Part Two, COMPROMISE
It was almost eleven in the morning by the time Simon slammed open the door to the saferoom. He barely had time to throw up his hand before a hurtling paperweight smacked into it, accompanied by a yelp of "Shit! Sorry, Templar!" from Mike. Mike promptly punched Johnny's shoulder. "Asshole, you were supposed to catch that!"
Johnny shrugged. "Ducking's easier."
Simon hefted the ersatz missile in his hand for a moment, considering it, then whipped halfway around and rifled the paperweight as hard as he could against the wall. It did not so much shatter as it did explode, shards of glass ringing as they struck the floor. Everybody in the room stopped dead.
"Well! I feel better now," Simon said brightly, dusting off his hands.
"Templar?" Nate eventually squeaked.
Before Simon could so much as open his mouth to explain, someone on Team Hall (their unfortunate next-door neighbors) promptly pounded on the wall, interrupting the impending announcement. "Hey! Templar's Asshole Squad! Keep it the fuck down, some of us are trying to work over here!"
"Sorry!" Simon bellowed, and whoever it was shut up. Simon directed an exasperated glare in the direction of Team Hall and then let the door to the saferoom slam closed under its own weight to punctuate his general displeasure. "Anyway, as I was saying, I," Simon said, crushing a bit of glass with the toe of his sneaker, "have been Upstairs." He was careful to pronounce the capital 'U'. Everybody else in the room cringed. "Upstairs is not happy," Simon went on. "To put it delicately. Apparently the Mornings decided that the theft could not possibly be their fault, despite the fact that they completely ignored us when we begged them to keep the Morning Star, oh, say, in the vault where it belongs, and have been tossing lawyers at us to see if any of them stick."
"Lawyers," Johnny said. "Damned sticky."
"And just to add insult to injury, Art Theft is positively pissing itself with glee over its unprecedented opportunity to point at us and laugh and say 'I told you so'. Art Theft. We," Simon said, eyeing each of his team members in turn, "are being laughed at by Art Theft." Nobody said anything, although Johnny made a face like he'd just sucked on a lemon. "So," Simon went on, "today we are the building's buttboys"
"Nothing new for Men's Room Johnny," Mike put in, and Johnny neatly kicked Mike's feet right out from under him. Mike went crashing to the floor with a yelp.
"and we've got until Friday to redeem ourselves or they're pulling us off the Rupp case entirely and giving it to Team Firefly," Simon said, talking right over the mayhem. That was enough to make Mike let go of Johnny's ankle, and Sandra poked her head out of Simon's door-less office just to stare at him.
"Firefly?" Nate said in disbelief. "Firefly couldn't find New Mexico if they were airlifted to Santa Fe. They're bruisers!"
"Man, I hate those bruiser types," Mike said from his seat on the floor, driving the heel of his hand into the inside of Johnny's knee. Johnny made a strangled little "Hrgh!" sound and kicked him, mostly by reflex.
Simon cleared his throat. Everyone fell silent again. The only noise in the room was Rich's machine-gun-fire typing. "Sorry to interrupt recess, kids, but I think I'm going to have to suggest that we get back to class," Simon said, his voice incongruously cheerful. Mike scrambled for his chair. "Hey, thanks for your cooperation. Rich, how's the report on the van coming?"
"I'll have it for you before lunch, Simon," Rich said, stopping to grab a quick sip of coffee before going back to his furious typing.
"Nate? Lab reports?"
"They said tomorrow."
"Go after lunch and ask them again, and play really dumb until they give in and cough up. You feel like you need to light a couple of them on fire, I got your back."
"Dumb, tenacious, fire. It must be Tuesday. Got it, Templar."
"Where's today's toilet paper? Who brought it in?"
Rich raised his hand, still typing with the other. "On your desk, to be ignored at your convenience."
"Great!" Simon clapped his hands together. "Anything I need to know?" No one said anything. "Let's all pretend we're worth what they pay us. I'll be in my office. Scream if you need me." Dismissing them all with an absent wave, Simon headed into his office. Behind him there was a fleshy thudding sound and a strangled yelp that sounded like Mike, both of which Simon ignored with the ease of long practice.
A pile of papers sat in the big middle of his desk. Half of them were uselesshe knew this without even having to lookanother quarter of them were 'sign-and-send-on's, and maybe two or three things were actually worth looking at. Slinging himself into his desk chair Simon picked up the topmost folder and flicked it open, to discover his preliminary report of Saturday's fiasco, copiously red-penned. "Fuuuck," he said, rolling his eyes, and grabbed the arms of his desk chair, preparing to haul himself back upright. "Need coffee for this mess"
He stopped, half in and half out of his chair. Nate was standing diffidently in the doorway to his office, Simon's coffee mug clutched in both hands. "Brought you coffee," Nate offered, inching in.
"My man!" Simon sighed, letting himself thud back into his chair. "So, is this a peace offering or are you trying to soften me up before you dump more bad news on me?"
"Eh, half a dozen of one..." Nate put the coffee mug down and fidgeted for a moment, then abruptly sat in the other chair. "They sent me to deliver the coffee because they figured you wouldn't hurt me. Well. As much."
Simon grabbed the mug and sank his face into it, gratefully inhaling coffee vapors. "Nah, it's one of my rules. It's bad luck to hurt the team mascot."
"I was kinda counting on that, yeah." Nate hesitated, then said, "You okay, boss?"
"Oh yeah, I'm good." Simon blew the steam off his coffee, then took a tentative sip. "Upstairs has been unhappy with me before."
"Yeah." Nate glanced over his shoulder like he was thinking about bolting. "It's just... Templar, these last couple of days, you've been..."
"A cast-iron son-of-a-bitch?"
"...well, I was going to say 'kind of short-tempered', but I can go with that if you want."
"Yeah." Simon put his coffee down and started sorting absently through the stack of papers in front of him, dropping every second one into the trashcan. "Jesus, can you blame me? No one's pulled one over on the team like this since" He stopped abruptly, glanced up at the suddenly stricken Nate, and shook his head. "sorry, Nate. But this team is the best and I'm not used to getting assfucked like this."
"Least..." Nate swallowed and looked down at his fingers, knotted in his lap. "Least no one got hurt this time."
Simon stopped, put down the folder he was currently sneering at, and looked at Nate. "No," he said carefully. "No one got hurt this time, and I'm grateful for that. Okay?" After a moment Nate nodded, but he didn't look up. Simon repressed a sigh and started going through the pile of papers again. "But this guy played us all for suckers and he's out there somewhere laughing at us, and I swear to God if I ever see him again I'm going to... call... him... call him holy shit!"
Nate's head jerked up. Simon had a departmental pink memo slip in his hand and was staring at it like it had just stripped off all its clothes and started to shimmy. "What?" Nate said after a moment, uncertainly.
"He called me," Simon breathed, his eyes widening. "He called me. Jeremy fucking Archer called the front desk and left me a messageNate! Christ, get the phone-tracing gear now!"
Nate blinked twice and then bolted out of his chair, which went spinning back to bang against the wall. Out in the main room Mike called a question and Nate answered, and then suddenly there was a babble of excited voices and some crashing noises as Nate went slamming into the equipment closet. Simon had already tuned it out, staring at the pink slip. 'Jeremy Archer', 'wants you to call', and a phone number. A local phone number. "Archer," Simon breathed, and the pink slip crumpled in his fist as a fierce predatory joy bloomed in his chest.
"Scoot back! I need that space" Nate was saying outside, and there was a screech as someone's chair got pushed back. Simon shoved himself out of his chair and almost ran back into the main room, face-first into a maelstrom of questions.
