"Are you sure you can do this, Gracie?" my brother asked me for what felt like the gazillionth time tonight.
"I'm fine." I turned around in front of the mirror, looking at my shiny vinyl jacket. It was brand-new, at least to me; I'd lifted it off a stopped Macy's truck just last week. "What do you think, this one or the leather one?"
"It doesn't matter," my brother snapped at me. He's always nervous before a job. Nobody sees this side of my brother but me; everyone else thinks Michael is a tough guy, the toughest in this part of the Bronx. But even I had never seen him this nervous.
"I'll be okay, Mike. Really." I shrugged out of the vinyl jacket and tried on the leather one. It was just a little too long in the arms, but I loved it anyway because it was one of Michael's old jackets, from when he was my age. The vinyl jacket was a lot more stylish, but I thought it would be good luck to wear the leather one tonight.
"I don't know. I don't know." Michael started to pace from one side of our little apartment to the other, checking his watch obsessively. "I could talk to Bobby, have him talk to Mr. Hafstetter, call the whole thing off."
Yeah, I'd never seen him this nervous. I wasn't scared at all. I was more excited than anything, my heart beating fast. This was going to be like a movie, and I was the main star. "C'mon, Mike, I've done stuff like this before. Remember when I brought that package to Mr. Hafstetter's friend at the Met? I did it all perfectly. And I was just a kid then."
"You're just a kid now," Mike said. "And you haven't done anything like this before." My brother ran his hand over his face and then checked his watch again. "I should've told them no. I should've said you were too young."
I looked at my own watch, a brand new watch that Michael had bought me with some of the money Mr. Hafstetter paid him from the last job. It was five minutes to ten. Bobby was picking us up at ten. "Think about the farm," I reminded him. "When Mr. Hafstetter pays us for this, we'll have so much money, and we can buy a farm for just the two of us. We never have to worry about anybody taking me away from you, ever again."
That had been our biggest fear since Dad died. Michael was only sixteen, and he'd explained to me over and over again that if anybody found out, they'd make me live in a foster home and we wouldn't see each other again. The money from this job was our ticket out.
My shiny new watch clicked over to ten o'clock, and just like that, Mike's phone buzzed. Mike picked up his gun and tucked it into the waistband of his pants, then settled his jacket over it -- a bulky, black leather jacket that looked just like my smaller one.
"Let's go," he said, laying a hand in the small of my back and pushing me out the door.
A big, shiny black car was waiting outside our building. The driver wasn't my dad's friend Bobby; instead it was Eddie, one of the other guys who used to work with my dad. I couldn't remember his name, but when he saw me he grinned at me in a way I didn't like. "Well, look who's all grown up," he said, ruffling my hair. I'd cut it short a few days ago because I was tired of being mistaken for a little kid. I'm tall for my age, and with the short hair and eyeshadow I could pass for a teenager if nobody looked too close.
"Where's Bobby?" my brother said sharply. "Bobby was supposed to pick us up."
Eddie's friendly smile fell away like a screensaver changing to a new picture, and what was underneath wasn't nice. "Change of plans," he said. "Bobby's already at the rendezvous. Get in."
We both got in the back. Now I was starting to feel nervous, my throat getting tight, my mouth so dry I had to try not to cough. As the car pulled away from the curb, my brother slipped a little bottle of Jim Beam out of his pocket and took a quick drink. "Can I have some of that?" I whispered.
"You're too young," he told me, and put it away. Then he laid his hand over mine. His hand was shaking.
We drove for a long time. I was pretty familiar with the Bronx, and with Midtown because I took the subway there all the time, but I didn't really know this part of town at all. We were somewhere on Long Island and that's really all I knew. I couldn't see much out the tinted windows of the car, especially since it had started to rain, smearing the lights together into a blur.
"I thought we were picking it up in Queens," my brother said after we'd driven for a while.
"The other meeting place got burned," Eddie said over his shoulder. "FBI had it staked out. This one's clean."
We stopped in front of a big building, a warehouse or something. There were no outside lights, but I could see a dim glow from a window up on the second floor. Eddie followed us inside; he kept trying to put his hand on my hip, but my brother kept body-checking him and inserting himself between us. We went up a flight of stairs into a musty-smelling corridor and then into a big empty room with a view of the street below. The only furniture was an old, battered metal desk with a floodlight-type lamp sitting in the middle of it. Mr. Hafstetter was there, and Bobby, and another guy that I guessed must be one of the new ones that had started working for Mr. Hafstetter after my dad died, because I didn't know him. He was old but not as old as Bobby, with dark hair and really piercing blue eyes. When he saw me come into the room, I saw his eyebrows go up and he looked startled for a moment.
Mr. Hafstetter just looked at me with his cool, bland mask of a face. I've never seen him frown and I've never seen him smile. "How old did you say she is?" Mr. Hafstetter asked my brother.
"Twelve," Mike answered promptly. We'd both been pretending I was older than I really was for years; it was hard to talk people like Mr. Hafstetter into entrusting important packages to a ten-year-old.
"What happened to her hair?" Mr. Hafstetter said. "The whole point is that she's not supposed to attract notice. She's supposed to look young and wholesome."
"I don't know! I just came home and she'd cut it all off," my brother said. "Lots of kids wear their hair short these days. You don't want her to look like something out of the Brady Bunch."
"It'll be okay," Bobby said, and he smiled at me. I like Bobby; he used to be good friends with my dad. "She'll do great, won't you, Grace?"
"Yep," I said, trying to sound cool and self-assured and grown-up.
"Mike," Mr. Hafstetter said to my brother, "why don't you go down and guard the door. Eddie, go with him."
Michael looked at me, his face torn. I gave him a confident smile. He patted my shoulder and slipped out the door with Eddie on his heels.
Then it was just me, alone in a room with Mr. Hafstetter and Bobby and the new guy. I swallowed hard and tried to look as cool and calm as I could.
"Get it, Nick," Mr. Hafstetter said to the new guy.
Nick lifted a briefcase onto the desk. At a nod from Mr. Hafstetter, he moved aside, and Mr. Hafstetter punched in a combination to open the briefcase. Sidling a little closer, I saw the white-gold glitter of diamonds set in elaborate patterns, lying on a black velvet bed.
