Chapter 1: In Media Res
It's done, it's done, it's finally done! It is admittedly a few days late for the Big Bang deadline (and my deepest gratitude to the mods for letting me complete the challenge even though I did not quite make the cut-off) but as this is the first time I've ever actually completed a Big Bang, on time or not, I still feel I am entitled to gloat.
I owe a debt of gratitude not only to the mods in their modly capacity but also to all the members of Team Thunderbolt for support, ideas, and feedback thoughout the challenge and especially to Franzeska for the last-minute Bay Area-picking and other help (remaining location errors or oddities are entirely my own fault), as well as for creating such exquisite complementary fanworks, and to my friend Oak for helping with all the technobabble (most of which is actually less made-up than you might want to believe) and heist-planning logistics.
Speaking of complementary fanworks: they're all linked at the end of the work, as usual, but I wanted to acknowledge them up front as well. I am SO delighted with what my teammates have turned out: gorgeous icons by Maharet83 (SO. PRETTY.), two amazing podfics by kisahawklin ("Wanna Be Your Driver", the story I wrote this winter that planted the brain-seed that grew into this monster tree, and lady_krysis' fantastic street-racing AU Losers/Death Proof crossover "In the Dust", with cover art by the author), and The Losers Explain Death Proof, a magical vid by Franzeska that I heartily recommend watching before you read this story particularly if you are not familiar with Death Proof/Grindhouse but also even if you are because it's slick and hilarious and a very effective preparation for the kind of ridiculousness you're getting into by reading this fic.
One final note: this fanwork contains canon-typical cinematic violence, coarse language, and 'mature subject matter'. It also deals with themes relating to race, gender, and sexuality in ways which I hope are entertaining and thought-provoking rather than offensive, but I recognize that as a queer Euro-Canadian cis woman my ability to speak to the experiences of, for example, American women of colour is inherently limited. If there's anything you'd like to know about the story before you read it, please let me know and I'll do my best to answer your questions as quickly as possible, or if after/as you read it you feel that I've screwed up in some way, please do bring it to my attention and give me the chance to try to make things right.
“You ladies wait right here.” The man in the suit ushered Jolene and Abernathy into a nondescript office and shut the door.
“Hey, wait!” Abernathy turned and grabbed for the door handle, but had barely cracked the door before it was closed with a slam and the scratchy thump of the lock sliding home.
“Well that's not good.” Jolene frowned at the door.
“No kidding.” Abernathy fidgeted with the wireless microphone Jensen had installed in the back of her dangling earring. “Aisha, do you have any idea what's going on?”
Aisha, voice distant but surprisingly clear through the wireless receivers hidden inside both of their ears, hummed. “They're not talking about you, than I can pick up, but it doesn't look good. Wait, someone's—shit. You're bait.”
“What?” Jolene's blood ran cold.
“They made you.”
“What?” Jolene repeated, at the same time that Abernathy turned away from the door and asked, “How?”
“You've got to get out of there. As soon as they've caught the boys they'll take you all out, no loose ends this time.”
“Wait, how did they make us?” Abby asked. “Do they know our names?”
“They ran a known-associates or something, I don't know.”
Abernathy snorted, incredulous and irate. “On what, IMDB? There's no record, Aisha, you promised us that.”
“I said I don't know, okay?” Aisha snapped. “I only know what they're saying through the internal communication system, and that's to keep you there because they know you're connected to the losers at the the pier and they're going to use you to make them cooperate. We can't afford to give up that leverage, so you have to move. Now.”
“Damnit Aisha, do they know where I live?” Abernathy fought to keep her voice down, on the good chance that someone else might be listening from outside the room.
“It's me,” Jolene whispered. “It's my fault, got to be. I never saw any of these goons before, but someone must have seen me and Pooch together, or—Jay did his best to clear our digital presence, but if there was anything that he missed . . . Abernathy, I'm so sorry.”
Abby shook her head and accepted the hand Jolene held out to her.
“Ssh,” Aisha hissed.
“What is it?” Abby asked.
“Shut up for a second. Fuck.”
“What?” Abby pressed.
Abby blinked. “Where, on the island?”
“In the fucking lobby. He just walked in.”
“What, here?” Jolene hissed.
“You've got to move,” Aisha said, and then there was a crunch in her ear that made Jolene flinch.
“What—where are you going?” Zoë's voice, faint and distorted, far away from the microphone, then sharper following the brief rustle of her pulling on the spare headset. “I think she's going after Max.”
“Max who is right now in this building?” Jolene repeated.
“He just walked in the front door about thirty seconds ago,” Zoë confirmed.
“But he's supposed to be on his way to the Embarcadero!”
“I know, I was at the meeting. Apparently someone forgot to give him that memo.” Zoë did not sound half as flippant as her word choice suggested.
“You think he's here to kill us himself?” Abernathy asked, looking at Jolene.
Jolene, who'd spent a lot more of her life learning to hate and fear Max, pictured the shipping flat, delivered premium rush, waiting for him in the parking garage. “I think he's here to gloat.”
“We've got to get out of here.” Abernathy rushed for the window. She took a deep breath before opening it, braced for the shriek of an alarm, but if any security system had been triggered there was no sign of it where they were. She quickly tossed the desk for a letter opener with which to pry the screen loose from the frame. “There,” she said. “We climb out onto this ledge, shimmy over towards the demolition site, then jump to the fire escape on the opposite side of the alley and Kim'll meet us on the street, right Kim? Piece of cake.”
Jolene couldn't make out much of the hushed and hurried conversation on the other end of the audio connection as she hurried to the window and stuck her head out next to Abby's. “Are you fucking nuts?”
“No, it's easy. Zoë does crazier stuff than this on her way to breakfast.”
“Zoë's a stunt woman.”
Zoë and Kim apparently agreed with the feasibility of the plan, or at least its necessity, because Zoë herself chimed in reassuringly, “Give us two shakes and I'll be right there to catch you.”
“Abby, please,” Jolene pulled back into the room and shook her head.
“Come on, Jo, we're losing time. It's our best way out.” Abby sighed and reached for Jolene's hands. “What would Foxy do?”
Jolene looked down at her dress and drew a stuttering breath. She gritted her teeth, hiked up her skirt and tucked it around her hips, and climbed up onto the inside ledge besides Abernathy, her eyes scrunched shut as she leaned out over the alley into the seven-storey drop. “Please Jesus,” she muttered under her breath, “let Pooch and me both live to see our baby again.”
“On three,” Abernathy said as she eased her weight out over the sill and found her footing on the outer rim. “One . . . two . . .”
“Wait,” Jolene cried, throwing out a hand to catch Abernathy's arm.
Abby gasped and ducked back inside, looking at Jolene with startled eyes.
“You asked me what Foxy Brown would do.” Abby nodded. “Foxy Brown would nail Max's ass to the fucking wall.”
Abby grinned and climbed the rest of the way back inside.
Chapter 2: INT. WAREHOUSE - DAY
“Well, it's a real nice thought,” Roque drawled as he leaned back in his chair, shifting his crossed arms from right over left to left over right. “Too bad there's no way in hell we can pull it off.”
Clay's smug grin disappeared like smoke. “What are you talking about?” he said with a frown. “Roque, all we have to do is—”
“Steal a truckload of used government hard drives on their way to a secure destruction facility, right, only Jensen already said it: there's no way for us to predict the exact contents of the van, but we do know some asshole with a checklist's running inventory when they reach the destination. Sure, we can swap 'em out with dummy drives, only we can't set that up in advance without knowing the serial numbers or even how many we need, and we can't reload a cargo van in transit. Getting the truck, fine, but if that truck goes missing . . .”
“So we stall for time.” Clay shrugged. “Say we got held up in traffic.”
Roque rolled his eyes. “That's real brilliant, Clay. Seriously. I don't know why I didn't think of that.”
“Maybe if we—” Jensen tried, but Roque cut him off with a wave of his hand.
“Only one way I can see this even come close to working, and we ain't got the manpower.”
“Tell me,” Clay said.
Roque shook his head.
“We need two drivers,” Aisha said from her perch on the back of the couch next to Pooch's head, over Roque's right shoulder. “Right?”
Roque swivelled his chair to look at her and scowled, then nodded reluctantly. “Even assuming the six of us can move the hardware . . . Pooch can't be in two places at once. I know you think you're as good as he is, Clay—you're not, but even if you were that just leaves us the rest of us shorthanded while we're making the swap. Now, I can think of maybe a couple of people we might be able to tap to help us out with that part of the operation, but I don't know of many drivers who can manage what we need 'em to half as well as Pooch can. None who're still talking to us, anyway, and nobody near this side of the continent.”
Pooch nodded, acknowledging the point without ego.
“I might,” Aisha murmured, and Clay looked at her optimistically. “Give me a couple of hours.” She got up off the couch and headed for the door.
Roque watched her leave, frowning, then turned an interrogative eyebrow on Clay.
“What?” Clay asked.
“You're not even going to ask?”
Clay shrugged. “Not like I'd expect her to give me a straight answer.”
“She says she might know somebody, and you just let her—did you forget that this is the woman who swore to kill you as soon as we finished with Max?”
Clay tore out a page from his notebook, crumpled it up, and bounced it off the rim of the open garbage can. “We're not finished yet,” he said, and left the room by the other exit.
Roque's lip curled as he watched Clay go. “You say you're not still trying to fuck her,” he growled to himself when Clay was out of earshot.
Jensen opened his mouth like he wanted to say something, then shook his head. Roque pretended not to hear his muttered “Not worth the inevitable concussion” as he retrieved the power cord for his favorite laptop from underneath the table, then followed Cougar out of the room.
Pooch hesitated before leaving the same way as the others, lingering with a hand on the door frame. “It's been two years, dude.” His mouth quirked up at the corner. “She hasn't killed us yet.”
Chapter 3: Setup
Aisha chose her spot among the gawkers and planted herself on it like a tree, sipping casually at a travel mug full of strong mint tea while she waited. She couldn't help the smile that blossomed on her face when Zoë appeared, sailing over the top of the frame of the portable greenscreen marking the perimeter of the film set with her limbs flailing like someone who wanted desperately not to be flying through the air. Her smile grew wider when Zoë spotted her, her panicked expression turning to one of surprise and her flailing limbs redirecting into a more coordinated and successful attempt to arrest her flight as she turned to stare at Aisha.
“Cut!” somebody yelled from the opposite side of the frame, and Zoë dropped out of sight.
“Everything all right, Zoë?” Aisha heard another voice ask, somewhat muffled by the screen.
“Yeah, great.” Zoë answered. “Let's set it up again.”
There was a brief pause, punctuated by mechanical whirs and shouted confirmations, while the film crew reset the stunt and shooting rigs to their start positions, then a call for “Quiet on the set.”
Aisha sipped her tea.
“Roll sound . . . Action!”
Somebody screamed and something else went thump, and Zoë went flying through the air again, this time turning a graceful barrel roll, beaming and waving frantically to Aisha as she passed.
“Zoë, what the hell?”
“Sorry! That was my fault. Can we do one more?”
“No shit that was your fault. Quit goofing off.”
Another pause, “Action!”, scream, and this time when Zoë flew by she wore a look of exaggerated puzzlement and mouthed 'Why are you here?' while pointing from Aisha to the ground. Aisha held up a hand—patience!—and pointed back over the frame, politely suggesting that Zoë concentrate on her work.
She barely caught the beginning of Zoë's nod before the screen once again blocked her view.
“Sorry!” Zoë called out before her feet even touched the ground. “I'm really sorry everyone. I'm done now, I promise.”
“You'd better be. Let's load one more!”
A couple of the assembled Hollywood rubberneckers had begun looking at Aisha curiously. She smiled sweetly and told them, “We went to school together,” with just enough 'you wanna make something of it, punk?' in the accompanying prolonged eye contact to discourage further close attention.
Fourth try was the charm: Zoë launched, flailed, came to an abrupt, frozen halt in midair, and then dropped smoothly out of sight.
“Cut!” came the cry again. “Check it!”
“All right, let's print and move on. Thank you for your work, Ms. Bell; now get the hell off my set.”
Zoë emerged a couple of minutes later through a gap between screens, still half-covered in joint pads and bits of costume, scanned the crowd until she located Aisha and waved her over. She held the screen aside for Aisha and followed her back onto the set. “Come on, let's get this stuff back to wardrobe so I can hug you without getting yelled at.” She grinned over her shoulder. “Haven't seen you in forever, mate. You got business in the Bay Area?”
“In a manner of speaking.” Aisha returned Zoë's conspiratorial raised eyebrow. “Is Kim around?”
“Should be in the makeup trailer with Abby; they're both done for the day, just waiting for me to finish up before we get out of here. Aisha,” Zoë stopped, suddenly, using the excuse of pulling Aisha out of the way of a trundling golf cart to step in close and look her right in the eyes. “Do you need our help with something?”
Zoë nodded. “Figured. You never were one for dropping in 'just because'.”
“Don't worry about it. And don't worry about Kim and Abs, either; they might bitch a little when you tell them what it is you want, but you know they don't really mean it. We're here for you, Eesh. Whatever you need.”
Zoë smiled and clapped her hard on the shoulder. “Hey, you know what they say about real friends.”
Aisha chuckled. “Yeah, well. Let's hope it doesn't get that far, this time.”
Chapter 4: Exposition
Aisha knocked twice on the inside of the warehouse door to be polite, although she knew her return had already been signalled and logged by Jensen's net of motion-activated security cameras. “Pull your shorts up, fellas,” she called into the building. “You've got company.”
The five men took their time trickling into the front room, each trying to pretend that he wasn't desperately curious to find out what fresh surprise Aisha had in store this time, until all nine people stood spread out in a loose circle in the open space next to where Clay had led the debrief earlier in the day. When they arrived they didn't look that impressed; Cougar tilted his hat back as if he hoped getting a better view would help him see some value he initially hadn't, while Pooch folded his multitool closed with a click and looked vaguely sad. Roque glared at Clay accusingly, 'you know this is your fault too', while Clay pleaded silently with Aisha to turn this around and make them both look good, and Jensen pursed his lips and stared at the newcomers with his head cocked like a dog trying to make sense of a radio. The girls, for their part, looked just as dubious, scanning the visible extent of the warehouse hideout from floor to ceiling before turning their attention to the former soldiers. Abby's effort to conceal her disappointment was the most convincing, though not enough to fool Aisha or, likely, the gents themselves, and Kim didn't even try.
“Which one of you's supposed to be the driver?” Clay asked eventually, in an attempt to regain control of the situation.
Kim looked at him and inclined her head. “I guess that's supposed to be me.”
Jensen took another bite of his half-eaten apple and chewed it contemplatively.
“Did Aisha tell you what we're looking for?” Clay asked.
“She gave us the elevator pitch. Said you'd want to lay out all the details yourself. You are Clay, right? Big boss-man?” Kim raised a challenging eyebrow.
“I see what you mean,” Abernathy muttered to Aisha, and Clay narrowed his eyes inquisitively.
Roque laughed. “Okay. Sorry for wasting your time. Aisha: it was a nice thought, but you know we're not exactly in the habit of working with these kind of—”
“Girls?” Aisha stared up at him impassively.
“Amateurs,” Pooch corrected, moving a half-step sideways to position himself between Roque's curled lip and Aisha's clenching jaw. “No offense.”
Zoë laughed, her gaze dropping from her half-attentive consideration of the warehouse ceiling to focus on Pooch's face.
“You didn't!” Abernathy said softly, her eyes flickering between all the other people in the suddenly crowded room. She started inching away from Kim, who was bristling visibly.
“Excuse me?” Kim said.
Aisha smirked and adjusted her eyebrow piercing while Zoë folded her hands behind her back and discreetly pulled on her gloves.
“What did you just call us?” Kim took a step towards Pooch and, incidentally, towards Roque's rolling office chair.
“It really doesn't bear repeating,” Roque said, disdain sweating out of each cold syllable.
“Is that so?” Kim took another step. “Zoë, did you hear what he said?”
“Uh-huh.” Zoë twitched her sneakers on the smooth-worn concrete floor, testing the traction. “Sounded like 'amateurs' to me.”
“Amateurs,” Kim repeated, and snarled as she grabbed the back of the chair, spun it around, jumped up onto the seat and rode it through the gap between Jensen and Cougar, away from Pooch, snatching the apple core out of Jensen's hand as she passed, and coasting for another two yards before the chair ran over a bump and toppled, at which point she leapt, tucking her knees up towards her body as she spun, landing on her feet facing the door while the chair clattered to the floor beside her. The only reason that she didn't get to bask in the Losers' startlement was because Zoë moved at the same time she did; in fact, the primary purpose of Kim's little joyride appeared to have been to divide attention when Zoë turned, flung herself sideways over the cluttered table, ran halfway up the wall and pivoted, kicked off the adjacent wall and launched herself, without the security of a wire harness this time, through the air. She wrapped both gloved hands around an exposed pipe and jackknifed, propelling herself farther forward along the ceiling. She came to an abrupt stop, hanging from a second pipe with one leg extended, her heel an inch from Pooch's nose, completely still but for the faint tremble of muscles held rigidly in tension.
There was a brief moment of stunned silence while Zoë lowered her leg, muscles softening as she blew out her held breath and hung loosely for a second before dropping back down to the floor, and then the warehouse erupted in noise as the men all started shouting at once.
“The hell do you think you're doing?” Cougar scolded Kim as he lowered the sidearm he'd had trained on her head.
“Damnit, Clay!” Pooch yelled when the paralyzing terror wore off enough to allow him to turn his head, over top of Roque's “Motherfucker,” directed at the same target.
“How the fuck is this my fault?” Clay opened his palms at Roque and Pooch.
Jensen drowned them all out with his triumphant crow. “Holy crap, Zoë Bell!”
He wiped sticky fingers on the front of his shirt as he surged forward to shake her hand. “I knew I recognized you from somewhere; I can't believe I didn't see it sooner. Jake Jensen. Ms. Bell, I am a huge fan of your work.”
“Aww, thanks, mate!” Zoë grinned and returned his enthusiastic fist-pumping.
“What—Jensen, you know this broad?” Roque asked, jerking his thumb at Zoë, and Pooch sent him a warning glare that Roque pretended not to notice.
“Uh, yeah. Her name's Zoë Bell; she's a stunt performer. Got her start in New Zealand doubling Lucy Lawless on Xena, then her big break in Hollywood doubling Mia Wallace in Fox Force Five—you remember, Coug, I made you watch all those DVD extras? Now she's like one of the best-known female stunt performers and fight coordinators in the world.”
“One of the only female fight coordinators at this point, unfortunately.” Zoë mouth-shrugged.
“Right,” Clay said, glancing from Zoë to Aisha, then turned his critical glare on Kim. “And you are?”
“Kim Mathis,” Kim answered, tossing Jensen his apple core back as she strolled back over the tracks her chair wheels had left in the dust to drape an arm across Aisha's shoulder.
Pooch frowned. “Why do I know that name?”
Jensen turned his head to talk over his shoulder but kept his eyes locked on Kim. “Uhhhm probably because you've seen it in the credits of like a dozen different movies, including Fast Friends about eight hundred million times.”
“Oh,” Pooch said, eyebrows rising. “Was that you in the Mustang in that chase scene at the beginning?”
“Yup,” Kim agreed.
Jensen moved over to shake her hand with an awed, whispered “Ms. Mathis.”
Pooch rolled his eyes at Jensen and continued. “You drove off the edge of the—”
Cougar whistled. “Not all in one go.”
“Did you see any cuts?”
Pooch shook his head disbelievingly. “How many times did you have to do that?”
“Once. That was all we got. One take, one shot; no room for fuck-up.”
“Okay, but you couldn't have done that at speed. Could you?”
“Hell yeah we did!” Kim smirked. “Lots of things you see in movies use fake-outs, but not that one. I mean, the car was reinforced, of course, and I had crash gear, but apart from that . . .”
“Okay, I'm impressed.” Pooch said. “You can drive.”
Her smirk deepened. “I know this.”
“What are you guys doing in San Francisco?” Jensen asked, then gasped. “Oh my shit, is it a remake of Bullitt?”
“I wish!” Kim rolled her eyes up to the ceiling. “No, it's just some stupid romantic comedy with werewolves.”
“Werewolves, eh?” Jensen frowned. “They really are everywhere these days, aren't they?”
“Jensen,” Clay said warningly.
“But oh man, how cool could an updated Bullitt be?” Zoë enthused.
“I know!” Jensen fanned himself. “Maybe with a female lead so you could do stunts? I'd watch that!”
“Jensen!” Clay repeated with a snap of his fingers. He waited for Jensen to batten down his excitement, then gestured at Abby.
“Abernathy Ross,” Aisha introduced her.
Clay and the others looked expectantly at Jensen, who shrugged.
“Sorry,” he said with a wince, as much to Abby as to his team. “Don't know it.”
Abby grimaced resignedly at Zoë and Kim.
“You a 'stunt performer' too?” Roque asked, turning the title into some kind of crude euphemism.
“No, actually, I'm a makeup artist.”
“Aha,” Roque said with an arch look at Clay, who was already frowning at Aisha, demanding an explanation.
Before she could provide one, however, Abby took a step forward and lifted her chin defiantly. “I'm here to make sure your ugly mugs don't get made so goddamn easily this time.”
Clay glanced at her, then back to Aisha, apparently unsatisfied.
Well tough, Aisha thought. He was likely to stay that way, anyway, until presented with results. “You're kind of crap at disguises.”
Clay rolled his eyes. “You're paying them,” he told Aisha, who snorted.
“You're half-right,” she said. “I would be paying them, if they'd take my money, just like I've paid for everything else since I scraped you losers up in Bolivia, but they won't, so I'm not.”
Abby shook her head at Aisha. “We owe you.”
“After Tennessee?” Kim widened her eyes and nodded.
“Even if we didn't,” Zoë added, and knocked her fist against her ribcage over her heart.
Pooch grunted and leaned towards Cougar. “Aisha has friends?” he whispered, and Cougar chuckled.
Aisha and Clay ignored him, glaring at one another for a moment until Clay sighed and turned to address the group. “Okay then,” he said. “Let me give you the breakdown on what we need done.”
Roque cleared his throat, and Clay shot him a quelling glance.
Later, after Clay had finished filling Aisha's guests in on their target and working out what their roles would be, once he'd declared the meeting adjourned and most of the group had gone back to staring at one another—Roque with lingering resentment and Abby, Kim, Pooch, and Cougar with varying degrees of uncertainty and grudging respect—while Jensen had turned immediately to Zoë and asked her opinion on the Wilhelm Scream, Clay sat down next to Aisha and asked her, “Why?”
“Because it hasn't been working, Clay. We're hardly any closer than we were after L.A., and I'm getting sick of running in circles. We need to try something different.”
Clay looked around the room and snorted. “This is different, I'll give you that.”
Aisha's eyes narrowed. “I went to Kim because we needed a driver, and she can do it. I brought in the others because they're a team, like you. A package deal. I trust them to deliver—no, scratch that. I trust them. Full-stop. I've thought about bringing them in a couple of times before, too, but I held back because I didn't want . . .” She bit her lip and stared down at her hands. “I work alone, or I worked alone, for a long time, because it was easier. Not having to worry about shares, betrayal, other agendas; not having to worry about anybody else's safety. I had people I'd call on to move things, share information, or if I needed a place to crash, but as much as possible mine was a solo act. Then when my father—Max was too big, too careful, and too different from anything I'd ever done before. I needed a change of tactics. I found you.
“I knew couldn't touch him on my own, but I didn't want to call anybody I liked, either, because I didn't want the burden of killing them—I wasn't lying, in Bolivia, when I told you it was a suicide mission; I really thought it was. Who knows, maybe it still will be. You, your guys, you were perfect. You were mad, you were desperate, and I didn't care if any of you got hurt. I could play you like a used guitar and not worry about any broken strings.”
“But now?” Clay asked.
