Part Five: Chapters 23-36

      He stopped in front of the door and automatically reached up to adjust his tie, hooking his fingers around the knot and resettling it yet again. For some reason, he couldn't take his eyes off the nameplate by the door. The Special Ops wing looked just like the wing he'd transferred from—plain white hallways, doors every twenty feet or so, inboxes mounted by each one—but instead of having the division name on it, the little white card in the bracket above the inbox here just said 107 Templar. Someone had written w00t! beneath it, in pencil.

      Dave frowned uncertainly. Now that he was actually here, in front of the door, he was nervous. Well, all right, he'd been nervous ever since he'd gotten his official transfer notice, but that had been more of an excited nervous. He'd been promoted to Field Division—to the Special Ops branch—to Team Templar! Dave had never felt so much like a rock star in his life as he had on Thursday when the news got out. (Of course, even the most jealous of his former coworkers had made a point of telling him that he was insane, but Dave had been diffidently angling for Special Ops ever since he joined the FBI and he thought he could probably handle it.)

      No, this was more of a butterflies-in-the-stomach nervous. A stage-fright nervous. A rock star stage-fright nervous. Six months of doing his best to accept that the position was going to go to someone else before the blue sheet showed up on his desk. Of course he was bound to be a little nervous—

      Abruptly he realized that he'd been standing here gawking at the door like an idiot for close to a minute. He glanced up and down the hall in embarrassment, hoping that no one had seen him; it wasn't quite eight in the morning, though, and the hallway was still empty enough to echo. Dave shook his head, tightened his grip on the handle of his briefcase, and knocked on the door. "Come in!" someone yelled from the other side.

      Awkwardly he shuffled his briefcase into his other hand and opened the door. Or tried to. It was surprisingly heavy, and he ended up having to put his shoulder against it to push it open far enough to stick his head into the room. "Hello?"

      The room was empty save for the guy with his nose to his monitor just a few feet away from where Dave was standing. "Come on in," he said, not looking up.

      Dave edged the door open farther and shuffled himself in. Unthinkingly he let go of the doorknob and the heavy door swung itself shut with a muffled boom that made him jerk a little; the guy at the computer didn't so much as look up. "Hang on a sec," he said, and did something, and then something else, and then turned away from his computer to blink nearsightedly at Dave. "Can I help you?"

      "I hope so," said Dave, switching his briefcase back to his other hand. "I'm, uh, David Brassoff? I was supposed to start today?"

      There was a pause, during which the guy at the computer studied him like he was some fascinating new species of insect. "Sandy's in there," he finally said, jerking a thumb at the empty doorway behind him. "She'll get you—what's the word?—oriented." And before Dave could say anything else he twitched out an absent smile and went back to his computer.

      "Thanks," Dave told the back of the guy's head. Edging around the corner of the empty desk in the front of the room he headed for the indicated door, stealing little glances around as he went. The place didn't look particularly crazy.

      The door (had it been there, which, as Dave discovered, it was not) led into a small and plain office much like most every other petty chief's office Dave had ever been in. Dave stopped in the doorway. A pretty woman of about his age sat at the desk, flipping through a stack of papers, sorting them into piles; she didn't look up. After a painful minute, Dave cleared his throat.

      "Have a seat," she said, still not looking up. "I'll be right with you."

      Dave sat down, put his briefcase between his feet, and waited. He tried not to fidget and failed. After another minute or so she finished sorting the stack of papers; without any further ado she picked up the largest pile and dropped it into the trash, then looked up. "Nate!"

      A chair screeched out in the main room and the guy from earlier appeared in the doorway. "Sandy?"

      She held out a much thinner pile of papers. "Here, take these, sign somebody's name to them, stick 'em in the outbox."

      Dave blinked. The guy named Nate took the papers and flipped through them. "Okay. I'll sign 'em 'Napoleon Dynamite', how's that?" Dave blinked again.

      'Sandy' looked offended. "God, no, Nate." And just as Dave was about to relax, she added, "What is it with nerds and that horrible movie? Pick something else."

      "'Leonidas, King of Sparta'?"

      She nodded. "Works for me. Just do it, I have to get the new guy here set up."

      "Okay!" 'Nate' departed. Dave was left only mildly at sea.

      That taken care of, she switched her gaze, level and assessing, to him. Abruptly he felt very small. "I'm Sandra," she finally said. "Sandra Leone. 'Sandy' is fine. So is 'Springheel', that's my code name. Anything else and I'll break your face."

      "Okay," Dave said, because how else did you respond to that?

      Sandra waited for a moment, then nodded and went on. "And I'm assuming you're, uh, David Brassoff, the transfer." Dave nodded, but before he could say anything else, she went right on. "Mr. Brassoff, before I go on, let me ask you something."

      "Okay," Dave said again.

      "Do you know what happened to the man you're supposed to replace?"

      "Some of it," Dave said uncomfortably. "I know that he was, uh, shot and killed, if that's what you're asking."

      Sandra's gaze was level. "Anything else?"

      "There was..." Dave trailed off, frowned, made a helpless little gesture, and started over. "There was something weird about it. I don't know what it was, I'm not, uh, in the loop there, but there wasn't as much commotion over the shooting as there usually is, and all the files relating to the event have been labeled as, uh, classified information. That's not unheard of, but it's... unusual..." He trailed off, noticing for the first time how closely she was watching him.

      "Yes, well," she said briskly, dismissing the subject. "At least you have some idea of what you're getting into, then. Mr. Brassoff, I'm going to be honest with you."

      Dave blinked. "Okay," he said. He was saying that a lot.

      "It'd probably be easiest on you if you thought of this as a temporary assignment." Oblivious to Dave's stomach dropping into his shoes she looked down at the bit of yellow paper on the desk. Dave could see his name typed neatly at the top. "We're an extremely close-knit and hand-picked team, Mr. Brassoff—"

      "Dave's fine," Dave said weakly.


      "Dave's fine," he repeated.

      Sandra waved that away with a little huff of irritation. "My point, Mr. Brassoff, is that Upstairs can't just assign us a new team member at random and expect him to fit in. But he did. And by doing that, he's put both us and you in a bad position."

      "Oh," said Dave.

      "For the time being, though, you're on. Simon's currently on medical leave—he's recovering from a gunshot wound—"

      "I know," said Dave, his voice getting very small.

      Sandra talked right over him, barely glancing up. "—so until he comes back at full capacity and can see about replacing you, we'll give you a chance. I suppose you never know."

      "Thank you," said Dave. His stomach hurt a little. How was he supposed to go back to Internet Crime after this?

      "So!" Sandra said. Now she looked up, folding her hands together on top of the yellow sheet with his name on it. "Quick rundown of the basic ground rules. This team gets into some very hairy situations, sometimes without warning, so we require every member of this team to put in at least five hours per month down at the firing range and to carry their weapon at all times while on duty. That goes for acting members as well, Mr. Brassoff. I assume you carry?"

      "Uh," said Dave. "Yes'm." His hand crept under his suit jacket and touched the shoulder holster there.

      "Good. Moving on. If you take the last cup of coffee in the pot, you make more. The only person who is exempt from this rule is Simon. If Simon takes the last cup of coffee in the pot, whoever gets publicly caught noticing first makes more. Whoever gets here first in the morning makes the coffee and brings in the paper in the inbox. Put it on the desk here. Clear so far?"

      "Yes'm," Dave said again, his mind a whirl of coffee and paper.

      Sandra smiled for a bare second. It didn't look particularly friendly. "We'll go over the rest if you survive, Mr. Brassoff. Now, then, as to what I'm going to have you doing..."

      Ten minutes later she abandoned him, numbed and despairing, to the blank gazes of three computers. "I'll introduce you to the other team members once we're all here," she said briskly. "Good luck. You'll need it." And just like that she was gone, her hair flickering out behind her like a pennant as she strode back into the doorless office.

      Dave stole a covert glance left. The guy at the other, separate computer—Nate, apparently, which Dave supposed made him 'Specs'—didn't appear to be paying him much attention. By this point Dave was so embarrassed that he he could only be grateful for that. He put his briefcase down at the end of the smaller desk and let out as stealthy a sigh as he could get away with, struggling to snap himself out of his temporary paralysis.

      So it was going to be like that. Two weeks, three at the outside, and if he hadn't made an impression by that point he was going to be dumped back down into the desk brigade—well, fine. He shouldn't have expected it to be that easy anyway. Dave nodded to himself. He'd just have to make the most of this chance he'd been given, that's all, and try not to psych himself out.

      This Story guy was supposed to have been some kind of freakish prodigy with computers? Dave had run across self-proclaimed computer geniuses every day of the week when he was back in Internet Crime, and he'd still managed to help prosecute a bunch of them. He could do this. Sure. First thing he needed to do was go down and talk to the guys in IT, see what they had to say about this guy and his computers, pick up a few things... after that it was just a matter of time, leverage, and psychology. And, if all else failed, brute force. He could do this. He could.

      By the time he'd finished thinking all of that, he almost believed it. Straightening his shoulders and firming his jaw Dave grabbed the back of the chair and spun it around—

      —the entire top half came slewing loose under his hand and crashed to the ground. Dave yelped and jumped back just barely in time to save his toes; the guy behind him made a little choking sound that sounded unpleasantly like an abortive laugh. Dave stared blankly down at the half-a-chair laying on the ground at his feet, his newly-won and shaky confidence draining away again.

      Sandra stuck her head back out of the office. "What the hell was that?" she demanded to know.

      "He broke Rich's chair," Nate said from behind Dave, his voice a little uneven.

      "Uh, sorry..." Dave dug up a sickly grin from somewhere and picked up the top half of the chair, hefting it awkwardly. "I'll, uh, I'll take this out to the dumpster," he said. He could barely hear himself for the roaring in his ears. "I'll... come back for the other half."

      They both watched him silently as he floundered across the room, thighs bumping painfully into the half-a-chair at every step. The door was heavy (in his flustered state he'd completely managed to forget that) and he wound up having to inch it open a little bit at a time while balancing the half-chair against his hip; he scooted out as soon as he could and got the lever handle jammed into his stomach for his troubles. As soon as he managed to break free the door boomed to behind him, making him jump again.

      Out in the mercifully still-empty hall, Dave stood and gasped at the closed door, absently cradling the seat against his chest like an awkwardly oversized puppy. Sweat broke out on his forehead. Could this be going any worse?

      Abruptly he brought the chair up, banging himself sharply in the forehead with the padded seat back. It hurt a bit, but at least this time he'd meant for it to. "Focus," he told himself severely. He squared his shoulders and hefted the half-a-chair, heading down the hallway towards the exit door; halfway there he noticed that there was now oily chair goo smeared across his shirt and tie, which didn't surprise him at all.

      Somehow he managed not to laugh until the door slammed itself shut. Even then it was just a little snorting sound, quickly choked back. Nate clapped a hand over his mouth and squeezed his eyes shut, going red and sweaty with the effort of not laughing.

      After a minute the new guy's footsteps started up, heading away down the hall, and Nate managed to rein himself in for at least three more seconds before losing it; then he dropped his head onto his crossed arms and laughed until he wheezed.

      "You did that, didn't you," Sandra said behind him. It was half accusing and half amused.

      "Uh huh," Nate said, still pink-faced and wobbly. He brought up the timer function on his computer. "Oh, man, that was awesome, it's a pity the other guys missed it—"

      "Shame on you," said Sandra, trying to sound severe. The laughing kind of ruined the effect, in Nate's opinion. "I hereby officially disapprove of this juvenile stunt. Consider yourself verbally reprimanded."

      "Okay," Nate said, hitting the mouse to start the timer and bounding out of his chair. He had the new guy's briefcase tucked between his knees a second later, fumbling avidly with the locks. Like most people who actually used the locks on their briefcases, the new guy had set the numbers to 000 as a neutral starter setting; by using both thumbs on both locks Nate was able to test two sets of combinations at once, his head whipping back and forth.

      After a pause Sandra came over to stand behind him and watch the process. She stayed quiet. Nate spun the wheels and tested the catches at a frantic speed, keeping half an ear out for the sound of returning footsteps. He wasn't even really looking at the wheels any more, just sinking into that rhythm, click-click, test, click-click, test...

      The right-hand lock popped open at 655, jerking him out of the rhythm. "Ha! What a n00b," Nate crowed. "Time?"

      Sandra leaned back and checked his computer. "Two minutes, seven seconds."

      "Oh yeah, I'm the man." Nate set the left-hand lock to 655 and pushed the catch release. It didn't open. "Huh."


      "He's got a different combination on this side." Abandoning the right-hand lock entirely, Nate redoubled his efforts on the left, only to jerk his head up at the sound of approaching footsteps. With a little yelp he slapped the right-hand lock shut and thumbed the dials back to 000, dropping the briefcase back where it had come from and nearly leaping back into his computer chair. A quick slap of his palm against the mouse and a secondary window hid the timer from view, and Nate still had time to take two long, deep, calming breaths before the door creaked slowly and apologetically open.

      The new guy shuffled back in, head down, shoulders hunched, like he was hoping no one would pay any attention to him. Expressionlessly Sandra leaned in and plucked a pen off Nate's desk and carried it back into Simon's office with her, leaving the two of them alone; Nate focused his attention on his monitor and tried desperately to still the whooping hysteria that lurked just underneath his feigned calm.

      Everything went quiet. The new guy glanced back and forth, then abruptly strode over, bent down, grabbed the bottom half of the ex-chair, and tried to pick it up. Nate heard him grunt and hunched his shoulders, nearly losing it.

      The new guy straightened up, frowning. He kicked one of the casters lightly, then a little harder, then hunkered down and ran a hand over the wheel, trying to wedge his finger underneath. Nate couldn't resist. "Problem?" he asked, hooking an arm over the back of his chair to watch the show.

      "Uh." The new guy straightened up and turned around, blinking. He was tall and kind of scrawny-looking, his regulation-cut red hair was starting to draggle across his damp forehead and rumple up along its neat part, and his pale eyes were wide and wild; in Nate's opinion he looked like nothing so much as a semi-hysterical cartoon rooster. Nate nearly choked.

      "No," the new guy said, turning around again to look at the bottom half of the chair, the half of the chair that Nate had spent a good ten minutes painstakingly hot-gluing to the floor. "No problem." And without any warning at all he hauled off and booted one of the chair's legs as hard as he could, both rooster arms flying up to counterbalance the pistoning rooster kick. The hot glue gave, immediately and entirely, and the remnants of Rich's chair hurtled backwards to slam into the wall, chipping and scuffing the industrial off-white paint before rebounding and nearly hitting the guy in the shins.

      He swooped down and picked it up. "See? No problem," he said, turning to face Nate; his eyes were even wider than before but his expression was oddly, crazily focused, and he hugged the chair's base to his chest like someone had given him a present. "I'll be right back," the new guy promised, and he strode across the room and banged out of the saferoom door with something that was either authority or insanity.

      Nate stared after him, his need to laugh momentarily overpowered by awe. "He already broke," Nate told no one in particular, listening to the rapid retreating footsteps. "I broke him. He hasn't even been here half an hour and I already broke him."

      "That's some kind of record," Sandy said from the doorway to Simon's office. "Mike's gonna be pissed that you didn't leave him any."

      "Guess I better do something to make it up to him, then!" And Nate flung himself out of his chair again, grabbing for the briefcase.

      Mike pulled into the parking lot at ten to nine, purposely letting his car get lost in the sea of other not-quite-late arrivals. Let Farraday try and shoot him now—actually, the idea of Farraday getting chased down and ventilated by an actual army of irate FBI agents was an idea that was too fucking funny to waste, so Mike absently savored it while he maneuvered his car over to his usual parking area.

      There was a spot left. There was always a spot or two left. Nobody liked parking over behind this wing of the building, for some reason. Something about collateral damage. Whatever. Johnny's beater was already parked back here, listing slightly to the left and lowering property values in the area just by existing; Mike pulled in next to it and kicked his door open with glee, putting yet another ding in what remained of the red paint on Johnny's passenger-side door.

      His good mood thus ensured, Mike climbed out to have himself a nice stretch. He was halfway through it when he noticed that Johnny was still sitting in his truck, watching him expressionlessly and chewing on a toothpick. Mike choked back a laugh and waggled his fingers. "Whoops, sorry, Texas, didn't see you there!"

      "Damn, Honda. My truck steal your girlfriend or something?" Johnny asked, hitching open his own door and sliding out.

      "Nah," said Mike. "I just figure, you know, some day that thing's gonna be more dent than truck and then maybe something quantum will happen, you know?"

      "You even know what that means?"


      Johnny grunted and dismissed it, ambling around the back of his truck to join Mike. "New guy's supposed to come today."

      "Shit, I forgot." Mike's good mood fizzled for a moment before rebounding, twice as large. He rubbed his hands together in anticipation. "Oh, man. This? This is gonna be fuuuun."

      "Not for him," Johnny said, not quite grinning.

      Nate was sitting cross-legged on the low concrete wall just outside the door. Waiting for them, as it turned out; the moment he spotted Mike and Johnny he hopped up, bouncing slightly on the balls of his feet as he waited impatiently for them to join him. "Oh, man, you guys," Nate cried once they got close enough to hear. "I gotta tell you...!"

      "Ooh, ooh, new guy?" Mike said, jogging the last ten feet to join Nate under the overhang. Johnny followed at his own, more leisurely pace, and they moved out of the way of the door to huddle up in a corner. Their fellow agents were filtering into the building in ones and twos, the card swipe beeping merrily, and not a single one failed to give the conspiracy a wide berth and a wary glance.

      "He already broke," Nate said in triumph, pushing up his glasses. "Swear to God it took half an hour."

      "Whaaaaat?" Mike wailed. "He broke already and I missed it?"