I don't think diamonds are all that pretty, myself, and I'm not sure why people like them so much. If I had expensive jewels, I'd want something bright and colorful, like rubies or emeralds. But Mr. Hafstetter lifted out the strings of diamonds as carefully as if they were made of very fragile glass.
"Come here, Grace," he said.
I've never liked getting close to Mr. Hafstetter. He's not creepy in the same way that, say, Eddie is. But there is something about him that scares me anyway. Still, tonight I was being grown up and doing a big job that would make a lot of money for Michael and me, so I walked up to him. Bobby gave me a reassuring smile. So did the new guy, Nick. He had a nice sort of smile.
"Take off your jacket and lift up your shirt," Mr. Hafstetter told me.
"Boss," Bobby said softly. Mr. Hafstetter quelled him with a glance. His hands were swift and sure and impersonal as he wound one of the elaborate strings of diamonds firmly around my chest, where my training bra would hide them unless someone patted me down really thoroughly. I kept my chin up and tried not to think about it. Bobby looked mad. The new guy, Nick, though -- he was behind Bobby so no one but me could see his face, and he looked furious.
The other string of diamonds went under the waistband of my jeans. Then I settled my jacket into place. It was a little uncomfortable, pressing into my skin, but not too bad. Both my jeans and my T-shirt had a lot of decorations on them -- sequins and stuff -- and when I patted my waist, I couldn't feel anything that couldn't be explained by the butterfly patterns of sequins around the waistband.
"Is anything loose?" Mr. Hafstetter asked me.
I twisted a little to make sure it would all stay in place, and shook my head.
"Give me your phone," Mr. Hafstetter said. I must have looked really confused, because he said, "It's a safety precaution. You'll get it back after your job is done."
I swear Nick shook his head at me a little, but Mr. Hafstetter was still watching me expectantly. Reluctantly, I handed over my phone.
"Excellent. Nick?" Nick, whose face was polite and blank again, gave him an envelope that he gave to me. I looked up, waiting for instructions, and he said, "Open it. There's everything you need."
I took out a boarding pass and looked at it curiously, because I'd never flown on a plane before. JFK to Toronto, leaving tonight at 1:05 a.m. It was not in my real name. Neither was the passport that went with it, though it had a picture of me that I recognized from last year's school photos. With my short hair, it didn't look all that much like me anymore.
A sharp crack outside startled me out of my contemplation of my new passport. Our neighborhood being what it is, I recognized immediately the sound of gunfire -- I could even guess at the caliber, probably a .38 like my brother and Eddie were carrying.
Everyone in the room tensed and looked out the window. There was nothing visible but the rain-slick street. Michael, I thought, and my throat went so dry I couldn't swallow. Bobby slipped his hand under his jacket to rest it on his own gun. Nick didn't, but I had already figured out what he most likely did for Mr. Hafstetter -- he was a documents guy. He probably didn't carry.
Mr. Hafstetter's phone buzzed. "Yes," he said, and listened, and then, in the same calm voice, "Kill him. No, wait," he said after the briefest pause. "How badly did you hurt him? Can he still talk? Bring him up here."
He hung up. I couldn't even breathe; all I could think was Let Mike be okay. Mr. Hafstetter's cool gaze swept across Nick and Bobby, lingering briefly on Nick, whose face had the same carefully blank look that it had worn ever since he watched Mr. Hafstetter plant the diamonds on me. "Clean the room," he told them. "If you touched anything, make sure it's wiped. Don't leave them a crumb."
"FBI?" Bobby asked, as both of them moved into action.
"It appears that Eddie was tailed out here," Mr. Hafstetter said, giving me a swift look. "There's only one agent and Eddie has him, but I think we can expect more company shortly. Let's not be here when they get here."
A minute later the door opened and Eddie and my brother -- oh, thank you, God, I thought, weak-kneed with relief -- shoved another guy into the room. Having spent a lot of my life actively avoiding the police for various reasons, my cop sense immediately started tingling; something about him absolutely screamed law enforcement. He looked like they'd roughed him up a little. His face was bruised and one sleeve of his trenchcoat was dark and matted with blood. His hands were fastened together with handcuffs that I guessed were probably his own.
He looked quickly around the room -- it might have been my imagination that his eyes met Nick's for a brief instant -- and lingered on me. "Oh, for God's sake, Hafstetter," he said. "A kid? This is a new low, even for you."
"We took a phone and a radio off him, boss," Eddie said. "And this, of course." He tossed a black wallet to Mr. Hafstetter -- no, I thought, probably a badge. Mr. Hafstetter didn't bother to open it.
"Special Agent Burke," he said, and his voice, though calm as usual, was underlaid with ice. "You are becoming even more of a nuisance than usual."
Michael left Eddie guarding the cop and went down to one knee beside me, so I missed the next part of whatever they said to each other. "Did you get all the stuff?" Michael asked me softly.
I nodded. "I'm wearing the diamonds," I whispered, and started to open my jacket to show him, but Mike caught my wrist and shook his head.
"What about the tickets and passports?"
"Just one ticket," I whispered back. "To Toronto."
"What the hell? There were supposed to be tickets for both of us. That was the deal. I'm not sending you to meet with their buyer all alone."
"Mike!" I whispered, but Michael had straightened.
"Boss," he said. His voice was clear and loud. "We need to talk."
Hafstetter turned away from Agent Burke. "This is not a good time."
Michael took a step towards him. "When we agreed to use my sister as a courier, the deal was that I'd be going with her."
"Plans change," Hafstetter said. "And I said this is not the time to have this discussion."
"She's my kid sister and I'm responsible for her," Michael retorted. I'd never seen him talk to Mr. Hafstetter that way before, and I could see that he was holding himself rigid in the way that he does when he's trying not to show that he's afraid. "She's not getting on that plane unless I'm on it with her."
"Trouble in the ranks, Hafstetter?" Burke inquired in a sweetly poisonous tone. I saw Nick give him a look, behind Hafstetter's back, that reminded me of the exasperated looks that Michael sometimes gives me when I just won't shut up.
Hafstetter turned around faster than I'd seen a grown-up move before, drawing his gun and striking Agent Burke across the face with the butt of it. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Nick flinch at the sudden violence. Burke reeled and went to one knee.
"Bobby," Hafstetter said. "If you value young Michael's health, I suggest that you take him for a drive and attempt to talk some sense into him."
