Part Nine, Chapters 38-41

      By the time Simon pried his eyes open the next morning, the sun was well up, the room was a blinding white in the morning sunlight, and Jeremy was gone. Both doors were still locked; if it hadn't been for the odd taste in his mouth and the fact that his pajama pants were currently heaped on the floor, Simon might have thought he dreamed the whole thing. As it was, Simon ran his tongue over his lips, grimaced, and slithered carefully out of bed while his system tried to decide if he deserved a slight hangover or not.

      A long shower and another couple of Advil convinced his body that the answer was 'no', and Simon got dressed and let himself out of his room. Everything was quiet. Simon paused to wince grumpily at the glare of the east-facing windows in the hallway, then, after a moment's thought, he wandered down to the blue room and put an ear to the door.

      His reward for this little act of espionage was the sound of typing. Simon knocked desultorily on the door with one hand and let himself in with the other, already knowing what he was going to see.

      Nate, still fully dressed, was curled up on top of the covers of the blue bed with one arm thrown over his face, sound asleep and snoring lightly. Dave was sitting in front of what Simon thought of as his 'real' computer, the tiny palmtop that Dave carried everywhere; Dave's face was long and drawn, his eyes were wide and bloodshot, and he desperately needed a shave.

      It was, in short, so utterly familiar, here in this place so far away from everything that Simon was used to, that it warmed his heart just to see it. "Dave," he said.

      Dave grunted a little. Simon tried not to laugh at him. "Daaa-ave," he said, drawing it out.

      "Huh?" Dave tore his eyes away from the screen—Simon's imagination supplied a sound like Velcro ripping apart—and blinked at Simon. He winced and scrubbed his eyes with his fists. "Morning, Templar," he said. "What's up?"

      Simon hunkered down by the side of Dave's chair. "So!" he said. "Far be it from me to dictate terms to a man on his vacation, but I'm thinking you could use some sleep."

      "I..." Dave's protest trailed off. "Oh," he said. "I guess I didn't sleep."

      "Guess not," Simon agreed. "So! Here's what I recommend, since I can't actually order you around right now: come downstairs with me and eat something for breakfast. Once you've done that, you should crash for a while. Will you do that for me? You know, as a favor, one friend to another?"

      Dave stared at Simon for a moment, uncomprehending, like he wasn't speaking English. His neck creaked as he turned around to look at the bed. "Huh," Dave said. "Nate fell asleep."

      "Yes, he did, and also I am completely impressed with your razor-sharp observational skills," Simon said. "You can always go crash in the green room if you need to, or poke him until he gets up. He should probably get out of those clothes anyway."

      "Yeah," Dave said, scrubbing at his eyes again. "Let me just make a couple of quick notes and I'll shut everything down, okay?"

      Simon checked his watch. "Five minutes," he said. "And I'm going to wait right here until then, too."

      Dave hunched his shoulders and turned back to his laptop. Simon watched him for a moment, just to make sure he wasn't getting sucked back in, then straightened up and went to wake Nate. "Hey, Specs," he said softly.

      Nate groaned a little, contracting into a smaller, tighter ball. Simon, privately of the opinion that this was adorable, nudged Nate's shoulder. "You need to go next door and go to bed for real, okay?"

      "Kaaay," Nate moaned, not actually moving, his voice clotted and sticky. Still, with a little poking, Simon managed to get Nate both upright and tottering towards the green room. Nate stumbled towards the crazy forest bed, picking at the buttons of his shirt as he went. Simon shut the blue door to give him some privacy.

      Dave closed the lid of his laptop, putting it to sleep. "Okay, Templar," he said, linking his fingers together and stretching his hands up above his head. His spine crackled like a bowl of Rice Krispies.

      "What, I don't even get to poke you?" Simon said, genuinely startled. "Here I thought I'd have to fight you for like twenty minutes before you shut that thing down."

      "Well, um, you said something about food," Dave said.

      "Is that the trick?"

      Dave looked hunted. "Sometimes?"

      They went all the way down to the kitchen without seeing anyone else. The villa was quiet around them—although given its size, there could have been a smallish land war going on in the opposite wing and they never would have known—and the kitchen, when they got there, was empty.

      Dave made a beeline for the fridge. Simon, not quite as hungry, went to check the garage. The van was gone, as was whatever car had originally been parked in the third space. Simon tried to remember; his brain kicked up a picture of something smallish, sporty, and bright red. "Guess everybody took off without us," Simon reported, shutting the door to the garage.

      "Oh, yeah," Dave said, piling the makings of a truly impressive sandwich on the counter. "Sandy said to tell you that she and the guys were going back into Milan to pick up some stuff and that they probably wouldn't be back until about four." He wandered off to raid the breadbox.

      "She did?" Simon said. "And you were going to tell me this... when?"

      "Um. Just now?"

      "I suppose I'm lucky she didn't leave me this message by sticking a Post-It on your head," Simon said. "I wonder where Archer went."

      Dave carried half a loaf of bread to the cutting board and selected a bread knife from the butcher's block. "I don't know," he said. "He didn't tell me. Are you sure he's gone?"

      "Well, someone took off in one of the other cars, and I think Archer's the only one with access to the key safe, more's the damn pity." Simon jiggled the safe's handle, just in case. It didn't budge. "Oh, well. As punishment for not passing Sandy's message on earlier, I sentence you to make me one of those sandwiches."

      "Okay," Dave said, sawing two more slices of bread off the loaf.

      Simon dumped his plate into the sink. "Okay," he said. "You know what, Stonewall? In the service of making sure that you get some goddamned sleep, I am even going to lower myself to do the dishes. How's that for amazing?"

      "I can get them," Dave offered, leaning over to add his plate to the pile.

      "Nope," said Simon. "You can go right back upstairs and put yourself to bed. Of course, you and I both know that you're probably just going to go stare at your computer for twelve more hours, but as long as I don't actually check up on you, we can both pretend that you're sleeping. How's that?"

      Dave scrubbed both hands over his scratchy cheeks. "I think maybe sleep would be good," he said.

      "Hey, what do you know, we're in agreement." Simon turned on the faucet, picked up a plate, and held it under the water. "So how's everything going, anyway?"

      "Pretty good," Dave said. "I decided to write the removal tool first, because it's the easier of the two programs, and I'm actually pretty much done with it. I just need to set up a LAN and test it—oh."

      Simon ran the other plate under the rapidly-warming water. "Oh?" he prompted, after a moment.

      "I just realized... if the machine-killer gets as far as my work machines, it'll probably take out the big one, since it has the Karpol file on its hard drive." Dave scratched the back of his head. "I mean, I'm guessing that Mr. Story immunized his system against the machine-killer, but for all I know the patch got eaten when it started deleting files..."

      "Is that going to be a problem?" Simon asked, reaching for the soap.

      Dave considered this for a moment. "Probably not," he finally said. "I mean, the machine is off right now—or it should be, anyway—and I can take it off the network when we get back and patch it."

      "So... no problem," Simon said. "Go to bed, Dave."

      "Okay," Dave said, scuffing sleepily away.

      Simon's explorations had taken him almost to the eastern treeline before he saw the little red car winding up the drive towards the villa.

      Shading his eyes with his hand, Simon watched the car's progress. He'd spent most of the morning exploring the rest of the villa—rich people weren't actually people at all, he'd concluded, but some kind of strange rarefied alien species—and after a late lunch he'd set out to explore the grounds, or at least as much of the grounds as he could cover without taking camping gear. So far, all his explorations had really netted him was a useable laundry room and a vague sense of awed disgust. Oh, well. At least his clothes would be clean.

      The red car approached the bend in the gravel road nearest to Simon and slowed to a stop. After one last glance at the trees, Simon decided that he'd had enough nature for one day and headed for the car, breaking into a lazy jog halfway there. The red car waited patiently. "Hey," Simon said, pulling open the passenger side door. "Man, this place makes me think that the communists had a point—what are you wearing?"

      "Isn't it horrible?" Jeremy said, feigning a shudder. "Hop in, I'll run you back up to the house."

      "Seems to me your passenger seat's occupied—" Simon picked the offending object up and found himself holding a yellow hard hat with a discreet British flag on the front. He studied this vision askance for a moment before slinging himself into the tiny roadster, the hard hat nestled in his lap. "Christ. I don't even want to ask, do I?"

      "I rather expect you don't," Jeremy said, peaceably putting the little car back in gear. His tie had been discreetly loosened and the topmost button of his shirt undone, but he was still wearing a real tie, and wearing it with an honest-to-God gray suit; his hair was neatly swept back as usual, but subtly dented where the band of the hard hat had pinned it to his head. "Plausible deniability and all that."

      Simon turned the hard hat over in his hands, running his thumb over the little British flag. "No, okay, I have to know. Anything that could make you put on a suit and tie has got to be at least hilarious."

      "As you like, Simon," Jeremy said, preoccupied with guiding the little car into the garage. "Do congratulate me: as of this morning I am a highly-placed executive in a certain enormous British investment firm."

      "Oh, hey, congratulations," Simon said. "I am really happy for you. That is one hell of a promotion for a guy with no legitimate work experience whatsoever."

      Jeremy shut off the engine and got out of the car, absently tugging his suit coat straight. "Sarcasm is so becoming on you, Simon," he said, not ruffled in the least. "In any case, said investment firm is backing a fairly large construction project down in Genoa, so, as their representative here in Italy, I felt it necessary to acquire a translator and go poke about the site. Making certain that our money is being spent wisely, and all that."

      "Yeah?" Simon said, opening the door to the kitchen. "What's the verdict?"

      "While the construction company is certainly wasting acceptably low levels of the company's money, I must say, I was appalled by the poor security on their job site," Jeremy said. He reached into his jacket and produced a small, grubby key ring. "If they don't start taking more care to lock up behind themselves and secure their keys properly, they're simply asking for some opportunistic thief to come in and rob them blind."

      Simon shook his head sadly. "And that would be a damned shame, not to mention utterly illegal," he said. "So, did you mention that to them?"

      "Not in so many words, no." Jeremy twirled the keys about his finger, just barely smiling. "Sometimes people just have to learn things the hard way, I'm afraid."

      An hour or so later, newly possessed of clean clothes, Simon wandered back down to the kitchen and started poking around, more out of boredom than actual hunger. Mike had bought a cheap American-style coffee maker somewhere and left it on one of the counters; Simon was rummaging around in the cabinets, trying to figure out where Mike had put the coffee, when the garage door rumbled up and the van pulled in. Abandoning the search for the moment, Simon went to welcome home the prodigals. "Hey, folks," Simon said, leaning in the doorway. "What all did you bring us?"

      "Souvenirs!" Mike cried, bounding out of the driver's seat. He kicked the door shut behind him and loped around to the back of the van, pulling the doors open; Johnny hopped out, carrying a duffel bag that bulged oddly. Simon could clearly see the shape of small boxes within. Sandra climbed down out of the passenger seat with a good deal more reserve.

      "Oh, hey, souvenirs," Simon said, shifting aside to let Johnny in. "What kind of souvenirs?"

      "Kind that need to go in the fridge right now," Johnny said, putting the duffel bag on the counter.

      Mike pulled two large black garbage bags out of the back of the van. "Second shelf, dammit, Texas!" he yelled. "You put that shit anywhere else and I'll end up toppin' pizzas with it, swear to God!"

      "You guys got me authentic Milanese garbage as a souvenir?" Simon said. "I'm... really, I'm touched. Seriously, you shouldn't have."

      Sandra pulled another pair of garbage bags out of the back of the van. "We get to have a fashion show," she said, her voice oddly grim.

      "Oh, you went to pick up that kind of stuff," Simon said. "Dave only said stuff. I wasn't sure."

      "There's plenty more if you want to pitch in," said Sandra, shouldering past Simon and thwacking his legs with one of the garbage bags. Whatever was inside was relatively soft, at least.

      Simon watched her go, then went over to see what Johnny was putting in the fridge. The second shelf of the fridge, empty a few minutes ago, was now about half-full of assorted boxes of ammunition. Simon blinked. "Is this where you tell me that everybody keeps their spare cartridges in the fridge while insinuating that I'm ignorant? Is that it? Or is this more of an elaborate practical joke?"

      Johnny pulled two more battered boxes from his duffel and stacked them in the fridge. "Nah," he said.

      "Nah to which? First or second?"

      "Both?" Johnny paused long enough to flash Simon half a grin, then went back to loading the fridge with ammo. "Ain't real ammo," he said, after a moment. "Wax bullets, mostly, all bang, no buck. Some blanks, too."

      "Ohh, right, I remember that now. Guess that explains the need for refrigeration." Simon clapped Johnny on the shoulder and headed out into the garage.

      When Sandra said there was plenty more, she hadn't been kidding. There were two more black garbage bags, one of which bulged like it was full of watermelons, and—Simon hopped into the van to get a closer look—a stack of six honest-to-Christ riot shields. The words Raggruppamento Operativo Speciale had been carefully stenciled across the black bar at the center. Simon picked one up, frowned at the lettering, then flipped the shield over and fitted his arm through the crossbars. It was tall enough to cover him from head to knees but still decently light; the clear high-impact plastic was lightly scratched and worn. Wherever these had come from, they'd seen use. Vaguely unsettled, Simon took off the shield and put it back on the pile.

      The watermelon bag proved to have riot helmets in it. Simon was not surprised.

      "I think that's it," Mike reported, banging back in carrying the last two riot shields. They'd decided to use the orange room as their storage area, since it wasn't much use otherwise; it was still like living inside a pumpkin. Simon tried not to look at the walls too much.

      "Okay," Sandra said, distracted. Six piles of gear lay on every convenient surface in the room, and she was making the rounds between them, distributing things from the garbage bags. She currently had a pile of black turtlenecks in her arms and was picking at the necks, looking for the tags. "So has Dave killed himself yet?" she asked.

      Simon shrugged. "Last time I saw him he was okay and making noises about getting some sleep real soon now," he said.

      "Uh huh. And when was that?"

      "Ten this morning?"

      "That's Dave," Sandra said, finishing up the turtlenecks and returning to the pile of bags. "So where's Archer?"

      "Closeted with Nate having an indepth discussion about chemical explosives," Simon said.

      Sandra fished out a pile of black balaclavas. "And that's Nate," she said.

      Simon considered this for a moment, then pushed himself up and off the dresser. "I'm going to go check on Dave," he said. "Just to be certain."

      "Probably a good call. I'll drop off the pile that's yours when I'm done." Sandra dropped a balaclava on the nearest pile.

      Simon left the orange room, blinking to rid himself of the slight blue afterimages burned on his retinas. The door to the yellow room still stood open, the room itself empty; the green door was shut. Simon paused, then moved on.

      Listening at the blue door once again netted him the sound of typing. Simon knocked and let himself in, mildly exasperated. "You know, it's only been like seven hours," he said. "You are allowed to sleep more than that."

      "I couldn't really sleep," Dave said, not looking up. He looked better—he'd showered and shaved, at least—but his face was still drawn and pallid. "I slept for a little while, though, and once I finish testing the removal tool and patch I'll get some more. Promise."

      "Okay," Simon said, closing the blue door behind himself. "And when will that be?"

      "Um. Two, three more hours?"

      "So... after dinner."

      Dave paused to think about this assertion. "Oh, yeah, there'll be dinner, won't there."

      "Sometimes I think that you've got to be faking it, Dave." Simon clapped him on the shoulder. "You can't genuinely be that clueless."


      "That's my guy," Simon said. "I'm gonna go check on Nate. You carry on and try not to kill yourself, okay?"

      "Okay, Templar," Dave said, subsiding back into a typing trance.

      Leaving Dave to it, Simon went over and knocked on the blue door that separated Dave's room from Nate's. He couldn't actually hear any conversation going on behind it—the rooms were just too damned large—but he still had a momentary perception of startled silence before Nate called, "It's open!"

      Simon pushed the door open and let himself into the forest. Nate and Jeremy were both seated cross-legged on the giant bed, Nate holding Jeremy's cell phone, Jeremy with a legal pad in his lap. "You know, if you're actually going to be in bed together, it'd probably be a good idea to lock the doors," Simon said matter-of-factly, shutting the door behind himself.

      Nate flushed. Jeremy raised one eyebrow. "Oh, dear," he said. "Have we been outed?"

      After a moment of hesitation Simon decided that he really did not want to follow up on this line of conversation. "So what are you two up to? Besides the obvious."

      "Um." Nate brandished the cell phone. "Looking at pictures."

      "I took a few covert snaps inside the construction site," Jeremy added. "Nate's making a wish list."

      "Ah." Simon hesitated. "Are you going to do that tonight?"

      "Most likely." Jeremy kicked himself around to face Simon, hanging one leg off the edge of the bed. "They've almost certainly discovered that the keys are missing by now, so the longer I wait, the more likely it is that they'll start changing locks. I also made a few other slight, ah, revisions, and those will probably be undone over the next few days as well."

      Simon scratched the back of his neck, looked down at his feet, then looked back up. "I can come with you, if you want," he said.

      "That shouldn't be necessary," Jeremy said. "I do prefer not to have to worry about others while I'm working."

      Simon relaxed, trying not to be too obvious about it. "Okay," he said. "But if you change your mind, let me know. And come poke me before you leave, just so I know you're going."

      Jeremy was silent for a beat longer than this statement deserved; then his little smile curled in on itself. "As you like, Simon," he said.

      There was an ominous black pile of clothing waiting on the bed in the white room when Simon let himself back in, with a riot helmet perched neatly on top. One of the riot shields leaned against the foot of the bed like a grayish lens, with a pair of battered black combat boots standing at its foot. Sandra had left a note pinned under the helmet: try it on—make sure it all fits.

      Simon picked up the helmet and turned it over, tugging idly at the chinstrap. There was a Darth Vader-ish flared plastic bit in back for extra neck protection. Simon laughed a little and put the helmet aside, then rummaged through the pile, sorting everything out.

