Part One: CODENAMES
"Well?" Simon asked, flicking two fingers against his lapel and raising an eyebrow at Sandra.
Sandra reached out and smoothed Simon's hair down slightly, then nodded. "You're good to go, boss."
"Great. Another day, another tuxedo," Simon said, straightening his bow tie and checking his reflection in the van's rearview mirror. "Let's do this thing, people. Pretend we're professionals. Are we set? Specs? Specs Two?"
"Cameras are on-line and reasonably steady, Templar," Nate said from the back of the van, scanning the flickering monitor banks. "Party looks dull. Good thing I've got a camera in the ladies' room, or I might fall asleep out here" Sandra promptly smacked the back of his head. "ow! Springheel, I was kidding!"
"Good thing, too," Sandra said, automatically double-checking the clasp of her diamond bracelet. "I love you like a particularly retarded younger brother, Specs, but I draw the line at letting you watch me pee."
"Specs Two?" Simon broke in, scowling at Sandra.
"Alarm systems hook-in is a go," said Rich. "Our link-up back to headquarters is working fine. I'm testing the second team's headsets nowHonda? Do you read me?"
"Loud and clear." Mike's voice boomed in from the speaker over Rich's head. Rich frowned irritably and adjusted the volume.
"How are things looking where you are, Honda?" Simon asked the speaker.
"Looks pretty sweet, Templar. The door mechanism's smooth, the rich fucks seem okay with only being allowed in ten at a time, no static so far. Wallpaper's ugly as sin, though, and I'm considering mugging Texas for his flak vest and gas mask. These penguin suits are for chumps."
"I hear you," Simon said, tugging grumpily at the wing collar of his tuxedo shirt.
"Texas?" Rich said.
"Yo." Johnny's voice was less clear and crackled slightly, but was perfectly understandable. "We're good in the display room. That sure is one shiny rock."
"Headsets are a go, Templar," Rich concluded. "Lemme check your link-up. Springheel?"
Sandra pulled a tiny cell phone out of her equally tiny purse and flipped it open. "Hello hello, can you hear me?"
"Got it," Rich said, making minute adjustments to the dials in front of him. "Templar?"
"Right." Simon pulled out his own phone and flipped it open. "Testing, testing, one, two, three, hang on Sloopy, Sloopy hang on..." Everybody in the van clapped their hands over their ears, and Rich ripped off his headphones. Mike's caw of protest made the speakers whine with feedback. "Guess it works," Simon concluded, just barely smiling, and slid the cell phone back into his pocket. Rich scowled at him and put the headphones back on. "Anything else, people?" Simon asked. No one said a word. "Ready, 'Tiffany'?"
"Next time I get to pick my own alias, 'Adam'," Sandra said, grimacing. "Let me just get my heels on."
"Right!" Simon clapped his hands together, suddenly and totally calm. "Springheel and I are going in. Let's keep up the chatter, it'll keep us alert. Remember that I can hear you, even if I can't respond."
"Big Brother is listening," Nate intoned.
"So speak up the instant something looks fishy," Simon finished, as if Nate had never spoken at all. "Yell for backup if you even think you need it. Let's bag this slick boy and make the world safe once again for shiny rocks."
"Art Theft's going to hate us if we manage to do it," Mike said over the speakers. "Personally, I'm jonesing for that."
"Art Theft," Johnny said, his snort of disdain crackling with static.
Simon popped the back doors of the van and slid out, offering a hand to Sandra, who took it delicately and stepped down beside him, shimmying her hips to put her dress back to rights. "How do I look?" she asked, touching her updo lightly. "Think I'll pass?"
"You look just like a real girl," Simon assured her as Nate pulled the van doors shut again behind them. "No slimy thieving lowlife in the world could possibly resist you."
"Thanks so much, Adam," Sandra said, sliding her hand into the crook of his arm. "You sure know how to sweet-talk an ex-girlfriend."
"Aww, Tiff, you know that it was your sarcastic tendencies that broke us up in the first place." Simon touched his ear, making sure that the tiny earpiece was still hidden. "Let's go party with the rich people and the thieves."
Sandra laughed. "Assuming there's a difference between the two."
The party was already in full swing by the time they arrived. Simon paused in the doorway, Sandra clinging demurely to his arm, and scanned the room. Sam and Brenda Morning's enormous Virginia mansion was packed to the roof with glittering socialites and Washington DC's politics-heavy version of 'reasonably important people'; this early in the evening they were mostly standing about in clumps talking or clustering about the buffet tables, although a few hardy souls were already braving the mostly-empty dance floor, circling the completely unnecessary fountain in the very center of the room. In the corner of the room a string quartet played steadfastly on, although from Simon's vantage point they could barely be heard at all.
"And there you are," Nate said in Simon's ear. "We've got you on camera ten. Adjust your bowtie if you can hear me." Simon touched his fingers to his tie. "Good. Great. Springheel, look to your left." Sandra glanced left and smiled. "Great. Looks like you're both still in touch."
"Bring me back some of those little shrimp things," Rich added.
