The whole thing started, as so many of Ben’s long nights did these days, with hours of frustrating and ultimately fruitless phone calls with hospital administrators and insurance company employees. Private rooms in the hospital were in high demand, said Shirley; Ben’s policy at the newspaper wasn’t going to cover an indefinite hospital stay, said Mercedes, Ben’s new best friend at BlueCross BlueShield; there was no way in hell that his insurance was going to pay for an experimental dementia treatment, no matter what Ben had read about it on WebMD, said Mercedes’s boss Terrence. What it all came down to, in the end, was “We don’t have the time to worry about the love of your life dying, and you don’t have enough money to make us care.”
Maybe that was unfair, but Ben was getting real sick of being fair and polite to people who talked about Doris like she was a bad financial decision Ben was making.
Ellison showed up at his office door with a fifth of gin while Ben was wrapping up his conversation with Terrence. “Insurance companies,” he said sympathetically when Ben had hung up the phone, holding out the gin. “Gotta hate ‘em.”
“Jesus, Mitch,” said Ben, accepting the bottle. “You keep this in your desk?”
“Whatever gets you through the day, right?” Ellison said with a shrug. Ben wondered, not for the first time, what in God’s name they were doing with their lives, and took a swig. It was disgusting, and it burned going down, but it seemed like an apt enough metaphor for all the bile Ben had been swallowing. As he wiped his mouth, Ellison asked quietly, “Doris?”
Ben wasn’t wildly enthused by the idea of talking about it, but Ellison had been remarkably tolerant of Ben spending hours of the workday on the phone trying to get someone to give a shit about his wife, besides accepting what felt like sub-par, clickbait stories from Ben, who didn’t have the motivation to figure out what the people on Buzzfeed or whatever liked, so he figured he owed Ellison at least a polite answer. “She’s, ah.” He swallowed. Sooner or later, this was going to get easier. It was going to get easier because Doris was going to get better. “She has good and bad days. Doctor gave her this new Branivir stuff that seemed to help, but it’s, ah, it’s not FDA-approved yet, so insurance won’t cover it.”
“Shit,” said Ellison eloquently. They were silent for a long moment, Ben still seated behind his desk while Ellison leaned against the doorframe, and then Ellison said, “It’s after six. Wanna find someplace else to drink?”
“Don’t you have to get home?” Ben occasionally wondered how Ellison’s marriage was doing—he almost never talked about it, but Ben had never met anyone as reluctant to go home to his wife and kids at the end of the day as his boss was.
“Eh.” Ellison waved a hand like the thought of going home was a fly he could swat aside. “Vi won’t expect me back for a while. Come on.”
There was almost nothing waiting for Ben at home besides some leftover chili he’d made in the slow cooker almost a week ago and a plant that was dying despite his best efforts. He grabbed his jacket. “Let’s go.”
If Ben had thought that drinking with a friend would make him feel any better, he’d been mistaken. The bar they were drinking in was cheap but gross, both in terms of the drinks and in terms of the sticky floors and tables and the stale smell of cigarette smoke that seemed to hover around, even though smoking was banned in the actual bar. Plus, Ben and Ellison both tended to be morose drunks. Ben wasn’t sorry to see Ellison leave when he finally had to go home to help his daughters with their homework. A mood like this, a man wanted to be alone with himself and his thoughts.
That was the kind of thing Doris would laugh at him for saying. “You’re full of beans, Ben Urich,” she’d say. “You don’t want to be alone, you just want to talk at somebody ‘til they agree with you just to make you shut up.” She was right, of course, but it wasn’t just anybody Ben wanted to talk to. It was Doris.
But then, he wasn’t alone, was he? He felt the hair stand on the back of his neck. Somebody was watching him.
Ben had been investigating mob bosses and corrupt CEOs long enough to trust his instincts when it came to this kind of thing; it had saved his life more than once. Carefully, casually, he ordered an old-fashioned from the bartender and turned his stool around, just enough to see the man in glasses out of the corner of his eye. Thirties. Slick hair, slick suit. Ben didn’t know his face, but if he had to guess, he’d slot this man into the consigliere role, whether he was involved in organized crime or selling hedge funds. Something about him just screamed ‘power behind the throne.’
The question was, why was he watching Ben? The Bulletin hadn’t paid for Ben to do a long-term investigative piece since the early 2000s; the reflected glow of The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team faded fast at a newspaper that was barely breaking even, as Ellison had told Ben a million times. He’d done some hard-hitting pieces since then, sure, but nothing lately, and nothing that should have put him on anyone’s hit list.
The bartender set his old-fashioned on the counter. Ben closed his tab, downed the cocktail in three large gulps, and took himself off. The consigliere followed him for a block or two, but Ben was good at losing a tail, and by the time he’d reached his apartment, the coast was clear.
The next day, Ben called in hung-over to work—Ellison was very understanding about it—and went to visiting hours at the hospital. Metro General was even more of a mess than usual; in addition to the usual crowd of crying babies, teenage wannabe gangbangers tying up their various bleeding wounds with tee-shirts, and cranky old guys demanding to see a doctor, the place was full of denim-clad workmen moving back and forth between what looked like a wing being renovated. Bad time for the hospital to be under construction, what with the post-Incident violent crime wave, but then, was there ever a good time for a hospital to be under construction?
Ben didn’t have to wait long before one of Doris’s nurses, Claire, came to get him. She looked…more tired than usual, Ben would have said. And angrier. Like she was biting down on her temper. But she still somehow found a smile for him and said, “Hey, Ben.”
“Hey, Claire.” He shook her hand. “How’s my girl?”
Claire let out a deep sigh. “I’m not going to lie to you, since we switched her from the Branivir to the Razadyne, she’s had more episodes of forgetfulness, and she’s been fussy with her food. Sometimes she can’t keep it down. One of the side effects of the medication is nausea, which wouldn’t ordinarily be a big deal, but she’s already underweight. We might have to switch her back to the IV nutrition if she keeps having eating problems."
He swallowed and nodded. Wasn’t as bad as it could be, he told himself. The Branivir had worked so well for her, it wasn’t all that surprising that she wasn’t doing as well on a different medication. And Ben had done a lot of research on various dementia treatments; in the grand scheme of things, nausea wasn’t anywhere near the worst side effect she could have had. “Can I see her?”
“Sure,” Claire said with a weary, understanding smile. Claire was good people.
As she led him back through the hallways toward the long-term care rooms, they had to dodge more workmen, these ones moving things in and out of rooms and, from the smell, touching up the paint. It was…kind of loud, considering how many people in a hospital needed rest. On the other hand, the hospital was old. Some places had really need updates. “You guys are getting a lot of work done,” he commented neutrally. If anyone knew what the story was behind the sudden flurry of renovations, it would be Claire.
Claire nodded, pressing her lips together irritably, and then said, “Yeah.”
Ben raised his eyebrows. “Not a fan?”
“What is this, an interview?” They ducked around a corner, avoiding the billowing plastic hanging over a door that swung open as they passed.
She stopped abruptly in the middle of the hallway, and Ben stepped on the back of her right shoe and just about fell over backwards trying not to knock her over. “Argh, sorry,” he said.
“Sorry, no, that was my fault.” She rolled her eyes up like she was asking for help from the heavens, then leveled a serious look at Ben. He felt a cold dread in the pit of his stomach. It was probably something to do with Doris—please, Jesus, he thought, don’t let her be going downhill faster than they predicted. Don’t let them have discovered some other disease or infection. Don’t let them kick her out before I have a plan. “Ben,” said Claire, “why don’t you go see Doris, and then come out and talk with me.” She must have seen his fear in his face, because she said quickly, “It’s not something wrong with Doris, swear to God. It’s just, ah. Things are going to be a little shaken up at Metro General, and I need to talk with you about how that’s going to impact you and Doris.”
“All right,” said Ben. Whatever it was, as long as Doris was okay, he could roll with it.
Between Ben and the nurses, they’d done a pretty good job of making Doris’s room homey. Books, pictures, her iPad, blankets she’d crocheted, everything Ben could bring to make the place comfortable and not too boring for her, he’d brought. She was alert, at least, when he walked in, scrolling through something on her iPad with enough pillows under her head that she didn’t have to move it to look up and say, “Hey, gorgeous,” when Ben walked in.
He smiled. He couldn’t not smile, not when she was looking at him like that. “Hey, handsome.” He walked over to sit by her bed and reached out for her hand. “Whatcha reading?”
“Ugh.” She scoffed and set the iPad aside. “New article on that jail guard who killed himself, full of ‘so-and-so says this’ and ‘what’s-his-name says that.’ No indication of what they think the truth is. Fair and balanced, they call it.”
He’d been edging around that particular story himself lately. He was less than certain that Clyde Farnum had killed himself, but the cops weren’t cooperating and nobody else seemed to think there was a story there. “Best way to avoid pissing off their sources,” said Ben. He didn’t have to get as angry about that mealy-mouthed dereliction of duty if Doris got angry for him.
“Best way to waste my time.” She smoothed the blanket over her lap and said, “You ever think of getting an international reporting gig? There’s big things happening in the world. Real stories, and they need a real reporter covering them.”
“Plus we could go to Paris, like we always said we would.”
She smiled at him, her eyes twinkling. “Plus we could go to Paris.”
It was a nice fantasy. Forget about the insurance companies and the side effects and Ellison’s puff pieces about subway lines and urban gardening trends, just him and his girl half a world away in the City of Love. Ben let himself think about him and Doris sipping fancy coffee by the Seine and strolling the Champs-Elysées, and then let it go. “The Bulletin won’t pay to send me to Jersey to investigate the Port Authority, baby, I doubt they’re gonna pay to send me to Paris.”
“No, I guess not.” Doris closed her eyes, and suddenly she looked smaller, more tired. Ben sat up straight, feeling a jolt of anxiety roil his stomach.
“Ben, you think you could grab me something to throw up in?” she asked tightly. “I’m feeling like…like I….”
Ben was just in time to catch her before she threw up. He rubbed her back while she spat into the bedpan, holding her hair back. “It’s okay,” he said, trying to keep his voice calm and soothing. “You’re okay.”
“Oh,” said Doris, sounding like she was about to burst into tears. “Oh, Jesus. Ben! Ben, make it stop.”
Being physically torn apart couldn’t hurt more than this, he thought. “Would if I could, sweetheart. It’s okay. It’s okay.”
She made a moaning noise and then—“Where am I?”
It was probably only a matter of minutes until his visit with Doris was over, but it felt like an agonizing stretch of hours. Ben had gotten spoiled by the Branivir; he’d forgotten how terrifying it was when she disappeared like that. At least she hadn’t forgotten who he was this time. It must have been even worse for her, he thought—he couldn’t imagine what it would be like to suddenly lose time like that and not know what was happening to him. He swallowed. Everything tasted bitter to him these days.
Outside the room, once they finally got Doris settled down, Claire gave Ben a gentle, solemn look and said, “Let me grab you some coffee from the cafeteria, and we can find a place to sit and talk.”
Hospital coffee was…not great, but at least it was warm. They found and empty waiting room and sat down, and Claire put her hands on her knees and sighed. “Here’s the deal, Ben. You know the hospital’s been…struggling lately. Financially, I mean.” Her mouth twisted sourly, and she added, “Not that some of those problems aren’t its own fault. But—anyway, this past week, the administrators told us that Metro General’s being bought out. It’s going private.”
Ben just about spit out his coffee. How the fuck had he not known about this? He was practically his own department at the Bulletin these days, but he worked regularly with the city division to keep up with major developments—and a large public hospital being bought out was a major development. A million questions popped into his head at once, but the first that made it out was “Who’s the buyer?”
Claire’s eyes darted up to the corner of the room, and the lines of her face tightened. “Marlena Holdings, Inc.,” she said. “I’d never heard of it before Monday, but I guess it’s some private real estate firm with more money than God. And of course, the most important thing about a hospital is how profitable it is—” She shook her head. “I’m sorry, you don’t need my opinions on this. The point is, they’re doing major staff changes, and they’re also changing up the financial structuring. What forms of insurance they accept, how the payments are collected…what patients we treat. It’s really, uh.” She made another face. It was really bad, whas what she was saying. “So, yeah, after next Friday, I’m not going to be working here anymore.”
Ben’s mind was still whirling with questions, but this time, they were less about how a purchase this big had somehow been overlooked by major news outlets and more about how in God’s name he was going to get treatment for Doris. The way Claire was describing things, it sounded like any shot Ben had had at getting Doris’s care extended here had just gone up in smoke. “That’s, uh. Wow.”
“Yeah,” said Claire in a low voice. “So. I want to assure you that I’ll be talking to the other nurses who are working with Doris to make sure she gets as much continuity in her treatment as possible. I did want to give you a heads-up, though. I know you’ve been talking with Shirley about working to extend her stay, and I, uh. I don’t know exactly how the buyout’s going to affect that, but. You know, it might be worth asking her about it.”
“I will,” Ben said. Shit. He could go to Ellison and ask about that editorial position Ellison occasionally brought up, but even if Ben wouldn’t completely hate the job—and he would, Ben was a reporter, but none of that mattered if it would help him care for Doris—the Bulletin wasn’t rolling in dough, and a slightly higher salary and a slightly better benefits package weren’t going to do shit if the changes in the hospital were was sweeping as Claire seemed to be implying. It would be like bailing out a sinking ship with a spoon. Shit shit shit. Ben took a deep breath, shook his head as if the movement might shake the cobwebs and panic out, and said, “So what are you gonna do?”
Claire looked surprised at the question. “Hmm?”
“You going to another hospital, or…?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t have another job lined up or anything. But I have some money saved up, and there’s always a market for nurses. I’ll be fine. But thanks for asking.”
It was on the tip of Ben’s tongue to say that she could come and help Doris when Doris inevitably had to come home, but it was a stupid thought. Claire was a top-flight nurse. Even if Shirley hadn’t said it, Ben could have figured it out on his own from watching her competence with Doris or with other patients. There was zero chance that Ben, who’d already depleted most of his retirement fund on Doris’s care, could pay Claire enough to make it worth her while. So instead he just said, “Sure. Thanks for telling me about the buyout.”
After that, Ben went home and researched everything he could on Marlena Holdings, Inc., for a couple of hours, with little by way of results. Their website was vague and jargon, there was no public record of most of their dealings, and his press credentials hadn’t impressed the ‘industry specialist’ he’d managed to contact. A little feet-to-the-pavement investigation might have yielded better results, but Ben was tired. He didn’t have it in him to stare at his future anymore tonight.
What was one more night of drinking, in the grand scheme of things?
He went to the bar on the corner two blocks over. It wasn’t all that swanky, but it was a hell of a lot nicer than the pit Ellison drank in. Ben’s dad would have approved—the place had the same kind of old-timey feel of the local watering hole where Josiah Urich had dealt with his problems by downing cheap beer and arguing about basketball with the other regulars. Ben got himself a gin and tonic and found a seat across from the television set. It was showing a soccer game on ESPN. Ben didn’t follow soccer, but whatever, it was something to get his mind off his problems, so he settled in and watched Wakanda score a goal against Symkaria. This was probably pretty exciting for people who’d actually been watching the game; with more than half the game over, Wakanda’s goal brought the score to 0–1.
“Excuse me.” Ben didn’t realize the voice was addressing him until it repeated, “Excuse me. Ben Urich?”
Ben turned his head from the television and froze. It was the slick-looking CEO type from the previous night. So he hadn’t been paranoid after all—the guy had been watching him. He carefully schooled his expression to calmness and said, “That’s me.”
The man extended his hand with a toothy, false-looking smile. “Hi. I represent a consortium with domestic and international interests called Confederated Global Investments.”
“Nice to meet you,” said Ben cautiously. The fact that the man hadn’t opened with his own name was strange, and something about it set Ben’s inner alarms ringing.
“You mind if I sit?” asked the man, not waiting for an answer before he pulled out the stool next to Ben at the bar. “I’m a big fan of your work, by the way.”
“Uncovering corruption at the VA, exposing the underbelly of organized crime….” The man shook his head. “Truly, impressive journalism.”
Ben had fans. They were usually earnest young journalism students, or victims of criminal conspiracies that he’d written about. This guy wasn’t a fan. This guy wanted something from him.
“It’s a job,” he said, and he gulped the last few sips of his G & T and stood. He wasn’t in the mood. “If you’ll excuse me,” he said, “it’s getting late. I gotta get home.”
“No, wait!” The guy actually reached out and grabbed Ben’s wrist, and Ben stared at the hand until the man removed it. “I’m sorry. I just—can we talk somewhere more…private?”
Like hell was Ben going anywhere alone with this guy. “What for?”
“I’d like to offer you a job.”
Ben snorted. If the man had really read Ben’s stuff, then he had to know that working for some mysterious international ‘consortium’ wasn’t on his to-do list. Exposing a mysterious international consortium was more his thing. “Doing what? I’m a journalist. I don’t write PR briefs.”
The guy laughed at that, a casual, carefree laugh that seemed completely inappropriate for the situation. “No, no. Though of course I have the utmost respect for your writing skills, I’m coming to you for this job based on your more…specialized skills and connections.”
Uh-huh. Ben simply couldn’t think of anything this guy would say next that Ben would like. “Not interested,” he said, gathering his coat from the stool next to him. “I already have a job.”
“And is that job going to pay for your wife’s care?”
Now that…that made Ben’s blood run cold. This wouldn’t be the first time Doris had been threatened because of Ben, but it would be the first time it had happened when Doris couldn’t tell him to stop worrying, she could take care of herself. She was in the hospital surrounded by other people, true, but he’d been investigating mob hits long enough to know that if you wanted someone dead badly enough, a hospital’s security guards and the presence of a whole flock of doctors and nurses wasn’t going to stop you. “You’ve clearly done your research on me,” he said, keeping his voice level with some effort, “so you should know that I don’t like it when people try to use my family against me.”
The man’s frown of horrified shock was even more fake than his laugh. “Oh, it certainly wasn’t my intention to threaten you, Mr. Urich. I only mean that I know how expensive long-term care is. I apologize if I alarmed you, but of course my company does extensive background checks on any freelancers or contractors we consider working with. Your wife’s condition was one of the first things that came up, and we thought you might be interested in an additional source of income. It wouldn’t take too much of your time, I think—and we could call it a consulting gig for tax purposes.”
“We could call it a consulting gig?” Despite himself, Ben was beginning to get curious. “What would it actually be?”
The man smiled again, this time with something smug and knowing about it. “I respect your caution—I would feel the same way in your shoes—but this really is something best discussed somewhere more private.”
It wasn’t smart to go alone somewhere with this man. Ben always liked to tell himself that he’d gotten smarter since his younger days, when he dove into a delicate situation headfirst and followed a story down whatever thorny or treacherous paths it might lead.
But then again, maybe he hadn’t. “All right,” he said.
They didn’t go to either of their homes, but to an office building, strangely nondescript and empty except for the security guard in the lobby. The guard didn’t say anything, but he must have known Ben’s new friend, because he waved him up and opened the door for him without any hesitation, without the man even showing him any ID. The office itself was luxurious but cold, less like an office that someone actually used and worked in and more like the set of a SkyMall ad. The desk, the chairs, the color schemes were all contemporary and expensive-looking, but the chair wasn’t particularly comfortable as Ben sat down across the desk from the stranger.
“So,” said Ben. “You ever gonna tell me your name?”
The man gave him a cool smile. “As I mentioned before, I represent Confederated Global Investments. That’s the only relevant name for our purposes.”
“Uh-huh.” Nothing at all suspicious about that. Ben made a mental note to look into Confederated Global as soon as humanly possible. “So what can I do for Confederated Global Investments?”
“Well,” said the man, steepling his fingers with his hands in front of him on the desk. “Our company deals with many well-to-do clients who trust us with, well, rather sensitive financial information. As I’m sure you can imagine, the world of international investment banking is what you might call ‘cutthroat,’ and we have a number of rivals competing for our clients’ business.”
“Sure.” Ben nodded. It was actually incredible how vague the guy managed to be. Clearly, this was someone experienced in revealing the bare minimum of information needed to get what he wanted—someone who, though he might lack personal presence or charisma, relied on the very bland, white affluence of his appearance and the vague authority he projected to compensate for the lack of substance in what he said.
“Recently, our servers experienced a massive data breach.” Mr. Confederated Global grimaced ever so slightly—a crack in his implacable façade. “This isn’t to say that our computer security isn’t top of the line, but in this day and age….” He shrugged. “If Sony and the Pentagon get hacked, perhaps it isn’t so surprising that someone managed to find a weakness in our systems. At any rate, we believe that one of our rival firms is behind the intrusion.” He opened a desk drawer, pulling a manila folder out of it and sliding it across the desk to Ben.
He opened it. “Pierce and Pinkwater?” Unlike Confederated Global, Ben had actually heard of them—Pierce had been investigated in connection to the real-estate bubble of the 2000s but had ultimately been cleared of any wrongdoing and had almost immediately gone back to wheeling and dealing on Wall Street. Pinkwater, Ben understood, would have been garden variety scum had it not been for the added bonus of his political ambitions. Their company had a bigger bottom line than the GDP of several countries. “What makes you think they stole your data?”
