"So, did you have a plan for getting me my flight pack?" Sam Wilson asked from the backseat of another stolen SUV.
"I thought we'd just wing it," Steve replied, visibly fighting a grin.
"You think I haven't heard that one before?" Sam said. "You're ninety-five and you haven't figured out the concept of the 'old joke'?"
"Getting on base is easy," Natasha said, as she maneuvered the car down the parkway in midday traffic. "Fort Meade is security theater central: maximum annoyance, but the base is still integrated into the community; I can think of half a dozen ways to get on base without anyone blinking twice."
"I can think of half a dozen ways to get on base, one of which is to show my pass at the gate," Sam answered. "I lead group sessions Tuesdays at the community center. Getting into the secure facility where they're storing my flight suit is going to be a little harder."
"Not that much harder," Steve said. "Hard part is going to be getting in and out quietly enough that we keep the element of surprise."
"I can get us through security quietly, but I'll need a few minutes on an untraceable internet line to activate some things first. Sam, you know the area?"
"Nearest computer store's probably at the mall, which is a bad idea on so many levels," Sam answered. "No, wait, I think I got it. Take the next exit."
"Public road that goes straight through the base," Natasha replied, "Not a bad start."
"Shopping center's just down the way," said Sam. They passed about a half-mile of the kind of abandoned, scrub forest that made you wonder why there was so much empty land right in the center of the megalopolis, and then he said, "There, turn right after the Wawa."
Wawa? Steve mouthed to himself incredulously, and then he noticed that Natasha was pulling into a parking spot right outside a building labeled TARGET SHOOTING GUNS AND AMMO. "Wait, I thought we wanted computers, not guns."
"I figured guns aren't a bad idea while we're here," Sam said. "But no, I meant there." He pointed down to the other end of the shopping center, where a large, ugly building bore a sign on the roof that said, in lettering probably untouched since the late '70s, L I B R A R Y.
"Public library," said Natasha with a grim smile. "That'll do. Sam's not wrong about the guns, though."
Steve sighed. "You two take the library, I'll acquire some weaponry."
"You learn how to do that in Germany too?"
"No, New Jersey," he said, as he stepped out of the car.
Natasha shrugged, and pulled into a space closer to the library.
"Hey," Sam said, just as they were about to go in. "Listen, go easy on this place, okay? I did some messed-up stuff when I was in the service, and you've probably done worse, but there's somewhere you gotta draw a line, and the public library's one of the things I fight to protect."
Natasha looked at him for a second, and then let herself smile. "I'll do my best," she said.
"That'll do," Sam answered, and waved her through the door.
The bespectacled woman at the circulation desk looked up as they came in and smiled. "Hi! It's Sam, right?"
"Yep," he said, and wandered over to lean on the desk. "How are you?"
"All right. You?"
"I'm still here."
"Always a good sign," she said. "Sorry, I don't think any of your holds are in. Anyway, I don't remember any comics trades coming in the last couple of days."
"Don't worry," Sam said. "I'm getting my comics through the next county over now, they actually carry Captain Marvel."
She grinned at him. "See, I know you well enough that I know you're just kidding and you still love us."
He pointed at her. "You keep thinking that. Listen, my cousin's girlfriend's only in town for a couple of days and needs to print some stuff, can you get her a guest pass for the computers?"
"Oh, well, since it's you, Sam," she said, and smiled at Natasha without making eye contact. "Just give it a second to print," she said, and then handed Natasha a sheet of paper with a bar code in one corner. "Put that number in any computer that's available and it'll get you into the system. I think Computer 13 is open right now," she said by rote. "If you need to print, print station's over there, you'll need the number for that, too, ask us at the desk if you have trouble."
"Thanks," Natasha mumbled.
"No problem," she said, and went back to checking in her pile of books.
Computer 13 was halfway back into the stacks, and, helpfully, out of sight of the row of floor-to-ceiling windows that lined the back of the library. Sam'd almost gotten to the point where that kind of casual exposure didn't make him nervous any more, but he was pretty sure the last twenty-four hours represented a setback.
"What are these computers running, Windows 95?" Natasha muttered as she pushed a nondescript USB key into the slot.
"Hey, you said untraceable, not fast."
"Yeah, well, if I'd wanted tape drives I could have stayed in Jersey," she said.
"Is it going to be good enough?"
"They're basically toasters, but there's twenty-four of them hooked together and their network security is shit," said Natasha, frowning. "I'll manage. Did you have to flirt with the librarian? She'll remember you."
"First, I was not flirting, I can't help it if the smart ones go for me," he said. "And second, yes I did, because if she hadn't remembered me, she would have given you a hard sell on getting a library card instead of a day pass, and then she would have remembered you."
"Hmm," Natasha said, and then "Fuck," and pressed the enter key with unnecessary force.
