Part Eight: Chapters 50-59

      No matter how early Nate woke up, his mother always managed to wake up earlier. Every morning was orchestrated to the muted, clattering soundtrack of his mother briskly crossing chores off her list. Blearily he smashed his face into the pillow and listened to the noise from the kitchen with half an ear, dreading the moment when he would finally look up and notice the time.

      Eventually he gave in and peeked out from the pillow, squinting at the fuzzy glowing red numbers. A little after seven, which meant he'd managed to sleep a little later than usual, but didn't really have enough time to catch a significant amount of extra sleep before his alarm went off at seven-thirty. "Ugh," Nate muttered into his pillow, squeezing his eyes shut and groping blindly for his glasses.

      The usual morning routine veered sharply off-course with a buzz of voices from downstairs, his mother's voice reserved and polite, Mike's usual essential Mike-ness blunted with grogginess. Nate paused with his hand spread out on the wood of the nightstand and listened. After a moment the conversation died off and Mike thudded up the stairs, the bathroom door thumping shut behind him; Nate gladly reeled his arm back in and burrowed under the covers. Now he had a perfectly good excuse to spend another twenty minutes sleeping.

      He was asleep again before Mike got the shower going, a little huddle of covers in the middle of the bed.

      By the time Nate's alarm went off Mike was audibly downstairs again, being loudly cheerful at his mother. Nate swatted blindly at his alarm clock until the noise shut off and then fought his way out of the tangled sheets, eventually managing to get both feet on the floor. He groped for his glasses and found them. Someone was cooking downstairs—he could both hear it and smell it—but he wasn't really willing to lay bets on who. His mother wouldn't have let a houseguest fend for himself without a fight, but Mike had a way of blithely sidestepping (and clotheslining, pistol-whipping, and hog-tying) conventional etiquette that Nate sort of envied.

      Nate dragged himself into the bathroom, which was still damp and smelling of soap. It was odd, walking into a faceful of someone else's shower steam, but it seemed like a small enough price to pay for the security of having Mike around. Mike wasn't ever crazy when it counted—well, all right, except that one time, but that was something that Nate's mind flinched away from, even now.

      Carefully avoiding the mirror Nate chucked his pajamas into the hamper and stepped into the shower, not quite certain about whether there'd be enough hot water for all three of them but resigned to having to find out.

      Showered and clean, Nate scruffed his fingers through his damp hair and hurried into his clothes, glad that he'd laid them all out the night before. By the time he was dressed, he was starving, and the smell of breakfast from downstairs was making his stomach growl.

      "—glad she's all right," Nate's mother was saying as Nate picked his way down the stairs. "Poor girl, she seemed so frightened."

      "She's tougher than she seems," Mike proclaimed. "She's gonna be just fine. We'll make sure of it."

      "Good," Nate's mother said, shortly. Nate half-smiled and half-winced and picked his way into the breakfast nook.

      "Yo, Nate-man," Mike caroled from his seat at the table, waving a forkful of eggs in Nate's general direction. If he was aware of Nate's mother's private doubts, he didn't let on. "How'd you sleep? Okay?"

      Nate yawned, unable to stop himself. "Yeah," he said. "Anything happen?"

      "Nah, not that I noticed. Kinda spooky quiet, really." Mike ate his eggs. "Man," he said around his mouthful, "I oughta buy a house over here. No traffic noises, no screaming neighbors, no sh—crappy music comin' through the walls... kinda like heaven, you know?"

      "Guess so," Nate agreed. His mother appeared from the kitchen, put a plate in front of him, and unselfconsciously kissed the top of his head before vanishing again. Nate went a little pink. Mike grinned at him from across the table, but mercifully didn't say anything. Just yet, anyway. "Thanks, Mom," Nate said, picking up his fork.

      "I offered to cook but she wouldn't let me," Mike said. "I mean, it's totally all for the best because this is awesome, but I guess I don't feel like I'm earnin' my keep, you know?"

      "Don't worry about it," Nate mumbled around the tines of his fork. "You're kind of like my bodyguard, right? That's why Simon wanted you to stay here."

      "Aww!" Mike beamed insincerely at him across the table. "Bodyguard! That's downright cute, Specs. Like you're some kinda celebrity or something. Next thing you know you'll have a whole entourage."

      "I guess I'll need a bigger house," Nate said dubiously, looking around at the walls of the breakfast nook.

      "No, seriously," Mike said, gently nudging Nate's mother's hands away from the sink, "you made breakfast, I can at least do the dishes, right?"

      "Well, you can," Nate said, "but she'll only wash them again after we're gone just to make sure they're up to her standards."

      His mother rolled her eyes. "He thinks I'm so picky."

      "She is," Nate told Mike.

      "Nathan, please don't embarrass me in front of our guest," his mother said sternly. Nate blushed and hid his face in his coffee mug. He was never going to hear the end of this from either of them, he just knew it.

      "Huh," said Mike, picking up the dish brush. "Well, that's okay. I gotta at least make the effort, right?"

      "Well, if you must," Nate's mother said, relinquishing the territory around the sink with cool grace. "Nathan, if you wouldn't mind stopping by the grocery store on your way home..."

      "Sure, Mom," Nate said, already holding his hand out for the inevitable list.

      His mother rummaged around in her purse, looking for it. "If I'd known we were going to have company I'd have laid in more supplies," she said, fretting. Her search produced a long sheet of pink paper, which she pressed into Nate's outstretched hand. "Between that poor woman and your friend, it's been quite an eventful week!"

      "I can spring for those," Mike offered, nearly yelling it over the clatter of the dishes.

      "Oh, don't worry about that," Nate's mother said. "It's rather nice to have people about again. When Nathan's father was still alive—"

      "Mom," Nate said quickly.

      His mother sighed. "Oh, all right, all right, I know it embarrasses you. Your old mother, running off at the mouth in front of your friends..."

      "Mom," Nate said again.

      "He never lets me have any fun," Nate's mother informed Mike, sweeping out of the kitchen like she was offended. Mike hunched his shoulders and tried to choke back his laugh, which ended up making him snort like a pig. Now just about scarlet Nate immediately bent all his concentration on the mug of coffee in his hands, tossing the last of it off before dropping it into the sink next to Mike's soapy hands. Mike equably picked up Nate's mug, scrubbed it clean with a few twists of his wrist, and rinsed it out. "Lemme just finish this up and we'll go," he said over the noise.

      "Sure," Nate said, leaning against the counter by the sink and watching Mike finish up the dishes. "I'd never have figured you for the domestic type," he said.

      "Hey, I can be all kinds of useful, the mood strikes me," Mike said, slotting a plate into the dishwasher. "Hell, I even got some manners, not that I bother with 'em that often."

      "Huh," said Nate. "So how's Diana Fontaine? Really?"

      "Scared shitless," Mike said. He plucked a glass out of the sink and ran it under the water. "Shit, I never thought I'd feel sorry for her, you know? But it's like—" he made a frustrated little gesture with the brush, inadvertently spraying Nate and the kitchen counters with droplets of soapy water "—shit, sorry. It's like she's this stone-cold bitch, which we totally knew, but it's all a big front, like a cat puffing out its fur, right?"

      "Right," Nate said. He pulled off his glasses and scrubbed them dry on his sweater.

      "And behind it she's just this scared little girl," Mike said. "Well, okay, not a little girl, the woman has some serious bazongas, but you know what I mean."

      Nate glanced nervously at the doorway, half-afraid he was going to see his mother lurking there, but luck was apparently with him. "Yeah, I guess," he said.

      "She's pretty fucking terrified of him now," Mike said. He ran the brush around the sink once before shutting off the water. "All I can say is better late than never."

      "Guess so," Nate said. His hand stole over and started plucking nervously at the sleeve of his sweater.

      Noticing, Mike winced. "Shit, sorry. You okay?"

      "Yeah." Nate straightened up, forcing his hand to unknot from his sleeve. "Yeah, it's okay, it's nothing, I'm just a little edgy, you know? Come on, let's head out."

      Mike grabbed the kitchen towel that was hanging off the refrigerator and scrubbed his hands dry. "Right. You got everything?"

      Nate touched his back pocket, confirming that he had his wallet. "Yeah." He pulled his keys out of his front pocket and headed for the garage door, paying more attention to sorting through his keys than anything else. "You want to drive, or..."

      "Shit, yeah, I wanna drive," Mike said happily from behind him. "Last thing we need on top of this Farraday mess is one of your little fender-benders."

      Nate ducked his head and opened the door that led from the kitchen to the garage. The little button lock popped up against his palm. "I'm really not that—" Bad, he meant to say, but some sixth sense stole the breath from his lungs even before he realized what, precisely, was wrong.

      Little squares and curls of black stuff littered the garage floor in an arc around his car, his car which was riding lower than it ought to be, his car which was flat on its rims surrounded by the slashed—mutilated—remains of all four tires—Nate dragged in a screamy little breath and then Mike grabbed the back of his sweater and hauled him straight back out of the doorway. The last thing Nate saw before Mike kicked the door shut again was the window above the washing machine, gaping open onto the back yard.

      Mike jammed the thumb-lock button down and spun around, his gun appearing like magic in both hands. "Come on," he said tersely.

      "Mom," Nate heard himself say, his ears buzzing.

      "I'll go get her," Mike said. "Come on—" and letting go of his gun with one hand he grabbed Nate's shoulder and steered him forward. There was a little bathroom off the kitchen and Mike drove them both right to it, kicking open the little cabinet under the sink and revealing it empty. "Okay," he said. "See that? There is no way he can be behind you if you just—" he pushed Nate into the doorway "—stand there, okay? You draw your piece and you stay there, and I'll go get your mom. You stay."

      Nate nodded, dumbly, too shocked to protest that he wasn't a dog. Mike nodded back and twitched around, inching out of the kitchen at what seemed to Nate to be both a foolhardy turn of speed and far, far too slow. Nate swallowed and fumbled his own gun out of its holster at the small of his back. Mike kicked open the pantry and stuck his gun in, menacing only a canister of oatmeal. Nodding, he nudged it shut again and disappeared, into the breakfast nook.

      Useless, empty adrenalin burned in Nate's veins, freezing him in place. He was more aware of the texture of his gun's grip against his palms than he was of Mike's receding footsteps, and that was so wrong that he couldn't even comprehend it—he heard his mother's voice, raised in query, and he'd have closed his eyes in relief if he thought he could blink. But he couldn't, because he had to keep watch... 

      "Specs?" Mike said from somewhere around the main room, distracting him from his train of thought.

      Nate swallowed. "Yeah," he called back.

      "We're coming in, okay? Don't shoot."

      "Okay," Nate said. He pulled his finger off the trigger, just to be safe, but he still twitched in momentary reflexive alarm when Mike appeared. Nate's mother followed him, confused and irritated, drawn along by Mike's grip on her wrist.

      "Ma'am, I need you to get in behind your son," Mike said, weirdly all business. Nate shuffled out of the way and his mother pressed past him, her lips set in a thin line. Mike turned halfway around so that he could see both Nate and the rest of the kitchen, pulling his gun up until the top of the barrel just barely touched his cheek. "Specs, man, you want me to be honest, I think he's long, long gone, but all the same I don't think I want to take any risks. You with me on that?"

      Nate nodded, his head bobbing frantically, like his spine was a spring. "Yeah," he choked out.

      "Okay. Good." Mike glanced around. "I'll stand guard. You call Sandy, tell her what's up, get her and Johnny out here pronto, okay?"

      "Sure—" Nate swallowed, clearing his throat. "Sure." He was glad to put his gun back in its holster (ignoring his mother's disapproving expression as best he could) and pull out his cell instead, looking Sandy's number up in its address book. Staring blindly at Mike's shoulder, staring so hard that he inadvertently memorized the pattern of white stripes in Mike's shirt, Nate put his phone to his ear.

      It rang only twice before connecting, assaulting Nate's ear with a low hiss of road noise. "Sandra," she said, half-shouting over the noise.

      "Sandy," said Nate, weakly.

      Her voice immediately went sharp. "Nate? What's wrong? Are you all right?"

      "You need to come to my house right now," Nate managed to say.

      It sounded incomplete even as he was saying it, and he knew she was going to take it the wrong way even before she did. "Are you all right?" she demanded to know, her voice now so sharp it was brittle.

      "Yes, yes, I'm..." Nate cleared his throat again and plunged on. "I'm fine, we're all fine, but Farraday's been here, he got into the garage and slashed my tires, he's probably gone but we're not sure... "

      Sandra was absolutely silent for a second. "I'm on my way," she finally said. The brittle edge was gone from her voice. "Five minutes. You call Texas, all right? I'm going to need my hands free."

      "Yes," Nate said. Sandra hung up without saying goodbye. Nate squeezed his eyes shut. "She's on her way," he said.

      "Awesome," said Mike. "Goddamn, but I'll feel better when they're here."

      "I have to call Texas," Nate said, already punching Johnny's number up in his phone's memory. His mother shifted slightly behind him, looking a bit more annoyed than frightened.

      "Yo," Johnny said in his ear.

      "You need to come to my house right now," said Nate. It was easier, making this call for the second time. "Farraday got into the garage, he slashed my tires, we think he's probably gone but we're not sure..."

      "On my way," Johnny said, just that. "Hang on." He hung up.

      Nate folded his phone away and sagged back against the wall. "They're both coming," he said, unnecessarily.

      Mike nodded. "Then I guess all we gotta do is hold on," he said, summoning up a grin from somewhere. "Anybody wanna play charades?"

      It felt like an age went past before someone pounded on the front door, even though Nate knew from the clock on the microwave that it had barely been five minutes. "Take over," Mike said, and jogged off before Nate could say anything. Nate drew his own gun again, very carefully not looking at his mother.

      He heard a babble of terse voices from the direction of the front door, terse and familiar voices, and for the first time he managed to relax, suddenly almost limp with relief that someone had come to save them. It wasn't a very brave thing to think, he knew. Some lawman he was. The relief, however, was still real.

      "Specs?" Johnny called from the breakfast nook. "I'm comin' in."

      "Come on," Nate called back.

      Johnny appeared, gun pointing at the floor, and loped over to take Mike's old position. "Takin' over for Honda," he said. "They're clearin' the house."

      Nate nodded. He could hear Mike and Sandra thudding around, first downstairs, then upstairs, closets and cabinets slamming open and shut in their wake, the racket punctuated by their short calls to each other. It was almost soothing, in its way, to know that something was being done. Johnny put his back to the wall, the muzzle of his gun pointing to the floor between his feet.

      The racket lessened a bit and Mike shouted something which neither of them understood. After a quick glance at Nate Johnny trotted back to the doorway. "What?" he yelled. Mike shouted again. Johnny looked back at Nate. "Wants to know if there's an attic."

      Nate nodded. "There's a little trapdoor in the closet in the master bedroom."

      "Closet in the master bedroom!" Johnny yelled. Mike's answering yell was still indistinct but much shorter, and Johnny returned to his post.

      After another two or three minutes the thudding left off and Mike and Sandra came thumping back downstairs, conferring in a low undertone. "Texas, we're coming in," Sandra called, and she and Mike appeared a second later, both lightly flushed and sweating but cool-headed.

      "Nothing," Mike said. "Not surprising, but it's good to know, you know?"

      "The garage door was still locked when I opened it," Nate said. "He may have tried the door but I don't think he tried to get in the house beyond that."

      Mike and Sandra glanced at each other, then Sandra nodded. "We'll go check out the garage next," she said. "Texas, I'm going to want you with us for that."

      "Yeah," said Johnny. He glanced at Nate. "You oughta go upstairs. Close yourself and your momma in one of the bedrooms, maybe pack a bag."

      Nate considered this for a moment. "No," he finally said. "I want to stay within earshot. Mom, though—" He turned to his mother, who had passed all the way through 'annoyed' and hit 'long-suffering'. "Mom, you should go get your things together," he said, all in a rush, wanting to get it out before she interrupted him. "I think you need to go stay with Ruth for a while, okay?"

      His mother looked at him, then turned her tight-lipped gaze on the bathroom door, where the rest of his team was clustered. "If I say yes," she said, "can I be let out of the bathroom?"

      Nate's legs more or less gave out, dumping him unceremoniously onto the living-room couch. His mother was upstairs, behind a closed and locked bedroom door despite her protests that that really wasn't necessary, really, Nathan, assumedly packing her things. A week with Ruth would drive her nuts, which meant that Nate would be paying for it in all sorts of small ways for the next month, but at least she should be safe there.

      He'd been spared the lectures about how dangerous his job was, for now. He'd count that as a small blessing.

      Nate drew his gun once again and held it in his lap, straining to hear the others. After some discussion they'd decided to open the garage door and send two people in from the driveway, which would give them more room to maneuver and look around; Johnny had gone in through the kitchen, covering all the ways. Nate had heard the garage door rumble up, and then... nothing. Which he could only suppose was a good thing.

      When the garage door started to rumble shut again, he jumped. The door in the kitchen opened and the rest of the team came back in, all heavy footfalls and no talking. When they appeared in the living room they were even sweatier, but still reasonably calm. "Garage is clean," Sandra said. "So's the backyard."

      Nate's shoulders slumped. He pushed his gun back into its holster with great relief and stood up, equally grateful to discover that his legs seemed willing to hold him. "So what now?"

