Part Three: Chapters 12-17

      He could feel it when he walked in the door that morning: so much tension had vanished from the room's atmosphere overnight that he found it easier to breathe than he had in days. Even the little constant knot of terror that clutched at the back of his neck loosened, just a bit.

      "Yo, Nate-man!" Mike sang from his spot at the table. His laptop was open and running but he didn't appear to be paying any attention to it. "How's tricks?"

      "Good," Nate said, a little startled to realize that he meant it. "Tricks are good."

      Mike's expression altered on the instant, into a sort of cagy eagerness. "You like tricks, huh?"

      Nate drew back half a step. He was still trying to figure out how to extricate himself from this sudden (but not unusual) conversational pitfall when Johnny sighed and slithered down in his chair, kicking Mike under the table. Mike yelped. "Too early for that shit," Johnny said, sliding back up.

      "Aw, man, Texas, why you wanna go and bust my balls, huh?" Mike asked plaintively, resting his chin on the table so that he could reach down and rub his injured leg.

      "Didn't bust your balls," Johnny said. "Busted your shin. Could bust your balls, you want me to."

      "That's okay!" Mike cried, kicking his chair back about a foot (with a screech) to remove himself from range. "Really! I don't need any kind of demonstration!"

      Sandra appeared from Simon's office, carrying a handful of papers. "Sometimes I think you do," she said absently, crossing to the door. "Hey, Specs."

      "Hey, Sandy," Nate said. "We meeting now?"

      "Pretty much now," said Sandra, opening the saferoom door and leaning out to stuff her handful of paper into the outbox. Nate accordingly didn't turn on his own computer, but made his way over to the table and sat down in his usual spot. Mike scooted back into place.

      The saferoom door swung ponderously closed again. Sandra caught it at the last moment and eased it shut with a puff of displaced air and a click, then headed for the table herself. "Right," she said, taking Simon's chair. "First things first: you all know that Simon woke up last night. He seems pretty lucid and his doctor says that by now it's just a question of recovery, so barring some kind of freak accident, I'd say he's out of the woods. Doctor hinted that Simon could get released as early as Monday—"

      "—so he's going to bitch his way out of the hospital by tomorrow," Mike finished for her, brightly.

      "Probably," Sandra acknowledged. "Arrangements for his care are being made as we speak. Upstairs has decreed that he's not to come back on the clock for another week or so and is restricted to base for two weeks after that, so I'm afraid we've got a bit of a battle on our hands." She paused and rubbed her eyes with one hand. "I'm sure we'll see him Monday, no matter what. I want you guys to act normal, but nobody argues with me when I start telling him to go home, okay? You don't have to back me up. Just stay out of it."

      "Okay," Nate said.

      "Good," Sandra said, just as if Nate had answered for all three of them. "Next." She stopped, took a quick breath, shut her eyes, and said, "Simon did, in fact, positively ID the shooter as Farraday." The little knot in the back of Nate's neck immediately tensed back up, and he hunched down in his chair, uncomfortably aware of people's eyes flicking towards him. "Not that there was really any doubt about it," Sandra went on, "but now it's official."

      Mike heaved out a long breath and slumped down in his chair. "Sheeee-it," he said. "Don't know if that makes me happy or not."

      "Yeah," said Nate. He bent his head to the side and rubbed the back of his neck. "At least we haven't been wasting our time," he added, weakly.

      "Yeah, that's something," Mike said. "Still, kinda wish it'd been, uh, anyone else at all, you know?"

      "I know," Nate said, trying to smile and failing.

      "Yeah," Johnny said. "House calls?"

      "Sounds like the logical next step," Sandra said. "I want you two to handle that."

      "Already on it," Mike said, patting his open laptop. It beeped at him and he yanked his hand back with an involuntary grimace. "I've been looking up current numbers and shit for all his old girlfriends. Should have 'em all in another half an hour or so."

      "Good," Sandra said, after a glance in Mike's direction that looked pretty startled. "Great. If there are any within an hour's drive, go see them in person. After all, we know he's in the area, so those are the people he's mostly likely to have dropped in on."

      "Will do," said Mike.

      "Think there's one in Annapolis," Johnny said. "Used to be, anyway."

      "Ohhh, yeah, definitely, couldn't forget her." Mike leaned forward, poking at the keys. "Hadn't gotten to the W's yet... yeah, there she is, Amanda Winston."

      Sandra winced. "That's the one—"

      "—yeah," Johnny said.

      "Good," Sandra decreed. "If she's still there, go see her."

      "Yes'm!" Mike said.

      Sandra turned to Nate. "Nate, you were going to get the traffic tickets done today?"

      Nate nodded. "I should have those winnowed by lunch, and then I'll spend the afternoon starting the gas station receipts. That's going to take, um, approximately forever."

      "Yeah. Well, it's got to be done." Sandra glanced at Rich's lair and made an exasperated face. Funny how everyone seemed to be doing that these days. "Okay, next thing: I suspect that this new computer jockey that Upstairs is foisting off on us will be arriving on Monday." Mike made a little 'tch' sound under his breath and looked away, folding his arms across his chest. Sandra glanced at him, then shrugged. "I don't like it either," she said. "Neither does Simon. I can't say how things are going to shake out for sure, but Simon told me to tell Upstairs that we'd accept him solely as an interim measure."

      "So he's not sticking around?" Mike said, looking back at Sandra. Nate could hear that same cagy eagerness in his voice. Despite everything, Nate couldn't help but feel a brief stab of pity for the incoming interloper.

      "Probably not," Sandra said. "Officially, you know, I have to tell you to behave yourselves and make him welcome."

      "Course we will," Johnny said.

      "Oh yeah," Mike agreed, twisting out a thoroughly evil little grin. "He is gonna feel aaaaall kinds of welcome." Nate resisted the urge to scoot his chair away.

      Sandra ignored that. "I'm going to assign him to work on Rich's computers full-time," she said briskly. Nate twitched, startled. "It'll keep him the hell out of our hair while we chase down Farraday, and if by some miracle he does manage to bust through Rich's security wall, well, it can only help us. Nate, is that going to be a problem for you?"

      "I... don't like it," Nate said carefully, "but I don't have time to work on it any more right now, so he might as well."

      Sandra went quiet and looked at him for a moment, then shook her head. "I'm sorry. Believe me, if I had a better idea, I'd take it."

      "No, really, it's okay." Nate pushed up his glasses. They immediately began to slip back down. "I mostly just wanted to be the one to break it for, um, personal reasons. Pride. You know."

      "Awww, man, that's cute," Mike said, snickering. "Specs wants to flex his geek dick!"

      Nate could feel himself starting to go red. "I-I don't!" he squeaked. "It's not like that!"

      "Nah," Johnny said. Nate looked at him in mute and flushed gratitude, which vanished abruptly when Johnny flicked his chewed-up toothpick out of his mouth and added, "Wants to measure his geek dick against Specs Two's."

      Nate immediately found himself extremely interested in his clasped hands, sweat breaking out around his hairline. "S-sort of?" he said, unintentionally making a question out of it. "I mean, he... he was really good..." Mike was already hooting, though, and Nate stumbled to an embarrassed halt and ducked his head.

