Part One: Chapters 1-6

      "Shot," 'James St. John' finally said, putting his free hand over his ear in order to hear better. Behind him he could hear the low murmur of thousands of people—gem importers, jewellers, wholesalers—echoing off the cavernous roof of the exposition hall. He stared at the wall. He thought his voice sounded calm enough.

      "They say he's going to pull through," Sandra said in his ear, rushing the words a little now that she'd finally got to them. "Johnny's with him at the hospital, he called an hour ago, Simon's out of surgery, the damage isn't as bad as it looked—"

      "I see," Jeremy breathed, shutting his eyes and momentarily putting 'James' away.

      Sandra talked right over him. "—the bullet went under his ribs at an angle and lodged by his spine, nicked a lung but didn't puncture it. Mostly blood loss and muscle damage." And then she stopped babbling so abruptly that Jeremy could almost hear her teeth click shut, halfway around the world. There was a pause. "Anyway. I just thought you should know." Her voice was abrupt and not entirely friendly. One of Jeremy's eyebrows lifted just a bit.

      He waited, just a moment. Nothing else seemed to be forthcoming. "Thank you," he finally said, and "I appreciate your letting me know, Ms. Leone."

      "You're welcome." She still sounded abrupt. "Good-bye, Jeremy."

      "Mm. Good morning, Ms. Leone."

      The phone clicked in his ear.


      All the tension melted out of Jeremy's shoulders as if by magic. By the time he turned to face his interpreter, 'James' was smiling absently. "Ah, I'm terribly sorry, but you know how it is," he said, his voice lazy, sliding the phone back into his jacket pocket. His interpreter shrugged and nodded, indicating that he did, indeed, know how it was. "Are they ready for me?"

      "Yes. They will sign."

      "Excellent!" 'James' sauntered off back into the exposition, his interpreter trotting in his wake. Despite the documents waiting for him in one of the convention centre's plusher office suites, he took his time, idly examining the displays as he passed, reaching out to run one loving finger over a strand of black pearls worth a tidy fortune. Deep within 'James' Jeremy felt more like running. "I'm quite glad we could come to an agreement today. It seems my presence is required elsewhere."

      "Hah? You are leaving so soon?"

      "Unfortunately so. Business," 'James' said, with only the slightest faltering of his lazy smile, "waits for no one."

      Twenty-seven hours later, at five in the morning local time, Jeremy Archer (having peeled off and discarded the affably useless 'James St. John' like so much dirty laundry, leaving him in Japan along with 'James St. John's' systematically destroyed mobile phone and, unfortunately, a lovely pair of matched pink pearls whose existence would have been a little too awkward to explain) leaned against the white wall of a Washington, DC hospital and considered his options.

      The grey-suited man seated outside the door to Simon's hospital room could only be an FBI agent on guard duty. Everything about him screamed it, from his clothes to his posture to his haircut to the fact that he was so bloody alert at this ungodly hour of the morning. Granted, at the moment his only visible weapon was a clipboard, but Jeremy was positive that there was also a gun in residence somewhere. Jeremy was not in the least enthused about walking up to the man, having his name put down in the records, and being summarily denied entrance; however, he was even less enthused about being shot at. Therefore, the careful consideration of his options.

      He had just come to the conclusion that the safest way to attempt Simon's hospital room was, unfortunately, to rappel down from the roof (and was, accordingly, unobtrusively checking the wire wound up inside his belt) when he heard the man say, "Keep an eye on the door for me, would you, honey? If I don't get a cigarette and a bite to eat, I'm going to go crazy. I swear I'll only be ten minutes."

      "Mr. Cleary! I have at least twenty other patients to mind," a female voice responded, cold as Arctic ice. "I don't have time to be doing your job."

      "Bah, it'll be fine," Agent Cleary said dismissively. "If something was going to happen to him, it would have happened already. Just keep an eye on the door when you're here, all right? S'all I ask." Around the corner, Jeremy rolled his eyes, but silently blessed his luck.

      "All right," the nurse said reluctantly. "But I won't take responsibility for what might happen, do you hear me?" she added, but by that time Jeremy had already slipped away. He made a beeline for one particular room he'd noticed on his way in, currently occupied by a burly middle-aged man wearing two casts, a neck brace, and a particularly grumpy expression, awake despite the hour.

      "I beg your pardon," he said, pausing in the doorway and rapping his knuckles on the open door. "I don't suppose you might have a pen I might borrow?"

      "Nah," the man said, barely glancing his way, just staring at the nearly-silent television and scratching his chest near the edge of one cast. His voice was a sandpapery smoker's rumble, Jeremy was pleased to note. "Nurse's station's probably got one."

      "Ah. Well. You see, that's the thing." Jeremy made a show of glancing over his shoulder in the direction of the nurse's station, then lowered his voice conspiratorially. "My ex-wife, God bless her evil soul, has made some sort of arrangement with the hospital that I'm not to be allowed in to see my son, so..." He let his voice trail off here, and noted with some satisfaction that the man was looking at him now, instead of at the television.

      "Yeah?" the man said, with marginally more sympathy. "That's rough."

      "She's a stone bitch," Jeremy said, letting his very real jet lag leak into his voice. "I've flown all the way in from London and she won't so much as let me see my boy."

      "Yeah, thought you sounded English." The man didn't exactly sound friendly yet, but he was at least interested.

      "Terribly," Jeremy said, bracing his hand on the door-frame and leaning his forehead against it. In his mind, he was counting: one minute and two, one minute and three. "I can't even ask how he's doing, damn her anyway. I'd thought to at least write him a note, let him know I came, but I don't even know how I'd get it to him." He closed his eyes and waited.

      The man harrumphed a little and finally said, "... what's your boy's name?"

      Got you, Jeremy thought. "Simon," he said aloud, not opening his eyes, amused despite himself by the act of taking Simon's name in vain. "And before you say it, it's a perfectly good English name and he does not get beaten up on the playground for it." All technically true, at least at this point in time, Jeremy supposed.

      The man snorted out a laugh and muted the television. "Hey, did I say anything? I didn't say a damned thing."

      "... I'm sorry, I'm being terribly rude." Jeremy opened his eyes and straightened up, taking two steps into the room and holding out his hand. "I'm James. James St. John," he said, summarily importing 'James' from Japan and shrugging back into him. One minute and forty-six. One minute and forty-seven.

      The man eyed his hand for a moment and then grinned and shook it, engulfing Jeremy's hand in his own meaty paw. "Luther Bycross. Pleasure to talk to anyone who isn't a damned nurse, son."

      "I can imagine." Jeremy let his eyes roam around the room, noting the complete absence of flowers, cards, or anything else of a sympathetic nature. His choice was looking better by the moment. "I'm not usually the type to be flinging my dirty laundry about with such abandon, but I'm quite tired."

      "Nah, it's okay. This ex of yours, she sounds kinda like mine, one of them cast-iron twats, you know?" Luther paused and scuffed at his thinning hair. "And I'm sorry about your boy. What happened?"

      "... I don't even know." Two minutes and twenty-three, two minutes and twenty-four. "My ever-so-lovely ex left a message with my service telling me that Simon was in the hospital and she'd be sending me the bill—"


      "—and that was essentially it."

      "What a bitch."

      "Yes, but she was pretty once."

      "Ain't they all, son. Ain't they all."

      "Bitches? Or pretty?"

      "Eh, whatever." Luther laughed his snorting coughing laugh.

      Jeremy couldn't help but laugh ruefully in return. "Ah, well," he said, rummaging about in his jacket pointedly. "I'll go find some place in this benighted hospital where I can have a bit of a smoke, and then I suppose I'll try to find some way to sneak past the nurse on duty. There's only one of them on at this point, perhaps I'll get lucky."

      Luther's eyes immediately jumped to Jeremy's rummaging hand and stayed there, and Jeremy had to work very hard to repress his triumph. "Ah, Christ, you lucky bastard. Ten years my wife nags me to give up the coffin nails and I can't listen, so now I've been stuck in here for a week without my cigs and I'm gonna climb the walls, you know?"

      "I know, believe me," Jeremy said fervently. "I, ah—" he hesitated, almost entirely for effect "—look here, they're English and a bit froofy, but I promise you that there's some tobacco in them," he said all in a rush, pulling out his cigarette case and shaking out three cigarettes. A quick toss of his pockets turned up half a book of hotel matches and he pressed them into the thoroughly startled Luther's uncasted hand along with the three cigarettes. "I don't know how exactly you'll be able to smoke them without attracting attention, but you seem clever enough, I'm sure you'll find a way."

      "You, son, are a goddamn lifesaver," Luther said, yanking open the drawer of his night-stand and hiding cigarettes and matches under a battered magazine. "My momma never told me angels came in the English variety."

      Jeremy waved that away. Four minutes and twenty-nine, four minutes and thirty. "It's nothing, believe me. I'd want someone to do the same for me if I were in hospital."

      Luther slammed the drawer shut again and settled back against his pillow, looking a great deal happier. His eyes drooped about half-closed. "And now, son, I don't mean to turn you out all abrupt-like, but I think it's time for another pain pill." One eye dropped closed in a swift wink. "So you might wanna go some place where the nurses aren't likely to spot you, because in thirty seconds I'm gonna push this buzzer here—" One fat finger stabbed at the red button on the side of his bed. "—and that nurse at the duty desk is gonna come down here and give me my pill, and if she spots you, well, hell, son, I wouldn't wanna be responsible for that."