“Because they’ve already used confidential information to sink a few of our clients’ investment portfolios.” The grimace was bigger now, Confederated Global’s upper lip curling with disgust. “It takes only a small amount of research to connect certain company buyouts and stock dilutions to the stolen data. So far, the only consequence has been the loss of a few clients, but if it continues on a large scale….” He shook his head. “It could bankrupt us.”
“I take it you haven’t gone to the authorities about this?”
The man gave Ben a reasonable facsimile of a knowing smile. “I’m sure I don’t have to tell you of all people that, in an industry where lobbyists are regularly lining the regulators’ pockets, trying to get any kind of help from the government in a matter like this is, well. An inefficient proposition, shall we say. What’s more….” He tapped his fingers on his desk. “I’m telling you this off the record, in the strictest confidentiality.”
Ben was pretty sure he already knew what was coming. “Of course.”
“Some of our clients engage in, shall we say, creative accounting measures in order to minimize their tax liabilities. Nothing illegal, of course, but I don’t think it would dispose the authorities in our favor.”
“I see what you mean,” said Ben wryly. He could just imagine. Swiss bank accounts, shell companies, dubious PACs lobbying for their interest in Washington—some of it skirting the line of illegality, some of it blithely stepping over the line. None of it new. “So, what, you want me to write a story about Pierce and Pinkwater?” It was a little weird—of all the whistleblowers Ben had worked with in his time, approximately zero of them had been this particular brand of slick, confident, shady anonymous businessman—but Ben could see it making for a good story. Cutthroat investment banks, tiptoeing toward the edge of the law until they graduated to straight-up stealing from each other…hell, if Ben could manage to sell it along the lines of The Big Short or Inside Job or something, maybe Ellison would even let him take some time with the story without giving him too much shit. It would be too much to ask to hope for a research assistant, things being as they were, but just having a break from the “human interest” pieces would free up a lot of Ben’s time to do some digging.
Ben’s new informant laughed. “Oh, no. Although I can see why you would think that. No, I want you to help us steal the data back.”
Uh-huh. Visions of Pulitzer Prizes stopped dancing in front of Ben’s eyes, and instead he started seeing visions of himself getting dumped in the Hudson in concrete shoes. “Well. I don’t think I’m going to be able to help you there,” he said carefully, and he stood up slowly, watching the man’s hands closely to see if he went for a weapon.
“We’re willing to pay,” said the man, smiling pleasantly. “I think ten million dollars would make a pretty sizeable dent in your wife’s medical bills, don’t you?”
What the hell did he think Ben was? Who the fuck asked an investigative reporter to steal data from an investment firm for him? If it was just a straight-up racism thing, there were plenty of black men in New York. Even if it was just a matter of leverage—the guy clearly knew way more about Doris and their finances than Ben was comfortable with—the city was full of people who were struggling. There was no need to seek him out in particular. “I think you’re making a mistake here,” he said steadily. “I’ve gone pretty far to get a story, true, but a reporter and a thief are really not the same thing.”
“I don’t know that I’d consider this to be theft, morally speaking,” said Confederated Global, sounding way too casual about it. “After all, the data was ours to begin with—not even ours, really, but our clients’, and for Pierce and Pinkwater to have that information puts not only our bottom line but their financial wellbeing at risk. I know that you’ve always been a champion of the little guy, Mr. Urich. Well, not everyone who invests with a Wall Street firm is a member of the 1%. We handle plenty of pension funds, and there are a lot of retirees who depend on the income from investment portfolios.”
“Okay,” said Ben, “but I’m still not a thief. You’ve got the wrong guy.”
“Oh, I don’t think I do.” The man drummed his fingers on the desk and gave Ben a toothy smile. “I know you’re not a thief, Mr. Urich. By all accounts, you’re a man who follows his conscience. Who can’t be bought or intimidated. Which is exactly the kind of man I would put in charge of supervising the thieves I’d like to hire.”
What in God’s name had been in that gin and tonic? Ben felt like he had to be hallucinating. “You—you want me to supervise a bunch of thieves.”
“Precisely.” Confederated Global lost the grin and leaned over the desk, adopting a serious, almost concerned expression. “We have a very dedicated staff here, and they’ve managed to track down information on a number of people who would be capable and willing to break into Pierce and Pinkwater’s building and steal the information from their private servers. The problem, of course, is that we could never trust such people to actually do the job—there’d be nothing stopping them from taking our money and running. We’re—we’re stockbrokers and accountants here.” The man laughed self-deprecatingly. “Not exactly the kind of people hardened criminals are going to listen to.”
“And you think they’d listen to me?” asked Ben incredulously.
“Mr. Urich,” said the man sincerely, “I’ve read your pieces on organized crime and corruption in the city. They’re amazing. The in-depth detail you managed to uncover, the number of people connected to the mob you interviewed, your undercover work—really, it’s the kind of journalism you just don’t see much of nowadays. And when my supervisor asked for ideas about who would have the necessary interest in and knowledge about this kind of corporate espionage, the courage to get involved, and the people skills and integrity to be trusted with managing the contractors on this job, your name came up immediately.”
Maybe on another day, Ben might have found this flattering—right now, he was just creeped out. “Okay, Mr….Confederated Global, I understand that you’re in a tight position here. But I really think you’d be better off contacting the authorities. This kind of thing really isn’t in my wheelhouse.”
Confederated Global nodded, giving Ben an understanding smile. “Of course. I know it’s a bit unorthodox, as far as requests for help go. But if you change your mind….” He dug a business card out of his pocket and slid it across the desk; Ben took it. Unsurprisingly, it was minimalist to the point of absurdity, only the words “Confederated Global Investments: International Financial Solutions” and a phone number. The man waited for Ben to put it in his pocket before saying, “Ten million dollars plus expenses. Not bad for a few days’ work.”
And a lifetime’s worth of jail if he got caught. Things that sounded too good to be true generally were, in Ben’s experience—the only exception, of course, being when Doris had agreed to marry him. He nodded at Confederated Global and said, “I’ll think about it and get back to you.”
“You do that. I do hope I can rely on your discretion?”
Don’t tell the cops, Ben translated. Like the police would take action on the strength of this weird-ass conversation, which Ben hadn’t even recorded. “Yeah,” said Ben.
“So glad to hear it. Good night, Mr. Urich.”
Ben walked home still feeling somewhat dazed, as if he’d imagined the whole thing. He had a hard time falling asleep; eventually, he found a marathon of Forensic Files on TV and finally dropped off half a dozen episodes in, after three in the morning. When his alarm rang in the morning, he woke stiff and sleepy and unsure as to whether his strange encounter the previous night had been a dream.
The next couple of days were, to say the least, strange. Ben went to work and listened to Ellison harangue him about writing a piece about some Pokémon game kids were playing on their phones, all the while thinking about the business card burning a hole in his jacket pocket. He went to the hospital to visit Doris, watching the construction workers remodel and the nurses shake their heads grimly. Doris, who had always been able to read Ben like a book, asked him multiple times what was on his mind.
He couldn’t tell her.
Ordinarily, this kind of thing wouldn’t even be a question. Whether it was if he was going to follow up on a story or not, how to get past his writer’s block, or what to get when he made a Starbucks run, Ben talked over all his big decisions with Doris.
But he couldn’t take this to her.
It would be one thing if she were feeling better. If her mind were clear and things didn’t frighten her so much—or if her hospital bills weren’t the main reason Ben hadn’t thrown that business card in the garbage disposal that first night. Ben couldn’t put that burden on her, not now. If…if this turned into something bad, he didn’t want her to think that she had sent him into danger for her sake. He would walk through fire for that woman, but that wasn’t something Doris should ever blame herself for.
He thought about calling his brother Joe in Baltimore, getting his take on things, but nixed the idea almost instantly. Joe and Ben met once or twice a year and spent the whole time talking about Joe’s kids and real estate prices. He didn’t go to Joe with big moral dilemmas, he went to Joe with news about the dumbass things Aunt Maya’s kids got up to.
The whole thing was stupid. He should have just shredded the damn card. He didn’t trust Confederated Global as far as he could throw him. Who the fuck hired a reporter to oversee a gang of thieves? Chances were good the guy was lying about his clients’ data being stolen, anyway. And God knew that whoever the man found to pull this deal off got caught, it wouldn’t be the bland white CEO-looking guy who ended up paying for it.
And yet. He fingered the card in his pocket and stared at the blank white screen of his word processor. Ten million dollars was a lot of money. As a general rule, Ben didn’t worry too much about money. He and Doris lived pretty comfortably—until a few years ago, Doris had been working as a copy editor in a publishing house, and between the two of them, they made enough to cover the rent on a decent place, the day-to-day expenses, and a few meals out each week. If they didn’t get to travel as much as they’d have liked, well, it had always seemed like a small price to pay for living a life with integrity. Ben could have sold out years ago—it would have been safer if he had—but Doris had always told him that it was the fight in him that she loved, the fight to uncover the truth, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Since that was what he loved about her, too, he didn’t argue the point with her too much.
But Doris’s illness had burned through their savings. Since that godawful day two years ago when Doris had gotten lost on her way to the VA medical center where she volunteered each week, the solid ground beneath Ben’s feet had become quicksand. Ben, who had never suffered from anything more medically serious than high blood pressure and bad knees, suddenly became intimately familiar with insurance policies and hospital staff, had started bribing nurses with pastries to keep Doris in a hospital that cost two grand a day. And it wasn’t getting better. No miracles falling from the sky to clear up the confusion in Doris’s mind, get back all the short-term memories she couldn’t hold on to.
Doris had fallen asleep, but Ben felt jittery, like he’d pulled an all-nighter and was running on caffeine alone. He wasn’t—the hospital coffee wasn’t so good that he kept going back for seconds or anything—but that nervous energy he’d had since that strange meeting with the man from Confederated Global wouldn’t seem to leave him. It wasn’t only the money. It was all the unanswered questions. Ben had never been one to leave a mystery alone.
“Claire,” he said, more to hear someone else’s voice than for any other reason, “what would you do if somebody offered you ten million dollars?”
Claire straightened from the notes she’d been making on a clipboard. “Offered? There some reason I shouldn’t take it?”
“That’s the thing. They ain’t just giving it away.”
She snorted. “What is this, a game show? What would I do for ten million bucks?”
“I’m not talking about eating worms or something, just….” Ben shrugged, unable to put a name to the melancholy restlessness he was feeling. “I don’t know. I’ve written a lot in my time about the terrible shit people do for money, and I never had much sympathy for them, but….”
“I get it,” said Claire, setting down the clipboard and coming over to squeeze his arm comfortingly. “Doris, and all this shit with the hospital buyout—if it were up to me, money would never, ever be an issue for people seeking medical treatment and their families, but God knows I don’t rule the world.” She patted his arm. “I don’t know what’s gonna happen with the new ownership, but if…if for any reason you and Doris decide to move her out of Metro General, or you want to talk to someone about your options, well. I’m about to have a lot of time on my hands, so, you know.” She rolled her eyes, seemingly exasperated at herself. “I can give you my cell number, if you want it.”
Despite it all, Ben mustered a smile for her. “You’re good people, Claire.”
She grinned back at him, tired but bright. “Likewise, Ben.”
Ben went home after that and tried to work on the Pokémon Go thing, but it was hard to focus, so instead he did a little more digging into Confederated Global. They were a publicly traded company, so it wasn’t terribly difficult to look up their stock history—a steady rise since the company had come into being five years ago. For a company with stock prices as high as this one’s were, Confederated Global seemed to keep a pretty low profile, which made feel Ben a little better about knowing zilch about it. There weren’t any leaked audits, which would have been useful, but a little searching turned up a quarterly report or two—not as many as he would have liked to find, but a couple. Ben wasn’t exactly a financial whiz kid, but he’d been investigating financial corruption long enough to identify anything obviously suspicious in a report, and these seemed on the up-and-up.
So why was the company so desperate to get this information back that they were literally willing to hire thieves to get to it? It seemed a little extreme, even for private financial information. What exactly was in those files that Confederated Global, or their clients, didn’t want getting out?
A couple more hours of searching didn’t get Ben any closer to answering that question, or to figuring out just who the man who had talked to him was. He didn’t know how long he’d been at it when his phone rang. He picked it up and answered without even checking the caller ID.
Ben felt himself smiling involuntarily for what seemed like the first time in a long time. “Hey, handsome. What are you doing up? It’s late.”
“Ugh. I’ve been sleeping all day. Sleep any more, I’m gonna start feeling like a hibernating bear.” Ben could hear the rustle of cloth on the other end of the phone, the creaking springs of the hospital bed as Doris shifted. “Besides. You think I didn’t notice you never told me what was bothering you this afternoon?”
His smile was suddenly a lot harder to keep on his face. “Don’t worry about me, Doris,” he said, trying to keep his voice light. “I’m doing just fine.”
Doris made a rude noise on the other end. “Hey, you, I haven’t lost all my brain cells yet. I can tell when you got something serious on your mind.”
His instinctual response, “It’s nothing,” was obviously inadequate, so instead he said, “Ellison's got me writing a puff piece on this Pokémon Go thing. I swear to God, we’re gonna wake up someday real soon and find out the Bulletin turned into People magazine overnight.”
“Pokémon what?” asked Doris, and Ben congratulated himself at having successfully gotten her off the trail. But before he could even finish the thought, she added, “Never mind. I know that’s not it, Ben, ‘cause you would have had a blast bitching about that to me this afternoon. Is it….” She swallowed, and when she spoke again her voice was weaker, shakier. “Is it about me, Ben? Did the doctors tell us something and I just can’t remember?”
“No,” said Ben firmly. He had to nip that line of thought in the bud. “No, honey, you know the medication they switched you to isn’t as good as that experimental stuff, but you’re doing just fine.” It wasn’t really a lie; there were definitely more serious side effects than nausea that Doris could have been experiencing.
“Is it the money?”
The jig was up. “Baby,” he said, “the hospital’s going private, and I don’t know what’s gonna happen. And somebody—somebody gave me an offer. A consulting job,” he said, using Confederated Global’s euphemism because he didn’t know how to explain what the job really was without giving Doris a conniption. “And the pay’s good, but….”
“A consulting job?” Doris snorted. “Consulting at what? Benjamin Urich, I wasn’t born yesterday. I know you’ve dug up every little thing you could on whoever offered you this job, and you wouldn’t sound like this if it was something you actually wanted to do.”
“It’s not,” Ben admitted. There was nothing about the whole setup that he liked.
“So don’t do it.” For all that Doris had been tired and drifting lately, right now she sounded alert as she ever had. “We’ll figure something out. We always have. And I don’t want to be the reason you get yourself into something you can’t get out of. You’re not a kid anymore. You gotta be smart about this, Ben.”
She was right. She was right. And yet, Ben couldn’t help but think that that was easy for Doris to say. She wasn’t the one looking at the love of her life dying right before her eyes. “I know,” he said. “I’m being as smart about it as I can, Doris.”
“Hmph,” said Doris. “You better be. You’ve got stories left to write. I don’t want you throwing that away consulting for some shady company you ought to be writing an exposé on.”
Ben couldn’t help but smile. Even if Ben had ever wanted to sell out at some point over the years, it would have been impossible. Doris guarded his integrity as fiercely as any Jiminy Cricket. “All right,” he said. “All right.”
They talked for a few more minutes before Doris started to drift again, and Ben managed to persuade her to hang up and try to go back to sleep. She managed the second but not the first, and for a long minute Ben listened to her slow, sleeping breaths over the phone and tried to pretend that they were in bed together, Doris’s cold feet jabbing him in the leg as she pulled the covers over to her side of the bed. But Ben’s pretending skills were pretty lousy these days, and he hung up the phone and went to bed feeling drained and mildly despairing.
The next morning, as Ben was trying to find his keys, the phone rang again. He considered not answering it, since he didn’t know the number, but with everything going on, he didn’t want anything unexpected to bite him in the ass, so he picked up.
It was Terrence from BlueCross BlueShield. A minute into the conversation, Ben had to sit down, and he sat for a long time after he’d hung up the phone. By the time he stood up, he had made a decision.
He was more or less useless at work that day, spending most of the time on his computer searching any database he could find for information on Confederated Global, Pierce and Pinkwater, the stock market, finance law. He drew a chart to map out any connections he could find, but there weren’t many. When he wasn’t working on his personal research project, he was squeezing the stress ball he’d gotten at the last National Association of Black Journalists conference and staring at the empty bulletin board on the far wall, where he’d used to plot out his long-term investigative pieces.
He wondered if someone would end up doing a long-term investigative piece on him.
Around 3:00, Ellison walked into the office without knocking and closed the door behind him. “Ben,” he said without fanfare, “What the hell’s with you today?”
Ben shrugged, not interested in getting into it with Ellison right now. “Got some bad news from the insurance company.”
Ellison let out a huff of air. “They ever give anything but bad news? Bloodsuckers.” Then he shook his head. “Look, man, this shit’s obviously a lot to deal with. I mean, I get it, but…maybe it would be a good idea for you to take a little time off. Vacation. Just until you’ve got a better handle on the Doris situation.”
The Doris situation. Fucking Ellison. What he meant was, Get the fuck out of here until you’re ready to write the pieces I assign you. Which wasn’t unfair, really, but Ben had bigger fish to fry at the moment. “You know, Mitch, that’s a good idea. I think I’m gonna take some time.”
Ellison obviously hadn’t expected Ben to acquiesce so easily, because he blinked behind his glasses and his mouth fell open, just a bit, with surprise. “Okay,” he said. “Okay, lemme go talk to Geraldine in HR and work the details out—I’ll get those to you ASAP.”
“Sounds good,” said Ben tiredly. He watched as Ellison turned to leave and was struck by a terrible feeling of loneliness. “Hey, Ellison,” he called before he had the chance to second-guess himself.
Ellison stuck his head back around the door frame into the room. “Hmm?”
“You ever heard of a company called Confederated Global?”
Ellison blinked again, his eyebrows lifting up over his glasses. “Wow. That’s a generic name—what are they, media conglomeration?”
“Investment bank.” Ben sighed. “One of their—I don’t know, their executives—approached me the other night. I’ve done a little digging into them, and—” He shook his head. “Something doesn’t sit right with me about them. They’ve got clients and portfolios and whatever, all the things you’d expect an investment bank to have, but there’s so little information about any of their executives, and for a publicly traded company, their financial history’s got a lot of gaps in it.”
“Oh, wow,” said Ellison, rolling his eyes. “A shady investment bank. Stop the presses.” He tapped absentmindedly on the door frame before coming back into the room to lean against the wall facing Ben’s desk.
“You said they approached you? About what?”
They want me to wrangle the gang of thieves they’re planning to hire to steal back confidential data from one of their rivals. And I’m gonna do it. Ha, the chances that Ellison would even believe that story were so slim as to be nearly nonexistent. “Eh,” he said casually. “Rival company engaging in shady business practices. I guess one of their execs knew me by reputation, thought it might be the kind of story I’d be interested in.”
“Well, if it’s the kind of story that involves our research department digging into the financials of a multi-million dollar company and opens us up to lawsuits from Harvard Business School dicks, you’re not taking it,” said Ellison bluntly.
It wasn’t even a story, and even if it were, Ben would have stepped carefully before taking it on, but he still bristled at Ellison’s peremptory tone. “Yeah,” he said, “God forbid an investigative journalist actually do some investigative journalism.”
“Ben,” said Ellison, sounding half exasperated and half exhausted, “you really want to push me on this now? You’re taking a break, remember? Plus, I’d have thought, with all this shit with Doris, you’d be angling for a desk job right about now, not raring at the bit to piss people off.”
“I’m a journalist, Mitch. You remember what that was like?”
The lines around Ellison’s mouth tightened, and he looked for a minute like he was going to tell Ben to go fuck himself. Ben almost wished he would. But instead, he said, “You got that Pokémon Go story for me? I’d like to run it before you take off.”
The fight leaked out of Ben like air out of a sinking balloon. “I’ll get it to you tomorrow.”
Ben watched Ellison go, feeling very disconnected. The whole thing was crazy. He fingered the Confederated Global business card in his pocket.
The rest of the day was a waste, surprise surprise. Ben picked up some takeout Indian for dinner and went home to eat it at his computer desk, deciding to call the number on the business card and then changing his mind again and again. When he finally lifted his cell phone to dial, it wasn’t the number on the card that he called.
“Hello, Ben?” Claire’s voice on the other end was curious, a bit surprised.
“How’s it going?”
“Not so good. Got a call from my insurance company this morning, and unless I come up with a lot of money really fast, the hospital’s kicking Doris out with nothing and I can probably kiss my life savings goodbye.”
Claire groaned on the other end. “Fuck,” she said. “Swear to God, if there’s literally anything I can do….”
“Actually….” Ben fingered the card. “Do you want to come over? I could use a drink and someone I trust to talk to right about now.”
If Ben hadn’t already known that Claire was the one he wanted to go to about this, the quickness with which she said “What’s your address?” would have settled the matter for him.
It was weird, the way people came into your life. Claire and Ben would never have met if Doris hadn’t gotten ill, and though Ben wished Doris’s illness away with all his heart, he couldn’t go all the way to wishing Claire out of his life, too. Claire had seen Ben at his lowest and never pitied him or talked down to him, had seen him at his angriest and gotten angry along with him. When Ben needed information about Doris’s care or hospital policy, Claire got him the information. And when Claire wanted to rant about her day, well, listening to other people’s problems helped get Ben’s mind off his own. As she stepped into Ben’s apartment, taking her coat off and looking curiously around, he was sure that he had made the right move in calling her. Claire was rock-solid, through and through.