      "First of all we call your mother a cab," Sandra said briskly, "and get her out of here."

      "Hey, Mrs. Waxman, you're a cab," Mike said under his breath. Sandra didn't bother to hit him, which was a clear sign of how seriously she was taking this. Mike looked a little disappointed.

      "I'll go do that," Nate said, heading back into the kitchen. Johnny, he couldn't help but notice, trailed along behind him, taking up position in the doorway again.

      They sat in awkward silence until the cab arrived. Nate's mother clearly wanted to make her views on the matter known, but she refused to cause a fuss in front of houseguests, for which Nate was grateful. His teammates, for their part, didn't want to alarm his mother or give too much away. However, with the specter of Farraday looming over the whole morning, small talk was damned near impossible to come up with, let alone pull off with any grace. It was a long, quiet, awkward twenty minutes, during which every single of one of them peeked out of the curtains at least five times.

      Finally the cab arrived and Nate's mother was bundled out the front door with an impressive escort (even if their guns were all firmly back in their holsters). After thoroughly checking out both the cabbie and the taxi itself—the sheer thoroughness of their examination wholly spooking the cabbie, who, like most DC cabdrivers, might or might not have been in the country legally—they shepherded her in and put her bags in the trunk. "G'bye, Mom," Nate said, leaning in to kiss his mother's cheek. "Have fun."

      "Ha!" said his mother, but she allowed herself to be driven off, which was an enormous load off Nate's mind. As soon as the cab rounded the corner they retreated back into the house itself.

      "Nate, I want you out of here," Sandra said, pretty much the second she locked the front door behind herself. "This is a whole other thing, this is Farraday striking at you where you live, we are going to lock things down. Since Mike's also been compromised, I want you to go stay with Johnny—"

      "No," Johnny said, his voice flat and intractable, stopping just where he was.

      Sandra physically jerked at the contradiction, twisting to face him. "Why not?"

      "'Cause either you or I are gonna be next," Johnny said, still flat. "If he's doin' us in order, he already got Simon, he got Mike, he got Nate..."

      Sandra glanced swiftly at Nate out of the corner of her eye. "No offense, Nate—but compared to what happened to Simon and Mike, Nate got off pretty lightly. Farraday may not be done with him yet."

      "Maybe he figures he got Nate good enough last time," Johnny said, and now his voice was so devoid of emphasis that it was frightening. "Not sayin' we should leave Nate here. Sayin' he shouldn't come to my place. Just in case."

      Sandra thought that over for a moment, scowling. "All right," she finally said. "I concede your point. But frankly, we don't know if he 'got' Mike or if he was actually striking at Diana Fontaine. We don't actually know what he's doing, goddammit."

      "Still, think we better move on to safer locations," said Johnny. "Get hotel rooms. Like Simon said."

      For a long moment they were four corners of a taut square in the middle of the living room, eyeing each other warily. Then Sandra nodded, closing her eyes. "We'll do that. But there's a more pressing question at stake here."

      "How'd he get in," Johnny said.

      "Right," said Sandra. Her voice was grim. "Did he jimmy the window himself, or did Diana Fontaine unlock it while she was here?"

      Nate jerked, startled. So did Mike. "Fuck," Mike breathed, recovering first.

      "For that matter," Sandra said, "how did he know where Specs lived in the first place, if she didn't call him and tell him?"

      "Um," said Nate. "If... if he knows my full name, my home phone's listed."

      Sandra jerked both hands out in a frustrated gesture. "That's a dead end for now, then. Forget it. So that leaves the window."

      "We can take fingerprints off the lock if no one touched it," Nate said, his terror momentarily receding as his mind latched onto the puzzle. "I mean, if she did unlock the window she probably wore gloves or wiped the lock or something, but if the lock's been wiped clean that'll tell us something in any case."

      Sandra snapped her fingers. "Good idea. Can you do that yourself?"

      "Sure," said Nate, nodding. "I'll have to go to the office and get my kit, but I can do that."

      "Okay," Sandra said. "We'll finish up here and then go get it for you. I don't want you coming back here alone, though. Got it?"

      "Got it," Nate said fervently.

      "Good," said Sandra. "Go pack your stuff. We'll wait."

      "Okay," Nate said, heading for the stairs. He paused at the bottom, one hand on the railing. "I guess you could call Templar while you wait?"

      Sandra blinked. "Simon?"

      "You, uh, you did promise to keep him in the loop," Nate said, hunching his shoulders.

      "Yeah," Sandra said, sighing. "Yeah, I did. Might as well, then. He'll insist on showing up and looking at things, but since we've already locked the place down..." She trailed off there, resigned, and went to fish her cell phone out of her purse. Nate, relieved, scurried off.

      Ironically, before the phone rang, Simon had been having a pretty good day, or at least as good a day as he could rationally expect to have right now. He'd conked out hard and slept like a rock (and he almost didn't mind giving Jeremy a grudging bit of credit for that) and woken at eight feeling more awake and refreshed than he had in a while. His last pain pill had lost its toehold and fizzled away at some point during the night and yet, still, nothing hurt until Simon gingerly swung his legs out of bed. Even then, it wasn't so bad. It had been worse, anyway.

      He could only suppose he'd turned some sort of corner in his recovery. He couldn't precisely swagger into the shower, but he managed a decent (if stiff) pace anyway, pretty pleased with himself. And, all right, with Jeremy, not that he was ever going to admit to it in a million years. He wasn't even winded when he finished up in the shower, and he managed to dress himself in record time, and okay, he hurt like hell when he was done but it was some sort of kinder, gentler hell; he was just reaching for his phone in order to call Jeremy and demand breakfast when it rang, startling him.

      Even before he saw Sandra's name on the screen, the ringing phone had killed his good mood. He flicked the phone open, trying to brace himself for anything. "Spring," he said. "What happened?"

      "Farraday broke into Nate's garage and slashed his tires to ribbons," Sandra said, not bothering to soften the blow. Simon sucked in a breath. And winced. "All four of them—they're in pieces the size of my hand, Templar."

      "Jesus," Simon said, grabbing his phone in both hands. "No one was hurt? Right? Spring, tell me no one was hurt. That's an order."

      "No, everyone's fine, and we've confirmed that Farraday's gone. Nate packed his mother off to stay with relatives—"


      "—and we're moving everybody into hotel rooms this evening," Sandra finished. "If Farraday's started attacking people at home..."

      "Good call," Simon said. He caught himself pacing and didn't make himself stop. "Tell me the rest—no, wait, don't bother, I'll call Archer and come see for myself."

      "Templar," Sandra said, already sounding resigned.

      "What? He's long gone by now, right? All I'd be doing is walking very slowly around a crime scene. Christ, if I can't do that by now I ought to check myself into a goddamned nursing home."

      "You know what, boss, I kind of figured you were going to insist on that." Sandra sighed. "So much for leaving it to us, huh?"

      "Yeah, well, I feel a lot better this morning," Simon said, not even lying. "To hell with what I said yesterday. Wait there for me. I'll be over just as soon as I can light a fire under Archer."

      "Right," Sandra said. Simon hung up without saying goodbye and pulled up Jeremy's number, checking the time as he did so. Not quite nine. He was probably going to wake Jeremy. The concept did not bother him unduly.

      "Mm," Jeremy said, purring sleepily into the phone. "Good morning, Simon. It's so nice to know that your nocturnal exertions didn't kill you after all—"

      "—I'd tell you to put a cork in it, Archer, but I have the sinking feeling you'd enjoy that," Simon said. "Hop to, lazyass, I need you pronto. Farraday took a swipe at Nate last night and we have a crime scene to visit."

      "Well, if you need me so," Jeremy said, but suddenly he was all business. Simon could hear the mattress creaking in the background as Jeremy got moving. "Is Nate all right?"

      "Yeah, he's fine," Simon said. "I'll fill you in as we drive. Get a move on." And he hung up before Jeremy could say anything else and jogged stiffly off in search of his sneakers.

      Jeremy turned up in just under fifteen minutes, as impeccably turned out as ever, like he hadn't been hurrying at all. "I guess it's easy to get dressed in the morning when everything you own is black," Simon said, edging himself into the passenger seat of his Jeep without assistance and fumbling for the seat belt. "Out of the parking lot, turn right, left at the second light, get on the freeway going south."

      "Good morning to you too, Simon," Jeremy said, putting the Jeep in drive. "You seem to be feeling better. Or at least perkier."

      "You know, I feel pretty good?" Simon said. "No thanks to you, of course."

      "Of course." Jeremy turned right out of the parking lot and completely failed to put on a burst of speed. Simon gritted his teeth and dealt with it. "So what's happened?"

      "Farraday broke into Nate's garage and shredded all four of his tires into a pile of hand-sized pieces of rubber, apparently," said Simon. "Or so Sandy tells me."

      Jeremy winced. "That has... unpleasant echoes, really."

      "Yeah, it does," Simon said. "However, that's none of your fucking business, really, and I'll thank you not to say anything like that in front of my team. I suspect they've drawn the parallels for themselves and really don't need an outsider mashing it in their faces."

      "Mm," Jeremy said. "I apologize. I spoke before I thought. I must be tired."

      "Don't worry about it," said Simon. "Just don't bring it up again. I don't want to hear it from you."

      Jeremy nodded. "Fair enough."

      "There," Simon said, pointing. "See the really ugly truck? That's Johnny's. Ergo, that's the house we want."

      "That truck is even uglier than I remember it being," Jeremy said, slotting Simon's Jeep neatly in behind Johnny's ruin of a truck. "That's quite a trick, really."

      Simon freed himself from the seatbelt and slid out of the Jeep before Jeremy could come around to help or interfere. "Yeah, tell me about it," he said. "It's kind of a work of outsider art by this point."

      "Outsider art," Jeremy repeated.

      "Yeah, outsider art," Simon said, as patiently as he could. "What, am I supposed to be too ignorant to have heard of outsider art?"

      "No, no," said Jeremy. "I was registering a general distaste for outsider art in general, not taking a potshot at your education or lack thereof, Simon."

      "Oh. Well. That's fair. Snob."

      "It isn't an insult if it's patently true," Jeremy said with amused patience. The front door opened and Sandra jogged out to meet them, her hand resting lightly on the butt of her gun. Jeremy smiled and went quiet, easing back behind Simon.

      "Hey, boss," Sandra said. "How you doing this morning?"

      "Better, actually," Simon said. "Okay! Enough small talk! Show me the garage."

      Sandra turned halfway around and made a large overhead shooing motion in the general direction of the front door. The curtain in one of the windows twitched closed. "We'll raise the garage door for you, boss," Sandra said, ticking her head towards the driveway and starting towards it. Her hand stayed on the butt of her gun. "Archer? Crime scene. If you get your fingerprints on anything the results will be hilarious."

      "Your concern is duly noted," Jeremy said, ostentatiously sticking his hands in his pants pockets. Simon snorted. The garage door started to rumble up and all three of them unconsciously raised their guard, going taut and still until the garage revealed itself to still be empty.

      Once the door finished raising and went quiet Simon jogged up the driveway to take a look. Nate's battered little compact sat flush on four small pads of tire rubber just barely larger than the footprint of the rims. Farraday had painstakingly cut away as much of the tires as possible and then shredded the pieces into palm-sized chunks and random looping curls, the remnants strewn in a wide arc around the car. "Jesus, this shit must have taken him hours," Simon said, then guiltily glanced towards the door that led into the house.

      "Yeah," Sandra said. "Don't worry, Nate's not here. He and Mike took my car to headquarters to pick up Nate's gear."

      "Small favors," Simon said, relaxing. "Christ, look at this mess. Think Farraday's trying to make a statement?"

      Sandra huffed out a breath. "Statement my ass," she said. "This is a goddamned press release."

      "So how'd he get in?" Simon asked. "That window back there?"

      "Far as we can tell." Sandra started to pick her way carefully around the outer perimeter of the tire fragments. Simon followed. Jeremy, hands still in his pockets, brought up the rear. "It was open just like this when Nate first discovered the damage."

      Simon leaned over to study the open window, jamming his own hands into his pockets to protect the scene. The muscle adhesion on his chest woke up and started baying in pain. He ignored it. "Huh. He jimmy it open?"

      "We don't know," said Sandra, guardedly. "There don't seem to be any pry marks, so it's also possible that Diana Fontaine sneaked out here at some point while she was here and unlocked it for him."

      Simon had to resist the momentary urge to beat his head against the washing machine in frustration. "Christ, of course that's possible. That woman pops up everywhere, doesn't she? Like a, a jack-in-the-box before the fact."

      "She sure does," said Sandra. "Still, that doesn't look like a very strong lock. It's possible he didn't need any help to open it."

      "Well, that, at least, is a question we can settle, seeing as how we have our very own bona-fide expert right here," Simon said, turning around and waving at Jeremy. Jeremy raised an eyebrow, but picked his way the rest of the way over. "Without touching anything," said Simon, "can you give me an idea of how much trouble this lock would be to open?"

      "What lock?" said Jeremy, affecting exasperation. "That isn't a lock, Simon, it's window jewelry. I'd have to see how well the window fits in its frame before I could give you a hard estimate, but I assure you that I could open it from outside in five to thirty seconds without leaving a mark. With a piece of scrap wire."

      "Huh," Simon said. "And someone without your much-vaunted skills?"

      Jeremy shrugged. "Two minutes? Three? If you gave me fifteen minutes I could teach you to do it."

      "Huh," Simon said again. "Well, that answers that, not that I'm liking this answer."

      "If I may," said Jeremy.


      "How tall is this Diana Fontaine?"

      "Christ, I don't know. Average chick height?"

      "A little shorter than I am," said Sandra, shooting a glance at Simon.

      Jeremy nodded. "Is she right-handed?"

      "I don't know," said Simon, "and I don't know what color underwear she was wearing when she was here, either."

      "Damn, and here that was going to be my very next question," Jeremy said. "Let us assume that she's right-handed, for the sake of argument."

      "Okay, I'll buy that," Simon said. "Out with it."

      Jeremy turned on his heel, studying the area. "If she did unlock this window under this Farraday's auspices, I suspect there won't be any fingerprints on the thumb-lock or on the doorknob over there. He'd have warned her against that, and those are the two most obvious things she would realize that she'd touched."

      "Uh, yeah, I think I could have guessed that myself, what with being a professional and all," said Simon.

      "And if she had access to gloves, well, so much for any of this," Jeremy said, smiling a little, as if he were aware of how much this was starting to irritate Simon.

      "Out with it, Archer."

      "But if she didn't—if she was just using a hunk of tissue or somesuch—then there's one place she might very well have touched without realizing."

      "Ouuuuuuut with it."

      Jeremy's smile faded. "If she is a little shorter than Ms. Leone here, then she would have to lean fairly far forward over the clothes washer to get at the lock," he said with no further prevarication. "So it's likely that she put her left hand down somewhere for balance, which means that she spread out her hand here—" he splayed his hand out in the air a couple of inches over the top of the washing machine "—or here—" his hand lifted to hover a couple of inches away from the plaster wall "—or here—" his hand cupped lightly an inch or so over the raised top of the washer's control panel "—and, as she's not a professional criminal, she may not have realized that she was doing so."

      Simon frowned a little, then glanced over at Sandra. "You know, sometimes I could almost like him?"

      Sandra and Jeremy shared a look, then (for no reason that Simon could discern) they both smiled. "What?" Simon said, piqued.

       By the time Dave tore himself away from the laptop's text dump and checked the time, it was nine-thirty, and he was still the only one in the room. Therefore, something was definitely up. He wondered what. He wondered if everyone was okay.

      That sort of stung a little, actually. Despite everything, despite knowing very well that it was too much to expect, he felt a dim stab of hurt that they hadn't even thought to let him know something was going on. He wasn't asking to be brought right into the inner circle, but some sort of notification would have been nice. Too much to expect, but nice.

      Dave sighed. On the other side of the room the coffeemaker burbled a little, as if in answer. He'd conscientiously fetched in the contents of the inbox and started the coffee when he'd arrived, at eight, just like he'd been told to do, and then he, the coffee, and the stack of papers had all sat here keeping each other company for an hour and a half. That coffee had to taste like burnt mud by now. Dave considered dumping it out and making a fresh pot. He wouldn't mind another cup of coffee. Just... not that coffee.

      It wasn't even as if he was getting that much done with all this peace and quiet. Dave scrolled listlessly through the massive file again, his eyes only half-focused, letting the garbage flow past. He'd spent so long working down in the Internet Crime cubicle farm that first he'd taught himself to work despite the constant noise and distractions, and now, apparently, he couldn't work without them.

      Abruptly he shoved his chair back and stood up, his knees both cracking. Dave winced and hobbled out of the crowded lair, heading for the coffeemaker. He'd dump out the old coffee and make some more, and then he'd have another cup, and then whenever the others came back from wherever it was that they'd gone there'd be fresh coffee. Fresher coffee, anyway. "And then maybe they'll love me," he muttered under his breath, turning off the coffeemaker and extracting the pot. The coffeemaker made one final hissing protest and shut down. Dave patted it. "You're the only one who appreciates me, ma'am," he told the coffeemaker, "and apparently I'm having conversations with inanimate objects now, oh my God."

      He gingerly carried the half-full pot of coffee-flavored sludge down the hall to the floor's communal kitchen. It was farther away than the bathroom, but judging by the conversation he'd just tried to have, he seemed to be desperately in need of some human contact. The coffeemaker might have a name (and, apparently, a jealous husband), but it still didn't count.