      Got you in five, Jeremy silently exulted, although outwardly he gaped for a moment before taking a quick step backwards. "I believe I owe you flowers, sir."

      "Hell, you don't owe me a damned thing. I'm not doing anything for you." Luther Bycross closed his eyes. "I sure hope she's that pretty little thing. A nurse is a pretty little thing, I like to chat for a minute or so before I'll let her go on her way."

      "In that case, I sincerely hope she's beautiful, and I hope you feel better, sir."

      "Oh, I'm gonna." Luther grinned. "I'm sure gonna."

      Jeremy spun on his heel and left the room.

      Twenty-seven seconds later, hidden in a linen storage closet behind an ajar door, Jeremy heard Luther's buzzer go off at the desk. The nurse passed by his hiding place a few moments later, quiet on her crepe-soled shoes, bearing a tiny paper cup in her hand; Jeremy counted five more seconds just to be safe and then stepped silently out, nonchalantly striding down the hall in the opposite direction.

      No one hailed him. The chair by Simon's door was still empty. Jeremy didn't so much as break stride and two seconds later he was in, grinning wolfishly as the door clicked shut. "God bless you and keep you, Luther Bycross," Jeremy breathed, stepping away from the door and turning around.

      Simon's room was dark, although the darkness was studded by red and green lights from the various flickering devices he was hooked up to. One of them was beeping. Jeremy wasn't quite sure which one, but it was beeping steadily and quietly, so he figured that was more or less normal. Simon himself was a pale blur in the darkness, and since he hadn't yet demanded to know who was there or insulted Jeremy's height, nationality, sexual preferences, or fashion sense, it seemed likely that he was asleep.

      Jeremy slid into the shadows and away from the little window set in the door, moving slowly to avoid bumping into things until his eyes got used to the dark. Finally he stood by Simon's bedside, almost completely invisible, just a face and a pair of hands in the darkness. Simon, by contrast, was pale, faded, and all in white, one hand resting on his stomach, the other curled loosely by his hip. He was definitely asleep, his face turned away from both Jeremy and the door. For a long moment, Jeremy couldn't do much but stare down at Simon, helpless and off his guard and wrong.

      "Your Agent Cleary is something of an imbecile," Jeremy finally informed him. Simon, sleeping and probably drugged, didn't so much as twitch. "And your hair is a fright," Jeremy added for good measure, reaching out to brush a stray black tendril away from Simon's forehead before retreating to the chair in the corner, out of sight of the door.

      The sky outside was just beginning to turn from black to gray when Simon dragged himself back to consciousness, his eyes still unfocused from his last dose of painkillers. He groped over his head until his hand hit the switch for the bedside light, promptly catching the head of the bed in a circle of soft yellow light and blinding himself. Wincing, he shaded his eyes with his hand until they adjusted.

      For a moment longer he just lay there, eyes half-squinted against the light, listening to the machinery noises. Someone walked by outside, and the FBI agent seated by his door shifted in his chair and coughed, and somewhere an elevator dinged softly.

      Simon's water glass stood just at the edge of the circle of light, half-full. Rolling clumsily up onto his unwounded side Simon made a grab for it, hissing as it pulled the wound in his other side tight; his fingertips just barely grazed the condensation on the side of the glass before he fell back to the bed. "Goddamnit," he told the bedside light. His voice sounded rusty and unused.

      A hand slid silently into the light and picked up the water glass, followed a moment later by the rest of Jeremy. Unsmiling, silent like a ghost, he sauntered fully into the ring of dim yellow light and held out the glass to Simon. Simon blinked at him, having some trouble focusing on all that black, then smiled a little. "Hey."

      Instead of answering, Jeremy glanced at the door and put a finger on his lips. Shh. Simon also glanced at the door, drew his own (correct) conclusions, and rolled his eyes. "I'll have him fired," he muttered, carefully closing both drug-clumsy hands around the glass and taking it from Jeremy. His voice was thick and dazed. "I'll have him shot." Belatedly he realized what he'd just said, and he winced, and Jeremy winced with him.

      "Charming as ever," Jeremy breathed as Simon drained his glass in two massive swallows. "And I'll have you know that you take me to the most interesting places."

      "Yeah, well, Cosmo says that's... how you keep the spice in a relationship." Simon swiped the back of his hand over his mouth and maneuvered the glass back onto his tray table, then more or less collapsed back onto the bed and closed his eyes.

      "You read Cosmopolitan?" Jeremy quirked an eyebrow at Simon, finding a few inches of unoccupied bed by his hip to perch on. "And you call me a fag."

      Simon was barely paying attention, patting gingerly at his bandaged side. "Yeah, well—ow—Sandy leaves those things lying around everywhere, I get curious." Pressing his hand to his ribs he tried to sit up a bit, and promptly hissed and said "Fuck."

      "Now? Here?" Jeremy glanced around the room. "You're a madman."

      Simon let his hand drop back to the bed and took a careful breath, longer than it was deep. "You're right. Bed's a little small."

      Jeremy leaned in over Simon, his hand pressing to the bed by Simon's other hip as he studied Simon's face. "Well, if you can joke, I suspect you'll be all right." His eyes wandered down to where the battered white hospital gown met Simon's throat. "I should have known you were too much of a prick to die."

      "Oh, hey, thanks," Simon said acidly, staring over Jeremy's head at the ceiling. He fumbled for the button on his IV with both hands, finally managing to push it; a moment later there was a deep glugging sound and the pain on his face began to recede into a dim and foggy painkiller haze.

      "Any time." And finally Jeremy smiled, just the slightest bit. The hand he wasn't leaning up drifted up to brush Simon's hair out of his eyes and Jeremy leaned in the rest of the way, giving Simon a long, slow, lazy kiss that Simon did not precisely resist, although he made a fuzzy little cranky noise against Jeremy's lips. "I suspect you should get some more sleep," Jeremy murmured once the kiss broke, touching the tip of his nose to Simon's.

      "Yeah." Simon's eyes kept drifting shut and cracking open again. "Sleep's the breakfast of champions. ...knew you'd show up."

      Jeremy's laugh was a soft breath on Simon's cheek. He didn't sit up. "Did you? Have you put another tracer on me? I hate having to get rid of perfectly good jackets after seeing you, Simon..."

      "Nah," Simon said, drifting off. "Just... kind of wanted you to."

      By the time Jeremy digested this, his eyebrow lifting, Simon was already asleep underneath him.

      It was almost seven in the evening by the time Sandra was able to break away from work the next day. She was exhausted. She was beyond frazzled. "I don't know how Simon does it," she snapped at Mike, stomping out to her car. "I work with crazy people. You are all batshit. Another few days of this and I'll go get myself shot too just to get some peace and quiet, I swear."

      "Shouldn't say things like that," Mike said, ducking to check under her car as she checked the back seat. "If all you want is a couple of days off, it's probably safer to use a knife, get yourself somewhere in the meat of the shoulder, you know?"

      "Shut up, Mike."

      Mike shrugged, unrepentant. "I can help, just say the word, I got a Swiss army knife around here somewhere—"

      "You wave a knife at me and I'll break your arm in four places, cholo."

      "Fine, be that way. Least I know what to do next time I need a couple of days off."

      Sandra snorted and unlocked the car. Mike was quiet until she got the car started and had it trundling down the rows to where Mike had parked. "You going to the hospital?" he finally asked, slightly more subdued now.

      "Yeah," Sandra said, eyes darting back and forth, looking for... well, she didn't know what, precisely. Anything suspicious. "It's on the way home."

      "Yeah," Mike echoed. "Tell Simon I said he's a goddamned faker and to stop malingering."

      "Will do." Sandra pulled up beside Mike's car. "Ta da. It's like valet parking in reverse. Go check your car. I want to get out of here before Upstairs thinks of sixteen more things I have to go do."

      Mike hesitated, then reached over and squeezed Sandra's shoulder. "Hey. New boss. Don't sweat it, 'kay? You're doing fine."

      Sandra smiled sweetly and drove the heel of her hand into his side. Mike made a most satisfying 'oof!' sound and hunched over, hugging his ribs. His eyes were wide and startled. "Shit, Sandy, that's what I get for trying to be nice?"

      "That's what you get for thinking I needed some kind of fucking pep talk from you. Go check your goddamn car."

      Mike blinked at her in confusion, then reached out and grabbed her shoulder, somewhat gently. "Hey." Automatically Sandra struck for his ribs again; this time Mike caught her hand. "Dammit, Sandy, will you chill?" he demanded, giving her a little shake.

      Sandra halfheartedly fought against his grip on her hand for a moment before giving up. "Shit. Sorry, Mike. I'm just—"

      "Going psychotic from stress, yeah, I gathered. Not that I don't think it's really hot when you get all violent and shit, but I'm kind of a fragile fucking flower, you know?" Mike let go of her hand, then squeezed her shoulder again and let go. "Get some sleep or something. Turn off your phone. Fuck the Man. I'll see you tomorrow, boss." And he ducked out of the car before she could snap at him about calling her 'boss'.

      Sighing, Sandra crossed her arms on the steering wheel and rested her chin on them, watching Mike check under his car and in the backseat. Finding nothing, he turned around and gave her a thumbs-up. She flipped him off. He grinned and grabbed his crotch in her general direction, and Sandy snorted and smacked her brights on, half-blinding him.

