Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Rebecca knew something was up the minute she came inside with the first bag of groceries. She’d learned what Jack’s hopeful face looked like a long time ago - not that she had wanted to, at first.
“All right,” she said. “What is it?”
“What, I can’t be happy to see my wife?”
“You’re always happy to see me, Jack. So no, you can’t be simply that.”
Jack sighed, and took the bag out of her arms. “Social Services called. They have a girl who’s between homes.”
“...Please tell me you didn’t say we’d take her without talking to me first. We’re getting too old for this--”
“I didn’t say we’d take her in, but I did say we’d at least talk to her. She’s been through four foster homes in five years, and... we need to do this, Becks. I know you’re going to say you should have taken us off the call list years ago, but we need to meet this girl.”
Rebecca raised an eyebrow. “And with both of us retired, where do you expect the money for a foster child to come from?”
“Trust fund her parents set up. I asked about that. They want us to go down tomorrow, and you can tell them when we’re there that this - if we take her in - will be our last one. Please, Becks.”
“I’m assuming you have a good reason for insisting on it this strongly?”
Jack nodded. “The best, or I wouldn’t have asked Social Services so many questions already.”
“All right. You and your vibes are going to be the death of me someday, Jack.”
“Don’t even joke, Becks. That hasn’t been funny since ‘58.”
They went to Social Services the next day; for all the questions he did ask, Jack had neglected to ask after the girl’s full history, and in any case Rebecca had heard nothing, so the case worker filled them in on the way to the common room.
“Claudia’s parents died when she was seven,” she said. “Car accident. Her older brother had custody, but he disappeared three years later. She’s not as wild as most foster kids, but a lot of families have found her... difficult. I think she’s too smart for her own good.”
Rebecca frowned. “Her brother disappeared? He didn’t decide to run out on her, did he?”
“I’ve been her case worker for three and a half years now, and she’s never elaborated. She’s only ever said that he’s gone.”
Rebecca glanced at Jack, and saw that he was frowning too - but it wouldn’t do to ask questions of someone who had already admitted to having no answers. Besides, it was probably just the same investigative itch that kept the two of them amused throughout the evening news and nothing worth springing on a teenager.
The case worker pushed open the door to the meeting room and called, “Claudia? This is Rebecca and Jack. They wanted to meet you.”
“Right,” Claudia said, without looking away from the computer she was typing on. “They’ll be running screaming in five minutes tops again. You know that as well as I do.”
“Really, now,” Jack said. He pulled up a chair across the table from Claudia. “I think we’ve seen scarier things in our time than a brilliant teenage girl, don’t you, Becks?”
Rebecca smiled, almost despite herself. “That we have.”
Claudia sighed, and finally looked up from her computer, only to glare at her case worker. “I told you I wanted to file for emancipation, Monica, what the hell?”
“Claudia, please. I know you think striking out on your own sounds like a great idea right now, but it’s a lot harder than you think it would be. We’re only asking for half an hour of your time, and if you don’t like them, then I promise we’ll start working on the paperwork. All right?”
“All right, all right, let me save my work.” Claudia typed a few commands into the computer - rather viciously, Rebecca thought - before closing it and looking up expectantly. “Okay, you’re here. Thrill me.”
“What were you working on?” Rebecca asked. It struck her as a good place to start, under the circumstances, and while computers were hardly her passion, she did find keeping up with the basic technology a worthwhile pursuit.
“Hacking the robotics team’s summer conference. The new captain seems to think he doesn’t need me - he wouldn’t say if it’s because I’m fifteen or because I’m a girl, but either way, it’s a load of crap.”
“That it is,” Jack said. “Knew a girl once who could program circles around me - you’re probably up to spheres, at least. Did you have any plans for once you got through?”
Rebecca opened her mouth to point out that Jack probably shouldn’t be encouraging her, but closed it again when a flicker of a smile crossed Claudia’s face.
“I was thinking dodecahedrons, dude. And I happen to know that he’s keeping the control program for their competition robot on the computer until they actually need to use it, so I plan on making him regret that decision. Forward is backward, left is right, he won’t know what hit him.”
“Why stop there when you can mix up the directions even more? Forward is left, right is backward - go for broke.”
The case worker cringed, and Rebecca gave her a sympathetic look; but by the time she or the case worker could get a word in edgewise, it was two hours later, and Jack and Claudia were on their third diabolical plan.
“So,” the case worker said, “do we have a placement or not, Claudia?”
Claudia grew quiet, then sighed. “I guess you win this time. But I’m holding you to the emancipation thing if this one falls apart at the seams too.”
“We’re not here to fight you on anything,” Rebecca said. “And I would hope we can give you something better than your previous situations. We have years of practice.”
As the case worker got her paperwork, Claudia opened her computer again, presumably to finish terrorising the robotics team while she was thinking of it. Rebecca wondered for a moment if they were getting in over their heads, but dismissed the thought; even if they were, that had never stopped them before.
Washington University, Minnesota
Rebecca adjusted her coat and sighed. She hated having to give progress reports on her student teaching nearly as much as she loved the teaching itself, but for now, at least, it was a necessary evil.
Four more months, she told herself, and then the whole thing’s at the mercy of your thesis defense. After last year’s room full of seventh-graders, that’s going to be a cake walk.
She squared her shoulders, and grabbed her bag on her way out the door. It struck her as a good day to walk to campus; while it was cold, there wasn’t much snow on the sidewalks, and her car would likely warm up just as she reached her destination.
Some children ran past her as she reached the edge of campus. They were shouting about something, but Rebecca paid it little mind - at least, she did until she got bowled over by someone behind them.
“I beg your pardon!” she said, as she picked herself up out of a snow bank; at least her papers for her meeting had stayed in her bag. “Can’t you watch where you’re...”
When she looked away from the snow bank, words failed her. Of all the things she’d thought she would see in her life, a snowman running - no, scratch that; it was more sort of bouncing, given its lack of legs - down the sidewalk of her alma mater wasn’t even on the list. Once she regained her composure, she started walking after it as quickly as she could.
“You don’t want to follow him, miss,” a boy’s voice said from behind a tree; Rebecca paused and rounded the tree, to find the children who had passed her just before the snowman did.
“Well, he was chasing you,” she said, “and he clearly doesn’t know how to be nice to people.”
The boy frantically shook his head. “No, he really doesn’t. And this was a fun day until he started jumping on us.”
“Why did he start jumping on you?” Rebecca felt more than a little silly asking the question, and yet, she could attest to how necessary it was from personal experience.
“I think it was the hat,” one of the boy’s companions said. “He didn’t move or anything until we put the hat on and then he got scary.”
“I... see. Where did you get the hat?”
The children looked at each other and shrugged. “We found it,” the first boy finally said. “It was laying in the gutter. Why, do you think it makes a difference?”
Rebecca sighed. “I really don’t know,” she said, “but I think I should try to keep that snowman from jumping on anyone else. You three get home before your parents start to worry, all right?”
The children nodded, and hurried off in the direction they’d come from; Rebecca shook her head as she watched them go.
“I am going to be so late to my appointment,” she muttered, and kept walking in pursuit of the snowman. Perhaps if it hadn’t pounced on children too young to think that teasing was an effective way to make friends, she wouldn’t have felt the need to pursue it to the end - but it had, and her soft spot for small children was winning out.
The snowman was easy enough to follow; all Rebecca had to do was look for fresh people-sized gaps in the snow banks. As she grew closer to the quad, some of those gaps in the snow still had people in them, and she found herself hoping the snowman hadn’t decided to jump on anyone’s car as well.
The quad itself looked like someone had taken a giant ice cream scoop to the snow. The snowman had apparently been busy enjoying its newfound freedom, and still was; this time, she saw the flicker of white in the corner of her eye and managed to avoid being knocked down again. Unfortunately, that meant she got a good look at its face.
She wouldn’t have thought a few pieces of coal and a button could be so menacing, but Rebecca got the distinct feeling that if the snowman could talk, it would be daring anyone in earshot, Catch me if you can.
The snowman launched itself at her again; as she dodged, Rebecca reached out for it with her free hand, not sure what good it would do. She came away with a handful of snow and the stick that had been serving as the snowman’s right arm.
“Not bad, for not knowing what you’re doing.”
Rebecca whirled to face the person who had said that, and found a man about her age, with sandy blond hair, a horrible brown plaid scarf and a very self-satisfied smirk, watching her.
“I beg your pardon, I know perfectly well what I’m doing. What I’m doing,” she said, waving the stick at him, “is missing an appointment about my student teaching because that thing--” she waved the stick at the snowman in turn-- “was terrorising some children. Since you’re such an expert on the subject, what are you doing about it?”
“I’m not letting that hat get away a second time, is what.” He pulled a gun that Rebecca would have expected to see as a prop from a science fiction movie out of a holster, and called, “Hey, Coal Breath!”
To Rebecca’s amazement, the snowman turned to face them as though it had heard the taunt.
“Yeah, that’s right, it’s me again,” the man added. “Looks like you didn’t put your hat in mothballs like I suggested. Don’t worry, I’ll take care of that for you.”
“That can’t possibly be the same snowman you dealt with last time,” Rebecca said. “It would have melted sooner or later.”
“It’s not the snowman that matters so much as the hat. It’s - well, we’re not sure if it acts on anything human-shaped or the collection of water molecules, we haven’t exactly had a chance to look into it. Either way, I’m not planning to wear it.”
“What are you planning to do, then, let it land on a convenient snow bank to test your theory? The snowman’s causing enough trouble as it is.”
The man shrugged. “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. You might want to duck.”
“Duck? Why would I want to--”
The snowman launched itself at them; as Rebecca stopped protesting and started ducking, the man fired his gun. It shot lightning, which made her feel justified in thinking it was better suited to The Day the Earth Stood Still than polite society. The snowman melted, its second arm, face pieces and hat falling to the ground; Rebecca ran forward to catch the hat before it could land in the snow.
“This is yours now, I believe,” she said.
“Thanks. Let me just...” The man holstered his gun and reached for something else, then frowned. “Dammit! I must have dropped the - do you see a canister laying around here, about so big?”
“And what does it do, hold the rest of the tools of your trade, whatever that is, in an impossibly small space?”
“It’ll stop anything like that from happening again. Assuming I can find the thing.”
“How on earth do you lose something close to a foot long?” Rebecca said, but looked for the stray canister anyway. She didn’t know why she was still bothering - she was assuredly late for her appointment by now, and the snowman was no longer a threat - but now that she was here, she wanted to see how this would be resolved.
Besides, he’d left her holding the hat.
“It might have escaped your notice, but our snowman friend there was playing hopscotch with anything that held still long enough. I was a little busy trying not to get flattened-- found it!” He held the canister aloft - in the middle of the quad.
“Bring it here, then. I’m not dressed to wade through a foot of snow, and I am not freezing my legs off because you dropped your equipment.”
“You are far too tightly wound for your own good, do you know that?”
Rebecca hoped he could fully appreciate the intensity of her glare from a distance; he was coming back to the sidewalk, she would grant him that, but there was simply no call for that sort of comment. “What makes that any of your business? We haven’t even been properly introduced.”
“Go on and introduce yourself, then.” He shrugged, and continued picking his way across the quad, giving her the feeling she’d wasted a perfectly good glare. “I really hope you don’t act like this with your students.”
“Also none of your business. Since you asked so nicely, my name is Rebecca.”
He grinned at her as he stepped back onto the sidewalk. “Jack Secord. Good to meet you, Becks.”
“Rebecca.” She glared at him again, just in case he had missed the first one. “Do let me know when you’re ready for the hat.”
She was still more than a little amazed that a battered silk top hat could cause so much trouble; if someone had told her the story secondhand, she would have assumed they made it up.
Jack ignored her and took the lid off the canister, revealing some sort of purple goo. “All right. Hat, please, and I suggest you cover your eyes.”
“If I don’t miss my guess, this is going to get hard to look at.” He dropped the hat into the goo as soon as Rebecca handed it to him, and it started shooting off sparks nearly as bright as Jack’s lightning gun had been; she put her arm over her eyes until, as far as she could tell, the light show had ended.
“Does that mean you’re finished, or have you lost something else?”
“No, I’m all set now. You can get back to your appointment. See you around, Becks.”
“I rather doubt that.” Rebecca wanted to roll her eyes, but settled for making a show of dusting off her coat before continuing on her way. She wasn’t sure how she was going to explain her unusual tardiness to her professor, but she knew for a fact she wouldn’t be talking about just how strange her afternoon actually was.
Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Rebecca and Jack’s last hurrah as foster parents was almost over as quickly as it began.
Claudia was mostly quiet on the way home; she laid claim to the plainer of the two spare bedrooms and expressed no small amount of surprise that they had an Internet connection, but still didn’t have much to say until they sat down for dinner.
“This is pretty good,” she said, after taking her first tentative bite of pork chop.
Rebecca smiled. “Thank you. We’ve never been much for five-course extravaganzas, but we do our best.”
“Doesn’t need to be that fancypants. Second house I was in totally phoned it in all the time. Lasagna out of a box like every night, and if it wasn’t that it was some kind of takeout. I even offered to do omelets, just to have something different, but they didn’t want the twelve-year-old cooking.”
“You know how to make omelets?”
Claudia nodded, but didn’t say anything else on the subject; she ate in silence for a few minutes, then wrinkled her nose. “Okay, I have to ask. Which one of you’s the smoker?”
“That would be me,” Jack said, treating his plate to his best sheepish face. “I’m quitting, though.”
“Yeah, that’s what they all say.”
“Hey, bad habits of fifty years don’t just disappear overnight. I’ve cut down to two a day from three packs at my worst. Cut me a little slack, Claud.”
Claudia froze, then dropped her fork and left the table in a hurry. After they heard the door to her bedroom slam shut, Jack blinked a few times.
“What the hell did I say to bring that on, Becks?”
Rebecca sighed. “I don’t know, but I think this is going to go a bit more smoothly if you let me find out.” She finished her potatoes first, both to give Claudia a little time to cool her heels and because she’d never been fond of cold potatoes, then headed upstairs herself.
They both knew that fostering older children brought its own set of challenges, some of them the same reasons Rebecca hadn’t pursued a career in middle school education, but Claudia hadn’t seemed like the sort to storm off at the drop of a hat. She was certainly cocky, if her fervent wish to get out on her own was any indication, but this wasn’t something Rebecca had seen coming; she could only hope Claudia hadn’t tried to climb out the window.
She knocked on the door, and allowed herself a quiet sigh of relief when Claudia said, “What?”
“May I come in, Claudia?”
Rebecca chose to take that as a ‘yes,’ and opened the door; Claudia was sitting on the bed, leaning against the headboard, arms wrapped around her knees. “He’s not here, is he?”
“No, Jack’s finishing his dinner.” Rebecca closed the door and sat down on the foot of the bed. “We’re not your enemies, Claudia. We want to help you, but it’s hard for us to do that if we don’t know what you’re thinking, and we’re both completely baffled as to what happened down there.”
“He doesn’t get to call me that.”
Rebecca smiled a little, despite the situation. “Jack... gives people nicknames, when he decides he likes them. Whether they want him to or not.”
“I don’t mind in theory, but - the only person who gets to call me that is Joshua, no one - no one since has earned it. Just because he had a few good ideas for messing with the robotics team doesn’t mean he earned it.”
“Joshua would be your brother, then?”
“Well, I’ll let Jack know he struck a nerve, but I can’t promise he’ll stop. I’ve been trying to get him to stop calling me Becks since 1956.”
“That’s different. You’ve been married to him since, what, 1957?”
Rebecca smiled. “1963, actually, and that only means I haven’t been trying quite as hard.”
“Yeah, yeah, call me a liar for six years.” Claudia stretched out her legs - she was still wearing her shoes, but under the circumstances, Rebecca didn’t feel the need to bring that up - and they sat in silence for a few moments.
“So,” Rebecca said, “a little bird told me you like science fiction.”
Claudia rolled her eyes. “Monica’s really desperate to keep me in the system, isn’t she? I’m surprised she didn’t say something about my project. ‘Really, Claudia, hacking is illegal, you shouldn’t be telling me what you’re doing or I’ll have to report it to someone.’”
“Well, I can certainly agree that there’s likely a better way to get the robotics team to take you seriously, but she didn’t mention it. I saw your backpack.” She waved a hand at the backpack in question. It had clearly seen better days - the plastic piping was fraying and the straps appeared to be made of duct tape - and while Rebecca didn’t recognise the cartoon character on the front, the lab coat he was wearing spoke volumes.
So did the cartoon character’s purple gloves, but that was likely a coincidence.
Claudia shrugged. “Well, I do, but don’t feel like you have to bring it up just to make me feel better.”
“I didn’t. I brought it up because we happen to have quite a bit of Star Trek and Doctor Who on tape. Call it a peace offering, if you’d like, but we wouldn’t mind at all if you wanted to watch some.”
“Really?” Claudia smiled - it was small, but more genuine than anything Rebecca had seen from her so far. “You know, you guys are surprisingly cool for old people.”
“We do what we can.” Rebecca stood, and added, “I don’t know about you, but I’m still hungry. What say we finish dinner?”
“Oh, I think I can manage that.” Claudia stood as well, brushing her hair out of her eyes. “I’m still not saying I’m sold on this arrangement, just for the record. But maybe it won’t suck as much as I thought.”
Washington University, Minnesota
Rebecca wasn’t only late for her appointment; she’d missed her original time slot entirely. Fortunately, her professor accepted her saying that she’d been tied up in traffic - it was technically true, even if that traffic was on foot - and his next slot was free, so she still got to have her meeting. After the way her day had gone so far, she found she needed the slice of normalcy.
After the appointment, Rebecca decided to take herself out for dinner. It had been a very strange day, and she thought she’d earned the treat. Besides, taking a little time for herself had always helped her recover her inner balance.
Unfortunately, her plan didn’t last very long before it completely fell apart. When Rebecca turned away from placing her order, she found a middle-aged black woman in the seat across from her, scrutinizing her through catseye glasses.
“That was quite impressive work you did this afternoon,” she said; it was a few moments before Rebecca could do something other than gape, but the woman didn’t seem to be holding that against her.
“I - I’m sorry, ma’am, but who are you and what are you doing at my table?”
The woman smiled, or at least, Rebecca thought so; it was there and gone so quickly she couldn’t be sure she hadn’t imagined it. “I am Mrs. Frederic, and I have an offer for you.”
“An offer.” Rebecca frowned. “I... take it you’re not referring to my student teaching.”
“Hardly. That hat has been giving us no end of trouble for the last decade. Without your assistance, I’m sure it still would be.”
“Well, thank you. I think.”
“The work would be of a similar nature,” Mrs. Frederic continued. “You have already shown a remarkable aptitude for it. I prefer not to approach those who aren’t capable.”
“I see.” Rebecca wasn’t sure if she was up for that sort of adventure every day of her life, but she didn’t want to say no without giving it due consideration, if Mrs. Frederic had gone to all this trouble to find her. “And when would you want me to start?”
“Tomorrow, if you’d like.”
“With all due respect, ma’am, I would not like that. If I don’t finish my degree now, people will assume I either got married or started a career I intend to keep for the rest of my life, and I likely won’t get the chance to do the work.”
Mrs. Frederic nodded. “I can understand that perspective.”
“I’m not closing the door on the offer permanently, mind. Now is not the time, but if you still feel you need my services in May, after I’ve defended my thesis, I’ll consider it.”
“Oh, I’m sure we will. I’ve been looking for a suitable partner for Agent Secord for the last year, and I think I’ve finally found one.”
Rebecca had to make an effort not to choke on her soda. “I - he acts like he’s twelve! He’s unprofessional and thoroughly annoying and I’m hardly surprised he wasn’t getting the job done by himself. You can’t possibly expect me to--”
But when she looked across the table again, she found that she was ranting to an empty chair; in fact, it showed little sign of ever having been occupied.
“How did she do that?” she said to herself, before focusing on regaining her composure by the time the waitress returned with her meal.
In the weeks that followed, Rebecca did her best to put the strange day behind her. It proved to be easiest when she was teaching, or working on her thesis; she found it increasingly difficult to watch or read the news without reading something else into it. She knew it was ridiculous - for all she knew, Jack and Mrs. Frederic were running the world’s strangest hat shop - but it was an impulse she couldn’t seem to stop.
By the time she defended her thesis, she had nearly forgotten about the job offer; perhaps because of that, Mrs. Frederic appearing as she rounded a corner after her graduation ceremony was just as much of a surprise as the first time.
“I take it you still require my services?” she said, once she’d recovered her poise.
“We do,” Mrs. Frederic said. “You can pack light; we’ll ship what you need and store the rest. We will be expecting you at these coordinates within two days.” She handed Rebecca an envelope; rather than wait and try to sort it out on her own, Rebecca opened it.
“If you leave early tomorrow, you should be able to make the trip in one day. Good luck, and congratulations on your new degree.”
“Thank you. I--” But Mrs. Frederic was gone again; Rebecca sighed, and returned to her apartment to start packing.
For lack of anything better to do, she left early the next morning. The drive was peaceful, if long, and Mrs. Frederic had had the foresight to include directions in the envelope. As she drove, Rebecca found herself wondering more than once why she had agreed to this, or at least not said no outright when Mrs. Frederic initially made the offer. She supposed it was for the security of having something to fall back on when she graduated, rather than having to dive into the job market right away.
But even that didn’t explain why she was taking the risk of having to work with the single most annoying man she’d met in her life.
It was near dusk when Rebecca reached her destination, though she wasn’t sure if she’d missed it entirely at first; there was so little around that she wondered if she’d read the directions wrong before she saw the warehouse. There was little else a building of that size and shape could be. As it was also the only building within miles, she decided this must be the place.
As she got out of her car, a door in the side of the warehouse opened, and a man emerged. He was perhaps near Mrs. Frederic’s age, and Rebecca found herself wondering if he had some Indian heritage - but it was too dark to tell, and she was more interested in counting her blessings that it wasn’t Jack.
The man gave her a warm smile. “Hi there. You must be Rebecca.”
“I am,” she said. “You were expecting me?”
“Mrs. Frederic mentioned she had a new recruit coming in. That and Jack hasn’t shut up about you since January - it’s good to finally meet you. I’m Gus. Come on in, I’ll give you the tour.”
Rebecca found herself a little dubious, especially of the fact that Jack had been talking about her for four months running, but followed Gus inside; it was a better option than standing outside in the dark. He led her down a stark white hallway that seemed better suited to a hospital than a warehouse, then into a dimly lit office that was hazy with cigarette smoke and bustling with secretaries.
She had missed Jack until he said something; he was sitting at a desk in the corner of the office, grinning at her. “See, I told you I’d see you around.”
Rebecca glared at him. “Shut up.”
Gus pulled her along on the tour before they could trade any more barbs, but even that short conversation left Rebecca with the sinking feeling that this job might be every bit as horrible as she’d feared.
Sioux Falls, South Dakota
After she finished her dinner, Rebecca went looking for Jack. He wasn’t hard to find, especially when she caught the glow of his lighter through the back window.
She sat down next to him on the porch swing and said, “I know for a fact you’ve already had your two cigarettes for the day.”
“Okay, so I had two and a half. It’s not the end of the world, Becks.”
“That’s not the point and you know it.” She picked up the ash tray and held it out expectantly. “I don’t care how many vibes you’ve had on the subject, I don’t want your bad habit to come back and bite you.”
Jack sighed, but at least had the good grace to stub out the mostly-unsmoked cigarette. “She didn’t make a break for it, did she?”
“Claudia? No. But you might want to reconsider your choice of nickname.”
“Oh, is that what that was about? I can probably live with calling her by her full name.”
Rebecca set the ash tray back on the side table. “And yet, you’ve never been able to extend me the same courtesy. I’m hurt.”
“You haven’t been hurt by it in forty years, Becks.”
“Oh, but I was before that. It’s almost time for the news, if you were interested.”
“Absolutely.” Jack stood, wincing as he did so. “I think it might be time to retire the porch swing. Unless you think Claudia can get some use out of it.”
“Time will tell, I suppose. Let’s go in.”
After that first rocky evening, they settled into a truce; Claudia kept to herself for a week or so, but eventually the lure of Star Trek won out. The common bond changed it from a truce to a friendship by the time Claudia had to return to school.
By Thanksgiving, Rebecca felt she had a question that needed asking.
“I couldn’t help noticing,” she said, during a break in one of their Star Trek marathons, “that you look away from the screen every time they use the transporters.”
Claudia shrugged. “So?”
“So I was wondering why.”