"People!" he bellowed over the din, and they all more or less quieted down, except for Nate, who was banging equipment around with an enthusiasm that bordered on catastrophically expensive. "Yes, he called and left a number. No, I don't know why. Maybe he just wants to gloat, but I don't care, as long as it keeps him on the line. Here's how this is going to go down. We'll be taping this call, and Nate will be running the trace. Mike, go warm up your car and pull up to the side entrance" Mike started to protest, but Simon cut him off with a chop of his hand. "and you take Johnny with you. Leave a door open. The second we get a location on him, Sandra's going to come running with that information while I keep him on the line, and you all break the laws of physics to get there, you hear me? I'm not waiting for the cops on this one. You three come back with Archer in cuffs and I'll kiss you all right on the lips, swear to God."
"Oh, Simon honey! I always knew you cared!" Mike warbled, his eyes huge and wobbly. Simon faked a swing at him and Mike snickered and warded him off.
"Rich, I'm going to need quiet. Think you can finish up the van report later?"
Rich shoved his glasses up and nodded. "I'm good, Templar. Want me to stay here? Can I help?" Without waiting for an answer he swiveled to look at Nate. "Nate! Toss!"
Nate threw a handful of black cables at Rich, who caught about half of them and scrambled to pick up the rest, stretching the whole mess across the saferoom floor to the phone by the door. The poor direct line phone had its bottom panel yanked off a second later and Rich was plugging cables into it while Nate scooted under his own computer and hooked another set of cables into there. The actual hardware was left stranded in the middle of the floor, throwing cables off in every direction, and Mike had to pick his way through to get to the door. "Jesus, it looks like tentacle porn in here," Mike said. "Damn phone's getting more action than I've seen in a year"
"Why are you still here?!" Simon said, rounding on him. "Move!"
"Whoa shit we're gone, chief! Sixty seconds, swear to God!" Mike burst out the door with Johnny hard on his heels, their running footsteps fading fast. Sandra kicked off her shoes and grabbed them, then went to stand in the doorway, nearly bouncing on her bare toes.
"Okay!" Nate said, dropping into his computer chair. "Let me just sign in and we're good to go, Templar." Simon nodded and found a place to pace in between the wires, burning off some of the adrenalin. Rich withdrew to his lair in the corner, his eyes owlish behind his glasses, and fell silent, watching Nate. Windows popped up on Nate's computer, one after the other, and Nate typed something into each one before shoving up his own glasses and nodding excitedly. "We're online, Templar. Call when ready."
Simon huffed out his breath, then took another one and held it. Game on, he thought, and just like that, he was calm. Yet another window blinked into existence on Nate's computer when Simon picked up the receiver, and Nate caught his own breath and laid his fingers gently on the keyboard, ready. Simon punched in the number. Behind him, green numbers glowed on Nate's screen.
The phone clicked gently in his ear. Nate made a faint whuffing sound, his eyes going wide, and started counting on his fingers as the clicking went on; after seven clicks the phone abruptly started to ring and Simon's heart thudded once in his chest before subsiding again. Nate scowled furiously at his computer. Simon didn't notice.
On the second ring the phone was picked up. "Answering service," a pleasantly impersonal voice said. Female. American. Definitely not Archer. Definitely not what Simon had been expecting. Simon's head jerked back, and for a single surprised moment he failed to say anything at all.
"I'm trying to reach Jeremy Archer?" he eventually managed to say, and suddenly he was back in the game. "He left me a message."
"Yes, sir, I can take that message for you."
Simon closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Fine. Thank you. Tell him to call Simon Drake at this number" he read off the number on the direct line's nameplate "as soon as possible. Immediately would be nice. Already would have been nicer."
"Yes, sir." There was a soft sound of typing in the background. "I'll pass that message along to him as soon as I can."
"Thank you." Simon glanced over his shoulder at Nate, who shrugged and nodded. Simon hung up the phone and eyed Nate. "Well?"
"Did you hear the clicking? Before the phone started ringing?" Nate asked. "Relays. I counted at least eight. I can trace that number he left us but it'll just lead us to a relay number in town. Tracing it out from there will be a bitch, and sounds like it'll just lead us to his answering service or whatever..."
"I'll try again when he calls back, Templar. Maybe he'll slip."
"Good. And hey, at least we'll have some recordings. Sandra, go tell Mike and Johnny to stand down"
The phone rang. Everyone in the room jumped, and Nate actually squeaked.
"or not," Simon said, and grabbed for the receiver. Another window popped up on Nate's computer and Nate whipped back around, hunching over the keyboard. "Drake," Simon said, hard-pressed to keep the excitement out of his voice.
"Simon," said a male voice on the other end. He sounded amused and English and naggingly familiar, and Simon closed his eyes. "I rather thought you'd have called back earlier than this."
"What can I say? I just got your message a few minutes ago." Adrenalin bubbled through Simon like boiling water. He ignored it, although his free hand kept snapping open and closed. "And I don't remember giving you permission to use my first name."
"Mm. I do apologize, Mr. Drake."
"Save it," Simon said. "What do you want, Archer?" Behind him Nate made a tiny excited sound, and the Tentacle Beast in the center of the room started whirring, and Simon mouthed "Yes" and pumped his fist in the air, once.
"Straight and to the point! Oh, how I love dealing with professionals. So refreshing." Jeremy laughed softly in his ear. "Well. Let us just say that I've had a change of heart."
"All right. You've had a change of heart," Simon said, almost giddy now. "Now will you explain just what the hell you mean by that?"
"Perhaps. I think we might benefit from a meeting, Mr. Drake."
"Oh? Why's that? You want to gloat?"
"Mr. Drake! I do not gloat. It's unprofessional."
"Right. Sure. I believe you. So if that's not it: why?"
"Let's just say..." Jeremy's voice trailed off. When he spoke again, he sounded both more and less businesslike, if such a thing was even humanly possible. The words were utterly business, a sort of business that Simon was all too familiar with, that 'I admit to nothing, you can't prove anything, but maybe we could make a deal, copper' sort; the tone, however, was low andmocking? possiblyand put Simon in mind of anything but business. "Let's just say," Jeremy nearly purred, enunciating every consonant to the point that it was almost a singsong, "that I feel ever so bad and wish to return what I've stolen."
It took Simon a moment. Hung up on trying to decode what Jeremy's tone was saying, he nearly missed what the words meant. Then he got it, and he stiffened like someone had jammed a gun into his back. Simon grabbed the receiver in both hands. "You still have the diamond?" he demanded, his voice gone hoarse with excitement despite his best effort to give nothing away. "You haven't turned it over to Rupp yet?" Nate promptly dropped his pen and Sandra sucked in a breath.
"Well, if my esteemed employer was so indiscreet as to inflict the FBI on me... which is not to say that it wasn't a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Drake. Not at all." Jeremy paused, and dimly, in the background, Simon could hear the rush of traffic and the ratchet-and-click of a cigarette lighter. "At any rate, to answer your question, yes, I still have it, but if you want it back... well. That's business, and as such requires some delicate negotiation."
"Fine. I can negotiate with the best of 'em. I took a class. Tell me what you want." Simon made a frantic hurry-up gesture at Nate.
"Mm. No. I'm afraid it won't be that easy, Simon. I'll be at the Lincoln Memorial at noon. Come alone. Don't be late." The phone clicked in Simon's ear. Behind him the machinery stopped whirring with a soft mechanical groan, and Nate threw up his hands in defeat.
Simon slammed the receiver back into its cradle and rounded on Nate. "Well?"
"Pay phone, Templar, somewhere near J Street. I got it down to about a three-block radius, but he'll be long gone by the time we can check the area."
"Yeah." Simon huffed out a long breath and thumped his fist against the wall, almost gently. "Right! Sandra, go get Mike and Johnny, tell 'em it's off. Rich, go steal someone else's van and gear. Nate, bust out the toys. It seems I've got a date!"
"In half an hour," Rich added as Sandra left. "Bet he did that on purpose. No time for us to plan much."
"No time to go shopping, then," Simon said. "What am I going to wear?"