      "Guys," Sandra said chidingly, although she also sounded pretty amused, for which Nate couldn't totally blame her. "Anyway, we all know Rich was some kind of vicious biting computer savant—I hear IT basically gave up on breaking the encryption on their copies—so I'm betting that his computers will keep the new guy baffled and busy until Simon has the chance to get rid of him for good. You'll probably still have your chance to, uh, be the one to break the code."

      "It's okay," Nate said, his voice barely louder than a whisper.

      Sandra gave him one last sharp look, then nodded. "Anything else I ought to know?" she asked, looking around. No one said anything. "Okay," Sandra said. "Let's get to work, then. I'll be in Simon's office doing the liaising if you need me. Got his password." She paused. "He had it written down and stuck in his wallet."

      It startled Nate into a laugh, and he reddened again as everyone looked at him. "I knew he had to have it written down somewhere," he said in explanation.

      "That's Simon for you. Let's do this," Sandra said, and pushed Simon's chair back with a screech.

      Sandra disappeared into Simon's office. Mike went back to his laptop, hunching forward over the keys the way he did, scowling at the screen. Nate pushed his chair back and went over to his desk, turning on his own computer. Within minutes he was staring at a screen full of text, oblivious to the world.

      Johnny sat where he was for a minute longer, chewing on his toothpick, considering the far wall, and sorting through all the thoughts that were backed up waiting to be thought. The sound of typing came from all around him. Johnny frowned a little and unfolded his arms, leaning forward to scrub his hands against his thighs.

      "I'll split this list up soon as I'm done," Mike said, not taking his eyes off the screen. "Spend the morning doing calls and go see Winston after lunch?"

      Johnny grunted in acknowledgment and stood up, shaking the vague stiffness out of his arms. Something was missing—the coffeemaker wasn't on, that was it. Johnny filched the pot out of the machine and left the room, carrying it down to the first floor kitchen to fill it.

      The community coffeemaker (much larger than the petite 'Mrs. Simon Drake (♥)' and the center of the floor's social life, such as it was) was making ominous little rumbling and burbling noises when Johnny backed in. Ignoring both it and whoever it was that was bent over rummaging around in the fridge, Johnny went to the sink and rinsed out the glass pot, watching the water swirl around inside and not really thinking about much.

      The fridge closed. Trent Doherty—a.k.a. Sandra's favorite guy ever, Team Hall's tech guy, Bobcat—blinked. "Hey, Texas," he said uneasily. "What's up?"

      "Not much," Johnny said, dumping out the rinse water and refilling the pot.

      Bobcat glanced at the door, then looked back at Texas, running his tongue along his lower lip. Nervous habit of his. "Any word on Templar's condition?"

      Johnny swiped his hand over the outside of the pot, collecting stray droplets. Flicked the water off his palm into the sink. "Recuperating," he said. "Probably be out of the hospital by Monday."

      Bobcat shut his eyes, briefly. "Good to hear," he said, and although he still didn't sound too comfortable he did sound relieved. "So, uh, have a good one," he added, heading for the door. "Tell everybody I said hello."

      Johnny grunted, not turning around to watch him go. The door shut behind Bobcat, and then Johnny glanced over his shoulder at the door. Poor guy. Transparent as window glass. Johnny snorted out a laugh and filched a donut hole out of the box that someone had abandoned on the counter, popping it into his mouth before he picked up the pot and carried it back to the saferoom.

      Nothing had changed when he opened the door. Everybody was still staring at one computer or another. Nobody was talking. Johnny carried the pot back to the machine, poured the water into the top, and dug the can of coffee out from underneath. "Bobcat says hi," he said, dumping a scoop of coffee into a filter.

      Mike snorted. "Bobcat says hi to Sandy, you mean." From inside Simon's office, Sandra made a little gagging sound.

      Johnny shrugged one shoulder, shut the coffeemaker up, and started it. "Just passing it on," he said. "Asked about Templar, too."

      "He has manners now?" Nate said. "Amazing!"

      "Nah," said Johnny. "Just afraid for his own skin."

      "Probably!" Mike said. "Man, everybody's been treating us like lepers since Simon got his ass shot. What, are gunshot wounds contagious now? Did I miss some kinda memo?"

      "They just don't know what to say to us," Sandra said, raising her voice to be heard out in the main room. "People around here aren't really good with sympathy, you know?"

      Nate nodded. "I never know what to say either," he said, pushing his glasses back up again. "I mean, everything I think of always sounds so... lame. Like I'm not taking it seriously enough."

      "Hey, Texas, I'm just about done over here," Mike said, changing the subject. "Fire up your laptop so's I can send you your half of the list."

      Johnny grunted and abandoned the coffeemaker in favor of his battered laptop bag.

      "Yes'm, thank you for your time," Johnny said for the twenty-fourth time, hitting the call cancel button.

      Every phone call was shaping up to be the same. Well, no, not the same, but the important part was always the same. No, the person on the other end of the line said. They hadn't seen or heard from Cole Farraday since he went to prison three years ago.

      Most of the time the person on the other end of the line was female, since Farraday had always liked his women. And about half the time when they said no, he hadn't been in touch, they said it with a certain amount of relief. Johnny could understand that. Farraday had that kind of weird hypnotic charm that palled pretty fast when he wasn't around to reinforce it all the time, and a lot of his former girlfriends sounded pretty embarrassed about having been fooled by him back in the day. They probably weren't any smarter now, but they thought they were, and sometimes that amounted to the same thing.

      Some of the others sounded upset about not having heard from him, which Johnny marked down to how some people just never learned their lesson. Some of them sounded downright afraid, and those Johnny hastened to assure that they were doing everything they could. And a couple of them got mad, one at Farraday and one at Johnny, which was at least interesting, if not helpful.

      Johnny gave them all his number, though. Probably half of them didn't even write it down, but he had to try.

      Still, the picture was clear: wherever Farraday was and whatever he was doing, he'd made a pretty clean break with his past. Johnny couldn't be sure, of course, but he was reasonably certain that none of Farraday's ladies had been lying to him. At least, not as plainly as Diana Fontaine had. And that told him something else, too. Farraday was sticking close, and he was occupied with something that he thought was more important that reestablishing ties. 

      Johnny put his phone back in its belt clip and pulled out his gun instead, examining it thoughtfully. Farraday was sticking close, after all, and Annapolis was even closer than Fredericksburg.

      He ejected the magazine, checked it, slotted it back in, and went ahead and racked the slide to load the first round into the chamber. Usually he didn't carry with a round in the chamber, but... Mike glanced up, took this in, nodded, and went back to his phone call. Johnny nodded, too, mostly to himself, and slid his pistol back into its holster after double-checking the safety.

      "Trouble?" Nate asked, his voice a little raspy with nerves.

      "Maybe," Johnny said, glancing back over his shoulder. "Doubt it, but..." He shook his head slightly, indicating his current case of the heebie-jeebies.

      "Yeah," Mike said, folding up his phone and putting it away, pulling out his own gun and sighting along the barrel. "Nobody's heard nothin'. Farraday's lying low."

      "'Cept for the lawyer lady," Johnny said, watching Mike. "And she's close by."