“I have a thing about teleportation, okay? And you turn off the radio every time ‘Frosty the Snowman’ comes on, you bet household chores on the news in some way that I can’t follow other than one time it involved George Washington’s false teeth, and you’re both incredibly jumpy about lightning, for having lived in the Midwest for so long. I’m not the only person in this house with a thing.”
“You have a point there.” It only made sense that Claudia would notice something sooner or later, but Rebecca was surprised to hear just how much - especially since the yearly barrage of Christmas music had only just started. “Why teleportation?”
“Because I saw Joshua’s master’s thesis go horribly, horribly wrong. I think that’s a good reason.”
Rebecca glanced at Jack, who only raised an eyebrow at her and said, “Anyone for turkey sandwiches?”
Claudia shrugged. “I guess so.”
“All right, two for turkey sandwiches - you want one, Becks?”
“No thank you, Jack. I’m not hungry just yet.”
Jack nodded and headed for the kitchen as Claudia paused the tape. Rebecca wanted to ask more about Claudia’s brother’s teleportation mishap, but Claudia looked rather upset that it had come up at all, so she decided not to.
“I kinda expected there would be more people here Thursday,” Claudia said, after a while. “You guys seem like the type who’d keep tabs on your former charges.”
“We do, as best we can. But they either have families of their own by now, or were in rather desperate shape by the time they came to us.” She preferred not to think about Ricky; God alone knew how many arrests he had under his belt by now.
“Fair enough. You have any kids of your own?”
Rebecca sighed. “No. One or both of us... was exposed to something on the job. We never did work out exactly what it was, but by the time we got around to trying - well, these days, they’re saying I would have been too old for it to be worthwhile.”
Claudia made a face. “Exposed to something on the job? What radioactive third-graders were you dealing with?”
Jack laughed loud enough that Rebecca had to wait a few moments before she could answer. “Really, Claudia, can you imagine Jack trying to keep order in a classroom?”
“Hey!” Jack stuck his head out of the kitchen doorway. “I would have been better than you’re giving me credit for. Claudia, do you want tomato on your sandwich?”
“Sure.” She still hadn’t quite shaken off the alarmed face. “So if it wasn’t in the classroom, what was it?”
“We were in the Secret Service together,” Rebecca said; it seemed safe to tell that much of the truth, at least.
“Okay, radioactive counterfeit money, then. Irradiated... pretty much anything else the Secret Service deals with would’ve hit the news sooner or later.”
“It likely would have, yes.” For her own part, Rebecca was certain that whatever it was, radiation didn’t play a part at all; they’d never worked a case that would have involved it. But getting into that aspect would open an entirely metaphorical can of worms that she didn’t see the need to get into at the moment.
Fortunately, Claudia didn’t seem inclined to press the point. “Secret Service, huh? Both of you?” She crossed her legs, and smiled. “You guys just get cooler and cooler. I’d accuse Monica of planning this, but I don’t know if she’s that resourceful.”
Rebecca smiled; Jack returned with the sandwiches, and Claudia restarted the tape.
Rebecca stared at the hotel room ceiling and sighed.
Jack had left the room over an hour ago, likely to chat up girls at the bar; how he was managing that with his self-admittedly terrible grasp of Spanish she wasn’t sure, but she knew he’d mastered enough of the language to keep the beers coming all evening. They’d been on this case for a week, with only a blank visa originally issued by the Japanese embassy in Lithuania between them and a swift escort back to the States. As far as Rebecca was concerned, it was a week too long.
She couldn’t call Charlie like this; he would tell her to get over it and get back to work, and probably ask why she wasn’t down in the bar with Jack. She was half tempted to call Gus, but she didn’t know if he had been sent out on a case himself since they’d left the Warehouse, and the desk girls, while mostly a sensible bunch, didn’t have Farnsworths to call their own; there just weren’t enough to go around.
Rather than stew in her discontent any longer, she picked up the pad of paper on the nightstand and started writing down what they knew of the case so far. The desk girls hadn’t found anything that stood out to Charlie beyond the usual background noise of revolutionary zeitgeist, but Mrs. Frederic had taken one look at the compiled file and told Charlie to send a team to Havana as quickly as possible. Rebecca didn’t know what she’d seen that Charlie didn’t, and so far, they’d had little luck.
And Jack kept going off to bars and clubs and casinos without her and failing to make any sort of useful contribution to the case whatsoever, and - and she’d come right back around to where she’d started.
The truly vexing thing was that there were fleeting moments, here and there, where she found herself wanting to like Jack. She had grudgingly admitted, after their third official case together, that he was good at the job, and he could be genuinely charming when he was talking to the desk girls. But for some damned reason, he insisted on acting like the worst of the seventh-graders she’d taught when he was talking to her.
“You should have come along, Becks. Got some interesting stuff down there.”
Speak of the devil. Rebecca sighed, and set the notepad back on the nightstand. “And how did you find anything out when it took you three hours to master ‘uno cerveza, por favor’?”
“There are some people in this country who speak English. They were more than happy to interpret, and they had some visual aids they said I could keep. The Artifact’s in these pictures, I know it.”
“Really, would it kill you to explain how you figure these things out so quickly?”
Jack sat down on the second bed and raised his eyebrows at Rebecca. “Becks. Will you please just trust the gut instinct that saved my unit’s asses in Korea? I’ve been listening to my vibes for long enough that I know what I’m doing, and no, I can’t explain them. Now, are we going to try to get something out of these photos, or are you going to spend the night pissed off at me again?”
Rebecca didn’t want him to be right - but he was, and besides, she’d never live it down if she held up the case. He’d make sure everyone in Charlie’s office knew about it the minute they got back.
“All right,” she said. “What makes you think the key is there?”
Jack stood, spreading the photos out on his bed as he did so. “There was a journalist down there who’s spent a lot of time talking to people in the revolutionary movement. He’s not sure what he’s going to do with all that information just yet, especially since trying to publish it here would probably be a bad idea, so he was more than happy to lend me his first prints. Tell me what you think of this guy’s hat.”
He tapped one of the photos; Rebecca picked it up and studied it. “Very distinctive, to be sure, but what makes you think this is it?”
“He’s one of the leaders of this movement, and trouble’s been following them everywhere they go.”
“That does tend to happen with rebellions, you realise.”
Jack sighed. “Not my point, Becks. The answer’s here, I know it.”
“It may be, but this feels far too... recent for our line of work.”
As Rebecca looked over the photos, the Farnsworth started buzzing; she handed it to Jack and kept studying everything he’d collected, half-listening to his conversation with... Mrs. Frederic? That was unusual; she rarely called them out in the field. On the other hand, she’d been the one to insist someone go to Cuba.
“If you’re so sold on the hat, what about this other fellow’s jacket? It looks like it would have been a better choice last century, and he’s wearing it in nearly every photo.”
“Let me see,” Mrs. Frederic said, sounding faintly alarmed. Rebecca frowned at that, but picked up a photo and joined Jack at the Farnsworth.
“This is the hat Jack’s going on about,” she said, holding the photo up to the screen and pointing as best she could. “And this fellow back here, in the jacket.”
Mrs. Frederic was silent for several moments, which worried Rebecca even more than her tone before she’d joined the conversation. “Oh, my. I’m afraid this is a much worse situation than I’d thought.”
Jack frowned. “Why do you say that?”
“You’re both right. The jacket likely belonged to someone who was heavily involved in Cuba’s bid for independence from Spain in the 1860s. It would explain a great deal about the progress made by the current movement. However, that hat’s work is only just beginning.”
“Well, can we snag it, too, as long as we’re here?”
Mrs. Frederic shook her head. “Half-formed Artifacts can be even more dangerous than the real thing; you don’t have the resources on hand to deal with it properly. We’ll have to find a way to get it some other time. However, it is vitally important that you get the jacket out of circulation as soon as possible. Under the circumstances, it’s highly likely the two Artifacts are feeding off of each other.”
“That sounds like an adventure in and of itself.”
Rebecca elbowed Jack. “It sounds more like a problem to me.”
Mrs. Frederic nodded. “It will most certainly be that, if the situation is permitted to continue. Be careful.”
The line of communication cut off abruptly; as Jack closed the Farnsworth, Rebecca sighed and began straightening the photos. “Lovely. Now we have to work out how to get in among a revolutionary movement - in which we’ll surely stick out like sore thumbs - and steal a national treasure.”
Jack grinned. “I know,” he said, without a trace of the sarcasm that had been present when he commented on the two Artifacts interacting. “This job is so much fun.”
“Have I mentioned lately that you have a very strange sense of fun?”
“Only every day, Becks. Give it time, a plan for this mess will come to me.”
Rebecca set the photos on the nightstand, next to the notepad. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”
Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Rebecca awoke at what she was sure was an unseemly hour to a slight pain in her side. She tried to ignore it, but dull though it was, it was amazingly persistent; after half an hour of simply trying to get back to sleep, she got up. Perhaps a short walk and a glass of water would help, and even if it didn’t, it was better than lying there and getting frustrated over all the sleep she wasn’t getting.
On her way back from the bathroom, she noticed that the light in Claudia’s room was on, shining around the gaps in her door. It struck her as odd - Claudia wasn’t usually one to burn the midnight oil on a school night - and she was no closer to sleep, so she knocked.
“Shouldn’t you be asleep by now, Claudia?”
“Can’t sleep, dreams will eat me.” Claudia opened the door; she looked every bit as tired as Rebecca had suspected. “Besides, I could say the same thing about you.”
“Oh, but I’ve already had some sleep tonight.” It wasn’t enough, but that wasn’t the important bit. “And I’d venture a guess that you haven’t even tried.”
“I’m trying not to, is the thing. See also: dreams will eat me.” Claudia sat down on her bed, and poked a button on her laptop. “So I’m going to deliberately get lost in a maze of links on Snopes until I pass out and deal with the sleep dep at school tomorrow. I’ve done it before, I’ll live.”
Rebecca frowned, and helped herself to Claudia’s desk chair. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s my birthday. Same thing as every year.”
“Well, I haven’t seen your birthday in action before, and it certainly seemed pleasant enough for you at dinner. Enlighten me.”
Claudia sighed, though she did close her computer. “Every year since I was ten - well, I guess eleven - I’ve had a dream about Joshua. It’ll be the same deal in a couple months. Sometimes I have ‘em at Christmas too, but just once I’d like to get through my birthday or the anniversary of...” She screwed her eyes shut, and when she resumed her sentence, it wasn’t where she’d left off. “Without having to deal with the memories, you know?”
“I can imagine.” Rebecca’s memories of the worst of the Warehouse didn’t keep her awake nearly as often as they’d used to, but she still knew the feeling. “Claudia... I realise this is a sensitive topic, but - what exactly happened to your brother?”
“Like I said at Thanksgiving. His master’s thesis went horribly wrong. He was trying to teleport and--” Claudia drew a deep, shaky breath. “I remember asking him when he picked the topic, people can’t teleport now, what made him think anyone could pull it off in the 1500s?”
Rebecca raised an eyebrow; this was ringing more bells than ever, but she couldn’t be sure yet. “Renaissance-era teleportation? He certainly would have had my attention with that proposal. Why did he think it would work?”
“Mostly because he was sure his advisor wouldn’t steer him wrong on something like that. So anyway, his advisor gave him this medieval dude’s compass thing, and Joshua spent close to a year and a half working out this nasty-ass differential equation to go with it, and... well. I guess you could say it worked.”
“And you haven’t seen nor heard from him since.”
Claudia nodded, a few tears escaping her despite her best efforts to the contrary. “Unless the weird dream sequences count, but I’m not really convinced they do. But at the same time - you know in mysteries and stuff, where someone disappears and everyone assumes they’re dead even if there’s no body?”
“I don’t want to do that. I mean, I know he probably is, but... he’s my brother. I can’t just turn my back on that.”
“Nor do I think you should.” Rebecca stood, and added, “I think it’s time for me to get back to sleep. You do what you need to, but if you get in trouble for sleeping through class tomorrow, you’re on your own.”
Claudia shrugged. “I got Mountain Dew. I’ll make it work one way or another. And... thanks. For listening.”
Rebecca closed Claudia’s door - in counterpoint to Claudia opening her laptop, she suspected - and went back to bed; as she got back in, Jack stirred.
“‘s wrong, Becks?”
“Nothing, dear. Go back to sleep.”
“Why’re you up if nothing’s wrong?”
Rebecca sighed. “It’s far too late to get into it, Jack. I’ll explain in the morning. Go back to sleep.”
