Half-asleep, still moving almost entirely on autopilot, he reached over and poked a finger through the slats of the mini-blinds next to him, tugging them down just far enough to glance out the window. Simon's Jeep sat in its usual spot. Jeremy compared it to his earlier mental snapshots: it hadn't changed, hadn't been touched. He dropped the blinds and settled back into the armchair, crossing his arms over his chest again. He could sleep for longer, if he liked. Simon wouldn't be up and about for a hour yet, at least.
Instead of drifting back off, however, he swam back towards consciousness, nudged in that direction by the pinkness in the sky. He opened his eyes again, stifled a yawn, shifted. Simon was still not-snoring in the bedroom. Jeremy looked out the window again, really looking this time, not just taking another half-conscious mental picture. The Jeep looked fine. No one seemed to be lurking about in the parking lot, or on the long concrete walkway, or by Simon's door. Apparently the night had passed without incident. Wasn't that nice? Jeremy smiled to himself and let the blinds go.
He uncrossed his legs and shook the kinks out, then rolled his shoulders, one, then the other. The harnesses on his forearms shifted, the tough webbing slick against his skin. Jeremy checked the safeties of his weapons automatically, flexing his fingers until the hair-fine threads pressed against the backs of his hands. Everything was in order. Now all he had to do was survive a morning-grumpy Simon, a thought which made Jeremy somewhat grateful to be armed.
6:32, said the clock in the kitchen. Jeremy barely spared it a glance. Not bothering with the lights Jeremy picked his way around the edge of the kitchen table. His groping fingers found the edge of the refrigerator and followed it along until they touched the handle; squinting in anticipation of the light Jeremy pulled the refrigerator open and reached blindly in, his fingers landing on and extracting an apple from its bowl.
He ate it in the darkness, eyes half-focused on the square of the kitchen window, listening more than seeing. The quality of the light outside changed, slowly, outlining everything in the room with a dim greyish chiaroscuro glow. By the time Jeremy pulled open the cabinet under the sink and threw his apple core away, the kitchen was light enough to allow easy manoeuvring, and he left without feeling his way along.
The bedroom was quiet now, Simon no longer not-snoring. Jeremy paused in the middle of the living room and tilted his head to the side, holding his breath, listening; after a moment he picked up the faint sounds of Simon's breathing again and relaxed, infinitesimally. He went back over to the chair and folded himself neatly back into it, content to sit on guard in the darkness, in silence, and listen to the almost-nothing of Simon's breathing.
When the clock hit seven Jeremy unfolded himself again and headed back into the kitchen, this time flicking on the lights and wincing slightly away from them. Eventually his eyes adjusted. The little half-empty bag of decaffeinated coffee sat forlorn and abandoned next to the coffee-maker and he picked it up, unrolling the top.
Once the coffee-maker was doing its thing (Simon had professed himself disgusted by the whole thing and had threatened to throw his tainted coffee-maker away when this was all over, but like so many of Simon's announcements, Jeremy suspected it to be all bluster and front) Jeremy went back out into the main room and turned on the lights there, then dragged the armchair back into its usual place, no longer bothering to be quiet. The scent of perking coffee wafted gently out into the main room. In the other room, the bedsprings squeaked slightly. Jeremy smiled and went back into the kitchen.
A few minutes later Jeremy heard the bedsprings creak again, and he leaned out of the kitchen, waiting. There was a pause and then a rumpled and mussed Simon dragged himself out of the bedroom, hunched over like a shambling bear. "Good morning," Jeremy said cheerfully.
"Gruh," Simon replied, making a rude gesture in Jeremy's general direction before dragging himself into the bathroom and shutting the door with a bit more vehemence than seemed actually necessary.
"Eloquent and charming," Jeremy said under his breath.
"See, I told you I didn't need you to stand guard," a much cleaner and more awake Simon said right off, scuffing into the kitchen and making a slow beeline for the coffee-pot.
Jeremy put his own barely-touched mug down. Really, the decaffeinated stuff was even less pleasant than the regular sort, but he didn't particularly feel like admitting it. "And good morning to you too, Simon. Yes, I did sleep well, thank you for asking."
"Hey, I'm wounded over here, the normal rules of courtesy and etiquette do not apply to me." Simon wrinkled his nose and poured himself a mug of the decaf.
"Because, of course, normally you are the very soul of courteous behaviour," Jeremy said.
Simon slotted the pot back into the coffee-maker. "Since you did have something not entirely unlike coffee waiting for me when I got up, I'm just going to pretend you actually meant that."
"Suit yourself," said Jeremy. "And speaking of wounded, how are you feeling this morning?"
"I'll live," said Simon, stiffly putting the mug down on the kitchen table, opposite Jeremy. "I mostly just hurt like hell, and I can deal with hurting. Toast, I think." Jeremy raised an eyebrow at the non sequitur; Simon, ignoring the eyebrow, shuffled over to the fridge and gingerly reached for the loaf of bread lurking on top. His fingers had just barely brushed the side of the bag when the toaster spat up two slices of half-burnt toast. Jeremy endeavoured to look innocent. Simon gave him an exasperated look anyway, but took the toast, which Jeremy personally counted as something of a victory for his side.
"Just out of curiosity," Simon said, taking the chair opposite Jeremy, "what would you have done if I hadn't wanted toast?"
"Claimed it was mine," said Jeremy, shrugging. "So! Since I saw neither hide nor hair of this Colonel Farraday and no one sent up the alarm in the middle of the night, I'm going to assume everyone made it through the night just fine."
"Guess so." Simon ate one piece of his toast in four giant bites, magnificently ignoring the crumb shower that this occasioned. Jeremy prudently leaned back and out of the way. Simon ignored that, too. "And hey, if he can't find us, maybe he'll stick his neck out too far and do something stupid. A guy can hope, anyway."
"Of course, it would be harder for him to find you if you weren't right here at home," Jeremy pointed out, quite reasonably, he thought.
"Yeah, but he doesn't know that," Simon said patiently, gesturing at Jeremy with his half-eaten second piece of toast. "I mean, not only am I willing to bet that he doesn't know where I live, since I am completely unlisted to prevent just this sort of thing, but officially I'm still in the damned hospital. You could call 'em right now and ask, and they'd tell you I was still there and, and on the verge of death or something."
"Mm," said Jeremy. Personally he had his doubtsand given the flat look that Simon shot in his direction, he'd managed to make that perfectly clearbut he supposed it was Simon's call, in the end.
Simon finished off his breakfast and shoved his chair back, abandoning his nearly-full cup of nearly-coffee to its fate. "I'm gonna go put my shoes on," he said.
"We can go whenever you like," Jeremy said, conscientiously transferring the breakfast dishes to the sink and turning on the tap.
Simon watched him do it with a bemused expression on his face. "Jesus, that's just weird," he finally said, disappearing into the main room.
By the time Jeremy had put all the rinsed dishes in the dishwasher and wiped the table downit really was just like playing a role, and as such, almost funSimon was ready to go. "Weapons down, Archer," he said, pretty much at the very instant that Jeremy appeared in the doorway.
Jeremy rolled his eyes. "Yes, yes, I was getting to that, Simon," he said reprovingly, stripping off his forearm harnesses and filling the living room with the sound of ripping velcro. He slid his middle fingers free of the safety lines and deposited the whole mess into the little (and otherwise useless) drawer in the coffee table. "There, see?" he said, holding up his bared forearms for Simon's theoretical approval. "I am rendered harmless."
"In the first place, ha," said Simon, picking up Jeremy's jacket and holding it out. "And in the second place, it's too early in the morning for your attitude, Mr. Half-My-Shit-Secretly-Explodes."
Jeremy plucked his jacket neatly off Simon's outstretched fingers and slid into it. "You're never going to forgive me for that, are you," he said, not bothering to make it a question.
"It's my policy never to forgive you for anything," Simon said, almost cheerfully. "You ready?"
"As always," said Jeremy, edging past him and heading for the front door. Behind him Simon went quiet, reaching into his bomber jacket with a little rustling leathery sound. Jeremy stopped right where he was and glanced over his shoulder: Simon was standing flat-footed and braced with his right hand behind him, his upper lip drawn up just a tad. Jeremy raised an eyebrow. "One might almost think you were nervous, Simon."
"I'm not nervous, I'm prepared," Simon said. "Open the door already. If he's out there, he'll regret it."
"I'd much rather you be prepared in some way that didn't involve my being between your gun and the door," said Jeremy.
"Hey, think of it this way: if you die acting as a meatshield, it'll be the most useful thing you ever do."
"As a pet name, Simon, 'meatshield' leaves quite a bit to be desired." Nevertheless, Jeremy checked the peepholethe walkway was clearand then opened the front door, admitting nothing more threatening than a burst of damp, chilly air. He turned around and gestured at the open door. "Shall we?"
"Let's," Simon said, letting his hand fall from the butt of his gun. "Meatshield."
The drive in proved uneventful, as did the walk from Simon's Jeep to the door. Simon shifted impatiently from foot to foot as Jeremy produced his guest ID and swiped them in, the card reader beeping. "Christ," said Simon, scowling out over the parking lot, "I am so glad to be armed again, I cannot tell you, not carrying my gun feels like being naked in public. Now all I gotta do is get Sandy to give me back my ID."
Jeremy paused, his fingers on the handle of the door. "Do you mean to say that you've been walking around naked all this week and I somehow managed not to notice? That isn't like me"
"Shut up and open the door." Simon lunged past him and tugged the door open half a second before the card reader could lock it again.
Jeremy smiled and followed Simon into the building, grudgingly clipping his guest ID to his lapel. "Are you sure you can fire that gun without hurting yourself?"
"Yes," Simon said irritably. "Probably. Well, okay, maybe. In any case I'd rather hurt myself firing it than not have it when I needed it."
"Mm. I suppose you have a point there."
This close to nine in the morning, the hallway was full of people. Everyone they passed nodded or said hello to Simon, then casually checked Jeremy out, glancing first at his face, then at his guest ID, then away. Jeremy kept a meaningless, pleasant smile on his face and made certain to remain in Simon's wake, just in case. Simon grappled with and opened the heavy safe-room door with only a slight hitch, although he let out a breath afterwards that was on the pained side. "Morning, folks," he said, dragging his fingertips along the door until Jeremy could catch it. "We all still alive?"
"Aw, fuck, boss," Mike wailed from the conference table, his head in his hands.
"I'm not into you, remember?" said Simon. "What happened? Diana Fontaine stick her hand down your pants and make you sing alleluia?"
"Yep, pretty much," said Johnny.
Simon stopped just where he was, forcing Jeremy to slide around him to get into the room. "You know what?" Simon said. "I was kidding."
Johnny shrugged. "I wasn't."
Mike collapsed face-first onto the table, folding his arms protectively over his head. "Aw, fuck, boss!"
Deciding that perhaps now was a good time to blend into the wallpaper, so to speak, Jeremy went over to the coffee-maker and fetched out his mug from the cabinet underneath. There was no sign of either Sandra or Nate, but Dave Brassoff was lurking sheepishly in the corner, doing his own (much less practised) wallpaper imitation. Rich's computer lair had been entirely reassembled during the nightactually, Jeremy corrected himself, it wasn't really Rich's computer lair any more, not like that. Rich had made his desks into a box that enclosed him and separated him from the rest of the room, at least in spirit; Dave had rearranged everything, pushing the desks back against the walls in an open and more inclusive 'L'. The only drawback to that, as far as Jeremy could tell, was that it rather forced Dave to sit with his back exposed to the rest of the team, which seemed like a poor tactical move on his part.
"So what happened?" Simon asked, taking his seat. "Inquiring minds want to know!"
Johnny shut his eyes and tilted his head back. "Know how Nate was gonna tell her that the microphone couldn't pick up whispers?"
"She bought it." Johnny cracked an eye open and stared up at the ceiling. "Bought it but good. Oughta hear the tape, boss."
"I would not miss this opportunity for the world," Simon declared. Mike made a muffled sound of pain, which Simon ignored. "Where is it?"
"Nate's got it."
"Great." Simon glanced around. "Where's Nate?"
"Sandy took him to pick up his car," said Johnny.
"Sandy hasn't said word one to me all morning," Mike added, his voice muffled by the arms clamped over his head. "She is so pissed at me. I didn't even do anything!"
"This time," Johnny added.
"You sent her packing, I'm gonna assume," Simon said. "Uh. Diana Fontaine. Not Sandy. I don't think you're man enough to send Sandy packing."
Mike's head popped up. "Fuck yeah I sent her packing," he said bitterly. "Hell was I supposed to do, strip down and let her see the wire all taped to my chest? Yeah, that'd have gone over great, chicks totally dig that 'being secretly recorded' shit."
Johnny glanced over at Simon. "Miz Fontaine did suggest they could turn off the mike," he said, leaning on that like it was significant. "Among other things."
"I'll be damned," Simon breathed.
"Jesus God I'm still hard!" Mike wailed, and dropped his head back into the cradle of his arms to the accompaniment of an tremendous amount of thoughtful silence. "Fuckin' wasted opportunity," he muttered.
"Fuckin' attempt to maybe railroad you on a rape charge later, you mean," Simon said.
Mike snorted. "Yeah, say that again after you hear the tape."
Simon hesitated, then shrugged. "Yeah, okay, good point," he said. "I'll hear the tape before I pass judgement, all right?"
The room went quiet. Jeremy took the opportunity to sit down, although he kept his attention strictly on his coffee. After a minute or so of silence Mike heaved out a great sigh and sat back up, running his fingers through his hair. "The shit I do for my job," he said mournfully. "You guys have any idea how long it's been since I got any?"
"Didn't you have a date or something last week?" Simon asked, tapping his fingers idly on the table.
"Well, yeah," said Mike, "but, uh, there was this cop pulled me over, all flashers going, to let me know you got your ass shot, boss, and that kind of shit doesn't really go down all that well with the civilian-type ladies, you know?"
"Oh yeah," Simon said. "Damn, Mike, I'm sorry, here I went and ruined your whole evening."
"Yeah, I ain't never gonna forgive you for that," Mike said, already sounding a bit more chipper. "You gonna make that tragic loss of tail up to me?"
you you're not my type," Simon said, plucking Jeremy's mug out of his hands
and unceremoniously chugging off about a third of its contents.
The light up ahead turned yellow, then red. The car in front of Sandra's stopped and Sandra glided to a careful stop behind it, her fingers flexing on the steering wheel. Nate risked a glance at her out of the corner of his eyeshe was staring expressionlessly at the rear bumper of the car in front of themand then leaned forward a little, pointing. His finger nearly touched the windshield. "See the yellow sign up there on the right? Just past the next light? That's where we're going."
"Right," said Sandra, increasing the number of words she'd spoken to Nate since they got into the car by a fairly large percentage. Nate sat back and uncomfortably focused his attention on the white CD in his hands, flipping it lightly between his fingers and watching the silver rim flash in the morning sun. It was in a clear plastic sleeve and carefully labeled in his own small, neat printing: his name, PROPERTY OF THE FBI, yesterday's date and time stamp, the location where the recording was made, a short list of the identifiable voices. Very short. A list of two, in fact.
The recording was as clear as crystal and rich with nuance and undertone, almost like it had been recorded in a sound studio instead of a hotel roombut given the flat expression on Sandra's face, Nate couldn't really bring himself to be proud of it. In fact, he felt guilty. Not that this was really a new thing for him, but still, he thought that maybe this time he had some reason.
The light went green. The car in front of them was a little slow in accelerating, making Sandra mutter "Come on" under her breath. Fortunately for Nate's nerves, the other car noticed and took off before Sandra could actually hit the horn. Nate let the CD fall to his lap again and folded his hands on top of it, trying half-consciously to hide the evidence from sight.
He was still struggling to think of something to say when Sandra turned into the tire place and into a parking spot. "You can just drop me off, if you want," Nate offered, not without some relief.
"No," said Sandra, dropping her car into park and shutting off the engine. "I'm going to stick close to you until we get back to base. I don't want anyone going anywhere alone until Farraday is dealt with."
"Oh. Okay." Nate glanced out the passenger-side window, then undid his seat belt and got out, carrying the CD. Puddles stood here and there on the parking-lot tarmac, fresh from last night's rain, but this morning the sky overhead was clear and blue, with small clouds scudding across it. The day itself was crisp and cold, a good ten degrees cooler than yesterday. Nate shivered a little and hunched his shoulders, glad of his sweater.
Sandra joined him, dropping her keys into her purse. Nate couldn't help but notice that she left her hand parked casually atop her unzipped purse as she escorted him into the shop (and that's what she was doing, escorting him, not just walking with him). It should have been a struggle not to succumb to another bout of paranoia, but the morning was so bright and cool that it was actually fairly easy not to think about it too hard.