"Jesus, we're really going to do it," Mike exulted, slamming back into the saferoom with Sandra on his heels. "We've actually got another chance to nail this sonofabitch"
"Shh!" Nate hissed, popping out of the equipment closet like a jack-in-the-box and jerking his head in the direction of Simon's office. "Upstairs." Mike strangled on a yelp and shut up.
Simon was in his office, pacing. He was clutching the interoffice phone with both hands, and his knuckles were white. "Uh huh," he said, voice thrumming with energy, and "Uh huh..." again a moment later. "Uh huh."
Johnny wandered back in a minute later, took in Simon on the phone with a single glance, and didn't say a word. Picking his way over to the coffeemaker he fetched himself a cup, then more or less fell into his chair and closed his eyes.
The heavy droning voice on the other end of the line said something, and Simon stopped pacing, squeezed his eyes shut, and exhaled unevenly. "All right. Yes sir, I understand," he said, his voice a relieved rush.
Rich came back, triumphantly bearing a set of car keys in one hand. He glanced at Simon's office. "Upstairs?"
"Upstairs," confirmed Mike.
"Yeah," said Nate.
Rich whistled, low and sliding, and crept into the room, edging around the Tentacle Beast.
"Whose van did you get?" Nate asked under his breath.
"Hall's." Rich spun the ring of keys on his finger, making them jingle. "Bobcat owes me big-time for covering his ass on their little computer fiasco last month."
"Hall's?" Nate squeaked, loud enough to make Sandra shush him. He flushed pink and lowered his voice. "Man, Rich, they're already pretty permanently pissed at us, are you sure that's a good idea?"
Rich snorted. "What's going to happen? It's just a routine surveil-and-record."
"Oh, Jesus," Mike put in. "Don't ever say things like that, Specs Two."
"Asking for it," Johnny added.
Rich rolled his eyes. "You and your superstitious crap."
"This from the guy who has to knock on the wall before he turns on his computer in the morning," Mike told Sandra.
"I'm not" Rich spluttered, his voice rising even as his face went pink. "It's called 'grounding myself', asshole!"
"Why, your momma not ground you enough when you were a boy?"
"Shh!" Sandra insisted, kicking Mike's ankle. Mike yelped, loud enough to make Simon lean out of his office and slash a finger across his throat: cut it out! The team subsided into guilty silence, Rich and Sandra glaring at Mike, Nate gingerly sorting through a box of cables, Johnny apparently asleep in his chair. A minute later Simon hung up the phone with a bang and strode out into the main room again, shoving a hand through his hair. "All right! Upstairs has been informed. We've got the go-ahead. They're leaving the details up to my discretion."
"Those fools," Mike intoned, still rubbing his ankle.
"So what's the verdict, Simon?" Sandra said with a quick glare at Mike. "How are we going to do this?"
Simon considered for a moment, closing his eyes and thumping his fist against his forehead. Finally, with a rush, like he knew what was coming, he said, "We're going to cut a deal."
Immediately half the team groaned. "Templar, come on, the guy gassed you, and we're not going to take him down?" Rich demanded, scowling furiously. "I say we take him out. He's scum, and he deserves to be in jail."
"And we deserve to be the ones who put him there," Mike added, nodding at Rich. Johnny grunted in agreement.
"I agree with you," Simon said, yanking out his chair and sitting down. "But we're going to cut a deal."
"Why?" Mike's hands bunched into fists, but his eyes were nothing short of plaintive. The rest of them more or less fell into their seats.
"Our goal here is to stop Rupp. Not catch us a thief, no matter what Art Theft thinks. There's no telling what kind of contingency plans Archer's made. If we go swarming out there and jump him, sure, we might get a conviction out of it, but there's every chance that Rupp will get the Star anyway." Simon stopped and knocked his knuckles against the tabletop. "So we deal, at least until we get our hands on the diamond. He'll deal. He's a professional." Simon leaned on the last word, laughing.
"Where I come from, we call 'em 'whores'," Johnny offered, cracking one eye open.
Fifteen minutes later Simon was sitting in the back of a nondescript white van half a block from the Lincoln Memorial, his arms akimbo and his shirt pulled up, letting Nate tape a tiny flat mike to his chest. "You're sure about this?" he asked, craning his head down to watch Nate work. "I don't want a repeat of that feedback thing from last time."
Nate looked injured, even as he ripped another long piece of white medical tape off with his teeth. "Won't ever happen again, chief. I swear. I fixed that little glitch months ago."
"Yeah? Tell that to Mike, he's the one whohey, whoa, too tight, watch where you're putting that tape. If Sandra's cleavage didn't impress Archer, mine sure won't."
"Sorry, Templar." Nate yanked the tape back up. Simon yelped. Nate flushed, apologized again, and patted the tape down gingerly. "Okay, that should do it," he said, dropping the roll of tape back into his toolkit. "Just make sure your shirt stays kind of loose. And don't let him touch your chest."
Simon snorted and rolled his shoulders, testing the tape. It stayed where it belonged. "That shouldn't be a problem. Rich? How's it sounding?"
Rich flashed him a thumbs-up and adjusted his headphones. "Sounds good. You better hurry or you'll be late for your date."
"You know what?" Simon asked, yanking his shirt back down and tucking it back into his jeans. "I'm gonna be real sorry I ever called it that. Where's my jacket?" Rich tossed Simon his bomber jacket and Simon shrugged into it, then held out both hands and looked at his techs inquiringly. "Well?"
"Tug your shirttail out a little, loosen the shirt," Rich said. Simon did so. Rich nodded.
"You look good," Nate added, shoving his glasses up. "Pity we didn't have time for you to pick up some flowers."
"Shut up, Specs," Simon said, and aimed a ruffle at Nate's hair before he threw open the van's back doors and slid out. "Five minutes to showtime, folks. Let's play some cops and robbers."
"Got it, Templar."
"Remember to compliment him on his outfit!" Nate added, and yanked the van doors shut before Simon could react.
"Funny, funny man," Simon muttered under his breath, trusting in the microphone on his chest to carry his words, and then set out for the Memorial at a brisk jog.
The first time that Simon had seen the Lincoln Memorial, on a particularly poorly supervised high-school field trip, he'd been stunned into silence by the place. Something about the the immense statue and the massive white marble chamber had awed him, like he was simultaneously very small and an indispensable part of the best country on Earth. The rest of that field trip had degenerated into half-hearted (and failed) attempts to buy beer and get into the pants of one of his more well-endowed classmatessome of Simon's better memories of high school, actuallybut he'd never forgotten that first minute within the white columns.
He'd been here twenty times since then and it still never failed to get to him, just a little.
By the time he reached the foot of the broad marble steps he was more or less calm, his anticipation well under control. It was almost noon exactly; most of the tourists were off having lunch or jacking off or whatever it was they did when they weren't obstructing traffic, the morning school groups were all done, and the afternoon school groups wouldn't show up for an hour yet. Exactly what he'd expected from the middle of a spring weekday, and it suited him just fine.
The Memorial wasn't exactly deserted, though. A few people stood here and there on the steps, most of them guards, who were really all but useless. For all that Simon liked the place he also knew it was a nightmare from a security standpoint. There was no way to secure the area, no way to subtly clear out the crowds, no way to man all the exits from the broad and open building. Maybe if he had a team of a hundred agents and two hours to deploy them, he could have worked something out; as it was he had about a minute left and he was on his own. Everything was working to Archer's advantage without quite putting Simon at a disadvantage. Mentally, Simon scored him a couple of points for the shrewd move.
"I love my job," Simon said for no particular reason, loping up the steps.
He pulled up short just inside the row of columns, letting the expected rush of awe wash over him and dissipate before bringing his mind back to the business at hand. The Lincoln Memorial. Christ. Archer won another couple of points for sheer Hollywood style, too. "Feel like I'm in a goddamned spy movie," Simon said under his breath as he stepped in and started looking around. "Oh. Wait. I live in a goddamned spy movie. Where are you, Archer" He rounded the corner of the massive statue, and his sentence broke off there.