“All right, but I’m holding you to that.” Jack rolled over, and was snoring again in short order, as usual. Fortunately, the short walk had served enough of its purpose that Rebecca got back to sleep herself before she grew too exasperated.
She ended up explaining it the next afternoon, over what Jack intended to be his only cigarette break of the day. The further she got into what Claudia had told her, the more Jack frowned, which assured Rebecca she was right to wonder about the situation.
“It’s an Artifact,” he said, after she finished. “Couldn’t tell you how her brother’s professor got his hands on one, but I’d bet that’s what it is. It might even explain her dreams. Did she mention whose compass it was, by any chance?”
“That didn’t come up, but she did say it was made in the 1500s, which would narrow the field down considerably more than what we’ve worked with before.” A series of thumps in the front of the house - through the front door and up the stairs - told Rebecca that Claudia was back from school.
“It does, but probably not enough to go forward with just that. And here I thought I’d never miss that damned library. Of course, if they’ve digitized the card catalog by now, that would help tremendously--”
Another, larger thump over their heads cut Jack off before he could finish. For all he’d been complaining about his knees of late, he still bolted back inside and took the stairs two at a time; Rebecca hadn’t seen him move that fast in years. By the time she joined them in Claudia’s room, he was already asking Claudia what had happened.
“I... it’s been a weird day,” Claudia said, “and - I don’t know, I thought if I got out one of Joshua’s books it would help some, but then this was in it.”
Rebecca nearly tripped over the book in question, apparently the source of the noise that brought them upstairs; it was a thick leather-bound volume, one of several in Claudia’s collection that she hadn’t paid much mind to before. When she picked it up, it fell open to a drawing of a compass.
“And it wasn’t there before?” Jack said.
“No, there’s no reason it would have been, and I sure as hell don’t remember seeing it before. But - that’s Joshua’s handwriting.”
“You might want to take a look at this,” Rebecca said - in stereo with Jack, as it happened, so she traded him the book for the scrap of paper that had troubled Claudia so much. It had clearly been left in a hurry, and had a simple message: get me out of here, claud.
“Claudia? You know how you said last night that you didn’t want to give up so long as there wasn’t a body to point to?”
Rebecca glanced at the book again. “I think you might have been on to something.”
Warehouse 13, South Dakota
Rebecca wasn’t sure what she and Jack had done to get nearly a week off from field work - though she suspected it had something to do with Jack’s sprained ankle - but she wasn’t inclined to argue. She had quite the backlog of case reports to get through, and plans to call Tom after dinner.
Some of her coworkers thought she’d wasted her ability to share the true nature of the Warehouse with one person on her brother. But as Rebecca saw it, there was no one better. She and Tom had always been close, so he would work out sooner or later that she wasn’t telling him the whole story. Besides, she had every intention of getting out of this line of work before it could kill her; if she ended up marrying anyone, she wouldn’t need to keep her job a secret from them.
Rebecca looked up from her last case report, and smiled. “Hi, Phyllis. How can I help you today?”
“Something interesting came up on the Lovelace last night. If you and Jack wanted to take it, he should be better by the time you have all the groundwork done.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to come along on a case? You have an eye for this stuff.”
Phyllis shook her head. “Oh, no. I like the desk work and I love the Lovelace - there’s nothing like it in the world, I’m sure - but I’d be a mess in the field. I don’t know how you do it.”
“Some days, I wonder that myself. What did you find?”
Phyllis set a pile of papers on Rebecca’s desk, a combination of newspaper clippings, handwritten notes and information she’d pulled off of the Lovelace mainframe. “There’s something odd going on in Green Bay,” she said. “A second secretary with a magazine there turned up dead the other day - the first was over a week ago. It’s been back-page news for a reason that I think makes it our business.”
Rebecca picked up one of the newspaper clippings. “‘Ruth Van Doren, a secretary with Where and When magazine, was found in her apartment this morning, apparently’... turned to glass?”
“Well, according to the police report, there was a shattered glass statue in her kitchenette with her likeness and no trace of her anywhere else. They can’t make heads or tails of it, but they felt they had to assume she was dead.”
“I can see why they tucked it away in the back. My God. Who would do such a thing?”
Phyllis shrugged. “That’s for someone else to figure out, but I can tell you that both of these poor women worked closely with the same editor.” She pulled one of the Lovelace pages to the front and tapped on a name.
“That’s not always enough to make a case, but it certainly makes him a person of interest. Either way, whatever’s causing this needs to be taken out of circulation. Thank you, Phyllis.”
“You’re welcome. And good luck.”
She left the papers on Rebecca’s desk and headed off, presumably to more work on the Lovelace; Rebecca pushed it aside in order to regain her momentum on the case report. She had just reached the bit where Jack hurt himself when her partner shuffled in, all but collapsed into his chair and lit a cigarette.
“The delicate flower returns to work, I see,” she said, without looking away from her work.
“Hey, I have an injury here, Becks.”
“You sprained your ankle, which I can tell you from experience is hardly the end of the world - and I’m still wondering how you pulled that off when I’m the one running in high heels all the time. If it’s still bothering you, it’s probably because you didn’t take care of it properly.”
“So... what are you saying,” Jack said, “I should get a pair of heels for next time?”
Despite herself, Rebecca nearly pulled a muscle trying not to laugh at the mental image. “Definitely not. You’d probably hurt yourself worse, and then I’d never hear the end of it. Anyway, since you couldn’t be bothered to write any case reports during your convalescence--”
“Last time I did a case report, you told me my handwriting was a disaster and not to do it again!”
“--you can have a look at this instead,” Rebecca said, dumping the papers Phyllis had given her on Jack’s desk. “And when I’m done writing about your humiliation in the pursuit of Buddy Holly’s glasses, I’m going to go have dinner and call my brother.”
“Do you really have to include that part? What is all this stuff, anyway?”
“Phyllis found us a case. You work on how to talk Charlie into not assigning us to something else, and tomorrow I’ll start making the arrangements in Green Bay. And yes, I do have to include that part. We would have had the things that much sooner if you hadn’t tripped.”
Jack sighed. “You’re making me look bad, Becks.”
“Then write the case report yourself, next time.” Rebecca turned back to her own work, ignoring Jack’s protests; when she was finished, she dropped the pile of case reports on Charlie’s desk and headed out.
She treated herself to a leisurely dinner at the town diner - after all, she’d just turned out six case reports in one day - and still got back to the B&B in ample time to lay first claim to the phone for the evening. She was beginning to suspect she needed the conversation more than she’d thought; it had been a while since she’d had the chance. And sure enough, just the sound of the phone ringing on the other end of the line helped her relax considerably.
“Hi, Tom. Sorry I didn’t call last week, something came up.”
Tom laughed. “If it weren’t one thing, it would be six, in your job. What kind of thing was it this time?”
“Buddy Holly’s glasses, believe it or not. And Jack sprained his ankle in the process. He’s been so unnecessarily dramatic about it. But on the bright side, we haven’t been back in the field since, so I got to catch up on my paperwork.”
“Rebecca, I love you, but I don’t know why you think paperwork is the bright side to anything.”
“That’s because you’ve never actually tried this job.” It was just as well, Rebecca thought; Tom was far more of a homebody by nature than she was. He wouldn’t care for the constant traveling, to say nothing of his girlfriend. “How’s life in Minneapolis?”
“Good. The new job’s treating me well, and Sheila... well, if they won’t give you a day off for your brother’s wedding, I’ll be quite upset. Assuming she says yes when I ask her, of course.”
Rebecca grinned. “Oh, Tom, good luck. When are you asking?”
“Wednesday. I’m taking her out to dinner.”
“Well, I don’t know if I’ll be able to call next Sunday - we’ve got a probable case in Green Bay, and I don’t know if we’ll be there over the weekend - but I’ll check up as soon as I can.”
“Thanks.” There was a faint rattling on the other end of the line, and Tom swore. “Sorry, I - late dinner, my pasta’s boiling over. Be careful, Rebecca.”
“I always am. I’ll talk to you later, Tom.”
“‘Bye.” Tom hung up, and Rebecca laughed as she did the same, leaving the phone free for anyone else who had someone to call.
Over the course of the next week, she and Jack made the arrangements to get to Green Bay and look into this glass-girl business. Phyllis didn’t turn up any new stories about mysterious glass statues, but Rebecca couldn’t take that as much comfort; whoever and whatever was behind this wasn’t necessarily done. She wouldn’t be able to let it go until she could be sure the Artifact wasn’t causing trouble anymore.
On Monday of the week following Phyllis’ discovery - and Tom’s successful engagement, as things worked out - Rebecca set up shop at her desk at ten of nine, just in case they needed the extra time to get the final details squared away. Much to her surprise, Jack wasn’t far behind, despite the number of times he’d protested he wasn’t a morning person; he sat down at his own desk, lit a cigarette, and
Sioux Falls, South Dakota
“Wait,” Claudia said, “you think - you think he really is alive? But how? Where the hell is he? How do we get him back?”
“Slow down, Claudia, we only just got started.” Jack took the note back from Rebecca, and added, “But I’d say the fact that this note turned up is a pretty good indicator that he’s alive. Where did he try this thing, anyway?”
“His lab space. I still have the key, the college started building new labs but didn’t tear down the old ones. Why?”
Rebecca turned her attention to Claudia’s bookshelf, particularly the section of books like the one she’d dropped. “That’s likely going to be the best place to start looking for him, under the circumstances. Jack? Does the name Rheticus ring any bells with you?”
“Not really. Should it?”
“Perhaps not as much as some other names we’ve encountered, but I seem to remember a few things of his--”
“Guys?” Claudia said, as Jack snapped his fingers.
“That box! I remember now. Had all sorts of things in it, and Charlie had marked them all useless--”
“But they wouldn’t be there if they really were useless,” Rebecca finished, grinning almost despite herself. “That always did sit oddly with me. Perhaps they’re just more complicated than most--”
Rebecca finally turned away from the bookshelf, to find Claudia looking at her and Jack as though they’d both grown second heads.
“I’m really glad you guys could follow all of that,” she said, “but I’m lost like a very, very lost thing and we’re talking about the apparently very real possibility that Joshua’s not as dead as everyone thought. So. What the hell are you talking about?”
Rebecca hesitated. “I’m not sure if we can--”
“Yes, we can, Becks.” Jack raised his eyebrows at her. “The girl’s got a point, first of all, and second, I still have a free pass to let someone in on it.”
“Please tell me you didn’t have a feeling you’d need it forty years after the fact.”
Claudia sighed. “Can we stop with the ADD Old People Show and answer the question?”
Jack snickered and started toward the door. “Downstairs. This is going to take a while, and the ADD old people can’t stand around your room through the whole thing.”
When they all got downstairs, Rebecca went to the kitchen to start a pot of tea, and Jack said, “Well, I’ll grant you this, it’s probably an easier story to tell now than it would have been in the ‘50s. You know your way around the Internet. Have you ever come across anything about Warehouse 13?”
“Of course,” Claudia said. “It’s only a conspiracy theory wingnut favorite - depending on the day it’s more popular than calling the moon landing a hoax. But the weird thing is someone always shows up and shuts it down and calls the whole thing the most epic tax record filing cabinet in the country.”
“They would still be using that old yarn, wouldn’t they? Anyway, in a nutshell, the conspiracy theorists are on to something.”
“I knew the ‘nothing to see here, move along’ brigade was a little too quick to jump into those conversations.” There was a few moments’ silence before Claudia added, “Still, there’s a lot of crackpot out there about the place. Are we talking ‘eerily plausible urban legend’ level stuff, or more like ‘now we know where the Roswell crash goodies got to’?”
Jack laughed. “Both, and then some. Including the sort of thing that might, for example, allow someone to teleport. Becks and I were technically in the Secret Service back in the day, but we worked there.”
“Okay, now that’s awesome. --Wait, that’s your thing, isn’t it? With the news, you’re not just watching it, you’re--”
“We’re still looking for Artifacts. It’s a very hard habit to break, really. Don’t ask me how, but I think your brother got his hands on something that’s better off in storage there.”
Rebecca could very nearly hear Claudia’s dubious face, even over the kettle boiling. “And... what, people die except not really because of this stuff all the time?”
“Not all the time, but it can happen. There’s probably some sort of quirk to the thing that’s got him... I don’t know, stuck somewhere. We’re going to have to dig into it some more to find out what happened and how to fix it.”