"Hi," he said to the guy behind the counter. Sandra halted behind him and turned around, scanning the store windows. Nate barely noticed, just fumbled for his wallet. "Nathan Waxman? I'm here to pick up my car?"
"Oh yeah," the guy said, with an appreciative glance at Sandra. "They're vacuuming it out now. They'll bring it around when they're done. I can go ahead and ring you up for that, if you want."
Ten minutes later his car had been brought around, standing a little taller than usual on four brand-new black tires and equally new rims. The new parts made the rest of his car look even more battered and shabby than it actually wasstill, Nate was glad to have it back.
"I'll follow you back to base," Sandra said, fetching out her keys. The butt of her gun surfaced from her purse and sank back again, like a shark's fin breaking the surface of the water. "Ready to go?"
"Yeah," Nate said, closing his hand around his own keys. "I need to go see my mother about her fingerprints, but I was thinking I'd do that this afternoon"
"Take someone with you," Sandra said, looking not at Nate but down at her keys, sorting through them. "Mike or Johnny, whoever's free."
"Okay," Nate said. He paused, awkwardly, then said "Okay" again and more or less fled to the dubious safety of his car. It started with its usual anemic mutter but rolled out of the parking lot with a smoothness which Nate was entirely unaccustomed to. Sandra backed out of her parking spot and pulled in behind him, waiting. Nate looked left, then right, then carefully trundled his car out into traffic, feeling decidedly uncomfortable until Sandra's car fell in behind his.
Nate parked over by the side door, tucking his car neatly in between two SUVs that promised to hide it almost entirely from sight. He was almost used to the car's new smooth ride now; it was nice, in a way. He'd never have done anything about the car's jittering if dire circumstances hadn't driven him to it. Still, he wasn't feeling overly grateful. Among other things, it had been an expensive upgrade.
Sandra appeared, weaving her way between the SUVs, and knocked lightly on his window to let him know that she was there. Nate hurriedly pulled the keys from the ignition and got out, almost forgetting the CD. He had to dive back in to grab it. "Got everything?" Sandra said once Nate had straightened up, her voice oddly flat.
"Yeah," Nate said, half-heartedly waving the CD in her direction.
Sandra glanced at it, then away. "Good," she said. "Let's go." She set off for the building at a ground-eating pace, her hand once again resting on the top of her purse. Nate was forced to trot to keep up. Sandra glanced at him as he caught up, a little spasm of something that looked like embarrassment pulling at her face; after that she slowed down, just enough. "Sorry," she said.
"It's okay," said Nate, glancing sheepishly down at the CD in his hand. "I, uh, I really didn't want to hear it either."
Sandra's jaw set. Nate could have kicked himself, except that they hit the side entrance right about then and he gratefully dug for his keycard instead. Sandra blew through the door the instant that it beeped. This time, expecting it, Nate managed to keep up with her on the short jaunt down the hallway.
"Morning, you two," Simon said, pretty much the instant that they got in the door. Nate barely had time to register the fact that there was something different about Rich's corner of the room before Simon added, "Specs, I understand you've got something for me to listen to." Beside him, at the table, Mike moaned and hid his face in his hands.
"Sure do," Nate said, holding up the CD and not looking anywhere near Sandra. "It's forty minutes of Mike snoring. You'll love it."
"I don't snore," Mike mumbled from behind the protective wall of his hands. Sandra made a disgusted little noise and went straight into Simon's office.
"Um," said Nate, glancing at the CD. "I kinda have documented evidence that you do, in fact, snore."
"Fuckin' buzzsaw," Johnny said, apparently in agreement. "You share a hotel room with him, you'd know."
"Says the guy who grunts in his sleep," Mike said, rallying enough to let his hands drop. "Fuck, it's like sharing a room with a masturbating pig."
"You know what?" Simon said. "I really did not need that mental image. Like, at all."
"How's a pig jerk off anyway?" Johnny asked. "All they got's those little trotters"
"this is a line of conversation that I really do not want to be present for," Simon broke in.
"They got those curly little tails," Mike said thoughtfully.
Johnny shrugged. "Yeah, but they couldn't do anything with those but stick 'em up their asses"
"why is no one listening to me?" Simon asked the world at large, plaintively.
"No fun in it?" Mike said.
"Christ," Simon said, holding out a hand. "Give me that. I'd rather listen to forty minutes of Mike snoring than hear another word about pig masturbation."
Nate shook himself out of his mortified stupor and handed Simon the CD. "If you don't want to listen to Mike snoring for some reason, the interesting stuff happens starting around minute forty-two."
"Right," said Simon, rubbing his thumb over the CD's plastic sleeve and glancing at the lettering. "The computer will open it for me, right? I just need to stick it in?"
"Like a pig's curly tail," Nate heard himself say, already quivering with embarrassment and simultaneously trying not to laugh. Simon blinked at him, then put a hand over his eyes and groaned as the room exploded in whooping.
"Okay, okay, look what you guys did, you destroyed the last of Specs' innocence," Simon said over the ruckus. "Sandy? I'm gonna need my computer here for a sec, okay?"
Sandra didn't answer right away. In the face of her silence, the hilarity died away quickly. "All right, Templar," she finally said. "Give me a moment to finish this up."
"Take your time," Simon said, putting the CD down on the table in front of him. "I figure I can handle maybe thirty seconds' more talk about pigs jerking off before I die of disgust."
Eventually Sandra surrendered Simon's computer and Simon vanished into his office, carrying the CD. Nate took a deep breath, recovering. Here in a minute he thought he'd head down to the lab and check on the status of the dismembered cell phone. Anything to put off the moment where he'd have to confront his mother with an ink pad and a fingerprint sheet; just the thought of it made his stomach squirm uncomfortably.
Mike had his laptop open and was staring at the screen with all his might, trying to ignore the world and especially the tiny percentage of it that was in Simon's office right now. Johnny eyed him for a second, thoughtfully, then pulled out his own laptop and booted it up. The startup sound made Nate change his mind: check his email first, then go fight with the lab.
He went over and started up his computer, thumbing the monitor on. While his computer booted Nate finally succumbed to the urge to go over and check out what the new guy had done to Rich's lair. If it could really be called 'Rich's lair' any more. "Wow," he said, putting a hand on the back of the new guy's chair and craning his neck to take it all in. "I didn't think you'd get that mess sorted out this quickly."
Dave ducked his head. "I was here until close to nine last night," he said, sounding almost apologetic about it, as if there were something wrong with that. "I thought about putting it back the way he had it, but this really suits me better. I can work both desks at the same time without turning around. I guess all I need now is a real computer chair."
"Huh," said Nate.
"I don't think he'd ever once moved or cleaned behind his computers," Dave went on, glancing over at one of the new computers and typing something. "You should have seen it. My hands were gray when I was done."
Nate made a face. "Uck. I know he moved them around when he needed to install or remove stuff, but I guess he didn't really dust or anything."
"They were pristine inside, though," Dave said. "Typical."
"Typical computer nerd," Dave said. "If he couldn't clean it using canned air, it wasn't worth cleaning." A second later Dave realized what he'd said, or who he was talking to, or something, and went a little pink around the ears.
Nate resisted the urge to glance guiltily back at his own computer. "Guess so," he said dubiously. "Guess I ought to clean behind mine before I get any more typical, huh?"
"Sorry," Dave said. "I don't have that much room to talk, really. I only clean behind my home machines when I have a new one to install. It's just such a hassle."
"Yeah, I always end up either ignoring any dust bunnies smaller than my hand or sitting on the floor at three AM wiping all my cables clean with a wet paper towel"
"disassembling a tower on the kitchen table and then eating on the couch for a week"
"I kind of miss cleaning wads of fuzz off the mouse ball, though, it was kind of therapeutic"
"yeah," said Dave, almost wistfully. "I mean, I wouldn't give up optical mice for anything, but"
"yeah," said Nate. "So, uh, how's it going, anyway? I keep saying I'm going to lend you a hand and then getting distracted by, uh. Things."
"It's going all right," Dave said, glancing around the lair. "I ended up wiping the laptop but I got a lot of raw data off it. It'll take me a while to sort through the data and see what's what, but it's a definite step in the right direction."
"What about those CDs?"
"Encrypted," Dave said with a sigh. "Still, that should be easier to crack than the security stuff on the desktop machines. That stuff is vicious."
"Yeah," Nate said unhappily. "I spent a long time mucking around with these before you came. Never got anywhere. No one ever used these computers but Rich, so he didn't label anything."
"Didn't document anything, either," said Dave. "Didn't streamline his code. Didn't do a lot of stuff. And his variable names are weird."
"Really? Bad sign." Nate frowned. "I wonder if he thought of it like a security measure."
Dave shrugged. Behind him Rich's smaller computer shut itself down. Dave sighed. "Maybe he just thought it was funny."
"I don't think so," Nate said. "Rich never thought anything was funny. I remember once when I was talking to him I called that computer 'Mama Bear'" Nate waved a hand at Rich's smaller desktop machine "and he tried to hate me to death with his brain. It was just a joke, sheesh."
"Mama Bear, huh?" said Dave, glancing over at the smaller computer just as it rebooted itself.
"Well, yeah," Nate said. He was starting to wish that he hadn't brought this up. "There's three of them in all different sizes, right? So there's Papa Bear, Mama Bear, and the laptop is obviously Baby Bear."
"Obviously," Dave said, jiggling the mouse to wake up the largest computer and bring up the single unlabeled text box that had been the bane of Nate's life for close to six months. "Papa Bear, huh," he said, laughing a little. He typed it one-handed into the text box, fingers dancing spiderlike over the keys: papabear. A string of asterisks appeared. "Why the hell not?" he told Nate, hitting the return key without even looking at the screen. "Guess his porridge has had time to cool, anyway."
"Yeah, but you totally pithed Baby Bear, he'll never get his" Nate choked on the rest of that sentence. Dave blinked at him for a second, then turned around to look at the monitor. The big white box was still there in the center of the screen, but there were two empty unlabeled text boxes in it now, not just one. Dave and Nate sucked in their breaths simultaneously.
"Holy crap," said Nate, grabbing the back of Dave's chair in both hands. "I can't believe I never tried that. Why didn't I try that? Holy crap!"
"No wonder he tried to hate you to death if you just up and guessed his initial password," said Dave. He spun halfway around in his chair and punched on the monitor connected to the smaller machine, then woke up yet another of the boxes and hit 'cancel' on a program it was running. Once the smaller computer finished booting upNate couldn't help but think of it as 'Mama Bear' nowDave typed mamabear into the empty text box. The asterisks and the box itself blinked out for a fraction of a second, then two boxes popped up to replace it. "Holy shit," Dave said reverently. "I've got to update that cracking program."
"I bet those two are for some version of user name and password," Nate said urgently. "Doesn't IT have a list of the passwords he used on message boards and stuff?"
"Yeah," Dave said, eyes glued to the monitor, "but if he reused one of those for something as sensitive as this, I'll eat my hat."
Nate glanced at him. "You don't have a hat."
one," Dave promised, typing richardstory into the first text
Simon ended up listening to the important parts of the recording four times. Once he was satisfied that he could recall it to mind whenever he needed them, he shut down the audio program and pushed his headphones off to hang around his neck. "Christ," he said, closing his eyes and rubbing his temples. "I can't decide whether to laugh at him orno, actually, I think I want to laugh at him. A lot. But Christ, what a mess."
"Mm," said Sandra from behind him, the little sound so severely neutral that it made Simon blink and spin slowly around in his desk chair to face her. For just a moment the sheer pleasure of being back behind his desk distracted him from the thunderclouds on Sandra's face, but that, unfortunately, couldn't last.
"You okay?" he said carefully, pulling his headphones off and dropping them onto the keyboard.
Sandra shrugged. "A little angry, I guess."
"Yeah, you know, I'm getting that." Simon stopped, waiting to see if she'd incriminate herself.
After a moment, she did. "It's just... he went out on such a limb for her despite the rest of us waving warning signshe fucked mus over to help herand then this happens, and he has the gall to be startled by it." Sandra hissed out a short, sharp sound and looked away, staring blindly at the wall.
Simon watched her for a moment. "Yeah, okay," he finally said. "Okay. I can see that. But you seem a little too pissed for it to be just that."
"Yeah. Yeah, I guess so." Sandra looked back at him, then down. "She makes me angry. I'm pissed at Mike for buying her line of bullshit, but I guess really I'm pissed at her."
"Jesus, I can't blame you for that," said Simon. "But..."
Sandra closed her eyes. "I know," she said. "I need to let it go."
"Yeah." Simon levered himself out of his chair (with a faint twinge of regret and a sharper twinge of pain) and caught Sandra's shoulders in both hands, stooping until he could look her in the eye. "I need you with us now, Sandy. Okay? I can't blame you at all for being pissed off but frankly, it is a luxury that we cannot afford right now. You wanna take Mike out back and beat the shit out of him once Farraday's back in prison, I promise you I will pin his arms for you, but right now I need both of you too much. Okay?"
After a startled moment, Sandra laughed painfully under her breath and reached up to push one of Simon's hands away. "I thought I already told you that I didn't need one of your pep talks," she said.
"Yeah, well, executive privilege, so sue me." Simon squeezed her shoulder and let go, straightening up. "Take five and get your game face on, okay? I'm going to go taunt Honda a whole bunch."
"Be sure to speak up," Sandra said, pushing past Simon and dropping into the chair he'd just vacated. "I don't want to miss this."
"Oh, Mike," Simon said, taking his seat at the head of the table and slowly shaking his head. "Mike, Mike, Mike."
"I knoooow," Mike groaned, letting his head drop into his crossed arms. "Oh, fuck, I should have seen it coming"
"Actually, I was more 'oh Mike'-ing about your desperate and total loss of cool," said Simon. "I mean, that shit is embarrassing. I had more smooth than that when I was fourteen and my voice cracked on every sixth word."
"Yeah, well, I'd have totally hit that if I hadn't had a fucking microphone taped to my chest and an audience," Mike said indignantly, his head popping back up. "Shit, that is nowhere near a prime example of my smooth."
"Nope," said Simon, enjoying himself. "Not buying it. Seriously, your lack of mack is an embarrassment to this team, and I'd be pink-slipping you right now if you didn't have one or two other minor skills to fall back on."
Mike threw up his hands. "Oh, that's it," he said. "Next time I go out on a date I am totally wearing that fucking wire just so you guys can hear me operate. My lady skills are like a symphony of awesome or something."
"Kinky," said Simon. "Put that on the internet and I bet you'd make a few bucks."
"Not really," said Nate right on cue, looking up from whatever he and the new guy were doing. "Someone would just pirate the recording and pass it around. He'd be famous, but not really rich."
"I can deal with famous," Mike said thoughtfully.
Nate nodded. "You would totally be popular on the Internet."
"Thousands of hopeless geeks critiquing your performance and finding it desperately wanting," the new guy added absently, his eyes glued to the screen in front of him. Nate glanced down at him, startled, then shrugged at Mike, as if to say the guy's got a point.
Spotting an opportunity, Simon casually reached for Jeremy's unattended mug again. Jeremy, apparently wise to him by this point, picked it up and moved it out of Simon's reach. "Aw, come on," said Simon, settling back in his chair. "Stolen coffee does not count. Let me have some and I'll let you listen to the recording. I know you must be bursting with curiosity."
"Actually, not terribly," said Jeremy. "I'm sure it's very entertaining, but I'm not really interested in listening to Mr. Takemura make a fool of himself again."
"Again?!" Mike squawked.
"Liar," Simon said cheerfully.
"You know he wants it," Johnny added, picking up Jeremy's mug and stealing the last of his coffee. Jeremy turned to look at him, piqued; Johnny shrugged, his face crinkling up into what was almost a grin.
"Shame on you, Texas," said Simon. "Stealing from the thief. That's not right."
"It's an ironic reversal of tropes or some shit," Mike said.
Simon blinked at him. "Did you actually just use the word 'tropes' in a sentence?"
"So?" said Mike. "What you fuckers fail to realize is that I got me educated pretty good in college."
"Got you educated pretty good last night, too," Johnny pointed out, picking up Jeremy's empty mug and carrying it over to the coffeemaker.
Mike hunched his shoulders. "Yeah, that was a total learning experience, and not one that I was longing for, shit."
"It's Diana Fontaine," Simon pointed out, logically enough, he thought. "One way or another the woman is always going to try and fuck with you."