“So,” Claire said when he’d gotten her settled on the couch with a beer, “what’s the plan? We talking about this bullshit with the hospital and the insurance companies, or about literally anything else?”
Ben had to laugh at that. “I had a specific something else in mind, actually.”
“Yeah?” Claire raised an eyebrow.
“Yeah.” Ben started with the first time he’d seen the man from Confederated Global, then moved to the research he’d done on the company, and then finished with the offer the man had made him. When he was finished, Claire leaned back in her chair and blinked. “Wow.”
Ben rolled his eyes at himself, at the situation. “I know.”
“And so you’re—what, you’re thinking of taking this, this totally batshit job offer?”
He shrugged. “I think…maybe I am, yeah. If it was just the money…I don’t know, I think Doris would want me to turn it down. But I’m not gonna lie, the fact that I can’t find out more about this company is making me think they’re hiding something. Maybe something big.”
Claire made a rude noise at that. “Oh, so you’re thinking of going to work with them because they’re so shady? And you think they’d let you publish something on them after you’d taken their money without, like, having you whacked?”
“I don’t think I’d be able to publish a story on them anyway,” Ben admitted. “There’s about a zero percent chance my editor would go for it. But all the same…I want to know what the story is here. And I’m not gonna lie. I really, really want the money.” There was something sharp in Ben’s throat, and he washed it down with a gulp of beer. “I’m so goddamned tired, Claire. You know? I’m tired of the pitying looks and the arguments with the insurance companies and having to pretend I care about other shit when all I’m thinking about is that—that scared look in Doris’s eyes when she realizes she can’t remember something. I’m tired of the whole goddamned thing. I want to feel like I’m doing something. And if what I’m doing is gathering information about a shifty corporation and a gang of contract crooks that corporation is hiring while getting enough money to cover Doris’s care for a while longer, then that’s what I’m fucking doing.”
Silence fell, with Ben’s words hanging in the air in a way that made him wish he’d spoken a little more quietly or said a little bit less. He didn’t know how to interpret the expression on Claire’s face. She took a sip of her beer before setting it down on the table and leaning forward, her eyes meeting Ben’s with a serious expression. “Why are you telling me all this, Ben?”
“Because….” He swallowed. “You know, I don’t have anyone else I trust to talk to about this. I know you well enough to know you’re gonna give it to me straight. So give it to me straight. What should I do?”
Claire frowned. “You sound like you’ve already decided what you’re gonna do.”
Ben let out a sigh, rubbing at his eyes behind his glasses. “Yeah. I did. And then I changed my mind. And then I changed my mind again.”
“Yeah, well.” Claire picked at the label on her beer. “I mean, obviously it’s not a smart move. You know that. But I don’t know. Pierce and Pinkwater, you said?”
She nodded, as if to herself. “If ever there was a place to burn to the ground…”
There was something to her tone, something a little grim. “Not a fan?”
“Housing crash,” she said. “Didn’t really affect me, but I know a lot of people who got hit hard. Pierce and Pinkwater…my neighbor’s a public school teacher. Her union invested their pension fund with Pierce and Pinkwater.” She smiled. It was not a nice smile. “My neighbor’s 73, and she’s still working. And it’s not because she’s sick of spending time with her grandkids, if you get what I’m saying.”
“I get what you’re saying,” Ben agreed.
“I hate these ‘too big too fail’ assholes. I hate that they think because they have money, they can do whatever the hell they want and not face any consequences, and I hate that they’re right. I’d like nothing better than to see Pierce and Pinkwater get a little comeuppance.”
“But?” Ben could sense that there was a ‘but.’
“But this Confederated Global guy sounds even sketchier, and these are pretty high stakes we’re talking.” She leaned her elbow on her knee and rested her chin on it, never taking her eyes from Ben’s face as she frowned thoughtfully. “You know what you should do?” she said after a long moment. “You should get the guy to hire me, too.”
Of all the things she could have said, that was about the last one Ben would have expected, and he was grateful that he didn’t have any beer in his mouth at the moment or he would have ended up choking on it.
“Think about it, man. You’re going into this with this creepy guy who won’t even tell you his name, plus whatever burglars he wants to hire. You’re not telling the paper, you’re not telling the cops, and that means you’ve got no one to watch your back. Stupid. Plus, I’ve never done it before, but after six years of wrangling patients at Metro General—hell, wrangling doctors at Metro General—I’m pretty sure wrangling thieves is a piece of cake. And it’s not like I couldn’t use the money.”
“Yeah?” said Ben stupidly, and Claire shrugged.
“I’ve got some savings, but you know this city’s stupid expensive. And I would love the chance to pay Pierce and Pinkwater back for screwing everyone over.”
“This is dangerous stuff,” Ben pointed out. “If we get caught, you know we’re the ones who’re gonna get stuck holding the bag. As of yet, I’ve got nothing on Confederated Global—the company or the person. And accessory to theft, plus breaking and entering—that’s not a slap-on-the-wrist kind of charge when you’re talking about multimillion-dollar corporations.”
Claire’s eyes were serious as she said, “Which is all the more reason not to do it alone.”
“I don’t want to drag you into anything.”
“I’m kind of dragging myself,” said Claire. “Believe me, I get it. It’s dangerous, it’s stupid, and under other circumstances I wouldn’t even dream of doing shit like that. But let’s face it. We’ve known each other for a while, now, and I’m kind of not interested in seeing you get killed. I’m out of work at present, so I’ve got plenty of time and could probably use the money. One scumbag corporation ripping off another scumbag corporation happens every goddamned day—and you know what, I’m totally willing to believe this Confederated Global guy is telling the truth that Pierce and Pinkwater stole their clients’ personal financial data. It sounds like the kind of shit they’d do, and that makes us the good guys in this scenario. And if it turns out that Confederated Global is fucking us over, well. Bring a tape recorder or something, keep records of any money changing hands, and maybe you can still get a story out of it. That’d be pretty sweet, right? Breaking a big story like that?”
Ben smiled. Claire’s matter-of-fact tone settled something in him that had been nervous ever since Confeederated Global had made him the offer. “It would be,” he said.
Claire nodded decisively and picked up the guy’s business card from where Ben had thrown it on the coffee table. “So call him, then.”
Ben took the card and pulled out his phone.
Confederated Global had been surprisingly okay with the idea of bringing Claire onboard—he’d said that he would need to run a quick background check, just to make sure she wasn’t a spy from Pierce and Pinkwater, but that hadn’t taken long, and he’d called Ben back a few hours later with a kind of jovial generosity in his voice as he announced that his employer would be willing to pay Claire one million dollars for her assistance in planning and supervising the heist and her medical knowledge should any emergencies present themselves on the job.
“Huh,” said Claire when the call was over—Ben had put it on speakerphone for her. “That guy’s got a weird Big Brother thing going on, doesn’t he?”
“Oh, he’s not Big Brother,” said Ben. “His boss is. The man behind the curtain, who may or may not have a real name.”
Claire snorted. “Apparently, nobody but you and me has a real name here.”
Ellison called the next day and left a voicemail to tell Ben that HR had approved his paid leave for two weeks. Ben had slept through the actual call, which surprised him. Ben always woke up on time, usually without the alarm, and he certainly never slept through someone trying to call him. It was like the minute he’d agreed to this job, even his body was testing the boundaries to see what he’d do next.
He, Claire, and Confederated Global met that night to discuss “personnel options,” as Confederated Global put it. In other words, they were talking about which crooks to hire. The meeting was in that creepy, nearly-empty office building where the guy had originally made Ben the job offer; the same bored-looking security guard waved them up. The quiet around them was unsettling, all the more because of how nice the building itself was; abandoned warehouses were supposed to be so quiet they echoed with it, docks on the waterfront where mid-level wiseguys could chat without worrying about being overheard, but fancy skyscrapers in Manhattan really weren’t, even this late at night.
Claire was nervous but trying not to show it as Confederated Global met them at the office door and waved them in, shaking Ben’s hand and then Claire’s. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Temple,” said the man with faux warmth.
“Likewise,” said Claire with a wry grin.
Ben shot a glance at the desk behind them. It was literally covered with plastic file-folder containers. “Wow,” he said. “Been doing some research?”
“I have, actually,” Confederated Global said. “Or rather, our research department has. It really is amazing, the things you can find out, even about what one might call the ‘criminal underworld,’ provided you have access to the right databases.”
That was true, thought Ben, though he didn’t know why or how exactly an investment bank had access to those kinds of databases. Well. He knew the whole thing was shady, anyway, no point nitpicking about the details. So instead what Ben said was, “Killing a lot of trees with all those file folders.”
“I would have brought a flash drive, but I’m given to understand that you’re a man who’s fond of the classics.” Confederated Global gave Ben another one of those grins that he imagined the man thought was charming or something. It made Ben’s skin crawl, and he turned his attention to the folders.
Inside the cases, they were neatly organized behind color-coded tabs, which was, so far, the most charming thing Ben had experienced of Confederated Global. They seemed to be sorted by specialization: electronics and cybersecurity, safe-cracking, muscle, breaking and entering, confidence scams (in person), confidence scams (by phone), and, of course, confidence scams (electronic). And at the very back was a set of folders labeled “Multipurpose/miscellaneous,” which Ben pulled out, curious.
“Ah, I thought you might be drawn to that one,” said Confederated Global, who didn’t seem as yet to have picked up on when his input was unnecessary. “Especially for a smaller crew, I thought it might be best to include a few candidates with less…shall we say, limited skillsets?”
Ben ignored him and pulled a folder out of the file, opening it and scanning the first page. He had to give whoever had put these files together some credit; as far as a cover sheet went, this one was pretty informative. Name, alias, skills, any other relevant biographical information (since this guy, Vinnie Carcaterra, had ties to la cosa nostra, his biographical information was pretty goddamned relevant), known associates, and a list of crimes they had been, or were believed to have been, involved in. Vinnie was a real Renaissance man of political manipulation, counterfeiting, and breaking guys’ knees with a baseball bat. Ben set the folder down.
“We don’t want anyone with mob connections,” he said.
“Oh?” Confederated Global cocked his head curiously at Ben.
“Complicates things,” Ben explained. “They work with family and friends, so you hire one of them, you hire a whole gang of them.” If he’d learned one thing covering the New York families, it was that they didn’t trust newcomers or outsiders easily. Ben had practically had to construct a WITSEC-worthy alias to even get the errand boys to talk to a black stranger. “Plus,” he added, thinking of a proposed alliance between two families in the 1970s that had gone horribly, horribly wrong, “if there are any problems getting your data back and one of them gets hurt or arrested, you’ll have the whole family after you.” Or, more likely, he thought, after Claire and me. Though Claire had reassured him several times that she was up for this, he spent a brief moment sincerely regretting bringing her into it.
Confederated Global nodded, making a thoughtful face. “Good to know,” he said. “Why don’t you give me a few of those files and I’ll start weeding out the names connected to organized crime.”
“Have at it,” said Ben, handing the man the collection of files labeled “Confidence scams (phone).” “Claire, you want to help me with this one?”
Claire shrugged. “Why the hell not?” she said, more resigned than anything, and Ben handed her a pile of folders from the “Multipurpose/miscellaneous” set.
“Keep an eye out for any potential hires while we’re eliminating names,” said Confederated Global. “We want a relatively small crew, I think—someone to secure entry to the building, someone to steal the data, and someone to provide, shall we say, backup in case of trouble?”
A hitter, a hacker, and a thief, in other words. Confederated Global had rattled that off fairly quickly, as if he’d given the matter a lot of thought. Or maybe as if he’d done this a time or two before. Christ, what was Ben doing? “It’s your show, man,” he said, hoping he sounded casual.
They sat in silence for a few minutes, weeding out the wiseguys and Triads and drug lord wannabes, before Claire said, “Huh. No name on this one.”
“Which is that?” asked Confederated Global, lifting his head from his own pile of files. “My sources are very good, but unfortunately, when you’re dealing with people who, by necessity, operate under the radar, a few details tend to slip through the cracks.”
“Cat burglar, looks like,” said Claire, studying the file. “Also a safe-cracker, and apparently he can deal with those laser grids you see in the movies. A regular jack of all thieves.”
That sounded familiar. “Let me see that one,” Ben said, and Claire slid the file over. Ben scanned it briefly. The Louvre. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rogers, Downie, Devlin—some of the most expansive and well-guarded private collections of art and antiquities in the world. “Yep,” said Ben. “I know this guy.”
“Really?” Confederated Global raised an eyebrow, and Claire blinked.
“Like, know him know him?”
“He’s a local boy—or anyway, he has a real fondness for New York, because he comes back every once in a while to do a job or two. I’ve never met him in person, and he mostly works alone, but a, um. A source of mine worked with him on a couple of bank jobs a few years back. Answers to ‘Mike,’ though nobody’s sure what his real name is. Weird guy, apparently, but he’s supposed to be one of the top men in the field if you’re trying to break an unbreakable security system.”
“Huh,” said Claire. “Wow, Ben, all the time we’ve known each other, you didn’t mention you knew such interesting people.” Her tone was light, but when Ben flicked his eyes up to look at her face, she looked mildly shell-shocked.
“He sounds more than qualified for the job at hand,” Confederated Global broke in. “You mentioned that his colleagues thought he had some…eccentricities. Did they happen to clarify whether they were of a sort that would make him difficult to work with?”
Jesus. Ben was honestly considering a nameless burglar as if he were a job candidate. He threw his mind back over the story he’d done three years back about a series of violent home break-ins. The man they’d arrested for the robberies, a Will McElhenney, had been loud and insistent about his own innocence, and despite the fact that McElhenney really was a professional thief, he’d never shown any signs of violence, and so Ben was willing to believe him and to investigate his story. McElhenney had eventually been acquitted, but over the course off the trial and Ben’s investigation, he’d given Ben more information than he’d probably meant to about burglaries and bank robberies he had committed. Two of them had been jobs he’d worked with “Mike.”
“Keeps to himself for the most part,” Ben said slowly, detangling different interviews in his mind. “Reckless in what he’s willing to do, though I’ve never heard of him killing or seriously injuring anyone in the commission of a theft. Picky about jobs, and he’s got a temper when the people he’s working with have different ideas about the plan than he does, which is probably why he doesn’t work with other crews often. And apparently he never meets anybody’s eyes.”
“Hmm.” Confederated Global pulled a tablet out from under his pile of folders and took a few notes on it. “I have, shall we say, some experience working with temperamental types. Shall we add him to our list of potentials?”
Unlike several of the people in Ben’s files, “Mike” hadn’t been tied to any murders, only a couple of concussed security guards. And he was notorious among certain circles for his refusal to work with organized crime or get involved with armed robberies. McElhenney’s verdict on the man had been, essentially, “You don’t want to fuck with him, but he’s okay.” If they were going to work with a burglar, “Mike” probably wouldn’t be a bad choice. “Sure,” said Ben.
It took another half an hour of sifting through files before Ben found another potential hire. “Skilled computer hacker,” Ben explained. “He or she’s probably ripped off a dozen banks and hacked the servers of some of the world’s biggest corporations, but whoever it is, they’re not out to give your computer a porn virus or steal the last dime out of your account. Strictly big fish. They go online by ‘Pagemaster.’”
“Like the Macaulay Culkin movie?”
Both Ben and Confederated Global turned to stare at Claire, and she shrugged. “Just saying. Not exactly a tough-guy alias. Although I guess it makes sense for a computer hacker to be a huge nerd.”
Confederated Global didn’t seem to know what to do with this, and he frowned and turned to Ben. “Mr. Urich, you seem familiar enough with Pagemaster’s work to speak to his or her character. The confidentiality of our clients’ data is key to maintaining our reputation, and I would hate to see that ruined because the specialist we hired to retrieve it took advantage of an opportunity to steal from another ‘big fish.’ Do you think it’s worth the risk to bring this person on board?”
It was kind of a ridiculous question, because Ben knew more or less diddly squat about hackers or hacking; all he knew was the aftermath of some of the hacks listed simply and concisely in Pagemaster’s file. Some of them had been news fodder way past the point where there was any new information to be had; there’d just been regurgitation after regurgitation of some terrible CEO’s private e-mails that Pagemaster had released in the process of stealing the corporation’s money. Come to think of it, Ben thought, Confederated Global was probably right to worry about Pagemaster stealing their data. On the other hand, that was true of just about any of the hackers in the man’s files. They were, after all, specifically hiring criminals. And at least Pagemaster seemed to pick their targets rather than just try to fuck over everyone that they could.
“Pagemaster isn’t opportunistic,” he said carefully. “They don’t target just anybody, and they seem to go in with specific goals. There’s a chance Pierce and Pinkwater’s already on their radar. I think your chances are about as good with them as they’d be with anyone in their line of work. I’m no expert, though.”
“Hmm.” Confederated Global nodded thoughtfully. “You make a good argument. Let’s put ‘Pagemaster’ on our list of potentials, then.”
With a thief and a hacker on their list, they turned their attention to the hitters. Unsurprisingly, there were a lot of them; the trick was finding someone with a reputation for skill but also for reliability, for not using violence when it wasn’t called for. Confederated Global found a heavy hitter who’d worked for the mob but only as a freelancer; Claire found a big guy who designed weapons and could also apparently take someone out with his bare hands if his employers required it. Ben…didn’t know. It wasn’t as if he didn’t know plenty of men for whom violence was their bread and butter. But his relationships with those me were carefully drawn; they were the ones who did, he was the one who wrote. There was respect there, but also boundaries that were never crossed. This was different. This was going into a job knowing that one of his colleagues might use violence to accomplish that job. Not lethal violence, of course. Maybe the issue wouldn’t even come up. Ben had a sneaking suspicion, though, that however the job went, he would never see the mob enforcers he interviewed the same way again.
Elektra Natchios didn’t seem at first glance like the most obvious job candidate. The picture in her file was of a pretty young woman wearing an expensive-looking dress, her expression full of sullen anger. Raised all over the world by Greek diplomat parents, she’d had a reputation as a wild party girl before joining the anti-terrorist unit of the Hellenic police and then the EYS, the Greek equivalent of the CIA. After that, she’d fallen off the legitimate grid, surfacing later as a mercenary, an assassin, and a “retrieval specialist”—that is, someone who went after the same kinds of assets she’d protected in the EYS and took them by force. She had an ambivalent reputation—there were some who said she was out of control, a psychopath, some who said she was the most reliable assassin money could buy (and it took a lot of money to buy her services). Neither of those were what they were looking for. Ben should have tossed her file aside. And yet…
“Why don’t you put this one on the potential list?” he suggested.
Confederated Global made a curious ‘hmm?’ sound.
“For a few years after she left national intelligence services,” Ben explained, “she was basically working for the highest bidder, and, you know, all bets were off when she got involved. But something must have happened in the last couple of years, because lately she’s been picking her jobs a lot more carefully, avoiding unnecessary violence, and taking a really surprising amount of bodyguard gigs. Plus,” he added wryly, “she’s one of the few professionals who might actually work with the rest of the oddballs on our list.”
“Interesting,” said Confederated Global.
“I don’t know about you,” said Claire, “but I’m feeling the need for some alcohol.”
The ‘potentials’ list had about nine or ten names on it by the time they’d gone through the files, but ultimately, they just went with “Mike,” Pagemaster, and Elektra Natchios—a smaller team was better, more likely to be able to pull off the job without being caught, and Ben wasn’t comfortable with the thief-to-supervisor ratio going much higher than three to two. Confederated Global said with some satisfaction that he thought they’d picked out a good team and that he was willing to get the ball rolling as far as contacting them went. Ben would have asked how the hell he was planning on getting contact information for any of them, but he decided that he didn’t really want to know. As soon as Ben and Claire were clear off the Confederated Global building, they high-tailed it to a bar.
“God, said Claire with feeling. “That guy is ten different kinds of creepy.”
“He’s giving us millions of bucks to rob his business rivals,” Ben pointed out. “I think creepy’s about the best we could expect.”
“Maybe.” Claire gave him a sidelong look and downed her shot. “So,” she said, wiping her mouth on her sleeve. “When were you going to let me know about all your criminal underworld connections?”
“Claire, I spent literally years writing stories on the mob. I needed sources.” Ben took a sip of his own old-fashioned, hoping the weirdness in his gut wasn’t showing on his face. Dealing with his contacts in the mob, the convicts he interviewed for stories…it was never that he’d thought he was above them or something. Some of the people he dealt with were terrible, but a lot more had fallen onto hard times and hadn’t had other resources to deal with it, or had simply grown up in families or neighborhoods where they didn’t feel they had other options. Ben got that. And yet, there’d always been that distance between them—he was always the reporter, even if he was undercover. He’d always known what he would and wouldn’t do. He’d always known himself. We’re stealing the data back, not just stealing it, he told himself, and he gulped down another sip. It burned on the way down.
Claire sighed. “I know. This just seemed like a better idea to me yesterday. Before we picked a burglar, a hacker, and an ex-assassin out of a catalog. Remind me again about the money?”