“It's been two years.” Aisha shrugged and spread her palms down her thighs. “Lately more and more I've been thinking about two things.”
“We're stagnant. We've spent two years chasing Max's shadow. We try to foil his evil plans and always show up just in the nick of time, when we show up in time at all. We're always a step behind. Going after the hard drives, trying to crack Max's government cover, is good; we might actually manage to get ahead of him this way. But maybe that's not enough. And that's the other thing I've been thinking about. I didn't mean to do it, but I've proved to myself that I can play well with others, even people I care about.”
Clay flashed a smile at that; 'playing well' apparently struck him as a bit of an exaggeration, though if he actually thought about it he'd have to agree that interactions between the team had gotten a lot smoother over the years, at least when they were actually on the job.
“If I can stand risking their lives to get Max,” Aisha paused, jerking her head at Pooch and Cougar, who were laughing together with Kim and Abby over something—probably Zoë and Jensen miming Drunken Boxing Wushu forms at each other, which had even Roque snickering—“maybe it's time to extend that circle of trust a little wider. Actually accept the help my friends have been offering me all this time.”
Clay stared at Aisha for a long while. He finally looked up at Jensen, Zoë, Pooch, and Abby all singing together at the top of their lungs, “Oh why does a chicken? I do-on't know why! CODdleston CODdleston CODdleston pie!” He laughed bitterly.
“This is going to be a disaster.”
Aisha followed Clay's rueful gaze and grinned. “Wanna bet?”
Chapter 5: Turning Point
Later that week the provisionally expanded team gathered in the pre-dawn light, exchanging nervous, tentative greetings.
Pooch yawned so hard his jaw cracked, then slumped down farther on the couch, scowling and massaging the joint. He glanced up and nodded at Kim when she sat down beside him, blowing on her coffee to cool it.
“All right,” Clay said as he sat down, slumping, on the edge of the table and crossed his arms in front of his chest, crumpling his already ruined suit. “Here it is, one more time. You all know the story by now, about how Max set us up to take out Aisha's father, wiping out the last threat that came close to exposing his illegal operations. We've been chasing this asshole for two years, trying to cut off his supply lines, throw as many wrenches as possible into his machinery, but that's containment. Clean-up. A Red Queen proposition. And it's not enough.” Clay paused and looked at Aisha, who stared back neutrally.
“We've also been collecting bread crumbs, trying to figure out what Max's goals are, and to decipher his identity so that we can take him out. At this point we still don't know what Max's ultimate motivations are—whether they're personal, economic, political—but we do know the lengths he'll go to achieve them. As far as we can tell, nothing's sacred, and massive civilian casualties just might be a bonus. We also know that in order to pull off half the shit we suspect him of, Max has to be remarkably well-connected, and I do mean remarkably. We're not just talking some generic Agency mook, here; to get his fingers into some of these pies Max has to at least have a patsy, if not himself occupy a position, within the United States government, possibly affiliated with the National Security Council, which,” Clay paused again to let this sink in, “brings me to today's operation.”
Clay nodded at Jensen, who stood up and rubbed at his eye behind his glasses as he walked to the center of the room. “Right, so. Like I explained before: the common practice of the US government for disposing of hard drives containing classified information is to ship them all to a secure facility for incineration, on the reasonable assumption that being reduced to plasma will render the chances of any naughty person like myself recovering any of that secret data reassuringly slim. Now, we know there's a shipment of these retired drives heading to a destruction facility in Richmond today, and we think that this shipment contains data from around the right time and from several of the offices that we've singled out as possibly having played a role in the Bolivia operation and several of Max's other pet projects.”
“You think?” Abby asked, and Jensen shrugged.
“Won't know for sure until we examine the contents, but it looks likely. Now, obviously we want that information, which means we can't let Mr. Frodo just drive that truck up the slopes of Mount Doom, but, on the other hand, if that truck goes missing or if all however many hundred drives aren't present and accounted for when they toss them into that furnace, it probably won't take long for Sauron's eye to zero in on us.”
Zoë raised her hand and Jensen nodded at her. “I'm confused by this metaphor. Are we Gollum now?”
“Yeah, probably,” Jensen said. “I didn't actually think that one through before I started talking. Anyway, the 140-character breakdown of the situation is, we gotta grab the truck and send it back full, passing off a bunch of decoy drives, without raising too many red flags in the process. Now, we've already done as much groundwork as we can; for instance, I've tricked the human resources system of the armored car company handling the delivery into thinking that they've already hired Pooch and Roque as a driver and a security agent, respectively—not hard—and Aisha's taken steps to ensure that the team who were scheduled for today's run have had to call in sick.”
Aisha smirked. “Also not hard.”
Pooch's cell phone rang, the display announcing a call from his new employers. “Speak of the devil,” he muttered, and thumbed the screen to answer it. “Hello? Speaking. Yeah, sure, I can do that. No problem. See you there. Bye.” He ended the call and looked to Clay. “Good to go.”
A moment later, Roque went through the same routine.
“Okay, disco,” Jensen said once Roque had also given Clay his nod of assent. “So Pooch and Roque go get the truck and load it up with the hard drives, dodging surveillance as much as possible, and drive that baby to the transfer point, a cozy spot not far off the intended delivery route—”
“Where everybody else will be waiting to swap out the government drives with Jensen's old hentai collection.” Roque rolled his eyes. “Can we hurry this up already?”
“It's not—” Jensen blushed. “They're not my drives, okay? We just liberated them from a computer recycling plant the other night, so if there's hentai on any of them, it has nothing to do with me.”
Zoë chuckled into her coffee cup. She'd tagged along on that mission, along with Pooch, Aisha, Jensen and Cougar.
“Apart from that, though, yeah,” Jensen continued, “that's about the shape of it—all hands save Kim and Cougar on deck running a nice little assembly line. We unload the hard drives from the truck, scan their serial numbers, slap the fresh-printed stickers with matching numbers onto the replacement drives, reload the truck, and get it back on the road as quickly and quietly as possible.”
“Meanwhile,” Clay said, taking back the reins on the briefing, “Ms. Mathis will buy us some time to make the transfer by selling our excuse of getting held up in traffic.”
Kim sat up a little straighter on the couch. “I'm thinking panic stop on the 580. If I place it right I can guarantee at least an eighty car pile-up. Plenty of confusion.”
“Sounds good,” Clay said. “Just don't get hurt, and don't get caught. The last thing we need to worry about is police involvement. I'm sending Cougar along to cover in case you get into trouble; try not to need his help.”
Kim buried her 'yes, Dad' condescension face behind the rim of her mug.
Clay turned his attention to Pooch. “You know that distraction only buys us so much leeway, so you'll still have to pull some fancy footwork to make up for lost time and avoid attracting unwanted attention.”
Pooch nodded. “You got it, boss.”
“If this works out, if we can figure out where the bastard's hiding or find proof of his involvement in terrorist activity, we might finally have a chance at achieving our objective, which is: Max, dead or exposed.” Clay looked around the room one more time, his focus resting on each person in turn. “Any questions? Then let's go catch a bad man.”
Kim stood up off the couch and stretched, rolling her neck to crack it. Pooch stood up after her and passed his coffee to his left hand, freeing up his right to reach for hers to shake. “Is it—'break a leg'?” he asked. “Or is that only in the theater?”
“That's the theater.” She stared at his hand briefly before accepting it, and gave his palm a squeeze before she released him. “You too.”
He reached into his pocket for Mojito, jiggling the chihuahua's plastic head for reassurance. “All right, buddy,” he whispered. “Here we go again.”
Chapter 6: First Intermission
It turned out Aisha was right, at least so far. The job went off without a hitch.
Cougar came back into the warehouse grinning and flashing a double thumbs-up, followed by Kim, who peeled off her gloves and bowed.
“Like clockwork,” Cougar told Clay. Kim had successfully executed a sudden, frantic-seeming yet utterly controlled pinwheeling dive across four lanes of traffic, causing confusion and panic but only minor injuries, and produced a freeway back-up that took the better part of an hour to resolve, yet vanished without trace well before emergency services vehicles began to arrive on the scene.
Cougar wandered over to where Jensen was already working on scanning the rescued hard drives for useful information while Kim collected high-fives from Aisha and her friends. He laid a hand on the back of Jensen's neck and Jensen sighed heavily. The bulk of tension drained out of his shoulders with that sigh, although his right foot didn't stop tapping until Pooch and Roque showed up over an hour later.
“You,” Pooch said, pointing across the room at Kim. “You're all right.”
Kim gave him a smirk and a two-fingered salute.
“Report,” Clay ordered.
“We got it,” Pooch told him, eyes wide like he still couldn't believe it. “I don't know what she did, but it worked. Folks at the incineration facility'd already heard about the hiccup on the radio before we got there; Roque and I didn't have to say anything about it.”
“Problems?” Clay asked.
“Nothing.” Roque tossed his cap across the room and smiled at its soaring trajectory. “No questions, no raised eyebrows.”
“Whole operation ran smooth as a top-shelf single malt, which by the way I could use some of.” Pooch laughed and untucked his uniform shirt, then opened the top two buttons.
“How long do you think it'll take the car company to figure out that you two never really worked there?” Abernathy asked.
“Well, that depends,” Jensen said, glancing up as he changed drives and queued up the next set of scans. “I've already gone in and erased any record of their employment, and given the regular crew their sick days back. I suppose if they're rigorously honest they might raise a stink about that, but personally I'd rather just pocket the extra day's wages. And what are they going to accuse us of doing, if they do catch on? Drives got burned; no way to be sure at this point they weren't the right ones, and if they weren't, well, somebody should have checked harder. I don't think it's gonna get reported.”
“All right,” Clay said, and gave the room a slow smile. “I'd call that a success.”
Zoë dropped off the top of the metal shelf where she'd been sitting, landing on her feet with her arms raised in victory overhead. “Beer run!” she declared, and grabbed her messenger bag on the way to the car. Kim and Abby followed her immediately, and after a beat so did Aisha, with a glance at Clay over shrugging shoulder.
“What—'beer run'? The hell do you—” Roque turned to Clay and gestured exasperatedly at the departing women.
Clay shrugged. “Apparently we're celebrating,” he said, and went over to supervise Jensen's investigation.
“Celebrating?” Roque called after him. “And what the hell is there to celebrate?”
“Roque,” Pooch said softly, stepping into his personal bubble. “What do you want?”
“A little professionalism would be nice,” Roque answered. “Maybe the occasional display of maturity.”
Pooch snickered. “Okay, first, with this group? I think that's asking a lot. Second, it's not like we didn't used to party after missions back when we actually were professionals. And third, that's actually not what I was talking about.”
“Dude, you've been in a bad mood since Bolivia—and I'm not saying I blame you; we've all had more than our fair share of reasons. But it's like . . . It almost feels like you've been waiting for us to fail, and getting increasingly miffed that its taking us this long to get killed or wash out completely. And, no offense, but do you have any idea what you're going to do with your life if by some miracle we actually succeed, and get to walk away from all this?”
“We're not all going to walk away, Pooch. That's not how it works.”
Pooch shook his head. “Then why are you still here?”
Roque scowled and went outside, taking the fire escape up to the first-floor landing.
Inside, Pooch pulled out his phone and called Jolene. “Hey babe. How was your day? Yeah? That sounds fun . . . Okay, maybe not so fun. You're back at the farm now? Well, the good news is I should be free to resume my share of toddler-wrangling for a while. Yeah, we got it. Dunno yet; there are a lot of them, it might take Jensen a while to sort through them all. Hey, you got any energy left? Do you want to pass the bedtime routine off on K and A for a night? I want to see you and I want to introduce you to some cool people. Looks like we're raising a glass here to the day's triumph. Probably not too late. Okay, excellent. I'll see you when you get here.”
Clay looked up from where he was watching over Jensen's shoulder and pretending that he understood more than half of what he was saying, attempting to explain the filters he was using to search the drives for anything fitting their developing profile on Max, and frowned at the beep of the security alert system. He toggled the display window back into view and watched Kim's car—the one she and the others had arrived in, not the one she and Cougar had used to pull their little stunt today—pulling up outside.
“That was fast,” he said to Aisha when he went out to meet her, taking one of the cartons of beer she lifted out of the trunk.
“We only went to the place around the corner.” Aisha led the way back to the warehouse.
“So what can I give you?” Clay asked, leaning close to her ear as he reached past her to open the door.
“Excuse me?” She looked up at him from beneath a steeply arched brow.
“You were right about your girls. Congratulations, by the way; I don't think I said that before. They pulled it off. That means you're the winner of our little bet, but we neglected to agree on terms. So, Aisha,” he paused to set the box down on the table and watched her do the same, “what can I do for you?”
Aisha looked at him sidelong as she opened her carton, smirking at the question and at the extra measure of seductive purr he'd poured into the carefully chosen words. She took a bottle from the box and popped its cap off on the edge of the table. “You'll see,” she said, and passed the bottle to Clay.
Cougar got some music going through the stereo system of Pooch's van, and started grilling up the burgers that the provisioners had brought back on the camp stove he'd set up in the corner of the warehouse. Jolene arrived just as Pooch was dressing his burger, and he licked mustard off his thumb on his way to the door to greet her.
Abernathy polished off her beer and headed towards Aisha to drop it in the crate with the other empties. “Is this it?” she asked Aisha quietly. “Are we done now?”
Aisha watched Pooch raise Jolene's arm over her head and twirl her around, then press in beside her and sway with the thumping music. “If you want to be.”
Abby nodded and looked at the floor. “I didn't think so,” she said, then louder, “I'm going out for a smoke.”
Outside Abernathy set a Red Apple to her lips and started rummaging for the lighter in her purse. She looked up, startled, when a flame appeared in front of her face. “Thanks,” she said, leaning in to light her cigarette from the Zippo Clay held out for her. She took a pull and exhaled smoke into the late afternoon air, glancing sideways to watch Clay lift the flame to the end of his own cigarette.
“Good work today.” The words exited his mouth along with a twisting plume of smoke as he reached to tuck the lighter back into his shirt pocket.
She snorted. “I put stickers on hard drives. It wasn't that complicated.”
Clay dipped his head equivocally. “Maybe not, but I can tell you're outside of your comfort zone.”
“You mean out of my depth?”
He shook his cigarette at her. “I didn't say that,” he said before sticking it back in his mouth.
Abby rolled her eyes. “Colonel,” she paused and licked her lips while she considered what to say, “you don't have the faintest idea about my depths.”
She felt the heat rolling off his body as she leaned past him to stub out her cigarette in the wall-mounted ashtray, smelled bourbon and old cologne, and she smiled up at him politely before turning to walk back inside.
“How do you do it, man?” Roque asked, and Clay frowned as he looked up and spotted him skulking on the rust-covered stairs.
“How long have you been up there?” Clay took another pull from his cigarette.
“Long enough to watch you strike out twice in a row, by the looks of things.”
“Yeah, well.” Clay shrugged and scrubbed a hand through his hair. “At least I'm not lurking on a fire escape being a creepy sourpuss.”
Roque scowled and stood up. The metal rungs rattled and rang as he stomped back down to street level. “We didn't win today. You know that, right? We're no closer now than we were yesterday.”
“Sure we are.”
Roque shook his head. “Clay, all we accomplished today was to give ourselves more work—Jensen in particular; who knows how long it's going to take him to sort through all that. I think it's a little early to celebrate.”
“It was a good day, Roque,” Clay said. He put the cigarette between his lips as he patted Roque on the arm, collecting one last draw before he stubbed it out and dropped the butt into the bowl with Abernathy's. “Lighten up.”
“So, Jolene,” Zoë said, “is this your first time in San Francisco?”
Jolene waggled a hand. “My family came here once when I was little but I don't really remember that. It seems nice.”
“You getting to see much of the city while you're here?” Kim asked.
“A little bit.” Jolene nodded. “We've been taking some time to do the tourist thing. Just today actually, Andrea and I took Jess and Luke to Fisherman's Wharf to check out the aquarium, and then we walked over to—do you know the Coit Tower? That big concrete pillar sticking up above the city? We headed over there. Andy and Jess, that's Jensen's sister and her daughter, they went right up to the top of the tower and had a great time, but I'm not the biggest fan of heights so Lukey and I stayed at the bottom and listened to the parrots. The view from the ground was good enough, plus after hauling that damned stroller all the way up Telegraph Hill on foot I was ready for a little sit-down break.”
“Is Luke your son?” Abby asked Jolene, who smiled.
“Yep,” Jolene squeezed Pooch's hand. “That's our baby. You want to see a picture?”
“Absolutely,” Abby said, and reached into her bag for her phone. “I'll show you my Isaiah, too.”
“Excellent. Here, that's today,” Jolene held out her phone so Abby could see the photo of a curly-haired toddler in a sunhat looking dubiously into the camera. Pooch leaned over her shoulder for a glimpse, so she tilted it back for him. He laughed and tucked an arm around her shoulders.
Kim watched the beginnings of this exchange bemusedly before she rolled her eyes and sighed at Zoë. “Mom talk. I have nothing to contribute here.”
Abby smiled. “What a cutie! He's about two and a half?”
“Just closing in on two.” Jolene started flicking through the photo album looking for other choice shots.
Zoë chuckled. “Probably best to just let them tire themselves out.”
“Was that the advice folks gave your mom about you?” Pooch asked Zoë, who nodded brightly.
“And it never, ever worked.”
“Bigger than Zaya was at that age. He's nine now. Here he is with his grandma at his last birthday party.”
“Oh, would you look at that smile! And that T. rex t-shirt—you know, Jess just turned ten and she loves dinosaurs.”
Pooch headbutted Jolene gently. “Are you trying to set them up on a playdate?”
Jolene looked at him sideways. “She's getting home-schooled because we're fugitives, and she's a Jensen, which means she'd have enough trouble finding kids who can keep up with her even if we stayed in one place for any length of time. Yes, if a playdate's on the menu, I want to order it.”
Abby shook her head apologetically. “He's down in LA right now at his dad's place. But he'll be coming up to join me at the end of the school year, if you're still around in a week and a half. If you are, you ought to know that that's a Giganotosaurus. It's got three fingers.”
Kim got up and began clearing off one of the work tables. “Yo, minion!” she snapped her fingers at Zoë. “Go get Blondie.”
“Yes, your majesty.” Zoë smirked and bounded off across the warehouse.
“What the hell?” Jensen muttered to himself and scowled at the text rolling up his monitor as he scrolled down.
“Jake Jensen!” Zoë intoned. “I challenge you to single combat.”
Jensen's eyes never left the screen.
“I mean beer pong.” Zoë shook her head and sat down on the edge of the desk. “I don't know why I keep getting those two mixed up.”
“Mouse genome?” Jensen scoffed. “What are you—this makes no fucking sense.”
“What, the fact that you're over here missing the entire party?”
“No, it's—Most of the drives I've looked at so far are pretty normal, right? I mean they're all full of the stuff you'd expect to find: payroll data, vacation requests, that sort of thing. Except this one . . . isn't. It's got files on phage therapy, somatic cell modification, population genetics, all this biological research stuff, and this one email I can't make heads or tails of—that's a pun, by the way, cuz apparently this first column is full of loci from a mouse genome, but these percentages, I don't know. It doesn't make any sense. I s'pose maybe it could have been misfiled or something, like it belongs to a completely different office, but even then. I can only think of a couple of reasons for something like this to be anywhere near the CIA and they're mostly super not-good.” He looked up at Zoë, who frowned.
“Yeah . . . I jump off of buildings for a living, mate. Sorry.” Zoë shrugged. “Maybe if you take a break and come back to it you'll get one of those lightbulbs.”
Jensen shook his head and turned back to the bank of monitors. “Did you see how many of these things we rescued? You guys can all celebrate if you want to, but my work's just beginning. I'm using every needle-detection technique I have at my disposal but this is still an entire field of haystacks and I have to search them all.”
“Come on, one game.” Zoë picked at Jensen's t-shirt sleeve. “The haystacks'll still be there when we've finished.”
Jensen looked from Zoë's wheedling pout to where Kim was setting up the table with pyramids of beer-filled plastic cups, and sucked his teeth. “Okay, fine. One game. Just let me finish what I'm doing here and I'll head right over.”
Zoë clapped her hands and bounced back to help Kim finish setting up. Jensen scribbled a note on a blank sticker—“WTF biol. ???”—and stuck it on the side of the anomalous drive as a reminder to take another look at it later, then bent down to disconnect some cables and back up his external hard drives. When that was finished he straightened up and came face to boob with a movie star.
“You're Lee Montgomery,” Jensen said cleverly, once he'd jumped backwards and willed his eyes to travel up to her face.
“Yep,” Lee Montgomery agreed.
“I love your body.” Jensen blinked. “Of work. Shit! Oh my god, I am such an idiot. I was telling myself inside my head, 'don't say that, it's sleazy and you'll get it wrong, just don't do it', and then it was like the words just fell out of my mouth.” He blushed beet-red and buried his face in his hands. “I'm sorry. This is really humiliating.”
“Oh, don't even worry about it.” Lee waved away Jensen's apology. “It's totally okay. I actually said the exact same thing to Ryan Gosling when I met him last year.”
Jensen lowered his hands. “Really?”
“Yeah, I thought I was about to explode with embarrassment.” Lee pursed her lips and stared down at the floor.
“I'm acquainted with that feeling.” Jensen stood up out of his chair.
“You know what the best part of that story is?” Lee asked. “I said it in front of his mother.”
Jensen's laugh was drowned out by Roque's angry bellow as he stormed over to where Lee and Jensen were talking. “What the hell is this?” He stopped in front of Lee. “Who invited you?”
“Relax,” Abernathy said from across the room. “Lee's no threat to you.”
Roque turned and advanced on Abernathy, scowling. “What do you think this is, some kind of neighborhood clubhouse? You think you can just call people up and say 'hey, come on over'?”
Abernathy didn't flinch. “Lee's not people.”
“Gee, thanks, Abs.” Lee frowned, and Abernathy rolled her eyes.
“You know what I mean,” she said.
Lee looked at Roque. “I was in Tennessee,” she explained.
“Oh, well, when you put it like that—la-di-fucking-da, you were in Tennessee. That means jack-shit to me. You're a stranger, I don't trust you.”
“Roque, she's just an actress.” Jensen tried to get in front of him, then glanced back over his shoulder at Lee. “I mean, a good actress. Talented. But she's not a spy.”
“Audrey Hepburn worked for the fucking Dutch Resistance.”
“You're right, Roque,” Aisha said. “Appearances can be deceiving. But Lee's on our side, I promise.”
“Roque,” Clay said warningly, then looked at Aisha. “You'll vouch for her?”
Aisha nodded. “For all of them.”
Clay stared at her for another long, tense moment, then gestured at Roque to stand down. “At ease,” he said.
“'At ease'?” Roque shook his head and looked up at the ceiling. “All right. Whatever. It's your funeral. I'm going to rack out.” He headed for the back office.
Clay snorted. “It's only 19h00.”
Roque waved over his shoulder. “Don't fucking care.”
Abernathy broke the awkward silence by turning to Jolene and saying, “Where were we?”
Jolene looked around the room before she twitched her head and resumed. “Right. Well, as I was saying, I was using Pooch's fat army paychecks to go to school part-time and finish my science degree, with a plan to try for a Master's in Bioinformatics once Lukey started pre-school, but that's kind of on hold until the evil genius stops trying to kill us.”
Pooch passed Cougar on his way to pack away the camp stove, and stopped when he noticed him grumbling under his breath.
“Hey, bro.” He held up his fist for Cougar to bump but the response he got was half-hearted at best. “What's got your whiskers in a twist?”
Cougar jerked his chin in the direction of Jensen and Lee, squaring off against Zoë and Kim in a game that appeared to involve more doubling over in incapacitating gigglefits than actual table tennis. Pooch laughed.
“Come on, man. Don't look like that.”
Cougar blinked at Pooch.