"There are shrimp things?" Mike said, plaintively. "I'm down here staring at wallpaper and missing shrimp things?"
"Sure are," Rich said as Simon and Sandra headed into the room. "Looks like there are cheese things, too. Oh, and curly vegetable things. At least, I think those are vegetables."
"Oh, and your favorite, Honda: booze things!" Nate said.
"Booze things?!" Mike's voice went from 'plaintive' to 'incredulous'. "Man, I wanna switch jobs with someone. Hey, Springheel, you come down here and guard the door and I'll be Templar's date for the evening."
"Gack... unwanted... mental image... killing brain cells..." Nate croaked.
Rich snorted. "You'd look ridiculous in that gold dress, Honda." Nate moaned in Simon's ear in what sounded like real pain.
"Shut up, Specs Two," Mike said affably. "You shrimp thing, you."
"I hate them sometimes," Sandra breathed through a smile suddenly gone brittle.
Simon patted her hand. "Patience, dearest. You can kill them all after we're done."
"Check in, Texas," Nate said.
"Still here. Rock's still shiny."
"Check in, Honda."
"Three more groups of gawkers in and out, no problems. The wallpaper hasn't gotten any prettier, either. Least someone brought me a chair." Mike whistled. "Man, I am just in the lap of luxury. All's I need is a sandwich and a TV."
"And this is Specs, on line."
"Specs Two, on line."
"We've still got you on camera eleven, Templar and Springheel..." Nate's voice suddenly went soft and silky. "...and there's our priiime suspect, on ten."
Simon did not look up through an effort of will, concentrating very hard on the shrimp he was nibbling on. Beside him he could feel Sandra tense. "By the fountain in the center of the room, Templar," Nate went on, immediately all business. Everybody else on the link-up was silent. "Shadow's talking to your charming hostess right now. If you and Springheel can get over there quick you can probably finagle an introduction and confirm the ID."
Simon dropped his half-eaten shrimp into a nearby potted plant and swung out across the dancefloor, Sandra's hand tucked into the crook of his arm again. The hostess, a heavy-set middle-aged woman in a froth of black ruffles, saw them coming and flashed them a nervous smile. "She's going to give us away," Sandra gritted out through her teeth. Simon squeezed Sandra's hand warningly, his eyes locked on the man talking to the hostess. Jeremy Archer. Almost certainly. If he'd just turn around
"Mrs. Morning!" Sandra trilled as soon as they got within range, her voice frothing with vapidity. The sudden change in his 'date' made Simon blink. It also made both the hostess and her companion turn to look at them, and Simon kept the jolt of recognition off his face only through an effort of will. Well! he thought. Fancy meeting you here, Jeremy Archer.
Sandra was still babbling even as she let go of Simon's arm and swayed forward to catch both of Brenda Morning's hands in her own. "Adam and I just had to come over and say thank you so much for inviting us! We've been down to see the Morning Star already and it's just beautiful. I may have to go see it again later!"
Brenda Morning's expression wobbled for half a moment before years of hostessing took over and she went on autopilot. "Oh, no, thank you for coming!" Brenda gushed, squeezing Sandra's hands. Simon relaxed imperceptibly. "I'm so glad you like itisn't it breathtaking? When he brought it home I just knew I'd have to throw a party and show it off!"
"It's astonishing," Sandra said. "It makes mine look like gravel, honestly, I should have known better than to wear diamonds to this party!"
Mrs. Morning laughed, dropping Sandra's hands. "Oh, nonsense, darling, your bracelet is perfectly lovely. But I mustn't be so rude! Mr. Crown, please, I'd like you to meet Tiffany Wellcome and... oh, dear, I'm afraid I didn't catch your name..."
"Moore," Simon said, offering his hand to 'Mr. Crown'. "Adam Moore. Pleasure to meet you. And you are...?"
"Ah," 'Mr. Crown' said, lazily taking Simon's hand. "James Crown, at your service, Mr. Moore. A pleasure to meet you" He paused, squeezing Simon's hand once in lieu of actually shaking it, and then let go, turning to Sandra. "both."
Sandra bubbled out a laugh and held out her hand to 'James', who offered her an arch little smile and bowed over it. "Oh, goodness," Sandra said. "How Continental! Are you English, Mr. Crown? You sound it."
"I do indeed have that dishonor," 'James' said, straightening back up. His thumb played over Sandra's knuckles. "It's quite a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Wellcome. I don't suppose you'll be needing your hand back...?"
Sandra barely hesitated. Her eyes flashed at Simon over 'James's shoulder and then she almost purred, "I'll make you a deal, Mr. Crown. You may keep my hand if you ask me to dance right away. Adam doesn't like to dance, the party pooper, and I'm just dying to..."
"Of course! Where are my manners? Ms. Wellcome, may I have the honor of this dance?" 'James' turned to Mrs. Morning. "If you'll excuse us, of course."
"Of course, of course," Brenda Morning said with heavy joviality, and shooed them both towards the dance floor. "Please, go, dance, enjoy the party!"
'James's eyes met Simon's. "If you don't mind...?" he asked, his voice trailing off inquisitively.