      Johnny glanced at Mike and then looked back at Nate. "Spill."

      "Oh, man," Nate said again, nearly laughing. "The chair got him, wait 'til you hear—"

      "Awesome," Mike breathed once Nate was done explaining. "Hauled off and kicked it loose? In the middle of all those computers? Dude snapped."

      Nate nodded furiously. "For serious! And then he went back to normal once he calmed down some. Bet he thinks it's over—bet we can break him again!"

      Johnny snorted out a laugh. "And?"

      Nate beamed at Johnny and gave him a thumbs-up. "Figured out the combination to his briefcase while he was dealing with the chair."

      "My man!" Mike cried, slapping Nate on the back so hard that his glasses almost fell off. "Anything unusual inside?"

      Nate shoved his glasses back up. "No—"

      "Not yet," Johnny said, overriding Nate. Nate stuttered out a breathless laugh and nodded frantically.

      "Yeeeeah," Mike said, his eyes going to slits. "Think I'm going shopping at lunch."

      Nate, still unable to breathe properly thanks to his giggling fit, poked Mike with a slip of paper. "Here," he wheezed. "Combination."

      Mike took it and slid it into his breast pocket, glancing around surreptitiously. "You are the man, Specs. I'll tell you if I change it. How's Sandy taking it?"

      "Officially disapproving," Nate said, "but willing to look the other way. I think we're probably good so long as no one loses an eye."

      Mike beamed. "Fuckin' sweet. I needed this, you know? Some kind of... distraction."

      "Yeah," said Johnny. "Poor dumb sonofabitch."

      Still snickering under his breath, Mike booted open the heavy saferoom door and bombed in. Sandra poked her head out of Simon's office and scowled at him, but Mike's attention was divided, and he dismissed the scowling with an absent beam and a wave.

      The guy sitting at Rich's largest computer looked up and blinked mildly. And he was wearing a suit—"Hoo, check it out, it's a new guy," Mike told the room at large. Nate, behind him, stuttered into another nearly-hysterical laugh; Johnny, bringing up the rear, snickered and let the saferoom door slam shut. The four of them all looked expectantly at the wall they shared with Team Hall. After a moment, the new guy's eyes helplessly followed, but Team Hall was apparently disinclined to object to the ruckus at a moment, which left the new guy looking even more confused.

      "So, new guy," Mike said, crossing his arms over his chest, "you got a name?"

      "Uh. Yes," the guy said, blinking again. His eyes were so pale a blue that his pupils looked like tiny black dots floating in a sea of white; in Mike's opinion it made the guy look kind of crazy to begin with. "David Brassoff. Dave's fine."

      "David-Brassoff-Dave's-Fine," Mike repeated thoughtfully. "That's some name." The new guy opened his mouth and shut it again, apparently thinking better of trying to correct him, which was a pity.

      "Knock it off," Sandra said severely, punching Mike's shoulder. Mike yelped. Sandra ignored him. Dammit, she always did that. "Okay," she said, clapping her hands together like she thought she was Simon or something. "We're all here. Meeting now."

      "Right," Nate said, sliding around Mike and heading for the big table. Johnny followed him. A moment later, so did Mike.

      David-Brassoff-Dave's-Fine fumbled his way out of his own chair—stolen from the big table, Mike noticed, although by some stroke of luck he'd picked the one that Rich used to sit in—and picked it up, carrying it awkwardly over to join them. "Is here okay?" he asked, putting the chair back where it had come from.

      "Yeah, that's fine," Nate said. David-Brassoff-Dave's-Fine nodded and sat down, only then realizing that by taking Rich's old seat at the table he'd put himself across from Mike. Mike squinted at him for a couple of moments and then bared his teeth in an enormous face-eating grin. The new guy blinked several times, but to his credit, didn't squirm too bad.

      Sandra took Simon's spot at the head of the table. "Right," she said. "First things first. As you've all undoubtedly heard, this is Dave Brassoff, Rich's temporary replacement. Mr. Brassoff, let me just go around the table quickly." She flicked a hand at Mike, who beamed at her and then transferred that same loopy look to David-Brassoff-Dave's-Fine, who was still not squirming. "That's Mike. For the record, not that you'll need to know this, his codename is Honda."

      "I'm the crazy one!" Mike volunteered.

      David-Brassoff-Dave's-Fine made a little tiny sound that might, if magnified, have proven to be a laugh. "I've heard that," he murmured, showing what Mike thought was a creditable spark of courage lost in an abominable lack of a self-preservation instinct.

      "He's heard that!" Mike cried, pouncing on it. "Holy crap, I'm famous in the desk brigade!"

      "Infamous, probably," Nate said.

      "Whatever." Mike ratcheted his grin up a couple of notches, past the point of all sense. "What have you heard? Tell me," he told the new guy. "I wanna know."

      "Uh. Well—"

      "Later," Sandra broke in. She pointed down the table at Nate. "You've sort of already met Nate, but let me make that official. His codename is Specs, and he's the one who knew Rich best, so you may want to see what help he can give you."

      "I'll see what I can do," Nate said, smiling at David-Brassoff-Dave's-Fine, who smiled back in something like relief. "I hope I can help."

      Mike, confronted with this evidence of Nate's complete and total two-facedness, hooted. Sandra shot him a glare just chock-full of imprecation and waved a hand at Johnny. "And that's Texas. Johnny."

      "Yo," said Johnny, just barely cracking an eye open.

      "Hey," said David-Brassoff-Dave's-Fine, raising his hand in an uncertain little wave.

      "There's every chance that Simon will come by after lunch," Sandra said, dismissing both David-Brassoff-Dave's-Fine and the half-assed introductions briskly. "Remember: don't let him get too excited, and when I start telling him to go home, the rest of you stay out of it."

      "Awesome," Mike said with some relief. "Man, it'll be good to have him back, even if he is some kind of helpless invalid."

      Johnny grunted a little. Mike decided to take it for agreement.

      "Okay," Sandra said. "So, on to business. Specs, you're still working on the gas receipts stuff?"

      Nate heaved a sigh. "Yeah," he said, rubbing the back of his neck. "I should be done with it by the end of the day—it's just that there's so much of it and I don't have Rich's old sorting algorithms to work with."

      "That's fine," Sandra said. "Honda, ballistics?"

      "Got the report out of the lab, finally," Mike said, tossing his pen into the air and snatching it again as it fell. "I chased the bullet trail around a little on Friday, but didn't get anywhere, so I'm gonna keep chasing it today."

      Sandra nodded. "Texas, I want you to get on the phone with the Pennsylvania state police and get them to go check out where that old hideout of his used to be. We all know he's not going to be there but I just want to be sure."

      "Sure," Johnny said, nodding. Nate got very interested in his linked fingers all of a sudden; even Mike couldn't miss that. He reached over and swatted Nate's shoulder in awkward solidarity, which made Nate's glasses slide precipitously to the end of his nose again. Nate smiled weakly and shoved them back up. Mike sat back, caught David-Brassoff-Dave's-Fine watching them curiously, and mouthed What?! at him. The guy flushed a little and looked away. Mike scowled a bit, although his heart suddenly wasn't in it.

      "At least we know he's not at the place in New York, that's something. As for me, I'm still checking on all the known aliases that Farraday and his girls used to use," Sandra said, and then paused abruptly and pinched the bridge of her nose, sighing. "And getting nowhere."

      "Yeah," Mike said, hunching his shoulders and feeling just a bit guilty. "It's like the guy went to ground."

      "Yeah," Sandra said. "Maybe I ought to send you two back out to brace Diana Fontaine again. She's our only goddamn lead so far—"

      "—and that's based on a fucking hunch," Mike hastened to add, looking down at his hands to avoid the look that Johnny shot him. To make his conscience pipe down, he added, "Although I've still got something percolating, shit, I just can't nail it, it's driving me fucking crazy."

      "Well, I wish you'd nail it," Sandra said, huffing out another breath. "If you don't have it by the time Simon shows up, maybe you ought to run it by him, see if he can pin it down for you."

      Mike nodded fervently. "Daaamn, but it'll be good to dump all my problems on the boss' shoulders again," he said. "This thinking for myself shit is for the birds."

      "You said it, not me," Sandra said, shoving her chair back and standing up. "Let's get to work."

      Nate and David-Brassoff-Dave's-Fine both stood up as well. "Uh," said David-Brassoff-Dave's-Fine. "I'm going to go down to IT and get them to tell me about the computers—"

      "You don't have to tell me where you're going." Sandra interrupted him gently, but the new guy still hunched his shoulders like she'd snapped at him. He was a loooong drink of water; hunching up like that made him look like a folding ruler collapsing. Ignoring his reaction, Sandra went on. "If I want a status report, I'll ask for it. Otherwise I expect you to manage your own time. The only exception is if you're going somewhere that could possibly turn out to be dangerous—" her smile flickered; it looked pretty cold "—and I'm at least eighty percent sure that IT hasn't killed anyone yet."

      David-Brassoff-Dave's-Fine blinked and nodded, his shoulders dropping. "Okay," he said tentatively, and then he straightened up all the way and said it again. "Okay." One hand crept up and straightened the knot of his stained and bedraggled tie—a fucking tie, it made Mike want to grab it and yank real hard—and then he left, only briefly fighting with the door.

      The door closed behind him with barely a click, and his footsteps echoed away up the hall towards the main building. Mike looked at Johnny, then at Nate, then at Sandra, then whooped in glee and dove for David-Brassoff-Dave's-Fine's abandoned briefcase.

      Leaving the boys clustered around the hapless briefcase—and that's what they were acting like right now, Sandra thought, boys—Sandra went back into Simon's office, shaking her head. Not that she'd expected any better from Mike, of course. Nate, well, Nate had his immature moments (although when Nate did it, it was cute) and she had to admit that the chair thing had been funny. But now even Johnny was getting into it, and that, frankly, surprised her a bit. Although in retrospect she couldn't say why.

      Sandra sat down in Simon's chair and sighed a little, waking up his computer and wincing at the pile of incident reports that had piled up during the meeting. She was glad that, as acting team leader, she was officially required to disapprove of this trial by fire; it saved her being dragged into the endless rounds of pranks. She didn't like having this new guy foisted off on them either, but she was too busy (and too mature, thank you) to waste time with that nonsense.

      On the other hand, she had to admit that if the new guy couldn't survive this, there was no way that he'd survive being an actual member of the team. If he wanted to stay on, he could earn it. Picking up the yellow transfer sheet, she neatly 'filed' it in the trash can. "Sink or swim, Mr. Brassoff," she muttered under her breath, kicking the chair around and getting back to work.

      Out in the main room, a calculating, pregnant silence fell. Sandra glanced up suspiciously, her fingers falling still on the keys. "No physical harm," she yelled, just in case.

      There was an immediate (and vaguely guilty) explosion of laughter, confirming her sick little hunch. "Awww, man, Sandy, you're no fun!" Mike cried. "Not even, like, a finger? He's got plenty of extras!"

      "I am sufficient fun," Sandra said frostily. "I just draw the line at casualties. Notice that I said nothing about mental, emotional, or collateral damage."

      Silence fell again, a good deal more awed this time. "Daaaaaamn," Mike finally said, his voice fading slightly. "Lady is cold."

      "Sufficient unto the day is the fun thereof!" Nate said. "No, here, not yet, wait until after lunch—"

      Sandra tuned them out and got back to work. Sometimes it was the only way to stay sane. Well, close to.

      Amazingly, for once, she managed to get almost fifteen minutes of actual work done before her cellphone rang. Still staring at Simon's computer screen she groped around in her purse until she found her phone, flipping it open absently. "Sandra," she said.

      "Goddammit, Sandy!" Simon's voice blasted out of the speaker, crackling with volume. "Where's my ID?"

      Startled, Sandra jerked the phone away from her ear. Simon, unaware, just ranted right on. "Archer here says that you took it, not that I believe him, him being a fucking thief and all, but I've been shaking him down for five minutes now and he's not changing his goddamned story—"

      "—he's not lying to you," Sandra said, raising her voice a little in order to make herself heard. "I have your ID."

      The spluttering sound from the other end of the line made her bite her cheek to keep from laughing. Quickly, before Simon could regroup, Sandra plunged on. "However, if you'll just ask him, he'll tell you that I've provided him with his old guest ID—"

      "—what the hell good does that do me—"

      "—which I have had Security upgrade to level 5 access privileges—"

      "—you gave level 5 access to Archer? You're fired—"

      "—so that as long as you are properly escorted, you'll be able to go almost anywhere," Sandra finished, more or less shouting Simon down. Out in the other room the others were quiet; they were listening as hard as they could. She could just tell. Sandra modulated her voice. "I don't need to remind you that you're on medical leave and ought to be resting, boss. And I know you. If I'd left you with your ID you'd be trying to drive yourself over here every day and push yourself until you fell over dead at your desk, which I would, personally, find unsanitary. Well, guess what, I'm not having it."

      The huffy silence from the other end of the line had that particular 'too infuriated to speak' quality to it. Sandra closed her eyes and waited for the storm to break.

      "Jesus Christ!" Simon finally said, exploding. Sandra could just picture him pacing back and forth, flailing his free hand around. Simon's voice dropped to an accusatory growl. "You are all conspiring against me. All of you."

      "Actually, we're conspiring for you, not that you care," Sandra said. "I'd bet you anything you care to name that you found out your ID was missing because you were trying to sneak out before your 'nurse' showed up."

      Simon swore bitterly in her ear and slammed the phone down with a painfully loud bang (the only reason he kept a landline, in Sandra's opinion, was to be able to slam the phone down when he was pissed). Sandra jerked the phone away from her ear a moment too late, wincing. She shook her head. "Love you too, boss," she told the screen of her phone, folding it away with a snap and waiting.

      Her hunch paid off in under five minutes, her phone ringing again, an unfamiliar number displayed onscreen. She flicked it back open. "Sandra."

      "Ms. Leone," Jeremy said, amused. "I don't know what, precisely, you told Simon there at the end, but I thought I ought to warn you that he's making horrible threats towards your person."

      Sandra closed her eyes. "I'm used to it," she told him. "He's not as mad as he's pretending to be. Where is he now?"

      "Stalked off in high dudgeon to get into the bath," Jeremy said. "Otherwise I'd never have dared to call you, I'm sure."

      "Yeah, he may not be as mad as he's pretending to be, but that doesn't make him harmless," Sandra said. "Just don't let him get his hands on your guest ID. If he does, I hereby authorize you to take it away from him by any means necessary that doesn't actually put him back in the hospital."

      Jeremy laughed. "I see," he said. "I'll have to start carrying the gas shooter again."

      "... he would kill you," Sandra said, after a startled moment in which she found herself wondering if Jeremy meant it or not. He didn't sound serious, but she wasn't sure.

      "Ms. Leone, I assure you that he would have to catch me first." He still didn't sound serious. That was the problem with him, Sandra thought: he almost never did. "In any case, you needn't worry. I have both my guest ID and the key to his car safely stowed away, and while I'm thinking about it—" something jingled faintly in the background "—now I have the rest of his keys, too."

      "I do like the conniving-bastard way you think," Sandra said, opening her eyes and sitting up. "Try to keep him at home until after lunch, if you can."

      "Shouldn't be a problem, I predict," Jeremy said affably. "After the enormous dicky fit he just threw, I should think he'll be worn out again by the time he finishes up in the bath. Poor fellow. Can't even get angry properly."

      "Yeah, I feel so sorry for him, you have no idea." Sandra reached over and tapped one of the keys on Simon's computer, waking it back up. "Anyway, I've got things to do. Call me if he gives you more trouble than you can handle."

      "Seems unlikely," Jeremy said, with the utmost good cheer, before hanging up.

      An hour or so later, frustrated beyond belief with the lack of answers that her work was turning up, Sandra shut down Simon's computer and stalked back out into the main room. The new guy was still absent, as was Johnny; Nate was communing with the spirit of his computer or something and didn't so much as look up, and Mike was doing the same. With Nate, it was normal; with Mike, it was really weird, and Sandra crossed her arms and stared at him until he noticed and looked up. "What's up?" she asked.

      "I think I got something," Mike said slowly, touching the screen of his laptop. "I'm not just one thousand percent sure—"

      "Let's hear it," Sandra said.

      Mike nodded, still all weirdly serious, and looked back at his computer. "Ballistics records don't exactly match anything in the NIBIN," he said. "Course, that doesn't mean that his gun's clean, just means that it hasn't been all properly reported and shit."

      "Right," Sandra said, crossing to sit next to him.

      Mike obligingly scooted back a couple of inches and shoved his computer over. "So anyway, I started looking at thefts and burglaries where a .22 was reported as stolen, right? So I work my way out in a spiral and I'm doing Virginia and look what turns up." He tapped the monitor again.

      Sandra leaned in, shoving her hair back behind her ears. "Theft report, a whole bunch of petty cash, vending machine food, and a .22, stolen from—" Her voice clicked off like someone had just flipped her switch.

      "—Adams, Mackenzie, Procomo, Attorneys At Law," Mike finished for her. "Two weeks ago."

      Sandra blinked rapidly. "That's the firm Diana Fontaine works for, isn't it." It wasn't a question. She knew the answer.

      Mike clicked his tongue in irritation. "Sure as hell is. Goddamn that bitch anyway."

      "Yeah," Sandra said, pressing one knuckle against her lips as she thought. "Call the reporting officer and get the details. Anything they've got, but mostly we need to know where that gun was being stored. If it wasn't some place pretty goddamned obvious, then—"

      "Then Miz Fontaine told him where to find it," Mike finished for her, his lips skinning back from his teeth in a grimace. "Son of a bitch."

