[wednesday evening]

      They could hear Rich coming before he got there, his rapid footsteps an impatient scurry that echoed off the walls of the empty corridor outside. Simon looked at Sandra once, significantly, and then vanished into his office.

      Not a moment later the door slammed open. "In here," Rich said crossly at someone behind him, holding the door open, and everyone in the room tensed.

      Jeremy Archer walked straight into a waiting square of FBI agents. Johnny was lounging against the desk to his left, arms crossed lazily over his chest, eyes closed to slits; Sandra was directly in front of him with her hands on her hips; from his right Mike cracked his knuckles and offered Jeremy a grin that was somewhere between 'sunny' and 'manic'; and a thoroughly pissed-off Rich, coming in behind him, unwittingly completed the formation.

      Jeremy stopped at the center of the square and let his hands drop to dangle loose at his sides, his shoulders pulling into a straight line. Something about his stance made Sandra change hers, one of her feet sliding forward, her hands rising to hover, ready, in front of her stomach.

      The door closed behind Rich with a soft chunking sound.

      "Well," Jeremy said softly, glancing back and forth, "here we all are."

      "Jeremy Archer! My man!" Mike caroled, his left arm dropping heavily onto Jeremy's shoulders in a parody of friendliness. Jeremy staggered forward half a step, his hands twitching up, stopping, and falling again. "Man, it is just so good to see you again," Mike went on, grinning widely enough to show all his teeth. "I hope you can stay a bit this time, huh? Whaddaya say?"

      "I suppose it's too much to hope that we can get this part over with quickly," Jeremy said, glancing over at Mike. Rich snorted and slid around behind Mike, heading for the back of the room.

      "Aww, don't be like that," Mike said, squeezing Jeremy's shoulder just a little too hard and leaving the imprints of his fingers in Jeremy's leather jacket. "I just wanted to tell you, man, that sure was one nifty trick you nailed me with at the Mornings' place. Texas and I, we are just so impressed, isn't that right, Texas?"

      "Yep," Johnny said, opening his eyes just a crack. "Impressed as all hell."

      Jeremy opened his mouth to say something, but Mike rode right over him. "In fact, I am just so damn impressed that I wanna shake your hand, whaddaya say, Archer?" Leaving his left arm curled around Jeremy's shoulders Mike poked his right hand at him.

      Jeremy looked down at Mike's hand until Mike poked it at him again.  "I'd take it as a personal favour if you didn't dislocate anything," Jeremy finally said, closing his eyes in resignation, and he brought his own right hand up.

      Mike's grin immediately went manic. Instead of shaking Jeremy's hand he grabbed Jeremy's wrist and yanked it back and up, forcing Jeremy to either bow deeply to Sandra or have his shoulder popped from its socket; Mike's left hand slammed down on the back of Jeremy's head, keeping him down. "Man," Mike told the room in general, "I have been wanting to do something like this for days."

      "Charming," Jeremy said from somewhere around Mike's knees, dotting his left hand off the floor to help him keep his balance. "Also rather blatantly uncomfortable, in case you were wondering."

      "Nah, I wasn't wondering," Mike said happily, and yanked Jeremy's hand an inch or so further up toward the ceiling, forcing Jeremy to stumble forward half a step. Sandra slid back quickly to avoid a collision; Mike winked at her. "Whoops! Sorry, Springheel."

      "Yes, I do beg your pardon," Jeremy told Sandra's shins.

      Mike ruffled Jeremy's hair. "Aw, he's so well-trained! Lookit, Springheel, isn't he cute?"

      "Adorable," Sandra said, her expression somewhere between amusement and disdain.

      "I don't think Springheel thinks you're cute any more," Mike told Jeremy, then looked up at Johnny. "Hey, where are our manners, Texas? Get the man a chair!"

      "Momma'd be ashamed of me," Johnny said, shaking his head. Hooking his foot into the rungs of the desk chair he kicked it lazily in Mike's general direction. The chair skittered across the floor and bounced lightly off one of Jeremy's legs.

      Mike hooked his own foot into the rungs and shoved the chair forward into the back of Jeremy's knees, using his twin grips on Jeremy to yank him backwards at the same time. Jeremy sat down in it abruptly, his feet popping neatly out from under him; almost before he hit Johnny snatched his left hand out of the air, handcuffs appearing in Johnny's other hand like a magic trick. Johnny slapped one bracelet onto Jeremy's left wrist, wrenching it inwards towards Mike. Mike caught the other bracelet and crunched it down around Jeremy's right wrist, and then they both let go and stood back to admire their handiwork: Jeremy half-sprawled and semi-stunned in the chair with his hands cuffed neatly behind him. From his vantage point by the equipment closet, Nate whistled in admiration.

      "Well?" Johnny asked Sandra.

      Sandra considered. "8.9," she finally said.

      "Whaaaaat?" Mike clutched at his heart and staggered back half a step. "Come on, that was in perfect sync!"

      "Yes, but you messed up his hair." Sandra shook her head mournfully. "I mean, look at that—"

      Jeremy shook his head as if to clear it. His hair fell back into near-perfect order. Sandra stopped, closed her mouth, opened it again, and said, "8.9 for you guys, and he earns a point for style."

      "Gotta get the name of your barber," Johnny told Jeremy.

      "Nn." Jeremy shook his head again and essayed a small wry smile. "Well! Your synchronization is excellent, but I believe your form is a tad sloppy."

      "You stay out of this," Sandra told him, slapping a restraining hand against Mike's chest as Mike moved in, intent on cheerfully crushing something.

      Jeremy rolled his eyes, struggling to sit up with a little more grace. "I'm ever so glad I decided to do this good deed. So, what's next? A little friendly bruising?"

      "Actually, I told them not to leave any marks," Simon said, wandering back out of his office now that the fuss was over. "And hey, you look pretty unmarked to me. Good work, team. Bonuses all 'round."

      "Could punch him in the kidneys a couple of times," Johnny offered. "Won't bruise but he'll piss blood for a while."

      "I'd really rather you didn't," Jeremy said.

      "They always do," Johnny said mournfully.

      "So!" Simon said with slightly forced cheer. "Bring him over here, will you, Honda? Can't have him blocking the door."

      "Sure thing, Templar." Mike grabbed the back of Jeremy's chair and shoved it forward, the legs screeching loudly over the floor. Simon winced. Jeremy yanked his feet up and rode the impromptu ride out as best he could, settling warily back into his seat once it stopped moving.

      Simon spun one of the other chairs around and slung himself into it, straddling the back. Jeremy's eyes immediately dropped to take in the loose-limbed sprawl of Simon's legs, lingering for a moment on his crotch before they traveled back up. Despite everything, the faintest hint of a smile twitched across his face and vanished again. "So," Simon said, just a bit nettled, "I hear you've got some fascinating information for us."

      "Yes, and I'm ever so enthused about sharing it after my warm welcome," Jeremy said, eyes darting back and forth, keeping an eye on the ring of people looming over him.

      Simon sighed, then reached out and snapped his fingers in front of Jeremy's face. Jeremy's eyes flicked back to him. "You talk to me now," Simon said softly. "They're done. Fun's over for them. It's my turn."

      Jeremy was silent, studying Simon's face.

      "I thought about just going ahead and arresting you and doing all this officially, since Rupp's already got his hands on your last bit of leverage," Simon went on, carefully keeping his voice soft and reasonable. "But since I'm such a nice guy and all, I thought maybe I'd keep it off the record, give you a chance to cooperate, you know?"

      Still Jeremy didn't say anything, although his eyes flicked back and forth once.

      "So now that that's clear," Simon said, "tell me where Rupp's building his satellite, Archer."

      Jeremy's eyes returned to Simon, and incredibly, he smiled. "No," he said, settling comfortably back in his chair and crossing his legs.

      Mike sucked in a breath and let it back out in a nearly-silent growl of "Oh no he did not."

      "I'll hit him if you want," Johnny offered, flexing his fingers experimentally. 

      "No thanks, Texas. Appreciate the offer, though." Simon rubbed a hand down his face and made a noise that was mostly a sigh. "'No' is not exactly the official definition of cooperating, Archer. Stop being such a gigantic pain in my ass and just tell me what you want in exchange, if it's reasonable we'll do it, and then we can all get the fuck out of each other's lives, what do you say?"

      "I refuse to tell you anything as long as they're all looming over me and scowling like I was a ten-year-old schoolboy who'd just done something very naughty," Jeremy said, eyes flicking first to Mike, then to Johnny, then to Sandra. "The rest of you shoo."

      Everyone in the circle looked at Simon. Simon's shoulders slumped and he buried his face in his arms for a moment. "All right," he said, his voice muffled. "All right." He looked up again, face set, his eyes boring into Jeremy's. "You guys take the pizza down to the cafeteria. Come back in fifteen. I'll handle this."

      "Are you sure?" Sandra asked.

      "I'm sure." Simon narrowed his eyes at Jeremy. "What's he going to do that I can't handle?"

      "Uh, well, I hate to bring it up, but he's, uh, he's got that gas shooter..." Nate put in.

      "I'm not wearing it," Jeremy said, holding Simon's gaze. "Oddly, I didn't think I'd be needing it today. Ever so foolish of me, in retrospect. You can have someone check if you like."

      "Nah," Simon started to say, "I'm not—"

      Johnny hunkered down behind Jeremy, checking one cuff and then the other. "He's not carrying," he reported.

      "I repeat for your benefit," Simon said, leaning on each word, trying to stare Jeremy down, "what's he going to do that I can't handle?"

      "Templar—" Rich started to say. Simon cut him off with a quick glare—losing the staring contest—and jerked his thumb towards the door.

      "You hear that?" Mike asked Sandra. "That's Templar-ese for 'step offa my dick'."

      "I heard it," Sandra said. "You going to help me with these pizzas or what?"

      The door shut behind Rich. The living commotion that was Team Templar faded off down the hall in a mess of thumping footsteps, catcalls, and the occasional yelp of laughter and/or pain. Neither of the men left inside the saferoom said anything, even after the noise had faded to nothing. The silence held, briefly.

      "I suppose asking to have these cuffs removed would be pushing my luck," Jeremy said pleasantly, breaking the stillness.

      "Off a cliff," Simon told him. "You'll wear them and like it."

      "Isn't that a tad kinky for an American?"

      "Shut up." Simon leveled a finger at Jeremy. "I'm in no mood for your, your, uh, being yourself right now, Archer. Tell me the details of your spectacular fuck-up."

      Jeremy looked over his shoulder at the closed door, then back at Simon, then back at the door, then at Simon once again. Then his smile got a little wider and he jerked his chin up, beckoning Simon closer. "Come here."


      Jeremy's smile got just a bit wider and he uncrossed his legs, creating a space for Simon to move forward into. "Perhaps it's a secret."

      Simon rolled his eyes and grabbed the back of his chair in both hands. It screeched across the floor as Simon scooted it forward, almost up to Jeremy's. "All right. Better?"

      Jeremy looked down at Simon's knees, an inch or so from his own. "Well. That's better, yes..."

      Simon hissed out a sigh between his teeth and craned forward over the chair's back until their cheeks nearly touched. "It's not like this place is bugged, Archer," he muttered.

      "Mm. Probably not. But one or another of your teammates might be listening at the door, and silly me, I tend to err on the side of caution." Jeremy turned his head towards Simon, so that the tip of his nose grazed Simon's cheek. "And you don't, I see," he breathed, and his teeth closed with a little click a hair's breadth from Simon's ear.

      Simon's breath burst out of him in an exasperated snarl. One hand grabbed Jeremy by his collar and hauled him away, then back up until Simon was up in Jeremy's face, his own face a slit-eyed mask of fury. "You little cocksucker," Simon growled, giving Jeremy a single hard shake for emphasis, one that made Jeremy's chair skitter nervously back and forth. "Believe me when I tell you that I no longer have time for any of your little fucking games."

      Most—most—of the amusement faded off Jeremy's face, leaving him looking resigned. Simon unceremoniously dropped Jeremy back into his chair and sat back, crossing his arms over the back of his own chair and looking expectant.

      "All right, all right," Jeremy said, settling back down and rolling one shoulder to resettle his collar. "So. To make a long story overly short, I was delayed for a while before I was allowed to go into the vault. In hindsight, I expect that someone at the bank was placing a phone call. When I finally was allowed in to open my bankbox, someone put a gun against the back of my neck, took the Star, and then struck me." 

      Simon waited a beat. When nothing else seemed to be forthcoming, he scowled. "...that's it?"

      "What? Yes, that's it. I'm not exactly helpless, you understand, but there's only so much I can do when I'm being held at gunpoint."

      "You were plenty resourceful when I had you at gunpoint," Simon pointed out.

      "Well, yes," Jeremy admitted, shrugging slightly. The cuffs clinked against his chair. "But I was in my full working gear then, Simon. With both the gas shooter and the taser—"

      "—taser?" Simon broke in, both his eyebrows shooting up.

      "Yes, taser," Jeremy said patiently, lifting his left shoulder just a bit and flexing the fingers of his left hand as if to say here.

      "You had a taser." Simon looked away and scruffed one hand over his face. "Christ."

      "Yes, and a fairly unpleasant one, to boot. My point being, when you had me at gunpoint, I had several options open to me."

      "Apparently so!"

      "I thought about tasering you, I'll admit, but in the end I couldn't quite bring myself to do it—"

      "—hey. I said none of your games."

      "Of course. My apologies." Jeremy closed his eyes briefly. "But like a fool I wasn't expecting trouble today, and so I left both the taser and the gas shooter behind. Neither of them is something I'd enjoy explaining to your average jumpy policeman, you understand."

      "Uh huh."

      "And really, he didn't give me much of a chance to do anything." Jeremy opened his eyes again for the sole purpose of rolling them. "Just grabbed the stone and struck me, and when I came to I'd been cuffed, shoved up on top of the row of bankboxes, and left to rot. It took me another hour or so to get free and get out."

      "Uh huh." Simon glanced over at Nate's computer. "We noticed you didn't move much."

      Jeremy followed his gaze. "Bloody embarrassing," he muttered. "That's three times now I've been caught out because of you. You're making a hash of my perfect record."

      "Well, that feeling's nice and mutual," Simon said, scowling at Jeremy. "So basically some two-bit thug clocked the great Jeremy Archer and got away scot-free. I'd think that was pretty funny if my ass weren't on the line here. As it is, it just sounds thin."

      "It does, I admit it, but it's still true for all that." Jeremy paused and inclined his head towards Simon. "Would you like to feel the lump for yourself? Just to assure yourself that I'm telling the truth, of course. It's somewhat impressive."

      Simon eyed Jeremy narrowly, but in the end he reached out and combed his fingers through Jeremy's hair in as impartial a manner as he could muster. Halfway down his fingers bumped up across a fat welt and Simon hissed a little in unconscious sympathy, tracing the welt down to where it disappeared just behind Jeremy's ear. "Well, you sure did get hit by something, anyway."

      Jeremy darted an amused glance at Simon's hand, curled over the side of his face. Simon rolled his eyes and jerked his hand away. "Fine," Simon said. "Okay, so you got hit. So, assuming that you are, in fact, telling me the truth, and you'd better goddamned well be... do you know where they're taking the Star?"

      For the first time in the conversation Jeremy actually hesitated, and Simon's eyes promptly narrowed. "Yes and no," Jeremy finally said.

      Simon buried his face in his arms and groaned.

      "'Yes and no' is not an acceptable answer, Archer!"

      Simon's thoroughly aggrieved voice burst out at Nate as he eased the door open, and Nate squeaked and recoiled. Simon's head jerked up at the sound and Jeremy Archer looked over his shoulder.

      "Ah..." Nate said, poking his head back in. "We're done eating, Templar. Want us to piss off for longer?"

      Simon heaved an irritated breath. "No," he said, rubbing one hand over his face again. "No, that's okay, Specs. Go on and round up the troops."

      "Okay, Templar." Nate closed the door softly. They could both hear him as he trotted off.

      Simon looked back at Jeremy, his eyes tired. "Fun time's over, Archer. I'm tired of playing with you. You've got sixty seconds left, at most. Either you give me a damned good reason to keep you around before that door opens again, or I'm putting you formally under arrest and washing my hands of you."