      "And Winston's place is awfully equally convenient to the city, isn't it," Mike concluded, putting his gun away. "You done, Texas?"

      "Yeah," said Johnny. "You want, we can run grab lunch, head on out."

      Mike shut his laptop. "Hey, Spring?" he called. "Texas and I are thinkin' about lunch!"

      "Go ahead," Sandra called back. "Going out to Annapolis right after?"

      "That's the plan!" Mike said.

      There was a pause. Sandra appeared in the doorway, one hand resting on the door's frame right by where a hinge used to be. "Be careful," she said.

      "Careful as a nun at a death-metal concert," Mike said cheerfully. "But first, lunch. You two wanna come with?"

      "Cafeteria for me today," Sandra said. "Too much to do to waste time leaving the building."

      Nate shook his head. "I want to finish this up before I eat," he said, reaching up to tap his monitor. "I'll probably just hit the cafeteria too."

      "Suit yourselves," Mike said, stretching his arms up over his head before bounding to his feet. "C'mon, Texas. Let's go feed the beast."

      "That a metaphor for something?" Johnny asked, pushing his chair back and standing up.

      It was cool in the shade but warm in the sun, just before noon. Johnny thought about stopping by his truck and grabbing his sunglasses and decided not to all in the same mental breath, swinging into Mike's car and settling in instead. Mike started the car and pulled out of his spot, heading for the gate. "Wanna meatball sammich," he said contentedly, making it more of a suggestion than a question.

      "Sure," said Johnny, getting comfortable, chewing on a toothpick, biding his time.

      They talked about nothing much on the way to lunch, about nothing at all while actually stuffing their food into their mouths, and about nothing much on the way back to the car. Johnny waited until Mike had the car comfortably stretched out on US 50 to flick the remains of his latest toothpick out of his mouth and say, "Didn't tell Sandy about the note, huh."

      Mike ducked his head like Johnny had just beaned him with something, confirming it. "Nah," he said, laughing a little, trying to sound unconcerned. "I wanna run some things down first, give it to her all as a nice little package, you know?"

      Johnny grunted and settled back, thinking this over while he replaced the toothpick. "Kinda things?"

      "Oh, you know—" Mike flapped one hand in mid-air "—get Nate to check out where that number actually goes to, see if Farraday's in Annapolis, that kind of thing."

      "Gonna call first, too?"

      Mike was abruptly silent, squinting out at the traffic.

      "Shit," Johnny said, not really surprised, "you called already."

      "... maybe," Mike admitted.

      "Maybe," Johnny echoed. He snorted. "Maybe..."

      "Well, shit, Texas, she made it seem kinda pressing, what with that 'please help me' shit."

      "Guess it wasn't a lawyer-type trap after all, then," Johnny said.

      Mike shrugged a little. "Guess it could still be some kinda really complicated one. Anyway, she sounds on the level."


      "Actually, she sounds pretty fuckin' terrified," Mike said. "Told me Farraday was, get this, crazy."

      Johnny snorted. "Shit, finally figured out what the rest of us already knew, huh."

      "Guess so." Mike was quiet for a moment, shifting lanes, and then just blurted it out all of a sudden. Like he did. "The big problem is that she's still his attorney of record," he said. "And she's too scared of him to ditch him as a client and tip him off, so she can't officially get involved in the investigation because he's her client..."

      "That's bullshit," Johnny opined. "Since when have we done things all official?"

      "That's what I said!" Mike thumped on the steering wheel in frustration. "Shit, though, Texas, you oughta hear her, she's freakin'."

      "Bet she is," Johnny said.

      "She wanted me to give her a day or two to think about what to do," Mike said, chewing on his lower lip. "I told her I wasn't gonna."

      "Then you did."

      Mike scowled. "I still got time."

      Johnny paused and thought about it. "Problem is, you're makin' this my business," he finally said, carefully. "I don't wanna be a part of keeping secrets from Sandy."

      "I know," Mike said, hunching his shoulders further. "I just... well, shit, Texas, you shoulda heard her. If we push her too hard, she's just gonna clam up, maybe file a harassment complaint on me anyway."

      "Tell Sandy that part," Johnny said. "She's not gonna fuck this up."

      "Yeah, I know," Mike said, subsiding. "But fuck, I wish Simon was around, I trust his instincts on stuff like this, you know?"

      Johnny didn't much care for that, but he figured that he'd said his piece, so he shut up, all the better to let Mike think about what he'd said. Shelving the problem Johnny turned his attention to other, more pressing concerns, tugging absently on his lower lip as he thought.

      They rode the rest of the way into Annapolis in a comfortable near-silence broken only by the tapping of Mike's fingers on the steering wheel. Amanda Winston still lived in the same comfortable but anonymous little townhouse she'd always lived in. The complex was located near nothing interesting at all, which in Johnny's opinion was pretty damned hard to do in Annapolis.

      Mike parked the car a fair distance away, just to be safe. They both sat back in their seats, studying the face of the Winston place in the distance. "How you wanna play this?" Mike said.

      "Cell up and I'll go 'round back, keep an eye on the back way," Johnny said. "You go up front and knock."

      "Right," said Mike. "You wanna call me? I'm running low on minutes."

      "Shit, bet you are, wonder why," Johnny said, fishing for his phone. Mike made a rude noise and did the same.

      Johnny hit the shortcut for Mike's cell number—honda, it was labeled, because his phone wanted him to jump through hoops to make capital letters and Johnny didn't give that much of a shit—and made Mike's phone hum in his hand. Mike flicked it open, establishing the connection. "Sweet," Mike said. "Let's do this."

      Johnny nodded and stepped out of the car, right hand resting on the butt of his holstered gun, left hand holding the cell phone loosely against his ear. He could hear Mike breathing twice, which was interesting, and then he shut the car door and could only hear him once.

      He loped around the end of the row of townhouses and slowed to a walk. None of them had actual backyards, just little plots of grass leading up to concrete patios and sliding glass doors on one side and down to the sidewalk on the other; on the other side of the sidewalk there was a patch of scrubby pine trees. Johnny slid into these, twigs cracking under the soles of his shoes. "Fuckin' townhomes," he said.

      "I hear you," Mike said. "You in position?"

      "Good as I'm gonna get," Johnny said. He shifted, making sure he could see the back of Amanda Winston's townhouse and its glass door. "Go on."

      "Going," Mike said, the car door opening and shutting again in Johnny's ear. Johnny checked his gun, making sure it was riding loose in its holster, and listened to the thump of Mike's footsteps and the soft blowing of his breath. Mike jogged up the front steps (Johnny could hear the sudden thump-thump-thump) and said, "Here goes."

      Johnny squinted against the sun and listened, his eyes alert for any shifting going on behind those windows. He heard Mike knock, and whistle out a tuneless phrase, and mutter "C'mon," and then there was the click of a lock and the squeak of hinges. "Yes?" a woman said, her voice neutral but cautious.

      "Miz Winston," Mike said, suddenly all polite. He could pull that on you, if he wanted to, and if he didn't like you very much. "My name's Mike Takemura, I don't know if you remember me—"

      "I remember you," Johnny heard Amanda Winston say unhappily, as clearly as if she were the one holding Mike's phone. "What's he done this time?"