      Sandra glanced at him. "What are you so pissed about? I thought you'd be thrilled to have a chance to nail her to the wall."

      "Just pisses me off that she's fucking with us like this, you know? 'Less he did it just to scare her or some shit, in which case I'm still pissed, but less fucked with." Mike flicked to the top of the report and squinted at it. "...shit, what the hell does that say?"

      Sandra turned the computer towards herself and squinted at the ARRESTED BY box. "Christ, there's a reason they're supposed to type these," she said in exasperation. "I guess we're lucky it's online at all. I think that's an 'M'..."

      Johnny ambled back in, coffee pot full of water in one hand. Mike waved at him over Sandra's head. "Yo, Texas, come see if you can decipher this guy's handwriting, will you? We need to know who the arresting officer is!"

      Johnny grunted in acknowledgment and put the pot back down on top of the coffeemaker. Sandra pushed the laptop around to face him; Johnny leaned over the end of the table, squinted at the laptop, and said, "Naughton, Ralph M."

      "Whaaaat?" Mike grabbed the laptop and spun it back around, gaping at it. "Where'd you get that? How'd you do that?"

      "No, no, I see it," Sandra said, hauling the laptop back around to face her again. "He puts an extra line into his 'N's for some reason and squinches all the round letters shut—"

      "Plus it's typed at the top," Johnny added, heading back towards the coffeemaker.

      Sandra and Mike both stared after him, then nearly knocked their heads together in their lunge to confirm this assertion. Sure enough, the general search terms were all displayed in neat (if small) type above the scanned-in copy of the arrest report; Mike slapped his forehead and slithered down in his chair, moaning out a pained little sound at the ceiling. "Fuuuuuuck, I've been workin' too hard!"

      "Take a break," Sandra suggested, shoving her chair back and standing up. "Get a drink or something. When you're done, call Officer Naughton."

      "Will do, demiboss," Mike said breathlessly, hauling himself back upright. "Want I should call Miz Fontaine afterwards and ask her what the hell's up with that?"

      Sandra shook her head. "No," she said. "Save it up. If we ask her about it now she'll just deny it or claim he did it to intimidate her, and then she'll know we know. Let's hold it in reserve in case we need to ask her some hard questions later. More hard questions we've got, the better."

      "Right!" Mike slapped his laptop closed and stood up, rising up onto his toes and stretching his arms lazily up above his head. His fingertips just barely brushed the ceiling. "I'm gonna run down to the machines and grab a drink. Anyone want anything?"

      "I'm good," Johnny said, putting the now-empty pot back into the coffeemaker and jabbing the on switch. 'Mrs. Simon Drake (♥)' beeped cheerfully. Johnny patted her with vague affection and headed back to the table.

      "Get me a Diet," Sandra said. Too much coffee had left her mouth feeling foul.

      "Man, that shit'll kill you, Sandy," Mike said, just like he did every time. Sandra rolled her eyes; Mike grinned at her, unrepentant. "Nate-man? You want anything?" Nate didn't respond. Mike raised his voice. "Yo! Nate!"

      "Eh?" Nate blinked rapidly, coming out of his monitor coma. "What?"

      "I'm going down to the machines," Mike said patiently. "You want anything?"

      "Um. Snickers bar." Nate pushed his glasses up. "And a Coke."

      Mike made a gagging sound, ruffled Nate's hair, and loped off, the saferoom door slamming behind him.

      The good thing about waiting for a phone call was that it gave Johnny all kinds of time to think. Of course, that was also kind of the problem with waiting for a phone call, but Johnny didn't see how he had much choice but to wait. Wasn't like he could help Nate any or hold Mike's phone for him.

      Leaning back in his chair he emptied his pockets onto the conference table, making a little pile of his things. Wallet, keys, spare clip plus one extra loose bullet—Johnny was privately of the opinion that anyone who carried, anywhere, ought to carry a last-resort round over and above everything else—cell phone, little bottle of toothpicks—he was packing cinnamon today, on the theory that switching things up kept life interesting—pocketknife, lighter...

      Johnny paused, picked up his battered lighter, and flicked it open. He hadn't smoked in close to three years but he still carried his old Zippo, mostly because he never knew when he was going to be called upon to set something on fire. Least, that was his excuse. Considering, he flicked the wheel and got a flame. Still considering, he thumbed the lid shut. Then he added the lighter to the pile of things in front of him and patted his pockets, confirming that they were empty.

      Across from him Mike was frowning at nothing, phone glued to his ear. Johnny switched to considering him for a moment. Man was digging himself a regular trench over there, and seeing as how he was going to fall into it sooner or later and maybe drag Johnny in after himself, Johnny thought that Mike should probably stop making it deeper. But no, on the subject of the lawyer lady Mike's mouth was still shut, despite everything. Maybe having Simon back would help. Johnny hoped so. He didn't precisely want to tattle, but Mike was putting him in a situation where the alternative was rapidly getting deadlier.

      "Uh huh," Mike said. "Right. Gotcha. Thanks for your time. Call me if you think of anything else." He pulled the phone away from his ear and stabbed the END button. "Fuck."

      Sandra poked her head out of Simon's office again. "What?"

      ".22 was stored in the same drawer as the stolen petty cash box," Mike said, his face all screwed up with frustration. "Petty cash custodian is their sole in-house accountant, with a big ol' name-plate on his door, right by the goddamned entrance. Which was forced, by the way, as was a fire exit."

      "Can't tie it to Diana Fontaine directly, then," Sandra said, pushing her hand through her hair. "Still, it's a hell of a coincidence."

      "Yeah, but that's all it is." Mike hefted his cell phone like he was thinking about spiking it off the table. "We bring that up and she's gonna skin us alive, being a lawyer-type lady and all."

      "That's some accountant," Johnny said, picking his things up off the table and putting them back into his pockets again, one by one.

      "Huh?" Distracted, Mike blinked at him, automatically reaching down to put his phone away.

      "Guy's heeled," Johnny said, to clarify. "Try and rob petty cash, catch a bullet?"

      It took Mike a second, which wasn't really like him, but eventually his face split into a grin. "Aw, man. Have Ledger, Will Travel! Guy is serious about his custodial duties!"

      "Guess you get a lot of desperate criminal types in a criminal-law office, too," Johnny said. "Go figure."

      "Was the gun registered to the accountant?" Sandra broke in impatiently to ask.

      "Yeah," Mike said. His grin faded again. "All legal and everything, damn the luck."

      "Do we know the make and model of the piece?"


      Sandra heaved out a breath. "That's a little something, then. Go online, get some pictures of it. We'll show Simon. Maybe he'll remember the gun. What the hell, worth a try."

      "Every little bit helps, I guess," Mike said dubiously, flipping open his laptop again. "Still, I'd just been shot in the gut, I guess I'd have better things to scream about."

      "Texas?" Sandra said, ignoring Mike and turning to him. "What's the word with you?"

      "Called the state police and got 'em rolling," Johnny said. "Said they'd call me back in an hour or so."


      "Any minute now." Johnny considered this, eyed the clock at the front of the room, shrugged, and dug out a toothpick. "Supposedly."

      "Right," Sandra said. "I'll leave it up to you, then." She looked over at Nate, then glanced at Rich's old lair, still empty. "I'm going to get back to things," she said abruptly, and took two steps backwards before spinning on one heel and vanishing into Simon's office. Johnny watched her go, considering.

      In the end, it took them another twenty minutes to get back to Johnny, his phone ringing while he was down at the water fountain. Johnny straightened up, swiped the back of his wrist over his mouth, and pulled his phone out of its holster. "Pilgrim."

      "Hey, this is Officer Case, Pennsylvania State Police, gettin' back to you about your request?" The guy on the other end of the line sounded like a hardass in the making, in Johnny's professional opinion, but at least seemed to be one without any particular axe to grind right at the moment. "Anyway, me and my partner swung by like you asked, and I gotta tell you, there is nothin' here. You sure you got the right location?"

      "Yep," Johnny said, momentarily shutting his eyes. "Ought to be a foundation, at least. Place was bulldozed under by court order after the fire."

      "Ah—" Officer Case hesitated, blowing hard into the phone "—yeah, yeah, I can see the concrete. No sign of anybody here that I can see, though. Far as I can tell no one's even been dumping."

      "Figures." Johnny leaned back, cracking his spine with a sound like gunfire. "Appreciate you taking the time to swing by. Takes a load off my mind."

      "Hell, no skin off my dick," Officer Case told him, relaxing a fair bit now that business time was over. "Anything beats coopin' for speeders on 78. You know they linked those radar guns we use to cancer of the testicles?"

      Johnny made what he figured was an appropriate sound of dismay. "Heard that," he said, heading back towards the saferoom. He'd also heard that it was a big crock of shit, but he figured it wouldn't be diplomatic to bring that up. "Job's not dangerous enough as it is, I guess."

      "Shit, guess not. I always knew they were after my balls." Officer Case had swung around to sounding almost friendly, like he wouldn't be averse to shooting the shit some more. "Anyway, we're gonna head on out, 'less you need something else."

      "Nah." Johnny stopped outside the saferoom door and leaned against the wall, poking his fingers into his shirt pocket in search of a fresh toothpick. "You take care. Keep your balls safe."

      "You too," said Officer Case, hanging up with a clatter. Johnny, expressionless, folded his phone away and rooted around in his pocket until his groping fingertips found the last toothpick, trying to hide in the very bottom, lost in the seams.

      Mike was gone when Johnny came back in, gone off to who knows where. Johnny automatically checked on Nate—lost to the world, as usual, half a Snickers bar abandoned by his keyboard—and then headed over to lean in the doorway to Simon's office. "State police called back."

      Sandra looked up. "Anything?" She didn't sound too hopeful.

      "Nah. Place is deserted. No dumping, even."

      "That close to New Jersey? That's unusual." Sandra sighed out a short and irritated little breath and looked back at Simon's computer. "Damn it, something's gotta break soon. We're just running around in circles."

      "Hope so," Johnny said. He straightened up and glanced over his shoulder. "Got anything else for me?"

      Sandra shook her head, automatically shoving her hair back behind her ears afterwards. "Not this close to lunch. Take off early, if you want. Simon's coming in this afternoon; maybe he'll put us onto something."

      "Right." Johnny hesitated. It was on the tip of his tongue to say something about Mike, since the man was out and all, but in the end, he didn't. Wait and see what happened when Simon came back, first.

      Simon pushed impatiently past Jeremy pretty much the instant Jeremy swiped his guest ID through the card reader, grabbing the door's handle and immediately regretting it. In general he was fine as long as he wasn't moving his arms too much or breathing too deeply, but the minute he made pretty much any muscle try to work in concert with any other muscle, he got scorched by an arc of pain that punched in just under and to the left of his sternum and radiated outwards from there in the general direction of whichever muscles he was trying to move.

      It was infuriating. A goddamn dinky-shit .22, he raged silently for about the four hundredth time, hissing in air through his teeth in little sips as he clumsily manipulated the door open. I took a 9mm shell in the shoulder once and I get laid this low by a fucking .22? Christ! Jeremy was waiting patiently behind him. Simon was torn. He wished Jeremy would hurry up and open the door for him because he hated having to stand here and struggle with it like an invalid; he also wished Jeremy would hurry up and try to open the door for him so that Simon could rip his head off for it. It was one of the few pleasures currently available to him, after all.

      Finally the door swung past Simon's ear and Jeremy's hand flashed out, curling about the outer edge and pulling it the rest of the way open. "Took you long enough," Simon muttered, without any real force to it. It was petty and he didn't care.

      "Terribly sorry," Jeremy said from behind him, not meaning it. Simon snorted and hauled his carcass into the building, relaxing significantly once he was breathing the canned office air. It wasn't until the outer door swung shut behind them that Simon realized that the next door he was going to have to fight with was the saferoom door. The heavy saferoom door. In view of his entire team. And Jeremy. Oh, yes. Today was going to be wonderful.

      Resigning himself to the inevitable, Simon headed off down the hallway, sort of vaguely hoping that Jeremy would (or would not) have the gall to move ahead and open the door for him. "I'm just going to pop in here for a moment," Jeremy said instead, peeling off and heading towards the men's room. "I'm sure you know where you're going, so go ahead. I'll be along in five or so." And the bathroom door whuffed shut behind him before Simon could say a word.

      Simon paused and eyed the bathroom door narrowly. He had the sinking, sneaking suspicion that Jeremy's sudden disappearance had some kind of ulterior motive, but he wasn't sure what it was. It was either something really low-down and dirty or something really well-mannered, the kind of manners that are so fine as to be completely invisible. Simon hated that. Jeremy would do something offhand and casual and it would take him three months to realize that it had really been Jeremy being all Jeremy and avoiding some kind of nonexistent crisis of bad manners by taking steps to prevent it half an hour in advance. Maybe it was a British thing. Simon didn't know.

      Fighting down the random and counterproductive urge to wait right where he was until Jeremy reappeared, Simon headed off down the hallway again at a brisk and unsatisfying hobble. A proper stride required a certain amount of arm movement, goddammit. Walking around with your arms held stiffly by your sides looked stupid and felt worse. It made him look like he was stalking around angrily. ... all right, so being crippled like this made him angry, so what? 

      At least the door problem got solved for him, and by the person that was, frankly, going to be the easiest to deal with. Johnny was lounging outside the saferoom, chewing on a toothpick and staring at the screen of his cellphone. As soon as Simon's stumping footsteps registered he looked up, the lines on his face rearranging themselves into what passed for a smile, for Johnny. "Yo," he said, pushing himself up off the wall.

      "Hey, Texas," Simon said, bracing himself. "We going to shake hands or are you going to insist on treating me like a fucking invalid too?"

      "Might as well shake," Johnny said. "Sure as hell ain't gonna hug you. Might kill you."

      Simon snorted. "Oh, fuck you," he said, sticking out his hand. Johnny's face wrinkled up a bit further and he slapped his hand into Simon's. It barely hurt at all. "Who all's inside?" Simon asked, jerking his head at the door.

      "Everyone but the new guy," Johnny said, dropping his hand.

      Simon paused. "New guy," he finally said.

      "Yep," said Johnny. "Kind of a squirrelly fellow, you want my opinion."

      "Good squirrelly or bad squirrelly?"

      Johnny gave this some consideration. "Squirrelly with potential," he finally said.

      "Potential," Simon said, and snorted.

      "Eh." Johnny looked down at his feet, then away over Simon's shoulder, then back at him. "Just sayin'."

      Simon watched him scan the area and a couple of things belatedly fell into place. "You're out here standing watch, aren't you?"

      Johnny's face remained largely unreadable. "Maybe."

      "Are they doing something I don't want to know abou—" Simon halted and shut his mouth. "Wait," he said. "It doesn't matter, does it? I'm on medical suspension."

      The toothpick slowly rolled to the other side of Johnny's mouth.

      "So I'm not the boss right now," Simon said, struggling with this amazingly liberating idea. "I don't have to take responsibility for anything they do to him."

      The toothpick rolled back, then quirked up as Johnny busted out with an actual grin. "Go on in, then."

      "Yeah," Simon said. "Yeah, I think I will. You wanna get the fucking door already?"

      For a heartbeat of time just after Simon rolled in (just a hiccup, really) you could hear a pin drop inside the saferoom. Before Simon could even begin to formulate a grouchy response to the staring, however, Mike yelped out an ecstatic "Boss!" and flung himself out from behind the table, crossing the room in long loopy strides with his arms thrown wide. "Boss! Boss! Boss—"

      Simon warded him off with a hastily raised forearm, which hurt, but not as much as the potential alternative. "You touch me and so help me God I will scream and bleed and kill you."

      Mike screeched to a guilty stop a couple of feet away, letting his hands fall to his sides again. Then, because he was Mike, he reached out and ruffled Simon's hair with exaggerated care. Simon snorted and arthritically smacked his hand away. "You look like crap, boss," Mike said happily, falling back a step.

      "Yeah, well, I feel like crap, isn't that a hilarious coincidence?" Simon said. His chest was throbbing dully now but he was determined not to show it. "Nate, you can stop trying to hide whatever that is behind your back. I'm still on medical leave and am not technically required to give a shit."

      Nate, sitting on the floor by Rich's lair, hiccupped out a laugh and sheepishly scooted an open briefcase out from behind himself. It looked like a perfectly ordinary briefcase, as far as Simon could tell (not that he saw very many in the course of a day), but a couple of brown paper bags sitting by Nate's foot suggested that it would not look ordinary for long. "Hey, Templar," he said, embarrassed.

      "Hey yourself," Simon said. "Uh. You doing okay?"

      The little embarrassed smile vanished and Nate ducked his head, scowling. It was such a weird expression to see on Nate's face that Simon automatically bent to double-check it, which really, really hurt. "I'm fine," Nate said petulantly. "I'm okay. Really. Why does the guy who got shot have to go and ask me if I'm all right?"

      "I think Nate's tired of us all trying to babysit him at once, not that I can blame him," Sandra said, appearing from out of Simon's office. Simon gritted his teeth and pushed himself back upright. "Hey, Templar. Honda's right. You look like hell."

      "I had no idea you guys paid so much attention to my pretty face," Simon said. He was vaguely irritated, but considering how he'd thought this might go, only vaguely. He didn't even mind too much when Sandra came over and smoothed his hair back down for him, although he swatted at her, too. "So!" he said brightly, nudging Sandra away. "I hear we've got a new guy!"

      "David-Brassoff-Dave's-Fine," Mike said, twirling his finger by his temple. "Total headcase. There's gonna be a newspaper article about him some day where his neighbors talk about how quiet he always was."

      "Man, you should have seen him dealing with the chair," Nate added, glancing towards Rich's empty lair and away.