      The turtleneck and pants were both ordinary and plain black, apparently brand-new. Simon checked the tags, then stripped off his jeans and t-shirt and put on his new clothes. They seemed to fit, although the pants were a little tighter than Simon was accustomed to. The turtleneck was pretty ordinary, even bearable once Simon rolled the collar down about halfway.

      Simon smoothed down the front of the turtleneck, then yanked the belt off his jeans and threaded it through the beltloops on the black pants. There had to be a mirror around here somewhere—Simon loped over and opened the door to the closet, confronting himself with a full-length mirror and the spectacle of himself dressed in head-to-toe black. Simon tugged the turtleneck down again, then snickered at himself and went to lace on the boots.

      After the boots came the knee-high shin guards, made out of some kind of dull black metal. Getting those strapped on was something of an adventure—Simon ended up propping his foot up on the dresser and leaving black scuffmarks on the wood—but eventually he figured out which clasp went where. He sorted through the pile again.

      Balaclava next, probably, then gloves. Simon picked up the hood and examined it: it had the same matte black sheen as everything else he was wearing and stretched under his fingers like spandex. Fortunately, it wasn't a ski mask. Five minutes in a knitted balaclava in early July and Simon would probably kill himself just to get away from it. Simon rolled it up into a neat watchcap-like bundle and rolled it back down over his head, tugging at it until the wide hole was centered over his eyes and the bottom edge was tucked neatly into the turtleneck. He picked up the gloves and put them on.

      Now breathing through his mouth—he hated facemasks, he never felt like he was getting quite enough air—Simon picked up the heavy bulletproof vest and shrugged into it, zipping it up the front. It had a collar with a discreet red stripe around it, four thousand cargo pockets, and a division logo on the breast. He tried not to glance at the mirror as he picked up the heavy black belt and strapped the vest into place. Getting the various holsters settled took him another few minutes, and then he dug out the little SIG and slid it into the hip holster. The holster had been made for something of a much larger caliber and Simon's hideout gun was nearly lost in it, but Simon strapped it down anyway.

      Simon picked up the riot helmet and put it on, nudging the elastic chinstrap into place. The material of the balaclava was slippery, making the plastic chinguard a ricochet waiting to happen. He'd have to do something about that before the time came to wear this gear for real. Simon flipped down the face mask, picked up the riot shield, and slid his left arm into it, getting a good grip on the second crosspiece.

      Twisting from side to side, Simon made sure that everything moved with him, then paced a few steps back and forth. He'd worn heavier—he'd worn worse—he glanced at himself in the mirror and went still, the hairs on the back of his neck prickling. He no longer looked like a third-rate burglar. The combat vest and boots lent him a disturbingly military aspect and the solid black of his ensemble made that aspect ominous; he was heavily armed, heavily armored, and completely, utterly faceless, like something out of a fascist nightmare. A little too appropriate for Italy, perhaps.

      Unnerved, Simon flexed his fingers about the grip of his riot shield. It made him uncomfortable just to be in the same room with his reflection—hastily Simon put the riot shield down, then pulled off the riot helmet (nearly clocking himself in the eye with the rebounding chinguard) and yanked off the balaclava. His hair fell into his eyes in a staticky, messy explosion, but the face in the mirror was once again identifiable, and Simon was finally able to relax.

      Someone knocked on his door, startling him. "Templar?" Sandra called. "You decent?"

      "Am I ever?" Simon called back, having to force himself back to levity. He ran his gloved fingers through his hair, shoving it out of his eyes. "Yeah, I'm dressed, come on in."

      Sandra let herself in. Like Simon she was wearing everything but the balaclava and the helmet, her hair tied back in a neat ponytail. "How's everything fit?" she said, closing the door behind herself.

      "Oh, fits fine," Simon said. "The only problem I can see is this chinstrap—"

      Sandra held up a sheet of paper studded with black Velcro dots. "Already on it," she said.

      The sheer practicality of the solution made Simon grin. "You're the man, Spring," he said, holding out his hand.

      "In this outfit? I very nearly am," Sandra said. She tore off a strip with three or four little Velcro dots and handed it over. "You ought to see me with the helmet on—"

      "No," Simon said. "No, I really shouldn't."

      Sandra hesitated, then nodded. "I know what you mean," she said, subdued. "On the one hand, we need something like this for the sake of our anonymity—but on the other hand, Mike came busting in to show me his full kit and I swear I would I have shot him if I'd been carrying."

      "It's not like it's even all that different than SWAT gear," Simon said, fiddling with one of the pockets on his vest. "It's just... Christ, I don't know. Military. How's Mike taking it?"

      "He thinks it's great," Sandra said, a sour note in her voice. "He's bouncing around and talking about Halloween. Michael is not known for his powers of thoughtful analysis."

      "That he's not." Simon glanced at the riot helmet, abandoned on the dresser with the balaclava draped across it. "Tell you what," he said, blowing out a breath, "I think I'll wait and gimmick that thing up a little later."

      Sandra pushed a stray bit of hair back behind her ear. "Can't blame you," she said.

      The rest of the evening passed uneventfully. Mike's threat of pizza had not been a lie—fortunately, it was not garnished with wax bullets—and after dinner Simon hung around in the indigo room for a couple of hours, shooting the shit with the others while sticking Velcro dots onto the inside of his chinguard. Eventually he caught himself yawning for the third time and excused himself, carrying the helmet back to his room; he hid the rest of the carabinieri gear in the closet, trying not to think too hard about it, then washed his face and went to bed.

      Simon swam out of sleep at some point after midnight with Jeremy's hand on his shoulder. "I'm leaving now," Jeremy said, pitching his voice low.

      "Ngh," Simon said, rubbing at his eyes. The room was as brilliant with moonlight as it had been the night before; Jeremy was all in black again, sitting on the edge of the bed. Simon rolled his head to the side, looking for a clock that wasn't there while he reached for Jeremy. "Timesit?"

      "Just after one." Jeremy let his hand fall to the bed. "I most likely won't be back until five or so—should I wake you then?"

      Simon's groping fingers hit the linen of Jeremy's jacket and nudged it aside, landing on Jeremy's t-shirt underneath. "Yeah, do that," he said, pulling Jeremy's t-shirt free of his pants.

      Jeremy paused and looked down at Simon's hand. "I do hate to discourage your explorations, Simon, but I've the bodysuit on underneath—"

      "Yeah, that's what I'm after," Simon said complacently, tugging Jeremy towards him so that he could get both hands in under Jeremy's t-shirt. The bodysuit was slick and oddly cool under Simon's hands; he shut his eyes and scrubbed his hands over the frictionless surface. "I love that thing," Simon said.

      Jeremy waited, more or less patiently, a little smile on his face. "So glad you approve," he said. "Still, I really must go."

      "Guess so." Yawning hugely, Simon let his hands drop, leaving Jeremy's clothes rumpled. "Good luck. Try not to get caught. I'd probably have to laugh at you."

      Still smiling a little, Jeremy tugged his t-shirt back down and tucked it in, then resettled his jacket. "Oh, come now, Simon. If even you can't catch me, what can a few Italians possibly do?"

      "I caught you," Simon protested sleepily. He grabbed Jeremy's knee. "See?"

      "Ah. My mistake." Jeremy pulled his leg free and stood up, brushing off his t-shirt. "Go back to sleep, Simon. You're very silly when you're punchy."

      "Punchy," Simon said, snickering. He was already half asleep again by the time Jeremy let himself out.

      What woke him four hours later wasn't so much the hand on his shoulder as the smell of sweat, old and dried; the moon had set and the sun had not yet risen, and Simon dragged himself back to consciousness in a room that was as dark as it probably ever got. "All done," Jeremy breathed.

      Simon hooked a sleepy arm around Jeremy's shoulders. It nearly slid right off. The bodysuit wasn't cool any more: it was warm, almost hot to the touch, but still as slick as oil. The weird sensation woke Simon up a little further. "How'd it—" he cleared the frog from his throat "—how'd it go?"

      "As well as possible," Jeremy said, allowing Simon to pull him down. "I had to gas one poor fellow, but I went in anticipating security, so..." He trailed off there and shrugged, nearly unseating Simon's arm again.

      Still half-asleep, Simon shut his eyes. Jeremy was warm and slippery against his side, still smelling of sweat. Simon let his hand slither down Jeremy's back and away. "Get everything?" he asked, groggily.

      Jeremy nodded, patting Simon's chest. "It's all under a bit of tarp out back," he said. "Very explosive. Nate should be pleased. Myself, I'm for a shower and bed, I think."

      "Yeah," Simon said. Despite everything he was rapidly sliding back down into unconsciousness—"You need one," he managed to mutter, just before he fell asleep again.

      Lightly addled by being woken twice in one night, Simon slept late and woke up feeling a little sluggish. He checked the garage on his way down to grab an early lunch: the van was gone again, but all the other cars were still present and accounted for. Simon considered that for a moment, then abandoned the idea of lunch and went to check on the others.

      Dave was once again at his computer, but alert and freshly showered; when poked, he protested that he'd gone to sleep directly after dinner the night before and slept for nine hours, and he looked rested enough that Simon didn't bother calling him a liar. Both doors to Jeremy's room were locked—Simon checked, rattling the doorknobs out of a general urge to be an asshole—and no one else seemed to be around. Mike, at least, was off with the van.

      After some thought, Simon let himself out of the villa and went in search of last night's payload. He found it behind the garage, stacked a careful fifty feet from any of the walls of the villa. The industrial-blue tarp had been peeled back, revealing a decently-sized stack of wooden boxes, most of which had urgent-looking warnings stenciled on the sides. Pericolo!, they said, and Attenzione!, and in most cases, Esplosivi!.

      Nate, an old hand with most everything that was esplosivi, was kneeling on the folded-back tarp shuffling through the boxes, wearing heavy leather gardening gloves that were at least two sizes too big for him. He looked perfectly happy and at ease (and had not been blown up yet) so Simon felt no qualms about heading over there, although he did stop a few feet away, just in case. "Gosh, Specs, those wouldn't be illegal explosives, would they?"

      "Oh, no, never in a million years," Nate said, pausing long enough to push up his glasses and blink at Simon. "I hear they fell off the back of a truck."

      "Which is truly the hallmark of legality," Simon said, nodding. "So did you get all the perfectly-legal explosives that you need, with which to do perfectly legal and harmless things?"

      Nate absently hugged one of the smaller wooden boxes to his chest. "Oh, man, Templar," he said, his voice hushed with awe and his eyes positively afire with enthusiasm, "with this much bang I could turn this whole place into a smoking crater thirty feet deep—"

      Simon glanced over his shoulder at the massive villa. "Uh. Great?" he said. "I mean, I'm glad you're happy, but all the same, try not to do that, okay?"

      "You never let me have any fun," Nate said mournfully.

      Warily, Simon circled the pile of boxes. "Do you actually need this much, Specs? Tell me you don't actually need this much, Specs."

      Nate blinked at the pile of boxes, like he was just now realizing the size of it. "Oh, no, Templar," he said defensively. "I definitely don't need this much, but I needed a lot of different kinds of things, so I ended up telling Jeremy to just grab everything he could?"

      "And he grabbed—"

      "—a lot," Nate said, flapping his arms helplessly.

      A sound behind him made Simon turn: Johnny had just rounded the corner of the garage pushing a wheelbarrow along. "Found it in the gardening shed," he said, parking the wheelbarrow next to the pile and pulling on his own gloves. "Hey, Templar."

      "Morning, Texas." Simon eyed the wheelbarrow. "I thought you'd probably gone off with Mike and Sandra, wherever they are."

      "Gettin' the van painted," Johnny said. "Any of this stuff gonna explode if I pick it up?"

      Nate picked up one of the boxes and put it into the wheelbarrow. "It should be okay," he said. "Although you probably shouldn't drop anything. Or shake anything. Or jostle it around too much. Definitely don't drop any boxes onto any other boxes. Oh, and if you hear ticking, run away."

      Johnny eyed Nate for a long moment, then quirked out half a grin and ruffled Nate's hair. "You're shittin' me," he said.

      "Yep," Nate said, laughing a little. "No, seriously, it's probably okay. Just be a little careful."

      "Moving this stuff somewhere?" Simon asked, edging another couple of feet away, just in case.

      Johnny jerked his chin in the direction of the back of the house. "Gazebo," he said.

      "Jeremy stole an awful lot of bang," Nate added, laying another box in the wheelbarrow. Johnny put another on top. Nate settled back on his heels and surveyed the pile with a worried eye. "I mean, these are terrorist-threat levels of loose explosives, and I bet a lot of law-enforcement agencies are worried right about now. I kind of want to move them somewhere where they can't be seen from, like, a helicopter."

      Simon digested this. "Oh, Christ," he said, faintly.

      "I don't think anyone's seriously going to come looking," Nate hurried to add. "Not up here, anyway. Once we're done we'll get rid of the leftovers."

      Simon looked at the ground between his feet and waited until he thought he could reliably speak without his voice cracking. "Okay," he said. "Okay, yeah, that's a good idea. And I think we should do it as soon as possible, okay? Before we attract the attention of, of our Italian counterparts?"

      Johnny picked up the handles of the full wheelbarrow and peacefully trundled it away. Simon watched him go. "The level of police presence in this country is insane," Simon said, now talking mostly to himself. "I really do not want to come to their attention. Not now, not ever."

      "I know, Templar," Nate said, his voice small. "We'll hurry."

      "It's not your fault, Specs. Don't worry about it." Simon picked up the loose tarp and bundled it up, mostly to have something to do with his hands.

      Simon was finishing off the last of the cold pizza when Jeremy let himself into the kitchen, impeccably turned out and apparently unaffected by his night's work. "So!" Simon said, putting down his half-finished pizza. "I understand that you may have stolen enough explosive material to cause the police to believe us a terrorist threat?"

      "Have I?" Jeremy said, raising both eyebrows. "I suppose we'd best get rid of some, then."

      "And soon," Simon said. "Talk to Nate, figure out how much you need to keep, and ditch the rest. Call in an anonymous tip, too, so they'll find it and stop looking for it, Christ."

      Jeremy took a bottle of water out of the fridge. "I'll do that," he said, leaning against the fridge and opening the bottle. "I'm afraid that I simply took everything rather than risk coming back without some vital component." He paused long enough to drink some water. "And I was a bit pressed for time, in the bargain."

      "Yeah, I get that felony burglary isn't exactly like grocery shopping," Simon said. "Just... fix it. Okay?"

      "Of course." Jeremy drank some more water. "Where is Nate now, do you know?"

      "Out back, in the gazebo." Simon picked up his pizza again. "He hid everything in there so that police helicopters wouldn't spot it. Jesus, what a thing to hear when you've barely been awake for half an hour." Simon shook his head and took another bite.

      Jeremy headed for the door, carrying his bottle of water. "I'll go speak to him now, then—if he agrees we can have the excess out of here by midnight."

      "Good!" Simon said around his mouthful of pizza.

      All three of them were still in the gazebo when Simon went to check on them. The gazebo itself was large enough that the pile of wooden boxes made a fairly insignificant little mound in the center; Jeremy and Nate were kneeling in front of the pile, while Johnny lounged against a column, chewing on a toothpick and playing the benevolent onlooker. "Hey, Texas," Simon said, jogging up the steps. "Holding up the walls? Oh, shit, looks like they're gone, guess you failed."

      "Yeah, well, rest of the place ain't fallin' down on my watch," Johnny said.

      "Hey, Templar," Nate said, handing one of the boxes to Jeremy. "We're separating out the stuff we need now."

      Jeremy put the box aside on a much smaller pile. He was wearing thin white latex gloves, unlike Nate's clown-sized gardening couture. "I'll, ah, make arrangements for a truck this afternoon," he said. "We'll have the rest out of here in short order."

      "Don't think I didn't hear that significant little pause followed by a charming euphemism," Simon said. "So, what? You're going to steal someone's truck?"

      "Or rent one under a false name, if it comes to that," Jeremy said, undaunted. "But, yes, I'll most likely steal one. Most likely from a building site. Fewer people to see my face that way, after all."

      "Christ," Simon told Johnny. "If this isn't the world's slipperiest slope."

      "What you get," Johnny said comfortably. He didn't qualify the statement, and Simon didn't quite dare ask that's what I get for what?.

      Eventually the stolen explosives had been divided into two piles: the disturbingly large pile full of everything that Nate didn't need, and the smaller but still worrying pile of everything that he did. Jeremy plucked at the wrist of one of his latex gloves. "All right," he said. "Did anyone touch these without gloves on?"

      "I'm good," Nate said, displaying his oversized gloves.

      "Same," said Johnny, patting the gloves stuck in his belt.

      Jeremy surveyed the stack, then nodded. "Good," he said. "Unsanded wood doesn't hold fingerprints all that well, but it's better to be safe than sorry."

      "I know that, you know," Nate said, piqued.

      "I expect you would." Jeremy offered Nate a quick, apologetic smile, then rose to his feet. He peeled off his own gloves, tucking them absently into the inside pocket of his jacket. "I've a few errands to run this afternoon," Jeremy said, glancing at Simon. "We'll handle the removal later tonight, after the sun has set."

      "You need me to come with you?" Simon asked.

      "It's up to you," said Jeremy. "I don't expect I'm walking into any danger—"

      "—it's usually when you don't expect danger that it comes for you," Simon said. "I'll come."

      "In that case, let me just go pick up a few things from my room and then we'll be off," Jeremy said. "Unless there's something you need to do first."

      Simon pretended to think about it. "Nope," he finally said. "I'm all yours—" He bit his tongue, a moment too late.

      "Mm," Jeremy said, heading down the steps to the lawn. The undercurrent of laughter in his voice was painfully clear. "Well, then. Aren't I lucky?"

      "Is that it?" Simon said.