“Oh.” As Rebecca brought the tea tray into the living room, Claudia turned to look at her. “So does this have anything to do with why you kept turning off ‘Frosty the Snowman’?”
Rebecca set the tea tray down on the coffee table. “If you’d spent an afternoon being pounced on by an animate snowman, you’d turn it off too.”
Claudia froze halfway to reaching for the teapot. “Duuuuuude. That must’ve been one hell of a day.”
“Try going through it twice,” Jack said. “And I’m sure it would have been more than that if not for Becks.”
“And Rebecca saved the day. Surprise.” Claudia didn’t sound very surprised at all; instead, she finished pouring herself a cup of tea, and said, “So when do we go?”
Rebecca started to answer twice before settling on the best thing to say. “I think... it would be better if we saved a visit there for a last resort,” she finally said. “We know where it is if we need it, but we should see what we can do with what we’ve got first.”
“You always have to bring the Earth logic, don’t you?”
“She does,” Jack said, as he poured his own cup of tea. “Very bad habit of hers.”
Claudia sighed. “Well, my spring break’s next week, and Joshua went to school in town. We can figure out what’s going on then.”
On the first day of Claudia’s break, she and Jack went to investigate the lab; Rebecca declined to go along, largely because the laundry pile was getting out of hand. She had just put the last load in the dryer when she heard the front door close.
“Dude, I’m fine,” Claudia said. “I just got a little lightheaded, I’m good, it’s over.”
“It’s over now, but you still pulled that little falling-over stunt after your nose started bleeding,” Jack said; when Rebecca joined them in the living room, she saw a few traces of the nosebleed in question on Claudia’s upper lip. “In my experience, nosebleeds are never a good sign, and I doubt that’s changed much since I was your age.”
“I... no, sorry, I can’t picture you ever being my age.”
“It happened,” Rebecca said. “Some days, I think it’s still happening. What did you find out?”
Claudia rubbed at her face with one hand. “Well, the good news is the lab’s still there,” she said. “College came back and added an electronic keypad, but that didn’t slow me down long. And they never bothered cleaning it out, so all the supplemental goodies Joshua used are still there.”
“And the bad news?”
“No compass, for a start. I think it’s with Joshua, wherever he is. I tried working that one out by myself, and... I don’t know if I can bring him back alone.”
“And that’s when the nosebleed hit,” Jack added. “Whether she can do it by herself or not, I don’t think she should.”
By now, Rebecca knew Jack well enough to understand what he wasn’t saying aloud: Claudia was clearly going to try to save her brother no matter what, now that she knew it was possible, and could very well die in the attempt if she weren’t careful. For all that she didn’t really want to go back to the Warehouse, she also didn’t want to see Claudia sacrifice herself for something that could likely be done without any fatalities, given the right resources.
“Then I suppose we’re taking a road trip tomorrow,” she said.
Simmons Cherry Orchard, South Dakota
August 22, 1961
The next thing Rebecca knew, Jack was kissing her.
While she certainly had no objections in theory, in practice, she couldn’t for the life of her figure out what brought that on; she pulled away and said, “Jack... what are you doing?”
Jack smiled a little. “Something I should have done a long time ago.” He leaned in to kiss her again, and everything snapped into perspective.
It was as if someone had adjusted the focus on a camera, or perhaps used one of those ancient bronze mirrors that reflected things as they really were; suddenly, Jack’s behavior over the last five years made a lot more sense. He had certainly acted like the worst of Rebecca’s students from her semester at the middle school, but she could see now that he acted like a particular group of them - the ones who thought the best way to win over someone they fancied was to annoy the hell out of them until they gave in. She had never seen it work on the playground, and suspected the only reason Jack had pulled it off was that she had seen what he was capable of, when he wasn’t driving her up a wall.
Once she knew that, it was incredibly easy to lose herself in the moment. It felt like they were out there for an eternity, but Rebecca suspected it was closer to five minutes - perhaps ten - before the Farnsworth buzzed from Jack’s pocket. He pulled away, looking as reluctant to do so as Rebecca felt, and flipped it open; Rebecca moved so that she could see the screen as well.
“Where are you two? Irene said she was sending you out here.”
Rebecca frowned. “Mrs. Frederic? But she never... where’s ‘here,’ Gus?”
“Calcutta. I thought I had the bastard with Man Ray’s camera cornered, but he got away from me again. Are you sure Charlie didn’t mention it to you?”
“Very,” Jack said. “I... think so, anyway. On the other hand, I’m not sure where we are, but I’m pretty sure it’s not Calcutta.”
“Trust me, you’re not. It’s not that light outside here.” Gus frowned. “What case were you out on? That doesn’t look like anywhere near the Warehouse.”
“We were - shit, we were going to check on the glass girl business yesterday. Do you think we even made it to Green Bay, Becks?”
“We must have,” Rebecca said, after considering the matter for a moment. “Otherwise we’d likely be in Calcutta.”
“Okay, and Green Bay this ain’t, so we’re somewhere between there and the Warehouse.” Jack sighed. “It would be great if I could remember anything from yesterday after lighting my cigarette.”
“Don’t look at me. That’s the last thing I remember before you...” Rebecca trailed off, hoping Gus couldn’t tell she was blushing over the Farnsworth.
If Gus had noticed anything, he didn’t say so. “It sounds like you two got hit by an Artifact while you were out,” he said, “and hit hard at that. Don’t worry about not making it to Calcutta, I’ll square things with Irene and Charlie when I get back. Just... get yourselves back to the Warehouse and take care, all right?”
“We will. Thank you, Gus, we’ll make it up to you.”
“Don’t worry about it, Rebecca. You two be careful.”
“We always are,” Jack said; after Gus dropped the connection, he put the Farnsworth away and sighed. “What the hell happened to us, Becks?”
“I wish I knew. What time is it now?”
Jack glanced at his watch. “Twenty after seven. Why?”
“All right, it was ten of nine when I got to the Warehouse, so that leaves--”
“Twenty-two and a half hours where we don’t know what we were doing.”
Rebecca shook her head. “Closer to nineteen or twenty minutes. I don’t know about you, but I can account for the last ten.”
“Oh, don’t worry. I’ve wanted to kiss you for five years. I’m not going to forget doing it that quickly.”
Rebecca laughed. “Good to know. We should get back to the Warehouse. We’re not going to find out anything very quickly by sitting in...” She looked at the trees over their heads. “Someone’s cherry orchard, apparently.”
“But going back means we’ll have to deal with Charlie, and I’m sure he’s going to be thrilled that we apparently got him in trouble with Mrs. Frederic and don’t seem to have anything to show for it. Unless we left something in the car, anyway.”
“Isn’t this where you usually say we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it?”
Jack gave her a long look, then shook his head. “Now, that’s just not fair, Becks, using my own words against me like that.”
“And, let’s see, I believe your usual line here is ‘you love me anyway.’” She couldn’t say why she was filling in Jack’s usual half of the conversation, unless it was utter giddiness that he really did care under all that seventh-grade behavior, but at least it did finally make Jack laugh.
“Well, I do,” he said, “but that’s completely beside the point. Come on, let’s go. I could use a smoke anyway - looks like I left my cigarettes in the car.”
“Assuming we even drove here,” Rebecca muttered, but she allowed Jack to help her up anyway.
Jack’s car was parked at a side entrance to the orchard, not far from where they’d found themselves - but despite looking everywhere he usually stashed a pack, neither of them turned up any of his cigarettes. He alternated between wondering aloud if he’d tried to kick the habit while they’d blacked out and hoping he hadn’t lost his lucky lighter for most of the drive back. The fifth time Jack insisted they would know what had happened the day before if only he’d brought it along, Rebecca sighed.
“For the last time, Jack, if your lighter is really helping you that much, Charlie’s going to take it away and lock it on a shelf in the Warehouse. You’re just being superstitious.”
“That doesn’t mean I’m wrong.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake-- here’s the B&B. Go get yourself some cigarettes and then we’ll face the music.”
Rebecca happened to glance into the B&B’s dining room on her way to the stairs, and doubled back; Phyllis was sitting at the table with a few papers, watching the doorway anxiously.
“Rebecca, thank goodness,” she said, standing as Rebecca came into the room. “I was hoping I’d catch you two before you went back to the Warehouse - Gus called, but I can’t promise Charlie won’t take it out on you anyway.”
“I’m not looking forward to it, but that’s Charlie for you.” Rebecca frowned. “Why did you want to talk to us first? What happened?”
“I... just pulled this off the Lovelace. As Gus was calling, it turns out. If you don’t remember anything about it, then maybe the memory loss is connected somehow.”
Rebecca went pale as she looked at Phyllis’ papers - and the unmistakably front-page headline concerning two glass statues, one on the front walk of their prime suspect’s second residence and one in the living room.
“We lost it,” she said, half to herself. “We - he must have made us forget about it, somehow. We have less than we started with and two more dead bodies to boot. Never mind Charlie, what am I supposed to tell myself?”
“It happens to all of us,” Phyllis said. “Even those of us who don’t leave the place - you remember that time I had a run-in with Trung Trac’s sword.”
“Vividly, since it came down to me and the other desk girls to stop you.” Rebecca sighed. “Still, we should have been prepared for something like this.”
“If you could plan for every possibility every time, they wouldn’t be half so picky in who they bring in, even for my job. You did the best you could, and now, you know what the Artifact leaves behind, so you can watch for it.”
“Oh, I will. I’m going to find that thing if it’s the last thing I do.” Rebecca knew that was a dangerous vow to make, but all things considered, she felt it was more than appropriate.
Warehouse 13, South Dakota
Claudia frowned as she got out of the car. “It doesn’t look all that exciting.”
“There’s a good reason for that,” Rebecca said. “I suspect it’s the same reason they put the tax warehouse cover story out there.”
“True, but still. Do they decorate with giant piles of cow crap all the time?”
“What it looks is deserted,” Jack said. “Where is everyone?”
Rebecca shrugged. “I couldn’t say. It’s possible they’ve replaced some of the desk girls with computers, but this does seem to be a bit thin on the ground.” There was no trace of Gus, for one thing, and that worried her more than she cared to admit; a part of her, even knowing how dangerous the job could be, had thought he’d never leave.
“Maybe everyone’s working?” Claudia said.
“Maybe, but you’d think there would be at least one person here.” Jack started toward the door, but stopped and turned to face Rebecca and Claudia most of the way there. “We forgot something, Becks. They’ve probably added to the security here since we left, or at the very least changed the codes. And I don’t know about you two, but I’d rather not stand around out here until someone shows up-- Claud, duck!”
Claudia blinked, but did so, just in time to avoid being hit by a speeding rugby ball; the ball bounced off the side of the Warehouse and came to rest by Rebecca’s feet.
“Now, that’s new,” she said, stepping away from the ball.
“I’ll say.” Jack offered Claudia a hand, and said, “Sorry, didn’t mean to take liberties with your name there--”
“No, that’s okay,” Claudia said as she took his hand and stood up. “I think you’ve more than earned it. But especially if there’s gonna be more kamikaze footballs raining down on us, I don’t want to wait for someone to get here out in the open.”
“Then we can take our chances with the front door, or wait in the car.”
“Or we could try the back door,” Rebecca said. “It’s more of a climb inside and out, but they never did pay as much attention to it as they ought. I wouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t have an alarm at all.”
Jack shrugged. “Sounds good to me. Shall we?”
They got back into the car and drove uphill to the back door, on the grounds that they’d all get more than enough exercise inside. At the back door, they were greeted with an electronic key pad; Claudia took one look at it, said, “Oh, cake walk,” and had the door open within a few minutes.
The rickety stairs leading down to the Warehouse floor gave Rebecca pause, especially paired with the poor lighting; they all had to wait a few moments for their eyes to adjust from the bright sunlight outdoors. Fortunately, the stairs weren’t quite as terrifying as they appeared, and by the time they reached ground level, Claudia was grinning.
“Okay, this is looking a lot more exciting now. Place kinda goes on forever, doesn’t it?”
Jack grinned right back at her. “Isn’t it great?”
“And once again, we have a difference of opinion about the job.” Rebecca looked down the aisles, trying to reorient herself to the building; even back in the day, she hadn’t been in this part of the Warehouse very often. “I think the quickest route to Charlie’s office is to the left.”
“It can’t be Charlie’s office anymore, Becks. He was close to retirement age when we left.”
“Either way, we’re most likely to find help there, especially if they’re as shorthanded as it seems.”