      "Suppose you'd best come on in," Amanda eventually said, shuffling back a step and holding the door open. She didn't sound happy to see him, but Mike figured that was just about par for the course. None of Farraday's ladies liked him all that much, it seemed.

      "Thanks," Mike said, and did so. It was like stepping into a time warp: as far as he could tell, nothing had changed in the past three years and some-odd months, neither the townhouse nor Amanda. Deja screw, Mike thought, the idea rising unbidden into the back of his mind. The weird feeling that somehow, somewhere, this woman has fucked you over once before.

      Amanda shut the door and relocked it, putting on the chain by rote. "He's not here," she said dully. "I suppose you might as well go ahead and check for yourself, though. You will anyway."

      "Hey, I appreciate it!" Mike promptly opened the little hall closet, poking his head in. Amanda waited behind him, eyes drooping half-shut, arms crossed loosely over her chest, not so much patient as resigned to the hassle. Ignoring her was easy and fun. Keeping one hand prudently close to his shoulder holster Mike wandered through the little first floor of the townhouse with Amanda trailing in his wake, poking his head into the various rooms. On his belt his open cellphone rode uneasily in its clip, broadcasting to Johnny.

      "You can check upstairs too," Amanda said once Mike reached the tiny dining room attached to the kitchen. "But he's not up there."

      "Yeah, I kinda figured, but I gotta be thorough, right?" A random prickish impulse made Mike check both the fridge and the miniscule pantry before he went back into the dining room and the sliding glass door there. He caught the cord of the vertical blinds and tugged them open.

      Amanda showed a reaction for the first time, dropping her arms and blinking. "What are you doing?" she asked.

      "Letting my partner in," Mike said, poking at the glass door until it rumbled open. He reached down and unsnapped his phone, bringing it to his ear. "C'mon in, Texas," he said, and then snapped the phone shut, disconnecting the call.

      Ten yards away Johnny stepped out of a little stand of ugly trees and crossed what passed for Amanda Winston's backyard at a lope, stopping on her back porch to open the storage closet there and check it before joining them inside. "Wanna go check upstairs for me, Texas?" Mike asked, closing the sliding door behind Johnny. "I gotta talk to the lady."

      "Right," Johnny said. He nodded to Amanda, stepping past her, heading for the front room. "Ma'am."

      Amanda Winston turned to watch him go, her arms crossed protectively over her chest. Once Johnny's thumping footsteps had retreated up the stairs, Mike turned to her and said, "Wanna sit in here, or in the front room? Either's fine."

      "Front room, I guess," she said listlessly, picking her way back out into the main room. The couch in here was an ugly green tweedy affair, shaped like a capital L; it hadn't been comfortable three years ago and it hadn't gotten any better with age. Amanda plopped down at one end of the L and tucked her bare feet up under herself, picking a throw pillow up off the couch and hugging it to her chest.

      Mike sat down at the other end, gingerly wedging his knees into the smallish space between the couch and the coffee table it bent around. "So!" he said brightly, only half-listening to the muffled thump of Johnny's footsteps from above. "Guess you kinda figured out why we're here, huh?"

      "The colonel," Amanda Winston said, not looking at him. "I guess he must be out and you want to know if he's gotten in touch with me. Well, he hasn't."

      "Not at all? Not even back when he was still in prison?" Mike leaned forward, bracing his elbows on his knees.

      "No," Amanda said. After a brief hesitation, she added, "Well, I went out to the jail to see him once, right after."

      "Yeah?" said Mike, who'd known that already.

      Amanda nodded and pursed her lips. "He seemed okay but he told me I shouldn't ought to come back. Said he didn't want to be seen like that, all locked up."

      "Ever go back after that? You know, anyway?"

      Amanda glanced at him, her brow furrowed in disbelief. "He told me not to," she said, patiently, like Mike was some kind of idiot.

      "And he hasn't come to see you or called you or anything since he got released?" Mike shook his head. "That's a damn shame."

      "Don't know why you care," Amanda said, looking back down.

      Mike shrugged. "Well, I mostly don't, but it kinda burns me that he's got no manners. He could at least come say hi to the lady who saved his neck."

      "I guess," Amanda said listlessly.

      Mike waited a beat, then gave up. "So I'm gonna leave my card, okay?" he said, digging out his wallet. "If he does get in touch with you, even once, even a little, I want you to call me and let me know." He held out the card to Amanda, who didn't even look up, let alone acknowledge the card; after a moment Mike stifled a sigh and tucked it under an empty glass on the coffee table, face up.

      Johnny came thumping down the stairs, stopping near the bottom. "He's not up there," he reported, leaning against the banister.

      "Yeah, I kinda figured, Texas, given the total lack of anything like a ruckus," Mike said.

      Johnny grinned and didn't say anything else. It was quiet for a few moments before Amanda Winston hugged the pillow more tightly and asked, "... when did he get out?"

      "Couple of weeks ago," Mike said. "Be three weeks come, uh, Tuesday."

      "Oh." It was scarcely audible. Amanda's head tilted forward until the bits of blond hair that had come loose from her half-assed bun nearly hid her eyes. "I didn't know that."

      "Yeah, well, like I said, he could be a little more mannerly," Mike said. He went quiet again, to see if she'd ask anything else.

      One of her hands strayed up to touch the little knot of hair on the back of her head. "Did you want anything else?" she asked, almost in a whisper.

      Mike paused, watching her. "How's Carole?" he finally asked, leaning forward.

      "... she's fine." Amanda Winston folded in on herself, resting her chin on the throw pillow, drawing her knees up in front of her. "She's a freshman in college now." She paused before defiantly adding, "University of Colorado."

      "Good," said Mike, meaning it. "That's good. When's she come home next?"

      "Christmas." Nearly silent now.

      "Well, then, I guess that gives us our deadline, huh?" Mike pushed himself to his feet and extricated himself from the coffee table. "You hear from him, or even think of anything I oughta know, you call me, huh?"

      Amanda nodded, her eyes squeezed shut.

      Mike glanced at Johnny. Johnny's face was a mask. After a moment, he shrugged. Mike shrugged back, then turned to face Amanda, who hadn't moved. "Hey," he said, trying to sound reassuring. "We'll get him before Carole comes home. Promise. Okay?"

      Amanda mouthed something silently into the depths of the pillow.

      Mike glanced at Johnny again, then back at Amanda. "What?" he said.

      "I said I don't care," she snapped, jerking her head up and squeezing the pillow until Mike expected it to burst a seam. "I don't give a fuck if you catch him or not. Fuck him." The last came out in a vengeful, hurt rasp.

      Mike twitched back against the banister despite himself. "Ohhh-kay," he said once he'd recovered. "We'll just show ourselves out, huh?"

      Amanda's head dipped in a vague nod, and stayed down, completing her transformation into a miserable little ball of humanity wedged into one corner of the couch. Mike thought he might have seen something glittering at the corners of her eyes, but he wouldn't want to swear to it. Johnny reached over the banister and wordlessly clapped Mike on the shoulder, then jerked his head at the front door; Mike nodded and headed that way, glancing back over his shoulder only once. Amanda hadn't moved.