      Jeremy glanced down at the battered box under his arm. "Yes?" he said.

      Simon sighed. The little red roadster was parked semi-legally on the street outside a post office on the outskirts of Genoa; Simon had stayed with the car to ward off tow trucks and irate drivers while Jeremy ran in and retrieved his package. It hadn't really been an exciting ten minutes. "If I'd known that was all you were doing, I... no, I'd have come along anyway, out of sheer boredom."

      "Well, I do have one more purpose to being here, although I suppose you can't quite call it an errand," Jeremy said, sliding into the driver's seat. He dropped the package peremptorily in Simon's lap. "Be a love and see if you can't get that open, won't you?"

      Simon picked up the package and studied it while Jeremy started the roadster and pulled out into traffic. The postmark put its origin somewhere in Milan; Simon turned the box over, carefully. "So, what are the chances that this is a bomb, or bugged, or marked with some kind of radio transmitter?"

      "Fairly low, I expect, unless you've put a bug on it yourself," Jeremy said. "If you're that worried, I'll open it myself once we get where we're going."

      "Man, bug a guy's jacket four or five times and he never lets you forget it." Simon picked up the box and put it to his ear, listening. All he heard was the car's engine and Jeremy's faint, acknowledging laugh. Trying to recall as much as he could of Nate's casual bomb-disposal lessons, Simon put the box upside-down in his lap and dug out his keys. The key to his Jeep was long and relatively sharp; Simon caught it in his fist like a dagger and drove it into a random spot on the underside of the box. After two seconds in which the box did not explode or start ticking, Simon relaxed and started widening the hole, sawing the jagged edges of the key through the worn and battered cardboard.

      "I suppose it's a bit late to mention that some of the things in that box might be fragile?" Jeremy said, taking them further out of Genoa.

      "Guess so," Simon said, prying up the flap that he'd created. "Don't worry, I think the key hit metal anyway." The box's contents were wrapped in black plastic, entirely unedifying.

      The little roadster's wheels bumped up onto an incline as Jeremy guided the car up into the parking lot of a small shop. Disdaining the empty spots in front of the shop, Jeremy took the car around the side of the building and parked it in a spot there, shutting off the engine. "You see, when I asked you to open the box, I expected you to, say, pull up the tape," said Jeremy, plucking the opened box out of Simon's lap and ripping the bottom open.

      "Well, yeah, but Nate always says that when faced with a box that might be a bomb, you should always enter the box in some way that the bomb's maker doesn't expect," Simon said.

      "It isn't a bomb, Simon," Jeremy said patiently, pulling one of the plastic-wrapped bundles out of the box. He tore off the plastic, revealing a pair of standard-issue Italian license plates. "Back in a tick," he said, hopping out of the car.

      Simon blinked, then rolled down his window and stuck his head out. "Are you serious?"

      There was a soft thunk from the front of the car. Jeremy straightened up, still holding one of the license plates. At this angle, Simon could see both the discreet hook over the top and the magnets on the back. "Oh, yes," Jeremy said, heading towards the back of the car.

      Simon turned to watch him go. "Do I even want to know?"

      Thunk. "I don't know," Jeremy said. "Do you?"

      "Yes!" Simon said. "... no! Christ, I don't know! And it's not like you're going to drop everything and give me a full explanation even if I do ask, so I don't know why I'm bothering."

      Jeremy got back in the car and started the engine. "That's probably true," he said, flipping a switch on the dash; something behind Simon hummed and the roadster's ragtop started to fold back.

      Simon hunkered down in his seat and looked up, watching the top pull back to reveal the sky. Something poked him in the side; he looked down to see Jeremy offering him the damned Redskins cap again. "Oh, for—" Simon grabbed it and put it on, pulling it down over his eyes. "So, let me guess. Fake license plates, top down, you in your asshole blacks, me with my face conveniently hidden... we're going to let somebody see you, aren't we?"

      "Now, see, Simon, that's why I like you, " Jeremy said. He flicked out his sunglasses and put them on. "Whenever you can stop demanding answers for half a second, you almost always manage to produce them on your own."

      Jeremy took the car out of the store's parking lot and aimed it in the direction of Genoa proper. Simon stayed slumped down in the passenger seat, one hand clamped onto the baseball cap to keep the slipstream from ripping it off his head. "Tell me when we get close," he yelled over the noise.

      "A bit further yet," Jeremy said, his voice humming underneath the wind.

      Simon grunted in acknowledgement. Conversation was damned near impossible with the top down, so he didn't even try, just watched Genoa go by. It looked like pretty much every Italian city he'd ever been in, which was to say, Milan: narrow streets, traffic circles, wide stone plazas, impossibly ancient stone buildings currently inhabited by modern businesses, and a zillion statues, fountains, monuments, and assorted bric-a-brac. The only real difference, as far as Simon could tell, was the constant flickering presence of the Mediterranean on his left and the jutting port that the ocean's presence justified. Genoa was probably pretty, not that Simon cared.

      A touch on his leg made him jump. "Here in a moment," Jeremy said.

      "Gotcha," Simon said, slumping down further in his seat and directing his gaze somewhere around his knees. The cap's bill prevented him from seeing much beyond his own legs and the inside of the car door, but hopefully it would also prevent anyone from seeing his face.

      His fingers flexing on the steering wheel, Jeremy guided the car up to the traffic circle. "Hold on," he said, his voice deceptively pleasant, and at the very last minute hauled the wheel right, cutting off a taxi. Simon yelped and grabbed the side of the door. The taxi's brakes screeched as the driver swerved to avoid the little red roadster, already screaming imprecations; the moment the cabdriver realized that he had avoided the collision, he hit the horn with both hands. Jeremy raised a lazy hand at the furiously-honking taxi. "Terribly sorry!" he called, a bit more loudly than necessary. "No harm done, I trust?"

      "Focking Eengleesh!" the cabdriver screamed. Jeremy waved at him again, still beaming guilelessly, waiting his turn to enter the traffic circle; a few seconds later there was a miniscule break in traffic and Jeremy took the opening, goosing the little car forward. There was more honking, of the desultory everyday type, and then they were around the traffic circle and away.

      Simon belatedly realized that he was clutching at his chest and made his fingers relax. "I suspect that got you noticed," he said, thumping his chest absently to restart his heart.

      "Goodness, I certainly hope so," Jeremy said, taking the next right.

      After making a bewildering series of lefts and rights at speed, Jeremy pointed the car north and got the hell out of Genoa. As soon as they reached a relatively unpopulated area Jeremy pulled over, took off the fake license plates, and put the car's top back up. "There we are," he said, dropping the fake license plates back into the box. "Back to the villa now, I expect, as quickly as possible. I sincerely doubt anyone was able to pick up our trail so quickly, but... help me keep an eye on the road?"

      Simon twisted around in his seat to glance back at Genoa. "Right," he said. "Just have to hope your friends don't have helicopters."

      "I expect we'd notice a helicopter," Jeremy said sagely, starting the car.

      Simon saw no helicopters on the way back, although he did see a lot of cars. If anyone was on their tail, though, they fell off when Jeremy took the little red car up the winding hillside road that led, ultimately, to the villa. Jeremy still drove a mile or so past the villa's gates, then turned around and went back, just to make certain; they saw no other cars on the way back and got through the gates without incident. "I believe I ought to stop using this car now," Jeremy said, following the gravel drive through the woods.

      "Yeah, probably not a bad idea," Simon said. "It's a little noticeable. You know. With all the red and the tiny and the Ferrari and stuff."

      The car emerged from the woods and into the sunlight again. The villa looked just the same as it had when they left and had not been blown up even a little bit. Simon relaxed. Jeremy glanced at him, then away, just barely smiling.

      Jeremy parked the car in its usual spot and got out, still carrying the battered and mangled cardboard box. The license plates stuck jauntily up over the edge like a flag of felony. "Not much else to do until it gets dark," Jeremy said. "I believe I'll go have a liedown, since I'll apparently be up late a second night in a row."

      "Yeah," Simon said, checking the spot nearest the door. The van was still missing. "It's your own fault, though."

      "Yes, what was I thinking?" Jeremy said, brushing past Simon. "I should have just taken Nate into the site with me and allowed him to select his own materials, that would have saved me ever so much trouble—"

      Simon couldn't decide whether to shudder or to laugh, so in the end he did a little of both. "Okay, okay, you've made your point, smart guy," he said. "And also, what did I say about not recruiting my people?"

      Dave was still working at his desk, eyes glued to the screen. Nate had spread a bunch of the smaller boxes out on the floor behind Dave's chair and was sorting through a box of blasting caps with a matter-of-factness that Simon found positively unnerving. Simon shut the door behind him with excess care; for all he knew, startling Nate might bring down the whole wing. "That's safe, right, Specs?" he said, trying to keep his voice low.

      "Should be," Nate said, holding up one of the thin metal cylinders and frowning at it. "I mean, as long as I don't jam one of these into an electrical outlet, and even then I'd probably only hurt myself."

      "So... don't do that," Simon said. "Wow, saying that makes me feel so responsible. So, Dave, have you noticed that I'm here yet?"

      "Uh huh," Dave said absently.

      "Did you remember to have lunch, Dave?"

      "Uh huh."

      "Can I stick my finger in your ear, Dave?"

      "Uh huh."

      "My work here is done," Simon told Nate. "Where's Johnny?"

      "I don't know," said Nate, still giggling a little. "Did you check in his room?"

      "That was more of an idle question than an actual need to know," Simon said. "It's no big deal."

      Nate picked up another of the blasting caps. "Oh, okay. I haven't seen him since I finished up with the boxes and came inside."

      "What?" Dave said, belatedly surfacing.

      "Halloooo!" Mike bellowed, out in the hall. The hallway caught his voice and bounced it back, amplifying it into something that by all rights should have broken windows and neutered animals; it definitely woke Simon, who'd been catnapping on the white couch. "We're hoooooome!" Mike cried.

      Simon swung his legs down off the couch and went to the door, opening it just as Sandra jabbed an elbow into Mike's side. Mike yelped, only adding to the general din. "So," Simon said, "I take it you're home."

      "Gosh, you're smart, Templar," Mike said, cheerful despite being nearly doubled over. "I guess that's why you're the boss!"

      "Among other reasons, yes," said Simon. "Spring, what are those?"

      "Riot batons," Sandra said, spinning one expertly in her hand. "Want one? There's a special holster on the uniform belt for them and everything."

      Simon eyed the baton, then held out a hand. Sandra spun it around in a high and showy arc and smacked the end into Simon's palm. Simon manfully did not wince, although he'd have liked to, and took the baton. "Where'd you get these, Spring?"

      "Martial-arts store," Sandra said. "There was one a couple of blocks away from the auto-paint place. I only got two because buying more would look strange, but this way some of us can have them."

      Simon flipped the baton over and took hold of the crosspiece, trying to ignore his stinging palm. "Goddamn, look at you, Spring, you're all Terminator 2 with that thing. You actually know how to use one of these?"

      "I think it's safe to say that I could cause you irreparable harm with one," Sandra said.

      "Over the years I've come to accept the fact that you could probably cause me irreparable harm with anything you happened to be holding, Spring." Simon hesitated, then held out the baton. "Nah, I'll pass. Let someone else wear it."

      Sandra took it back, tossing it into the air and catching it neatly by the crosspiece on its way back down. "Okay, boss. I'll give it to Johnny, probably—"

      "Awwuh," said Mike, his face falling. "C'mon, babe, I want one! I need it to look macho!"

      "Macho? What are you going to do, stuff it down your pants?"

      "Ooh, kinky—"

      "Kinky is if you stuff it down the back of your pants, Honda," Simon said. Movement from down the hall caught his eye, and Simon glanced in that direction, then raised a hand in greeting. "Oh, look, you two woke up Archer. Good job."

      Jeremy joined them a moment later, looking irritatingly well-rested. "Couldn't help but overhear the din," he said affably. "Has the van been finished, then?"

      "Sure has!" Mike said. "Goddamn, I'da known a coat of shiny new black paint would make that van look so good, I'da had it done earlier. I am seriously almost not ashamed to be seen driving it."

      Sandra spun one of the riot batons again, making Jeremy take a prudent step back. "We left it parked outside," she said. "The paint's mostly dry but still giving off some fumes."

      "Excellent," Jeremy said, poking a hand into his jacket. "Oh, and I've something for you—"

      "For me?" Mike squealed in a grating falsetto. "Oh, Archer, you shouldn't have!" Snickering, he dropped back into his normal voice approximately two seconds before Simon could tell Sandra to hit him. "No, seriously, you really shouldn't have, my old lady is like right here, she's gonna get all jealous an' shit..."

      "Your old lady currently has riot batons in both hands," Sandra said patiently. "Perhaps now was not the best time to make that insinuation." She nudged Mike's hip with the jabbing end of one baton.

      "Man, why you threatenin' me and not the guy who's hittin' on your man?" Mike whined.


      Jeremy cleared his throat. "Far be it from me to break up this tender moment, but..." He dropped a small green metallic square into Mike's hand.

      "An iPod?" Mike unwound the earbuds, boggled. "For serious? You got me an iPod? Aw, man, that's sweet and all, but I ain't no Mac fag."

      "Look again," Jeremy said. "I think you'll find that what you're holding in your hand is actually your Italian tutor."

      Mike blinked, then clipped the tiny iPod to the collar of his t-shirt and stuck the earbuds in his ears. He pushed the button on the front and his mouth fell open. "Huh," Mike said. "Goddamn! That's awesome!"

      The faint, scratchy sound of someone speaking in a measured voice carried ever so faintly to Simon. "I expect you'll have two or three days to learn your lines," Jeremy said.

      "Sure, no problem," Mike said, his eyes sliding half-shut. "Arrestate," he said under his breath, "Raggruppamento Operativo Speciale..."

      "That's what's stenciled on the riot shields, isn't it?" Simon said. "What's that mean?"

      "The ROS is the elite anti-terrorist and anti-organized-crime arm of the carabinieri," Jeremy said, crossing his arms over his chest. He was watching Mike, his eyes narrowed in assessment.

      Simon considered this. "Elite is good," he said, carefully. "As we are totally elite by nature and therefore deserve no less. Of course, that means that they'll be really pissed at us if they catch us impersonating them."

      "True," Jeremy said. "However, they're exactly the branch of the Italian police that Volpe would be the most concerned with—I expect that he lives half his life expecting them at any moment."

      "Nessun movimento," Mike said, apparently in agreement.

      Mike still had the earbuds in at dinner, the tiny green iPod clipped to his collar like jewelry. Sometimes, during those odd little lulls when everybody happened to fall silent at once, Simon could hear the measured little voice droning tinnily on.

      After dinner Johnny tossed a tarp over the kitchen island and proceeded to break down and lay out all three of his guns for cleaning. Feeling a little guilty, Simon jogged back to his room and fetched down the little SIG, which hadn't been cleaned since Annabelle fired it. The two of them talking shop and cleaning guns attracted the others like they were magnetized, and by the time Jeremy came downstairs there were four of them around the island, which was covered with gun parts from end to end. "Well, that's a rather unnerving sight," Jeremy said, pulling on a pair of latex gloves.

      "Only if you're a criminal," Simon said. "Oh. Wait. I forgot." The sight of the gloves made him sit up and take notice, though; Simon put the SIG down. "Are you heading out now?"

      Jeremy glanced at the kitchen windows, measuring the gathering dusk. "I thought I might," he said. "By the time I get to Genoa it ought to be full dark, and I expect it will take me an hour or so to find an... appropriate vehicle."

      Following Jeremy's gaze, Simon looked over at the windows. "You want me to come with you?"

      "Thank you, but no," said Jeremy. He was wearing the nondescript beige suit and the stupid white fedora, once again dressing like he didn't want to be noticed. "For the actual, ah, shall we say 'vehicle rental'? I'd prefer not to have to coordinate our efforts. I am accustomed to working alone."

      "Gotcha," Simon said.

      "If you'd like to come with me when I return the vehicle, though, I'd certainly welcome the company." Jeremy headed over to the key safe and typed in the combination.

      "Huh," Simon said. "Let me see. Do I want to be caught in a stolen truck, with an internationally-wanted career criminal, sitting on top of enough stolen explosives to destroy half the city, when I'm already in the country illegally?"

      "Sure you do," Mike said genially. "C'mon, that shit is fuckin' manly."

      "I'll think about it," Simon told Jeremy.

      Jeremy plucked a set of keys from the key safe and swung the door closed. "Whatever you decide, Simon," he said. The door to the garage opened and shut and he was gone. A moment later, a car started.

      Sandra worked in silence until the garage door had rumbled back down and the headlights from Jeremy's car had made their way halfway down the drive. Glancing over her shoulder, she put her gun down and sighed. "Far be it from me to be the voice of reason here—"

      "—but she's gonna be," Mike said.

      "—but if he doesn't absolutely need you, you should probably let him go alone this time," Sandra finished, barely glancing in Mike's direction. "If he gets caught, or pulled over..."

      Simon's immediate, reflexive reaction was irritation. He fought it down. "You know what, Spring? You're right." Mike whistled; Simon held up both hands. "Nope, nope, it's true, she's right. There are better things to risk my ass on."

      "Which means you're going with him," Sandra said neutrally.

      "Yeah, probably," Simon said. He picked up an empty clip, turned it over in his hands, and put it down again. "It's counterproductive and unintelligent, but now is not the time to start being logical about this."

      "Maybe it is," Sandra said, her voice just a little sharp. "I didn't say we should drop everything and abandon him. I said maybe you should let him go alone, just this once."

      "And you're right," Simon said. "I admit that, okay, Sandy? It's just that... well, it's too easy to picture some bentnose stepping out of a Genoese alley and shooting him in the head, and maybe I'm just being paranoid—"


      "—but I'd rather be along and have nothing happen than vice versa," Simon finished, no longer bothering to hide his irritation.