"Hi, do you need some help, ma'am?" a new voice asked. Sam looked her over: white, youngish, chestnut hair, smile, vintage chic outfit that worked well with her curves. Another one of the new staff.
"We'll be fine, ma'am," he said, leaning up against the desk in such a way that he both blocked her view of the screen and showed off his shoulders. "My friend's just researching, uh..."
"Locations for my honeymoon," Natasha said, not looking up.
"You're getting married?" She looked back and forth between them. "Well, congratulations!" she said, with what Sam decided was slightly forced cheer.
"Oh no, I'm not marrying her," he said. "She's marrying my cousin."
"Oh, I see." She angled her body slightly toward Sam's. Yeah, she definitely knew how to handle her curves. "Where are they going? Maybe I can suggest some places."
"New Jersey," Natasha said darkly.
"New Jersey? They have, uh, they have some very nice beaches," she tried.
"You don't have to pretend it's not weird," Natasha said. "He has fam--" and then she stopped. Her computer screen had suddenly gone black, with a big red X across it. "What's happened?"
"Bugger," said the librarian. "Our computers must be down again. They've been doing that all week. They usually come back up within a few minutes, if you want to wait." They watched as one by one, all the other computers in the library went black-and-red as well. "I hope you didn't lose any work."
"I think it's mostly saved, thanks," she said. "That gentleman looks upset, though." She pointed across the room.
"Oh dear. I'll go help him, then, if you're all right?"
"No problem," said Sam, and waved her off. When she was out of earshot, he muttered to Natasha, "Was that you?"
"Yeah," she said, getting up. "Don't worry, they really will come back up in an hour or so. I had to borrow the processing power and figured I might as well sow confusion at the same time. Hope I didn't ruin your friend's day."
"Eh," said Sam, with a hand gesture. "I suspect it really does happen all the time, they'll be fine." He waved at the circulation person as they wandered out again.
"You were definitely flirting with that second one," Natasha added as the automatic doors shut behind them.
"You of all people going to tell me not to use my assets?"
"Not at all. But you should give Steve some lessons."
"Give Steve lessons in what?" Steve asked, as he swing a heavy-looking gym bag into the backseat of the SUV.
"Flirting," said they said together.
"Why did I even ask."
When the police came in, Kay was already at the circulation desk, putting something in the lost and found drawer, so Mel had no qualms about sending them right over to her. She had no qualms about listening in, either. Erica, at the other circulation computer, shrugged and wandered over too.
"We're looking for two people who might have been in the area earlier," the larger of the cops said. "A very large, blond man, mid twenties, might have been trying to hide his face, and a tall, slender red-haired woman, slightly older?"
Kay shook her head. "Can't remember seeing anyone like that today, I'm sorry, though I can't swear they haven't been in."
Mel, standing behind them, opened her mouth as if to say something, and then changed her mind.
"Any other unusual events? Maybe someone doing something suspicious on the computers?"
"Our public computers were down for about an hour and half, they only just came back up," Kay answered. "But I'm afraid that doesn't count as 'unusual' around here. Sorry I can't be of more help."
"Do you have security cameras in here?" he asked.
"Yes, but they're closed-circuit," said Kay.
"Can we review your recordings for this afternoon?"
"Um," said Kay, "Well. Can you tell me anything about what you're looking for?"
"Nothing to worry about ma'am," he said, "It's just a minor incident on base."
"I'm afraid our policy is that we can only give copies of the security tapes to the police if we have permission of the manager and an official case number for our records. And we'll have to verify your badge numbers, of course," Mel said.
"Can we speak to your manager, then?" the policeman said, with deep patience.
"She's on her dinner break, won't be back for an hour," said Kay. "Sorry? You can come back in an hour if you'd like."
"I'll keep that in mind, ma'am," he said. "We'll check your building while we're here. Call this number if you notice anything suspicious."
The three librarians watched the police move through the library and out. When the door swished closed behind them, Mel looked to Kay and said, very casually, "You know, now that I think about it, wasn't that friend of Sam's who came in to use the computers a tall redhead?"
Kay frowned, and put one finger thoughtfully to her lips. "No, I'm fairly sure she was blonde."
"Sort of a dirty blonde?" Mel said. "You know, I think you may be right. Anyway, Sam definitely isn't blond, so that couldn't be it."
"True enough!" said Kay happily.
"Did you two just.. lie to the police?" Erica asked.
"Not...exactly," said Kay. "I can't imagine Sam would be involved in anything like that anyway. We're just saving them the trouble. And there was something off about them. Our usual police would know the security tapes policy. And this," she held up the card, "Isn't a county government number.
"Huh, sure isn't," said Erica. "Also, if it was about a recent incident on base, I know we're technically on county land, but they would've given jurisdiction to the MPs."
"Oh, right, your parents work on base, don't they? See, I knew there was something hinky. Besides, we told them what they needed to know. That's an information specialist's job. We don't just give people information, we help people figure out what information they really need. If we just tell people everything we've got without helping them figure out what's important, we're not doing our job."