"I don't mind," Simon said, putting on his mildest smile. Surreptitiously he studied 'James's face, memorizing it as best he could. "Anything that'll keep me from having to do it."
"Mm." 'James's smile was a slight thing now, one that made his eyes crinkle at the corners. "Such a pity. Ah, well. Ms. Wellcome?"
"Call me Tiffany, please," Sandra said. She came within a hair's breadth of batting her eyes at him, and Simon nearly choked.
"Tiffany," 'James' said agreeably, leading Sandra out onto the dance floor. "And you must call me James."
Simon watched them go, then excused himself to Mrs. Morning and left, looking for a quiet corner.
"It's definitely Shadow," Simon said into his cell phone, watching 'James' and Sandra. Sandra's head was very nearly laying on 'James's shoulder, and 'James's hand rested on the small of Sandra's back like it belonged there. Simon felt a sudden stab ofnot quite jealousy, no. More "get your hands off my teammate" than "get your hands off that girl". "Springheel, could you possibly dance any closer to him? Maybe you can find out if he's circumcised. I might need to know."
Three or four disembodied voices choked back laughter. Out on the dance floor, Sandra's head twitched up slightly, and the hand on 'James's shoulder jerked once. 'James' smiled and said something, and Sandra forced a bright smile of her own and shook her head.
"We'll keep an eye on him for as long as we can," Simon went on, now smiling just the slightest bit. "Springheel's probably got the radio tracer on him now. Shift your left hand if you have, Spring." Sandra's left hand shifted inwards, nearly grazing the side of 'James's throat. Simon's eyebrow twitched.
"We have a problem, Templar," Rich said in his ear. "Tracer stopped working about two minutes ago. I'm working to bring it back online now."
Simon's little smile vanished. "Shit!" he said through gritted teeth. "Okay, do what you can. We can track him visually if we have to, but I'd feel a lot better if we had the tracer going, too."
"Working on it, Templar."
"Good man, Specs Two. Okay, team, here's your visual, courtesy of yours truly: Jeremy Archer, aka 'James Crown', aka 'Shadow' thanks to those worthless uncreative idiots in Art Theft. 5'10 or so, tan skin, brown eyes, yadda yadda blah blah whatever, tuxedo, red bowtie, red cummerbund, black studs. Hair's a lighter brown than it was in the photos, slicked straight back except for those stupid little bits that hang down at his temples, curls a little in the back. He's got a red rosebud in his lapel with those little white flowers around it, whatever they're called."
"Baby's breath," Johnny put in.
"What the fuck ever," Simon said.
"Just saying," Johnny said.
"Gold watch, right wrist," Simon went on. "One of those expensive thin jobbies. Springheel, anything I've missed, share it with the goon squad after you're done humping the lucky bastard out there." Sandra's hand twitched again, flipping Simon off for a fraction of a second.
"Looks pretty smooth," Nate said. "Man looks like he knows how to dance."
"Yeah," Simon said, watching them. "Man does."
"There's definitely something under his tuxedo," Sandra was saying five minutes later from the relative safety of the restroom. An immediate whoop of laughter on the frequency made her snap, "Some kind of undershirt, Honda. I don't know, but whatever it is, it's too thick to just be a t-shirt."
"Aw, damn," Mike said, still laughing. "Way to ruin a whole string of 'concealed weapons' jokes, Springheel."
"So was he circumcised?" Rich asked.
Nate added, "Inquiring minds want to know!"
"I hate you all," Sandra said. "He was a perfect gentleman. And a good dancer, too. You boys just wish you could be half the smooth operator this guy is."
"Spring~heel and Sha~dow, sitting in a treeee~," Nate chanted. SomeoneSimon guessed Johnnysnorted out a laugh.
Simon, in the crush at the bar, swirled his ginger ale around in its champagne flute, making it bubble. He was only half-listening to the chatter on his earpiece, scanning the crowd around him and trying to locate 'James Crown' again. There were hundreds of men here, all in tuxedos, half of them with brown hair; tracking the man visually was turning out to be much more of a challenge than he'd made it out to be, and he prayed that Rich would get the tracer working soon.
Across the room the string quartet finished whatever it was they were playing and started playing something else; it might have been the exact same song, as far as he knew. Simon repressed a sigh and took another sip of his drink as the chatter in his ear died down. He was just about to abandon his drink to its fate and take another swing past the buffet tables when Nate made a small surprised noise in his ear. "Don't look now, Templar," Nate said, "but he's heading your way at nine o'clock. I've got him on camera eleven."
Startled, Simon grew still, then looked up and away, toward the restroom. "I beg your pardon, Mr. Moore," 'James' said at his elbow, and Simon looked around in not-entirely-feigned surprise.
"Ah! 'scuse me, Mr. Crown." Simon edged aside, giving 'James' access to the bar. 'James' favored him with a thin little smile and picked up one of the flutes of champagne, then leaned against the bar practically at Simon's elbow instead of leaving. Simon's nerves immediately all prickled. For an awkward moment or two he waited for 'James' to excuse himself and vanish back into the throng, but 'James' didn't seem to be in any hurry to go. "Enjoying the party?" Simon finally asked, once 'James's amused silence grew too oppressive.