      The faint amusement faded out of Jeremy's eyes. "I don't exactly have an address," he said, his voice flat and businesslike. "But if you take me to the Reno-Tahoe airport and put me in a car, I can direct you to my former employer's compound."

      "Not good enough," Simon said. "It'll take more than directions to keep you out of jail."

      "I don't have directions," Jeremy said, sounding vaguely irritated. "I was blindfolded. Apparently he was under the impression that that would prevent me from knowing where I'd been taken."

      Simon considered this. "So..."

      Voices echoed ever so dimly down the hallway outside and Jeremy narrowed his eyes. "I can't provide you with simple directions. I can, however, sit in the front seat of a car and tell the driver when to turn and where. But for that, I have to be with you."

      "I don't trust you," Simon told him, bluntly.

      "I can't blame you," Jeremy shot back. Simon could hear footsteps now. Jeremy glanced over his shoulder at the door, then back at Simon, and his face was as expressionless as Simon had ever seen it. "But I'm telling you the truth, Simon."

      "How do I know that?"

      Jeremy's sudden smile was dry and humorless. "Because that's what you've paid me for."

      Simon studied Jeremy's face. Jeremy didn't say anything else. Outside the clamor grew, Mike's baritone overlaid with Sandra's dry alto and the scuff of feet, and then someone laughed—it sounded like Nate—and Simon nodded once, brusquely. "That kind of reasoning I can buy," he said.

      "I'd hoped so," Jeremy said as the door burst open.

      "So what's the verdict?" Mike said, wandering over and dropping a hand casually onto Jeremy's shoulder. The rest of the team crowded in after him, Sandra taking a halfhearted swing at Johnny, who swayed lazily back out of the way. "We gonna feed this asshole to the sharks or what?"

      Simon was silent for a moment, considering Jeremy. Jeremy watched him; the thief's expression was carefully nonchalant but his eyes were narrowed, and his shoulders were tense under Mike's hand. Simon huffed out a breath and swung abruptly out of his chair, sending it spinning back to bang into the table with a casual flick of his hand. "Guess what, gang. We're all going on a road trip!"

      "What, all of us?" Mike said, his fingers tightening on Jeremy's shoulder. Leather creaked. Jeremy gritted his teeth.

      "Yes, Honda," Simon said patiently. "All of us. Mr. Archer's presence is, unfortunately, required. As is that shoulder of his you're mangling."

      "Well, I'll be fucked," Mike said, taken aback. For a moment he looked disappointed, but he rebounded quickly enough and let go of Jeremy's shoulder, ruffling his hair instead. "Ah, shit. Welcome aboard, Shadow. You're a lucky son-of-a-bitch, you know that?"

      "I'd gotten that impression, yes," Jeremy told him, jerking his head back to flip his hair back into place. "...Shadow?"

      "Yep," Mike said cheerfully. "Stupid as hell, isn't it? Art Theft got to pick your code name way back when you were just a little bitty small-time art thief. If you've got a beef with it, take it up with them, huh?"

      "Ahh, Art Theft." Jeremy rolled his shoulder tentatively, wincing. "I've always been ever so impressed with their brilliance. The stories I could tell you—"

      "He's coming with us?" Rich broke in, too astonished to be irritated.

      "Yep, he sure is," Simon said. "Anyone here got a problem with that? Speak now or forever hold your water!"

      No one else said anything. Rich sputtered, his face reddening. Simon waited patiently. When Rich had sputtered his way back to silence, Simon prompted, "Well?"

      "I don't like it," Rich said angrily. "I don't like him. I don't trust him. But if you say we need him for some reason—"

      "I do," Simon said.

      "—then that's good enough, I guess." Rich subsided into a vicious sulk that told the world—and Simon—very clearly that it wasn't good enough, actually, but since when had anyone ever listened to him?

      Simon noted this and proceeded to ignore it. "So!" he said brightly. "Let's do this thing, people. I'm going to call Upstairs and get us some kind of flying thing, hopefully with wings on it. Specs! We're flying to Reno, landing at Reno-Tahoe. Arrange the usual van and collect anything that you can't replace on-site. Specs Two, help Specs, and if you've got some theoretically useful yet highly illegal shit lying around, for God's sake don't tell me. Texas, I don't know what kind of reception we can expect, so bust out the dangerous toys. Springheel, help Texas, and if he goes for the rocket launchers again, smack him one. Honda, we're going to need some serious car fu once we get there. Get Archer out of those cuffs and get him to tell you what you're driving into. Any questions?"

      "Reno, huh?" Mike said. "Any chance we can fit in some hookers and gambling once we've made the world safe for democracy and all that noble shit? Hey, Texas, slide me your keys—"

      Jeremy shifted in his chair, then tossed the undone handcuffs onto the table in front of him. The clatter silenced the entire room.

      "Nobody's impressed," Rich told Jeremy, scowling furiously.

[wednesday night]

      The night breezes and the wash of air from the commuter plane's propellers blew Simon's hair into his eyes as he jumped out of the back of the van, and automatically he narrowed his eyes and raised a hand to deflect the wind. "All right, people," he called over the noise, reaching back into the van to grab one end of the drab metal footlocker that he'd been sitting on. "Let's hustle. I want to be in the air in half an hour."

      Johnny grunted in acknowledgement and grabbed the other end of the footlocker, and together they wrestled it out of the van. Simon staggered a bit as the full weight of the thing hit him. It was only half-feigned. "Shit, Texas. What's in here, lead? We going to bludgeon people to death the old-fashioned way?"

      "Some lead, yep," Johnny acknowledged. "Mostly the firin' kind."

      "Suits me," Simon said. "Suits me fine."

      The driver's side door slammed and Mike loped up behind Johnny, stuffing the keys in his pocket. "Lemme get that, Templar," he said affably, and proceeded to bodyslam Simon out of the way, grabbing the footlocker's handle from him in the same movement.

      Simon stumbled a step or two sideways, then snorted and punched Mike hard in the shoulder. "Shit. What? I can't carry things any more? Am I getting feeble in my old age or something?"

      "Aw, hell no, Templar." Mike fell into step with Johnny, trotting backwards and looking over his shoulder. "But, see, I'm thinking you're wearing the official 'Criminal Wrangler' badge tonight, and you better go wrangle him out of the van before Specs Two bites him."

      Simon rolled his eyes. "Oh, Christ," he told the sky. "I knew I was going to regret this."

      "Something big's up Specs Two's ass," Johnny put in. "Bigger'n usual, anyhow."

      Mike promptly gagged and pretended to stagger. "Oh, shit, thanks so much for that mental image, Texas."

      "Any time," Johnny said as Simon jogged past him, heading back the way he came.

      Jeremy Archer slid out of the back of the van just as Simon arrived. The rest of them, not knowing what to expect of the next few hours, were all dressed drably; Jeremy was a slash of utter black in the night. "Well," he said, turning his face into the breeze and letting it blow his hair back. "Tell me where you want me."

      "'The hell out of my life' would be nice, but that's not really a luxury I can afford right now," Simon said without any real malice. "Come on, I'm putting you on the plane."

      "An escort! How lovely." Jeremy fell into step beside him. Behind him Rich poked his head out of the van, noticed them both, and glared after Jeremy before scrambling out. "I could, in theory, walk up those steps and find a seat without your help, you realize."

      "Oh, sure, but I've got to talk to the pilot anyway, and I want to make sure he knows you're criminal scum and not to be listened to." The noise of the plane's engines got louder as they approached, and Simon had to raise his voice just slightly. "Also, I wanted to ask: what did you do to Specs Two?"

      "Specs Two... oh. The, ah, nice bespectacled fellow. I assure you I don't know why he's so angry. I was entirely my usual charming self."

      "Oh, well," Simon said, catching the handrail and gesturing for Jeremy to precede him up the steps into the plane, "that explains everything."

      "He made a fool of me—I mean us—once already, that's why," Rich was telling Simon a few minutes later, standing in the open belly of the plane and irritably lashing down a couple of heavy hard-sided briefcases. Nate waited patiently behind them, carrying a fat black metal box. "I don't trust him at all and I think you're crazy if you do."

      "I don't," Simon said. "Normally I wouldn't trust him any further than, uh, Nate could throw him. But we've got him at one hell of a disadvantage right now and also, I point out, outnumbered six to one."

      "How do we know he's not going to lead us on a wild goose chase?" Rich pointed out, shoving his glasses back up and scooting back out of Nate's way. "Are we really going to go haring off in any fucking direction he says?"

      "Yeah, because this could be the first real break we've gotten, and I'd have to be even dumber than I am to ignore it for the sake of my ego," Simon said. " And anyway, how stupid has he got to be to deliberately piss off the six of us, Rich? He's got to know that if he's fucking with us he's going to go to jail looking like he got hit by a heavily-armed bus."

      "He was fucking with us pretty hard in the saferoom," Sandra called from the front of the plane's undercarriage.

      "Aw, Sandy, that wasn't fucking," Simon said. "That was just, I don't know, really obnoxious foreplay or something."

      "Whatever," Rich broke in. "I'm just saying that Rupp paid him four million bucks, and that's enough money to make a guy take one hell of a convincing-looking fall for you."

      "Normally I'd agree with you," Simon said, leaning back against the curving wall of the plane to let Mike and Johnny wrestle another footlocker past him. "But... come on, Rich, this is Jeremy Archer, and if Interpol can be believed that's his idea of pocket change—how did I wind up in the position of having to defend Archer to my own team?"

      "Dunno," Johnny said, stowing the footlocker next to the first one. "Maybe 'cause you're the one brought him in on this."

      "Maybe," Simon said, heaving out a frustrated breath. "Okay. We've established that none of us trust him and he's no-good criminal scum. That's peachy. I'm good with that. My concern is, is this going to keep any of you from working with him?"

      Everyone was silent for a minute. "I'm good with it," Nate finally said. "Templar's right. He might be, uh, messing with us, but we still have to check it out. Just in case." Rich stared at Nate incredulously, then scowled and jerked his chin down in some kind of grudging acknowledgement.

      "We've worked with a lot worse than him in the past," Sandra said. "I'm down with it."

      Johnny grunted, which Simon took for agreement.

      "That's true," Mike said. "I'm down too, long as he's not leading us into some kind of trap with bullets in it. I hate those."

      Simon rubbed one hand down his face, thinking about it one last time. "I don't think so," he finally said. "You're all as familiar with his file as I am. He's strictly for-hire and he's never been violent before."

      "Yet," Johnny put in, vaulting over the stowed footlockers and thudding heavily to the tarmac.

      "Yet," Simon acknowledged. "My gut says he's on the level here, though."

      "My gut says your gut's full of shit," Mike said, but he was grinning as he slapped his stomach.

      Johnny whistled, soft and low, rubbing two fingers over the polished wood conference table in the center of the little plane. "Nice," he said.

      "Yeah, beats flying cattle class," Mike said, pushing past Johnny and flopping out in one of the monstrous executive chairs. "Damn, Templar, whose plane is this? Can we keep it? We'll just say it was 'lost', huh?"

      "Yeah, I'll tell Upstairs it fell behind the washing machine, how's that?" Simon said. "We all aboard?"

      "I'm the last," Sandra said, yanking the curving door shut behind her and spinning the wheel until it chunked into place. "Are we ready?"

      "Yeah, go tell the pilot we're good to go, will you, Spring?"

      Sandra vanished forward, ducking under the curtain into the cockpit. Simon took a quick headcount: Rich and Nate at one end of the big table, heads together over a laptop that was making their glasses shine a weird bluish-white; Mike and Johnny across from each other in the middle, Mike sprawled out like he was thinking about having a beer and watching the game and Johnny, as always, apparently asleep; Sandra in the cockpit; and, tucked away in a conversation pit up front, Jeremy Archer, folded neatly into a deep leather armchair and fiddling with the cuffs of his jacket.

      The intercom crackled to life. "We'll be taking off in about five," the pilot said. "Might want to find yourselves some seats."

      Sandra reappeared, glancing briefly at Jeremy before heading back to join the rest of the team, picking a seat beside Johnny and leaving the head of the table free for Simon. Simon considered it for a moment before rapping his knuckles briefly on the back of his chair. "We'll talk some after the plane's safely in the air," he said. "I'm going to go have a little chat with our temporary buddy."

      Rich looked around Nate at Jeremy, then made a little snorting sound and settled back into whatever it was he was doing. "Yeah, good luck with that," he said.

      Simon dropped into the seat next to Jeremy, settling back into it with a grunt. "You all set?" he asked.

      Jeremy's little answering smile was distracted as he ran the tips of his fingers under the lapels of his leather jacket. "As set as can be expected," he said, sliding a pair of familiar mirrored goggles out of an inside jacket pocket and buffing them against his t-shirt. "I'm a little underequipped, alas. I wasn't precisely expecting this when I got up this morning."

      Simon glanced down. Jeremy's jacket was hanging open, the lining visible, and he could see dim shapes silhouetted against it, as well as something glinting around Jeremy's side—with a little widening of his smile Jeremy casually pulled the jacket closed. Simon acknowledged the countermove with a little snort. "As long as you're on the level about telling us where to go, don't worry about it," he said. "We've got your back."

      "The FBI has my back," Jeremy mused, making the goggles vanish into his jacket again. "And to think, all these years I've been trying to avoid you."

      "See how much easier everything is when you cooperate with the authorities?" Simon leaned back and closed his eyes as the plane lurched slightly under them, taxiing out to the runway. "Sorry about their attitude. They just—"

      "—don't trust me," Jeremy finished for him. "I can't blame them."

      "Just see that you don't give them any more reason not to. If anything happens to any of them because of you and your shenanigans..." Simon let the sentence trail off there, meaningfully.

      "Mm." The lights flickered out, casting them into dimness. "You have a way of making me ever so glad I volunteered to help you," Jeremy said, and Simon glanced over at him. Jeremy had his face turned away, looking out the little round window.

      "Heh." Glancing past the side of Jeremy's face Simon found his attention caught by the window as well, and by the runway lights gliding silently by outside. "Never thought you'd be doing anything like this, huh?"

      "Never." Jeremy sighed a bit and shifted in his seat, crossing his legs. "I'm just a thief, Simon. Quite a good one, even if I do say so myself, but that's all." Abruptly he looked back at Simon, his expression guarded but neutral. "I'm no terrorist. I don't give a damn about his foolish politics. I just take pretty things for rich people." His jaw tightened and his eyes narrowed. "I can't forgive him for forcing me into something like this."

      Simon thumped his knuckles companionably against Jeremy's shoulder. "Well, you're in the big leagues now, Archer, like it or not," he said. "See that you don't fuck it up."

      Jeremy looked away again, his jaw still tight, leaving Simon wondering if he'd missed something. Eventually he closed his eyes and settled back in his seat. "Your faith in me is overwhelming, Mr. Drake."

      Simon considered Jeremy for a moment, and then the rising roar of the plane taking off took the ability to converse away from them both.

      The lights came back on five minutes later. Jeremy hadn't said anything else. Eventually the plane nosed out of the clouds, and a minute or so later the intercom popped on overhead. "We're leveled off at cruising altitude. It's safe to move around now if you need to," the pilot said.

      Simon glanced up at the speaker overhead and its disembodied voice, then heaved himself up out of his seat. "C'mon," he said, clapping Jeremy on the shoulder. "Meeting time."

      "Eh?" Jeremy looked up at him, plainly caught off guard. "Me?"

      Simon made a show of glancing around. "I don't see anyone else here, Archer."

      One of Jeremy's eyebrows lifted. "I hadn't expected to be included in your strategy session."

      "Yeah, well, I'm going to use you pretty hard while I've got you," Simon told him, manfully ignoring the thoughtful look that Jeremy gave him. "So come on already, we're going to pick your brains and then exclude you like the useless civilian that you are."

      "Civilian?" Jeremy said, standing up and ducking past Simon into the aisle. "Why, Simon, you called me a civilian and not a criminal. That's positively heartwarming."

      "Slip of the tongue," Simon said.

