huge and glossy and vaguely offputting, leaving Simon in mortal fear of touching anything.
The door opposite opened onto an enormous, echoing hallway. The floors were glossy marble, the colonnaded walls had colossal windows on one side and equally colossal gilded mirrors on the other, and the vaulted ceiling rose to a dizzying twenty-five feet highand all Simon could think about was how wrong his team looked inside that space, how small, how scruffy, huddled sheepishly along one wall like the space intimidated them. Jeremy, on the other hand, was standing nonchalant and impeccably dressed in the center of the hallway, apparently perfectly at home as he looked back and forth. "That way, I believe," Jeremy said, setting off at a brisk pace down the hallway, his steps oddly failing to echo at all.
They strung out behind him in a long and ragged line, Simon bringing up the rear and keeping a wary eye on Nate, lest Nate drop the gigantic monitor on his foot. The hallway flung back every noise they made until they sounded not unlike a herd of cattle wearing rubber-soled shoes. No one came out to challenge them, though, and no alarms went off, and after a while, Simon managed to relax, at least somewhat.
The hallway opened up onto a massive round atrium crisscrossed with sweeping staircases and studded with enormous marble statues. Another hallway led off in the opposite direction. "Up these stairs here," Jeremy said, making for one of the two staircases.
"Someone help," Nate said quietly, and both Johnny and Simon lunged to catch the monitor seconds before Nate could drop it. A general flurry of luggage-dropping followed as people rearranged their loads.
Jeremy paused on the lowest step and put the briefcase down. "I apologize," he said, abashed. "I should have warned you: it's a bit of a trip."
"I think we probably should have noticed," Sandra said. She was standing at the center of the atrium with one hand on the pedestal of a statue, looking up at the ceiling fifty feet above. A huge circular skylight let in the afternoon sun, pinning Sandra and the random Roman god in an ellipse of light splashed across the marble floor.
"Whoa, check it out, tiny marble dick," Mike said, ambling over to where Sandra was standing and putting a casual arm around her waist. Sandra thumped her knuckles lightly against his chest. Mike snickered and added, "So, Archer, you steal any of these for him?"
Jeremy arched an eyebrow at Mike. "I rather suspect I shouldn't answer that question, lest I incriminate myself," he said.
"Besides, that one's like twenty feet tall," Simon put in. "Not exactly the sort of thing Archer can stuff down his pants and saunter away with."
"It would take a bit of fancy maneuvering to steal that one, I suppose," Jeremy said equably. "Although if you can't live without it, Simon, I expect that I could have it out of here in twelve hours."
Simon looked up at the giant naked marble guy, twice as tall as the highest ceiling in his apartment. "You know what?" he said. "I think that'll be completely unnecessary."
"Oh, well, as you like, Simon. You can't say I didn't offer." Jeremy picked up the briefcase. "Shall we?"
After a bit more chaos they got underway again, Johnny carrying the monitor, Nate carrying Johnny's duffel bag and his own. Jeremy led them up the staircase and into a second hallway much like the first, lined with gilded pastel-colored doors, disturbingly far apart. "Any one you like," Jeremy said, waving a negligent hand at the doors. "I'll take the one at the far end, if no one minds."
"Why that one?" Simon asked, coming to a bullish halt in the archway. "Trying to steal the best one for yourself, huh, Archer?" He'd been aiming for a joking tone, but the words came out almost completely unamused, almost challenging. Simon stopped, startled at himself.
"Haven't the foggiest if it's the best or not," Jeremy said, after a nearly unnoticeable moment of hesitation. "I'm only attempting to save you all the walk."
Simon eyed him for a moment, then snorted. "I'll take this one," he said, heading for the door nearest the stairs.
"Take an hour to get unpacked and settled," Jeremy added. "Shall we all meet down in my suite at, ah" he checked his watch "let us say, three? I've a few things I'd like to go over."
There were nine guest suites strung out along the hallway like beads on the world's longest string. The suite Simon had chosen lurked behind a white door, and whatever diseased mind had done the decorating had carried the 'white' theme to ridiculous extremes behind it: all the furniture was either white or made of some pale, ashy wood that matched the floor, and the white-painted walls were decorated with abstract white-enameled metal birds in lieu of something normal, like pictures. The white-brick fireplace had a polar bear skin in front of it for a rug, and the massive bed had floating white drapes around it and an honest-to-Christ canopy over the top. The glare was tremendous. Sleeping in here would make Simon either snowblind, or a twelve-year-old girl, or both.
The only patch of real color in the room was the door on the far wall, an eye-searing bloody red. The splash of arterial color kept snagging Simon's eye like a fishhook, and finally he wove past the conversation pit and opened the door, expecting a bathroom.
Instead, he got the blank expanse of a second door, this one the same eggshell white as the walls. For a minute Simon thought it was just art, some kind of stupidly meaningful statement, but then he heard movement behind the white door. Simon knocked.
A moment later Johnny pulled the white door open, revealing a second guest suite that looked like the aftermath of a horrific accident. Johnny stopped dead in the doorway and raised a hand, automatically blocking out the glare of the white room; Simon gaped at the expanse of dark red stretching away behind Johnny, boggled. "Jesus Christ, it's a bordello," Simon finally said.
"You die and go to heaven or something?" Johnny asked, dropping his hand.
"I don't know, maybe?" Simon said. "Are they all like this?"
Johnny glanced over his shoulder. The walls in the red room were padded with some kind of wine-colored striped silk, a curtain of the same stuff half-hiding a dull orange door in the opposite wall. "Shit, guess so," Johnny said.
"Christ, I feel sorry for whoever wound up in the orange one, then," Simon said.
"Yeah," Johnny said. "You wanna go see?"
"Hell, yes," Simon said, stepping through into the red room. Unlike the clean, spare lines of the white room, the red room was padded and pillowed to within an inch of lunacy. Johnny's battered old green duffel sat on the froofy rosewood canopy bed like an obscenity, and Johnny himself looked like he'd been Photoshopped into the picture. "Christ," Simon said again.
Johnny crossed the room, his boots sinking deep into the high-pile carpet, and pulled open the orange door. The red door behind it was already open, the room beyond it a pumpkin. "Shit," Johnny said. "Masque of the Red Death, right?"
"Yeah," Simon said absently, not really listening. The orange room was empty, the yellow door on the other side also open. Somebody had looked at the orange room and decided it was too hideous. Acting on a certainty, Simon went to check the yellow room beyond. No one was in there either, and why should they be? With seven people having nine rooms to choose from, who in their right mind would sleep in the orange or yellow rooms? Not Simon, that was for sure.
The hardwood floors in the orange room were a rich orange-gold that tiled to a honey-blond at the threshhold to the yellow room. The green door on the far side of the yellow room had a gigantic Chiquita Banana sticker painted on it, the first sign Simon had seen of a sense of humor; in its defense, it was pretty damned funny. Behind him Johnny snorted out a laugh. "I forgive 'em," he said.
Simon opened the green door to expose the closed yellow door behind it. "Yeah, that's not bad," he said, knocking on the yellow door. After a moment, Nate opened it. "Hey, Nate," Simon said, craning his neck to check out the green room. "Damn, that's actually not horrible. Somebody's slipping."
"Kind of girly, though," Nate said, stepping back to let Simon and Johnny in. The green room's walls had a subtle leafy-ferny pattern to them, like being lost in a forest, and the carpet underfoot was springy and mossy-looking. Somebody had spent a whole lot of money to have trees carved up into different, smaller trees; the interlocking oak saplings that made up the bed looked kind of like a torture device, at first glance. Nate's giant monitor and a couple of computers sat on the massive oak bole of a desk, wholly out of place.