"Man, if you had told me three years ago that Diana Fontaine was gonna be throwing herself on me one day..." said Mike, perking up a little. "... shit, who am I kidding, I wouldn't have believed you."
Johnny came back and put the full mug back down in front of Jeremy. "Thank you?" Jeremy said, glancing over long enough to quirk an eyebrow at Johnny. Simon promptly stole his mug again. Mike sniggered.
"See, Diana Fontaine's the whole reason that Farraday's out on parole right now despite, uh, everything," Simon told Jeremy, giving him back what was left of his coffee. "Well, okay, maybe not the whole reason."
Jeremy pulled the mug back against his chest, curling both hands around it protectively. "What happened?"
"Honda happened," said Johnny, shutting his eyes.
really my finest moment," said Mike. "But I learned me my lesson: consequences
suck." Jeremy raised both eyebrows and waited, patiently.
After a moment, Mike sighed. "Okay, so we left Rich with Nate and drove
like mad fuckers to the outskirts of Massena, New York, right? And
gravel crunched softly under the wheels of the van as Mike pulled it off onto the side of the narrow two-lane road. Some little bit of the tightness in his chest eased: as much as he liked running without headlights on these tiny country roads, there was always the chance that he'd get them all smeared into road paste by an eighteen-wheeler or something. The chance of it was always enough to keep him on his toes.
From where they were parked they could see the dim lights of the cabin through the thick tree cover, almost a hundred yards away. Twenty feet or so behind them was the negligible entrance to the long dirt driveway. Mike, still nearly jittering in his seat despite the long drive, said, "You want, boss, I'll park this thing right across the driveway, box him in."
"Good idea," Simon said. "I'm not letting this fucker get away again, even if it means totaling the van and having to wait for a ride home. Do it."
Mike nodded and shot the van into reverse, trundling slowly backwards on the gravel shoulder. The back tires hit packed earth and bounced up onto it. Mike kept rolling until the front tires just barely hit dirt, then stopped the van again. "Check me," he said.
"Right. Quiet, people." Simon rolled down the window and leaned out. Mike damned near held his breath until Simon pulled his head back in and rolled the window up again. "Looks good," he reported. "He'll T-bone the van if he hits it, but it's not my van, I'll cope." Turning halfway around in the passenger seat Simon faced Sandra and Johnny, staring out of the darkness in the back. "Right, folks. Let's do this thing. Here's what I want from you: Honda, I want you with me. Texas, you're with Springheel. Spring and I will wear headsets. I want you two to circle around through the woods and come in from behind, let us all know if there's another way out of here that I'm missing. If you come across a vehicle, disable it. Quietly. Once you're in place, we're going to sneak up from opposite sides, cover both entrances, and block him in."
"He's gonna run," Johnny said, something like urgency in his voice.
"If he runs, warn him and then drop him," said Simon. "I'd prefer if you didn't shoot to kill, but take whatever shot you can. But remember that there is a teenaged girl in there, at least in theory, possibly a hostagefor Christ's sake, be careful about what you're aiming at, I'm not really eager to get crucified by the media. Or, uh, to kill her, either. Okay?"
"Right," said Johnny, glancing towards the cabin, although all he could probably see from his position was the blank metal wall of the van.
"Once I confirm where Carole Winston is, I'm going to kick in the front door and Mike and I will storm the place," Simon said. "With any luck that'll drive him out the back right into you guys. Once he's secured, Springheel, you get in there, find the girl, make sure she's okay and calm her down."
"Chick duty," Sandra said, and snorted. "Lucky me."
Simon ignored her. "I don't know what kind of weaponry he's got in there, but we're going in in vests. I don't care if he's not usually the gun type. Texas, pass 'em out." Johnny threw himself off the footlocker that he was sitting on and opened it. He passed Mike his vest; Mike wriggled into it, careful not to hit the van's horn with his elbow or do anything else critically stupid. By the time he finished fighting his way into the vest and zipped it up, everybody else was wearing theirs and Simon and Sandra were putting on their headsets. Johnny closed the footlocker.
"Any questions?" Simon said, wrapping his hand around the microphone of his headset. No one said anything, although Johnny's fingers flexed on the butt of his gun. "Right," said Simon. "I want silence on all frequencies unless it's mission-related. Springheel, Texas: go."
After Sandra and Johnny left, things got quiet in the van. Mike, without a headset, couldn't really hear much but Simon rubbing reflectively at his stubble. Occasionally Simon would cock his head to the side or tense up, listening to something that Mike couldn't hear. It kept Mike's nerves crackling.
"Right," Simon suddenly said, making Mike jump in his seat. "Tell me what you seeshit. Got it. You two hold your positions until I say." He covered the microphone with his hand again and glanced at Mike. "There's a back way out of here, Springheel says. Still, let's leave this driveway blocked."
Mike nodded. "We going?"
"We going," Simon confirmed, grabbing the doorhandle and easing up on it until the passenger-side door clicked free. Mike did the same, jogging around the front of the van and joining Simon by its side. He was painfully aware of the lights in the distance, dim and yellow. "We are heading up the front drive," Simon muttered, "repeat, heading up the front drive. Move in. If you spot a vehicle, report it and disable it."
Whatever Sandra said, it passed muster: Simon nodded. "Good." He glanced at Mike, his eyes two faint sparks of light in the darkness, and jerked his head toward the cabin. Mike nodded, drew his gun, and fell in step just behind Simon.
The moon was still newhard to believe that it was only last night that they'd made their last try for Farraday. The only lights in the world were those from the cabin, and those were dim; Mike picked his way through nearly absolute darkness, his heart in his throat. The hard-packed dirt under his boots occasionally gave way to undergrowth, forcing Mike back onto the path. "Shit," he muttered. "Shoulda brought a flashlight."
"Can't risk it," Simon muttered back, sweeping his eyes back and forth. "Just go slow." He touched two fingers to the headphones, then added, "Springheel says there's a white RV, nothing else that she can see. Spring, head for it, let me know when it's disfuck, Honda, stop"
The order came a heartbeat too late. Mike, with his eyes fixed on the cabin lights in the distance, never saw the rope, but he felt it twang across the bridge of his boot and whip away, and then the night filled with roaringSimon's arm came smashing around in an arc, slamming into Mike's chest and knocking him sprawling backwards onto the driveway. There was a world-shaking thud and a sickening crunch. Simon bellowed, his voice cracking in the middle.
Mike thrashed his way up onto his elbows as fast as he could, for the moment not even concerned about where his gun had gone. A log lay sideways across the road and Simon was trapped under itMike's heart stoppedno, not quite under it, although Simon was sprawled out on his face clawing at the road and gasping in breath in huge, wet sobs. His right leg was pinned under the log. "Fuck, Honda," he wheezed, "get this thing off meSpringheel, let Texas get him" Simon sucked in another of those horrible choking breaths "get the Winston girl!"
In the distance Mike heard Johnny shouting, the sudden roar of a big engine, and two echoing shots. He scrambled to his feet and over to where Simon lay. "Ready?"
"Off!" Simon roared, nearly gagging.
Mike grabbed the log around the middle and heaved it up with all his strength. His back muscles strained against the Kevlar, but the log wasn't as heavy as he'd fearedin retrospect that made sense, Farraday would have had to set this trap all by himselfand he was able to lift it a couple of inches. Swearing and gasping, Simon clawed at the road and dragged himself free. Mike duck-walked the log around, swearing a little himself, until he was able to drop it in the undergrowth, clearing the road.
"Yell for... Texas," Simon said between gasps. "We'll pursue... in the vanno, Spring, you... stay with the girl, we'll send the locals, that's an order"
Mike sucked in a breath. "TEXAS!" he bellowed at the top of his lungs. "NEED YOU, MAN!"
"Coming!" Johnny yelled back a moment later, his voice thin and distant.
Mike dropped to his haunches beside Simon, his hands hovering impotently a few inches away from Simon's right thigh. It bulged oddly, visible even through Simon's loose pants. "Oh, shit, boss"
"it's broken," Simon gritted out.
Mike glanced behind him, at the lights of the cabin, which suddenly seemed a lot more inviting. "We'll get you to the cabin, there's gotta be a couch or a bed or something, we can call for an ambulance from there"
"Fuck that," Simon said with alacrity. "We pursue. I am not letting that asshole get away even if it kills me."
"Fuck, boss, it might!" Mike said, getting a little panicky now.
The heavy rush of Johnny's footsteps snapped Mike out of it and he shot upright, leaving Simon stretched out at his feet. "Texas, Honda, help me up," Simon said, swallowing and finally catching his breath. "Right leg's broken. I need to get back to the van pronto. Put me in the passenger seat and get after that fucker."
"Boss," Mike wailed, but Johnny just nodded and bent down, hauling Simon's arm around his neck. Mike swallowed and dropped again, grabbing for Simon's other arm.
Somehow they made it back to the van, Simon cursing and bitching and trying to hurry all the way, making horrible gagging noises whenever his broken leg collided with Johnny's side. Mike was boosting Simon into the passenger seat when he remembered. "Fuck, my gun"
"Forget it," Simon said, scrabbling at the floorboards with his left foot, pushing himself in. "Texas, get in the back, I got it. Honda? Fucking drive."
Mike had always been in his element behind the wheelhe shot past the cabin, already going close to thirty miles an hour. For a brief second of time he saw Sandra's face smeared against one of the cabin's windows, then she and the cabin were both gone. "Where," Mike panted, looking back and forth. "Wherethere!" He hauled on the wheel and heeled the van around, sending it roaring down the second driveway in a spray of dirt.
Simon braced his left leg against the floorboard and hissed air through his teeth, his shaking hands pressing his right leg down. When he could talk again, he hauled off the headset and tossed it blindly behind him. Johnny caught it. "Texas," Simon said. "Need you to get on the radio. We need locals to the cabin and out of our way."
"Got it," Johnny said, kicking himself around and grabbing for Nate's big radio console bolted to one of the borrowed van's shelves. "Shot at his tires, but I probably missed."
The back driveway let out onto a dead end. The road only led one way from here and Mike took it. "Brace," he snapped, too focused on what he was doing to pay attention to anything else. He slammed on the brights and floored the van, which roared in answer and lunged forward. Mike's world narrowed to the road in front of him.
Behind him the big radio was squawking. At intervals the radio went silent and Johnny grated information into it. "This is the FBI, repeat, FBI. We are in an unmarked gray van, Pennsylvania plate number FSV1088, repeat, FSV1088, we are in hot pursuit of a white Winnebago RV also with Pennsylvania plates, repeat, Pennsylvania plates. We are heading towards highway 37, need the way clear."
"Roger that," a voice crackled back at him. "Need assistance?"
Johnny hesitated. "Yes," Simon grated out, like it hurt him in several ways to admit it. "And send 'em to the cabin."
"FBI, officially requesting assistance, looking for a white Winnebago RV with Pennsylvania plates west of Massena, repeat, west of Massena," Johnny said. "Winnebago is probably heading towards highway 37, repeat, highway 37. Also need a car sent"
Mike tuned him out right about then as the white butt end of an RV hove into view at the very limit of his vision. Beside him Simon stiffened and hissed out a warning, even as the RV hauled sharply rightwell, as sharply as a Winnebago couldand vanished again. "I see 'im," Mike growled. "Fucker can't get away from me, not in that thing. Worst comes to worst he'll run out of gas before we do."
"Good," Simon said shortly, all three working limbs braced against something or other. "Sic 'em."
Mike was never able to remember details of that chase afterwards, just the dreamlike sense of pursuit. It was alternately harrowing and oddly, crushingly dull. Farraday stubbornly stuck to the back roads, taking turns seemingly at random, trying to shake off the van; a police cruiser eventually fell in behind Mike, flashers going. Then another. Behind Mike the radio squawked, yammering on about roadblocks set up here and here, but Farraday twisted and turned through the honeycomb of the countryside and Mike never saw a one. Occasionally the cars behind him would fall away and be replaced. He barely noticed, except at the animal level. He thought maybe he crossed a state line at one point, but he wasn't sure.
It would have been so easy to ram Farraday's huge, ungainly RV from behind and drive it off the road, but Simon was already badly hurt in the passenger seat and Johnny was completely unrestrained in the back. Mike set his teeth and prepared for a siege.
Hours passed, although Mike didn't notice at the time. Simon was semi-conscious at best in the passenger seat, supported by his seatbelt to an alarming extent, occasionally moaning thickly under his breath. Johnny was still working the radio. Mike only emerged from his trance when an enormous blinding flash of white light raced across the road in front of them and riveted itself to the Winnebago, catching it in the spotlight. "Helicopter," Mike said, raising his voice to be heard over the heavy thup-thup-thup noise from overhead. He squinted against the light. "Wonder if it's police or media."
"Doesn't matter," Simon said faintly, rousing himself enough to lift his head. "Long as it keeps him in sight."
"Yeah, it's doing that," said Mike. He glanced down at the clock on the dashboard and blinked in surprise. "Fuck, how much more gas has he got? Can't have much."
"Hope not," Simon said. He fell silent. Maybe he'd passed out. Mike wasn't sure, and soon enough he tranced back out, aided by the lulling bass line of the helicopter's rotors overhead.
Barely twenty minutes later the RV hitched once and drove straight off the road. As its wheels bumped across the uneven terrain the driver kicked open his door and bailed out, abandoning the Winnebago to its fate. The Winnebago lumbered fifteen feet further on and crashed into a tree, hard enough to jolt its back wheels off the ground; the driver lunged to his feet and bolted for the treeline. "Oh fuck you no" Mike yelled, slamming on the brakes. The van slewed squealing off the road after the Winnebago, the police cruisers behind it fanning out across the asphalt to avoid hitting it. Simon made a horrible noise but Mike only barely heard it, smacking the van into neutral.
"I got it," Johnny yelled into Mike's ear, and Mike threw open the driver's side door and hit the ground running alongside the still-moving van, holding onto its frame for a few seconds until he got his feet under him. He bolted after Farraday, the van jerking to a grinding stop behind him as Johnny threw it into park.
Farraday hit the treeline and vanished. Mike hit the treeline five seconds later. Behind him he could hear car doors slamming and state police yelling, and the red-and-blue strobe of their lights made the night into a crazy, flickering hell, occasionally bleached white by the spotlight from the helicopter overheadMike spotted the flash of something white moving through the trees and bolted after it, baring his teeth. He couldn't get up enough breath to yell. He didn't think it mattered.
The white thing raced ahead of him, twisting and ducking through the trees. Mike threw an arm up to protect his face and went straight through, breaking branches through his sheer momentum. One branch as thick as his thumb broke across the belly plates of his Kevlar vest and drove the breath out of him, but Mike stumbled onwards, wheezing "Fuck, fuck, fuck" under his breath, slowly but steadily gaining. The helicopter's spotlight darted back and forth, searching the trees and failing to find either of them.
Up ahead there was a break in the trees, the forest thinning again to permit another road to run through. Farraday broke from the treeline, Mike hard on his heels, and the spotlight picked them both up immediately, the spotlight wavering at the edges but otherwise steady. Shedding leaves and twigs, Farraday vaulted the ditch and hit the road, making for the other side and the relative safety of the trees.
He was halfway across when Mike brought him down.
Digging deep, Mike found one last burst of rage-fueled speed, clearing the ditch with a prodigious leap even as his vision went dim with fury. Farraday's boots hit the white line in the center of the road and Mike body-tackled Farraday from behind, slamming him face-first onto the asphalt, hard enough to shatter Farraday's nose on the road's hard surface. Farraday shrieked in outraged pain.
"I surrender!" Farraday yelled, although with his nose broken it came out sounding more like thurrenduh. He struggled over onto his back, raising his hands, the blood on his face an unearthly bright scarlet in the helicopter's spotlight. "I give, I give"
Mike reared up onto his knees and drove his fist straight into Farraday's lying mouth, breaking off two of Farraday's teeth at the gumline and splitting the skin on his own knuckles. Farraday squealed like a pig and started to thrash and twitch around under him, but Mike's rage had full hold of him now"Where are his glasses, you son of a bitch?" Mike screamed, closing one of Farraday's eyes for him, then the other. Farraday curled up on his side and threw his arms over his battered head, trying to protect himself; Mike drove his fist straight down into Farraday's side and had the dubious pleasure of feeling one of Farraday's ribs snap.
was face-down and motionless on the road and Mike was rabbit-punching him
in the kidneys by the time Johnny hauled him off, and Mike got in one last
good kick before Johnny managed to pull him away. "I asked you a
question!" Mike yelled, and then it registered that Johnny was yelling
at him to stop, and the night was suddenly full of troopers and lights
and the thop-thop-thop of the helicopter overheard, and underneath
it all he'd always swear to God that he could hear Farraday laughing
and that's how eight state troopers and a news helicopter witnessed me beating the shit out of a suspect who had kinda sorta already surrendered," Mike finished, flat and matter-of-fact. He shrugged a little, closing his eyes. "I ain't gonna lie, I'm not sorry I did it, but I sure as hell am sorry they caught it on tape, you know?"