      "Mm," said Jeremy, and Simon rolled his eyes and gave Jeremy's shoulder a little shove.

      "Right!" Simon said, dropping into the empty chair at the head of the table and gesturing for Jeremy to take the seat next to him. Sandra's glance was plainly startled, and Nate did one of the most perfect double-takes that Simon had ever seen as Jeremy slid into the indicated chair. "Brain-pickin' time," Simon said cheerfully, ignoring his team's reactions. "Listen up, folks, because I don't know what's going to be important and what's not."

      Johnny swung his feet down off the table and opened his eyes about halfway. Rich spun around in his chair and put the laptop on a side table, flicking off the backlight.

      Simon glanced at Jeremy. "Okay. So. Tell us your story. You flew into Reno-Tahoe?"

      "That's correct." Jeremy folded his hands neatly on the table in front of himself and looked back at Simon. "I'd already spoken to Conrad Rupp twice by that point, once by phone and once in a neutral location. I had a tentative offer on the table by that point. The meeting at his compound was meant to provide me with information and finalize the deal."

      The recital of facts was smooth and unemotional, without any kind of apology to it; whatever else Jeremy Archer had done in his life, Simon noted, somewhere along the line he'd learned how to outline events like a lawyer. Unsurprising, considering his vocation. Simon nodded. "All right. Just tell us what happened from there."

      Rich cleared his throat. "Actually..."

      Simon glanced at Rich. "Eh? Specs Two?"

      Rich shot Simon an unreadable look, then shifted his gaze to Jeremy, his eyes narrowing slightly. "Can you describe the guy you were meeting with? Same guy both times, right?"

      Jeremy inclined his head towards Rich. "I met with the same man both times, and as far as I can tell he was the same man that I spoke to on the phone. He was... I would have to say early to mid-forties, tall, taller than I am but not quite as tall as Simon here, and fairly slim. His hair was white to light gray and straight, cut short and parted in the center—" one of Jeremy's hands drew an arc down his forehead, miming the fall of Rupp's hair "—and he wore glasses with silver rims. Very pale-skinned, very, er, shall we say well-preserved, and both times he wore a white suit. His voice was a bit clipped. I believe he must have been German, although his English was close to perfect."

      Simon exhaled. "That's Conrad Rupp, all right. Good-looking bastard."

      "Yes, that's him just exactly," Jeremy said, letting just the ghost of a smile show. "Good-looking, and a bastard."

      Simon looked at Rich. "That tell you what you wanted to know, Specs Two?"

      Rich sank back into his chair. "... I'm good, Templar."

      "Great." Simon looked back at Jeremy and prompted, "So. You were at the Reno-Tahoe airport..."

      "I was met by the man that Rupp had told me to look for. One of his drivers, a large man with dark hair. I don't know his name." They were all listening to him now and Jeremy's attention strayed from Simon, so that he spoke to each of them in turn. "The driver confirmed who I was, and then I was shown to a car outside and blindfolded."

      Johnny opened his eyes a little more. "Blindfolded?" he asked.

      "Rupp specified it as part of our deal." Jeremy shrugged. "It isn't all that unusual in my line of work, you understand."

      Johnny grunted and nodded a bit. Jeremy waited a beat, then went on. "At any rate, I made a point of telling the driver that I was very tired—jet-lagged—and that I would probably doze off in the car even without the blindfold. He didn't see fit to question that. Sloppy, really. And so he didn't bother trying to make conversation while I pretended to sleep, which left me free to memorize the route he was taking."

      That drew an audible snort from Rich at the other end of the table. Jeremy ignored it, although Simon shot a glance in Rich's direction. "The drive took approximately seventy-five minutes," Jeremy went on. "He didn't seem to be driving in circles to confuse me. Again: sloppy. As far as I could tell we were heading generally north and gaining altitude, although you must understand that I can't know that for sure. The driver was quite good and the car was in excellent shape; I couldn't miss an actual turn but I may have overlooked some of the gentler curves."

      "So skip ahead," Simon said, making a little 'hurry up' gesture. "When you arrived...?"

      "We crested a large hill and the driver told me we were almost there, and I, er, 'woke up'." Jeremy smiled faintly and made the quote marks with his fingers. "We drove downwards for about... call it two minutes, and over some sort of metal grating that I took to be a gate. There was a bit of slow maneuvering within the compound before the car stopped, and then I was led out of the car and into a house of some sort before my blindfold was removed."

      Everyone else was silent, intent on Jeremy. "And?" Simon prompted, softly.

      "Rupp provided me with blueprints of the Mornings' mansion and satellite photos of their property and various useful diagrams, which I studied for a few hours. I came to the conclusion that what he was asking for was possible and named my price, which he accepted. We handled the various details, then I was reblindfolded and taken back the way we'd come." Jeremy fell silent, looking from face to face, and then finally back at Simon. "Anything else?"

      Simon considered. "Did you see anything interesting while you were inside the house?"

      "The house itself was nothing special, old and run-down. Not the sort of place I'd expect a man of Rupp's means to live, normally, but I'm quite used to the wealthy being, er, eccentric." Jeremy shrugged. "They kept the curtains drawn for the most part. There was a smallish window in the bath, however, and they didn't deign to follow me in there."

      "And of course you just had to stick your curious little nose out." It wasn't a question. Simon smiled ruefully and shook his head. "What did you see?"

      "Warehouses," Jeremy said, and a reflection of that smile appeared on his own face. "Corrugated tin warehouses, several of them. The old roundish kind. Quonsets? A few large trucks. A chain-link fence around the entire place. And, further out, mountains."

      Sandra caught her breath. "Shit," Mike breathed reverently.

      "Sounds like we have a winner, folks," Simon said softly.

      For just a moment the silence held, everyone at the table caught up in their own thoughts. Simon broke the spell by rapping his knuckles sharply on the tabletop. "Okay, people," he said, and his voice sounded loud to his ears. "Here's what we're going to do. I'm going to do a quick round of introductions for Archer's sake—codenames only, anything further is solely up to your own discretion, don't glare at me like that, Specs Two—and then we're going to split up. We're going to have to land and refuel once, so we've got about four hours of plane time ahead of us. Do whatever you can to prepare yourselves and then get some sleep. Okay?"

      There was a murmur of assent. Simon glanced at Jeremy and gestured at Johnny. "Okay. First up, to your left there, that's Texas. Texas handles weapons and general ass-kicking for us. Chances are pretty good that if it's got a trigger or a firing sequence Texas can hurt things with it. That is, if someone doesn't knock his ass out first." Johnny balled up a piece of paper and slung it lazily at Simon, who batted it aside without missing a beat. "On his left you've got Springheel."

      "Oh, we've met," Jeremy said, and he smiled at Sandra. "I hazard a guess that your name isn't really Tiffany."

      "And you're right, thank God," Sandra said. "Templar picked that alias, for the record. Personally I'd have gone with something a little less Bond-girlish."

      "Hey," Simon said, mildly. "I was so befuddled by that big-ass diamond that I nearly went with Crystal, so count your blessings. Anyway, Springheel there does a lot of undercover work, as I'm sure you've noticed, she's nominally my second-in-command, and she knows about four hundred ways to break your arms if you try anything funny. So, you know, if you're going to try anything funny, tell me first so I can get the video camera."

      "Mm," Jeremy said, glancing at Simon, the corners of his eyes crinkling with amusement.

      Simon's pointing finger moved on. "At the end of the table there we have Specs and Specs Two. Some of our codenames are ever so fucking creative. First, that's Specs, the blond one—"

      "—you can just call me Nate," Nate volunteered, raising his hand in an uncertain wave. Rich groaned under his breath. "You know, as long as it's in person. I'm okay with that. You have to call me Specs if it's over frequency, though."

      "Mm. Nate. I see." Jeremy inclined his head. "Thank you."

      "Uh... sure?" Nate said.

      "Hey, you two, flirt later," Simon broke in. Nate went red and ducked back behind the laptop's screen. Simon grinned a little before glancing back at Jeremy, who raised an eyebrow at him. "Anyway, Specs is our hardware guy and electronic-doodad wrangler. Also our own personal bomb disposal unit and the team mascot. Next to Specs, er, next to Nate, we have Specs Two."

      "We've also met," Jeremy said, his voice cooling a great deal. Rich scowled at him.

      "Specs Two handles software," Simon said, ignoring the interruption. "And he's a fucking genius, too, and if I hadn't told you he'd have found a way to let you know." Simon flashed a quick grin in Rich's direction. Rich snorted out an unwilling laugh. "Seriously, he talks to computers and they talk to him, sometimes in highly illegal and unethical ways, not that I know anything about that, being a model citizen and all."

      Mike's snort of laughter was immediate. Simon jerked his thumb at him. "The bruiser there, who you've not been properly introduced to, is Honda."

      "Mike," Mike told Jeremy, shrugging unconcernedly. "Figure I've already tried to break your arm so we might as well be on a first-name basis, huh?"

      "Mike," Simon amended. "When he's not roughing people up for me he does a lot of our undercover work, seeing as how he's ever so ethnic—"

      "—haaaay, cabron, you better not be steppin' to my momma," Mike broke in. "You know us Japs'd take that as a slur on our honor."

      "Stepped to your momma last night, Honda," Johnny said, and Mike gleefully kicked him under the table, making him grunt.

      "And he's also our designated driver," Simon said, smoothly talking over the ensuing kicking fight. "The man can drive like fuck, as you've seen." Simon pointed at himself. "And finally there's me. I try and keep these crazy bastards in line, and all I get for my trouble is the codename 'Templar'."

      "Ah. Yes," Jeremy said. "About that..."

      "Specs' fault," Simon said immediately, metaphorically pinning Nate to the wall with a pointing finger. "He'd just seen that movie when I was forming the team. He found out my name was Simon and he hung it on me and it stuck."

      "Um. Well." Nate fidgeted. "It could have been worse?"

      "That's true," Simon admitted. "I didn't get hung with a handle like Bobcat." Everyone at the table promptly burst out laughing, except Jeremy, who glanced around with a quizzical smile on his face. "I'll explain some time," Simon said, once he managed to stop laughing. "It's a long story. Okay, guys, let's break. Get some sleep if you can. I'll go tell the pilot to douse the cabin lights."

      Twenty minutes later, with the lights off and most of Team Templar bedded down, it was almost peaceful on board the small plane. Simon kicked off his sneakers and padded from one end of the plane to the other, checking up on everyone one last time: Sandra and Mike sprawled out on the two couches in the tail section of the plane, Rich burrowed into the row of emergency seats in front of the bathroom, Johnny still at the conference table with his head buried in his crossed arms, and at the foot of the table, Nate, still awake and curled up in a little ball with Rich's laptop on his lap.

      "Okay?" Simon said in an undertone, hunkering down by Nate.

      "I'm good, Templar," Nate whispered, frowning at the computer. "I'll try and sleep in a minute."

      Simon considered the computer screen, then pointed. "Move that stack onto the red five."

      Nate laughed a little, embarrassed, and dragged the little pile of cards over. "It helps me relax," he offered awkwardly. "I play a lot of solitaire when I can't sleep."

      "Yeah, I know," Simon said, and patted Nate on the shoulder. "Seriously, you okay?"

      Nate nodded, uncovering an ace and moving it to the top row of empty slots. He glanced up over the top of the laptop, toward the little grouping of chairs at the front of the plane that Jeremy had retreated back to. "He's not so bad," Nate added. "I kind of want to like him, except for the part where I really shouldn't."

      "Eh," Simon said, shrugging a little. "I know what you mean. He's pretty likeable, for what he is."

      Johnny shifted and grunted in his sleep, and both Nate and Simon started and looked up guiltily. Nate ducked his head. "Guess I'll get some sleep," he whispered, shutting the laptop.

      "Good idea." Simon gave Nate's shoulder one last encouraging squeeze and stood up, heading towards the front of the plane.

      Jeremy had nodded off with his arms crossed protectively over his chest, tucked neatly into the same seat he'd been sitting in at takeoff. Simon stopped where he was and watched Jeremy sleep for a little while, then caught himself doing so and snorted. "Yeah, sleep well, Archer," he muttered, padding over and settling gingerly into the seat next to the thief. "You're going to need that rest once we get to Nevada." Then Simon sprawled his legs straight out in front of himself and slumped down in his seat, letting his head fall forward and nodding off himself.

      Jeremy Archer's eyes opened just a crack, and he smiled a thin little smile before closing his eyes again.

[midnight local time]

      The plane taxiied to a slow halt and the engines shut down, leaving the cabin almost quiet. "Reno," the pilot said over the intercom, unnecessarily. "They'll have stairs out to us in a minute or two."

      Simon shrugged into his jacket and went looking for his shoes, edging past Mike. "Right, people," he said, knuckling a bit of sleep out of one eye. "Let's do this thing. ... Christ, they put a real wood conference table in here and there's no coffee in the kitchenette. It's un-fucking-American, is what it is."

      "There's a jar of instant in the equipment box," Nate volunteered, blinking nearsightedly at Simon and groping for his glasses. "I figured it couldn't hurt to bring it."

      "And that's why I love you so damn much, Specs," Simon said, stepping into his sneakers. "I'd drag you down to Las Vegas and marry you right now if I wouldn't have to convert to do it."

      Nate's cheeks went pink and he nearly fumbled his glasses trying to put them on. Point for Simon. "My mom said to hold out for a nice Jewish doctor," he said, and by the end of the sentence his voice was almost steady again.

      "And Templar loses on all three counts!" Mike crowed.

      The small terminal they'd landed in back of was almost completely dark. The bulk of the Reno-Tahoe airport sprawled in a sea of lights off to the south, but out here there were only the lights of their plane and the one overly bright white spotlight that illuminated the tarmac between their plane and the building. A couple of sleepy-eyed airport workers gave the metal stairs one last cursory glance before retreating to a covered doorway.

      An older man with a body like six feet of knotted rope and a face like a hatchet detached himself from the side of a parked van and ambled into the light. "Templar?" he said, shielding his eyes against the glare.

      "Here," Simon called. He jogged out to meet the man halfway, sticking out his hand when he got close enough.

      The other man hesitated, then shook it. "Tomahawk. I'm with the Carson City branch. Christ, boy, you caused a hell of a scramble out here."

      Simon's jaw set hard at the word 'boy'. "Things weren't exactly all fun and games on our end, either," he said, trying not to bristle visibly. "This our van?"

      "All yours," Tomahawk said, jerking his head towards it. "We'd kinda like it back in one piece, it's all the same to you."

      Simon shrugged. "Yeah, well, I'd like a million dollars and a pony myself, but it so happens I'm shit out of luck on both counts." The belly of the plane opened with a hiss and both Simon and Tomahawk glanced toward it. The rest of Simon's team was ranged around the cargo bay, Mike just now clambering in. Jeremy Archer was lurking around the side of the cargo doors, out of the way, casting a long black shadow over the tarmac that stretched nearly to Simon's feet.

      Tomahawk's eyes narrowed a bit. "You got an extra body in your group," he said, his tone offhand, as if he weren't fishing for information.

      "Yep," Simon said, taking some minor revenge by completely refusing to elaborate.

      Tomahawk glanced over at him, then shrugged. "There's a thermos of coffee in the front seat, although it's probably half-cold by now and nasty shit in any case. You're welcome to it. Here, keys." He tossed the keys in Simon's general direction.

      Simon flicked out a hand and caught them easily. "You're a lifesaver," he said, his tone offhand, and then turned his back on the older man without a second thought. "Hey! Honda!" he called. "Man here says they want their van back in one piece! Think you can handle it?"

      "Shit, Templar," Mike called back, "why you gotta be makin' all these unreasonable requests?"

      Simon turned back to Tomahawk and shrugged. "You see how it is," he said. "Still, I'll do what I can to keep the kids in line. Anything else I can do for you before you have to go?"

      Tomahawk's jaw jutted out sharply, making him resemble his namesake. "Christ," he said again, and shook his head.

      The taillights of Tomahawk's car flashed red, once, as he turned out of the parking lot and vanished, much to Simon's general relief. "Hairball," Simon muttered after him, then turned around and stalked back to the van. "We loaded?" he called as soon as he got close enough.

