It was several days after Connor and Abby’s return that Jess stopped Matt as he headed out of the ARC.
“Can I have a word?”
Matt turned with ready amusement. “I said I was sorry about the chocolate, Jess.”
He kept himself relaxed and casual. Being tense and keen to leave would only bring questions and too much curious concern and further delays to his departure. Gideon was waiting for him.
“This won’t take long. I promise.” Jess ducked back into her room without waiting for an answer.
Which left him no choice but to follow, because if he didn’t, Jess would lock all of the ARC doors and keep him there until he listened. Matt had seen her do it before. He exhaled, a single harsh breath of frustration, and headed into the control room after her.
She was stood at her terminals. The lights were turned down to energy-saving low. It made everything look substantially different, Jess included. This was enhanced by the fact that, for some reason, she wasn't wearing any shoes. Matt raised his eyebrows. The story behind that had to be a good one. Jess was never without her heels, and yet here she was, displaying bare feet and perfectly painted toenails without any complaints. Somehow, it made her look even more delicate. One of her slender ankles was marked by a deep scar that hadn't been professionally stitched.
Matt smiled slightly at her, with a look downwards to show his amusement at the bare feet, and leaned against a convenient table.
“Okay, so you’ve got my attention. What’s the problem?”
Jess smiled back. “No problem. I just wanted to thank you, for covering for me with Burton. You didn’t have to; I’m not replaceable. But thank you, it was a very nice thing to do.”
Matt grinned. “Well, I know to leave well enough alone next time, since you’re so irreplaceable and all.”
Jess laughed. It sounded a touch giddier than usual. Maybe she’d been at Becker's chocolate, or maybe the soldier had finally noticed her interest. Probably not. Becker was too consumed by his grief and guilt for anything else to penetrate right now. Not even somebody as striking as Jess.
“So is that it?” Matt asked, inwardly conscious of just how long it would take in rush hour traffic to get out of London. Gideon was still waiting. “Am I dismissed?”
Jess smiled. It was her triumphant smile, the one that so clearly said 'I know something you don't know.' That was unlikely. Matt had read the same top-secret personnel files that she had and some that she hadn't, like Lester's. Parts of Jess’s file had been blank, accessible only to high level departments that even Gideon wasn't part of. But he had seen such blanks before – in the files of other proficient young professionals who had been recruited for classified government espionage because of their unique and expert skill-sets. That explained Jess's mismatched more than healthy bank balance and job and family history. The government needed to work on its cover stories. That secret work was no doubt why Burton had recruited her in the first place.
One of Jess’s feet was idly drawing out an invisible pattern on the floor when she matter-of-factly broke the silence.
“I know what you’re doing.”
The obvious immediately came to mind – Gideon. Their mission. Only it couldn’t be that because there was no way that Jess could find out anything about it. There wasn’t a single line of his personnel file that linked him to Gideon, and everything Gideon did for them was immediately wiped afterwards. It had to be something else, something to do with his time in the military, perhaps? He hadn’t gotten on well with all his commanders here, back when he was still getting used to everything, and there were write-ups that Jess could probably find despite Gideon’s efforts to bury them.
“I mean, I know about your friend,” Jess clarified, moving closer. There was grace to her movements, maybe due to an unlisted dance hobby? And her perfume was something soft and unobtrusive. Lilies. You had to be close to notice it.
Matt’s gaze flickered to where he knew one of Burton's secret cameras was installed. When he saw Gideon later, getting Burton’s camera logs for the evening wiped was going be a high priority. Jess could be bluffing. But if she wasn't, then what she knew had to be kept from Burton's ears. Otherwise at the very least Matt would get thrown off the team – and probably locked up - and then all of Gideon’s patient hard work would somehow have to be built up again on schedule. An impossible task now.
Jess lowered her voice. “Oh, don’t worry. All of Phillip’s cameras have been caught in a scrambled feedback loop. They’ll get the occasional picture and sound, but nothing concrete.”
“And you don’t think that he’ll find that suspicious, at all?”
“The same bug has been visiting our ARC systems for the past week. It’s not surprising that it might have spread to the other electronics too.”
Reading between the lines, the message was clear - she’d planned this talk with him incredibly thoroughly. No one else was around. No one else would hear a word. She'd left literally nothing to chance. Matt was impressed and extremely on his guard.