The room was pretty quiet. Johnny checked over his shoulder, out of habit: even the new guy was listening, although he'd had the sense not to turn around. Nate was kind of pulled in on himself, but coping. Beside Johnny, Jeremy was quiet.
Eventually Simon roused himself a little. "Yeah, as you can probably tell, I missed all the excitement. I was still unconscious and strapped into the goddamned van when the ambulances came, one for Farraday and one for me."
"Guess they didn't want to put you two in the same ambulance," Johnny said. "Can't imagine why."
"Mm," said Jeremy. "Well. I think I'm beginning to see the shape of the problem here."
"Yep," Simon said, tapping his fingers idly on the table. "I was in traction for a while, which, Jesus, if I ever break my leg that bad again, just shoot me like a fucking horse and put me out of my misery, it'd be kinder, you know? And by the time I got out of the hospital it was all over except for the brand-new black mark a mile long on Mike's record."
"They cut a deal, didn't they," said Jeremy.
"And how," said Simon. "Three days after Farraday gets arrested his lady lawyer Miz Fontaine shows up, and she's got a whole bunch of pretty pictures and video footage, and she sits down with some guys who had no stake in the matter whatsoever and she just wriggled him free."
"It was all so fucking mutual I could just puke," Mike threw in, still sounding pretty bitter, even now.
Simon nodded at Mike. "Farraday agreed not to press charges against Mike if he wasn't prosecuted for the thing with Nate. And, well, shit, the FBI takes a look at the two cases, with all this evidence against Mike and the public outcry and really only Nate's word for it against Farraday, and Diana Fontaine hints that she'll ask Nate how well he can see without his glasses if that goes to trial, and ta-da, a deal was struck."
Jeremy winced. "And the trap? Surely he could be prosecuted for breaking your leg."
"You'd think so, wouldn't you?" said Simon. "Farraday swore up and down that he didn't set that trap. Said that he always came and went through the back entrance, didn't even know it was there. Anyway, said cabin belonged to this crazy Unabomber-type guy who used to let Farraday use the cabin in return for God knows whatanyway, turns out he set that trap up himself to keep people off his land. So he says, anyway. Turned himself in a couple of days later, sold the cabin to pay for his copious legal bills. Some company bought the land and razed it, just logged it flat, and now the land's part of some goddamn factory of some kind, shit, I don't remember. So we couldn't pin that on Farraday, either."
Jeremy raised an eyebrow. "Kidnapping? Something-or-other with a minor?"
"Carole Winston was fine, if a little shaken, but she claimed that she went with him freely"
"and Amanda Winston fucking refused to press charges," Mike broke in, seething. "She wanted us to break up their little party but she was still all hot in the pants for Farraday, who knows why. Minute she gets her daughter home again she changes her mind."
Jeremy raised the other eyebrow. "Resisting arrest?"
"Diana Fontaine said that she'd use the video footage to prove to the jury that Farraday was fleeing in fear of his life," Simon said, curling his lip in disgust. "Mike's got kind of a record as a discipline problem already, see."
"Surely he went to jail for some real reason," Jeremy said.
Simon's blank look was positively sphinx-like. "Surely you're not insinuating that we railroaded him, Archer."
"No, no," said Jeremy, shaking his head. "Wouldn't dream of it. So what did he go to prison for?"
"In the end, Cole Farraday was prosecuted and sent up the river for smuggling crates of untaxed cigarettes across state borders," Simon said, his voice very even. "The state police found the crates in the back of the Winnebago and managed to tie them to him, all nice and neatJesus, it wasn't even our bustand then of course Diana Fontaine brought out the pictures and video footage at the trial and convinced the jury that this poor fellow had suffered enough already, so he pretty much got minimum jail time, served a couple of sentences concurrently, got time off for good behavioroh, and he sat in jail and leeched off the taxpayers for almost a year instead of posting bond, crying poor, so he got credited for time served, too."
"My fault," Mike said mournfully. "All my fault. After that video showed up on CNN they were falling all over themselves to keep Farraday from suinghow many of his prior charges did they drop? Like ten?"
"Lucky you didn't get fired," Johnny said.
"Christ, no kidding," said Simon. "Mike was suspended without pay for like the next two months, all of which I spent stumping around the halls in my giant cast arguing with people. Eventually, you know, it blew over, some new scandal cropped up, people got tired of listening to me bitch, and they quietly unsuspended him"
"Made me go to like two years of anger-management therapy, all that shit." Mike abruptly slumped down in his chair, letting his head fall back. "And next time I fuck up in public, I'm out. They said."
Simon reached over and patted Mike's shoulder. "That's my little psycho."
"Good Lord," said Jeremy. "I got off lightly, didn't I?"
"You bet," Simon said. "Far under the radar as you fly, I could pretty much have let Mike put you in an unmarked grave back then, if I'd wanted."
"I'da done it, too!" Mike said, rallying a little.
"I'm rather glad you didn't want, then," said Jeremy. "I'm so glad I was useful enough to let live."
"Not sure I'm so glad," Simon said, "but your gratitude is heartwarming nonetheless."
"And that's pretty much the whole story right there," Mike said, shrugging. "Farraday was being quiet in jail until about four weeks ago, and the rest you know."
"Well," said Johnny, unwilling as ever to let it drop, "ain't quite the whole story."
Mike hesitated, then snickered. "Aw, shit, yeah, I wasn't here for that, I always forget about that part."
Jeremy raised an eyebrow. "What part?"
"Oh, here we go," Simon said, throwing up his hands in mock disgust.
Johnny shifted around in his chair to look at Jeremy. "Couple of weeks after Simon gets back, he's got this huge cast all up to here, right" Johnny chopped the side of his hand high up against his thigh "and he's all pissy 'cause he can't do anything on crutches"
"So Texas cracks all wise at the wrong time and Templar whips his empty mug at Texas' head," Mike broke in. "Came about this close to giving Johnny a concussion and reducing the team by another head. Shit, that'd have put us all the way down to two unwounded team members on active duty."
"They've never let me forget that," Simon told Jeremy. "Every time I get sick or hurt, it's always 'he throw anything at you yet?'. Christ. I lose my temper one time and I'm going to hear about it until I'm ninety."
"Yep," said Johnny, satisfied.
"Besides," said Simon, "I was so sure he'd duck in time."
"Man, remembering all this now, it makes me wonder why I ever gave Diana Fontaine and her note the time of day," Mike said.
"Because she went all helpless and scared and appealed directly to your manly instincts," Sandra said from the doorway to Simon's office. "And by 'manly instincts' I mostly mean 'dick'."
Johnny thought it was kind of interesting how fast Mike folded in on himself once he noticed that she was there. "Yeah, I guess," he said, abashed.
Sandra looked over at Jeremy. "We never could figure out if she was one of the ladies at Farraday's apartment complex or not. Probably she was, but she's not going to tell us."
"Were they, ah, romantically entangled?" Jeremy asked. "Or was it purely business?"
"Dunno," said Sandra, shrugging. "Personally, I think he was screwing her. Still is. But again, she's not about to tell us."
"And, you know, you're allowed to say 'fucking'," Simon told Jeremy. "Fucking, fucking, fucking. Good old Anglo-Saxon word, fucking. Much less coy."
"Coy," said Jeremy, blinking.
"Coy," Simon confirmed.
"And here I thought I was merely being polite," said Jeremy with a shrug. "After all, there are ladies present."
"Oh, fuck you," Sandra said, sounding cheerful for pretty much the first time that day.
"Given the general tenor of this conversation, I find myself required to ask if that's an offer," said Jeremy.
"Hey!" Mike said, and then made a little embarrassed noise and shut up again.
"No, Archer, it's not an offer," said Sandra, ignoring Mike. "How about I tell you to go fuck yourself instead?"
"Well, then, I'd have to tell you that while I am fairly limber thanks to the demands of my profession, I don't quite bend that far," Jeremy said with a shrug.
Sandra almost smiled. "Have you tried?"
Johnny promptly pushed his cuff back and ostentatiously checked his watch, glancing up at Mike every couple of seconds. Simon eyed him. "What's up, Texas?"
"Timing how long it takes Honda to ask Archer if he can suck himself off," said Johnny.
Mike shut his mouth, looking injured, to the accompaniment of a whole chorus of choking sounds from pretty much every corner of the room. Jeremy looked thoughtful. "Do you know," he said, "I'd never thought to try it?"
"So! I'm guessing Nate is bright red right about now," Simon told Sandra, not bothering to check.
Sandra glanced over Simon's shoulder. "Pretty much," she said. "Mr. Brassoff's ears appear to match his hair, too."
"I love you guys," Simon said affably, "but you have this way of assaulting me with mental images that were just not meant to be."
Sandra straightened up and stretched, rising onto her toes for a moment. "I think that's our cue to get back to work, folks." Turning, she vanished back into Simon's office. A moment later the springs in his office chair squeaked.
Mike sighed and popped open his laptop again. "Remind me to call Amanda Winston this afternoon, will you? I'm kinda looking forward to smacking her with the information that Farraday chose some other lady over her."
"Oh, right, crap, I was going to go down to the lab," said Nate, tearing himself away from Rich's old lair. "Texas, you want to come with me to my cousin's this afternoon? I have to fingerprint my mother, oh God, and Sandy says I should take someone with me when I go."
Johnny thought about it while he groped around in his shirt pocket. "Yeah, I can do that," he finally said. "Kind of at loose ends until Farraday shows his face anyway."
and, despite his earlier statement, went and sat down in front of his computer
instead. Johnny bit down on his toothpick, searing his tongue with cinnamon,
and closed his eyes, listening to the sound of typing all around him.
One look at the stills from the security camera told Sandra that this incident report also had nothing to do with Farraday. She repressed a sigh and closed the image file, then deleted the report and moved on to the next one.
Wherever Farraday was, he'd gone to ground with an eerie totality. He wasn't robbing gas stations or liquor stores or even for-Christ's-sake parking meters. He hadn't shown his face in any airport, bus station, train station, subway terminal, or taxi stand within the ten-state area. He wasn't staying in any hotel, motel, hostel, flophouse, homeless shelter, RV park, parking garage, or any other even semi-legitimate form of shelter. He hadn't been caught on any security camera anywhere (so much for Homeland Security and their much-vaunted facial-recognition software) and despite every policeman within five hundred miles just jonesing to catch a glimpse of him, he'd managed to evade their semi-watchful eyes. He had not turned up in any crack house, meth lab, or prostitution busts. There were WANTED: REWARD posters up in the break rooms of every convenience store and food mart in the area, and they'd gotten a lot of false positives off those, convenience-store wages being what they were, but not a single lead worth following up. And, of course, his parole officer hadn't heard a word.
In short, he might be invisible, but he was also still, obviously, somewhere nearby. Sandra had long ago stopped wondering why it took him two weeks to get around to shooting Simon and had started wondering how on earth he'd found and outfitted the perfect hiding place in so short a time. He had to have a stolen car of some kind, since he'd been traveling too far for a bicycle and public transportation was theoretically impossible for him right now, so wherever he was hiding, it was probably big enough to hide a car. Maybe two.
On a hunch she called the Virginia impound lot to which Diana Fontaine's car had been towed. "Yes, ma'am, that car is still here," the attendant said. "It's in the back lot. I can see it from where I'm sitting now."
"Thank you," Sandra said, and hung up. So much for that hunch. So much for all of her hunches, in fact. Every day she thought of a new avenue of escape to close off, and every day Farraday wasn't there. It was like playing Minesweeper and having every spot come up blank.
She'd just sent in a request to have both Diana Fontaine's driving record and her plates pulled when Mike bobbed up in the doorway and knocked tentatively on the frame. "Hey, uh, I'm gonna go get Miz Fontaine's lunch and bring it to her, okay?"
"Not without me, you're not," Sandra said with alacrity, hopping out of her chair and grabbing her purse. "After what happened last night I do not want you being alone with her, not even for five seconds."
Mike huffed out an irritated breath. "Shit, what's she going to do, wrestle me to the floor, tie me up, and rip my pants off? 'Cause as totally hot as that would be, I seriously do not think she has the upper-body strength, you know?"
"And I can see you gave that little fantasy a lot of thought before you decided it was unlikely," Sandra said dryly. "If you don't want me to come, that's fine, but you take someone else with you. And wear the wire, I don't care if you are just knocking on her door and handing her a sandwich."
"Hey, yo, I got that in place," Mike said, yanking up the bottom of his sweatshirt to expose the black wire that ran from his pants pocket all the way up to his chest, as well as a whole lot of skin and medical tape. "Off my ass."
Sandra rolled her eyes. "Can the male-stripper act, Mike."
"You know what, no," said Mike, although he did let his sweatshirt drop. "I'm gonna keep proving that I can do shit right until you start believing it."
"Let's just go," Sandra said, rounding the corner of Simon's desk. "We can take my car."
"Want me to drive?"
They ate in silence. Mike bolted down his sandwich in record time (even for him) and abandoned Sandra to the rest of hers while he went back up to the counter; by the time he returned with Diana Fontaine's lunch and a bottle of Diet Coke from the cooler, Sandra was just about done. She pushed back her chair and led the way out, Mike dogging her heels.
Mike spent the rest of the drive staring fixedly out the passenger-side window and tapping his fingers arrhythmically on his kneeafter a while, it started to make Sandra feel a little guilty despite herself. The bag containing Diana Fontaine's sandwich sat in his lap, her bottle of Diet Coke nestled comfortably between his thighs. "I ought to tell Ms. Fontaine you crotched her lunch," Sandra said, tentatively.
"Don't do me any favors," said Mike, still staring resolutely out the window.
"Fine," said Sandra, nettled. "I won't."
Mike didn't even respond to that, just went silent again. It was unsettling, it was un-Mike, and it left her hanging. None of this did anything to improve her mood. Her guilt blew away like smoke. After a moment he started in with the finger-tapping again, and Sandra had to fight down the momentary urge to scream or pop him one.
Fortunately, the lunchtime traffic was heavy enough to be distracting, and by the time they got to the hotel, she had other things on her mind. She parked around back and led the way in, Mike still following her like a sullen puppy dog. "Don't forget to turn on the wire," Sandra said in the elevator.
"Fuck me, I'm not going to forget," Mike said grumpily. "Give me a little credit, okay?"
Sandra snorted and looked away. When the elevator doors opened on their floor, Mike charged out ahead of her, which didn't really surprise her at all.
She caught up to him just as Diana Fontaine's door opened. "Mike, I really want to apologize for what happened last night," Diana said all in a rush, and then she caught sight of Sandra and choked, her cheeks going pink.
"Go ahead and apologize," Sandra said evenly. "Don't mind me."
"Here," Mike said, pushing the bag at Diana. "Don't worry about it."
"Oh. Um." Diana took the bag. Mike held out the Diet Coke and she took that, as well, carefully looking down at her hands instead of up at him. "Anyway, I'm sorry," she said, quickly, like she was afraid she'd lose her nerve. "It won't happen again."
"Don't worry about it," Mike said again, in a weirdly gentle and cajoling voice that set Sandra's entire spine on edge. "Need me to bring anything when we come back tonight?"
"Um... no, I don't think so." Diana Fontaine clutched the bag and bottle to her chest and looked up at Mike with a puppy's soulful eyes. "I'll see you then."
"Yeah," said Mike. "Enjoy your lunch."
Diana lingered in the doorway for a moment, then glanced away and stepped back, letting the door swing to. The moment it latched Mike looked over at Sandra, his expression completely flat, and deliberately reached up under his sweatshirt and turned the wire back off with an audible click.
"Might not want to do that in front of the peephole," Sandra said.
"Might not want to say that in front of the door," Mike shot back. He turned on his heel and brushed past her, heading for the elevator.
Sandra caught up with him in front of the elevator doors. "I see she needs coddling," Sandra said, completely unable to stop herself from being snide about it.
"Yeah, she does," said Mike, staring straight ahead and jabbing the down button again. "She's not some cast-iron bitch who's got to act tough and stomp on my balls all the time, like some people I could name."
Sandra jerked upright like she'd been electrocuted. "... you know what, even putting aside the implied insult to me"
"maybe I didn't mean you, you know"
"yes, you did, and yes, she is!" The elevator dinged. Sandra shut her mouth with a snap.