Dave bobbed up in the doorway that led to the blue room, as befuddled as ever. "It's like that one Poe story," he said, blinking.
"Masque of the Red Death," Johnny said.
Dave pointed at Johnny. "Yeah, that one."
Simon pushed past Dave and into the blue room. "Now that's more like it," he said, hooking his thumbs into his beltloops and looking around. The walls were a pure, plain blue; most of the furniture was glass and metal, and someone with the same twelve-year-old's sense of appropriateness had painted fluffy clouds on the sky-blue ceiling. "Blue is almost bearable. Kind of restful."
"I like it okay," Dave volunteered. "It's kind of like living in an aquarium, though."
"Yeah, it is, now that you mention it," said Simon. "Needs a couple of metal clownfish on the walls. So... next is indigo, then violet, right?"
"In theory?" Dave said. His latest abomination of a Hawaiian shirt was orange and yellow, which fit the general 'aquarium' theme fairly well.
Simon pulled open the dark blue door and knocked on the lighter blue door behind it. "Yo," he called.
"Yeah?" Mike said from the opposite side, sniggering. "Candygram?"
"Fucked-up-room inspection crew," Simon said. "I've got a warrant. Open up or I'll have to ask you to open up again."
Mike opened the door, still grinning. "Check it out," he said, waving a hand at the indigo room. "That shit on the walls is denim."
"Oh, nice, like living on someone's ass," Simon said, wandering in. The furniture all looked to be upholstered in denim, too, and the denim comforter on the bed was, quite frankly, so awesome that Simon was already half-seriously plotting to run off with it. "Five bucks to whoever finds the red Levi's tag first."
"Shit, after the blue room I guess I'm lucky I ain't got constellations on the ceiling," Mike said.
Behind Simon, the other members of his team were ducking from room to room, checking them all out. Incredulous shouts and hoots of laughter echoed all the way up and down the chain of rooms. The doors between indigo and violet were also open. Inside the purple room Sandra was moving back and forth, actually unpacking her things instead of gawking like the rest of them; the walls of the purple room were painted with incredibly-detailed irises, splashed with gouts of eye-burning gold close to five feet high. "Wow," Simon said, violently fighting down his initial reaction.
"Go ahead and say it," Sandra said evenly, stashing her bag in one of the drawers. "It's nothing I haven't thought."
"You know what, no," Simon said. "I'm just going to pretend I have some class and instead mention what's-her-name in a, a knowing fashion."
"Georgia O'Keeffe," Sandra supplied.
"Yeah," said Simon. "That. Those."
"Twat room," Mike said cheerfully. "Guess that's appropriate owwww shit kidding! Kidding"
For the moment ignoring the sudden ruckus behind him, Simon glanced at the opposite wall, already knowing what he was going to see. He was not disappointed. Tucked neatly away between two of the anatomically-disturbing giant irises there was one final door, a black so deeply glossy that it looked like obsidian. Simon scowled at it for a moment, then stalked over, threw it open, and pounded on the purple door behind it. "You knew," he said accusingly, the moment that Jeremy opened the door to reveal the void. "Don't even try to deny it, you knew the last room was the black one, didn't you?"
Jeremy's crooked little smile admitted everything.
After fifteen or twenty minutes, the novelty wore off and everybody settled down, more or less. Simon warily retreated to the white room, put his things away, and went to wash his hands, experiencing the equally white bathroom for the first time. At least white was a reasonable color for a bathroom to be. He didn't even want to imagine what the purple bathroom must look like.
Now out of things to do, Simon threw himself onto the white leather couch and tucked his hands behind his head, staring up at the ceiling. The vast white expanse was broken up by two long, slanted skylights set into deep recessesbecause obviously what a white room needed was more lightand a bunch of fancy track lighting for whenever he just didn't feel blinded enough. Simon snorted in disdain and shut his eyes.
He woke abruptly from his impromptu nap when someone pounded on the door. "Yo, boss," Johnny called, his voice echoing down the hallway outside. "Archer says to tell you we're meeting."
"Yeah," Simon called back, kicking his feet back down off the couch and sitting up. "Just a sec." The little nap had done him some good, he decided; the weird irritation he'd been fighting ever since Jeremy's little trick in front of the gates was gone, or at least muted. Simon scruffed his fingers through his hair, knuckled the sleep from his eyes, and headed for the door.
Walking down the hallway was a lot easier on the eyes, although the echoes of their footsteps threatened to deafen Simon, just for variety. The color-coded doors slid by on his left, gentle pastel-colored versions of the rooms lurking beyond, which was almost not tacky at all. The wall to Simon's right was all massive windows and marble columns, looking out over a jaw-dropping view. The forest spread out for miles below them, a rolling sea of green. Beyond the forest lay the white mottling of some kind of small town, and beyond that"Is that the ocean?" Simon asked, coming to a halt outside the pale blue door.
Johnny stopped at his side and shaded his eyes. "Looks like," he agreed.
"Christ, but I'm in the wrong business," Simon said, apropos of nothing. Johnny grunted, apparently in agreement; Simon got himself moving again.
Whoever had decorated these rooms had basically thrown up his hands and said 'fuck it' when he got to the black one: the floor was glossy black marble, the walls and ceiling were painted a flat and unadorned black, and everything else in the room was either black leather, volcanic glass, or gleaming chrome. The monstrous, elevated bed that lurked in the depths of the room looked like it probably ate unsuspecting people.
The recessed lights over the little den area were on, and a good thing too, because the room was already pitch-black. If there were any windows in the black room at all, they were curtained off. Once the door shut behind Simon, it might as well have been midnight. It felt like midnight.
To absolutely no one's surpriseor at least, not to Simon's surpriseJeremy had changed back into his blacks, all the better to match the gothic absurdity of his room. Against all that black, the black-clad Jeremy was little more than a face and a pair of hands. He was folded neatly into one of the two huge overstuffed black leather chairs in the conversation pit, the battered silver cashbox in his lap with his hands resting on itin lieu of a fluffy white cat, a snifter of brandy, and other such evil-mastermind trappings, Simon had absolutely no doubt.
The rest of his team were spread out on the couches, valiant little splashes of spotlit color against the void. To a man they all seemed to be somewhat intimidated by the ominous black room, for which Simon couldn't blame themit was like a movie set, or an emo teenager's wet dream. "Okay," Simon said, taking the other overstuffed chair. "We're all here. Let's meet."
"All right," Jeremy said. After a single lingering glance in Simon's direction, Jeremy looked over at Dave. "Have you been able to connect to the house's internet?"
Dave nodded. "Oh, sure," he said. "Signal's strong and everything. We got most of Nate's computers set up, too, although we're not quite done."
"Good," Jeremy said. "Once we're done meeting here, a couple of us should probably go down to the town and buy some groceries. The kitchen downstairs is at our disposal, but there isn't likely to be much beyond staples there."
"I'll do it," Mike volunteered. "I need to gas up the van anyway. Anybody who wants can tag along."
Beside him, Sandra stirred. "I'll come," she said. "If anyone needs anything in particular, let me know."
"I guess there's not much hope of getting Coke, is there," Nate said.
Simon sat back and listened with half an ear while his team debated out their shopping list. Opposite him Jeremy was also silent, his face blank, apparently giving even this conversation his full and undivided attention; Jeremy's fingers occasionally played over the metal of the cashbox, toying with the hinges or ticking at the seam that divided the lid from the body of the box. He was otherwise so still and so focused that Simon unthinkingly went still as well, anticipating a bombshell. Eventually Simon became aware of a lull in the conversation and dropped "Coffee." into it.
"First thing on the list, Templar," Sandra said. "You didn't even need to mention it."
"As always, you guys are totally on the ball," Simon said. "Well, Archer? What's next?"