      "The chair? Where's Rich's chair?" Simon asked, then thought better of it. "... never mind. I don't want to know. And if you're going to do something to that briefcase, you better hurry."

      "Oh! Right!" Nate grabbed one of the big paper bags and upended it on the floor, producing a pile of random items, half of which Simon didn't recognize. The Dustbuster was pretty easy, though. Simon decided that he did not want to know, and decided that he really did not want to know when Nate plucked a large canister out of the pile and crumpled the open end of the empty bag closed around its nozzle. The paper bag ballooned out to full size with a loud WHOMP when Nate pushed the nozzle down. There was a hiss and sizzle like bacon cooking. Simon so, so did not want to know.

      Outside the door he could just barely hear the dim buzz of conversation, and Simon braced himself for the inevitable. The door swung open and Jeremy let himself in and for the second time that day the saferoom went all quiet. "Archer?" Mike finally said, breaking the silence. "What the fuck?"

      "I suppose you could say that I'm playing chauffeur for the time being," Jeremy said pleasantly.

      "Yeah, okay, I knew someone was looking out for Templar, but..." Mike trailed off there, boggled, and flailed his arms around for a second. "I just don't get why it's you," he finally said.

      "Boy," Simon hastened to add, "neither do I."

      Jeremy smiled. "I suppose you could say that I made the mistake of asking Ms. Leone if there was anything I could do to help, since I was, er, in between jobs at the time."

      "That's what you get," Sandra put in.

      "It's not quite that simple, though. You see, I don't quite feel as if I've earned my entire fee for the last time, given that I didn't have much to do with the actual arrest," Jeremy said.

      "Yeah, don't know what we paid you for," Simon muttered under his breath, turning away.

      Jeremy's eyes flicked towards him, then away. "So, actually, I've been looking for a way to earn the remainder ever since," he concluded. "Or, at least, to make myself feel as if I'd earned it. Because I wasn't going to give the money back. I consider that to be poor business practice."

      Mike snorted. "Shit, you're babysitting Templar when he's wounded? You'll fuckin' well earn it, all right."

      "Duly noted," Jeremy said, heaving out a sigh.

      Paper crackled behind Simon, distracting him from the grumpy comment he'd been about to make; Nate had stuffed the open end of one of the bags into the open end of the other and was transferring the contents. Simon really, really, really did not want to know. Jeremy, on the other hand, leaned back, all the better to see what Nate was doing, and Nate pinkened a little at the sudden attention. "Leaving the new guy a present," he said sheepishly, waving the bag.

      "The new guy?" Jeremy asked.

      Nate hesitated, then became very involved with what he was doing, namely, crumpling the top of the paper bag closed around the mouth of the Dustbuster. "Some guy they sent to replace Rich."

      Jeremy winced and looked away. "Ah," he said.

      "Yeah," Nate said, and turned on the Dustbuster, sucking a large part of the air out of the bag with a loud crackle. He frowned at it, laid it in the open briefcase, and frowned at it again. "Hey, Honda, come push on this, will you? I need to get more of the air out."

      "Sure thing!" Mike said, loping over and dropping to his knees. Together they managed to compress the paper bag to Nate's satisfaction, and Nate picked up a large clip of some kind from the pile and fastened the bag shut.

      "What are you doing?" Jeremy asked.

      Sandra immediately threw up both hands and retreated towards Simon's office, hands still up like she was at gunpoint. "I don't want to know," she announced to the room at large. "I just don't."

      "Yeah, me neither," Simon said, watching Sandra go with a twinge. Wasn't that his line? "Course, there's nothing I could do to stop it if I did know."

      "That means you get to stay!" Mike said happily.

      Nate laughed and started peeling the paper bag away in long brown strips, revealing a shrunken mass of black stuff beneath it. Small oblong shapes were clearly outlined by the black stuff, compressed to within an inch of their lives. When the entire paper bag had been reduced to a pile of shreds by Nate's foot, Nate carefully laid the black mass in the briefcase. It just barely fit. "Combination's changed, right?" he asked Mike, pushing his glasses up.

      "Yep!" Mike poked him with a scrap of paper. "Here's the new one."

      "Thanks," Nate said absently, putting the scrap of paper in his shirt pocket. He eased the briefcase's lid shut. Well, after a while he was forcing it shut, and eventually he couldn't push it any farther. "Honda, sit on this, will you?"

      Mike's grin was instantaneous. "Aw, man, I'll sit on anything you ask me to, Specs," he warbled, dropping his ass onto the briefcase even as Nate went a vibrant pink. Jeremy's mouth twitched, but he didn't say anything.

      Coughing a little, Nate clicked the locks shut, and Mike rolled off. The briefcase groaned but held its ground, a long tongue of the black stuff jutting out over its handle. "Nice briefcase," Nate said, patting it. "Very well-made."

      "All right, I can't stand it any longer, I have to ask: what is that... blackish stuff?" Jeremy hunkered down beside them.

      "Don't tell him," Simon immediately said. "He'll just use it in commission of a felony and then you'll feel bad."

      Jeremy turned on his heel and looked up at Simon, his expression about halfway between 'amused' and 'reproachful'. Nate, not really noticing, just turned around and started sorting through the pile. "I don't think it really has a name, anyway. Mostly just a chemical designation. I got it off the bomb squad—"

      "—oh, Christ, is this one of Tesseract's toys?" Simon broke in. "Because if it is, I am just going to go stand out in the hall with Johnny, where it's safe. Safer."

      "Uh," said Nate.

      "On second thought, I don't want to know," Simon said, and took a couple of steps back, just to be prudent.

      "Anyway, it's a liquid detonator, basically," Nate said, fishing a lighter out of the pile of things on the floor. Simon took another giant step backwards. Nate didn't notice. "But see, what's so neat about it is that it's not really explosive on its own. It just burns away instantaneously. You can't even use it to set paper on fire, because it burns away that fast."

      "Interesting," Jeremy said under his breath, picking up the canister and studying it.

      "And it's kind of like strong rubber assuming it doesn't touch fire, so it can be sprayed out in strings across doorways, stuff like that. It also means that it can be used to make a makeshift bag—" Nate fired up the lighter and touched it to the end of the black stuff. There was a dazzling flash and the briefcase jumped about an inch in the air, thumping back to the ground a second later. "—which can be put inside something else and then burnt away, doing no damage and leaving almost no trace," Nate concluded triumphantly, patting the quivering briefcase. It groaned. Mike whistled in awe. Nate blinked. "Wow. That's total torque waiting to happen."

      "Keeping in mind that I don't really want to know," Simon said, "what's in there?" He came back over; it seemed safe enough, now.

      Nate looked up at him, shoving his glasses up again. "Um. How about 'you'll see' as an answer? Is that okay?"

      Simon considered that. "I can accept it," he proclaimed.

      Nate carefully thumbed both combination locks back to 000, then stood the briefcase upright at the end of one of Rich's desks. The pile of paper scraps went into the other bag, followed by the pile of assorted items. "I need that back," he told Jeremy, holding out a hand.

      Jeremy curled the hand holding the canister back against his chest. "Are you certain?"

      "Now look what you did, Specs," Simon said, nudging Jeremy's hip with his toe and utterly failing to set him off-balance. "You set off the thief."

      "No, seriously, give it back," Nate said. "If I don't give it back to Robin by the end of the day he won't help me get my HWL shoulders."

      Jeremy's face went totally blank. Mike immediately leaned in and clapped a hand to Jeremy's shoulder. "Believe me," he said, "if you value your sanity, don't ask." Jeremy glanced at Mike, then handed over the can without another word.

      Nate bunged the canister into the bag with everything else and hopped to his feet, stashing the bag in his equipment closet and shutting the door. "Okay, I have got to get back to work," he said, slapping the dust off his pants legs. "Unless... are we meeting?" He raised his voice and looked right past Simon. "Sandra, are we meeting?"

      "Not yet," Sandra called back. Simon blinked. Definitely his line. "I'm still trying to relight these fires. Someone go fetch Johnny back in now that whatever didn't just happen is over."

      "On it," Mike said, hopping up.

      "Okay!" Nate edged past Jeremy and plunked down in front of his computer, waking it up. "I'm redoing all the search parameter stuff that Rich did last time," he told Simon. "It'd sure be nice if I had his old algorithms to work with."

      Simon glanced over at Rich's dark and silent lair and went a bit quiet. Nate hunched his shoulders. "Yeah," Simon eventually said. "It would be, wouldn't it."

      Jeremy slipped away, leaving Simon and Nate to their little impromptu conference. It was none of his business in any case, to be certain, but he didn't quite feel like wandering the halls of a major FBI hub without a clear destination in mind, so he thought he'd hang about until someone tossed him out of the room.

      He went over and fished about in the cabinet underneath the coffee-maker, wondering as he did if what he was looking for was still here. And it was: his fingers closed on a fat handle a moment later and Jeremy drew out a black coffee mug, still reasonably glossy and new, and—he sniffed at it critically—not particularly in need of a wash. Wonderful. Jeremy stood back up and got himself some coffee.

      It was terrible coffee. It always was. Jeremy wasn't all that fond of the stuff in the first place (although he did have to admit to liking both the side effects and the various reactions it eked out of Simon) and the coffee that got brewed in here tended to sit around on the burner slowly scalding until someone drank the last of it and made more. Which wasn't ever too long, in his experience, given how hot Simon generally was for his coffee, but it was doing an already-crippled beverage no favours whatsoever.

      He turned around, face-first into a look from Simon that was mostly glare but partially, underneath, like that of a kicked puppy. Very carefully keeping his face neutral, Jeremy raised the mug in a silent toast and went to sit down with it.

      Mike and Johnny joined him at the conference table a moment later. Jeremy shut his eyes, sipped his coffee, and waited for it. As it happened, he didn't have to wait long: "How'd you find out, anyway?" Mike asked, most of his attention ostensibly focused on his computer.

      "Mm?" Jeremy opened his eyes. He knew very well what he was being asked, but he played dumb anyway. "Find out about what?"

      "Templar," Mike said, nodding towards Simon's back. "I mean, I'm pretty sure they kept the shooting quiet and all..."

      "Ahh," Jeremy said, nodding as if a light had just dawned. The little not-a-lie came so easily: "I've got into the habit of, er, checking in on occasion, to see if there are any little jobs on offer." Entirely true. Not a thing about that statement was a lie. It also didn't have a damned thing to do with how he'd found out, of course, but Mike's face cleared and he nodded, drawing the preferred conclusion. Jeremy smiled self-deprecatingly and added, "Of course, this isn't entirely what I'd had in mind, but my timing does seem to be impeccable."

      "I'll bet," Johnny said. "He thrown anything at you yet?"

      "Not recently," Jeremy said innocently.

      "No," Simon said in exasperation, thumping heavily into his chair at the head of the table. He caught his breath audibly, sighing it out a moment later. Jeremy winced. "I have not thrown anything at anyone," Simon went on, when he could. "Despite everyone and their mother telling everyone else and their mother that I'm about to. Christ, Texas, I said I was sorry about that."

      "Yeah, I know," Johnny said, his eyes drifting shut. "Doesn't mean I gotta let it go, though."

      The safe-room door clicked open. Somehow, in some way, it managed to be an apologetic click. Jeremy glanced over his shoulder as the door squeaked quietly open and someone he didn't know edged in, gingerly balancing a large CPU on his hip and a bulging canvas bag slung over one shoulder. The room went quiet for a moment, then Nate looked over his shoulder. "New guy's back, Sandy," he called.

      "Thanks," Sandra said from Simon's office. "We'll meet here in a sec. No one get too involved with anything."

      The room went quiet again. Jeremy glanced at Simon, who had magically acquired a piece of paper from somewhere and was concentrating on it with remarkable single-mindedness, ignoring the man who was currently trying to edge his way all the way across the room without calling any attention to himself. Of course, this normally would have ended up calling a lot of attention to him, but everyone seemed to be studiously ignoring him: Johnny was apparently asleep in his chair, Mike was staring at his laptop, Nate was still at his computer, and Sandra was hiding in Simon's office. And Simon, of course, had his bit of paper.

      Jeremy had never seen it get quite this quiet in here before. It was an ominous quiet. He felt a brief stab of enormous pity for the target of all this silence—not enough pity to do anything about it, of course. It wasn't his place, now, was it? Instead he directed his little smile down at his mug, waiting.

      The quiet stretched out until the air felt thin. Simon flipped over his piece of paper. It was the loudest sound in the room. Eventually the poor fellow managed to sidle his way into the little fortress of computers in the corner of the room and started trying to put his burden down quietly, which was, unfortunately, currently nearly impossible. The CPU hit the larger desk with a metallic thud and the bag slithered down to lean against the wall. For a moment the stranger stood helplessly inside the computer nook, arms akimbo like he didn't know where to put them, then he picked up the chair from the middle and awkwardly toted it over to the table.

      Of course, there was no place to put it now. With Jeremy sitting in the 'guest spot' and Johnny having moved down accordingly, that side of the table was full. Hugging the chair against his chest the new fellow looked around, frowned, then obviously made some sort of decision and wrestled the chair around to the foot of the table, edging Nate's chair aside, putting his own down, and sitting down.

      It was definitely odd to see him there, in the spot that Jeremy had always thought of as Rich's. (For one thing, the new fellow must have been almost a foot taller.) And if it felt odd to Jeremy, well, it had to be quite jarring to the rest of them. Experiencing a resurgence of that wave of pity, Jeremy glanced in the new fellow's direction and smiled; the new fellow looked startled and then confused, but he returned the smile uncertainly, whispering out a 'hi' that was no louder than a breath and still managed to sound entirely too loud.

      Jeremy looked back down at his mug. Oh, dear. The man was doomed.

      "Meeting," Sandra said briskly, appearing in the doorway and shattering the silence. All around Jeremy the room came back to life, shifting and muttering and coughing; Nate pushed back from his computer and joined the rest of them, forcing the other fellow to shift his chair over a bit more. Sandra dropped into her usual spot opposite Jeremy and put a small pile of papers on the table.

      Jeremy cleared his throat. "Should I go?"

      "Stay if you want," Sandra said. "Nothing top-secret about this. Plus as long as you're helping Simon out there's always a chance you're going to run into this asshole yourself, and you might as well know what you're up against."

      "Fair enough," Jeremy said, settling back in his chair. The new fellow, he noticed, was staring at him curiously, his brows beetled in either thought or concentration. Ah, well, he didn't know who Jeremy was or why he was allowed to stay, that was to be expected. And Jeremy knew quite well that he didn't look at all like an FBI agent, since unlike most FBI agents of his own personal acquaintance, he actually knew how to dress himself.

      Sandra nodded. "First things first," she said, gesturing absently down at the far end of the table. "That's David Brassoff, he'll be working with us for a while, at least until we get this Farraday crap dealt with."

      "Dave's fine," David Brassoff said weakly, raising a hand in a nervous little wave.

      "David-Brassoff-Dave's-Fine," Mike said under his breath, and sniggered. Jeremy managed not to wince.

      "Mr. Brassoff, this is Simon," Sandra said, flicking her fingers in Simon's direction. "Templar, our team leader, when he's not on medical leave."

      For a long moment, Simon didn't respond, just kept staring down at his bit of paper. Instinctively Jeremy stopped breathing, a don't-notice-me reflex so old as to be entirely automatic. Finally, slowly, Simon looked up, his expression completely, severely neutral. His stare caught Dave and froze him solid, leaving the poor fellow blinking rapidly at the other end of the table, terrified into stone and not quite realising why; after a long, long moment Simon nodded once, brusquely, and looked back down at his paper. Dave wilted and let out a breath. After a moment, so did Jeremy.

      "And that," Sandra said, nodding at Jeremy, "is Jeremy Archer, who freelances for us on occasion—"

      "—wait," Dave said, blinking again. "Wait. Jeremy Archer?"

      "Yes?" Jeremy said, forcing an innocence into his voice that he really was not feeling. Oh, dear.

      "I thought he looked familiar!" Dave said, all his hesitant mannerisms charring away in the sudden fire of his certainty. Good trick, thought Jeremy; bad timing. "Jeremy Archer! Profile number, uh, um, AJ-45, I think! Art Theft's had his file open since 1996!" His eyes were as wide as saucers and he was pointing one shaking finger at Jeremy. "Thefts reported from, um, something like fifty countries, totalling over ninety-one million dollars!"

      "A hundred and seven, actually," Jeremy said pleasantly, folding his hands around his mug.

      Dave recoiled slightly, the pointing finger drifting down to indicate the table instead. "What?"

      "A hundred and seven," Jeremy repeated. "Your files must be out of date." A couple of faint snickers drifted across the table. "Actually," Jeremy went on, now enjoying himself quite a lot, "I'm afraid that number's a bit misleading. While the official Interpol total is a hundred and seven million dollars' worth of stolen goods, any number of those items have been either officially overvalued or undervalued for various reasons, mostly having to do with insurance, tax fraud, and matters of national pride—" Mike hooted and buried his face in his crossed arms "—and really, if you add in the numerous items that haven't been properly reported for one reason or another or haven't been officially linked to me, the total is much closer to a hundred and forty-seven million, although again that's a misleading number—" Sandra was smiling tightly down at her papers "—but as a rough estimate, it's acceptable," Jeremy said, finishing with a flourish and a perfectly innocent smile.

      "My point is that he's a known felon with a huge number of outstanding warrants!" Dave said, his voice spiralling up in pitch. "He's been number one on Art Theft's most-wanted list since before I worked there!"

      Mike's head popped up like a manic jack-in-the-box. "He was in Art Theft!" Mike howled, laughing like a jackal until he collapsed back down into his folded arms.

      "I started there," Dave said defensively, now trying to speak over the waves of stifled laughter. Jeremy maintained his perfectly innocent smile only with an effort. "I didn't stay there long! But that's not my point: why is he here?"