Bobby gave me and Mike a sorrowful look. "C'mon, man," he said, laying a hand on Mike's arm. Mike shook him off.
"I'm not going anywhere without my sister."
"That was not a request, Bobby," Mr. Hafstetter said crisply. "I'm about to lose patience."
Bobby's a big guy, and when he closed his hand around Mike's upper arm, I could see Mike's shoulder tense in pain. I could see the pain in Bobby's eyes, too, as he nudged back his coat just enough to display his gun. "I said c'mon, man, let's not make a scene," he said, and to Hafstetter, "Want us to go anywhere specific?"
"I'll contact you. For now, just stay out of the way. Take the sedan; we'll go in Eddie's car."
Bobby nodded and hustled my brother from the room. I didn't know what to do. I'd felt bereft when Mr. Hafstetter had made Mike leave while he put the diamonds on me, but now I felt a thousand times more alone and isolated. I didn't feel like a brave grown-up anymore. Mike was right: I was just a kid, and I'd never been so aware of it. I started shivering and I couldn't seem to stop.
Nick moved smoothly from Hafstetter's side, coming over to place a hand lightly on my arm. His face was sympathetic and soft. "Hey, kid -- are you okay?"
I nodded, biting my lips hard to keep myself under control.
Eddie nudged Burke in the back with his .38. "We're not gonna get anything useful out of him, Boss. Let's just shoot him, dump him and get out of here."
"You have a point," Hafstetter said.
Nick swung away from me, turning to face his boss. "Wait!" His voice was sharp and breathless, and Mr. Hafstetter's narrow, dangerous gaze went to him. "There's no need to squander an asset," Nick went on. "Kill him now and we'll never know what he could tell us, right? Plus we lose a bargaining chip if we have to deal with the FBI later." He shrugged, but I was close enough to him to see how tense his shoulders were. "Don't take a piece out of play if it's still useful; didn't you tell me that?"
I was pretty sure that the look Agent Burke was giving Nick now was the same kind of exasperated look that he'd been getting from Nick earlier.
They're working together, I thought. I was surprised by my own certainty, but it was so obvious -- the only reason the adults hadn't caught on, I guess, was that they were so focused on their own power plays. The reason why the FBI kept finding us was because this Nick guy had sold us out. I opened my mouth to say something -- and then shut it again. Don't squander an asset. It was good advice. I now knew something that even Mr. Hafstetter didn't know, and I shouldn't blow it 'til I really needed it.
"Whatever we do, we better do it," Eddie said. "His backup's bound to be here any minute."
Hafstetter's gaze slipped back and forth between Nick and the captive FBI agent. Then he said, "Bring him. We'll deal with this elsewhere."
Hafstetter took the front seat of Eddie's car, and so I ended up in the back, crushed in with Burke and Nick. Burke was in the middle, probably to keep him from trying to escape. Not that he looked capable of it; he'd had some trouble walking down the stairs, and once he got settled in the car, he leaned his head back against the seat and closed his eyes. He was very pale, with a vivid bruise blossoming across the side of his face where Hafstetter had pistol-whipped him. The shoulder and arm of his coat were soaked with blood; I tried not to touch it, partly because I didn't want to get it on me, and partly because I was afraid of hurting him. I had never realized that blood had a smell, but it did, a metallic stink that filled the car.
Because there was nothing else to do but look out the rain-spattered window, I watched Nick instead. He looked completely nonchalant, but once our car was underway, he slid his hand down where Hafstetter and Eddie, in the front seats, couldn't see it, and curled his fingers around Agent Burke's handcuffed wrist. Burke cracked open an eye to look at him, and then closed it again -- asleep or unconscious, or, I realized, faking a little of both. I was positive that he was faking when I noticed that Nick wasn't just holding Burke's arm; he was tapping his fingers lightly against the underside of Burke's wrist. Not just randomly tapping, but doing it in a purposeful, stop-and-start sort of way. Communicating. If I had any doubts at all that Nick was a spy and a snitch, that pretty much did away with them.
Nick looked up and saw me watching him. "Hey, Grace," he said, smiling at me. "How are you holding up?"
"Okay, I guess," I said warily. I wished I had my phone. I wanted to call my brother. In the front seat of the car, Eddie and Mr. Hafstetter were talking, too quietly for me to make out what they were saying.
Nick gave Agent Burke a little nudge. Burke opened his eyes, looked sideways at Nick -- who was still smiling at me, a bit pointedly -- then raised his head and turned in my direction. He had kind eyes, I thought, and then reminded myself that he was a cop and therefore the enemy.
"Hi -- Grace is your name, right?" I nodded. "Hi, Grace. I'm Peter."
"You're Special Agent Burke," I said. "I heard them say it. You're FBI."
"Well, yeah," he said. "But my friends call me Peter."
"I'm not your friend."
Now Nick was kind of smirking at Burke. Burke scowled at him.
"He's not good with women," Nick said to me, very softly.
"I'm not a woman," I said. "I'm a kid."
"Or with kids." Nick propped up his arm on the back of the seat, resting his fist and wristwatch close to his chin. "You're flying out of JFK tonight, right, Grace? Do you think that might be where we're going?"
"I don't know," I said.
"No talking back there," Hafstetter said over his shoulder.
Agent Burke raised his head. "Am I allowed to plug this hole in my arm before I bleed to death?"
"You'll stay right where you are," Hafstetter said. "The only reason you're still alive is because you might be useful. You could stop being useful at any moment, especially if you become a pain in the ass. Keep that in mind."
Agent Burke laid his head back down and closed his eyes. I noticed that Nick was very quietly and surreptitiously fiddling with the handcuffs now. He did that for several blocks -- I heard little clicks, masked by the noise of the road. Then he just held Burke's wrist until the car entered the series of traffic loops around the airport.
Dad used to be Mr. Hafstetter's driver, and sometimes he would bring me along with him on easy jobs, so I had been to the airport a few times when we picked people up. I'd never been inside it, though. Eddie pulled up to the curb in a press of taxicabs and other cars. "Nick," Mr. Hafstetter said. "Take Grace to the security gates and then come back. I don't expect you to be gone very long. Grace, in Toronto you'll be met at Customs by our contact on the other side."
I nodded. Nick said, "Yes, sir," and pressed Burke's wrist with his fingers before letting go. He came around to my side of the car and opened my door for me in an old-fashioned, courtly sort of way.