Jeremy came back to life with a little flicker of smile. "I suppose this is next," he said, ticking his fingernails off the top of the cashbox with a dull metallic rattle.
"All right," Simon said, folding his own hands in his lap. "Give us the skinny. What is that?"
"For everyone's edification, this is what I asked Bran to bring me when last we met," Jeremy said. One hand dipped into his jacket and came out with those two little hooked tools that Simon had seen him toying with earlier; Jeremy leaned forward, put the cashbox on the black glass top of the coffee table, and inserted the ends of both picks into the tiny lock. "I don't particularly know where he was keeping these things, but I was gratified to learn that he still had them." Jeremy twisted both hands in a complicated, flickering pattern, and the little cashbox clicked and popped open. Jeremy smiled thinly and made the lockpicks disappear again.
Simon sighed. "Has your sense of drama been adequately fulfilled, Archer, or do you need a drumroll too?"
"I'm on it!" Mike cried, leaning forward to drum his fingers on the coffee table.
Jeremy picked up the cashbox and put it back in his lap, more or less ignoring the impromptu drumroll. He flipped the lid up and extracted something the size of a fat paperback book, wrapped in dull black cloth, then put the cashbox aside. "Any day now, Archer," Simon said, not particularly aggravated but still feeling the need to keep a measure of control over the proceedings.
Jeremy flashed Simon a quick smile and unwrapped the bundle. The first thing he put on the table was a small gray plastic box; Simon was still trying to figure out why it looked so familiar when Jeremy added a black Zip disk to the pile. 'Design Specs', the masking-tape label on the Zip disk said, the end of the tape curling up to the point where it almost hid the final 's'. Mike's drumroll died away to nothing. Simon went very still.
"A year and a half ago, you and I set a trap for Bran," Jeremy said into the resulting startled silence. "We baited that trap with three fake silicon bullets in a case liberally salted with tracking devices and a Zip disk that purports to be the design specs but is, in reality, as vicious a machine-killing computer virus as Mr. Story could come up with over the course of twelve hours. After the fiasco that resulted from springing that trap, Bran put that bait in a safety-deposit box until such time as he could get further instructions. It's been there ever since. I don't see why we can't make use of it ourselves."
It was hard to make himself disrupt that hypnotic monologue, but Simon stirred anyway. "I hate to bring you down or anything, Archer, but you do realize that the point of tracking devices is to be tracked, right? As in, tracked right to wherever we are if someone at the CIA glances at a monitor at the wrong moment?"
"Well, yes and no," Jeremy said. "I was forced to admit to Bran what these things really were, in order to get him to agree to bring them to me. He wasn't happy about that at all" Jeremy lifted his chin, displaying the browning remnants of the gun-muzzle bruise for a fraction of a second "but he eventually saw my point. When he went to fetch them from their box, he picked out all three of the tracking chips and left them behind. The CIA shouldn't notice a thing."
Simon subsided, still wary. "All right," he said. "I'd feel better if I could double-check that for myself."
"By all means," Jeremy said, picking the gray plastic box out of the stack and sliding it across to Simon.
Simon picked it up and opened it, prying the foam lining out of the box; three reasonably convincing 'bullets' crafted of silicon fell into his hand, but nothing else. There was still a slight dent in the foam where he'd hidden one of the chips. Simon nodded, put the box back together, and put it down. "It's clean," he said.
"Unfortunately, as much as I hate to bring it up, the machine-killer is another issue," Jeremy said. His shoulders tensed so subtly that Simon almost missed it. "Given the revelation of Mr. Story's link to Viktor Karpol, I no longer have any idea exactly what's on that disk, or what Mr. Story really intended it to do. I think we need to know."
"Yeah," Simon said, hating to admit it. He'd gotten to the point where entire days could go by without thinking about Rich, but every time he slipped, Rich's betrayal ripped at him all over again.
Jeremy inclined his head, then looked over at Dave. "What would you need in order to open and examine the contents of that disk? Safely?"
Dave blinked at Jeremy, then picked up the disk and frowned at it. "It's a Zip disk," he said.
"Yes?" Jeremy said, raising both eyebrows.
"Well, I mean... it's a Zip disk," Dave said, floundering. "What is this, 1998?"
Nate stirred and pushed up his glasses. "It's old tech," he translated. "It was actually pretty old tech even back then. It's going to be hard to find a working Zip drive"
"I have one in my suitcase," Jeremy said pleasantly. "I've been assured that it won't invoke the click of death, whatever that is."
"oh," Nate said, subsiding.
Dave turned the Zip disk over in his fingers, flicking at the little loose bit of masking tape. "I can try and take a look," he said dubiously. "I don't want to risk my good machines on it, though. Can you maybe get your hands on a junk computer from somewhere? Three or four years old, preferably with an older OS?"
"I can probably do that," Jeremy said.
"Okay," said Dave. "As long as I'm not hooked up to the internet, it should be more or less safe to take a look." He turned the Zip disk over one last time, frowned down at it, and then put it down.
Jeremy shut his eyes, his relief obvious, at least to Simon. "That would be extremely helpful," he said.
After a few more minutes of minor business, the meeting broke up. Jeremy vanished into the depths of his room, only to reappear a minute later, disembodied like a specter, carrying a small Zip drive in both hands. Dave took the drive after a noticeable hesitation. "I haven't seen one of these in years," he said, turning it over in his hands. His tone didn't precisely sound ripe with nostalgia.
"I'm assured it still works," Jeremy said. "Still, I suppose it would be best to test that assertion thoroughly." He produced a three-pack of blue Zip disks, seemingly out of nowhere, and handed it over. "Those are brand-newI certainly hope they're blank."
Dave piled the blue disks on top of the drive, then added the black machine-killer disk and the box of fake bullets to the pile. "I'll just, uh, take this all to my room," he said.
"Don't lose any of that," Simon added. "'Cause then, you know, have to kill you and all."
"Okay," Dave said, hunching his shoulders defensively and hugging the little pile of stuff to his chest.
"So, who all wants to go into town?" Mike said, fishing the keys to the van out of his front pocket. "Course, keep in mind, you come to town, you gotta help tote groceries and shit. I ain't toleratin' freeloaders."
Jeremy vanished into the darkness again. "Give me a moment," he said, his disembodied voice floating back. "I'll copy out the gate access codes for you."
"Not coming, huh?" Mike said.
"I've another errand to run, I'm afraid." Halfway across the massive black space another spotlight popped on, revealing Jeremy and a desk both lurking against the wall. Jeremy rifled the desk drawers until he found a notepad, then fetched a pen out of his jacket.
Simon sat up, twisting halfway around in his chair. "Yeah?" he said. "Need me to come with you?"
"If you like," Jeremy said, copying numbers out of his address book onto the pad. "I don't believe I should be in any danger, but I suppose I'd be glad of the company."
"You suppose, huh," Simon said. "Okay, I'll come with you."
Jeremy tore the piece of paper off the pad. "Thank you, Simon," he said, his voice absent; he put the notepad away and rejoined the group, handing the piece of paper to Mike. "The top number turns the alarm on and off, and the bottom number actually opens and closes the gate. Please do try not to set the alarm off."
"Yeah, that would kinda suck," Mike said. He stuffed the paper into his shirt pocket. "Anybody else coming?"
"You need an extra pair of arms, I'm willin'," Johnny said.
"Awesome. Me and Sandy and Johnny makes three." Mike scanned the room. "Nate, you wanna come?"
Nate shook his head. "I want to finish setting up the computers," he said.
"Shoot yourself," said Mike.