      "Almost," Sandra called back, handing one of Nate's equipment crates to someone inside the van. "You rough him up any?"

      "Nah," Simon said, waving the thought away. "I don't hit senior citizens unless they force me to. Or one steals my parking spot."

      "Shit, what a fucking hairball," Mike added in disgust, mimicking Simon's own thoughts as he dropped out of the back of the van. "That the best they can do out here in the sticks?"

      "Hey now, let's not be busting the man's balls in front of the civilian," Simon said, mildly enough. "Yo, Honda, keys." He weighed the keys in his hand for a moment, making them jingle, then abruptly whipped them at Mike.

      Mike snapped them neatly out of the air. "Whoo, didn't think a kid like you could throw that hard," he said, ostentatiously shaking his hand and wincing.

      "You're dead to me," Simon said genially. "Get in the van." Mike sniggered and jogged around the van to the driver's side. Simon turned to the rest of his team, stretched in a ragged line across the tarmac, and made shooing gestures, herding them and their burdens towards the van. "Okay, okay, hustle, people. Archer, you've—fuck. Where's Archer?"

      "Here," Jeremy said, poking his head around the far side of the van. There was a black-papered cigarette jutting from between his fingers, the tip glowing orange.

      "Shit, I thought you'd booked. You've got shotgun. Get us there."

      "My pleasure," Jeremy said, dropping his cigarette to the pavement in a shower of sparks and grinding it out.

      "That's littering," Simon pointed out, grabbing a somewhat-overburdened Nate by his belt and giving him a boost into the back of the van. Nate squawked, startled. "Just another offense on your long list of heinous crimes."

      "Do let me know if you feel obligated to write me a citation," Jeremy said, vanishing around the far side of the van again. Simon heard him knock on the passenger side window. Mike leaned across and popped the lock.

      "Okay! One, two, three, criminal, five, six, and Templar makes seven—" Simon climbed into the van and slammed the rear doors closed behind him. "—we're all in, Honda. Whenever you're ready."

      "This van's a piece of shit," Mike complained, waggling the steering wheel with one hand. "Fucking boonies."

      Simon slung himself onto the footlocker next to Sandra and pulled the back doors shut. "Yeah, yeah, you say that every time, Honda. Funny how you've never once actually had any trouble once we got underway."

      "'Cause I'm one masterful motherfucker, Templar," Mike said, starting the engine. "Shit, thought you knew that."

      "Oh, is that what it is?" Simon said. "And here I thought you were just bitching to cover your ass."

      "Bit of that, too," Mike said. He turned to look at Jeremy. "So, Archer, where am I going?"

      Jeremy finished doing up his seatbelt and blinked at Mike for a moment. "Ah. Pull around to the front of this terminal, please." He held up Tomahawk's thermos so that the people in back could see it. "I seem to have been sitting on a thermos of something. Anyone want it?"

      "Pass," Simon said, and when the coffee made its way back to him he chugged off half of it, despite it being every bit as cold and nasty as advertised.

      "Here?" Mike said, bringing the van to a gentle stop in front of the small terminal's main doors.

      "Mm. Close. Pull forward about twenty feet, please."

      Mike let the van roll forward. "Tell me when."

      Jeremy looked out his window for a few seconds. "Mmm... stop... here."

      The van halted. Jeremy peered out the front windshield, then out the passenger window, then nodded. "This is the place." He turned halfway around in his seat, cocking his arm over the back, and smiled an apologetic little smile at the five people clustered back there. "I'm afraid I'll have to ask you all to be as quiet as possible. This will take some concentration on my part."

      "You heard the man," Simon said after a pause. "Let's have quiet. If you really need to share something, whisper it."

      There was a general murmur of "Right, Templar" and then it was all quiet. Jeremy turned to look at Mike. "Shall we?"

      "I say, old bean, let's," Mike said, flexing his fingers on the steering wheel. "Pip pip, cheerio, and all that rubbish, eh wot?"

      Jeremy just barely smiled before nodding and settling back into his seat. "Very well, then. Shall we see how much I'm worth?" He bowed his head—it was an odd, almost formal gesture—and closed his eyes, clasping his hands neatly in his lap. "All right. Pull away from the curb slowly. Once the road begins to curve to the left, shift over a lane."

      Mike nodded, then shot a glance at Jeremy with his eyes closed and amended that to a grunt, and the van pulled away from the curb. "A touch faster than that," Jeremy said. Mike increased their speed by a hair, pulled into the curve, and shifted over a lane.

      They left the small terminal behind in the dark. Streetlights whickered by overhead. Mike glanced at Jeremy and then back at the road.

      Jeremy's breath came in small whispers, one of his fingers tapping rhythmically against his knuckles. "Shift over to the left here," he said after a moment, and Mike grunted in acknowledgement and did so. "Slow a bit. You'll be turning left—" Mike put on the blinker "—in five... four... three... two..."

      Mike slid the van easily into a left-turn lane. "One..." said Jeremy. The van heeled over to the left and onto another, larger road just as Jeremy said "Now." Mike let out his breath in a rush.

      From the back someone whistled softly and Simon couldn't help but close his eyes in relief.

      Jeremy, his eyes closed, led them more or less smoothly out of the airport area and onto I-395, heading vaguely north, just as he'd said. After the first minute or so Mike stopped making any noise at all and just followed Jeremy's directions; to Simon, in the back of the van, it seemed as if the van was directly obeying Jeremy's voice and Mike wasn't there at all. The only sounds in the van were the occasional dry click of the turn signals and the constant soft monologue of Jeremy's English-accented voice. "Just a bit faster. Ah. There. Shift over a lane to the left. The road should curve gently to the right here..."

      It was nearly hypnotic. To keep himself from dozing off Simon looked out the back windows, watching 395 slide away from underneath him. At this time of night the road was only sparsely populated, a few other cars spaced out at irregular intervals behind them. Occasionally one would grow larger, catching up and passing them with the soft rising rushing sound of tires on pavement. Doppler effect, Simon thought, randomly, and then let the thought go.

      Sandra sat beside him, lacing her fingers together and separating them again, over and over. Beyond her Johnny lounged bonelessly back against the wall of the van, chewing on a toothpick and staring off at nothing. 395 unspooled before and behind them as the van drove on through the night; Simon listened to Jeremy's soft narration with half an ear and flexed his hands against his thighs.

      "Shift over a lane to the right. The road will start to rise slightly—there. Bear to the right here, it will be a fairly obvious curve."

      Mike looked from the straight freeway ahead of them to the curving right exit and took it, flicking on the right turn signal almost as an afterthought. To either side of them were the low, semi-identical shopping centers and apartment complexes that populate American suburbs everywhere, adjusted for gambling; they were heading north out of the city now, Reno proper starting to recede behind them. Simon glanced away from the window and at Nate, sitting opposite him; Nate nodded in acknowledgement and gave him a slight smile, then looked away, looking at the back of Jeremy's head. Beside him Rich crossed his arms over his chest and stared down at the floor, his lips moving silently as he muttered to himself.

      "You'll be turning left in five... four... three... two... one... now. Slow a bit. A bit more. Yes, that's it. There should be a rough spot of road—there."

      The van rumbled over the rough spot and stretched out on a new road, dark and deserted, blank desert on the sides as often as battered low buildings. Far, far off in the distance a red light turned green.

      Sandra's hip bumped up against Simon's as she resettled herself on the footlocker and she flashed him a quick smile of apology. She smelled pleasant, like herbal shampoo and some kind of clean soap. Letting his head fall back Simon stared at the bare metal roof of the van.

      The green light turned yellow and then red as the van approached it; Mike glanced from left to right and then casually ran the light, choosing Jeremy's directions over the traffic laws. Simon snorted softly and looked out the back windows, keeping a wary eye out for flashing blue lights. There was only the red light, receding impotently into the distance. 

      "The road will begin to rise and curve to the right. Shift over to the left as you take the curve. There should be raised lane markers as you go."

      The van's tires thumped over the little bumps in the road right on cue. Simon's lips twitched up in a bit of a smile. The lights of the city were entirely behind them now, and the narrow two-lane road wound completely unlit through empty land. The only lights in the world were the van's headlights, illuminating two stretched ovals of road in front of them, and the moon overhead.

      "There will be a wide curve here and the road will continue to rise. We're going in a semicircle, I believe. Keep going. There's a patch of some sort in the road—there."

      Simon found himself in danger of drifting off, shook his head, and looked out the back window again. Reno was just a blot of light in the distance, and between the city and their van there were no headlights at all. He stopped listening to Jeremy after a while; the thief's pleasant low voice became just so much background noise as Simon let his mind go empty. He held that state for a minute, like holding his breath, then began to go over everything from the beginning, considering each bit of evidence again.

      Let's just say that I feel ever so bad and wish to return what I've stolen, Jeremy purred once again in his mind, and Simon listened to the mental replay as if it was for the very first time.

      When he abruptly became aware of his surroundings again, later, it was took him a moment to figure out why: Mike had snapped off the headlights. They were running by the light of the moon alone, now. Jeremy's monologue was still going, but starting to sound a little rougher, like he'd been talking for a while.

      "The road curves to the right again. Now back to the left. Slow down, please, and mind how you go. There's a hard curve to the right—I believe it's a switchback—in four... three... two... one." 

      The van bore to the right. The little road was snaking upwards through a narrow valley. Mountains loomed to either side. There were no other headlights in sight. No other lights at all, in fact.

      Across from him Rich shifted and leaned forward, putting a hand on Simon's knee to get his attention. Simon blinked and leaned forward until his forehead nearly touched Rich's.

      Rich glanced at Simon meaningfully and then held up his hand between them. A flash of bright blue light half-blinded Simon, and he blinked like a mole until he could focus on it: the face of Rich's wristwatch. 89:43:02, it said. Rich tapped it, nodded towards Jeremy in the front seat, and looked back at Simon.

      Simon watched the numbers spin upwards. 90:00:00 came and went, and abruptly he realized what Rich was trying to say: the trip had taken seventy-five minutes, Jeremy had said in the briefing. Seventy-five minutes. But they had been in the van for over ninety minutes now, and while it was possible to dismiss that as a function of how they were traveling...

      Simon glanced from Rich's watch to the back of Jeremy's head. The afterimage of the watch's backlight hung like the moon in Jeremy's hair and Simon blinked his eyes twice to clear them. Jeremy's voice was a soft and roughening drone, and Simon considered it, and him, for a moment. Then he looked back to Rich and held up one hand, flashing his fingers three times. Fifteen more minutes, the gesture said. We'll give him fifteen more minutes and then see where we are.

      Rich hissed in irritation, but shut off his watch's light and sat back. The little silent conference had broken the stasis in the back of the van, though, and all around Simon his team shifted and moved and came to life once more. Sandra sat forward and gathered her hair into a ponytail, and Nate's glasses sheened with moonlight as he turned his head, and Simon felt the last of his lethargy drain away, anticipation coiling coolly in his belly like a snake.

      "We should be entering a long straight stretch of road now," Jeremy went on, seemingly oblivious to the rustling from the back of the van. "It'll begin to rise fairly steeply in three... two... one... now." The tires bumped up against the rise. "There will be a number of rough patches in the road," Jeremy said, and he swallowed and cleared his throat, and Simon felt a quick stab of sympathy, which he dismissed. Jeremy went on, his voice actively raspy now. "Bump—there, and another—there, and then several—there."

      Sandra shook her head experimentally, making her ponytail lash against the back of her neck. Johnny sat up and stretched like a cat, back arching, hands groping straight out in front of him. Simon felt these things more than saw them. His senses were all tingling with the beginnings of the pre-game rush. In ten minutes they'd either be there or they'd be demanding one hell of a good explanation from the thief, and either way—

      Suddenly Jeremy's head snapped up and his eyes opened. "If we keep going like this we'll crest the hill in about thirty seconds," he said in a normal tone of voice. "However, if we do that, we may be visible from the compound—are we driving without headlights?"

      "You just noticed?" Mike said, his voice rusty with disuse but still amused. He was slowing the van now, the gravel at the side of the road crunching roughly under the tires. "Yeah, we've been running dark for about ten minutes. Haven't seen another car in about that long, either. Sure you haven't been fucking with us?"

      "Cross my heart and hope to die," Jeremy said gravely, splaying a hand out on his chest. And then he coughed, even as Mike stopped the van. "I don't suppose there's anything to drink still laying about, is there?"

      Simon groped down by his feet and came up with Tomahawk's thermos. It was still half-full. "Here," he said, his own voice a little rough. "One thermos of nasty-ass coffee, coming up." He poked Johnny in the side with the thermos. Johnny took it and dangled it over Jeremy's shoulder until Jeremy took it.

      "My favorite," Jeremy said, unscrewing it and taking a deep slug of the stuff. "...gah," he said a moment later, his lips skinning back from his teeth in a grimace. "That's foul."

      "Gift horse, mouth, et cetera," Simon said, stretching his legs as best he could. "So we're there?"

      "More or less," Jeremy said. "If you go to the top of this hill you should be able to see the compound."

      "Right!" Simon felt for the door handles. "I'm going to go scope it out. Honda, you're with me. Archer, stay put. The rest of you stay here and get ready to go, and be on your guard. Stealth is the order of the day, folks, let's keep it quiet." His blindly groping fingers hit the handle and Simon squeezed it gently, easing the door open.

      His sneakers hit gravel with a soft crunch and Simon eased the back door shut again until it clicked against the latch, leaving it caught but not shut all the way. A second gravelly crunch from around the side of the van announced Mike's exit, and Simon slid around to meet him, jerking his head towards the top of the hill. Mike's grin was a flash of white in the night as he fell in behind Simon. The night swallowed their footfalls.

      "Think he's been straight with us?" Simon muttered as soon as they were well away from the van. "You're the one who'd know."

      "Yeah, I think so, boss," Mike said, glancing warily from side to side. His right hand hovered in front of his chest, ready to grab for his gun if needed. "Least, he sure did have this route memorized just like he said. That shit was dead easy. Don't know where we are, precisely, but he brought us to some specific somewhere..."

      The crest of the hill lay just ahead, and they slowed. Mike glanced at Simon and raised both eyebrows. Simon spread his fingers and brought his hand down: stay here. Mike nodded and hunkered down, his hand sliding into his jacket to rest on the grip of his pistol. Simon crouched and crossed the last ten feet at a careful stealthy duck-walk, occasionally shifting to all fours. "C'mon," he muttered almost silently, not really aware that he was speaking. "C'mon, c'mon..."

      Gingerly he poked his head up above the top of the hill. For a moment he saw nothing, nothing at all, just darkness, and something in his belly constricted. "Shit—" he hissed, and then it clicked, what he was looking at. Those long pale shapes just now resolving from the darkness were old-fashioned quonset huts, all right, and he counted twelve, ranged in neat rows of three around a smaller white shape that he took to be the house that Jeremy had mentioned. The road he was on flowed down the hill directly into the compound. A handful of eighteen-wheelers were parked off to one side, and a trail of exhaust rose from one of them, dirty in the moonlight. When he held his breath he could hear the far-off rumble of its engine. Tiny figures scurried like ants from the truck to one of the buildings and back.

      And there were no lights. Not a single light showed in the entire place.

      Got you, Simon thought in cold triumph, clenching one hand into a fist. Shouldn't ought to throw away your tools so lightly, Rupp.

      Simon threw open the back doors to the van and he and Mike scrambled in. "Bad news, kids," Simon said softly, pulling the doors gently closed behind him again. Everybody in the van became very still, and Johnny shot a speculative look at Jeremy, whose face magically cleared of any emotion at all. Simon enjoyed that immensely for a moment before he added, "We don't get to beat the shit out of him after all, looks like. Sorry about that. I know you guys were looking forward to it."

      The corner of Jeremy's mouth twitched upwards and Simon silently scored himself a point.

      "It's there?" Sandra demanded. "We're here? What is it?"

      "Some kind of old military installation," Simon said, getting back to business. "I'm guessing it got abandoned after World War II and Rupp moved in later. Someone's there, all right, and they're running under blackout conditions. Something's going on down there and it looks pretty damned suspicious, whatever it is. We're going in."