A familiar slender figure dressed all in black lounged decoratively not twenty feet away, tucked neatly into the corner formed by the back wall and Lincoln's massive seat, his back protected by a couple of feet of solid stone on two sides. Nicely defensible spot. Impossible to sneak up on him without crawling over Mr. Lincoln. Simon considered doing just that for a moment, just to be contrary, before dismissing it as uselessly dramatic. (Besides, he thought, it would probably scrape the microphone loose.) Instead he considered the stark black-leather-on-white-marble tableaucarefully staged, he had absolutely no doubtgave Archer another point for shrewdness and two for style, and headed in.
Jeremy Archer saw him coming long before he got there, which was almost certainly the point. The thief smiled a thin little smile and reached up to tilt his sunglasses down, eyeing Simon over the top of themand also, Simon couldn't help but note, serving as a convenient excuse to bring his right hand up. Simon's eyes flickered to the inside of Jeremy's loaded right wrist for a moment, and when he looked back, that thin little smile was ever so slightly wider. The corner of Simon's mouth twitched helplessly upwards despite everything and he turned his hands palm outwards, showing that they were empty. Jeremy nodded slightly and let his hand drop again.
Three more points for style. Christ. Simon resisted the momentary urge to whistle in appreciation. "So here we are," he said instead, pitching his voice low so that it wouldn't echo. He stopped a good three feet away and leaned casually against Lincoln's chair, crossing his arms over his chest.
"Here we are," Jeremy echoed. "Terribly touristy of me, I admit it, but I am just visiting..."
"Nah, it's great," Simon said, glancing up over his shoulder at Abe. "Personally, I prefer the Jefferson Memorial, but I've always been a fan of the Revolutionary War." Jeremy laughed softly, and Simon let a smile twitch across his face and vanish before he got down to business. "So."
"So," Jeremy said, and like warped mirror images of each other they glanced around, making sure no one was close by. A stray tourist wandered by, too intent on the inscription over Lincoln's head to pay them much heed, and then they were alone. By the time Simon turned to look at Jeremy again Jeremy was studying his face like he had something vitally important written on his cheek.
Simon suppressed a twitch of nerves. "So what do you want?" he asked, easing a step closer. They were less than two feet apart now, close enough that he was sure he could grab Archer by the throat if he had tohalf a second before he got gassed again, of course. Still, it was a reasonably pleasant thought, and Simon enjoyed it while it lasted.
Jeremy was silent for a moment. His eyes flickered down to where Simon's arms were crossed, then back up, ticking over the side of Simon's throat before meeting Simon's own eyes again. "The last time we met, you suggested that my employer had something in mind for the Star. Judging from your reaction, he didn't mean to put it in a display case and admire its beauty."
"You could say that."
"Care to explain?"
Simon looked away and rubbed his chin, pretending to think about it. "Well. I guess I could go telling you all kinds of classified information and get myself fired, but I'm not exactly fond of that idea. For some reason."
"Ah. Pity." Jeremy straightened up, reaching up to flick his sunglasses back into place and render his expression opaque. "Well, it's been quite nice to see your handsome face again, but I really must be going"
Simon reached out and grabbed Jeremy's arm before the thief could do more than feign leaving. "Before I tell you anything, tell me this: do you still have the Star? Straight answer."
"Not on me, just in case you were thinking about tackling and strip-searching me. But I haven't given it over to my employer, either." Jeremy stopped and favored Simon with a lazy little smile, spreading his hands as wide as he could with Simon's hand clamped onto his upper arm. "And if you'd still like to tackle and strip-search me, by all means, be my guest."
Simon snorted and declined to rise to the bait. "But it's in a secure place?"
"No, of course not, I threw it in a trash bin outside the Smithsonianwhat do you take me for, Simon? Yes, it's quite secure." Jeremy tugged ever so lightly against Simon's grip on his arm. "And you're rumpling my sleeve."
Simon didn't let go. "I'll pay for your drycleaning."
"Chivalrous of you."
"Call it part of your extortion. So what are your demands?"
"I don't have any demands quite yet." Jeremy crossed his arms, one hand falling to lay casually half-atop Simon's. Simon resisted the urge to roll his eyes and didn't let go. "Tell me what you think my employer intends to do with the stone and I'll decide whether to ransom it back to you or not."
Simon glanced around again, purely for show this time. "Have you ever heard of the tactical satellite system MORNINGSTAR?" Simon asked, his voice dropping to a low rumble. Jeremy leaned in to hear him, so close that Simon could feel the warmth of him against his cheek. "Smallish fuss in Congress about three years ago?"
Jeremy tilted his head to the side. "Can't say that I have," he murmured.
"It's a satellite-based fission-powered laser system. Very powerful and incredibly precise. The plans boasted of being able to fire on moving targets less than a foot in diameter, from all the way up in Earth's orbit. A laser sniper rifle, basically. Not exactly the sort of thing that particular administration wanted to be associated with, so the plans were shelvedbut a year or so ago we got word that a certain someone had gotten hold of a copy of the plans. The people responsible for that little slipup have been, ah, dealt with, and we've been trying to cockblock that certain someone ever since." Simon halted, eyed Jeremy, and went on, deliberately leaning on every word. "Not that it should have mattered in the first place. The plans for the thing called for a focusing lens that was almost impossible to get: a diamond of exact and highly unusual size and cut."
Silence fell. Jeremy's expression was unreadable, his eyes still hidden. Finally he sighed softly and looked down, then back up at Simon, his smile wry. "So. Would you care for a cup of coffee, Simon? I prefer to do all my most sensitive negotiations over coffee."
"Is that a 'yes, I'll ransom the diamond back to you'?" Simon asked.
"Let's call it an 'I'm thinking about it'." Jeremy patted Simon's hand and let his hands drop. "I suppose you'd best treat me very nicely until I decide."
Simon blew out a breath, determined not to be relieved quite yet. "In that case, hell, I'll even spring for the coffee. Unless you're some kind of damned tea-drinking Englishman, in which case you can buy your own dirty leafy water."
"Drink tea in America?" Jeremy's eyebrow twitched upwards in disbelief. "I'm not that sort of masochist. Coffee, at least, has the benefit of being horrible the world over, so it doesn't matter where you get it."
Simon eyed him narrowly. "And to think I was almost not hating you."
Jeremy blinked, feigning confusion. "Goodness. Did I say something wrong?"
"Nothing." Simon caught himself almost enjoying this and made himself back off. "Never mind."
"Well, then, this would be me, never minding." With a faint smile, Jeremy snapped his captured arm inwards and brushed the other arm straight down along it, and knocked Simon's hand off his sleeve with something like trained ease. "Shall we go? I'm certain there's some sort of coffee place within spitting distance of here."
Simon flexed his dispossessed hand and made a mental note: next time, hold on tightly. "Sure. Sure. There's a Starbucks on damned near every corner."
"I love America," Jeremy said, moving past him.
"One million dollars," Jeremy said fifteen minutes later, calm as you please, and even though he'd been fearing worse Simon had to exhale hard through his nose to keep from coughing out his mouthful of coffee.
A three-minute walk, with Jeremy keeping up a light and idle stream of chatter that didn't really require much from Simon beyond the occasional snort or shrug, had indeed brought them to a Starbucks. It was well-lit, cheerful, and nearly deserted, but by mutual unspoken agreement they'd chosen a tiny booth off in one corner, as far away from both the counter and the front door as they could possibly get. Simon was, belatedly, very glad about that, despite the fact that they were jammed so closely together that one of Jeremy's knees was pressed between his. "Excuse me?" he said, after swallowing his coffee and swiping the back of his hand over his mouth. "I must have heard you wrong. I could have sworn you said 'a million dollars'."