Pooch rolled his eyes. “Okay, even leaving aside the fact that you two are totally great for each other and Jay would never willingly do anything to hurt you because he's not that kind of idiot . . . You've seen how he is with women he's into, right? They meet him, they think he's cute, then he opens his mouth and shoves his foot into it, and the girl moves on. You've got nothing to worry about.”
Cougar looked back at Jensen and sighed gustily. Pooch followed his gaze and winced. Lee and Jensen, oblivious, grinned around mouthfuls of plastic balls as they each struggled to cram one more between their over-stuffed jaws, while Kim and Zoë shook their heads and laughed.
“Or maybe they'll get married and have dozens of cute but awkward white babies.” Cougar looked panic-stricken, and Pooch hurried to pat him comfortingly on the arm. “I'm kidding, bro. You and Jay are going to be fine.”
Pooch continued on his journey then, and did not see Jensen tapping on Lee's pufferfish-inflated cheeks to pop out the ball she held with her lips, nor the way he caught it and buffed it on his shirt before handing it back after it bounced off the bridge of his nose.
Cougar sighed again and lowered the brim of his hat.
Chapter 7: Complication
The party wrapped up relatively early; despite being more or less used to such things the nine who'd participated in the transfer were all feeling both the early start and the post-adrenaline crash, and Kim, Zoë, and Abernathy had to go back to work in the morning. Clay's team spent their last night in that South Oakland warehouse, then packed up shop the next day and retired to the farm, as they'd decided to call the roomy former B&B in a low-traffic part of the Oakland hills where Jolene, Andrea, her partner Karen, and their kids had been staying all along. By the end of the first week Jensen had processed enough of the recovered material to narrow down their list of potential Max cover offices considerably, and the team had moved quickly to plant bugs of a variety of species in the buildings of the remaining local likely candidates.
On a foggy Thursday morning about a week after the bugs went in, Cougar came down into the kitchen to find Jensen already at the table with a computer set up in front of him, tracing his finger around the rim of a coffee mug and listening to something on headphones. He lingered in the doorway to watch him, idly rubbing sleep out of his eyes.
“Hey,” Jensen said when he saw Cougar lurking, and nudged one of the noise-cancelling shells down off his ear onto his neck. “I'm listening to yesterday's audio capture from the federal building. One of the automatic search filters pinged, said there might be something interesting. Coffee's fresh if you want to grab a cup.”
Cougar shook his head and crossed the room towards Jensen, wrapping his arms around him from behind and pressing their heads together temple to temple. Jensen smiled and hummed affectionately, lifting his hand from the mug to lay it over top of Cougar's folded arms. The smile slipped slowly from his face at the way Cougar's grip tightened perceptibly.
“Hey . . . Are we okay?” Jensen asked. “I'm just—it seems like you've been extra snuggly lately, and I'm not sure if there's a reason why. I'm not complaining or anything, Cougar snuggles being a never-too-many thing in my book, I just . . . wondered if there was something you want to talk about. With words,” he amended, when Cougar pulled back to look at him.
“Carlos?” Jensen said in a small voice, his eyes wide behind his glasses as the silence stretched on too long. Cougar licked his lips and glanced down at the floor.
“I'm sorry,” he said when Cougar's eyes snapped back up. “That was really terrible timing. Just Twitter.” He flicked a finger towards the open browser window on his laptop screen. “Was funny. I'm putting it away now.”
He reached to close the laptop clamshell, but Cougar got there first and turned the display so that he could see. He read the fresh tweet from @leemontgomeryburns and shook his head. “I don't get it.”
“It's kind of an inside joke,” Jensen said, then waved his hand. “Doesn't matter. I'm paying attention now. What did you want to say?”
A loud yawn and the creak of feet on stairs gave Cougar the excuse he needed to step away from the table and hide his face by pouring coffee for the time that it took to compose it. He handed the first cup to Roque, who entered the kitchen with his arms crossed in a self-hugging shoulder stretch.
“Thanks, man.” Roque accepted the coffee with a salute, then glanced from Cougar to Jensen and back while he took his first sip. “What's going on here?” he asked.
“Nothing,” Jensen answered, and turned back to his computer, though not before looking at Cougar with an apologetic grimace and mouthing 'later?' Cougar nodded.
Roque carried his coffee to the end of the counter where the bread was, and started slicing bagels for toast.
“Hey, this is weird,” Jensen announced a few minutes later, when Roque slid a plate with a buttered bagel across the table toward him and Cougar set a jar of raspberry jam down beside it.
“The audio?” Cougar asked.
“No, this piece on one of the independent news aggs I follow. Apparently there was this group of French teenagers on a school backpacking trip in Australia, and a bunch of them got sick. Four kids and a teacher.”
“Sucks to be them.” Roque sat down on the opposite side of the table and took a bite out of his bagel.
“They died.” Jensen frowned at him over the table. “From an 'as-yet unidentified agent'. Whole teams of medical experts at work on the case, and they're still trying to figure out what caused it.”
Roque swallowed. “I stand by my previous statement,” he said, though he at least had the decency to look somewhat chagrined.
“That's not the weird part, though,” Jensen continued. “You see this picture?”
He turned the machine to face Roque and pushed it as far across the table as the headphone cord would allow.
“Red circles around the ones who got sick. Notice what they've all got in common?”
Cougar joined Roque in frowning at the group photograph, two dozen young people with matching backpacks and water bottles standing, grinning, in front of a team of camels. “They've all got freckles,” Cougar said.
Jensen nodded. “And they're the only ones in the group who do.”
“Yeah, that is weird,” Roque agreed, and passed Jensen his laptop back. “But they were in Australia. Could be they ran across a spider with a grudge.”
Roque grinned, well aware of Jensen's personal hypothesis that Australia had it in for him. Jensen, however, wasn't laughing. Instead, his face had gone ashen, and he fumbled to bring the other headphone back into position over his ear.
“Get Clay,” he said. “Get everybody.”
“What is it?” Roque asked, frowning.
Within minutes the team was assembled around the table: Cougar sat at Jensen's elbow and Clay stood gripping the back of the chair next to Roque, while Pooch and Aisha took the table's short ends. Jolene sat on Pooch's knee and bounced Luke in her lap while Jess and her mothers slept in upstairs.
“Cut to the chase,” Clay commanded, and Jensen nodded. He turned up the volume on the laptop's internal speakers and played the cued recording.
The speakers expelled a volley of laughter that built in volume as the people responsible moved closer to the concealed microphone, until one familiar voice rose above the laughter.
“It's a real nice thought, Mike,” Max said, and the effect that voice had on the team was immediate. Clay's fists tightened on the chair back until the wood groaned. Roque wrapped his hand around the handle of a butter knife, holding it like he meant to kill somebody with it—and, this being Roque, he probably could. Pooch straightened up in his chair fast enough that he almost dislodged Jolene and Luke, though he held out an arm to steady them almost as quickly. Aisha actually growled, and Cougar's breathing took on the slow and even cadence that usually meant that someone was about to lose their head from an elevated vantage. Max's recorded voice continued, “but I don't have to worry about job security. I know where all the bodies are buried.”
The canned laughter redoubled, and Pooch scoffed. “They think he's joking,” he observed.
“When was this recorded?” Clay asked, his voice frosty.
Jensen paused the recording. “Wednesday, 16h00,” he said. “That's yesterday afternoon.”
That invited a sharp in take of breath, and a crunch from Clay's tormented chair. Max had been in San Francisco less than twenty-four hours previously.
“Is he still here?” Aisha asked.
Jensen nodded. “I think so.” He reached again for the spacebar, ready to resume playback.
“Have we got a name?” Clay released the chair and moved it out of the way, setting his palms down flat on the table.
“Not yet.” Jensen bit his lip. “I'm working on it, checking every other piece of data we collected from that building yesterday, but so far this is all I've turned up.”
Clay nodded, and Jensen twitched in his chair with nervous anticipation.
“You haven't even heard the best part, yet,” Jensen said, and tapped on the bar.
“All right, guys; it's been a slice,” Max said, and there was a percussive sound like somebody clapping their hands or maybe shutting a briefcase. “I'll see you at the consulate Friday.”
Jensen paused the recording again. “And that's the last thing he says before he leaves. Now,” Jensen held up a hand and barrelled on before Clay or anybody else could interrupt him. “We don't know for sure that he's talking about this Friday, or about something happening in this city, and even if he is there are a heck of a lot of consulates in the Bay Area, but if he is? I've been doing some snooping around and my money is on this private reception at the Consulate-General of Indonesia. Lots of diplomats and fancy titles from all around the Pacific Basin, great opportunity for some back-room dealing right under the noses of his ostensible superordinates in the NSC.”
There was a pause while everyone digested the implications of this suggestion, then one by one the whole room looked to Clay.
Clay looked at Aisha.
“Call your friends,” he said.
The Losers spent the afternoon gathering as much information as they could about the Indonesian consulate and its environs. Roque grumbled perfunctorily about the foolishness of revealing their location, but that did not stop him from holding the door for Aisha's friends when the four of them showed up together around dinner time; he clearly prioritized the possibility of stopping Max above his losing battle with Clay to maintain operational secrecy.
Clay immediately pointed to Abernathy when she, Kim, Zoë, and Lee stepped into the sitting room hastily repurposed to serve as mission control, and told her, “Now is your chance to shine.”
“Okay . . .” Abernathy said. “What are we doing?”
“Assassination,” Roque growled.
Abernathy's eyebrows rose. “Oh good.”
“What do you need us to do?” Kim asked, and she looked at Clay as she said it but glanced at Aisha before she did.
Clay flicked a glance at Aisha too, but she didn't seem inclined to interrupt him. “We have reason to suspect that Max will be attending a reception at the Indonesian consulate tomorrow evening. We don't intend to let him leave.”
“You're going to attack him in public?” Kim frowned.
Zoë shook her head. “I thought you said this guy didn't have a problem with civilian casualties.”
“He doesn't,” Clay said, “but we know something he does have a problem with: cameras.”
“Oh.” Lee gasped and raised her hand, then just as quickly lowered it.
“There something you want to contribute?” Roque asked, then frowned, apparently taking in her rolled hair, shoulder-baring blouse, skintight clamdiggers, platform pumps, and fake skull tattoos for the first time. “Why are you dressed like some kind of greaser goth?”
“Psychobilly,” Lee corrected. “I came straight from set. And no, I don't have anything to contribute.”
“I like it,” Jensen whispered to Lee, and shrugged. Lee smiled.
“Moving on,” Clay began, but Lee raised her hand again. “Yes?”
“Actually . . .” Lee turned to Abernathy. “You remember what I was saying about—”she jerked her thumb at Jensen—“kinda looking like . . . ?”
Abernathy nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah, I can see it.”
Lee looked back at Jensen. “Have you ever heard of Lucas Lee?”
“That skater-turned-actor dude?” Jensen frowned. “What is it . . . 'the next click you hear is me hanging up; the one after that . . . is me pulling the trigger!' That guy?”
Pooch snorted at the way Jensen scrunched his eyebrows, dropped his voice into a rasp, and sneered as he delivered the quote, but Lee and Abernathy grinned.
“Oh yeah,” Abby said. “I can work with that.”
“What are you suggesting?” Clay asked.
Lee, her eyes still on Jensen, smirked. “Celeb date, stalker bait. We're gonna do a pap smear.”
Jensen snorted with laughter. “That sounds uncomfortable.”
“It can be,” Lee agreed.
“All right.” Clay nodded. “Jensen and Miss Montgomery will run a distraction, make sure we've got lots of amateur press coverage.”
“Oh!” Jensen hissed. “Speaking of uncomfortable, I can't wear contacts. They itch, and I'm not used to it—I go all weird and blinky. Sorry.”
Lee waved a hand. “That's okay. Just wear sunglasses.”
“At night?” Cougar asked, and Jensen snickered.
“That's a little Corey Hart.”
“Yeah, but Lucas does it all the time. I'll wear 'em too, it'll be fine.” Lee shrugged.
Aisha snapped her fingers for attention. “With that settled . . .” she said, then turned attention back to Clay. “Give me your shopping list.”
Clay grinned at the map Jensen had pulled up on the tablet in front of him. “We're going to need an ambulance.”
Chapter 8: Rising Action
“Now hold on just a minute,” Jensen pleaded, his hands held up defensively in front of his face. “Nobody said anything about razor blades last night!”
“Look at the picture,” Abernathy said, waving it in front of his face with her left hand while her right kept a tight grip on her clippers. “You see how his beard goes? That's what the paparazzi are going to be looking for. That's why they're going to assume you're him, that and the tattoo I'm going to draw on your neck, and that's why they're going to ignore you when you ditch the disguise and walk back out without it. Now, they won't do either of those things with your current facial hair in the way. For the sake of the mission, it has to go!”
“But—” Jensen made a dash for the door, keeping as much furniture as possible between him and Abernathy, but Roque moved to block his path.
“Just shut up and hold still, Jay, seriously.” Roque crossed his arms in front of his chest.
Jensen pointed an accusing finger at him. “You engineered this, didn't you? I knew it, but dude. I told you years ago, I'm not copying you!”
Roque rolled his eyes. “You are such a fucking idiot.”
Aisha stood on tiptoe to stage-whisper in Roque's ear. “What kinds of sedatives do you have?”
Jensen shook his head despairingly. “I can't believe you're all gathered around to watch this. And where the hell is Cougar?”
Roque ignored him. “Nothing that'll wear off in time. I know the dude he's playing is kind of a stoner, but do really you want to send Jensen into the field when he's actually wasted?”
Aisha, who'd seen Jensen try to work while doped up only once, shuddered at the thought—once was enough.
“I just heard back from Lucas, and he's totally okay with the impersonation and the date. I figure he's hoping it'll buy him some time before—” Lee got halfway into the room, waving her cell phone cheerily overhead, and paused before her smile evaporated. “What's up?”
“Great,” Jensen said, and dodged back the way he came. “Is the real Lucas willing to come down here and do this himself so I don't have to?”
“Jensen's refusing to sacrifice his crumb-catcher,” Pooch explained from the corner. He took another bite of his sandwich.
“Oh, honey,” Lee said. She fanned her hands through the air slowly, as if trying to comfort a frightened animal. “It's a really cute look on you, but I'm sure your face looks just fine without it. Plus, with arm hair like yours, I bet you can grow it back really quickly if you feel like it.”
Jensen looked torn. “Please,” he begged to the room at large, with actual tears welling up in his eyes and staining the insides of his glasses.
“Jensen.” Clay stomped into the room, scowling, with Cougar trailing his heels. He was, impressively, still scary, even with the prosthetic nose. “The success of this entire operation rests on your chin. Now stop whining and let the woman shave you.”
Jensen looked past Clay's shoulder at Cougar, who nodded and mouth-shrugged, reassuring him that it would all be okay. He sighed and lowered his hands, shoulders slumping. “Where do you want me to sit?”
Once Jensen finally settled down the transformation went quickly. Abernathy shaved his face and applied a false beard, styled and darkened his hair and eyebrows, and painted new shadows on his face. When Jensen was allowed to consult a mirror, he hardly recognized himself.
“Wow,” Lee commented the next time she came to check on him, her eyebrows reaching for the ceiling, and Jensen and Abby both preened. “Creepy.”
“I'm just about finished here, honey, if you want to go get changed.” Abby smiled over her glasses at Lee as she bent to brush a fixative over the false tattoo on Jensen's neck, setting it in place and giving it the blurred and faded look of age.
Lee waved at Jensen before she bounced off to the bathroom. She emerged wearing cut-off shorts, cowboy boots, and a slouchy sweater that hung so far off her shoulders that the neck fell around her armpits. She swiveled one booted toe on the floor while she reached up to twist her hair into a loose ponytail, then pulled on her oversized gradient sunglasses. Jensen put on the prescription, polarized aviators Abernathy handed him and whistled.
“That shirt looks big on you,” Roque observed from where he was loading up his belt and uniform pockets with necessary trinkets.
Lee pulled her glasses down her nose and winked. “The better to tantalize with hope of a nipple slip, my dear.”
Jensen cleared his throat and blushed, conspicuously tearing his attention away from her neckline, while Roque snorted with amusement.
Kim stuck her head around the door of the den where Abby'd set up shop and rapped her knuckles against the wall. She was dressed, like Roque, in the uniform of a San Francisco Fire Department EMT. “We almost ready to go?”
“Just about.” Roque decided he'd reached a saturation point for concealed bladed weapons, and straightened up.
Abernathy likewise finished her tweaking of Jensen's forelock and tapped him on the shoulder, permitting him to stand up out of her chair. She whipped the towel from around his neck and dusted off his shoulders, then nodded to Kim. “If you see Clay and Aisha, tell them to come on back for final touch-ups.”
Jensen grabbed his borrowed leather jacket out of its garment bag on the back of another chair and tried not to look at Lee's ass on his way to the garage.
Cougar was waiting next to the nondescript SUV they'd borrowed to carry them over the Bay Bridge to where they'd stashed the ambulance that would take them to the consulate. Lee smiled at him as they approached. Cougar grunted and his grip tightened on his guitar case full of rifle components.
“Here we go,” Jensen muttered once Kim had dropped him and Lee off in the alley behind a fashionable sports bar. “Are you ready for this?”
“Absolutely.” Lee nodded, her face a mask of stoic resolve half concealed by bug-like lenses. She reached up to pull his hand away from where he kept compulsively smoothing the line of his glued-on neckbeard. “Don't pick at it,” she cautioned. “You'll make it worse.”
Her fingertips slipped over the edge of his palm, and Jensen curled his fingers closed around them, squeezing gently. “Thank you.”
Lee took a deep breath, and peered around the corner at the waiting paparazzi. “If somehow we cannot beat them, Great Cthulhu come and eat them.”
Jensen stared at Lee with awe and admiration so stark and sincere that he could not even begin to tamp it down before the first camera flashed, although he did manage to wedge his smarmy Lucas Lee facial expression over top of it by the time she pulled him out onto the street.
It had been Lee who attracted the sharks that circled the bar and surged forward when their prey were sighted, chumming the water with hint-dropping tweets and a carefully timed Foursquare check-in. Jensen did his best to follow her lead in striking a balance between mugging for the cameras and demurring, trying to shield his face from the glare as they led the hungry panoptic mob towards the Indonesian consulate, hands swinging together as they strolled.
Cougar was already in place, in a spot overlooking the consulate, and by the time Lee and Jensen arrived the others would be as well: Roque and Kim standing by in their ambulance, tucked discretely away down a side street, while Pooch and Zoë covered the third face of the triangle in an SFPD cruiser. Aisha and Clay, meanwhile, had the task of infiltrating the reception itself in the guise of professors from Berkeley whom Jensen had covertly appended to the guest list, the former in a colorful kebaya and kain penjang while the latter had swapped his habitual black suit for worn tweed and wire-rimmed glasses.
“This is just a bad idea,” Roque said, glancing around the inside of the ambulance cab for the hundredth time that evening and evidently wishing he had something wooden to knock on. “Fifty bucks says at least one person on our side winds up actually needing one of these things before the night is through.”
Kim snorted. “I'll give you two-to-one odds it's one of your guys,” she said, quietly chuffed that even Roque, by far the toughest egg to crack, had accepted her and the others onto his 'side'.
Roque chuckled bitterly. “I'm not touching that bet.”
She grinned and looked out the windshield of the ambulance. Roque checked the rearview, then looked over at Kim. After a minute he sighed and leaned his head back on the rest above his seat. “What am I doing here?” he muttered.
Kim turned her head to look at him, unimpressed. “You know why you're here.”
Roque sighed again. “Yeah. I do.”
“See, a lot of people don't get that,” Kim said. “What it's like to have someone in your life, a friend or whoever, that somehow, despite being born without the sense God gave a toaster strudel, can manage to make you do stuff that—and it's not that they make it sound like a good idea, or a smart idea, because you know it's still a stupid, bad idea, but when they're the one talking you into it . . .”
Roque picked up the thread of conversation where Kim trailed off. “You kinda want to do it anyway. Yeah, I do get that.”
Kim stared at him for a long moment, then turned again to face forward again. “'Least you only got to worry about one of those special people messing with your head. I went and fell for two of them.”
“Aisha and who else?” Roque asked.
“Zoë.” Kim sighed. “Actually mostly Zoë, honestly. That woman just—The whole Tennessee situation was her fault, or close enough. Well not really, I guess, not at all, but it could have turned out a lot worse and that would have been all down to one of her bright ideas. Anybody else would have been a grease stain.”
Zoë drummed her fingers idly on her SFPD uniform pants and hummed quietly to herself. “But you didn't have to cuuut me off,” she sang under her breath, “have your friends collect your records and then change your number—”
“Oh no you don't.” Pooch held up a warning finger. “Not in my car, not when we're working. There will be absolutely no earworming on this mission.”
“Shit!” Zoë winced. “Sorry! Didn't even notice I was doing it.”
The two of them sat in silence for approximately two minutes before Zoë started singing again.
“It's been one week since you looked at me—”
Pooch smacked his palm against the steering wheel, too lightly to set off the horn. “You know two can play that game, don't you?”
“Oh really?” Zoë raised one eloquent eyebrow.
Kim stared sidelong at Roque, then laughed and flexed her gloved hands on the steering wheel. “Damnit, I swore an oath.”
Roque's eyebrows rose. “Excuse me?”
“I swore it and I've been doing real good at sticking to it. No more of this cowboy shit, going after folks who're already off the market.” She flicked another glance in Roque's direction. “Even if I did think I had half a chance in hell, which frankly I don't because I'm pretty sure we play different sports, I ain't even gonna try because I swore an oath.”
Roque tilted his head to one side. “I have no idea what you're talking about.”
“How's your evening going?” Clay rumbled to Aisha when he passed her on the consulate's cloistered patio.
Aisha quirked a smile. “Quiet, so far. No sign of our friend. I don't think anybody from the office is even here, yet. Though from the flashes outside it looks like the neighborhood's attracted a migrating pair of celebrity lovebirds.”
Cougar growled over radio from his vantage above the street. “Confirmed.”
Clay glanced out through the tall iron bars that enclosed the patio and smiled at Jensen and Montgomery, billing and cooing at the heart of a swarm of paparazzi, then turned a corner and came face to face with Wade Travers.
Travers recognized Clay despite the false nose, silvered hair, and wire-rim glasses as easily as Clay knew his face despite the spattering of new scars. Clay stared at Travers and Travers stared back, and for several seconds that was all that either one of them did. “I thought you were dead,” Clay said at last.
“I know that feeling,” Travers replied. Another beat of silence followed, then Travers reached for his gun.
Clay punched him in the face.
“Abort,” Clay said as he ducked Travers' retaliatory haymaker. A leg sweep and a knee to the ribs sent Travers tumbling into a potted frond, and Clay launched a hasty retreat through the stunned and frozen crowd of consular staff, diplomats, and honored guests. “Repeat, hard abort. Tango one, pick us up. Tango two, cover. Romeo and Juliet go to ground. Sierra, if you get eyes on either target or Wade Travers I want you to kill on sight, do you copy?”
“Copy,” Cougar answered, frowning as he adjusted his sights, scanning the spreading chaos in and around the consulate.
“Move,” Roque commanded Kim, all traces of bemused smile melting from his face, and Kim threw the bus into action.
“Oh baby baby, how was I supposed—did he just say Wade Travers?” Pooch whipped his attention away from his duelling partner to the stare towards the consulate so fast that he nearly gave himself whiplash. “Shit.” He eased the cruiser out onto the street.
Clay craned his head above the crowd, looking for Aisha, then turned around suddenly when he heard a Taser, a muffled shout, and a thump to see Aisha standing over Travers' prone body with a confiscated Taser unit in her hand.
“Let's go,” Aisha said. She dropped the Taser and grabbed Clay's sleeve, dodging converging packs of Indonesian polisi as she led him toward the nearest exit.