“We’re getting a lot of money,” Ben said dutifully. Money that was going to pay for Doris’s stay at the hospital, and maybe even that experimental medication, the Branivir. It was expensive as shit without insurance, but it had seemed to help more than anything else they’d tried.
“Gee, sound a little more bummed about that,” Claire said, rolling her eyes at him.
Confederated Global had said he would need a few days to get in touch with their “team,” so Ben went ahead and filed the Pokémon story—in the end, Claire, who actually understood how the game worked and was at level 20 or whatever, explained it to him and walked him through the game enough for him to sound like he knew what he was talking about at least a little.
After he’d sent Ellison the story, he found himself at loose ends. For all he’d gotten used to being alone, what with Doris in the hospital, he wasn’t used to having this many hours in the day to fill by himself. He had friends—other journalists, neighbors, people he and Doris knew from church—but Ben didn’t want to deal with their awkward sympathy, and besides, they had jobs of their own to go to. So Ben found ways to kill the time. He went to the gym and ran on the treadmill for a bit; he went to the park and played chess with the other old guys (and the occasional eager teenager); he caught up on a couple of books he’d been meaning to read.
He went to see Doris.
He hated keeping anything from her, but he didn’t know how to explain exactly what he had gotten himself into, especially after she’d told him to stay out of it the last time he’d brought up the “consulting” offer, so instead they just talked about Doris’s days in the hospital, the annoying noise of the construction workers and how strange it was not to have Claire as her nurse anymore. It was on the tip of Ben’s tongue to tell Doris about having drinks with Claire the other night, but the explanation for why Ben was hanging out with Doris’s former nurse brought him right back into Confederated Global territory.
Ben was telling her about the last book he’d read—an in-depth investigation of the World Security Council and its connections to various international agencies—and offering to bring it by for her when his phone buzzed with a text.
An unfamiliar number had sent him the message. Mr. Urich, it said, Confederated Global’s research team has contacted our recruits and they’ve agreed to meet tomorrow night at 10:30 PM. We hope to see you there. A second text provided an address for the meeting. Ben didn’t know it off the top of his head except to note that it wasn’t the same building where he’d met with Confederated Global before.
“Who’s that?” Doris asked.
“Eh,” said Ben. “Nobody. Phone company telling me I’m getting close to the limit on our data plan. All that Pokémon Go, I guess.”
Doris gave Ben a skeptical look, and for a moment Ben thought she was going to call bullshit on him, but then she blinked and some of the sharpness went out of her eyes. “I’m tired, Ben,” she said.
Ben reached out to grasp her hand, his heart in his throat. “I know, baby,” he said. “Why don’t you get some rest?”
For the rest of the afternoon, time flowed slow as molasses, but a lot less sweet. Ben called up a couple of Wall Street contacts to ask about Confederated Global, tried to dig something coherent out of their hemming-and-hawing answers, and waited for evening to come.
The address, as it turned out, was another mostly vacant office building, this one apparently without the night shift security guard. It was easy enough to find the meeting, though—there was only one room with lights on in the first floor.
“Well, this is creepy as fuck,” said Claire.
“It’s not too late to back out.”
She shrugged. “You think I’m letting you walk into this mess alone? I got mace and a heavy book in this bag, and I told my neighbor to call the cops if I’m not back by one. Plus, I’m kind of curious about these crooks we hired.”
They were a few minutes early, and apparently the first to arrive—Confederated Global was standing at the front of the room, in front of a long conference table lined with chairs.
“Ah,” said Confederated Global with a smile as Ben and Claire walked in. “Mr. Urich, Ms. Temple. I’m so glad you could make it! Please, sit.”
Feeling mildly awkward, Ben pulled out a chair a couple of seats away from the head of the table, leaving some space between him and Confederated Global. Shooting Ben a quick, measuring look, Claire sat down beside him.
“Is it just us?” asked Ben.
“No,” said Confederated Global, checking his watch. “I specifically told our new recruits 10:30. They ought to be coming….” Footsteps echoed in the hallway, and Confederated Global looked up. “Ah. Here’s one now.”
The woman who entered must have been Pagemaster—Ben had seen pictures of Elektra Natchios, and all witnesses were pretty clear on the fact that Mike was a guy—but she didn’t look like Ben’s mental image of a computer hacker. She was young, probably late twenties or early thirties, with a freckly, blonde kind of prettiness and wearing a floral sundress. It was an absurdly cheery outfit, under the circumstances. “Is this…the headquarters of Confederated Global Investments?” she asked, sounding uncertain.
“It is,” said Confederated Global, rising from his seat. He reached out to shake her hand, and she took it with a mildly shell-shocked expression. “Thank you so much for coming to meet with us, Miss…shall I call you Pagemaster?”
She looked quickly and curiously over at Ben and Claire. “I—yeah, let’s stick with ‘Pagemaster’ for the time being. You mentioned that you wanted my help taking down Pierce and Pinkwater?”
“Well.” Confederated Global chuckled. “It’s a little more complicated than that. Why don’t you sit?”
Pagemaster gave him another mildly dubious look and sat across from Ben, giving him and Claire a polite smile and smoothing out her skirt with a nervous motion.
Luckily, they didn’t have to make small talk, because at that point there was a knocking sound. Everyone turned their heads to see a dark-haired young white guy dressed in a dirty hoody, stained sweatpants, and big red-tinted sunglasses standing in the doorway, knocking on the wall. “Hi,” he said abruptly. “I got your message. You can call me Mike.”
Confederated Global looked a trifle taken aback by this—Ben got the sense that people didn’t really get abrupt with him—but he soon smoothed his features into a pleasant smile and said, “Welcome, Mike. Have a seat.”
Claire raised her eyebrows, and Pagemaster watched with a small frown as Mike slowly walked toward her, trailing his hand on the wall as he went until he reached the chair next to Pagemaster. He stood there for a moment, moving his head back and forth a little like a satellite dish, before stepping over slightly and sitting in the next chair over. He rested his hands on the back of the chair before moving them down to the seat and sitting on them, like he was afraid they’d do something without his permission.
“How did you get my number?” he asked Confederated Global.
“Oh, well.” Confederated Global laughed. “I know some people who know some people who are very good at research. You know how it is.”
Pagemaster’s frown deepened. Mike reached up one hand to tap the edge of the table with his index finger and said, “Huh.” Then he apparently decided that picking lint balls off the cuffs of his sweatshirt and making a pile of them on the table was the logical next place to devote his attention. Ben could see why the thieves of New York thought that Mike was a little strange.
There was another minute of silence with no Elektra; the atmosphere in the room was stiflingly awkward. Ben went back and forth on whether he wanted to introduce himself—on the one hand, they’d be working together, and on the other, he wasn’t sure he wanted them to know his name. Finally, just as Confederated Global said, “Well, perhaps we ought to get started,” Elektra Natchios swanned in.
Though she was dressed in comfortable-looking black pants and a stylish black turtleneck rather than an evening gown, Ben recognized her instantly from the photo in her file. She walked in without any of Pagemaster or Mike’s hesitation, like she owned the room, with an elegant restlessness that would stand out wherever she was.
“Ms. Natchios, I presume?” asked Confederated Global.
“You presume correctly,” said Elektra.
Confederated Global frowned. “You’re late.”
“Am I?” asked Elektra uninterestedly. “You should know now that I prefer to exercise some level of control over the jobs I work, and I’m not especially fond of being chided like a small child when, in fact, I’m precisely on time.” Ben checked his watch. She was right—10:30. “If this is going to be a problem,” she continued, “I can leave right now.”
Pagemaster made a noise of impressed surprise, and Claire’s mouth turned up at the corner in a little grin. Confederated Global seemed less pleased, his eyes narrowing and his mouth flattening, but after a moment he said, “No need for that. Please, sit.”
Elektra surveyed Ben, Claire, Mike, and Pagemaster with an assessing eye before sitting down between Mike and Pagemaster. She gave Mike’s less-than-neat clothing and pile of lint balls a disdainful look, which he ignored, and folded her hands neatly on the table. “Well?”
“Ah.” Confederated Global cleared his throat. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said with a cool, utterly insincere smile, “thank you for coming.” He turned to address Pagemaster, Mike, and Elektra and said, “You three are here because Ms. Temple, Mr. Urich, and I would like to offer you a job.”
If he’d expected wild enthusiasm in response to this, he was probably disappointed. Elektra raised her eyes impatiently, as if to say, “Yes, and?” Mike frowned slightly, and Pagemaster said, “Wait a second. Ben Urich, the investigative journalist?”
“Didn’t know you read my work,” said Ben, not entirely sure whether he should be pleased or not.
Pagemaster pinked slightly and smiled at him. “Well, I like to stay informed, and taking down Pierce and Pinkwater seems right up your alley. Do you need help getting information? Because I’m pretty good at that, though I never really considered working with the press.”
“The press?” Elektra asked scornfully. “I think you’ve called the wrong person.”
“I don’t think we have,” said Confederated Global. “Our goal isn’t to expose Pierce and Pinkwater, it’s to take back something that belongs to us. I hear that you’re good at…retrieving things.”
Elektra gave him a suspicious look. Mike scratched his chin and said, “Something that belongs to you.” It was hard to tell what he was thinking, with his eyes hidden behind the sunglasses.
Confederated Global made a face approximating earnestness. “Yes.”
“Uh-huh.” Mike lifted his foot onto the chair to pick at a loose thread unraveling from a ragged hole in the knee of his sweatpants before standing up. “Not interested.”
“Sit down, Mike,” said Confederated Global, his voice suddenly devoid of its false friendliness, and it was suddenly as if the temperature in the room had dropped. Mike tilted his head at the man, mouth drawn into a sullen line, and Ben suddenly wondered why they hadn’t had a security guy come along to check these three for weapons. He was not keen on dying in a creepy office building at the hands of an antisocial cat burglar.
“Hey, hey,” said Claire. “I think we’re all getting a little unnecessarily worked up here, okay? We haven’t even told you what the job is, and we’re going to have plenty of times for questions and objections after we’ve explained. It’s just an offer, you guys don’t have to take it. Why don’t you just sit down and hear us out before you split, huh?”
Mike shifted his focus to her, turning his whole head in her direction. Elektra, who had tensed when Confederated Global spoke, looked as if she could spring into action at any moment, while Pagemaster looked mildly alarmed. Slowly, Mike turned toward Ben and then toward Confederated Global. “A reporter, a nurse, and a corporate executive call a thief, a hacker, and a fighter together to offer them a job. It sounds more like the beginning of a bad joke than the beginning of a good job offer.”
That…was unexpected. There was no reason for Mike to know anything about Pagemaster, Elektra, or Claire, and for all the detailed files they had gone over, Ben hadn’t expected the criminals they’d contacted to have done any research themselves. Stupid oversight, but there it was. If the way Confederated Global’s mouth fell open was anything to go by, he hadn’t expected it either.
Before they could respond, though, Elektra said, “I agree. What kind of job could you possibly have that would interest us?”
“Are you interested in money? Confederated Global asked, his face still calm but his voice starting to sound irritated. “Or in staying out of prison, perhaps?
That, Ben thought, had been a mistake. All three of the faces in their little audience hardened, and Pagemaster grabbed her purse and stood up with Mike. “I don’t care for threats,” she said, “and I would really, really like to see you try it.”
To his credit, Confederated Global seemed to realize his error, and he shook his head, a placating smile on his face. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that,” he said. “We’re all professionals here. Let me just lay out the situation for you. Pierce and Pinkwater—which, as you know, Miss Pagemaster, is a very ethically dubious company, but which also happens to be a rival of my company’s—has stolen some very valuable data. We’d like you to help us get it back, and we’re willing to pay for it.”
“What kind of data?” asked Pagemaster with a frown. “Is the idea that we then release it to the press?”
“Oh, no, no,” said Confederated Global. “We’re talking about private financial information here—getting the press involved wouldn’t be a good idea.”
“So what are you doing here, Mr. Urich?” asked Mike, his face pointed somewhere between Ben and Claire. “And you, Ms. Temple?”
Claire shrugged. “We’re in it for the money,” she said frankly, which startled a laugh out of Mike.
“Fair enough,” he said, and he sat back down. “All right. What’s this job of yours?”
Rather than answer, Confederated Global gave Pagemaster a cool look. “Pagemaster? Would you like to sit back down?”
Pagemaster bit her lower lip, looking conflicted. Her eyes darted from Confederated Global to Mike to Elektra to Ben and Claire before she sat down again, something set and firm about her posture, as if she were just daring anyone in the room to piss her off again.
Ben let Confederated Global do most of the talking, listening carefully to how he tried to sell it to them. Unlike with Ben, this time the man left out the niceties of justifying his employer’s business model or their decision to keep law enforcement out of it. He stuck to the facts: here was what had happened, this was what he wanted, this was how much he was willing to pay for it. If their little gang of potential hires had questions about any particulars of this story or was impressed by the money he was ready to shell out, it was hard to tell. Pagemaster kept up her stiff posture the whole time, Elektra watched Confederated Global through heavy-lidded eyes with an expression that could have been boredom or suspicion, and Mike scarcely seemed to be paying attention at all, fidgeting in his chair with his face hidden behind his sunglasses. When Confederated Global finished, he gave them all an oily smile and said, “Are there any questions?”
“Yes,” Elektra said. “Why am I here? The hacker, the thief, I understand. But you haven’t specified just what it is you want from me.”
“Well,” said Confederated Global, “as much as we’d prefer to carry out this job without any violence, we recognize that the best way to avoid disaster is to be prepared for any eventuality. Should the building’s security be alerted, we thought your skills might be useful.”
“I’m not killing anybody,” she said bluntly. “You’re not paying me nearly enough, and having two others on the team makes the exit plan complicated.”
Confederated Global made a considering noise. “I wasn’t aware that you needed much financial motivation to kill.”
Pagemaster shot Elektra a wide-eyed look, and the lines of Elektra’s face hardened into something cold and sharp.
Fuck, no wonder Confederated Global had invited Ben onboard—if this was how he dealt with people generally, he was more likely to get these guys to kill him than to work for him. Time for another intervention. “Hey,” said Ben sharply to Confederated Global. To Elektra, he said, “We’re not looking to kill anybody here. Ideally, it’s gonna be an easy job for you—we just want somebody to watch Pagemaster and Mike’s backs.”
Elektra turned her cold gaze on Ben, and he kept a pleasant smile on his face with some effort. “Well,” she said finally. “I have some experience in that area.”
“I have another question,” Pagemaster broke in. “Mike asked earlier, but you didn’t really answer him. How exactly did you get the information on us to contact us, and why aren’t you using those same resources to get your data back?”
“Well, Miss…Pagemaster, I think you’re giving my ‘resources’ a lot more credit than they really deserve,” Confederated Global, with a self-deprecating chuckle. He had apparently decided to put his pleasant face back on. “The truth is, an international investment bank requires a lot of information to run. We have a whole department devoted to research, and there’s a lot of legwork involved. That doesn’t mean that any of our interns are qualified to hack a private server, or break into a building.”
He’d ducked the key question again, Ben noticed, and from the way her eyebrows were drawing together, Pagemaster had noticed, too. But before she could object, Mike scratched at his chin and said, “The reason you’re hiring us is so that, if we get caught, none of it gets back to you. Right? You keep your hands clean.” He had turned the wheeled chair he was sitting in to face sideways, and he seemed to be looking out the window, though Ben couldn’t see anything out there but a streetlight and the wall of what looked like a warehouse.
“That’s the idea,” said Confederated Global, gentling his smile in a way that made Ben want to punch him, and it wasn’t even aimed at him. “But of course, in return for taking on that risk, we’re offering what I think is a very fair reward.”
Elektra laughed. “It could be fairer.”
Confederated Global raised an eyebrow at her. “How much fairer?”
“Five hundred thousand dollars fairer. For myself—of course, I cannot speak for my esteemed colleagues here.”
Pagemaster made an indignant noise. “Hey, I’d be stealing the data back, and this guy” —she gestured at Mike—“would be doing the breaking and entering. If you’re giving her a million,” she said to Confederated Global, “then I think we should be getting a million, too.”
Confederated Global rolled his eyes. “I suppose you’d want that, too?” he asked Mike.
Mike shrugged. “Eh. We can talk about money later. I haven’t even said I’m taking the job yet. Who’s in charge?”
“Obviously, my company’s the official employer here—‘official’ in a casual sense, since this job is off the books—but for the actual commission of the heist?” Confederated Global gestured to Ben and Claire with a sweep of his hand that would have been more appropriate for a corporate board meeting. “Ben and Claire will be in charge of planning and practical troubleshooting.”
“Because a journalist and a nurse have so much experience planning a heist?” Elektra shook her head, her mouth pursing in irritation. “I understand why you would want one or two of your own people to coordinate the job, but why bring in people who are not in this line of work at all?”
“Because they’re good people whom I trust to get this information back without breaking the law more than is absolutely necessary,” said Confederated Global coolly, with a kind of finality to his tone.
In the silence that followed, Claire was quick to say, “You’re right, I don’t know jack shit about planning a heist. Ben and I are obviously leaving that aspect of it to the experts. We’re just here to keep you guys from ripping each other off. No offense.”
Mike smiled for only the second time since he’d entered the room. “None taken.” He chewed on the drawstring of his hood for a moment, then pulled it out of his mouth and, looking at Claire with an intense expression, he said, “You looking to get anything out of this besides money?”
“Besides adrenaline rushes and gray hair, you mean?” asked Claire wryly. “I’m thinking of it as a win-win. We get money, we get people’s private information back, and we stick one in Pierce and Pinkwater’s eye while we’re at it.”
“Win-win-win, then,” said Mike, rolling the drawstring between his fingers. He rolled his head around, making the bones in his neck pop. “Okay. I’ll do it.”
Elektra gave him a considering look before turning to face Ben and Claire. “My role,” she said, is essentially as backup. If we are caught, it’s every man for himself, and Mr. Urich and Ms. Temple are nominally in charge, I understand, but if the situation calls for it, I reserve the right to improvise.”
‘Improvising,’ Ben thought, could probably mean a lot when it came to Elektra Natchios, but it wasn’t as if he could actually stop her, and if it came down to being arrested or being violent, he supposed he couldn’t really blame Elektra for going with what got her out of the situation. “Agreed,” he said.
Elektra nodded regally. “Well, then, I suppose I have no reason not to agree.”
Pagemaster looked at at all the faces around her, her expression troubled. Finally, she said, “Pierce and Pinkwater’s the scum of the earth. I guess I’m in, too.” And then, hurriedly, she added, “As long as we’re all getting a million each.”
Confederated Global sighed. “I’ll—I’ll talk to my employers. It’ll take us above budget for this project, but I think I can get you what you’re asking for.” Ben wasn’t sure what it was about him that made even his uncomfortable resignation seem fake, but something did. Maybe he’d always been planning to give them more money and had been low-balling them upfront. Maybe he wasn’t planning to pay them at all. He hoped the man knew what he was doing. He got the feeling that none of the three who’d just signed on were the kind to take kindly to being ripped off.
“Of course, if we’re going to pay you, we’re going to need to know where to put the money.” Confederated Global was still talking; Ben jerked his attention back to the man. “If you wouldn’t mind writing down the number of the most convenient bank account where we can deposit your payments….” He slid a pad of paper across the table.
It stopped closest to Elektra, who rested her hand on it. “I prefer to receive at least part of the payment in cash upfront,” she said “Not that I don’t trust you, you understand, but it is helpful to know that someone is…committed to the job before the thing has progressed too far.”
“I don’t know that I’ll be able to do that,” said Confederated Global with a thoughtful frown. “As you can imagine, a matter like this requires a delicate touch, shall we say. We do have shareholders to explain ourselves to, after all.”
“So explain that you have lost their data,” said Elektra with an insouciant shrug. “It’s all the same to me.” She passed the pad of paper to Pagemaster.
“Not me,” said Pagemaster, scribbling a number on the page. “Cash is a lot less portable than I like. Mike?” She slid the pad down the table toward Mike.
“Hmm,” he said, not reaching out for the pad. “Let me think about it. I'll call you later and let you know.” He tilted his head down, and his sunglasses slipped down his nose a little. Over their cheap-looking plastic rims, Ben could see his eyes roll up, darting from one end of the ceiling to the other without seeming to look at anything in particular. A strange idea came to him, and he understood with a sudden flash of realization why his contacts had said that Mike never met anyone’s eyes.
“Now that’s interesting,” he said. “A blind cat burglar.”
The cash question forgotten, everyone’s attention turned to Mike. If Ben had been completely off-base, he thought, Mike might have reacted with bafflement and indignation; instead, he screwed up his mouth thoughtfully, as if considering whether or not to deny it, and then came to a decision and grinned sharply at Ben. “What gave me away?”
Ben shrugged, though he supposed the gesture was lost on Mike. “The Bulletin used to have a blind circulation director. Suzanne. She used to move her eyes around like that when she was thinking, too.” Now that he thought about it, he didn’t know how he hadn’t recognized it earlier—the slow, cautious way Mike had moved to sit down, the way his hands moved over the chair, his hesitation to write on or reach out for the pad of paper. The sunglasses indoors were a cliché, really, Suzanne hadn’t worn any glasses at all, but Ben supposed that if you were worried about your lack of eye contact giving you away, sunglasses were the lesser of two evils.