It was a long walk, made longer by the fact that Claudia kept slowing down to examine the shelves. Jack was of little help in keeping her moving; he stopped to read tags nearly as often as Claudia, more than once pointing out something that he and Rebecca had speculated about while watching the news.
“Oh my God you guys they have lightsabers!”
Rebecca turned around to find Claudia gaping at a shelf, her hands not far from its contents. “I can’t say I’m surprised, but leave them there, Claudia. For one thing, you have no idea which end the blade would come out of.”
“Still! You know, I wondered why they didn’t look as good in the prequels.” Claudia turned away from the shelf, practically beaming. “Seriously, why does no one ever mention this stuff on career day?”
“Because that would rather defeat the purpose of being quiet about it,” Mrs. Frederic said, stepping into the aisle from around a corner. All three of them jumped; Claudia nearly fell over, only barely catching her balance against the shelf she had been examining. “Rebecca, Jack. Good to see you again.”
Claudia frowned. “Wait, you... worked with them? How could you have worked with them? You’re not old enough.”
“More like she hasn’t aged a day,” Jack said. “Good to see you too, I think.”
Mrs. Frederic raised an eyebrow. “You clearly came here looking for something, and I don’t recall hearing about any recent glass statues. What brings you back?”
Rebecca sighed. “It would seem that Claudia’s brother ran afoul of an Artifact some time ago, and the matter never got resolved. We wanted to see if there were some answers to be found here.”
“I see.” She gave Claudia a sharp look. “Not Claudia Donovan?”
Claudia only flinched a little under Mrs. Frederic’s scrutiny. “Yeah. Why?”
“You’ll be needing Arthur’s expertise, when he returns from San Francisco. In the meantime--” She rattled off a set of coordinates that, even now, Rebecca recognised as directions to a particular shelf. “I suggest you start there and glean what you can from the person. That ought to make the rest of your work a bit easier.”
“Thanks,” Jack said. “While you’re here, I don’t suppose you’d know anything about--”
“Dude, she’s gone,” Claudia said, still eyeing the space Mrs. Frederic had just been occupying. “How the hell does she do that?”
“She never did explain. Dammit, I was going to ask her if they ever tracked down that fellow’s hat - you remember the one we couldn’t grab in Havana, Becks?”
Rebecca smiled. “I’d be hard pressed to forget. We should go find that box before I forget the coordinates.”
Fortunately, the box wasn’t that far away, by Warehouse standards. When they reached the shelf, Jack promptly pulled the box down; as he and Claudia started rooting through it, Rebecca said, “Do you two even know what you’re looking for?”
Jack shrugged. “Not really. Has that ever stopped us before?”
“I didn’t know the guy made this much stuff,” Claudia said. “You’d think if he was busy teleporting all over the place, he wouldn’t have the time.”
“I would imagine that’s the key.” Rebecca frowned, and pulled a sextant out of the box. “Are you sure Rheticus ever used the compass himself?”
“Well, he said he did. But he also didn’t disappear without a trace, so Joshua did something that he didn’t.”
“Or didn’t do something that Rheticus did.” Jack turned over the astrolabe he was holding, and fiddled with the bottom until it came off. “This thing has a false bottom. And it looks like he wrote something in here.”
Rebecca looked at the false bottom. “Now that you mention it, this seems unusually heavy for the material it’s made of.”
“I’m getting the feeling that someone was fond of hidden panels.”
“That... wasn’t in any of Joshua’s books,” Claudia said, looking stunned. “I mean, the Latin makes sense, and he said all the rules were with the thing, but - does everything in this box have a hidden panel?”
They all started examining the pieces in the box more closely; after a while, they’d determined that everything in it did indeed have some sort of hidden space - not only that, but every last one of them had something written in it.
“They’re directions,” Rebecca said, after comparing two of the panels. “My Latin’s very rusty, but I know directions when I see them. Claudia, I think your brother missed something important.”
Claudia sighed. “And it’s great that we know that, but this also means the directions are with the compass, which... we kinda don’t have. So now what?”
Jack began putting things back together and back into the box. “Now, we wait for Mrs. Frederic’s expert on the topic to come back. Knowing her, we won’t have to wait that long.”
Rebecca frowned. “But if he’s out on a case--”
“If he’s out on a case and Mrs. Frederic tells him he’s needed here, he’ll come back. I don’t see that changing as long as she’s still here.”
“Well, I don’t know about you two, but I’m not standing around down here until he shows up. I’m going to Charlie’s - whoever’s office it is these days.”
Rebecca could see at a glance, once she got there, that it certainly wasn’t Gus’s office; none of his usual personal touches were to be found, which worried her rather more than not seeing his car had done. In fact, only one desk showed any signs of being occupied. It was a far cry from the hustle and bustle she had been used to back in the day.
“Perhaps I shouldn’t have waited up here after all,” she said to herself. At least out on the Warehouse floor, one expected the place to be relatively quiet, but this silence was close to eerie.
“Waited for what - who are you? What are you doing here?”
Rebecca looked toward the front door, glad to find someone had at least finally oiled the thing, to find a stout man - ten or fifteen years younger than herself and Jack, if she had to guess - gaping at her. Before she could answer either of his questions, he added, “How did you get in here?”
“There never has been very strong security on the back door,” she said, leaving the other questions be for now.
The man pushed his glasses up (headlong into a pair of bushy eyebrows) and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Mrs. Frederic could have mentioned that it was just a former agent dropping in for a chat instead of pulling me away from such a delicate operation at the last minute.”
“Did you at least get what you were after?”
“Yes, barely. But I don’t see why this is worth rushing all the way back here and nearly--”
Before the man could work up a good rant, the back door to the office opened. “You make a terrible doorway,” Jack said, to no reply; Rebecca turned to see Claudia blocking the door, staring at the man who was, by all appearances, the Warehouse’s sole agent at the moment.
“Artie?” she said. “What the hell.”
St. Louis, Missouri
Rebecca frowned at the information Jack had spread out on the hotel room bed. “I’m sorry, Jack, I’m just not seeing the connection here.”
“I don’t know that I’m seeing it either, as such,” Jack said. “But I’m sure there is one, that’s the thing. This wouldn’t just start happening after the exhibit passed through if there weren’t something tying the two together.”
“Nor would it be the first time the chain of events made no sense until afterward, but - the Crusades and electrocution?”
“As Gus always says, never rule anything out.”
“True.” Rebecca sighed. “Do you have a record of where the exhibit was headed next? We could call them and see if anything’s come up missing.”
“We’re not going to have time for that, Becks. The body count’s already hit eight - if we spend all our time chasing leads, who knows how many more people whatever this is will take down.”
“We can call the museum here, then. Maybe they still have some programs on hand.”
Jack laughed, and leaned his head on his knee. “You’re not going to let me get away with not bothering to call anyone, are you?”
“Certainly not - not if it might help us sort out what it is we’re chasing down.”
“All right, fine.” Jack gathered everything up without looking at the photos of the burn victims. “We’ll call the museum, but first, I’m taking you out to lunch. I was starting to wonder whether you’d get here before I was done.”
“Tom’s wedding was lovely, thank you for asking.” But Rebecca was in no mood to turn down Jack’s offer of lunch; she had been quite upset that a case came up just before the wedding, preventing them both from going. They needed the chance to catch up on something that wasn’t related to the Warehouse.
They did just that over their lunch, and made it nearly an hour without talking about work at all - but when Rebecca had to keep pulling Jack’s attention back from staring out the window, she knew that time was nearly over, at least for now.
“All right,” she said, “what’s on your mind this time?”
“That museum across the street,” he said, pointing out the building. “I think that’s the one that had the Crusades exhibit. If it is, we can save ourselves a phone call and get the information that much faster, if they have it.”
Rebecca smiled. “Well, it can’t hurt to ask. If it wasn’t them, the exhibit was recent enough that I’m sure they know who was hosting it. Shall we, then?”
“Let me pay for lunch first, Becks, really.”
Jack did so - Rebecca took advantage of him going to the till to leave the tip - and they crossed the street to the museum. When they told the desk girl what they were looking for, she said, “Actually, you’re in luck. Our garbage isn’t picked up until tomorrow, so I think everyone’s put off throwing out the programs as long as we can. It’s a pity Fritz isn’t here, or I’d have you talk to him as well.”
“Fritz?” Jack said.
“He’s our Near East curator - he’s the one who got the Crusades exhibit to come here, actually, he said they were only going to stop in Boston and Los Angeles before he called them up. But no one’s seen him since the day they packed everything up to go to California.”
Rebecca looked up from the program in time to see Jack frown. “Thank you for your help,” she said.
“You’re welcome,” the desk girl said. “I’m sorry you missed the exhibit.”
“So am I, but I think we can find out what we need to know from the program.”
“That curator’s involved somehow,” Jack said, after they were on the street again.
“Involved how?” Rebecca said, resisting the urge to flip through the program some more as they walked. “Do you think he stole it?”
“It’s possible. That or - I don’t know, it stole him. Anything is possible in this job.”
“Unfortunately.” Rebecca sighed. “We should look him up, when we get back to the hotel - or have one of the desk girls do it, if the phone book can’t turn him up. If nothing else, he might be able to answer a few questions for us.”
When they returned to the hotel, Jack set to work with the phone book, and Rebecca began taking a more in-depth look at the program. There were all manner of interesting pieces in the exhibit’s catalog, and they’d seen more than once that hauling antiques across the globe could cause problems, but nothing jumped out at her as relevant to their current situation until she neared the last page.
“Oh, my. Jack, you might want to have a look at this.”
Jack marked his place in the phone book and turned to look at the program. “‘The Spine of the...’ of course! I should have thought of that one on my own.”
“You’ve heard of this thing before?”
“I read a lot of things about the Crusades in high school--”
Rebecca rolled her eyes. “You read in high school?”
“Oh, hush, Becks. I did occasionally take an interest in the stuff we talked about in history. Anyway, more than one of the books I picked up mentioned that the Turks supposedly developed something that gave them super-soldiers. Of course, all of that dismissed it as legend, but how many things have we rounded up that history called legendary?”
“I could start making a list, if you’d like. Did any of those books happen to mention what it supposedly did?”
“Give me a minute. It’s been a long time since high school.” Jack sat down on the bed and closed his eyes.
“Would you take off your shoes if you’re going to put your feet up?”
“Why do you care? It’s not your duvet.”
Rebecca decided not to dignify that with a response; instead, she flipped through the rest of the program, just in case there was a more promising lead in the last few pages. Jack stayed still for a good few minutes, not bothering to remove his shoes.
“It... left a lot of bodies in its wake,” he finally said.
“Well, that’s helpful.”
“Like I said, it’s been a long time since high school. Even you don’t remember everything you were doing fifteen years ago, I’m sure.” Jack sighed. “And you must admit, we’ve got quite a body count already.”
“That we do. Did you get anything useful out of that phone book?”
“I did, actually - our friend Fritz lives on the other side of town. I say we get Phyllis to work her magic and see if he knows something we don’t while we’re waiting on her.”
Rebecca smiled, pulling the Farnsworth off the nightstand. “This is Phyllis we’re talking about. If the Lovelace cooperates, she might be done before we’re halfway there.”
Charlie scowled at the screen, as usual, when he answered the call. “I hope you two have been getting some work done and not wasting my time with each other since you got to town,” he said.
Rebecca resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “I’ve never put up with that kind of nonsense from Jack, and you should know that by now. Could you get Phyllis on the line, please? We need her to look some things up for us.”
Charlie did roll his eyes, but he stood and disappeared from view; after a minute or so, Phyllis sat down in front of the screen. “Hi, Rebecca. What can I do for you two today?”
“We need everything you can tell us about this thing,” Rebecca said, holding the program up. “It’s called - what was it, Jack?”
“Spine of the Saracen,” Jack said.
“Yes, that. It was part of a Crusades exhibit that passed through town just before all this trouble started. Jack’s read about it before, but can’t remember anything useful on the subject.”
Phyllis laughed. “I’ll see what I can dig up. I’m assuming this is something you need in short order?”
“As quickly as you can, please. We’re going to talk to one of the museum’s curators, assuming he’s home, but we can’t count on him knowing everything we need.”
“All right. Give me half an hour; I’ll call you back.”
As Rebecca closed the Farnsworth, Jack said, “I remembered something you might find a little more useful. It’s made of a conductive metal. Can’t for the life of me say which, but--”
“But the Spine conducts electricity,” Rebecca finished, “which makes it look more like the Artifact behind all those electrocutions. Should we wait for Phyllis to call us back, or head out?”