The villa's intimidating spell was starting to wear off as everyone got used to the monstrous space. Out in the hall footsteps and voices combined to make an unholy echoing racket as Mike and Sandra and Johnny headed for the stairs, from the sound of it no longer lurking sheepishly against the wall. Nate and Dave were off in the middle rooms, rebuilding their setup; Simon could hear nothing but the occasional thumping noise, which was par for the course.
Simon picked up the empty cashbox and studied it, mostly out of boredom. One of the keys for it was still taped to the underside of the lid, inside the box. Simon picked the key off and stuck it in his pocket. "You need to change or anything before we go?"
"Are you suggesting that I should?" Jeremy said, not bothering to keep the amusement out of his voice. "Is this some clever ruse on your part to trick me into taking off my clothes?"
Simon shot a glance at the door to the purple room, which was, fortunately, closed. "I need a clever ruse now?" he said, feigning surprise. "I'd pretty much come to the conclusion that if I wanted you naked, all I had to do was get off alone with you and wait for you to suggest it."
"Touche'," Jeremy said, laughing. The light over the desk flicked back out; Jeremy vanished into the darkness. When he reappeared he had his shades threaded into the collar of his black t-shirt, completing his transformation. Not really thinking, Simon reached out and flicked his finger against the sunglasses, making them jump against Jeremy's chest.
Jeremy glanced down at his sunglasses, then back up at Simon. "Yes?" he said, smiling crookedly.
"Nothing," Simon said, doing it again.
Pinning his sunglasses to his chest with one hand, Jeremy reached out and laid his other hand flat on Simon's chest. It had barely landed before one of the techs dropped something with an almighty thud and a yelp; Simon jumped and Jeremy twitched his hand back like it had been burnt, both of them shooting startled looks at the closed purple door. "Guess we'd better go," Simon said, clearing his throat.
"I suppose so," Jeremy said, pulling the shades from his collar and putting them on.
There was a shallow metal safe set into the wall by the door that led from the terrifying kitchen to the monstrous garage. Jeremy tapped a four-digit code into the keypad and twisted the handle, and the safe sprang open to reveal six sets of keys on hooks. "Mm," Jeremy said, frowning.
"Are those for the cars in the garage?" Simon said, not wanting to let himself believe it.
"Mm-hmm," Jeremy said. He plucked one set of keys off its hook, frowned at it, then put it back.
Simon's heart surged joyously in his chest. "Oh, Christ," he said. "Ask me which one I want to take. Come on. Please. I am never going to get an opportunity like this again."
Jeremy paused with his hand on a second set of keys. "You do realize I'm driving?"
"I will allow it, if only because my getting arrested for breaking the sound barrier would screw me to kingdom comebut! If you obey the speed limit in any of those cars," Simon said, pointing over his shoulder, "I am honor-bound to shoot you or revoke your license to carry a dick or, or something, you know that?"
Jeremy rolled his eyes, although he was smiling. "The theoretical speed limit on the autostrada is a hundred and thirty kilometers per hour, Simon. I think you'll find it acceptable."
"Yeah? How much is that in a real unit of measurement?"
Jeremy cut his eyes to the side, thinking. "About eighty miles per hour."
"Not too shabby," Simon allowed. "Come on. If you're going to drive, I want to pick which one."
"All right, Simon," said Jeremy, giving in. "Which one do you want to take?"
Simon flung open the door to the garage. "I don't know yet," he said, bounding down the stairs. "I'll let you know in a minute!" He was pretty sure he'd made up his mind by the time he hit the bottom step, though, and he was back in fifteen seconds. "That one," he said, stabbing a finger at the keyring on the first hook.
Jeremy took the keys off the hook and inspected them. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised," he said, resigned.
"It's a Lamborghini," Simon said. Just saying the name was a low-level religious experience. "I've never been within fifty feet of one before. Come on."
"It's a Lamborghini Reventón, Simon"
"there were only twenty ever made"
"it's a million-euro concept car"
"so I have excellent taste," Simon said, poking Jeremy in the chest. "Stop whining and come on."
"All right," Jeremy said. He closed his hand about the angular platinum keychain. "Although if I damage an irreplaceable car worth one point four million dollars thanks to your insistence, I reserve the right to take it out of your hide."
Simon bounded back down the steps, heading for the greeny-gray sci-fi car parked in the farthest slot. "Pfft, what's the problem, it's not like you can't afford it," he said.
The Lamborghini's doors pivoted upwards to reveal a disturbingly tiny passenger compartment, all in black and dull green suede. Between the two seats was a little plaque that said Reventón 04/20; the rest of the car looked like a cross between a jet fighter and a time-traveling DeLorean. Simon barely fit inside: his head nearly brushed against the car's low roof, his knees were pressed up against the dashboard, and he had to hunch his shoulders just to get the door back down.
"That doesn't look very comfortable," Jeremy said as he fitted himself into the low-slung green suede sling of the driver's seat. More compact than Simon, he fit perfectly.
"I don't care," Simon said happily, packed into the passenger side of the car like a sardine. "I am willing to suffer for this experience."
Jeremy popped out the key and gingerly inserted it into the ignition. "If you say so, Simon."
"Maybe you get to ride around in cars like this all the time, but this is my one chance," Simon said. "Shut up and start the car."
Jeremy shut his eyes, looking for all the world like a man saying a silent prayer, and twisted the key in the ignitionsomewhere behind Simon's head a thousand-pound cat snarled in warning before settling into a low growl. Simon went limp, transported.
Putting the car in reverse, Jeremy backed it out of its stall. He wasn't even touching the gas and yet the car idled backwards at the speed of a brisk walkJeremy looked much less tense once he managed to get the car moving forward. "I think it's quite safe to say that I've never driven a 'car like this' before," he said, nudging the massive thing down the drive.
"Hey, think of it as a character-building experience," Simon said. There was a panic handle built into the dashboard by his left knee and Simon absently wrapped a hand around it.
Jeremy left the Lamborghini running while he hopped out to open the gate, leaving Simon alone inside the belly of the beast. Once he was sure Jeremy wasn't looking, Simon reached out and ran a loving finger over the padded curve of the steering wheel. Mike was going to die. Simon was looking forward to it, sort of.
The gate swung ponderously open; Jeremy ran back to the car and dropped in, buckling his seatbelt. "Here goes nothing," he said, nudging the car's nose out past the open gates, towards the street.
"Mm-hmm," Simon said, not listening at all.
The roads that ran around the hill were narrow and curving, constraining the Lamborghini to maybe the bottom fourth of first gear. Simon was torn between appreciating the growl behind him and anticipating the wider streets ahead; Jeremy drove with a near-total concentration, adjusting his grip on the wheel every few seconds. "So," Simon said, after a minute or two. "I suspect that you would not thank me for putting my hand on your leg right about now."
"You would be correct," Jeremy said.
"See, that's the sort of thing that makes you such a pussy," Simon said. Jeremy drifted the car neatly around a curve and Simon's eyes fought to close in appreciation; Simon shook it off a moment later and added, "A real man would understand that there is nothing better in life than getting a handjob while driving a sweet car like this one, except maybe doing all that while occasionally firing a high-caliber weapon out the window."
Jeremy glanced at Simon for a fraction of a second. "Sometimes it's so hard to tell if you're being serious," he said.
Instead of heading south to the little town at the foot of the hill, Jeremy guided the Lamborghini down the hill to the east. Simon started to see signs for the E25, which would have made him sit up and take notice, if sitting up wouldn't have meant hitting his head on the low roof of the car.