The ambulance pulled to a stop just in time to meet Clay and Aisha emerging from the consulate gate, fighting their way through the crowd. “Come on!” Roque shouted, leaping from the cab onto the sidewalk. He launched a blade into the chest of a probable Max henchman elbowing his way through the bottleneck to draw a bead on the back of Clay's head, then ran around the side of the vehicle to open the back door while Aisha sprang into the cab.
“Do I look like I'm dragging my feet?” Clay snapped as he threw himself into the back of the bus, turning to kick another goon in the face before reaching to slam the door closed behind Roque. The two men fell together when the ambulance sped away from the curb, then shoved away to opposite corners of the carriage, glaring.
“Cougar,” Clay growled, hugging the wall as the bus hooked a sharp right. “What's it look like?”
“Lotta movement,” Cougar answered, “but no joy.”
Party guests and passersby screamed and scattered as armed men poured out of the consulate and into a mix of heavy black SUVs and civilian vehicles hijacked at gunpoint. The state of panic was not improved by the arrival of an SFPD cruiser, veering in between the ambulance and its pursuers. A few carefully placed shots from Cougar, aiming for tires, windshields, and engine blocks, thinned the ranks of the hunters, and the remainder split up to follow both the ambulance and the police car when the latter's paths diverged.
On the corner opposite the consulate's main entrance, Lee tugged gently on Jensen's sleeve. “Umm . . . Lucas?” she asked, and cocked her head to indicate the handful of dedicated stargazers with their telephotos still trained on them rather than on the hullabaloo across the street. Jensen colored slightly when he registered the people watching him with bated-breath interest and realized that he'd been tensed, ready to dive into the fray. He tried to laugh it off, shaking the anticipation out through his fingertips.
“I sometimes forget I'm not an actual super-soldier.”
Lee giggled nervously, then tugged on his sleeve again. “Can we get out of here before somebody gets shot?”
“Sure, baby,” Jensen said. He pulled Lee in tight against his side, then led her up the street towards the Marriott.
They crossed the hotel lobby together, heading for the bank of elevators as if they had every right to be there, and caught an elevator heading up. Jensen swiped a keycard and punched the button for their floor with his coat sleeve pulled down over his thumb. When the elevator stopped they separated, each heading to the empty room where Aisha had hidden their respective costume changes.
“Port of LA,” Clay said, eyes narrow as he watched Roque from across the interior of the ambulance.
Roque gritted his teeth. “What about it?” he asked.
“Is there any way Travers could have survived?”
“Considering I'm pretty sure that's some of his blood drying there on your knuckles?” Roque cocked his head. “I'd say apparently so.”
Clay looked down at his hand and frowned, spat on the caking blood and wiped it off on his pant leg. “'Apparently so'?” he echoed dubiously.
“Are you asking me if I let him live?” Roque scowled at Clay, studiously avoiding his gaze, and at his own clenching fists. “I blew up a plane with him in it. Figured that'd be enough to do the trick, but I guess if he came to in time or if he somehow got blown clear of the blast . . . I thought I'd killed him. I meant to kill him. If he's alive now it ain't through any charity of mine.”
“Wasn't thinking of charity,” Clay muttered.
“Hey, screw you!” Roque pointed an angry finger at Clay. “He never would have known we were still alive, if not for you. We could have disappeared.” Clay sneered.
“Hey, speaking of disappearing,” Kim interrupted from the cab of the ambulance. “Have any of you geniuses got any bright ideas on how to lose this tail? Because I'm doing what I can up here but this sucker steers like a brick, and I got serious objections to bein' shot all to hell.”
Clay sucked his teeth, his eyes once again locked tight on Roque's face. Then he grinned bitterly. “Punch the siren. Aisha, lead us in to the nearest hospital, and wipe down everything you've touched. Let's leave this baby spotless.”
“Plan?” Aisha asked as she pulled up Jensen's improved satellite mapping service on her phone.
Clay grinned wider as he pulled on his gloves, ready to start destroying evidence. “I'm going to have a heart attack.”
“Shit.” Zoë flinched away from the exploding passenger side mirror. “That was not a squib.”
“Come on, don't you sons of bitches have anything better to do?” Pooch muttered. He flicked a glance over his shoulder, compensating for the broken mirror, and raised his voice to speak to Zoë. “I don't know this area as well as I'd like. Can you fire up the GPS and find us something really narrow? A long alley or something.”
Zoë clicked her tongue as she flipped through the police unit's navigation system. “We're a couple of streets over from that twisty one.”
“What, Lombard Street?” Pooch stole a peek at the display and sucked a breath through his teeth. “The Pooch can do that,” he said, exhaling slowly. “The Pooch can do that.”
Zoë turned around in her seat, squinting as she sussed out their pursuers. She grinned. “And the Cat can lighten your workload. Slow up but don't stop the car.”
“What?” Pooch frowned with concern when Zoë released her seatbelt and manual lock and reached for the handle on her door. She winked at him. “I'll see you at the bottom.”
Zoë saluted and leapt out onto Leavenworth, stumbling a bit as she landed then breaking into a run. One car, a confiscated family sedan, turned to follow her, while the other three closed in on Pooch.
Jensen grabbed the messenger bag hanging in the hotel closet and brought it with him into the bathroom. He peeled off his temporary beard and scrubbed his face and neck, watching Abernathy's hard work swirl away down the sink. He towelled the product out of his hair, then spritzed it with blond highlight spray and parted it on the right. While that was drying he dressed in a gingham shirt and khaki pants, belted high around his waist, and shoved all the parts of his Lucas Lee disguise, including the sunglasses, inside the bag.
He managed to make it back down to the street without walking into anything, though he had to lean embarrassingly close to the panel in order to read the elevator buttons. Outside he waited, shaking his head at cruising taxis and trying to ignore the intense vulnerability he felt, standing under a street light without any optometric assistance whatsoever. He heard the hiss of rollerblades on pavement, but didn't look up until the wearer swooped to a stop beside him.
“Hey,” Lee said, and Jensen turned, startled, blinking at her blindly.
“Is your hair pink?” he asked.
“Yep!” She rode a circle around him on her rollerblades, then stopped and waved across the street. “Hola.”
A shape Jensen had learned to recognize in any condition, with or without his glasses, materialized out of the blur, guitar case slung over his shoulder. He handed Jensen a hard-shelled glasses case.
Jensen shook his head. “I'm undercover, man.”
“Take them,” Cougar insisted, so Jensen did.
He sighed with relief when the arms of the frame slid over his ears, then turned to look properly at Lee. “Nice one,” he said, admiring her layered tights, skirt, belt, sweater, and circular, star-emblazoned purse. “How do I look?”
Lee grimaced. “You kind of look like my granddaddy.”
“Really?” Jensen pouted and turned to Cougar. “What do you think?” He gestured at his clean-shaven face.
Cougar shrugged and looked away, but Jensen was reasonably certain there was a bloom of color across his cheekbones.
“So what do we do now?” Lee asked.
Jensen sighed. “Wait for the all-clear. Cross fingers and toes that all our people make it out intact.”
“And in the meantime?”
Jensen puffed out his cheeks and looked around, then pointed down the street at an illuminated cafe sign. “Cheesecake?”
They abandoned the ambulance in a loading bay. Kim and Roque eased Clay on his stretcher down onto the asphalt while Aisha stood by and tried not to sob. She'd fashioned the scarf around her neck into a hijab inside the ambulance, and rubbed at her eyes until they were red and swollen as if from the effort of holding back tears.
“Just walk like you know where you're going,” Roque advised Kim quietly as they guided the stretcher towards the automatic doors, and she raised an eyebrow to remind him that she wasn't born yesterday. Clay snickered, completely demolishing his careful performance of being clammy and in pain, and Roque rolled his eyes. “You want chest pain, Colonel, I'll give you chest pain for real.”
Clay's smirk faded, though he looked more melancholy than chastised, and Roque swallowed as he fit the oxygen mask over Clay's nose and mouth.
Kim and Roque quick-marched the stretcher into the hospital with Aisha trotting alongside, gripping Clay's left hand tightly in her own. They ignored inquisitive looks from staff and other hospital denizens as they hurried past the ER, straight through the hospital and out the other side, into a small reserved parking lot. Clay immediately rolled off the stretcher to his feet and ditched the mask.
Aisha hastily clocked the surveillance blind spots and the other three followed her to the left, hugging the wall until they reached an unobserved mini-van. They stole it.
Zoë managed somehow not to get shot as she sprinted south on Leavenworth, though there were a couple of close calls. She could not hope to outrun the vehicle, and she did not plan to; when the car got close enough to pull up alongside her she jumped, pulling herself up onto the low wall that separated Leavenworth from Francisco. The driver swerved once when she hit the wall, ready to defy traffic as well as property laws to U-turn and pursue her up the narrow one-way outlet of Francisco, but Zoë did not drop to the other side of the wall or turn to run uphill. Instead she grabbed onto the top of the lamppost at the wall's foot and planted her foot on its shaft, kicking off and throwing herself out over the road. He swerved again when she landed with a thump on the roof of the sedan. Gripping onto the lip of the windshield with the gloved fingers of her left hand, Zoë used her right to pull the nightstick from its loop on her uniform belt and bring it down, hard, in front of the driver's face.
The windshield didn't explode the way she wanted it to—this was real shatterproof glass, not spun-sugar movie glass—but it cobwebbed enough and with a satisfyingly loud sound, and it startled the driver enough that he lost control, stomped on the accelerator and ran the car up onto the sidewalk and into the wall of an apartment building on the opposite side of the street.
Zoë rolled off the back of the car as it lurched forward, bounced, and skidded to a stop in the middle of the road. She lay there for a moment, blinking away stars, then huffed a laugh and pushed herself, groaning, back up onto her feet. A small cluster of teenagers were watching her from a fire escape, the glass pipe they were passing all but forgotten as they looked with wide eyes from Zoë to the crumpled car and back again. Zoë wiped her gloves on her uniform pants, which did little but rearrange their coating of dust.
“All in a day's work,” she said in her best American accent. She raised her right hand to tip her cap to them, found she wasn't wearing one, and settled for a rough salute, then turned her attention to the wrecked vehicle.
The driver was immobile, apparently unconscious, but by the time Zoë limped up to the car his companion on the passenger side had opened the door and was struggling to free himself from the clutches of an affectionate airbag. Zoë picked up her fallen nightstick and cracked him upside the head with it before he made it out onto the sidewalk. She placed the nightstick back in her belt and shook out her arm, more accustomed to pulling punches than to actually landing them, then patted herself down, hunting for zip ties.
“As my fellow Jafa Lani Tupu once said, 'you have the right to the remains of a silent attorney'.” Zoë grinned, showing bloody teeth as she tethered the baddies' wrists to the door handles and to each other's with loops of plastic. She looked up at the sound of approaching sirens and grunted. “Probably better I leave the rest of that to the actual LEOs—seeya!”
Pooch stood in the intersection at the foot of Lombard's infamous switchback section next to the idling police car, his arms raised in victory, shouting and crowing with laughter. “Who's your daddy? Huh? Did you see that shit?” He beamed at Zoë, who obviously had not seen it as she was only now limping up the block to meet him, and gestured up the hill at the smoking pile-up of pursuit vehicles that had not been able to match Pooch's high-speed maneuvering on the twisting cobbled road.
“Nice one,” Zoë said, nodding at the wreckage, while Pooch looked her over with some alarm.
“What the hell happened to you?”
Zoë shrugged, then winced. “Got a little cozy with some tarmac, is all. Nothing to worry about.” A bullet flew past Zoë's head close enough that it would have knocked her hat off if she had, in fact, been wearing one. “Unlike that shit. Let's skedaddle.”
“Agreed.” Pooch climbed back into the driver's seat while Zoë dove for cover in the back seat, and they gunned it out of there, away from the spooks who'd collected themselves enough to jog down the pedestrian steps, taking turns to pause and lay down fire.
“I'm just going to run to the little tech's room,” Jensen said as he set his mocha peanut butter cheesecake down on the table. “You guys dig in.”
Lee sat down and raised her fork, then looked across the table at Cougar. He'd taken the seat directly opposite her and was staring at her intently, completely ignoring his caramel apple cake. “Hi?” Lee said hesitantly.
Lee put down her fork and licked her lips, then set her hands on the table, sphinx-like, and stared back, relaxing her eye muscles as if she was playing dead so that she would not need to blink.
Neither one of them had moved by the time Jensen returned from the bathroom a minute later, sniffing his fingers and announcing in his Lucas Lee voice that “The bathroom soap makes your hands smell like awesome limes.” He glanced up at the table and froze, looking from Lee to Cougar. “What's with the awkward?”
“No awkward,” Cougar said smoothly, turning to smile angelically at Jensen.
Lee frowned, then mirrored Cougar. “Everything's wine and roses over here.” She picked up her fork again, blinking rapidly to rehydrate her eyes.
“Okay . . .” Jensen gave them another dubious look, then shook it off.
He sat down next to Cougar, found his hand under the table and squeezed it, and if Cougar hadn't noticed the way Jensen blushed when Lee rolled her eyes back and moaned and declared her intention to elope with the dark chocolate and raspberry flourless torte, everything would have been just fine.
Chapter 9: Revelation
The occupants of the minivan rode in silence for most of the drive back to the farm, until somewhere over the bridge Roque found he could contain his sarcasm no longer.
“That went well,” he said.
“Hey.” Kim glanced Roque in the rearview. “Any one you can walk away from, isn't that what they say?”
Clay just grunted.
Roque snapped, “Hey, screw you. I didn't let him live.”
“But he did live,” Clay began with a glare.
“Look on the bright side,” Kim interrupted. “You said this Travers guy was Max's right-hand dude, right? So seeing him must mean you're close. Jensen was right about the party and we're on the right trail.”
“We were on the right trail,” Clay corrected. “Now Max knows we're onto him, and every minute we've spent running away from his dogs gives him more of a head start to cover that up.”
“Yeah, well.” Kim shrugged. “You found him this time, you can find him again.”
Roque looked beside him at Aisha. “Don't you have anything to say about all this?”
Aisha looked back but did not answer.
Clay and Roque stomped into the house and shed their gear while Kim and Aisha went to dump the van. Roque wandered into the kitchen and found a note on the table, written on a sheet of letterhead from the house's former life as a B&B, explaining that Abernathy had gone home for the night to be with her son and expressing hope that everything had gone well with the mission. He passed the note to Clay, who grumbled disappointedly.
“I wanted to thank her for getting us into the reception,” Clay explained, although Roque had not asked him to, and Roque threw his uniform cap on the table.
Clay sighed. “I'm going upstairs to wash all this shit off my face. When Jensen gets back tell him—”
“I know,” Roque said, and sat down at the table to wait.
Aisha and Kim returned in the middle of an argument.
“We have to get her out of here,” Aisha insisted.
Kim rolled her eyes. “Yeah, sure. You have fun telling her that.”
“Who?” Roque asked as he got up and headed to the refrigerator for a beer. He offered a bottle to Kim, who took it and popped the cap off on the edge of the table, and another to Aisha, who declined.
“Abernathy,” Kim explained as she raised the neck to her lips.
“She's already gone.” Roque gestured at the note with his bottle.
“I mean for good,” Aisha said. “She's a parent.”
“So are Jolene and Pooch,” Kim said. She pulled out a chair to sit backwards on it.
Aisha waved a hand. “Whatever. I just don't want to get any of you into more trouble.”
“You don't get us into trouble, remember? We get into trouble, you get us out.”
“Historically, maybe.” Aisha sighed and went upstairs. Kim and Roque sat in silence for a while, nursing their beers.
“Land shark!” Jensen called when he arrived home with Lee and Cougar. Roque let him see him taking his hand away from his gun, and Jensen smirked.
“Any trouble?” Roque asked him.
“Nada. We all accounted for?”
Roque twitched an eyebrow. “Pooch and Zoë aren't back yet.”
Kim grunted around the mouth of her bottle and lowered it. She swallowed before she spoke. “Zoë called while we were out with the van. They're on their way back.”
“Good.” Roque looked back at Jensen. “Clay wants you to—”
“On it,” Jensen said, and went to fetch one of his laptops. He hooked up a cable to the CRT on the kitchen counter and put on The Rock while he settled down to work.
Roque snorted. “Exactly how many times have you watched this movie?”
Cougar tapped Jensen on the shoulder and indicated that he was going upstairs. Jensen nodded and glanced from him to the television screen. “About fourteen I guess?”
“And is that in your whole lifetime or just since we came to California?”
Jensen blushed. “Um . . .”
Lee giggled and removed her wig, then helped herself to a beer from the fridge. She sat down next to Kim, who nearly did a spit take when Pooch and Zoë walked in the door a moment later.
“I'm okay!” Zoë said preemptively, but Kim slammed her bottle down on the table.
“Zoë Bell!” she shouted, rocketing out of her seat to go and inspect Zoë's wounds.
Pooch winced at the scream the noise shook out of his son—hesitant and confused at first, but building into misery as Luke processed that something scary had happened and he was awake and it was dark and he was, as far as he could tell, alone—and headed upstairs to deal with that.
“Seriously Kim, I'm fine,” Zoë insisted, but stood placidly and let Kim turn her from side to side and frisk her for broken bones and internal bleeding anyway.
“What the hell did you do?” Kim asked.
“Crashed a stolen car.” Zoë looked smug. “It was wicked. And Pooch got a bunch of bad guys to wipe out on that twisty bit.”
“What, Lombard Street?” Kim asked distractedly, and held up a hand for Pooch to high-five when he returned with Luke sniffling on his hip without looking up from where she was palpating Zoë's shoulder.
Jolene followed Pooch down, yawning as she shuffled down the stairs and tightened the belt on her bathrobe.
“How'd it go?” she asked Roque, who rolled his eyes. “That bad, huh?” She sat down next to Jensen.
Pooch bounced Luke and kissed him on the forehead, then passed him back to his mother. “I'm starved,” he said. "Gonna make a sandwich. Anybody want anything?”
Lee shook her head without looking away from the TV screen, and Roque took another sip of his beer.
“Jay? Peanut butter and wasabi sandwich? Lentil smoothie? Anything?”
“Nah, man, I'm good,” Jensen told his computer. “The three of us actually went for dessert while we were waiting for word.”
“I hate you,” Pooch said.
Jensen grinned wryly. “I hear your words but they do not hurt me, for I know that you only say them because you have not looked in the bottom of the fridge.”
Pooch narrowed his eyes and went to investigate. He raised one eyebrow when he saw the white cardboard bakery box, and the other when he opened the lid. “You're forgiven,” he said, and went to the dishwasher for clean plates.
Jolene chuckled and took the spoon Pooch handed her, then used it to point at Jensen. “You know it's too bad you were dead for so much of the time I was dealing with food cravings. I was really looking forward to swapping recipes.”
Jensen sighed. “Me too. That would have been fun. Tell you what, I'll try my best to be alive the whole time if you ever do it again.”
“It's a deal.” Jolene grinned. She offered Luke a small taste of cake from the end of her spoon. “Do you want some?”
“No!” Luke answered automatically, then paused to process what he'd actually been asked. “Yes!”
“So,” Pooch said to Roque as he licked his own spoon. “Wade Travers.”
“I thought you killed him.”
Roque turned to glare at him. “So did I.”
Pooch held up his hands placatingly. “Not accusing. Just trying to figure out where things went wrong.”
Kim tsked as she peeled ripped fabric away from the road rash on Zoë's upper arm. “I'm gonna have to flush this out.” She grabbed another swig from her bottle and set it back down on the table. “Looks like you could have made some money tonight,” she said, jabbing a finger at Roque, then turned to flick Zoë on the back. “Upstairs, bitch. Come on.”
“What can I say,” Roque muttered as they left. “It's a day full of surprises.”
“Hey, speaking of.” Jensen turned his face away from the screen to look at Lee, but his fingers kept on touch-typing. “Miskatonic University fight song?”
“What about it?” Lee asked.
Jensen squirmed his shoulders. “Why do you know it?”
Lee sighed. “Well, you see, Jacob . . . Sometimes in life, you go to New England, and you shoot a horror movie there, and you come away knowing all sorts of things that you did not know before.”
“Oh yeah?” Roque asked. “Was this before or after Tennessee?”
“After,” Lee said. “This was like eighteen months ago.”
“What's the deal with that, anyway?” Pooch asked, scraping up the last traces of ganache with his spoon. “Aisha and the others keep mentioning this Tennessee thing, but none of them have said what happened.”
Lee took a deep breath.
Jolene frowned. “Is this something you're not allowed to talk about?”
Lee puffed out her cheeks as she exhaled. “No, I'm pretty sure it's okay to tell you guys. I'm just not sure where to begin. Okay.” She turned away from the screen and raised her hands, gesturing animatedly as she spook. “This all happened around four years ago. I wasn't there for most of the really messy stuff, you understand, and parts of this story I'm just guessing at myself, but I'll tell you what I know and what I think I've figured out. Kim, Abernathy, and I were in Lebanon, Tennessee, shooting a movie.”
“What movie?” Jensen asked, pausing the one on the television screen.
“Athletic Support,” Lee answered.
Pooch snickered, and Jolene kicked his ankle under the table. “I saw that one,” Jolene said. “You were really good in that.”
Pooch pressed a hand to his forehead. “I'm sorry. It's not the movie. I just had a moment of headspinny what-is-my-life. I can't believe I'm sitting here talking to a Hollywood star.”
Lee nodded. “I get that sometimes too when I meet somebody I've admired for a while. Then to make it go away I just remind myself: we're all human, and everybody farts.”
“The story?” Roque prompted.
“Right! So. I met Kim and Abby on set and they kind of took me under their wings. You know, they'd both been in the business a while longer than I had at that point, and I think they kind of thought of me as a pet, like I was this little stray ingenue for them to take care of and teach tricks to. Sometimes I think they still do. Anyway, Kim and Abs—about a week into shooting they got all excited because their other friend Zoë, who they'd known since way back, was coming to town for a visit on her way to go try to get set up in Hollywood. For weeks it was all they'd talk about, 'Zoë this' and 'Zoë that' and 'remember the time we all' and 'I can't believe this is her first visit to America' and 'just wait till you meet her Lee she's amazing'. And then she actually gets here and we're all exhausted from staying up partying the night before—Abby I don't think slept at all—but we go out early in the morning to pick her up and we all go for breakfast, and then Zoë says the first thing she wants to do in America is ride a 1970 Dodge Challenger.”
Pooch nodded as if this was only natural.
“Abby and Kim are laughing, like 'how do you expect to swing that?', but Zoë's got her bases covered. Turns out there's a white Challenger for sale not too far out of town that she wants to go test drive. So we roll out into the boonies to check it out, but I mean I was tired and I'd just eaten a huge diner breakfast so while Kim and Zoë were off drooling over this car I sat down in the shade for a little rest and the next thing I know they're driving off, all three of them in the apparently fancy car, and I'm left all alone with the creepy guy who's selling it. Now when I say creepy, I mean creepy. The guy kept looking at me like he was convinced if he just stared hard enough all my clothes would turn see-through. Did I mention I was wearing a cheerleading uniform? I was. Even better than that, though: it turns out Abby told the guy while I was sleeping that I was a porn performer. Yeah. Took me a while to figure that one out but once I did some of the weird things he said started making a lot more sense.” Lee shuddered. “You know I'm still a little mad at Abby for that one.”
“That sounds like a nightmare,” Jolene said.
“What kinds of things was he saying?” Jensen asked with a frown.
“Oh, nothing clever. Just, every time he said anything about pumping or banging or whatever he'd wink at me and say 'but I guess you get a lot of that, huh?', stuff like that. Yeah, that was the thing—this guy was a mechanic, right? I mean he fixed up and restored old cars, that was his shtick. So that's how I tried to distract him, by asking him all these questions about the cars he was working on—what's that part and how does it work and why's that important and how can you tell if it's broken and whatever—and letting him show off. I learned an awful lot about engines that day, actually, but I always kept something solid between him and me in case I had to run away.