"Mm. Well. It isn't bad as these things go, I suppose, but It was actually rather tedious before your lovely date showed up." 'James' glanced at him briefly over the rim of his champagne flute, his little smile inviting Simon to share in the private joke.
Wary, Simon tried to edge away and give 'James' a bit more room. Almost immediately he backed into someone, who muttered "Excuse me!" but didn't move away; the crush of partygoers at the bar was two and three people deep in places and only getting worse. Even as Simon recovered from the minor collision another guest wormed up to the bar behind 'James', who murmured an apology and slid closer to Simon in order to let the man pass. Around them the chaos of the party swirled and bellowed, but Simon's attention was riveted on 'James', now looking very properly apologetic about nearly being pressed into Simon's chest. I could grab you right now and put you under arrest, easy as anything, Simon thought, and his fingers twitched in anticipation at the idea. Instead he just said, "Tiffany has a way of making everything more exciting, that's for sure."
Sandra came out of the restroom just then, tucking her tiny cell phone into her purse. Spotting Simon still standing with 'James', she stopped, and then caught the hand of a passing guest and led the startled man out onto the dance floor. "You just can't get her off the dance floor," Simon smoothly added, nodding in Sandra's direction.
'James' turned to look, leaning back against the bar. His arm came to rest touched lightly against Simon's, so close that Simon could feel the band of 'James's watch warm against his wrist. "She's quite a wonderful dancer," he said idly, bringing up his champagne flute again. Simon, currently painfully aware of everything that 'James' did, could have sworn that none of the champagne actually made it past 'James's lips.
"And I'm not," Simon said, on full alert now. "She always did love to dance. One of the reasons we broke up, in fact."
"Really? That's a shame. The two of you make such a lovely couple."
Simon forced himself to laugh it off. On his other side a bit of room opened up, and he was able to subtly edge away just enough to break off that bit of contact. "Oh, gosh, thanks so much," he said, relaxing somewhat. "Now all you have to do is start going on about what beautiful children we'd have had and you'd sound just like my mother."
"Ouch." 'James' winced politely. "I'm terribly sorry. I assure you that wasn't my intention at all, Mr. Moore."
"Eh, don't worry about it." Simon waved the apology away. "You know how these things go. It was nice while it lasted, but Tiff and I are a lot better off just being friends."
"Oh. Yes. 'Friends'." 'James' made the little quote-marks with his fingers, smiling slightly. "So terribly American, that concept. In England, we're generally able to admit when we loathe each other."
"Oh, yeah. I hear England is famous for letting it all hang out and getting in touch with its feelings."
"No, no, you misunderstand me, Adam." 'James' brushed two fingers against his little smile, his fingertips tracing along the sardonic bow of his upper lip. Simon's eyes flickered helplessly to follow the little movement before he could stop them. "We English put on our famous stiff upper lip, like so, and very politely allow that we loathe our horrendous exes."
Simon took uncertain refuge in his drink after one last glance. "So anything goes as long as you're polite about it, huh? Well, I can see how that would work out great."
"Well." 'James's eyes sparkled, but he let his fingers drop again. "It would have excused you from spending an evening at this tedious party with a woman you're no longer seeing, now, wouldn't it?"
"Oh, it's not that bad. I only really came to see the diamond anyway." Simon paused, watching Sandra dance with what he thought was the correct amount of nostalgia. "Have you been to see it? It's a hell of a thing."
"I went earlier this evening, yes. It's not bad. If you're partial to large clear rocks."
"Very expensive large clear rocks. Our host would be really upset if you forgot that part. And what business are you in, that you can afford to be so snobby?"
"Mm? Ah. I'm with the British Museum, actually." The wry twist in 'James's little smile came and went so quickly that Simon almost missed it. "Antiquities."
I'll just bet you are, Simon thought. Out loud, he said, "Ohh, so you're a shiny rock expert. Well, 'scuse me all to hell for doubting your credentials, sir. You actually do know what you're talking about."
"Well," 'James' said wryly, touching his glass to his lips again and again failing to actually take a sip of champagne. His voice dropped to a confidential murmur, almost lost under the roar of conversation around them; Simon was forced to lean in to hear him. "There had to be at least one person at this benighted party who does," 'James' purred, casting a jaundiced eye over the room.
Simon was startled into an actual, genuine laugh. "Boy, you really are English, aren't you?" he said, the first thing that came to mind.
"Born and bred, as they say." 'James' put his still-full glass back down and took a single swift step backwards, bowing slightly. "And now, if you'll be so kind as to excuse me, Adam, the tedium awaits..."
And before Simon could say anything else, 'James' was gone, sliding through the crowd like water. Simon watched him until he vanished into the crush.
"My feet hurt," Sandra was muttering into her cell three hours later, once again safely ensconced in the powder room. "I've been on my feet all night in brand-new heels. If Shadow doesn't make his move soon, I vote we go pre-emptive and have Templar challenge him to a duel over my honor."