“Blind?” Pagemaster asked, her eyes wide. “I don’t—how would that even work?”
Mike raised his eyebrows at her. “It works pretty damn well, as a matter of fact.”
She shook her head, still clearly trying to get her head around it. Ben could hardly blame her. He was surprised himself, and next to him, Claire was studying Mike with unabashed curiosity. “But—security cameras, sensors, keypads—I mean, you have to see them to avoid them or get past them, don’t you?”
“Maybe you do,” said Mike coolly, and Elektra rolled her eyes.
“Who cares whether he can see or not, so long as he can do the job? If he is incompetent, that is one thing, but I have worked with a lot of people who managed to be incompetent with two working eyes.”
Mike lifted his chin and leveled an unimpressed expression at the room at large. “You and me both. I presume you three contacted me instead of another specialist for a reason, but if my being blind is going to be a problem, I’d be happy to recommend someone else.”
“Well.” The revelation that Mike was blind seemed to have shocked Confederated Global out of his secretive complacency for a moment—apparently, he hadn’t seen that one coming—but he was rapidly regaining his composure, fixing Mike with a thoughtful look. “As a general rule, Confederated Global has a very firm nondiscrimination employment policy. If Mr....Mike is qualified for the job, which he appears to be, then I see no reason to seek a replacement.”
Mike tilted his head in Confederated Global’s direction with a frown wrinkling the space between his eyebrows, apparently either thinking about or listening to something. Finally he said, “Well, good. If you have a floorplan of Pierce and Pinkwater’s building, and a map of the surrounding area—a digital version, that is—that would be helpful for me. For planning purposes.”
“How are you going to read it?” asked Pagemaster, whose curiosity evidently outweighed her social skills.
Mike favored her with a tight, unamused smile. “None of your business,” he said pleasantly.
“I want a floorplan and a map as well,” said Elektra. “If we’re to avoid complications, I need to know when and where the security guards are going to be and be able to prepare if they deviate from their routine. You—computer girl, can you get me accessed to their closed-circuit footage?”
Pagemaster narrowed her eyes at Elektra. “My name is Pagemaster,” she said. “And of course.” Turning to Ben and Claire, she said, “We should set up a whole display, pull footage from multiple cameras, so we can get a sense of the place for planning purposes. I know you guys are in charge, but doesn’t that seem like it would be helpful?”
She was actually asking him, it wasn’t a rhetorical question. Ben was literally in charge of planning a heist with his wife’s nurse and a trio of bickering crooks. “No, yeah, that sounds like a good idea,” he said. “Why don’t you do that? Mike, Pagemaster, Ms. Natchios, let’s put together a list of everything you’re gonna need to get this done, we’ll figure out who can get it, and then we’ll meet again later to do the actual planning. Sound good?”
Pagemaster looked at Elektra. Elektra looked at Mike. Mike shrugged and said, “Sounds okay to me.”
“Let’s do it,” said Pagemaster.
“Call me Elektra,” said Elektra, which seemed as much of an answer as anything.
“All right then,” said Claire, and she reached across to grab the pad of paper, which was still sitting in front of Mike. She pulled a pen out of her purse and started writing on it. “Digital floorplans. Map. Closed-circuit footage.” Setting down the pen, she looked up and asked, “What next?”
As it turned out, some things, like much of the security footage from the floor and specific information about the computer setup at Pierce and Pinkwater, wasn’t available from offsite, but Confederated Global and Pagemaster could take care of most of the scavenging for the group, getting them information about the security and where in the building the financial data would be stored. Elektra and Mike apparently had quite a bit of their own gear. Ben and Claire, who obviously didn’t make a habit of breaking into buildings, were probably going to end up staying offsite and coordinating—Pagemaster volunteered to help get them plugged in so they could supervise from afar. Besides gathering materials, Pagemaster, Elektra, and Mike were all in charge of doing a little research into their part of the job so they could bring ideas to the planning session. The whole divvying up of tasks felt a little strange to Ben—it reminded him of the days when the Bugle’s investigative reporting division had consisted of more than just him, when the team had gotten together to plan long-term projects.
Confederated Global was the first to stand from the table, saying, “I’m sorry to cut this short, but I actually have to get to bed sometime tonight. I have a meeting to get to tomorrow morning. I’m so glad that we could all come to agreeable terms. If you want to stay and talk some more, that’s fine, but the door will lock automatically behind you, so don’t leave anything here, and please remember to turn off the lights.”
Everyone bid him goodbye with muted enthusiasm—he had seemed to rub the trio of career criminals the wrong way repeatedly during the meeting, and Ben couldn’t blame them for not liking him, since Ben didn’t like him, either.
“Before you go….” Confederated Global turned back around just as Mike dug something out of his pocket and waved it.
Confederated Global did a literal double take. “Is that my wallet, Mike?”
“Sure is. Don’t want to leave without it, right? The door locks automatically behind you.” Mike held it out in the man’s direction, and he walked over to take it, giving Mike a considering look.
“Dare I ask the point of this little display?”
Mike shrugged. “Just don’t want you to have any doubts about my ability to handle this job. Oh, and while I’m at it….”
Ben liked to think he was pretty hard to faze—years covering crime scenes that would make a butcher blanch, years digging up corruption that the devil would reject as over the top, tended to do that. But he had to admit to a little surprise as Mike pulled a series of wallets and phones from the pockets of his stained gray hoody—including Ben’s. “Mr. Urich,” said Mike, pushing Ben’s wallet and phone in his direction. Claire looked somewhere between pissed and reluctantly amused as Mike handed her stuff back with a disarming smile; Elektra looked like she was x-raying him with her eyes, measuring him up to the inch. When he got to the last phone, he hesitated. “Now, Pagemaster. You know, I’ve never really had a nice phone like this. What is this, an iPhone? Android? Something you built in your bathroom out of spare parts?” He gave her a sharp, toothy smile, turning the phone over and running a finger around its edges. “I can’t tell. I’m blind, you know.”
“All right,” Pagemaster snapped, grabbing her phone out of his hands. “I get it, okay? Being blind doesn’t slow you down at all, you’re a fucking inspirational Hallmark movie, I get it.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever been accused of being an inspirational Hallmark movie before,” said Mike, raising his eyebrows. “What the Blind Man Stole?” He nodded to himself. “Yeah, I could see that. No pun intended.”
Claire rolled her eyes at him. “Yeah, yeah, we take your point, pal. Just keep your hands out of our pockets for the rest of this job, huh?”
“I make no promises,” said Mike with a grin.
Elektra stood up, making a show of examining her fingernails. “Well. As much fun as it’s been fucking around with you, I did actually have other plans for this evening. Plans for which I’m going to need to be dressed a bit better than this.”
“Indeed,” said Confederated Global, still looking oddly at Mike. Now that his secret was out, Mike didn’t appear to see the point in even pretending like he wasn’t blind, and he pulled a folding cane out of his pocket and snapped it together. That hoody apparently had some big-ass pockets.
Elektra, Mike, and Confederated Global all filtered out, leaving Claire, Ben, and Pagemaster alone in the room. Claire slipped her phone back into her jacket pocket and jerked her head toward the door, meeting Ben’s eyes. You wanna get out of here?, her expression said. Ben nodded, but he was distracted by Pagemaster in the corner of his eye. She was shifting from foot to foot, fiddling with her phone and biting her lip like she wanted to say something. He turned his head to face her.
As if she had been waiting for just that kind of cue, she said, “Hey, Mr. Urich, can I ask you something?”
Well. Of their trio of new hires, Pagemaster was probably the one he felt safest about being in a room alone with. “Sure,” he said.
Claire snorted and zipped her jacket up. “Nice meeting you, Pagemaster. I’ll see you at the planning meeting. Ben,” she said, “call me if you need anything.” She darted her eyes meaningfully in Pagemaster’s direction and ambled slowly out the door.
“What’s up?” asked Ben, giving Pagemaster what he felt sure was an awkward smile. He didn’t know what he’d been expecting, based on Pagemaster’s file, but the combination of “world-class hacker who’s stolen millions from banks and cracked the Pentagon” and “freckly white girl tucking her hair behind her ears nervously” made him unsure how to react to her, especially now that there was no one with them in the room.
“Oh, I just….” She leaned in, meeting Ben’s eyes with an intense earnestness in her face. “I am such a huge admirer of your work. That exposé on Roxxon’s chemical spill, that series you did on crime bosses running things from prison, I mean, that thing you wrote last week about the jail guard who ‘committed suicide’?” She shook her head. “So good. And I guess I’m just wondering…why are you doing this? Are you reporting on Confederated Global or Pierce and Pinkwater?”
Of all the things. A fan. He found a smile for her and said, “Well, we’ll see. Depends on if there’s anything to report.”
“Oh, I’m sure there’s something to report. I’m just worried that—” She shut her mouth and leaned back, still looking at him with those serious blue eyes. “I’m sorry, I don’t want to pry, but…is it about your wife’s sickness?”
Whatever warmth Ben had felt about Pagemaster’s journalism nerdiness froze in an instant. “Don’t you talk about my wife,” he said, and his tone must have gotten the point across, because Pagemaster’s face fell.
“I’m sorry,” she said instantly. “I just—you’re not undercover. You’re doing this with your real name. I just don’t understand why you’re involved in something like this. You’re all about uncovering the truth, right? Not working with a bunch of thieves to help shady corporations hide their shady dealings. If it’s about the money for your wife’s treatment—”
“What did I just say? You keep my wife out of this.” Ben turned and walked out of the room, feeling pissed at Pagemaster and at himself and at the world at large. He didn’t need a lecture on ethics from a woman who’d ripped off a credit card company for ten million dollars.
Jesus. Jesus Christ. How much did she have on him? God, Ben was in over his head. Stupidly enough, he’d forgotten that someone they were hiring to steal information might actually steal information on him. Or Claire. Or Doris. This shit wasn’t supposed to touch Doris.
Ben didn’t fall asleep until the wee hours of the morning, and when he did, he dreamed about Confederated Global setting Elektra Natchios, Mike, and Pagemaster like a pack of dogs after hi and Doris.
Despite the fireworks from the first meeting, the planning meeting went fairly smoothly, and they walked away from it with what Ben thought was a pretty solid plan. The initial entry would be made by Mike, who was essentially ziplining in from the building next door, cutting a hole in a window, disarming security alarms in the room (and the floor at large), and opening the window so Pagemaster and Elektra could come in after him.
(How tall is the building next door?”
Ben had anticipated quite a few questions from Mike about their plans for entering the building, but that hadn’t been one of them. “I don’t know. Why?”
Mike rolled his shoulders in an elaborately casual shrug. “Because I scouted the place out, and it’s a piece of cake to break into. No in-person security, the electronic system is a joke, and it has roof access. If the angles are right, I can maybe bungee or zipline in. A lot easier than trying to access a secured floor from the ground. I can do the math, I just need the exact numbers.
“Are you kidding me?” demanded Claire. “What is this, Mission Impossible?”
“Mission Impossible 3,” said Mike, smiling at her. “That’s the one where they use another skyscraper as a fulcrum to kind of launch Tom Cruise over there."
“You watch a lot of action movies?”
Mike shrugged again, his smile shrinking. “Now and then, when I can find someone to describe them to me. At any rate, the buildings are close enough together that I can get between them without too much trouble, as long as the top of the building next door is somewhere close to the level of the Pierce & Pinkwater floors in height.
“And you’re going to be able to get through the window?” Pagemaster asked skeptically.
“Sure.” Mike gave her a grin, sharper than the one he’d aimed at Claire. “The real question is, are you going to be able to get through the window?)
After everyone was in, Mike would use a device that Pagemaster had apparently invented to tap into the building’s security footage so Ben and Claire could have eyes in the building, while Pagemaster and Elektra would go find the building’s mainframe. Once in, Pagemaster would strip Pierce and Pinkwater’s drives of Confederated Global’s privileged information, giving Ben and Claire a copy of the data she’d deleted on a flash drive. Ben and Claire would then drop the flash drive off at a designated deposit box so that Confederated Global could make sure that she had gotten all their clients’ files.
(It looks like the room’s only locked with a keypad!” said Pagemaster exultantly. She’d been a little hesitant at first, apparently unwilling to antagonize Ben after their confrontation at the end of that first meeting, but it didn’t take much time for her to overcome her nerves. She was in her element, talking about hacking security equipment—under other circumstances, Ben might have found her eagerness endearing.
“Only?” Elektra asked.
Pagemaster rolled her eyes. “Seriously. It's a snap. If it’s over eight or nine digits, it may take an extra minute or so to crack, but I’ve got the equipment to crack a simple numeric keycode, no problem.”
Given the impressive array of hacks she’d pulled off and the technological-looking gear she’d brought to the meeting, Ben was inclined to believe her. “You know what to look for once you’re in their computers?”
“Sure,” she said. “The man with the money gave me a list.” The word were straightforward enough, but there was something in her tone that gave Ben pause—stifled mischief, maybe.
“Hey,” he said sternly. “Don’t go digging around. We’re not here to steal Pierce and Pinkwater’s business secrets, and before you ask, no, I can’t publish them if you steal them. There is literally no way I’d get away with that. And don’t save extra copies of Confederated Global’s clients’ data, either. That’s people’s lives in those folders—and Claire and Mike and Elektra and I have our asses on the line, too. You wanna crusade against the Man, you do it on your own time. Until we get paid on this one, we’re a team. You with me on this?”
She bit her lip sullenly, looking at the floor. “I’m not big on teams.”
“And yet, here we are,” said Claire.
After a long moment, Pagemaster sighed and said, “Okay. I’m with you, I’ll keep to the list.”
Ben nodded, relieved. “Good deal. Remember, you’re with the good guys on this one. You’re not here to cause chaos, you’re here to get grandma and grandpa’s 401k information back.”
“Rich grandma and grandpa,” said Elektra to the ceiling, and Mike snorted.
Pagemaster shook her head. “Working alone is a lot less trouble.”)
Elektra was in charge of troubleshooting. Ideally, she explained, she’d be able to talk her way out of trouble if they should unexpectedly be found by security guards, but if it came down to it, well. She had a number of easily concealed weapons and moved very quickly.
( ”Hold on,” said Mike. “I thought we were trying to get out of this without killing anyone.”
Elektra made a noise of disgust. “Who said anything about killing?”
“I don’t know,” said Claire. “I’ll admit, I have seen a lot of nonfatal stabbings, but attacking someone with a knife generally isn’t a great way to avoid killing them.” She was looking with a kind of stunned expression at the knife Elektra was holding, and Ben couldn’t blame her—the thing was nasty-looking, long and sharp.
“Knives are not only useful for stabbing people,” said Elektra, sounding long-suffering. “Picking locks, stripping wires, getting paintings out of their frames—who breaks into a building without a knife?”
Mike shrugged. “Well, me, for one.”
“Well, for all I know, you’re nothing more than a two-bit pickpocket who probably couldn’t dress himself even if he could see,” said Elektra, shooting a disdainful glare at Mike. He was wearing what appeared to be the same stained hoody and worn-out sweatpants he’d worn at the last meeting. “I, on the other hand, am a professional.”
“Ouch,” said Mike flatly.
“And I am not planning some sort of bloodbath or whatever ghoulish ideas you have in mind.” Though her tone was calm, there was something genuinely strained about her voice. “That is not why I was hired. I simply believe in being prepared.”
“Hey,” said Ben, hoping to hold off her temper before she actually lost it. “You’re the expert, Elektra. We’re just trying to get a sense of your ideas here.”
She blinked at him. “Well.” After a moment, she said, “Where is that blueprint of the secured floor?”
Claire pulled it out of the corner where someone had leaned it against the wall, spread it out on the table, and said, “Here.”
“Thank you,” said Elektra, sounding like that inner tension had been released. “There are eight security guards, primarily centered here. They go on staggered patrols on the half hour, which means they’re within earshot of the mainframe within eleven and seventeen minutes after the hour and forty-one and forty-seven minutes after the hour. Timing will be key to avoiding a confrontation with them, so you—” She directed her words to Mike. “Mike. You’ll need to let us in quietly and right on time. And you—” She switched her fierce gaze to Pagemaster. “Pagemaster. You must work quickly. Don’t waste time on your Anonymous, WikiLeaks crap.”
“I don’t know who died and put you in charge of this job,” said Pagemaster indignantly, “but I can handle my end of it. Ben? Claire? What do you think?”
“I think all three of you need to give your egos a rest and stop fighting,” said Ben frankly. He was, after all, being asked for his opinion. “This is a team effort, and you’re gonna fuck us all over if you can’t handle working together long enough to get through this.”
In the silence that followed, Claire said, “I agree completely. Also, can we go over the timing again here? I want to have this down.”)
Ben and Claire’s role was to keep an eye on the security cameras, once Mike and Pagemaster had gotten them the feed, to coordinate with the other three via what was essentially a fancy, hands-free walky-talky Pagemaster was providing, and to make sure that none of them walked away with anything they weren’t supposed to have. For all that Ben and Claire were out of their depth when it came to planning a heist, it didn’t take Ben long to figure out why they, or at least someone vaguely like them, would be needed to wrangle Elektra, Mike, and Pagemaster. All of them were prickly, proud people who didn’t like teamwork and feared that the others would let them down on the job, but they all seemed to like and respect Ben and Claire, for reasons that weren’t entirely clear.
The top of the building next door, which housed a collection of random offices and condos that would have been nice in the ‘70s but were run down now, was where they’d set up camp. It was chilly in the autumn air, that high up, with the sounds of the city below muffled by a rush of wind. Ben rubbed his hands together and blew on them for warmth.
“You didn’t bring gloves?” asked Claire. Her own hands—wearing black knit gloves, of course—were wrapped around a steaming Starbucks cup.
“Didn’t think of it,” said Ben, giving her a wry smile.
Mike made a considering noise from where he was sorting through a duffel bag full of what looked like rock-climbing equipment. “Eh. It’s not that bad.”
“Speak for yourself.” Bulky coats weren’t exactly conducive to zip-lining, so Pagemaster was dressed in a slim ski jacket that she clearly found insufficient to ward off the cold. She rubbed at her arms and shivered before walking over to where Ben and Claire were standing. “Okay, so I thought it would be easiest if I just set things up for you guys on my own tablets, so here.” She handed each of them a sleek tablet in a brightly colored case. “So just tap—” She indicated an icon in the upper right corner of the screen. “Once I walk Mike through setting up the USB transmitter, you can watch the security footage here. Swipe right to switch cameras, swipe left to switch back.”
“Can we see through the camera on Mike’s phone?” Claire asked. Since the building’s security system obviously wasn’t designed to be physically hacked into, Mike was going to need to hook both Pagemaster’s transmitter and wires from the system into a smartphone-looking thing that Pagemaster had invented, and even Mike had admitted that it would be helpful if someone who had working eyes could look at the wires he needed to sort.
Pagemaster grinned cheerfully, making a pleased “hmm” sound, and Mike, who had ditched the sunglasses for the job, rolled his eyes so hard his head kind of rolled with them. “Not a problem,” she said, and she pulled the phone-thing out of the messenger bag she had brought. She took the tablet back from Claire and fiddled with it for a minute, looking back and forth between it and the phone, before handing it back to Claire. “Ta-da!” she said cheerfully, opening up the surveillance video app again. She swiped right, and suddenly Claire and Ben were looking at video of the underside of Pagemaster’s chin.
“Wow,” said Ben, impressed despite himself. Ben wasn’t exactly a Luddite, but he’d never really been on the cutting edge of technology, either—he’d only gotten a smartphone a year ago because Doris had given it to him for Christmas, and she’d basically had to walk him through various computer set-ups and VPN set-ups and e-mail account set-ups over the years. Doris, thought Ben with a sudden pang, would probably like Pagemaster, if it weren’t for the whole ‘felon’ thing.
“Let me get that set up on yours, Ben,” she said, and she took his tablet.
Elektra was pacing like a caged animal on the other side of the roof, every once in a while glancing sharply at the Pierce and Pinkwater building next door. Ben got the sense that it was driving her wild to rely on Mike and Pagemaster for the job’s success, that she’d much rather find her own way into the building and get it done by herself. “Hey,” he said, “You wanna stop moving around so much? Don’t want the security people across the way to see you.”
She scoffed at that. “Please,” she said. “There are only eight of them for Pierce and Pinkwater’s entire operation, and there are hardly any windows outside the offices.” Even so, she sat down cross-legged next to Mike and poked at the harness he was adjusting. “Do you make a point of unnecessarily scaling buildings in order to rob them?”
“The more unnecessarily the better,” said Mike, smiling at Elektra with a kind of irritated tightness. His hands kept on working even while his face was pointed away from the gear, Ben observed. Made sense. It wasn’t like looking at what he was doing would do him much good. “Haven’t gotten this particular rig out in a while, though. Last time was Caffrey in 2013,” Mike continued. Ben blinked. The theft of a ten-million dollar Neal Caffrey painting from a secured vault in a Paris museum had been the international affairs section’s favorite unsolved mystery for almost a month back in the day. Unsolved no longer, apparently.
Elektra straightened up. “That was you?” She sounded impressed for once.