As soon as we were away from the car and walking swiftly towards the terminal, Nick said to me in a low voice, "I'm going to talk fast because we don't have much time. There are FBI agents waiting in the terminal to pick you up as soon as you pass through security, Grace. We already knew you were leaving from JFK, and on which flight, because I secured the ticket and passed the information along. But what they might not have figured out yet -- and I really hope you guys are listening to this," he added, to empty air as far as I could tell, "is that your brother is being held hostage against your good behavior, which means they can't pick you up without your brother being hurt. You've figured that out for yourself, right, Grace?"
"Yes," I said, a cold chill settling in the pit of my stomach. "And you're working for the FBI. Snitch."
"Yeah, I've known you're onto me for a while. What I don't know is why you haven't told Hafstetter."
"I don't know either," I admitted.
"If you do, my partner and I will both be killed," Nick said. "So keep that in mind. And we have until we reach those security gates to figure out how to handle this. Grace, if you get on the plane with those diamonds, you and your brother are both as good as dead. Do you see any of Hafstetter's people in the terminal?"
I looked around as we wove through the crowd. I wished I had time to look around more. I'd never seen the inside of an airport except on TV. "I don't see any. But there are so many people."
"I know," Nick sighed. "And just in case, we can't let them see you talk to the FBI." He looked over the heads of the crowd, and smiled. "Okay, Grace -- you're going to take a quick trip to the bathroom. There's a lady FBI agent over there who will talk to you inside. But I want you to look like you're arguing with me about it, okay?"
"Arguing how?" I said.
"Like I'm trying to make you go to the security gates first, but you're about to throw a tantrum over using the bathroom." He put his hand loosely on my arm.
I yanked my arm away, and frowned at him. "What if you're not really with the FBI, but working for some other outfit? What if I go into the bathroom and one of your people grabs me and takes the diamonds?"
"Good arguing," Nick said. "Keep it up."
"I'm not play-acting, I'm serious!"
"I know you are, but it works fine as long as no one can tell what we're arguing about from a distance." He tried to take my arm again; I jerked away. "Look, Grace, I don't have time to convince you. You're just going to have to trust me. I'm trusting you not to turn me over to Hafstetter, aren't I? Here, let me give you a good-faith gesture -- my name's not Nick. It's Neal. Now you have something else you can give Hafstetter, if you need leverage."
I scowled up at him. I'd never felt so trapped -- by Hafstetter, by this Nick/Neal guy, even by my own conscience, because I didn't like the idea of the FBI agent or Neal getting killed because of me. "If you double-cross me, I'm going to make sure Mr. Hafstetter pays you back."
"I know," Neal said. "The bathroom's over there." He flicked his eyes towards it. "See that lady in the gray suit, who's going in now? When you get inside, she's going to talk to you."
I turned away from him and walked as fast as I could towards the bathroom, my heart thumping. It had an open entryway like a mall bathroom, and then lots of stalls with people bustling around them. As soon as I stepped in front of the long row of sinks and mirrors, a lady with sleek tucked-back hair and a charcoal-gray suit stepped up out of nowhere and put her hand on my shoulder. I jumped. She bent over to ask me softly, "Are you Grace?"
She steered me into a corner and continued to watch the entrance to the bathroom while she spoke to me quickly. "My name is Diana, Grace. Agent Diana Barrigan. I work with Peter Burke and Neal, the man you were just talking to. We can hear everything that you say, and we can also track where Neal is, but we can't communicate back. Your brother is being held hostage, right?"
I nodded again, and tried to keep my chin from quivering. I wasn't going to start acting like a baby in front of this slick-looking rich lady.
"We really want to get you out of danger, Grace, but for now you're going to have to play along until we can find your brother and make sure that he's safe too. When you leave the bathroom, you need to tell Neal that he has to buy us time by taking you back out to Hafstetter and explaining that you couldn't get on the plane because FBI agents were waiting for you. And then the important thing is for Neal to either get Hafstetter to tell him where Michael is, or get to Michael himself, so that we can use the tracking device in his watch to find them both. Okay?"
What could I do? I just nodded.
"You're going to do great, Grace. I know you are." Diana looked like she was thinking about hugging me -- kids know the signs -- but instead she patted me on the shoulder like I was a fellow grown-up. "Remember, we can hear what you're saying, and we're going to follow you as close as we can. If things start to go bad with Hafstetter, we'll move in and rescue you. Now you go back out there and tell Neal what I just told you."
Neal was waiting for me just outside the restrooms. "Okay, you were right, I guess," I said. "That Diana lady said you're supposed to take me back to the car and tell them that FBI agents were waiting for me. And you need to find out where Michael is --" I had to pause very briefly to make sure that my voice was completely steady, not quivering at all. "Or get to where he is, because you have a tracking thing? That's what she said."
Neal flashed me a quick, bright grin. "Nice work. Now, do you see any of Hafstetter's people around?"
Diana left the bathroom and brushed past us without acknowledging us in any way. "No," I said.
"We'll still act like we're being watched, though, okay? It's a good rule of thumb. We're going to shy off right before we reach security."
We headed for the security gates at a brisk clip. "So you're an undercover FBI agent, right?" I said.
"Sort of?" I said. "What's that mean, sort of?"
"I work with the FBI, but I'm not an agent." Neal smiled down at me. "Sort of like you work with Hafstetter's people, but you're not really a member of Hafstetter's organization, are you?"
"I could be," I said tightly. "If I keep doing jobs like this. If I wanted to."
Neal's smile was a little bit sad. "Is that what you want out of life, Grace?"
"No," I said. "Mr. Hafstetter is going to pay me and Michael a lot of money for delivering the diamonds, and then we'll move out of the city and buy a farm. Maybe we'll have to do some more jobs first, but this is going to be our start."
"Grace." Neal's voice was gentle. "You know he's not planning on paying you or your brother."
"That's what you and the FBI lady say." We were close to the gates now. I had a boarding pass; he didn't. From TV, I knew enough about airports to know that he would not be allowed through without one. All I had to do was pull away and run up to the head of the line -- I could say that the bad man had tried to kidnap me. And then I could get on the plane like I was supposed to.
Or I could trust Neal and his FBI friends. Which would mean, in the end, trusting the foster care system, and I sure as hell knew I couldn't.