Simon's eyebrow twitched, just a little. Someone yawned in his ear, proving to be Mike a moment later when the words "Jesus, this is a bust." slid out of the huge yawn. "He's not coming," Mike added irritably. "And I didn't get any shrimp things."
"This tracer is a piece of shit," Rich groused. "I can't get it to respond at all. I know the fucking thing was working when I gave it to Springheel."
"Guys," Nate said, sounding worried. "Come on, chill, okay? There's still another hour or so before the party's scheduled to end, let's hold it together..."
"This is one hell of a shiny rock," Johnny added. "I could look at it all night."
"You doing okay, Templar?" Nate said. "... wait, you're not on the link-up. Never mind."
Simon stifled a sigh, then stood up and drifted off down one of the hallways. "I'm good," he said into his phone as soon as he managed to get away. "Wish that fucking tracer would decide to start working. It's damned hard to keep an eye on Shadow in this press."
"You and me both," Rich said.
"Okay. Run it down for me, people. Honda, has he come down to look at the rock?"
"Not since you confirmed his ID, boss. I think he came by earlier, but he didn't do anything suspicious."
"Yeah, he was here really early on. Acted like all the others, far as I could tell."
"He complimented me on my dress. And he kissed my hand. Pity he's slime. I think I'm charmed."
SomeoneSimon was pretty sure it was Mikemade a gagging sound. Simon snorted and went on. "Specs?"
"Nothing. Not a damned thing. Lost him in the crowd a minute ago. From out here all you guys in penguin suits look alike. One little camera flicker and I can't even find you, let alone Shadow."
"Tracer's a bust, Templar. Alarm systems are quiet. Everything but the tracer's working normally."
"Christ." Simon exhaled, glancing around. "I hate lazy thieves. Wish he'd hurry the hell up."
"Want me to go ask him to get on with it?" Sandra asked.
"Nah. Maybe we scared him off, that would be great," Simon said, tugging at his tie. "Man, what I wouldn't give to peel off this monkey suit and order in a fucking pizza. I can't stand miniature food."
"Aw, you're just saying that to torment Honda," Sandra said.
Mike was silent.
"... Honda?" Sandra asked.
"Honda," Simon snapped. "Speak up."
Mike was silent.
"Shit. Shit! Camera flickerit's going down, people, it's going down! Texas, lock down the gallery, I'm on my way down now!" Phone still pressed to his ear, Simon bolted for the elevator. "Specs Two, standby for call for medical assistance! Springheel, take your goddamn shoes off, and if you see Shadow, throw down, we're through playing!"
Johnny was also silent. Simon swore furiously, shoving past a scandalized knot of women in black dresses. "Honda, Texas, god fucking dammit, if you're there you speak the fuck up, do you hear me?" Nate and Rich were frantic background noise in his ear. Simon muscled aside a couple of loitering partygoers and slammed the heel of his hand into the elevator call button.
"That won't do you any good," one of the women said snidely. "We've been waiting for almost five minutes. It's broken or something."
"Fuck," Simon snapped at her. She visibly recoiled from him but by that point he was already gone, running for the emergency stairs. "Elevator's been disabled! Specs Two, why didn't we know this?"
"Don't know, Templar," Rich said, his voice eerily calm. Simon's ears could pick out a distant clatter in the background; Rich's fingers were flying over the keys. "The alarm systems are all reporting normal operations. He's rigged everything somehow."
"Templar, I'm on my way, don't you fucking dare go down there alone," Sandra said.
Simon threw open the door to the stairs and went racing down, three and four steps at a time, skidding on the concrete landing. "Negative, Springheel, you keep the perimeter, that's an order. I'm going in armed and I will shoot this bastard if he does not come along meekly. Specs, what do the cameras say?"
"Honda and Texas look normal on the cameras, boss. I think he got to those too. That or he's cut our link-up, and I don't think that's it."
"No, they'd have realized something was wrong when we all went quiet. I'm going in. I want silence on this channel unless you have vitally important news." No one said a word in his ear as Simon kicked open the door to the basement hallway, his gun out.
Everything was silent. Too silent. Simon whipped his gun down the corridor, which was empty save for a chair and beside it, Mike, stretched unconscious on the floor with his right arm outflung towards the handprint scanner. Simon swore and darted for him, pressing his fingers to the pulse in Mike's neck. It was strong, if a little erratic. "Honda is down but alive, repeat, down but alive," he almost yelled into his phone. "Get those medical teams here on the double, Specs Two."
"On it," Rich said. Simon dropped the link-up phone on the ground. Leaving Mike where he was, Simon slammed his own hand into the handprint reader. The heavy vault door hissed open and Simon burst into the display gallery, letting the barrel of his gun lead the way.
Six bodies lay in tangles on the floor, in full SWAT riot gear, including their gas masks. Faint wisps of smoke still lingered in the corners of the room and eddied over the ceiling, and Simon hissed his next breath through his teeth. In the center of the room stood the glass display case, the alarm grid still in place around it; as Simon exploded into the room the slender figure suspended upside-down in mid-air over the case looked updownand said "Oh, damn."