      The communal kitchen was deserted when he got there, though. So much for that. Dave dumped the goo out into the sink, the stuff demonstrating a slight but real tendency to cling like motor oil to the sides of the pot, and rinsed the pot out. Then again, with soap. Even after two rinses the glass of the pot was still a dingy semi-opaque brown on the bottom, and Dave was frowning at this residue in perplexity when the door opened behind him.

      "Morning," the newcomer said. The greeting was perfunctory but not unfriendly, and after these last two days 'not unfriendly' was like music to Dave's ears.

      "Hi," Dave said, glancing over his shoulder at the other guy and waving the empty pot. "I don't suppose you know how to get this guck out."

      "Eh? I hear vinegar works pretty good," the guy said. "Me, I just drink the communal slop."

      "Really? Huh. I'll keep that in mind," Dave said. "Oh, well." He gave the coffee pot one last useless rinse and filled it with fresh water.

      "Do I know you?" the newcomer asked, sounding only mildly curious. "I don't think I've seen you around. Are you new?"

      Dave opened his mouth to reply and discovered that he had no idea how to answer this question. "Uh. Sort of. I mean, yes, but I don't know if I'm going to stick around. ... I'm here provisionally."

      "Oh." The guy wavered between politeness and a quick exit for a moment, then visibly gave in and stuck out a hand. "I'm Franklin, I'm with Bishop. Nice to meet you."

      "Oh, ah..." Dave switched the coffee pot into his left hand, wiped his right hand dry on his sweater, and shook Franklin's hand. "Dave. For the moment, I'm with Templar." God, it still gave him such a rush to say that.

      Franklin's eyebrows shot up. "Templar? Wow, they're finally replacing Rich? I thought they'd have to force Simon to do it at gunpoiiii-oy-oy-oy." He slapped a hand over his face and laughed ruefully. "Whoa boy, that was tacky of me, wasn't it?"

      Dave winced and laughed a little at the same time. "Maybe a little," he admitted.

      "Don't tell him I said that," Franklin said. "Uh. Anyway." He filled his mug from the large communal coffee pot and headed out, flapping Dave a quick wave over his shoulder. "I gotta get back. Good luck."

      "Thanks?" Dave said, but Franklin was already gone, the door swinging shut behind him. Dave frowned at the door for a moment, unsettled and unable to quite pin down why, then checked the grungy coffee pot one last time and carried it back down to the saferoom.

      "Hey, look who's late!" Mike caroled as Dave pushed the door open. Dave twitched back, startled, then sighed and carried the pot back over to the coffeemaker.

      The clatter in the supply closet momentarily got louder, then died away. Nate stuck his head out. "Oh. Hey."

      "Hi," Dave said. He lifted the coffee pot in an awkward salute. "I was just making some more coffee..."

      "Wow, you drank a whole pot by yourself? Simon's going to make you start chipping in extra," Nate said. He gingerly edged out of the closet, a large industrial-gray box in both hands, and kicked the closet door closed behind him.

      "Well, no, but it had been sitting there for so long it had gone all sludgy." Dave dumped the wet filter and used grounds into the trash and replaced them. "So I thought I'd, you know, make some fresh stuff."

      "You threw out coffee?" Nate said, startled. "Man, don't tell Simon, he'll have a cow."

      Mike snickered. "Yeah, real men like scorched coffee sludge."

      "Simon probably does," Nate said gloomily. "He likes to tell people how he used to eat instant coffee crystals straight from the jar on stakeout." Nate shuddered. "Why he doesn't have an ulcer by now I'll never know."

      "He probably does and is too damn manly to cater to it," Mike said. "You just about ready, Specs?"

      "Yeah, I got it," Nate said. "Let's go."

      "Um," said Dave.

      Nate stopped. "What?"

      "What's going on?" Dave asked hopelessly. "Where is everyone? Is everyone okay?"

      "... oh," said Nate, coloring a little. "That's right, no one probably told you. Uh."

      "Farraday's been busy," Mike said, overriding whatever it was that Nate had been just about to say. "We're going back to document the crime scene. You can probably just stay here, this ain't a job for the computer."

      Dave nodded, looking away. "But everyone's okay, right?"

      "Yeah," said Mike, after a moment. "Yeah, no one's hurt."

      "Good." Dave let out his breath. "Okay. I, I'll see you later, then."

      "Yeah, later," Mike said, pulling open the saferoom door and hustling Nate out. Nate waved at Dave over Mike's shoulder just before the door boomed shut behind them.

      Dave stared after them, adrift and maybe a little forlorn. A moment later someone pounded on the wall beside him, and Dave leaped away from the wall so fast that he stumbled when he landed and nearly fell flat on his ass. "Stop slamming the fucking door already!" whoever it was bellowed. Dave gaped at the wall, wondering if he should apologize or what. In the end he just crept back into the lair, trying to place his feet lightly, just in case.

      The mystery person didn't shout again. Silence fell, punctuated only by the soft bubbling hiss of the coffeemaker. Dave pulled up the massive text file and got back to work, halfheartedly at first. It was just so quiet. He kept getting distracted from his work by every little footstep from outside. Maybe he ought to bring in some headphones or something... of course, that wasn't going to help him right now.

      The text file spat up half a page of code, rendered nearly into gibberish by the mangling of its spacing. Dave copied it into another text file and reinserted as much of the spacing as he could. The code resolved. Dave scowled at it. Neat, yes, decently tight, but completely undocumented, how did he know that it was going to be completely undocumented? And these variable names were just... strange. Two years in Internet Crime had taught Dave that you could learn a lot about a man by looking at what he named his variables, a thought that was so incredibly nerdy that he felt socially inept just for having it. Well. More socially inept.

      The coffeemaker beeped and shut off. Dave jumped, startled. His knee hit the underside of the keyboard tray, which rattled in protest. Dave winced. His first impulse was to apologize to the keyboard tray, which was a completely stupid idea but also, he had to admit, par for the course for today. His second, more suspicious impulse was to lift up the keyboard and hit the now-empty tray with his knee again. It still rattled.

      Frowning, Dave put the keyboard back down and looked around, thinking very fast. It was a ridiculous idea, he told himself. However, everything about this day had been ridiculous—screw that, everything about this week had been ridiculous. And furthermore, he might as well admit to himself that he wasn't going to be staying here. They didn't want him here, and they'd made that abundantly clear. So... he had nothing to lose and everything to gain by being ridiculous. Right? Right.

      The impulse drove him out of his chair in a bound and he threw open the door to Nate's supply closet before he could think better of it.

      "You know, I totally forgot about him," Nate said, trotting to keep up with Mike as Mike headed for the motor-pool garage. The big gray box bounced off his thighs with every step, its contents rattling. "I guess someone should have called to let him know we'd be late."

      "What for?" Mike said. "He's got his own job to do, right?"

      "Well, yeah, I guess." Nate fell a few steps behind, hitching up the box again. "It's just... if it were me I'd want to know what happened even if it didn't directly involve me, you know?"

      "Yeah, well, tell you the truth, I don't really care what he wants, Specs." Mike spun and swooped down on Nate, yanking the box out of his grip. "Here, gimme that. You know, you really ought to get a box with a handle on top or something."

      "I know," Nate said grumpily, falling into step with Mike again, still hurrying a little. "I keep meaning to."

      Carrying the box Mike slammed through the doors into the massive lobby of the main building, which was nearly deserted at this hour, all the good little drones hard at work. The rubber soles of his sneakers made little squeaky sounds on the polished stone floor; Mike grinned a little and started dragging his heels. The resulting cacophony shrieked off the high ceiling and made Nate hunch his shoulders and go a little pink. "Lighten up, Specs," Mike sang, slapping Nate on the shoulder hard enough to make him stumble. "Ain't no one here but us."

      "It's still loud," Nate mumbled.

      "What?" Mike yelled, now enjoying this entirely too much.

      Sure enough, Nate turtled up, tucking his chin into the high collar of his sweater, mortally embarrassed. "Quit it," he yelled back.

      "Awww, okay," Mike said. He got off one last excellent screech and then stopped. After a few seconds Nate un-turtled himself, his blush starting to fade, which would normally have been Mike's cue to start again, except they were already at the door that led into the garage. Mike contented himself with one last tiny squeak and Nate's resulting twitch.

      The van was parked over by the mechanics' work station, close to the exit ramp. As they got close, their footsteps echoing dully inside the huge concrete space, three heads popped curiously up from inside the work bays, followed shortly by a fourth. Nate waved. After a moment, one of the mechanics waved back, and one by one they disappeared again. "Man, it's just like playin' whack-a-mole or some shit," Mike said, fishing the van keys out of his pocket. He unlocked the back door of the van and put the gray box down on the bare metal floor.

      "Aw, c'mon, don't be rude, I have to work with those guys sometimes," Nate said, leaning past Mike to push the box under one of the consoles. After a moment he frowned and crawled in after it, grabbing for one of the tiedown straps.

      Leaving him to it Mike loped around and let himself into the van, leaning over to unlock the passenger-side door. Nate was still fussing around in the back of the van, so Mike settled in, got nice and comfortable, and shut his eyes. "Any day now, Specs," he said.

      "Just a sec," Nate muttered, probably not listening to him at all. Mike considered this for a moment, gave Nate five more seconds, and then hit the horn. The resounding WHONK! boomed off the concrete walls and summoned, like magic, the heads of all four of the mechanics; Nate let out a little shriek and jumped so hard that the van shook when he landed. "Oh crap don't do that!" he cried, all in one panicky little breath.

      Mike grinned a little. "Sorry."

      Nate sighed and finished tying down the box, scrambling out of the back of the van and shutting the back doors. By the time he'd gotten around to the passenger side Mike had belatedly remembered that oh, yeah, maybe Nate had a little reason to be jumpy this morning, and his grin had deflated. "Sorry," he said again, trying for a bit more sincerity this time.

      "It's okay," Nate said. He sounded kind of tired. "Let's just go, huh?"

      Sandra was sitting out on the front porch steps when Mike pulled the van up behind Johnny's truck. In an eerie echo of Nate's 'sleepiest little serial killer' pose, she was armed; Sandra kept her gun half-hidden in her lap, though, which wasn't nearly so cute. Mike stopped the van. Sandra stood up and shoved her gun back into its holster, waiting for them.

      "Get everything you need?" she asked Nate as he trundled up the front walk towards her.

      "Yeah," Nate said, hitching up the box again. "I'll need half an hour, forty-five minutes."

      Sandra nodded. "Johnny's out in the garage, keeping an eye on things. And as you can probably tell by the presence of the Jeep, Simon's here, which surprises no one."

      "Yo, Sandy," Mike said, jogging up behind Nate. She glanced at him. He tossed her her keys, which she caught. "It's over in the side lot, kinda near the fence. Guess everybody beat us to the good parking this morning."

      Sandra tucked her keys into her jeans pocket. "Great. Thanks. Anything else?"

      Nate cleared his throat. "Uh, the new guy was asking where we were."

      "The new—" Sandra slapped her forehead. "I completely forgot to let him know we'd be out, didn't I?" she said, massaging her temples.

      "Yeah," said Nate. "I mean, it's not important, I guess, but..."

      "But I still should have called the switchboard and asked them to pass on a message or something," said Sandra. "Shit. I should really get his cell number."

      "Anyway, we let him know that everyone was okay and that he didn't need to worry or anything." Nate hefted the box again. "Can I...?"

      "Oh, sure, go on," Sandra said, stepping out of his way and waving him on towards the house. "Talk to Archer before you get started. He had a couple of ideas about where to dust for prints besides the obvious."

      "To Archer? Uh. Okay." Nate edged past Sandra and headed on up the front walk, the box rattling. Someone opened the door before he got to it, and Nate smiled and said something that neither Mike nor Sandra heard before easing on into the house.

      They stood there for a little, keeping a desultory eye on the house and the street, just in case. The wind picked up and rattled the dry leaves in Nate's front yard. A cloud scudded across the sun. Mike thought he could sort of smell incoming rain.

      "Seems like you've kind of become the go-to guy for Diana Fontaine," Sandra said after a while, crossing her arms and watching the street over Mike's shoulder. "I'd appreciate it if you'd come up with some excuse to call her here in a minute. Find out if she's okay without letting on what's up."

      "Sure, no problem," said Mike. "Don't even need an excuse, really. I was gonna go run her to the drugstore at lunch, since she doesn't have a car or anything. I can just call and say yo, I'll be there around eleven. ... you think eleven?"

      "Yeah, we should be done here by then." Sandra didn't say anything else for a long while.

      Mike stuck his hands in his pockets and kicked at the dead leaves by his feet. "Guess I gotta do it in the van. I was gonna use Nate's car, but... yeah, that ain't happening."

      "Guess so," Sandra said absently. "Careful she doesn't wire it up in your absence."

      "Yeah, 'cause she totally carries a car bomb and a bug around in her knockoff designer purse."

      The garage door rattled up and they both glanced in that direction, Mike's hand creeping in under his jacket, just in case. Nate appeared for just a second, waved to them, and then crouched down, vanishing from sight behind the hedge. "Taking her to the drugstore," Sandra said musingly.

      "Yeah." Mike shrugged. "She kinda left her place with nothing, you know?"

      Sandra nodded. "Guess she did." She went quiet again.

      Mike bore the silence for just about as long as he could. "Plus she's kind of a Farraday magnet right now, you know? So I figure I wanna stick with her in public, just in case."

      "Just in case... what?" Sandra glanced at him.

      "In case he shows his ugly mug? Duh."

      "Well, yes, duh," Sandra echoed at him, reaching up to push her hair back behind her ear. "But why?"

      And that made so little sense that Mike gaped at her, his mouth falling open. "Because if he shows his face, I can, I dunno, arrest him?"

      "Is that why?" Sandra said, her voice going all taut and abrupt. "Is it because you want to arrest Farraday, or because you want to protect Diana Fontaine?"

      The light dawned. "Ohhhh," Mike said, beaming. "I get it."

      "Get what?"

      "I-I-I get it," Mike said. "You? You are totally jealous."

      Sandra's eyes narrowed, her mouth snapping shut with a little click. Unable to resist despite his sense of imminent doom, Mike did a little butt-wiggling dance right out on the front lawn in front of God and everybody. "San-dy's jea-lous," he sang.

      "I'm not jealous!" Sandra snapped, slapping him away before he could actually hipcheck her. "I'm just worried that you're getting a little too personally involved. As far as we know the lady is an accessory before the fact and I worry that you're losing sight of that!"

      "Awwww, c'mon, admit it!" Mike looped an arm around her shoulders and gave her a half-assed hug. "You totally want me! It's okay, you can admit it, I won't laugh at you or nothin'." Sandra immediately elbowed him in the gut, hard enough to knock the wind right out of him. Mike doubled up, wheezing and completely victorious. "Oh, baby, you know I like it rough," he gasped, when he could, and doubled back up with a frantic case of snickering.

      "Mike, I'm serious," Sandra said, sounding strained.

      "Yeah, I know," Mike said. He stifled his laughter as best he could, but he couldn't quite erase the grin entirely. "I got as much dick as the next man—hell, twice as much, you wanted to know—but I'm not blinded by it or anything. I'm totally on top of it, you know?"

      "As long as you're not on top of her," Sandra shot right back, which set Mike off again. After a moment he just gave up and collapsed onto the ground entirely, whooping. Sandra rolled her eyes (fondly, Mike thought) and nudged him in the ribs with her toe. "Get up, idiot, you're getting dead leaves in your hair."

      "Yeah, yeah," Mike said, flopping out at her feet. "I'm okay, though. For serious. It's just that, well, shit, maybe she's just a great actor or something but she really does seem scared, you know? I'm not taking her side or anything. I'm just trying to keep an open mind about things. Trying to keep everybody from just automatically assuming that she's guilty."

      "I suppose so," Sandra said. She glanced around and then stared resolutely out across the street, ignoring Mike as best she could. "For all we know she's helping him because she's so scared of him. We don't know anything. I just want you to be careful and not assume too much yourself."

      "I'm not stupid, yo," Mike said, with just the faintest flare of resentment.

      "I never said you were," Sandra said, sighing. "I don't think you're stupid. A little careless sometimes, but never stupid."

      "You better watch it," Mike said matter-of-factly, reaching over to untie her sneaker since it was right there and all. "I might start thinking you care or some shit."

      Sandra jerked her foot back out of Mike's grip and then kicked him in the ribs. It hurt, but it made him feel a little better, like things were finally getting back to normal.

      Eventually Sandra left him there and went over to see how things were going in the garage. Not bothering to get up—the lawn was surprisingly comfortable, really—Mike pulled his cell phone off his belt and called Diana Fontaine's hotel room. The phone rang twice before she answered. "Hello?" she said, nervously.

      "Yo, lawyer lady," said Mike, half-shutting his eyes against the light of the sun. "Just wanted to let you know that I should be by around eleven, maybe a little later. That gonna be okay?"

      "Oh! Oh, yes, that's fine," Diana said. Was her voice a little warmer? Mike decided he couldn't tell. Trick of the connection, probably. "I'll be ready then."

      Mike picked a stubborn leaf out of his hair and stared at it, spinning it in his fingers. "Awesome. You need anything while you got me on the line? Speak up, you got my undivided attention."