      The door shut behind them. Johnny shook his head.

      "Yeah," Mike said, bounding down the front steps and heading towards his car. "That was real smooth." He unlocked the car doors and got in, fiddling absently with the steering wheel until Johnny had made himself comfortable. "Anything?" he asked, putting the car in reverse and backing out.

      "Nada," Johnny said. "Not a sign of him. Think she's on the level."

      Mike put the car in gear and headed towards the exit. "Yeah, I'm with you there. You know what else? I think she's pissed that she hasn't heard from him. I think I just broke her little heart."

      Johnny shook his head slowly and shut his eyes against the afternoon sun. "Christ, I don't get women," he said, patting his breast pocket absently.

      By the time Nate glanced at the clock on the taskbar, his eyes smarting from the glare of his monitor, it was nearly two in the afternoon. It was quiet. Everything was quiet. Sandra was in Simon's office again, typing away; she must have gone to lunch at some point, but Nate hadn't noticed.

      Or maybe she hadn't. Maybe, like Nate, she'd gotten so engrossed in what she was doing that she'd forgotten to eat. Nate pushed back his chair and arthritically unfolded, shaking out cramped muscles and stretching his half-collapsed spine. "Sandy?" he called, once he was confident in his ability to move again.

      "Yes?" Sandra called back.

      "Did you... did you go to lunch?" Despite the fact that no one could possibly be looking at him, Nate went a little red. "If you did, I kind of missed it..."

      There was a pause before Sandra appeared in the empty doorway, shaking her head. "An hour ago," she said. "I asked you if you wanted to come with me and you said 'Mm' so I figured that meant no."

      "Oh," Nate said, ducking his head a little. "Yeah, I guess I was kind of... distracted."

      "I guess," Sandra said, smiling despite herself. "Go eat something, Specs. You aren't going to do me a damned bit of good if you keel over from starvation."

      For a moment, Nate couldn't answer, his throat suddenly closing. It had sounded so much like something Simon would say—Nate shook his head briskly, dismissing it, and swallowed the lump in his throat. "Yeah, I'm... I'll go have lunch now."

      "Do that," Sandra said, stepping back into Simon's office. "Bring me a can of Diet Coke when you come back?"

      Nate nodded, even though Sandra was no longer there to see. "Okay," he said. Leaning over the back of his chair he put his computer to sleep, then absently patted himself down to make sure he had everything, wallet, keys, ID card, gun—his fingers paused on the textured metal grip, as they always did, and then moved on. His book lay open and face-down on the computer desk beside his monitor. He considered bringing it to lunch with him but decided not to. If he started reading in the cafeteria he'd end up wasting an extra half an hour.

      Without bothering to say goodbye (what if she was doing something that required a lot of concentration?) Nate let himself out of the saferoom and headed up the hall towards the center of the complex and the cafeteria. The hallways were empty and quiet, although he could hear the low buzz of conversation and typing through most of the doors he passed. It was nice. Relaxing. Nate had always liked being alone but not really being alone, just like this.

      The cafeteria was equally quiet, one hour before closing, two hours after the lunch rush. There were a few people dotted here and there at the tables, mostly alone—mostly Nerd Squad, to Nate's expert eye. Nerd Squaddies always forgot to eat until late and then ate alone, quickly, wanting to get back to their machines. Nate (a card-carrying Nerd Squaddie himself, and proud of it, unlike Rich, who'd never been much for geek solidarity—or any sort of solidarity, really, Nate had to admit) waved absently at the one or two people he vaguely recognized before grabbing a tray, a ham sandwich, a banana, and a root beer, in that order.

      Automatically he found himself a spot at an empty table, carefully picking one far away from anyone else in order to avoid psychic trespass; he caught himself doing it a moment later and amused himself by working out the trigonometry of the decision-making process in his head while he ate. By the time he was done with the sandwich he had a working theorem and he put it to the test, attempting to predict where the next person to enter the lunchroom would sit.

      Unfortunately, the next person to enter the cafeteria went to sit with someone who was already there. Nate laughed at himself, cut his banana into slices, and ate them, having been trained by his teammates long ago to never, ever, ever put a whole and uncut banana in his mouth. Or anywhere near his mouth. Or, really, to pick one up at all... but he liked bananas, so he compromised. Easy as that.

      He finished off his root beer in front of the trash can and threw the cup in after the rest of his lunch debris, abandoning his tray on top. Just as he was leaving, someone sat in the very spot that he'd picked out. Nate nearly giggled his way out of the cafeteria, only sobering once he was back out in the halls, lest he be betrayed by echoes. A quick stop by the vending machines and then he went back to the saferoom, a cold and wet can of Diet Coke caught gingerly in his fingertips.

      By the time he got back Mike and Johnny were back, lounging noisily around the conference table. Sandra was standing in the doorway to Simon's office again. "Hey," Nate said, shutting the door behind himself. "How'd it go?"

      "She hates me, and she hates him, and she hates the world, and she hasn't heard a word," Mike said. "And this lady, I believe."

      Nate frowned. "So it's just his lawyer he's been in contact with, then." He tossed the can to Sandra, who caught it one-handed and popped it open with a quick and absent smile of thanks.

      "Guess he made some new friends," Johnny said.

      Sandra frowned and tucked a stray lock of hair behind one ear. "What about her daughter?"

      "Freshman in college at the University of Colorado," Mike said triumphantly.

      "Oh, good." Sandra wilted against the door frame. "One less thing to worry about, unless he's really fucking crazy."

      "Called the campus cops on the way back, just in case," Johnny said. "Let 'em know to keep a quiet eye out, for all the good it'll do."

      Mike nodded at Johnny, then glanced back at Sandra. "Hey, Sandy, think we ought to warn the kid, or let it be?"

      "Hm." Sandra paused to consider this, scuffing the toe of her sneaker against the tiles. "No," she finally said. "For one thing, I don't think he's squirrelly enough to go all the way to Colorado, even if he does know where she is. And for another, if it was voluntary on her part..." She trailed off there.

      "Yeah, that's what I was thinking," Mike said cheerfully. He swung his feet up onto the table and settled in. "But I figured I'd check, since you're the bosslady and all."

      "Thanks ever so," Sandra said, taking a sip of her Coke. "Anything else?"

      The silence that followed this perfectly natural question was kind of weird, even to Nate's ears. Mike and Johnny were kind of frowning at each other, and Sandra looked expectant and then suspicious. "What?" she finally said.

      Mike rubbed a hand over his face. "I... don't want to talk about it yet,"  he said slowly. "I gotta finish putting the pieces together, you know? Could be nothing anyway. Just a hunch I've got."

      "About what?" Sandra asked, coming a step or two out of Simon's office like a turtle poking its head out of its shell.

      "Lawyer lady," Mike said. Across the table from him Johnny made a neutral little noise that could have meant just about anything. Mike scowled at him. "It's on the tip of my goddamn tongue, you know? But I just don't got it yet."

      Sandra nodded after a moment, slowly. "Would talking it out help?"

      Mike heaved out a breath. "I don't think so," he said, all in a rush. "Think I just gotta stew."