"I never thought about it that way," Mel said thoughtfully.
"That's what the MLS is for," said Kay with a grin.
SOME TIME LATER
Kay didn't recognize the woman when she first walked in, probably because Kay's attention was focused on the redhead's companion, a young man who looked kind of like he belonged in a My Chemical Romance video. But she remembered when the woman came up to the desk and said, "Hi. I was in here a month or so ago and I think I left my flash drive in the computer?"
"You're Sam's friend, aren't you?" she said brightly. "How was the honeymoon?"
"You remember that?" the woman asked with raised eyebrows.
"That day was kind of memorable," she said.
"Oh, yes, the attack in DC."
"Well, it was more the fact that I spent the next two weeks with people crashing our computers trying to download the entire collection of the SHIELD papers onto flash drives," she said. "I kept telling them that we're lucky if we can open a three-page PDF without things freezing and that a terabyte of classified documents is a bit much, but I think they're all scared to use the base internet for it. The computers crashing while you were here was like a prelude to two weeks of hell. I think I do remember finding a flash drive that day, though. If you'll wait for a minute, I can check our lost and found."
"That would be great," she said. "There were some really important files on there. Oh, but before you do that, we're actually going to be staying in the area for awhile, and we'd like to get library cards. This is my new brother-in-law, by the way," she added. "Say Hi to the nice librarian, James."
"Hi," he said, with a half-wave from the hand that wasn't tucked firmly in his coat pocket. "Do I have to get a library card, Tonya?"
"It's a good first step," she said. "Besides, if you chicken out now, Sam will be disappointed at you."
The man muttered something under his breath, but he took the application when Kay handed it to him.
"You just need to fill these out and hand them back to anyone at the desk, and we can get you your cards right away," she said. "While you're doing that, I'll go check for the flash drive."
By the time she'd found the drive, marked with the date and 'found at computer 13', the woman had her application filled out; the man was still scribbling on his at one of the tables. "Here you go," she said, and traded the flash drive for the application. The flash drive got tucked carefully into a pocket.
Kay looked over the application quickly. "This looks good. Do you have any ID, or other paperwork, that would be proof of a local address?"
The woman shook her head. "We just moved back into the area and haven't sorted all of that out yet."
Kay nodded. "I understand. I can go ahead and process your new cards as 'unconfirmed ID', and they'll still work, but you'll only be able to check out one book at a time. As soon as you have a new ID, you can bring it in, and we'll change your status. We get a lot of people who are new to the area or just back from deployment, so we see this a lot. We even have a special collection of materials for returned veterans," she added subtly.
"Mmm," said the woman. "One book, huh? So I know you don't have Sam's Captain Marvel comics, but do you have any of the new Hawkman series? A friend of mine is really into them."
"I can check!" Kay said. She searched on the title and then waited the regulation thirty seconds for the computer to decide to do something. "It looks like we have... um, one copy of volume three on the shelf here."
"Only volume three?"
"That's public libraries for you," said the man as he brought his finished application up. He had a rusty sort of voice, like he had used it very little for a very long time. Kay decided she approved of him becoming a regular. "Never have the beginning of the series. I remember me and Steve used to try to read the Hardy Boys in order, back at the Brooklyn Public Library. Never did get our hands on the first one."
"It was Nancy Drew for me," Kay told him. "But you know, I decided I liked it after awhile? What's important is what's happening in the story you have. If I start in the middle I get to make up my own beginning, and it's usually better than the 'real' beginning anyway." She stopped, blushed a little, and looked back at the woman. "Or, you know, I could get you the first two volumes through interlibrary loan, if you like. That's also a thing we have now."
"You know, I think you've convinced me to try it your way," said the woman, "Start in the middle and figure out the beginning for myself. You said you had volume three on the shelf here?"
"Yes! Lilah can show you where it is while I get your cards into the system," Kay said. She turned to her coworker. "Lilah, can you show the lady and gentleman where our graphic novels are?"
"Oh, of course," Lilah answered, closing her browser window and standing up. "Come with me, right over here."
Lilah got back while Kay was still entering the new cards. "Kay," she hissed, "I'm pretty sure that was the Black Widow. Natasha Romanov."
"Can't be," Kay said placidly. "I have her application right here. Says her name is Tonya Clinton and she was born in 1984. His name is, um, Jacob Coolidge Barnard."
Lilah glanced over the applications. "And as policy we always trust our patrons unless we have specific evidence otherwise, right?"
"Exactly," Kay nodded. "Of course I did have to process them as unconfirmed ID, but what do you bet they'll both have perfectly good driver's licenses by next week?"
Lilah glanced over to where the two had their heads bent over an old phone-book-sized compilation of Golden Age All-Star Squadron. The woman was laughing as the man shook his head. "No bet," Lilah said.