      "I-I can't think of anything," she said, with a hesitant little laugh. "I'll see you at eleven?"

      "Yep. We'll get lunch or something, too. Hell, I'll even treat, 'cause I'm such a nice guy and all. Think about where you'd like to go, okay?"

      "Oh... okay." She hesitated. "Thank you."

      "Sure, any time. See you later." Mike folded the phone away and stuck it back in its clip, then tucked both hands under his head and grinned up at the pale October sun. Man. He was just all kinds of ladies' man today, apparently.

      A little gang of plastic evidence bags huddled together to one side of the garage door, each one containing a chunk of black rubber from one of Nate's ex-tires. Sandra paused in the doorway and surveyed the damage, frowning; Farraday had been so particular and so... compulsive about the placement of the tire bits that Sandra could clearly see the little gaps in the arrangement where Nate had selected his samples.

      Nate was in the very back of the garage, wearing a face mask, rapt with concentration over the washing machine. Johnny was sitting on the steps that led up from the garage into the house proper, watching Nate work. His gun lay beside him on the third step up, turned at just the right angle that he could drop a hand onto it without looking.

      Sandra picked her way through what remained of the rubber mosaic again. "Look at this shit," she said, once she was close enough. "I wonder if he went OCD in prison."

      "Wouldn't surprise me," Johnny said. "Don't expect that prison makes people go right in the head."

      "If so, I wish he'd developed a more classic strain of OCD," Sandra said. Johnny shuffled his feet obligingly out of the way and Sandra claimed a step for her own. "If Farraday spent all his time compulsively washing his hands and double-checking to make sure that the door was locked, he'd spend a lot less time making our lives hell."

      Johnny snorted in agreement. "Maybe it's art."

      "Art," Sandra repeated. "Right."

      "Could be," Johnny said, shrugging. "Crazier things are."

      Sandra checked the driveway one last time and then succumbed to the overwhelming need to shut her eyes. She could hear Johnny breathing beside her and, behind him, the faint squeak of Nate labeling an evidence bag with a marker. "What do you know about art anyway, Texas?"

      "Took a class once."

      "... an art class?"

      "Art history."

      Sandra opened her eyes. "Really?"


      "You're not shitting me?"

      "Nope." Johnny remained inscrutable. "Got like fifty hours of college credit before I went into the academy."

      "I learn something new every day," said Sandra. "What else? Take any philosophy?"

      "Not so's you'd notice."

      A flicker of motion from the driveway caught Sandra's attention and she glanced in that direction. Mike was ambling around out there now, keeping an eye on the street. He also still had a leaf stuck in his hair. She shook her head in resignation. "Simon inside?"

      "Yep. Archer's with him, case he starts bleedin' on things."

      Sandra shut her eyes again. "Good," she said. "He seems a little better, though."

      "Yep," said Johnny. "Guess havin' Archer around is good for him or something." Sandra glanced at Johnny, startled. Johnny shrugged. "Think those two get on better than Templar lets on, that's all."

      Sandra breathed again. "That's probably true," she said.

      "'Sides, if I'm wrong, maybe Templar's getting better in a hurry just to get rid of him," Johnny concluded. "Find anything?" Sandra was momentarily nonplussed until she realized that Johnny was speaking to Nate and not to her.

      "Well, yes," Nate said, his voice muffled by the surgical mask he was wearing. "I've got tons of decent latent prints, very clear. The only problem is that I have to match and discard any fingerprints left by me or Mom—I have to go fingerprint my mother, I'm really looking forward to that, I'm telling you."

      Sandra ducked her head, trying not to smile. Beside her, she heard Johnny struggle not to laugh and almost, almost lose. "So," Sandra said, coughing, "was anything wiped clean?"

      "No," Nate said, glancing back at the open window, now smoky with silvery powder. "That doesn't mean the lock wasn't manipulated with gloves or something, but it wasn't cleaned afterwards."

      "In other words, right now we've got a whole lot of nothing," Sandra concluded.

      "Well, no." Nate stripped off his gloves, then tugged down the mask to hang discarded about his throat. "We've got a whole lot of stuff, it just might mean nothing."

      "Whole lot of nothing," Johnny said.

      Nate sighed. "Yeah."

      Sandra looked around the garage. "So can we start cleaning this mess up now?"

      "Uh? I guess?" Nate said tentatively. "I've got everything I need, I think. I just have to run all this stuff out to the van, but you guys really don't have to help—"

      "But we're going to," Sandra decreed, standing up and dusting her palms off against her thighs. "Where do you keep the cleaning stuff?"

      Nate blanched slightly. "Um. Under the kitchen sink and, uh, in the little closet by the fridge, mostly."

      "Right," said Sandra, easing past Johnny. Nate yelped a warning and Sandra twitched her hand back, just a second too late; her hand came away from the doorknob coated from one end to the other with gray powder. Sandra eyed her smeared hand askance, then shook her head. "It'll wash off," she said, grabbing the doorknob again.

      Simon was in the kitchen when Sandra let herself in, lounging against one of the counters with his arms folded loosely over his chest. He almost looked normal, like nothing at all was wrong, except that his folded arms hung a little crookedly to avoid putting too much pressure on the left side of his chest. "How's it going?" he asked.

      "Nate's done," Sandra informed him, heading for the sink. "Where's Archer?"

      "Behind you," Simon said, nodding at the doorway that led into the dining room. Sandra glanced over her shoulder. Jeremy, leaning in the doorway, raised a hand in greeting. "Watch out," Simon added, his voice a little sour.

      "Yes, I am horribly prone to sneaking up behind people and coshing them over the head for no good reason," said Jeremy equably. "A flaw of my English upbringing, as Simon would undoubtedly say. What is that on your hand?"

      "Fingerprinting powder," Sandra said, washing it off. "I forgot that Nate did the doorknob before I grabbed it."


      "Anyway," said Sandra, grabbing the towel on the fridge and drying her hands. "I'm going to see about getting the garage at least halfway cleaned up before we go. Boss, you want to maybe see about calling Nate a tow? He's going to need a flatbed, with all four tires down to rims."

      "Good idea," said Simon. "He got Triple A, do you know?"

      "No clue." Sandra leaned back and shouted out of the open door. "Nate, you got Triple A?"

      "AARP!" Nate called back.

      Sandra straightened up and frowned. "AARP? Why does he have AARP? He's not even thirty."

      Nate appeared in the doorway, the crook of his arm filled with bags. "It's Mom's," he said sheepishly.

      "AARP?" Jeremy asked, curiously.

      Nate went a little red. "American Association of Retired Persons," he muttered.

      Jeremy's face went blank. "Ah."

      "Anyway," Sandra said, and dove into the cabinets under the sink with their neat rows upon rows of cleaning products.

      "I'll call them for you, Specs," Simon said, unfolding from his place by the cabinets and heading for the phone. "If they won't send out a flatbed I'll find someone who will. You go get that stuff squared away—that's a priority."

      "Uh. Right." Nate put the bags down on the kitchen counter and fetched out his wallet, producing a gray card, which he handed to Simon. Simon took it, studied it, shrugged, and picked up the phone. Nate went pink and picked up all his little bags again.

      Cleanser and paper towels in one hand, Sandra opened the closet by the fridge and was confronted by the neatest display of brooms and mops that she'd ever personally seen. Everything had its own hook. Its own labeled hook. She was starting to see why Nate had gone a little green at the thought of someone else messing around in here: one thing in the wrong place would probably make Nate's mother have an episode. Now she knew where Nate got it. Sandra shook her head and fetched out the biggest broom, sticking it under her arm long enough to pluck a big metal dustpan off its labeled nail.

      She went back out into the garage. "Here," she told Johnny, punching him not-exactly-lightly in the chest with the hand holding the broom. Johnny grabbed the broom in both hands, mostly to keep it from falling; keeping a completely straight face (with an effort) Sandra handed him the dustpan. "Get those tire pieces up, will you? I'm going to see what I can do about this powder."

      Johnny held the broom gingerly, eyeing it askance. Eventually he shrugged and silently carried it off.

      Sandra watched him go, then pulled off a paper towel and prepared to confront the silvery-gray powdery horror of the washer and dryer. Behind her Mike whooped with glee, a sure sign that he'd spotted Johnny wielding the broom. Sandra pulled the window shut at last, turning the thumb lock before resolutely swiping a wide clean stripe across the window's surface.

      By the time the tow truck arrived, the garage was, if not clean, at least no longer obviously the scene of a crime. Sandra was hot, sweaty, cranky, and covered from tits to knees with a light dusting of gray powder that no amount of slapping or brushing seemed likely to remove, but at least Nate was in the same predicament (except without the tits). Of course, Nate just had to go upstairs and change. Sandra figured that she was probably stuck for the rest of the day.

      They stood around in a loose semicircle silently watching the guys do their thing. Mercifully, the truck people didn't seem inclined to ask for explanations, just tilted the truck's bed back and hauled out the chains. "You're probably gonna have to buy all new rims," one of them informed Nate. "I mean, look here, they've kinda dented in just by sittin' here. Car's too heavy for 'em."

      Nate nodded bleakly. "I saw."

      "Okay, then," he said. "Put her in neutral for me."

      Nate leaned into the car and threw it into neutral, then backed out. The guy handling the chains yelled to the driver, who turned on the winch. The chains lifted off the ground and tightened, the metal links clinking against each other. Nate's dented little car hitched slightly and started to ease backwards, off the little pads of rubber.

      Sandra braced herself for it, but she still wasn't quite ready for the sound of Nate's bare rims lurching onto the concrete. She winced. They all did. The grinding noise was awful. Slowly the car backed up onto the tilted flatbed, grinding and squealing all the way; as soon as it was halfway on Johnny moved expressionlessly behind it, picking up the bits of tire that the front wheels had been resting on and carrying them to the trash.

      The car looked even sadder once it was perched up on the flatbed truck out in view of everyone, riding low on its battered rims. Nate went to hand over his keys and sign things; now that the opportunity for rubbernecking was over the rest of them drew away, gathering up in a group at the back of the garage. "Anything else we need to do while we're here?" Simon asked, glancing around.

      "We'll need to check with Nate, but I don't think so," said Sandra. "He should probably go shower and change—" she slapped at the gray powder on her own shirt for emphasis "—but after that, I think we're done here."

      Simon nodded. "Very nice," he told Sandra. "Fashion-forward. The look suits you."

      "Are you kidding?" Sandra asked. "There are maybe three people in the whole world who look good in straight gray, and boy, I'm not one of them."

      "I've never liked gray myself," said Jeremy, his voice oddly pointed. He looked as if he were trying not to smile. Simon shot him a disgusted look for some reason and dropped it.

      The tow truck's engine started up, almost deafeningly loud, and they all glanced in that direction. Nate retreated, joining the group. "I think that's it," he said. "I just need to go get my bag from upstairs."

      "Go get it," Simon said. "And change, while you're at it."

      Nate looked down at himself, then laughed shakily and plucked at his dusty shirt. "Oh, man. I hadn't even noticed."

      "Go on," said Simon, patting Nate gingerly on the shoulder. Unsurprisingly, his hand came away gray; he rolled his eyes and wiped it off against the back of Nate's shirt, provoking a round of tired laughter from the others. The truck finished pulling out of the driveway and trundled off down the street. Nate watched his car go, then hit the button to close the garage door.

      "Okay," said Nate, thumping back down the stairs with a duffel bag in his hand. His hair was wet again, but he was clean and changed; the circles under his eyes were the only sign of his recent scare.

      "Right," said Simon, knocking his knuckles on the wall he was leaning against. "Gather 'round, folks. Word before we go." There wasn't much gathering around to do, since they were all in the living room, but they drew closer together, in a ring around Simon. "Right," he said. "I'm thinking lunchtime. We've only got three cars, but one of them is the van, so we've got plenty of transportation—"

      "Uh," said Mike, bouncing his own duffel absently against his knees.

      Simon looked at him. "Honda?"

      "I'm gonna have to split in the van," Mike said apologetically. "I kinda promised Diana Fontaine that I'd come get her during lunch, and after this I wanna go check on her anyway. You know?"

      Simon opened his mouth to protest, so Sandra quickly stepped in. "I told him to go ahead and do it," she said, uncomfortably aware of Simon's eyes snapping back to her. "Nate can ride with you and I'll ride with Johnny. And frankly, I'd feel more comfortable if someone checked on Ms. Fontaine anyway."

      "She left home with pretty much nothing," Mike said, jumping in after her. "Nate's mom made sure she had clothes and stuff, but she needs to go to a drugstore, that kind of thing. I was gonna borrow Nate's car and do it, but, uh, so much for that, huh?"

      "Yeah, all right," said Simon, visibly giving in. "Be careful. Don't take your eyes off her for a second, don't let her tell you where to go beyond generalities, don't let her make any calls, and don't tell her anything about this morning. But keep your ears open. If she mentions anything that she shouldn't know about, I expect you to recognize it and to bring that information back to us, okay?"

      "Hokay, chief," said Mike.

      Simon nodded, curtly, and then looked back at the rest of them. "Lunch," he said. "And I think this afternoon we gotta meet."

      "I couldn't agree more," said Sandra. "Nate, is everything locked up?"

      "As locked as it's going to get," Nate said with a little flicker of unhappy smile. "Can we go?"

      "Yeah," said Sandra. "Let's go."

      "Yeah, I guess we're done," Simon said, almost at the same moment. "Onwards." Sandra glanced at him. He wasn't looking at her at all. Rather, he was gingerly herding people towards the front door, his left arm pulled slightly in against his side. Sandra repressed a sigh and followed him.

      "You got any thoughts on lunch?" Johnny asked once Sandra was comfortably ensconced in his passenger seat.

      Sandra dropped her purse between her feet and slid bonelessly down until the base of her skull rested against the seat. "I don't care," she said, flapping a hand at the windshield. "Anywhere's good."

      Johnny grunted and sat for a moment, deep in thought. The Jeep pulled out from behind them and headed down the street at an unusually sedate pace, Jeremy at the wheel. Sandra closed her eyes. "Wherever they're not going," she amended.

      "Yeah," Johnny said, surprising her. He was doing a lot of that today. His truck started with its usual choking roar and Johnny turned it around, heading down Nate's street in the opposite direction. "Italian?"

      "Carbohydrates would be greatly appreciated," Sandra said, sitting up long enough to watch Nate's house dwindle in the rearview mirror. Johnny grunted, and they went the rest of the way to lunch without another word.

      Johnny would be just about the first to admit that he didn't much need nor appreciate small talk over his food, but there was small talk and then there was any talk at all, and Sandra ate her lunch in tired, angry silence. Johnny figured he couldn't so much blame her for that, but it still made things kind of awkward.

      For his part he ate mechanically, his mind on other things. He'd never been so much for worrying about things before they happened—that was Simon's job, and Sandra's—but it didn't mean that he couldn't see things coming, sometimes. This afternoon wasn't going to be fun. Least he wasn't likely to get dragged into it, cowardly as that thought was.

      Sandra didn't even fight him for the check. Usually she wasn't above defending her right to pay by punching someone. Not that Johnny minded paying, but he kind of wished she'd at least fuss at him about it. As it was, Sandra only blinked her way out of her weird angry trance when the server brought Johnny's card back. "Ready to go?" she asked.

      "Yeah," said Johnny, signing the bill and sticking his wallet back in his pocket. "Anywhere else we need to go before we head back to base?"

      Sandra sighed and eased her way out of the booth, standing up. "I don't think so," she said. "Let's just go."

      "Right," Johnny said.

      Sandra slumped down in her seat and closed her eyes before Johnny could so much as back the truck out of its spot. He'd have sworn that she slept on the way back, except that she never stopped frowning.

      The van was parked over by the side door when they got back, but there was no sign of Simon's Jeep, which made Johnny breathe a little easier, much as he hated to admit it. Johnny parked over by the van. Sandra sat up, rubbing the back of her neck. It made little crackling sounds, and she winced.

      "Right," she said. "Where's my—ah." Johnny squinted in the same direction. Her car was parked over by the fence, surrounded by empty spots. "It'll be fine there unless Farraday decides to shoot out my tires, too," Sandra said sourly.

      "Could do," Johnny said. "Man's rackin' up those automobile assaults."

      "God, don't say that. What's his tire count now, twelve?" Sandra picked her purse up off the truck's floorboards and popped it open, fishing out her keys. "I suppose it wouldn't hurt to move it now, while everybody's at lunch."

      "Probably not," Johnny agreed. "Want me to come with?"

      Sandra started to shake her head and then stopped. "That's probably not necessary," she said carefully, "but I think I'd appreciate it if you waited here for me."

      "That I can do," Johnny said, opening his door. He went around the front of his truck and leaned against the front bumper, as an afterthought unsnapping the safety strap on his holster, just in case. The passenger-side door slammed shut, after a moment, and Sandra headed for her car, her own gun in her hand.

      Johnny wasn't precisely holding his breath, although he was keeping his eyes open. There weren't any bushes or trees along the line of the fence because of potential incidents just like this one, and there was nowhere within about fifty feet of the fence where Farraday could conceivably be hiding. Of course, if he still had that rifle, then all bets were off, but Johnny's gut told him that Farraday was done for the day. He'd know that they were all riled up right now. Man wasn't stupid, which was the whole problem with him.