      "... stew, then," Sandra said after a moment. "Try to stew quick."

      "Will do!" Mike said. "I am totally the express crockpot of, uh, crackpot theories. What you want me to do now?"

      Sandra thought about it. "Go down to the lab and look menacing until they cough up the ballistics report on Simon's bullet?"

      Mike whooped and bounded out of his chair. "Music to my fuckin' ears!" he cried, ostentatiously cracking his knuckles. "Aw, Spring, you're totally my kind of goddess!"

      "When you get it, see if you can't chase down the gun, figure out where he got it," Sandra said, raising her voice to be heard over Mike. "Texas, call the Fredericksburg PD and see what they have to say about Diana Fontaine's house, and if you want to remind them to keep an eye out in general, be my guest."

      "Right," said Johnny, fishing out his phone. Mike raced out of the room, the door slamming behind him (someone on Team Hall pounded on the wall briefly, which they all ignored) and Nate went back to his computer, waking it up and getting back to the thousands and thousands of gas station receipts. He tuned out Johnny's voice, behind him, and Sandra's footsteps, and soon enough he'd tuned out everything.

      The next time he blinked his way back to normal consciousness, it was nearly four. Mike and Johnny were both busy on their laptops, Mike with his phone pressed to his ear, and Sandra was nowhere to be seen. Nate looked around. "Where'd Sandy go?" he asked, frowning.

      "Upstairs," Johnny said.

      "Oh." Nate turned back to his computer and spent a good thirty seconds just watching the search function run. The 'percentage complete' bar was barely a sliver of the way gone and hardly inched upwards at all while Nate watched; finally, half out of boredom and half out of a nagging sense of inevitability, his attention strayed to the three darkened and shrouded computers in Rich's lair. Shaking his head he got up and went over there, thumbing on the middle of the three computers (Mama Bear, he'd called it once, and you could have iced your drink with the glare that Rich shot at him) with his jaw set and his hopes low.

      The soft sound of the computer turning on caught everybody's attention, but no one said a word. Mike and Johnny just watched him, unsmiling and wary, while Nate pulled open all the various drawers and finally, finally unhooded the monitor and turned it on.

      The screen looked no different than it ever had. A dialogue box with a single text-entry box and no labeling text at all; of course Rich wouldn't have labeled his own security system. Who else would ever need to use it? Nate didn't even know if a password went here, or an ID, or some kind of system command, and in the past seven months, he'd tried them all.

      Eyeing the dialogue box and its steadily blinking cursor warily, Nate dipped one hand into the topmost drawer and patted blindly around. His fingers strayed over neatly wrapped cables, a handful of blank CDs in their slimline jewel cases, all kinds of pens and pencils, and a single, ancient, and certain-to-be-inedible granola bar in its wrapper. Nothing new here. He'd searched all these drawers a hundred times.

      Mike and Johnny were still watching him, taut with some kind of expectation that Nate knew he wasn't going to satisfy. He sighed and reached for the keyboard. RichStory, he typed. The dialogue box filled with asterisks. Nate hit enter. The asterisks vanished into the ether, the cursor once again blinking on the left-hand side of the dialogue box.

      RichardStory. Nothing.

      Richard'SpecsTwo'Story. Nothing.

      After about five minutes of fruitlessly retracing his steps yet again, Nate silently turned the computer back off. The undercurrent of tension faded. No one said anything. Nate sat still, staring at the blind eye of the powered-down monitor, and thought; thought about Rich, and about himself, and about the trespasser who'd be coming in on Monday to take what was left of Rich away from him. It made him obscurely angry, despite Sandra being one hundred percent right in assigning the new guy to Rich's computers.

      The casters on Rich's chair squealed faintly as Nate abruptly shoved it back and stood up. He put a hand on the back of the chair, rolling it idly back and forth, watching it move and thinking about the new guy who'd be sitting here on Monday. He glanced over his shoulder at the door. He made his decision. He felt a little better. "Hey, Texas?"

      "Yo," Johnny said, turning halfway around in his chair.

      "Got a minute to do me a favor?"

      "Sure." Johnny reached behind himself and closed his laptop.

      "Here in a minute I'm going to need you to go keep a lookout for Sandy," Nate said, heading for his equipment closet. Hot glue. He'd need the hot glue gun. And a screwdriver, probably a big one. Maybe a bandsaw. "I'm going to leave the new guy a present, and she shouldn't catch me at it while she's still acting chief."

      By the time he unlocked the closet and waded in, all three of them were grinning in anticipation.

      Sandra could hear Simon's aggravated, staccato voice clearly through the closed door, interspersed with odd little periods of silence that must have been someone else speaking at a lower volume. Jazz was half-turned around in her chair, eyeing the door, half a grin on her face. "Girl," she said, "I think he must be gettin' better."

      "You know, Secret Agent Jazz, I think you might be right," Sandra said, craning forward to see if she could make out the words through the little window. No such luck. She glanced at Jazz. "Who's in there?"

      "That doctor lady of his," Jazz said, checking her clipboard through sheer force of habit. "Vacek."

      Sandra rolled her eyes. "Hoo boy," she said. "Pardon me—" and without further ado she pushed the door open and went in. The doctor, standing at the foot of Simon's bed with her own clipboard clasped (protectively) over her stomach, glanced at her. She looked harassed. Sandra was not at all surprised.

      Simon jabbed a commanding finger at her. "Sandy, tell this woman that I'm going home tomorrow morning," he said, his finger cutting a swift arc through the air until it accused the doctor instead.

      "I don't know that I have the right to tell the good doctor her business," Sandra said evenly, shutting the door firmly behind herself, probably to Jazz's dismay. "Although I suppose you do look better." It wasn't a lie, she realized, studying Simon. He was still ungodly pale (and sort of sticky-looking) and his jaw was tight with what she suspected was pain, but he was sitting up without the aid of a bunch of pillows and someone had at least brushed his hair. Yesterday, he had looked terrible. Now he just looked awful. A definite improvement. I'd hit that, a voice that sounded an awful lot like Mike's said in the back of Sandra's mind. She nearly laughed, but bit it back just in time.

      "See?" Simon said triumphantly, looking back at Dr. Vacek. "I'm going home tomorrow."

      "Mr. Drake—" with a sigh Dr. Vacek lifted her clipboard and flipped through Simon's chart "—while I'll admit that you are recovering nicely—"

      "No buts," Simon said, cutting her off with a chop of his hand (and wincing afterwards, his arm coming down to clamp against his wounded side). "You and I both know that if a gunshot victim survives the first forty-eight hours, chances are damned good that they'll survive the rest. I've been here for four days. I'm going home."

      "And by 'home' he means 'back to work'," Sandra put in. Simon glared at her. She tried to look innocent.

      Now Dr. Vacek looked horrified. "Absolutely not," she said firmly. "If that's your intention, Mr. Drake, I'm even less inclined to let you check yourself out."

      "Besides, Upstairs said you weren't allowed back on site for another week," Sandra added, "and you weren't to go back in the field for another two weeks after that."

      "Well, fuck him and the seniority he rode in on," Simon said. "I am checking out tomorrow. I am going back into work on Monday. And nothing either of you can say will stop me."