But if I had to choose between being separated from Michael, or knowing that he was going to die ...
We had almost reached the end of the line. Neal balked suddenly, and pulled me to a halt as well. "And now I'm seeing the FBI agents for the first time," he whispered to me. "And we turn around and head for the exit."
There was so little time to think. And before I could decide, I was caught up by Neal, and towed swiftly towards the doors where we'd come in.
I can always sell him out to Hafstetter if I have to, I thought. Maybe Hafstetter will let me and Michael go, in exchange for that.
Eddie's car had been shuffled around a bit in the press of cars, but it was still there. Neal opened the back door and I slid inside; he followed me, so that I was sandwiched between him and Agent Burke.
"What the hell is this, Nick?" Hafstetter demanded, twisting around in his seat. "You were supposed to put her on the plane, you know that, right?"
"FBI," Neal said. "They were all over. I don't think they saw us, but they'd obviously staked out the airport. The minute she tried to go through security, they would've been all over her."
Eddie pulled us out into traffic without delay. Hafstetter slammed his fist into the car door. Seeing him break his usual cool was even more terrifying than I'd always thought it would be, especially since his features were still perfectly calm when he turned around in his seat, his gun resting against the back of the seat, leveled at Agent Burke's face.
It was only because I was sitting so close to Neal -- we were all crammed in back here -- that I was aware of his whole body going rigid. His voice, however, was smooth as usual. "Not here, are you out of your mind?"
"Come on, boss, he's right," Eddie said. "So we change plans a little, take Special Agent Burke somewhere quiet and find out what his people know."
"Listen to him," Neal said. I could feel how fast his heart was beating, but nothing showed in his voice. "I can get new tickets and papers for Grace. We'll send her out of LaGuardia instead. We just have to push the handoff of the diamonds back a few hours."
I was acutely aware of the fortune resting scratchily against my skin. I felt like a cat toy hanging between two cats -- the FBI and Hafstetter -- neither of which cared about me as a person.
Hafstetter held the gun on Burke for a moment longer, then eased it back. "Eddie, take us down by the bay. Shouldn't be too hard to find somewhere that's nice and quiet this time of night. Nick, once we're through with Burke, I want you to arrange a new ticket for Grace."
"Yes, sir," Neal said quietly, though I could feel the tension still in him.
I swallowed hard and said, "Mr. Hafstetter, may I talk to my brother, please?"
Neal gave me an approving glance. Hafstetter's sharp look over his shoulder was the expression of a man who's just heard an ordinary tool -- a hammer, a wrench -- suddenly start speaking to him. They're right, I thought. He isn't planning on letting me or Michael walk away from this.
Something moved against my leg in the darkness, making me jump. It was Neal, closing his hand over mine and giving it a reassuring squeeze.
"That's not a bad idea," Neal said casually. "Have Bobby and -- what's her brother's name? Mike? -- meet us. It couldn't hurt to have other hands around, in case the FBI tries something."
"You're not being paid to think," Hafstetter snapped. He ignored me as completely as if I hadn't spoken at all.
"Speaking of the FBI, boss," Eddie said, "I got something that might help with that. Let me pull off for a minute."
He yanked the car across two lanes of traffic to the next exit, and pulled over below the overpass. While he opened the trunk, I tried to swallow my rising panic. Hafstetter waited impatiently, tapping his fingers on the dashboard. We were parked under a street light, so I didn't even dare look at Neal or Agent Burke for reassurance.
Eddie slammed the trunk and returned the car. He passed something to Hafstetter. I didn't see it, but Neal apparently did, because he sucked in a soft breath.
"Scrambler?" Neal said, and this time I knew it was for the benefit of the FBI agents who were listening. "Good idea. They could've planted a bug on us."
Eddie pulled back onto the freeway. I tried to remind myself that nothing had changed. I wasn't in any more danger just because the FBI weren't able to listen in or follow us anymore. I'd always been in Hafstetter's hands since this whole thing started. The FBI didn't have my best interests at heart, any more than Hafstetter did. You're on your own, kid, I thought. You and Mike. And, as much as I loved and admired my big brother, even I had to admit that between the two of us, I'd always had the brains. It was up to me to get us both out of this mess. I couldn't help liking Neal, but I reminded myself that he and Agent Burke were out for themselves, too. If I had to throw them to Hafstetter to get back into his good graces, then I wouldn't like it, but I'd do it.
I thought about taking off the next time the car stopped, just running with the diamonds -- such temptation, when I was carrying a fortune under my clothes ... but, no, there was still Michael to worry about. Which of course was why they were holding him until I delivered the diamonds.
Agent Burke hadn't said anything. Or moved. I still thought he was faking being unconscious, but I was getting less sure about that, so I touched his hand lightly. It was ice-cold, but it moved, giving mine a quick little pat. Yep. Faking. And his cuffs were loose. I'd been right, Neal had unlocked them.
We left the freeway for a long, quiet stretch of road. I could see water glimmering to my left.
Neal slipped an arm behind me, reaching across to touch Burke's arm, out of Hafstetter's sight. I saw Burke's head move, very slightly, in a little nod.
"Hey, boss," Neal said. "I think your FBI prisoner might have died back here. I haven't seen him breathing in a while."
"Good," Hafstetter said flatly. "That'll make things easier."
Eddie turned down a narrow side road with trees on both sides. When he got out to open a gate across the road -- the sort of metal gates that they use to close off parks at night -- I could hear distant traffic and the soft white noise of rain. It was hard to believe we were still in the city.
Eddie pulled the car through the gate. The road curved and ended in a complex of buildings. A floodlight lit the parking area with a stark white glare, but the buildings were dark and deserted, and I couldn't tell what they were for. Eddie parked under some trees. Neal squeezed Burke's arm and then withdrew his hand.
I didn't want anybody to die tonight -- not me and Mike; not Neal, who'd been nice to me; not even a cop. I remembered thinking that Burke had kind eyes. I wondered if he had kids. None of this was fair.
"Nick, keep hold of the girl," Hafstetter said. "Make sure she doesn't go anywhere. Eddie, you've got Burke."
We got out in the rain. Neal had his hand on my shoulder, more to comfort me than to stop me from running away, I thought. Eddie opened the door on Burke's side and gestured at him with his gun. "Out," he said, and then, pointing the gun at Burke's face, "Look, I hate to mess up the seats, but if you won't cooperate I can shoot you just fine in the car."