      Sandra reached her car. Johnny sighed out a breath between his teeth. Once Sandra had her car started and was trundling towards him, Johnny straightened up and restrapped his gun, still scanning the line of the fence, just in case.

      Sandra parked on the other side of the van and got out, joining Johnny by his truck. "Well, that was exciting," she said.

      "Yep," said Johnny. "Heart's still pounding."

      Sandra made a sound like a laugh and headed for the building, Johnny ambling in her wake. "I hate this," she said, out of nowhere. "All this useless paranoia."

      Johnny shrugged. "Might not be useless."

      "I suppose not," Sandra said, sighing. "It doesn't feel like it helps, though."

      Johnny, not really having an answer for that, just grunted. Sandra swiped her card through the reader, letting them both into the building. "And if it's not Farraday, it's another thing," she said.

      "Templar," Johnny said.

      Sandra squeezed her eyes shut, shaking her head. She was nearly charging down the hall, and Johnny was a little hard-pressed to keep up. "I hate even thinking that," she said. "I can't exactly blame him for wanting to come back to work. And it's not like I didn't see this coming, either, he's always been damned near impossible to sideline."

      "Yeah," said Johnny.

      "Do you have any idea how disloyal it feels to even think things like 'the attack on Nate is all the excuse he needs'?" Sandra asked, throwing up her hands in defeat. "I wouldn't even mind handing the team back over, but it's my neck on the line until Upstairs officially gives Simon permission to come back to work, which won't be for a week yet, and in the meantime he's second-guessing everything I do!" Exasperated, she wrenched the saferoom door open. "I swear, it's just about the last str—what the hell?"

      She stopped dead in the doorway. Johnny, who hadn't been expecting her to stop, nearly plowed into her. He slid to one side and looked over her shoulder. His first thought was, of course, what's Mike done now? His second thought was someone set off a bomb in here?

      Mike, however, was sitting innocent and bemused at the conference table, more or less hiding behind his laptop. He lifted a hand and wiggled his fingers at Sandra in greeting, but he didn't say anything. Maybe he didn't dare.

      The spiral of destruction radiated outwards not from Mike but from Rich's computer lair. Or what was left of it. Rich's three computers were in pieces—and not only the computers. Both monitors, the industrial shredder, both printers, the scanner, all the detritus, both his desks, everything had been taken apart and spread out across the floor. The mess even spilled over onto the conference table. The new guy knelt in the eye of the storm, one of Nate's screwdrivers in one hand, one of Rich's power strips in the other. He looked pretty sheepish about it, but that weird light was on in his eyes again. "Uh," he said. "Hi."

      "What is this mess—what are you doing?" Sandra said, finally picking her way gingerly into the room. Her voice went a little shrill. Johnny winced and followed her.

      In answer, the new guy—what was his name again, Dave?—twisted halfway around and picked a little pile of things up, fanning them out in front of his face: unlabeled gold CDs like Rich used to use, three of them, in little plastic sleeves trailing tape. "I found these," he said, his voice full of barely-controlled excitement. "He had them stashed inside things."

      Sandra went still. "What? Who?"

      "Mr. Story," Dave said impatiently. He plucked the middle CD out of the fan like he was picking a card, any card. "I hit the keyboard tray with my knee and it must have knocked this one loose, he'd taken the tray apart and put the CD inside, I'd never have found it if the tape hadn't given way—"

      "So... what's on it?" Sandra asked.

      "I don't even know!" Dave said happily. "I haven't had time to look yet!"

      "I see." Sandra put a hand over her face and took a deep breath. Then another. "All right," she finally said. "All right, Mr. Brassoff, that's... that's really good work, actually, and I'm impressed, but..."

      "I'm sorry about the mess," Dave said, putting the CDs back down. "I promise I'll put everything back together before I leave tonight."

      "Yeah," said Sandra, letting her hand drop. "Do you think we could shuffle some of this stuff into the mat room, at least? We all have to work in here."

      "Um," Dave said.

      "Ain't gonna work," Johnny said. "Mat room's full."

      "What?" said Sandra. She was sounding more lost by the second.

      Johnny couldn't help but feel sorry for her. "Mat room's full," he repeated, jerking a thumb over his shoulder.

      Sandra gingerly picked her way through the minefield to join Johnny at the door to the mat room, and they both surveyed the carnage. Johnny was damn near awed. All those old dead doodads that had been cluttering up the back of Nate's supply closet had been dragged out, dissected, and left in neat little piles. "Oh, God," Sandra finally said, very quietly.

      "He was in Nate's closet," Johnny said, just as quietly. "Took stuff out of Nate's closet."

      "Oh, God, I didn't even think of that part," Sandra said, clinging to the doorframe for support. "I was more 'oh God'ing because Simon is going to see this, but now that you mention it... oh God."

      "Yeah," said Johnny. He whistled, long and low. "Hell of a mess."

      "Simon's going to pop a stitch," Sandra said. Johnny couldn't quite tell if what he was hearing was dread or anticipation.

      "Yeah, well," Johnny said, glancing back towards the door, "whatever he's gonna do, he's about to do it."

      Sandra twitched and leaned back out of the mat room, listening to the incoming footsteps. "Oh, God," she said one final time.

      Johnny frowned, then started sidling back towards the main door, as fast as he could go. "'Scuse me," he said. "Figure a little interference is called for—" and he pulled the door open.

      Simon nearly lurched right into him, and Johnny's hands both flew up in case he needed to catch him. Fortunately, Simon righted himself, and Johnny dropped his hands. "Whoops, sorry, Texas," Simon said. "'Scuse me."

      Johnny put up a hand again, blocking him. "Uh."

      Simon stopped, confused. "What?"

      "Been a bit of a development in Rich's thing," Johnny said.

      "Okay," Simon said tentatively. His initial look of confusion was fading to suspicion.

      "Good development," Johnny clarified.

      "Ohhh-kay," Simon said, dragging it out patiently. "Is that why I can't come in?"

      "Came with a bit of collateral damage," Johnny said.

      "Oh boy, I just love collateral damage," said Simon. "Am I sufficiently warned now?"

      Johnny glanced back over his shoulder, then shook his head. "Ain't no warning sufficient for this," he said, and stepped back, letting Simon and the others look their fill.

      Now it was Simon's turn to stop dead in the doorway, with Nate gawking behind him. "Jesus Christ," Simon finally said, shocked.

      "Someone set us up the bomb," Nate said, apparently in agreement. Then he winced. "I can't believe I actually said that."

      "Hi," Dave said, mostly unnecessarily.

      "I know I'm going to regret asking this," said Simon, "but what the hell do you think you're doing?"

      "... is that my toolkit?" Nate added, his voice going a little squeaky. Johnny prudently backed the hell up.

      "Er," said Dave.

      "Jesus Christ, is that Rich's desk? ... is that both of Rich's desks?" Simon asked, stepping over one of the vivisected printers and getting himself into the room. Nate followed him, boggling. Jeremy brought up the rear with no expression on his face at all.

      "Ah," said Dave.

      Nate squeaked again and pointed a shaking finger at the door to the mat room. "Are those all of Rich's dead peripherals?" he demanded to know. "You took all that out of my closet? You moved things? What all did you move? Oh God, I'll never be able to find anything again!"

      "Um," said Dave.

      "You didn't break anything, did you?" Nate said, now actively panicking.

      "I don't think so," Dave said cautiously. Johnny winced. Wrong answer.

      "You don't think so!" Nate said in real horror, tripping over a pile of cables in his hurry to get to the supply closet. Sandra lunged forward and caught him before he could break his head open on his own computer. The pile of cables went skittering across the floor, crashing into a teetering pile of CDs in jewelboxes and knocking them all flying. Everybody in the room winced away from the clatter.

      "Would someone please explain to me what the hell is going on here?" Simon shouted.

      Someone on Team Hall with even worse timing than usual pounded on the wall. "Shut up in there!"

      Simon's head snapped left. He sucked in a breath. "Boss," Sandra said quickly, setting a breathless and panicky Nate back on his feet.

      Simon jerked to a halt, then shut his eyes and let out the caught breath. "Yeah," he said. "Okay, shouting isn't going to help anything. Okay. Now. What the hell are you doing?"

      "You're shouting," Mike said. Nate vanished into the supply closet and, a moment later, moaned.

      "That is not shouting!" Simon snapped. "That is, uh, raising my voice for effect, now will someone answer my question, please?"

      "I rather think they've been trying to," Jeremy pointed out, mildly enough.

      "I didn't ask you!" Simon said, rounding on him with his hands in fists. Jeremy raised both eyebrows. Simon hissed out a disgusted breath and made his hands snap open.

      "Um," said Dave. This time the whole room went quiet. Everyone looked at him. He held up the CDs. "I found these," he said.

      "You found those," Simon repeated impatiently. "That's peachy. What are they?"

      "Um, well, I don't know yet—"

      "Oh, you don't know yet?" Simon said, his voice thin.

      "Mr. Story hid them," Dave said, swallowing. "Inside things. I haven't finished looking for them. Once I finish looking I'll see what's on them." Simon stared at him. Dave, completely misreading the situation, plunged on. "He took apart the keyboard tray in one of his desks and put this one inside, and this one was taped to the back of one of the drawers in the other desk, and I found this one inside one of the dead printers in the closet—"

      "Okay," Simon snapped, sharply enough to make Dave shut up with a little startled sound. "You know what, that's great. That is A-1 detective work. Good job. But Jesus Christ, look at this mess—the rest of us have to work in here too, in case you forgot that."

      "Uh," said Dave. Johnny winced.

      Simon slashed his hand through the air and cut Dave off, then hissed out a breath and clamped his arm to his side. "Here's what I want you to do," he said, his voice thick. "I want you to stop taking things apart long enough to clear the mat room. Those are all Rich's old broken doodads, right? Then unless Nate wants them, you can just run them all out to the dumpster, whatever, I don't care what happens to the dead ones. Once you've done that, you move all this crap—" he slung his arm out in a wide gesture that took in the rest of the mess "—into the mat room. Once you've done that, then by all means, whatever-your-name-is, continue making your mess out of our way."

      "Ah," said Dave, swallowing. "Yes, sir. Dave, sir."

      Simon paused. "What," he said, not even bothering to make it a question.

      "Dave, sir. My name's Dave," Dave said, already faltering, like he knew how stupid he was being but just couldn't quite stop himself.

      For a few ominous seconds the room was absolutely quiet. Then Simon heaved out a long and growling breath and rubbed a hand down his face. "I don't care."

      Dave, incredibly, made a little noise, like he was planning to keep putting up a fight. Johnny, behind Simon, quickly shook his head. Dave shot a startled glance in his direction and shut up. Man could be taught. "In fact," said Simon, mercifully unaware of Johnny's intercession, "you get started on that right now. The rest of us need to meet, but we're not going to be talking about anything that's important to you. Nate?"

      Nate stuck his head out of the closet. His face was a disturbing cheesy white color. "Yeah, boss," he said faintly.

      Simon hesitated. "Everything okay in there?"

      "I guess," said Nate, scrubbing the back of his hand across his lips. "I-I don't think anything's broken but a lot of things got moved around."

      Simon nodded. "You want to keep any of Rich's old dead computer things?"

      "I guess not," Nate said uncertainly. "I mean, I hadn't gotten rid of them, but I guess I wasn't going to do anything with them now that he's... you know. Gone."

      Heaving out a breath, Simon nodded. "Then throw them away," he told Dave. "Anything that's broken, if you're done with it, throw it away. Now."

      "Yes, sir," Dave said.

      "And quit calling me 'sir'!" Simon said. "Jesus, I hate that."

      Dave blanched. "Sorry, si—sorry."

      "Christ," Simon said, looking away. "Yeah, this is just what I wanted when I woke up this morning. I'm going down to the machines to get myself a drink. When I get back, we'll meet, assuming we have a table to meet on at that point." He spun on his heel and left the room, throwing the door open.

      They all stared after him, at the closing door. "Pardon me," Jeremy murmured, catching the door before it could slam shut and slipping out of it. It closed with barely a click. Johnny breathed again.

      "Yeah, that was totally fun, we should do this more often," Mike said matter-of-factly.

      "Uh," said Dave, sitting in the middle of his tremendous mess like an overgrown toddler.

      Johnny couldn't help but feel a little sorry for the poor dumbass. "Hey," he said. "There's a dolly cart thing in the janitor's closet, you want it."

      "What?" Dave said faintly. "Oh. Um. Yes. Thank you." He drifted to his feet, dazed.

      Aggravated as all hell, Simon stalked down the hallway towards the vending machines with his arms stiffly at his sides. He couldn't hear anyone following him, which meant that Jeremy was probably back there being all quiet at him again. "Jesus, what a day," he said, testing this idea.

      "Mm," said Jeremy, just behind him. Hypothesis proven. "It certainly has been eventful, yes."

      "Well?" Simon said, slowing a bit and letting Jeremy catch up. "Aren't you going to say something snide about me going off on the poor guy?"

      "Who, me? I hardly think it's my place to tell you how to manage your team, Simon," Jeremy said, faking affront.

      Simon made a sour face. "Why do I sense a 'but' coming?"

      "Well, I suppose I could point out that by your own reasoning, he's not actually a real member of your team."

      "Or you could shut up and mind your own business, not that you ever do," Simon said. He rounded the corner, fishing in his pocket for his wallet. "All this and I can't even have coffee," he said to no one in particular.

      "Saturday," said Jeremy. "Saturday is when you're allowed caffeine."

      "It's like being eight and waiting for Christmas to come." Simon plugged a dollar bill into one of the machines and got his bottle of water, then held out a hand towards Jeremy. "Advil."

      Jeremy reached into his jacket and produced the squat little white bottle. "How many?"


      Jeremy paused, cap half-on and half-off the bottle. "Four?"

      "Yes, four," Simon said impatiently. "I hurt like fuck and I'm not going to take a pain pill until five. Just give me four of the goddamned things."

      "As you will, then," said Jeremy, uncapping the bottle and shaking out four capsules. Simon wiggled his fingers impatiently. Jeremy cupped his hand over Simon's and dropped the capsules into his palm, not neglecting to leave his hand there a little longer than was strictly necessary. Simon scowled and twitched his hand away. Jeremy's answering smile was as opaque as ever.

      Leaning back against the vending machine (it was cool against his back, which was nice) Simon popped his Advil one at a time. The radiant ache in his chest didn't respond right away, but he felt a little better anyway. Closing his eyes, he chugged off about half the bottle of water. "Christ," he finally said, not for any real reason, just getting that out there.

      "Mm," said Jeremy, for what seemed like about the same reason.

      "I probably shouldn't have lit into what's-his-name like that," Simon said.

      "Mm. No, probably not."

      "Not that I'm going to apologize."

      "No, probably not."

      "I just—he doesn't belong here, and he damned well shouldn't be taking those kinds of liberties with my stuff," Simon said, opening his eyes and staring blindly up at the ceiling. "He got wished on me by Upstairs when I couldn't fight it off, that's all, and he is completely wrong for my team."

      "Mm," Jeremy said distantly.

      Simon went still. "What?"

      "Mm? What what?"

      "See, as frightening as it is to admit this out loud and all, I know you," Simon said, pointing a finger in Jeremy's general direction, "and I know that when you say that like that, it's because you're not saying something else. So what is it?"

      "How perceptive of you," said Jeremy. "I don't know whether to be flattered or frightened."

      "How about you be forthcoming?"

      "Touche'." Jeremy paused, then shrugged, a gesture that Simon felt more than saw. "I'm merely wondering if you'd consider anybody right for the job."


      "Ah," said Jeremy, after a startled pause. "Remarkable lack of equivocation on your part, there. Are you certain you're not some sort of Simon doppelganger?"

      "Nobody would be right," Simon said, ignoring that last bit with every fiber of his being. "But he's just... wrong."

      "Mm," Jeremy said, using that tone of voice again. This time Simon didn't press him for details, just finished off his water.

      The big flatbed cart from the janitor's closet was parked outside of the saferoom when they got back, already about half-full of trashed computer equipment. Simon stepped carefully around the protruding end and maneuvered his way into the saferoom.

      The piles of stuff had been shifted off the conference table, which was definitely a good start. The clattering from the mat room was a good continuation; even as Simon picked his way through the debris towards the table, the new guy appeared, his arms full of something that had probably once been a printer. Spotting Simon, he ducked his head and made a shuffling beeline for the main door. Simon ignored him.

      He sat down at the conference table—sat down instead of dropping down, which was satisfying—and slapped the table lightly. Everybody obligingly looked at him. "Right," he said. "Let's talk, folks. Archer, stay or go, whatever floats your boat."

      Jeremy gave this a moment of thought, glancing around. "Actually, if you'll pardon me," he said, and headed for the door, tossing a little wave back over his shoulder. "If you need me, I've my mobile."

      "Sure," said Simon. "Go have your 'me' time." The door shut behind Jeremy, a second too late to muffle his little laugh. Simon folded his hands on the table. "Okay! First things first. I'm sure this surprises no one, but after this morning's brouhaha, I'm going to consider myself back on duty, no matter what Upstairs says." He paused to see what the reaction to that would be. No one said anything, although Sandra made a slight breathy noise that Simon elected to ignore. "I can't sit at home twiddling my thumbs and waiting to be called any more. It's going to drive me insane. Now, officially Sandra's in charge, and I see no reason why she shouldn't be. Let's pretend I'm a hired consultant or something. Okay?"