      "What if she said 'interns, check this crazy man into the psych ward on a 72-hour observation period'?" Sandra asked. She was really starting to enjoy herself. "Heck, boss, you sure look like you're suffering from chest pains right now, that's a mandatory overnight stay at least..."

      "I'd ask her if her malpractice insurance was paid up," Simon shot back, jerking his arm away from his chest and wincing again. "Goddammit, Sandy, whose side are you on?"

      "Yours," Sandra said, "although you don't seem to realize it."

      Simon flopped back onto his pillow and wheezed in a couple of rapid, panting breaths. "You're fired," he said. "Terminated with extreme prejudice. Hand over your gun and your ID badge immediately."

      "If you think I'm giving you a gun right now, you're even crazier than I thought," Sandra said. Dr. Vacek was looking helplessly back and forth like a spectator at a tennis match. Sandra glanced at her and winked even as she added, "You'd check yourself out of the hospital at gunpoint and I am not going to be responsible for that, boss."

      "Crap." Simon pointed a declamatory finger at the ceiling, since that's what he was looking at. "Not only are you fired, but you're not invited to my birthday party any more."

      "I'm heartbroken," Sandra said. "And here I already bought you a G.I. Joe." She was smiling now. She just couldn't help it.

      "... six or twelve inches?" Simon asked suspiciously.

      "That's kind of a personal question, isn't it?"

      Simon snorted out an unwilling laugh. "Tomorrow," he said, going right back to that.

      Dr. Vacek blinked, startled at suddenly being reinvolved in the conversation. "No sooner than Monday morning," she said, folding her arms over her clipboard again.

      "Tomorrow," Simon repeated with strained patience.

      Sandra looked at the doctor. "Trust me, you want to get him the hell out of here. The longer you balk him, the more likely he is to throw something at you."

      "I told Texas I was sorry about that," Simon said, grabbing the railings of his bed and painfully hauling himself upright again. He went paper-white, almost a bit green, but clenched his jaw and persevered until he was hunched more or less upright again, wheezing. "Tomorrow, and I promise I'll... go right home and spend the rest of the weekend in bed. Just like I was here, only without the... beeping and the uncomfortable bed and the constant threat of septicemia or, or green Jell-O in little cubes."

      Dr. Vacek considered him, her eyes narrowed. "I'll tell you what," she finally said. "When I come on duty tomorrow at four PM, I'll re-evaluate you then. I don't want you to get your hopes up, Mr. Drake, but frankly, I'm already tired of dealing with you."

      "Excellent," Simon said. "We've got a deal."

      "I'll come get you at five," Sandra promised.

      "If I release him," Dr. Vacek added, sharply, at the exact same moment that Simon said, "I can drive myself." Dr. Vacek's head snapped back towards him. "You most certainly can not," she said in scandalized exasperation.

      Sandra laughed, absurdly delighted with it all. "Oh, you'll release him," she said. "If he's still in this hospital by this time tomorrow it'll only be because one of his doctors snapped and assaulted him."

      "I don't know why she's talking like that," Simon told the doctor. "I am a perfectly reasonable human being."

      "Ha!" Sandra said.

      The door closed—maybe a little too firmly—behind the retreating Dr. Vacek. Simon blew out an aggravated breath and absently rubbed his chest. "Finally," he said, and collapsed back onto his pillow like someone had cut all his strings, breathing hard. He waved one hand vaguely at the chair. "You. Come. Sit. Tell me about what happened today."

      Obligingly Sandra took the chair, dropping her purse to the floor beside herself, and filled him in. Simon stared at the ceiling and fingered his chest gingerly, plucking at the ugly hospital gown like it annoyed him, listening. Once Sandra was done, Simon was quiet for a long five seconds or so before he said, "That's it?"

      "That's it," Sandra said, frowning. "We're still kind of shorthanded, you know—"

      "Nah, it's not that," Simon said, waving an unsteady hand at her. "Never mind. Just felt like there was something you weren't telling me, is all."

      Sandra shook her head. "I promise, that's everything that I know of."

      "Huh," Simon said, and let it drop. "Well, at least Carole Winston is out of the picture."

      "We hope."

      "We hope," Simon echoed. "Although frankly, if Farraday wants to go to Colorado for a while, I'm not gonna argue so much."

      "There's that," Sandra said, and paused. "How are you feeling, boss? Really?"

      "Hurt like a bitch and I itch like crazy," Simon promptly said. "I need a shower so bad, you have no idea—"

      "I think maybe I've got an inkling," Sandra couldn't help but put in, fanning one hand ostentatiously in front of her nose.

      "—but what I really, really need is to get all these goddamned tubes out of my various orifices so that I can, oh, I don't know, stand up. I hate this convalescing shit, Sandy. I really, really hate it."

      "Yeah, I know." Sandra patted his free hand. "Tomorrow, boss. I'll come get you at five and take you home. I hear there are showers there, and one hundred percent fewer orifice tubes."

      "Thank Christ," Simon said, shutting his eyes. He pointed blindly at the miniscule closet; his hand shook a little, but Sandra pretended not to notice. "Get my keys," Simon said, letting his hand drop again. "Pick me up in the Jeep. Get Nate to look  it over first to make sure Farraday didn't wire it up or anything, but pick me up in my Jeep. It needs to go home anyway."

      "Will do, Templar."

      "And I'm coming in on Monday," Simon added, in his flattest, most no-nonsense tone, only lightly blurred with exhaustion.

      "For an hour or two," Sandra said firmly.

      Simon's face contorted into a grimace. "Half a day," he said stubbornly. "I'll come in after lunch."

      "And I'll send you home the minute you start looking like shit," Sandra said. "Don't think I won't call security on your pasty wounded ass."

      "Christ, Spring. I can have you fired, you know."

      Sandra smiled. "No, you can't. Not right now, anyway. I'm in charge until Upstairs clears you to return to duty, Templar, and that means I'm in charge of you, too."

      "Conspiring against me, all of you," Simon said, his voice blurring further. He trailed a hand up along the tube of his IV, looking for the button. "Right. Drugs and sleep time now. Come back tomorrow. Rescue me from this hell or I'll hunt you down and, and wreak my revenge." The little machine attached to his IV bag glugged once.

      "I'll ride to your rescue like a white knight on his charger, boss. That's a horse, in case you don't speak romance novel."

      "Yeah," Simon said. The little pain lines on his face started to ease, slowly. "Charger. Reminds me. Plug in my cell phone. In the closet."

      Sandra smiled and stood up, patting Simon's shoulder. "G'night, Templar. Sleep well."

      "Yeah," Simon said fuzzily. "Sleep. Breakfast of champions."

      Sandra picked her way around the foot of Simon's bed and claimed his keys and his cell phone from the closet, dropping both into her purse. By the time she closed the closet again Simon was motionless, not quite snoring, as limp as a rag doll. Sandra tiptoed to the door, turning out the lights on the way.

      She had her hand on the doorknob when Simon's dreamy and disembodied voice said, "That was... was a dream... right?"

      Having no idea what Simon was talking about (but suspecting it was drug-related), Sandra said, "Yeah, boss. Just a dream. Go back to sleep."