      "Crazy ho!" Mike bellowed, starting his own car and pulling out.

      Sandra's rising cry of "Asshole!" followed him all the way out of the lot. After that, she felt a little better.

      She drove to the hospital more or less on autopilot. She talked to Simon's doctors more or less on autopilot. Finally she was able to take the elevator up to Simon's floor, where a sturdy no-nonsense field agent with the unlikely and unfortunate name of Jasmine 'Call me Jazz' duPlessis was sitting stolidly outside Simon's door, clipboard resting across her knees.

      "Hey, Secret Agent Jazz," Sandra said, blowing out an exhausted breath and running one hand through her hair. "What's the word?"

      "Not a damn thing, Secret Agent Sandy," Jazz said, knocking her knuckles against the clipboard. "Cleary and Jackson both report completely dead shifts and I've got nothing more interesting than that. No one's interested in looking at our boy, seems like."

      "Hey, beats the alternative, right?" Sandra glanced at the door. "He awake?"

      "Hell, no." Jazz stretched her arms up above her head and yawned as an afterthought. "Looked in on him when I came on duty and he was out like a light, and far as I can tell he still is. He's not bitching or throwing shit, anyway."

      Sandra's smile went from real to pasted on just like that. Jazz was a good person and a dependable field agent, but she didn't have the right to be talking about Simon like that. As far as Sandra was concerned, that right belonged entirely to her, and maybe, grudgingly, to the others on the team. If they were lucky and she felt like sharing. "Good enough," she finally said, cracking the door open and pitching her voice low. "I'll just peek in on him."

      Jazz flapped her hand. "Go on, then, girl. Nurse was by not half an hour ago. I get the feeling it'd take a mid-sized explosion to wake him just about now."

      "Probably," Sandra said absently, letting herself into the room and closing the door with something like relief. After the hectic mess of the day, the dimly-lit hospital room was the first bit of peace she'd had all day, beeping machines or no, and she took a moment to just lean her head against the cool wood of the door and catch her breath. When you had to go to the hospital to get some peace and quiet... she didn't let herself finish that thought, instead stepping away from the door.

      Simon looked exactly the same as he had when she'd left yesterday, which seemed like a good sign. Or a bad sign. Sandra wasn't really sure. The doctors were neutral on the subject. They said he was stable, recovering, but all she knew was that he wasn't really Simon like this. Just seeing him asleep was strange enough. He was sleeping so deeply that he barely seemed to be breathing, and Sandra watched his chest for a moment just to make sure he was. "Hey, boss," she finally said under her breath, and reached out to touch his shoulder.

      Someone cleared his throat. Sandra's hand flew to her hip in one smooth practiced motion and her gun was trained on the bathroom door almost before the sound was over. "... my apologies," Jeremy said, blinking mildly, his hands already up, open, and empty.

      "God—" Jeremy's finger flew to his lips, shushing her. "—dammit, Archer," Sandra finished in a furious whisper, not taking the gun off him. Adrenalin stiffened her spine like a wire, but her hands were rock-steady. "You scared the everliving shit out of me!"

      "I'm very sorry." Jeremy didn't put his hands down, either. "I'd actually meant to be gone by now."

      "Who let you in? Who am I going to have to kill?"

      "Ah. Technically, I let myself in."

      "Oh, you bastard," Sandra breathed.

      "It didn't seem likely that my name made it onto the short list of allowed guests."

      "... you have a point. Why are you even here?"

      Jeremy nodded towards Simon. "You called and told me he'd been shot," he said, as if that explained everything. "May I put my hands down?"

      "No." But most of the adrenalin ebbed out of Sandra at the simplicity of that goddamned answer. Still angry, she snapped, "So you, what, came to make sure I wasn't lying to you?"

      Jeremy's face was bland and patient. "I came because you called and told me he'd been shot."

      "That still isn't an answer."

      "No, I suppose it's not."

      They stood that way for a moment longer, Sandra with her gun pointed at Jeremy, Jeremy with his hands nonchalantly in the air. Sandra found herself eyeing his right wrist and the band of his watch. Jeremy was polite enough not to mention it. Between them, Simon slept on, unaware of the drama.

      "I don't suppose you'd be willing to help me get back out," Jeremy finally said, his fingers twitching slightly.

      "Right now I'm leaning more towards either shooting you or yelling for help," Sandra snapped, and was surprised to find it was almost true. She'd almost welcome a little mayhem right now.

      Jeremy didn't answer right away. But he slid his feet slightly farther apart and his shoulders lifted slightly, tensing, and his hands both rolled into loose fists. Sandra's fingers tightened on the grip of her gun. "I'm sorry, Ms. Leone," Jeremy said for the second time, and his voice was very soft and soothing. "I only wanted to see to Simon and make certain he was all right, and I've done so. All I want now is to leave in peace, and I'll stay away from now on if you insist."

      Jeremy paused. Sandra's chin lifted slightly, but she didn't say anything. "All I want now is to leave in peace," Jeremy repeated, stressing the words slightly. "You don't have to help me. You don't have to do anything. I'll take care of it myself, and all you have to do is pretend I'm not here. However, if you insist on doing this the hard way—" The fingers of his right hand twitched slightly.

      "Oh, shut up, Archer," Sandra said tiredly, reholstering her gun with an abrupt movement. "Give me five minutes and then I'll help you get out, all right?"

      Jeremy's shoulders relaxed and his hands dropped to his sides. "I'm in your debt," he said, and he knew enough not to smile. "I believe I owe you dinner, at least."

      "At least," Sandra echoed. "Go hide in the bathroom again."

      "... I thought you wanted five minutes?"

      "I do." Sandra smiled tightly. "I just want to say hello to Simon first, and I want to pretend you're not here."

      "Ah." Jeremy half-bowed, stepping back into the darkness of the bathroom and vanishing like a spectre. His disembodied voice floated out to Sandra. "I can understand that."

      Five minutes later Sandra let herself back out, closing the door behind herself and leaning on it for a moment. "All clear, Jazz," she said, offhandedly. "If you want to go use the facilities or grab a snack, I'll watch the door until you get back."

      Jazz sighed, a long and heavy procedure, and stood up, handing over the clipboard. "You're an angel, Secret Agent Sandy. I'll be back in five."

      "Take your time," Sandra called after Jazz's retreating back. She waited until Jazz had rounded the corner, counted to ten, then rapped her knuckles against the door once.

      There was a pause, then Jeremy's face flashed once, briefly, against the tiny window in the door. A second later he was out, and the door was closed, and he was already on the way down the hallway in the opposite direction—it had been so fast and smooth that Sandra barely saw it, and she'd been watching for it. There wasn't so much as a peep from the nurses' station.

      He'd touched her shoulder as he went past, though, and murmured something that sounded like "Lobby?"

      Somewhat to her surprise, Sandra was considering meeting him there.

      She found him in the little florist shop just off the lobby, just now putting away his wallet. The florist handed him a receipt. "Flowers? Simon's going to kill you for that," Sandra said, with a bit of relish.

      "Ah. He would, wouldn't he?" Jeremy said with a little faraway smile, crumpling the receipt and dropping it neatly into the trashcan by the exit. "Fortunately, they aren't for him."

      "What?" Sandra was taken aback. Just then the florist's runner came out bearing a rather pretty little arrangement of yellow and orange flowers, heading towards the entrance of the shop where they stood, and Sandra had just enough time to think if he bought those for me I'm going to kill him myself before he slid between them with an apology and set off towards the elevator. Sandra turned to watch him go, curious. "So if they're not for Simon—" and they're not for me "—who are they for?"

      "Do you know," Jeremy said, that little smile suddenly maddening, "I don't think I want to tell you?"

      Sandra jerked back, stung. "Don't want to tell me?" she repeated stupidly. She was too tired for this. "Why not?"

      Instead of answering, Jeremy glanced over his shoulder, then gestured lazily in the direction of the lobby. "Shall we walk, Ms. Leone?"

      "Don't want to tell me," Sandra muttered, allowing herself to be shepherded out into the lobby proper only because the sweetish reek of the florist's shop was starting to annoy her.

      "Allow me to make you an offer, Ms. Leone," Jeremy said as soon as they were clear. "At this moment I believe we're both a bit too out of sorts to have a proper conversation—the sort where people don't pull weapons on each other—and I believe that a decent meal would go a long way towards remedying that. Would you allow me to buy you dinner?"

      Sandra laughed a little, bitterly. "You really do think you're smooth, don't you, Archer?"

      "Well, yes," Jeremy said. "Indeed, I've been told I'm positively frictionless."

      "Went to charm school, did you?" But the more Sandra thought about it, the lower her resistance to the idea became. She was hungry—hell, she was starving—and letting Jeremy buy her dinner sounded much better than driving home and eating some leftover takeout before crashing into bed. "Fine," she said abruptly, reaching up to push her hair behind her ear again. "Buy me dinner, Archer. But I'm warning you, I don't put out on the first date. I'm just not that kind of girl."

      "Ah, well, isn't that just my luck," Jeremy murmured, his smile getting just a touch wider. It rasped on Sandra's drawn nerves like sandpaper.