"If he doesn't get out in the next five seconds," Hafstetter said, "do it. We're in a hurry."
Beside me I could feel Neal tensing up to -- do something, I wasn't sure what. I wasn't sure if he knew either.
Burke stirred. "I'm cooperating," he said softly.
"That'd be a first," Hafstetter retorted. "Get out of the car."
"Think about this, Hafstetter," Burke said as he slowly and painfully did as he was told. I got the impression that Neal kept wanting to go help him and then kept reining himself in. "So far, we haven't got you on anything you can't come back from. Kidnapping, theft, conspiracy. Killing a federal agent is a whole different ball game. You'll have an army of agents after you, and they'll be shooting to kill. You'll be lucky to make it to trial, and they'll lock you up so deep you'll never see the light of day."
"I'm doing the talking," Hafstetter said. "You just shut up."
We went into the woods, Eddie leading with his gun in Burke's back, the rest of us trailing behind. The white glare of the floodlight, filtered through the trees, stippled us like washed-out sunshine.
"That's far enough," Hafstetter said. "Burke, get down on your knees."
I was sandwiched between Hafstetter and Neal, which was not a comfortable place to be. But I found myself looking at a small bulge in Hafstetter's pocket. I'd thought of something that could temporarily keep Hafstetter from ordering Mike's death. And that would give the FBI guys more freedom to do whatever they needed to do.
"Hey," Neal said as Eddie raised his gun to point at the back of Burke's head. "Hey, wait. I thought we were going to question him."
I'd been picking pockets in Midtown since I was a little kid. When I dipped my fingers into Hafstetter's pocket and lifted his phone, I didn't stir a fiber of his jacket.
"I've dealt with this guy before," Hafstetter said. "We're not getting anything useful out of him. Better get it over with and clear out."
"This isn't the sort of thing I signed on for," Neal said.
"No?" Hafstetter said, and the pit of my stomach twisted. "Eddie, give Nick a gun."
Without lowering the gun that he was holding on Burke, Eddie reached under his jacket and took out a gun that was probably the one they'd taken off Burke back at the warehouse. He held it out to Neal, butt first.
"This end of things isn't really my --" Neal began.
"Take it," Hafstetter said coldly.
I knew exactly what this was. It was a test. Neal was the new guy in Hafstetter's organization. Killing a cop was Hafstetter's way of testing his loyalty and giving them something to hang over him.
Neal drew a deep breath and took the gun. He sighted down its length and checked the action. He definitely knew how to use guns, I thought. Then he looked questioningly at Hafstetter.
"Eddie, step back," Hafstetter ordered. "Give the new guy some room."
Hafstetter had his own gun out. Right now it was down at his side, against his leg, but I'd seen his uncanny speed back at the warehouse, and so had Neal. I wondered if he knew, or guessed, that Neal was working with the FBI. From the look he gave Neal, I got the impression that he was relishing Neal's obvious discomfort. I wasn't sure whether the look on Neal's face was play-acting or not; he looked like someone had kicked him in the teeth.
"Get it over with," Burke said, raising his voice to be heard above the rain. "What did he say your name was? Nick? Let me see what you've got."
I wasn't sure if Neal was trying to give Burke a chance to fake-steal the gun from him, but, if he was seriously trying to kill him, he'd have been an absolute fool to get as close as he got. He lowered the gun, held it to Burke's forehead, just a few inches away. I couldn't see Burke's face, but I could see Neal's. He looked like he was trying his damnedest to stay calm, but was totally wrecked underneath.
"There are a couple of ways out of this, Nick," Burke began. "For both of us."
"Alternatives would be great right about now," Neal said, a slight catch in his voice.
"For God's sake," Hafstetter snapped. "Don't let him talk to you. Just shoot him."
No one was looking at me. There was nothing between me and the woods. I spun lightly on my heel and took off running as hard as I could, taking millions of dollars in diamonds with me.
As I spun away, I glimpsed what Neal and Agent Burke did as soon as Eddie and Hafstetter's attention was off them and on me: Burke brought up his hands, the loose handcuffs falling away, and Neal dropped the gun into them, as smoothly as if they'd rehearsed it.
I didn't see any more, because I was running for my life through the woods. And trust me, when you grow up picking people's pockets and shoplifting for a living, you can really run. I wasn't used to woods, but running through trees wasn't that different from weaving through a crowd. As I ran, I punched Michael's number into Hafstetter's phone.
"Mr. Hafstetter, sir?" Mike's voice was the best thing I'd heard all night.
"Mike, it's me," I gasped into the phone. "Me, Grace. Where are you?"
Mike sounded puzzled. "I'm at an all-night diner with Bobby. Where are you? And why are you using Mr. Hafstetter's phone?"
Behind me, I heard gunshots in the woods. "Somewhere around Jamaica Bay," I said. "Mike, listen. Hafstetter's double-crossing us. Don't trust Bobby, don't trust anybody, okay?"
"What are you talking about?" Michael asked me, and I could've just about reached through the phone and strangled him.
"He was never planning on paying us, Mike. Once I give the diamonds to his buyer in Toronto, he was going to have us both killed."
"Bobby --" Mike began, and then shut up as quickly as if someone had flipped a switch. He was sitting with Bobby right now, of course. He couldn't say anything. We'd both trusted Bobby since we were young; it was unthinkable that he would do anything to hurt us. But Bobby was Hafstetter's guy, deep down. Just like Dad had been.
"Mike," I said, "I know this sounds crazy and you're gonna think I've lost my mind, but you gotta turn yourself in to the FBI. They'll protect you."
"What about you? Grace?"
I stopped running and leaned against a tree, my chest heaving. I was soaked all over from running through the wet woods; it was a miracle the phone still worked.
"Grace?" Mike was saying anxiously.
"I'll be okay," I said when I'd caught my breath -- which was totally not true, especially if the FBI guys had been killed, which would decrease my chances of surviving the night considerably. But Mike couldn't worry about himself and me too. "Just get away from Bobby the first opportunity you get, and call -- uh, there's a lady named Diana Barrigan at the FBI. She seems all right. Tell her that you're --" Something rustled in the woods, something that I could hear even over the rain and the sound of my own breathing. "Oh, Mike, I gotta go."