She nodded at him, at the pocket his mobile phone was in. “You’ll probably want to call him, to let him know you’ll be late.”
Matt's eyebrows rose. So this wasn’t a bluff. It was also bloody impossible – Gideon had made sure of that. So how had she done it? And could anyone else have done it too? If that door was open, their chances of preventing what was to come were narrowing.
Or maybe it was all just extraordinarily Jess.
His conversation with Gideon was quick and pointed. His friend understood immediately from Matt’s tone and word choice what was going on and encouraged him to find out exactly what Jess knew and how she knew it and to remember to be wary. It could be her after all. Matt hung up. He was going to have to play this carefully. He’d done the one thing he’d sworn he wouldn’t do – he’d underestimated one of his suspects.
“All right. So what’s all this about?” he asked, keeping his tone purposefully light and casual.
Jess looked up from the handheld computer she was fiddling with, as though she’d been completely absorbed the whole time he'd been on the phone. He didn't believe that for a second. Of course she'd been eavesdropping. She gave him a little grin, like he was exactly right and that was fine with her. Clearly her irrepressible spirit wasn’t an act.
“Where I worked before, I learned quite a few tricks. So when certain parts of your personnel file didn't feel completely right and then you kept disappearing off the communications grid, I used some of those tricks to find out more.”
Matt’s hand tightened slightly in his pocket. It was amazing, she made all the precautions he and Gideon had painstakingly built up sound like child’s play to break through. She was so much more dangerous than he’d estimated.
But she hadn’t told Lester or Burton yet. If she had, Matt had no doubt that he’d be in their version of the brig. So why hadn’t she told them? It wasn’t likely that she wanted to blackmail him. She didn’t need to. After all, the work she’d done over the years hadn’t only taught her new tricks, it’d also very healthily built up her bank balance.
“I tagged your phone and worked out where you went almost every night,” Jess continued. “It was easy after that.”
Because he went most days to Gideon’s after work, turning off his black box tracker. But Gideon had assured him that no one could track his mobile phone. He'd made sure of it. Clearly whatever Gideon had put in place couldn't compete with Jess’s prodigious talents.
The strange thing was that by ensuring that Burton’s cameras were blocked, she’d also given Matt the perfect opportunity to deal with her if he decided that she was too much of a threat. And she had to know that. Yet, here she was. Matt shook his head. Obviously she didn’t scare too easily or she had back-up plans in place. What did she want?
Jess leaned forward earnestly, misreading his expression. “It's okay, Matt. Everyone will understand why you had to come to this time.”
Matt cracked an amused smile. “I’m sure Burton would disagree with you.”
“Then he doesn’t know the ARC’s history very well.” Jess gestured to the room around them. “This place is all about lost people, Matt, it always has been. You know that.”
Because he’d read the files, same as her. Burton had read them and likely all he saw were big opportunities. But Matt, and apparently Jess, could see where the ARC had come from. That was the important part. Nick Cutter searching for his wife, then for a woman no one else remembered. Danny Quinn spending most of his life trying to find answers about his missing brother. Abby and Connor going missing, and returning. Danny still lost, possibly forever, possibly dead. Sarah Page losing her life.
It was the losing that had always given the organisation its drive. Matt wasn’t changing the trend one bit. He was just taking a sideways route to solve his problem.
And Jess clearly knew that. She held out a business card. There was a mobile number printed on it.
“Burn it after you memorise the number,” she told him. “I can be reached on it day or night.”
Matt twirled the card easily along his fingers and back. “This isn’t the number in your records.”
Jess smiled prettily. The low light was doing glowing things to her skin. “No. Just for special occasions. And it’s untraceable.”
So Gideon wouldn’t be able to track it. Or anybody else. Matt smiled. She was enjoying being several steps ahead of him. He tucked the card into the inside pocket of his jacket. Her eyes followed the movement.
“What kind of special occasion?” he asked, willing to play her game, to find out where it went.
Jess shrugged. “I can cover your tracks here better than you can…”
“Since you’d be the first to notice anything strange anyway,” Matt finished her thought. “And Burton?”
Jess wrinkled her nose, clearly telegraphing her feelings about the ARC's private backer. “I didn’t join the ARC because of Philip Burton. And I don't have any special loyalties towards him just because he recruited me.”