“And that was fine, for a while, but eventually it started getting obvious that Kim and Zoë and Abby had been gone a long time. Like, a really long time. We're talking several hours long. And the guy started getting kind of antsy, which I guess is understandable, I mean I don't know how much that car was worth but it can't have been a small amount. Only there's no one else around to take it out on, so he starts yelling at me, 'what the hell kind of game is this,' and 'where do those three bitches think they're going with my car', stuff like that. At first I tried to play it off, right, like 'gee, I don't know, maybe they just lost track of time,' but as time wore on and he got meaner, I started getting pretty angry too because it's not like they told me anything about what they were up to or left me the keys to Kim's Mustang or anything, which by the way my phone was locked inside. Eventually I just snapped and I yelled at him, 'I don't fucking know what's keeping them so long, maybe you're a shitty mechanic and as soon as they got on the highway the engine dropped out of the fucking car'—pardon my language,” Lee hurriedly apologized to Jolene and Luke.
Jolene rolled her eyes. “You've met Roque and Clay, right?” she said with an affectionate glance across the table at Roque. “Believe me, he's heard worse.”
Lee grinned. “Anyway, this was, it turned out, the wrong thing to say. If I thought he'd been mad before—yeesh. Fortunately I didn't get to find out first hand just how mad, because a black rental car comes rumbling up the drive, and this woman gets out and leans over the top of the driver's side door. She's short, black, really pretty, wearing these big mirrored sunglasses, and I've never seen her before in my life. The guy—whose name was Jasper by the way—Jasper starts yelling at her, 'who the . . . flip . . . are you',” Lee minced, shooting another cautious glance at Luke, although he seemed to be falling asleep, “'you filthy N B?' The woman doesn't say anything, and Jasper kind of stares at her like he's not sure what to do with that. Then there's the sound of another car coming up the driveway, and it's the Challenger, only it's all scraped up and dented and covered in dust, I swear half the paint is missing, and it's kinda limping along with a bent fender or something. Jasper flips out. He starts screaming, I swear every second syllable was an f-bomb, and then the doors open and everybody climbs out, and he just goes silent. Like, his mouth is still moving, but there's not a sound coming out. And I can kind of understand his reaction because Abernathy,Kim, and Zoë, they're all there, but they look even worse than the car. They look sore, and tired, and like bone-weary exhausted, and they're all three of them streaked with sweat and dirt and splatters of dried blood. It was gruesome.
“Jasper eventually finds his voice again but before he can get a word out the rental car woman tosses a yellow envelope on the ground in front of him. He looks at it, looks at her, looks at his busted up car, looks at me, looks back at her, then goes over and picks up the envelope, and I can see from where I'm standing that it's full of cash. 'What the flip is this?', he says again, and the woman, the stranger, she says—I'll never forget this. She said, 'you can take the money, or you can take a bullet, but either way we're taking the car', and when Jasper looks up she's got the biggest fucking handgun I've ever seen in my life pointed right at his head. So that was how I met Aisha,” Lee said with a smile. “Still don't know where the other three knew her from.”
“Jasper took the money?” Jensen asked, and Lee nodded.
“Without another word. Just clutched onto that envelope and went back inside his little shack, peeking out the window until we all drove away. Kim called me over and gave me the keys to her Mustang, told me to drive it to our hotel and wait in my room for them to come back, and I guess the rest of them went off to dispose of the Challenger somehow.”
“What happened to them?” Pooch had looked as alarmed by Lee's description of the state of the car as by the state of its occupants.
“Well like I said I wasn't there for that part, but apparently the three of them went out to play this game called Ship's Mast. Kim was driving and Zoë was, like, riding on the hood of the car I guess, when all of a sudden this other car comes out of nowhere and starts chasing them, ramming them, trying to run them off the road. Abernathy told me later that she saw the guy before when we stopped at a convenience store on our way to get Zoë, so I guess he must've stalked them from there? I didn't see anything but if Abby says it . . . He almost killed Zoë, or he tried to, and if she wasn't such an incredible freak of nature . . . He drove off after that, but I mean they were pissed. They decided to go hunt him down.”
“No shit,” Roque said.
Lee raised her fingers in a salute. “Scout's honor. They ran that sick fucker down and they beat the shit out of him. Pretty sure they killed him, too, though none of them's ever out and said it. Then I guess one of them called Aisha for help making it disappear, because nobody ever came after us, not police or anybody. Though the production office did pass on this weird thank-you note from some sheriff in Texas, along with a jar of home-canned stewed tomatoes. Those were delicious.”
“Wait, they were all in on it, hunting him down?” Jensen asked. “Even Abernathy? She killed a dude?”
“Well, like I said, they never . . . but she came back with smooshy stuff and broken teeth all over her boots, so, yeah, I'm pretty sure she killed a dude.”
“Goddammit,” Jensen cursed and reached into his pockets, pulling out handfuls of crumpled small bills. He sorted out a twenty's worth of ones and fives and passed it across the table to Jolene, who pumped her fist in the air without displacing her dozing toddler.
“Hey Foxy! Oh Miss Foxy Brown,” she sang softly as she tucked the money into the pocket of her robe, “oh girl you're cute and sweet, no but you don't play around!”
“Hold on,” Pooch objected as Jensen rolled his eyes at Jolene's ongoing victory dance.
Roque glowered. “Did you two seriously make a bet on whether or not that Abernathy chick ever killed somebody?”
“Well, not exactly,” Jensen said.
“You know Clay's got kind of a crush on her, right?” Jolene asked.
Roque ground his teeth.
“And he only ever falls for people who are, well, sort of dangerous,” Jolene continued.
“His preferred word is 'volatile',” Jensen added with a conspiratorial glance over his screen at Lee.
“So Jay and I made a little wager on whether our new friend Abby was an exception to the rule.” Jolene pointed a finger at Jensen. “I told you not to mistake maternal behavior for pacifism. I said that, didn't I?”
“Yeah, you said that. Hey—does it still count if Clay doesn't know?” Jensen made a lunge for Jolene's pocket, trying to snatch his money back, but Jolene smacked his hand away.
Luke giggled sleepily, and so did his father. “Give it up, bro, seriously. When are you going to learn not to gamble against my lady? You know she doesn't bet unless it's a sure thing.”
“One of these days, Pooch.” Jensen smiled sagely. “One of these days I am going to be right about something. That's just simple probability.”
Pooch rolled his eyes. “You do know this isn't a coin toss.”
Roque sighed and stood up from the table. He killed his beer, wincing at the bitter taste of the dregs, and added the bottle to the overloaded recycling basket. “How about you worry about finding Max again, hm? Worry about being right about that.”
Jensen sketched a salute and went back to his keyboard. “Aye aye, Captain,” he said. “I'll see you in the antemeridian. Later in the antemeridian. Hopefully with something good to report.”
“Sweet dreams, everybody,” Roque saluted Jensen back, then turned the gesture into a wave at the rough assembly of outlaws and associates and headed up to bed.
Chapter 10: Catastasis
“What have you got for me?” Clay asked over the rim of his steaming coffee cup.
“Not much,” Jensen sighed. “There's a whole lot of chatter after last night's adventures, but it's hard to know what to trust. Like the 'battle of wits' scene in Princess Bride, with the poison goblets, only I'm not Wallace Shawn because I know better than to assume my opponent only poisoned one glass. Also I'm taller. Anyway, the spin machine is in overdrive. Max was probably there but I still don't know his name and now that he knows how close we got he's probably going to start being even more careful. I expect there are going to be quite a few people going missing in the next few days, and turning up later with their identifying features scorched off.”
“Lovely,” Zoë said as she hauled herself, more gently than usual, up onto the tabletop and crossed her legs. She had a bandaid on her chin, an elastic bandage around one wrist, and a variety of scrapes and bruises peeking out around her white tank and yoga pants, but apart from that she seemed little worse for wear. “So what do we now?”
Roque frowned at her and wiped toast crumbs from his fingers off onto his plate. “Did you sleep here last night?”
Zoë shrugged. “It's a B&B, right? Plenty of empty bedrooms.”
“Okay then.” Roque shrugged his eyebrows and accepted the coffee refill that Cougar poured for him with a nod of gratitude.
“Clay?” Pooch prompted, glancing up from where he was loading his coffee up with raw sugar. He passed the bowl on to Aisha.
Clay shook his head. “Did we get anything useful at all?” He asked Jensen.
“I don't know,” Jensen answered. “Probably? But like I said, any lead could be a trap. It's probably safer to presume that we don't know anything more than we did last night. I mean we know Wade's still working with him, and we can probably ID a few of the other baddies from the consulate and the pursuit, but other than that . . .”
“Square one,” Cougar said, and Pooch sighed.
“Well, yes and no.” Jensen raised a finger. “Max doesn't necessarily know how we knew he'd be at that reception. The hard drive switch still hasn't been noticed and as far as I can tell all our bugs are still operating undetected. The federal building trail, I think, is still good.” Jensen rapped his knuckles on the wooden table. “We know, and Max probably doesn't know that we know, that he was in a specific building at a specific time. I say we go back to that and pick up the hunt from there.”
Roque looked at Clay, who nodded.
“How long will that take?” Aisha asked.
“Depends,” Jensen said. “I'm trying everything I can to break into the records of who checked in and out of the office on that day—they've got an ID scanner hooked up to a picture database, all we need to do is find his face. But the system's locked up pretty tight, and given that time is of the essence . . . I think we might have more luck trying social engineering.”
“What does that mean?” Lee asked with a yawn as she wandered into the kitchen in her oversized sweatshirt. She climbed up on the table next to Zoë and leaned her head on her shoulder.
“Means we arrange a situation wherein we secure another person's trust in order to manipulate them into giving us what we want,” Aisha explained.
“Like con artists,” Pooch clarified.
Lee immediately perked up, sat up straighter and smiled brightly. “Oh, cool!”
“You've picked a target?” Clay asked.
Jensen nodded. “Started sniffing around building security, folks most likely to have access to that information, and so far one guy stands out as our best option. Meet your lucky contestant, Mr. Mark Miller!” He turned his laptop around with a flourish so that everyone could see Miller's Facebook page. “Mark, conveniently named, is a lifetime Bay Area resident who enjoys science fiction movies, outdoor sports, and romantic getaways in wine country.”
Aisha and Lee reached out their fists towards each other and started to shake them, but Jensen waved a hand to stop them.
“You can save the rochambeau,” he said, and flicked through Miller's photographs to a picture of him in sunglasses, smiling, with his arms wrapped around the shoulders of another man around his age and his hands enfolded by the other man's. “I don't think either of you are exactly his type.”
Jensen paged through several more of Miller's photographs, many of which featured the same other man. They appeared together hiking, at dinner parties, kayaking, doting on a pair of shaggy dogs of radically different sizes, and most frequently on bicycles or with cycling gear.
“For a security technician, this guy really doesn't play it close to the vest.” A new status update appeared on Miller's page, and Jensen smiled. “And now we know what he's doing this afternoon. This is like taking candy from a baby.”
“What is that?” Clay said, squinting at the small print, and Jensen blew it up.
“Says he's excited to see one of the artists performing at the Homo Hip Hop Stage today.”
“It's one of the community spaces at the SF Pride celebration,” Jensen explained. “You know how in addition to the parade they have that big street party downtown?”
“No,” Clay admitted. “Is that today?”
“It's happening all weekend, and our buddy Mark is going to be there.” Jensen went back to the photographs and pulled up the newest one: Miller wearing a rainbow lei and shooting his webcam a double thumbs-up. “Should provide plenty of opportunities for him to meet a sexy stranger.”
Jensen looked up and frowned in the silence that followed. “Why's everybody looking at me?” he asked. “I mean I'll go, I don't mind. But am I really the only one in the room any of you thinks of when someone says it's time to charm the gay guy?” He turned back to his screen and muttered, “I guess that's kind of flattering.”
“Roque,” Clay said.
Roque looked up at him. “What?”
Roque frowned. “You mean as cover?”
Clay's gaze was exceptionally steely. “No, I mean you're going. You're going to gain his trust.”
Roque stared at him for a moment, then jerked his thumb at Jensen. “You know Jay already volunteered.”
“Jensen's a twink—”
“I am not!” Jensen squawked indignantly. He inspected himself critically. “A cub, maybe.”
Clay ignored him and continued, “He's not the guy's type.”
Roque shook his head, but could not shake the feeling that Clay was somehow punishing him for leaving Wade alive. “You don't send me to hit on people, Clay. You send me to hit them.”
“Well, today I'm changing things up a bit.” Clay set his mug down with a clatter. “What's the matter, Roque? Worried you're not up to the task of seducing a man?”
Roque bit his tongue, choking back the urge to tell Clay he'd show him what he was up for because he wasn't sure if he'd be calling Clay's bluff or inviting Clay to call his own. “Is this an order, or a dare?”
“An order.” Clay crossed his arms and leaned against the counter. “You got a problem with that?”
“Sir, no sir,” Roque answered, and slumped down farther in his chair.
“Um . . .” Jensen tried hesitantly, sensing the drop in temperature in the room and watching the nervous way Lee and Zoë were looking from Clay to Roque. “This guy seems pretty devoted to his partner, and there's nothing in their online presence I can find that suggests their relationship's an open one—could be a straight-up seduction's not the right way to go, anyway. I mean, for appropriate values of 'straight-up', but you might try approaching him as a friend.”
“Whatever,” Roque said. “Just find out what you can about him. Give me something I can use.”
“Got it,” Jensen said, then smirked. “On the other hand . . . this is awfully convenient.”
Cougar looked over his shoulder and snickered.
“What is it?” Pooch asked, and Jensen pointed out a shot of Miller from behind.
“Pictures from last year's Pride party. Handkerchief in the back right pocket signals desire to be on the receiving or submissive end of something.”
“And camo print?”
“Military scenarios.” Jensen shot a glance at Roque. “You could play drill sergeant! Or not,” he hurriedly added, ducking his head under the heat of Roque's glare.
“Just get it done,” Clay growled, and stalked out of the kitchen.
“Great,” Zoë said as soon as he was out of the room. “I'll call Abby.”
“What for?” Roque asked, but she had already jogged off to retrieve her phone.
“Psst,” Jensen hissed. “Hey Pooch.”
Pooch rolled his eyes. “What now?”
Jensen scooted his chair closer to Pooch's and whispered, “Seriously, why do you think everybody was staring at me?”
“Just now, when we were figuring out who'd pick up the gay guy.”
Pooch stared at him. “Jensen, you are gay.”
“Well yeah, kinda, but so's my boyfriend, and I didn't see anybody looking at him.” Jensen pouted.
Pooch sighed and pushed off from the table.
Zoë poked her head around the door frame, phone pressed against her shoulder. “Abernathy wants to know who's coming with her for another raid on the costume houses.”
“Ooh, me!” Jensen shot one hand into the air, waving it like an eager student, then turned to look at Pooch, who scoffed at him. “What? I like dressing up in costumes. That's not a gay thing, it's—If anything you could call it an immature thing.”
“Whatever,” Pooch said. “Have fun playing dress-up.”
The next time Pooch saw Jensen was on his way back from the costume run, when he ran through the kitchen cackling with his arms full of garment bags.
“You're sitting on a towel,” Pooch told him when he emerged again a few minuted later, still grinning like a clown.
“What?” Jensen looked himself over in confusion.
“I don't want your pasty bare ass rubbing all over my car seats.”
“Aisha's wearing chaps too.”
“Yeah, and don't ask me to guess why she had those in her closet already, but Aisha's wearing booty shorts under hers and she's riding in Kim's car. You're in my van, and you're in a thong.”
Jensen rolled his eyes. “I know for a fact that you and Jolene have had sex in that back seat.”
“Doesn't matter,” Pooch said. “My van, my rules.”
“The mobile van-shaped autocracy of Poochland?” Jensen smirked.
“Exactly. You got a problem, you can take it up with the human rights commissioner.” Pooch gestured at Mojito, nodding agreeably on the table.
Jess wandered into the kitchen then, covered in dirt and grass stains from helping her mother in the garden. She paused when she saw her uncle and looked him critically up and down. “Are you in disguise?” she asked.
“Um . . . sort of?” Jensen answered.
Jess stared at him a moment longer, then continued to the sink to wash her hands. “Don't get sunburned,” she commanded.
“That's a very pragmatic ten-year-old,” Kim observed after Jess passed her on her way to the living room.
“Yeah, she gets that from Karen,” Jensen said, and went to the laundry room for a towel to sit on.
“Is it weird for you,” Kim asked Pooch when Jensen had left the room, “being the only non-homo in your little gang?”
Pooch frowned. “I honestly never thought about it. I'm not even—Clay's straight . . . -ish. And I don't think I've seen Roque show interest in . . . anybody. Why do you even want to know?”
Kim shrugged. “Sometimes I wonder if it's weird for Abby, is all.”
Pooch's eyebrows rose. “I had no idea you were . . .”
“-Ish.” Kim turned towards the stairs and snapped her fingers. “Yo, Zoë! Shake a leg.”
Zoë trotted into view wearing a collar and lead, the handle of which she passed to Kim, and fluffy kitty ears, which Abernathy snatched off her head when she followed her into the room.
“It's weird for me that you asked him that,” Abby said as she placed the eared headband over her own head. “It's not like I feel lonely or outnumbered. There are millions of hetero people around.”
“Not in this house,” Zoë quipped.
Abernathy rolled her eyes. “Are we ready to go?”
Jensen returned to the kitchen along with Lee and Cougar, the latter of whom was apparently refusing to look directly at the former. Clay was visible through the kitchen window, stubbing out his cigarette in the instant coffee can Karen had provided as an ashtray.
“Just waiting on Aisha and our guest of honor,” Pooch answered.
“Here,” Aisha said, materializing at Pooch's elbow silently despite being clad in creaky leather chaps and vest.
“The shit is this?” Roque asked when he walked into the kitchen in a sleeveless shirt that bared his impressive arms, dog tags—not his own, for obvious reasons, and particularly well-fitting jeans. “We having some sort of fucking convention?”
“We're going with you,” Jensen said.
“All of you?” Roque raised a dubious eyebrow as he took inventory of the people in the kitchen and their assorted attire. “Why?”
“Watch your back,” Cougar answered, talking over Lee's shrug-accompanied “Moral support?”
“Fuck.” Roque sighed. “Let's just get this over with.”
They spotted Miller almost immediately when they arrived at the festival site, on his way into a busy chain coffee shop.
“Look, there he is!” Lee cried, and Kim grabbed her hand.
“Don't point,” she scolded.
While Miller was inside the coffee shop Roque crossed the street to linger in the general vicinity of the entrance. He answered his phone when it rang. “Yeah.”
“Miller's got his drink and he's on his way out,” Clay warned.
“Okay, baby.” Roque sighed.
“He's almost at the exit. You have to move, now.”
“Yeah, I hear you.”
“If you fucking hear me, move now, before this asshole gets away from us.”
“Uh-huh.” Roque scratched the back of his head and squinted up at the sunlight reflecting off a street sign.
“Roque, if you fuck this up—”
“Love you too, baby. Buh-bye.” Roque ended the call and turned around, crashing smack into Mark Miller and dumping his newly acquired iced coffee beverage all over his button-down shirt.
“Shit, I'm sorry,” Roque said, stooping to retrieve the napkins that Miller had dropped and using them to dab at the spill on Miller's shirt. “That was completely my fault; I ought to watch where I'm going.”
“It's okay,” said Miller.
“No, it's not. Look, are you in a hurry? Let me buy you another one to replace it. I mean, I ruined your clothes, it's the least I can do.”
“Um . . .” Miller frowned at the time display on his phone, then looked up at Roque, who pouted apologetically. “Okay, sure.”
Roque started to lead Miller back into the coffee shop, then frowned at the density of the crowd inside. “Man, it is packed in there. Do you mind if we go to the place across the street? It's quieter and the coffee's way better, plus I'm pretty sure I've got one of those old stamp cards.”
“You're buying.” Miller shrugged and gestured for him to proceed.
Inside the alternative coffee shop, Roque ordered a drink almost identical to the one Miller had just lost, then looked at Miller for his order. “I'll have the same,” Miller said.
Roque rifled through his wallet for the stamp card, found it, and presented it to the barista. A creased photograph fell out of his wallet along with the card. Miller picked it up off the ground.
“Is this you?” Miller asked.
Roque glanced at the photo, although he already knew what it showed: himself, a few years before Bolivia, in DCU, holding a grinning dog. “Yeah, that's my Ripley. Brought her back from Afghanistan at the end of my last tour. She died, about a year ago. Tumor.”
Miller grimaced sympathetically. “I'm so sorry to hear that.”
Roque shrugged. “I've been thinking of checking out the shelters, maybe adopting another . . . I don't know. I'm not sure if I'm ready yet.” He gestured towards the comfy seats by the window, inviting Miller to sit down while they waited for their drinks, then moved past him to claim the spot with a better view of the exits. “You like dogs?”
Miller nodded. “We've got two, my husband and I. Dusty and Imogen. Would you like to see a picture?”
“Sure,” Roque said, and waited while Miller pulled the photo up on his phone. “Oh, they're cute. Your guy's got a nice smile, too.”
“Thanks.” Miller put the phone away. “I'm sorry. Here I am already showing you pictures of my family and I don't even know your name. I'm Mark.”
“Rob,” Roque said, and held out his hand. He stood up to get the drinks and set Miller's down in front of him. “Where were you headed, before? Can I ask, or is that too nosy?”
Miller grinned. “I came down to catch some music. Thought I'd get here early, get a good spot, maybe do some sight-seeing before the show.”
“Seen any interesting sights?”
“A few.” Miller chuckled. Roque was right; the coffee was better here. “It's strange, though. I love people-watching but I hate crowds. Phil and I try to get out of the city, most weekends, go somewhere closer to nature, but this is Pride.” Roque grinned at the jazz-hands embellishment Miller put on the last syllable.
“I know exactly what you mean. I like people, I just don't like people. Especially all the pink-washing, corporate circle-jerk, kids with no sense of history—I feel like I ought to be shaking a cane when I say stuff like that, or maybe try growing a ponytail, but do you know what I mean?”
“Absolutely. Seems like every year there're more cameras, tourists, hetero white folks looking for a thrill or to pat themselves on the back for their acceptance—I'm one to talk, I know; me and Phil are like the picture of conformative middle-classness—”
Roque leaned forward. “No, it's a zoo. I completely agree. I had like sixteen people try to take my picture today, and half of them didn't even ask.”
“That ain't cool.” Miller frowned.
“Tell the truth, I wouldn't even be down here today if not for my—” Roque grimaced and shook his head. “And then he calls me to say he's not even coming. How hard is it to show up where you say you're going to be? I mean really, how hard?”
“You have no idea.” Roque stared up at the ceiling. “I'm sorry, I shouldn't bitch about this stuff in front of strangers. Let's talk about something else. How about you, Mark; what do you do?”
“I work for the government,” Miller answered. “Building security.”
“Where, near here?”
Miller nodded. “Right here on Golden Gate.”
“That federal building, the big one?”
“No shit,” Roque said. He opened his mouth like he wanted to say something more, then shut it and shook his head. “No, I can't ask that. That's too weird.”
“What?” Miller leaned forward, intrigued.
“No, seriously. It's a long, personal story, it's embarrassing, and it's no kind of request to make of somebody you just met by spilling coffee on him.”
“Tell me. I want to know.”
Roque made a show of carefully considering whether or not to trust him. “Do you know a guy that works there—mid-forties, white, about this tall? Square jaw, blue eyes?”
Miller shook his head. “It's a big building. I hardly know anybody there by sight.”
“Okay, never mind.”
“Who is he?” Miller pressed.
Roque sighed. “Okay. Me and my . . . whatever, we've been kind of on-and-off for a while now. Couple of years ago we were off and I picked up this guy in a bar. We went home together, my place. Stupid angry rebound trick, right, never expected to see the guy again, only I got a little too stupid, and apparently this guy was a generous type because he gave me a gift that keeps on giving.”