The elevator doors slid open, revealing a man with a suitcase. He glanced at them, then edged towards the back of the car, making room. Lots of room. Mike and Sandra both stalked aboard and rode down to the lobby in seething, infuriated silence. Sandra could just tell that the guy in the back was assuming them to be a married couple having a spat, which really only pissed her off more.
They all escaped from the elevator eventually and Mike strode off towards the back door, fast, without looking back. Sandra ground her teeth and followed him. "Or she was," Sandra gritted out, when she caught up with him at her car. "I remember what she was like back then and so do you. Or you should."
"Yeah," Mike said. "Yeah, I remember. So? What? You want me to carry a grudge and let her get shot or something? Yeah, that's real fucking professional."
"You're assuming that she's not in league with Farraday"
"you're assuming that she is!"
"You're one to talk about being professional!"
Mike slammed his hand down on the roof of Sandra's car, narrowing avoiding leaving a dent. "Yeah, well, you're one to talk about other people being cast-iron bitches, Sandy."
Suddenly Sandra was so angry that she did not dare give vent to it, not here, not now. "Get in the car," she said, her voice completely devoid of inflection.
Mike jerked halfway around and glared out over the parking lot behind him for a second. "Fuck," he finally spat, and yanked the car door open, slinging himself in.
in a breath, held it, and let it out. "Fuck," she echoed bitterly. Then,
moving very carefully lest she wrench off the door handle in an explosion
of furyand she felt like she couldshe let herself into the car.
A mere two hours after a breakthrough and he was stuck again, which was also pretty much the story of his life right now. The program that was trying to crack the smaller computer had been updated and was running again. Dave himself had returned to that interminably long text file and started splitting it up into smaller files: recognizable snippets of code in this one, English text in that one, gibberish over here in this one.
It was dull, repetitive work, but something he really didn't feel comfortable automatingwhat if his eye just happened to fall on some bit of text with an unencrypted password in it? Unlikely, sure, but stranger things had happened during his time with Internet Crime, and he wasn't going to dismiss the possibility of them happening again. So he did it by hand. It wasn't that bad, really. Just tedious.
Behind him things were happening, although he wasn't really paying much attention. After a while even the boom of the door stopped registering with his conscious brain, and the buzz of conversation was just comfortable background noise. At one point he surfaced just long enough to realize that he was alone in the room; it didn't really dawn on him why that might be, and he sank back down into his working trance.
Eventually, some unknown amount of time later, he realized that someone was standing behind him impatiently repeating his name, and he jumped a little. "Oh! Uh. Sorry, I was just..."
"Distracted?" Sandra asked, her voice thin. "I asked you where everybody was."
"... I don't know," Dave said, glancing at the clock on his computer. "I guess they're still at lunch? Oh, hey, that's right, lunch. I should do that."
Behind him, Sandra was ominously quiet. Dave twisted around in his chair. Sandra was standing in the middle of the room with her hands on her hips, glancing back and forth angrily. Dave cringed a little when her gaze finally drifted back to him and locked on. He couldn't help it. "Before you go," Sandra said crisply, "I want a status update."
"Oh. Sure," said Dave. "Do you mind if I take a couple of minutes to get this process running first?"
Sandra stared at him like one of the two of them was crazy and she suddenly didn't know which one of them it was. "Take your time," she finally said, flatly, and vanished into the office.
Wincing, Dave whipped back around and pulled up the gibberish text file, feeding it to the 'password-generation' program that he'd put together. If the little program worked correctly, it ought to divide the gibberish into every possible password permutation between four and twelve characters long and spit the results back out in yet another enormous text file, which Dave could then feed to the program trying to break into the smaller computer, or 'Mama Bear', as he couldn't help but think of it now. If there was a plain-text password hiding in all that gibberish, he'd find it. Sooner or later. He watched the program spit out text chunks for a moment. Once he was satisfied that it was working he pushed back his chair and stood up, making a note to himself to go bully a real desk chair out of the infrastructure people later. Sweeping up the four CDs, he made his way into the office.
Sandra was sitting behind the desk, paging through what looked like a whole bunch of emails. Dave quietly took a seat, the CDs clutched in his lap, and waited. The silence stretched for almost thirty seconds before Sandra, still apparently completely absorbed in her work, said, "Well?"
Dave jumped a little. "Oh! Sorry," he said. "Um, anyway. The first thing I did was let the laptop finish deleting itself, and"
"So now, what, we've lost all the data on one of his three computers?" Sandra said incredulously, finally kicking the chair around to face him.
"Um," said Dave.
"Mr. Brassoff, that's not"
"Um. Please, let me finish," Dave said, holding up a hand. "The data isn't lost, not precisely. That copy of it is gone, but IT has an image of the laptop's hard disk in storage, and Nate assures me that Mr. Story copied everything off the laptop onto one of his desktop machines every couple of days. I don't think much was lost in any case, and I was able to interrupt the process enough to rescue a bunch of data, which is what I'm working with now."
For a moment, Sandra was silent, eyeing him narrowly. Dave's stomach did a slow barrel roll, but he clutched at his handful of CDs and willed it to be still. Finally, Sandra sighed and gestured brusquely at him. "All right, Mr. Brassoff. I see your point. Next?"
"Well, um. As you probably noticed, I disassembled Mr. Story's space yesterday and found these hidden in various places," Dave said, holding up the CDs like a hand of cards. "I don't know what's on them yet, or how important they are. I'm going to have IT make images of them before I start trying to break into their encryption, just in case. I suspect I'll need whatever crazy homebrew OS he was running in order to read them properly. So I'm currently ranking their priority as low."
"Low," Sandra repeated.
Dave nodded. "Lower than actually breaking through the security systems on his computers, in any case. Once I can access one of his computers, accessing the CDs should be child's play."
"And how likely do you think it is that you'll eventually be able to access one of his computers?" Sandra asked.
"It's hard to say," Dave said, temporizing. "Personally, I'm confident that I can do it, given enough time."
"Rich was supposed to be some kind of genius," Sandra said doubtfully. "Or, well, I suppose 'idiot savant' is closer to the truth."
"Judging from what he left behind, I'd have to agree with that," said Dave. "But trust me when I say that if he was some kind of computer genius, that actually makes my job a little easier."
"Why's that?" She was actually listening to him now, the irritation gradually clearing from her expression.
Dave hesitated. "I don't really want to, uh, speak ill of the dead"
"just tell me," Sandra said. "I wasn't inclined to tiptoe around him when he was alive and I'm even less inclined to do so now."
"Computer prodigies, real ones, tend to be sloppy," Dave said. In his lap, under the handful of CDs, he crossed his fingers. He wanted to knock on wood but he suspected that that would look a little unprofessional. "The kind that eat and breathe code, you know? They think they're so smart and so they do everything their own way, automatically assuming it's the best way just because they thought of it. A lot of times, they reinvent the wheel without ever bothering to wonder why normal people made the wheel the way it was in the first place. I don't mean that his code has holes, but it's... odd. I don't think it was ever properly stress-tested. Sooner or later I'll be able to force my way in."
Sandra raised her eyebrows. "Are you certain of that?"
"No," Dave admitted. "But so far, I haven't found anything to convince me otherwise."
"All right," Sandra said after a moment, looking down at the desk. "Anything else?"
"Uh, well, yesterday Nate and I managed to get past his top-level passwords," Dave said. "I'm working on cracking the second level of security now."
"I see." Sandra looked back up at him. "So what are your plans for the next few days?"
"I'm going to analyze the snippets of data I managed to pull off the laptop and keep working on that second level of security," Dave said. "They're really two parts of the same job. If I can just get access to one of his machines, the rest will be easy."
"Easy." Dave hesitated, his stomach churning again, and then went for broke. "I'm not saying he wasn't good at what he did. It's just that... I'm not bad myself, ma'am. And I'm bound to be a lot more thorough. Given enough time..." He trailed off there and shrugged, uncomfortably aware of his ears burning.
"Time is always the problem, isn't it," Sandra said, glancing back at the computer. "All right, Mr. Brassoff. Thank you. You probably ought to go get yourself some lunch before the cafeteria closes."
"Probably," Dave agreed, standing up. "I'll, uh, be back in a little."
"Take your time," Sandra said, not really paying attention to him any more. She spun her chair around and settled in in front of the computer. "Oh, and Mr. Brassoff?"
"Call me 'ma'am' again and I'll break all your fingers," Sandra said.
"Oh. Uh. Okay." Dave hesitated, lurking in the doorless doorway. "You could, uh, call me Dave, then. Not that I'm going to break anybody's fingers over it, but it'd be nice."
"I suppose I could," said Sandra, eyes on the screen. "Go have lunch."
Dave came within a hair of saying 'yes, ma'am' but stopped himself just in time. "Okay."
At just after one in the afternoon, the Special Ops wing was a quiet hive of activity, all of it taking place behind closed doors. The hallway was sparsely populated. Dave scuffed along, deep in thought, nodding absently at the few people that he passed. Somewhere deep down he was amazed at how little attention they were paying to him: a glance, maybe a nod or a wave, and that was it. He was still half-expecting to get buttonholed by someone demanding to know who he was or why he was here and where was his ID. The fact that he didn't either meant that news traveled fast, or that he somehow looked like an FBI lifer. The latter was an oddly comforting thought.
He glanced into the vending-machine area as he shuffled past on his way to the cafeteria, his stride hitching a little as he spotted a couple of familiar faces. Simon was leaning back against one of the machines upending a bottle of water and didn't see him, but Jeremy did. Jeremy raised a hand in greeting. Dave waved back, slowed down a little, thought better of it, and went on.
The cafeteria was largely empty, too. Still turning his meeting with Sandra over in his head, Dave drifted through the line and got himself some lunch, then found an empty table. Had it gone well? He thought it might have gone well. He'd just managed to convince himself that yes, it really had gone well when someone broke his concentration by calling his name. "Dave!"
Dave blinked and looked up just as the voice's owner plunked down at the table opposite him. "Oh, hey, Rory," he said, resigned to the man's 'company' but determined to at least be polite about it.
"Long time no see!" Rory said. "How's you?"
"Fine," Dave said automatically, picking up his sandwich. "How are things up in Crime?"
Rory shrugged. "Same ol', same ol'. Gwen's pissed off because you left and now none of us will hold her hand when she blows up her computer yet again, Nick's wife had her baby and it's made him stupid and boringunlike me, of course, the twins only made me even more glamorous and excitingand I understand that somewhere in the department, internet crime is being investigated? Shocking." Snickering, he unwrapped a packet of crackers and crumbled them into his soup. "So how's Special Ops? You getting along okay up there?"
Dave hesitated. Once again he found himself unsure of the answer to that questionhe covered the conversational stumble by taking a bite of his sandwich. "You know," he said, swallowing, "I'm not really sure? But... you know, I think so."
"Good," Rory said. "Great. You get shot at yet?"
by a random, inexplicable impulse, Dave said, "Only by my team leader,
but I'm told he hardly ever actually shoots to kill," and watched Rory
choke, which Dave found a lot funnier than he'd been expecting to.
"Oh, these are lovely," Jeremy said, gingerly nudging his clear plastic goggles back up. They kept trying to slide down his nose, despite the enormous pair of blue noise-cancelling headphones that ought to have kept them pinned in place. "Very fashionable. I kept asking myself what my wardrobe was missing, and it turns out that the answer was 'tacky plastic headgear' all along."
"Sorry, can't hear you," Simon said loudly, with what Jeremy considered to be an inappropriate amount of glee. He tapped one of his own earmuffs. "I'm wearing protective gear!"
Jeremy rolled his eyes and glanced around, half curious, half bored. Simon had insisted they go all the way down to the very last compartment, or whatever these little individual shooting booths were called. The firing range was a huge and cavernous underground room, capable of holding at least fifty or so shootersat the moment, however, there were perhaps five other people in here, and most of them were down at the far end, by the double doors that led into the range. That, together with the (ridiculous) headphones that Simon had forced on him, meant that the noise of gunfire was reduced to a rather polite (if constant) echoing popping sound off in the distance.
Jeremy looked back at Simon. "Are you certain about this?"
"Absolutely," Simon said, thereby completely putting the lie to 'can't hear you'. He touched a switch and the paper target ran outwards along its rail. Simon stopped it about halfway out; Jeremy estimated it was about fifteen metres away. "I want to know if I can do it before I actually need to."
"I won't stop you," Jeremy said, glancing out at the man-shaped target and repressing a vague shudder of distaste. "But if it does kill you, I'm not looking forward to dragging your corpse all the way back down to the entrance."
"Pfft, lazy-ass." Simon pulled his gun out of the holster in the small of his back and fiddled with it for a moment, moving bits here and there and producing a number of seemingly random noises. "You may want to stand on the other side of me."
In answer, Simon slid his feet apart and aimed the gun two-handed at the target, then pulled the trigger. The sharp crack of the bullet firing was shatteringly loud, like hearing his own skull fracture, even with the earmuffs on; a little gold cylinder popped out of the top of the gun and bounced off Jeremy's shoulder. Unthinkingly, he caught it. It was almost hot to the touch. "Gun tends to eject shell casings to the left," Simon wheezed, coughing.
Jeremy studied Simon, turning the casing over in his fingers. "That looks like it hurt."
"A little," Simon said. He caught his breath and swallowed. "Not too bad. I can live with it."
"Mm. Well, try not to damage yourself too badly," Jeremy said. "I don't know how I'd ever explain that to Ms. Leone." He put the casing down on the little counter and moved to the other side of the booth.
Simon gritted his teeth, aimed the gun again, and fired. This time, expecting it, Jeremy was a little less pained by the cracking noise, and the ejected casing hit the wall opposite instead of Jeremy. He glanced out at the target. The fellow painted on the paper had a neat hole in his chest and a second one in his left shoulder. The gun cracked again; a hole bloomed in the centre of the target, near the man's stomach. Jeremy winced. "Ouch," he said.
"Yeah, that guy's not doing too good," Simon said, extending the gun a little and shooting a neat hole in the centre of the man's face, just about where his nose ought to be. "There. He's no longer in any pain. Happy?"
"Never thought I'd find myself identifying with an outline," said Jeremy, glancing back at Simon. Simon was a little pale, with a thin sheen of sweat just starting to break on his forehead. Jeremy forbore from asking him if he was all right, since it was obvious that he wasn't.
Simon took his shots, pausing to breathe and recover a bit between each one. The paper target slowly filled with holes. Jeremy counted, silently. After fifteen shots the top part of the gun snapped back and stayed back, and Simon put it down on the counter. "Not too bad," Simon said, scrutinising the paper target as he reeled it in, the bottom half fluttering. He was hunched forward over the counter, holding onto the thin shelf for dear life, and he was trying to hide this fact from Jeremy by shielding his left hand and its death grip with the curve of his body. "I've shot better groupings in the past, but all in all" Simon coughed "it's acceptable."
"Acceptable," Jeremy echoed. Really, he hadn't the faintest idea.
Simon leaned out to pull the target down, then rolled it up and put it aside. His hands weren't quite shaking, but they didn't seem to be as steady as they ought to be; when he reached for a fresh target, Jeremy couldn't stay quiet any longer. "Far be it from me to interrupt your fun, Simon, but perhaps you ought to rest up a bit before the next"
"Oh, I plan to," Simon said, hanging the new target on the bar. "This one's for you."
Jeremy blinked. "Excuse me?"
"I'm going to teach you how to fire a gun," Simon said, now sounding almost cheerful about it, despite the distressing waver in his voice. "Because it pisses me right off that you act so high and mighty about not knowing how to use one, like it makes you better than me or something. Ignorance is nothing to be proud of, Archer."
"Erm," said Jeremy, a bit bemused by this sudden turn of events. "Pardon me, these blasted headphones must be interfering with my ability to hear: I could have sworn that you just said that you were planning to teach me how to fire a gun."
Simon touched the switch and sent the new target fluttering out, stopping it a bit closer than the last one. "Nope, sorry, I'm the only one who gets to use that excuse. I'm telling you, not asking you."
Jeremy glanced out at the target in mild consternation. "I suppose there's no getting around you, is there?"
"Nope," Simon said, picking up the sprung gun and doing something to it. A long metal bit fell out of the handle, which he caught and set aside. Reaching into his pocket Simon pulled out another one of the metal things and put it into the gun, slapping it into place. "And for the record, if you end up liking it too much and start gunning down security guards while on the job, I'll deny I ever met you, let alone taught you to shoot."
Jeremy watched Simon manipulate the parts of the gun, although the gun was as much a mystery to him as ever once Simon was done. "Mm. Well, I suppose you always have had something of a talent for denial."