"I did." Jeremy's smile didn't so much as falter. "However, if you weren't such pleasant company, I would have to inform you that you did indeed mishear me, and that I had really said 'two million dollars'."
Ouch. Countered. Simon symbolically retreated by taking another sip of his coffee. "Seems like an awful lot of money for just taking a rock out of the sock under your mattress and putting it in my hands."
"Well. I'm told that the Mornings paid close to eight million dollars for it in the first place, and they didn't have nearly so pressing a need for it as you do. Indeed, I think you're getting a bargain."
"Damn, I was hoping I could buy it off you for used-diamond prices" Simon let the sentence trail off there and leaned back in the booth, closing his eyes against the early afternoon sun. "One million dollars to buy a rock you've already been paid for. Christ, they don't pay me that kind of cash, and I'm the defender of the free world over here."
Jeremy's smile bloomed. "Really? What a shame. Maybe you're working for the wrong side"
"hey," Simon broke in warningly.
Jeremy held up his free hand to forestall Simon's outburst. "Joke, Simon. Just a joke." He sat back in his seat, slightly, and the little motion made his leg shift against Simon's.
"Makes me wonder how much you charged Rupp," Simon muttered, taking another sip of coffee and ignoring the physical contact.
"Four million dollars, in advance."
Simon was prepared for it this time; he only choked a little. "Christ!" he said, once he'd managed to successfully swallow.
"You did ask."
"Actually, I sort of muttered. But yeah, guess I did."
Jeremy took a sip of his own coffeeit was black, surprisingly. Simon, who had been expecting him to be either a cream-and-sugar man or, worse, the froofy-coffee type, had ended up scoring him a point for proper coffee respect. Jeremy's point total was getting perilously high, to the point where Simon was almost required to like him. Two more points and Simon would have to rate himself as officially intrigued, and that boded well for no one. "I told you you were getting a bargain," Jeremy said over the rim of his cup.
"Out of the goodness of your black little heart, I'm sure."
"Of course! What can I say? Your All-American good looks have won me over."
Simon put his coffee cup down. "Okay, what's with this?" he asked, eyeing Jeremy narrowly.
Jeremy blinked. "What's with what?"
"This. You know. This." Simon gestured back and forth between them. "This... this..." Suddenly and belatedly remembering the mike taped to his chest, he stopped before he could say what he was thinking.
"This what?" Jeremy prompted, suddenly all innocence again.
Simon glanced back and forth and leaned in, jaw tightening a bit. "This flirting," he hissed under his breath, making a mental note to kill his techs if they ever mentioned this part of the conversation to anyone, ever.
"Was I flirting?" Jeremy looked away and hid a little smile behind his hand. "I hadn't noticed."
Simon studied Jeremy for just long enough to communicate his general disbelief. "Oh, so you're just like this, is that it?"
"Like what?" One of Jeremy's fingers slid along his lower lip. Simon couldn't help but notice. "I assure you, I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Yeah. Uh huh. No idea. Sure, I'm buying that." Simon let it drop and finished off his coffee. "So! Anyway! Business! I assume you have some kind of ridiculous and overcomplicated demands for the exchange?"
"Not at all!" Jeremy said, dropping his hand and becoming something close to professional again. "I'll give you an account number, you wire the money there, and once I confirm that it's there I'll return the Star. To you personally, of course."
"I never knew that threatening somebody at gunpoint could inspire that kind of trust. Fine. Give me the account number."
Jeremy slid a little notebook and a fat silver fountain pen out of the inside pocket of his jacket. "If I got all snitty every time someone threatened me at gunpoint, I wouldn't have anyone left to talk to at all. The money first, Simon. Once it's safe, I'll contact you again."
"You'd better." For just a moment Simon dropped the light tone entirely and became entirely, freezingly serious, his voice like steel. "You queer me on this and I swear to God you won't be able to so much as look at a postcard from America without it trying to put you in cuffs."
"I wouldn't dream of it," Jeremy said, writing a neat line of figures on a blank sheet of notepaper. He seemed unimpressed. "I'm ever so hurt that you'd even think I'd cheat you."
"You're cheating the shit out of Rupp," Simon was quick to point out.
"My former employer apparently lied to me about his intentions and attempted to use me as a pawn in some sort of terrorist plot, and as such, I consider any contract I might have had with him null and void and his deposit forfeit. Not to mention the little problem of his siccing the FBI on me. No offense meant." Jeremy tore off the sheet of paper, neatly folded it in half, and held it out.
"Hey, none taken." Simon reached for the paper, but stopped just short of taking it. "So we have a deal, then. One million dollars American for a certain shiny rock."
"A deal," Jeremy echoed, smiling faintly. "Would you like to shake on it?"
"No, no, that's okay. Don't want you to get the wrong idea."
"And that would be... what, exactly?"
Simon pretended to consider this until Jeremy poked the piece of paper at him again. This time Simon took it, and with a mental sigh, gave Jeremy those last two points, mostly on principle. "Well!" he said. "It was a pleasure doing business with you, I'm sure."
Jeremy's fingers slid lightly along Simon's as he let go of the paper. "Yes, it was a pleasure, wasn't it?"
Simon threw open the back doors of the van and jumped in, the rear shocks complaining under the sudden addition of his weight. "We've got a deal," he said, exulting. Rich and Nate both blinked at him like moles.
Nate recovered first, reaching up to pull off his headphones. "That's great, Templar"
"what we don't have is a recording," Rich broke in, angrily.
"Shit," Simon said, his good mood deflating just a bit. "What happened? Was it that jamming thing of his again?"
"Oh, got it in one, Templar," Nate said. "We've got you loud and clear until you say, uh..." He turned around and consulted his notes. "'I live in a goddamned spy movie, where are you, Archer?' and then we can hear you walking and suddenly it's nothing but static."
"Nearly popped my eardrums," Rich added sullenly.
"Shit," Simon said again, and then he thought of their little side conversation in the coffee shop and found himself somewhat glad of the loss, after all. "Well, we'll just have to suffer along without it. If he's half as professional as he pretends to be we won't need it." Simon stripped off his jacket and tossed it at the passenger seat.
"I hate him," Rich said, reflectively.
"Eh," Simon said, dropping onto the floor of the van and pulling his shirttail out from his jeans. "He's not so bad as criminal scum go. Hell, according to his file he's almost a Boy Scout. Least he's not going to be shooting at us. Any day I don't get shot at counts as a good day."
"I still hate him," Rich said, his jaw tightening stubbornly. "He made me look like an idiot."
"He made all of us look like idiots," Nate pointed out, messing with the dials in front of himself. "Not just you."
"Still," Rich said. "I hate him."
"I was starting to get that idea, yeah," said Nate. Rich scowled at him.
"Well, this is just a fascinating philosophical discussion," Simon said cheerfully, picking at the ends of the tape on his chest. "I sure don't want to interrupt you, Plato, but I just gotta know: has the tracer kicked in yet?"
Nate shot up straight in his seat, nearly smacking his head on the roof of the van. "You planted it on him?" he asked, his voice halfway between 'urgent' and 'exhilarated', and he had his headphones on before Simon could even answer.
"Sure did." Simon tugged up an inch of the tape and hissed. "Grabbed his arm, got the beacon stuck to his jacket. With any luck he won't notice it."
Nate's hands flew over the console in front of him, excitedly at first, then more slowly. Finally he took off the headphones and scowled at the blank monitor. "Nothing yet, Templar. He's still got the jammer on, I bet."
Rich shoved his glasses up. "Bet he'll turn it off, though. He wouldn't just leave it on all the time."
"Hope so," Simon said, resigning himself to the inevitable and digging his fingers under one edge of the medical tape still stuck to his chest. "Anyway, what's really important is that he's agreed to a pretty sweet deal. Upstairs had me authorized to go to two million but Archer set his price at half thatyowfuck!so I think my point is, we're in business, and Art Theft can go screw. Also, ow, is this duct tape or something?" He tossed the unwieldy mass of microphone and discarded tape at Nate, who promptly fumbled it.