"Grace!" my brother said, but I hung up the phone and, for good measure, turned it off. I didn't want him calling me back and giving my position away. I pressed myself against the tree and tried not to breathe.
"Grace?" said Neal's voice, and I cautiously peeked around the tree. Neal gave me a little wave. His other arm was tucked under his jacket, and he was limping.
"Are you okay?" I asked, stepping down from the tree's knotted mass of roots.
"More or less," Neal said, slipping his hand out from under his jacket and looking at it. There was blood on his fingers. "Were you talking to your brother just then?"
"Is he okay?"
I nodded again. "I told him about what Mr. Hafstetter was planning for us, and that he should talk to that Diana lady at the FBI."
"Really? Nice." Neal held out his hand, the one without the blood on it, and I slapped it. "That was really good going, by the way. You were very brave."
"I just ran away."
"You ran away from a couple of armed killers, with a cool thirty or forty mil in diamonds," Neal said, and he grinned. "The look on Hafstetter's face was priceless. I wish I'd gotten a picture for you."
We'd only gone a few more steps before Neal stopped. "You know, if I were you, I'd take the diamonds off now," he said. "Otherwise you'll have to do it in front of some lady agent at FBI headquarters, and do you really want to put yourself through that?"
He had a point. "Wait here," I said, and slipped off behind some bushes, where I untangled myself from the long strands of diamonds. For a moment I held them in front of my eyes. Even in the dusk of the rainy night, they glimmered as they slid through my fingers. The designs were so elaborate ... would anyone really notice if just one or two diamonds were missing? Squinting in the dim light, I looked very closely at the way the biggest and most elaborate piece was fastened together. I pinched a couple of diamonds off the wire holding them together, very carefully, in a spot where I didn't think they'd be missed. I dropped them in the dirt at my feet and scuffed some leaves over them. If the FBI found them, I could always say that they'd just fallen off.
Then I tucked the rest into my pockets and rejoined Neal. "All good?" he said.
"All good," I said. If he suspected what I'd done, he didn't give any sign, just smiled at me. It was silly, I told myself, to think that he'd deliberately given me an opportunity to do that. He was with the FBI, after all.
We made our way back to the clearing in the woods. Eddie and Hafstetter were down in the mud with their hands on their heads, and Agent Burke was sitting on a log with his good arm resting on his knees, covering his two prisoners with a gun. He was still really pale but, even all wet and plastered down with rain, he looked a lot less close to death's doorstep than he had in the car. In fact, he looked pissed. "What have I told you about taking bullets meant for me?" he demanded of Neal as soon as we walked out of the trees.
"What, you're not shot enough?" Neal retorted. "It's just a flesh wound." But when he sank down on the end of the log, I could see that he was in pain.
Burke gave him a look that somehow managed to be exasperated, fond and concerned, all at once, and then turned to me. "Are you okay, Grace?"
I nodded and sat down between them. Up close, I could see that Burke's hand was shaking, the muzzle of the gun wavering back and forth. Neal kept giving him little worried looks when he apparently thought no one was looking.
"Are you really working with the FBI?" I asked Neal. "You're not what I thought a cop would be like."
Burke laughed. "Did he really tell you he's an FBI agent?" Over my head, he said to Neal, "She thinks you're an FBI agent. That's great. I'll have to tell El. Or, better yet, Mozzie."
"Hey, I told her I wasn't," Neal protested.
"Did you tell her what you actually are?"
But I didn't get to hear what Neal actually was, because just then there were a lot of sirens and flashing lights, and the woods filled up with FBI people. Diana the FBI lady put a heavy jacket around my shoulders and bundled me into a warm, dry car. I leaned against the window, suddenly so tired that I could barely keep my head up, and waited while she talked to some other FBI agents outside the car. I watched Hafstetter and Eddie being handcuffed and shoved without much gentleness into a big FBI SUV. Some other FBI people were wrapping blankets around Agent Burke and Neal.
When Diana opened the door and slid behind the wheel, I asked her, "What happens to me now?"
"Well, right now I'm going to take you back to our offices and get a statement," Diana said. "Do you have the diamonds?"
I nodded. Reaching into my pockets, I filled my hands with the slippery cold weight of them. "Here."
"Wow." Diana opened a plastic bag and held it while I poured the diamonds in. "That's really something. You were going to walk through Customs wearing those? Balls of steel, kid."
The FBI building was big and fancy and made of glass. Diana found me some dry clothes -- they were way too big, but it was so nice to be warm and dry that I didn't even care. Someone else gave me a Coke and a vending machine sandwich. I told Diana the whole story, minus the part about hiding the extra diamonds in the bushes, of course. I'd gone over it a couple of times for her when Neal strolled in. He'd changed into clean dry clothes and combed back his hair. Except for a slight limp and the way he kept favoring his side, it was hard to tell that anything had happened.
"Ah, just the person I wanted to see," Diana said. "I've got something for you."
Neal sighed, glanced at me, and put his foot up on Diana's desk. I watched curiously as she locked a wide metal band around it.
"Hey, I know what that is," I said. "It's a monitor bracelet. My friend Kelly's mom got one after she had a DUI."
"This isn't for a DUI," Neal said, a bit defensively.
"What did you do?" When Neal didn't answer, I turned to Diana. "What'd he do?"
"He stole some things," Diana said, "and forged some other things, and generally made a very large nuisance of himself for a number of years."
"Allegedly," Neal said. "Remember that, kid. Never admit anything."
Diana sighed. "Neal, would you stop giving her advice?" She patted my arm. "I think we're done for tonight, Grace. A friend of mine in Child Welfare has a place for you to sleep tonight."
"What's going to happen to me now?" I asked her. I didn't want to sound anxious, but it was hard not to. "Can I see my brother?"
"Well, you're ten years old," Diana said. "Who's been taking care of you?"
"Mike," I said. "My brother. But I can take care of myself pretty well."
"Your brother is a minor as well, Grace. You both need adults to live with. In the morning, a nice lady from social services will talk to you, and we'll see about finding you a foster home."
"Not without my brother," I said. This was exactly what Mike had said would happen. I had liked Diana okay, but I could feel my walls going up.