      At the head of the table Simon jerked his head up and slammed his open palm to the table with a sound like thunder. The laughter cut off instantly, leaving only its swiftly-dying echoes behind. "Mr. Archer and the FBI have reached an agreement," Simon snapped, the edge in his voice sharp enough to behead yourself on. "His file has been suspended until such time as he's caught breaking the law within the borders of the United States again, and his presence here is officially sanctioned." He didn't actually add and he's more welcome here than you are, but Jeremy would have been willing to bet that everyone at the table heard it anyway. Really, he was charmed, even if he was also not breathing again. Simon paused, lasering the poor fellow with his stare again, and then said, "Any other questions?"

      Dave shrank in on himself until he was a small huddle in a bad suit at the far end of the table. Really, for such a tall fellow, he made quite a compact package. "Uh, no, sir," he said, his voice equally small.

      "Good," Simon said, and looked back down at his paper, dismissing Dave utterly. After a moment, Jeremy dared to breathe again.

      Sandra was the first to recover, although she was still pretty shaken. "Well, now that that's been dealt with," she said briskly, glad that her voice seemed to be steady, "let's get on with this meeting, shall we?"

      Across from her Johnny shook his head slightly like he was waking up from a bad dream, and Mike glanced from Dave to Simon and back, whistling out a low sliding sound under his breath. Sandra ignored it all as best she could. "First, I think we need to bring Templar up to date on what we've been doing. I've tried to keep him updated in general terms, but I think he's up to hearing the details by now."

      "That'd sure be nice," Simon said without looking up. "I stay out of the loop for one minute longer and I'm gonna snap and kill someone."

      "I believe we're aware," Jeremy said under his breath.

      Eyes still focused entirely on his paper, Simon pointed an accusing finger at Jeremy. "You shut up," Simon said. "You're still not funny."

      Without another word, Jeremy touched a hand to his chest and bowed over it. Simon's eyes slid right—Sandra could just barely see it—and then returned, inevitably, to the piece of paper in front of him. Sandra wasn't even sure what that was, but he certainly seemed interested in it. Clearing her throat, Sandra jumped once more into the breach. "I'll start," she said. "Most of what I've been doing is Simon's usual purview: keeping every law enforcement officer within a hundred miles of here informed and on the lookout, and sorting through the incident reports in case someone missed him. Since Nate's busy reconstructing all of Rich's old data-collation methods, I've also been hitting up the records databases and chasing names around..."

      It took the better part of an hour, but once Johnny finished outlining the gist of his call to the Pennsylvania state police, they were done. Sandra glanced at Simon and saw, to her general alarm, that he had dropped his face into his hands. "Simon?" she said, reaching out to touch his arm. "Are you all right?"

      "Mike," Simon said, which was absolutely no sort of answer at all. Confused, Sandra glanced at Mike; Mike had hunched up his shoulders and was looking guilty, which only left her more confused. "Goddammit, Mike," Simon said, rubbing his hands down his face with a little scratchy sound. "What did I say?"

      Instinctively, Sandra went very still. Whatever was coming, she wasn't going to like it, and she wasn't going to like it because this was the first she was hearing of it. Because she couldn't watch both Simon and Mike at the same time, she instead settled on watching a point halfway in between, a few square inches of table near Jeremy's interlaced fingers—I wonder if he gets those manicured? she thought absently, and then banished the stray thought.

      "Uh," said Mike. "Yeah, I know."

      "What do you know?" Sandra asked, her voice quiet and very, very calm.

      Although she didn't look at him (didn't exactly trust herself to look at him, right now) she was exquisitely aware of Mike folding in on himself beside her. "Crap," he said, equally quiet.

      "Mike," Sandra said. Forcing herself to speak over the roaring static that was threatening to paralyze her was very hard, but still, she made herself do it. "What do you know?"

      On the other side of her, Simon cleared his throat. "Okay, folks," he said. "Listen up. Here's how we're going to handle this." Sandra shut her mouth with a little click of teeth and automatically deferred to Simon, although the beginnings of honest anger were starting to burn through the paralyzing static. Simon glanced at her, then looked down at Mike. "Mike, start over. Tell us everything from the beginning. Don't leave anything out. The rest of you? I don't want to hear a word. Not a word. As long as we're in this meeting, we are going to handle this information calmly and reasonably, like professionals, do you hear me?" Simon fell silent, looking around the table. After a moment, Sandra nodded and folded her hands very tightly together, and one by one the others followed suit (save for Dave and Jeremy, who had both gone completely still).

      Sandra looked down at her hands. Her knuckles were white with tension. Beside her, Mike shifted, rubbing a hand down his face and then folding his arms protectively over his chest. "Uh. Okay. So. Last Thursday when Texas and I went out to Fredericksburg to see Diana Fontaine, I was hanging out in the hallway afterwards..."

      He finished, eventually. Sandra had started folding and refolding her hands about halfway through Mike's deadpan recitation; her fingers made little dry slithery sounds as they slid against each other, but no one seemed bothered by it. In fact, most of them seemed to be politely looking elsewhere.

      "Is that it?" Simon said, a thousand miles away on her right.

      Mike cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Yeah, that's all, so far."

      "Okay," Simon said, putting both hands flat on the table. Sandra waited for him to say it again, because he always did, and he did not let her down: "Okay," he said again. "Sandy? You okay? Still with us?"

      "I'm good," she heard herself say. As far as she could tell she said it with no conscious input whatsoever. "I'm angry, but I'm good."

      "That's fine," Simon said. "I can work with that. Hell, I'd worry about you if you weren't angry. But for the time being I need you to put that aside for me, okay?"

      "I'm good," Sandra said, flaring momentarily at Simon because she could not currently afford to start getting angry with Mike. "I don't need a pep talk. Let's just get on with this."

      Simon nodded and sat back, absently reaching up to rub his side and wincing a little. "Okay, then."

      "Sorry, Sandy," Mike said, his voice very small.

      "Shut up," Sandra said crisply. "We'll talk later."

      "Okay," Simon said, leaning forward again and effortlessly taking the conversation back. "So now we all know that we have one very definite lead. Thing is, I don't know how much we can trust her. Personally, I'm voting for 'about as far as Nate can throw her', but you know me, I don't trust anybody who's not one of you guys. Uh, some of one of you guys." Jeremy laughed under his breath.

      "I dunno, boss," Mike said. "I mean, yeah, I totally hear you, but you haven't heard her, she sounds pretty fucking well on the level—"

      "I haven't heard her because you didn't tell Sandy, so Sandy didn't know to have your conversations recorded," Simon said, gently enough. "Here's the thing, and you guys tell me if my logic is missing a step: whether she's telling the truth or just fucking with us ultimately doesn't matter, because either way she's still currently in contact with him. If it's the truth, she's genuinely scared of him, right here, right now. If she's fucking with us, he put her up to it; she wouldn't just decide to do this on her own." He paused. "Does that ring true to you guys?"

      Everyone was quiet for a moment, thinking this through. "Yeah," Nate finally said. "The progression seems logical."

      "And hey, I count on you for all my logic needs, Specs," Simon said. "Anyone have anything to add?"

      "Sounds about right," said Johnny. "She's kind of a bitch, but not that kind."

      Simon nodded. "So we have a lead of some kind. Next thing we have to do is follow up on it..." He trailed off there and grimaced, reaching up to rub his side again. Sandra reached out to touch his arm again; Simon shook her hand off with a scowl. "I don't have long and I still have to go see Upstairs," he said rapidly. "Sandy's still in charge, and believe me, I mean that, but here's what I'm recommending: Nate, find some way to make recordings off Mike's phone. I know it's a cell, but do what you can. If we have to we can diddle up the payphones she's been using, but that's the kind of thing I don't need to know about." Nate nodded. Simon went on. "Someone needs to get back in touch with Amanda Winston, and by 'in touch' I mean in person. He may have contacted her since we did or he may not, but either way, she needs to know that he is still at large and that we have a definite lead on him being in contact with another woman. I suspect that'll goose her but good in our direction, particularly if he hasn't contacted her at all."

      He paused, glancing around. No one said anything. Even though Sandra knew she ought to do something to take back control, right at the moment she didn't trust herself enough to do so. "Right," Simon said, nodding. "You guys get to work, and for God's sake keep a tight eye on Diana Fontaine. Sandy, I want you to go down to the machines and get yourself a drink before you tear into Mike, and that is not an order but it is a very firm request. Mike, you stay here and you prepare to take it like a man. Archer, give me my pills." Jeremy promptly stuck a hand into his jacket and came out with a small orange bottle, which he handed to Simon. Simon closed his fist around it. "Okay. I'm going to go take these goddamned things and then I'm going to limp upstairs and check in and probably get scolded for it. I'll be back in fifteen, twenty minutes. Archer, you stay here."

      "Gladly," Jeremy said, settling back in his chair.

      Simon nodded. Tucking the pill bottle into his jeans pocket he put both hands flat on the table and slowly, painfully eased himself up out of his chair, for a long moment hunched over like he'd just been punched in the gut; Sandra reached for him and stopped herself just in time, although her hands hovered impotently nearby until Simon had managed to get himself upright again. "Come on," he told Sandra, wheezing a bit. "I need a drink myself. Walk me down."

      Faced with that bald request, Sandra couldn't help but comply. She stood up as well and edged around Simon, preceding him to the door and opening it for him; the door shut behind them with a soft whoomph of displaced air, like the room had been holding its breath and had just let it out.

      Once he was reasonably sure that Sandra wasn't actually about to kick the door down and throttle Mike, Nate slumped down in his chair. "Oh, boy," he said under his breath.

      "You said it," Johnny said.

      Nate glanced towards Mike. Mike was sitting just where he'd been left, staring off at nothing, his mouth ever so slightly ajar. Nate winced and looked away again, embarrassed for him despite everything; sure, what he'd done had been pretty stupid, but he was really going to pay for it now—"Aw, fuck!" Mike wailed, dropping his head to the conference table with a thump and folding his arms protectively over it. "You guys, I'm toast, I'm dead meat, she's going to pound me into some kind of gruesome unidentifiable paste—"

      "Is that vengeance or breakfast?" Jeremy asked, raising both eyebrows.

      Mike's self-pity train derailed with a snort of laughter. His head popped up a moment later and he heaved out a huge sigh. "Man, I'm so doomed. Doomity doom doom doomed."

      "What just happened?" Dave said faintly. Nate, startled, looked over at him for the first time since the meeting began; he looked like he was frozen in place.

      "Bad stuff," Mike said, scruffing his hair back into place. "Look, no offense, David-Brassoff-Dave's-Fine, but it's not really any of your business, 'kay?"

      "Yeah," Dave said, exhaling. "I get it. So, uh, I think that I probably don't want to be here when she gets back, so, uh... later." He shoved his chair back and stood up, inching awkwardly around Johnny (who didn't bother to actually move) and heading for the door. Nate watched him go, really wishing that he'd thought of that first, kind of vaguely impressed that Dave had had the nerve to articulate the idea at all.

      The door closed behind Dave with a notable lack of slamming. Nate, deciding that the better part of valor was having something else to look at while Sandra was taking Mike apart, made for his computer. Even the aggravation of redoing all of Rich's old work beat having to be an embarrassed witness to a fight.

      "Do you want me to go as well?" Jeremy asked, behind him.

      "No, no, you stay," Mike said fervently. "If there's someone here who's not us I think she'll go easier on me, maybe. So you stay riiiight there, okay? And try and look conspicuous."

      "Mm," said Jeremy. "That's not really my forte, you realize."

      Nate laughed a little, bringing up the next massive set of spreadsheets and getting the whole merge going. After that, there was really nothing to do but wait, so he turned halfway around and cocked his elbow over the back of his chair. "Man, did you see the look Templar gave the new guy?"

      "Fucking brutal," Mike said happily, somehow managing to put his own impending doom out of his mind for the moment. Nate would have loved to know how that was done. Worrying was pretty much his hobby and his second job.

      "Harsh," Johnny said, in what sounded like general approval. "Good to have him back."

      "Oh, damn, you said it," Mike said. "I feel more, what's the word, motivated already. I feel led. This is awesome."

      Johnny eyed Mike askance and chewed on his toothpick. "Man, Sandy hears you say that, you're losin' a limb."

      "I'm going to lose one anyway," Mike pointed out.

      "Another one," Johnny amended. "A bigger one."

      "... ohGodnotmydick," Mike wailed, hunching over and folding both arms over his crotch. "I don't want to lose my dick! It's what I think with!"

      Nate coughed out an embarrassed laugh and then found it extremely prudent to turn back around at this juncture and stare at his monitor until his ears stopped roaring quite so badly. Behind him Jeremy said something, he didn't quite hear what, and then Mike whooped out a laugh, and it was only sheer bad luck that the blood stopped pounding in his ears at about the same time as Jeremy said, "In any case, would you mind answering a question for me?"

      "Go for it," Johnny said. "Better be a short one, though. Sandy's gonna come back any second."

      "Point taken," said Jeremy, and then perversely stopped talking altogether. "I've been getting the story of this Farraday in disconnected bits and pieces, you understand, and it's made me quite curious," he finally said. "Simon's told me a bit, but he's much too busy recuperating to tell me the whole thing."

      Nate's fingers stilled on the keys. "Uh huh," Johnny said, his voice extremely neutral. "What all you got?"

      "The last bit I heard was the lot of you setting out for this abandoned apartment complex that he'd holed up in," said Jeremy, and Nate's hands closed into fists so fast that his short nails scraped along the keyboard with a loud plasticky clatter. He felt more than saw the others glance in his direction, but suddenly he didn't dare turn around. "... ah," Jeremy said, after a strained moment. "This is a bad question."

      "Kinda, yeah," Johnny said. "Next part's not mine to tell in any case."

      "And it's none of my business, is it," said Jeremy, letting the last word trail off like he expected someone to deny it.

      "There's that, too—"

      "—I'll tell you," Nate said, his voice all abrupt and way too loud. "Okay? I'll tell you. It's okay. Just... can I..." He faltered, briefly, then plunged on. "... can I tell you later?"

      For a moment the room was silent except for the little noises that meant they were all shifting around in their chairs. Three people were staring at the back of his head, and it made his skin feel tight and hot. "You don't have to tell me at all," Jeremy finally said. "But I'd be obliged for the information."

      "It's okay," Nate said again, his eyes very firmly on his monitor.

      Johnny cleared his throat. "You sure?"

      "No," said Nate, "but I... I think he ought to know. Like Sandy said, as long as he's helping Simon..."

      "Course, long story short, Farraday's a fuckin' psycho and probably oughta be shot on sight," Mike said, jumping back into the conversation. "Still, uh, there's saying it and then there's proving it, right?"

      "Later," Nate said, with such an unusual edge to his voice that even Mike shut up.

      Sandra saw Simon off to the second floor before she headed back, chivvying him into the elevator rather than letting him climb the stairs by himself. He took it with reasonably good grace, all things considered; well, reasonably good grace for Simon, which meant Sandra bore the brunt of a lot of pointed grumbling. They were already in front of the elevator banks, waiting, by the time Simon looked over and finally brought it up. "You cool?"

      "I'm not going to kill him, if that's what you mean," Sandra said. So much for not having to talk about it.

      "Yeah, mostly," said Simon. His half-empty bottle of water dangled forgotten from his right hand, scissored between his first two fingers. "Go ream him out some. He deserves it. Just... once you're done, you're done, okay? Kick his ass and let it go. We can't afford for you to carry a grudge here. Gotta work together and all that rah-rah bullshit."

      Sandra stared at him for a moment. "I know that," she finally said. "Don't you think I know that?"

      "Yes, I 'think you know that'," Simon said, his brow furrowing. "I'm just trying to make sure—"

      "Jesus Christ," Sandra said, putting a hand over her eyes. "I am so sick and tired of people second-guessing my ability to lead this fucking team!" Her hand slashed away from her eyes to cut a furious swath through the air. "You know what, I know I'm not you, okay, boss, I know that, but first I find out that Mike's been keeping stuff from me because he doesn't think the chick can handle it—"


      "—no, don't you 'hey' me, it's true and you know it, even if he's dressing it up as honest concern for me, okay?" One of the elevators dinged and rumbled open, a couple of business-casual women from some desk platoon accidentally stepping out into the eye of Sandra's wrath. Sandra noticed them in much the same way that she might notice an ant on the sidewalk: something to avoid stomping on, if at all possible. "And now I've got you giving me one of those friendly little 'reminders' of yours, like now I'm Mike and you're having to remind me why telling reporters to eat my dick is generally a bad idea! Christ, can't anyone have any faith in me any more?"

      She fell silent, breathing hard through her gritted teeth. The elevator doors started to rumble shut again; without looking Simon shot out an arm and pinned them open, then hissed in pain and hunched his shoulders. Sandra's anger immediately keeled over and died. "Okay," Simon said, wheezing a bit, "you done?"

      "Yeah," Sandra said, looking away. "Yeah, I'm done. I'm sorry, I'm just—"

      "—pissed off, yeah, I get it, it's cool," said Simon, edging over until he was standing with his back against one of the elevator doors. "And honestly, I figured you'd handle it right without needing to be told, but the boss reflex dies hard, you know?"

      "Yeah, I guess so." Sandra glanced at him, then away again.

      "For what it's worth, I do have faith in you, okay?" Simon transferred his bottle of water from one hand to the other, then reached out and put his free hand on her shoulder. It was a little cold, still. "I wouldn't have put you in this position if I didn't think you could handle it."

      Sandra looked back at him, her expression going flat. "You put me in this position because everyone else on the team is either psychotic or Nate," she said. "That doesn't necessarily imply that you think I can handle it."