      Sandra rolled her eyes. "Nobody here's buying your straight act, Archer," she snapped, mostly to try and wipe that annoying smile off his face. It worked, although he looked a lot less startled than she thought he ought to. "And I'm not in the mood in any case. We clear?"

      "As crystal," Jeremy said gravely, touching her elbow to shepherd her towards the revolving door.

      After a grumpy but desultory argument over who got to drive, Sandra finally allowed herself to be persuaded into the passenger seat of Jeremy's slick little sports car. The car smelled like leather and, more faintly, of cigarette smoke and something strange and spicy. Sandra burrowed into the curved leather hammock of the passenger seat and shut her eyes—for just a moment, she told herself, to rest them—resting her cheek against the shoulder strap of her seatbelt. She dozed off almost before they left the parking garage.

      Beside her, Jeremy was mercifully silent. Rush hour had come and gone and it was fully dark out, and despite everything—or perhaps because of it—Sandra's doze threatened to deepen into full, real, deep sleep. It was something she hadn't been getting enough of lately. Hovering on the verge of sleep she attended vaguely to the journey going on around her, dimly conscious of the occasional lane shift or turn. The ride was smooth, though, and the seat was ridiculously comfortable, and eventually she gave in and slid into unconsciousness with a sigh.

      At one point she dreamed that Jeremy was speaking to her, but that she couldn't understand what he was saying.

      She didn't wake until the car slowed and the wheels bumped up against the slant of a rising driveway. Struggling upright Sandra scrubbed at her eyes with her fists, blinked twice, and then said, "Oh, hell no."

      "Hm?" Jeremy said, his eyes on the curving drive ahead of them. The steering wheel slid through his hands with a little whispering sound.

      "Do you have any idea how tired I am?" Sandra said, her dull anger flaring again. "I'm barely up to eating in the first place, let alone dealing with fingerbowls—this place has a dress code, Archer! Jesus Christ!" Grabbing hold of her temper with both hands, Sandra pinched the bridge of her nose until the impending headache receded. Her skin felt greasy under her fingers and it made her grimace. "Look," she said tightly. "I know you probably meant well and wanted to buy me a really nice apology dinner, but there is no way in hell that I am up to eating in a place this fancy, even if I were properly dressed for it. Let's go someplace else."

      "Ms. Leone," Jeremy said.

      "And stop that," Sandra said, letting her hands drop into her lap. "For God's sake, I've worn your blood like a pair of elbow-length gloves, I'd think you could at least call me Sandra."

      "Fair enough," Jeremy said. He had the courtesy to wince at that, Sandra was vaguely pleased to note. The long and rising drive eventually opened out onto a semi-circular drive populated almost entirely by red-vested valets. "Sandra, then. I'm asking you to simply trust me on this."

      "Why does it always come down to that with you?" Sandra asked peevishly, unbuckling her seatbelt and lurching out of the car as the valet opened her door. Her legs threatened to buckle under her for a moment, but she gritted her teeth until it passed.

      Jeremy passed the valet something that crackled faintly. Sandra didn't see what it was, but she could guess. "Do you know, I'm not sure," he said, stepping back. His little car disappeared smartly around the bend and Jeremy watched it go before turning to Sandra. "Shall we?" he said. "I'd offer you my arm, but I'm rather afraid I'd lose it."

      "The man can be taught," Sandra muttered.

      "This way, then," Jeremy said, and he bowed over his extended hand, which was almost, but not quite, as annoying as actually trying to take her arm. Sandra shot a glare in his general direction and stalked towards the doors.

      The double doors opened onto a lobby that was nothing short of opulent. It made Sandra tired just to look at it. The crystal chandelier in the ceiling did little but make her eyes throb, violins were playing from somewhere, and the noise of people dining clattered in through the far archway. A woman in a cocktail dress swept past Sandra, barely even sparing her a glance, like her jeans and battered suede blazer made her invisible in this place.

      Yeah. This was going to be excruciating. Sandra gritted her teeth and headed for the host's stand, preparing to endure dinner.


      The fat and sweaty little man in the immaculate black suit intercepted them before they got halfway across the lobby, beaming. Jeremy smiled and held out both hands, and the man grabbed him in an enthusiastic hug, nearly lifting Jeremy's feet off the floor in the process. Sandra blinked, slowly, too tired to believe what her eyes were telling her.

      The little man laughed and noisily kissed Jeremy's cheek before letting him go, still beaming. "So good to see you again!" he cried. "I was so pleased to get your call, of course I'll do everything in my power to help—"

      "You certainly haven't changed, Claude," Jeremy said, tugging his jacket back into place. "I do hope everything's in order. I'm exhausted, and if I have to put up with the dining room this evening, I suspect that it may kill me."

      The smile vanished off Claude's face on the instant, replaced by an expression of almost comical concern. "Of course, of course, right this way, I've seen to everything myself," he said, and then he swung to Sandra, who flinched despite herself. "Please, right this way, ma'am, lovely to meet you—" and he swept them both off down a narrow and unobtrusive wood-paneled hallway half-hidden behind the coat check station.

      Sandra, a bit dazed by the sudden explosion of attention, followed Jeremy without really wondering about where they were going. This sort of fuss was just what she hadn't wanted—Claude stopped and pulled open a door about halfway down the hall, gesturing them grandly in. "Go on, go on," he said. "Sit and rest, I'll be back on the instant!"

      Jeremy peered into the room and then clapped Claude gravely on the shoulder. "It's just what I needed," he said. "You're a miracle worker, as always."

      "I try," Claude said smugly, and he zipped off on down the hallway, moving pretty smartly for a fat man.

      Curious, Sandra plodded the last two steps to the open doorway and looked in. The little room was paneled in some kind of dark wood and, in direct contrast to everything else she'd seen so far, simply furnished and outfitted; the upholstered armchairs were wide and sturdy, their padded seats curved from age and use, and the little round table was almost completely bare, without even a tablecloth to get tangled about her knees when she sat down.

      Jeremy collapsed bonelessly into one of the armchairs, shutting his eyes. "Oh, God," he said. "I shall be hard-pressed not to fall asleep right here."

      "Yeah," Sandra echoed, getting herself moving again only with an effort. Really, only the promise of the chair made her move at all. She sank into it with a bit of a groan herself and crossed her arms on the bare table, dropping her head into them. "I thought this place was fancier than this."

      "Well, yes, it is," Jeremy said. "Out there, at any rate."

      Sandra considered this, lifting her head out of her crossed arms. "You know, I should be more curious about this," she said, "but I'm too tired."

      Jeremy started to say something in answer to that, but just then Claude darted back into the room, two menus under his arm and two glasses of water on a tray in his hand. "I know that you'll be having club soda," he told Jeremy, "but for the lady?"

      "Diet Coke," Sandra said. To hell with what the fat man thought of that.

      "Diet Coke," Claude said, without hesitation, setting her water down in front of her. "Will you be needing menus?"

      Jeremy waved the menu away. "Tell me, what did you have for dinner tonight?"

      "The stewed chicken in white sauce," Claude said, beaming. "Potatoes and onions. Good, solid, hearty farmer's fare. None of those ridiculous frills."

      "Sounds excellent," Jeremy said wearily. "I'll have that."

      "... me too," Sandra said. "Weird. I thought this place was all about the frills."

      Claude sniffed, the amiable expression falling off his face on the instant. "Frills sell," he said disdainfully. "No one in this country eats real food—they're all frightened of it. If I want to make money, I have to sell frills and ambiance to a bunch of idiots with lead palates. Why I ever came to America in the first place—"

      "—be a love, Claude," Jeremy said, interrupting what looked to Sandra to be a lengthy and well-rehearsed rant. "Not tonight."

      Claude slapped his forehead. "Of course! Of course, I'm an idiot. I shall go get your drinks, and would either of you care for some aspirin? I have a bottle in my desk, and frankly, you both look as if you could use some."

      "Christ, yes," Sandra said, nearly moaning it. "Four, please. Also, I love you."

      "She's never even told me that," Jeremy said. "Who knew you could buy her love with drugs? Two for me as well. Bless you, Claude."

      "Bah, anything for friends of the house," Claude said, and swept out of the room, closing the door behind him with a click.

      Sandra shoveled her hair out of her face and closed her eyes. It was so quiet that she could hear Jeremy breathing, and under that, dimly, the clatter of the kitchen. "All right, fine," she finally said.


      "I admit it, this isn't so bad."

      "Mm," Jeremy said. "I apologize for not explaining myself before we arrived, but I decided that you probably needed your sleep."

      "Yeah," Sandra said, opening her eyes. "Yeah, okay. Truce?"

      "Truce," Jeremy said, although he sounded a bit amused.

      Sandra stared at him. "What's so funny?"

      "To tell you the truth, Ms. Leone, I wasn't aware we were at war."

      "Sandra," Sandra said, exasperated. "And since I don't feel like putting this nicely: I don't not like you, Archer, but I don't particularly like you, either. These last two days have put me at the end of my rope, and just about the last thing I needed was for you to surprise me inside Simon's fucking hospital room, Jesus Christ. I'm too tired to be angry with you right now, but you know what? I really should be. So you'll take my truce and you'll like it."

      "Mm," Jeremy said. "I take your point, and I apologize. And, if I may...?"


      "If I'm to call you 'Sandra', the least you can do is return the favor."