      Adrenalin swept through the van like a hot breeze. Simon crouched in the circle of his teammates and knocked his knuckles lightly on the van floor, and suddenly he had everyone's full attention. "Here's how it's going to go down. We'll be splitting up. Specs, Specs Two, you stay with the van. Springheel will be leading the second team as usual. Spring, take Honda and Texas and head around to the right side. Shadow and I will take the left side." A rustle of surprise ran through the van and more than one person glanced at Jeremy before looking back at Simon. "Keep it as quiet as you can at all times," Simon went on, now speaking directly to Sandra. "Avoid confrontations and reconnoiter. Our goal is ultimately to recover the Morning Star, and if we can do that without them noticing, so much the better." Sandra nodded, and Simon looked at the rest of his team. "Questions so far?"

      A couple of his teammates glanced at Jeremy again, but in the end, no one said anything. Jeremy himself was silent, and he was watching Simon thoughtfully. Simon exhaled the breath he hadn't noticed he'd been holding and went on. "We'll take earpieces and radios, but I don't want anyone talking unless they're asked a direct question or have something vitally important to relay. Remember: quiet unless it can't be avoided."

      Johnny grunted. Mike nodded. Sandra said, "Got it, Templar."

      "Which brings me to armaments," Simon said, and paused, thumping his knuckles against his forehead. "Handguns only, except for Texas. Texas, take an assault rifle, couple of clips. Don't use it unless you need it to cover your escape. No shots fired unless you absolutely have to. If you have to shoot, shoot to kill. Don't let anyone raise an alarm. If you take someone down, hide the body. Shadow. You need a gun? Whatever you're used to, chances are we can outfit you."

      "Thank you," Jeremy said, waving his hand dismissively. "I'm good as I am."

      "Fine," Simon said, relentless. "Specs Two, I want blueprints of this place. They've got to exist somewhere. Get a GPS reading and then see what you can find. Raise me on frequency as soon as you find anything. Specs, keep us all in touch and see if they're broadcasting anything you can tap into. If you hear someone outside the van and it's not one of us, raise the alarm and shoot if confronted. We'll always let you know via frequency if we're coming."

      "Got it," Nate said, touching the gun holstered in the small of his back. Rich nodded.

      "We're after two things here: the diamond, primarily, and the destruction or sabotage of any potential satellites should we happen to trip over them. Nothing else." Simon paused and looked from face to face. "If you run into any sort of trouble that's bigger than you are, or if the alarms start going off, drop everything and get the hell out. I refuse to lose any of you. Won't stand for it. Get me?"

      "Got you, Templar," Sandra said.

      "Right!" Simon clapped his hands together like a benediction—or a gunshot—and suddenly he was calm. "Let's do this thing, folks. Gear up. I want us on the move in five."

[early thursday morning]

      Simon eased his head up to peer down at the darkened compound again. It was largely the same. That truck was silent now, the people that had been unloading it gone. If they'd been spotted—if the alarm had been raised—he couldn't see any signs of it.

      He turned to look across the road. It took him a moment to pick out the second team, even though he knew they were there, and he nodded to himself in satisfaction. The faint bright circle of Sandra's face turned towards him.

      Simon counted to three, silently commended them all to luck, then swept his hand forward. Go. Sandra flowed over the top of the hill like a snake, staying low, Mike and Johnny like wolves after her. Their running footsteps, stealthy and careful to begin with, faded almost instantly.

      Simon glanced over his shoulder. Jeremy Archer knelt about three feet behind him, silent and still, and when their eyes met all he did was raise an eyebrow. Simon jerked his chin up towards the top of the hill and took off in the same motion, cresting the hill and falling away quickly before the moon could silhouette him against the top of the ridge.

      Behind him all was silence. Simon didn't look back, intent on staying low and out of sight. Either Jeremy had followed him or he hadn't, and either way Simon was committed now. The road curved away to the right and Simon struck out across open country, trusting to the shadows of the scrubby trees around them to hide him.

      A small dark knot of trees off to his left caught his eye and Simon angled towards them, the loose and sandy soil shifting a little under his feet as he made his way across the mountainside. He caught a single glimpse of Jeremy as he went, just a slight flicker of movement sliding into the shadow of a jutting boulder not five feet behind him. Simon relaxed, imperceptibly.

      Simon slipped into the darkness of little knot of trees and stopped several feet in. He took a single deep breath, mentally counting to three; on the count of three he smoothly turned around and put out his hand.

      Jeremy, intent on ducking around one of the scrub trees without stepping on anything noisy, walked right into it. Simon's fingers splayed out across his chest, stopping him. After a single swift glance at Simon Jeremy looked away, scanning the area; finding nothing threatening he looked back to Simon, raising both eyebrows.

      Simon leaned in, leaving his hand where it was. Jeremy automatically turned his head to the side, giving Simon his ear. "When we spoke on the phone last," Simon breathed against the side of Jeremy's face, "you said you were at my command until the Star was in my hands."

      Jeremy nodded, slightly. Simon felt it more than saw it. "You meant that," Simon went on, glancing at Jeremy's profile. "Didn't you." It wasn't really a question. Simon had replayed that conversation in his mind twenty times on the drive down, until he was convinced.

      Jeremy nodded again. He glanced to the side, meeting Simon's eyes for a moment.

      "You're kind of a lousy criminal, what with this honorable crap, you know that?" Simon noted softly, and his fingers flexed against Jeremy's chest. "Anyway, now you get to prove you were telling me the truth. I'm done second-guessing you, Archer. You trust me and I'll trust you, at least until we're out of here. Get me?"

      Jeremy nodded a third time, then turned his face up towards Simon's, as if to respond. Simon half-closed his eyes in expectation. Jeremy's cheek grazed against his, breath warm against Simon's ear, and Jeremy opened his mouth as if to say something. In the end, all he did was breathe out the ghost of a laugh and twitch his head towards the compound.

      Simon exhaled hard and nodded, letting his hand drop. Silently he turned and headed out the other side of the little stand of trees. If he was being followed, he couldn't hear it... but suddenly Simon was convinced that he was.

      It took them another half an hour to get to the bottom of the hill. The compound itself filled only about half of the wide, shallow valley; from the bottom of the hill to the compound's high chain-link fence was a matter of a hundred yards. The final approach would be excruciatingly slow. While Rupp's crew had been less than thorough about cleaning out the scrub brush, they were so close now that they would have to watch out for guards on top of everything else. 

      Side by side they crouched in the shadow of a tangled low shrub while Simon studied the compound, looking for a way in. Beside him Jeremy cleared his throat, once, pointedly. Simon pretended he hadn't heard a thing.

      One of the outermost buildings, perilously close to the fence, was throwing the long jagged finger of its shadow out over a patch of scrub growth nearly at the fence's foot. Simon tapped Jeremy on the shoulder and pointed to the scrubby trees, then pushed at his shoulder lightly. Jeremy nodded, one hand rooting around in his jacket; something glinted in his hand the instant before he vanished, slipping away from Simon's side and gliding like oil into the shadows. Simon lost track of him almost immediately.

      Alone now, Simon took a deep breath and glanced up. The night was clear—too clear—and there wasn't so much as a cloud to dim the constant blue-gray glow of the moon. Nothing for it. Simon broke cover, heading the opposite way, expecting at any moment to hear a yell, a shot, something that meant he'd been seen. Nothing happened. Gritting his teeth against the surge of his nerves, Simon made for the scrubby trees in a long, punctuated scramble that ended with him crouched under the crooked trees, alternately watching for guards as best he could and studying the fence.

      There was a sound behind him—a single, soft, deliberate sound, like fingers scraping through sand—and then Jeremy slid in beside him. "Took you long enough," Simon muttered, glancing sideways at Jeremy, then looking at him again. Jeremy was wearing his goggles now, his eyes hidden behind a single smooth rectangle of blackened glass. From here, beside him, Simon could see what looked like the edges of dials on the side. "Oh, stylish," he noted, and went back to looking at the fence. "Fence is our first problem. Probably alarmed, possibly electrified. Ideas?"

      Jeremy reached up and touched the side of his goggles, turning one of the dials. There was a click, and then a hum so low as to be almost subliminal. "Mm... no," he murmured, studying the fence. "No alarm, no electrified wires. See?"

      And before Simon could stop him Jeremy put a hand out of the scrub and hooked his fingers into the wire mesh.

      "Shit!" Simon hissed, knocking Jeremy's hand free with a convulsive movement. "Are you trying to trip the alarm before we even get in? Or fry yourself?"

      "Actually, I'm simply trying to prove it to you as quickly and painlessly as possible." The heavy rectangle of Jeremy's goggles turned to stare blankly at him. "I suspect they had one too many false alarms with the desert animals," Jeremy said, reaching up to touch the side of his goggles again. The faint hum stopped. "There's no electricity running through the fence at all, not even enough to power an alarm system. I've a certain set of lenses that make electric current visible. And look." He held out his hand. His fingers were printed with narrow brownish stripes. "Look at that rust. It's my guess that that's the original unmodified fence. He's been spending his money elsewhere."

      "Like on you."

      "Like on me."

      "Fine," Simon muttered, dropping it. "Christ, try not to give me a heart attack next time."

      "Yes, sir," Jeremy said softly, with a slight smile. He turned to study the fence again. "How shall we get in? Over the top?"

      Simon looked at the fence. Old and rusty it might be, but there was still barbed wire over the top. "No," he said, tracing out the line of the fence to the north with his eyes. "There."

      Jeremy studied the battered and leaning bit of fence that Simon was pointing to. "Tunneling under, then? Or will we be cutting through? I've a small pair of wire cutters..."

      "If we have to," Simon said, flexing his fingers absently. "But I think I can lift it long enough to get us under. Can those things see in the dark?"

      "Oh, yes. What am I looking for?"

      "Guards," Simon said, dropping lightly to his knees. "Let me know when we have a window at least two minutes long."

      Jeremy nodded and turned the blank rectangle of his eyes on the compound again, adjusting the dials on the sides of his goggles and making that slight hum start again. "Not many guards this far out," he murmured after a moment, scanning the area. "Either he's overconfident or running out of money."

      "Or there's a fuss on the other side of the compound," Simon muttered.

      Jeremy smiled faintly. Dimly the sound of crunching footsteps reached them both, and Jeremy's head turned slowly as he followed them; Simon, for his part, could only see bits and flashes of them, hidden as they were in the building's shadow. "There," Jeremy finally breathed. "I think we'll have two minutes now."

      "Good," Simon said shortly. "Go." And he broke cover, running along the fence to the broken section and staying low, grateful for the bits of scrub brush that broke up that harrowing run. Dropping to his knees in front of the fence Simon hooked his fingers in the chain-links and hauled upwards, gritting his teeth. The fence squealed out a complaint but tilted inward, the center of it lifting grudgingly upwards. "Go," Simon grunted again, the muscles of his arms bulging.

      Jeremy didn't need to be told twice. Hands shot out from between Simon's knees, clawing into the dirt on the far side of the fence. Jeremy pulled himself neatly between Simon's legs and under the fence in the same smooth motion, rolling onto his feet within the compound a second later.

      "Shit," Simon muttered, adjusting his grip. The fence was sturdier than he'd hoped. Getting himself under it without getting speared in the chest was going to be a problem—Jeremy's fingers linked with his through the fence, startling him and momentarily scattering his thoughts.

      "I'll hold it for you," Jeremy breathed, sliding his feet a little further apart. "Let it go slowly."

      Simon was privately dubious about this, given their relative sizes. Still, you trust me and I'll trust you, he'd said. Nodding briefly Simon let his arms relax in small increments, transferring the weight and the pull of the fence to Jeremy.

      Jeremy squared his shoulders, his fingers going white. By the time Simon let go entirely Jeremy's teeth were clenched and the cords were standing out on his neck, but the fence was still up. Simon didn't hesitate. Dropping onto his belly he clawed his way under the fence and between Jeremy's feet. Bits of wire ripped at the back of his jacket but a moment later he was safely through and helping Jeremy ease the fence back into its place. It landed back in its original place with barely a jangle.

      Jeremy heaved out a deep breath and rolled both shoulders, already scanning the grounds. "Invigorating," he said softly. "Where to?"

      Simon pointed to a deeply shadowed doorway in the nearest hut. "There." Without waiting for a response he loped off.

      Jeremy followed him, silently.

      The doorway niche proved to be about five feet long and two feet deep. Simon flattened himself out against the wall nearest the door and waited until Jeremy joined him. "Guards?" he hissed, hand hovering over his holstered gun.

      Jeremy leaned out and scanned the shadows. "None coming."

      Simon exhaled and let his hand drop. "Keep a lookout. I'm going to call in."

      Jeremy nodded, already intent on his task. Simon fished the radio handset out of his jacket. "Specs, this is Templar."

      "Got you loud and clear, Templar," Nate immediately said in his ear, relief in his voice. "What's your status?"

      "We're inside the fence," Simon said softly, watching Jeremy. Jeremy was completely calm, his stance relaxed. "No static so far. Team Two, what's your status?"

      "They haven't radioed in yet, Templar—"

      "—this is Springheel," Sandy said, her voice queerly choked as she muttered into the radio. "We are not in, repeat, not in, but that'll change in five minutes. No static so far."

      "Good to hear," Simon said. "Any luck on scanning the frequencies, Specs?"

      "Normal guard chatter," said Nate. "I'll keep scanning in case they say anything worth hearing. They haven't twigged to you yet, in any case."

      "That's something," Simon said. "Specs Two."

      "Specs Two here, Templar," Rich said.

      "Tell me you've—" Jeremy's hand flashed up. Simon stopped talking and let his free hand drop to the butt of his gun. After a painful interval Jeremy relaxed and nodded, letting his hand fall again. "Tell me you've got blueprints of this place for me, Specs Two."

      "Wish I could, Templar," Rich said. Keys clicked gently in the background. "I know where we are, but there aren't any documents on official file for this place beyond the basics. The records are sealed for some reason. Anyway, I've got a call in to HQ and I'm preparing to do something you don't want to know about in case they drag their feet too much."

      "Good man, Specs Two," Simon said. "Keep me posted. I'll radio again once I've got something to report. Springheel, report once you're safely inside the fence."

      "Copy that, Templar," Sandra said.

      "Keep it close, team," Simon said, and he closed his eyes for just a fraction of a second. "Templar out." Tucking his radio back into his jacket he leaned over to where Jeremy stood. "We good?"

      "We're fine," Jeremy murmured. "I estimate we have about two minutes at the outside before the guards come around again."

      "That'll have to do," Simon said. "I'm thinking we head for one of the warehouses nearest the center."

      "That seems to be about Rupp's style," Jeremy agreed. "I daresay there will be more guards there, though."

      "Can't be helped."

      "I agree. Toward the center."

      "It's settled, then." Simon slid out of the niche and followed the wall of the warehouse towards the center of the compound. Stopping about five feet shy of the corner he reached blindly back behind him, groping until his fingers hit leather; catching Jeremy's shoulder he drew the thief forward, pointing silently at the corner.

      Jeremy slid around him and crept forward, hugging the wall so tightly that Simon could barely see him. Simon gave him until the count of five, then moved forward, picking his way carefully; Jeremy put a hand on his chest, stopping him, and Simon stopped breathing in order to listen.

      Voices. Simon's hand fell to the butt of his gun. The hand on his chest pressed down harder, then suddenly snapped closed around a handful of his jacket. Without stopping to explain Jeremy yanked him forward, out into the alleyway between two of the warehouses, toward the voices and approaching footsteps.

      Simon was suddenly certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that he'd placed his trust in the wrong man entirely. Jeremy Archer, Rupp's well-paid pet, was about to betray him to a pair of heavily armed guards and he'd walked like a sheep right into their trap. A voice in his head cursed him for a fool and he grabbed for his gun... then Jeremy shoved them both into another one of those deeply shadowed doorway niches and let go of Simon, sinking into the shadows.