      Simon looked at her for a moment, then finally said, "Sandy, if we have to have this conversation now, I should probably let the elevator go."

      Startled, Sandra glanced into the open elevator. "Oh. Oh, right. You should probably go on up—"

      "I do have faith in you," Simon said, squeezing her shoulder. "Period. End of story. Thirty-three. Not just 'more faith in you than I have in the others', and for the record, I have a lot of faith in them too, although maybe not quite the same kind. Okay?"

      "Okay," Sandra said, closing her eyes and nodding.

      "Awesome," Simon said. He let his hand drop. "Go tear Mike a new one. That's an order."

      Sandra smiled, just the slightest bit. "Boss, you're not allowed to give me orders right now. I'm the boss."

      "Like hell," Simon said. "Just because you're the boss doesn't mean I'm not the boss. Anything else?"

      "Yeah," Sandra said. "Thirty-three?"

      Simon stepped back into the elevator, letting the doors start to slide shut. "You tell anyone else I minored in journalism and you're fired," he said, and then the doors closed and the elevator hummed away.

      It wasn't a long walk from the elevators in the main lobby to the Special Ops wing, but it was long enough. Sandra spent the first half of the walk remembering just why she was so goddamned pissed, and the second half reining it back in. By the time she hit the saferoom again, Sandra was more or less in control of her anger, reshuffling her priorities in a way that Simon would probably not approve of. "Sandy—" Mike started to say, but she flicked out a hand and stopped him in his tracks with a brusque gesture, not looking in his direction.

      "Archer," she said.

      Jeremy looked up from his coffee, blinking in mild surprise. "Yes?"

      Sandra jerked her head towards Simon's office. "Come on, I want to talk to you before Simon comes back." Jeremy obligingly scooted his chair back and stood up; Sandra's glance cut from Jeremy to Mike. "And you," she said, "I'll talk to you in a minute. You stay right there."

      "Okay," Mike said hesitantly. He looked scared as hell. Sandra approved of that.

      Without another word she led Jeremy into Simon's office, wishing that there was still a door to shut. Oh, well. "How's it going?" she asked without any preamble, perching on the front of Simon's desk. "Can you handle it? Do you need help? Advice? Money? Weaponry?"

      "It's no problem," Jeremy said, spreading his hands. "He's been something of a right bastard, yes, but it's nothing I can't handle. Or, I suppose, nothing has happened yet that I can't handle."

      "Nice save." Sandra glanced towards the open door, then back at Jeremy. "He's got a doctor's appointment tomorrow morning, right?"

      "At ten, yes," said Jeremy, nodding. "I believe I remember where the hospital is."

      Sandra smiled, briefly. "I should hope so," she said. "When do you have to leave?"

      "Around nine-thirty, I suspect—"

      Sandra held up a hand. "Not for the hospital. Sorry. I mean in general. How long can you stay with him?"

      "Ah." Jeremy's head ticked thoughtfully to the side; he started absently fiddling with the cuffs of his jacket. "To be honest, I don't have to leave at any particular time. I have a bankbox back in Japan that needs, er, emptying, but frankly, the longer I let its contents sit, the better. So..." He heaved out a breath and tilted his head to the other side. "I had thought that I would stay at least until the upcoming weekend. I can stay longer, if need be, but perhaps we ought to let Simon's condition dictate that."

      "Sounds fair. I can set something else up if I have to, but the longer you can stay, the larger a load you're taking off my mind." Sandra paused, watching Jeremy fuss with his cuffs. "You haven't actually seen Farraday lurking around, have you?"

      Jeremy hesitated. "I don't believe so," he finally said. "At least, I haven't seen anyone who resembles the description you gave me."

      Sandra could hear the unspoken 'but' as clear as day, so she spoke it. "But?"

      "But I'd like to see a photograph of him, if you happen to have one handy," Jeremy said. "At the moment I'm just looking out for twitching fellows with baggy eyes and bleached hair, and if he should dye his hair some other color I'm afraid I'd overlook him entirely."

      Sandra snapped her fingers. "Good point," she said briskly. "Well, we can set you up there. We've got mug shots, candid shots, video footage, the works. I'll get Johnny to walk you through."

      "I'd appreciate it."

      "And now, if you'll excuse me..." Sandra hopped down off Simon's desk.

      "I suppose Mr. Takemura would prefer it if I said 'no'," Jeremy said, but he stepped back out of Sandra's way.

      "Texas," Sandra said, powering back out into the main room with Jeremy in tow. "Take Archer here through the case photo archives, will you? I want him to be able to know Farraday if he sees him, just in case."

      "Right," Johnny said, swinging his feet down off the conference table and reaching down for his laptop. "Video too?"

      "Video too," Sandra confirmed. "Show him what Farraday looks like, sounds like, and moves like. The more reference material he has, the better." Johnny nodded. Sandra swung to Mike, who was hunched over in his corner like it would make him invisible. "All right, Mike," she said. "Come on."

      "Huh?" Mike blinked rapidly.

      Sandra made an impatient gesture. "Come on," she said again. "Let's go have us a talk, as Simon would put it."

      Mike slowly edged back his chair and stood up. "Where are we going?" he said nervously, glancing over at the doorway to the mat room.

      "No, not in there, as satisfying as it would be. Outside," Sandra said. "For privacy."

      It was a sure sign of how worried Mike was that he didn't jump on that last line dick-first. Instead he just nodded, looking around the room like he was afraid this was the last time he was ever going to see it, and then dragged ass over to where Sandra was standing. Sandra waited until he got there, then spun on her heel and led the way out into the hall.

      Mike trailed silently behind her all the way down the hall and out into the parking lot, literally dragging his feet, his sneakers making little squeaky scuffing sounds as he shuffled along. It was both annoying as hell and kind of retardedly charming—actually, that summed up Mike pretty well in general, Sandra thought. Once they got out under the covered entrance, she stopped. Mike stopped behind her, like the world's squeakiest shadow. "Okay," Sandra said. "Why don't you start?"


      Sandra sighed and turned around, linking her hands together behind her head. "Do you want to say anything before I tear into you?" she said, rephrasing the question. "You know. Any last words?"

      "Oh," Mike said, looking down at his feet. "Uh, how about 'oh shit'? Or I could be down with 'aw crap, I'm really sorry'..."

      "Second one's likely to get you farther," Sandra pointed out tersely.

      "Yeah, I..." Mike trailed off there and jammed his hands in his pockets, making his wallet chain jingle. "Crap, Sandy, I am sorry, okay?" he said plaintively, staring off somewhere to her left. "You were getting all stressed out with the boss crap and then I didn't think it was going to turn out to be anything—"

      "So you just sort of decided what you were and weren't going to tell me?" Sandra broke in, jerking her hands out from behind her head so fast that she pulled some of her hair by accident. It didn't do much to help her retain her temper. "Because I was so 'stressed'?"

      "I guess so," Mike agreed, abashed. "I didn't mean for it to happen like this! It just kind of snowballed, okay? And Miz Fontaine's all up in my grill begging for time and waving her little lawyer dick in my face and I guess I got kind of confused—"

      "Confused!" Sandra announced to the world in general, flinging both hands out in an exasperated gesture. "Okay, since you're so confused, I'm going to spell it all out for you nice and clear. Listen up." She jabbed Mike in the sternum with one stiffened forefinger, making him yelp a little and rock back half a step. "I. Am. The. Boss!" she announced, jabbing him again with each word. Mike hunched up his shoulders and took it, looking thoroughly miserable. "Until Simon is officially back on duty, it is me who is responsible for everything. I am the one who has to make every. Single. Goddamned. Decision. And I can't make the decisions if you're knowingly hiding things from me!"

      "I'm sorry—"

      "Stop being sorry!" Sandra nearly yelled it. "Stop being sorry, and think! Do you have any idea what could have happened? What could still happen? Any one of us could be the next one to get shot by this lunatic, and since thanks to you we've lost five goddamned days that we could have been working the Diana Fontaine angle, that would make it what?"

      "... really fucking terrible?"

      "Your fault!" Now she was yelling; with an effort of will she wrenched her temper back under control. "All right! Not entirely. But if he does hurt someone else, you are going to be partially at fault for that, because it was you who delayed the investigation. There's no getting around that. And you know what else?"

      After a moment, Mike hesitantly asked, "... what?"

      "If he shoots someone else before we manage to subdue his ass, the official blame isn't going to stick to you," Sandra snapped. "It's going to stick to me. So thank you. Because you didn't think the chick could handle it, you've potentially damaged my credibility and my career, which happens to be of some personal importance to me even if it's currently a secondary concern!"

      By this point Mike looked so lost and overwhelmed that Sandra almost felt sorry for him, somehow. He really was that clueless, she knew that. He didn't think things through very well. He never had. "I didn't think you couldn't handle it," he said weakly.

      Sandra pounced on that with claws extended. "Yes, you did," she said. "You said as much yourself, how I was getting 'all stressed out with the boss crap'. I vent at you to blow off some steam and next thing I know, you've convinced yourself I actually can't handle this shit! You purposely withheld vital information from me because it might give the little lady the fucking vapors! Christ."

      "That wasn't—"

      "—yes, it was!"

      "I was worried about you!" Mike cried, jerking his hands out of his pockets and flailing his arms wildly. "Not because you're a chick, although you totally are, but because you were so stressed out! Okay? I really fucked up, I get it, I'm sorry, but I didn't do it because I think you need sheltering or some shit!"

      "Then why'd you do it?" Sandra snapped, her voice thin.

      "Because I thought it was going to be nothing!" Mike's jaw snapped shut and he stuffed his hands back into his pockets. "I thought we'd find him sooner than this," he said weakly. "I thought for sure something else would turn up or he'd do something stupid or... I don't know. I guess I was hoping never to have to deal with Diana Fontaine again and then things completely exploded in all directions from there and it got harder and harder to tell you."

      "Because I'd yell at you."

      "Because you'd yell at me. Which, uh, I totally deserve, by the way, in case you don't think I get that." He tried smiling, weakly.

      "Well, now, here I am, yelling at you. So I guess it was all for nothing, huh." Sandra crossed her arms over her chest. "You know what really fries my eggs about this?"

      Mike eyed her warily, the little twitchy smile fading. "What?"

      "You've been jumping through hoops for Diana Fontaine." Sandra nearly snarled the name. "When it came down to a choice between helping me out and helping her out, you chose her. Apparently I came in second to a woman who tried to put you in jail and nearly got you fired! If you still value her over me, Christ, I have to wonder what I did to you to deserve that!"

      Mike's eyes went wide. It just made Sandra tired. He hadn't thought of it that way either. Of course not. "I'm sorry, Sandy," he eventually said, defeated and quiet. "I didn't mean to. I don't even like her, she just sounded so... I don't know. Lost and scared."

      "Yeah, you ran to the aid of the weepy little girly-girl and left me to hold the line alone," Sandra said, pinching the bridge of her nose. "Very chivalrous of you." Abruptly she let her hand drop. "Okay. I'm done chewing you out. You ever do anything like this again and so help me God I'll hurt you in ways you cannot begin to imagine. Okay?"

      "Okay," Mike said, taking a tentative step back.

      "Go back on inside." Sandra turned around, staring blindly out over the parking lot. "I'm going to stay out here for a while longer, finish cooling off. You talked to Naughton yet?"

      "Nah, I was gonna call after the meeting."

      "Well, now it's after the meeting." Sandra sighed. "Go call him. I'll be back in in a while."

      "Okay," Mike said again. For a moment Sandra was sure he was going to apologize again, but then he didn't; instead the card reader beeped and the door chunked open and he was gone. Sandra, hollowed out, heaved out a deep breath and rubbed her face with both hands.

      The last image in the file was a still photograph: 'Colonel' Cole Farraday, bad suit, worse hair, and all, caught leaning against a courthouse wall and scowling. His entire right arm was a blur, flying off in some random space-alien direction. Farraday was paying even less attention to it than to the blonde woman he was with, just staring off into space with his head tilted to one side, his upper lip lifted just enough to bare a pixel-sized flash of tooth. "Diana Fontaine," Johnny said, tapping the image of the woman. "One and only."

      "Mm," said Jeremy, rubbing a knuckle absently over his lower lip. "And that's just before he went into prison."

      "Yup," Johnny said. He closed the image and shut the program down. "Three years ago."

      Jeremy nodded. "Well, I think I can say with some certainty that I haven't seen him loitering about. Lucky, lucky me. Some of those videos are like to give me nightmares." He shivered, mostly (but not entirely) for show. "The twitching is just as disturbing as I thought it would be."

      "I hear you," Johnny said. "Creepy as shit, all this—" He flicked one hand up into the air, twitching his head to the side like a demented macaw. "Oughta see it in person."

      Jeremy held up a hand to ward him off, laughing a bit. "No, no, I really oughtn't."

      "Heh. Yeah, you got a point there." Johnny's laptop spun down and he shut the top, then turned halfway around in his chair. "Got any questions?"

      "Mm. I don't believe so."

      Johnny nodded, then stood up and stretched, his spine crackling. His eyes, Jeremy noticed, flicked to the semi-oblivious Nate for half a second before flicking away again. "Gonna go hit the little agent's room," Johnny said, his voice neutral, casual, and pitched to carry.

      "Mn," said Nate absently. The rapid slideshow of images on his monitor made his glasses flash and flicker.

      Johnny paused, his face creasing up slightly; he reached out to knuckle Jeremy's shoulder in a generally friendly fashion before stepping around him and heading for the door. He stopped just behind Nate. "Don't fall in," he said loudly, whacking Nate companionably on the back.

      Nate jumped and yelped out a startled sound, his chair skittering an inch or so to the left. "What? What?"

      "Said I'll be back in a little," Johnny said. The creases on his face were now definitely identifiable as a smile, only just. "You oughta stop starin' at that shit for a while. Gonna make you go blind."

      "Oh," Nate said. He glanced over his shoulder, taking in the rest of the room. "Oh. Yeah. A break would be good, right?"

      "Yep," said Johnny, heading for the door. Jeremy, his face very carefully neutral, turned back around and located his stone-cold coffee, putting his back to Nate. The safe-room door shut with a whoosh, and then they were alone.

      For a little while, it was all quiet. "They mean well," Nate finally offered. Jeremy risked a single, quick glance back over his shoulder. Nate was staring so hard at his monitor that Jeremy thought he could very possibly hear the irises in Nate's eyes focusing.

      "They do at that," Jeremy said, swirling his coffee around in its cup. It had developed a weird oily film on top; he wrinkled his nose at it and put it back down. "A more well-meaning if occasionally loony bunch of people I've never met."

      Nate laughed. It was a slight and mostly humourless sound. "I bet if you opened that door right now Johnny would be standing out there keeping everyone else out."

      Jeremy smiled. "I won't be taking that bet, I'm afraid."

      "You're too smart for me," Nate said, his voice abruptly faltering a bit.

      Likewise, Jeremy's smile flickered and vanished. "You don't have to do this, whatever it is," he said quietly. "It's only my curiosity that you'd be satisfying, and it'll survive without the information."

      "Yeah, I know." Nate typed a couple of thoroughly desultory characters and then stopped again. "But it's really only my pride that I'll be hurting, and it wasn't ever that healthy to begin with."

      Following his instincts, Jeremy restricted his answer to a neutral "Mm." Behind him Nate was still, very still; Jeremy could hear him breathing, but that was about it.

      Finally Nate hit another key, just one, the little click like some sort of percussion. "I never set out to be in the FBI, you know?" he asked. Three more keys clicked, deliberately, one after the other. "I was in the private sector until a little over four years ago."

      "Really?" said Jeremy, figuring that was safe. "I didn't know that."

      "Yeah," Nate said, with a breathless little laugh. "That's a long story. And I guess it's not really why we're here, is it?" Click, click. "Except that it's kind of important to know that I don't really think like the law. I never got the hang of it. I have a gun and all but I'm kind of scared of it."

      Jeremy breathed out just the ghost of a laugh. "I can't blame you for that."

      Click. "Remember that part," Nate said. All of a sudden his voice was calm, almost detached. Jeremy shut his eyes and waited, not bothering to look around. This seemed like a story that was best heard just like this: back to back, eyes most firmly on something else or on nothing at all.

      "I could barely sleep before we went in after Farraday," Nate finally said. Click, click, click. "I've gotten better at that, but not much. Anyway, I was wide awake at midnight, but it took an hour of driving to get out there, and everybody was being all quiet, getting into game mode, right? So I was

      starting to doze off, he realized, as he woke with a little jerk. Beside him Sandra glanced over, maybe smiling, maybe not; Nate blushed and pushed his glasses up, trying and failing to clear the residual fog of exhaustion from his brain. He glanced around. Mike was in the driver's seat, hunched forward over the wheel like a vulture and muttering to himself. Simon was in the passenger seat, slumped down so far that all Nate could see from back here was the top of his head and the pale smear of his face reflected in the windshield.

      The rest of them were in the back, nearly lost in the dark. Nate could see the outline of Sandra's profile, and the unevenness in the darkness opposite him was Johnny, and if he looked very closely he could see something that might have been the shine of Rich's glasses. He wasn't sure until it moved, Rich leaning forward to murmur something to Simon, who nodded and waved a lazy hand at him.

      Nate blinked again. The fog would lift as soon as they started doing something, he knew that. Right now, though, he could just drift off...

      He woke with a snort when the van crunched to a quiet stop, and in the darkness his face went warm. And it was dark: the headlights were off and the moon was new, and once Mike shut off the engine even the parking and brake lights vanished. He couldn't see a thing. Apparently he wasn't the only one, since Sandra elbowed him lightly and then whispered an apology. "S'okay," Nate whispered, groping around in his shirt pocket.