      "Normally I'd tell you that you're the boss right about now, but you know what, I can't," Sandra said, throwing up her hands. "If you're caught and made, how long will it be before they link you to us? Five minutes? Ten? We're on record as being on vacation in Italy! No one would ever believe that was a coincidence, even if it was!"

      "Sandy," Simon said, striving to sound placatory.

      "Don't you 'Sandy' me," Sandra said. She looked at Mike, then at Johnny. "Someone back me up here, Jesus."

      Mike twitched back with alacrity, throwing up his arms to ward her off. "Aw shit, don't you drag me into this," he said. "I ain't gonna try and tell Templar what to do any more than I am gonna argue with you, shit."

      Sandra's lips thinned. "What about you?" she asked Johnny.

      After a moment of deep, intense thought, Johnny shrugged.

      "Okay! Never mind." Sandra braced both hands against the edge of the counter and squeezed her eyes shut. "God, I hate this."

      "Sandy," Simon said again, still trying to smooth things over.

      "Don't you dare try and placate me," Sandra snapped, her eyes still closed.

      Simon went still. "Okay," he said.

      "You know, I get why you're here," Sandra said, after nearly a full minute of steaming. "And I know why we're here. And I can even make a pretty cogent argument for why it's the right thing to do, especially now that we've got that Zip disk back, God, I want to see Archer ram that thing sideways up Karpol's ass as much as anybody else here—" she stomped on Mike's foot without breaking her conversational stride and Mike yowled and didn't say it "—but just because it's the right thing to do does not make it any less than terminally stupid, and now you want to add a heaping helping of unnecessary risk!"

      Simon waited for a moment, just to make sure she was done. Sandra knew way too much for him to risk really pissing her off. "I know," he said. "You're right."

      "And yet you're still going," Sandra said, snapping off every accusatory word like some kind of Old Testament proclamation.

      "I won't go," Simon said. "Okay? I want to, but you're right. It's an unnecessary risk."

      That took some of the wind out of Sandra's sails, and she deflated with relief. "Okay," she said, letting her head fall forward. "Thank you." She sighed, then looked up. "Archer can take care of himself," she said.

      "Yeah, that he can," Simon said. Some contrary part of himself made him add, "Inasmuch as anybody can take care of themselves in the face of an anonymous bullet from an alley."

      "What would you do in that case, if you were there?" Sandra said, her voice going neutral again. "Throw yourself in front of it? Are you going to take a bullet for Archer now?"

      Simon paused, then picked up the little SIG and slid it back into the ankle holster. "Why not?" he said, his voice even. "He took one for me."

      Sandra spluttered. "That is not a fair comparison—" Her protest broke cleanly off in the middle like her tongue had snapped in two. "Okay, no," she said, more calmly. "I am not going to be the bitch here."

      "No, like I said, you're right," Simon said. "And I won't go, because you're right. Sure, he took a bullet for me and, I might add, personally saved the life of every person at this table—island—whatever, but he's also the one who put us into that situation in the first place. So you're right about that, too. It's not a fair comparison."

      "Goddammit, stop being reasonable at me," Sandra said, putting her hands over her eyes. "Now you are making me into the bitch."

      "Not my intention, Spring," Simon said. "You know I count on you, right? Well, I count on you to step up and tell me when I'm being an idiot, too. It's part of your job description. Right under 'beat up whoever I tell you to'. That's not bitch, it's boss. Okay?"

      For a long moment the kitchen was quiet. Eventually Sandra sighed again and let her hands drop, leaving a little smear of gun oil on her forehead. "I don't know if any of you have noticed this, but I'm really deeply uncomfortable with this whole situation," she said, her voice overly bright.

      "You're not the only one," said Simon. "Three or four more days and it'll all be over, Spring."

      "I know," Sandra said. She picked up her gun. "I just hope it's worth it."

      "Like I said," said Simon, "you're not the only one."

      Jeremy was gone for close to three hours. By the time headlights splashed back up the driveway Simon had completely lost the ability to sit still, although he tried to fake it whenever someone was looking at him; even Sandra was starting to look a little uncertain by the end, which gave Simon this cruel little feeling of so there.

      The headlights galvanized them all. By the time Jeremy pulled up outside the garage and shut off the engine, everyone but Dave was out there waiting for him, Johnny already pulling on a pair of gloves. The truck that Jeremy had managed to steal had a distinct governmental look to it, something about that bland, blocky whiteness and clean, information-free logo.

      "Please don't touch the truck with your bare hands," Jeremy said pleasantly, dropping down out of the driver's seat. Simon very nearly did a double-take: Jeremy was wearing a pair of ugly dark blue coveralls, matching work gloves, and a service-sector hat, his hair scraped messily into his eyes like overlong bangs. His face was vaguely gray and speckled with black, like that of a man who got filthy for a living and never quite managed to wash all the dirt off. "Nor the boxes: this truck and its contents will be scrutinized quite thoroughly, later. Let's do hurry. I'd like to be underway in half an hour."

      Simon's team streamed around the side of the garage, heading for the gazebo out back. "That's a new look for you," Simon said once they were gone, lingering long enough to pull on his rock-climbing gloves. "Very, uh, earthy. I could almost be fooled into thinking you know what it's like to work for a living."

      "God forbid," Jeremy said, trotting around behind the truck to open the back doors. His eyes nearly gleamed in the dark; his blood was up. "Of course, if the working-class look excites you, I suppose I could be convinced to slum a bit on occasion?"

      Simon's eyes flicked to the corner of the garage. No one was in sight. He relaxed. "Nah," he said. "For one thing, that is not the kind of dirty that turns me on, and for another, manly just looks so wrong on you—" His ears picked up the faint sound of someone returning and Simon broke off there.

      Mike was the first to return, lugging one of the larger boxes in both hands; Nate was right behind him, carrying a smaller box. Jeremy took the box from Mike and hopped up into the back of the truck to stow it. After one last look Simon joined the queue, passing Johnny and the wheelbarrow on his way out to the gazebo.

      The gazebo was emptied in slightly under ten minutes. Jeremy ranged around in the back of the truck, strapping down the boxes; the rest of them stood in a loose semicircle, watching. There was a bunch of loose crap in the back of the truck, more sets of coveralls, random tools, clipboards, and just plain junk. Jeremy kept pausing to kick it aside.

      Finally Jeremy deemed himself satisfied and jumped down out of the truck, reaching up to tweak the brim of his cap like it was his fedora. "There we are," he said. "I shouldn't be more than an hour, this time. Did you want to come, Simon?"

      "I think I'm going to stay here," Simon said, carefully not looking at Sandra. "If you needed my help for something or if Volpe was breathing down your neck, that'd be one thing, but as it is, it's just an unnecessary risk on my part."

      Jeremy tugged at his work gloves. "That's true, I suppose," he said, pleasantly enough. "Ah, well, your loss, having to stay here in this glorious villa instead of driving about in a battered water-services truck that smells faintly of chlorine and excrement—"

      "You pass me some of those coveralls, I'll come with you," Johnny offered.

      It was hard for Simon to tell who was the most surprised, Jeremy, Sandra, or himself. Jeremy was the first to recover. "I'd be glad of the company," he said, hopping back up into the truck and rummaging around.

      "You sure about this?" Simon asked.

      Johnny pulled the holstered gun off his belt and waited. "Yep," he said. "Coupla guys in coveralls, who's gonna look twice?"

      "It's your call," Simon said, relaxing. Johnny was a level-headed guy, and armed—"Hell, I'm not the boss of you at the moment, couldn't stop you if I wanted to."

      "Try this one?" Jeremy said, holding out one of the blue uniform suits.

      Johnny handed his gun to Mike and stepped into the coveralls; they proved to be a bit too long for him, but a fair fit all the same. Johnny zipped them up, then patted them down. Jeremy handed him one of the caps, which Johnny pulled low over his eyes, and the gun went in the pocket of his coveralls. "Right," Johnny said, heading for the passenger seat. "Let's get the hell out of Dodge."

      "Texas," Sandra said, and stopped.

      Johnny nodded at her, shifting his toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other. "Nothin' to it," he said. He swung into the passenger seat and shut the door behind him.

      Jeremy closed the back doors, hiding the boxes. "An hour or so," he said, touching his fingers to his cap in a half-assed salute. "I wouldn't worry until it's been two hours."

      "Yeah, easy for you to say," Simon said, watching Jeremy climb into the driver's seat. A moment later the truck started up with a rumbling, rattling, farting sound and crunched off down the drive.

      Whatever Jeremy had said, it did take them close to two hours to get back. Simon had tried to get some sleep, and mostly failed at that, and tried to read, and mostly failed at that, and had finally pulled on a t-shirt over his pajama pants and picked his way down to the darkened kitchen to wait, and to watch out the front window, and incidentally to scavenge the leftover chicken from dinner.

      The sight of the headlights coming up the drive made Simon's stomach unclench for the first time in hours, and possibly for the first time all day. Not really thinking about why Simon stepped back into the shadows; the car's headlights splashed in through the window and ran lightly over the darkened kitchen but never quite got to where Simon was standing. The garage door went up, the car pulled in, and its engine shut off.

      Simon stayed where he was, crossing his arms over his chest and leaning back against the counter. He wasn't hidden, not precisely, but in a kitchen as big and dark as this one it would take some looking around to actually spot him. The garage door went back down and two car doors slammed, two sets of footsteps heading for the door.

      Against the darkness of the kitchen the light from the garage was a muddy, too-bright yellow. Johnny was the first one in, no longer wearing the coveralls, his gun once again on his belt; Jeremy followed him, carrying his jacket slung negligently over one shoulder. His hair was smoothed back again, same as ever.

      Simon opened his mouth to say something and then thought better of it. Jeremy closed the door behind himself and cast them all into nearly-perfect darkness. "And there we are," he said, tiredness coloring his speech. "Safe and sound. Thank you for coming with me."

      "Sure," Johnny said. "Goin' on upstairs. Need a bath and some sleep."

      "My God, so do I," said Jeremy, laughing a little. "Go on, then. I've just got to put these keys away." He turned to the key safe, rapidly tapping out the combination despite the darkness; Johnny headed for the door, his bootheels loud on the kitchen floor.

      By the time Jeremy hung up the keys and closed the safe, the sound of Johnny's passage was just a dying echo in the hallway outside. Jeremy turned and headed for the door, but his steps slowed halfway there; eventually he drifted to a stop, his eyes searching the darkness around him.

      Simon couldn't help but grin, just a little. "Hey," he said.

      Jeremy shut his eyes and breathed out a laugh, his shoulders relaxing. "I thought I sensed something," he said. "What are you doing down here in the dark?"

      "Raiding the fridge," Simon said. "The rest of that chicken stuff and I deserved each other. Also, waiting for you."

      "As always, I see you have your priorities in order," Jeremy said, drifting across the kitchen floor towards him and stopping a prudent ten feet away. "As for myself, I believe my first priority is a bath. My God, the things some public servants wear."

      "On general principles: hey, I resent that, unless it wasn't aimed at me, in which case I resent it anyway." Simon plucked absently at his pajama pants. "Everything went okay, I'm assuming."

      Jeremy nodded, a motion that Simon could only just barely see. "Perfectly well," he said. "We left the truck parked illegally just half a block or so from a police station and walked back to where I'd left the car. They'll discover the truck any moment now, and after a rousing bureaucratic dance, someone will eventually get around to looking inside. In twelve hours they'll all be patting themselves on the back for having pinched the truck and explosives right out from under the noses of the stupid criminals who made the elementary mistake of parking their stolen truck illegally, and..." He paused there and made a lazy, all-encompassing gesture with his free hand. "The world will, presumably, keep on turning."

      "Vivid," Simon said approvingly. "Also, sounds about right."

      "People are the same the world over," Jeremy said, some of that tiredness leaching back into his voice. "God above. A bath now. If I weren't so bloody filthy I'd just fall directly into bed."

      Simon pushed himself off the counter. "That? Is a plan," he said. "Want company? I mean, if the tub in the black room is anything like the tub in mine, six people could comfortably play water polo in it, so I'm guessing there's room."

      "Mm." Jeremy fell still and eyed him thoughtfully. "I don't know that I'm up to... ah... water polo, Simon."

      "See?" Simon asked, putting his hand on Jeremy's shoulder and getting him moving towards the door. "Significant pause, charming euphemism. You do it all the time."

      The next day dawned clear, brilliant, and scorchingly hot, even up in the hills. Air-conditioning was just one of the many modern conveniences that the massive villa boasted (and Simon did not want to think about how expensive that must be), but even air-conditioning couldn't compete with the July sun shining in through twenty-foot-high windows. The air in the hallway outside wavered, and the windows were hot to the touch.

      Inside the white room, it was comfortable, if blinding. Simon had given up on his book a long time ago—he was running out of books anyway, he should make this one last—and wandered over to the smaller windows in his room, resting his forehead against the glass and staring out at the vast green expanse of the back yard and, off in the distance, the gazebo.

      The grounds were hallucinogenically green. Simon knew how this was accomplished, having tripped over more than one hidden sprinkler head while rambling about the grounds, but it still looked wrong. Like Astroturf. The gazebo was empty, the reduced amount of explosives having been moved elsewhere—hopefully somewhere cool, Simon thought, and he made a mental note to ask Nate about that—and the paths that led to and from the gazebo were just as blindingly white as the room Simon was standing in.

      For his part, Simon was surprised how calm he felt. It had something to do with events coming to a head with Sandra last night: it was out, it had been said, and his resolve had withstood the test. And Johnny was demonstrably on his side, if quietly, which wasn't exactly a surprise but was still nice to know—Johnny appeared at the limits of Simon's peripheral vision like a heat hallucination brought on by that train of thought, and for a moment Simon believed him to be just that.

      Simon idly craned his neck to watch Johnny go. Despite the heat Johnny took his time, rambling down one of the paths towards the gazebo. He disappeared under the eaves, moving under shade, and didn't come out again. "Huh," Simon said. "Too hot for that shit, Texas."

      If everything went according to plan, this would all be over two or three days from now. Of course, there was little chance that everything would go according to plan, especially not when a large part of the plan seemed to hinge on a crazy fucker like Bran, but that's how Jeremy wanted it, and whether Simon liked it or not, Jeremy was in charge. Simon only wished he knew a little more about the actual plan; Jeremy's style of leadership was so closemouthed that it had made Simon vow repeatedly to stop being such a need-to-know bastard once he got his job back. Assuming he got his job back—Simon wrenched his mind away from that thought.

      As long as he was thinking about it, he pulled out his phone and called home. No messages. Again. Good sign? Bad sign? Both? Simon had no idea. A few more days and it wouldn't matter; a few more days and he could sit around his apartment all he liked, going stir-crazy with boredom and nerves. It didn't sound appealing. It never would.

      A brief flash of black caught Simon's eye. Jeremy had just rounded the corner of the garage, heading up the path towards the gazebo, apparently impervious to being roasted alive inside all that black. He was moving pretty quickly, though; maybe he was trying to get back under cover before he burst into flame. Frowning, Simon watched Jeremy until he, too, vanished into the gazebo, then went to put on his sneakers. He didn't feel quite so calm any more.

      Dave squawked and shied away from Simon's door as Simon threw it open, accidentally stumbling into the sunlight, which made Dave yelp and throw himself in the other direction before he could broil. "Uh. Morning, Templar," he said.

      "It's afternoon, Stone," Simon said. Despite the heat and his hurry, he paused, intrigued. "What are you doing out of your trance?"

      "I finished up the monitoring program just now!" Dave said happily. "So I was coming to tell you that, and then I was going to go have some lunch and then go back and start testing everything to make sure it all works."

      Simon clapped Dave on the shoulder. "You are the man, Stone, and I should tell you that more often," he said. "Come on, I'll walk you down to the kitchen while you reassure me that this monitoring program is safe and secret and can't be tracked back to us in any way."

      "Okay," Dave said, then blinked and hastily added, "And it's totally safe, I promise!"

      "Tell me about it," Simon commanded, heading for the stairs and the promise of momentary cool.

      Dave hurried after him. "Well, the machine-killer sends out this microsecond-long squirt of data whenever it finds a tagged machine, and then deletes the communications protocol before it does anything else, so it's already gone by the time the machine starts to go even a little funny," he said, breathless. "Even if someone is smart enough to get a clean copy of the viral program and dig out the data squirt, the destination is encrypted and pretty anonymous anyway, so they'll know it went somewhere but not where or to who? And then every few seconds the destination re-encrypts the data squirts that it's received and bounces them to me, but not directly, and I don't think anyone without some kind of governmental backing can follow them out from there..."

      "So it's safe?" Simon said, interrupting the flow of words. The atrium was an oven. Simon edged around the pool of white-hot sunlight beaming down from the skylight. "Because I gotta say, while I know most of those words, they don't make any sense in that configuration."

      "It's safe," Dave said earnestly, following him. "It's like... could you track a gnat if you didn't know it was there and didn't see it leave?"

      "Maybe I could," Simon said, trying not to grin as he pushed through the doors and into the lower hallway. "You never know, Stone. After all, I'm relatively awesome."

      Dave wilted. "Um," he said, squinting in thought.

      Simon waved him to silence. "It's okay," he said. "I'll take your metaphor in the spirit in which it was intended."

      "Oh," Dave said, perking up. "Okay, then. Because you'd still have to interrogate the gnat once you caught him, and I don't think you speak gnat, no matter how awesome you are."

      "Your facility with the English language never ceases to bemuse me, Stone," Simon said. He banged into the kitchen, Dave on his heels.

      Mike and Sandra were both there, washing up after lunch. Or Sandra was washing up, anyway; Mike was wandering around, still wearing the little green iPod and absently bopping back and forth to his Italian lessons. "Hey, Templar," Sandra said, rinsing a plate under the faucet and sticking it in the dishwasher. She looked and sounded tired, but there was none of last night's anger to it. "You missed lunch."