      Sandra shifted beside him. "Actually, no, it's not," she said flatly. Simon blinked at her, and Sandra sighed, staring down at the table. "I'm not going to stop you from coming back full time, because I don't think I can, at least not without getting building security involved," she said. "But let's be honest: if you're here, I'm not in charge."

      Simon took a deep breath. "Okay. Yes. You're right. I'm too used to being the boss here, and I've been stepping on your toes when you've been doing a perfectly good job on your own, and I'm sorry."

      "So you're in charge, unofficially. Officially, I'm in charge." Sandra paused and laced her fingers together, looking back up at Simon. "Is that the gist of it?"

      "Yes, and I don't like it either," Simon said.

      Sandra nodded, tightly. "I'm all right with taking responsibility for my own actions, but being officially held responsible when I'm not even the one making the decisions: that's rough, boss. I don't want to be your stalking horse."

      "That's fair," Simon said, and paused, thinking.

      "So I'm not going to do it," Sandra said. The room went quiet. Sandra pursed her lips and plunged on. "Either you go to Upstairs and you get him to officially reinstate you, or you will respect my authority, no matter how temporary, and Mike, don't say it."

      "I wasn't gonna," Mike said faintly.

      "You were thinking it," Sandra said.

      "Well, yeah. Duh."

      Simon tapped his fingers on the table. "I'll go talk to Upstairs once this meeting is over," he said. "Okay, Spring?"

      "Good," said Sandra. "So we agree that, for the moment, I'm still in charge?"

      "For the moment," Simon said, giving her a little smile, which she didn't return.

      "Okay," said Sandra. She took a deep breath. "In that case, Templar, while I realize that you're in a foul mood thanks to your physical condition, you were out of line earlier, and I'd appreciate it if you'd try to keep a better rein on your temper." Simon went very still. A muscle in Sandra's jaw flexed and she looked away, glancing around the table without actually looking anyone in the eye. "In fact, that goes for all of you," she said. "I know you don't like having him around. No one likes the way he was just foisted off on us, but this has all gone too far. I'm calling a moratorium on the pranks, at least until Farraday is dealt with, and I want you all to strive to be at least civil." She took a long, choppy, shallow breath and splayed her fingers out on the table. "Templar was right in one respect: we all have to work here. For the moment, whether you guys like it or not, he's part of the 'all'. Okay?"

      For a moment, no one said anything. Then Mike abruptly slumped back in his chair, letting his head fall bonelessly back onto his shoulders. "Hooooo," he told the ceiling. "Damn if it ain't Templar Lite over there."

      "Yeah," said Simon, ducking his head and scruffing his fingers through his hair. "Yeah, okay, Sandy's right, as much as I am unused to having it dealt out in my direction, which: ouch. The new guy's not used to how we do things around here, so if he messes up again, let's try and point him in the right direction instead of having a meltdown, okay—"

      Sandra reached over and put a warning hand on Simon's shoulder, and Simon stopped talking with his mouth still open. "That's good advice," she said, gently, stressing the last word. With her hand still on Simon's shoulder, Sandra looked at the others. "I'm not going to make anybody apologize or anything," she said. "If it's anybody's fault, it's mine, for letting it go on at all. And God knows that if we weren't in such dire straits I'd be happy to allow the hazing to continue. But right now we have bigger things on our plate. Okay?"

      This time there was a faint, vague, embarrassed murmur of 'Okay' from around the table. Sandra let her hand drop. "Okay," she said. "Good. I'm glad we dealt with that. Okay, next. We talked earlier about getting away from our homes until Farraday is dealt with. The best place for us is probably the same Vantage Inn that we have Diana Fontaine stashed in. Anyone have a better idea?" She paused. No one said anything. She nodded. "As little as I actually like the idea, I'll stay with her, in her room. After today I think I want her to have an armed roommate."

      Beside her, Mike stirred. "I'll do it," he said.

      Sandra twitched and stared at him in flat disbelief. "What?"

      "I'll do it," Mike repeated. "And no, I'm not gonna be mackin' on her, no matter how it looks, okay? You said it yourself, Sandy: far as Miz Fontaine is concerned, I'm totally the go-to guy." He shifted in his chair. "I'm the one she got in contact with first, I'm the one she's been counting on, so okay, I'll do it. You don't wanna do it anyway."

      "No, I don't really want to, but there's this little detail where she's technically a female witness and Federal regulations require a female agent—"

      "Man, since when have we given a shit about some piddly-ass regulations?" Mike asked, peeved. "Bet you anything she'd be more comfortable with me anyway. Hell, she's got some half-assed suite thing going, not like I'm gonna be all up in her face anyway. I got a couch to sleep on and everything."

      "All right, look," said Sandra. "I'm not going to say yes or no right now, okay? When this meeting breaks up I'll call her myself and ask her if she'd prefer you or me. We'll let her decide. Okay?"

      "I'm down with that," Mike said, settling back in his chair.

      "I'm not sure if I am," said Simon, already holding up his hands to ward Sandra off. "No, seriously, just as a friendly bit of advice: we have no idea what kind of bullshit she's got up her sleeves, okay? I really don't like the idea of handing her Mike as a piece of leverage again. She's a goddamned lawyer, I don't want to know what she could make of that in court, if it came down to that."

      Sandra frowned in thought. "I'll tape-record the call," she finally said. "All officially. I'll inform her of the recording before we start and everything. That should at least half cover our asses. She can't say that he was forced on her if she made the choice herself."

      "Uh huh," said Simon. "And what if she starts crying rape later? What then?"

      "Threaten to charge her as Farraday's accessory before the fact," Johnny said, shrugging.

      "Uh," said Simon. "Well, yeah, that'd certainly put us a couple of inches up in the ensuing pissing contest, but..."

      "Actually," Nate said, looking up. It was the first thing he'd said since they'd sat down to meet, and they all looked at him. Nate went a little pink, fidgeting with his pen, but his eyes were steady on Simon's. "I have a better idea."

      By the time he finished hauling not one but two cartloads of dead and dissected peripherals out to the dumpster, Dave had worked up a pretty good sweat despite the breeze picking up outside. He stopped and yanked off his sweater, tying it around his waist; he knew it looked stupid, but right now all he cared about was getting some cool air on his skin. He smoothed down his rumpled t-shirt, then steered the cart back towards the door.

      He put the cart back in the janitor's closet just where he'd found it and went to wash his hands, putting off the moment when he'd have to go back into that room again. The men's room was mercifully empty. Dave accordingly took his time, splashing some cold water on his face and running his wet fingers through his hair. He tried to avoid looking at himself in the mirror; he probably looked just about as tired and rattled as he felt, and given how the rest of the day had been going, he stood every chance of striking up a self-pitying conversation with his reflection. He really had no desire to earn himself a mandatory psychiatric evaluation on top of everything else.

      Finally Dave admitted to himself that he couldn't spend any longer in the bathroom without looking like he was cruising, so he sighed and went back out. The closer he got to the saferoom, the slower he went, until he was trudging along at approximately the speed of mud, the door looming on his right like oncoming tragedy. He reached out for the handle—then snapped his hand back and put on a burst of speed, striding on down the hallway past the saferoom. Screw it. Fuck it. He didn't know precisely where he was going, but he was going anyway. He'd earned a break, hadn't he? He'd done a lot of work today, appreciated or not. Maybe he'd go down to the machines and have a drink, or to the cafeteria and have something to eat—he hadn't actually had lunch, he belatedly realized—or maybe he'd go up to the top floor and throw himself off the building. No, wait, scratch that last, it'd probably involve paperwork.

      The little nook with the vending machines in it loomed on his left, and Dave decided that he wasn't really hungry after all and turned in. He spent a few moments debating the eternal issue—caffeine or no caffeine?—before admitting that he'd had more coffee today than was technically good for him and settled for a bottle of Sprite. It was just what he'd needed, cold and carbonated, and he drank a good third of the bottle before recapping it long enough to put his sweater back on.

      There was a cool breeze eddying through the door to the courtyard, which was slightly ajar. It felt good. Picking up his bottle Dave headed for it. He'd go enjoy the weather for ten minutes while he finished his drink, and then go start moving things around. He was going to be here until eight or so in any case. Ten minutes wasn't going to hurt anybody, and if the people in the room thought differently, well... well... well, they could lump it. What were they going to do? Kick him off the team? Dave laughed bitterly and let himself out.

      The courtyard was mostly empty at this time of day. A little group of secretaries stood in a clump in the far corner smoking and chatting, and some guy in jeans and a hoodie looked to be asleep on one of the benches out under the trees. Dave considered the benches, then glanced up at the gray sky and changed his mind. It looked like rain. He'd stay over here under the overhang.

      "Afternoon, Mr. Brassoff," someone said to his right, and Dave glanced over, startled. Jeremy Archer was at the railing not ten feet from the door, leaning lazily on his crossed arms, the stub of a cigarette dangling from one hand. A thin white stream of smoke eddied up between them, slightly obscuring Jeremy's face.

      Dave stopped just where he was, uncertain and a little bit guilty, but in the end he gave in with a sigh and went over. "Hi," he said, leaning back against the railing and uncapping his bottle again. "Uh." He stopped, embarrassed, and took a long drink before adding, "I'm, uh, I'm sorry about yesterday."

      "No harm done," Jeremy said, dismissing it with a wave of his hand. "Really, you don't get very far in my profession if you can't handle that sort of thing."

      "Guess not," Dave said dubiously.

      Jeremy smiled a bit and ground out his cigarette on the sole of his shoe, flicking the butt neatly into a nearby planter. Dave watched it go, frowning, but decided not to say anything (hadn't he embarrassed himself enough in front of this guy for one lifetime?) and took another long drink instead.

      After a moment, Jeremy sighed, his little smile gone absent. "I suppose one more won't hurt," he said, fishing around in his jacket and coming out with a square silver case. He flicked it open and plucked a cigarette from one of the neat rows. "Would you like one?"

      "Ah. No, thank you, I don't..." Dave trailed off there and shut his eyes. "Yes, actually," he said fervently. "Yes, I think I would. Please."

      Jeremy held out the case, his own cigarette caught neatly between his first two fingers. "Any of the ones from the left-hand side," he said pleasantly.

      Dave eventually managed to free one from the little metal tongue that was holding it in place and stuck it awkwardly into his mouth. "What's wrong with the other ones?"

      "Some of them explode," said Jeremy, lighting his cigarette.

      Dave stared at him in confusion until Jeremy turned and held out the lighter, the flame still dancing between his cupped hands. "Uh," said Dave, and for lack of anything more suave to do he leaned down and stuck the tip of his cigarette into the flame, gingerly touching the back of Jeremy's hand to make sure it held still.

      The first draw made him so lightheaded that he was forced to grab for the railing behind him. The smoke tasted strange (and it did not mingle well with Sprite at all) but Dave shut his eyes and sucked it down anyway. The weird, buzzing calm of nicotine spread through his system, an unmitigated relief. "God, I thought I ditched this habit in college," he mumbled around the filter.

      "It's one of my few occasional vices," Jeremy said, putting the cigarette case back in his jacket. "Well. My personal vices, in any case. My professional vices are an entirely different schedule of events."

      "Guess so." Dave took another drag, followed it with another sip of his Sprite, and made a face. Jeremy laughed a little and didn't say anything else.

      They smoked in silence for another minute or so, until Dave's cigarette was half-gone and his nerves had finally settled. "God, what a day," he finally said, letting his head fall back.

      Jeremy sipped at his own cigarette and sighed out a small puff of smoke. Unlike Dave's cigarette, his was barely a quarter burnt. "You have been having rather a rough time of it, haven't you," he said, with what sounded like marginal sympathy.

      "This really isn't what I was expecting when I applied for the job," Dave said. He tried to laugh it off, but his laugh sounded so strained and ill that he stopped.

      "Well." Jeremy lifted his hand, studying the coal on his cigarette with indifference. "What were you expecting, then?"

      Dave opened his mouth and shut it again. "I don't know," he finally said. "Not this. I, I mean, I was sort of expecting them to give me a rough time and all, but..."

      "But not this rough?" Jeremy asked, raising an eyebrow.

      "I thought..." Dave shut his eyes and took another drag on his borrowed cigarette. "I don't even know what I thought."

      "Mm." Jeremy looked away.

      Dave leaned down and put his bottle of Sprite on the concrete by his foot, then ground the heels of his hands against his eyes, rubbing away the strain. His cigarette jutted out from between his first two fingers like a rude gesture. "I guess I thought I wouldn't be a nuisance," he said, his voice going gritty with resentment. "I'm not useless, you know? I may not be an almighty genius like this Story guy, but I'm perfectly competent! And yet they just keep sighing and shuffling me aside somewhere where they think I won't do any harm and then getting upset when I manage to do exactly what they asked of me! If—" Dave abruptly remembered who he was talking to and strangled on the rest of that sentence, producing an unlovely croaking sound and a raw spot on the back of his throat that made him cough. He bent down, grabbed the bottle, and drank until the raw spot receded. Then he took one final drag on his cigarette, coughed again, and dropped the butt on the ground, grinding it under his heel. "What a clusterfuck," he said.

      "Mm," Jeremy said again, but he sounded like he was laughing.

      "What? What's so funny?"

      Jeremy took another idle mouthful of smoke. "Did you ever meet Mr. Story?"

      "What?" Dave was momentarily nonplussed. "No. I'd heard about him, though. Stories. You know."

      "Mm. Well. I did indeed have that unmatched pleasure," said Jeremy. "And I'd have to agree that he was a genius—"

      "Oh, I know he was a genius," Dave said bitterly.


      "Yeah. He was a genius, all right. Do you want to know how I know? Because he was sloppy." Without a cigarette to gesture with, Dave was reduced to waving the bottle of Sprite meaningfully at a silent Jeremy. "I don't know how much you know about coding—"

      "—not bloody much—"

      "—but you can tell a lot about a guy by the way he codes, okay?" Dave, warming to his topic, made an irritated gesture that slopped a little Sprite onto the cuff of his sweater. Jeremy leaned back, out of the way. "And he was sloppy! He was coding all these little pet projects solely for his own use, so he didn't document anything, he insisted on doing things his own way, he never went back and streamlined anything! Why should he? It worked for him, and he could just get the Bureau to buy him a bigger computer if he needed one, right?" Dave groaned and collapsed back against the railing. "I'm not saying his code was full of holes. I wish it was. It's not. But it's a patchwork of coding styles—you can just tell that he was going back and grafting on new ideas as he picked them up. He was a genius, all right. And because he was so smart and so sure that his way was the right way, he never bothered to learn how normal people do it, or that normal people do it another way for a reason." Dave ground to a halt and tossed off the last of his drink, then chucked the bottle overhand at the trash can by the door. For a miracle—first thing that had gone right all day—it went right in. "Two points," Dave muttered.

      Both of Jeremy's eyebrows were raised. He was quiet for a moment, just long enough for Dave to suffer a crippling attack of self-consciousness—then he laughed slightly and looked away. "Nicely put, Mr. Brassoff."

      "Yeah, well," Dave muttered, scruffing a hand through his damp hair. "I don't know. Maybe he just didn't have enough time to scrap his old code and rewrite it, or something—"

      Jeremy held up a hand. "No, no, please, you don't need to justify your rant to me. Let it stand on its own."

      "And yet they act like I'm functionally retarded," Dave said, jerking his head over his shoulder in the vague direction of the saferoom. "They hate me. They like you. You're more a member of that team than I am, and you're a felon! Uh. No offense."

      "None taken," Jeremy said pleasantly. "But I'm afraid you can't really compare your situation to mine in any meaningful way."

      "Yeah, I suppose not," Dave said, subsiding.

      "After all," said Jeremy, "I've never presumed to count myself a member of that team. I'm merely a... guest in good standing, I suppose. We get on well enough, for the most part, but there's a line that I'll simply never cross, and we're all aware of that. You, on the other hand..." He trailed off there and made a weary little gesture, drawing a rising circle of smoke in the air.

      "I... what?" Dave said suspiciously. He knew what was coming, but suddenly he just wanted to hear someone say it out loud for once.

      "You're an interloper," said Jeremy. Dave winced. Maybe he hadn't wanted to hear it so badly after all. Jeremy either didn't notice or pretended not to notice the wince, just continued inexorably on. "They're an extremely tight-knit bunch—I hesitate to say 'family' and yet, there it is—and up you pop, proposing to simply take the place of one of their own? Foisted off on them against their will by a higher-up?" Jeremy's second dead cigarette joined the first in the planter. "And you've absolutely no idea how to go about overcoming that hurdle, have you?"

      "Haven't I?" Dave said faintly.

      Jeremy paused, then looked at him. "Do you want my advice, Mr. Brassoff?"

      "Do I?" He couldn't get that hesitant tone out of his voice.

      Jeremy's mouth twisted in what could have been amusement or distaste. "Grow a spine, Mr. Brassoff."

      Dave twitched back. "Scuse me?"

      "Actually, that's my advice." Jeremy looked away. "You seem like a bright enough fellow, you appear to know what you're doing, and when you're not cringing away from someone or other, you're just mad enough to fit in with that lot. Unfortunately, they're rather like schoolyard bullies: if you don't stand up to them and play the game their way, they'll never respect you. And they have to respect you before they can like you. Take it from me."