      "Okay, folks," Simon said softly from the front. "Honda, tell us where we are."

      "About a quarter of a mile away from the complex, you follow this road in," Mike said, also quietly. "Can't get us much closer than that. They're in a niiiiiiice wide open flat space, hella visibility on all sides."

      "Can we get light in here, or will they be able to see it?" Simon asked.

      Nate heard more than saw Mike shrug. "Probably a little light won't hurt anybody."

      "Right," said Simon. "Specs, got a light?"

      "One sec," Nate said, fumbling the little plastic thing out of his pocket and cupping his other hand over it. The red LED lit up when he squeezed it, casting a tiny amount of hellish light on the circle of faces around him; even dimmed by his other hand it was enough to see by, if only barely. "Red's supposed to provide illumination without affecting your night vision," he explained. Little shards of reflected red light flickered off the walls of the van as Rich nodded in agreement.

      "Good idea," Simon said briskly. "Okay, folks. Let's do this thing. I want to stress that there is a lot we don't know at the moment. We don't know who's there or where they are. We don't know if they have power, and that means we don't know if they have alarms. The man may not be a bona-fide colonel but he was in the Army, so we may be looking at tripwires, that sort of thing, too. We're going to go in quiet and slow. Real slow."

      "Headsets?" Nate asked, reaching down to touch the latch of the box he was sitting on.

      Simon tugged at his lower lip, considering. "No," he finally said. "Springheel and I will wear earpieces and carry handsets, but I want everybody else's ears free to listen. Specs Two, I want you in the van, monitoring the frequencies and keeping us in touch; if anything official gets too close, warn 'em off. If we start screaming for help, extract us the fuck on out."

      "Got it," Rich said.

      Simon glanced at Nate. "Specs, you're with the rest of us. For some reason I'm not enthused about setting off any alarms, go figure. Call it a character flaw. However, while I want any potential alarms gone and I would not be averse to some missing phone lines, if they have power, I want them to keep it. A cutoff would just warn them that something's wrong, and Farraday is a paranoid little bastard. Got it?"

      Nate nodded. "Got it. It shouldn't be a problem, unless he's got some kind of weird homebrew system running."

      "Good." Simon looked around, checking everybody's faces. "Texas and Specs are with me. Honda, you're with Springheel. Once Specs gives us the all-clear, we're going to take the most likely building from either end and move towards the middle. As misogynistic as it is, we're going to concentrate solely on the men, here. I'm not interested in arresting any of Farraday's ladies, at least not now. As to what to do with them... eh, use your discretion. No, actually, Honda, use Springheel's discretion, thanks. If it's an adult male, though, take it down, move it out. We'll find some place to stash them if we have to, but given what we know, Farraday's likely to be the only one."

      Simon paused. Around him everyone else was silent, watching him; nervousness settled like a stone in Nate's belly. Or possibly it was excitement. He could never really tell the difference. "Okay," Simon finally said, clapping his hands together once. "Okay. Keep it quiet for as long as you can. Specs, get your tools together, and then we're going."

      "Right," Nate said. The red LED vanished, leaving them in darkness, and in that darkness Nate flicked open the trunk at his feet, his groping fingers locating the handle of his toolbag entirely by feel.

      It went as smooth as silk, at first, even if it was also as slow as opera. The complex was three long, low buildings arranged in a squat U shape, completely dark inside and out; something shone faint and yellow from a window on the second floor of the middle building. A candle, probably. Maybe a lantern. Their eyes had adjusted to the near-total lack of light, and by starlight they crept in along cracking asphalt and ruptured concrete, eventually gathering in a huddle inside something that had probably started life as a carport.

      "Huh," Simon breathed, peering carefully around the edge of the sheltering wall. "Think they don't have power?"

      "Probably not," Nate whispered back. "I can find out for sure if you can find me a power outlet."

      Simon edged back and nodded, bringing up his handset. "Specs Two," he muttered, "this is Templar. We are moving to the end of building three, repeat, building three." He paused, then nodded, reholstering the handset. "Springheel, Honda, wait until we're there, then join us." Without waiting for confirmation Simon slithered around the edge of the carport and vanished, crossing the empty ground in a fast, crouching sidle.

      Nate swallowed and scrambled after him, Johnny close at his heels. By the time they joined Simon at the butt end of the third building Simon had already located an outlet, one of the big sturdy utility ones with metal covers over the holes, half-lost in a dying shrub. Nate poked his hand into his bag and groped gingerly around until his fingers closed on just the squarish plastic thing he was looking for. "Little light, maybe," he whispered, and cupped his hand over the three lights on the front just to be safe.

      Sandra and Mike arrived just as Nate dropped to his knees and plugged the current detector into the outlet, already wincing back in expectation of the lights. He got none. Not quite able to believe his good luck, he peeled back one finger, then another—the lights were all dark. Nate unplugged the detector and put it away. "No power," he whispered. "I can check again on the other buildings, if you want, but I think they're just squatting. I can't hear a generator, either."

      "Awesome," Mike breathed, his fingers flexing nervously in front of his chest. "Think they've got phones?"

      "No phone lines," Johnny said, his voice just a bare rumble. "'Less they're underground."

      "They're probably using cell phones anyway." Nate rocked back onto his heels. "I can go try and find the lines if you want, though."

      Simon thought about it, thumping his knuckles against his forehead briefly. "No," he finally said. "Longer we're out here, the higher the chance someone twigs to us. I'm thinking building two. Anyone object?" No one did. They'd all seen that little flicker of candlelight. "Right," said Simon. "Team Two, I want you to head to the north end of building two—" one finger stabbed out "—and radio in when you're there. We'll head to the south end."

      Five minutes later they were in place, waiting for Rich to confirm Team Two's call-in. Nate crouched against the blank wall and breathed in long, shallow drafts through his open mouth, trying to make himself silent. He was pretty sure it was working. Of course, given the weird look that Johnny was giving him, maybe he looked a little odd, too.

      Simon rolled to his knees by Nate's side, putting a hand on his shoulder. "Once we're in, we're going to clear out an apartment and stash you," he breathed directly into Nate's ear. "Texas and I can move faster if it's just the two of us."

      Nate swallowed and nodded. Simon patted his shoulder and rolled away, crossing the five feet between Nate and the edge of the building in a crouch, his hands occasionally dotting off the ground for balance. He peered around the edge, then hunched his shoulders and froze; Nate also froze, completely forgetting to breathe, which did make him very quiet.

      After a painfully long, tense moment Simon rose to his feet, glancing back over his shoulder and gesturing to them both. Johnny immediately loped to Simon's side, his drawn pistol pointing to the ground between his feet. Nate rose uncertainly and crept after him, his nervous tension now a knot in his gut. Simon jerked his head at the first apartment and broke for it in the same motion, Johnny right after him, Nate a startled step or two behind. Simon tried the doorknob. The door sprang open. Half a second later all three of them were through, piled up in the tiny, dark foyer, breathing hard.

      "Texas, go check it out," Simon breathed, easing the front door shut again. Johnny's penlight flashed on, momentarily dazzling Nate, and Johnny vanished; doors opened and closed in his wake, cabinets opening and shutting with what seemed to Nate's currently strained senses to be a ferocious racket.

      A minute or so later Johnny reappeared, his penlight flicking off and vanishing. "Looks clear," he reported.

      Simon nodded. "Specs, you stay here," he said. "Lock up after us real well and don't let anyone in unless they do the knock—" his hand flashed out and tapped lightly against the wall, one-two, one, one-two, one "—and that includes if they identify themselves to you vocally. Get me?"

      "Got you," Nate said, nodding.

      Simon's grin flashed through the darkness. "Of course, if I scream for you, you come running, because that means we're fucked." Not really waiting for an answer Simon eased open the front door again and slipped through. Johnny paused long enough to thump Nate's shoulder, then followed. The door clicked shut.

      Nate fumbled at it, finding and turning both locks and engaging the chain. It was incredibly dark. It was beyond dark. His eyes couldn't adjust to the light because there was none. He could hear thumping in the apartment next to him—Simon and Johnny, certainly—but no one was yelling, not yet... Nate touched the wall and eased himself down, putting his toolkit down on the floor with a muffled clank.

      The darkness was getting to him in its totality. He groped for his shirt pocket and the little LED flashlight. On the other side of the wall the thumping got quieter, Simon and Johnny moving on to the next apartment—the squeeze light flicked on inside his cupped hands, making them glow. A single hair-fine sliver of light squeezed out from between his fingers to draw a line on the floor. That ought to be dim enough not to show.

      Moving slowly, following the red sliver, Nate eased himself into the empty main room and looked around. The windows were all shut, the blinds down. On the far wall a rank of vertical blinds half-hid a sliding glass door, and the kitchen was off to his right. Nate let the light play over the floor. The carpet looked as new as the day it had been installed, still all plush and unmarked.

      Wincing every time the floor creaked under his boots, Nate crept into the bedroom. It was just as empty, just as new; there was no water in the toilet, and turning one of the taps produced nothing but a faint squeaking noise. Nate scowled down at the empty toilet. How could anyone stand to live here, even if it was free?

      Nate carefully picked his way back out into the bedroom, double-checking the closets, just to be safe. Empty, both of them, except for a workman's hammer and a pile of tacks abandoned in one corner. Nate picked up the hammer, weighed it thoughtfully, and then put it back down. His was better.

      From outside came a sudden babble of raised feminine voices, and Nate spun around so fast that he nearly lost the flashlight. The voices grew louder, moving past the door of the apartment Nate was in, heading not outwards in flight but inwards, towards the rest of the team—Nate bit his lip and retraced his steps into the main room, listening so hard to the yelling from outside that the soft rattle of the vertical blinds didn't register for a single, crucial second.

      Something—someone—slammed into him from behind, sending him reeling forward. Nate shrieked out a thin, startled sound that turned into a whoof of displaced air as he smacked into the wall in front of him. He lost his grip on the little LED and it went flying, plunging the room into darkness even as that same someone slammed into him again and pinned him to the wall, one hand as scrawny and tough as beef jerky clamping down hard over his mouth, the other one grabbing his right wrist and jerking it up as high over his head as it would go. Nate's shoulder creaked in its socket. His instinctive scream of pain died muffled against the palm of his attacker's hand.

      The sliding door! he thought wildly, trying and failing to elbow his attacker with his free arm, trying to grab for his gun—he couldn't reach it, his assailant had him pinned too tight—glass door, vertical blinds, glass door! Nate thrashed, groping behind himself, trying to grab a handful of hair, anything, but his opponent seemed impervious, completely unaffected by anything...

      "Suh-sorry," someone murmured into his ear, laughing a little, and then the hand over his mouth twisted up, thumb and forefinger clamping hard over his nose and cutting that off, too. He couldn't get air—Nate panicked, throwing himself frantically from side to side, beating with a single ineffective fist at his attacker's hip, trying to bite the man's hand, trying to stomp on his foot, while all the while his lungs burned and his head swam and his consciousness receded to a single, dim point—

      He swam dizzily back to semi-consciousness some unknown amount of time later, sprawled on his back on that plush, unmarked carpet. His glasses were missing, his hands were pinned somehow, and for some reason, he was cold. Weakly, Nate pulled against whatever was holding his wrists together, but all that his efforts produced was that sinewy hand clamping down over his mouth again. Nate tried to scream; he produced a muffled, terrified hum.

      "I'm sorry, but your friends have to-to go now," his attacker said, suddenly looming out of the dark to stare down at Nate. His eyes shone crazily from the center of two black circles of bruise; his hair was a pile of straw on his head; even as Nate fought to make his weak eyes focus on his attacker Farraday suddenly jerked his chin to the right and made a little involuntary "Huh!" sound. "I have to make them need to go now," he said again, as his head drifted back to true. "Hold still. I don't want to huh-hurt you more than I have to and it'll hurt less if you just hold still." And he smiled.

      Uncomprehending, still dazed, Nate tried to jerk his hands free, trying and failing to turn his face away from the hand digging painfully into his cheeks—someone stuck a branding iron into his belly and started dragging it upwards and Nate screamed so hard into that muffling grip that he flayed his throat raw. His heels drummed helplessly on the carpet, making dull thudding sounds. Whatever held his wrists made a sticky sound but didn't give an inch, and neither did the hand over his mouth, and he couldn't even pass out as his world convulsed into a tiny ball of fire and tearing and pain—

      He was, at best, semi-conscious when the knifepoint bounced off his lowest rib, tears sliding helplessly from the corners of his eyes to slide outwards and get lost in his hair. Farraday jerked his chin up and went "Huh!" again, pulling the knife free, and for a moment it was almost okay, it was just stinging and something wet sliding over his skin, heading down along his sides towards the floor—oh gravity, Nate somehow thought beneath his shock—and then the knife slid in someplace else and dragged sideways and Nate's legs jerked up, slamming into Farraday's back. Farraday made a startled noise and nearly fell forward, jerking his knife hand up and turning the sideways slash into a huge, looping, curving thing that drew fire up over Nate's ribs and ended sunk deep into his chest. "Huh-hold still," Farraday chided him, grinning madly, and laid the blade almost gently against the side of Nate's throat, and then, finally, blessedly, Nate did pass out, spiraling down into unconsciousness in weeping relief.

      It ended, eventually. Even as close to unconscious as he was Nate was vaguely aware of it ending, of Farraday's hand pulling away from his mouth, of the weight of the man vanishing, of the vertical blinds rattling. It hurt to breathe now, his throat burning like he had strep or something, the wounds in his chest gaping and closing every time he pulled in a breath. His breath went shallow, reflexively. Nate faded out again.

      One-two, one. One-two, one.


      One-two, one. One-two, one.


      A huge crack of splintering wood, a boom, bobbing lights, someone yelling a name, hands on his bleeding chest oh God but that burned—

      He woke up, briefly, with the world vibrating madly around him and a weight on his chest that made it hard to breathe. Nate squinted against the darkness and made a noise. Someone was holding his hand, squeezing it. Nate wasn't sure who it was.

      "Hang in there, Specs," Simon said from somewhere above him, his voice furiously intense. Nate was vaguely glad that it wasn't him that Simon was so mad at. "Just hang in there—goddammit, Honda!"

      "It won't go any faster!" Mike yelled back, his voice cracking with terror. "Honest to God!"

      Simon looked back down at Nate, his expression melting from fury to fear all at once. The weight on Nate's chest resolved into Simon's hands, spread out and pressing down, applying pressure, desperately holding him together oh God there was blood halfway up Simon's forearms and on Simon's face and it was his—"Hold on," Simon said urgently, but the pain and the fire of it slammed into Nate all over again and he shrieked once, thinly, and passed out again

      and woke up in the hospital all stitched back together," Nate said, staring down at his hands, all splayed out on the keyboard doing nothing at all. "Simon blames himself for leaving me behind, Johnny blames himself for not noticing that the glass door was unlocked, I blame myself for not going over there and locking it—"

      Behind him, Jeremy said nothing. Nate knew he was there. He could hear Jeremy breathing. "And what's weird is that aside from one or two places, I wasn't even hurt all that badly," Nate said, after a minute, when it became obvious Jeremy wasn't going to say anything. "He really was... trying not to do more damage than he had to. Like he said. I look like Frankenstein's monster under here," he said, tapping his chest, "but it's just superficial scarring. Mostly."

      "I see," Jeremy finally said.

      Quickly, before he could chicken out, Nate turned halfway around in his chair. "Here, look," he told Jeremy, tugging down the collar of his turtleneck sweater and exposing the fat worm of a scar that began to one side of his Adam's apple and curved down from there to meet up with a second scar, even fatter. "See?"

      After a pause, Jeremy turned around himself, moving slowly. His eyes flicked first to Nate's face and then down to the exposed skin of his throat; although Jeremy worked very hard not to react outwardly, Nate very clearly saw the little flex of his jaw and the flutter of his eyelid that followed. "I see," Jeremy said, reaching up to rub away the twitch.

      "Yeah," Nate said, letting his sweater fall back into place. "It's just—he's smart. He doesn't panic. And he doesn't... overdo? I guess? He doesn't overreact. Like there's always a lawyer in the back of his head watching the line between a Class B and a Class A felony and making sure he never quite steps over."

      "He likes to keep a little weasel room, in other words," Jeremy said, thoughtfully. "That's why he only shot Simon with a .22. Because it wasn't too likely to kill him and compound the felony."

      "See? He always thinks like that." Nate sighed. "And he uses what's available," he added, not without a bit of bitterness.

      "Mm," said Jeremy. They were both silent for a long moment before Jeremy pushed his chair back and stood up. "If you'll pardon me, I think I could use something to drink."

      So that was it. It was over, and there wasn't even going to be any awkward sympathy or anything. Nate closed his eyes in relief and turned back around. "Okay. I need to get back to work..."

      "I'm sorry to have kept you," Jeremy said, like this was all somehow completely normal. And then he left, the saferoom door closing quietly behind him. Outside there was a faint, dim buzz of conversation that quickly tapered off to nothing, and then Nate was left alone in the saferoom, staring at his monitor. He quivered for a moment. Then it passed.

      By the time a thoroughly beaten and subdued Mike crept back in, Nate felt almost normal again. Or, at least, he'd gotten back to work, which was calming in its own dull and repetitive way. They traded wary and shell-shocked glances. "Hey," Nate finally said, rustily.

      "Hey," said Mike, without any of his usual bounce. "Uh. I gotta make a call... work to do, you know?"

      "Yeah, I know," Nate said, nodding. Mike slunk off to his corner, pulling out his phone; Nate turned back to his computer and sank back into the comfortingly dull database. Mike's voice started up in the background and Nate just tuned it out.