“Not bad for a two-bit pickpocket who likes to dress comfortably,” said Mike, overly casual, and Elektra huffed out a laugh.
“Perhaps not, but you still look like shit.” This, Ben thought, was a little unfair—Mike had dressed in black jeans and a black henley for the break-in, which, if they were worn out, still seemed like pretty run-of-the-mill cat burglar couture to Ben.
“Girls, girls, you’re both pretty,” said Claire impatiently. “We’re coming up on go time here.”
Elektra stood, brushing grit from the roof off her pants. “Have we got the communication worked out? If I recall correctly, that was your job, Pagemaster.” The remark was less pointed than Ben might have expected.
“And I took care of it,” said Pagemaster archly. “Get over here, everyone.”
The five of them huddled around Pagemaster in a little cluster, and she smiled broadly, clearly happy to have their attention. “Now, obviously we wanted something for this that was hands-free, wouldn't get picked up by law enforcement or anyone else listening in, and could pick up quiet sounds without amplifying them so much they'd blow our eardrums out.”
Claire raised her eyebrows. “Yeah, let's avoid that.”
“And we will! I developed these myself,” said Pagemaster, handing out what looked like a hearing aid. “Two-way earpiece microphone. They're very energy-efficient, there shouldn't be any interference on the frequency, and the sound quality is excellent, if I do say so myself."
Elektra frowned dubiously at hers, while Claire made the facial equivalent of a shrug and put hers in. “How do I turn it on?” she asked.
Pagemaster gave her a sunny smile. “You don't have to do anything. It turned on automatically when you started talking. Vibrations in your jaw.”
“Wow.” Ben put his own in. It felt a little like the earbuds that had come with his iPod, though these felt less likely to fall out of his ears. A definite plus—and if push came to shove, these wouldn't be as noticeable as something like a headset.
“Say something,” said Pagemaster eagerly. “Let's try it out!”
“I don't know how we can be expected to judge the sound quality or lack of interference when we're all standing within ten feet of each other,” Elektra complained, but she went ahead and put it in. “Huh,” she said. “Not bad. Better than I expected.”
There was a strange doubling effect as Ben heard both the Elektra in front of him and the Elektra in the microphones, but there was no static and the volume was perfect. Ben looked at Pagemaster with heightened respect. “You made these?”
She flushed and shrugged. “I like to keep busy.”
Meanwhile, Mike fiddled with his, running his fingers over them with a disgruntled look on his face. Pagemaster, whose pride in the things radiated from her still-red face, said, “Hey, come on. I want to test these before crunch time.”
“I don't like putting things in my ears,” said Mike, looking like he was talking more to the earbud than to the people around him.
Ben could get that—though Mike had been close-mouthed about how he went about performing his acts of larceny, it was hard to imagine that his hearing didn't play a big role. Pagemaster, however, was starting to get irritated. “Don't be a baby,” she said. “We have to be able to communicate when we're in the building, and that's especially important for you, so I can walk you through the surveillance footage hookup.”
“Mmm,” said Mike dubiously. He rolled the earpiece around in his fingers for another few moments before sighing and sticking the thing in his ear.
“See? Not so bad, is it?” asked Pagemaster, sounding like she was talking to a five-year-old.
Mike winced. “Let’s get this show on the road.”
As the clock ticked closer to go time, Ben felt increasingly disconnected from his own body. He was really doing this. He was really going to help three career criminals break into a building, grab a bunch of data from a multimillion-dollar company's computers, and give it to a shady Wall Street investment firm. If he got caught, it was going to take all the expensive lawyers Confederated Global could pay for to get him off, and even then, he could kiss his career good-bye. He didn't even know what Doris would think. He should have been afraid. He should have been having second thoughts. But instead he just felt....
The first time Ben had nearly ruined his life, he was really nothing more than a kid, trying to get classified data out of a military facility so he could write a piece about the dangerous negligence with which the facility treated the nuclear weapons stored there. He hadn't been able to get a source to talk, so he'd decided to break in to do the investigating himself. And he’d gotten all the information he needed. His editor had torn him a new asshole after that, the newspaper’s lawyers having to work overtime to keep him and the paper from getting the book thrown at them by a federal judge, and he’d lost the job not long afterward, but Ben had never regretted it. There were very few times in his life when he’d felt more alive than that foolhardy night sniffing around nuclear weapons in the dark.
Ben felt like that now, that weird mix between jumping out of his skin with excitement and utterly calm. So the little voice in his head telling him he was being stupid, that he was going to ruin everything he’d ever worked for—well, he told that voice to shut up, and out loud, he started the countdown.
If Ben was excited, Mike was practically giddy—he was bouncing on his heels and grinning like a kid at a carnival as he tossed what looked like a fucking grappling hook across the gap between the buildings.
“Oh, my God,” said Pagemaster, staring with horror as the hook latched onto the window of the entry point. “Is that going to stay put?”
Mike shook out his arms and grabbed the zipline handle. “If it’ll hold me, it’ll hold you.”
Claire peered over the roof at it. “Will it hold you?”
He smiled at her, the expression surprisingly bright and young-looking. “We’ll find out, won’t we?” And without further ado, he zipped across. Ben watched, heart in his throat, as Mike clung to the surface of the skyscraper like a spider, using some high-tech cat burglar tool to cut a hole in the window, which he wedged himself through with surprising grace. Or maybe not so surprising. Ben had never really been a big action movie person, he didn’t know how these things worked, but he imagined that a professional had to know how to do that sort of thing. After a long pause, in which the four on the roof were silent, Mike’s voice came through loud and clear on the earpiece microphones. “All right, motion sensors disabled, guards out of earshot, zipline secured. Elektra, Pagemaster, we’re good to go.”
“Huh,” said Elektra thoughtfully. “That was actually kind of hot.”
Ben blinked. “Um.”
“…Thanks?” said Mike. “You guys coming or what?”
Pagemaster, who hadn’t even seemed to notice Elektra’s foray into mild flirtation, was still staring across at the grappling hook. “Ergh.” She winced. “You’re sure this thing is safe?”
“For the next five minutes,” said Mike over the earpieces. “After that, the guards’ll swing back around this way, and you’re on your own.”
Elektra let out an exasperated huff. “He’s right,” she said. “We are wasting time.” And without hesitation, she slung her bag over her shoulder, grabbed the zipline handle that Mike had slid back across the gap, and went sailing across into the office.
After a moment, they could hear her let out a suppressed, “Whoo!” Apparently to Mike, she added, “All right, I can understand the appeal. That was….”
“Kind of a thrill, right?” Mike said.
“A thrill?” Pagemaster looked at the zipline with large eyes. “Shit.” Ben felt an unwilling pang of sympathy for her. Pagemaster was not and had never been the kind of thief who scaled buildings.
Claire sighed. “Hey, I don’t blame you for being freaked out. It’s a long way up, and Mike’s a weird dude. But he does do this professionally—when it comes to setting up cat burglar-y equipment, you know, I trust the experts.”
Pagemaster shot her an incredulous look, her eyes darting over to the window. She looked again at Claire, let out a deep breath, and said, “No, you’re right. I can do this.” She stepped up to the edge of the roof, rather pointedly not looking down, and followed the other two across the zipline.
“Jesus,” said Claire, watching Pagemaster vanish into the building. “Better you guys than me,” she said, but despite her joking tone, her face was taut with worry.
“Gee, thanks.” Though Pagemaster was aiming for dry sarcasm, her voice was too shaky to pull it off.
Ben knew he should have agreed with Claire’s sentiment, but at the moment, he wished he was going across with them, just so he could have a better idea of what was going on inside. “We need eyes in there, Mike,” he said. “What’s our status with the security cameras?”
“Give us a sec,” said Mike. “We’re waiting to make sure none of the guards heard Elektra and Pagemaster landing.”
After a long, tense moment that could have been an hour but was probably closer to a minute, Elektra said, “No, we’re in the clear. Pagemaster, give him the thing.” Even over the microphones, it was possible to hear shuffling as Pagemaster gave her surveillance-hacking device to Mike—she had been right, the sound quality was crystal clear.
“Okay, Elektra and me are off to find the mainframe," Pagemaster said brightly. Ben could hear footsteps moving out of the room.
“And the cameras?” asked Claire.
Mike grunted. “Hmm. Sorry, found the central hookup, but there’s a ton of wires and shit in here.”
“No worries,” said Pagemaster, “it’s simple. You want to detach the red A/V cord, plug it into the phone, and then turn on the USB transmitter by pressing down on the switch. Piece of cake.”
Mike let out an incredulous laugh. “Yeah, okay, just as soon as you tell me which of these is the red A/V cord.”
The sound of skin on skin came loud and clear over the earpieces—Ben thought that Pagemaster had probably slapped a hand over her mouth in embarrassment. The plan had been for her to help Mike with this part. They didn’t have time for her to apologize or get into it with Mike, though, so instead Ben swiped over in Pagemaster’s video surveillance app to the camera on Mike’s phone. “Mike,” he said, “hold the phone thing up and to the side so I can get a look at those wires.”
“Oh, right,” said Pagemaster, sounding surprised, and Mike made an inarticulate noise of irritation.
The screen on the app was black for a moment, but it soon became clear that that was because it was showing the inside of Mike’s pocket. Once he pulled it out, the inside of the room where he was standing became dimly visible, lit only by the faint green glow of an exit sign. “Is there a light in there?” Ben asked.
“Search me,” said Mike, sounding long-suffering. “Let me see if I can go find a switch or something.” Ben got a close-up view of Mike trailing his hand against the wall until he did, in fact, find a switch, flooding the room with washed-out fluorescent light. Mike walked back over to the tangle of cords he’d left behind. “So,” he said. “What did Pagemaster say? Red A/V cord?”
“Hey,” said Ben, “just grab a handful of wires.” When Mike obeyed, he continued. “The red A/V cord’s the third one from the left in your hand. Go ahead and plug it into the phone.” He watched as Mike did this. Finally, he said, “All right now, we’re almost there. Now the USB transmitter. It goes in that thing sticking out of the bottom of the phone doodad.”
“Is that the technical term for it?” asked Mike with a laugh, but he did as he was told, and Claire exclaimed with satisfaction.
“Yes! Check it out, Ben, we’ve got visuals.”
And they did—suddenly, Ben could see an overhead view of what had to be the main security headquarters, with six security guards sitting around watching an array of screens. Swiping right, he could see an empty corridor; swiping again, he could see the door to the room where the mainframe was—where Pagemaster and Elektra were headed.
“Good job, Mike,” he said.
After a brief pause, Mike said, “Thanks. For the help, too.”
“Not a problem. Elektra? Pagemaster? There’s a camera directly facing the door to that computer closet.”
“Don’t worry, Ben,” said Pagemaster confidently. “It should be rotating just about...now!” The camera slowly panned over to the right, and Ben could hear the sound of running feet, presumably Elektra and Pagemaster running over to the door.
“Hurry up, hurry up with that password,” Elektra hissed.
“I’m going, I’m going!” Pagemaster didn’t sound as stressed about it as Ben felt the situation really called for. “It’s ten digits, okay, even my tech can’t pull that kind of thing completely out of thin air. Don’t worry, though, she’ll get it."”
“She?” asked Mike.
“Sure. My girl here. The Pagemaster Codebreaker model 34. Much faster than model 33.”
“God,” said Elektra disgustedly. “This is why I prefer to work alone.”
There was a loud click, and Pagemaster said smugly, “You were saying?”
Once again, Ben wished desperately that he was in the building so he could actually see what was going on. His heart was pounding through his chest—though they’d only been at it a handful of minutes, Ben felt like he’d been running a marathon. “Are you guys in?”
“We are,” said Elektra. “Computer Girl is bonding with the machines.”
“Have you found the files?” asked Claire.
“Oh, yeah,” Pagemaster said. "I’ve got them. I’m transferring them over to the flash drive now, and I’ll delete the backups off Pierce and Pinkwater’s servers as soon as I’m done."
“Huh.” That was Mike, making a considering noise. Ben’s worry, which had been briefly calmed by the progress report from Pagemaster, roared into life again.
“What is it?”
“There isn’t supposed to be anyone on this floor right now, right? I mean, he isn’t anywhere near us, but—seriously, shouldn’t he back at the main security office?”
“Now how the fuck does he know that?” muttered Claire, swiping frantically through footage on her tablet. “Oh, shit. Ben, he’s right, there is someone on the floor. What the—”
Ben stared at the grainy security footage. It was impossible. They’d timed this all out, memorized the guards’ schedules. What the hell was this guy doing? It came to him in a flash of sudden clarity. “He left his flashlight up here.”
“What?” Claire, Elektra, and Mike asked it all at the same time. Ben guessed Pagemaster was too busy worrying about the data.
“Look.” He pointed out what he was looking at to Claire on the tablet. “All the other guards have those big flashlights, either carrying them in their hands or at their belts. But this guy doesn’t. He’s not just pacing. That’s a guy who knows where he’s going. He left his flashlight somewhere. The men’s room, maybe,” he threw out in a fit of inspiration.
“If he’s headed to the men’s room,” said Mike, “he’s going to pass the server room.”
“Yes,” said Elektra coolly. “He is.”
Ben and Claire looked at each other in dismay. But they didn’t have time for that. Ben looked through the security footage on his own tablet. “Elektra,” he said, “is the door to the server room closed?”
“It is,” she said in a hushed whisper. “Pagemaster, are you almost done?"
“I’m working on it!" Pagemaster said in a low, irritated voice.
“Shh!” Claire’s voice was tight with stress. “Quiet, guys!”
The tablet finally brought up what Ben had been looking for: a shot of the main security office. He counted heads with a growing feeling of dread. “Hey,” he said, “we have another problem. There are only six guys in that office. If seven is looking for his flashlight, where’s eight?”
“Shit,” said Claire. “What the hell was I thinking, getting involved in all this?”
“Thought you were in it for the money,” Mike pointed out.
“Shut up, you. Eight’s probably Seven’s partner, right? So he’s probably on his way up, if he’s not there now.”
“Oh, he’s there now,” said Mike, and Ben’s stomach dropped. “He’s coming out of the west stairwell, about halfway between the original entry point and the server room.”
Jesus, the guy had to have ears like a bat. “Okay,” said Ben. “Everyone shut up. New plan: we wait them out. Let the guy find his flashlight, and then hopefully he and his partner will leave.”
It felt like all five of them were holding their breaths. Ben and Claire watched, agonized, as Eight caught up with Seven and they neared the server room. “Keep going, keep going,” Claire muttered under her breath. On the tablet screen, the camera panned back over to the server room door. Seven and Eight passed by, chatting casually, and Ben let out a sigh of relief. But then—but then, Eight paused.
Claire made an inarticulate noise of frustration. Eight stopped, looped back to the server room door, and peered at it. The door was clearly closed onscreen, thought Ben, what the hell was the guy looking at?
“Guys,” asked Claire, “the server room door lock with the ten-digit password—was there any kind of light or something on it? To show that the lock was engaged?”
After a moment of weighted silence…“Shit,” said Pagemaster, in a high-pitched, tense whisper. “There was a blinking red light. I didn’t even think about it.” Onscreen, Eight was calling Seven over.
“Oh, fuck this,” said Elektra, and Ben watched as an arm reached out to drag Eight into the server room by the neck.
In frantic surprise, Seven reached for his walky-talky, and Claire said, “Elektra, he’s calling for back-up!”
“No, he isn’t,” said Elektra, and she erupted from the room. In one smooth, utterly assured motion, she flew at Seven, leveling a spinning kick at his head. The walky-talky slipped from his fingers as he dropped like a rock to the floor.
“Oh, my God,” said Claire, breathing hard.
“I know, right?” Pagemaster said, sounding relieved and kind of excited. “You see how fast she moved? She knocked the other guy out with, like, a Vulcan neck pinch or something. So cool."
“By which she means I choked him out,” said Elektra, more casual than one might expect from a woman who had just choked out one man and knocked another unconscious by kicking him, all in the span of less than a minute.
Ben had to shake his head, impressed. Elektra was known professionally for her competence, the pleasure she took in her work, even the flair with which she dealt out violence, but even with the new leaf she seemed to have turned over recently, she wasn’t necessarily known for efficient but nonlethal methods. The whole thing had happened so quickly that the guards probably wouldn’t even have gotten a good description of her for the police. “Wow,” he said. "Nicely done, Elektra."
“This is what you hired me for, I believe,” she said, in a tone that said that what she meant was duh! Obviously! And then, a little less sarcastic, she added, “I’m here to watch Pagemaster and Mike’s backs.”
Unfortunately for her, and for Pagemaster and Mike, they weren’t out of the woods yet. “The downside is, sooner or later, the rest of the guards are going to wonder where their pals there went. Pagemaster, are you just about done? Because I’m thinking we need to make a pretty swift exit.”
“One more minute,” said Pagemaster. “Plan D?”
Ben nodded, though he knew none of the three inside the building could see it. “Plan D.”
Plan D (for “Disguise,” or possibly for “Drunk,” depending on who you asked) had actually been Claire’s idea, and to Ben’s surprise, all three of the career criminals had agreed to it almost immediately, even Mike, who might have legitimately found the whole thing insulting. Ben could hear the flurry of motion on the other end of the microphones as Mike hurried to take down the zipline equipment and reset the alarms and Elektra and Pagemaster changed clothes. After a moment, Ben and Claire’s tablets beeped with an incoming video call from Pagemaster. When Claire opened hers, Pagemaster and Elektra grinned at them, both dressed in police uniforms, complete with badges and name tags. “Well?” said Pagemaster, gesturing to herself with a “ta-da!” motion. “What do you think? Do we pass for cops?”
“Sure, if the NYPD hired supermodels,” said Claire. Ben frowned her—since when was Claire the one that flirted inappropriately on this job?—and Elektra and Pagemaster looked a little taken aback. Claire shook her head and rolled her eyes, apparently at herself, and said, “You guys look fine. As long as you can pull off the performance, I think you should get by the guys at the main desk okay.”
“Cool,” said Pagemaster, having recovered her equilibrium. “And our drunken indigent intruder…?”
Mike appeared on the screen with a resigned sigh, carrying his zipline equipment. “Here. One of you guys put this in your bag.” Elektra relieved him of the gear, stuffing it in the duffel bag in which they’d kept the police uniforms, and handed him his favorite stained hoody and a bottle of cheap whiskey they’d obtained for the purpose. With a grimace, he shrugged into the hoody, then splashed himself liberally with the whiskey and took a slug of it. After swishing it around in his mouth, he swallowed, then rolled his shoulders and shook them out. “Okay,” he said, as if to himself. “Okay.”
“You’re going to be just fine,” said Ben. “But you guys better head down now." The security guys in Ben’s view of the main office were moving around, apparently getting restless. According to their schedule, one of the teams should be preparing to head out on patrol in five minutes, but Seven and Eight hadn’t gotten back yet, and they were probably getting ready to call them to see what the hold-up was.
“Okay,” Pagemaster said. “Here goes. Mike, if I could....?”
“Ugh.” Mike extended his hands for Pagemaster to put handcuffs on him. They were going to try to avoid the security cameras, but if there ended up being any footage of them, better that the assault of the two security officers be pinned on a random blind drunk guy than on three people stealing data off the servers. “One of you better grab the USB transmitter and the phone,” Mike added as Pagemaster adjusted the cuffs. “Figured I’d leave that to the last minute, so Mr. Urich and Ms. Temple could keep an eye on things as long as possible.”
“I’ll get it,” said Pagemaster, straightening up. “Elektra, you and Mike start heading for the elevators.”
Elektra nodded and reached to grasp Mike’s arm above the elbow. “Claire, Ben, I believe this is where we leave you.” She picked up what must have been Pagemaster’s phone, and a second later, the video feed cut off.
Claire sighed and wrapped her arms around herself. Ben had forgotten about the chill, but seeing her shiver made the cold jump back abruptly into his own bones. She took out the earpiece mike for a minute, rolling it between her fingers before closing her fist around it. “You think they’ll be able to keep it together long enough to fool the guys at the front desk?”
Ben knew that the three in the building could hear every word he said, and so it was with deliberate certainty that he said, “They’ll be fine.”
Claire nodded and put her earpiece back in.
Over the microphones, the building security, who worked for a different company than Pierce and Pinkwater’s security on the stretch of floors between the 35th and the 45th, were standing to ask who Elektra, Pagemaster, and Mike were. With irritated gruffness and a surprisingly convincing American accent, Elektra explained that they’d gotten a call from the Pierce and Pinkwater people about an intruder and found this guy.
“Ow, hey, man, not so hard! I’m gonna, I’m gonna sue. Police brutality!” Ben wasn’t sure whether it was good acting on Mike’s part, or whether Elektra had genuinely squeezed his arm hard enough to be painful, but either way, Mike was doing a good job of sounding like a drunk guy in pain.
“I don’t even know how he got up there,” said Pagemaster wonderingly. “Do you guys get drunk blind guys wandering in off the street often over here?”
“Not as a general rule, no?” The guard, to Ben’s relief, sounded bewildered, a little dazed even, but not suspicious. “I mean, the occasional panhandler, sometimes, but they usually don’t go further than the lobby.”
Elektra laughed. “Oh, my God, what a crazy night. What did you think you were going to find up there?” This last was said in a much sterner tone—probably directed at Mike.