      Simon automatically did the same, drawing his gun, just in case. Jeremy shrugged halfway out of his jacket and pulled one side up to cover the white gleam of his face and the glitter of the goggles. Simon darted a glance at Jeremy and then pressed himself as far back into the shadows as he could, his gun up.

      The two guards passed within four feet of their hiding place. Simon tracked them with his eyes, the barrel of his gun cold against his cheek. Drop the one who spotted them first, from here he couldn't miss, and then drop the other before he could bring that rifle to bear... the guards walked right by, keeping up their aimless conversation, and rounded the corner where he and Jeremy had been not fifteen seconds ago.

      Five seconds later Simon dared to breathe again, and almost immediately he heard a matching exhalation from Jeremy. "Well!" Jeremy breathed, pulling his jacket back on. "That was exciting. ...are you all right? You seem a bit put out, for some reason."

      "I'm good," Simon muttered, reholstering his gun. "By which I mean that I just had another fucking heart attack, Archer. Don't take a risk like that again. I'd rather retreat to a known hiding place than take chances like that."

      Both of Jeremy's eyebrows rose from under his goggles, but in the end he just nodded and said, "I'll keep that in mind."

      Simon studied what little of Jeremy's face he could see. "What?"

      "What what?" Jeremy asked, leaning forward cautiously to scan the narrow alleyway.

      "What's with the eyebrows?" Simon gestured at his own face.

      "Ah—" Jeremy signaled the all-clear and they both raced across the alleyway and a good thirty feet down, sheltering in the doorway of the next warehouse over. "It occurs to me that I owe you an apology, Simon," Jeremy breathed once they were safe.


      "That particular move didn't strike me as terribly risky. Or, at least, not as risky as you thought it was. By my estimation we had close to ten seconds to get into the niche and hidden, and we only used... say, six of those." He shrugged. His smile was thin. "But you needn't worry. I'm certain you'll get better at this with practice."

      Simon glared at Jeremy for a moment, then snorted. "Shut up, show-off."

      "Absolutely." Jeremy pressed a hand to his chest and bowed over it before sliding back out of the niche and creeping forward to the corner of the warehouse.

      "We're in," Sandra muttered in Simon's ear. "That's some crap fence there. Guards are totally complacent. Bet they've had no trouble for months. Springheel out."

      Simon didn't bother to fish out his radio and respond. He and Jeremy were crouched behind a pallet full of metal barrels, their destination—the warehouse closest to the center of the compound—clearly in sight. The doorway niche directly across the dirt road was much like any of the others, except that new metal gleamed from the door's handle. It looked like paydirt to Simon.

      So did the pairs of patrolling guards, now passing by every sixty seconds or so. It was going to be close. Jeremy's head kept flicking back and forth as he watched them go by. "Don't bother asking," Simon finally muttered. "Just grab me and go when you think we can make it."

      "Mm. If you're sure," Jeremy breathed, glancing from left to right. "...ah. Get ready."

      Simon tensed, gathering his legs under himself. The voices of the last pair were still vaguely echoing in his ears when Jeremy plucked at his jacket and dashed out from under cover. Simon unfolded like a sprinter and took off after Jeremy, leading with his gun out and ready. The muzzle of his gun stabbed south, then north, and then he was in the niche and pressed against the back wall beside Jeremy.

      No one shouted after them, and after a few seconds in which they did not get shot at Simon relaxed a bit. "We're good," he breathed. "So. You're the famous burglar. Get us in."

      Jeremy looked up, then leaned out and scanned the area one last time while fishing around in the cuff of his jacket. A narrow beam of light stabbed out from a penlight in his hand and Simon automatically shielded his eyes against it, then squinted down at what it was pointing at. "Shit," he breathed.

      "Kawa combination lock," Jeremy said in apparent agreement, touching the gleaming metal of the doorhandle. "Ten digits. Very nice."

      "Archer, stop appreciating it and open it—hsst!"

      The penlight clicked off, leaving Simon's eyes dazzled. They both pressed back into the niche while the guards went past, Simon with his gun out, Jeremy with his head ducked down low. As soon as their footsteps faded the penlight clicked on again. "Have you got a spare hand?" Jeremy breathed. "Hold the light here, please."

      Simon glanced edgewise at him, then took the penlight from Jeremy and trained the light on the last two digits of the lock. Jeremy produced a pair of tiny screwdrivers from his sleeve and forced the wedge-shaped tips in between the ninth and tenth digits. Simon alternated between watching and keeping an ear open for guards.

      Jeremy pulled the handles of the screwdrivers sharply outwards, levering the two metal wheels slightly apart. "Ah, that's what I was afraid of," he murmured, staring into the tiny gap he'd just created.

      "What?" Simon edged closed, squinting.

      "Do you see that red wire?" Jeremy asked, levering the wheels slightly farther apart. Simon moved the light until he could just barely make out a flash of red within the lock. "The lock is wired into the base's security systems," Jeremy went on, letting the gap fall shut and tugging his screwdrivers free. "The Kawa Corporation's alarmed locks have three settings: either it will set off the alarms on the fifth wrong try, the third, or the very first."

      Simon shut off the penlight and handed it back to Jeremy. "So... can you break in?"

      "If we had... hm... about six hours, completely unobserved," Jeremy said, absently making the little screwdrivers disappear into his sleeve again. "Or, alternately, five minutes, given the freedom to make an awful lot of noise. I'm assuming we haven't either?"

      "No. Shit." Simon raised his gun and Jeremy ducked his head, and they both fell still until the next set of guards had passed them by.

      "So," Jeremy said once it was all quiet, leaning back to study the door at more length. The quiet amusement was back in his voice. "Here we are."

      "Yes, Archer, here we are," Simon agreed warily. "In a compound full of heavily armed terrorists. I really don't have time for your games—"

      "I find terrorist compounds so romantic, don't you? Perhaps it's the excitement. Or the moonlight." Before Simon could respond to that, the penlight popped on again. "Let's use that," Jeremy said.

      Simon looked up at the louvered air vent, caught neatly in the little circle of light. "Good idea," he said, resolutely sticking to business. "We'll find a ladder or something. Maybe drag one of those barrels over."

      "Actually..." Jeremy let that trail off.

      "Actually?" Simon asked, making a little 'come on, spit it out' gesture.

      "If I could just borrow your shoulders..."

      Simon hesitated, then rolled his eyes and dropped into a crouch. "Go ahead," he said. "If we get caught like this, I'll kill you myself. Fair warning."

      "I'll keep that in mind," Jeremy said, putting a knee on one of Simon's shoulders and climbing on.

      "Well?" Simon growled, braced under Jeremy's weight.

      "Easy enough," Jeremy said, kneeling astride Simon's shoulders and investigating the grate. "Give me a minute or so and I'll have us in."

      Simon nodded—in this position he had no doubt that Jeremy could feel it, and he hoped to God that little shiver had just been his imagination—and turned his attention back to the pathway, now slightly obscured by Jeremy's shoes. The thief wasn't all that heavy but he kept moving around, and Simon ended up grabbing one of his ankles just to keep him still.

      "So nice of you to grow these lovely broad shoulders just for me," Jeremy murmured.

      "Shut up," Simon suggested. "You've got about thirty seconds until the next set of guards comes around. Why don't you do something useful?"

      "Slave-driver," Jeremy said, but he didn't say anything else, for which Simon was grateful. Simon went back to watching for the guards, his right hand flexing on the grip of his gun, his left hand tight around Jeremy's ankle.

      Chhow! Simon tensed, gun whipping up. "What was that?" he hissed.

      "Cordless screwdriver," Jeremy whispered down. "I never go anywhere without one."

      Simon rolled his eyes. "Oh, great, why don't you go ahead and make all the noise you want," he growled. "Christ, you're going to bring every guard in the complex down on us."

      "Psh," Jeremy murmured, and then they both fell silent. The guards were approaching again, their footsteps crunching faintly on the packed dirt. Simon let go of Jeremy's ankle and caught his gun in both hands, bringing it up and ready. For a miracle, the thief was utterly, perfectly still.

      ...crap, they can't see his legs, can they? Simon glanced at one of Jeremy's shoes. It didn't seem to be sticking out into the moonlight. Still, Simon burned with new adrenalin until the guards had walked by, and just as he was cooling again a second chhow! made his heart thump once hard against his ribs. "Christ," Simon growled.

      "Only one more," Jeremy breathed. "You needn't worry. The sound doesn't carry as badly as you think."

      "Suppose you'd know," Simon ungraciously allowed.

      His only answer was another muted Chhow! There was a pause (during which Jeremy shifted around entirely too much for Simon's peace of mind) and then the grate let out a soft metallic squeal as Jeremy eased it downwards, letting it hang from a single screw. "There," he breathed.

      Simon promptly grabbed Jeremy's ankle again to prevent him from climbing into the vent. "I'm going in first," he said, in a tone that brooked no argument.

      Jeremy barely hesitated. "As you like," he said, and before Simon could kneel again to let him off, Jeremy slid backward. Simon abruptly found his face pressed hard against the inside of Jeremy's hip as Jeremy climbed down, his hands on Simon's shoulders, his knee against Simon's chest... Jeremy dropped gracefully to the ground in front of him and spun into the shadows, but not before Simon caught the barest end of a smile.

      "The hell am I, some kind of tree now?" Simon muttered.

      "Shh," Jeremy murmured, and he sounded far too pleased with himself.

      Simon fell silent until the guards had passed. "Okay," he said, reminding himself business, business, business, strangle him later. "I'm going to jump for it—"

      "I'll give you a leg up, if you like," Jeremy offered, dropping to one knee and linking his fingers together.

      Simon eyed him askance. "I'm a bit heavier than a couple of Botticelli drawings," he pointed out. "I don't want to dislocate your shoulders unless it's on purpose."

      Jeremy laughed faintly. "I suppose you'll just have to trust me, Simon."

      "You know," Simon said, slamming his gun back into its holster, "you are gonna make me so sorry I said that—" He caught his breath and rocked back a step, backing out of the niche and out into the pathway. The moonlight felt like a blaring alarm as it fell on him and Simon didn't pause before launching himself forward and vaulting into the stirrup of Jeremy's hands.

      The muscles of Jeremy's shoulders bunched as Simon's other foot left the ground. With a soft grunt the thief heaved Simon upwards, adding to his already considerable momentum, and Simon was almost flying when he caught the lower edge of the open air vent in both hands. His feet scrabbled at the wall, sneakers scraping and finding purpose, and a moment later Simon managed to haul himself entirely inside. He huffed out a breath. Made it.

      There wasn't enough room to get up on his hands and knees, he quickly discovered, although he had a reasonable amount of elbow room. Simon resigned himself to sore shoulders in the morning and started dragging himself forward on his forearms. Behind him there was a brief and quiet scramble and then a repeat of that soft metallic whine. "There," Jeremy murmured a moment later. "That ought to cover our tracks nicely, as long as they aren't paying too much attention."

      "Good," Simon muttered. "Hang on." Working his radio out of his jacket, Simon breathed, "Specs, this is Templar. We are in building three, repeat, in building three. Team Two, don't touch the big silver locks, Shadow says they're alarmed. Look above the doors, find an air vent."

      "Got it," Nate said. "The radio traffic's picked up some, Templar. You've given them the heebie-jeebies."

      "Shit," Simon said.

      "We're going for building ten, repeat, building ten," Sandra hissed. "I'll report when we're in. Guards are seriously antsy now. Sixth-sensing us for sure."

      "Yeah, well, fuck 'em," Simon said, closing his eyes. "You guys have never let me down yet, and this isn't going to be the time that you do. I've got faith in you."

      "Copy that, Templar," Sandra said, and Nate echoed, "Copy that."

      "Templar out." Simon tucked the radio away and glanced over his shoulder at Jeremy, on his belly in the vent behind him. The heavy glass rectangle of the thief's goggles glinted at him. Simon jerked his chin towards the dark tunnel in front of him and pressed his forearms to the metal sheeting, hauling himself forward.

      Ten feet in, a smaller vent branched away in both directions. Simon glanced over his shoulder at Jeremy and pointed to it, raising his eyebrows. Jeremy immediately shook his head and pointed onwards. Secretly relieved—he wasn't sure if he would have fit in the smaller vent—Simon dragged himself on.

      There were branches every five feet thereafter. Simon stopped asking after the third one and just kept moving resolutely forward. Sweat stood out on his forehead and the burning ache he'd been expecting between his shoulderblades had arrived; the cramped metal walls seemed to amplify every sound that he made, until it seemed like a miracle that no one had heard him thumping around. Behind him, Jeremy was silent. Too silent. Annoyingly silent. Simon gritted his teeth and inched on.

      Sixty seconds of agonizingly slow progress later Simon was rewarded by the sight of light shining up from a grating in the bottom of the duct, and he thankfully dragged himself toward it. Easing forward he peered cautiously down through the grating; almost immediately he flinched back, stifling a hiss of dismay. Five feet below the vent stood one of Rupp's guards, this one standing with the stolid acceptance of a long-time soldier, listening to his walkie-talkie and occasionally speaking into it. Simon got the sinking feeling the man was planning to be there for a long time.

      Simon sighed noiselessly and edged back. Swiping the back of his hand over his forehead—Christ, but it was hot, he was almost dizzy, weren't these supposed to be air-conditioning vents?—Simon rolled onto his side, wedging himself into half the vent as best he could, and motioned Jeremy forward.

      Jeremy edged forward, wriggling neatly into the tiny space Simon had left for him with a minimum of fuss. Once he was chest to chest with Simon, Simon jerked his head down at the grate and the guard beneath. "All right, Mr. Cat Burglar," Simon breathed, forcing Jeremy to lean in to hear him. "I'm willing to entertain any bright ideas you might have on how to handle this situation."

      Jeremy pushed his goggles up and glanced down through the grate, taking in the situation in question. Then he looked back up at Simon, smiled, shrugged slightly, and lunged forward, crushing his mouth to Simon's.

      Simon strangled a startled "Mmph!" in his throat and clutched reflexively at Jeremy's arm, making an abortive attempt to shove him away. Wedged as tightly in the vent as they were, there wasn't room; there was simply no place to shove Jeremy to. Faced with this sudden onslaught and the critical need to stay quiet, it wasn't easy—there wasn't enough room in the vent to do much of anything—but eventually Simon managed to worm his way out of the fierce kiss, breathing hard. "Not flirting with me, my ass," he hissed, even as Jeremy's mouth traveled over his cheek and back down to the corner of his mouth.

      Jeremy barely hesitated. "It's a nice one, too—" he breathed, and then he dove back into the kiss, one hand grabbing for Simon's ass as if to illustrate his point. Simon's fingers clenched on Jeremy's arm. He made one last half-hearted attempt to shove Jeremy away, then choked on a growl and sank his other hand into Jeremy's hair, dragging him close.

      Jeremy rolled up against him, one knee pressing in between Simon's thighs, and Simon squeezed his eyes shut and grabbed for anything he could catch. Jeremy's hip bumped sharply up into his hand and then there were hands on his chest and one of them found its way under his damp t-shirt to press against bare and sweaty skin and somehow Jeremy was almost on top of him and the kiss was sloppy and frantic and wet for a few glorious seconds before Simon jerked his head back, breaking it. Jeremy came away open-mouthed and licking his lips and Simon had to look away from the spectacle. "Okay," he growled, catching Jeremy's upper arm again, almost gently. "I get it. Okay? I get it. But, fuck, not now."

      Jeremy's eyes glittered, but eventually he nodded. "Not now," he breathed in agreement, and reached up to pull his goggles back down.

      Simon took half a second to catch his breath, rubbing a hand over his face. It came away wet. He tried not to think about it. "So," he eventually muttered. "Any other bright ideas?"

      The little snrk! sound that Jeremy made came dangerously close to making Simon do one of two things: hit him, or start snickering himself. Instead he squeezed Jeremy's arm warningly and fought both impulses down. "Business," he hissed.

      Jeremy fought down his little smile and nodded towards the grate. "Well! Mission accomplished. Shall we go?"

      Simon blinked at him, then looked down. At some point during the last minute—during which he had been highly distracted, to say the least—the guard had left his post. The hallway was empty as far as Simon could see in both directions.