"Grace," Neal said. He leaned down and put his hands on my shoulders. "Tell you what. I've got a friend who has some personal experience with the foster care system, okay? He grew up in it. And he still has some contacts. I'll have him come and talk to you and give you whatever advice he can."
"I just want to go live with my brother," I said.
"I know," Neal said. He looked a little wistful. "But we don't always get to do what we want."
As it turned out, I spent a couple of weeks living with the lady friend of Diana's who worked for Child Welfare. She had a big house with spare bedrooms and there were a lot of kids staying there, off and on. It was kind of like a little tiny orphanage except run out of this lady's home. They let me go back to my apartment and fill up a box with some of my clothes and stuff, but only if someone from social services went with me. It was a lot like being in jail.
On the happier side, in a couple of days Mike came to stay with me. He was on house arrest, so he couldn't go anywhere, but that was okay with me since I couldn't either. He thought he was probably going to make a deal with the DA's office to testify against Hafstetter in return for probation.
I really didn't expect Neal to keep his promise to tell his friend about me, but a day or two after that, his friend did show up after all. And I liked his friend, Mozzie. He was not an FBI person at all. In fact, he had all kinds of really interesting stories about the things the government was getting up to that I never knew about.
"So basically," I said, sitting on the countertop in the Child Welfare lady's kitchen and kicking my heels against the cabinet doors, "never trust anybody, that's what you're saying."
"Words to live by," Mozzie said, leaning on the countertop next to me.
"Look out for number one," I said.
"Absolutely," Mozzie said, and he fistbumped me.
"Is the government really trying to control the weather?"
"Trying. The key word is 'trying.'" Mozzie tapped his forehead and grinned at me. "Knowledge is power, kid; remember that."
"Oh God, now he's corrupting children," said a familiar voice from the doorway. I looked up and saw Neal and Agent Burke. Burke had his arm in a sling and his suit jacket hanging loosely off his shoulders. The bruises on his face were fading to sickly patches of yellow and green.
Neal grinned at me. "Hey, kid. Hanging in there?"
"I'm bored, mostly," I said. "Mozzie was telling me all about Roswell and the Kennedy assassination. I never learned any of that stuff in school."
"I'll just bet you didn't," Burke said, with a dark look at Mozzie. Neal appeared highly amused.
"We came by to see how you were settling in," Neal said to me. "Apparently there are some foster placements in the works for you. Nothing's quite settled yet."
"For me and Mike?" I asked warily.
"For you and Mike." Neal glanced at Burke. "We've made it clear to them that you two aren't going to be separated."
"Really," I said, uncertain.
Mozzie tapped my shoulder and drew me down so that he could whisper into my ear. "You know how I said never trust anyone?"
"Don't ever tell anyone I said this," he whispered, "but you can make a little bit of an exception for these two."
I narrowed my eyes at him, and whispered back, "Even the suit?"
"Even the suit. Remember." He touched his lips. "No telling."
"No telling," I agreed.
"We really don't want to know what they're talking about, do we?" Burke said to Neal.
"No, probably not."
"Anyway." Burke made a little go-ahead gesture at Neal, who put a box on the table. "Cookies," Burke explained. "My wife made them. She thought you might like them."
"Cookies?" Mozzie said, opening the box. "Elizabeth made cookies? What kind?"
Burke smacked his hand. "They're not for you."
"Actually," I said, "they're for me, right? And I say anyone can have some."
This prompted a free-for-all descent on the box of cookies. Some of the other kids in the house, with every child's innate ability to detect treats, wandered in and got cookies of their own and wandered out.
I retreated with my own loot back to the countertop. Sitting on it made me taller than everyone else in the room, which was a nice feeling.
"Agent Burke," I said. "If I want to be an FBI agent when I grow up, what would I need to do?"
Mozzie gave me, and then Burke, a look of sheer horror. "You accused me of corrupting youth? What have you done to this innocent child, Suit?"
"I'm ten," I told both of them. "I'm not gonna be making a decision anytime soon. But I just thought I might want to, that's all."
"If running for her life in the woods made her want to go into your line of work, then congratulations, Peter," Neal said. "You have in fact found someone crazier than you are, and it isn't me."
"It wasn't that," I said, and tapped my heels against the cabinet doors. "It's just -- I was really scared that night, okay? I thought I was gonna ..."
Sitting here in the warm, sunlit kitchen, I thought back to it: the rainy night, the backseat of the car, the smell of blood and their obvious trust in each other and the quiet messages they'd passed back and forth. "It just made it better, a little bit," I said. "Because you were there, I wasn't so scared. I felt like it would be okay. And I did get out okay. I really like thinking that I might be able to do that for some other kid someday. That's all."
They both looked completely floored by this: pleased and startled and a little embarrassed.
"Well, first of all," Burke said after a moment, "being an FBI agent is nothing like that most of the time. Mostly it's wiretaps and paperwork."
"Thank you so much for destroying the mood," Neal said to him. "Is giving children hope for the future a federal crime?"
"Letting them join the Bureau under false pretenses would be," Burke retorted, with a slight quirk of his lips.
"Sounds like misuse of federal authority to me," Neal said. "Have a cookie."
"Also, I want to learn Morse code," I added. "That's what you were using, right? In the backseat?"
They looked at each other.
"She's way too smart," Burke said.
Neal grinned. "What's the matter? Afraid for your job, Special Agent Burke?"
"All I'm saying is, I'd rather have her on my side than yours."
"I am on your side. Partner."
"Some of the time," Burke said, "yes. The rest of the time ..."
"Hey. Is that any way to talk to someone who took a bullet for you the other night?"
"See?" Burke appealed to the room at large, pointing at Neal. "See? This is why he's not allowed to save my life anymore."
I leaned over to whisper to Mozzie, "They're ..."
"Annoying?" Mozzie said. "Completely insane? Spending way too much time together?"
"I was going to say funny."
Mozzie frowned and appeared to be considering this. "I'll give you mildly amusing."
And really good friends, I thought, looking at them. Burke had leaned one hip against the doorframe and looked utterly relaxed. Neal was laughing at something he'd said. I had no idea how they could possibly have ended up working together -- Neal's ankle monitor, whatever he'd done to earn it, said very clearly that he was not an FBI kind of person. And yet. There he was.
I wasn't sure if I'd still want to be an FBI agent in a few years. For one thing, there was the matter of my little nest egg hidden in the woods. But it was always good to have options.