Five minutes later they rolled gently up onto the autostrada. Jeremy took a quick breath, flexed his fingers, and gave the engine its head. The Lamborghini leaped forward spooky-quick, leaving Simon feeling a good deal less slammed back into his seat than he felt he ought to be. Ahead of them people in smaller cars were already shifting over, putting their wheels on the shoulder to clear a path; Simon could see the pale ovals of faces turning towards them. Jeremy let the car drift over to the left, his little smile going crooked. Ahead of them was nothing but empty road as far as Simon could see"Well," Jeremy said, nearly purring it.
"Oh, Christ," Simon said, grabbing for whatever he could catch.
"I expect I may come to regret this decision," said Jeremy. He dropped his foot and the Lamborghini exploded forward.
Twenty seconds later Jeremy brought them back down to a semi-reasonable speed, leaving Simon gasping for breath in the seat next to him. They were still going at a good clip, faster than anyone else around them. Cars shifted out of their way with alacrity as they blew past. "Christ," Simon said, when he could speak again. "Warp speed."
"Are you happy now?"
"Oh yeah." Simon swallowed. "I'm not gonna say that was the highlight of my life to date, because that would be kind of sadbut still, as moments go, it's pretty far up there."
Fifteen minutes later the initial rush had mostly died off and Simon was starting to cramp up. He didn't regret his decision, not for an instant, but a Lamborghini was not the ideal car for touring, particularly for a guy of Simon's size; for the fifth or sixth time he tried to wiggle himself backwards in his seat and buy himself a little more leg room. He failed this time, too. "How much further are we going?" Simon finally asked.
"At this rate, another ten minutes or so," Jeremy said, slowing slightly before accelerating into the curve. "Are you all right?"
"See, here's the problem," Simon said, hunching his shoulders. "I'm starting to hurt a little, yeah, but you're not allowed to say or even insinuate that you told me so, because I still find it an acceptable tradeoff."
Jeremy's little smile was mostly reflexive. "I assure you, I was intending to say nothing of the sort."
"Yeah, right, sure, I'll buy that."
"You ought to be able to get out and stretch once we reach our destination," Jeremy added.
"Uh huh," Simon said, dropping his chin onto his chest. "And where's that?"
Simon wasn't expecting an answerJeremy wasn't in the habit of giving straight answers, everbut Jeremy surprised him once again. "We are, in point of fact, going to a pawn shop," Jeremy said. "A pawn shop a few towns over, just to be safe."
"A pawn shop."
Simon lifted his head, nearly braining himself against the car's roof again. "So, let me get this straight. We're going to a pawn shop."
"Yes, Simon," Jeremy said patiently.
"We are going to a pawn shop... in a Lamborghini."
Jeremy pressed his lips together, imperfectly stifling a laugh.
Simon's neck was starting to develop a pretty severe crick by the time Jeremy guided the car back off the autostrada and onto the surface streets. They rolled past expensive houses and heavily-wooded lots, dropping slowly but inexorably towards the sea that glimmered off to their left.
One last turn put them on a winding road that hugged the land's edge. Beyond it there was a sharp drop-off, and beyond that, the Mediterranean. Simon slid down an inch or two and stared out the windshield, for the moment thinking of nothing beyond the view and the dull ache building in his muscles. "Man," he said, after a moment.
"Hm?" said Jeremy, mostly occupied by the road.
"Nothing." Simon waved a hand. "Heck of a view, is all."
Jeremy smiled and dropped the subject.
Another minute or two on the road dropped them rather abruptly from expensive-beachfront-property Italy to rundown-working-shipyard Italy. The Lamborghini looked more out of place than ever. People stopped to stare as it slid past, and one car pulled a sharp U-turn just to follow them for a block or two. Jeremy watched it in the rearview mirror, his lips compressed; Simon pressed his ankle against the door, checking the comforting weight of the little SIG in its holster. Still, after a minute or so the car went on about its business and they both relaxed.
"So much for keeping a low profile," Jeremy said, laughing under his breath.
"Yeah, well, with that much Lamborghini to stare at, no one's going to be looking at its driver," Simon said. "In a weird way you're as anonymous as you ever were."
Jeremy put on the turn signal and took them off the cliff's edge road, back up into the little town. "I suppose you're right," he said.
"I'm always right," Simon said. "It's just that some times I'm more right than others."
The pawn shop looked a bit nicer than the pawn shops that Simon was used to, but not much nicer. It was a long, low, anonymous little white building with a tiny parking lot off to one side; Simon could see the by-now-familiar white ovals of staring faces from inside the shop as Jeremy took the Lamborghini up and into the parking lot. "Would you mind terribly staying with the car?" Jeremy said, shutting off the engine. "For some reason I'm a tad loath to leave it unguarded."
"Yeah, no, I'll stay with it," Simon said. "No problem."
By the time Jeremy let himself out of the car there were two loose clumps of gawkers forming, both a respectful distance away. Jeremy ignored them utterly, rounding the butt end of the Lamborghini and vanishing into the pawn shop; Simon pushed up the passenger-side door, unfolded himself like origami from the passenger compartment, and staggered around until the muscles attached to his spine unkinked. Some of the original gawkers moved on, replaced by others. After a moment's thought, Simon rounded the car and leaned against the driver's-side door, folding his arms over his chest.
Eventually Jeremy reappeared, carrying a large bag. "Well!" he said, studying Simon over the top of his sunglasses. "You look proprietary."
"That is the whole point," Simon said, patting the Reventón's side.
Jeremy smiled and flicked his sunglasses back up. "Unfortunately, it's time for you to start folding yourself back in," he said.
Simon winced. "Yeah, I'm looking forward to that," he said, straightening up. "And you still don't get to tell me that you told me so."
"I wouldn't dream of it, Simon," said Jeremy, raising the driver's-side door.
Now that the novelty of the Lamborghini had worn off, the drive back to the villa was uncomfortable, long, and sadly, rather dull. Even eighty miles per hour on the autostrada couldn't quite offset the ache in Simon's knees; by the time Jeremy halted the car outside the gates Simon was pretty sure that his spine would never unknot again.
Leaning out the window, Jeremy typed the six-digit code into the keypad. The gates shuddered and swung slowly inward. "Am I going to have to carry you into the house?" Jeremy asked pleasantly.
"You say that like you think you could," Simon said.
"Mm. Good point. You are something of an overgrown brute." Jeremy trundled the car in through the gates and up the drive, stopping it about fifteen feet in.
Simon looked around, confused, then looked at Jeremy. "Why'd you stop?"
"I was going to ask if you'd like to drive it back up to the garage," Jeremy said. Behind them the gate started to shut again.
"Hot damn," Simon said, his minor pains forgotten in the midst of the rush. He stumbled out of the car and around to the driver's side like an old man, too intent on this opportunity to really care; Jeremy slipped neatly by him and into the passenger's seat, his expression enigmatic.
Getting his knees around the steering wheel was something of a trick. The dashboard still nudged up against Simon's shins, making access to the pedals a little difficultSimon put both hands on the steering wheel and sagged in something like ecstasy. "Okay," he said all in a rush, "maybe this is the best moment of my life," and he twisted the key, making the massive V12 engine behind him roar to life. "Oh, Christ," he said weakly.
Jeremy's hand dropped featherlight onto his thigh. "What was that you were saying?" Jeremy said, feigning an innocence that the purring tone in his voice belied. "About there being nothing better in life...?"
Simon squeezed his eyes shut, his knuckles going white on the steering wheel. "While I totally meant that, because it is deeply, profoundly true," he said, trying and failing to keep the shiver out of his voice, "I think that actually trying to put it into practice would result in my driving this gazillion-dollar car directly into a tree, do not pass Go, do not collect one-point-four million dollars. Plus my current gun is, sadly, of an insufficient caliber."
"Pity, that," Jeremy said, his fingers toying with the inseam of Simon's jeans.
"Oh Jesus yeah," Simon breathed, in perfect agreement.