      Simon rested his forehead on his knuckles for a moment and blew out an aggravated breath.

      Hooking his fingers into the vent grating Simon pulled, and it lifted out of its moorings with nothing but a muffled screech for his troubles. Gritting his teeth against its weight and his lack of leverage Simon edged it away from him to rest on the far side of the opening, leaving the vent open beneath him.

      He waited a beat, his right hand resting on the butt of his holstered gun. No shouts came at him from below, no shots, nothing. He glanced over his shoulder. Jeremy, once again safely behind him, paused with his fingers touched to the dials at the sides of his goggles and cocked an eyebrow, then nodded. The light from below picked out Jeremy's little smile only faintly.

      Simon nodded in response. He took in a deep, steadying breath and held it for the count of three, then grasped the edge of the vent and pulled himself forward, rolling through the hole headfirst and letting his momentum and his grip on the vent's edge roll him upright once more. Doing a tight flip in midair Simon landed in a neat crouch, the carpet muffling the thud of his impact.

      His gun was already out of its holster before he'd quite finished landing, trained down the northern corridor by the time he grew still. Nothing to the north—Simon and the gun whipped around—nothing to the south. Automatically flicking the gun's safety back on Simon rose warily to his feet.

      "C'mon," he called softly, and edged out of the way. A second or two later Jeremy dropped in a blur of black beside him, landing almost silently on all fours. He rose to his feet, touching one newly-gloved hand to his goggles; his leather jacket now hung open, revealing a pair of slim leather toolcases hooked to his belt and just the barest glint of something un-weapon-like holstered under one arm.

      Simon eyed this vision askance for a moment before reassuming his watch. "You were a Boy Scout, weren't you," he said, putting his back to the wall.

      "Don't be absurd, Simon," Jeremy told him cheerfully, glancing left and right. His goggles hummed slightly. "I was a rentboy. That way." He pointed down the southern corridor.

      Simon spared a second glance for Jeremy, who looked as unruffled and innocent as ever. "Why that way?"

      Jeremy shrugged. "Call it instinct, and also, I can hear voices coming from the other way."

      "Ah. Solid thinking." Unable to argue with that logic, Simon let his gun fall to point at the ground and they both loped off down the southern corridor.

      "You know," Simon muttered after a minute, "I was thinking."

      "Were you now?"

      "Shut up. As I was saying, I was thinking: what the hell kind of corrugated-tin warehouse has carpeting?"

      Jeremy slowed. "... you know, Simon, that's a damned good question."

      "Drywall and paint, too. He's made it into an office complex." Simon reached out and touched one of the walls as they went. "The hell?"

      "Well." Jeremy smiled faintly, glancing over his shoulder to check behind them. "Now we know where his money and time went."

      "But we don't know why. Door." Simon stopped, bringing his gun up to point at the door.

      Jeremy studied it, then shook his head. "It's not right."

      "No?" But Simon's own gut was agreeing, and eventually he nodded. "No, you're right, door's not right. Let's go." Without waiting for Jeremy to respond Simon jogged on down the hallway.

      Jeremy fell into step with him quickly. After a moment, he said, "...Simon?"


      "What sort of corrugated-tin warehouse requires a down staircase?"

      "The kind with paydirt in it."

      "Pay—ah. Precisely. And as I always say, when in doubt—" Jeremy smiled thinly and touched the side of his goggles "—go down."

      "Why does that saying of yours make me tingle in all kinds of uncomfortable ways?"

      "Possibly because it was meant to—" Jeremy started to say, but Simon caught Jeremy's shoulder, both halting and silencing him.

      "I'm going first," Simon informed Jeremy, stepping smoothly around him. He spun out onto the head of the stairs and snapped his gun down, all in the same motion. No one there. Lifting his gun back to ready, he reported, "Clear." and jogged down the stairs, Jeremy on his heels.

      The stairs doubled back on themselves at a landing and Simon stopped Jeremy again, again sliding smoothly out to cover the way with his gun. The stairs slid down into blackness and Simon immediately whipped back, breathing hard and waiting to see if shouts—or shots—would come at him from the darkness. Nothing did. After a moment he relaxed and looked at Jeremy, who was still smirking faintly.

      Simon rolled his eyes. "Come on," he said, "and also, for a revolutionary idea, why don't we drop the subject for now?"

      "Pity," Jeremy said, lightly preceding Simon down the stairs, his goggles glinting in the dark. "I was hoping to hear all about the ways in which you were tingling—hell-o."

      "What?" Simon said, straining to see in the darkness. "Someone leave a really huge diamond lying around in a shoebox? I have fantasies about that kind of thing sometimes."

      Jeremy's penlight flashed on, dimly illuminating the area. They were standing in a small alcove that ended in a sturdy-looking metal door. The penlight flashed down. The door had no handle. Simon stopped on the lowest step, balancing on the balls of his feet, ready to turn around and leave. "Fuck. Try another way?"

      "On the contrary!" The penlight flicked away, illuminating a control panel with a telephone handset mounted by the door. Jeremy slid one finger under the earpiece, neatly pinning the disconnect lever down, and then lifted the dead handset out of its cradle. "I can get us through this," Jeremy said, unscrewing the mouthpiece with his free hand, "if you can buy me five minutes."

      In answer, Simon thumbed off the safety of his gun. Jeremy became very still, but after a pause, he nodded.

      Simon closed his eyes for half a second and took a deep breath, holding it. He fished the radio out of his jacket. "Team Templar, this is Templar," he said in a perfectly even voice. "Found a suspicious basement and I want in. There's a good chance that I'm going to start making some noise in a few minutes. The situation is probably going to change shortly. Be ready."

      A moment of silence, then Nate said, "Copy that, Templar."

      Simon put the radio away again and put his back to the wall opposite Jeremy, bringing his gun up and ready. "So," he said conversationally, glancing from the door to the staircase and back. "Were you actually a rentboy?"

      "Mm-hmm. Until I was fifteen or so, anyway." Jeremy dropped the plastic cover of the mouthpiece onto the carpet by his feet.

      "Ah. At which point you took up your career in petty crime, I take it."

      "I resent that, Simon, petty crime was merely a hobby—" Jeremy shook the handset. A metal disk tumbled out of the phone's mouthpiece and drew up short, dangling on its wires. Jeremy caught it and ripped it free.

      By the time he eased the disconnect lever up, they could both hear the voices coming. Jeremy didn't so much as look at Simon. Simon glanced at Jeremy, once, then muttered "Stay put. Keep working. I'll handle it."

      Jeremy nodded, jamming one of his small screwdrivers between the cover of the control panel and the wall and wrenching the entire panel open with a muted squeal of tortured metal. Simon slid up the stairs, pressing himself against the wall just before the corner, and listened to the voices coming. He could pick out two different voices, neither one sounding very concerned. Well, he'd soon change that.

      Turn. Drop. Aim. Breathe. Fire. Simon dragged in a deep breath and held it, touching the barrel of his gun to his cheek. Still holding it, he spun around the corner and dropped to one knee, his gun snapping out.

      There were, in fact, two of them, with rifles. The one on the left spotted him first and his mouth opened to shout a warning, and Simon exhaled to steady himself and shot the man through one eye. The side of the guard's face vanished in a pulpy mess of dark red. His head jerked and his limbs spasmed and he staggered backwards a step, reeling but still upright in the center of the hall.

      The second guard's head snapped towards Simon and he grabbed for his rifle, but before he could bring it to bear Simon's gun twitched right and he shot the man in the throat. The guard made a wet little "Hgk!" sound and clutched at his throat instead. The first guard finally collapsed. The second guard choked for a heartbeat longer and then fell on top of the first guard. Simon's long, steadying exhale ended.

      He was rising to his feet when the door they'd passed earlier crashed open and a third man stuck his head out. "What was—" the third man said and Simon's gun cracked again and the top of his head exploded. He fell straight down in the doorway like someone had cut his strings.

      Simon stood just where he was for the space of another deep breath, staring down the barrel of his gun. No one else appeared. Slamming his gun back into his holster Simon grabbed the first two guards by their ankles and dragged them to the open doorway, kicking the third guard into the room as he went. It was an office of some sort, mostly empty, with a computer sitting dark and covered on the desk.

      In his ear, Nate said, "... what was that?" For the time being, Simon ignored it.

      Leaving the three bodies in an untidy pile on the floor, Simon stepped over them, whipped the cover off the computer, and thumbed the machine on, leaving the monitor off. Lights bloomed on the front of the computer case. Simon dropped the cover on the pile of bodies and stepped back over them. He didn't spare them a backwards glance; they weren't important any more. Instead he put his back against the wall by the door and then spun out, covering the corridor in front of him. No one was coming. Simon kicked the door shut and loped back to the staircase. Thank God for red carpeting, he thought aimlessly.

      "Crap," Nate muttered in his ear. Both of Simon's eyebrows shot up. Anything that would drive Nate to actually curse was certain to be bad news. "Templar, Springheel, I heard what might have been a couple of shots on their frequency. They're discussing it now. You may be made."

      "Shit," Simon hissed, taking the stairs two at a time. By the time he got back down to where Jeremy was, Jeremy was very pale, but still working. The control panel's cover was missing entirely now and wires and circuitry were jutting messily out in all directions. Jeremy had the mutilated handset caught between his cheek and one shoulder and was neatly dissecting the innards of the control panel with a pair of strange little hooked tools, occasionally letting a piece of scrap metal fall. The screwdrivers jutted straight out between his first two fingers like a pair of cigarettes, out of the way but ready. Just as Simon reached him the control panel sparked and snapped, and Jeremy hissed "Blast you—" and blew on his fingers.

      "We're good," Simon said. "By which I  mean that I think I've roused the entire compound and I don't suppose you could hurry it up some before we get shot to death a lot?"

      Jeremy glanced at him over the handset. "Well!" he said, his voice just the slightest bit uneven. "I suppose there are certain drawbacks to your modus operandi. Four more minutes, I estimate."

      "Gotcha. I can do four if I have to. Step on it." Simon went for his radio. "Noise is made," he said. "Three down. Tracks are covered for a few minutes, but we won't be missed for long."

      "Copy that, Templar," Sandra said.

      "Copy that," Nate said. "They've finally accepted that they heard shots, although they haven't the faintest idea from where, yet. Channels have exploded. You're made, but you've got time."

      "One of them must have had his radio on," Simon said. "Fuck."

      "We'll draw them off you, Templar," Sandra said, and dimly Simon could hear a large gun cocking in the background. "We'll make some noise they can't miss."

      Simon thumped his forehead with his free hand. "Copy that, Springheel. Make a lot of noise, but stay safe. Buy us as much time as you can and pray that we've hit paydirt."

      "Will do. Springheel out." Simon heard a single chattering burst from Johnny's rifle before Sandra shut her radio off.

      "Specs Two," Simon said, turning to point his gun back up the staircase. "Tell me you've got the plans to this place by now, Specs Two."

      "Specs Two here," Rich said. "Got the official blueprints of this place. Fucking worthless. Whatever Rupp's done to the place, it's not code and it's not on file. I'm still looking."

      "Good man. I found a local terminal and turned it on. See if you can tap in—" Simon started to say, and then Jeremy made a little noise in the background and grabbed the phone handset with both hands, and Simon glanced over his shoulder at him.

      Jeremy listened for a breathless few moments, then turned to Simon. "Simon. The satellite and the Star are both in Warehouse Delta, whichever one that is—" Simon immediately started relaying this to his team "—and someone's going to be coming for the Star in a few minutes, diversion or no. We don't have much time. I'm going to do something a little loud."

      "We've been way the hell in the middle of loud for two minutes now," Simon said impatiently. "You had loud up your sleeve and you were still wasting time with stealth? Get on with it, Archer."

      Jeremy nodded, let the handset of the phone drop to bang uselessly against the wall, and caught both tiny screwdrivers in his fists like daggers. He jammed both of them into the control panel's guts, a few inches apart. There was a loud bang and a brilliant flash that nearly blinded Simon, and the control panel was smoking slightly when the metal door slid softly open, revealing utter blackness.

      "Well," Simon said, pressing himself up against the wall and blinking the flash out of his eyes. "You weren't lying."

      "I try not to lie too much," Jeremy said, scanning the darkness beyond the door. "It's a bad habit."

      Simon snorted at that. After ten seconds in which Jeremy was not shot at, he leaned in and squinted at the darkness beyond the door. "So, if you were Warehouse Delta, where would you be?"

      "Somewhere between Charlie and Echo, I daresay. Also known as 'right here'." The beam of light from Jeremy's little flashlight stabbed out into the darkness. At the end of it, there was a glassy flash and a sparkle. "There's our baby," Jeremy purred at the Morning Star, glittering under its glass case not fifteen feet away.

      "Well, would you look at that?" Simon craned his neck, studying the case. The Morning Star rested in a simple metal armature instead of the lush display cushion the Mornings had had for it, its glitter almost blinding in the tiny circle of light. It left angular shards of light printed on his retinas and Simon was blinking when he turned back to the radio. "Team Templar, this is Templar, I have found our baby in Warehouse Three," Simon said, not bothering to keep the triumph out of his voice. "Repeat, found our baby in Warehouse Three. Springheel, whatever you're doing, make it louder. Tell Texas to stop pretending he didn't bring some extra bang and use it. I need you to remove all obstacles with as much crankiness as you can muster."

      After two seconds Simon winced as there was a staticky explosion of gunfire in his ear. "Copy that, Templar," Sandra half-yelled. In the background he heard Mike yell something and Johnny's rifle chatter. Sandra's voice faded slightly as she leaned away from the radio. "Texas! Templar says give 'em some bang for their buck!"

      Mike whooped in glee. Johnny's rifle shut up. "Springheel out," Sandra said, and her radio cut off, leaving Simon's ear ringing in the sudden silence. Five seconds later there was a thudding crump sound that he could feel more than hear, the ground quivering under his feet.

      "That's my crazy, crazy boy," Simon muttered. He glanced at Jeremy, who was still intently scanning the room, goggles sweeping slowly back and forth. "That's that. So. What kind of alarms do you think they've got on that thing?"

      Jeremy pointed the penlight at one of the walls. It was farther away than Simon had been expecting; this basement was larger than he'd originally thought. "Well, for a start, there's that," Jeremy said, the light centering on a small round gray thing with a glassy black eye in the center, mounted a few inches above the floor. "That's a red-eye laser. The floor's nicely crisscrossed with them." The light flicked about six inches away, to pick out a second red-eye, and then a third, and a fourth.

      "Shit," Simon said. "The floor's rigged, too?"

      "The floor's rigged," Jeremy confirmed, already shrugging out of his jacket, revealing a set of black web harnesses strapped to his bare forearms. "Possibly booby-trapped as well. I suspect not, but still, best to be careful."

      "Yeah," Simon said, squinting against the darkness. "Plus if we set off those alarms Springheel's distraction is bound to get a lot less distracting all of a sudden, and I don't know about you, but I'd really prefer to get out of here without getting shot full of holes."

      "Well, I'm all for trying new things," Jeremy said, dropping to one knee and snapping his jacket out to lie flat on the ground, exposing the (somewhat more lumpy than factory standard) silk lining. "Still, this is probably not the time."

      Simon looked at him askance. "Judging from your busy little beaver act, I'd say that you have some sort of plan. Care to share it with me, or are we going to play Twenty Questions?"

      Jeremy waved that away. "I'll go in over the ceiling," he said, casually, as if this were an everyday thing for him, which Simon could only suppose was true. "I suspect that any alarms on the case itself will only go off if I lift the glass, so I'll burn through the top..." By this point Jeremy was talking more to himself than to Simon, his tone absent as he dug a small metal vial out of one of the jacket's pockets, sliding it into a pocket on one of his forearm harnesses. "The ceiling clearance appears to be about four feet from the top of the case. I won't need any sort of rope, which is always a nice bonus." Jeremy raised his voice slightly, no longer just thinking aloud. "I can do this in—mm—six minutes, Simon."

      "What, you want me to time you or something?"