      "'kay," Simon said. Sandra waited in the dark for a white longer, but he said nothing else, and eventually she let herself back out.

      The first thing he did when he got home was put the white grocery bag down on the counter. The second thing he did was check the clock on the DVD player. 7:17. Plenty of time.

      Whistling, he unpacked everything and laid it out. He had a piece of raw pork and a lot of aggression to work off—fortunately he also had a heavy maple mallet and neighbors who were usually too stoned or too loud to bother complaining about his tendency to get a little too enthusiastic about things. He pulled out the cutting board and the wooden mallet, slapped the pork down with a wet little sound, and proceeded to beat the everliving shit out of it. The kitchen rang with the sound, leaving him half-deaf and laughing. Bottled-up aggression, Mike had found, made for excellent tonkatsu, eventually.

      He kept one eye on the clock, even when he didn't want to. The little red numbers marched inexorably on as Mike dawdled over the dinner preparations, trying to draw things out so that he wouldn't get stuck waiting for too long. Waiting for a phone call, shit, what was he, some kind of chick now?

      By the time he actually finished making his dinner, the clock read 8:32, and Mike suddenly realized that he'd wasted a little too much time. Grabbing a beer out of the fridge Mike bolted his dinner (with a twinge of regret—first time he'd bothered to cook all week, for this?), then threw all the dishes in the sink and slammed the palm of his hand against the faucet handle.

      He finished the dishes with barely two minutes to spare and ran for the bedroom, pulling his shirt off over his head as he went. His clothes hit the hamper—or near it, good enough—and Mike dropped onto the floor of the living room just as the clock hit nine, in his shorts and breathing hard. He hoped she gave him enough time to catch his breath, at least, because this shit was undignified.

      Fifteen minutes later, he was flopped out on his back with his cell phone resting on his stomach, staring at the ceiling, bored out of his mind. "Fuck it," Mike said, kicking out his legs and sitting up. He dialed the number of the payphone and let it ring. Seven, eight, nine times—no one answered. Eventually he gave up and slapped his phone shut again. Bitch was late, that's all. Hooking the clip of his phone to the waistband of his boxers Mike stood up, shook himself like a wet dog, and went to open the windows and clear the scent of fried pork out of his apartment.

      The clock on the DVD player read 9:58. Mike was considering turning his phone off and going the hell to bed. He was also kind of considering putting his clothes back on, driving out to Fredericksburg, and maybe throwing down with someone. Shit. Had Farraday done something to the lady lawyer? Not that Mike would put it past him—far as Mike was concerned Farraday was a rabid dog with a bad bleach job, no two ways about it—but the timing of it would mean that it was maybe partly his fault, and fuck but he hated personal responsibility—

      From out of nowhere his phone started blasting the first few bars of The Imperial March at him, and he jerked so hard that he nearly fell right off the couch. Mike yanked the clip of his phone holster off his shorts, snapping himself a good one with the rebounding elastic, and flipped it open. "Damn, woman, I'd just about given up on you!"

      Silence. No, not silence, but a gulping, breathing hush, like a woman trying not to cry and failing. Mike sat up, one lone alarm going off in the back of his mind. "Hey. You okay?" he demanded to know. "Hey!"

      "I'm sorry!" Diana Fontaine finally blurted, still breathing hard—whether in exhilaration or terror Mike had no idea. Her words spilled out over one another in her hurry to get them out. "He turned up at the back door just as I was about to leave, I had to wait until he left again, I didn't want to hurry him out, he'd know something was up, he's so perceptive..."

      "Paranoid, you mean," Mike said, flopping back out on the couch and shutting his eyes. "You okay?"

      "I'm fine," she said, getting herself under control again, her words slowing back to normal. "I'm fine. I'm sorry I was late, Mike."

      And now she sounded just like herself, all prissy and composed, and it made Mike grin a little and take a poke at her. "Ooh, are we on a first-name basis now? 'Cause I don't know about you, but I'm maybe not ready for that kind of commitment—"

      "Mr. Takemura," she amended, her voice cooling to the point where it congealed.

      Mike snickered. "Aw, well, guess it couldn't last," he said. "So! What'd the squirrel want from you today? He tell you anything I can use?"

      Diana was quiet for a moment. "Off the record?" she finally asked.

      "Record? We doan need no steenkin' record," Mike said. "Yeah, sure. Off the record."

      "He's... not really telling me much about what he's doing," Diana said. "Mostly he just wanted to... to reassure me, I suppose, tell me that everything's all right, he's all right, it'll all be over soon—"

      "—wait," said Mike, sitting up and letting his feet drop to the floor. "It'll all be over soon? He said that?"

      Diana swallowed. "Yes," she said. "I-I don't know what he meant by that, precisely. He sounded like he was trying to console me, not to make some kind of... of promise..."

      "Shit," Mike said. He rubbed his eyes. "Either way, that sounds kinda ominous, you know?"

      "I know." She fell silent. In the background Mike could hear the faint sound of traffic. "I've decided what I'm going to do," she said after a moment.

      "Yeah? What's that?" Mike slithered down off the couch, sprawling out in his usual spot on the carpet.

      Diana paused. When she spoke again, her voice was firmer. "First you have to promise me something."

      Mike snorted. "Yeah, I kinda figured that was coming. What?"

      "I want protection," she declared. "In exchange for my help."

      "Protection, huh. What kind of protection did you have in mind?"

      She only faltered for a second. "If I call you... if I call you, I want you to come rescue me. No matter when I call or where I call you from. If I'm going to help you I want to know that I'll have someone to extricate me and somewhere to hide."

      Mike pulled his phone away from his ear and raised both eyebrows at it. "Well, sure, I can do that, but I'm an hour away, remember? Might be easier for me just to tell your local police who you are and what you need—"

      "No!" She cut him off immediately. "I can't do this officially, remember? If he..." She faltered again. "If he actually starts trying to hurt me, I promise I'll go right to the police, but if I just feel threatened..."

      "Yeah." Mike shut his eyes and rubbed the back of his neck, thinking about it. "Okay," he finally said. "If you think you need extricating, you call me, and I'll come running. On one condition."

      "What's that?"

      "If I have to come rescue your pretty little ass from this squirrel, that's pretty much it for the unofficial, okay? There's no more keepin' it on the down low if he's gone that kind of threatening."

      "That..." Diana swallowed. "That's fair."

      "Okay," Mike said. "Okay. So... what are you going to do?"

      She hiccupped out a brittle little laugh. "What I've been doing," she said. "I'll keep talking to him. Sooner or later he'll tell me something you can use. I'm sure of it. He's always liked to... to brag."

      "Promise me you're not going to get all cute and shit," Mike said sharply. "You try and pump him, he's going to smell a rat. If you can't act natural he is going to mess you the fuck up, lady."

      "I'll be careful." She hesitated again. "I think I can do it. I've known him for a long time."

      Mike opened his eyes, staring up at the plaster rosettes on the ceiling. "Fuck, I hope you know him as well as you think you do, then."

      Diana Fontaine made a noise into the phone that could have been a laugh, or a sniffle, or just a little cough. "So do I," she said.