"You call this tedious?" Simon snapped, his gun trained on 'James Crown'. 'James' had lost the tuxedo somewhere, traded it for a skin-tight black catsuit and a pair of extremely formidable-looking technological goggles, all the better to be hanging from ceilings in. Despite the heavy mirrored rectangle of the goggles obscuring his eyes, it was undoubtedly him. The rope snaked about his right leg five or six times and stretched up to the ceiling, attached to some sort of huge suction cup. One gloved hand held the mate to that suction cup over 'James's head, with a burnt-out circle of glass still attached to it; the other hand was curled gently around a sparkling white diamond the approximate size and shape of a walnut, that had until just a moment ago been resting on the velvet bed in the now-empty display case. The Morning Star. "That was a rhetorical question, don't bother answering," Simon went on, suddenly flush with controlled excitement. "Freeze. FBI."
"Yes, well, I thought it might break up the monotonyFBI!" One eyebrow rose from under the goggles. "And here I'd assumed you and your lovely date were private security. You're not with Art Theft."
"Art Theft?" Simon spat, edging closer, gun still trained on 'James's face. "You really don't know what kind of shit you've stepped in here, do you, Jeremy Archer? Well, I'll tell you what, we're a charitable bunch at the Bureau, you put that rock down now and submit to arrest like a good Little Lord Fauntleroy and you'll only be looking at a year, maybe two, in a federal detention center. Keep your hands up. Down. Where I can see them."
"Mm." 'James'Jeremydidn't move. The only thing that moved was the diamond, sparkling as it rolled lazily back and forth in his gloved fingers, and Simon had to force himself not to glance at the lure. "Might I suggest a counteroffer?"
"I'm thinking no, actually. I don't know what kind of deal you made with Rupp, but it's not worth what that scumbag has in mind, and it's definitely not worth what we can do to you. Now drop the Star, Archer."
Jeremy actually smiled. "Oh, do tell me what you can do to me, Adam. I'm all aquiver."
"We can make it so that just the thought of ironic banter will have you curling up and crying like a baby, for one thing. And it's Simon, actually, as long as we're sharing."
"But then what will I do for fun, Simon? Honestly."
"Probably you'll be fending off all the large sweaty men who want you to call them 'daddy'. Put it down! Now!"
"Oh, is that all?" The diamond rolled up slowly until Jeremy could palm it. Simon watched it travel out of the corner of his eye, braced for anything. "I've done that before. It's not as bad as you might think, particularly the 'sweaty' bitscatch."
Jeremy brought both his hands up in a slow, lazy underhanded throw. The Morning Star lofted gently through the air towards Simon, who caught it left-handed, his right hand keeping the gun trained on Jeremy's face. "Good boy" Simon started to say, and then Sandra was shaking him and saying his name over and over, and he was staring uncomprehendingly at the ceiling, with neither gun nor Morning Star in his hands.
"What happened?" he said groggily, struggling up onto his elbows. "WhatArcher! The diamond! Where?"
"Gone, Templar," Sandra said, helping him sit up. "By the time I got down here you were out cold and he was gone. What happened?"
"Don't rememberfuck, my head." Simon grabbed at his temples as his headache crashed in around him. "Let me think, I had my gun on him, he threw me the diamond... I said 'good boy'... some kind of white smoke shot from his right cuff after he got his hands upthat bastard gassed me!"
"Probably the same stuff he used on Honda," Sandra said, squeezing Simon's shoulder. "Honda's up, too. Groggy, but up. Texas and his team are still out but they're breathing just fine."
"That's something," Simon said, rubbing his temples. "How long has it been?"
"About twenty minutes since you told Specs Two to call the meds and dropped your phone. I got here five minutes ago." Sandra hesitated, then said, "We lost him, Templar. Shadow's gone and so is the diamond."
"Fuck. Where's my phone?"
"I'll go get it." Sandra stood up and left the room, silent on her stocking feet. Simon sighed heavily and let his hand drop. It fell against something cool and velvety on the carpet next to him. He glanced down. The rose from Jeremy's buttonhole lay there, still surrounded by its froth of little white flowersbaby's breath, he remembered Johnny telling himjust an inch from where his fingers would have been laying when he was out. Simon picked up the flower and studied it, frowning a bit. "Here, Templar," Sandra said, crossing the room back to him, and quickly, before she could see it, Simon slid the rose into the inner pocket of his tuxedo jacket and took the phone from her.
"People. We there?"
"Specs Two here."
"Honda here. Ow, motherfucker, ow."
"Springheel's with me," Simon said. "I hear Texas is still out."
"Yeah," Nate said. "Meds have him and Honda."
"They can let me go any time," Mike said.
"Or you can shut up and take it like a man, Honda," Simon said. "Listen up, people. Here's what's going to happen now. Honda, Texas and I are going to get checked over by the meds. No telling what that stuff he used on us was. The rest of you get changed if you need it and head for the saferoom. No one sleeps until we debrief. I'm going to need answers, people. If not tonight, then very, very soon."
"Got it, Templar," Rich said. "I've got some answers. You're going to hate 'em."