      "Well, you can if you like, I certainly won't stop you—" Jeremy produced a small blade from out of nowhere and matter-of-factly slashed open the lining of his jacket right down the middle. "—but all I really require of you is to buy me that much time." The knife vanished again. Hooking his fingers into the lining of his jacket Jeremy ripped it open, revealing four large saucer-shaped things sewn into the back of the jacket. Jeremy pulled them free, one after the other; with a faint smile he snapped one through the air and it caved in on itself with a soft thoop sound, becoming a large and familiar-looking suction cup.

      Simon rolled his eyes with all the force he could muster. "Jesus Christ, 007. I'm impressed already. Stop showing off and get in there before I shoot you myself."

      "Yes, yes, there's no need to get so excited, Simon." Jeremy strapped two of the suction cups on just below his knees. "Be a love and keep an eye on my jacket, will you? It was terribly expensive and I'd hate to lose it."

      "You get me that diamond in less than five minutes and I won't even snoop in your pockets," Simon promised.

      "Well!" Jeremy said, catching the other two suction cups in his left hand and making a final adjustment to his goggles. "How could I turn down an offer like that?" Before Simon could think of a suitably devastating comeback Jeremy leaned in and nonchalantly cupped one hand over Simon's crotch, making his thoughts scatter like startled birds. "For luck, hm?" Jeremy breathed, and he gave Simon a quick kiss and a hard squeeze, and before Simon could regroup one of Jeremy's suction cups vacuum-sealed itself to the wall and Jeremy swung into the room, gone.

      "You know," Simon told the empty antechamber, just the slightest bit breathless from the squeeze, "you just aren't normal."

      "Really?" Jeremy called back over the soft thop-thop-thop of his progress up the wall. "What was your first clue?"

      "Oh, well," Simon said, "the whole 'being one step away from a comic book supervillain' thing? Was a huge tipoff. No, shut up, we'll talk philosophy later. Go earn your money."

      Jeremy laughed softly but, obediently, did not answer, inching out onto the ceiling and leaving Simon behind.

      Simon stood guard in the doorway, watching Jeremy's (agonizingly slow) progress and listening intently for unwelcome company, the muzzle of his gun pointed at the floor between his feet. "Hustle," he muttered, absently checking the safety on his gun, thumbing it on and back off. Another crump made the floor shake under him and Simon snorted. "Christ, Texas," he said under his breath. "We both get out of this alive and we're going to have a long talk about exactly how grenades fit into the definition of 'handguns and assault rifle only'."

      Jeremy swung to a stop, on his hands and knees over the glass case. Simon caught his breath and narrowed his eyes further. Above the case Jeremy uncoiled slowly, stretching down, one hand reaching up—down—above his head. His fingertips brushed the top of the glass case, once, and Jeremy nodded. The other hand reached down, one suction cup still nestled in its palm. Thoop.

      "This is starting to look a little familiar," Simon noted.

      "Mm, yes. Ever so nostalgic. Do feel free to not point your gun at me this time." Jeremy's other hand traced a slow circle around the suction cup. There was a hissing sound so soft as to almost be subliminal, and Simon could smell something burning.

      "What is that stuff?" Simon asked, glancing back at the stairs once.

      "Horrible," Jeremy said succinctly, wiggling the suction cup. After a moment it came loose, trailing strings of melted glass after it. Jeremy snapped them all with a jerk of his wrist, then paused. Simon could hear him inhale, a long, slow, controlled intake of breath, then hold the breath as his other hand darted downwards, through the hole, toward the diamond.

      In the end, it was just that easy. Jeremy's gloved fingers closed on the Morning Star and lifted it out of its setting, the diamond vanishing into his palm as his hand pulled back out. No alarms went off that Simon could hear. Both Jeremy and Simon let out their caught breaths, almost simultaneously. "Loud noise," Jeremy said in warning, and fitted the melted-out circle of glass back into the hole from where it had come. He did something—Simon could see his wrist work—and the glass fell free from the suction cup to fall into the case, crashing into the metal armature with a ringing sound and knocking the whole thing down inside the glass case.

      Simon couldn't help but wince at the clatter. "Shit," he said, hands flexing on the grip of his gun, "good thing Rupp's private army is off getting blown to pieces by Texas."

      "Terribly sorry," Jeremy said, his voice a bit strained. Slowly he curled back up, his stomach muscles bunching under the thin fabric of his t-shirt, the suction cup in his left hand straining for the ceiling. Finally it connected with a soft thop sound and Jeremy hissed in a quick relieved breath, hanging from the ceiling by his knees and one hand and cradling the Morning Star protectively against his chest.

      "Hurry the fuck up," Simon said, measurably more cheerful now that Jeremy actually had the diamond. "Don't just hang there, lazyass."

      "Do keep your pants on, Simon," Jeremy said, also sounding fairly pleased with himself. "Well. For now, at any rate—"

      The lights popped on.

      Simon automatically jerked back from the doorway, slamming back against the wall. His heart thumped in his chest. "Shit!" he hissed. "Jeremy, get out of there!"

      "Too late," Jeremy said, sounding oddly calm. "The alarms will go if I drop—"

      "Fuck the alarms! You're busted anyway! Just get out of there!"

      Somewhere on the other side of the room a door hissed open. Before he could even think Simon whirled around and back into the doorway, his gun stabbing out as he sought the sound. With all the lights on Jeremy's black-clad form was hideously obvious against the low white ceiling, kneeling upside-down with one hand still curled against his chest. Beyond him there was another door, and beyond that an expanse of pristine white room far, far larger than Simon had first suspected, and at the far end of the massive room, a tremendous metallic thing

      "Stop right there," a clipped voice said from beyond the open door, and there was the ominous click of a gun cocking. Simon hissed a breath through his teeth. Rupp. Almost definitely. From this angle Simon couldn't see him, but he'd know that voice anywhere.

      Simon leveled his own gun at the doorway anyway, squinting against the glare. "I'm afraid that's my line," he announced crisply. "I am a representative of the United States government, so all cliches fall under my jurisdiction. I'll demonstrate. Drop it, Rupp."

      Whoever it was beyond the doorway ignored him. "Archer," said the voice, sounding almost surprised. "When I hired you, I was assured by your impressive reputation that you were the sort of man who stayed bought. I see that I was wrong to believe your hype. Foolish of me."

      "Now that's hardly fair! I've always dealt honestly... with those who deal honestly with me," Jeremy said, still sounding far too calm, even amused. Somewhere in the back of his mind Simon wondered which one of them Jeremy was talking to.

      "Fair? Honest? I find that childish of you, considering your vocation. But that's hardly the issue right at this moment, is it?" Something white moved beyond the other doorway and Simon tracked it with his gun, gritting his teeth. If he could just get a damned clear shot— "It's not too late. Don't be any more of a fool than you already have been, Archer. Toss me the diamond and I'll forgive you this one little transgression."

      "Well, see, I've got a problem with that," Simon put in. "If he does that, I'll shoot him myself. So you can see the predicament he's in, I'm sure."

      Silence from beyond the doorway for a moment, then Rupp laughed, soft and scornful. "Such company you keep, Jeremy Archer. Four million dollars and you double-cross me for that. I'd had more faith in your business sense, if not in your intelligence." The bantering tone fell out of his voice, leaving it sharp and clear. "Throw me the diamond, Archer. Last chance."

      Simon started to say something, but Jeremy overrode him. "Well," he said wryly, letting the Morning Star roll up to glitter in his fingertips. Simon watched not the lure but the doorway beyond it, straining his eyes for a hint of that white. "I suppose this belongs to you now, doesn't it?" Jeremy asked, his voice clear and calm and pitched to carry. He let go of the suction pad and let himself fall upright, hanging by his knees from the ceiling, and at the apex of his arc he whipped the Star away from himself.

      Simon nearly fumbled it. The Morning Star clattered against the grip of his gun as he caught it awkwardly, two-handed, the muzzle of his gun tracking away from the doorway. "Shit!" Simon hissed. Before he could bring his gun back to bear Rupp's own gun cracked, a flat and deadly sound.

      Jeremy Archer was ripped off the ceiling by the impact of the bullet. He hit the opposite wall, hard enough to jar his goggles loose, and crashed to the floor with none of his usual grace. As soon as he hit the tripwired floor every alarm in the place went off, and Simon shouted "Archer! Shit, Jeremy!" over the sudden cacophony and dashed into the room, instinct momentarily winning out over his better judgment.

       He skidded to a halt in front of the fallen thief and whipped around, finally, finally able to get a clear shot down the hallway where Rupp had been not a second ago. There was no sign of the man; he'd probably bolted the moment he shot. For five seconds longer Simon stood over the fallen Jeremy, the muzzle of his gun tracing a slow, steady arc from one end of the room to the other. No Rupp. No guards. Nothing. Dimly, under the cacophony of the alarms, Simon could hear Jeremy panting for breath; the sound meant he was still alive, which was about the only halfway decent thing that had happened to Simon in the last three minutes. Steeling himself for anything, Simon turned around.

      Jeremy was crunched up in a graceless little huddle against the far wall, his teeth gritted and his eyes shut tight. Both gloved hands were clamped tight over his side a few inches over his hip. Dark blood welled sluggishly up between his fingers. "Shit," Simon hissed, dropping to his knees and reaching for Jeremy, then and only then realizing that he still had his own gun in one hand and the Morning Star in the other. He wavered, the hand holding the Morning Star hovering helplessly a few inches over Jeremy's clutching hands, his eyes darting from the blood to Jeremy's agonized face and back. "Shit!" he said again, dropping his gun onto the floor by Jeremy's hip and grabbing for his radio instead.

      A flash of white from over by the bank of computers that divided the room in half caught Simon's eye, and instinctively he dropped the radio and lunged for his gun—too late. Rupp erupted from his hiding place behind the console, his ugly little snubnosed pistol pointed unerringly at Simon's eye. Simon jerked to a halt, his fingers inches from the butt of his own gun. Rupp smiled and bore down on the two of them, Jeremy huddled against the wall, Simon crouching off guard by his side.

      "Your little friend just might survive if he gets immediate medical attention," Conrad Rupp said, nodding at Jeremy and almost smiling. He extended his free hand toward Simon, gesturing peremptorily. "Give me the Star and tell your men to retreat, and I'll let you take him out of here."

      "You do such a thing," Jeremy panted, "and I'll never forgive—" His foot lashed out, heel thudding unerringly into Rupp's knee. Behind his little wire-rimmed glasses Rupp's eyes went wide and startled, and he staggered, the gun jerking away from Simon for a fraction of a second.

      Simon hit the floor, rolling away from Jeremy, and gained his feet right beside Rupp. No time to go for his gun—his left hand whipped up, slamming the Morning Star as hard as he could into the side of Rupp's head. The diamond's faceted edge scored a long gash in Rupp's cheek, knocking his glasses askew, and Simon drove the heel of his other hand into Rupp's pistol, knocking it from his hands. It went clattering across the floor and slid under one of the computers. Rupp stumbled back, clapping both hands to his face as blood cascaded out of the long cut, and he darted a glare of pure malevolence at Simon before wheeling and running out the door he'd come in through.

      "This is Templar!" Simon bellowed into his radio, dropping to one knee beside Jeremy again and putting his hand on Jeremy's chest to keep him still. The Morning Star pressed against Jeremy's t-shirt, over his heart. "Shadow is down, repeat, Shadow is down! I have the Star! Team Two, get your asses down here pronto! Disable anything that moves between you and me! Specs, Specs Two, I need you! Repeat, this is Templar, everyone converge on my location now!"

      "Copy, Templar!" Nate said. "On our way!"

      "On our way, Templar!" Sandra echoed. "We're in Warehouse Ten but we are en route!"

      "Springheel," Rich snapped, even as the van started up in the background. "Look for a down staircase in Ten. It should lead into the same room Templar's in. Everything's fucking connected, he dug out the entire middle of the compound!"

      "Got it," Sandra said. "Staircase. We're coming!"

      Simon stuffed the radio back in his jacket and grabbed his gun again. "Jeremy," he said, and then stopped.

      "Go," Jeremy said, his eyes closed to slits.

      "Fuck that," Simon said with alacrity, his hand spreading out over Jeremy's chest. "I've got the Star, that's all I came for. He's out of luck without it. Just hold on, we'll get you out of here."

      A third door, on the far end of the long white room, suddenly dented inwards. Simon's head and his gun both jerked up. A second dent appeared, then a third, and then the door more or less burst open and Sandra's team spilled into the room. Simon heaved out a relieved breath and pointed his gun elsewhere.

      "Christ," Johnny said, shifting his grip on his assault rifle and spitting out his toothpick. "That there's a satellite."

      "Sure is," Mike said, his voice alive with adrenalin and hilarity. "That or a VW Bug what had a really bad day!"

      "Templar!" Sandra cried, skirting the monstrous silver thing at the far end of the room and running toward him. "How bad is it?"

      "Bad," Simon said shortly, tossing the Star at her. "Hold on to that for me, will you, Spring?"

      Sandra caught the diamond reflexively, blinked at it, and then shrugged and thumbed it into her cleavage. Behind her, Mike whistled a low sound of appreciation. "What's the plan, Templar?" Sandra asked, hunkering down next to Jeremy and hissing at his wound. "Honda!" she snapped, whirling on Mike. "Give me your shirt."

      "Whoo, she-devil, this ain't the time," Mike said, but he was already pulling off his shirt while he said it.

      "Specs and Specs Two get the van down here, we load Shadow in, and we get the fuck out of Dodge," Simon said, training his gun on the door that Rupp had both entered and left through, just in case. "Anyone got any problems with that?"

      "Shit no," said Johnny, aiming his own, much larger gun at the same door.

      Sandra grabbed Mike's shirt from him, wadded it up, and peeled Jeremy's hands away from the wound. Simon spared a glance at the bullet hole, ragged and pulsing and deep and a dark meaty red against the black of Jeremy's t-shirt, and he winced. Sandra just stuffed the shirt against it, ignoring Jeremy's hiss of pain. "Hold it there, as tight as you can," she instructed Jeremy. "It'll hurt like fuck but deal."

      "Yes ma'am," Jeremy said, his voice faint. "Dealing." His bloody hands closed on the shirt, pressing it to his hip, and he hissed again. Blood rapidly soaked through the fabric.

      "Aw, man," Mike said. "Why you gotta use my shirt, Spring?"

      "Because I'm not about to take mine off in front of you," Sandra snapped.

      "Not the time, kids," Simon started to say, and then every computer in the room lit up, the blaring alarms strangling and dying just in time to be replaced by the oddly ominous sound of ten computers all playing their cheery boot-up sound in choral unison. Simon whipped around, the muzzle of his gun menacing a monitor that was not in the least impressed. Deep within the belly of the satellite a monstrous thing coughed sullenly to life, filling the room with a deep rumble. Smoke eddied out.

      A window opened on one of the two largest monitors, filled with large green numbers. 00:10:00:00, it said. A beat later the other monitor developed an identical window, except this one said 00:12:00:00. The rumble increased just a little, like a car's engine revving, and both countdowns started to whirl, seconds and hundredths of seconds slipping away.

      "Shit," Johnny said, eyeing the monitors. "That ain't good."

      Simon spared a glance for the huge bay doors built into the ceiling. They remained tightly closed. The little eddies of smoke were starting to gather under them, seeking a way out. It didn't take him but a moment to realize what Rupp intended. "Fuck!" he snarled, leaping to his feet. "Springheel, Honda, Texas, stay here, hold the room! When Specs and Specs Two get here, make them turn that thing off or at least open the ceiling to let it out!"

      "That thing explodes in here—" Mike said, all his amusement leaching away.

      "—bye-bye us," Johnny finished for him. "Bye-bye Tahoe if those booster rockets still got warheads on 'em."

      "Got it," Sandra told Simon. "Where are you going?"

      "After Rupp," Simon said, his eyes going flat and deadly. "He started this. He can stop it."

      Sandra nodded shortly. All she said was "Be careful, boss."

      "You too," Simon said, flicking the safety off his gun. "Stay alive, Shadow. That's an order."

      "Yes, sir," Jeremy said weakly, but Simon was already gone.