      "Yeah, but—"

      "But nothing," Jeremy said. "Every time they challenge you, you back down. Well, stop it. Stand up for yourself. The only one of that lot who's likely to hit you is Ms. Leone, and she's not going to hit you for being assertive."

      Dave put his face in his hands. One of them smelled like smoke, the other like Sprite. It was just another surreal note in his day. "God, this is like being in elementary school all over again," he said, muffled. "Only I don't have milk on my pants."

      "Except this time it's for real," Jeremy said, not relenting in the least. "Do you want this job?"


      "Spine, Mr. Brassoff. Do you want this job?"

      "Yes!" Dave jerked his hands away from his face and made a frustrated gesture so huge that he smacked his knuckles on the railing. He winced. "Of course I want this job!" he declared, rubbing his bruised hand. "This is the job I've wanted since I joined up—I didn't join the FBI to drive a desk! This morning I told some guy I was with Templar, and do you know what a rush that was? God!"

      The last word died away. The breeze picked up. Jeremy was quiet for long enough that Dave had another attack of self-consciousness, which he fought stubbornly against as best he could. He might have been blushing, though. He wasn't sure. "There you are, then," Jeremy said softly. "I think you'll do nicely."

      "Well, I'm glad someone thinks so," Dave muttered, looking away.

      "Stand up for yourself and it's possible you'll convince someone else," Jeremy said. "And once this Farraday nonsense is all over and done with, start answering in kind."

      Dave blinked at him, confused. "What?"

      "Give them a taste of their own medicine, as it were." Jeremy's smile widened. "To be crude, Mr. Brassoff, they respect balls. They don't think you have any. Do prove them wrong."

      "How?" Dave said, despite his resolve nearly wailing it.

      "That, you'll have to decide for yourself." Jeremy straightened up, rolling one shoulder. "And now, if you'll excuse me, Mr. Brassoff, I think I'd best get back before Simon calls and demands to know if I'm off wanking somewhere."

      "Uh. Yeah. Okay." Dave waggled his fingers in an absent wave. "Thanks, I guess."

      "You guess? Oh, dear." Jeremy laughed, moving past him towards the door. "I've been damned with faint praise."

      Dave watched him go, frowning. Behind him the first few drops of rain started to splat lazily on the gravel, and the guy in the hoodie abruptly woke up, lumbering to his feet and heading for shelter.

      Jeremy was back in his usual seat when Dave let himself back into the saferoom, five minutes later. Everyone else was hard at work on something or another, except for Simon, who was leaning back in his chair looking grumpy. "There you are," Simon said. "Thought you'd died or run away or something, left us stuck with your mess."

      Dave hesitated, then squared his shoulders mentally. "I stopped to get a drink," he said. "I spent all morning working hard to create this ungodly mess, after all."

      Simon chewed on the inside of his cheek, staring narrowly at Dave. Dave nearly quailed—the butterflies in his stomach were having a hoedown—but he gritted his teeth and forced himself not to crumple. "Huh," Simon finally said, looking away. "Guess so. See if you can't get some of this stuff out of our way."

      "That was the plan," Dave said, so lightheaded with relief (or possibly terror) that he spoke before he thought. "And I've already promised to put everything back the way it was before I left tonight."

      Simon glanced at the tornado of computer parts around Dave's feet. "That'll keep you working late."

      "Is that a problem?" Was he actually having a conversation with this guy?

      "No," Simon said. "Not a problem. Fact is, it's kind of the norm."

      "Good thing I don't usually have anything better to do, then," Dave said, then stopped, aghast at himself, and swooped down to pick up the closest pile of parts (a monitor) in order to hide his blush. Fortunately for his equilibrium, though, Simon didn't say anything else, just grunted. Dave was able to escape into the next room and put the disassembled monitor down before his knees quietly gave way. There was even a mat already there to break his fall. Things were looking up.

      Two hours later he had stripped Rich Story's computer lair right down to the two wide strips of black anti-static mat, incidentally finding three lost NERF balls in the process. He couldn't help but notice that everyone else in the room kept glancing over at the bare spot where the computers had been—how long had it been since they'd seen this corner empty? Four years? Probably?

      Judging by the general level of dust, dirt, and fuzz proliferating on the mats, his predecessor hadn't really cleaned in four years, either. Oh, the equipment was well-kept, but apparently Mr. Story hadn't often felt the need to move his towers and clean behind them. Dave wrinkled his nose and dusted off his hands, which were already a disquieting shade of gray. Before he started putting the computer lair back together, he was going to haul these mats outside and clean them off. Borrow a mop, maybe. And then he was going to put everything back together, only he was planning to rearrange things to suit his own tastes and to hell with what they thought of that. He was looking forward to it, in a weird way.

      He grabbed one end of the nearest mat and folded it over, then started rolling it up. When he was halfway done something glinted at him from between his feet, and he nearly got clobbered in the shins by the unrolling mat when he swooped down to pick the CD up. "Ha!" he said under his breath.

      "Hm?" someone said from behind him.

      Dave (too busy fighting with the recalcitrant mat to turn around) glanced over his shoulder and held up the gold CD. "That's four," he said quietly.

      "Good," Simon said after a pause, and that, apparently, was that.

      "There, that ought to do it," Nate said from behind the dresser. After a minute he grabbed the edge of the dresser in one hand and levered himself upright, covered in dust and ancient cobwebs. He coughed, once. Mike was half-expecting him to wheeze out dust. "Give me a hand here, Mike," Nate croaked.

      "Sure," Mike said, grabbing the edge of the dresser and walking it back into place, all macho-like. Diana Fontaine watched them both from her chair in the corner, arms crossed tightly over her chest. Mike restrained his grunt of effort as best he could. "That good?"

      "That's great." Nate slapped uselessly at his pants, raising a cloud of dust, which only made him cough again. "Okay," he said in Diana's direction, with an awkward smile, and tapped the little satellite-dish microphone that now stood on its tripod next to the television. "We're good to go. The mike's probably not strong enough to pick up every little whisper—" he told this barefaced lie with a remarkable lack of fluster, although his ears went a little pink "—but it'll pick up most anything said in a normal tone of voice, and if you call, we'll be in here in two seconds. Okay?"

      "All right," Diana said faintly.

      "And trust me, we do this for a living, we've heard it all before, so there's no need to get embarrassed," said Nate, the guy who still blushed every time Mike said... pretty much anything, really. Mike looked away, towards the door, because he probably had a big wise-assed grin on his face and neither of the people in here right now needed to see that shit. "Oh," said Nate, and now he did get a little flustered, "and if you shut the bathroom door, you'd have to shout for the microphone to hear you. So it's okay. Really. Promise."

      Right about then was when Mike tuned them out, scratching absently at his chest before he remembered and made himself stop. If he dislodged the wire he was wearing he'd have to get Nate to tape it back down, which meant that Nate would have to rip off the old tape first, and that shit hurt like a bitch—plus the recordings weren't going to be of any use if all you could hear was Mike scratching himself like a dog. Mike plucked at the neck of his sweatshirt, making sure it was still hanging loose.

      "—and Sandra's in the adjoining room," Nate was saying when Mike tuned back in. Nate pointed over his shoulder at the door in the left-hand wall. "She's promised to leave her half of the door locked but open, so you can run right in there and slam the door if you need to." Nate pointed at the opposite wall. "And Johnny and I are right there. So we've got you surrounded." He tried smiling again.

      "All right," Diana said again, her voice a little stronger. "It's just... is this necessary? All this? Is he really... "

      "Well, uh, the short answer's no, it's not necessary at all," said Nate. "As far as we know he's still got no idea where you are, and might not have an issue with you any more in any case."

      "He's sure as hell got an issue with us, though," Mike put in. "We're all here because we had to go somewhere, and hey! Long as we've got to stay in a hotel somewhere anyway, might as well come make extra sure you're okay, am I right?"

      Diana laughed a little, unhappily. "I suppose that ought to make me feel better."

      "But it doesn't, right?" Mike spread his hands. "We're doing the best we can. Promise."

      "I know," Diana said. She looked away. "And it's not that I don't appreciate it."

      "It's coo'," Mike said comfortably. "I recognize that most people just ain't up to my kind of kick-ass action-movie lifestyle."

      It took her a moment, but eventually, Diana produced another one of those unhappy little laughs. "So... now what?"

      "Well, now I go make sure that all of us can hear you loud and clear," Nate said, glancing towards the door that adjoined Sandra's room. "If you hear me knock on the wall, say something loud enough for the mike to pick up, okay? Honda, wanna come with?"

      "Yeah, I wanna hear this for myself, make sure it's all good," said Mike. "'Sides, this way Miz Fontaine gets a whole five minutes to herself."

      Nate raised his hand in a tentative little wave, then opened Diana Fontaine's side of the double door and went into Sandra's room. Mike followed, tugging the door shut behind him. Nate and Sandra both stared at him, silent and intent, until Mike reached into his pants pocket and shut the broadcast pack off. "Wire's off," he said. They all relaxed.

      Nate glanced at Sandra. "Sandy? How's it sound?"

      Sandra waved her hand at the little black speakers set up on her dresser. "Listen for yourself," she said, reaching over to turn up the volume.

      They all went quiet. The speakers made little scratchy sounds as an unaware Diana Fontaine shifted in her chair and cleared her throat. Something that sounded like paper rustled as she picked it up. A spring in her chair creaked, lightly. "Good," Nate said softly, leaning forward to turn the speakers back down and knock on the wall.

      They all heard Diana jump and catch her breath. "Yes?" she said a moment later, her voice clear and strident, as she enunciated unnecessarily for the microphone.

      "Good!" Nate called, then lowered his voice. "And anything the satellite microphone doesn't catch, Mike's wire ought to, and we've got two separate recordings going, tape and digital. Whatever happens in there tonight, we'll have a record of it, so if you're planning to hit on her, try to do it using meaningful gestures and eye contact, okay?"

      "Pssh, as if," Mike said happily. "I'm totally gonna hit on her just so you can listen and learn from my example, Specs. You needs you some technique."

      "Technique?" Sandra said, raising an eyebrow. "You mean when you hit on other women you do more than grab your crotch and ask if they want to pet your trouser snake? I feel slighted."

      "'Trouser snake'?" Mike squalled, affronted. "I never said 'trouser snake'. I asked if you wanted to see my fire hose."

      "Because the way to a woman's heart is through water sports," said Sandra, glancing at Nate, who was pink but snickering. "I seem to recall being invited to ride the bucking bronco once, too."

      "Huh," said Mike. "I totally do not remember saying that, but it sure sounds like me. Oh, and, uh, the offer stands, case you were wondering."

      "I wasn't, really, but I'll keep it in mind," Sandra said evenly. "Besides, I get the feeling that you're less of a bucking bronco and more of a Mexican jumping bean, anyway." Nate just barely managed to stifle his horrified laugh by clapping a hand over his mouth.

      "Shit, I take it back, I do not think I'd feel comfortable sharing my unique specialness with a lady who is racist," Mike said, shaking his head sadly. "No ethnic sausage for you."

      "Uh, you know what, I'm just going to go make sure that the speakers in my room are working," Nate said, edging past Mike with his shoulders shaking.

      "Aw, man, Specs, I totally did not mean to make you jealous!" Mike called after him. "You want some of what I got, you know all you got to do is ask!"

      "Ask Templar, maybe," Nate shot back over his shoulder, and shut the door quickly on Mike's whoop of glee.

      Still grinning, Mike leaned back against Sandra's dresser and let his head fall back, staring up at the ceiling. They were both quiet enough that they could hear Diana Fontaine shifting around in the other room, making little papery crackling sounds as she turned the pages of whatever she was reading. After a moment, they heard another thump. "Yes," Diana called. Nate called back something that was muffled to incomprehensibility.

      "I better get back in there," Mike finally said, pushing himself upright.

      Sandra eyed him for a moment. "Be careful," she finally said.

      "Pfft," said Mike, heading for the door. "Just because you can't resist my suave Latino charms don't mean every lady is compelled to jump my bones, more's the pity. No, no, don't beg, it's totally degrading and shit."

      Sandra plucked a pen off the dresser and lobbed it at him, bouncing it off his hip. Mike sniggered and knocked on the adjoining door. "Yo, Miz Fontaine, it's me."

      On the speakers, they could hear Diana Fontaine putting her book down with a rustle and getting to her feet. "Little pig, little pig, let me come in," Sandra muttered under her breath.

      "Aw, Sandy, your chin hairs ain't nearly as long as you think," Mike said happily. Fortunately for him, Diana opened the door before Sandra could get up and kick his ass.

      "So you know what, I'm thinking dinner," Mike said, shutting the door behind himself. Diana Fontaine turned away, heading for her chair, and Mike took advantage of this opportunity to stick a hand in his pocket and turn the wire back on. "I'm also thinking pizza delivery, because it doesn't get easier to feed five people than that, you know?"

      "That sounds fine," Diana said. "I don't really like meat on my pizza... mushrooms and black olives?"

      "Aw, damn, way to ruin a whole string of sausage jokes," Mike said, snapping his fingers. "But that's coo', I'll save 'em for later, I got plenty of opportunities to talk about my meat." He glanced over at the satellite mike and made a show of raising his voice. "Yo, Specs, call and order us all some pizza, huh? You heard the lady: large mushroom and black olives with sausage on one half for me, and get Sandy one of those fussy-ass little 'lady pizzas' with the chopped tomatoes like she likes!" He paused, already snickering; after a moment Sandra thumped on the wall once. "Love you too, Spring," Mike gleefully told the microphone.

      "Asshole," Sandra said clearly through the half-open double door. Mike busted out laughing.

      By the time the pizza arrived Diana Fontaine had settled in with her book again, and Mike was sprawled out on the couch with his laptop, avoiding doing any sort of actual work by the simple expedient of mucking around with random Flash games. He'd damned near broken his high score when someone thumped on the door to Nate and Johnny's room, next door, and Mike put the laptop down and sat up, listening. His little guy died, tinnily.

      After a buzz of conversation, Nate's door shut again, with Mike's little guy being the only casualty. Not that he was actually expecting Farraday to show up dressed as a pizza guy, but there was a lot of paranoia just sort of randomly floating around out there right now, and occasionally Mike caught some. Kind of an occupational hazard.

      A minute or so later someone knocked at Diana's door. Mike got up and jogged over. "Yeah?" he said.

      "Yo," Johnny said on the other side of the door. "Landshark."

      "Sorry, we're on high alert, I'm gonna need to see your ID first," Mike said, snickering and putting his eye to the peephole. Johnny, waiting semi-patiently in the hallway with two pizza boxes balanced comfortably on one hand, flipped him off with the other. "That'll do," said Mike, unlocking and unchaining the door.

      Johnny hit him in the stomach with the edge of a pizza box pretty much the second he got the door open. Mike whoofed out a breath and grabbed for his pizza in both hands. "Man, that's not cool," he said. "You're gonna make the toppings slide!"

      "So the lady gets a little piece of your sausage," Johnny said expressionlessly. "Ain't my lookout."

      Mike glanced over his shoulder at Diana. "See?" he said. "Told you I'd get a chance to use all those meat jokes."

      "God save the poor woman," said Sandra, stepping out of her room to take her own, much smaller box from Johnny.

      "Ain't no one around here got a sense of humor," Mike declared. "That's it, you're none of you invited to dinner."

      "Drinks," Nate said, jogging up with a bunch of sweating cans in his arms. "Root beer for you—" he awkwardly lobbed a can overhand at Mike, who caught it in his free hand and put it down on the box's top "—Diet Coke for Sandy—" Sandra caught hers "—Dr Pepper for Johnny, and, uh... " Nate raised his voice. "Ma'am, did you want regular Coke or diet? I'll have whatever you don't want."

      "Ah," said Diana. "Diet, please."

      "Man, you ladies are all alike," said Mike, rolling his eyes and accepting the can from Nate. "Man likes a good handful of something or other, you know?"

      "Don't know how you'd know," Sandra told him. "There's no chance you've got more than two, three inches in your pants, the way you brag."

      "Aw, man," Mike said, making a show out of juggling his armful of food. "I didn't have all this stuff in my hands, I would prove you wrong, missy."

      "How? Gonna show me you've got even less than that?" Sandra shot back, shutting her door behind her.

      Mike beamed at Johnny and Nate. "Man, it is gettin' to be just like the old days around here! I, for one, am totally stoked by this development."

      They ate more or less in silence, Mike manfully resisting the urge to act hurt when Diana picked all the little bits of sausage off her half of the pizza before eating it. Diana kept glancing over her shoulder at the satellite mike and then giving Mike a little embarrassed smile when he caught her at it. Mike figured that was what was making dinner so quiet.

      Mike ate all of his half of the pizza and two slices of hers, finally collapsing back in his chair with a huge whoofing sigh. "Damn, hits the spot," he said.

      "Yes. Ah. Thank you," said Diana, glancing at the mike again and lowering her voice to a bare murmur. "Not quite as good as a homemade meal, though," she said, glancing shyly in his direction, then down at her lap. Mike's day immediately took a turn for the better.

      "Yeah, well, my cooking is pretty awesome," Mike said, lowering his voice too, even though the mike on his chest would be picking all this up as clear as day. "Hey, some day when all this is over, I'll totally cook for you again, assuming you don't start up with the hating me again."