“Even though he bought all your shiny toys?”
Jess looked towards her terminals with an odd unguarded expression like the machines were something more, but then shook her head. “If I asked the right people, I’d still have all this.”
Because of the contacts she’d built up in her government work. But she hadn't used those to get into the ARC. Instead she’d waited until she was asked, knowing that the work she’d done would get her noticed for such a job. Things were clicking together very quickly in Matt’s head.
“There’s no suspicion on you, getting into the ARC this way,” he surmised out aloud, his eyes fixing on her. “And here you are. So why are you here, Jessica Parker?”
Jess’s smile flickered. The look in her eyes became similar to the one that Matt saw in the mirror everyday. A very distinct brand of grief. Not at all what he had expected to see on her.
“Like I said, Matt. Lost people.”
And that was it. She turned to gather up her handheld computer and jacket. Matt watched. She’d deliberately made her words enigmatic. It was a clear shut-out. Not that that would stop Matt and Gideon from searching out her story. When Jess turned back, she was extracting a tiny USB stick from her purse. She offered it up in the palm of her hand.
“You found blanks in my files. If you want to know what they are, you can read everything on this.”
Matt gently took the datastick. It was a supreme act of trust, to hand over your past like that. Did she have an angle?
“You don't know me, Jess. I'm sure I could get you into a lot of trouble with this if I wanted you gone.”
Jess didn't look worried, just a little tired. Like she'd been waiting a long time for all of this. She shrugged.
“I want what you want. And I can be a big help. You know that. If you and Mr Gideon want to look at that stick, then I understand. You have to be careful, especially with the people here. But if everything goes well, neither of you will be here to use it against me.”
She knew a lot about them. Matt pocketed the stick. Gideon would definitely want to look at the data and verify it. He'd be able to at least get confirmation with his clearance that she hadn't just fed them lies.
The look on her face when Matt had asked her why she was here hadn't been a lie. There was a story there that he had to find out. Her grief was real, but that didn't mean he could trust her.
Because she was right – she'd be more than a great help in their cause. Gideon would say that that was dangerous enough, how well she fitted with them, as though it was all planned. Because Gideon would like Jess too. Matt could picture her and her bare feet in Gideon’s garden, equally at home exclaiming over the abundant and varied flowers as when discussing the precise details needed for the next step forward. Fitting in perfectly and knowing everybody's secrets but keeping her own. Just what was she aiming for?
“So do you want to go for a drink sometime?” Matt asked abruptly. “To talk things over.”
“Good idea. Monday?”
Matt nodded – that was time enough to look through what she'd given him and for Gideon to do the same and for them to decide what to do. He gave her an assessing look.
“Let me guess. Baileys?"
Jess shrugged one shoulder coquettishly, her mouth teasing. “Sometimes.”
Matt would bet good money that she also liked red wine or rum and coke. Today was definitely a wine day. It fitted with her robin’s egg blue and apricot outfit. In another time, she’d have been a perfect débutante.
Jess was heading for the doors, her bag over one shoulder and her matching jacket buttoned up. On the way, she pointed something that could have been a keyfob at her terminal. A light flashed. Philip’s camera was probably working perfectly now.
“Don’t forget your shoes, Cinderella.”
Jess laughed, holding up the blue pointed-toe heels. She didn't put them on, even though she was heading outside. They'd make good weapons in a tight spot. And Jess was never without them. Matt walked her to her car.
“Have a good weekend,” Jess told him. “Tell your friend 'hello' from me. I hope I get to meet him soon.”
Very presumptuous. Gideon would rightly insist that, no matter what was on the memory stick, Jess could not be trusted, only used and watched closely. Just in case.
Like Matt was watching all of them. Like no doubt Jess was watching all of them too.
Matt checked the USB stick. It probably contained some kind of implanted tracker. It was what he'd do.
Jess drove out of the car park, giving him a cheery wave as she passed. Her grief was as well-hidden as his. Matt watched until she was out of sight but probably not out of range. He had no doubt that no matter how many trackers of hers he found, she'd still keep tabs on his activities somehow. She went right to the top of his danger list.
He hit speeddial on his phone and squinted into the reddening sky. The sun was the same here. Thank God something was. He wondered what sun Jess was used to seeing.