      Sandra considered this for a moment. She was tired, and she was kind of angry, but she also couldn't let a perfect straight line go when she saw one. "What, you want me to call you 'Sandra'? That's going to get kind of confusing."

      Jeremy blinked, once, and then clapped a hand over his eyes and started laughing. "Oh, God, I am tired, aren't I?"

      "But, anyway, fine," Sandra said. Her own urge to laugh was a vague pang that passed quickly. "Jeremy, then."

      "I do appreciate it," Jeremy said, letting his hand drop. There was a knock on the closed door, and Jeremy glanced toward it and called "Come!"

      The door swung open and Claude backed into the room, a tray held in front of his chest. "Club soda with lime for the gentleman," he said, putting a glass down in front of Jeremy, "and a Diet Coke for the lady," he said, putting Sandra's drink down in front of her. "And the house bread and garlic sauce, and, lest I forget, six aspirins." Sandra immediately scrabbled four of the aspirin out of the little silver dish in the middle of the table; Claude beamed indulgently at her, holding his empty tray flat against his belly. "Your dinner will be about another fifteen minutes, and I'll leave you to recuperate until then."

      "You're an angel, Claude," Jeremy said, picking the last two aspirin out of the dish. "I may never leave."

      "Such promises he makes," Claude said, bowing himself cheerfully out of the room and closing the door behind him.

      By the time Sandra finished off her drink and wolfed down a piece of bread, she was already feeling better. Her sluggish brain picked itself up, dusted itself off, and started limping along again. "So who is he?" she asked, filching a second piece of bread from the basket and nodding at the closed door.

      "Claude?" Jeremy asked, not opening his eyes. He was sprawled out in his chair with his head tilted back, looking just about as exhausted as Sandra felt. "He's the owner. I believe this is his private dining room we're sitting in."

      "And you know him... how?"

      Jeremy laughed a little. "He's an old, old friend of my mentor's. The rest of his story is both complicated and not mine to tell, I'm afraid."

      For a moment, Sandra considered pushing the matter out of sheer curiosity. In the end, she decided against it; as interesting as it might be, it wasn't anything she needed to know right now. Instead she finished off her second piece of bread and settled in with her water. "Considering we have a truce," she began, carefully.

      "Mm?" Jeremy said.

      "Who were the flowers for?"

      Jeremy held up a hand to forestall her. "After dinner, please," he said, sounding apologetic about it. "I promise you that I will field any questions you may have after I've eaten something. As it is I'm barely functional."

      "I guess that's fair," Sandra said. "Irritating, but fair. I mean, what else are we supposed to talk about? The weather? Football? Whatever you were stealing in Tokyo?"

      "You could tell me about who shot Simon," Jeremy said, and Sandra choked on her water. Jeremy had lifted his head and opened his eyes and he was watching her intently, his hands steepled in front of his chest. "Judging by the guard on Simon's door and your own reaction to my presence, either you haven't caught the shooter yet or you suspect he has accomplices still at large," Jeremy went on, politely ignoring the coughing from the other side of the table. "Also, since Simon was gutshot, that leads me to believe that he wasn't wearing a vest of any sort, so he must have been surprised..."

      "Oh, barely functional, my ass," Sandra said, snuffling to clear the water from her nose. "If you're going to plead exhaustion to dodge my questions and then hit me up with your own, well, two can play at that game. After dinner. And there's only so much I can tell you in any case, so don't get your hopes up."

      "Ah, well." Jeremy looked away. Sandra suspected it was to hide a smile. "I thought it was worth a try."

      "You know," Sandra said irritably, "I always felt kind of sorry for Simon for having to be the one who actually dealt with you, but now I'm starting to think he deserves some kind of medal. How did he get this far without beating the crap out of you?"

      "Who said he hasn't?" Jeremy said, raising an eyebrow.

      Sandra shook her head and took a third piece of bread from the basket, just because it was there. "Simon wouldn't do that," she said around a mouthful. To hell with what Archer thought about her table manners, too.

      "Mm," said Jeremy. "Well, I suppose you do know him better than I do."

      Sandra automatically started to agree with that sentiment before its noncommittal nature really registered, forcing her to stop and think about what Jeremy was and wasn't saying. She knew better, didn't she? She'd sat in the saferoom and listened to Jeremy weasel around his own basic amorality by picking his words carefully, hadn't she? And he was certainly picking his words very carefully at the moment, wasn't he? And she had a strong suspicion that she knew why he was doing so, didn't she? Sandra hesitated, and put her half-eaten bread down on the little dish that the aspirin had come in. "Well, that's the thing," she said slowly. She glanced up at Jeremy, taking in his face out of the corner of her eye, and then looked back down at her hands, picking absently at the remains of her manicure. "Do I?"

      Jeremy was silent.

      "I've been on Simon's team for a little over four years now," Sandra said, scraping a flake of pink polish from one of her thumbnails. She didn't know why she bothered painting her nails any more. She always destroyed her manicure the first time she needed something to do with her hands. "You can't do a job like ours for four years and not get to know your teammates really well, okay? It just... you can't keep your distance. There's no way to save a guy's life one second and go back to minding your own business the next." Huffing out a sour breath Sandra shook her head. "So yeah, I guess I do know Simon pretty well—but I thought I knew Rich pretty well, too, and look how that turned out. Shows you what I really know."

      Jeremy was still silent. Sandra peeled a thin thread of nailpolish off the side of one of her nails and let it drop, listening to Jeremy breathing and, distantly, someone in the kitchen laughing. "God, I shouldn't be talking about this," she said, all in a rush.

      "Ms. Leone—"


      Jeremy closed his eyes, briefly. "Sandra."

      "See, the thing about Simon is that he doesn't tell us things unless he thinks we need to know them," Sandra said. Somewhere deep inside she was horrified that she was saying these things out loud at all, especially to Jeremy, but she couldn't stop. Damn the man for listening anyway. "And that makes me wonder. How well do I know him? Really?"

      Jeremy was quiet again. Sandra's eyes were fixed on her hands, but she could sense him watching her—her peripheral vision told her as much. "So let's start there," she said. "Just tell me yes or no. Don't explain. Has Simon ever beaten the crap out of you?"

      "Yes," Jeremy said.

      Sandra closed her own eyes. "Was he seriously trying to hurt you?"

      "Yes," Jeremy said again.

      Blindly, Sandra laced her fingers together. "Why—no, don't answer that. Um. Was it directly related to your, uh, your criminal activities?"

      "No," Jeremy said.

      "Was it personal?" Sandra opened her eyes and looked up, trying to brace herself, probably failing.

      Jeremy hesitated. "It's complicated," he finally said.

      "So let's say yes and no."

      "That's fair."

      "So Simon once beat the shit out of you for reasons that weren't related to his job, at least not entirely," Sandra concluded.

      "Not entirely," Jeremy echoed.

      "So those reasons were at least partially personal."


      Sandra stopped and forced herself to take a deep breath. "And you're telling me the truth."


      "Then I think that tells me everything I need to know," Sandra said. Her gut felt hollow. Suddenly she didn't have any appetite left for the bread, but she took a sip of her water, stalling for time. Across from her Jeremy was silent and watchful, his expression grave. Sandra put her glass down. "Aren't you going to ask me what I've concluded?"

      "I don't think that's necessary," Jeremy said. "After all, if I ask you, then I'll be put in a position where I'll feel obligated to confirm or deny your theory."

      Sandra twitched out half a smile despite herself. "Yeah. Yeah, I don't really want you to do that either. I guess I don't really want to know. Not for sure."

      "Shall we leave it at that, then?" Jeremy was still watching her, although he was wearing just the faintest hint of a smile now. "Since to go any further would compromise Simon's privacy?"

      "Yeah," Sandra said. "I follow you. I'm done."

      "In that case," Jeremy said, "may I ask you a question? Just one."

      Sandra looked away, bracing herself. "Just one," she said tightly.

      The pause that followed was long, but it wasn't long enough. "Do you have a personal reason for asking?" Jeremy finally asked.

      Suddenly the blood was beating hard in Sandra's ears, the roar of it deafening. "Yes," she finally said through gritted teeth. God damn him anyway.

      "And you seem like the sort of person who wouldn't take things personally without a damned good reason," Jeremy said, musing.

      "Hey," said Sandra. "You said 'just one'."

      "My apologies," Jeremy said. "That wasn't a question. I'm simply... explaining my reasoning."

      "Yes, well, I think we understand each other now," Sandra said. "Is there a bathroom around here I could use, do you know?"

      Jeremy was silent for a moment. "Out the door and to the right," he finally said. Sandra couldn't decide if what she was hearing in his voice was kindness or pity, and she didn't want to know which it was. In her current state, either one ran the risk of making her either break down or break his nose. "It's the last door on the left before the hallway bends towards the kitchen."

      "Thanks," Sandra said tightly. She heaved herself out of her chair and strode quickly to the door, getting a wall between herself and Jeremy as fast as possible.

      By the time she came back, her face washed clean of makeup and her hair pulled back in a rubber band, there were two covered plates sitting on the little table along with silverware and fresh drinks. Of Claude there was no sign, but Jeremy was just where she had left him, neatly tucked into his chair with his legs crossed and his hands folded in his lap. "You didn't have to wait for me," Sandra said briskly, tucking herself back into her chair.

      "Bah, I hardly had to wait at all," Jeremy said. "Our dinner arrived less than a minute ago. And to be honest, if you had been even thirty seconds later, my manners probably would have been overcome by my appetite."