After a long, breathless moment, Jeremy patted Simon's thigh and pulled his hand away. Simon opened his eyes, cleared his throat, and put the Lamborghini into gear.
"Um," said Dave, clumsily juggling his armload of battered laptops. There looked to be at least three in the pile, although from Simon's vantage point he couldn't be sure.
Jeremy's smile was patient, bordering on long-suffering. "You said three or four years old," he reminded Dave.
"I have no idea how well any of those will work, or exactly how much computing power you'll need," said Jeremy, shrugging, "so I just bought them all."
"Okay," Dave said, obviously at a loss.
Jeremy arched an eyebrow. "Is there a problem?"
"What? Um. No, no problem." Dave shuffled over to the blue glass desk and carefully deposited the stack of computers on it. "I guess I wasn't expecting your solution to be so... thorough?"
"Ah." Jeremy handed over the plastic bag from the pawn shop. "There are the power cords and such. Will you need anything else?"
Dave dubiously extracted a Gordian Knot of cords from the bag and inspected it. "I don't think so, assuming at least a couple of them workoh, hey, bonus Ethernet cable." The plastic bag fluttered to the floor, forgotten, as Dave bent all of his considerable attention on prying a blue cord free of the tangle. "It'll take me a couple of hours to get things up and running," he said, talking more to himself (and to the knot of cords) than to Jeremy, or to Simon. "They're probably all running some version of Italian-language Windows, and I don't even speak Italian..."
"Let alone Windows," Nate added.
Dave's head came up. "I speak Windows," he said, taken aback. "I was in Internet Crime for years!"
"So what are you going to install on those?" Nate asked, gesturing at the pile of laptops.
Dave glanced over his shoulder. "Probably a Gentoo distro? I don't know yet, that's pretty hardcore for a temporary setup..."
"Nerd," Nate said happily.
"And that's our cue to leave, before the geekiness gets too deep," Simon said loudly, catching Jeremy's shoulder and guiding him firmly towards the door. "Come get me if and when you've got something to show."
The blue cable whipped free of the knot. "Okay," Dave said, putting the cable aside and picking out the end of another cord.
The rumble of the garage door going up was so muted by the ridiculous distance that Simon at first thought he was imagining it. Mike bellowed out a welcome as soon as he hit the kitchen; upstairs, in the white room, it was just barely audible. Still, the combination of the two served to convince Simon that yes, the rest of his team was back. Simon put aside his book and headed downstairs.
'Heading downstairs' in this overgrown shopping mall of a house was actually a fairly serious undertaking, which only added to Simon's general sense of isolation. Still, once he got into the downstairs hallway he could hear thumping and cheerful bellowing from the direction of the kitchen, which helped. "so good," Mike was saying as Simon booted the kitchen door open.
"What's good?" Simon asked.
Mike glanced over his shoulder, wielding a wide-bladed kitchen knife, a fat wedge of tomato poking out of his mouth. "Good produce," he said around the tomato, incidentally spraying tomato seeds over the counter. Mike winced and grabbed a paper towel.
Simon eyed this vision askance. "Wait," he said. "Wait, wait, wait. You eat raw vegetables? I've seen you scavenge two-day-old pizza crusts out of discarded boxes."
"Yeah, well, you eat what's available," Mike said, finishing off the tomato slice. Sandra, unloading provisions into the massive brushed-metal fridge, paused long enough to snitch a second wedge of tomato off the cutting board.
Johnny thumped up the stairs from the garage, arms full of grocery bags. "Yo, boss," he said, dumping the bags on the ever-growing pile on the counter, which Sandra was doing her best to diminish again. Bags abandoned, Johnny wheeled around and headed back out to the van again.
Simon rolled his eyes and rounded the counter to pitch in. The first bag he pulled towards himself was full of bread in bakery bagsstill warm, his hands informed him. "Goddamn," Simon said. "So where do you want the bread? Assuming, you know, that I don't just eat it all right now."
"Bread in the breadbox," Mike said, pointing with his chef's knife. "Produce by the sink until I can wash that shit. Raw meat in the bottom drawer in the fridge, cheese and sandwich-type meat in the top drawer, juice and bottled crap in the fridge door, Nate's Cokes wherever. Eggs and milk on the top shelf."
Simon listened to this recitation with growing bemusement. "Yes, sir," he finally said, filching a roll before picking up the bag full of bread and carrying it over to the massive wooden breadbox.
By mutual unspoken agreement, they ate dinner standing up, ranged around the granite-topped kitchen island. The dining room was a massive and intimidating space, bigger than your average restaurant's dining area, with long mahogany tables capable of seating twenty or thirty people apieceSimon had dismissed it with a shudder after a single look around, and apparently most everyone agreed with him.
Working with a furious, whooping clatter, Mike had managed to produce some kind of pasta with fresh vegetables which surprised Simon by not only being edible, but actually pretty good. "Damn, Honda," he said, swallowing. "You got any other hidden talents I need to know about?" He knew it was a tactical error the moment he said it.
"Ohhh yeah," Mike half-sang, leering at Simon over his beer. "Man, my talents are the hiddenest. You come to my room later tonight and I'll totally fill you in, boss."
"I have never in my life been so glad that someone said 'in' instead of 'up'," Simon said, faking a shudder. "Someone pass the damn bread, I've got to get this foul taste out of my mouth."
"You could say 'please', Simon," said Jeremy, obligingly holding out the breadbasket. Nate took it from him, picked out a piece of bread, and passed it on down to Simon.
Simon took two pieces of bread and lined them up on the edge of his plate. "Yeah, I suppose I could," he said. "Anyone else want some bread before I eat the rest of it?"
Dave looked up from his plate and made 'gimme' motions until Johnny took the basket from Simon and passed it back on down. "Thanks," Dave said, swallowing his mouthful of pasta before stripping the breadbasket bare, like a plague of locusts.
"Any progress on the disk, Stone?" Simon asked.
Dave held up a hand while he finished his mouthful of bread. "Not yet," he said once he'd swallowed. "I'd just finished stripping and setting up the laptops when Nate came to get me for dinner. I'll take a look at it once I'm done eating."
"Okay," Simon said. "Great. Mind if I come watch?"
"No?" Dave ate another giant mouthful of bread. "I mean, it may not be very interesting..."
"That's fine," Simon said firmly. "In fact, you know what, I think I'd prefer it to be uninteresting."
Simon picked up a bit of discarded computer innard and squinted at it. "What is this?"
"Internal modem," Dave said absently, hooking up the Zip drive to one of the four laptops on his desk, ranged in a neat half-circle. The two of them had retreated to the blue room after dinner, leaving the others behind in the kitchen to deal with the dishes. "I really, really don't want to be forced to connect to the internet if this thing is as badass a machine-killer as you say."
"Huh. Okay. Good call." Simon put down the modem and picked up a different random thing from the pile. "What's this?"
Dave booted up the laptop. "Wireless card. Same deal."
Nate poked his head in from the green room. "Hey," he said. "Did I miss anything?"
"Not yet, Specs," said Simon, finding himself a convenient place to lean. "Stonewall's just getting things set up now."
"Oh, good." Nate dragged in a chair and set himself up behind Dave, straddling the back of the chair and folding his arms on top. "I have to admit, I'm kind of curious..." He trailed off there and ducked his head, rubbing the back of his neck. "You know. Despite everything."
Simon shut his eyes. "Yeah, Specs," he said. "I know."
"Me too," said Dave, his attention mostly on the laptop in front of him. "I mean, I know I never knew the guy..." He picked up the black Zip disk, eyed it askance, and then slotted it into the drive. "Here goes nothing," he said, pushing it in.