“Shit,” Miller said.
“No kidding, right? I mean, I know better too. The one time I wasn't careful . . . Anyway, it's not like I can track the guy down and—I don't even know what I'd do. Yell at him, I guess. Tell him he's gotta get tested, but for all I know he already knows he's got it and he just doesn't care. Either way, I can't do it because I never asked for his name.”
“What'd your partner do when he found out?”
“He wasn't happy, let's just leave it at that. I don't think he's ever forgiven me or trusted me the same since then. Could be he never will.”
“That's awful.” Miller put a hand on Roque's forearm, resting loosely on the table, and Roque's other hand tightened into a fist.
“I thought it was over, or as over as things ever get with the herp, until this week I was passing that federal building and I swear I saw him, my one-night-stand, heading across the plaza to the door.”
Roque shook his head. “I mean, I was on my bike, so I couldn't stop to get a good look, let alone talk to him, but I'm pretty fucking sure it was him.”
“Eerie.” Miller took another sip of his drink. “Wait, you said you had a request.” His eyes narrowed. “Did you want me to give you the guy's name?”
Roque withdrew his arm from the table and wiped his clean hands on a napkin. “Only on the off-chance you knew him, is all.”
“I'm sorry, I don't.” Miller chewed his lip. “I can find out for you.”
Roque looked up at him. “You don't have to do that. Would you get into trouble? You barely even know me.”
“Well no, but if a guy's going around spreading herpes, I figure the least you can do is let him know.”
“I don't even know for sure if it was him.”
“But you know what time you think you saw him,” Miller said, “so come back with me to the office and I'll pull up the ID records for everyone logged in and out on that day, and if he's there he's there and if he's not he's not.”
“You really have no problem doing this?” Roque asked.
“None at all.” Miller smiled. “Plus I keep a spare shirt in my locker there, so it'll give me a chance to go change.”
Roque grinned. “Sorry again about your shirt, by the way.”
“Don't worry about it. You introduced me to a superior café and gave me the opportunity to play Robin Hood. We're even.”
Miller led the way back to the federal building and waved Roque in past the security measures. “Now, I can't give you any contact information,” he explained as he fired up his computer. “Just a name.”
“That's all I need,” Roque said, and leaned in over his shoulder. “I can handle it from there.”
A little over half an hour later they were back out on the street, Roque clutching a slip of paper so tightly his wrist ached. “Thank you, Mark,” he said. “You did a good thing today. Better than you realize.”
Miller waved him off. “Why have a system if you can't abuse it now and then?”
Roque grinned. “I mean it.” He laid his open hand on Miller's shoulder, and Miller opened his arms for a hug. Roque leaned into him, squeezing him tight to his chest, then turned his head for a kiss.
Miller took a quick step back. “What the hell are you doing?”
Roque blinked at him. “I just—”
“What about your partner?”
Roque frowned. “Like I said, we're on and off.”
“Well, I'm on,” Miller said. He sighed and waved a hand vaguely in front of him. “Look, Rob, it was nice to meet you and everything, you seem like a really nice guy. I'm just not that kind of—I'll see you around.”
Roque stood on the steps of the federal building and watched him walk away. His phone rang and he ignored it for as long as he could, then finally yanked it out of his pocket. “What?”
It was Clay. “Did you get it?”
“I got it.”
“Outstanding.” Roque could hear the relief in Clay's voice. “I knew you would. How far'd you have to go to get it?” He could also hear the leer.
“That's none of your goddamn business,” Roque said. “Just tell Pooch to come pick me up.”
Clay hung up the call to Roque and got on the radio to Cougar. “Round them up,” he ordered. “We've got what we came here for.”
Cougar packed up his travel rifle and headed back down to street level. He found Kim frowning on the corner where he'd left her, but no sign of the group who had been with her.
“Where is everyone?” he asked.
“Your fool boyfriend just yelled 'blacklight party!' and ran off that way. Lee and Zoë went with him; I barely had time to unclip Zoë's leash before the dumb bitch choked herself.”
Cougar thanked Kim and stalked off in the direction she'd pointed, muttering under his breath. He tried to raise Jensen on comms, but got no answer. The party was easy enough to find, a well-labeled sweltering tent full of flashing ultraviolet lights and sweaty people, but finding his team amid the chaos it contained was more challenging.
He spotted Zoë first, rising slowly above the heads of a throng of admirers as she climbed a dance pole feet first with ease in spite of her injuries. Cougar waved at her to come down and she immediately spiralled to the ground and rushed to join him, the disappointed groans of her fan club drowned out by the pulsing music.
“Where's Jensen?” he shouted over the music when Zoë came close enough.
She pointed over his shoulder onto the ephemeral night club's main dance floor. Cougar elbowed his way through the clot of gyrating, mostly half-naked men, and discovered Lee and Jensen at its center, drenched in sweat and smeared with clumsy handprints of UV-reactive paint, bumping their hips to “Single Ladies.”
Cougar grabbed Jensen's wrist and Jensen took it for a twirl, spinning as much as the cramped space allowed and smacking his slimy back into Cougar's chest. “Hiya, baby!” he effused.
“We're leaving,” Cougar said, and started pulling him out through the mass of bodies by the arm, leaving Lee to scamper after them on her own.
“Did he get it?” Jensen asked when they emerged back onto the street, rubbing his jaw as his ears rang in the sudden comparable quiet.
“He got it,” Cougar growled over his shoulder as he led the trio of strays back towards the rendezvous point.
“Yes!” Jensen crowed. He raise a hand as they approached to point at Roque, leaning against the side of Pooch's van, and started singing the James Bond theme song at the top of his lungs. Roque slapped his hand out of the air.
“You're cute,” Roque told him. “You are. But I bet you'll be even cuter when I smash your nose in. Just like one of those dogs, what are they called . . .”
“A boxer?” Zoë guessed.
“No, smaller than that.” Roque shook his head. “Scruffier. More French.”
“Griffon Bruxellois!” Lee hopped up and down in her excitement.
“Uh . . . yeah, that sounds right.” Roque frowned at her enthusiasm.
Jensen cocked his head at her, then turned back to Roque with a grin. “You just rocked your first honeypot! Aren't you the least bit excited about that?”
“I'll be excited when you put some clothes on and catch this guy.”
“I don't need clothes, just give me the name.” Jensen climbed into the van, causing most of the assembled team to avert their eyes while he reached under the seat to retrieve his tablet. He stepped back out onto the sidewalk and reached his hand expectantly towards Roque, who carefully deposited the crumpled slip of paper into Jensen's open palm.
“JAMES BROWN?!” Jensen exclaimed when he read it.
“What, seriously?” Pooch scrambled for a look at the slip while Cougar, Kim, Lee, and Zoë all stared in bewilderment.
“Seriously. That's actually the name this asshole's been using?” Jensen looked to Roque for confirmation.
“That's him. I almost wanted to ask for a print-out of his ID badge photo because I knew none of you fuckers would believe it. I didn't believe it myself, nearly blew the whole operation with a spit-take when I read the goddamn name.”
“I don't fucking believe it.” Pooch shook his head.
“Well, we'll know for sure soon enough.” Jensen fired up the tablet and got to work.
Clay, Aisha, and Abernathy joined them on foot, and were just as incredulous to learn the name as the others had been.
“You're joking.” Aisha looked from the slip to Roque and Jensen. “Please tell me he's joking.”
“So far it looks legit,” Jensen said as he typed. “Or accurate, anyway. Definitely not legit.” He climbed into the back seat of the van after Cougar and Lee followed him in. Cougar continued through the van and out the other side, and went to go sit in Kim's car. “Wh—Cougar!” Jensen protested.
“Don't worry about him,” Clay commanded from the front seat. “Just give me something actionable.”
Jensen sulkily returned his attention to the computer as the team finished loading up and headed back to the farm.
“Okay,” Clay said over the phone to Aisha, and placed his phone in the well between the front seats. “You're on speaker.”
“How's it going?” Aisha asked.
“Smooth and creamy,” Jensen said without looking up. “Now we know the name he's using and where that alias is employed, I can work my magic to turn that into—drum roll please.” Lee, Zoë, and Abernathy, in their respective vehicles, obligingly provided the required soundtrack by drumming their feet on the floor or their hands on their thighs, and Pooch contributed by tapping his fingers on the steering wheel. “Hang on, that's not right. Keep drumming. There we go! A social security number.”
“Hooray!” Lee cheered and shook invisible pom-poms. “What happens now?”
“Well, now my digital minions have to do their thing, which might take a while, but once that's done we'll have him. Financials, phone records, travel history, everywhere and everything this alias has been and done, we'll know it. Of course because this is Max we know that's probably only a teensy part of the bigger picture, but it puts us a hell of a lot closer to figuring out what he's up to.”
“Sweet,” Lee enthused.
“In the meantime, while that's running, I think I'm going to hit the showers,” Jensen said, looking up through the windscreen and seeing that they were almost home, “because I have got glitter in uncomfortable places.”
Pooch snorted. “Dot tumblr dot com,” he muttered, and pulled into the driveway.
Chapter 11: Consummation
Aisha, Kim, and Zoë left the victory feast during the break between dinner and dessert, after Zoë pushed her plate away and licked her lips, raising a hand in the tight-fingered twisting wave of an English monarch as she looked between Kim and Aisha. Kim grinned salaciously and pulled her napkin from her lap, dropping it on top of her own plate, and downed the rest of her wine in one gulp. Aisha nodded, a suppressed smile flirting at the corners of her mouth, and got up from the table. She went to the fridge and retrieved a bottle of water before beckoning to the other two to follow her upstairs.
Jensen stared at his hand after they left, trying to decipher Zoë's gesture. “Ohhhh,” he said belatedly, his eyes going wide.
Andrea and Karen—taking inspiration from the first three, perhaps, or else sensing the tension building in the atmosphere and wanting to be well clear of the B&B when it broke—took each other out to see a movie as soon as the dessert dishes were cleared. They left Jess in the care of her uncle.
Roque went up to his room. Everybody else retired to the den.
“Om nom nom nom,” Lee told Luke as she pecked at his toes with one of Jess's model dinosaurs, “om nom nom nom nom nom nom.”
Jess noticed her doing it and quickly marched over to confiscate the toy. “Pachyrhinosaurus was a herbivore,” she informed Lee archly.
“Well, that one's got rabies.” Lee grinned. She tried to grab for the toy but Jess shoved it behind her back.
“Rabies only affects mammals, did you know that?” Jess said, and stuck her nose up in the air.
“Then it's a therapsid in disguise.”
Jess narrowed her eyes and stared at her for a moment, considering this. “Well played,” she conceded and handed the model back.
“Thank you, Isaiah,” Lee muttered under her breath, and went back to pestering the toddler.
Abernathy laughed at this exchange. “I see what you meant about Jess not making friends easily.”
“Yeah.” Jolene sighed. “She's a great kid, though.”
“Never said she wasn't.” She watched Jess berate Pooch for falling off a platform while Isaiah, whom Abby had swung home to pick up from day camp while the others were preparing dinner, kicked his ass at Super Mario Galaxy 2.
“I'm glad she and Isaiah seem to be getting along all right.”
Abby looked over at Jolene, and for a couple of minutes she watched her watching the game. When she finally spoke she kept her voice low. “Lee told you what happened in Tennessee, didn't she?”
Lee looked up from where she was playing with Luke but didn't say anything.
“Last night,” Jolene acknowledged. “Is that okay?”
“It's fine,” Abernathy said, and Lee hefted Luke into an airplane spin. “I just . . . You're not freaked out?”
Jolene shook her head, puzzled. “Why would I be freaked out?”
“Abby, I married a soldier. Believe me, I've done the soul-searching. I have no qualms about violence done in the service of justice.”
“You call it justice.” Abernathy raised an eyebrow. “I guess I do too, these days. I'm pretty sure I wasn't thinking about justice at the time, though.”
“What then?” Jolene asked.
“I don't know. Vengeance, I guess. He tortured us. He would have killed Zoë. I wanted to make him pay.”
“What makes that different?”
Abby shook her head and looked at her son.
Jolene licked her lips. “I remember—there's a scene towards the end of Foxy Brown. I don't know why I'm thinking about this movie so much lately; I guess it's in the air. Ever since you guys coasted into our lives it seems like everybody's got old action movies on the brain, and those were the ones that made a strongest impression on me. Foxy Brown, Coffy, all those 70s blaxploitation flicks, especially anything with Pam Grier.”
“Isn't she amazing?” Lee fanned herself. “You know I wanted to audition for a part on The L Word mostly so I could work with her but my manager at the time wouldn't let me.”
“That guy was a tool,” Abernathy opined.
“Yeah, I'm really glad I fired him.” Lee looked at Jolene. “I'm sorry, you were saying?”
“It's cool. There's a scene after Foxy fights her way out of that ranch, where she's trying to convince the neighborhood committee to help her go after the big dealers, and they ask her why they should risk it. Foxy says—what is it—she says she's after justice for all the people who've been hurt by the drugs and the corrupt system that keeps bringing them in, but the guy at the head of the table says it sounds like what she really wants is revenge.”
Lee nodded. “And then Foxy says she'll handle the revenge herself, if they just take care of the justice.”
“Right,” Jolene said. “And I was thinking about that last night, after you told us that story, about what we're really doing here. Max is a bad man. He's bad for everybody but himself. If we—they—can stop him, then that's justice. That's doing the world a good deed. But at the same time . . . that's not really why I want to see him dead. I want Max dead because he killed my Pooch, and he keeps on trying to do it again. I want Max dead because if it was up to him not only would my baby not have a father, but he'd probably be dead too, and so would I. That's vengeance, but the ends are the same.”
Abby smiled bitterly. “I guess that line gets blurry sometimes.”
Jolene looked down at her hands, turning them over to inspect the state of her fingernails. “What scares me, though, is thinking about what gets left over.”
“How do you mean?” Abby asked.
“All that violence, whether you do it for justice or vengeance or any other reason—sooner or later it gets to be a habit. And what's left over when you take away that purpose, and the violence has no place to go and nothing to direct it?”
“Yeah,” Lee sighed. “It's a problem.” She looked at Luke and immediately perked up. “How badass is Pam Grier in that movie, though? So fucking badass. 'I got my black belt in bar stool', bitch! God, I love that sequence. You know the butch lady who starts the fight is Zoë's friend, Jeannie Epper?”
“Oh, come on!” Pooch cried, and threw his Wii remote down on the carpet. “This is just ridiculous.”
“Walk away, honey,” Jolene instructed.
“The game's cheating!” Pooch complained.
“I know, baby. Just walk away.”
“It's legitimately unfair.”
“I hear you. That's why I want you to stop fighting with it, and come play a different game with me. Upstairs,” she added.
Pooch smiled at her over his shoulder. “Do you promise to let me win?”
Jolene smirked. “Baby, you know I don't even need to make that promise.”
Pooch pushed off the floor and dusted his hands off on his jeans.
“Lee, sweetheart, do you mind looking after Power Man for a little bit while his Daddy and me go upstairs? You're doing such an excellent job with him already.”
“Oh, not at all.” Lee beamed. “You two enjoy yourselves. I'll make sure the little guy gets to bed all right.”
Jolene gave Luke a kiss on the forehead then led Pooch up the stairs, giggling all the way to their room.
Abernathy sighed. “There's something I think I need to go do,” she told Lee. “Give me a shout if Zaya starts causing trouble, okay?”
“Sure, no problem,” Lee said as she got up to chase Luke around the recliner in which Clay had settled with a John Kane novel while Luke happily yelled “I win!” at arbitrary points.
Abby knocked twice on the door to Roque's room. There was a long pause before he answered, “What?” from somewhere deep inside, far away from the door.
“It's Abernathy,” she said, staring down at the hallway floor.
“I don't smoke,” he said, this time from much closer.
“I'm sorry?” Abby frowned.
Roque cracked the door, and Abby looked up at the single glaring eye made visible by that narrow gap. “I said, I don't smoke. If you're looking for a light or whatever, you'll have to go talk to Clay.”
“I don't want to talk to Clay,” Abby said, and waited for Roque to open the door a little wider.
“Uncle Jay, will you play Rock Band with us?” Jess asked Jensen, tugging insistently at his sleeve.
“Not now, squidlet. Uncle Jay is busy.” Jensen frowned at his computer screen.
“Doing what?” Jess looked over his shoulder, her concerned frown mirroring his own.
“Trying to figure out what the hell this goatfucker has been up to,” he grumbled, and drummed his fingers on the laptop's shell.
“Well, when will you be finished?”
“I don't know. Possibly never. Go bug Uncle Cougar.”
“Uncle Cougar doesn't like Rock Band. He gets mad because the guitar's not like a real guitar.”
“So play something else, then. I'm busy.” Jensen shrugged off Jess's clinging fingers.
Lee, seeing this, caught Luke and slung him over her shoulder, then asked, “Hey, Jess? I like Rock Band. Is it okay if I play?”
Jess looked her critically up and down. “Will you sing?”
“Sure. I can sing.”
“Then I'm lead guitar.” Jess went back to the Wii to finish setting up the game.
“Cougar, can you . . .” Lee hefted Luke like a potato sack and looked at Cougar, who frowned but rose from his seat at the end of the couch to collect him from her.
About halfway through the first song Cougar sniffed and looked at Luke. “Do you need new underpants?”
“No,” Luke replied.
“I think you do,” Cougar said, and carried him out of the room to retrieve a fresh pull-up from his diaper bag.
“Can I come in?” Abby asked Roque, who reluctantly stepped back from the door, allowing her into the room. He sat down on the edge of his neatly made bed, gesturing for her to help herself to the window seat. She ceded the territory closer to the door but did not sit down, planting her feet in front of the bench and crossing her arms instead.
“I don't want to talk to Clay,” she said again. “I don't want to start anything with him, either. I just broke up with somebody, and while Clay might have his merits as a rebound fling I've had bad luck sleeping with people I'm working with. More importantly, though, I don't want to step on anybody's toes. Your toes,” she amended before Roque could claim not to have any idea what she was talking about.
“Get out,” Roque said quietly, but Abernathy stood her ground.
“I was with Aisha today, watching the federal building from across the street. I saw you try to kiss that guy.”
Roque glared at her, sharp like a freshly honed blade.
“You know you didn't have to do that, not to sell the con. You'd already done the job. So who were you trying to persuade?” Abernathy cocked her head.
“I actually did have to do that,” he told her. “For your information, I had to sour things between us so he wouldn't feel bad if he never saw me again. Wouldn't start to wonder who I was, what I was really looking for.”
“Right, of course.” Abby nodded. “So it had nothing at all to do with trying to prove that you could put the moves on a man if you wanted to.”
“Um, in case you hadn't noticed, Miller rejected me? And Clay wasn't even watching that part.” Roque shook his head. “I'm sure he must have been quaking with jealousy and not even known why.”
“I didn't say you were trying to prove it to Clay,” Abby said. “And he might have turned you down today, but tell me you couldn't sense that if circumstances had been different . . .”
“Look, I'm not judging you.” Abby raised her hands placatingly. “I just know . . . I watched my best friend be in love with someone for years and never say crap about it, and I saw how that ate her up inside.” She paused, waited until he grudgingly met her eyes, and continued, “You know, it took watching the person she loved almost die on the whim of some prick in what Kim reliably informs me was a '69 Charger to finally shake her into admitting how she felt? I don't suppose that would work for you two, I mean you've probably been in plenty of life or death situations before and it obviously hasn't worked, so maybe you need a different kind of shock.”
“I don't need shit from you,” Roque said.
“Well, that's too bad, because I'm going to give it to you anyway.” Abernathy sat down on the bed, as far away from Roque as she could manage, and waited to see how he reacted before she spoke again. He didn't. “You have to tell him how you feel. For your own sake. It's ripping you up like a twist of wire.”
“You don't know anything about me,” Roque protested.
“But I know what I'm looking at: somebody who's torn his heart out for another person and is holding it out to him, dripping and raw, and doesn't know what to do when he doesn't recognize that.”
“Very poetic,” Roque scoffed, and Abby shrugged. She started inching towards him.
“You're already suffering, Roque. Can making him aware of that fact really make things any worse?”
“Yes,” Roque said with certainty, and Abernathy retreated.
“Okay, but at least it gets things over with so you're not trailing after him like a shadow any more.”
“Maybe I like being a shadow.”
Abby rolled her eyes. “You can't honestly expect me to believe that.”
“No, I can't. Just like you can't honestly expect me to believe that things will get better if I do tell him.”
“Are you really certain that they won't?” Abby asked. “I mean, think about it. Break it down. You tell him and he lets you down gently, you move on. It won't be easy and it won't be fun, but you'll get over it. Someday. Mostly. You tell him and he freaks out on you, you move on and know that you're better off without him.”
“And if I tell him and he doesn't freak out, doesn't try to let me down?”
Abby sighed. “That's the scary one, isn't it? That's when the hard work starts.”
Roque rolled his eyes but didn't flee or push her away when she put her hand on his arm, just held himself still and tense. They stayed that way for several quiet minutes, Abby gently stroking her fingers over the hairs on Roque's forearm while he slowly relaxed into the touch. Eventually Abernathy cleared her throat and asked, “Do you want me to leave?”
“No,” Roque said quietly, “but you can if you want to.”
“Do you mind if I sleep here, then?” Abby held up her hands again when Roque frowned at her. “Nothing funny, I promise. It just seems like it's been a long time since you've been held.”
Roque's lips parted and he stared at her, then slowly pulled his legs up onto the mattress. He settled gingerly down on his back, in his clothes, on top of the covers, with his arms stiff at his sides and his legs crossed at the ankles. Abby nestled up against him with her head on his shoulder and one hand on his chest, and felt the conscious effort he made to soften into the unfamiliar contact.
“This is nice,” Abby said.
Roque didn't say anything at all.
“Uncle Jay, did you see that?” Jess materialized again at Jensen's elbow. “Did you see that, Uncle Jay?”
“Yeah, it was great,” Jensen told his computer screen.
“He's lying,” Isaiah informed everyone. “He never even looked.”
“Is that true, Jensen?” Lee asked. “Did you just miss the three of us totally rocking the heck out of TCaD?”
“I sure did,” Jensen intoned in the same dull voice, then looked up when Lee snickered. “Wait, what? I can't, I have to figure this shit out as soon as possible.”
“Take a break, Jensen,” Clay commanded without looking up from his book. “You know you get burned out if you fight with things for too long, and I can hear you banging your head against the wall from here.”
“That's not true, I've almost got it.”
“Oh, really?” Clay raised an eyebrow.
“Well, maybe not almost, but I must be getting somewhere.” He frowned and turned back to the computer. “It just doesn't make any sense. Why would Max—Brown—whoever have invoices for a travel agency and time at a clean lab? It's like one of those nasty jigsaw puzzles without any edge pieces and a misleading picture on the box; I've got no idea where to even begin.”
“Do you want me to take a crack at it?” Clay offered.
Jensen sighed. “No, not yet. I'll find something. I just need to keep working on it.”
Jess tapped Lee on the shoulder and gestured for her to lean in close. “Tickle him,” she whispered, then did the same thing to Isaiah.
Lee looked at Jensen and grinned. “I've got an idea,” she said as she crept up behind him with Jess and Isaiah close on her heels, all three of them trying not to giggle.
“Oh yeah, what's that?” Jensen still did not look up.
“Have you tried THIS?” Lee pounced, digging her wriggling fingers into Jensen's side.
“Eek!” Jensen squealed and fell sideways out of his chair onto the ground, laughing and gasping for breath. “Oh no, stop it, this isn't fair, I'm really ticklish!”
“Get him, get him, get him, get him!” Jess demanded, following Jensen down to the ground and scrabbling for the back of his neck. Isaiah went for the backs of his knees until a flailing leg knocked him over, then teamed up with Lee on Jensen's torso.