Jack shrugged. “No sense in wasting time. We might as well get going.”
True to Rebecca’s prediction, the Farnsworth buzzed before they reached their destination, as they approached a stop light. Rebecca pulled it out of her purse and opened it to find Phyllis looking unusually grim.
Jack glanced at the screen and frowned. “You’re not going to start shouting in ancient Vietnamese again, are you?”
“No, nothing like that,” Phyllis said. “But this Spine thing is... well, it looks grim, from everything I could find. A few firsthand European accounts describing it in action say that it appeared to allow the user to wield lightning against people.”
“Well, that would certainly explain all these electrocutions. How bad are we talking?”
“It also seems to be pretty hard on whomever is using it. The corresponding Arab accounts note that they disliked putting the Spine on their best soldiers because, nine times in ten, the user would come back dead.”
Rebecca frowned. “And the tenth time?”
“All I could find were references to ‘the hand of God.’ I’m sorry. I - you two be careful, all right?”
“We always are, Phyl,” Jack said.
Rebecca rolled her eyes. “We will be. Let us know if you can find anything else about it.”
“Of course,” Phyllis said. “Good luck.”
When they pulled up in front of the curator’s house, Jack turned to Rebecca and handed her a Tesla. “You’re going to need this.”
“But...” Rebecca stared at it. “I took ours to the wedding, Jack, I still have it. Does Mrs. Frederic know you took a second one? Why on earth would we need two?”
“Just - trust me, Becks. As for Mrs. Frederic, I think it’s going to be better to ask forgiveness than permission, in this case. Please?”
Rebecca sighed and took the second Tesla. “You and your vibes are going to be the death of me someday. Let’s do this before we lose any more time.”
They knocked on the curator’s door, but never received a response; after a few minutes, Jack started toward the back door, which proved to be unlocked. As they stepped inside, Jack called, “Mr. Conrad? Secret Service, we just have a few questions for you.”
Rebecca took a look around the kitchen. It didn’t look like it had been used in a few days; neither had the last person to eat there taken the time to clean up his dishes, if their state was any indication.
“There are scorch marks on the ceiling,” she said. “I don’t know about you, but I can’t see that leading anywhere good, after what Phyllis told us.”
“Neither can I, but there’s only one way for us to find out.” Jack left the kitchen; Rebecca sighed, wishing he’d kept the second Tesla for himself rather than overarming her, and followed him.
The living and dining rooms showed no signs of life. When they reached the stairs, they discovered why the curator had yet to answer them; he was sprawled on the stairs face-down, as though he had fallen halfway to the bottom. Rebecca checked his pulse, though it turned out to be a mere formality - when she touched him, she found that he had died long before they reached the house.
“There was something on his back,” Jack said, but Rebecca only half heard it; a piece of newspaper laying on the bottom stair, a bit charred around the edges, had caught her attention.
“How did this not burn through?” she wondered aloud, picking it up.
“What is it?”
“It’s about one of the burn victims.” She read what she could, and felt her eyes grow wide. “They identified him through dental records tied to a missing persons case. He wrote a rather unflattering review of the Crusades exhibit, apparently--”
Rebecca looked up, but rather than wait for her to take his advice, Jack all but shoved her to the floor, leaving the neutralizer canister with her as something silver sailed through the air and attached itself to his back.
Warehouse 13, South Dakota
The office - Artie’s, Rebecca supposed, though part of her was still expecting Charlie to come in and tell them all to get back to work any moment - filled with an awkward silence on the heels of Claudia’s outburst. Finally, Jack said, “You two have met before?”
“I was only a kid, but I remember the face. He was at the college the day - he was going to recommend Joshua for a grant!” Claudia glared at Artie. “I guess you left out the part about the top secret, off-the-grid warehouse full of madcap?”
“I - you...” Artie floundered for a moment, then glared back at Claudia. “You had no business knowing about the Warehouse then, and you definitely have no business being here now. How did you even--”
“Oh, I have all the business in the world here. Unfinished business, you might say. And you can unbunch your pants as to how I got here, dude, they read me in.”
“They read you in? How did they read you in?”
“I believe you’re the one who mentioned a retired agent coming back to reminisce,” Rebecca pointed out, “though this is hardly something I would do just to relive old memories.”
Artie looked from her to Jack and back again; after a few moments, his eyes widened. “My God, you’re - you’re Jack and Rebecca?”
“I didn’t realise we were famous.”
“Two Warehouse agents who made it out without getting killed, misplaced, or driven permanently insane in the line of duty? If this place had a training video, the entire thing would be Gus telling people to do what you two did. It’s an honor to meet you, it really is.”
“What, did you think I dragged my grandparents on a joy ride to the Badlands?” Claudia said. “I don’t even know who my grandparents were - not from personal experience, anyway. Otherwise we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation, and now that we’re done with the meet and greet, I have a few words for you about my brother.”
Artie sighed. “Kid, that was a long time ago, that stuff. Joshua’s death was--”
“He’s not dead,” Claudia and Jack said in unison.
“He - what else could he be?”
“If I don’t miss my guess,” Rebecca said, “you’ve been in this line of work for quite some time. Am I correct?”
Artie nodded and sat down in a desk chair. “Mrs. Frederic brought me on board in ‘69.”
“Then I would hope you’re aware, by now, that when it comes to Artifacts, there’s often more than meets the eye. Jack and Claudia know significantly more about the situation than I do, but I’ve heard enough to think that you let two people down when you were first dealing with this. For one thing, what kept you from asking more questions at the time?”
“Actually, don’t answer that,” Claudia said. “I don’t want to hear it, I just want to bring Joshua home. You got six years of sitting on your ass and not taking advantage of your mondo resources to make up for, buddy.”
“I--” Artie looked among them, and sighed. “Am not going to find an ally in this room, am I.”
“If you were, I kinda doubt they would have driven me out here.”
“All right, fine, I’ll hear you out. Supposing for a moment that Joshua’s not dead - and I’m not saying you’ve convinced me yet - then where is he?”
Jack shrugged. “He got himself stuck somewhere, I can tell you that much,” he said. “And it looks like undoing that is going to be pretty damn difficult.”
“Of course it’s going to be difficult. Joshua must have put a lot of work into getting that damn thing to work in the first place - that’s not the sort of thing you can just undo in a snap.”
“More to the point, I don’t think you can undo it without the compass,” Rebecca said. “We had a look at the other Artifacts that belonged to Rheticus while we were waiting, and every single one of them had a secret panel.”
“Great, so you get here and it turns out to be a wild goose chase.” Artie turned to his computer, poking viciously at a few buttons. “The compass--”
“Disappeared with Joshua,” Claudia said. “Got the memo, Obi-Wan. But maybe, just maybe, there’s something in this Pandora’s Box that could get us to where he is, especially alongside everything else that’s still in his lab?”
“Actually, Pandora’s box wouldn’t do much--”
Rebecca sighed. “Artie. A little focus would be nice, please.”
“...Right. Everything’s still in the lab, you say?”
Claudia nodded. “The whole setup, other than the compass. No idea why nobody’s cleaned it out yet, but I’m not gonna argue.”
“Then maybe we can salvage the situation after all. Between Joshua’s supplementary materials and something to step in for the compass, we might be able to get through to him. Maybe. I’m not making any promises, and I’m definitely not driving across the state at this hour--”
“But we need to--”
“He’s got a point, Claud,” Jack said. “By the time we got back to Sioux Falls, none of us would be in any state to do anything useful. Besides, you’ll like the B&B.”
Claudia sighed. “All right, fine. Anyway, that gives me a chance to find out why you guys don’t bother with career days.”
“Absolutely not,” Artie snapped. “We don’t hire sixteen-year-olds.”
“Why not? What, do you think I won’t be useful? You want me to hack in here and prove otherwise? I totally could, you know.”
“Because this job is far too dangerous for us to go around dragging minors into it, however willing you might be. Go home, go to college, and maybe if you still want to do the work in six years--”
Artie blinked. “Four?”
“I was in sixth grade when you met me, dude. Four.”
“Four years, then. If you still want to do it in four years, then we’ll talk. I’m going to Leena’s before I miss dinner.”
As Artie headed out of the office, Jack said, “We didn’t think this through very well. The car’s still by the back door.”
Rebecca frowned. “I’m not sure I want to try those stairs going up, either.”
“Let’s go out here and I’ll bring the car around, then.”
They headed out the office’s front door, and Jack started up the hill to get the car. Claudia picked up the rugby ball that had nearly hit her on their arrival and said, “You know, it’s too bad you guys weren’t in the foster care gig when you were doing this job. Best Take Your Daughter to Work Day ever.”
“Claudia...” Rebecca sighed. “Try not to hate me for saying this, but Artie’s right about one thing. You shouldn’t pin all of your hopes on working here.”
“Why not? I’d think they would like someone being excited to walk on. Besides, you liked working here, didn’t you?”
“Yes and no. Jack enjoyed it far more than I did; I couldn’t avoid thinking of all the ways it could go wrong, and often did. There was more than one occasion where one of us would have died had the other not been there. This place - it uses you up, and it’s very rare that people make it out of the job alive and sane.”
“If you and Jack are the stars of the hypothetical training video, I can imagine.” Claudia tossed the ball from one hand to the other, then blinked at it. “Wow. This thing packs a punch.”
“I’m sure it does. Anyway - if this turns out to be what your heart is set on doing, I wouldn’t dream of stopping you. You do need to explore your other options, though. Besides, I’m sure that by now, you need a college education to join the Secret Service.”
“Just about everything needs a college degree these days. Makes you wonder how people ever got anything done before there were colleges.” Claudia sighed. “I just wish some of those places would give me a damn answer already. They take much longer, I’m gonna think they don’t want a kid hanging around with everyone who’s worried about where their next beer is coming from.”
“You’re far too bright for all of them to turn you down, Claudia. And no matter where you go, we’ll be there for you every step of the way.”
“Hopefully Joshua will, too.”
“Provided we can get him out, I’m sure he will be.” Before Rebecca could add anything else, Jack pulled up in the car; she let the conversation drop as they got in, sure that, one way or another, the next day would answer many of their questions.
St. Louis, Missouri
A surge of panic swept through Rebecca - at least, she was fairly certain it was that and not electricity, but she imagined she could be forgiven for confusing the two if she were wrong. They’d found the Artifact they had come to chase, all right, but now it appeared to be killing Jack, and he didn’t look like he was going to be of much help in securing it.
Fortunately, her common sense - which, as it often did in situations like this, sounded rather like Gus - didn’t take long to kick in: First and foremost, don’t panic. Panicking won’t help you solve the situation at hand, and may in fact result in you getting hurt as well as allowing the crisis to continue.
Perhaps it wasn’t such a bad thing that she’d nearly memorised the orientation speech after all. She took a deep breath and thought through the facts she had at her disposal, only keeping an eye on Jack in order to make sure there wasn’t any rogue lightning coming her way.
The piece of newspaper concerning one of the recent burn victims suggested that the Spine drove people to lash out against those they hated; how a museum curator could find that many people to hate, she wasn’t sure, but it did speak to her likely safety. On the other hand, if the thing overwhelmed Jack and drove him out of the house... well, she was just going to have to keep that from happening.
If someone dies as a result of Artifact exposure, her common sense reminded her, that’s the end of the line. No, don’t ask about the ones that bring people back to life, they’re far more trouble than they’re worth. But if you can neutralize the Artifact before someone affected by it dies, odds are very good that they’ll pull through sooner or later.
The Spine usually detached itself from someone when they died, according to everything Phyllis had found - but there was that ‘hand of God’ business that she hadn’t been able to unravel. That implied there was some force of nature that the Turks hadn’t had under their control, that was unreliable enough that they hesitated to kill off all their best soldiers with the Spine, and that didn’t prevent the Spine from working in the future, only detached it from its present carrier.
Out of the corner of her eye, Rebecca noticed storm clouds gathering outside; from there, everything fell into place. “Of course,” she said to herself, before digging their usual Tesla out of her handbag. Even one gun that shot lightning was going to be quite a bit more reliable than waiting for the thunderstorm to reach them and do the heavy lifting.
She could only hope that two would be enough.
Do not hesitate to shoot your partner, if it proves necessary. There’s a reason we carry weapons that only stun people, and none of us are immune to the things we’re hunting down.