      "Well, then, let's eat already," Sandra said, and whipped the metal cover off her plate, getting a faceful of steam. "... oh, God."

      Jeremy leaned across the table and took the cover from her, stacking it with his own and moving it to a tray set up behind his chair. "I agree," he said. "To hell with conversation. Dinner now."

      "For once, I'd have to agree with you, as much as that hurts," Sandra said, poking at her chicken with her fork. The stewed chicken nearly fell apart at the first press, and Sandra speared a bit, ate it, and moaned around the tines of her fork.

      "I trust it was all right?" Claude said archly, stacking up their empty plates on the tray.

      "Wonderful," Jeremy said, with real feeling. "It's a good thing Ms. Leone was here to remind me of my manners or I might have licked my plate clean."

      "Now that's a mental image I didn't need, Archer," Sandra said. She was full, stuffed to bursting, logy with food, and for the first time in what seemed like forever she was starting to feel on top of things again. "But, yes, it was delicious, thank you."

      "Good, good!" Beaming, Claude finished clearing the table and flicked a napkin over it, cleaning up the crumbs. "More to drink? Oh, and there's dessert coming, and don't you dare try and tell me no."

      "Oh, I learned the futility of that long ago," Jeremy said. "Coffee, please. If we're to get ourselves to our respective homes in one piece, we'll need it."

      "I'll bring a pot," Claude promised. Sweeping up the tray, he spun out the open door and nudged it closed behind him.

      Jeremy folded his hands over his stomach and smiled at Sandra. "Well! I feel worlds better for having eaten. You?"

      "I think I may live to see another day," Sandra said. "So, does this count as 'after dinner', or do I have to wait until after dessert, too?"

      "Oh, I think I'm up to the task by now." Jeremy paused, considering. "Do you want to start, or shall I?"

      Sandra glanced at the closed door. "I'll start," she said. "We can talk about Simon when we're less likely to be interrupted. So, Archer. Flowers?"

      "They were for a patient named Luther Bycross," Jeremy said, without further ado. "I'm afraid I used the man rather shamelessly as part of my bid to get into Simon's hospital room unnoticed, and I told him that I owed him flowers in return."

      Sandra nodded. "Don't think I'm not going to drag the rest of that story out of you, but first... when was this? When did you sneak into Simon's room?"

      Jeremy hesitated. "A little after five in the morning," he finally said, reluctantly.

      "Cleary," Sandra said, rolling her eyes. "Fucking Cleary. Why am I not surprised? Where was he?"

      "He said he was popping out for a bite to eat and a smoke," Jeremy said. "I don't know exactly where he went."

      Sandra shook her head. "I'll kill him," she said with relish. "Pull his guts out through his navel."

      Jeremy smiled a bit. "Simon said he'd have him shot. It's so nice when people agree."

      "Wait," Sandra said, startled. "Wait. Simon spoke to you? Simon was conscious?"

      "Yes, for about... forty seconds. Out of approximately fourteen hours that I spent hiding in his room." Jeremy spread his hands. "Not precisely an efficient use of my time, although I confess myself content."

      Sandra leaned forward, intent. "Damn. Archer. Please. Did he say anything—anything—about the guy who shot him?"

      "Ah." Jeremy looked startled and then abashed. "I hate to admit it, but I don't think he said anything that would be of any use to you. He was barely awake for long enough to process that I was there."

      Sandra shut her eyes. Her headache was a thing of the past, but she rubbed her temples anyway, just because it felt good to do so. "Damn it," she said. "See, we're about ninety percent sure we know who the shooter was, but Simon's the only one who saw his face, and he hasn't been conscious for long enough to confirm or deny it—"

      Jeremy touched her arm and Sandra broke off there, her eyes flying open. Jeremy was looking towards the door, holding up his other hand like he was a cop halting traffic. Sandra glanced towards the door just as someone knocked on it. "Come!" Jeremy called, letting both hands drop again.

      The door opened and Claude backed through, a tray balanced on one hand. "Coffee," he said briskly, spinning the tray down onto the stand behind Jeremy's chair. "And dessert, as promised." Dishes clinked down on the table in front of them: dessert plates, reasonably plain coffee cups, a heavy-looking silver coffeepot... Sandra picked up the fork resting on the edge of her plate and poked gingerly at the thick and bubbly-looking slice of bread that was floating in a pool of some creamy stuff. "Orange-ginger tea cake," Claude said, just as if she'd asked, "in vanilla cream."

      "I'll regret this in the morning," Sandra said, cutting off a corner with her fork and poking it into her mouth. It was astonishing, spicier than it was sweet, and she shut her eyes in order to enjoy it better.

      "Let me just give you this now," she heard Jeremy say. Something crackled like folding paper. "Once we've finished here I'm afraid I'll need to be on my way."

      "Of course," Claude murmured. "But you must come back."

      "If I'm able," said Jeremy. Sandra opened her eyes and cut off another corner of her cake, paying more attention to it than to either of them. The door closed behind Claude. She barely spared it a thought.

      Jeremy filled both coffee cups, hers and then his own. Sandra ate steadily through her cake. Jeremy took a bite of his, closed his own eyes in momentary appreciation, and then turned his attention to his coffee. For the moment, all was quiet.

      Finally Sandra looked up. "If you're not going to eat that," she said, "then tell me the story of how you got into Simon's hospital room."

      "From the beginning?" Jeremy asked, raising an eyebrow.

      "Don't leave anything out," said Sandra, picking up her own cup. "I could use a good laugh."

      There were only two valets left on duty by the time they left the restaurant. This time, watching closely, Sandra saw the folded bill tucked behind the valet tag that Jeremy handed over, and the valet's sudden turn of speed made perfect sense. The other valet made a perfunctory effort to open the car door for her when it came, but Jeremy beat him to it, opening the door and gesturing Sandra in with a wave of his hand and a twitch of his eyebrow, as if he found his own manners to be too ironic for words.

      She didn't so much get into the car as she did roll in, curling protectively about her belly like she was pregnant with food. Jeremy shut the door behind her and slid around to the other side of the car, settling into the driver's seat and nudging the car towards the exit. Sandra waited until he was guiding the car back down the long and winding drive to say, "I suppose I forgive you."

      "I'm glad," said Jeremy. "For what?"

      "For everything," Sandra said, and shrugged. "Well, for everything that I know you've done, anyway. Don't get me wrong, I'm still not your biggest fan, but for the moment, we're good. We coo', as Mike would say."

      "Well, then, I am glad," said Jeremy. He paused, then added, "About Simon..."

      "I suppose nowhere else is likely to be this private," Sandra said, glancing out the car window. "Right. Let me get my thoughts in order."

      Jeremy was silent, waiting patiently, his eyes on the road. They came to the end of the curving drive and turned out onto the road proper, the car accelerating so smoothly that Sandra barely felt it. It was like floating, almost. "We were in the parking lot," she said abruptly, staring hard out the window and trying not to picture the scene again. She was helpless not to, though, and suddenly her meal was a stone in her belly. "The goddamned parking lot. He walked me out to my car because we were leaving at the same time—everybody else was already gone for the day—and then he headed over to his own car." Sandra stopped and pressed a knuckle against her lips, her arms folded protectively over her chest. Jeremy said nothing, and after a moment she went on. "I almost missed the sound of the shot. It was just a dinky-shit .22, Christ, it sounded more like someone slapped him than shot him."

      Jeremy flicked on the turn signal and heeled quietly over onto another, larger road, and Sandra was quiet until it was done. "I knew the sound, though," she said. "You learn it. So I spun around and Simon was falling to his knees—" Sandra made a small, helpless, frustrated gesture, feeling sick all over again "—and there was this other guy, running away. He must have been hiding behind Simon's truck, there wasn't anywhere else... Anyway, I drew and yelled for him to stop, which he didn't, of course, and Simon was kind of... groping aimlessly around behind himself, trying to get his own gun out, and then he fell over onto his side—" She stopped abruptly.

      After a long, silent, sick ten seconds, Jeremy quietly prompted, "What did you do?"

      "I want you to understand that I couldn't just shoot the fleeing man and have done," Sandra said. "God knows I wanted to, but it doesn't work that way."

      "No, I understand that." Jeremy's smile twitched on and off. "I'm passing familiar with the intricacies of the law, you understand. As a safety measure."

      "I fired a warning shot into the air, just in case," Sandra said, ignoring Jeremy's tangent. "And I yelled again. But there wasn't anyone else there, so instead of giving chase I started yelling for backup and stayed with Simon. Did what I could." She sounded snappish to her own ears, but she didn't bother apologizing. She could still picture the blood on her hands and Simon's wide, shocked eyes and how they'd started to go all unfocused and dreamy, but even if she'd wanted to put these things into words, she couldn't.

      "A .22," Jeremy said after a moment. "Someone wasn't very serious about killing him, were they?"

      "Of course not," Sandra said. She shook her head to clear it. "Not this fuck. No, that's not his style." She sneered the last word hard.

      Jeremy nodded. "So you do know who did this."

      Sandra sighed out a long and frustrated breath. "Like I said, ninety percent sure. Crazy fuck got out of prison like two weeks ago, broke parole immediately—we didn't expect this, though. Didn't expect him to be this crazy."

      "Who is it?" Jeremy asked.