      "No, I... " Diana went a bit pink. "I don't think I could do that."

      Mike grinned. "Man, my heart is totally warmed or some shit," he said. "You better be careful, though. If they caught any of that they're totally gagging by now."

      Startled, Diana glanced at the satellite mike and went pinker.

      Mike folded up the empty pizza box and forced it into one of the room's small wastebaskets, with some effort. Automatically he glanced at the clock: past eight. "What time do you think you wanna go to bed?" he asked over his shoulder.

      "I'd like to have a bath first," Diana said, sounding mildly embarrassed. "But any time after nine should be fine. I've... I didn't sleep well last night and I'm tired."

      "That's cool," said Mike. "Go have your bath and we can sleep whenever. Sleep is awesome."

      "All right," Diana said, making a move towards the dresser and drawing up short. "Are you... going to be all right on the couch?"

      "Who, me? Pfft, I'll be fine. I have totally slept in worse places on the job. Shit, I spent a week and a half sleeping behind a dumpster once, and lemme tell you, cardboard? Not comfy." Mike picked up the empty cans from the table and added them to the trash. "I'll just steal one of the pillows off your bed and I'll be set, 'kay?"

      "All right." Looking a bit taken aback by the dumpster thing (for which Mike couldn't really blame her) Diana pulled open one of the drawers and rummaged around, eventually coming out with a little pile of clothing, mostly light blue and kind of silky-looking. Mike resisted the urge to whistle, figuring it was an impulse best suited for when she came out wearing... whatever that was.

      Diana closed the bathroom door firmly behind herself. After a moment, she locked it. Mike couldn't help snickering. Once the water actually started running Mike went over and stole a pillow, just like he'd said, then flicked off the broadcast pack and went to knock on the door between Diana's room and Sandra's.

      "Come on in, Mike," Sandra called, faintly.

      Mike let himself in, propping Diana's side of the door open with the half-full wastebasket. "Hey, 'sup, we good? ... damn, woman, are those boxer shorts?"

      Sandra rolled her eyes. "Yes, they are, and yes, I have underwear on under them, and no, you can't see."

      "Awww," said Mike, dropping onto the foot of the bed and shamelessly getting his Sandy-ogle on. "Man, I ain't seen anyone look so hot in a t-shirt and boxers since the last time I looked in the mirror."

      "They're comfortable, and your modesty is underwhelming," Sandra said, sounding vaguely defensive. "Anyway, Templar called, wanting a progress report, so I gave him one, not that there's much to report so far."

      "Damn, sorry about that. You want, I can go stage a gunfight or something, make things a little more interesting."

      "You know what, I think I'll pass." Sandra looked away, fiddling with one of her socks. "I wish he'd come with us."

      "Yeah, well, you can't make the boss do anything he doesn't wanna." Mike flopped out on his back and tucked his hands behind his head. "'Sides, Farraday gets up to something over there and Archer'll just gas him or some shit. Total criminal cage match, you know? I'd buy a ticket to that."

      "I suppose," Sandra said, and went all quiet.

      Mike put up with it for a minute or so before flinging himself back upright. "'Sup?"

      Sandra glanced at the speakers on the table, broadcasting an eerie, thin echo of Diana splashing in the bath. "I was just thinking that if I have to listen to you two flirt any more, I'm going to throw up."

      "Totally jealous," Mike said happily.

      "As if," said Sandra, rolling her eyes at him. "I'm not jealous. I'm nauseated by how bad at it the two of you are."

      "Liar," Mike said. He pointed an accusing finger at her, rocking back and crossing his legs underneath himself. "It totally breaks your little tomboy heart that it's not you."

      "If I ever caught myself participating in some insipid 'I like your cooking!' 'I'll cook for you again some time!' 'Yay!' conversation with you," Sandra said, making the air quotes every time, "I would shoot myself out of sheer embarrassment."

      "Yuh huh, sure, okay," Mike said. "You're just jealous 'cause I never cooked for you."

      "You used to force bits of stuff on me back when you used to bring your lunch," Sandra pointed out.

      "Shit, that doesn't count, that was, like, leftovers and cold shit, and I didn't make it specifically for you anyway." Mike ran a hand absently through his hair and stopped himself from scratching his chest just in time. "Kinda wish I still had time to make lunch, though. Eating out's way too expensive."

      "Yeah," said Sandra, looking away. After a moment she laughed a little. "God, I exist on takeout and leftover takeout these days. If I die they'll have to bury me in one of those little folding rice containers you get from the Chinese place."

      "Ain't no way to live," Mike said. "Good thing our jobs are so awesome or we might resent 'em or some shit."

      Sandra glanced around the bare, anonymous hotel room. "Yeah," she said bitterly. "Yeah, our jobs are pretty fucking great."

      And Mike didn't know what to say to that, so he pushed himself to his feet and had a good stretch. "I'm gonna head back in," he said. "Lemme know if you need anything else."

      "I'm good," Sandra said distantly.

      "Yeah, I totally knew that," said Mike. "G'night, Sandy."

      "Night, Mike. If you do end up doing the nasty with Ms. Fontaine, try and keep it down, will you? Some of us need our beauty sleep."

      Mike snickered, nudging the wastebasket back into Diana Fontaine's hotel room. "You know, I ain't gonna say anything to that, 'cause you made it too easy," he said.

      Sandra's empty Diet Coke can hit the door right next to his head. Mike yelped a little, reflexively ducking, then booted the dented can back into Sandra's room. It spun a trail of brown droplets across the carpet. "Love you too," he caroled, pulling the door shut as quickly as he could.

      Diana Fontaine eventually came out of the bathroom, pink and steaming and clean, wearing a pair of ladies' pajamas that were pretty hot as long as Mike didn't let himself remember that they probably actually belonged to Nate's mother. Mike grinned at her, making her go even pinker. "Aw, ain't that cute," he said.

      Diana pressed her lips together and looked away, obviously trying not to smile. "That's sexual harassment, Mr. Takemura," she said.

      "Naw, naw, sexual harassment is more—" Mike broke off there and whistled at her, madly waggling his eyebrows. He thought he heard something that might have been laughter from over Nate's way, but figured it was probably his imagination.

      "Yes, that's, ah, that's definitely sexual harassment," Diana said, now really pink. She edged away from him, depositing a tight roll of dirty clothes in one of the other drawers.

      "And hey, you'd know, you're a lawyer, right?"

      "Yes, Mr. Takemura. I am, in fact, a lawyer." Diana looked away and frowned down at the dresser. "If this goes on for too much longer I'll have to find a way to do laundry."

      Mike shrugged. "Eh, we can probably handle that. And you're totally allowed to call me Mike now, you realize."

      Diana went still, her shoulders squaring, then slumping. "I know," she finally said. "It just feels so strange." Eventually she rallied and laughed, a little. "And you still call me 'Miz Fontaine'," she said, deliberately mimicking the slur that Mike gave her name.

      "Huh. Yeah, guess that's true." Mike snapped his fingers. "Okay! So I tell you what: I'll start calling you 'Diana' if you call me 'Mike', how's that?"

      "That seems fair," Diana said cautiously. "... Mike."

      "There you go!" Mike said, beaming at her. "Just lemme know when you want to turn out the lights, okay?"

      "I'd like to read for a little while, first." Diana retreated, pulling back the covers and sliding into the bed. Her pajamas made a little silky slithering sound against the sheets that Mike enjoyed listening to despite himself; he looked quickly down at his laptop before she could look back up and catch him leering. She picked up her book. Mike went back to writing his report, as unexciting as it was likely to be. 'Hooked up microphone, ate pizza, macked on lady lawyer, went to sleep,' he typed. He considered sending it just like that, but figured that it wouldn't look good if anyone ever had to look this stuff up later.

      Five minutes later he sent off his report and went back to mucking around online, mostly just killing time. Diana was silent at the other end of the room, the occasional flip of a page the loudest sound in the entire room. Every time she turned a page Mike had to restrain a little twitch. She was a nicer lady than she used to be, by a long shot, but Mike was pretty sure that she'd never be the kind of lady he could enjoy a companionable silence with. Too much old, bad blood between them, or something. He kept waiting for the other shoe to drop all the time.

      Diana Fontaine shut her book with a little rustle and put it on the bedside table. "We can turn off the lights any time you're ready," she said.

      "Sure, just a sec," Mike said absently, quitting out of everything and shutting his computer down. Behind him the lights went off, leaving him sitting in a little pool of light all by himself. He closed his laptop and put it on the coffee table, putting his cellphone on top of it. His gun sat at the far end of the table, all tangled up in the leather straps of his shoulder holster. Mike picked it up, untangled it, and shrugged into the holster, hunching his shoulders to avoid knocking the microphone askew. His fingers brushed against the butt of his gun and then fell away. Good as it was going to get. Mike got up and flipped the lights off, plunging the room into that weird utter darkness that he only ever saw behind the thick curtains in a motel. "G'night," he said, groping his way back to the couch and stretching out, getting the holstered gun settled as comfortably into his armpit as he could.

      Diana was silent for a long moment, although Mike could hear her shifting around in the bed. The sheets slithered against her pajamas. Mike squeezed his eyes shut and tried not to think about it. "Good night, Mike," Diana said tentatively. "Sleep well."

      "Yeah, you too." Mike opened his eyes and stared blindly upwards. Light from the hallway was filtering in under the door, and after a moment, he could dimly see the pattern on the ceiling. Behind him, Diana Fontaine shifted again and sighed out a breath. Mike listened to this, thinking about how he was never going to get to sleep if he kept attending to Miz Fontaine every time she so much as moved, and was still busy being grumpy about this when he drifted off to sleep, ten minutes later.

      He came abruptly flailing out of sleep some unknown number of minutes or hours later, unable to figure out what had woken him but knowing that something had. He made a single, loud, startled sound—"Wha!"—automatically grabbing for his gun.

      "Mike," Diana Fontaine whispered urgently from right beside him, her hand appearing out of nowhere to pat gingerly at his shoulder and then grab hold of it with panicky strength.

      Mike reached up and caught her hand in his, squeezing it—all she'd have to do was move her hand over two inches and she'd hit the tape that was holding the wire to his chest and then everything would go entirely to shit. "What?" he said, confused, starting to sit up. "Something—"

      "No, it's, shh," Diana whispered, confusingly. The light from under the door made her profile nearly glow, and when she glanced guiltily over her shoulder at the satellite mike on the table, Mike could see her do it as clear as day. "I'm sorry," she breathed. "It's not... " She broke off there and dropped her head to his shoulder, right next to their clasped hands. Her hair tickled against the side of his neck. "It's not that."

      Oh, crap, Mike thought but did not say, still squeezing her hand to keep it away from the wire, which he was horribly, utterly aware of like nothing else on earth at the moment. "What's up?" he said, keeping his voice as low as possible, hoping to God that he was wrong.

      Diana didn't move. Her hand stilled in his like a captured bird. Mike swallowed and let his head fall back to the pillow, staring blindly up at the ceiling. "I can't sleep," Diana finally whispered in a tiny, broken voice.

      "I'm sorry," Mike settled on saying, squeezing her hand in a way he really, really hoped was only comforting. "You want me to go ask Sandy for an Ambien?"

      Diana shook her head in answer, raising gooseflesh up and down the side of Mike's throat. "Would," she whispered, and stopped, and swallowed. Mike shut his eyes. Yeah. He wasn't wrong. Diana made a little frightened sound and tried again, the whispered words spilling nervously out over each other in a rush. "Would you come sleep in the bed with me? I'm just so scared..."

      His mind whirling, Mike patted her hand, buying himself some time to think. He could see the next hour or two unfolding in his mind as clearly as if it had already happened, and he sure couldn't deny that it was powerfully tempting—or it would be, if this room wasn't bugged halfway to shit, which was the worst kind of buzzkill imaginable. "That's really not a good idea," he finally whispered, regretting it with every fiber of his being, some fibers a little more than others.

      She swallowed again, lifting her head just enough to glance back at the dresser. "We could unplug the mike," she whispered. Mike went really, really still. "Just for a little." Her eyes shone in the light, wide with nerves. "The others are probably all asleep by now, they'd never notice..."

      "You know I can't do that," Mike whispered back. He wasn't much of a praying kind of guy, but all the same he sent up a prayer to whatever gods might be listening: oh, crap, please let them be asleep, please let them not be hearing this, I will seriously never do anything bad again for the rest of my life, please?

      Diana shuffled forward on her knees until her breasts pressed against Mike's shoulder, which was enough to immediately draw about ninety-five percent of his attention. "Please," she breathed, so close now that he could feel that little puff of breath on his face.

      "I can't," Mike said desperately. So, of course, Diana kissed him.

      He'd seen it coming like a runaway locomotive and it still nearly stopped his goddamned heart. For a moment or two he was slack with shock, staring wide- and cross-eyed at the side of her face, reflexively squeezing her trapped hand and wondering if the microphone on his chest was sensitive enough to pick up these sounds. He figured that it probably was. Damn Nate anyway. "Hey," he mumbled against her lips, reaching up to touch the side of her face with his free hand and guide her away. "Miz Fontaine, you know you don't really want to do this."

      "I do," she whispered insistently, desperate to believe herself. She closed her eyes and rubbed her cheek against his hand. "Please, even if it's just to sleep, I'm so scared..."

      Mike, pretty much hating the entire world right now, blew out a breath and shuffled away, sitting up. He let go of her hand with some relief. "Okay, come on," he whispered, touching her shoulder. "You need to go try and get some sleep, okay?"

      The little despairing noise Diana made in the back of her throat made him feel like absolute shit, but after a moment, she rocked back and stood up, making those damned slithery noises all the way up, which was not helping. "I'm sorry," she breathed, her voice all choked and small, and she picked her way back across the room. The silky noises faded, and the bedsprings creaked.

      Mike sat just where he was, stiff as a board in several respects, staring off at nothing and listening just as hard as he could. Sure enough, after thirty seconds or so he heard a faint, pitiful sniffling sound. Mike shut his eyes. "I'm sorry," he said, low in his throat.

      "It's okay," floated back to him, so softly that he wasn't sure he'd heard it. Mike threw himself back onto the couch and rubbed his face briskly with both hands, resigned to the fact that he wasn't going to get another wink of sleep all night.

      She'd been sleeping so well before Mike's yelp woke her up, too.

      For the first few days after Simon's shooting she hadn't so much slept as passed out for a few hours every night, too worn out from the stress and the fear to get anything close to restful sleep. After she'd stopped fearing that Simon was going to die, she'd started being paranoid that Farraday was going to come after her, and she'd started sleeping lightly, twitching up and out of sleep at every little sound. But being here felt safe somehow. She'd actually been sleeping comfortably, getting some rest for the first time in what felt like weeks, and then Mike's voice had squawked out of the speakers and yanked her forcefully back to consciousness in the dark. 10:42, the clock on the nightstand said.

      She should have been up and through that door immediately, but sleep confounded her for a few crucial seconds. By the time she was awake enough to realize what had woken her, she was awake enough to realize what was actually going on over there, and awake enough to realize that her presence would not exactly be welcomed.

      She lay still. Curled comfortably up on her side, with the blankets drawn up to her chin and half her face hidden in the pillow, Sandra listened expressionlessly to the broadcast of the goings-on from next door, staring blankly at nothing. It was pitiful, she decided after a moment. All that poor-helpless-me whimpering and begging—even knowing that Mike was going to be horribly embarrassed tomorrow couldn't make her any happier about this pathetic scene.

      Staring at the far wall Sandra wondered what all was going on over there that she couldn't see. The whispers were accompanied by stealthy little rustling sounds—was Diana Fontaine brave enough to make an actual grab for Mike, or was she just petting at him, little fake-innocent touches, hoping like a college girl that if she touched him enough he'd make a grab for her? "Bitch," Sandra muttered under her breath, nearly spitting out the 'b'.

      Diana's suggestion that they could unplug the mike made Sandra go cold and frozen; before she could recover from her shock, someone kissed somebody. Mike's wire broadcast every last little damp smacking sound of it, and it went on for what seemed like forever, and while Sandra had a pretty damned good idea of who had kissed whom, she couldn't be sure. It was that uncertainty that broke her paralysis, and she lay there trembling with useless adrenalin-fueled rage. The sheer length of the kiss told her that Mike would have been all over that goddamned lawyer lady if the room wasn't wired to hell and back. Not that Sandra cared, except that it could have fucked over the team but good if Diana Fontaine wasn't on the level, which she goddamn well wasn't. Everybody knew it but Mike, who was thinking with his dick, like he always did.

      Finally Mike reluctantly managed to extricate himself. Sandra could hear Diana's retreat as well as if she'd been in the room herself, could hear the bedsprings creaking—the theatrical little sniffle made Sandra roll her eyes and spit out a little 'tch!' sound, so that she nearly missed Mike's apology. She wished she had missed it. It made her feel sick.

      "Jesus fuck," Mike breathed a few moments later, just loudly enough to be picked up by the wire on his chest. His voice was thick and trembling. Asshole was probably hard as a rock over there.

      Sandra bared her teeth in disgust and waited to see if he'd say anything else. He didn't. "Jesus, fuck you too," she finally muttered, flipping over onto her other side and squeezing her eyes closed, willing herself to go back to sleep and leave this pathetic, sordid scene behind.