“How did you get so mean?” Jensen wheezed giddily, swiping at the tears that welled behind his glasses.
Cougar returned just as Lee's questing fingers found Jensen's belly, bared by the inevitable hiking up of his shirt as he squirmed. He grunted and handed Luke, now clad in airplane print pajamas, to Clay, then stormed out into the hall.
“Cougar, wait!” Jensen scrambled to his feet and ran out of the room after him. Lee followed, sighing, leaving Clay to stare at the toddler in his lap and the two pre-adolescents staring at him in confusion and distress.
“Yeah . . .” Clay said, and licked his lips. “Anybody wanna watch a movie?”
“Would you hold up?” Jensen demanded of Cougar when he caught up to him. “You're scaring me, all right? You've been acting all pissy and weird and you won't tell me what's going on and it's seriously freaking me out. Just . . . talk to me, Cougar. Please.”
Cougar stared at Jensen sadly, then sighed. He opened his mouth to speak, but Lee skidded around the corner behind Jensen, nearly crashing into his back, and Cougar's lip curled into a snarl.
“I'm sorry,” Lee said. “I never meant to make things awkward.”
Cougar folded his arms in front of his chest.
“Seriously. I know people think I'm kind of a ditz, but I'm not that clueless, and I'm not some kind of homewrecker.”
“What?” Jensen said, turning around to look at her.
“She has a crush on you,” Cougar explained patiently.
“What, really?” Jensen said, grinning goofily in spite of himself.
“On both of you, sort of,” Lee corrected. “Jensen more, I guess, because he's the one who'll actually look at me, but do you know how much he talks about you? Or the kinds of things he says? The guy's running a hell of a PR campaign and the whole thing's a hundred percent earnest.”
“Okay, apparently I am that clueless,” Jensen said. “I had no idea you felt anything of the kind.”
Lee pushed past Jensen to square off against both him and Cougar. “You two are a couple, right? I mean, you both know you're a couple, it's not just blatantly obvious to everyone else in the world?”
“Yeah,” Jensen smiled at Cougar, his face sparkling with adoration. “We're a couple.”
“Okay, good. Glad to have that out in the open. In that case let me add that yes, I find you both very attractive, but having said that I have no interest in coming between you two except literally.”
“Buh-wha?” Jensen goggled.
Lee angled her body towards Cougar.
“I know I'm an actress and I lie for a living, but can you really look me in the eyes right now and tell me you believe I'm lying?”
Cougar did as she asked, holding her gaze for a long moment before he finally shook his head.
“Can we, Cougar?” Jensen asked. “Can we can we can we?”
Still looking at Lee, Cougar licked his lips and then slowly bared his teeth. Lee mirrored his predatory grin, and they turned as one on Jensen.
“Yippee!” Jensen cried as they carried him off to his bedroom.
When Andrea and Karen came home they found Clay sitting on the couch, smiling faintly as he stroked his fingers through Luke's fluffy hair as the boy slept in his arms, watching the Dread Pirate Roberts scaling the Cliffs of Insanity while Jess snoozed on the couch beside him, her head on a pillow propped up against his thigh, and Isaiah swayed on the edge of unconsciousness in the nest of cushions he'd built on the floor.
“How'd it go?” Andrea asked quietly while Karen knelt down by Jess' head and tenderly shook her awake.
“Easy as Betty Crocker,” he whispered, reluctantly turning Luke over to her outreached arms.
“Mama?” Jess asked drowsily.
“Yes, JJ, it's me.” Karen smiled. “Did you brush your teeth?”
“Yes,” Jess lied.
“Well, let's go brush them one more time just to be safe.”
Jess grumbled but sat up, blinking and rubbing her eyes.
“Thanks for your help,” Karen said to Clay as she led Jess and Isaiah up towards bed.
Clay smiled peacefully. “It was my pleasure.”
Chapter 12: Interlude
It took Cougar longer than usual to identify what was wrong when he woke up in the middle of the night, because the bed beside him was not empty. It just didn't contain the body he expected it to.
Cougar sat up and found Jensen sitting cross-legged on a chair on the far side of the room, his face looking washed out and robotic in the blue light from his computer.
“What's wrong?” Cougar murmured, moving slowly and gently towards the end of the bed, taking care not to disturb Lee's slumber.
“It's a virus,” Jensen breathed. Cougar could not see his eyes through the artificial gleam reflected off his lenses.
“On your computer?” Cougar asked, frowning.
Cougar padded silently across the carpet and laid his hands on Jensen's shoulders. “Are we in danger?”
Jensen nodded. “We all are. Everybody. Max is . . . ” He trailed off and bit his lip.
“Right now?” Cougar clarified.
“No,” Jensen admitted, “but soon enough.”
“Should we wake the others?”
Jensen looked up at him, his face etched in shadow.
“Come back to bed,” Cougar suggested, and led him by the hand to the space in the middle, pressing up against his back with a palm against his heart while Jensen draped an arm across Lee's waist, and settled slowly back to sleep.
Chapter 13: Discovery
Clay was still smiling when he started the coffee the next morning and settled down at the table to wait for everyone else to emerge. His mood faltered a bit when he saw how well-fucked Jolene, Pooch, Zoë, Kim, and Aisha all looked, but it wasn't like he hadn't known what each of them had been up to the night before—the broad strokes, anyway, if not the finer details. Seeing Lee, Cougar, and Jensen arriving together, all freshly showered and blushing, was a little more of a surprise. Clay swallowed his questions along with his coffee and tried to concentrate on answering Pooch's important question about number and style of eggs while Jensen's hand slipped free from Lee's and Cougar left them both entirely unmurdered.
Jensen sat down next to Jolene and presented her with a computer, and the two of them spent several minutes conversing in hushed tones. Andrea smiled at him when she came down to arrange breakfast on a tray for herself, Karen, and the kids—as usual giving a wide berth to her brother and other housemates while they were scheming—but Jensen did not appear to notice.
It wasn't until Roque appeared, walking arm in arm with Abernathy and looking more tranquil than he had in ages, that Clay's good humor completely evaporated. “Well, that's just . . . peachy,” he muttered, his nostrils flaring, and set his mug down hard enough that it rattled the entire table.
Roque took note of Clay's reaction, his own vague smile turning fixed and tight as his jaw clenched, and very carefully did not punch Clay in the face.
“No, you're right,” Jolene said. “You've got to be.”
“Well, crap.” Jensen sighed. He stood up and raised his voice, his tone serious, but could not quite keep the giddiness from his face when his gaze slid over Lee and Cougar. “Horrible news, everybody,” he announced. “I've figured out what Max is doing in California.”
All eyes turned to look at him.
“Well?” Roque prompted.
“Biological weapons,” Jensen said. “Max has got his hands on a virus. Not just any virus: one that can be customized, programmed to attack only individuals who possess particular genetic markers. A targeted virus.”
Abby's eyebrows rose. “That's . . . genocide in a bottle,” she murmured.
“Pretty much,” Jensen agreed.
“How do you know that?” Kim asked with a frown.
“Transaction records. Max is buying time at a level four clean lab that synthesizes dry phages.”
Roque blinked at him. “And that means . . .?”
“A bacteriophage is a virus that kills bacteria,” Aisha supplied, and Jensen nodded. “They were used for a while to treat bacterial infections, particularly in the former USSR.”
“Right, and phage therapy's kind of a big thing now because we're looking for ways to deal with antibiotic resistance. They're also used, and this is why Max is interested in them, in somatic cell modification as a vector for getting the new instructions into the cell. What that means—” Jensen held up a hand to forestall any questions, “is that you can use a tailored virus like this one to actually change something's DNA. The brass ring, of course, is adult in vivo modification, where you can do this to a living, functioning organism, as opposed to a fetus or a petri dish.”
“Why would anyone want to do that?” Clay asked, and everyone else in the room turned to look at him.
“Well, mostly so far it's been used as a diagnostic—you tell the virus what to look for, the presence or absence of some specific gene marker, and if it's there the virus sticks a tag in the code, somewhere in the junk nearby. Then you take a tissue sample and scan for the presence of your tag and if it's there you know the host has got whatever it is your looking for, he's a carrier of a particular hereditary disease or whatever. Computer programmers have been doing the same thing for ages—DEADBEEF, for example, is a classic case of a hex tag used to mark where things used to be once you've deleted them from memory.
“Of course the applications don't stop there, because you can also use phages to actually change alleles, replace pieces of somebody's functional genetic code, and basically turn things on and off. This is great if you're trying to turn off a disease; gene therapy might be used to treat certain cancers, heart disease, Huntington's chorea . . . basically any problem that's got a genetic basis can be solved. The fear is that once you've got that technology the folks in charge will start using it to 'cure',” Jensen paused to put the word in air quotes, “any other gene-linked feature they think is undesirable, whether that's male-pattern baldness or homosexuality, and they can do that either by taking out the trait itself or by taking out its carrier.”
Jensen let this sink in, although most of his audience had already long since jumped to the same conclusion.
“Now, in regular cases the virus used in phage research is not contagious; you shoot it into the host you want to mess with and that's as far as it travels, but it looks like what Max is playing with is special. It's been weaponized. Somebody on Max's payroll has figured out how to splice in virulence genes from flu strains and now this baby can go anywhere.”
“So, what? It gives you the flu?” Zoë shrugged like that didn't sound so bad.
“Uh, no,” Jensen answered. “That's just how it gets around. I'm going out on a limb a bit here but I think the one Max is planning to use targets the central nervous system, and his standard programming triggers a cellular kill switch. Takes a few days for the virus to build up in your system and then it's headaches, tremors, hallucinations, stroke-like symptoms, and death.”
“How long?” Clay asked.
“A week, maybe? Like I said, I'm not sure.”
“Jesus,” Roque muttered.
Abby chewed her lip. “Who's he trying to kill?”
“Anybody. It's not fixed.” Jensen looked at Aisha, who sighed.
“That's the great thing about Max, isn't it?” she said. “He doesn't seem to really hate anybody except us. He likes panic and arms races and beyond that he doesn't much seem to care who's fighting as long as he comes out on top. He'll sell it to anybody he thinks will give him what he wants.”
Jensen nodded. “And the virus will target whoever they tell him they want it to. The problem is—well, there are a lot of problems with this, but one of the big ones is that genes are complicated. A lot of things we think of as simple, eye color for example, are actually controlled by multiple genes in distinct locations, and there's a pretty low limit on the complexity of instructions one virus can carry, the allowable conditions of 'if' and 'then'. And that's just at the individual level. Population genetics don't work the way murderous bigots want them to, I mean the lines just aren't that clear. Even targeting supposedly simple, monogenic, strongly population-linked characteristics like, I don't know, Tay-Sachs or sickle-cell anemia, you're going to hit a proportion of people who don't belong to whatever group you've decided to hit and miss a proportion who do. A statistically successful deployment case by, say, Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina might have taken out, like, 84% of Croats and Bosniaks and only 80% of Serbs, or something like that. It's that messy, particularly because the people angry ethnic cleansing enthusiasts most want to cleanse usually happen to be their neighbors.”
“Jensen, focus.” Clay snapped his fingers and Jensen took a couple of deep, calming breaths.
“I'm sorry. It's just . . . there are no good outcomes if this thing gets out.”
“You're sure this is what Max is up to?” Aisha asked.
Jensen looked to Jolene, who nodded. “Pretty sure,” he said. “I mean the clues keep piling up. You remember that weirdo hard drive full of biological research stuff, phage therapy and genome mapping?” he asked Zoë. “Turns out that really was from Max's department.”
“Burying evidence of this project,” Zoë said.
Jensen clicked his tongue and fixed her with a finger-gun. “That mystery email recorded results from a DIY round of live animal testing. The percentages were kill rates. He's been testing it on humans too.” Jensen looked at Roque, who frowned.
“Those kids in Australia?” Roque guessed.
“Max generously provided them all with contaminated water bottles. Whole tour group got them, only the ones with freckles died.”
“Okay,” Roque said. “Sounds plausibly evil.”
“Then there's the distribution methods. This lab just produces dry phages—spores with a basically infinite shelf life, dormant until they're inhaled or ingested or otherwise absorbed through a mucous membrane. In order to facilitate that Max has got deals lined up to mix his fairy dust into all sorts of other substances—cocaine, OTC painkillers, kids' chewable vitamins . . .” Jensen sighed. “I should have worked it out days ago but I just didn't know what to look for.”
“It's okay,” Jolene said. “We've still got time.”
Jensen smiled wryly. “That's the good news. The way Max seems to have his operation set up, he's cooking up small batches of virus on demand, buying time as he needs it at a local lab that's equipped to handle jobs like this. The first production run starts tonight at 18h00.”
“Fantastic.” Roque grinned. “We blow up the factory. Easier done than said.”
Jensen shook his head. “That'd only slow him down. Ditto ripping off the phages once they're produced. Max still has all the formulas, and even if he didn't the research it's based on is all publicly accessible. Wouldn't take anything but time to put the pieces together again. And Max might be the only one who's got it so far, but you know that's not going to last. Once it's out there, other people start reverse engineering . . . Not to mention the rate at which viruses mutate. The bottle's not just open, it's fucking shattered. Ain't no way in hell the genie's going back now.”
“Brilliant.” Abernathy laughed bitterly. “It's the fucking apocalypse. Does this mean I can finally stop worrying about my student loans?”
Clay clenched his fists and Pooch squeezed Jolene's shoulder while Cougar crossed himself.
“There is . . . one little ray of hope,” Jensen said. “It looks like Max was waiting on a buyer to give him a target before he sent the lab his instructions for phage synthesis. There's a pretty good chance we could sneak in some new code.”
“How?” Clay demanded.
“Simple man in the middle attack. Max is sending his request by courier on an ordinary thumb drive; all we have to do is intercept it and switch out his secret recipe with our own. Of course I'll need the authentication key issued to Max by the lab, but I'm reasonably confident I can spearfish that. I've already got the rest of his client data from the invoice I pulled last night. The trickier part is figuring out what to replace Skippy the Super Virus with.”
“Can we program the phages to do nothing?” Kim asked.
Jensen scratched his head. “Turn them into a placebo? Sure, that could work. Might righteously piss off Max's clients, too.”
“Then again, Max could say 'sorry that shipment was no good, let me mix you up another batch free of charge.'” Aisha frowned. “We need to do more than that. Is there any way we can turn the virus against him? Use Max's own weapon to kill him?”
Jensen hummed. “Maybe, but I'm not sure how you'd guarantee that Max exposes himself to it, and targeting just him would be really difficult. Even with a DNA sample we'd risk knocking out thousands of bystanders, maybe more, and without one I'd just be guessing.”
“If we can't kill him,” Pooch said slowly, “can we expose him? I mean, we've got a paper trail now, right? You've connected this James Brown persona to all kinds of shady dealings. Is there any reason we can't just turn him over to the authorities?”
“What authorities?” Clay asked. “You've seen some of the strings he's pulled in the past. We still don't know how far his connections go.”
“If we had material evidence,” Cougar suggested. “Something they could not deny.”
“Get a sample of the virus and send it to the CDC.” Kim got up to refill her coffee.
“Or the WHO,” Zoë added, and helped herself to a sugar cube.
Abernathy raised a hand. “Yeah, but to get a sample there has to be a virus. Are we willing to let who knows how many innocent people die so that we can collect evidence?”
“Okay, so. We need to think of something that won't hurt anybody but will still piss them off enough that they'll demand an explanation and a cure—is there a cure?—so that there's pressure to find the culprit and contain the technology.” Pooch counted off necessary conditions on his fingers.
“A cure, sort of,” Jensen said. “It should be possible to reverse any 'permanent' genetic changes the same way they were made. The best immediate response to exposure though is quarantine. Minimize the spread of infection and wait for the infected to either die or get better. Either way, they'll stop being contagious.” Jensen rubbed at his two-day stubble while he thought about the problem. “I could make everybody's hair fall out, or the opposite. Give everybody hypertrichosis.”
“How about this?” Jolene picked up Jensen's tablet and scrolled through the human genomic database he'd downloaded onto it until she found what she was looking for. “SLC24A5. Replace threonine with alanine.”
Jensen's eyebrows rose. “Well, that'll definitely attract attention.”
“What?” Roque asked.
Jolene smirked. “I'll tell you later.”
“Okay,” Clay said. “So we intercept Max's instructions and swap in our own non-lethal irritant. We let Max distribute most of the modified virus the way he originally planned to, but in order to link his operation to the sudden outbreak of whatever you two are snickering about, we go to the factory and steal a sample of undiluted phage spores so we can add that to our dossier.”
“All good,” Jensen said, “except for the part about the factory. This is a level four clean lab, highly secured and about as close to fool-proof as any facility can hope to get. And as soon as they're packaged those phages will be out the door, on a truck bound for Max's office. I hate to say this, but we probably have a better chance of laying our hands on them there.”
Cougar hissed and Pooch's eyebrows rose. “The lab's really that difficult?”
“What's the problem?” Abernathy asked. “Roque got into the office yesterday and it didn't seem that hard.”
“Roque got into the building,” Pooch corrected. “Max's office is whole 'nother kettle of fish.”
“The belly of the beast,” Jensen agreed. “But it's still going to be easier than trying to get into the lab.”
“How big is the shipment?” Roque asked.
“Possibly not that big.” Jensen frowned and checked the invoice again. “One case, twenty-four bottles. Not that big at all, but I guess dry phages go an awful long way. They're durable, a tiny amount is enough to infect, and they're really easy to convert into walking virus factories: just add people.”
“So we can't just grab a bottle,” Roque said. “It's sure to be missed.”
“No, we'd have to open one up, take out some of the gel caps, and then reseal the whole package. Preferably minimizing exposure to whoever does the actual handling just in case the switch doesn't go through.”
“All without Max or his goons noticing.” Roque looked at Clay. “Goodie.”
“Can we hijack the truck en route?” Pooch asked. “Because I really don't want to go waltzing into Max's lair with my ass hanging out. I mean, no disrespect to Abby's professional abilities; I don't feel like any disguise would be good enough.”
“Pooch is right,” Aisha said. “Max knows we're coming after him; he'll have everybody primed. There's no way the six of us are getting close to him.”
“So send somebody he doesn't know about,” Kim suggested. Zoë, beside her, cracked her knuckles in anticipation.
Roque sighed. “We don't really have a choice, do we? Thing is, you two were with us when we hit the consulate. Even if Max's team haven't worked out your identities by now . . .” he paused and looked at Jensen, who shook his head.
“Doesn't look like it.”
Roque continued, “there's still a good chance you'll be recognized.”
“Or we could avoid that whole tangle and hijack the truck en route,” Pooch insisted. “We've done it before. What's wrong with that?”
“Pooch, look at the map,” Jensen said. “The whole thing's high-traffic and loaded with cameras. There's no way to be sneaky about it, not with this little time to prepare.”
Abernathy pursed her lips and sighed. “I'll do it.”
“Me too,” Jolene said quietly.
“No.” Pooch immediately held up a hand. “No, fuck that. I am not letting you risk your life like that.”
“I let you risk yours,” Jolene protested.
“That's different,” Pooch said. “I'm a soldier.”
Pooch shook his head. “Jolene, please don't do this.”
She looked at him, chin raised, eyes burning with the sudden desire to cry.
Cougar took off his hat and placed it on the table. “We'll buy you time,” he said, and looked at Jensen.
“Stage a distraction.” Jensen nodded. “Someplace far enough away from the federal building. Lure all the vipers out of the nest.”
“Maybe get a crack at killing Max while we're at it.” Aisha smiled coldly. “Assuming he's still in the area.”
“James Brown hasn't made any travel arrangements,” Jensen said. “He might be flying under another name, but my guess is he's sticking around until the deal goes through.”
“Colonel,” Pooch pleaded with Clay, who grimaced sympathetically and then raised his voice to address the room.
“We'll split up. Roque, Cougar, Jensen, Pooch, and I will attract Max's attention while Jolene and Abernathy infiltrate and retrieve the package. Aisha, you've got operational control on that. Everybody else is support.”
“See, this would be the time for a Lord of the Rings metaphor,” Zoë muttered to herself.
Abby looked at Aisha. “I'm assuming we can't just walk through the front door.”
Jensen went back to his computer. “No, you'll need a cover.” His fingers performed a quick dance across the keyboard. “Oh, Pooch. Buddy, I'm sorry. You're going to like this even less.”
“What?” Pooch's sad eyes turned suspicious.
“There's a bachelor party happening two floors down from James Brown's office. They've asked for a couple of dancers . . .”
“Strippers?” Abernathy asked while Jolene and Pooch stared at each other.
“Dancers,” Jensen corrected. “They don't wear much clothing at these parties but what they do wear can stay on.”
Abby sighed. “You gotta do what you gotta do.”
“Let me give you my gun,” Kim said to Abernathy, but Jensen made a “nuh-uh” noise in his throat.
Pooch stood up from the table and walked out of the room.
“Porteous!” Clay called after him, but he did not stop.
Jolene sighed and followed her husband, picking up just enough of Jensen's description of the security measures on Max's department as having scanners 'just like airport security' to get the gist of it: no guns.
“Don't do this,” Pooch begged again when Jolene caught up to him. “Don't make me watch.”
“Make you watch?” Jolene shook her head. “I'm sorry, do you think it's easy for me to watch you disappear all over the place, never knowing when or if you're coming home? Not to mention the time that you didn't come home—no, I know that wasn't exactly your fault. But I've been there, remember. I've had to get by without you. At first I was sure there was something off about the whole thing, but by the end of the fourth month . . .” Jolene covered her mouth as her voice broke and a tear spilled out onto her cheek. “So don't tell me you can't imagine what you'd do if anything happened to me, because I don't have to imagine.”
Pooch looked down at the floor. “I'm sorry,” he whispered. “I'm just . . . scared.”
“I know, baby.” Jolene put her arms around Pooch and let him bury his face in the side of her neck. “I'm scared too. But I can do this. I know how to handle hazardous materials, and beyond that I'm a big girl. You know I kill my own spiders.”
Pooch sniffed. “Max isn't a spider.”
“Sure he is.” Jolene grinned and wiped away her tears. “A really big spider with scary eyes and an expensive suit.”
“And you're going to crush him with a shoe?”
“No, a book.” Jolene took a deep breath. “Now come on, loverboy. We've got a heist to plan.” She tugged gently on Pooch's hand to start leading him back to the kitchen. “Look on the bright side,” she said as she walked. “At least I don't have to go jumping out of any windows.”
“So where are we holding this block party?” Pooch asked when he returned to the kitchen, making no effort to conceal the fact that he had just been crying. He crossed his arms and leaned against the door frame while Jolene went back to her spot at the table.
“I'm voting for Alcatraz,” Jensen said. “Think about it. We can go in after the last tour heads back to the mainland. Tranq the guards and stash them someplace safe. It's a really low risk for civilian casualties, and look how defensible it is!”
Cougar snorted. “You just want to impersonate Nicolas Cage.”
Clay pointed at Jensen's computer. “Get me that authentication key.”
“On it, boss.”
“We'll need equipment to make this showy,” Roque said. “Big guns. Explosives.”
“I know a guy,” Kim said. She pulled her phone out of her pocket and listened to it ring as she led Zoë out of the room to help her get changed for her turn as a bike messenger. “Yo, Grant?”
Lee, who'd been silent the entire meeting, looked thoughtfully at Jolene. “I have an idea,” she said. “I think you'll like it. I just have to call in a couple of favors.”
Roque grinned at Clay while people around them sprang into action. “You know, we make a pretty okay team after all.”
Clay ignored him and went to discuss requisition lists with Kim and Aisha.
Chapter 14: Preparation
The courier switch went smoothly, as far as anyone could tell, but until Jolene and Abby had actually acquired and tested a sample of the phage powder none of them would be entirely able to relax.
Kim's friend with the explosives showed up while Jensen was busy setting up remote access and operation of the federal building's internal surveillance on Aisha's computer.