      Sandra almost told him that she couldn't tell him that. Almost. Jeremy wasn't a part of this (lucky, lucky bastard) and there was absolutely no need for him to know... but he was paying a cool and absolute sort of attention to her, and when it came right down to it, there was no need for him not to know, either. "Farraday," she said tightly. She dropped her hands into her lap and caught a double handful of the hem of her sweater, pulling at it. "His name's Cole Farraday. He

      calls himself a colonel," Simon said with mild distaste, dropping the sheet of paper he'd been holding onto the folder in front of him.

      Sandra, sitting on his left, crossed her arms on the table and said nothing. She could feel Mike fidgeting beside her, like he always did; he couldn't sit still for a second. It was enough to drive her crazy. Mike was plucking at the clip of his pen, running his thumbnail up under it and then letting it snap back against the barrel with a little clicking sound. Sandra wanted nothing so much as to tell him to stop, but this last year had taught her a lot, including the futility of simply telling Mike to do anything. So she ignored him the best she could, her eyes firmly on Simon's face. He'd missed a spot while shaving this morning, just behind the point of his jaw. 

      A little flicker of white caught at the corner of her vision and distracted her from the distraction: Rich, reaching up to fuss with his glasses. "Is he?"

      "A colonel? No." Simon leaned back in his chair and linked his hands behind his head. "He was, in fact, invalidated out of the Army at the grand rank of corporal."

      "Hell of a promotion," Johnny said.

      "And only in his tiny little rathole mind," Simon said, shrugging one shoulder. "When they drum you out of the Army for having a 'personality disorder', they don't go and promote you a good ten ranks in the process. I mean, unless something's changed since my ROTC days."

      "Hoo," Mike said cheerfully, "you were ROTC, boss?" He pronounced it rot-zee, rhyming it with Nazi; Sandra could remember doing that herself, back in her college days. "Never woulda guessed!"

      "Learn something new every day, Honda," Simon said dryly. "Well, most people do. Don't know about you."

      They could go on like this for hours. Sandra knew that very well. So she shifted in her chair, leaning forward and raising her shoulders slightly; the little movement was enough to attract Mike's attention (but what wasn't?) and it made Simon glance towards her as well. "So," she said, "what's our problem with this so-called Colonel Farraday? Does the Army want us to go tell him to knock it off with this 'colonel' shit or what?"

      "Tell you the truth, I think they wouldn't mind that." Simon sat back up and started riffling through the dossier in front of him, one hand flicking rapidly back and forth. "But our problem with the colonel is a bit less trivial."

      "So fill us in," Sandra said, glancing at Simon's hands before looking back at his face.

      "Right," Simon said. "So what we've got here, kids, is one of those smart-type crazy fuckers—"

      "—worst kind," Johnny put in.

      "You said it," Simon said. "Anyway, near as we can tell he joined the Army straight up at age eighteen and spent two or three years being no problem to anybody. Took a few college classes, got promoted along, wasn't unusual in any way. If he was a discipline problem, well, the Army's not saying. Who knows? Maybe he was a nice, normal kid once, with a bunch of buddies and a girlfriend and a, a golden retriever puppy."

      "So what happened?" Sandra asked.

      "In point of fact, the Gulf War happened," Simon said. "He got shipped over pretty early on and snapped under the pressure, or something."

      "Gulf War syndrome?" Nate asked. Sandra, startled, glanced down the table at him. He was playing with his pen.

      "Nah, he wasn't sick. He went crazy." Simon finally found the paper he'd been looking for and slid it out. "Or maybe he pretended to go crazy in order to get shipped home. Army doesn't know. Hell, half the Army psych guys who interviewed him thought he was faking it. Developed a bunch of tics, started talking some crazy talk. 'Espousing a new and disturbingly amoral view of life', as one of the shrinks put it."

      Johnny half-opened one eye. "It work?"

      "Eventually," Simon said. "Got slapped with a 'personality disorder' label, got discharged, and got sent home. And then, boys and girl, he stepped off the plane, picked up his suitcase, and disappeared. Poof." Simon snapped his fingers. "Like that."

      "Why do I get the feeling that's not the end of the story?" Sandra asked.

      "'Cause otherwise it's none of our business?" Mike said cheerfully from behind her, and Sandra twitched and swiveled to look at him. "I mean, shit, all we got so far is that he's possibly crazy, and I'm all possibly crazy too and they don't send the FBI after me."

      "I'm aware of that," Sandra said after a pause. "You know, just in case you were wondering."

      "Nah, I wasn't wondering," Mike said, looking mildly hurt. "Shit, I was just funnin' with you."

      Simon cleared his throat. Sandra, beginning to feel a bit like a tennis ball being lobbed back and forth, swiveled back around to face him. "Anyway," Simon said. "Remember that 'amoral view of life' bullcrap I told you about earlier? Basically, if you boil it all down, our friend the colonel believes or pretends to believe that the government shouldn't get to dictate how we conduct our private lives—"

      "Um," said Nate. "Is that a problem? Because, I mean, I kind of believe that too..."

      "Well, yeah, same here, we're all good libertarians here, but the colonel takes that to mean that he can smuggle unstamped cigarettes and peddle a lot of drugs and hijack trucks and abscond with willing sixteen-year-old girls," Simon said, waving his bit of paper at Nate. "He likes to send the papers these typewritten screeds about how the age of consent is an artificial construct meant to prevent little girls from 'fully expressing their natural womanhood' or some shit, I don't know, or how getting involved with drug cartels is evil and wrong but growing weed in your own backyard and selling it to the neighbors ought to be legal because it's a matter of choice..."

      "Shit, I kind of can't disagree with that part," Mike said. "Course, don't quote me on that. I like my job like it is. You know. Existing."

      "So yeah," Simon said, ignoring Mike entirely, "basically you've got your flat-out balls-standard cult of personality growing up around this guy—apparently he's one of those charismatic panty-melter types, which just goes to show you there's no accounting for chicks, I mean taste—and he's rocketing around up North setting up hidey-holes and driving RVs full of illicit goods back and forth across the Canadian border and making a complete pain in the ass out of himself."

      "Great," said Mike. "I wanted to spend my time taking out whacko cult leaders, I'd have joined the ATF."

      "Yeah, 'cause they're awesome at it," Simon said without any apparent sarcasm. "Anyway, he's definitely one wanted little motherfucker, so our only goal here is to find him, arrest him, and feed him into the maw of the military-industrial complex, so to speak. I'm guessing that finding him's going to be the hard part. Man loves him some kitted-out RVs."

      At the other end of the table, Rich cleared his throat. "Speeding tickets," he proclaimed. "Parking fines. Registrations. Gas station fillups. Border checks."

      "Knew I could count on you, Two," Simon said genially. "Also, under no circumstances are you to try and find out if this guy's got a sealed juvie record. And if I find out that you've been poking around in his Army records pre-crackup, I will be just exactly as upset as my position of power requires me to be with you. Get me?"

      "Got you, Templar," Rich said, nodding furiously. Sandra shifted in her chair (once again drawing Mike's attention momentarily) and frowned down at her hands. Rich and Simon had always occupied a particular wavelength that she was not on; she wasn't particularly upset by the illegal orders so carefully not communicated along that wavelength, but being excluded from it, that bothered her a bit.

      On the other hand, she couldn't deny that the results Rich produced were usually invaluable. He earned the special treatment that he got. And if she were being honest with herself she would admit that Rich required Simon's careful handling, because he was an ill-tempered little asshole with almost no sense of humor. "Cult of personality," she said out loud, derailing her own train of thought. "Does that mean he's running a militia?"

      "Aw, fuck," Mike moaned.

      "Sources don't believe so, although I encourage you guys not to rule it out," Simon said slowly. "He likes women. Blonde women. He doesn't like competition for his women. He's a crazy fucker and there's no denying it, and he's got some nasty crimes on his record, but he seems to like to surround himself with adoring ladies instead of with men with guns."

      "Well, shit, who doesn't?" Mike said, then stopped and took a theatrical look around the room. "Aw, shit. Quick, Sandy, tell me you adore me!"

      "I abhor you, Mike," Sandra said. At the end of the table, Nate made a sound that was remarkably like a giggle. Sandra glanced at him and smiled; he went a little pink. "So," she said, getting back down to business. "Have we got any information on his lady friends?"

      "Funny you should ask that," Simon said, turning his own lazy smile on Sandra. She wanted to go a little pink herself. "See, I've got this list of names here that need running down..."

      Sandra rolled her eyes and snapped the paper out of Simon's hand. "Me and my big mouth," she said.

      "Love ya, Sandy," Simon said, and slapped his hand on the table. "Right. Here's how it's going to fall out. Specs Two, do whatever it takes to pinpoint the colonel's location, and don't tell me how you did it later. Specs, I can tell you right now that we're going to need tracking devices and assorted chase-scene music, so get into your closet and make sure all our electronic doodads are in order. Springheel, you've got the list, I want you to put together dossiers on his lady friends, past and present, and then start calling 'em; I figure you're a chick, so maybe if he left 'em disgruntled they'll talk to you. Honda, go make sure the van's in fighting trim first, and then I want you to call the Army and see if you can't weasel anything else out of 'em. Texas, you did your time on the force—"

      "—still holdin' that against me," Johnny said mournfully, shaking his head.