      Voices buzzed out in the hallway, and then the door opened again. Even with ninety-five percent of his attention currently absorbed by his computer Nate was still dimly aware of being watched, and he blinked and looked up. "Yo," Johnny said.

      "Hey," Nate said, and awkwardly added, "... it's cool."

      "Okay." Apparently accepting that, Johnny wandered off again.

      The next time Nate resurfaced, after ordering the database to purge itself of every receipt for less than thirty dollars' worth of gas, they were all back, even Simon. His computer ground on, the progress bar not budging at all. All around him his teammates worked in relative silence, occasionally conferring quietly. Inside Rich's lair the new guy was flat on his back on the floor, stuck halfway under the largest desk with his legs poking out, fussing about with the cables. His suit jacket lay folded neatly over the back of his borrowed conference chair, completely unmolested as far as Nate could tell.

      It was weird. No one was kicking anyone else or laughing or even making suggestive comments; if it had been Rich on the floor under that desk (Nate couldn't help but think) there would be suggestions flying fast and furious about what else Rich might want to do as long as he was down there. But it wasn't Rich, it was the new guy, and no one was paying any attention to him at all—except that there was also an almost complete lack of ongoing shenanigans in the space around him. It wasn't just an absence of attention, it was negative attention. An attention vacuum.

      Nate's computer continued to hum along, needing no input from Nate whatsoever. Watching the progress bar fail to move, Nate took a brief self-inventory. He felt... fine. Well, that wasn't true. He felt nothing. Numb. Empty. He could deal with that.

      Idly he brought up his web browser and opened a certain locally-saved .html file that he'd made years ago: a completely blank black browser window with a fake prompt and cursor blinking in one corner. The window did nothing but make the glass surface of his monitor into a fairly decent (if dark) mirror, so that he could scan the room behind him without turning around and alerting people that he was watching. It was, Nate reluctantly remembered, a trick that Rich had taught him. Why that hadn't made him leery of Rich's capacity for underhandedness, he'd never know. Nate had just thought it was a great trick at the time.

      Behind him Simon sat in his usual place, slumped over with his head in his hands, staring down at the table. Even as Nate watched Jeremy leaned over and murmured something—Nate could hear it, almost subliminally, even if he couldn't make out the words—and Simon scowled and made a little shooing motion at him. Jeremy sat back. Nate heard something that might have been a very faint laugh.

      Mike was either absorbed in his work or hiding behind his laptop, frowning; Johnny was doing absolutely nothing that Nate could see (which didn't mean that he was actually doing nothing, knowing Johnny). Sandra, in Simon's office, was just barely visible in the makeshift mirror, and then only when she moved. Nate repressed a sigh and shut the browser window again, the stubborn progress bar popping back up like a particularly boring and slightly malevolent jack-in-the-box.

      The new guy shuffled out from under Rich's desk and sat up. It was the loudest sound in the room and yet no one but Nate glanced in his direction at all. The new guy ducked his head anyway, rolling to his feet and making a halfhearted attempt to beat the white dust off his suit pants. He was a mess: dust all over his pants, blackish machine oil smeared across his shirt and tie, damp reddish hair straggling into his face. Maybe tomorrow he'd be smart enough not to wear a suit.

      Bending over he powered on the new computer tower, then picked up his briefcase and set it on the desk, thumbing at the locks—Nate went very still. In fact, the entire room went still. The new guy glanced around uncertainly, like he could tell something was up but he couldn't tell what it was, and then went back to his briefcase. A little quiver of anticipation settled in Nate's belly.

      The sound of the locks failing to open was not loud at all, just a little metallic click as one part of the still-engaged lock hit another part. Now it was the new guy who went still, frowning in confusion. Carefully he turned one of the dials a digit away, then turned it back, then tried to open the lock again; unsurprisingly, it didn't work the second time, either. His frown deepened. Nate bit the inside of his cheek.

      After a bit more fruitless clicking around, the new guy gave up and looked up. Quickly Nate looked back at his monitor, but not before he saw how wide the new guy's eyes had gone. Oh, boy. This was going to be good—"Excuse me," the new guy said, pointing, "but can I borrow that for a sec?"

      Nate blinked, then looked where the new guy was pointing: at his crowbar, leaning comfortably against the back leg of Nate's desk. "... sure?" he said, unable to believe that something this great was really about to happen. Nate picked up his crowbar and held it out. "Try not to break it," he said, helpless to avoid smiling. "It's my best friend."

      Behind him, Mike sniggered a little, but didn't actually say anything. The new guy reached out and took hold of the other end of the crowbar, the expression on his face now nearing 'completely unbalanced'. That absent little smile was kind of scary, really, especially in combination with those crazy hyper-focused eyes. "Good friend to have," the new guy said, studying the crowbar. The engraving glinted in the light and the new guy ran his thumb over it, his lips moving as he read the 'Speak Friend And Enter' inscription. "Oh," he said, "that kind of friend," and even as Nate gave him a startled point for recognizing the reference, the new guy turned around and rammed the straight end of the crowbar into the seam between the body and lid of his briefcase, wedging it open just a bit.

      Already-stressed hinges groaned, just a little, but Nate only heard it because he was listening for it. Everyone else was dead silent, staring at whatever was in front of them and just waiting. The new guy patted the crowbar (making the hinges groan again) and mouthed something. Nate hadn't ever been much for lip-reading, but he could recognize 'Mellon' when he was watching for it—both of the new guy's hands closed into white-knuckled fists around the crowbar's curved end and drove it downwards with lunatic singlemindedness.

      The locks—and the hinges—held against the stress for almost a second, the briefcase's leather side bowing outwards instead. It couldn't last. The strain must have been incredible. Both of the briefcase's locks abruptly gave, bursting open with twin sharp reports like balloons popping; the briefcase leaped an inch or so off the desk's surface, its lid slamming open with such vehemence that the hinges broke, and the new guy vanished in a quiet rainbow explosion.

      Three hundred NERF balls didn't really take up that much space, if you compressed them enough. They really didn't like to stay compressed, though, and the resulting kinetic energy was awe-inspiring: the little foam balls exploded out of the briefcase to ricochet off the ceiling and walls, momentarily filling every bit of space available before expanding, like the universe, outwards in all directions. Nate's teammates yelped and ducked as the little missiles pattered softly down around them like multicolored hail.

      The new guy reappeared as the NERF balls dissipated outwards, his eyes as wide as saucers, both arms thrown up in front of him for protection. He still had the crowbar clutched in one hand, for all the good it had done him. The last few balls completed their lazy arcs and fell to the ground with tiny, soft sounds, rolling along the floor. One hit the toe of Sandra's sneaker just as she appeared from out of Simon's office to survey the carnage.

      For a moment, the room was completely, tautly silent, although Mike's shoulders were starting to quiver. "You can get anything on eBay these days," Nate finally said, his voice shaking with the effort it took to control it; the tension burst and the room exploded in laughter.

      "Oh, Christ, that hurt," Simon said, laughing, coughing, and clutching at his chest all at once. As little as he liked to admit it, he was just about done in, but he was glad he hadn't missed that. "All right, folks, c'mon, clean it up and get back to work."

      "Wasn't me that made the mess," Mike said, his eyes gleaming. "Looks to me like it was the new guy who made the mess, boss."

      "Yeah, well, think of it as showing the new guy some of our fabled teamwork," Simon said, fighting to keep his voice even. Christ, his chest hurt. "Hop to, c'mon."

      Nate, still quivering with giggles, produced a garbage bag from somewhere and starting tossing the balls in. It rapidly turned into an impromptu game of basketball, as Simon had known it would: Nate held out the garbage bag and Mike and Johnny started lobbing balls into it, Johnny with a matter-of-fact underhanded throw and Mike showing off his free-throw form. (Flawed, in Simon's opinion, but he wasn't in any condition to correct it just now.) Sandra roamed around the front of the room, kicking balls in Nate's general direction. The new guy just stood there, clutching Nate's crowbar and gaping. Simon made an impatient gesture at him. "You too, whatever your name is," he said.

      "Dave," the new guy said, swallowing.

      "Whatever," said Simon, with a flash of irritation. The new guy blinked, hastily put the crowbar down, and started digging NERF balls out from under Rich's computers. Mollified, Simon turned to pin Jeremy with an accusing stare. "Too good to help, Archer?" he said, perhaps a bit more thinly than he'd meant to.

      Jeremy plucked a sodden and dripping NERF ball out of his coffee, inspected it, and then dropped it back in. "Oh, I suppose I could pitch in," he said affably. "If you're asking."

      "Or you could take Simon home," Sandra put in from beneath the desk at the front of the room.

      Simon twisted halfway around in his chair, a movement which he really started regretting about halfway through. "I'm fine," he said, digging his fingers into his side. His voice was starting to get a bit rough around the edges, although he wasn't quite croaking yet. "Besides, if I try to leave now I'll just step on a NERF ball, fall down, and die."

      "Good point," Sandra said, reappearing with both hands full. "But you're not fine, boss. In fact, you look like all that's between you and a coffin is that pesky breathing stuff. Once we clear you a path to the door, I want you to go home."

      "I'm fine," Simon insisted. The second word came out sounding more like 'fi-hine', as his breath caught in a pained croak halfway through. He winced.

      Sandra dropped her load of balls into Nate's bag, accidentally (or possibly on purpose) deflecting one of Mike's arching free throws. Mike moaned in what sounded like real anguish. "That's an order, boss," she said cheerfully. "Remember how I threatened to call security on you? Now's when you get to find out if I was bluffing."

      Simon hunched over in his chair, wanting to argue but feeling too much like crap to bother. "Fine," he said grumpily. "As soon as the debris gets cleared away, I'll go." And then he shut his eyes and waited.

      It took another couple of minutes, during which the pain receded slightly, thanks to Simon very carefully not moving at all. Eventually the last few balls had been corralled and dumped into the bag, and the new guy picked up the crowbar and held it out to Nate. "Thanks," he said inanely.

      "... sure?" Nate said, reaching out to take it. Some kind of innate Nate-ness made him add, "Although I don't know if you really ought to be thanking me..."

      The new guy looked at the exploded remains of his briefcase, then back at Nate. He shrugged, weirdly calm about the whole thing. "It's open now, isn't it?"

      "Yeah," said Nate, blinking. "Yeah, it's definitely open now. I noticed."

      "Then thanks," the new guy concluded, logically, if not intelligently. Simon snorted under his breath.

      Sandra looked around, dusting off her hands. "Is that it?" she asked.

      "Think so," said Mike from under the table. "Least I don't see any more. Guess they may keep turning up for a while, though—holy crap, that was awesome."

      "Great," Sandra said briskly. "Simon, go home. Archer, take Simon home."

      Jeremy stood up. "I'm afraid there's a stray foam ball absorbing the remains of my coffee," he said pleasantly, very carefully not paying any attention to Simon at all as Simon puffed and struggled upright. Sandra hovered nearby, to Simon's general displeasure, but she was smart enough not to try to help.

      "I'll get it," Nate said, mostly occupied with knotting the mouth of the bag shut. "Thanks."

      Once Simon was more or less upright, hunched over the throbbing pain in his chest, he took a look around the room. "Anything else before I go, folks?"

      There was a generalized chorus of 'no' sounds from everybody. The new guy cleared his throat. "Nice to meet you, sir," he said, suddenly all faltering and hesitant again. The tone (and the 'sir') ground on Simon's already-frayed nerves.

      "Enjoy your first day?" he asked, swiveling slowly around to face the new guy, standing lost in the midst of Rich's computers.

      The new guy blinked rapidly. "Uh," he said. "It was... interesting."

      "Interesting," Simon said thoughtfully. "Well, I sure hope you actually did mean 'interesting' and weren't just using it as a euphemism for 'awful' or anything. Because, see, here's the deal: if you had trouble dealing with today, you'll never survive what's waiting for you."

      "Uh." The new guy sure did blink a lot. "What's waiting for me?" he finally asked, timidly.

      "Yeah," said Simon. "This shit? This shit was mild. Sandy hasn't even punched you yet, not that I've seen. If you want to have a chance in hell of being a real member of this team, and I warn you that the odds are stacked against you, you're going to have to put up with a, a hell of a lot worse on a daily basis."

      The new guy didn't say anything for a moment. "Oh," he finally said.

      "Price of admission," Simon said. "Pay up or leave."

      "I can..." The new guy—disheveled, sweaty, covered in dust and chair grease—straightened up. "I think I can handle it, sir," he said, with what Simon could only think of as sadly misplaced confidence.

      "Yeah?" Simon asked. A nasty pain- and irritation-fueled impulse made him add, "You know what happened to the guy you're supposed to be replacing?"

      Everybody else in the room got quiet again, all of a sudden. The new guy, clueless, only nodded. "Sort of," he said. "I know that he was shot and killed, anyway."

      "Shot and killed," Simon repeated. He was already starting to regret bringing this up, but he was too stubborn to stop now. "Yeah, you could say that."

      From somewhere, the new guy dug up enough of a brain cell to realize that keeping quiet was his best option. He stared apprehensively at Simon, waiting. Simon stared back, willing the new guy to falter and look away; the new guy didn't, which was at least vaguely impressive. "I shot him," Simon finally said. "Think you can handle that?"

      The new guy twitched backwards, his eyes going wide. Simon waited a beat, then looked at Jeremy. "Come on, Archer. You heard the lady. Take me home."

      "Gladly," Jeremy said gravely. He wasn't smiling. Simon couldn't blame him for that at all.

      They were halfway down the hall and passing the water fountain when Jeremy reached into his jacket and produced a second little orange bottle, a single large tablet rattling around in the bottom. "Pain pill," he said, holding it out. "You may as well have it before we leave."

      Simon paused, scowling, his eyes locked on the little bottle. He was torn. On the one hand, he was way too damned manly to let a little pain get the best of him and send him running for fuzzy oblivion; on the other hand, this wasn't a little pain they were talking about, here. "I can wait," he finally said.

      "Are you certain?" Jeremy asked, still holding out the bottle. "I mean, it's your health, and I'll certainly respect your wishes in this matter, but there are speedbumps in the parking lot—" Simon winced "—and there's that construction going on on the motorway—" Simon winced again, one hand stealing up to flatten out over his chest "—and that one nasty bump upwards that leads into your block of flats—"

      "Give me that," Simon said, snatching the bottle out of Jeremy's hand. Or trying to, anyway. He ended up flailing slowly and arthritically in Jeremy's direction until Jeremy took pity on him and pushed the bottle into his hand. Simon ground his teeth and forced off the childproof lid himself. "I just don't want to turn into one of those pussies who counts the minutes before his next painkiller, you know?"

      "Given that I damned near have to sit on you to make you take one, I don't think you're in any danger of that," Jeremy said.

      "Yeah, well, I'm tough, I can take it." Simon shook the pill out and used the empty bottle as an impromptu water glass, wiping the back of his hand over his lips when he was done. 

      "Take what? The pain, or the sitting?"

      "Take your pick." Simon dropped the empty bottle into a nearby trash can. "Come on, take me home before this thing kicks in too hard."

      "Mm," said Jeremy, falling into step beside Simon again. Suddenly he sounded ominously cheery. "Remember the good old days, when I only sat on you for recreational purposes?"

      "Shut up," Simon said warningly, ducking his head. He automatically checked up and down the hallway—empty, thank God.

      Jeremy, being Jeremy, did not shut up even the least little bit. "Now I not only have an actual reason to be hanging about your flat, but in addition you spend a large part of the day drugged into a happy and pliable stupor," he said, "and yet all I can manage to think about is whether or not it will adversely affect your recovery. Tch. I'm not certain I like this whole 'giving a damn about you' program."

      "Yeah? Well, first of all, take it up with Farraday, and second of all, blow it out your ass, and third of all, would you shut the hell up?"

      The speed bumps were just exactly as bad as Simon had been fearing—Jeremy went over them at approximately the speed of a procrastinating iceberg and still Simon hissed breath between his teeth—but by the time they hit the construction zone and the uneven pavement Simon couldn't quite bring himself to care any more. Once they reached Simon's complex and Jeremy parked the Jeep in its usual spot Simon was watching the world go by from a distant vantage point, his thoughts having been reduced to a cottony-soft blur.

      "Do you need a hand?" Jeremy asked, taking off his seat belt.

      Simon flapped a hand lazily in Jeremy's general direction. "Nah, I'm good," he said, fumbling with the seat belt until it came undone and then fumbling at the door until it opened. Simon slid out, expecting to stand up, like usual; his legs hadn't quite gotten the message, however, and folded up neatly underneath him. He caught himself on the door, blinked twice, and forced his knees to brace. "Huh," he said.

      "Come on," said Jeremy, tugging Simon's arm over his shoulders. Simon let him, puzzling over the question of when, exactly, Jeremy had come around to the passenger side, since he'd apparently missed it entirely. Absently he patted Jeremy's shoulder, the leather of his jacket warm under Simon's hand.

      Simon watched the parking lot and the stairs go by, leaning on Jeremy while Jeremy opened the door. It didn't seem to have much to do with him. Jeremy got him into the apartment and into the bedroom, lowering him to sit on the side of the bed; trying to do his part Simon picked numbly at the buttons of his shirt, clumsily toeing off his sneakers as an afterthought. "You know," he said, inching out of his shirt a bit at a time, "this is some pretty strong shit."

      "I've noticed," Jeremy said, not quite laughing.

      Simon rolled carefully onto his back and started fumbling with the zipper of his jeans, eventually managing to coerce it down. Wriggling out of his jeans exhausted the last of his strength. "'M gonna take a nap," he said, closing his eyes. "And then you're gonna buy me dinner."

      "That was the plan," said Jeremy. "Sleep well."

      "Thanks, Archer," Simon said, already mostly asleep.