“I dunno,” Mike mumbled. “It was cold out. Thought it’d be warm.”
“Are—are you guys arresting him?” asked the other guard, clearly softening. “I mean, it doesn’t look like he did any harm. We could call a shelter or something?”
“Eh,” said Elektra dismissively. “Don’t worry about it. Public intoxication’s a misdemeanor, and if you’re not pressing charges, he’ll be out again tomorrow. But the drunk tank’s a lot warmer than the streets.”
“Oh, yeah,” said the guard solemnly.
“Well, we’ll get out of your hair now,” Pagemaster said. “Thanks for your help. Come on, sir, let’s see if we can get you some coffee or something before we head downtown.”
The guards said their confused goodbyes, and Claire and Ben watched over the edge of the roof as Pagemaster and Elektra frogmarched Mike out of the building. As soon as they were clear, Mike made some sort of twisting motion, pulled the undone handcuffs off, and tossed them at Elektra. She caught them and stuck them back in the duffel bag.
Pagemaster watched these proceedings with mild curiosity before saying, “We’re good to go. I’ll send Confederated Global the data.”
“Right,” said Ben, feeling a little dazed himself. “The money should appear in your accounts within 48 hours.”
“Well, this has been fun.” Mike waved up at Ben and Claire, barely visible from the sidewalk, before walking to the end of the block and vanishing around the corner. Elektra walked in the opposite direction, not even looking back. Pagemaster paused for a long moment, staring up at Ben and Claire, before darting a quick look over her shoulder and crossing the street to disappear between two buildings.
Ben’s knees quivered under him, and he sat down, not giving a second thought about the coldness and dirtiness of the roof. “Holy shit,” he said. “We pulled it off.”
“We did.” Claire sat down next to him, and after a moment, she turned and smiled. “Plan D worked, huh?”
“Looks like. Guess you and I missed our callings—obviously, we should have been criminal masterminds.”
Sitting around on the roof was a lousy plan—any minute now, the Pierce and Pinkwater security was going to figure out what had happened with their men, they were going to contact the building security, who were going to contact the real police, the left hand would know what the right was doing, and the jig would be up. Ben and Claire had to be far away when that happened. Ben had a nagging suspicion that he was forgetting something, and he wanted to go home and get some sleep and clear his head. But for a moment, he and Claire just sat next to each other and let the sounds of New York wash over them. The night sky was clear; even with all the light pollution of the city, it was easier to see the stars when you were so much closer to them.
Ben woke the next morning feeling like the whole thing the night before had been a dream. He got out of bed, made himself some coffee, and took a shower, all in a state of mild disbelief. He logged on to his bank account online—apparently, he hadn’t gotten the ten million bucks yet, but then, it had only been about seven hours. Confederated Global might not even have the data yet.
He visited Doris, bursting with the story. He couldn’t tell her, of course. Not at the hospital. Maybe not ever. But he could smile at her and say, “Hey, handsome, good news.”
Doris set down her tablet. “Well, I haven’t heard much of that lately. Go on.”
Ben reached out to take her hand, dry but warm. She’d always had warm hands. “I might be able to get ahold of more of that Branivir after all.”
“Really?” Doris’s grin lit up her whole face. “The insurance is gonna cover it?”
“Nah,” said Ben. “But I think we’re gonna be able to afford it. Especially with you coming home and all.”
A number of emotions—joy, worry, relief, fear, suspicion—warred in Doris’s face. “Yeah?”
Ben shrugged. “I’m on paid leave from work right now, and I can’t think of anything in the world I’d rather do than go home with my girl.” He hesitated, and then added, “To be honest, I’m thinking I might quit anyway. Just—I can’t do the kind of journalism they want at the Bulletin now. ‘Screw the facts, we just want upvotes.’ And with the hospital privatizing, and me suddenly having all this time on my hands....” He squeezed her hand. “You want to?”
“You know I do,” said Doris, some of the worry on her face settling into calm. “And I’m glad you’re thinking of quitting. You should. You haven’t been happy there for a long time—every day you come here and complain about Ellison and the dumb stories and your dumb coworkers. You don’t need them.”
And that was the thing of it, thought Ben with amazement. With ten million dollars in the bank, he really didn’t. It wouldn’t last for long, not with Doris’s condition and the cost of living in New York City, but it would last long enough for Ben to take stock and figure out what he wanted to do next. And maybe they could take a chunk of it and invest it—he’d have to tell Doris about where the money came from, of course. Of course he would. But by then, with the new medication and getting to be at home, maybe Doris would be more herself. Maybe she wouldn’t agree with what he’d done—hell, there was pretty much no chance of that. But Ben knew that she would understand. It would make a good story, and God knew Doris always liked a good story.
She started to wander after a while, so Ben let the new nurse look after her and went to talk to Shirley, the head nurse, about taking her home.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t swing it with the insurance, Ben,” said Shirley, finding forms for Ben to fill out. “But with this hospital buyout...Doris definitely isn’t the only long-term patient we’re going to have leaving us.” She sighed.
“That’s all right,” said Ben. “Thanks for all your help.” It was easier to say it now than it had been before, when he had had no idea where the money was going to come from. It was such an overwhelming relief not to have that hanging over his head, that he felt he could afford to be charitable. Shirley had always tried to do right by him.
After a conversation in which Shirley recommended hiring a nurse to come by to see to Doris for at least a few hours a day and handed Ben a pamphlet on resources for dealing with loved ones with dementia, Ben walked out into the cold fall sunshine, a spring in his step that hadn’t been there in quite a while. His sweetheart was coming home. All he had to do was go home and make the place ready for her.
He went home and obsessively checked on his bank balance for a while. He tried to distract himself with the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, but it was hard to keep his mind on the military-industrial complex at the moment. When the phone rang, he recognized Confederated Global’s number and jumped to answer it. “Hello?”
“Mr. Urich.” Confederated Global didn’t sound happy. “I don’t suppose you have any idea what’s become of my clients’ data?”
Shit. Shit, that’s what he had been forgetting. Ben sat up straight in his chair. “Pagemaster was supposed to drop it off in the safety deposit box for you. Have you not gotten it yet?”
“No, we have not,” said Confederated Global coldly. “Whose idea was it, exactly, to entrust sensitive data to a computer hacker?”
The blood froze in Ben’s veins. That…actually hadn’t been the plan. The plan had been to give Claire and Ben the flash drive, but in the giddy aftermath of the heist, it hadn’t even occurred to Ben that she might rip them off. Hell, even if he’d thought about it, given how close they were to being caught, at that point it would have been unnecessary, even risky, to run down to do the handoff with Pagemaster. And now—well, if Pagemaster hadn’t fucked them over, which she probably had, then something had gone wrong on a completely different scale of terrible. “Let me contact her.”
“Already done it. She claims to have had nothing to do with it—and maybe she’s telling the truth. After all, she was also working with a cat burglar and a ‘retrieval specialist.’ Mr. Urich, avoiding difficulties of this kind was precisely why I hired you and Ms. Temple.”
Well. Fuck. “Let me talk to them,” he said. “I’m sure we can get to the bottom of this.”
“For your sake, Mr. Urich, I sincerely hope so.” On the other end of the line, Confederated Global turned his head to talk to someone in the room with him—Ben couldn’t make out any individual words, but the tone sounded kind of conciliatory, like he was calming someone down. Then, into the phone, he said, “I’ve arranged a meeting in the building where we held the initial sit-down with Mike, Pagemaster, and Ms. Natchios. Midnight tonight. I strongly recommend that you arrive on time.” And then the phone clicked off, and Ben sat down slowly on his couch.
He couldn’t believe how happy he’d been just a few hours ago.
He wasn’t sure, afterwards, quite how he’d filled the time between Confederated Global’s call and midnight. Evaluating everything in his apartment based on its use as a weapon. Looking up airline ticket prices to foreign countries. Making cup after cup of herbal tea with lemon and honey, one of his go-to tricks for calming down. Even the process of heating the water and watching the honey dissolve in the tea was usually a soothing process for Ben, but it didn’t do much for him now.
All that he could do, really, was wait. And pray.
Though he arrived at 11:50, mindful of Confederated Global’s warning to be on time, he still appeared to be almost the last one there. Claire, Mike, Elektra, and Pagemaster were all sitting around the conference table, with expressions ranging from bored to angry to suspicious. Confederated Global wasn’t there yet, to Ben’s relief. Maybe they could work this out before he came.
“Pagemaster,” he said, sitting down. “What did you do with the flash drive?” No point wasting time on pleasantries.
She gave him a frustrated look. “I dropped it in the safety deposit box, like I was supposed to?”
“You didn’t think it might be a good idea to hold on to it? Use it to take down both Pierce and Pinkwater and Confederated Global at once?”
“No!” Her eyes on his were earnest, desperate, even. “I wouldn’t have! Not after I told you I wouldn’t!”
“How did you even know where the safety deposit box was?” Claire spoke up. “I know Ben and I didn’t bring it up at the planning meeting.”
"The guy told me," said Pagemaster, raising her voice. “When he got me the information and equipment I asked for! He said it was best if we all knew where it was in case the job went south and we had to split up.”
“He didn’t tell me where it was," Mike said laconically, and Pagemaster narrowed her eyes at him.
“I put a flash drive in the safety deposit box,” she said. “But maybe I didn’t put the flash drive in. After all, you’re the master pickpocket, right? You could have taken the drive with the data, replaced it with another one, and I never would have been the wiser.”
The accusation actually seemed to piss Mike off. “What the hell would I do with a bunch of financial data? That’s your thing, not mine.”
Elektra, who’d been silent and grim-looking up to now, pounded a fist on the table, and both Pagemaster and Mike jerked back, startled. “This is ridiculous,” she said. “It’s obvious that we’re just being fucked over. That Confederated Global man has his data, and he has no intention of paying any of us, because he thinks there’s nothing we can do. He’s wrong, of course,” she added with a sharp smile. “But that’s what he thinks.”
“I don’t know,” said Claire slowly, looking at Ben. “That…seems like a really dangerous game to play with a reporter. A stupid game. And that guy struck me as sleazy, but not stupid.”
“So what’s his play?” asked Ben, thinking aloud. “He gets the data, but acts like we messed up, calls us all to a meeting....”
He could tell that it hit Claire at the same second that it hit him. But before he could say anything, Mike perked up like a dog that smelled some large predator. He jerked his head one way, then the other, and then shouted “Down!” Ben thought that he saw Mike physically throw himself at Pagemaster, knocking her chair over, but he wasn’t sure, because at that very moment Elektra was barreling into him and Claire, pushing them to the ground, and there was a kind of high-pitched hissing noise, and then there was breaking glass.
Somebody was shooting at them. Wasn’t hard to guess who.
“Stay down,” Elektra said in Ben’s ear. She didn’t have to tell him twice. He stayed on the floor while Elektra scrambled up, ran to the open window, and…jumped?
“What’s she doing?” asked Claire frantically.
Mike, who was still huddled over a stunned-looking Pagemaster, cocked his head and said, “She’s chasing them.”
“Them?” asked Ben, and Mike nodded.
“There’s six of them. Guess they figured they needed to outnumber us to get the jump on Elektra.” He suddenly smiled. It wasn’t a particularly nice smile. “She’s kicking their asses.”
“Well.” Claire let out a deep breath. “Say what you want about her, but Elektra Natchios is not a person to fuck with.”
“No,” said Pagemaster quietly. “She’s not.”
They waited in a tense, frightened limbo until Elektra came sauntering back in, dragging behind her a man with a knife sticking out of his thigh. “You can all get up now, danger’s over,” she said impatiently. “I knocked out all the others, but I thought perhaps we could get some information out of this one.” She shoved him against the wall.
Claire stood up hesitantly, moving closer. “Elektra, he’s hurt bad,” she said. “There are major blood vessels in the thigh. If you want him to be able to tell you anything before he bleeds out, why don’t you let me look at that stab wound?”
Elektra stared at her incredulously. “He just tried to kill us, and you want to nurse him?”
“Hey, I want to know why he just tried to kill us and if there are more of those guys coming,” Claire shot back. “And he’s not gonna be able to tell us shit if he’s dead.”
“I work quickly,” said Elektra with a glare.
“That’s another thing!” said Claire. “I thought that guy didn’t pay you enough to kill anyone, right? You’re just here to watch our backs. Well, now it looks like he’s not paying you at all. You still gonna kill because of him? You gonna let him pull your strings like that, get the cops coming after all of us? You watched our backs. You did what you had to. Now let me look at him.”
It was like an Old West standoff, both Claire and Elektra searching each other’s faces for weaknesses, settling their stances for a fight. Behind them, Pagemaster and Mike stood up. Pagemaster, apparently recovering from her fright, peered curiously at their prisoner; Mike, meanwhile, looked like he wanted to kill someone.
Elektra backed down first, and Ben hid a smile. “Fine,” she said grudgingly, rolling her eyes. “Go—look at him, or whatever it is you do, while I’m asking questions.”
Claire smiled at her and knelt down to look at the man’s leg. There was a lot of blood, Ben noted. For all that Elektra seemed to be trying to avoid fatalities these days, this one might still end up dying. The Ben of a few days ago would probably have been more concerned about it; the Ben of today had bigger problems. Like not getting fucking murdered.
“We know the man from Confederated Global hired you to kill us,” Elektra said, her voice smooth and dangerous. “Tell us his name.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said the man, panting with exertion and pain, and then he screamed. Ben, Pagemaster, and Mike all flinched simultaneously.
“Don’t move,” Claire said sternly.
“What was the plan? Shoot us all, blame it on random gang violence or something?” Elektra stood up and moved closer to the man, looming over him and Claire. “Or perhaps you were going to torch the place afterward, destroy all the evidence, make it look like arson.”
The man said nothing, but Mike, recovered from the shock of the scream but his face still like a storm cloud, said, “That one.”
“What?” asked Elektra, temporarily distracted.
“That was the plan,” said Mike. “Burn us all. His heartrate just leaped.”
Elektra’s eyes widened. “Did it? How fascinating.” She gave Mike a considering look, and then turned back to the man on the ground. “What’s your connection with Confederated Global?” she asked. “Have you worked with them before?”
“No,” he said, but Mike shook his head.
“Well,” said Elektra, raising her eyebrows. “My friend here says that you’re lying, and I’m inclined to believe him. Now let’s try again. Give me the name of the man who hired you.”
The man was now looking at Mike with confused anger, and Claire snapped her fingers in front of his face, looking fed up with the whole situation. “Hey,” she said. “The lady asked you a question.”
The man scowled. “Why should I tell you anything?” he asked, having apparently come to the conclusion that denials weren’t helping him.
“I don’t know,” said Claire, “maybe because you don’t want to bleed to death in a creepy office building?”
“Better than what he’ll do to me if I tell you his name,” the man shot back.
Elektra turned to Mike. “Well, Mike?”
“I think it’s true,” Mike said. “He smells like fear.” His lip curled up in disgust, his hands balled into fists at his sides, and Ben thought with a sudden rush of nerves that he wouldn’t want to get on Mike’s bad side, blind or no. As if Mike had heard that thought, his head jerked around in Ben’s direction. His sunglasses had gotten knocked off in the fray following the gunfire, and without them, he looked unsettlingly vulnerable.
“Well.” Elektra smiled, an almost playful expression completely at odds with the gravity of the situation. “I can work with fear.” She leaned in to their captive’s face, gently shifting Claire aside with a hand on her shoulder. “I can also work with pain. I’m very good at pain, you know.” Quicker than a striking snake, her hand reached down to pull the knife from the man’s thigh. He howled, and Claire recoiled.
“Shit! You can’t just yank it out like that!” The man was gushing blood all over the place, his hands gripped tight around his leg, and Claire hurried to strip off her sweater to wrap around the wound.
Elektra, on the other hand, was completely unfazed. She drew a finger along the flat of the blade, as if to test out how it felt, and then slid the blade under the man’s chin.
Ben wondered, with a sense of numb horror, if he was about to watch a man be killed before his very eyes. “Hey, Elektra, he can’t tell us anything if he’s dead, remember?” he said, keeping his tone light and matter-of-fact. He had a sneaking suspicion that Elektra wouldn’t take kindly to being ordered around at this particular moment.
“Oh, I’m not going to kill him,” she said. “I’m just going to have some fun.”
Pagemaster shot Ben a look of wide-eyed alarm, but before Ben could tell Elektra that he really wasn’t interested in sitting around while she tortured this guy, the man said, “Fisk, okay? The guy’s name is Wilson Fisk!”
Elektra withdrew the knife. “Is it?” she said in a conversational tone.
“Yeah, Fisk,” the guy said again. “And that lap dog of his is Wesley—James? John? Something like that. I know he works with the Russian mob, Yakuza, some weird old lady who slings heroin, I think, but I don’t know their names, I swear to God.”
“Fisk, Fisk,” said Pagemaster, and to Ben’s surprise she pulled out her phone and started tapping at it. Mike blinked, looking as thrown as Ben, and then turned to Elektra.
“Truth,” he said simply.
“Hmm. Shame. I feel we were just getting to know each other.” Elektra straightened up, wiping the knife on the man’s shoulder as she went and leaving a bright streak of blood behind.
“He’s gonna kill me,” the man pleaded. “You gotta help me.”
“Help you?” Elektra scoffed. “My friend here’s stopping you from bleeding to death, which is more help than you deserve.”
Now that the adrenaline was wearing off, it was beginning to hit Ben—Confederated Global wasn’t just going to let Ben and Claire and the professionals take the fall for the Pierce and Pinkwater job, he’d hired gunmen to kill them. Pierce and Pinkwater had probably never even stolen that data to begin with. Ben had let his fears about Doris’s treatment and his own boredom with his job lead him into a trap—worse, he’d led Claire there with him. As the fear began to recede to the background of his mind, Ben realized that he was pissed. He swallowed it, bitter at the back of his throat. Now was no time to lose his head or his temper. They were still in trouble. Claire and Pagemaster and Mike and Elektra still needed him, and he needed them if he wanted to get out in one piece. He stepped over to where Claire, Elektra, and their informant were clustered against the far wall. “Claire,” he said, “is this guy going to live?”
Claire shot him a look. “He needs medical treatment. Real medical treatment, not just me and a sweater.”
“He can’t go to the hospital,” Pagemaster said quickly. “If this Fisk guy is really after him, he shouldn’t risk it.”
“Can you fix him?” Mike asked Claire. “I can get you whatever you need.”
It was too bad Claire’s exasperated ‘why me?’ gesture was lost on Mike, because combined with her expression, it was a pretty eloquent demonstration of being 100% done. “God, I can’t believe this is actually happening,” she said finally. “Yeah, okay, I’ll make a list.” She paused, then, embarrassed. “I mean, I could text it to you. Your phone reads the texts?”
“It does,” Mike said, apparently unoffended. “But I’ll remember if you tell me.”
“This whole thing is insane. You know that, right? Fuck.” Claire scratched her nose, clearly trying to force herself to come up with a list of medical supplies.
Mike reached out to pat her on the arm. “You’re doing fine. It’s okay. It’s gonna be okay.”
“Ben.” Pagemaster had stepped up to his side, and was leaning in to whisper at him. “Can I talk to you outside really quick?”
Ben looked at the bizarre tableau against the far wall and shrugged. “Sure. Why not?”
When they’d left the room, Pagemaster shut the door behind them. Somewhere else in the building, a board creaked, and she flinched, hard. Ben froze. But as the seconds ticked away, the only sounds were the ragged breathing of their guest and the low discussion between Claire and Mike as she made a list of medical supplies.
“I think we’re good,” said Ben.
Pagemaster nodded. “Okay. So, the name Fisk sounded really familiar to me, so I did a little quick searching. Wilson Fisk isn’t technically connected to Confederated Global, but his main company, Kingpin, Inc., basically provided all the capital to get CG started, and one of Kingpin’s subsidiary companies is Confederated Global’s biggest shareholder. Fisk is also CEO of a real estate firm called Marlena Holdings.” Ben blinked. Pagemaster sent him a searching look and, apparently mistaking Ben’s stunned anger for confusion, went on. “Marlena Holdings has been buying up a lot of property since the Avengers Incident through various shell companies, but the main company’s thing is privatizing public facilities like schools, prisons—”
“—Hospitals,” Ben finished for her. “That’s why they went after me. They bought out the hospital.” They probably hadn’t just done it so they could hold Doris over his head—hell, with a company this shady and this connected, they probably had a million deals attached to the Metro General buyout. But whatever else they had riding on it, they’d raised the price on Doris’s treatments, stopped taking Ben and Doris’s insurance, and then deliberately used that situation to convince Ben to sign on to this job.
They had made a thief out of Ben. They weren't just after Ben's life, but also his credibility.
If Ben ever saw Confederated Global—Wesley, that was his name, he looked like somebody who’d be the mastermind’s lap dog—again, he was going to wring that bastard’s neck. Ben had known that there was something ugly underneath the surface of Confederated Global. But the extent to which they had deliberately fucked him over was a new experience. He didn’t like it.
“It’s bullshit,” said Pagemaster with surprising vehemence, echoing Ben’s thoughts. “First they make sure you’re in a bad financial situation, then they use it to manipulate you.”
“And I took the bait,” said Ben, shaking his head. He’d known better, and he’d done it anyway.