"We good to go?" Rich asked, ducking past Simon and heading for the driver's seat.
"Good to go," Simon said, tucking his shirt back in as Nate scrambled after the microphone. "Let's head back to base and tell everyone the news."
Five minutes later, they were (unsurprisingly) stuck in traffic. Pedestrians, mostly of the tourist variety, streamed along the sidewalks and across the streets, sometimes so close to the sides of the van that Simon could have reached out and snagged himself an ugly straw fedora if he'd wanted one. Traffic was moving at a sluggish twenty miles an hour or so and Rich was glaring out the windshield and muttering imprecations every time the battered brown subcompact in front of him put on its brakes. Simon was slumped down in the passenger seat with his hands laced together over his stomach and his eyes shut against the glare, making a desultory effort to review his negotiations with Archer but, in the end, not really thinking about much of anything.
"Ha!" Nate suddenly crowed from the back, startling Rich, who nearly drove the van up onto the sidewalk before swearing and hauling it back into traffic. The wheel under Simon's feet bumped up against the curb and he grunted a little.
"Oh, good one, Nate," Rich snapped, shoving his glasses up with the heel of one hand. "My day wouldn't be complete without driving over a class of pre-schoolers and a couple of stray nuns. Thanks so much."
"What's up, Specs?" Simon asked, not bothering to open his eyes. "Tracer kick in?"
"Tracer's on!" Nate cried, leaning forward to squint at the screen in front of himself. The van's tires thumped over a mended pothole and Nate left a neat noseprint on the glass. "Signal's pretty strong, Templar, and..." He trailed off there, watching the little screen like a hawk.
"And?" Simon prompted. "He didn't just go into a shop named 'Stolen Diamonds R Us' or anything, did he?"
"Not a clue," Nate said cheerfully. "However, the tracer's moving, which means that he didn't just find it and ditch it."
Simon couldn't help but laugh. "Didn't find it, huh? Some professional. Minus a point for Shadow!"
"So what was his point total anyway?" Rich asked, easing the van to an equipment-preservingly gentle stop at a red light. "You never said."
"Pretty high," Simon said casually, after a nearly unnoticeable hesitation. "Man's got some class, I have to admit, much as it pains me to do so. Plus there was the whole 'not shooting at me' thing."
Rich eyed Simon narrowly. "You can't give criminals points for not shooting at you. Once we start giving them points for not doing things, we might as well abandon the whole system."
"Yeah," Nate said from the back. "Didn't you ever take statistics in college? Everyone who isn't the most total scumbag will end up earning a bunch of freebie points right off the bat and the system'll get all screwed up."
"Well, first of all I don't care and you're both nerds," Simon pointed out, drumming his fingers absently on his stomach, "and second of all it's less of a scientific system and more of a casual rating thing, kind of like a drinking game without actual alcohol involved, you know? And third of all, light's green."
Rich jerked his head around, swore again, and eased the van back into traffic.
"Did you make the deal?" Sandra asked the second Simon pushed open the door. Without really waiting for an answer she swung to Nate. "Was there a deal?"
"What?" Simon said, injured. "I don't even get to enjoy keeping you guys in suspense any more?"
"No," Sandra said crisply. "No more suspense for you, Templar."
Johnny added, "Heart can't take it."
"Well?" Mike said from his seat in the windowsill. Nate opened his mouth. Simon shot a glare in his general direction. Nate's eyes widened and he shut his mouth again. "Okay, now, that's just not fair," Mike protested, vaulting down and landing more or less gracefully. "You can't be using your scary-ass boss mojo to shut up the stool pigeons."
"'Stool pigeons'?" Simon asked the room in general. "What is this, 'Dragnet'?"
"I notice no one is answering my question," Sandra said loudly.
"Yes, there was a deal," Rich said irritably, shoving past under Simon's arm and heading for his computer. "We're going to pay Shadow a whole bunch of money because he's such nice criminal scum, and Templar managed to plant a radio tracker on him in the process so we at least have the faintest hope of actually catching him later, and can none of you keep your minds on track for five seconds?"
Simon gaped after Rich, then threw his hands wide in a gesture of supplication. "Why don't I ever get to have any fun?" he asked the ceiling.
"Because you suck and we hate you," Mike said. "Duh."
"Oh. Right. I forgot. Thanks, Mike!"
"Any time, boss."
"Anyway!" Simon clapped his hands together, then pulled a folded piece of paper out of his pocket. "Rich! I've got a bank account number for you to play with. Get me everything you can out of it, and if you can finagle me some kind of hookup into the transaction history, I swear I won't ask if it's legal."
"Probably a good thing, Templar." Rich slapped his hand against the concrete wall next to him and thumbed his computer on. (Mike shot a glance at Sandra and mouthed, "See?" Sandra rolled her eyes.) "I'm on it. How long do I have?"
"I figure that given my own disinclination to do Archer any extraordinary favors, the general speed of the bureaucracy around here, and the airspeed of an unladen swallow, probably until about noon tomorrow."
Rich snorted. "Hell, by that time I could probably tell you what kind of deodorant the account manager is wearing. Gimme."
Simon slung the folded bit of paper at Rich sidearm like a Frisbee. It flew in a high looping arc, almost touching the ceiling before fluttering to the floor at Johnny's feet. Johnny eyed it, swept it up, and leaned as far back over the back of his chair as he could, his hand outstretched towards Rich. Rich didn't quite roll his eyes, but he leaned forward and snagged it. "Good throw," said Johnny.
Simon shot an exasperated look in Johnny's direction. "Shut up," he said, mostly on general principles, since he couldn't actually tell if Johnny was being sarcastic or not. "And I'll need that back, Rich," he added. "After all, we wouldn't want Shadow to not get his money."
"Shit, no," said Mike. "Wouldn't want that at all."
"Can I hold it for a sec or something? Before you send it off?" Simon craned forward over the back of the chair, squinting at the monitor. "I've always wanted to hold a million dollars in my hands. It's a dream of mine."
"There's nothing to hold," the girl from accounting said apologetically, glancing nervously up at him and twitching out half a little smile. "It's all done by computers..."
"He asks that every time, Linda," Sandra said, leaning against the wall by the door. "He's just being silly. Ignore him. I always do."
Simon straightened up, and Linda sagged a little in relief. "I keep asking because none of them ever let me," he informed Sandra patiently. "Maybe Linda here will be nice enough to let me, huh?" He patted Linda's shoulder.
She quivered a little. "I... Mr. Drake, there's nothing to hold, I'm sorry..."
"Nah, it's okay," Simon said, leaning forward over the back of her chair again and making her tense up. "I just have to ask, you know? Can I touch the monitor where it says 'one million dollars' or something?" He pointed, the inside of his arm nearly touching her cheek. "That'll do okay, I guess."
"Um..." Linda reddened, suddenly and completely unable to move one way or the other.
Simon scored himself a mental point and relented. Almost. "Heh. Don't worry about it. You know I only tease you 'cause I like you so much."
And now she was redanother point for Simonbut she swallowed and nodded. Her fingers stumbled over the keys, filling in the blanks on the screen, both account numbers, her personal ID and password, the department's password, a tracking number, amount... Simon let out a low whistle as she filled in the amount. $1,000,000.00, there in glowing black and white. It seemed a lot more substantial when he saw it spelled out like that.
"It's a lot," Linda said, twitching out another nervous smile at him.
Simon nodded. "Hell of a lot," he agreed, watching Linda fill out the rest of the fields on the screen.
A box popped up on the screen, asking Linda to confirm the transaction. She glanced back and forth, making sure no one was watching too closely, then lowered her voice to a breathless whisper. "Would you like to... to okay the transaction yourself? It's like holding the money, sort of..." She trailed off there, coloring again.