“Thanks, man. I really appreciate it,” Kim told him after he helped her to bring the last of the supplies inside.
“No problem,” her friend said. “You know if you're alive tomorrow you should come by M5. It sounds like we have a lot to catch up on.”
“Wait.” Jensen looked up. “Did he just say . . .” He ran to the door but the man had already left, and Jensen stuck his head out into the yard just in time to watch Grant Imahara roll away in a nondescript cargo van. “I LOVE YOU!” Jensen hollered after him.
“You know, I probably could have predicted that,” Kim said. “You want to come along and meet them? Assuming the world doesn't end.”
“Yes,” Jensen said without hesitation. “Pooch and Cougar too?”
“The whole gang, but first things first.”
“Nitrile gloves, opera length. Several layers of clear plastic bags. Gene chips.” Aisha listed off the items as she removed them from her opaque, reusable shopping bag and placed them on the table where Jolene and Zoë were helping Roque and Pooch to make IEDs.
Jolene grinned. “Everything a girl needs to BlacGyver her own DIY stealth glove box.”
“You're sure this is safe?” Aisha asked.
“No,” Jolene admitted, “but it'll have to do.”
“Gene chips?” Roque asked as he picked up the package.
“Programmable digital microarrays,” Jolene explained. “Portable DNA scanners. It's the quickest way to make sure that our change went through.”
Aisha nodded. She took the box back from Roque and opened it, handing one of the sealed scanners to Jolene. “If anyone asks you, though, it's a blood glucose monitor. You're diabetic.”
“How're those flashbangs coming along?” Clay asked Pooch.
Pooch looked at Roque before answering. “Almost finished.”
“Ready to move in twenty?”
“Yes?” Pooch translated hesitantly.
Clay sucked his teeth. “All right. Wrap it up. Whatever you've got to do to die with a clear conscience, do it now.”
Pooch's hands shook more than usual when he said goodbye to his son. “You be good, now, little guy. Daddy'll be home real soon.”
“Why?” Luke asked seriously while Pooch tried to memorize the smell of his head.
Pooch tilted Luke away from his body so that he could look him in the face. “You mean why I am I going, or why'm I gonna come home soon?”
“Yes,” Luke answered.
Pooch huffed a bittersweet little laugh. “Because I love you, little man. Because I love you.”
He passed Luke back to Andrea and looked up. Jolene was waiting in the doorway.
“Here,” Pooch said, and reached into his pocket. “I want you to have this.”
“Mojito?” Jolene stared at the dashboard ornament in her hand.
“He'll bring you home safe.”
Jolene shook her head. “I can't take this.”
Pooch bit his lip. “Okay.”
Jolene gasped as Pooch grabbed Mojito back and handily separated his oversized plastic head from his tiny chihuahua body. “You killed him!” she cried.
“Don't worry,” Pooch said. “I've put him back together plenty of times. He'll be fine . . . as long as you bring me back his head.”
He held the head out for her by its stem like a morbid plastic flower. Jolene took it, tentatively, then wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him into a kiss.
“Pooch!” Clay shouted, and Jolene reluctantly pulled back. She wiped the tears from her cheeks.
“Try not to get stuck in traffic this time,” she told Pooch, who caught her up in another brief squeeze.
“You too,” he murmured, then headed out to the van.
“Where's Lee?” he asked Cougar and Jensen when he reached the van.
“She took off about an hour ago, said she had to go get something.”
“What?” Pooch frowned at Jensen. “But that means you didn't—”
“It's okay, we texted her.” Jensen smiled. “Let's go blow some shit up.”
“Was there anything you wanted to say to any of them?” Jolene asked Abernathy when the van pulled away.
“Already said it,” Abby said, and went back inside. “Hey, kiddo,” she called to Isaiah. “Put the book down for a second. You know I'm going out again tonight. I've got to do something really important. Now there's a chance—do you remember your grandma's number? Let me write it down for you just in case.”
Abby hugged Isaiah long enough that he started to squirm. “Mom,” he complained.
“Okay, back to your book now.” She ruffled his hair, then turned to whisper to Karen. “If anything happens to me, call my mom. All the paperwork should be in order.”
“Time to get changed,” Aisha said, and Abby sighed and followed her out of the room.
“Wait!” Lee called as she ran down the hall with a pair of garment bags slung over her shoulder. “Wait for me.” She beckoned Jolene, Aisha, and Abernathy into a vacant bedroom and set the garment bags down on the bed. “I got it, I got it!” she sing-songed as she unzipped the bag on the top.
“Is that . . . ?” Jolene took a slow step closer while Lee gently lifted a pale blue dress from the bag.
“Pam Grier's dress from when Foxy and Claudia went to seduce the judge? It totally is!” Lee offered the dress to Jolene. “I thought it might help you to get into character. I'm sure it'll fit, too; I mean I'm
pretty good at guessing that sort of stuff.”
Jolene took the dress reverentially and went to the mirror to hold it up in front of herself. Aisha whistled approvingly.
“I got you a dress too,” Lee said to Abernathy. “It's not from a movie or anything but I think it'll look good on you.” She cocked her head. “I guess we're sort of even for that porno prank now, huh?”
“Thank you,” Abby said sincerely. “I know you'll look out for Isaiah while I'm gone.”
“It's beautiful, Lee.” Jolene turned the dress from side to side, admiring its details. “I'll try to bring it back in one piece.”
“Bringing yourself back's more important.” Lee hugged them both before leaving them to get changed.
Chapter 15: Confrontation
“Charges are set,” Clay said to Aisha over the radio when both teams were in position. “Mission is live in three . . . two . . .” There was a series of concussive booms as the first wave of incendiaries detonated in sequence, spelling out in bright, flaming letters for any aerial observers the letters M, A, and X. “Now we sit tight and wait for hell to break loose.”
“They're ready,” Aisha reported to the other women waiting in the car, and counted seconds before a phalanx of DHS vehicles scrambled and rolled out from the federal building's parking garage. “You're up.”
Jolene sighed and stepped out of the car. Abernathy came around the trunk to join her. “Action!” she muttered, and adjusted her purse strap. They linked arms, smiled, and sauntered up the steps towards the building's front door.
They never made it to the bachelor party.
The assault came fast and hard. Max had apparently been talked out of disintegrating the entire island from the air but not from carving chunks out of the facilities with mortar shells. Clay's team were quickly pinned down by Max's superior numbers, a jumbled mix of DHS spooks and Cryon Security contractors, and indiscriminate use of firepower.
One particularly forceful tremor sent Jensen flying. He landed hard on his shoulder and crawled, scrabbling to get away from the mercenary advancing on him with hate in his eyes. “I'm gonna rip out your eyeballs and shove 'em up your ass so you watch me while I—”
Jensen rolled over and mule-kicked him in the stomach. “Cool story, bro,” he panted as he got up and kicked the creep in the head. “Tell it again.”
“Bad news, boys,” Aisha's voice cut like a knife through the thunder of battle. “Max is here.”
Jensen frowned as he threw his attacker over the low railing surrounding his position and ducked behind it for cover. “You mean 'here' where we are or 'here' where you are?”
“Where I am,” Aisha growled.
“But that's not—”
“The plan, I know, but it's what's happening.” Her voice was rough, breathy, like she was talking on the run.
“Abby and Jolene—” Pooch's panicked voice broke in from two levels down and a hundred yards left.
“—are fine, don't worry about them.” There was a metallic clang on Aisha's end. “Just get yourselves out before the noose closes in.”
The radio transmission crunched as Aisha switched back off of their channel, and Clay rounded on Roque with narrowed eyes.
“What?” Roque ducked his head as an explosion outside shook dust from the ceiling of the room where they'd hidden themselves.
“Did you do this?” Clay asked quietly.
“What?!” Roque stared at him incredulously.
Clay raised his muzzle a fraction and repeated. “Did you. Do this?”
“What the hell, bro—” Roque took a step back, away from Clay's weapon.
“Don't, don't even. I'm not your bro right now. Did you fuck us over again?”
“Again?” Roque asked. “I never fucked you over the first time.”
“No, but you wanted to.” Clay advanced, step by step. “Last time we got this close, you wanted to sell us all down the river.”
“Honestly?” Roque stood his ground. “Yeah, I wanted to. I even thought about for longer than I'd like to admit. But I didn't do it!” He slapped Clay's gun barrel to the side, away from his torso, and hissed when the hot metal blistered his palm. “I couldn't. Not then and not now. You really think I'm that heartless, that I could just turn them over? Jensen, Pooch, Jolene, Abby? I could never—” Roque sighed and took a step forward, putting himself right up in Clay's personal space. “I would never do that to them, but I didn't—I don't know how else to leave you.”
“Hands up!” barked the Cryon grunt who came first through the door, and Clay and Roque both turned to look at him.
Travers followed him in, sighed at the sight of them, and shook his head sadly. “You losers don't know when to give up, do you?” He drew his Colt and raised it slowly.
“No,” Clay said, “I guess we don't.”
Travers squeezed the trigger.
Chapter 16: Resolution
“What is it?” Max's voice crackled through the guard's handheld radio.
“Found two bitches in the stairwell making a break for it.” The second, taller guard, gave Abby's arm an unnecessarily emphatic squeeze. “You want us to bring 'em down to you?”
There was a pause, during which Abby would swear she could hear Max frowning. “Same bitches or new bitches?”
“Same bitches. They must have got outta the office somehow.”
Max grunted. “Yeah, sure. Bring 'em down, and send out a sweep in case they've got friends.”
The elevator ride down to the basement parking garage was oppressively silent, as Abby gritted her teeth and Jolene resisted the urge to cover her chest with her arms when she caught one of the guards stealing a peek down her dress.
“Welcome,” Max greeted them with a magnanimous gesture, and Abernathy wondered how carefully he'd chosen his mark so that he'd be perfectly lit by one of the recessed fluorescent bulbs. He pointed towards the shrink-wrapped flat of white plastic bottles. “Is this what you were looking for?”
Neither Jolene nor Abby said anything.
Max's radio beeped and he picked it up. “Good news, I hope.”
“They're dead,” Travers said, loud enough that the words were clear even yards away across the concrete cathedral, and Abby felt her blood run cold.
“Who is?” Max asked.
“The whole unit, from Alvarez to . . . whoever's last alphabetically. Roque, I guess.”
Jolene's stomach dropped. “No,” she whispered. “No, no, no, no, no . . .”
“That is good news, Wade.” Max smiled benignly. “The girl too? Fadhil's kid?”
“Still rounding her up. It won't take long.”
Abby's eyes narrowed automatically, but she quickly pushed the expression from suspicion into anger.
“Well, now,” Max beamed. “Was that really so hard?” He looked up at the kerfuffle of another half-dozen drones marching Zoë and Kim down the ramp at gunpoint. Zoë was limping and bleeding profusely from a gash on her face, and Kim kept casting angry looks over her shoulder at the guard with a barrel to her head.
“You know I'll be taking that gun back,” she informed him, and the guard laughed, spraying blood from his broken nose.
“Sure you will, princess.”
“Let me know when it's done,” Max said, and killed the transmission. His voice echoed off the cement walls of the cavern as he raised it for the benefit of the new arrivals. “I don't know if you heard that, but your buddies on the Rock are all fish food.”
“I'll believe that when I see it,” Jolene muttered, and Max looked at her sharply.
“Oh, honey,” he said sweetly as he held out his hand to the guard behind him, who hurriedly placed a handgun in it. “You're not going to live that long.”
Jolene took a deep breath and looked around frantically for an escape or something she could use as a weapon. Her eyes finally latched onto the shipping flat. “It doesn't matter,” she said with a smile.
“What's that?” Max asked, and paused in his approach, the gun dangling casually at his side.
“Your pills are all garbage anyway. We got to them at the factory. They're useless.”
Max's eyes narrowed and Abby grinned, catching on. “You might as well use them to sweeten your coffee.”
Max spent a solid minute looking from the packaged phages to Jolene and Abby and back, sparing an occasional glance at Kim and Zoë for good measure. “Everybody hold your breath,” he instructed, and flicked his wrist, a short glinting blade appearing suddenly in his hand.
Jolene stared, stunned by either Max's carelessness or his trust, whether in her words or his own sense of immortality, as he slit open the flat's plastic coating and wrestled one of the white bottles free of its containment. He twisted off its cap and dumped a handful of phage capsules out into his gloved left hand, then set the open bottle down on top of its fellows while he inspected them.
“Look fine to me,” he said in the choked voice of a toker trying to retain his smoke, then looked up at Jolene. “Open wide.” He grinned and mimed with his free hand, the skeleton of a sock puppet unhinging its jaw.
Jolene yelped and tried to wrench herself away from the guard who grabbed her face, crushing his fingers into her cheeks and forcing her to open her mouth. She whimpered, eyes wide as the guard turned her by the jaw to watch Max's predatory approach, then skinned her knees on the pavement when the guard suddenly released her, throwing both arms out to retain his balance as the whole building shook to its foundations.
“Goddamnit!” Max cursed, staring at the white powder on his hand, spilling out of the crushed gel caps, and on the concrete around the toppled bottle. The building shook again. “What the hell?”
Max picked up the flat of intact bottles and ran.
“Aisha?” Jolene hissed to Abernathy, crouching beside her on the ground, looking just as disoriented as she felt.
Abby shook her head. “I don't know.”
A chunk of concrete exploded out of the pillar behind Max's head. “Motherfucker!”
Kim had her gun back.
She emptied the cylinder as the women scattered, diving in between parked cars for cover, while Max's minions collected themselves enough to start shooting back, then reached into her jacket pocket to reload. Her head jerked up sharply at the sound of answering fire. A lot of answering fire. “Who in the—”
“Jolene!” Pooch cried as he sprinted down the ramp into the garage.
“Pooch!” Jolene screamed back, then hugged the ground as the window above her head dispersed in a shower of glass.
“I'm coming, baby!” Pooch weaved his way towards her and pulled her up into his arms, then turned to salute Kim for taking out the henchman preparing to take both their heads off.
“Cougar!” Clay shouted and waved him forward while he and Roque fanned out, herding Max's guards back down into the garage and picking off the strays.
“Get me out of here!” Max commanded his employees, and the survivors collected to escort him into an SUV which promptly roared up the ramp, forcing the Losers pitting its armored sides to hurl themselves out of the way, and on out into the night.
“Clear?” Clay shouted, and waited for each of his men to answer back before lowering his gun and heaving a deep breath.
“He said you were dead!” Jolene cried and hugged her husband.
“Not this time.” Pooch dropped his weapon and hugged her back. “Nice dress.”
“Shit,” Jensen said when he took in the spilled phages and the volume of swirling dust in the air. “That's a problem.”
“Everybody okay down there?” Aisha asked over radio.
“No apparent casualties,” Jensen reported, “but we're all breathing the phage dust. Max did too, before he got away. Nice work with that wrecking ball, by the way.”
“Thanks,” Aisha said.
“How bad is this?” Clay asked as the team converged around the bottle.
Jensen chewed his lower lip. “That depends on whether this is our potion or Max's. Either way, containment is faint fucking hope. Every little breeze'll blow the spores out into the city, every footstep tracks it farther.”
“How do we figure out whose potion it is?” Roque asked.
“Without the proper equipment?” Jensen shrugged. “Wait to see if anybody drops dead or . . . not.”
“Jay . . .” Jolene looked at him, nonplussed, but Jensen made a furtive shushing motion and tilted his head towards Roque and Clay.
“Well, hell.” Roque sighed. “If we're all about to die anyway . . .” He grabbed Clay by the lapels and kissed him.
“Yes!” Jensen crowed. “Yes! In your face!” He interrupted his impromptu victory dance to point a finger at Jolene. “I told you they were about to pop!”
Jolene rolled her eyes and winked at Pooch. “Congratulations. You were right.”
“You owe me fifty bucks.” Jensen held out his hand to collect while Abernathy clasped her hands and smiled.
“What's going on?” Aisha asked.
“You-know-who are making out,” Kim explained with a grin, and Aisha barked a laugh.
“Do I look like I'm carrying a wallet?” Jolene asked Jensen, holding her arms out to the side. “What I am carrying,” she paused and reached into her cleavage, “is a digital microassay machine.”
“Intact?” Jensen asked.
“Seems to be.”
“Fire it up!” Pooch leaned close to watch Jolene set up the scan. “Well?”
“Give it a minute.” Jolene nudged him affectionately with an elbow.
Roque finally broke the kiss and pulled back to look at Clay, who frowned.
“But you don't . . .” Clay said, and pressed his fingers to his lips.
“Angry?” Roque asked.
“Confused,” Clay admitted, and held onto Roque's shirt when Roque tried to step away. “You're a hell of a kisser.”
“Yes!” Jolene sighed with relief as she stared at the microassay display. “We did it.” She turned to grin at her friends. “It's non-lethal.”
“Does that mean we get to go home now?” Zoë asked, and accepted the gauze Cougar gave her to staunch the blood from her head wound.
“Yes and no,” Jolene answered, looking at Jensen for confirmation.
“We've got to get out of here before EMS show up, but we can't just go back to the farm or wherever. It might not be deadly but we are still all infected with a gene-changing virus, and I'd hate to come this far just to get scooped up by a team of epidemiologists. We've got to limit the spread as much as we can, or at least limit our connection to it.”
“Quarantine,” Cougar said. “No human contact.”
“For how long?” Abby asked.
“For as long as it takes.” Jolene sighed. “Until we're not contagious anymore.” She met Abernathy's eyes and knew they were both thinking the exact same thing.
Clay finally tore his attention away from Roque's face and rejoined the conversation. “We'll head up into wine country until it passes. Find an abandoned place we can use. Something isolated.” He pulled a flask of bleach from inside his jacket and started splashing down any traces of blood he suspected had been left by his team. “Aisha, can you go back to the farm and pick up supplies? Bring Jay's computers; we'll work on picking up Max's trail while we're holed up.”
“Try to stay upwind of this building,” Jensen cautioned.
“Got it,” Aisha acknowledged.
“I'll get the phages,” Jolene said, and went to scoop the intact capsules into the bottle and replace its cap.
“Pooch and Kim, will you pick us out some transportation?”
“How'd you guys get out of Alcatraz, anyway?” Abby asked as Cougar helped her into one of the vans they selected.
“It was Wade,” Jensen said, looking as if he didn't believe it himself, and climbed in after her. “He showed up and started picking off his own guys—Max's guys. Went on this whole tirade about how working for Max was like being trapped in a nightmare circus, and his wife left him, and he was so depressed, then said he was getting out, just like he should have done after the Port of LA. Said he'd finally managed to skim enough money out of Max's operations to get away and go underground.”
Pooch nodded. “He offered to buy us time to get back to the mainland and confront Max. He even gave us a boat.”
“No shit,” Zoë said.
“Yeah,” Jensen agreed. “It was a hell of a plot twist.”
Chapter 17: Denouement
“Oh for the love of—” Jolene scowled at the CNN reported on the television screen, discussing 'this bizarre act of apparent bioterrorism'. “I did not 'turn' anybody black! All we did was undo one of the mutations responsible for making Europeans pale. That is one factor in the determination of skin color, which is I might add not the be-all-and-end-all for assigning somebody's race, and not one of the DHS clowns who picked up a little melanin after running into Max last week has any idea what it's actually like to be black!”
Pooch muted the television set. “Have I told you lately how sexy you are when you're angry?”
“And calling that 'bioterrorism',” Jolene grumbled. “Do you think any one of these reporters would use the word 'terrorism' if the change went the other way around and that virus 'turned' people white? They want bioterrorism, they should see what Max was really planning.”
“And they will. The CDC, FDA, WHO—they're looking into it. Jensen gave them all the bread crumbs. They'll figure it out, and then they'll crush him for trying to release a WMD on American soil.”
Jolene sighed. “I miss our baby, Pooch. Why isn't he here yet?”
“I'm sure it's nothing serious. They probably had to stop and get gas, is all.”
“You liar.” Jolene glared at him. “You're just as worried as I am.”
It had taken a week and a half for all of them to check out clear, using the microassays to check for viral activity. During that time Aisha had acted as go-between, ferrying supplies—including non-contagious phage doses intended to reverse the effects of the first virus in those who'd been affected—up to the disused winery they'd occupied and leaving them at the end of the road, far away from the house, while she and Lee helped Karen and Andrea to look after the kids. Today they were finally ready to move out of their asylum, having sterilized the place from floor to ceiling.
Pooch and Jolene both jumped when the phone rang. Pooch picked up the receiver. “Hello?”
“Hey,” Lee said, “it's me. Can someone come down and open the gate for us?”
“On it,” Pooch answered, and covered the mouthpiece with his hand. “They're here,” he shouted.
Cougar, who was closest, went to let the chain off the gate. He waved Lee, Aisha, and the kids in their car through with a grin, then closed the gate and followed them on foot up to the house, where Pooch, Jolene, Abernathy, Kim, Zoë, and Jensen were all waiting to greet them.
“I'm sorry,” Lee said between hugs. “There was a problem with the cake.” She went to the trunk and lifted out a large cardboard box. “The lady at the bakery counter kept giving me these really worried looks.”
Jensen and Cougar exchanged a curious look and followed Lee and Jess around to the patio table where Lee set down the box and lifted the lid, while Jolene, Pooch, and Abernathy cooed and fussed over their children at the front of the house.
The generous slab cake was trimmed with black roses and sported a crude frosting illustration of a gas mask, and the words 'HAPPY DECONTAMINATION!!!' in bright red letters. Jensen's uproarious laughter attracted Kim and Zoë, who called the others to come and join them.
“Oh, I like you,” Jensen said when he had breath enough to talk. “I like you a lot.”
“Thanks,” Lee said. “I like you too.” She stood on tiptoe to kiss him while Cougar wrapped his arms around Jensen's waist and leaned over his shoulder to bump his nose against her cheek.
Lee, grinning, returned to the car for paper napkins and party hats, and Aisha went into the house for a knife and forks. She met Clay and Roque on their way out to the patio, and if Clay's hair looked a little more mussed than usual and both his and Roque's lips looked a little puffy, well. She was polite enough not to mention it.
“So,” Clay asked Aisha once Roque had let go of his hand and gone outside. “You still planning to kill me?”
“Yeah, probably.” Aisha flipped a carving knife into the air and caught it, then smirked at him.
Clay grinned. “I guess we're done, then.”
Aisha frowned and allowed Clay to open the door for her. “How do you figure that?”
“Max is in custody?”
“He might escape.” Aisha started cleanly slicing the cake and passing the squares to Lee to distribute.
Lee started with Jolene and Abernathy and sang as she presented their cake. “Oh please don't make Foxy mad, or you'll find out that the lady is super bad—SUPERBAD!”
“Besides,” Aisha continued as she handed a slice of cake directly to Clay, “there are plenty of other bad men in the world, and you still owe me a favor.”
Clay rolled his eyes. “You know that was never our agreement. Back when all this started I said I'd help you get Max in exchange for getting the team home so I could give them their lives back.” He pointed at Aisha with his fork. “Getting Max took a little longer than expected but it's time to move on with the second half of that plan.”
Aisha stared at him for a moment, then waved her icing-covered knife. “Look around you, Clay.”
Clay did look. He looked at Pooch and Jolene feeding each other cake over Luke's head while Luke licked icing off his own tiny fist. He looked at Jensen recounting the Battle of Alcatraz to Lee for the hundredth time but the first without digital mediation, flailing his arms illustratively when he got to the really good bits—“So there I was with my flammenwerfer, werfing flammen”, and so forth—while Lee giggled and Cougar tried discreetly to warn her against encouraging him. He looked at Kim and Zoë chasing Jess and Isaiah, laughing, around the lemon tree in the middle of the yard. And he looked at Roque, chatting with Abernathy as they brought a pitcher of water and a stack of cups out onto the patio.
Roque, catching Clay staring, looked up and smiled.
Aisha wiped icing off the blade with her finger and held it up to her lips. “What do you think this is?”