“Yes, Gus, but did you ever think I’d need to electrocute my partner?” Rebecca sighed, and started keeping a closer eye on Jack; hitting him from the front didn’t strike her as the best way to shut down the Spine, not when it was attached to his back. It quickly became apparent that she was going to have to fire both Teslas at once, if she wanted the opportunity to use them both; under the circumstances, she didn’t much feel like waiting to see if one had any effect by itself.
She made sure both Teslas were turned up as far as they could go, and when Jack staggered away from her and toward the front door, she took aim and fired.
On a good day, she needed both hands on the Tesla to keep the kick from knocking her over; with one in each hand, she didn’t stand a chance of staying upright, but she was prepared enough for that possibility that she didn’t hurt herself. When she got up, she found that the tactic had at least worked; Jack was lying on the floor, worryingly still - but more importantly, the Spine had left him be and was scuttling across the floor.
That presented another problem. Rebecca certainly wasn’t about to pick it up with her bare hands, both in case it was still carrying a charge and because she didn’t want to encourage it to latch onto her, but she needed to get it into the neutralizer canister somehow. On top of that, she didn’t feel comfortable breaking eye contact with the thing; it had been nowhere in sight when they entered the house, and she didn’t want it disappearing again.
After a moment’s thought, she grabbed a place mat from the dining room table, opened the canister, and set to hunting down the Spine. It took her a few minutes, but she managed to scoop it up in the place mat; rather than try to shake it loose, she dunked the place mat in the neutralizer as well, closed the canister and ducked away from the particularly intense flurry of sparks.
When the sparks died down, she made her way over to Jack, and was quite relieved to find he still had a pulse. That alone couldn’t calm all of her fears, but she had done everything she could; whatever happened next, it was out of her control.
After what seemed like an eternity, Jack stirred, rolling onto his side. “Ugh. Becks? I don’t feel so good.”
Rebecca laughed, sure she sounded hysterical and equally sure she didn’t care at the moment. “After what you’ve just been through, I can’t say I’m surprised.”
“We at least get the Artifact, after all that trouble?”
“Oh, we have it, all right. We should - I hope you can stand, since there’s no way I can haul you out of here by myself. We should go back to the hotel; you can call Charlie on the way and tell him we’ve got it. All things considered, I’d rather not drive back tonight.”
Jack smiled, and tried to sit up; he got halfway there, leaning heavily on his elbows, before he stopped. “Probably a good idea. I don’t think I’m going much of anywhere in a hurry, at least not under my own power.”
“I never said I wouldn’t help, Jack.” At any other time, the statement might have carried some venom, but Rebecca was far too relieved that Jack had survived to be very angry with him.
“Neither did I, Becks, don’t lose your cool. What should we do about...” He waved a hand in the direction of the stairs, as best he could.
“The curator?” Rebecca sighed. “I don’t know that there’s much more we can do. We have no way of knowing if he took the Spine out of the exhibit to use it or if, as you said earlier, it stole him - and considering the state of the house even when we got here, someone’s going to assume it was a robbery gone bad.”
“True. Either way, I think it’s safe to say the poor guy didn’t know what he was getting into. In that case, let’s get out of here before anyone decides to start asking questions.”
Jack managed to stand under his own power, but Rebecca still had to help him out to the car; rather than try to get him into a restaurant in that condition, she pulled into a drive-in. After they placed their orders with the carhop, Jack pulled out the Farnsworth and said, “Dark Vault,” as soon as Charlie answered the call.
“That bad, huh?”
“Let’s put it this way,” Rebecca said. “You know how Gus and Mrs. Frederic always say you shouldn’t destroy an Artifact if you can absolutely help it?”
“Hard to forget, after twenty-five years of hearing it.”
“I’m tempted to destroy this thing anyway. If it were ever to get out of the containment fields, who knows how much chaos it could cause. It’s a nasty piece of work.”
“It’ll be in good company, then,” Charlie said. “If we can keep Caligula’s laurels in check, I think we can handle this thing. By the way, Mrs. Frederic says there’s a Tesla missing from the inventory. You two know anything about that?”
“I have it,” Jack said, looking and sounding extremely sheepish. “Turned out we needed two to catch this thing, though, so she can glare at me all she wants, but I don’t regret it.”
“We’re driving back tomorrow,” Rebecca said. “There’s a storm rolling in, and we wouldn’t be of any use to you by the time we got there, if we left now.”
“Good. Take the time to work on your case report.” Charlie shut off the Farnsworth before either of them could protest; fortunately, the carhop came back with their dinner not long afterward.
They left St. Louis early the next morning, and got back to the Warehouse at twilight. Rebecca wanted nothing more than to go to her room in the B&B and relax, but Jack - who was, at least, walking under his own power again - insisted she come to his room first, on the grounds that he had something for her.
“I don’t know what you could possibly have that can’t wait until tomorrow,” she said, staying as close to the door as possible. Unfortunately, that left her without anywhere to sit but the bed. so she remained standing for the moment.
“It’s already waited a month, Becks.” Jack rooted through his desk, clearly looking for something, though Rebecca couldn’t imagine what. “And I don’t want to lose the chance again - aha! So, no, it really can’t wait until tomorrow.”
“What on earth are you talking...” Rebecca trailed off when she saw what Jack had turned around with - a small jewelry box, of a size that could only hold a ring.
“You’ll have to forgive me for not kneeling, after yesterday, but rest assured I’m kneeling in spirit.” He opened the box, turned it to face her, and said, “Rebecca Grace St. Clair, will you marry me?”
Rebecca sat down on the bed. “I - Jack - really?”
“Would I use your full name for once in my life if I didn’t mean it? I had the ring made last month, but I thought I was going to die yesterday without having put it to use. I can’t tell you how much I would’ve regretted that, Becks.”
“Don’t worry. I can imagine.” Rebecca took the ring out of the box and examined it. “I will, on one condition.”
“We leave the Warehouse. Both of us - I know you love the job, but I don’t know if I could bear it if I lost you to the work. Yesterday was bad enough.”
Jack sighed. “Can we at least stick around long enough to have the wedding here?”
“That or come back for it, but I don’t see how else we’d get Gus and Phyllis there. Not to mention, Tom’s said before he wants to see the place - assuming I can talk Mrs. Frederic into letting me give him a tour, what better time would there be?”
“Very true. And between your degree and my good looks and charm, I’m sure we can come up with some way to pass for normal civilians.” He sat down on the bed next to her. “So, is that a yes?”
Rebecca put on the ring and smiled. “I don’t know, what do you and your vibes have to say about it?”
Warehouse 13, South Dakota
“So how’d you talk your way into Raitt’s apartment, anyway?” Claudia asked, as she opened the enclosure to the power grid. “I mean, you don’t exactly have the credentials hanging around these days.”
“Good looks and charm,” Rebecca said. “What else?”
Claudia laughed. “I would’ve expected that line out of Jack, not you. Not that I doubt you could pull it off - especially after that film, you two were hot back in the day! Seriously, though, you’d think Artie would remember that you’d schooled him once before.”
“You would, though I think everyone else deserves a pass. What...” Rebecca hesitated, not sure if she was about to walk into a mine field. “What is the situation with Miss Wells?”
Claudia didn’t answer for a while, remaining focused on the power grid. “She... well, she says she never really got over her daughter’s murder, but I don’t know if she’s trying to give us the good-press version or telling us the truth, and for some damn reason nobody’s thought to keep records of why people get bronzed. So I don’t know yet, but I don’t think she’d deliberately hurt Myka, they bonded like mad. And I do think she knows how her own time machine works.”
“One would hope so. How’s Joshua doing?”
“He’s good. Came out here for Christmas, actually, and there was a thing with him and Artie and the original mistletoe and note to self never decorate with Artifacts again dear God.”
Rebecca laughed, and hoped Claudia was too caught up in her work to see her wince. “That’s good advice no matter the situation, you know.”
“Oh, I know, I just suck at following it. Besides, if I’m gonna pull the stuff out, I’d rather do it in a controlled environment.” Claudia tinkered with the power grid a bit more, then said, “There. That should keep it going long enough to--”
“Long enough to what?” Artie said.
“Artie! Hi!” Claudia turned around with what might have been a good innocent face under any other circumstances; as it was, she just looked nervous. “Well. We had a power... issue? With the - funny story, really--”
On the grounds that they could use all the time they could get without Artie interrupting things on the Warehouse floor, Rebecca staged a dizzy spell; that was all well and good until she had a real one, after he left the office.
Claudia frowned. “You’re not doing as well as you’ve been letting on, are you?”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“If you didn’t want me to ask that question, you shouldn’t have told me what the diagnosis was last year. I - they haven’t declared you terminal yet, have they?”
“No, but ‘grim’ is the best they can offer.” Rebecca sighed. “You know, I used to say I’d get this Artifact if it was the last thing I did.”
“We’ll get it. Myka and Pete are damn good at what they do, they’ll get this figured out. And... I’m okay now.” Claudia looked very far from okay, but given the tone of the conversation, Rebecca could forgive that. “Not that I wouldn’t miss you a hell of a lot, but I got people. Once this thing’s bagged, you do what you gotta do, whatever that is.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Rebecca said, and she did, though the answer was hardly clear to her - but as the night wore on and Artie interrupted the mission despite her best efforts, she figured it out. At one time, she would have fought for every scrap she could get, but now it hardly seemed worth the trouble; her cancer wasn’t going away any time soon, Claudia would be just fine with her new family, and she missed Jack more than she would have thought was possible, given that it had only been a year and a half.
After they had Pete and Myka safely in their own minds again, Rebecca looked at the time machine - still smoking from Artie’s attempt to clear out the ‘power issue’ himself - and said, “Does that thing still work?”
“What,” Myka said, “do you have another Artifact you want us to find?”
“No, I just... I want to see Jack again.”
Helena - H.G. Wells, of all people; the Warehouse never did cease to amaze - frowned. “With the damage it’s sustained, the trip would only last a few moments,” she said, “and... I wouldn’t be able to bring you back.”
Rebecca caught Claudia’s eye and said, “Why would I want to come back?”
“You have a point there, I suppose. Give me just a moment to make sure everything’s set for you.”
While Helena set about her preparations, Claudia darted forward and pulled Rebecca into a hug the likes of which she’d only seen Claudia dole out once, when they brought her brother back into the world.
“I couldn’t have asked for better foster parents,” she said, already sounding like she was trying not to cry. “I - thank you. For everything.”
“Of course. You be careful, Claudia.”
“Hey, I always am.”
Rebecca smiled. “You’re careful in the same way that Jack was - you take a risk and only ask questions about it when you’re already neck deep. I believe that would explain the mistletoe incident.”
“Hey!” Claudia’s shoulders hitched; whether she was laughing or crying, Rebecca couldn’t tell. “You... do what you gotta do. I’ll be careful, I promise.”
“Good. I’d hate to think I hadn’t taught you anything about how to survive this job.”
“Rebecca?” Helena called. “The machine’s ready.”
Simmons Cherry Orchard, South Dakota
August 22, 1961
Coming to in the orchard for the second time was only slightly less strange than the first, if only because Rebecca knew the circumstances that had led her and Jack here, this time. Jack was still unconscious, but she left him be for a moment; there was something she wanted to see first.
Her compact was still where she’d always kept it - she supposed Myka hadn’t felt the need to look for it. As she opened it, she remembered Jack’s mysteriously disappearing cigarettes, and wondered if that could be attributed to the time machine as well.
Seeing her younger self in the mirror was very strange, after so long, but Rebecca only smiled and put her compact away. As she did so, she noticed a freshly-turned patch of dirt at the base of a young tree - had they really been this close to the Artifact the whole time?
Jack stirred before she could make any attempt to investigate. “Becks?” He sat up and looked around, plainly confused. “Where the hell are we?”
Rebecca smiled. “It doesn’t matter.” And it didn’t, in that moment, not if she got to see him alive and well and not coughing every time he tried to breathe in.
“Last thing I remember, we were in the Warehouse...”
She didn’t know if she was feeling the connection starting to give way, or if it was simply that she knew how few answers they would make it out of the orchard with; all Rebecca knew was that she wasn’t going to waste her last moments sitting there waiting for Jack to get a clue. “Jack, I - I missed you so much.”
Jack blinked. “Missed me?”
Rebecca leaned forward and kissed him while she had his attention. As he kissed back, she felt the connection give way for good, but that was all right. She couldn’t have come up with a better way to go if she’d tried.