Simon glanced at her, startled, then his expression softened into something like a smile. On the other side of the desk, Sandra rolled her eyes. "Actually, yeah, I think I would. You really going to let me?"
Linda nodded and scooted aside, just a little. "Just hit the enter key..."
Simon leaned forward, eyes on the screen. One million dollars. Would he like to personally send one million dollars of the government's money to a known felon, with his own hands? asked the monitor. Sure would, Simon thought. "Hope you enjoy it while you can, Archer," he muttered, and reached across Linda to tap the enter key. The confirmation screen vanished, and the computer whirred for a moment, and then a transaction record popped up.
"That's it," Linda said as Simon pulled his hand back. "The money's gone. You've sent it."
"Wow," Simon said, and he laughed a little. "Kind of a rush. My skin's tingling."
She giggled, a tiny nervous sound. "It is, kind of, isn't it?"
"Can we do that again?" Simon asked, miming reaching for his wallet in his back pocket. "Here, I've got my personal account number right here, we can just send a couple million dollars to me, I swear I'll send it back again in a day or so..."
"Mr. Drake!" Linda clapped both hands over her mouth to hush her horrified giggles. "You're terrible!"
"That's a no, huh?" Simon grinned at her and patted her shoulder one last time, just to watch the flush crawl over her cheeks again. "Oh, well. Guess I stay poor but honest."
"Poor, anyway," Sandra added, checking her watch ostentatiously.
"You're awful," Sandra told Simon as they headed back. "I just want you to know that."
Simon grinned, ambling down the hallway with his hands in his pockets. "Aww, Sandy-pookins, what'd you want to go and say a thing like that for?"
"Terrible," Sandra said frostily. "Horrible. That poor girl."
"What? She was cute. I couldn't resist. Did you see her turn pink? Adorable!"
"She's going to be crushing on you for months. Just like little what's-her-name down in HR"
"right, Vicky, the both of them all googly-eyed over you, you big irresponsible hunk of handsome field agent, you. And you do that on purpose. 'I only tease you 'cause I like you so much,'" Sandra mimicked, her voice dropping for a moment into a throaty near-basso that didn't sound a thing like Simon. "Shit. I almost wish you were trying to get in their pants, at least then you'd have an excuse for flirting like that."
"I think someone's jealous," Simon caroled, edging a step or two away in case Sandra came after him.
"You're fucking right I'm jealous," Sandra told him, socking Simon's shoulder hard enough to make him yelp and grab his arm. "I've got dibs, boss. Any other ladies want a piece of the Templar action, they gotta come through me."
"Aww, Sandy, don't be like that," Simon pleaded, rubbing his shoulder. "You're gonna scare all the girls off! Then what am I going to do for fun?"
"That's the point."
"don't you 'aww Sandy' me, Simon."
Simon rolled his eyes, then ambled back over and threw an arm around Sandra's shoulders. "You know you're the only girl for me, right, Spring?"
"Damn straight I am," Sandra snapped, elbowing Simon in the stomach, and then she made a highly undignified snorting sound, and a second later they were both howling with laughter.
"I really am awful," Simon gasped.
"The worst," Sandra agreed, wiping her eyes.
"Well?" Simon demanded, holding the saferoom door open for Sandra, who punched him lightly as she went by.
Rich's head swiveled and he blinked at Simon owlishly. "You are not going to believe this, Templar."
"Oh, boy, but I hate it when you start a conversation like that, Specs Two." Simon loped across the room and skidded to a stop behind Rich, leaning over the back of his chair. Rich, unlike Linda, felt perfectly free to elbow Simon in the gut to get him to back off. "Oof," said Simon. "So what's up?"
"Money's gone," Rich said.
"Money's gone," Rich repeated, patiently. The program on his screen was not pretty or easy to use and understand like the one Accounting had been using; this was chunks and chunks of raw text in a terminal window, a bunch of numbers that didn't make any sense to Simon. With the aid of Rich pointing, Simon picked out two particular lines, though:
+ 1,000,000.00 11:23:25
- 1,000,000.00 11:26:02
"Holy shit," said Simon, blinking at the screen. "Does that mean what I think it means?"
"He moved the money right back out," Rich confirmed, tapping something that might have been an account number (or a phone number from a foreign country, or just a random string of digits). "Two minutes or so after it came in, it was gone, to this account here."
Simon whistled. "Boy, he doesn't trust us any further than he could throw us, does he?"
"Probably smart of him," Rich said.
"Yeah," Simon said. "So can you tap into that account? You know, just to satisfy my curiosity?"
Rich started to nod, then changed his mind and shrugged. "It's an offshore bank. I can trace it if you want me to, but the money is gone, out of our jurisdiction, and this is getting less legal by the second"
Simon slapped both hands over his ears. "I didn't hear that!" he half-sang, closing his eyes.
"I mean, we're edging into an international incident here"
"I'm still not hearing this!"
"but I can keep going if you want, I mean, what do I care if we all get fired and possibly put in jail"
"Still not hearing this!"
"so I'm guessing you want me to stop, then."
"Not that I heard you," Simon said, dropping the singsong, "but yeah, you can stop now. Whatever it was that you were doing. Not that I knew anything about it or, God forbid, asked you to do it."
Rich nodded, closed the terminal window, ejected a CD from the CD drive, and snapped it neatly in half. "Whatever it was I just did," Rich said, "it was completely legal and a-OK, and no way this CD is going to tell anyone any different."
"That's what I like about you, Rich," Simon said, patting Rich on the shoulder. "You speak my language."
"Of course, he also speaks assembly," Nate added from across the room, where he was watching the tracer beep.
"You speak Klingon," Rich pointed out.
"Not any more!" Nate flushed a little. "I mean, come on, that was in college, it was a long time ago..."
Rich snorted. "Verengan Ha'DIbaH!"
"Mu'qaD!" Nate automatically snapped, then yelped and pointed a shaking finger at Rich. "Oh, you jerk, and you were making fun of me for speaking Klingon!"
"I am seriously becoming geekier just by sitting here," Mike informed Sandra. "I think my dick is shrinking."
"Mine too," Sandra said.
"Mine's good," Johnny said, patting it affectionately.
"Okay!" Simon said, clapping his hands together. "I've got a radical idea: how about we all keep our Klingon in our pants where it belongs?"
"Awww, man," Mike said, leaning back in his chair and fumbling ostentatiously with his zipper, "aren't we gonna have a dick-size contest? I mean, why else did I come into work today?"
"You know it'd just get me all turned on," Simon told him. "And then I won't get anything done for the rest of the day, what with lusting over you and all."
Mike settled back into his chair with a little grunt. "Well, long as we're all clear on who'd win."
"Yeah," Rich said, dropping the halves of the CD into the shredder. "Sandra."
The screeching grinding sound of the heavy-duty shredder reducing evidence to confetti put an end to the rest of that conversation, although Sandra looked particularly smug for several minutes afterwards.
The rest of the day dragged on cruelly. Simon spent a couple of hours typing up a report on his negotiations with Archer, filed it, dealt with the daily crap, and spent an entertaining fifteen minutes or so dreaming up horribly inconvenient places to make Archer meet him for the exchange. The top of the Washington Monument, maybe, or he could requisition a jet and tell Archer to meet him somewhere in Texas, maybe the Bahamas, force him to spend some of that ill-gotten cash... nah, that one would probably get him fired, even though he wasn't a congressman or anything.
After that it was just a question of waiting, which Simon had always hated. Cruel and all too usual punishment. He spent an hour down at the firing range with Johnny, killing the shit out of paper targets and waiting for the phone on his hip to vibrate, which it didn't do. He spent half an hour with Nate watching the tracer ping and shooting the breeze, trying to guess where Archer was now without cheating and looking at the map; after a few minutes Simon started insisting everywhere Archer went was obviously the men's room, which led to a particularly entertaining conversation about why Archer would need to spend so much time in men's rooms, which led to Nate's ears going scarlet. Which was always fun.