The disk made a chunking noise and then whirred up. All three of them tensed. The drive whirred for a while longer and then the disk's icon appeared on the screen; after a few seconds in which nothing happened, Simon asked, "So... what's going on?"
"Well, nothing." Dave brought up a couple of windows. "It's not executing itself, anyway, which is... huh." He pulled up another window. This one had three files in it, specs.xls, specs2.xls, and designspecs.doc.
"Heh, Specs and Specs Two," Nate said. "... that's really not funny, is it."
"Specs Two's ego strikes again," Simon said.
Dave did something and the view of the window changed. "There," he said, tapping the screen. "See, they look like Excel and Word files, but they're all executables. I guess for these to work, someone has to load up the disc and try to open one of the files."
"So... go ahead, open a file," Simon said. "Hell, even if it reduces that computer to slag, you've got three more, right?"
"Well, there's always the chance that running the disk could make it erase itself," said Dave. "But I don't need to actually run the executables if I can just look at the code." More windows bloomed into existence, full of complete and utter gibberish. "Huh," Dave said, and settled in, scrolling through the mess.
After five minutes or so, just as Simon was starting to consider poking Dave, someone knocked on the hallway door. Jeremy pushed the door open a crack and stuck his head in. "Any luck?"
"Not yet," Simon said. "Dave's still reading."
Jeremy let himself in, closing the door behind him. "Far be it from me to interrupt," he said, finding an out-of-the-way spot in which to lurk.
"Uh," Dave said, rousing himself from his computer-based coma. "This is going to take a while. If you guys want to come back in an hour or so, I'll probably know more then?"
"I want to stay," Nate said.
Simon straightened up. "I'll leave you to it," he said. His stomach turned over. He tried to ignore it. "But... I need answers, Stone. Just for my own damned peace of mind."
"I know," Dave said, blinking. "I'll find some."
"I'll be in the white room," Simon said, flipping them all a wave and heading for the door. "Come get me when you're ready."
After a moment of hesitation, Jeremy followed Simon back out. The door to the blue room closed behind them, leaving them both mostly in shadow; the massive windows of the hallway faced east, already displaying a deep purple band of sky across the horizon and one or two ambitious stars. Simon went to the windows and crossed his arms over his chest, watching the stars blink on. "You know, I have absolutely no idea how I feel about this," he said, pitching his voice low to avoid echoing too badly.
"I know," Jeremy said.
"I mean, even if that disk is completely on the level, it's still a little piece of Rich, you know?" Simon pinched the bridge of his nose, fighting off an incipient headache. "And if it's not... God knows what it is, or what Rich meant it to do. I feel like I narrowly avoided being responsible for a catastrophe."
"I know," Jeremy said again. His fingers lit on Simon's arm for a bare moment before falling away.
"I guess you do," Simon said, letting his hand drop. "You're the one who asked him to make it."
After a moment of hesitation, Jeremy moved up beside him, his face shadowed and anonymous in the gathering dusk. "I suppose that in the matter of Mr. Story, there's enough of a burden of responsibility for several people to carry."
"Yeah," Simon said. "And yet, no. Rich is Rich's fault, pure and simple. Whatever's on that disk is his fault, too. But I have to bear responsibility for the things he did under my aegis"
"I know," Jeremy said, his little smile a flash in the darkness.
"Guess you do." Simon thumped the back of his hand lightly against Jeremy's chest. "And yeah, it was your idea to have him make the disk. Christ, if I'd known how much we were playing right into his hands..."
"You couldn't have known," Jeremy said. "No one could."
Simon hesitated. "You knew," he finally said. "Not right away, but... you knew."
"I suspected." Jeremy looked away. "And that only because Nate looked at Rich's computer at just the wrong time. Or the right time, if you prefer."
"Yeah," Simon said. Jeremy was half-turned away from him now, looking out the windows; Simon looked down at the marble floor between his feet. "I just"
"Don't," Jeremy said, his voice painfully kind. "It's all right. It's over."
Simon subsided, grumpily. "You don't even know what I was going to say."
"No, I suppose not, but if I had to hazard a guess... well, I could." Jeremy sighed. The little sound was uneven.
"Guess so," Simon said, a heartbeat too slow.
Jeremy hesitated, glancing at Simon and then away. "I'm going to go back to my room," he said, the words carefully light. "Do come get me when Dave's ready to explain"
Simon reached out and grabbed Jeremy's arm before Jeremy could take more than a step away. Jeremy turned back, raising his eyebrows quizzically at Simon; after a moment Simon dropped Jeremy's arm again. "Never mind," Simon said. "You're right. It's over."
"There you are, then," Jeremy said. He touched Simon's shoulder before moving away, heading off down the hall without the slightest trace of an echo dogging his footsteps.
All in all, it took Dave slightly over two hours. Simon was within twenty pages of the end of his book when someone knocked on the hallway door. "Templar?" Nate said, his voice muffled by the door. He sounded oddly breathless: relieved, or hysterical, or something. "We're ready."
Simon dropped his book onto the coffee table. "Yeah, I'm coming," he called, fighting down a little frisson of nerves. "Go get Archer, will you? Actually, round up everybody."
"I'm going," Nate said. His footsteps pattered off down the hall, quick and light.
Simon took a quick detour into the bathroom to splash water on his face and have a couple of Advil, then let himself back out into the hallway. Someone had found and turned on the hallway lights, turning the monstrous windows into dark mirrors and the entire world into antique gold. The hallway was mostly empty, save for a little cluster of people gathered around the blue door; they filtered into the room even as Simon headed that way, and by the time he got there everyone had found a place to sit, out of the way.
Dave looked up as Simon came in, and Simon stopped in his tracks. Dave's eyes were wide and his face was drawn, a sure sign that something was up, and whatever it was, it was big. Simon shook his head and got himself moving again, finding himself a place behind Dave. "So what's up?" he said.
"Well," Dave said, and then Jeremy let himself into the room. After a quick glance around, he closed the door behind himself.
Simon nodded to Jeremy, then turned his attention back to Dave. "Well, what?"
Now that he'd said that, of course, Dave was left flailing for a way to explain himself. "It's... well, it's definitely a machine-killer," he finally said. "If one of Karpol's people loaded this disk into a drive and ran any one of the three executables, I think Karpol's entire network would be a smoking crater in something like twenty-four hours. They might never know what hit them."
Simon let out a breath he didn't know he'd been holding. "Okay," he said. "That's great. I mean, seriously, I'm glad to hear that. Now let me hear the 'but' that's coming."
Mike sniggered at that, just like Simon had been expecting. Sandra, sitting on the bed next to Mike, smacked him. Mike said "Oof!" and went quiet.
"It's not really a 'but'," Dave said. "It's more of a 'how'."
"Then let me hear it," Simon said, controlling his little burst of irritation.
Dave turned back to his laptop and started shuffling windows, absently and at speed, like a nervous twitch. "It took me like half an hour to realize what I was looking at," he said, enthralled. "The executables are all programmed to look for a particular string of characters written to the drive of any computer, see? They seek out and destroy any machine with that string written to its hard drive, and they just hide on clean machines and scan the data that's coming in, looking for the string. It checks all sectors, too, so it'll find the string even if the document that it was in got deleted, assuming those sectors haven't been written over yetand if a machine is clean but later gets that string of characters uploaded to it, the machine-killer kicks in and eats that machine, too. You could set it off with an email, if you knew what you were doing"
"Okay," Simon said patiently. "In English?"
"Oh. Um. Right." Dave bit his lower lip, thinking. "It's like a disease that's ninety-nine percent fatal if you have freckles," he finally said. "You can be a carrier for the disease and pass it on to other people even if you don't have freckles. If you had freckles as a kid and grew out of them, though, it'll still kill you about half the time, and if you spend too much time out in the sun later on and develop freckles, then the disease in your system will kill you."