"Shut up," said Simon, turning the gun out to show Jeremy its side. "Okay! This here is a .40 calibre semiautomatic Glock 22, which has been moderately customised to my specifications. This is the barrel, this is the grip, this is the slide, and that" he pointed to the empty metal thing on the counter "is a magazine. It's not the best gun in the world, but I like it fine, and it has the advantage of being standard issue, so if I lose one, I can just requisition another. It can hold up to sixteen rounds of .40 S&W ammo, one in the chamber and fifteen in the magazine, and you look like a deer in the headlights, stop panicking, you don't actually have to remember any of this."
"I am not panicking," Jeremy said, with as much dignity as he could muster. "I'm feigning interest."
"Sure you are," Simon said. He put the gunthe Glock, Jeremy supposeddown on the counter, its grip pointing towards Jeremy. "You're right-handed, I'm assuming."
"I do tend to favour my right"
"Great! Okay, gun safety in sixty seconds or less," Simon said, tapping the gun's grip. He took a deep breath and started rattling off words at a high rate of fire: "Don't point the gun at anything you don't intend to kill, don't fire the gun at any hard surfaces including water, use the safety if the gun has one but don't trust it, don't touch the trigger unless you're ready to fire, unload the gun when not in use but always assume it's loaded and just itching to kill you, wear eye and ear protection if at all possible, and don't lick the gun, it doesn't taste good." Jeremy compressed his lips, trying not to laugh; Simon aimed an accusatory finger at him. "See, you are listening."
"All right, I suppose I am," said Jeremy, giving up. "Go ahead."
"Basically, you as the shooter have one job: to provide a stable and strong platform for the gun to fire from. Come stand here." Simon pointed to the ground at the centre of the booth.
Jeremy, admitting to himself that he was interested, stepped into the centre. "Here?"
"Yeah," Simon said, stepping oh-so-casually around behind Jeremy and wrapping his hands about Jeremy's shoulders. Jeremy's eyebrows shot up. Simon ignored them. "Now, you're going to want to turn so that you're not squared up to the target, like so." Simon turned Jeremy bodily sideways, until one of his shoulders pointed vaguely in the direction of the target. "On the diagonal, like that," said Simon, giving Jeremy's shoulders a absent little squeeze before dropping his hands and stepping back, somewhat to Jeremy's regret. "Spread your legs."
"Oh dear, Simon, I don't know if this is really the time"
"Shut up and spread your feet." Simon stuck a foot between Jeremy's ankles and kicked Jeremy's legs farther apart. "Try and think of it as being like a tripod with only two legs. A bipod. I don't know. Anyway. Put your right hand on the gun, but don't pick it up yet."
Jeremy eyed the gun, then dropped his right hand onto the grip, fitting his fingers into what he could only assume were the proper positions. The textured grip felt rough and vaguely plastic under the palm of his hand. "Like this?"
Simon shook his head sadly. "Archer, what did I just say?"
"What did youah. Pardon." Jeremy twitched his finger back off the trigger and pulled his hand back slightly. "Where does it go when I'm not firing, then?"
"Stretch it out along the barrel, like you were pointing." Simon hooked one finger into Jeremy's and tugged it out straight, then pressed it down, moulding Jeremy's hand to the grip of the gun like it was so much warm clay. Jeremy obligingly wrapped the rest of his fingers around the grip. Simon inspected his handiwork, then nodded. "Good. Now pick it up."
After a moment of hesitation, Jeremy did so, holding the alien thing gingerly. It was heavy, but lighter than he'd been expecting, all things considered. "Like so?"
"Yep," said Simon. "Okay. I want you to point it at the target with both hands. Don't fire it yet."
"Ah" Jeremy wrapped his left hand around the grip as well and brought the gun up, feeling like a right idiot. "Like this?"
"Well, yes and no," said Simon. "If you fire it like that, the slide is going to break your left thumb when it comes shooting back. You need to have your thumbs together on the left side of the grip. Hold still" and he put his hands over Jeremy's, pushing Jeremy's thumb over onto the other side of the gun's grip before wasting a few entertaining moments nudging the rest of Jeremy's fingers minutely into position. "You have to give the slide room," Simon said once he was satisfied, leaving his hands cupped about Jeremy's, which were curled about the gun. "Okay, now, is that how you plan to hold the gun when you fire it?"
"Well, I don't know," Jeremy said, a bit nettled despite the hands on his, which were definitely adding some interest value to his impromptu shooting lessons. "Is that how it's supposed to go?"
"Not exactly," said Simon. His hands slid downoh, yes, Jeremy's day was looking brighterand wrapped around Jeremy's wrists instead, squeezing them until they straightened. The barrel of the gun drifted upwards. "I know it's against your faggot code of honour or something, but wrists straight, Archer. You want to absorb the recoil with the bones of your arm."
"You know, if I'm the one holding the gun, you might want to ease off on the insults a touch, Simon." In order to bring his wrists straight without pointing the gun upwards, Jeremy had to extend his right arm all the way. "Like this?"
"That's almost it," Simon said. He let go of Jeremy's wrists and pushed at his left elbow. "Keep your elbows tucked in. You can bend your left elbow downwards, but not outwards."
"Mm," Jeremy said absently, rearranging himself. He supposed he must look very tough, but he felt ridiculous. "Like this?"
"That's it," said Simon, and he wrapped his right arm around Jeremy's shoulders, a move which startled Jeremy sufficiently to make him quite glad he hadn't had his finger on the trigger. Simon grabbed the edge of the counter in his left hand again. "All right," Simon said, leaning in and sighting down Jeremy's arm. "You see the little metal sight at the front end of the gun? You want that to be pointing at your target and to be centred between the two halves of the sight at the back end. Right now, you'd be shooting your opponent in the groin, which would probably incapacitate him nicely but isn't really considered sporting."
Hastily Jeremy brought the gun up a bit, sighting along the barrel at the centermost ring on the target. "You know," he said conversationally, "this really is quite cosy."
"Yeah, well, I'm doing it for a reason, and not the usual one," Simon said, although his arm tightened for an entirely pleasant moment. "Sorry to disappoint you."
Jeremy risked a glance left. "Not the usual one, you say," he said.
"Trust me," said Simon. "Ready?"
Simon ignored him. "Keep your head updon't sight along your arm, use the gun-sightsand don't close either eye. Don't pull the trigger, squeeze it gently. Okay, whenever you're ready: shoot him."
"I'd rather you didn't call it 'him'," Jeremy said, minutely adjusting his aim. "Entirely too personal" and he slid his finger into the trigger guard and gingerly squeezed the trigger, automatically holding his breath.
The gun fired before he was expecting it to, bucking upwards in his hands and driving him snugly back into the crook of Simon's arm. His palms stung. His ears stung. A bullet hole completely failed to appear on the target. "Well," Simon said dubiously, "while that's one seagull that'll never crap on your head again"
"Yes, ha ha, Simon," Jeremy said absently, bringing the gun back into line and nestling shamelessly back against Simon's arm while he was at it. This time he had a better idea of how much to brace himself; when he fired, a neat hole appeared in the throat of the human outline.
"Not bad," Simon saidapprovingly, Jeremy thought. "You're still letting it kick up, though. Bring your arms down a tad. And try firing on the exhale instead of holding your breath. Here," he said with deceptive casualness, already on the move, "I'll help you brace." And without further warning Simon slid behind Jeremy and wrapped himself bodily about him, pressing up against his back so closely that Jeremy could feel Simon breathing down the back of his neck. Still feigning nonchalance Simon stretched his arms out along Jeremy's and wrapped his hands over both Jeremy's hands and the gun itself.
"Mm," said Jeremy. He thought that perhaps later, once he was done enjoying this, he might find a moment to be startled that Simon would do this here, of all places. "Oh, by all means, brace me, Simon."
"Move that hip forward a bit," Simon said, doing a remarkably good job of ignoring Jeremy despite, well, everything. He nudged his hip forward against Jeremy's, which Jeremy found so entirely diverting that he resisted being moved for several seconds. "See? Not that hard."
"Oh, on the contrary, very hard," Jeremy said under his breath.
"I totally did not hear that because of my ear protection," said Simon, although Jeremy was pressed back against him very tightly by now and therefore was thoroughly aware that he was lying. "You may fire when ready, Grisly."
"Goodness, I'll never protest your teaching methods again," Jeremy said, shutting his eyes for a second. "Although as cosy as this is, it isn't precisely making it easy to concentrate." He opened his eyes, exhaled as ordered, and squeezed the trigger again. His knuckles thumped back against Simon's palms and the bullet ripped through the centre of the target.
"And yet, there you go," Simon said, letting his hands drop to Jeremy's hips. "Of course, it's mostly beginner's luck," he said, "but still"
Piqued, Jeremy promptly put three more bullets through the poor paper fellow's abdomen, the distraction of Simon's hands notwithstanding. "As you're so fond of saying, beginner's luck my ass," he said evenly. "I may not have fired a proper gun before but I bloody well know how to aim things."
"Yeah? Guess you don't need my help, then," said Simon, dropping his hands and stepping away.
"Oh, well, I wouldn't say that"
"Just fire the gun, whiner," said Simon. Jeremy adjusted his stance a tad and fired again, hitting the target's 'heart' through a fairly even mixture of luck and design. Simon whistled. "Damn, okay, fine, guess you don't need my help, wise guy. Okay. Take your finger off the trigger and put the gun down."
Jeremy slid his finger free and placed the gun gingerly on the counter, shaking the sting from his hands. "Ouch," he said conversationally.
"Yeah, it takes a little getting used to," Simon said. "Turn around."
Simon stuck up one finger and twirled it. "Turn around. One full circle."
Jeremy blinked. "Why?"
Simon rolled his eyes, grabbed Jeremy's shoulder, and pushed him none too gently around. "Because I said so."
"Oh, well, how can I argue with logic like that?" Jeremy completed the rotation good-humouredly. "All right, so what now?"
"Get back in your stance, pick up the gun, and fire it again," said Simon, picking up the empty magazine. "Let's see how much you've learned."
"Oh, so it's a test, I see." Jeremy picked up the gun and slid his feet apart. "You could have just said so." He drew in a breath and held it while he picked his target, then exhaled and shot yet another neat hole in the outline's chest. For a heartbeat of time he was outrageously, absurdly proud of himself. "Oh, look," he said, lowering the gun a bit. "I've learned something new. Do I get a merit badge?"
"Congratulations," said Simon. The moment had passed; now he was leaning casually against the partition wall and thumbing bullets into the empty magazine, as if nothing at all had happened. "Go ahead and use up the clip. You've got six shots left."
Jeremy glanced at him, then back at the target. He put three more bullets into the inmost circle, got bored with that, and wasted the last three firing at the target's 'head'. He hit it twice and most assuredly scared the poor fellow the third time. On the last shot the slide stayed back and he put the gun back down on the counter. "There we are."
"Enjoy yourself?" Simon asked. He pressed the last bullet into the magazine that he was holding. "Go ahead and bring the target in and change it out. You're a smart boy, I'm sure you can figure out how that works. Pro-tip: there's a switch."
Jeremy thumbed the aforementioned switch to bring the target in. "Actually, yes, I rather did," he admitted. "Purely as an intellectual exercise, mind you."
"Yeah, well, firing at a person is a whole 'nother barrel of monkeys anyway," said Simon, straightening up and picking up the gun. He changed out the magazines while Jeremy changed the paper targets, then nudged Jeremy out of the way and took up his stance at the centre of the booth again. "Send it about halfway out, will you?" he asked, pulling the slide back and letting it spring forward again.
Jeremy sent out the target, then settled back against the right-hand wall again. "I suspect my shoulders are going to ache tonight," he said.
"Oh, probably," said Simon. "Me, I'm gonna be hurting like nobody's business, Christ. But still, it feels so goddamned good" He snatched the gun up off the counter and fired off three rounds, achieving a decently tight triangle in the centre of the target.
"Mm," said Jeremy, watching him. "Looks rather nice, too."
Simon smiled faintly. "Sorry, didn't catch that," he said. "I've got ear protection on, remember?" He fired off a couple more shots; all in all this round of shooting seemed to be hitting him less viciously. "How much longer are you staying, anyway?"
"Mm? Ah." Jeremy shrugged. "Until the weekend, at least. I suppose we'll see after that."
"Don't you have something you should be stealing or something?" Simon asked overor perhaps underthe racket. "I mean, I'd hate to keep you."
Jeremy smiled. "Oh, do keep me, Simon. I'm on holiday in any case."
"In DC? In October?" Simon paused to check something on the side of the gun, then shrugged and fired again. "If you're going to come here on vacation, you ought to at least come in the spring. Best time to visit DC. I hear there are cherry blossoms or something."
"Mm," said Jeremy. "Really. I'll keep that in mind."
"You know what, you do that," Simon said, putting the gun down. "You want to go again?"
Jeremy considered for a moment, then pushed himself off the wall. "All right," he said, and he couldn't help but smile. "But I can't help but feel that my stance needs a little, ah, reinforcing..."
Archer, very subtle," said Simon, but he wrapped himself around Jeremy
Nate's mother hesitated, then carefully put her teacup down in its saucer, resting on her knees. Her back was ramrod straight, her body barely touching the couch she was, theoretically, sitting on. "You want to take my fingerprints," she said, without any inflection whatsoever.
Nate winced. "Yes," he said, rushing to add, "because that way we can eliminate the fingerprints that belong to you and me and concentrate only on the strange ones"
"Like a common criminal," his mother marveled.
"No, Mom," Nate said hopelessly. He already knew it was useless. He didn't dare look over at Johnny, either.
His cousin's house (in direct contrast to his own) had been professionally decorated to within an inch of its life and then covered over with a rising tide of cheerful clutter: Ruth had three boys, two in their early teens and one rushing headlong in that direction, and the boys left things in their wake like they were spontaneously generated from the air. The place wasn't dirty, preciselyNate couldn't see even a hint of dustbut the mess usually made his mother treat the entire house like it was contaminated. If she could have sat directly on the air, she would have. As it were, she perched stiffly on the very edge of the couch.
The house was mercifully quiet, with all three boys at school. Ruth was in the kitchen, pretending to wash dishes. The water was running; Nate might have been fooled if he couldn't see her shadow, cast clearly over the kitchen floor just in front of the door. He wondered if his mother knew they were being eavesdropped on. He wondered if Johnny did. "I fingerprint people all the time, even people who aren't implicated in anything"
"Do you think I did it?" his mother broke in to ask, now almost willfully missing the point. "Is that why?"
"No, Mom," Nate repeated, suddenly too tired of everything to sound shocked by the idea.
It was a mistake. "You don't sound very certain," his mother said immediately. "If you're thinking that I left the window unlocked and that's how he got in, you don't need my fingerprints to tell you that. I can assure you that I have never unlocked that window."
"No, Mom, I don't think you did," said Nate, as patiently as he could. "However, we think that Diana Fontaine may have unlocked the window while she was there"
"That nice young lady?" his mother said, scandalized. Too late Nate bit down on his tongue, hard enough to hurt. 'Nice young ladies' were incapable of harming a fly in his mother's eyes, at least until they did something shocking like get pregnant out of wedlock, after which they were generally known as 'that girl'. It would have been a little less exasperating if Nate's mother hadn't decided that any younger woman with even halfway-decent manners was automatically 'nice'. Some day, when he was strong enough to appreciate the hilarity, Nate vowed that he was going to ask his mother what she thought of Sandra.
"She's nice, yes, but she's also Farraday's lawyer," Nate said, picking his words as carefully as he could. "We're not sure if they're working together or not"
"I'm sure they're not," his mother said, with a sort of school-teacherish patience that bordered on patronizing. "I know you must have all sorts of theories, but that poor girl was just terrified. You can't tell me that she was just putting on an act."
"Maybe she wasn't," said Nate. "The point is, we don't know. And the sooner I get your fingerprints, the sooner I can exonerate her."
His mother sighed. "So we're back to that."
"Yes, Mom. I'm afraid so."
"Well, if you must, I suppose you must." Transferring her cup and saucer to the coffee table (where they would sit untouched until carried into the kitchen, now that they had touched Ruth's supposedly-contaminated furniture) Nate's mother sat up and pushed her cuffs up to her elbows with swift and irritated motions. "I suppose you'll have to put black ink all over my hands, won't you. Like on television."
Nate ducked his head a little. "I'm afraid so," he said again. "We can do this in the bathroom, if that'd be easier"
"No, no. Ruth's just had that bathroom redone and I'm not going to risk getting black marks all over her new wallpaper." His mother took a sharp breath and then held out both her hands, splaying her fingers.