      "—here's a copy of his arrest record. Call around, make some friends, flesh it out. Once you've got that, give it to Specs Two, he'll, uh, triangulate or some shit. Something really technical, anyway." Simon paused, glanced around the table looking for questions, then nodded. "Let's get to it, kids."

      "He figures I'm a chick," Sandra said, scraping her chair back and standing up. "Gosh."

      "Yeah, his powers of observation are awesome to behold or some shit," Mike said, beaming. "Regular Sherlock Holmes, that guy."

      Simon unfolded from his own chair and had himself a good, long stretch. "Hey, less talk, more action," he said. "Always been my motto. Besides, the sooner we find this guy

      the sooner I can stop looking over my shoulder every second," Sandra said, rubbing her upper arms absently. The suede of her blazer made faint whispering sounds under her hands.

      Jeremy spared her a quick glance before turning back to the road. It was astonishingly dark out here; another two minutes and they'd be on a well-lit freeway, another fifteen minutes would see them into DC proper, but right here, right now, the only lights were those of the suburban houses to either side, set far back from the road. The car's headlights stretched out in yellowish-white ovals in front of them. Almost absently he turned the information that he'd been given over in his mind, even as he slid the car gently around a curve in the road. "I'm guessing he turned out to be more than he appeared," he finally said, trying the words on for size.

      "No," Sandra said. "It's not that. He turned out to be exactly what the briefing materials said he was: a smart, charismatic, amoral psychopath."

      Jeremy nodded. If Sandra saw, she gave no indication. "So you underestimated him," Jeremy said.

      "No," Sandra said again. She stopped rubbing her arms and folded them tightly across her chest. "Well, possibly a little. But that's not what happened."

      She fell silent and Jeremy fell silent with her, turning his attention back to the road. Dimly, in the distance, he could see headlights flickering back and forth: the freeway. The silence stretched between them for a moment before Sandra heaved out a sigh and tightened her arms across her chest. "We overestimated ourselves, is what happened."

      "Mm," said Jeremy, and fell silent again. Surreptitiously he let the car's speed ease back from a comfortable 50 to a lazy 40, lengthening their stay on this dark and lonely stretch of road.

      "Christ, we were so cocky back then," Sandra said, breaking the silence, staring out her window at nothing. "I look back and I'm amazed. I mean, we're good as a team, okay, we are good, we're really good, but back then everyone in the department thought we were the golden children and so did we, okay?" Suddenly she sounded defensive, almost angry, nearly spitting out the words. "Just like a month before we pulled off this massive, insane coup on a routine stakeout and suddenly it was like we could do no wrong! No one gave Simon orders any more after that, do you understand what I'm saying? Upstairs would just hand him an assignment and give him free rein, and people in our division just don't get that kind of responsibility!" The last word was still echoing in the enclosed space of the car when Sandra closed her mouth with a snap and squeezed her eyes shut.

      Jeremy said nothing, trusting his instincts. Instead he made a soft sound of acknowledgement and fell still, concentrating what was left of his energy on guiding the car up and onto the freeway. A massive SUV lumbered by to their left and dopplered away; Jeremy kept to the right lane and fell back, leaving them isolated in a small pocket of space between one clump of DC-bound cars and the next.

      "It took us months to regain that kind of trust after Farraday," Sandra said abruptly. She had hold of herself again, and she sounded calm enough. "But we got it back. We are good. We're damned good."

      "Believe me, I'm aware of that," Jeremy said.

      Sandra smiled a little, although there didn't look to be much humour in it. "Guess you would be."

      Jeremy flicked on his turn signal and swept into the left lane, passing a massive tanker truck. Sandra's confession seemed to be over and so he sped back up to the speed limit; despite the temporary lift of the caffeine he was exhausted, having piled his illicit stay in Simon's hospital room on top of his jet lag. He could be at his hotel and in bed in half an hour, and he planned to be.

      "Do me a favour," Sandra said.

      Jeremy glanced at her reflection in the windshield. "What's that?"

      "Just take me home," Sandra said, rubbing a hand over her face. "I'm too tired to deal with anything else tonight."

      "If you're certain."

      "I'll hop a bus down to the hospital tomorrow before work and pick up my car, check in on Simon at the same time." Sandra snorted out another of those little not-a-laughs and glanced out her window. "Besides, maybe Farraday's at the hospital laying for me at my car and this way I can give the bastard a little grief."

      "As you like, then," Jeremy said.

      Sandra looked at him. "Do you remember how to get to my place?"

      "I think I can find it."

      "Good." Sandra leaned her head back against the headrest and shut her eyes. "Christ, but I'm tired."

      "If you'd like to nod off, go ahead," Jeremy said. "You've a good fifteen minutes."

      "Yeah," said Sandra. She covered her yawn with one hand. "Yeah, maybe I will. Anything else you want to know first?"

      Jeremy considered. Four hours ago his mind had been alive with questions; now he could think of only one. "What does this Farraday look like?"

      "Anorexic Billy Idol," Sandra said immediately. "He's tall and wiry-thin, you know, with the big hands and feet? And he's got really short spiky hair that he bleaches white and a bony face with these deep-set baggy eyes. Kind of ugly and raw-looking, really. Oh, and he tics."

      "Ticks?" Tired as Jeremy was, his mind simply refused to comprehend this. "What, like Captain Hook's crocodile?"

      "Tics," Sandra said with bruised patience. "Like he has Tourette's, only without the cussing. He can't stand still. Every few seconds he'll jerk his shoulder back or twitch his chin to the side or spasm all his fingers out."

      Jeremy considered this and then shivered slightly. "That's rather creepy."

      "Very," Sandra said. "Like he's constantly being poked by invisible people."

      "Oh, yes, this Colonel Farraday of yours sounds very charismatic." Jeremy essayed a small smile, attempting to lighten the mood that was filling the car like concrete. "I have no idea how women resist him."

      "What can I say? Us women see a guy convulsing and all of a sudden we can't keep our hands out of his pants—" Sandra huffed, irritated. "I guess stupid women and little romantic teenaged girls think he's vulnerable, or something. Never saw the attraction, myself."

      "I guess he was too smart—or too stupid—to try anything with you," Jeremy said diplomatically. After a moment Sandra reached over and punched his shoulder lightly, which made him smile.

      The last ten minutes of the drive passed in a comfortable silence, Sandra nodding off in the passenger seat, Jeremy occasionally biting the inside of his cheek to keep himself alert. His memory proved good enough to find Sandra's apartment building after only one wrong turn; disdaining the parking garage Jeremy pulled up in front of the building, flicking on his hazards.  "We're here," he said softly, touching Sandra's shoulder.

      Her eyes flicked open. "Oh good," Sandra said, and yawned. "I think I've got just enough energy to make it upstairs and into my bed. Maybe if I get real lucky I'll be able to spare an erg to get my shoes off."

      "I'll walk you in," Jeremy said, shaking his head once and shutting off the engine. He was out of the car before Sandra could protest, the cool October air reviving him slightly; Sandra looked decidedly grumpy when he pulled her door open, but she'd sat there and waited for him to do it, which Jeremy believed was a good sign. "Shall we?" he asked, offering her his hand.

      "I can see myself in," Sandra said grumpily, but all the same she took his hand and stood up, dropping it almost immediately. "I am armed, Archer, maybe you remember? If Farraday's laying for me in there, we'll find out how he looks with an extra hole in his face."

      "I'll see you to the elevators, at least," Jeremy said, keeping his voice bland and his expression neutral. It was a trick that had always worked on Simon, and apparently it also worked on Sandra. She rolled her eyes but gave in, heading for the doors with Jeremy in her wake.

      The building lobby was empty except for the security guard on duty. A glance confirmed that he was neither dead nor a bleached-blond fellow with bags under his eyes, and he waved back when Sandra waved to him. Jeremy relaxed slightly. "Are you certain you wouldn't like me to come up with you?" he asked as they reached the bank of elevators.

      "I'm good," Sandra said, lifting her sweater away from her hip and freeing her holster. "I know I'm just a chick and all, but I have been trained in the art of hurting people real damn bad."

      "Believe me, that I know," Jeremy said, reaching up to ostentatiously rub one shoulder. "And I'm certain I'd never dare call you 'just a chick'. In fact, I wouldn't call you 'just' anything."

      Sandra rolled her eyes. "You think you are so damn smooth," she said, but she was smiling ever so slightly while she said it.

      "Yes, well, I've found that a certain amount of polish is invaluable in my profession—" One of the four elevator doors dinged cheerily, and they both tensed until the doors slid open to reveal it empty. Jeremy put a hand to his chest and bowed over it. "Good night, Ms. Leone."

      "Sandra," Sandra said, punching him in the shoulder again before stepping into the elevator. The doors rumbled most of the way closed before she stuck her hand between them and stopped them. "Archer."

      Jeremy didn't bother protesting the 'Archer'. "Hm?"

      Sandra studied him closely, a slight frown on her face. "Are you planning on sticking around town for a while?"

      Jeremy hesitated. "I'd thought so," he said carefully. "Just to keep an eye on... things."

      The frown didn't waver, but after a moment, Sandra nodded. "In that case, I'll call you later this week. Something I want you to do for me, maybe."

      Jeremy smiled, suddenly finding it a little easier to breathe. Got you, too. "Consider me entirely at your disposal," he said. "... Sandra."