"Okay," Simon said again, somewhat unsettled. "So... I guess the question I'm supposed to ask now is: what is the computer equivalent of a freckle?" He stopped. "Did I actually just say that?"
Dave touched the screen of his laptop. "Oh, man, it's evil," he said happily. "That's what took me so long, remembering where I'd seen the string before." Dropping his hands to the laptop's touchpad, Dave highlighted a random string of letters and numbers that lurked in the middle of all the gibberish. "There," he said.
Simon squinted at it. "Yep, there it is," he said. "So... what is it?"
"Those are the hidden characters in the line that Mr. Story added to the bottom of every page of information that he funneled to Viktor Karpol," Dave said. "Remember, I told you about it? The one that says 'PROPERTY OF THE FBI CONFIDENTIAL DO NOT DISTRIBUTE OR REPRODUCE', that he added by hand to every page? That's it."
Simon went very still, one hand on the back of Dave's chair. He wasn't quite sure he understood, but he was starting to see the dim outline of things, and he didn't know if it was wonderful or terrible. "Spell it out for me, Stonewall," he said.
"Mr. Story wrote this machine-killer specifically to seek out and destroy every machine that had ever come into contact with the leaked FBI information," Dave said. "If he and this disk had their way, it would erase every copy of his, uh, indiscretion from the face of the planet and take down most of Karpol's network to boot. I can almost guarantee it."
Somewhere behind Dave, Simon's knees gave out. He sank more or less gracefully into a crouch, clutching at the back of Dave's chair with both hands. Dave, mostly unaware, just babbled on. "With code of this skill level, I wouldn't be surprised if he'd done a lot of the preliminary footwork for meI can write a program to monitor its spread, he must have had one already but I never found itit'd be possible to target and destroy any computer, even completely clean ones, just by sending the right emailoh, crap, I'd better write some kind of removal tool before the script kiddies find it..."
"That's," Simon started to say. All that came out was a puff of air, and he had to stop and swallow. "That's great, Stone," Simon said, hauling himself painfully to his feet and clapping Dave on the shoulder. "You're the man."
"They couldn't even restore from backup," Dave said, completely unable to stop talking. Above his flapping jaw his eyes were still wide and startled. "The machine-killer would just destroy the machines all over again, and probably damage the backupsand that's assuming they have backups at all! What kind of IT department does the Russian mafia have anyway, I bet it's not so good..."
"Dave," Simon said, holding up a hand. Dave broke off in the middle of a sentence with an audible click of teeth. "How safe is it?" Simon asked. "If we let this thing go, is there any chance it could get out of control?"
Dave swallowed. "Not much," he said. "I mean, yes, it could, if it spread far enough that a smart programmer could get his hands on it and use it himself, but I can have a patch for it all ready to go by the time it gets set off... we could probably let it run rampant for a couple of days and then shut it down, and it wouldn't damage too much beyond Karpol's own network."
"Okay," Simon said. "How long will it take you to write these programs that you need?"
"A day, maybe two," Dave said.
"Will you need anything else?"
"I don't think so." Dave touched the screen of his laptop again.
Simon nodded. "Okay," he said. "Think carefully about this next one, because a lot depends on your answer."
"If that disk gets into the hands of Karpol's cronies and is unleashed on the world" Simon tapped the Zip drive "there's no chance that Rich will destroy the Internet from beyond the grave or anything, right?"
Dave flapped helplessly for a moment before his jaw firmed. The light which sprang into his pale blue eyes was nothing short of crazy. "Give me two days and I'll make sure of it," he said. "My God, this is going to be great"
"Good man," Simon said, cutting that off before it could get any more disturbing. He took a deep breath, scrubbed a hand down his face, and looked at Jeremy. "It's yours," he said. "That motherfucker took Rich down for the sake of his own convenienceyou take that Zip disk and you make him choke on it."
After a moment, Jeremy bowed his head in acquiescence. "Done," he said. "Done, and done."
Dave sank into rapt communion with one of the laptops, rapidly forgetting that there was anyone else in the room at all. Nate seemed to be there for the long haul, but the rest of them stood up and left in ones and twos, mostly quiet, mostly reflective.
Simon hung onto the back of Dave's chair, absently rubbing his chest. "You comin'?" Johnny said, stopping by Simon to thump him companionably on the shoulder.
"Yeah," Simon said, straightening up and glancing around. Mike and Sandra were gone, the door to the indigo room closed; Jeremy had vanished, as usual, probably back off to his own room. "Yeah," Simon said again. "Let's go."
They let themselves out into the hall and headed for their rooms, down at one end. Johnny was silent for most of the trip, his bootheels stunningly loud in the echo chamber of a hallway. "Interesting," he finally said, just as they drew up level with the door to the red room.
"Yeah," Simon said. They both stopped, the echoes of their footsteps dying away to nothing. "I guess Rich thought we'd finally given him an out. Christ, he must have thought he saw the light at the end of the tunnel."
Johnny glanced over his shoulder, then shrugged. "Least it means he wasn't entirely under Karpol's thumb. He was, that'd have been a disk full of pretty pictures or something."
"I don't know if I'll ever forgive him," Simon said. Something in Simon's chest, some long-held tension, started to loosen"I mean, he fucked up and he did us all wrong, but... well, Jesus, he paid the price, and now I find out that he was trying to fix things at the eleventh hour, no matter how bass-ackwardly."
Johnny was silent, his half-closed eyes intent on Simon's face. Simon reached up and pressed a hand to his chest again. "I'll probably never forgive him for what he did," Simon said, aware of the pain lodged just under his breastbone, "but maybe now I don't have to hate him in the bargain. You know?"
"Yeah," Johnny said. "You wanna come in and drink to that? I got a bottle of something..."
Simon blew out a breath, and just like that, the pain in his chest dissolved and vanished. "Christ, yes," he said, managing to smile. "Let's drink to that, Texas. You have the best goddamn ideas."
By the time Simon let himself back into the white room, buzzing gently along, the moon had risen over the hills. Simon drifted around, changing into his pajama pantswhite, he noted, just buzzed enough to find this funnylocking all the doors, and turning off the lights.
The high windows and massive skylights let in the moonlight, dyeing the white room and Simon both a brilliant grayish-blue. It was bright enough that Simon could still see clearly, bright enough to throw long black shadows on the floorSimon picked his way over to the gigantic bed. The bed was tall enough that he actually had to climb in instead of just flopping out, but once he was up there, it was worth it: people who were rich enough apparently didn't skimp on anything, including mattresses. Simon muzzily shut his eyes and thought of clouds, then snorted at himself for sounding like a commercial.
"Man," he said under his breath, for no real reason, just getting that out there. It had been a hell of a day, for many reasons, and by all rights he ought to be exhausted, but right now his brain was ticking along, booze fog or no booze fog. He still felt like an interloper in this vast and obscenely wealthy white space, but the villa was quiet and the bed was welcoming and the moonlight was nice against the white walls...
Simon snapped out of his light doze when the edge of the mattress dented under the weight of someone who wasn't him. Jeremy slid into Simon's line of sight like a hovering specter; he was still wearing his black pants and t-shirt, and the combination, together with his everpresent tan, made him a shadow against the moonlit walls in every sense of the word. "How'd you get in here?" Simon muttered, too sleepy and booze-foggy to pay much attention what he was saying. His hands, with no real input from their owner, reached up to curl over Jeremy's hips, fiddling his t-shirt free of his pants. Simon licked his lips. "I locked the doors."
"Don't be ridiculous, Simon," Jeremy breathed, drifting down to touch his lips to Simon's own.