"I fucking hate answers I hate, Specs Two."
"Answers," Simon said, slamming into the saferoom an hour later, Mike and Johnny in tow. He'd changed out of his tux and he felt a world better for it. "Someone make coffee?"
"Duh. Coffee's up," Nate said, flapping a hand at the battered old coffeemaker wearing its nametag that said HELLO! MY NAME IS: MRS. SIMON DRAKE (♥). "Johnny? You okay?"
"Head hurts," Johnny said, dropping into his chair and going all loose-jointed. "Mouth tastes like cowshit."
"And you'd know," Mike said, taking his own seat. Johnny flipped him off.
"Children," Simon said, taking his place at the head of the table with a mug of coffee clutched firmly in both hands. "First things first: med thinks we're okay. Whatever that stuff was, it was just some kind of knockout gas. Johnny got one hell of a larger dose than the rest of us, but as you can see he's back to his usual loveable and talkative self."
All around the table, people relaxed slightly. Sandra, looking much more comfortable in jeans and sweater with her hair down, picked absently at the remains of her manicure. "So what happened?"
"That's what I want to know." Simon slapped one hand on the table. "We're going to take it in order. Nate. What happened with the cameras?"
Nate took off his glasses and cleaned them on his sweater, fingers rubbing nervous circles on the lenses. It was Rich who spoke up. "I'll field that one, Simon. Same thing that happened to the alarm systems, and the elevator. You want the bad news first, or the bad news? I've also got some bad news."
"Hm." Simon chugged down half his coffee and made a horrible face. "What the hell, let's have the bad news."
"He sabotaged every single camera we put in yesterday, plus our links into the alarm system in the house, the elevator's alert system, and the alarm system around the display case."
"You're kidding me. He did all that in twenty-four hours? Found all our cameras? All the wiring?"
"He did. Now it's time for the bad news: you wanna know how he did it?"
Rich shoved his glasses back up his nose with one finger. "He didn't even have to go into the house. He diddled the goddamned van."
Silence reigned for a long moment. Then Mike slapped a hand to his face and groaned aloud. Simon rubbed his temples. "Explain that, Rich."
"As nearly as I can figure, he did it yesterday when we were all inside setting up. Nobody was out keeping an eye on the van. I figure he broke in, spliced into the cables to the recording devices, set up the cameras to rebroadcast old loops when he told them to, and made our link into the alarm system talk happily to itself in a mirror instead of actually watching the house. And that's just what I've found so far. God knows what else he did in there. I have the van isolated in motor pool. Nate and I'll take it apart tomorrow."
"He fucking played us!" Mike burst out.
Simon ignored him. "So the camera flicker"
"He was telling the equipment in the van to stop broadcasting live and start replaying old footage. No wonder we could still see Mike and Johnny's team moving around normally when they were already out."
"Oh, it gets way better." Rich's lips drew away from his teeth. It was almost a grin if Simon didn't look at his eyes. "He left us a present. After he knocked you out and split, he did something to make the recorders electrocute themselves. We lost all the recorded footage and a couple hundred thousand dollars' worth of electronic equipment is so much slag."
Simon shut his eyes and chugged off the rest of his coffee. Nate got up, fetched the pot, and refilled his mug without a word. "Okay," Simon finally said, his voice forcibly calm. "Next time we do this? Somebody babysits the van. You said there was some bad news, too, Rich?"
"Yeah. Tracer? Was working fine. He had some kind of device jamming ordinary radio transmissions, I think he had it on him. It's a good thing our link-up was using cellular tech or he'd have been jamming us, too."
"Who the hell does this guy think he is, James fucking Bond?" Simon exploded. "How'd you find out?"
"Tracer winked back in half an hour ago. I sent a field agent out to track it, and he came up with an abandoned tuxedo stuffed in a Goodwill box. Tracer still attached and beeping happily."
"Well, hell. At least we have the clothes to do evil lab shit to." Simon chewed on his thumbnail for a moment, then dismissed it. "Next. Do we know what he did to the elevator?"
"Jammed a screwdriver into the card slot. Crude, but highly effective," Nate said. He sighed and put his glasses back on, which was Rich's cue to take off his own and scrub them so hard the lenses creaked in their frames.
"Jesus, that's almost a relief. I was afraid he'd rewired it to be some kind of, of laser-powered killer toaster, I don't know. Okay. Next. Mike?"
"The last group had left about five minutes before he hit," Mike said, getting up to grab his own coffee. "I swear to God, Simon, I didn't even see him. I think he hit me from above or something."
"Yeah," Simon said slowly, staring into his mug. "He had some kind of suction cup things."
"Yeah," Mike echoed. "Anyway, one moment I'm looking down the hall, there's this weird medicine-y smell like hospitals, and I wake up half an hour later with Sandra all up in my face, not that I'm complaining." Slinging himself back into his chair, Mike took a deep pull on his coffee and eyed Sandra through the rising steam. "Girl is fine in that little gold number."
Simon snorted. "We're aware, Mike."
"Pity I had to return it," Sandra said.