      "I had a late breakfast," Simon said. "Wow. It's actually cool in here."

      "Cadalo," Mike added. "Congelate. Fermate. Whoa. It's a Dave."

      "Is that what that is?" Sandra asked, squinting at Dave. "It's been such a long time. I'd forgotten what they look like."

      Dave ducked his head. "Just thought I'd have a sandwich," he said weakly, heading for the fridge.

      "Man, I work, and I slave, and he thinks he can just waltz in here and have a sandwich," Mike said, and then Simon pulled open the door and stepped into the garage and the rest of that exchange was lost to posterity.

      The heat waiting beyond the outside door was like a sledgehammer to the forehead. It was all Simon could do not to reel back into the relative cool of the garage, and his skin prickled, warning him that he was going to start sweating like a pig as soon as his body got over the initial shock. Firmly ignoring it Simon headed out into the backyard at a deliberately slow pace. "La, la, here I am, just wandering around, what a coincidence," he muttered under his breath.

      They were both still there, standing in the shade just about an arm's length apart, so intent on their conversation that Simon unconsciously sped up. Johnny had his thumbs hooked in his belt and Jeremy was leaning casually against one of the gazebo's columns with his arms crossed over his chest; his eyes flicked to Simon as Simon drifted closer. Here comes Simon, Jeremy said, tilting his head and raising a hand in greeting; Simon couldn't hear the words but he could see Jeremy's lips shaping them, as plain as day. Johnny glanced back over his shoulder, then nodded at Simon, wheeling halfway around to include him in the conversation. "Goddamn, kids, it's too hot to be out here," Simon said, tromping up the steps and stopping a few feet away. "Especially if you tend to dress in all black like the inside of a closet."

      "Ain't that bad," Johnny opined. "You grew up in Texas, you'd know hot. This ain't it."

      "Inside of a closet," Jeremy said, laughing. "Just what are you insinuating, Simon?"

      "All I'm saying is that the two of you were deep in conversation when I spotted you," Simon said, trying to grin and mostly succeeding. "You two having some kind of, of whirlwind Italian romance?"

      Johnny glanced at Jeremy. "Think someone's jealous?"

      "Possibly," said Jeremy, eyeing Simon with undisguised amusement.

      "Yep," Johnny said with great satisfaction. "Knew he wanted my ass."

      "Because if it's not a romance, I'm going to start worrying that you're scheming behind my back or something, and you really do not want to make me paranoid at this point in time," Simon said. "Also, I have no official opinion on the state of your ass, Texas."

      "It's nothing like that," Jeremy said, waving the implication away. "He had a few questions about his role in the upcoming—oh, what is it you call them, Simon—the upcoming operation, and I was doing my best to answer those questions."

      That was so patently absurd that Simon snorted out a laugh. "Sure you were," he said. "And I'm sure I interrupted you two just seconds before you pulled out the graphs and the pie charts. Who are you kidding? You don't answer questions."

      "I'm not kidding anyone," Jeremy said.

      "Just answered a question, too," Johnny pointed out. "Case you didn't notice."

      Jeremy had to press his lips together to keep from laughing again. "He had very specific questions about his particular role in things," Jeremy said. "I'll certainly answer those."

      "Huh," said Simon. He glanced at Johnny. "You get your answers?"

      "I'm good," Johnny said.

      Simon considered them both for a moment. As odd as it seemed, they were united against him—"I don't suppose either of you feel like filling me in," he said, throwing the idea out there.

      "I assure you that I'll explain in detail during the briefing," Jeremy said. "Or in as much detail as I can—"

      "Knew that was coming," Simon said under his breath.

      "—because Bran and I will largely be winging it," Jeremy finished. "I can't say exactly what will happen when the two teams are separated. Ultimately that depends on Volpe and his people."

      "And on Bran," Simon said.

      Jeremy inclined his head. "And on Bran."

      Simon held up both hands in surrender. "Okay," he said. "Okay. I've made my feelings on the Bran matter clear and I won't chew that mouthful twice. These are my people, though, and even when I'm not responsible for them, I'm responsible for them, okay?"

      "I'm aware," said Jeremy. "You've made that very clear."

      Simon started to respond to that, then stopped to examine it a little. Had he heard that internal eye-rolling or hadn't he? "Have I?" he finally said, keeping his voice neutral.

      "I don't want them to be hurt any more than you do," Jeremy said. "I'm doing the best I can to minimize their risk."

      "Yeah," Simon said, relaxing a little. He glanced at Johnny. "Texas, can you give us a minute?"

      Johnny scratched the back of his head, then shrugged. "Sure," he said. "We're done here anyway." As he went past Simon he knuckled Simon's shoulder in a generally friendly fashion, then thumped down the steps and headed back towards the garage.

      Both Simon and Jeremy watched him go. Simon took a quick look around, just to make sure that there weren't any other members of his team hiding in the bushes, then looked down at his feet. "Sandy kind of reamed me out last night," he said, dropping his voice. "She's not happy with us being here at all."

      "I know," Jeremy said, his own voice equally soft. He nodded towards the garage, where Johnny had just been. "Johnny told me as much when we were out with the truck."

      "Guess I'm not really happy with us being here either," said Simon. "When it was just me, that was one thing. I've got the right to be suicidal if I want to be, you know? But I don't want them here, and I really don't want them involved, and the fact that I don't have any say in the matter..." He trailed off there and laughed, more bitterly that he'd been intending.

      Jeremy was silent for so long that Simon finally looked back up. Jeremy was looking off into the distance, gazing at the faraway treeline, hazy and wavering in the heat. "If I tell you that 'now you know how I felt when you popped up in Milan', you'll get angry, won't you?"

      "No," Simon said, fighting down his immediate pulse of anger. "No. Because... I mean, on the surface, the situations are similar. I get that. But I'm just one guy and I can take care of myself. You and I both know that."

      "So can they," Jeremy pointed out.

      "Some of them," Simon shot back. "And you had a say. You had plenty of say. You had a God-given perfect opportunity to walk off and take me right back out of the picture, and you didn't take it."

      Jeremy was silent.

      "And," Simon added, tapping his chest, "I'm here because this situation is my fault. They don't have that excuse. They're just here because they think I need some kind of, of help."

      "What do you want me to do, then, Simon?" Jeremy looked back at him. "Should we leave them here and go? Abandon them in hopes that they'll go home?"

      "No," Simon said, unwillingly. "Not that I haven't considered it, but... if I did that to them, they'd never trust me again."

      "You could always go home. Take them with you. It'll discommode me quite a bit at this point, but I can certainly come up with something else—"

      "No! I mean... I came because this is my fault and I wanted to fix it, right?" Abruptly Simon dropped onto the nearest bench and put his face in his hands. "I just hate not having any goddamned control over anything any more," he said, his voice muffled.

      After a moment, Jeremy touched his shoulder. "I know," Jeremy said.

      Shrugging off Jeremy's hand, Simon sat back, staring up at the bell-shaped roof of the gazebo. "I'm trusting you with my people," he said.

      "I know," Jeremy said again.

      "And... I wouldn't, if I had a choice," Simon said.

      Jeremy's silence managed to clearly convey another I know.

      "Because you trust Bran." Simon sighed. "Which calls your judgment into serious question."

      Jeremy was still silent.

      "But... Christ, I don't even know any more. Forget it." Simon stood up. "All I can say is that you'd better pull this off, whatever it is. If any of them get hurt or killed because of your cockamamie plan and your... your Bran..." Simon stopped.

      "You'll kill me?" Jeremy asked, raising both eyebrows. He didn't sound like he was joking.

      "No," Simon said. "No, probably not." He paused again and looked out over the acres of lawn so green they almost looked plastic, while in the back of his mind several certainties and impulses came together and hardened into something like concrete. He looked back at Jeremy, his face and voice both carefully under control. "If any of them get hurt because of you," he said, measuring the words, "whatever this is between us, it's over."

      Already mostly expressionless, Jeremy's face went absolutely blank. His right eyelid twitched, once. "That is a dire threat," he finally said, reaching up to massage the twitch away.

      "That includes your little deal with the Bureau," Simon said. "Your file goes live again and gets updated to the best of my recollection. I won't come after you—not my jurisdiction—but I'll cooperate with anyone who wants to. And if I see you again..."

      "I take your point, Simon," Jeremy said, looking away.

      "Okay," Simon said. His stomach hurt a little, but he was, once again, calm.

      The silence stretched taut between them. Finally Jeremy stirred, still not looking at Simon. "Do you still want to come with me this afternoon, then?"

      "Well, yeah," Simon said, shrugging. "I mean, that's why I'm here."

      Jeremy laughed under his breath, sounding more astounded than amused. "Of course," he said. "That's why you're here." He patted Simon's shoulder and headed for the steps. "We'll go in an hour or so," Jeremy said.

      "Right," said Simon, following him.

      A little over an hour later they were in the red Ferrari once again, with the top down and the fake license plates on, rolling towards Genoa. Jeremy was in his blacks, wearing his sunglasses, apparently unbloodied by their little talk; Simon, slouched in the passenger seat, wore the Redskins hat, his little SIG in the ankle holster, and one of Johnny's three guns in an inside-the-pants holster in the small of his back. The pressure of it against his tailbone was a little more comforting than Simon liked to admit, and occasionally he shifted in his seat just to to check that it was still there.

      The newly-black van followed a discreet distance behind them, Mike at the wheel, Sandra beside him, Johnny lost somewhere in back. It was amazing, the difference that a shiny new coat of paint had made. The van underneath was still ugly and lightly dented, but newly ominous in an entirely different way. Less 'child molester' and more 'serial killer', to Simon's way of thinking.

      Simon was on his guard all the way into Genoa; the roar of the wind made conversation pretty much impossible anyway, and after a few desultory attempts, Jeremy gave up. It seemed impossible that they would make it all the way to Jeremy's chosen hotel without incident, and yet, they did, making their escort mostly superfluous. Jeremy pulled the Ferrari into the hotel's turnaround, popped the miniscule trunk, and tossed the keys casually to the valet, followed by a folded bill. "Careful with my car, now," he said cheerily, fishing his suitcase out of the trunk and closing it again. "I'm rather attached to it." The van rolled on by, patrolling the perimeter. Jeremy ignored it.

      Simon tossed the Redskins cap into the car and followed Jeremy into the hotel. It was one of those tiny jawdroppingly-expensive boutique hotels that Jeremy seemed to favor, the kind that always gave Simon a severe inferiority complex; Simon stuck close and tried not to stare at anything, following Jeremy up to the desk.

      "I'm afraid I haven't a reservation," Jeremy told the desk clerk, abashed. "But I have stayed here in the past and I was hoping you had a room to spare. Anything's fine. My name is Thomas Angobrind?" A folded fifty-euro bill peeped out from his left hand, just barely visible under the Thomas Angobrind ID.

      The desk clerk looked snootily uncertain right up until he typed that name into the computer in front of him. "Oh! Yes, Mr. Angobrind—" his accent turned it into something like yais, meester Angobreend "—if you will just give me a minute..."

      Two minutes later Jeremy had a keycard and was heading for the stairs. As soon as he went around the corner, his stride lengthened and his meaningless, pleasant smile vanished. "Ten minutes," he said, his voice brisk.

      "Ten minutes," Simon agreed, checking his watch.

      Jeremy put the little 'Do Not Disturb' sign on the door and shut it behind them. He put his suitcase down by the side of the desk, took a deep breath, and then snatched the suitcase back up off the floor, yanked it open, and rifled its contents, leaving them on the floor where they fell.

      Simon pulled out the desk chair and put it on its side on the floor, one eye on his watch. "Seven minutes," he said. "Is that good?"

      Jeremy tossed his empty suitcase into a corner. "Angle it a little more back towards the window," he said. "And then come here, please."

      Simon looked down at the chair, then kicked it into position. "There," he said, stepping over the chair and heading for Jeremy. "What's up?"

      Jeremy put his back to the bed. "Give me a shove," he said.

      Simon boggled at him. "What?"

      "I said, give me a good shoving," said Jeremy, thumping the heels of his hands lightly off Simon's chest, as if to demonstrate. "You're upset with me, aren't you? It shouldn't be such a stretch."

      "I'm not going to—" Hit you, Simon meant to say, but before he could articulate the words Jeremy's hands slammed into his chest, rocking him back onto his heels. Unprepared, Simon staggered back half a step, even as he reflexively straightarmed Jeremy away in response. Jeremy went windmilling backwards. The corner of the mattress caught him behind one knee and Jeremy went down, bouncing off the wall, dragging the mattress halfway around and pulling the covers most of the way off. The opposite corner of the mattress slammed forward into the nightstand, knocking it over; the lamp broke when it hit the floor. "Shit!" Simon yelped, cringing against the sudden outbreak of noise. Bracing one hand against the wall, he reached for Jeremy with the other.

      Jeremy gently pushed Simon's outstretched hand away, then struggled to his feet, pulling the covers even more sadly askew. "There," he said, surveying the damage. There was a small dent in the plaster where his shoulder had hit and a faint dusting of plaster on the sleeve of his black jacket. Simon was trying not to look at it. "That's perfect," said Jeremy. "Nothing more—how much time have we got left?"

      Simon checked his watch, panting. "Five minutes, and was that really necessary?"

      "Adds verisimilitude," Jeremy said, with the ghost of a smile. "Besides, admit it, you rather wanted to do that."

      "Jesus, I don't know what kind of vicious thug you think I am—" Simon threw up an arm to block Jeremy's hand as it darted for his face, then grabbed Jeremy's wrist before he realized what he was doing and slung him against the wall.

      Jeremy bounced lightly off the plaster and came back up, his eyes sparkling, his grin intent, his hands hovering in front of his stomach. "God, I love your reflexes," Jeremy said, nearly purring it, and struck lightly at Simon's face again.

      This time Simon drove him into the wall and pinned him there, more to make him stop than anything else. They were both gasping. Plaster flaked gently off the wall behind Jeremy. "You know what you're insane I don't think that this is the time," Simon said, growling it all out in a single breathless phrase, and then he sank both hands into Jeremy's hair and kissed him hard enough to bounce his head off the wall again.

      A handful of precious minutes passed in a red haze—finally Jeremy broke away, breathing hard against the side of Simon's face. "How long?" he asked, his voice hoarse.

      "Uh?" Simon said, blinking to dispel the fog. "Oh." He checked his watch. "Shit, we really need to go, they're going to wonder what happened to us."

      Jeremy nudged at Simon's shoulder, laughing under his breath. "I can't go anywhere with you pinning me to the wall, Mr. Drake—"

      "Well, Jesus, whose fault is that?" Simon threw up his hands and backed off, still breathing hard.

      Thirty seconds later they abandoned the trashed hotel room, leaving the 'Do Not Disturb' sign on the door. Jeremy darted down the hallway, nearly running, and then abandoned the 'nearly' and simply ran headlong down the stairs, a silent, light-footed black blur; Simon took the stairs two and three at a time, trying not to make too much of a racket. Jeremy pulled up sharply two feet from the corner and Simon nearly ran into him. "Slowly now," Jeremy breathed, patting Simon's chest. He took a single, deep breath, let it out, then sauntered around the corner and into the lobby as if he had all the time in the world.

      No one was there besides the desk clerk, who straightened up hopefully. "Will you need your car, Mr. Angobrind?" He was already holding the phone expectantly.

      "You see, this is why I insist on staying here when I come to Genoa," Jeremy informed Simon, the glitter in his eyes almost overshadowed by his lazy grin. He waved dismissively at the clerk. "No, thank you," Jeremy said, angling towards the counter. "We'll be walking tonight, I believe, but I do thank you for asking."

      Simon just barely saw the folded note that passed from Jeremy to the desk clerk, but whatever it was, it was large enough to make the man snap upright and damned near salute; the valet leaped to attention as Jeremy came out. Jeremy waved him off as well, and the two of them headed away from the hotel on foot. Simon put himself between Jeremy and the street, just as a matter of course.

      As soon as they were out of sight of the hotel, Simon reached back and casually tugged his shirt free, clearing the gun in the small of his back. The van was nowhere in sight—still circling the hotel, probably. "Keep walking or hole up?" Simon asked under his breath.

      "We ought to get off the street, if we can," Jeremy said. The fancy-ass hotel was surrounded by equally fancy-ass apartment buildings and expensive little shops, and the third or fourth one they passed had one of those deep entrance hallways like a tunnel punched into the front of the building. Jeremy ducked into it. "That will do," he said, retreating down the entryway almost to the door.

      "Right," Simon said, leaning against the wall by the entrance and pulling out his phone.

      Passersby paid him little attention, except when one of them decided he was in their way, and even then they only edged by with a put-upon sigh. Pretending to listen to the nonexistent voice on the other end of the line, Simon watched the street. Two minutes later the black van rounded the corner, down by the hotel. "There they are," Simon said, straightening up. "Gotta go, Ma. Call you later." He folded up the phone and put it away; somewhere behind him Jeremy laughed low in his throat, a faint whisper of a sound like a cool finger running up along Simon's spine. Simon hunched his shoulders.

      The van pulled in just past Simon, to the accompaniment of the usual fusillade of honking, and Johnny kicked the back doors open. "There you guys are," Simon called, jogging over; he was nearly in the van—had his hand on one of the back doors—when Jeremy flashed past him and vaulted into the back. It was neatly done. He'd been exposed for two seconds, at most, and now he was just a slight shape in the darkness of the back of the van. Simon snorted, hopped up into the van, and pulled the doors shut. "We're in, Honda," he said, hunkering down. "Get out of town."

      "We are outta here," Mike proclaimed, hitting the van's horn and producing a rusty blatting sound. "Man. Did you guys really trash a hotel room? 'Cause seriously, that's, like, on my list of things to do before I die, and I am hurt that I did not get to help."