Nate put his own cup down and stood up. "It'll, ah, actually be easier if I come sit over there," he said, picking up the gray box from the floor by his feet. Before his mother could protest Nate rounded the coffee table and sat on the edge of the couch beside her, then popped the box's lid.
Mindful of the fact that it was his mother, Nate had brought along half a plastic dropcloth from his supply closet. He risked a glance at Johnny while he fought with the stubborn, staticky thing: Johnny was still standing in the entranceway, leaning against the doorframe, seemingly paying no attention to anything. It wasn't true, though. The instant that Nate looked up at him Johnny glanced over, the brackets around his mouth deepening a bit. Then he looked away again. Nate flushed in embarrassment and spread the dropcloth out over the coffee table as best he could, clattering teacups in their saucers and sending a single yellow Lego block tumbling to the floor. It was no one's idea of a fine lace tablecloth, but it would hopefully keep the ink from getting all over everything.
He put the fingerprint sheet in the clipboard and the clipboard on the dropcloth, then glanced at his mother. "Right hand first," he said, trying to sound professional and sabotaging his efforts by adding "please, Mom."
His mother's nostrils flared as she sighed, silently, but she put her left hand in her lap and reached over to give Nate her right. Nate balanced the ink pad on his knee and gingerly took his mother's handsoft and powdery to the touchand after that it was all autopilot. He did her right hand, one finger at a time, carefully rolling his mother's fingers from left to right across the labeled squares on the fingerprint sheet. He'd always been good at this.
His mother held her ink-stained right hand stiffly in midair, like it disgusted her, while Nate did her left. The instant he let go, after printing her thumb, his mother sprang to her feet, muttering something under her breath about washing her hands. Nate, unprepared, went lurching into the empty space where she'd been, and the ink pad fell off his leg. He yelped and grabbed for it. For a miracle he caught it before it could hit the floor, smearing ink all over his own hands like divine retribution. "Oh, dear," said his mother, her blackened hands held up in front of her like taut claws. "You didn't get any of that on Ruth's nice carpet, did you?"
"No, Mom," Nate said, finessing the lid of the ink pad shut with the heels of his hands. "Just my hands. Go on and wash up."
"I really don't want to hear it," Nate said ten minutes later, slamming the passenger-side door of Johnny's truck behind himself. He settled the gray box on his lap, crossing his faintly stained hands neatly on top.
Johnny almost grinned, although it was kind of hard to tell. "Wasn't gonna say anything."
"Thanks, Texas," Nate said, letting his head fall back against the truck's rear window. Johnny started the truck and pulled away, a rattling affair at the best of times. The silence wasn't much more comfortable than getting teased about his mother would have been; eventually, purely to fill the empty air between them, Nate said, "I think my cousin was insta-crushing on you a little back there."
"Noticed that," said Johnny. "Cute, too. Pity she's married."
"She's divorced, actually," Nate said before he thought. Then he did think, and he closed his mouth so fast that he bit his tongue a little.
"Divorced," Johnny said thoughtfully.
"And older than you, and the mother of three boys, and Jewish," Nate said, a little desperately.
Johnny snickered. "Get the feeling you don't want me asking her out, Specs."
"You think?" Nate collapsed back into his seat.
"Ain't gonna," said Johnny. "Case you were worried."
Nate waved a hand wearily at him. "Yeah, I know. It's be weird."
"Yep," said Johnny. "So, uh, get the feeling your mom wants grandkids?"
"She has grandkids!" Nate said, throwing up both hands and nearly losing the box. "She has four!"
"Yeah, but not yours," said Johnny, now grinning outright around his toothpick.
Nate cringed a little. "Great," he said. It came out sounding almost bitter, which startled him. "I'll go buy myself a mail-order bride. As long as I'm ordering women off the internet like computer hardware, maybe I can place an order for a nice Indian lady. We'll raise the children to worship Ganesha and maybe then my mother will be sorry!"
Johnny didn't say anything. After a moment, Nate risked a glance over at him: Johnny had a finger crooked over his lips and his shoulders were shaking, his eyes just slits in his face. A laugh bubbled up uncontrollably in Nate's throat, startling him, and almost escaped before he could bite it back: he made a sound halfway between a croak and a hiccup. Johnny hunched up his shoulders almost to the level of his ears and then burst out laughing, and a second later Nate gave in and joined him.
"Touchy subject," Johnny noted once the laughter had died down.
"A little," Nate said, shrugging. "It's just... who has time? Any self-respecting woman would get fed up with my work schedule in under a monthwell, okay, a self-respecting woman wouldn't look at me twice anyway, but you get my point."
"And even if she didn't have a problem with my twelve-hour days, she'd probably freak out the second I got hurt or did something dangerous," Nate said. He slid down in his seat a bit, folding in around the box on his lap. "It wouldn't work."
"Some ladies kinda like the danger thing," Johnny noted.
"Well, yeah," said Nate. "The kind of women who want to date you. Because, uh, you're you, and I'm me, and it's... it's different."
"Huh," said Johnny, and went a little quiet.
Nate frowned, fidgeted a little, and finally burst out with "What?"
"Eh," Johnny said. He shrugged. "Guess you're right. Guess it is kind of a 'kind'."
"See, you look like you can handle yourself," said Nate. His ears were already burning a bit, but he'd already said the first bit. "You look tough. Like if you found yourself in a dangerous situation you could handle it. I look like what I am: a socially-maladjusted techie who'd drop his gun on his foot if he tried to use it."
"Guess so," said Johnny, momentarily diverted by a traffic light.
Nate sighed. "You could at least argue with me a little, you know."
Johnny's face creased up again. "Don't think you'd drop your gun on your foot," he said.
"Shoot yourself in the foot, maybe," said Johnny, "but probably not drop it."
you're ugly," Nate said, and they both cracked up again.
"It's just weird," Simon said, pulling his shirt up and leaning forward over the sink to prod gingerly at his bandages. "I just finished firing four full magazines and it doesn't even hurt any more."
"Well, that's good," Jeremy said. He was leaning against the wall by the bathroom door, arms folded over his chest, blatantly watching Simon in the mirror. And smiling. Of course he was smiling.
Simon mostly ignored him, poking in a widening circle around the actual bullet hole, looking for bruises and finding none. "Of course, it doesn't hurt because I swear to Christ the entire left side of my body is numb."
Jeremy's smile shrank a little, becoming just a little quirk. "That's not so good."
"Guess I just overloaded my body's ability to feel pain or in fact anything," Simon concluded, pulling off his shirt and throwing it at Jeremy. "Think fast!"
Jeremy caught the shirt, glanced down at it, and then flicked it right-side-out with a disdainful little gesture, draping it neatly over his arm. As an afterthought, he reached up and locked the bathroom door. "Oh, yes, please, allow me to be your valet in addition to being your maid and your nursemy goodness, Simon, is there anything I don't do for you?"
"Well, you never shut up," Simon pointed out, reasonably. Already wincing a little in anticipationthe left side of his body was oddly numb, but not that numbhe worked the corner of his thumbnail up under the end of the medical tape and peeled it free, then caught his breath and ripped the whole strip off. He bit back his gasp; Jeremy's reflection winced; the gauze pad fell down.
"I see you're of the school of thought that believes in not prolonging the agony," said Jeremy, recovering.
"Well, yeah, since I'm not a giant wuss," Simon said, rising up onto the balls of his feet to get a closer look at the wound. The entry site itself was almost perfectly round and still a dark purplish-pink in color, slightly lumpy on one side where healing flesh and muscle had fused to become one seriously annoying muscle adhesion. A fat pink worm of scar tissue, from where the doctors had gutted him like a pig in order to clean the wound, ran from the purple circle out along the underside of his ribcage. And just to add insult to injury the outline of the gun's muzzle was printed very clearly on his skin, like it had been inked therethe bruise had faded to browns and yellows by now, with a few remaining disgusting greens. Simon gingerly prodded the muscle adhesion with one finger and winced a little.
Still, it was not bleeding, there were no new bruises, and he wasn't having muscle spasms or anything. In conclusion, firing the gun hadn't killed him yet, and wasn't likely to. Hooray. Simon folded the gauze pad back up and pressed down the tape until it stuck. Glancing up, he caught Jeremy's eyes in the mirror. "See something you like, Archer?"
"Quite possibly," Jeremy said, his little smile curling in on itself. "But in all honesty I was mostly curious about your war wound. I hadn't actually seen it before."
"Voyeur," Simon said, pushing himself upright and washing his hands as an afterthought. "Yeah, it's totally hot, isn't it? Look, we're twins."
Jeremy raised an eyebrow. "Actually, it looks rather like a giant pink sperm."
Simon stopped dead, his hands still under the water. "Oh, thank you," he said in disgust. "Yes, that's exactly the kind of thing I want to think about every time I see that scar in the mirror, especially here in a couple of years when it turns white. Thanks a lot, Archer. I'll send you my therapy bills."
"And here I thought you'd find it, I don't know, virile," Jeremy said. "Manly. Advertising."
"Do I look like I need to be any manlier to you?" Simon asked, thumping an unbandaged part of his chest with one wet hand. "I believe that I am sufficiently manly already, even with a, a bukkake spot on my chest, and I'd be happy to prove that to you at any time, Archer."
A silence fell. Jeremy's crooked little smile spoke volumes. Simon put up with it, well, manfully. "Perhaps later," Jeremy finally said. "I mean, the door is locked, but all the same this is probably not the place."
"Damn straight it's not, and also I'd like to note that that's totally rich coming from you," said Simon.
"Oh, be fair, Simon, it was a very romantic air-conditioning duct in the middle of a terrorist compound."
"See, this is why I can't take you anywhere," Simon said, grabbing a paper towel and drying his hands. "Give me my shirt."
Jeremy glanced down at the shirt draped over his arm. "What, this shirt?"
"Yes, that shirt, Archer," Simon said patiently, reaching out to grab one of its sleeves and tug at it.
"But you gave it to me," Jeremy protested, still smiling as he pressed his arm down and pinned the shirt to his side.
Not really wanting to rip the sleeve off his shirt, Simon stopped pulling. Of course, he didn't much feel like leaving it in Jeremy's possession, either, so he wrapped a good foot or so of that sleeve around his hand and stepped in, backing Jeremy up against the wall. Simon put a hand on the wall by Jeremy's head. "Give it," he said, tugging slightly.
"No," Jeremy said, enjoying this entirely too much for Simon's tastes, still resisting Simon's half-hearted efforts to pry up his arm and free the shirt.
"Look, how much more ominously do I have to loom, here? Shirt, Archer."
"Oh, I don't know, Simon. How much more ominously can you loom?"
"Remember when we agreed that this is not the place?" Nevertheless, with a quick glance at the locked bathroom door, Simon took a final half-step in, getting right up in Jeremy's face and nearly pinning him to the wall in the process. He waited for a beat or two, just to let Jeremy get a good sense of imminence, then narrowed his eyes to glittering slits. "Give me. My. Shirt," he hissed into Jeremy's face.
"Oh, very ominously done," Jeremy purred, apparently unimpressed. He paused, the silence stretching taut between them. Finally, with a flash of smile, Jeremy held out the shirt. "You only had to ask," he said.
"Funny how I did and you ignored me," said Simon, grabbing it. Since Jeremy was right there and all Simon leaned down and bit his ear, hard enough to make Jeremy jerk and hiss out a breath. The bite was also hard enough to make Jeremy's fingers spasm, allowing Simon to twitch his shirt the rest of the way free. Simon stepped away, triumphant. "Guess I win," he said, shrugging back into his shirt with only a faint twinge of pain for his troubles.
"Mm," said Jeremy, disagreeing without actually saying a word, reaching up to rub his bitten ear.
Mike was the only one in the saferoom when Simon slammed the door open, but it suited Simon fine: Mike was the one he'd been hoping for, anyway. "Mike," he said, trailing his fingers along the door until Jeremy, behind him, could catch it, "as your superior I command you to tell Archer that I'm manly."
Mike, being Mike, didn't even blink. "Seriously, Archer, he is so manly," he said, right on cue. "If he were any more manly he'd be impregnating chicks just by walking past them on the street. Seriously, I writhe in awe of his superior cock-power or some shit."
Simon spun on his heel, confronting Jeremy. "See?" he said, patting his chest.
"I wasn't denying it," Jeremy said with amused patience, easing the door gently shut.
"Not that I normally need an excuse to talk about how studly you are, boss, but what brought this on?" Mike asked.
Simon spun back around, gesturing back over his shoulder at Jeremy. "Archer here was denigrating my bullet wound, that's what."
"Oh, I was not," said Jeremy in mock exasperation. "Honestly, Simon, you're so sensitive."
Simon made a strangling noise. Mike whooped. "Okay, you know what, them's fightin' words," Simon said, recovering, "and I'd crush you right now if it weren't beneath my dignity as a real man. Mike, where is everyone?"
Mike glanced around. "Dunno? Out, I guess."
"Yeah? I'd never have guessed," Simon said, sitting down. There was a little bubble of hilarity wedged just under his breastbone that was born mostly from relief (and partly from half a cup of stolen coffee): he didn't feel like a goddamned invalid any more. It was a ridiculously liberating feeling, like discovering that he could fly. "You call Amanda Winston?"
"Sure did," said Mike. "Got her voice mail, though, and I've got this weird feeling that she's not going to call me back no matter how nicely I asked her to, you know?"
"Yep," said Simon. "How nicely did you ask her to, just out of curiosity?"
"I swear to God I vomited up kittens and rainbows right after I hung up."
"That nicely, huh?"
"Kittens," Mike said in emphasis. "Little scruffy orange ones with big wobbly heads."
"Damn, you can't get much nicer than that," Simon said, shaking his head. "Okay. Call her back around four."
"Already in the cards, boss."
Jeremy carried yet another cup of coffee over to the table and took his usual seat, accidentally-on-purpose putting the cup down within arm's reach of Simon. "Enabler," Simon said in peaceful accusation, filching it.
"That's one of those psychological non-words that you Americans are so fond of flinging about, isn't it?" Jeremy asked, watching Simon steal his coffee with a reasonable amount of calm.
Simon was saved from having to leap semi-savagely to the defense of his country by Johnny, who chose that moment to let himself in. He was alone. "Yo," he said.
"Hey, Texas," Simon said, putting Jeremy's mug back where he'd found it. "What's up? Where's Nate?"
"Went down to the lab to turn in the print sheet," Johnny said, ambling over. "Said he was gonna hang around down there until they felt guilty enough to cough something up."
"Lab techs don't feel guilt," Simon said. "I am, however, confident that they feel pain."
Johnny shrugged. "Not in the same way humans do."
"Oof. True. Anyway, as I was about to tell Mike, once he gets hold of Amanda Winston and tells her the news, if she sounds even the slightest bit off I want the two of you to truck right out there and come up with some excuse to drop by unannounced. Jesus, if there's one person in this whole mess I trust less than Diana Fontaine, it's Amanda Winston."
"Yeah," said Johnny. "Woman's not playing with a full deck."
"Doesn't help that Farraday used to play thirty-eight-and-a-half-card pickup with said deck, either." Simon shook his head. "Jesus, I could almost feel sorry for her if she hadn't dicked us over so bad. Who here remembers that recording of her visiting him in jail? Hands up."
Mike's hand went up. "Shit, and Sandy thinks I'm a dog, goddamn," he said. "I can't believe Amanda Winston fell for that shit."
"No, see, you're looking at it the wrong way," said Simon. "You gotta picture it as the end of some shitty chick flick, you know? There's a whole breed of lady out there who will believe any goddamn thing you say as long as you sound like some movie she watched once." He shook his head and had some more of Jeremy's coffee. "Seriously, you can't tell me he didn't have that shit scripted in his head."
"Chick flick," Jeremy repeated, sounding vaguely amused.
Simon glanced at him. "Yeah, you know, one of those little low-budget movies they make that are supposed to appeal to the ladies?"
"I know what they are," Jeremy said. "I just didn't know you were so familiar with them."
"Uh, in the interests of defending my masculinity here I'm just going to go ahead and admit that I am plagiarizing the chick-flick metaphor from a conversation I had with Sandy, okay?" Simon cleared his throat. "But it's true anyway. Honda, you've got your computer open, have you got the recording?"
"Yeah, I think so," Mike said, squinting at his monitor. "Hang onyeah, I think this is it." He tapped the touchpad twice and suddenly the room filled with Amanda Winston's sobbing, rendered tinny by the laptop's tiny, shitty speakers.