"Next," said Simon. "Johnny?"
"Door opens five minutes too early for the next tour group. I look up and there's this guy in a black leotard thing and goggles, looks like some action-movie villain, he's got Mike's hand slapped up to the reader. Minute he does that he tosses this smoking can into the room and slaps his arm across his face" Johnny demonstrated, holding his forearm up. "and so we all go for our masks, get 'em up fast. Don't remember anything after that."
"Holy shit," Mike said, staring at Johnny. "That shit of his gets absorbed through the skin or something?"
"Actually," Nate broke in, "no, it's..." He tapered off, aware that everyone was staring at him.
"Go on," Simon prompted, fighting for calm.
"I took a look at Johnny's mask while Rich was driving the van back." Nate hauled out a black gasmask and put it on the table, wrenching the air canister loose and holding it up. "See this puncture, here?" He tapped the bottom of the canister, where something silvery glinted on the black surface. "It was covered with some kind of wax."
"He boobytrapped the gasmasks, too," Rich broke in, seething. "Probably at the same time he did everything else. They were in the van, Simon, along with everything else, and he shot some of that junk into every single one."
Simon's knuckles were white on his coffee mug. "So he threw in some kind of worthless special-effects smoke bomb"
"and Johnny and his team all went for their masks and gassed themselves for him, yeah," Rich finished, overriding Simon. Johnny made a faint disbelieving noise and slumped over, burying his face in his arms.
"Jesus," Simon said. "Jesus. I want this motherfucker. Preferably being some tattooed scumbag's bitch in McCreary, but I'll settle for dead, you know, if I have to."
"Can we make him our bitch instead?" Nate said, shoving his floppy bangs out of his eyes. "I want him in prison, sure, but... Templar, you have got to see the stuff he did to the van. He's good."
"'Good'," Rich spat. "He's a fucking supervillain. I want him dead."
"Professional jealousy?" Sandra asked, acidly. Rich glared at her. Nate choked on a particularly ill-timed laugh.
"Children," Simon said, slamming his mug to the table. Coffee slopped over the sides and Simon jerked his hand back, sucking on his burned knuckles. "My turn now. So I get in there and he's gone in over the alarm net. He is, no lie, hanging from the ceiling by a rope. I figure I've got him dead to rights, he's hanging upside down all trapped in a harness, there's nowhere he can go, I've got my gun on him and he's got both hands full." Simon picked up the now-less-full mug and threw off half the contents, burning his tongue too. "So I tell him to put the diamond down and he tosses it to me all easy, but that brings up his hands to point at my face, and he shoots me with the same gas he got Mike with. He's got some kind of tube mechanism strapped here" Simon tapped the inside of his right wrist "under his watchband, I think, and it shoots the stuff in a thin stream. I went out like a light, and when I came to, he was gone with the diamond."
"That's where I come in," Sandra said. Chips and flakes of gold nail polish glinted on the table around her hands. "I was running the perimeter as best I could, but it was just me in Versace versus a bunch of panicking civilians. I didn't see him leave the grounds. No surprise there. So when the meds showed up I led them to Mike and Johnny, and that's where I found Simon."
They all fell silent. Mike fiddled with his coffee mug. Johnny grunted into the circle of his arms. Rich put his glasses back on and blinked several times; just like clockwork Nate pulled his off five seconds later and started to clean them again.
"Okay," Simon said softly. "Okay. I think that gives me enough to work with for now. Nate, run that air canister down to the lab before you head home. Rich, you and Nate strip that van down to spare parts tomorrow, give me something written I can pacify upstairs with. Sandra, work with profiling, get me a good sketch and an outline of his tics and speech patterns. Mike, you take Johnny home with you tonight and keep an eye on him, just in case. Johnny, you feel even the least bit weird, go yelping to med. The both of you sleep in late tomorrow, then come in prepared to stay overnight. I don't have to tell you kids this is a fiasco." He paused. No one said anything. "Right. You all go home. Now. Get some sleep. I'm going to file the preliminary report and then I am going to stare at the far wall and hate this smart, smart bastard. Got me?"
"Got you, Templar," Mike said, shoving back his chair and standing up. "Think we're going to get thrown off the case?"
"Don't know. It all depends. We'll be pulled back to work on the Rupp angle, probably." Simon drained his coffee mug dry and slumped in his chair. "All of you piss off. See you tomorrow."
In ones and twos they left, quiet and dead tired. Finally it was just Simon, sprawled out in his chair, legs kicked out in front of him. Once it was quiet, once he was sure they were all gone, Simon reached into the pocket of his bomber jacket and pulled out a small red rose corsage, now a bit the worse for wear. The rosebud was beginning to open, fooled by the warmth of his body.
"Jeremy Archer," he breathed, spinning the rose in his fingers. Baby's breath flicked off the corsage, falling to dot the front of his jeans. "Jeremy Archer, you unbelievable idiot, if you only knew what kind of shit you just bought yourself..."
Closing his eyes Simon held the rose to his face and breathed in that sweet scent, and the faint smirk he'd seen on Jeremy Archer's face rose like a specter in his mind.