And still Archer didn't call. By six o'clock Simon was bored right out of his skull and starving to boot, and he eventually gave in and flattered Sandra into taking a dangerously bored Mike and Johnny and running out to get pizza for everyone. To keep himself occupied while he waited, he turned on his own seldom-used computer and got Nate to send over the recordings from the day before. A little irritated fumbling with the playback software and then he was able to sprawl out in his office chair, feet up on the desk and a pair of headphones clapped to one ear, to listen to himself and to Jeremy.
"Let's just say that I feel ever so bad and wish to return what I've stolen," Jeremy purred in his ear, and Simon closed his eyes and heaved a deep sigh.
At the pause that followed that line Simon reached out and blindly hit the mouse, setting the recording back three seconds. "Let's just say that I feel ever so bad and wish to return what I've stolen," Jeremy purred in his ear again.
Simon hit the mouse.
"Let's just say that I feel ever so bad and wish to return what I've stolen"
Simon hit the mouse.
"Let's just say"
Simon looked up, letting the headphones fall to dangle from one finger. Jeremy was left insinuating at nothing but air. "What's up?"
Nate shifted from foot to foot, one hand resting on the doorframe. "It could be nothing, Templar."
"If you really thought that, you wouldn't be standing there." Simon could hear the faintest buzz of the recorded conversation still echoing from the headphones. "Anyway, I'm just trying to chase down a hunch. No big deal. What's up?"
"Well..." Nate hesitated and looked over his shoulder at his computer. "I think Shadow may have found the tracer," he finally said all in a rush.
"What? Shit." Simon swung his legs down and sat up. "Shit. What happened?"
"The beacon hasn't moved in a couple of hours. And it can't be because he's not wearing the jacket, Templar, because I just cross-referenced the location on the map, and the tracer's in a bank."
"A bank, huh. Well, now we know where the Star was." Simon tapped his fingers rapidly on the desk, thinking. "Okay, Nate. Thanks for letting me know. Hopefully he won't let this fuck up the deal."
"I hope not," Nate said, worried.
Simon swung his feet back up onto the desk. "We'll burn that bridge when we come to it. Keep an eye on it, just in case."
"Right," Nate said, moving away.
"Sandra and the others back yet?" Simon called after him.
"Right." Simon rubbed his face, then put the headphones back up to his ear and hit the mouse.
"Let's just say that I feel ever so bad and wish to return what I've stolen," Jeremy purred in his ear.
"Let's hope you still feel that way," Simon said, under his breath.
"Templar, the beacon is moving again," Nate said breathlessly, sliding to a stop in the doorway not fifteen minutes later. "Something's not right, Templar, he was in there for too long..."
Out in the main room, the direct line rang. Simon and Nate stared at each other wide-eyed for half a second, then Simon bolted out of his chair, nearly bowling Nate over. Rich was in his corner, blinking owlishly at the phone in anticipation as Simon grabbed for it. "Took you so long?" he said all in a manic rush, spinning around to lean against the wall. "So, what's the deal? Decided not to skip the country after all?"
From the other end there was only silence, and somewhere deep in Simon's mind alarm bells started to go off. He ignored them as best as he could and waited. Finally, with an odd terseness to his voice, Jeremy said, "I believe we need to speak, Simon. Now."
"Funny, that's what I thought we were doing," Simon said, trying to hold on to that lightness. "Or did you mean, like, on the lecture circuit? I understand my talk on the care of hydrangeas is both fascinating and controversial..."
That, at least, earned him something like a laugh, although there wasn't much actual humor in it. "Normally I'd be all too pleased to chitchat with you, Simon, but I'm afraid I'm not in the mood for pleasantries." Jeremy paused. Simon could hear the rush of traffic in the background, and the alarm bells in his mind were getting harder and harder to ignore. Finally, Jeremy broke the silence. "Your merchandise has been taken from me," he said, his normally pleasant English voice completely flat.
"Shit!" Simon snapped upright and whipped around, bracing one hand against the wall above the phone. Every last bit of that amusement vanished in a flash, leaving him with only steel in his voice. "What the fuck happened, Archer?"
"I was sandbagged inside a bank vault, Simon," Jeremy said, his voice still utterly flat. "Here's where I desperately hope that you're about to laugh in my ear and tell me those were your men, because then I can simply call you a few choice names and hang up on you."
"Oh, motherfucker," Simon breathed, clenching his free hand into a fist.
"I take it that's a no," Jeremy said.
"That's a no," Simon agreed, thumping his fist against the wall. "Not ours. Which means"
"My former employer," Jeremy finished for him, and now he was breathing hard in Simon's ear, and it sounded angry.
They both fell silent. Simon thumped the wall again, his mind working fast. When Jeremy spoke again, breaking into Simon's frantic reverie, what he said almost didn't make any sense. "Do you happen to know where my esteemed ex-employer is building his device, Simon?"
"What? No. If I knew, I wouldn't have given a fuck about you in the first place," Simon snapped. With tacked-on patience he added, "Why do you ask, Jeremy?"
Jeremy laughed. It was a short and fairly unpleasant little sound. "Because I do, Simon," he said. Suddenly he had Simon's full attention. "I've been there."
"Okay!" Simon said, his skin tingling with sudden electricity. "Well! This is the point where we have to have some words, Archer!" Whipping around he snapped his fingers at Rich and pointed at the tracking screen, still cheerfully beeping on Nate's computer, and then jerked his thumb at the door. Rich immediately scrabbled for the keys to the van.
"I thought as much," Jeremy said. Rich bolted out the door, address in hand. Simon barely noticed, every bit of his attention focused on the phone. "How about these words, Simon: you've paid me for that merchandise, and I intend to see that you get it, because to do otherwise would violate my professional standards. For one thing, I have absolutely no intention of giving you back that money, and for another, I have been both used and abused by my former employer, and I do not take kindly to that at all. Therefore, I'm at your command until the Star is in your hands." And then, incredibly, Jeremy laughed, a low breathless sound that punched Simon straight in the gut. "I'm your man, Simon."
For the first time in a minute Simon was able to breathe. "That's good," he said, exhaling hard. "Because I dispatched someone to pick you up forty-five seconds ago."
There was a moment of startled silence, then Jeremy chuckled softly. "You've put some sort of tracking device on me, haven't you," he said, although it didn't sound like an accusation. "I should have known."
"Yeah, well," Simon said just as Mike and Sandra and Johnny came banging back in, bearing pizza. Simon's hand flashed up, silencing them. "What can I say? Just doing my job."
"Mm." Jeremy was silent for a moment. "And apparently I wasn't doing mine terribly well. How embarrassing."
"Lost you a couple of points, yeah," Simon said. "Pity, too, you'd been doing so well."
"Had I? I'm almost flattered." Simon could hear Jeremy's lighter ratcheting, followed by a long exasperated exhalationof smoke, Simon assumed.
"Don't be," Simon told him. "I'm not just utterly thrilled with you right now. Lost all your points when you let some dirtbag mug you."
"Mm. I suppose that's fair."
"It's more than 'fair'. It's exactly what you deserve. A pointless existence."
Jeremy laughed dutifully, although his attention was apparently elsewhere, and then they both fell silent. Simon glanced at the monitor; the little dot that was Jeremy was still. On the other end of the line, Jeremy was still breathing a bit hard, still angry.
"Ah. Well, this will be interesting," Jeremy finally said, breaking the silence. "White van? Driven by... ah... some sort of small and angry bespectacled troll?"
"He'd probably shoot you if you said the troll part to his face, but yeah. Get in. I'll see you in three."
"He may shoot me anyway. He looks very upset." The phone clicked in Simon's ear, and Simon slammed it into its cradle and turned to face the rest of his team.