      "Well, yes and no," Jeremy said. He was still hidden in the back of the van, currently just a voice in the dimness. "The room may be a shambles, but very little has actually been damaged."

      "We broke a lamp," Simon volunteered.

      "True," said Jeremy. "Does that count as trashing?"

      "Huh." Mike pulled the van out into traffic, flipping off some irate guy on a scooter. "Yeah, I guess that's kinda mini-trashy, like a fourteen-year-old in a tube top, you know?"

      Once the van was well underway Simon shifted up and peeked out of the van's back windows. He didn't know what he was looking for, exactly, but whatever it was, he didn't see it. The cars behind them looked pretty normal. Grabbing hold of the back of the back seat, Simon duckwalked over to it and gratefully sat down next to Johnny. "So, how long do you think it'll take them?" he asked.

      "If my presence was actually noted in Genoa yesterday, then they've been looking for me to turn up and they'll likely be en route within the hour, if not already," Jeremy said. "If not, well, the compromised Thomas Angobrind identity ought to throw up a red flag sooner or later."

      "Think the car's going to be safe?" Simon asked. Mike hooked a right through an alley and burst out onto a parallel street. Simon braced himself.

      "It should be," Jeremy said. "These are professionals we're talking about, after all. They might slash the tires to make certain I can't use it, but I suspect they won't touch the car, especially not after they see the room."

      "Good," said Simon. "Cause, I mean, I don't really care what happens to you, but to damage a Ferrari... that's going too far."

      Mike ran the van in circles through Genoa for a good ten minutes before declaring them safe and heading for the autostrada. Simon shifted halfway around in his seat and kept one eye out the back windows, just to be sure. To be sure of what, he wasn't sure. It wasn't like he could tell a car following them from a car going in the same direction.

      No one followed them up the hill, in any case, and they got safely onto the villa's grounds and into the garage without seeing another person. Jeremy dropped out of the back of the van and stretched. "I'm going to have to pass on dinner tonight," he said, his tone apologetic. "I've a long night ahead."

      "Yeah, about that," Simon said, jumping out after him. "How many people are you planning on taking?"

      "As few as I can get away with," Jeremy said. "I'll need Nate, of course, and since we'll be taking the van, I'd thought to bring Mike—"

      "And me," Simon said. He slashed his hand through the air. "That's it."

      Jeremy looked at him for a moment, then shrugged. "That's fine with me, as long as it's all right with the others."

      "As long as what's all right with the others?" Sandra asked, coming around the side of the van.

      "Only taking me and Nate and Mike with him on tonight's little mission," Simon said. "I want as few people along as possible, just in case."

      Sandra hesitated, her eyes narrowing in thought. "That's probably not a bad idea," she eventually said, although it seemed to hurt her to admit it. "Think Nate could rig up something to keep the rest of us in the loop? I don't mind staying behind if it lowers our profile, but I don't want to sit around not knowing what's going on."

      "Good idea." Simon smacked the back of his hand against his palm. "Let's go talk to him while Archer gets some sleep."

      Nate cupped his hand around the microphone on his headset. "Stonewall, you online?"

      The speakers of Nate's laptop—actually one of Dave's laptops, repurposed for the occasion—crackled tinnily. "Online," Dave said. "I can hear you just fine—see you, too. Shadow, give me a soundcheck for those of us back at base?"

      Jeremy turned his head slightly. The only light in the back of the van was the cold blueish-white light of the laptop's screen, and it made Jeremy's goggles look like a band of static across his face. "Can you hear me?" Jeremy said, touching the side of his goggles briefly.

      "Loud and clear," Dave said. "Twice, actually, since I can hear you through Specs' headset. Look back at Specs for a moment?"

      In the back seat, Simon relaxed. The van was parked along the shoulder of a tiny back road, its hood up; Mike was outside with a flashlight, poking at the crippled engine to add verisimilitude to the illusion. And it was legitimately crippled, to boot: Simon had a bit of dirty wire rolled up in his pocket. When they were done, Mike would put it back.

      Outside it was full night, just after ten, and still broiling hot. The driver's side door was open to give them a little air, but it wasn't enough. Simon's t-shirt clung damply to his back. How Jeremy could stand wearing all that black Simon would never know, let alone the damn catsuit—

      "We're ready to go whenever, Templar," Nate said, breaking into Simon's reverie.

      "Right," Simon said, shaking his head and coming back from where he'd gone. Jeremy was also watching him, as far as Simon could tell. At least, the blank glass face of Jeremy's goggles was turned in his direction. Simon raised a hand. "Hey, Stone."

      "Hi, Templar," the speakers on Nate's laptop said. "I can barely see you—"

      "Here," said Jeremy, touching the side of his goggles. There was a nearly-subliminal hum, and then Nate gasped out a startled laugh. "Can you see him now?" Jeremy said, pleased with himself.

      "Wow," Dave said. "Night vision?"

      "Well, of course," Jeremy said, looking away and smiling. "At any rate. If no one has any objections, I'll get ready to go."

      Simon nodded, crossing his arms on the back of the seat. "Let's go, people," he said.

      Jeremy drifted to his feet, shrugging out of his jacket, which he draped over the seat next to Simon. He wore no shirt underneath it, only the bodysuit, its high collar folded down across his chest; the suit's dull gray surface ate the light, forcing Simon to squint to see Jeremy's torso at all. "You'll pardon my familiarity, I'm sure," Jeremy murmured, toeing off his shoes and kicking them aside.

      Simon rested his chin on his crossed arms. It had been a long, long time since he'd seen Jeremy in full working gear—in fact, the last time he'd seen it had also been the first time he'd seen it, and he'd had Jeremy at gunpoint at the time and hadn't had time to properly appreciate it. Mike was outside the van and Nate was not clueful enough to notice, so Simon let his eyes droop half-closed and watched Jeremy strip. "Man, I haven't seen that in a while," he said, watching Jeremy undo his fly.

      "What?" Nate said, looking up just as Jeremy stripped off his pants. He made a little choking noise, then got very interested in his laptop, his cheeks going dark in the stark blueish light.

      If Jeremy was aware of Simon's casual ogling, he gave no sign, only hooked his belt around his waist and strapped on the thigh pouches. "Yes, well, I'd wear it more often, but I'm afraid it's a little conspicuous," Jeremy said. "It's funny how unreasonable some law-enforcement officials can be when I'm wearing my gear."

      "Yeah, funny," Simon said. "Ha ha. In my defense, I was being unreasonable because you were—wait for it—stealing something."

      "You see? Completely unreasonable," Jeremy said. He fiddled with his thigh pouches a bit more, until Simon began to believe he was doing it entirely for effect, then ran his fingers up the side of his throat, zipping the neck of the bodysuit into place with a faint purring sound. Grayed out and nearly invisible from the jaw down, his eyes hidden by blank, black glass, Jeremy pulled on a pair of latex gloves, snapped the suit's glovelets in place over the top, and then held out his hands. "There we are," he said. "Take a good look, it's liable to be quite some time before you see it again."

      "Yep," Simon said, looking him up and down. "It's official: you are up to no damn good."

      "But, you must admit, looking quite sharp." Jeremy turned the face of the goggles towards Nate. "Where is the bag?"

      "Here," Nate said, picking up a large backpack from beside himself and holding it up, still not quite looking up at Jeremy. Given that his face was just about on a level with Jeremy's crotch, Simon could not blame him for that at all. "The suction cups are on top, and everything else should be stacked more or less in order."

      Jeremy took the backpack and shrugged into it. "I'm ready to go," he said, resting his hand on the door handle.

      "Right," Simon said, leaning back. "Honda!" he called. "Clear?"

      "Clear!" Mike called back after a second. "No one coming, either direction!"

      Jeremy opened the van's back door and slipped out, vanishing into the night.

      The ominous greeny-dark hulk displayed on the screen of Nate's laptop had at one time been a farm-equipment garage, big enough to hold three eighteen-wheelers side by side, with gigantic garage doors at the far and near ends. It was long since deserted, home to wood rot, termites, and junk, surrounded on three sides by piles of old farm equipment and overgrown grapevines; there was one cracking asphalt road in and one overgrown dirt path out, and two minutes' drive would put a car on the A7 and safely away.

      At one point the garage had housed two combine harvesters, but the family that owned the farm had gone bankrupt and auctioned off the machines before losing the farm to the bank. The bank had put the farm on the market. It still languished there, two years later, while the fields grew wild and the buildings slumped towards the earth, paint peeling from their sides in huge curls. Fifteen minutes' search on the Internet had found the farm, and an hour's reconnaissance had found the garage. Nate had deemed it perfect, and Jeremy had agreed.

      Simon had seen the garage in the daylight and not been overly impressed. However, sitting on the van's floor in the darkness and watching the garage approach the camera in leaps and bounds like something out of a low-budget horror movie, Simon could not help but be aware of two things: how ominous the ramshackle structure really was, and how utterly isolated. "Your camera work is for shit, Shadow," he said, trying to shake the creeping feeling.

      "My apologies." Jeremy's little laugh crackled out of the laptop's speakers. "Perhaps next time I'll bring along a tripod to prop up my chin."

      "I kind of like it, actually," Nate said, fiddling with the laptop's volume controls. "It's got that Blair Witch Handicam look to it, you know?"

      "You mean cheap?" said Dave, back at the villa. "I mean, it's cool and all, but I feel like I'm watching some high-school kid's homemade slasher flick on YouTube."

      Onscreen the bulk of the garage rose up and blotted out the green-tinted sky entirely. Somewhere out there Jeremy paused to readjust his goggles; the garage and all the crap piled up around it evolved out of the darkness, drawn and animated in crackling green lines. "I'll start on the roof," Jeremy murmured, the image tilting crazily as he looked up at the sky. "Once I have the antenna in place I can drop the wires and work my way back down."

      "Roger that," Nate said. "I wonder if there's still power all the way out here? I mean, I know the batteries will last, but I'd really feel better if there was ground current to tap into."

      "Mm." Jeremy looked back and forth. The swaying image on the monitor made Simon feel mildly seasick. "I wouldn't think they'd run power lines out here, but I could be wrong..." The green lines vanished, replaced by almost nothing; squinting, Simon could just barely make out the garage's roofline, black against the midnight blue of the sky. "No," Jeremy said. "There's no power."

      "Oh, well," said Nate.

      "What am I looking at?" Dave asked.

      The sky vanished, leaving the screen entirely black. "Electrical current," Jeremy said, "or the lack thereof. Here, I'll show you." The dark screen gave off the vaguest sense of motion and then Jeremy peeled back his glovelet and exposed the face of his watch, a blurry, luminous white in the dark. The glow was slightly off-center, focused around a small lump that might be a battery.

      "Huh," Simon said.

      The screen blurred away from the glow of Jeremy's watch and focused on the garage again. "And there's no current outside the barn at all," Jeremy said. "I'll check again once I'm inside, but there aren't any cables that I can see, and I really can't see a farm running wires underground."

      "Don't worry about it," Nate said. "The batteries will be fine."

      Jeremy's fingers flickered in front of his eyes and then the green night-vision light returned, throwing the barn into relatively high focus. "Silence for a minute, please," Jeremy said. "I'd like to listen for a moment before I actually move in."

      "You heard the man," Simon declared. "Silence on all frequencies until such time as Shadow says it's all right."

      "... thank you, S—Templar," Jeremy said, sounding mildly bemused, and then he went silent. Simon could hear Mike thumping around outside and whistling tunelessly, and Nate breathing beside him, but from the laptop's speakers, nothing. The image on the screen swung sickeningly as Jeremy looked back and forth, changing from green low-light to the freakish rainbows of infrared and back. "All right," Jeremy finally said. "I'm reasonably certain that I'm alone and unobserved. I'm heading for the roof now."

      "Might want to check the ultraviolet spectrum, too," Simon said. "Never know when a Predator is around, right?"

      "Templar, that is the Predator," Nate said patiently.

      "Oh, yeah. Hey, Shadow, can you unhinge your jaw? I might need to know."

      "I'm not even going to ask," Jeremy said, laughing under his breath. He sprang to his feet; the barn hunkered down and spun by onscreen as Jeremy circled it, coming to an abrupt halt on the far side. "Look at that," Jeremy said, scanning the goggles up and down a pile of rusting metal drums. "I shouldn't even need the climbing gear." The drums grew onscreen, then started to vanish off the bottom of the window as Jeremy went up. Simon thought he could hear faint metallic thrumming noises. "Phew," Jeremy said. "Ancient petrol. I expect they were fueling here."

      "Really?" Nate said. "Gas is good—I can use that."

      The last of the drums fell away, leaving Jeremy looking up at the gentle slope of the roof. There was a large window set in the roof, currently propped open for ventilation. Jeremy's hands appeared onscreen, clawing at the roof's shingled surface as he scrambled up towards the window. "Nothing to it," Jeremy said, sounding vaguely smug. "It's an easy climb."

      "Hell, I could have done it myself," said Simon. "Who needs you?"

      Jeremy laughed softly and flattened out on the roof just a few inches from the slight peak of the roofline. "The building seems fairly sturdy," he reported, switching back over to the infrared rainbows. "I suspect this roof is less than ten years old, and the woodrot doesn't seem to have gotten too far yet." He stuck his head up above the top of the building and scanned the rolling hills below him, picking up mostly pixelated purple and blue tones. "All right," he said, satisfied. The world went green again. "I'll set up the antenna now."

      "Huh," Nate said, digging a small notebook out of his shirt pocket and flipping it open. He consulted the numbers, squinting in the dim light from the laptop screen. "We'll go ahead and use the medium load, then. We want this place to go up."

      "Not too quickly, I hope," Jeremy said affably. Onscreen his hands dipped into the backpack and brought out a small black box with a stubby plastic antenna attached to it; Jeremy flipped up the antenna and flicked a switch. "There," he said. "Specs, are you getting that?"

      "Sec," said Nate, switching windows. He and Simon both winced away from the sudden brightness, then squinted at the window Nate had just pulled up. There was gibberish in it; even as Simon watched, another line appeared, then another, pulsing onto the screen at two-second intervals. Nate switched back. "We're good," he said. "Go ahead and put it in place."

      Jeremy flipped the black box over and peeled the backing paper from the adhesive discs on the underside. Settling the box up against the edge of the window, he pressed it down, then adjusted the antenna. "Check again?"

      Nate flipped windows. "Still good, Shadow."

      "Excellent." Jeremy's hands dipped back into the backpack.

      "Hey, we maybe got company," Mike called from outside, his voice low and urgent.

      Simon's head jerked up. "Company," he said, "silence on frequency now," and he picked up a blanket and threw it over Nate, laptop and all. The grainy light from the laptop's screen vanished. Simon hunkered down and strained his ears, eventually picking up the sound of an engine in the distance.

      "Yeesh, like it wasn't hot enough in here," Nate muttered. Simon put his hand on Nate's shoulder and Nate subsided.

      The grind of the engine seemed to go on and on, getting neither louder nor softer, while Simon breathed through his mouth and listened to his heart hammer in his ears. Finally, eventually, the engine noise faded away. "Gone," Mike said a minute later. "I don't think they even noticed us, they were down on that road by the edge of the farm."

      Simon pulled the blanket off Nate, then snickered. "Nice hair, Specs," he said, smoothing the tufts of Nate's damp dirty-blond hair back down.

      "Bedhead," Nate said in apparent agreement. "And I wasn't even in bed. Okay, folks, we're okay. Shadow, how's it going?"

      "I've got the wires attached," Jeremy said. "I'm going to run them down the outside of the garage—they'll be too obvious if I put them through the ventilation window."

      "Okay." Nate scraped his fingers through his mussed hair. "What's that window made of? Glass?"

      There was a pause, then a flat thunking sound. "Plastic," Jeremy said. "It's gone a bit foggy with age."

      "Okay, good," Nate said. "Check the ones on the walls, if you could. I need to know where there's glass."

      "Will do." The image onscreen went from green to darkness, split neatly in half by a glowing white box and a long, thin line running from it. "Wires are carrying the current," Jeremy said. The image went green again.

      Fifteen minutes later, Simon was officially bored out of his skull. Sitting in a sauna watching someone wire up a garage and occasionally pause to answer Nate's exacting questions was just about as much fun as pulling hairs out of his head one by one, and Simon was on the verge of field-testing this assertion when the actual explosives came out. The possibility of explosion and death always made things a bit more interesting.

      "This place reeks of old petrol," Jeremy said. Onscreen his green-gloved fingers were carefully twisting a blasting cap onto the wire. "There are barrels everywhere—it's a bloody firetrap even without being helped along."

      "I can work with that," Nate said. "Really, the stink ought to reinforce the illusion. Plus two bonus to the roll and everything. Put that one between the middle barrel and the wall, if you can."

      Jeremy's hand dipped into the backpack and came out with a palm-sized cube of what looked like clay, wrapped in paper. "Half?" he asked, pinching the cube in half.

      "Half," Nate confirmed, avidly watching Jeremy mold the plastic explosive around the blasting cap, something like longing in his eyes.

      Jeremy and Nate worked on through the night, placing, shaping, and camouflaging the small detonators, one after another. Simon found himself with nothing to do at all. At one point his ears picked up the faintest hint of a voice outside, and he tensed until he recognized the little green square of the iPod at Mike's collar; that was it for the excitement. Half an hour later Simon dozed off on the floor of the van, flushed and sweating, Nate's voice humming on in the background.

      He didn't wake up again until the timbre of Nate's voice changed to relief. "And that should do it," Nate said, slumping back against the side of the van. "That place is going down. And by down, I mean up. You should probably check the wiring one last time before you go."

      "Mn," Simon said, scrubbing at his eyes. "You guys done?"

      "Just about," Jeremy said, the laptop's speakers crackling.