"I'm sorry, oh God, Cole" She hesitated and dragged in a huge, uneven, whooping breath. "you took off with Carole and what was I supposed to think? I know how men are! But I didn't want to hurt you, not like this"
"Shh, shh, luh-love," Cole Farraday said, serene and syrupy as a hiccupping televangelist, a man totally in command of his situation. "I know. I nuh-know." In the background Amanda Winston cried on, gasping out huge wet sobs like a child while Farraday made little shushing sounds. Eventually, she calmed. "Amanda, Amanda, it's all right," Farraday crooned. "I understand. I do. I promise."
"Cole" Amanda Winston said, too startled or awed or something to even cry.
"I fuh-forgive you. See? It's all right."
A second passed in silence and then Amanda started sobbing again, in relief this time, mumbling "Oh thank God" under her breath at one point. Simon was just about to poke Mike and tell him to skip ahead past all the annoying weeping when Farraday spoke again. Simon subsided.
"Amandamy beautiful, buh-beautiful AmandaI know why you came, and it's all right, but I don't think you should come again."
Amanda stopped dead, right in the middle of her weeping. "Why not?" she demanded to know, snuffling. "You're doing this to punish me, aren't you?"
"Duh," said Mike, under his breath.
"Of course not," Farraday said soothingly, contradicting Mike. "It's just... I hate that you're seeing me like this."
"it doesn't matter"
"It does, love. It matters to me. I cuh!can't bear it." The hitch in his voice was nearly a spitting sound that time, and there was a light thump in the background, like Farraday had ticced right into something.
"I'm sorry..." said Amanda, in a tiny voice full of shame. She snuffled again.
"I want you to guh-go home," Farraday said, his voice low and commanding, "and I want you to hug your beautiful daughter tight, and I want you to remember me as I was, instead. Pretend that I'm dead, if it helps. All right? Will you duh-do that for me?"
"Yuh," Amanda said, already crying again, too hard to say 'yes' properly.
Farraday paused, this time waiting silently while Amanda cried. After thirty seconds or so there was another light, soft thump; whatever it was, it made Amanda choke off her tears. Farraday's voice, when it came, was even softer, just a faint and throaty rumble. "Wuh-wait for me," he said. Simon just barely restrained himself from spitting in disgust. Oblivious, Farraday went on. "Some day I'll get out, Amanda. It won't be fuh!forever. Wait for me."
"I will," Amanda breathed, her voice full of awe. "Oh, God, Cole"
"Wait," Farraday said, and then a bored male voice in the background told Farraday that his time was up. "Goodbye, Amanda," said Farraday, and the recording came to an end over the sound of Amanda Winston crying again, her voice cut off mid-sob.
For a moment the room was silent. Finally Mike reached up and hit some keys on his laptop, closing the recording. "Jesus," Simon said, shaking his head. "I haven't heard that in years. It's even worse than I remember."
"Total chick flick, you're right," Mike said in agreement. "Totally. Fuckhead even had cinematic timing. After he forgave her for being mad that he kidnapped her daughter. Which, I mean, what?"
"I don't get women," said Johnny. "Well, I get 'em, I just don't understand 'em."
Simon glanced at Jeremy. "So, as you can see, he played her like a harmonica."
"Only not so much with the putting his mouth on her openings and blowing until she made noise," Mike said.
Simon paused. "I walked right into that one, didn't I?"
"Oh, man, face first, boss."
"In that case, I think I'm contractually obligated to make the 'mouth organ' joke" The door clicked open behind him, unsettling them all and startling Simon into silence. He glanced over his shoulder just as the new guy backed in, towing a computer chair behind him. "Christ," Simon said, turning the rest of the way around in his chair. "You got a chair out of the physical plant in under a week? What the hell did you do? If you pulled a gun on them, I don't think I want to know."
"Uh," said the new guy, stopping in the middle of the room and abruptly looking guilty. "Not exactly."
"Not exactly," Simon repeated.
"Well, uh, I put in a request for a chair and they said it would take three to five business days," the new guy said.
"By which they mean a week, yeah, we all know," Simon said. "So where'd that one come from, then?"
The new guy flushed a little and looked down at the chair, rolling it back and forth on its little wheels. "I went up to Internet Crime and stole the chair from my old desk," he said.
"You stole it," Simon repeated, his voice flat.
"Crime hasn't replaced me yet," said the new guy. The chair rolled back and forth, back and forth, and he stared down at it like he'd hypnotized himself. "And when they do they can just pull a chair out of the conference room."
"You stole a chair from Internet Crime," Simon said again, marveling.
Finally the new guy looked up, squaring his shoulders. "Yes," he said. "And now it's their problem."
Simon stared at the new guy for a few seconds, waiting to see what he'd say. He didn't say anything, although he wilted a bit. "Well," Simon finally said, somewhat impressed despite himself. "I guess you'd better put your new chair over in your corner and get back to work, then."
"I guess so," the new guy said, and proceeded to do just that.
By the time Sandra returned, half an hour later, Simon had sunk nearly all the way down in his chair and was staring blindly at the far wall, sweating and trying not to move lest he aggravate the demons with hot pincers who were currently having a party all up and down the left side of his body. Now that the blissful numbness had worn off, he was paying for every goddamned bullet all at once. He wanted a pain pill like nobody's business. He wanted people to stop glancing at him and looking worried, too. He also wanted a million dollars. None of these things appeared to be forthcoming.
"Hey, boss, good news," Sandra said briskly, still talking as she vanished into Simon's office to drop off the folder she was carrying. "Upstairs says you can have your position back officially on Monday, assuming you feel up to it" She came back out and broke off there, finally noticing the state of things. "Are you all right?" she asked, suddenly sounding a lot more concerned.
"Fine," Simon said, his voice coming out scratchy and petulant. "Monday, huh? Great."
"Assuming I think you're up to it," Sandra said. "Upstairs said no earlier than Monday, but aside from that it's my call."
"Monday," Simon repeated, trying to sound firm. "And I'm fine. I just pushed myself a little too hard this afternoon and I'm paying for it."
"Pushed yourself a little too hard?" Sandra said, suspicious. "What did you do?"
"Uh huh." Sandra looked at Jeremy. "Archer, what did he do?"
"He insisted on going down to the firing range," said Jeremy, with a shrug.
"The firing range," Sandra repeated dumbly. "The firing range?"
"Goddammit, I hate it when you two do that." Simon struggled halfway up, regretting it all the way.
"You're supposed to stop him from doing dumb shit, Archer," Sandra said, ignoring Simon entirely.
Simon rolled his eyes. "You say that like you think he could." Mike hunched his shoulders and snickered, and Simon caught it himself a moment later, pain or no. "... shit," he said, "that came out really wrong, didn't it?"
"He was most insistent," said Jeremy, now smiling a bit. "And truth be told, he was fine until just about fifteen minutes ago."
"And it's not like Archer could stop me," Simon added.
"Level 5 privileges shouldn't have gotten you into the firing range anyway," said Sandra, darting a glance at Simon.
"Well, technically it didn't, but the fellow behind the counter knew Simon, apparently?"
"Terrific security we've got around here." Sandra rolled her eyes.
"I just wanted to make sure that I could fire my gun if I needed to," Simon said. "As long as Farraday's around, I might need to."
That stopped her. Finally Sandra looked down at her hands. "I suppose that's true," she said, sighing. "Boss, are you sure you won't come stay at the hotel with us?"
"I'm sure," Simon said, as firmly as he could.
Sandra pinched the bridge of her nose. "All right," she said. "I suppose there's no arguing with you. But I want you to do me a favor."
"Yeah?" Simon said suspiciously. "What's that?"
"Go home," said Sandra, letting her hand drop to the table. "Take the rest of today off, go home, take a pain pill, get some sleep. If you're okay again tomorrow, I'll give you your badge back on Monday."
"And if I don't go home right now you'll hold my badge hostage, huh?" Simon pushed back his chair and inched upright despite the muscle cramps that were threatening to fold him in half. "Yeah, okay, I know a threat when I hear one."
"It wasn't a threat," Sandra snapped, startling him. Simon's head whipped up. Her face was set and angry. "Goddammit, Simon, I'm trying to look out for your best interests here!"
"I know," Simon said after a moment, carefully. "It was a joke, Sandy."
"The hell it was," Sandra said, closing her eyes. "Go home, Simon. Archer, take him home."
Jeremy pushed his chair back and stood up. Simon glanced at him, then back
at Sandra, then decided that sometimes silence was the better part of valor
and shuffled towards the door, Jeremy silent in his wake.
Simon slept for almost the rest of the dayby the time Jeremy heard him stirring in the other room, it was almost nine. Jeremy put his magazine down on his chest and listened, half-closing his eyes in order to hear better. Simon's bedclothes rustled again; this time, he made a weak little snorting sound to accompany the rustle. Jeremy leaned forward and put his magazine on the coffee table, automatically glancing out the window as he did so. The world outside looked perfectly normal. Simon's Jeep still stood in its usual spot, unmolested.
The rustling sounds had been augmented by the arrhythmic scratching of Simon rubbing his face. The noise made Jeremy smile, faintly. "Someone needs a shave," he noted under his breath. Still, that particular sound also generally meant that Simon was waking, so Jeremy stood up, shook the momentary stiffness from his legs, and went to check on him.
"Morning, sunshine," Simon said sleepily, just a voice and a faint shape in the semidarkness of his bedroom. His hands were still tented over his face, muffling his speech. "Christ, I'm hungry."
"Well, it has just gone nine," Jeremy noted, glancing at Simon's alarm clock. "You've been out for about five hours."
"Well." Simon yawned hugely. "Guess that explains that."
"I suppose so." Jeremy paused, studying the dim outline of Simon. "How are you feeling?"
"Fine," Simon said automatically, letting his hands fall back to his chest.
Jeremy couldn't help but smile. "Oh, good. I'm glad to hear it. And how are you really feeling?"
Simon made a slight sound that might have been either a snort or a laugh. "I'm fine," he repeated, sounding a bit less like he was on autopilot this time. "Seriously. Pain pill and a nap fixed me right up."
"Modern medicine triumphs again," Jeremy said. Nudged by a faint and selfish impulse he crossed to the bed, sitting on the edge of the mattress by Simon's hip. One of Simon's arms found its way around his waist. He couldn't find it in himself to complain.
"Yeah, so," Simon said, giving Jeremy a lazy squeeze. "You know what, I'm thinking dinner."
"Were you?" Jeremy said, glancing down at the arm around his waist. "Goodness, that wasn't the impression I was getting at all."
Simon lightly slapped Jeremy's hip. "It's a friendly gesture," he said, pretending to be exasperated. His hand spread out again. "You know what, you could shut up and take it in the spirit in which it was intended."
"And since you are now massaging my hip, that spirit is now... what?"
"Hungry," Simon promptly said. "Also in semi-dire need of a shower and a shave."
Jeremy laughed a little and put his hand on Simon's wrist. "Yes, I'd noticed," he said. "Given the time, perhaps I'd best run out and pick us up something while you have your shower. Otherwise we'll never get through dinner before ridiculous o'clock."
"If you're trying to insinuate that I spend too long in the shower, Archer, I'd have to say that you're one to talk." Simon yawned again, covering his mouth with the hand that wasn't rubbing slow circles up along Jeremy's hip. "Besides, I just took one hell of a nap, I think I'm totally up for ridiculous o'clock."
"Are you," Jeremy said, not bothering to make a question out of it. He settled carefully back against Simon's side, trying not to laugh when Simon slid his thumb under the waistband of his pants and gave them a small, subtle tug downwards. "I'm sensing a wealth of conflicting signals here, Simon."
"Yeah, I guess so," Simon admitted, withdrawing his thumb and letting his hand fall still. "And as much as I currently kind of don't want to get up, I think food is going to have to take precedence."
"Ah, well," Jeremy said, his regret only half-feigned. He was fairly hungry himself, after all. "I'll see to dinner and you see to getting cleaned up, and then... ridiculous o'clock?"
"Sounds like a plan," Simon confirmed. He gave Jeremy's hip one last pat and then let him go, his hand sliding down Jeremy's leg and away. "Buy me a decent enough dinner, Archer, and I will ridiculous your clock all night long."
Having no better ideasand certainly not interested in Simon's idea of acceptable takeaway foodJeremy threw himself into the armchair, picked up Simon's desk phone, and called his hotel. His request to be connected to the concierge resulted, inevitably, in his being put on hold. Jeremy rolled his eyes and settled in to wait.
Behind him he heard Simon go padding by. A moment later, the bathroom door shut, and the shower started up, and Jeremy smiled to himself even as someone finally picked up the phone. "Concierge's desk."
"Ahh, yes," Jeremy drawled, closing his eyes and letting himselfletting Jamesgo lazy in the chair. "This is James St. Johnin the Red Suite?"
"Mr. St. John!" The concierge's voice went attentive on the instant. "Yes, sir, I'm very sorry for your wait. What can I do for you?"
"How kind of you to ask," 'James' said, unable to resist the little jab. "I find myself in need of a takeaway dinner for two, you see. Whatever the kitchen thinks is appropriate. I'm certain I don't care as to the details."
He heard the concierge snap his fingers impatiently at someone. "Yes sir, Mr. St. John. Will you be coming to pick it up?"
"In half an hour or so, if it'll be ready...?" 'James' trailed off there. Of course it would be ready. Things generally were, when you threw enough money at them.
"Of course, sir!" Of course. "I'll have it here at the concierge's desk for you."
"Excellent, thank you," said 'James', and Jeremy hung up without further ado.
The shower was still going. Jeremy stretched back over the arm of the chair and put Simon's phone back down on the table. He needn't even leave for a good ten minutes yethe picked up his magazine and flipped it back open to the article he'd been skimming, listening absently to the sound of Simon thumping around in the shower.
The shower shut off just as Jeremy was flipping through the last few pages. Jeremy put the magazine down and checked his watch. 9:16.
Plucking his jacket from the back of the couch Jeremy slid into it as he stepped into the hall, knocking lightly on the bathroom door. Steam seeped through the cracks and curled in the faint yellow light. "I'm off," Jeremy said. "I'll be back in half an hour or so."
"Awesome," Simon said through the closed bathroom door. Something clattered softly on the counter.
Jeremy tapped his fingertips lightly against the door again and headed for the front door, rolling one shoulder as he went to settle the weight of his jacket properly. He had the front door open onto the cool October night when Simon yelled, "Hold up!" from the bathroom.
Jeremy paused in the doorway and waited. The bathroom door opened and Simon leaned out, pink and damp and wearing only a towel around his waist, his wet hair hanging rather fetchingly in his eyes. "Stop somewhere and pick up a six-pack, will you? I deserve beer."
"Well, I can certainly do that," Jeremy said, rather savouring both the moment and the view, "but I find myself rather disinclined to leave all of a sudden."
Simon glanced down at himself, running a hand through his hair. "Quicker you go, quicker you get back," he pointed out.
"By which point you'll have put clothes on," Jeremy said. "You're no fun at all."
"Fetch, Archer," Simon commanded, snapping his fingers imperiously at Jeremy before stepping back into the bathroom and firmly shutting the door. Jeremy laughed under his breath and closed the front door behind himself, locking it and dropping the key into his pocket.
It was a glorious night. The moon was high and full and the sky was full of scudding little clouds that caught the moonlight and scattered it aroundeven the glow of the city and the horrible orange lights of the parking lot couldn't quite drown out the effect. The breeze was up, cool and damp, making the bushes that lined the lower pathway hiss and rustle. Fallen leaves blew in a yellow arc across the parking lot. Jeremy paused on the upper walkway and took a deep breath, enjoying the cool air for a moment before heading down the stairs.
It was a pity, he reflected, that he didn't know how to take down the top of Simon's Jeep. Tonight seemed to be a night that called for the open air. Perhaps he could talk Simon into opening the kitchen window while they ate. Perhaps he'd just open it himself. Perhaps they could open the bedroom window and scandalise the neighbours.
He hit the parking lot and started across it, fishing in his pocket for the key to the Jeep. Leaves crunched underfoot; as little as he liked making such noise, there was no avoiding it without hopping around like a great idiot. There wasn't another person in sight but still he went ever so slightly on his guard, his eyes darting back and forth, scanning the deserted parking lot. He felt a bit silly, but he kept his eyes and ears open as best he could over the racket that he himself was making, heading for the black bulk of Simon's Jeep.
The prongs of the fired taser hit the narrow strip of skin on the back of his neck, just between the high collar of his jacket and his hairline. Jeremy had a single instant in which to murkily appreciate someone's excellent aim before he heard the crack and his mind exploded. He hit the ground in an ungainly, spasming pile, cracking his temple against a kerbstone, and everything faded to black.