      Simon struggled upright, his sweat-soaked clothing sticking to him like glue, and checked his watch. Close to two in the morning; Jeremy had been up there for four hours. Simon peeled his t-shirt away from the skin of his back and made a face.

      Onscreen the image went from green to black one final time—this time, however, the blackness was criss-crossed by thin white lines. Jeremy panned his goggles from left to right, blurring the lines. "I believe everything's in order," he finally said.

      "Yeah, I think so," said Nate. "Go check from the back one last time?"

      The white lines drifted by as Jeremy moved towards the back of the garage, looking like nothing so much as an old-fashioned screensaver. Jeremy reached the back of the barn and turned around, panning across the maze of wires. "It looks fine from this angle as well," he said.

      "Okay," Nate said, heaving a sigh. "We're all done. Come on back when you can, Shadow."

      The screen went green, the white lines disappearing into the night-vision noise. "I'll be on my way momentarily," said Jeremy.

      Simon fished the bit of dirty wire out of his pocket and climbed painfully over the van's front seat, dropping out into the night a moment later. It wasn't much cooler out here and Simon was stiff from his impromptu nap on the bare steel of the van's floor, but the knowledge that they were almost done gave him something of a second wind.

      Mike jumped when Simon tapped him on the shoulder. "Shit, boss, nearly gave me a friggin' heart attack," he said, clutching at his chest.

      "That's what you get for listening to Italian people on the job, Honda," Simon said, holding out the wire. "Here, put this anywhere that turns you on. I mean, turns the van on."

      "Good thing you qualified that statement, boss, 'cause those are two entirely different places." Mike took the wire, twisting it around his fingers. "We're finally done? Shit, I coulda built a garage from scratch in that much time, built the detonators right in."

      "Yeah, I know," said Simon, heading back towards the van. He paused with his foot on the running board. "Working with you guys, I always got the idea that destruction just sort of happened, you know?"

      Nate shut down the monitoring programs, the view from Jeremy's goggles finally vanishing offscreen. "Man, I'm almost down to backup battery power," he said. "I'm glad that didn't take any longer than it did."

      "My God, so am I," Jeremy said fervently, picking up his jacket, frowning at it, and draping it back over the seat. Despite the heat he'd consented to put his trousers and shoes back on, fortunately for Simon's peace of mind, and the bodysuit was unzipped to his shoulder once again. He was definitely on the grimy side, and he looked hot and tired. The stripe of skin over his eyes was noticeably cleaner than the rest of him, banded with shiny pink marks where the edge of his goggles had pressed against his cheeks and forehead.

      Nate ducked his head. "Yeah, I... yeah. I would have come and helped if I could have."

      Jeremy waved the half-apology away. "Criminal trespass is best left to professionals," he said. "I do appreciate the thought, however."

      "I guess so," Nate said. "You, uh, you got some..." Nate trailed off there and plucked meaningfully at his own messy hair.

      Following Nate's example Jeremy ran his fingers through his hair, wrinkling his nose at the collection of spiderwebs that came loose. "Eugh," he said, wiping his hand on his pants leg. "Days like today make me reconsider wearing a hood, that's for certain."

      "Hope you didn't bring any spiders into the van with you," Simon put in. "Hey, I'm thinking we could take you back outside and hose you down, just to make sure. You'd definitely smell better if we did, which, I mean, bonus."

      Jeremy scraped both hands through his hair again, then beat them clean against his thighs. "Believe me, Simon, if we had access to a garden hose, I'd be the first to turn it on myself. I feel foul."

      "Hate to break it to you, Archer, but that feeling is not lying to you," Simon said with mild relish.

      The van's hood dropped and slammed shut, making Simon twitch and glance over his shoulder. Mike trotted around and swung himself into the driver's seat. "We about ready to go?" Mike said, poking the key into the ignition. "Anyone wants to grab shotgun, now's the time."

      Nate looked expectantly up at Simon. Simon shrugged. "I'm fine where I am, Specs," he said. "Go for it."

      "Okay," Nate said happily, shutting his computer down and casting the inside of the van into darkness. Simon felt more than saw Nate edge past Jeremy and scramble over into the front seat, awkwardly carrying the laptop.

      Mike turned the key. The van's engine hitched a couple of times, then caught with a choking roar. "Oh yeah, I'm the man," Mike said, putting the van into gear. "Sit or fall over, Archer, it's gonna be one or the other."

      "I may fall over in any case," Jeremy said, but he gingerly lowered himself to the floor of the van behind Simon. His head fell back against the van's side with a soft but audible bong.

      "Hey, don't pass out on us, Archer," said Simon. "You're filthy and encrusted in spiders and I refuse to carry you anywhere as long as you smell like a hobo."

      "Your generosity of spirit never fails to impress me, Simon," Jeremy said. "Would you mind handing me my jacket?"

      Simon picked up Jeremy's jacket. "You sure?" he asked. "I mean, you're just going to ruin it if you handle it now."

      Finally Jeremy laughed, if only a little. "All right, all right, I take your point, I smell a bit off—"

      "—like a sweaty hobo, doused in gas—"

      "—so, since you're so very concerned for the state of my jacket, I'd settle for just my cell phone," Jeremy finished, grandly ignoring the latest round of insults. "It's in the breast pocket."

      Simon dug around in Jeremy's jacket and fumbled out the skinny black phone. "Here," he said, holding it out.

      Jeremy's gloved hand reached out of the darkness and took it from him. Its screen lit when he flipped it open, pinning Jeremy against the wall of the van in a circle of dirty gray light, which didn't make him look any prettier. "Pardon me," Jeremy said, his voice absent as he typed a number into his phone and put the phone to his ear. It buzzed twice—Simon could just barely hear it over the car's engine—and then someone answered. "Is he there?" Jeremy asked, his voice suddenly flat and peremptory. "Let me speak to him."

      Simon glanced back over his shoulder at the front seat. Mike and Nate were carrying on some kind of desultory conversation, not really paying much attention—"Hallo, Irish," Jeremy said, his voice light with a heavy effort, yanking Simon's attention back in his direction.

      Jeremy was slumped bonelessly back against the wall of the van, his knees drawn up to his chest, his eyes closed. "All done," he said, still maintaining that aura of mastery, audibly a man in control of his world. "Go ahead and make the call whenever you like." He paused for long enough to allow Bran to buzz something. Simon couldn't make out the words, but he could swear that he heard that petulant, thwarted anger, loud and clear. "Yes, I know," Jeremy said. "Just remember that you're also doing it for yourself, and for the opportunity I'm giving you, and, of course, for seventeen million pounds." Bran's voice cracked harshly across the connection. Jeremy squeezed his eyes shut. "Well, as you like, Irish," he said. "Tell them it was room 418 in the hotel Zaffiro, in Genoa. Tell them I called you. Tell them... Thomas Angobrind."

      Unnerved despite himself, Simon reached over the back of his seat to put his hand on Jeremy's shoulder. Jeremy was hot and damp to the touch; after a moment his free hand crept up and curled around two of Simon's fingers. The phone's tiny speaker transmitted another long, ranting burst of Bran, and Jeremy's hand tightened on Simon's. "I've every faith that you'll handle it with skill, Irish," Jeremy said. "I'll be waiting for your call." He folded the phone closed to cut off the connection, his head falling back against the van's side with another slight, metallic thump. His hand fell away from Simon's. "Godspeed," Jeremy said, speaking to no one at all.

      Simon woke up to a steamy, ominous morning. Clouds had boiled up overnight and hung threatening and low overhead, turning the white room a dull gray. The storm had not yet broken, but it hung there, waiting to do so. Simon frowned, made a mental note to ask Nate if this would cause any problems, and went to go shower.

      It was still fairly early when Simon let himself out of the white room and into the hall. Without the sun beating down on the glass the hallway had stayed reasonably cool, but Simon could hear the air conditioner droning on in the background to make it so. Overcast, yes, but not cool by any stretch of the imagination, and probably humid as hell to boot.

      No one answered when Simon tapped on the green door. Simon thought for a moment, then went to tap on the blue door. That got a response, as someone fumbled their way up and out of a chair; Nate opened Dave's door, blinked, then eased out into the hall and shut the door behind him. "Hey, Templar," he said, blinking worriedly. "What's up?"

      "I just wanted to check," Simon said. He waved a hand at the giant window behind him. "Is the rain going to cause any problems with the garage?"

      Nate craned up to look over Simon's shoulder. "It shouldn't, Templar," he said, after studying the thunderheads. "I mean, everything's under a roof except the antenna, and it's waterproof..."

      "Okay," Simon said, relaxing somewhat. "And what about actually taking the place down? Will that be a problem if the wood is wet?"

      Nate was already shaking his head by the time that Simon finished his sentence. "No way, Templar," he said confidently. "I built like three levels of redundancy into the wiring—even if the rain takes out the initial fire, I can fake an explosion and restart the fire by hand. The garage is like half-full of old diesel barrels and stuff. People would expect multiple explosions, especially once they see the barrels that are still outside."

      "Okay," Simon said. "Damn, but that makes me feel better."

      "I take my arson very seriously," Nate said, with semi-misplaced pride. "I'm a professional! Seriously, there ought to be a motto involved. Maybe in Latin, even. Qui burnibus est, nunc est torch il bastardus, ipso facto."

      "Ave Maria," Simon said gravely. "What does all that mean?"

      Nate shrugged. "No clue. It sounds kinda Latin-y, though, doesn't it?"

      "You should probably hold off on getting the t-shirts made, then," said Simon. "So what's up with you?"

      Nate glanced over his shoulder at the blue door. "I was mostly just messing with Dave's little palmtop, because it's cool," he said sheepishly. "Dave crashed a couple of hours ago, but he said to tell you that everything's tested and ready, if you asked."

      "See, I do not doubt that in the slightest, because Dave does not sleep if there is work left undone, ever," Simon said. "I fear the day that I assign him a three-week-long project. Anyway, I'm thinking breakfast. You want to come?"

      "Oh." Nate shuffled his feet, embarrassed. "I already ate, Templar. Sorry."

      "Don't apologize, Specs," said Simon, patting Nate's shoulder. "And get some more sleep, Christ, I know how late you were up."

      Nate shoved his glasses back up. "I will, Templar," he promised. "I'll take a nap after lunch."

      "Good man," Simon said. "Go do your email thing. I'm off for breakfast."

      "Okay, Templar." Nate let himself back into Dave's room and quietly closed the door.

      Simon headed for the kitchen, his sneakers squeaking faintly on the marble flooring. All was quiet. At this time of the morning, most everyone was probably still asleep. He was halfway down the stairs, just about on a level with the heads of the statues, when the first drops of rain blatted against the skylight above his head; by the time he made it to the kitchen door, the rain was falling, hard and steady, like it intended to keep this up all day.

      The kitchen itself was dim and gray, the wind rattling the rain against the windows on the south wall. Simon was so intent on the fridge and the potential of breakfast that he was halfway across the kitchen before he noticed Jeremy, sitting on the low windowsill and idly tossing an apple from hand to hand. Simon slowed. "Hey," he said.

      "Good morning, Simon," said Jeremy, not taking his eyes off the window. He was back in his anonymous tan and white ensemble, once again clean and obnoxiously well-groomed; the apple thunked into his right hand and Jeremy brought it up and bit into it with a clean, sharp snap.

      Simon got himself moving again. There was nothing in the fridge that really interested him, so he poured himself some orange juice and dropped two slices of fancy Italian bread into the toaster, twisting the dial all the way up. While he waited for his toast to burn, he leaned against the counter and drank half his orange juice. "You sleep okay?" he asked.

      Jeremy laughed under his breath. "Like a rock, I'm afraid," he said. "Even nerves can only keep one awake for so long, after a day like yesterday."

      "Yeah, well, you had a real job, you'd work in a nice air-conditioned office all day," Simon said. "So, you know, ha ha, sucks to be you."

      "Occasionally it does," Jeremy said. He ate more of his apple, still watching the rain.

      Simon didn't know what to say to that, so he carried his orange juice over to the garage door and checked the row of cars. All seven were present and accounted for, including the van. Simon shut the door again. "I'm guessing everybody else is still asleep," he said. "Except Nate, who's insane."

      Jeremy made a faint sound of acknowledgement. The apple dangled from his fingers, half-eaten, while Jeremy ignored it in favor of the rainy morning. Simon racked his brain for something to say, then snorted at himself and fell willfully silent; eventually his smoking toast popped up and Simon transferred it to a plate, only mildly burning his fingertips in the process. He kept catching himself almost saying so, hey, listen, about yesterday and forcing himself to stop. There was nothing he'd said yesterday that he hadn't meant. "Heard from Bran yet?" he asked, instead.

      "Not yet," said Jeremy. He remembered his apple and ate some more of it. "I'm hardly surprised, though."

      "Yeah?" Simon carried his toast and orange juice over, sitting on the opposite side of the windowledge. "Why's that? You expecting him to ditch you?"

      Jeremy rested his forehead against the windowglass, closing his eyes and sighing through his little smile. The glass fogged in a little circle. "Not at all," Jeremy said. "I told Bran I had faith in him, and I do. But... there's a process to these things. A certain protocol, if you will. It's the same process that I took advantage of to hold Volpe off for three weeks."

      "Yeah, the process where nobody takes anybody's word for anything," Simon said.

      "Exactly," said Jeremy. "So... even assuming that Bran called immediately, the actual negotiations will be on hold until Volpe can send someone around to check out Bran's story. See the hotel room for himself, check the hotel register, that sort of thing."

      "Makes sense," Simon said, and turned his attention to his toast.

      Jeremy bit into his half-eaten apple, not really paying much attention to it. For a few moments they both ate in silence, listening to the steady downpour. "I expect to hear from Bran at some point this afternoon," Jeremy finally said, turning the apple core over and over in his hand. "And... really, I expect it all to go down tonight."

      "Yeah?" Simon said, a faint spark of adrenalin stiffening his spine at just the thought. "That quick?"

      "If I hadn't embarrassed Volpe so very badly at the opera, perhaps not. But as things stand... well. He'll be very anxious to get his hands on me, both for personal reasons and to regain face with Viktor Karpol." Jeremy's eyes went bleak. "I doubt I'd enjoy that very much."

      Simon shuddered a little. "Yeeeah, no," he said. "Maybe I'll just be tactful for once and not regale you with the stories that the CIA likes to tell about Karpol."

      "I'd definitely appreciate that tact, all the more for its rarity—"

      "—because, I mean, I'm in a position to have heard a whole lot—"

      "—thank you, Simon, but no," Jeremy said firmly. "And I believe that we ought to go ahead and hold the briefing after lunch, so that the team can be ready to move on a moment's notice."

      Simon popped the last bite of burnt toast in his mouth and washed it down with the last slug of orange juice. "Good idea," he said, hopping back off the windowsill and carrying his dishes to the sink. "Let's do that." He turned on the water, then hesitated. "You doing okay?" he asked, quietly, picking up his plate and rinsing off the crumbs.

      "As well as can be expected, I suppose." Jeremy's answer was half-lost under the sound of running water, but Simon heard it all the same.

      "Yeah," Simon said awkwardly. He rinsed out his mug and abandoned his breakfast dishes in the sink. "Take heart, It'll all be over soon."

      "One way or the other," said Jeremy.

      Simon turned off the water. "That better not be fatalism I'm hearing, Archer," he said, striving for normality. "I don't allow fatalism on my team. Counterproductive."

      "I'm not on your team, Simon." Jeremy looked back out the window. "As you've made very clear."

      Simon winced. "Yeah, well, I meant it, uh... in the greater spirit of, uh, team-iness—okay, you're right, that was tacky of me, forget I said anything."

      "It's forgotten," said Jeremy, flicking his fingers like he was shooing the thought away.

      "Still, dammit, I don't want to hear any defeatist talk from you," Simon said. "Sure you're not on my team, but we're sure as hell on yours right now. You've got all of us on your side! Half a dozen of the best! What more could you possibly need?"

      "Well, I suppose I can't argue overmuch if you put it that way, Simon." Jeremy unfolded from the windowsill and dropped his apple core into the garbage. "I've some things to do before things get too hectic. I'll see you at lunch?"

      "Yeah," Simon said, watching Jeremy go.

      "So, then," Jeremy said, settling back into the overstuffed armchair and crossing his legs. "I haven't actually heard back from Bran yet, but I'm reasonably certain that it will all happen tonight."

      The desultory conversation ceased, as did most of the shoving. Everyone was still suffering from their lunch-related attention-deficit disorder—it had required most of Simon's patience to herd them all into the black room for the briefing—but Jeremy's statement, mild as it was, engaged their attention like nothing else could. Simon ascribed it to everyone liking to watch shit blow up. "Can't imagine why Volpe might be eager to get his hands on you," Simon said, taking the other armchair.

      "I suppose it's possible he just wants to make me feel special," Jeremy said blandly. "But somehow, I doubt it."

      "I'm sure you already feel you're special," Simon said, his voice equally bland. He looked around the room and summarily dropped the mild facade, smacking one hand off the thick glass top of the coffee table, which rang like a bell. "So!" Simon said, sitting back. "Let's get this briefing underway, folks. I want us ready to gear up and move out with half an hour's warning, whether it goes down tonight, tomorrow, or in the middle of next week. Sit down, shut up, pay attention, all that good stuff—I know this isn't what they pay us for, but pay attention anyway, because I said so."

      By the end of this little speech the members of Simon's team were more or less quiet and attentive and Jeremy's smile had gone all crooked with some private amusement. "Thank you, Simon," he said. "As I was about to say: some of you know more than others about what's been going on these last few days, and I apologize for not filling you all in before now. That's what I intend to do now, in fact."

      Simon settled back in his own armchair, leaning against the armrest so that he could watch Jeremy and keep a subtle eye on Sandra at the same time. Sandra's own gaze was neutral and her hands were folded loosely in her lap, betraying no undue nerves or tension: so far, so good.

      "First of all, as most of you are aware—" Jeremy's eyes flicked towards Dave and away, but he didn't pause "—there is a fair amount of bad blood between Bran and myself, mostly but not entirely on Bran's end of things."

      Simon didn't bother to restrain his snort. "That's an understatement," he muttered, aware of eyes on him.

      "Mm. Yes. That it is," said Jeremy. "At any rate, it's fairly well known amongst a certain class of person that Bran despises me, as Bran has never made a secret of that fact. That is precisely what I am counting on. You see, late last night or early this morning, Bran called Battista Volpe and offered him my head on a platter, as it were." A faint murmur of reaction raced around the room; Jeremy's eyes unfocused, leaving him staring off into the black space around them. "Bran will have claimed to have overpowered me in my hotel room and imprisoned me—a claim which my trashed hotel room will amply support—and will have then offered to trade me to Volpe, in return for, ah, certain considerations."

      Sandra's fingers flexed lightly in her lap: advanced bullshit meter, pinging. Simon remained silent. "What considerations, Archer?" Sandra asked, picking at one of her nails.

      "I'm getting to that," Jeremy said, with a quick, apologetic smile. "As far as Viktor Karpol is concerned, Bran has committed a fairly serious breach of trust: he failed to complete his job at Annadale Labs. Thanks to us, and to Bran's untimely imprisonment, the goods from Annadale have languished in a safe-deposit box, where Karpol could not get at them. All this adds up to a serious disappointment for Viktor Karpol, a man who does not take disappointment lightly. It is our intent to make Volpe—and by extension, Karpol—believe that Bran intends to make good for his lapse by capturing me. To put himself back in Karpol's good books, as it were, and to reclaim his job."

      Sandra nodded, her hands falling still: she was satisfied. Simon relaxed.

      Jeremy took a deep breath. "Even as we speak Volpe is assuring himself of the truth of Bran's claims. I believe that the evidence we have fabricated is convincing—and Volpe is certainly eager to get his hands on me, for, ah, some reason." Jeremy laughed a little. "Bran will, at that point, hold most of the cards, and be able to make demands accordingly. He will demand that Volpe meet him at a place of his choosing to make the trade, which is to say, the garage. He'll also have the bullets and the Zip disk in his possession, and he will endeavor to get these into Volpe's hands before the deal goes sour."

      Sandra was silent. Her own gaze was sharp, concentrated on Jeremy like a laser, but she was not protesting, not yet.

      "And the deal will go sour," Jeremy said. "How, exactly, I cannot say. If all else fails and no more natural openings show themselves, Bran will think of something." Jeremy's smile was thin enough to see through. "Bran's always been quite good at finding a way to take offense over nothing."

      Simon snorted in acknowledgement, which made Jeremy clear his throat. "At any rate," said Jeremy, "once we have queered the deal, Bran will fire a shot. That will be your signal." Jeremy looked at Nate, who was clutching a legal pad to his chest and looking uncertain.

      "This is as good a map of the garage as I can draw," Nate said, putting the pad down on the table between them. Everyone craned forward to get a better look at the crude blueprint, including Sandra, who still looked doubtful. Nate tapped one wall. "This wall here is the front of the garage, which the road leads up to. The garage door there will be open, to admit Volpe when he arrives. Now, we, on the other hand, will be hiding back here, around the back side of the garage." He tapped the scribble that denoted the tangle of grapevines behind the garage. "Or I guess I should say you guys will," he added, flushing a little. "I'll be back in the van, handling our coordination. Uh, anyway, as soon as you hear the shot from inside, you'll burst in through this little door here, which will be open an inch or two." Nate tapped a small doorway on the back wall.

      "Your actual entrance order is up to you, but I recommend that Mike either lead off or come second, as he'll be the one shouting for surrender in Italian," said Jeremy, smoothly taking back the flow of conversation. "What happens next must happen very quickly. If we allow Volpe's people to draw their weapons, they will use them, and your weapons, like Bran's, will be loaded with false rounds." Jeremy tapped the blueprint. "Volpe and his people will be here," he said, drawing his finger in a line across the front of the garage. "I will be here, nearly at your feet—" he touched a spot near the small doorway "—and Bran will be over here." His finger slid across to a spot in the other corner, completing the square. "When you come bursting in, cover Volpe's people with your weapons, so that they do not draw. Bran will take aim at you, as his weapon is already out."

      "That's when I shoot him?" Johnny said.

      "Yes," said Jeremy. "I'd recommend firing at least twice, but it's up to you."

      "Why Texas?" Sandra said, stirring.

      "Because he has that perfectly massive Desert Eagle," said Jeremy. "In that enclosed space it'll sound like thunder and flash-blind Volpe's people, and no one on earth would be surprised if a gun of that caliber punched all the way through Bran's body, through a barrel, and into the leftover gasoline sludge, causing an explosion."

      The matter-of-fact tone in his voice was, quite frankly, unsettling, and Simon shifted in his chair. Jeremy, unheeding, tapped the little cluster of circles that denoted the barrels. "The explosion will start here, behind Bran, immediately upon the occasion of Johnny firing his weapon."

      "It won't come anywhere near you guys at that point," Nate said confidently.

      Jeremy nodded at Nate in thanks. "Once it starts, immediately go back the way you came. Disarray is fine, as long as you remember not to say anything in English. Don't worry about Bran, or about me. We will take care of our own—oh, how does Simon say it—extraction. Just get out and away from the garage. If you want to fire off a few rounds while Volpe and his cronies are escaping, then do so—"

      "Fire into the air if at all," Simon said, cutting in on that in a hurry. "I don't want one of you hitting someone by accident. If Volpe's people figure out that we're firing wax rounds, we will drown in shit."

      "Ah. Yes. Simon has the right of it, I believe," said Jeremy. "Once you're out, make your way back to the van, and try not to be seen. Once the six of you are all present and accounted for, come back to the villa. Don't wait for me."

      "Why not?" Sandra said. She was lacing her fingers together and unlacing them, over and over again, a clear sign of bullshit scented.

      Jeremy turned slightly towards her, acknowledging his opponent. "I'll have to rendezvous with Bran and complete my part of the deal," he said. "That could take a while, and meanwhile Volpe's people might put the Zip disk into a drive at any point. I'd prefer if Dave were here to monitor the fallout."

      "We could leave Dave here," Sandra said, a faint challenge in her voice.

      "Yes, you could." Jeremy's own voice was cool. "But, frankly, your numbers need bolstering. The real ROS wouldn't tackle this situation with fewer than twelve men—we are already counting on Volpe believing that the ROS had a breakdown in communications, resulting in the second team being catastrophically late. I believe he'll accept that, since you are 'obviously' responding to the fired shot." Jeremy provided the fingerquotes, complete with a raised eyebrow. "Nate has to stay behind to monitor communications and fire the building—that puts you at five people. Without Dave, your numbers drop to four. That's entirely too few."

      "Mmph." Sandra stopped dry-washing her hands, although she didn't settle down entirely. "All right, I'll buy that—but you're bullshitting somewhere, Archer," she said. "I can't put my finger on it, but I know you're fucking us in some orifice."

      "Do let me know when you figure out which one," Jeremy said, with a flat, unpleasant smile. "I assure you that I am telling you as much as I currently know—"

      "You'll forgive me if I don't quite trust that assertion," Sandra said, her voice mostly edge, and then Jeremy's phone rang and made them all jump.

      Jeremy's hand darted into his jacket and came back out with the little black phone. "Pardon me," he said, flicking it open. "Yes?"

      Everyone else was still, watching Jeremy like they were hypnotized. At this remove, the voice on the other end of the line was nothing more than a hum, barely audible. Simon stole a glance at Sandra; she had subsided but was staring at Jeremy with her upper lip ever so slightly lifted. The phrase coiled to strike flitted through Simon's mind.

      "All right," Jeremy said. "How many?"

      Even as Simon watched Sandra looked down and started mumbling to herself, her fingers flicking through the air as she talked to herself with her hands.

      Jeremy closed his eyes. "Good," he said. "When do you—ah."

      Sandra's hands dropped, then rose again, an expression of frustration marring her features for a moment. She'd gone through Jeremy's story once and found nothing to protest; now she was doing it again. It was uncannily like watching himself, Simon thought.

      "I understand," said Jeremy. "Thank you, Irish. I would tell you that you've exceeded my expectations, but quite frankly I knew you had it in you all along."

      The line of bullshit made Simon and Sandra snort as one; they traded vaguely sheepish glances, then Sandra went back to picking over Jeremy's story and Simon went back to watching her.

      Jeremy laughed under his breath. "I'm afraid I don't quite bend that way," he said pleasantly. "I'll see you then, Irish." He folded the phone away and made it disappear into his jacket like a feat of legerdemain. "Well," he said, folding his hands in his lap. "It seems I was correct: Volpe wishes to make the exchange tonight."

      The rush snapped up Simon's spine like an electric shock, and judging from the way half his team suddenly sat upright, he wasn't alone. Jeremy unfolded his legs and sat forward, his lazy facade falling away. "Quickly, then," he said, his voice as intense as Simon had ever heard it. "There will be three of them, plus a driver, unless Volpe intends to double-cross us. Dave. Is the disk ready?"

      "I think so?" Dave said. "I mean, yes, it's ready. I've tested it six ways to Sunday, I can't find anything wrong—"

      Jeremy snapped his fingers and Dave shut up, startled. "Good," Jeremy said, pointing at the door. "Go get it, and the box with the bullets." Dave hesitated, and Jeremy added, "Please. Now."

      "Okay," Dave said, bounding to his feet and scooting past Nate. He was already trotting by the time he hit the door, and full-out running once he hit the hall outside. The daylight, gray as it was, still half-blinded Simon until the door swung shut again.

      "Nate, is there anything else you need?" Jeremy asked, turning his gaze on Nate. "Anything else we need to know?"

      "I," Nate croaked, then cleared his throat. "I don't think so."

      "Good." Jeremy looked at Mike. "As soon as we're done here I need you to run me down the hill. When you've dropped me off, come back here. The meeting with Volpe is scheduled for ten o'clock tonight—I want the van in place by nine at the very latest. If you want to be there earlier, that's your call."

      "Sì, signore," Mike said, tapping his forehead in a goofy salute.

      Jeremy didn't hesitate, just looked back at Sandra. "I don't know how else to reassure you," he said. "Believe me, I've racked my brain trying to make sure I've told you all everything that you need to know."

      "I know," Sandra said, frustrated. "I just... there's something wrong and I can't put my finger on it." She looked to Simon for help.

      Simon held up both hands to ward her off. "Don't look at me," he said. "If I could put my finger on it, I'd have said something, and I've been trying for days."

      "I'd hope I wouldn't lie to you about something which is supposed to be directly to my benefit," Jeremy said, with a quick, guarded smile.

      Sandra threw up her hands in defeat. "I know," she said. "All right. I accept that you're leveling with us as best you know how, and nothing you're asking us to do violates the parameters that we agreed upon. We'll do our part as you've outlined it."

      "Thank you," said Jeremy, his voice almost humble. It sounded so wrong on him that Simon sat up, then caught himself and made himself subside again. If Jeremy noticed, he said nothing, only looked around the room, meeting everybody's eyes in turn. Simon couldn't figure out if Jeremy actually held Johnny's eyes for a beat too long, or if he was just being paranoid.

      Dave slammed back in, carrying the gray box and the black disk. "Here," he said breathlessly, holding them out. "They're ready to go."

      Jeremy accepted both things, folding his hands tightly around them, like they might try to escape. "Thank you," he said. "All right. I need to get ready to go—the rest of you have several hours. Spend them however you see fit. If you'd give me a moment...?"

      Sandra got to her feet. Most of the others weren't all that good at comprehending unspoken requests—Simon had not picked them for their skills with subtlety—but when Sandra stood up, they got the idea. The meeting broke up as everyone headed for the door. "Mike, I'll meet you in the kitchen in five minutes or so," Jeremy said, disappearing into the depths of his room. "Simon, would you stay behind for a moment?"

      "Yeah, okay," Simon said, flopping back into his chair.

      The door banged open and banged shut several times in succession, each time letting in a blast of grayish daylight and the sound of rain pattering against the windowglass. The two of them were alone in short order, Simon under the lights of the conversation pit, Jeremy lost in the midnight blackness of his room. Simon could hear Jeremy rattling around. "Are there actually windows in here?" Simon asked, mostly to fill the silence.

      "I have no idea," said Jeremy. "I haven't gone looking." His laugh floated back to Simon. "I tend to prefer the darkness, after all."

      "Like all small and scuttling creatures, hiding under things and hoping not to be noticed," Simon said, pushing himself up and out of the chair. "You know, Sandy's right."

      "Is she?" said Jeremy, distracted.

      "You are bullshitting us, somehow," said Simon. "I can feel it just like she can. The only difference between what Sandra feels and what I know is that I've met Bran, and she hasn't."

      Jeremy said nothing. He could have been anywhere. Simon looked around, didn't spot anything, gritted his teeth, and plunged on. "I don't know what you're stonewalling about—Christ, when they hung that name on Dave they screwed up a perfectly useful word—but you are. Stonewalling, I mean. And it's got something to do with Bran."

      Simon paused, just in case, but Jeremy still said nothing and Simon gave up. "I just hope that whatever you're hiding, it won't fuck us up," he said, squinting and scanning the darkness in front of him.

      "Simon," Jeremy said, and just for a moment he sounded so utterly desolate that Simon snapped his mouth shut, startled. Jeremy paused, presumably getting himself back under control, then added, "I wasn't lying to Sandra, you know. I have been racking my brains to make sure that your team has all the information that it needs."

      "I know," Simon said. "God help me, but I think that by now I know when you're lying and when you're not. So... I guess I'll buy that. You really do think you've told us everything, which means that whatever you're hiding, you're hiding it from yourself, too." He paused to think about that, then shivered. "Christ, that doesn't precisely make me feel better."

      "Simon," Jeremy said again.

      "Yeah," said Simon, looking down at his feet. "I know."

      "I promise I have every reason in the world to keep your team safe and unharmed," said Jeremy, drifting out of the darkness with one of Ethan's omnipresent briefcases in his hand. "As for some reason I would like to keep you around, even when that means that we have to continually have horrible conversations like this one."

      Simon fumbled for a moment. "You're still wearing the beige suit," he said, grasping at that conversational straw. "I thought for sure you'd be wearing black when you came back."

      "Not for this," said Jeremy. He tried to smile, but it looked off, almost painful. "I think this outfit is more... appropriate for the occasion, as it were."

      "Oh-kay," Simon said, openly dubious. There were bottomless conversational chasms to the left and right of him, and the slightest misstep would drop him into one. "Uh," he said, retreating into incoherence, as a safety measure.

      Jeremy put the briefcase down. "Well, then, Simon," he said lightly. "Have I forgotten anything? Is there anything I need to tell your team to fire them up properly?"

      "I think they're pretty fired up," Simon said, embracing the topic change. "I mean, there are going to be explosions and shooting, and they like those."

      "Of course," said Jeremy, still sounding somewhat amused. "I should have guessed. In that case, I'm counting on you to keep them motivated."

      "Okay, you know what, I do that for a living, I don't think you need to remind me," said Simon. He fell silent, trying to think of something else to say that wouldn't make things worse. The silence stretched between them, until Jeremy's waiting presence seemed to fill the room from end to end.

      "Perhaps I should have said that I'm counting on you, period," Jeremy said, his voice quiet.

      Simon looked away. "Yeah, I know," he said. "That's why I came, remember?"

      "Mm. Yes, that is why you're here, isn't it?"

      "Good luck," Simon said helplessly. "And, you know, be careful—Christ, I hope you're right about Bran. I really do."

      "So do I," Jeremy said. He was still standing there, just a bit too close, making no move towards the door.

      Simon glanced over his shoulder at the door, almost lost in shadows. "You should probably get going—" Jeremy's fingers brushed against his cheek, startling him. Simon spun back around, already starting to say "What—"

      Jeremy caught Simon's face in both hands and kissed him with a ferocity that nearly knocked Simon off his feet. Simon only saved himself by grabbing the back of the couch. For a moment he could only stand there in awe of the assault, one hand clutching the couch for balance, the other hovering impotently an inch or so away from the hand on his cheek; then he groaned out a heartfelt sound of surrender and grabbed Jeremy, nearly crushing him against his chest. His hands knotted in the back of Jeremy's jacket, doubtless rumpling it.

      Jeremy's hands slid back and tangled in Simon's hair, dragging his head down. Simon's knees came within an inch of buckling and he swayed back against the back of the couch, lost and starving, a fierce need clawing its way up his spine to shatter against the base of his skull—Simon was breathless and gasping by the time the kiss broke, Jeremy clutching at him like a man drowning.

      Simon clung to Jeremy's back and tried to catch his breath, his mind stunned into silence. Jeremy didn't move, his face hidden against the side of Simon's throat, his own breath coming quick and hard. Eventually Simon painfully unknotted his fingers and tried to smooth out the creases he'd left in Jeremy's jacket, and Jeremy stirred, lifting his head, looking up at him with dimmed, half-lidded eyes and no other expression on his face at all—

      Someone pounded on the door. "Yo! Archer!" Mike yelled. "You comin' or what?"

      Jeremy's face slammed shut on the instant. "Just a moment," he called back, his voice perfectly, heartbreakingly normal. Unclasping his hands, he let his arms fall, letting go of Simon; he twisted neatly free of Simon's own grip, then picked up the briefcase, patted Simon's chest lightly, and left. The door opened, just wide enough to admit Jeremy. He slipped through, the door closed behind him, and he was gone.

      Simon was left rumpled and gaping, still leaning against the back of the couch. Eventually he reached up and scruffed both hands through his hair, putting it back to rights. "The hell was that about?" he muttered, his voice just the slightest bit uneven.