“We all did.” Pagemaster scowled. “I should have known better than to take a job from those shady bastards. That guy made me feel gross, and I signed on anyway because I liked the idea of fucking over Pierce and Pinkwater.”
“You and Claire should commiserate,” said Ben, amused despite himself. “That’s why she signed on, too.”
Pagemaster gave him a small, surprised smile. “I guess you can feel flattered, though. They must have felt threatened by you to go to all this trouble.”
“Threatened? By what?”
She looked at him with weary intensity. “Well. I don’t know. I could be barking up the wrong tree, but…everybody else thinks Clyde Farnum killed himself. You’re the only one in the press drawing a connection between that and that hitman who died right after. No such thing as coincidence, right?”
That stopped Ben in his tracks. He hadn’t thought about Clyde Farnum in weeks—Ellison hadn’t even let him pursue the story—but if that was the reason Ben had been singled out, then Wilson Fisk wasn’t just the latest in a series of shady Wall Street dealers. Wilson Fisk was something bigger.
His thoughts were interrupted by a soft thump as Pagemaster pounded a fist against the wall then slumped against it, looking demoralized. “We gotta run. Even if the guy doesn’t send more hitmen after us, he’ll probably send the cops.”
And they were all going to spend a long time looking over their shoulders. Ben sighed. “Little hard to just pack up and leave.”
Pagemaster shrugged. “Not for me, it isn’t. And not for you, either. I can get you and Doris fake passports that’ll fool the TSA, no question. Get you tickets for a non-extradition country under a false name, you’re good to go.”
“Fuck that.” Ben and Pagemaster turned to see Mike, who’d stepped out of the back room with Claire and Elektra half a step behind him. “I’m not running.”
“‘He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day,’ said Claire, pushing her way out from behind him. “Jesus, what a mess.”
“It’s no trouble,” Pagemaster said. “I can get you a fake passport, too. If you want I can—”
“You’re not hearing me,” said Mike, his voice louder. “New York is my home, and nobody runs me out of it.”
Elektra closed the door behind her and leaned against the wall next to the doorframe. “As much as I hate to agree with that bit of melodrama, I’m not running either. I have a professional reputation to maintain, and getting tricked into a spot of corporate espionage and chased away like a dog with its tail between its legs won’t do my profile any good. Besides,” she added with a sharp smile, “I’d really, really like to make that weasel of a man regret the day he ever heard my name.”
“He’s not even the one in charge. Wilson Fisk’s been on my radar for a while now—you know I think he killed his dad when he was a kid and covered it up? The man’s got more money than God and no scruples about killing people who get in his way.” Pagemaster was getting flushed, her fingers tapping out a rapid rhythm against her thigh. “I’d rather not be in his way when he sends out the next round of hitmen. We can dig up shit on him, take him down from a distance later, but right now….” Ben studied her face. She was keeping it together pretty well, but she was genuinely afraid, he thought. He looked around, at Mike’s sullen anger, at Claire’s tightly controlled worry, at Elektra’s slow-simmering rage, and wondered when exactly it was that he’d started thinking of this gang of mismatched people as his team. Strange situations made strange companions.
“You’re betting that it wouldn’t be worth his while to pursue us, then,” Ben said slowly, trying to work the knot out in his head.
“Not if we lay low, maybe.” She didn’t sound so sure.
“So, what, we let him win?” Elektra frowned. Letting her enemies win probably went pretty deeply against the grain for her.
“Hey,” Claire broke in. “Our friend in there is still conscious and probably hearing everything we’re saying. Let’s take this conversation somewhere else.”
They found an open lounge on the third floor of the building and turned on the light in the small kitchenette—it had no windows, it could be shut off from the rest of the lounge by a door, and with a refrigerator between them and the building next door, Elektra thought that even a sharpshooter would have to work at it if he wanted to take them out. Ben, who owed his life to her at this point, was willing to take her at her word.
Claire hoisted herself up onto a countertop and said, “Okay, part of me wants nothing more than to pack my bags and run, but I do actually have a life here. My mom, my friends, my—okay, I lost my job, but that doesn’t mean I’m gonna have an easier time finding one on the lam.”
“Plus,” Mike put in, fiddling with a combination lock he seemed to have pulled from thin air as he talked, “clearly these people have a lot of connections. Who’s to say they won’t call up some assassins overseas the same way they called us up and tie up their loose ends?”
“You’re assuming they’d be able to track us,” Pagemaster pointed out.
Mike made a face at her. “Is that a bad assumption?”
Before Pagemaster could respond with some indignant defense of her stealth skills, Ben added his own two cents. “It’s a moot point for me. My wife’s in the hospital with early-onset dementia. She’s in no state to go on the run overseas.”
It seemed that, unlike Pagemaster, Mike and Elektra hadn’t bothered to dig into his personal life, because Mike blinked at him with what looked like shock and Elektra, who was of course too composed to be shocked by anything, said, “I didn’t know that,” one corner of her mouth twisting down.
“Sorry, I didn’t even think of that,” said Pagemaster remorsefully.
“Shit,” Elektra said, something apparently occurring to her. “If our employers know about your wife, we ought to get her out of the hospital as soon as possible.”
“Oh, God,” Ben said, all the earlier terror returning, and Claire wrapped a hand around his arm.
“I’m sure she’s fine. Those guys don’t know their plan failed yet, right?”
“We hope,” muttered Mike darkly, and Pagemaster elbowed him in the side.
Claire squeezed Ben’s arm before letting go. “I don’t know, you guys are the experts,” she said, addressing herself to Pagemaster, Mike, and Elektra, “but is there any way we could—I don’t know, get dirt on these guys enough that they’d stop going after us out of self-preservation?”
Elektra frowned thoughtfully. “Well, I like the idea of going after them instead of waiting for them to come after us. But blackmail?” She shrugged. “I’m not sure how we’d pull that off. If these people make a habit of hiring professionals in our line of work, they’ve probably got contingency plans against that sort of thing.”
If these people make a habit of hiring professionals in our line of work…A jolt of adrenaline straightened Ben’s spine, and he wished furiously he had a pen and paper handy. “I think I have an idea,” he said.
Four faces turned in his direction.
The next evening found them all sleep-deprived and fueled by monster amounts of caffeine, squatting in a luxury hotel suite that Pagemaster had reserved under a false name. Doris, whom Ben and Claire had taken out of the hospital as quickly and unobtrusively as possible after dropping their hitman friend off at his apartment, was sleeping in one of the suite’s two bedrooms, where Pagemaster was storing her extra electronics equipment. Doris had had surprisingly few questions—well, perhaps not so surprising, since she’d gotten upset and her new nurse had sedated her earlier that day, and Ben had asked Pagemaster, Mike, and Elektra to make themselves scarce while he and Claire were settling Doris in. After all they’d been through, Ben found that he actually trusted the three of them with his life, but that didn’t mean he was ready to explain them to Doris.
Once Doris was comfortably ensconced in the other bedroom’s astonishingly huge bed, the trio of professionals had returned, and Ben had laid out his plan to them. About six years ago, a con artist named Franklin Sharpe had made a splash by swindling a number of high-profile Wall Street businessmen out of almost sixty million dollars. It was an unbelievable amount of money to be stolen by one man, particularly a man whom the Wall Street sharks had all (as it turned out) seen as a potential mark himself. Sharpe hadn’t just stolen their money, he’d used their own crookedness to do it, leading in a few cases to criminal investigations of some of the world’s wealthiest companies. The story was big enough that even Ellison had shelled out the budget for Ben and a couple of junior reporters to do in-depth research and make a long-form series out of it.
Having done the research, Ben knew a few things about Franklin Sharpe. The first was that he was a conman’s conman, a professional known by other grifters as particularly skilled at playing a part. The second that was that he had a reputation for whimsy; he was as likely to run a stupid parking meter scam as rip off a Wall Street billionaire, and with the kind of money he was rumored to have, he apparently picked jobs based solely on how much they amused him. Once he’d ripped off the heiress of a canned goods company—but he hadn’t stolen her money, he’d stolen her dog, a Maltese named Noodle. The third that although Confederated Global or James Wesley or whatever his name was had had a file on Sharpe, there had been no photo inside. Given how thorough those files had been, Ben was willing to bet that Wesley hadn’t been able to find a picture via his sources, which meant that, unlike the rest of them, Sharpe would be able to get close to Wesley or even Fisk unrecognized.
They couldn’t use the Pierce and Pinkwater job against Fisk and Confederated Global—that was a double-edged sword. But there was pretty much no chance that Pierce and Pinkwater had been a one-time thing for these men. In fact, if Pagemaster’s information about the shell companies, and her theory about the not-so-suicidal jail guard, and their friend the hitman’s hints about the Russian mob, the Yakuza, and the heroin-dealing old ladies were anywhere close to accurate, then the whole thing was probably a gigantic criminal enterprise using legitimate companies as a front. And a conman who’d dug up dirt to steal from Wall Street once could do it again to give Ben and his friends leverage.
“So,” Pagemaster asked, her nose wrinkling, “now we’re the one hiring crooks to help us out?”
Claire snorted. “What, you have a moral objection?”
“I don’t know,” said Pagemaster. “How do you know he won’t sell us out to Fisk?”
“No honor among thieves, huh?” Claire’s smile was wry.
“I might be able to help with that.” Everyone turned to look at Mike, who, being Mike, wasn’t looking at any of them but was repeatedly taking apart a ball-point pen and then putting it back together again.
“I’ve been meaning to ask,” said Ben. “What was that, back with that hitman? You a human polygraph test or something?”
“Hmm.” Mike took the ink cartridge out of the pen and rolled it between his fingers. “I suppose.” He paused. “This is, uh. Particular secrets of the trade we’re getting into, here.”
Elektra rolled her eyes. “Who the fuck are we going to tell?”
“Fair enough.” He tilted his head back as if to look at the ceiling. “I can’t see, not the way you do, but everything else is turned up to 100. Smell, taste, hearing…fuck—balance, pressure, air temperature, my sense of where I am in space, it’s all amped up. I spend half my time filtering out bullshit, but I get a lot of useful stuff, too. And people really do have tells beyond the visual. So if this Sharpe guy tries to rip us off…I mean, he’s a con artist, so he’s probably really good at lying without it affecting his heart rate, but if he’s got any nonvisual tells at all, I’ll pick up on them.”
They all took a moment to process this. “Well,” said Pagemaster finally, “that explains a lot.”
“So,” said Claire with a frown, “how amped up are we talking, sense-wise?”
Mike shrugged. “You had barbecue pork for lunch yesterday, and a fried-egg sandwich for breakfast. I can still smell it on your clothes, since you haven’t had time to change. Your current body temperature is about 98.8, I’m guessing based on comparison with everyone else’s temperatures, and your heart rate’s about 75 beats a minute. Well. Getting faster now. More like 80. When we were breaking into Pierce and Pinkwater, I could hear you and Mr. Urich across the street from inside the building. So I didn’t really need the earbud thing.”
“Uh, excuse me,” Pagemaster said, “but we don’t all have super senses, so unless you weren’t planning on talking with the rest of us during the job, you very much did need my ‘earbud thing.’”
Claire, ignoring this, had put a couple of fingers to the pulse point on her neck, counting silently and staring at Mike. “80,” she said. “Holy shit.”
Ben had to laugh. “Jesus,” he said.
“The extreme sports stuff,” said Claire, wide-eyed. “The—the zipline and shit like that. What, do you, like, echolocate like a bat?”
“Less squeaky, but yeah, more or less,” said Mike, fiddling with the cap of the pen.
“God,” said Elektra, a speculative gleam in her eye, “I can think of so many uses for senses like that on the job.”
“Then you can have toxic waste dumped on you like I did on me,” said Mike sharply. “Use your own skills. I only bring it up because if we’re thinking of bringing a con artist on board, it might help if he tries to fuck us over.” He made a face. “Not that it helped with that Wesley guy. I knew he was full of shit, I thought maybe we wouldn’t get paid, but I didn’t know he was going to try to kill us.”
Elektra sighed, looking more subdued. “He tricked all of us.” Pagemaster looked down at the table, her mouth set in an unhappy line.
Claire shook her head and gripped first Pagemaster, then Elektra’s hands. After letting go, she leaned across the table to rest her hand on Mike's wrist for a moment. “Hey. Blaming ourselves isn’t gonna get us anywhere, right?”
Mike made a noncommittal noise. “Well, anyway. Just so you know.”
The secret of his senses, Ben thought, was probably worth more to Mike than any amount of money, in his line of work, and not only because Mike seemed weirdly uninterested in money for a thief. If he didn’t let people know he was blind, as a general rule, then having nearly inhuman enhanced senses was both his secret weapon for covering up that vulnerability and his leverage against people taking advantage of it. Ben had been trusted with private information by criminals before, in the course of his undercover work, but this—well, it felt a little different, knowing that he and Mike were in the same boat here. They both had everything to lose. They all did. “Well,” he managed. “That’s good to know, Mike. Thanks for telling us.”
Mike nodded. “Seemed pointless to keep it a secret now.”
“Sure,” Ben agreed.
Pagemaster shook her head. “I have so, so many questions, but I don’t think it’s the right time.”
“I agree,” said Ben. “We have to settle on an idea. What do you guys think?” It was their call as much as his. “Should we try to find Frank Sharpe, or does someone else have a plan?”
They were all silent, visibly going through their other options in their heads. Finally, Pagemaster said, “Okay, this ought to be a challenge. Tell me everything you know about this Sharpe guy.”
Frank Sharpe, alias Foggy Nelson, alias James Martin, alias Robert Smith, alias Pete Mitchell, alias a thousand other things, wasn’t nearly as easy to find without whatever sinister connections Confederated Global had used to track down Elektra, Pagemaster, and Mike. Especially, Ben thought ruefully, without being able to contact any of his usual sources in the criminal underworld for fear of calling down assassins on their head. Lucky for all of them, Pagemaster was genuinely good at tracking people down via computer. She interrogated Ben on all of the guy’s aliases that he’d ever heard of, cussed about how average and hard-to-disambiguate most of the names were, and disappeared with her computer for a couple of hours before emerging with a triumphant, “Found him! And he’s right here in New York!”
Ben blinked. Hell of a coincidence. It didn’t seem likely that Sharpe was working with Confederated Global, but it also seemed crazy that, in all the mess crashing down around their heads, their first-choice con artist should be so easy to find. He swallowed to dispel the sudden, bitter rush of nerves. Shit, maybe things were just going his way for once. He’d already put himself in a position where he had to trust a thief, a hacker, and an ex-hitwoman; what was one more leap of faith? “Where?”
It turned out that Frank Sharpe, when he wasn’t conning investment bankers and heiresses out of their millions or their pets, liked acting in little theater companies under the name Forrest Newman. Go figure. Forrest Newman had a studio apartment he rented by the month, several local bars and restaurants at which he was a regular, and a rep among local directors for being talented but unable to settle down long enough for anything but short-term runs. He looked a little like Orson Welles and was generally well-liked but not well remembered.
Ben decided that taking the whole gang along might have the unfortunate consequence of scaring Sharpe/Newman off, so, amidst protests, he left his trio of criminal buddies in the bar across the street while he and Claire went to talk to Sharpe.
He was just exiting the theater from a matinee production of Death of a Salesman—Ben had seen his image on enough CCTV stills Pagemaster had found to recognize him instantly, even if he was now dressed in jeans and a windbreaker rather than a sharply cut tuxedo.
“So,” said Claire, “We’re pretty sure this guy isn’t working with the folks trying to kill us?”
“Only one way to find out,” said Ben, sounding more confident to his own ears than he felt. “Frank Sharpe?” he called.
Sharpe slowly closed the stage door and then looked around the alley, as if he were looking for someone else. “Sorry,” he said. “Are you talking to me?”
“Sure am, Frank. Or should I say Foggy, or James, or Pete?”
“None of the above,” said Sharpe with an amiable smile, not looking at all fazed by Ben’s recitation of aliases. “My name’s Forrest, Forrest Newman. But I know, I have one of those faces.”
“Yeah,” Ben agreed, “one of those faces. And a storage unit filled with stolen art that a friend of mine tracked down.”
The way Sharpe’s face went still at the realization that he was caught out was legitimately giving Ben warm and fuzzy feelings about Pagemaster and her ability to trace money. “Huh,” said Sharpe slowly. “Sounds like an identity theft situation to me—I don’t know anything about stolen art.”
Claire rolled her eyes. “Can the act, Olivier. We know who you are. We’re not the cops, okay, we’re not planning on turning you in or anything, we’re literally just trying to not get killed and maybe, if we’re lucky, get some money out of it, and we heard you were a good guy to go to for this con artist stuff.”
Ben might not have put it so frankly, but it startled an actual smile out of Sharpe. “Wow. Not often I get approached by an investigative journalist for help with ‘con artist stuff.’”
“Desperate times, man,” said Ben with a shrug, not even surprised at yet another criminal he’d never spoken to before knowing who he was. “Come on. Let us buy you a beer, okay? Just hear us out.”
Sharpe looked from Ben to Claire and then smiled again, this one less startled and more entertained. “Why the hell not?”
The bar across the street from the theater was full of loud, drunk college kids, and it was easy enough to find a booth in the back where they wouldn’t be overheard. Interestingly, Sharpe knew Elektra on sight, specifically as someone not to be messed with, and recognized Mike as having worked with a mutual acquaintance on an earlier job. (“Sorry, man, I don’t know your name—Al just called you ‘Freak Show,’ which, rude much?” Sharpe sounded apologetic, but Ben thought he was trying to see how Mike reacted; Mike just made a “hmm” sound and gave Sharpe a wry smile.) Pagemaster, Sharpe didn’t know, but he evidently liked what he saw, smiling at her with an admiring look in his eyes.
He listened to their story with a thoughtful expression on his face. When Claire had finished, he said, “So. The super sketchy guy on the super sketchy job you worked turned out to be even sketchier than you thought, and now you need my help or you’re basically dead. Does that more or less sum it up?”
For all his amiability, Ben didn’t even remotely trust Frank Sharpe not to screw them over if he thought it would be to his advantage. He took a slow sip of his drink and said, “Not necessarily your help. We actually had a list of people we’re thinking of approaching on this."
“Uh-huh,” said Sharpe skeptically. He scooped up a spoonful of his soup, ate it, and then pointed the spoon at Ben. “Except you came to me. And not to toot my own horn, but let me tell you right now, I’m better than anyone else on your list.”
“Really?” Elektra made what Ben might have called a really elegant stank face at Sharpe. “You don’t look terribly impressive to me."
Sharpe gave her a sarcastic smile. “That’s the point, sweetheart. I can look impressive if I want to, but a lot of times, looking forgettable is what you want. The goal is to give people what they expect to see, so they don’t notice you walking out with the goods.”
“How do you look forgettable?” Mike wondered out loud. “What does ‘forgettable’ even look like?”
“Well, you’d have a hard time with that, with the whole blind thing,” Sharpe conceded. "Tends to stick out. Plus you’re really good-looking, which, you know. Memorable.” Mike looked taken aback by this, but Sharpe continued as if he hadn’t noticed. “But if you put on some less terrible clothes, got a shave and a haircut, and stood up straighter, you could come off like a young professional rather than some kind of hobo, and people would probably feel rude staring at you. Although there’s plenty of cons you can do looking like a hobo, in all fairness.”
Mike didn’t appear to take offense at this comparison but nodded slowly, made a thoughtful noise, and turned his attention back to tearing his burger apart into its constituent components.
“Weird dude,” said Sharpe, turning back to Ben. “Anyway. It doesn’t sound like I’d have a lot of time to build up a con for this job. You know, since you’re all kind of running for your lives and everything. A good con can take months or even years of preparation, and the stakes for you guys are pretty high to be half-assing it.”
That casual assessment didn’t make Ben feel much better about anything, but he smiled and said, “Well. If you’re telling me you can’t do it on the timeline we’re working with….”
Sharpe laughed. “That’s good. That’s smart. Play to my ego, make me prove I can do it on your timeline. That’s a good con technique—like negging for scam artists.”
“Is it working?” asked Pagemaster, a touch impatiently, fiddling with the straw in her Coke. “I mean, if your ego needs more stroking, I’d be happy to sing your praises about that Wall Street job.”
“Eh,” said Sharpe, fixing her with an amused look. “Maybe later. So, question. Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that I decide to work with you guys on this insta-scam you’ve got cooking. Not to sound greedy, but what, exactly, would be in it for me? Other than the thrill of taking on corporate drones with hitmen on the payroll, that is.”
Ben had already thought of that. “Confederated Global may be a money-laundering front for a larger criminal operation, but it is still a publically traded company. You at all familiar with the stock market, Mr. Sharpe?”
Sharpe smiled. It was a genuinely pleasant smile, too—it didn’t surprise Ben at all that this man was able to talk people into giving him money. “I’ve been around the block a few times, I guess.”
“So if I said that this company—whose parent company has just acquired a local hospital and is looking for positive publicity right now—well, if I said that it was going to come out that this company had been stealing people’s private financial information, as well as breaking a lot of federal trade laws, and had connections to organized crime, and that every media outlet was going to be running this story in the next couple of days, what would you say?"
Sharpe’s smile grew. “I’d say it would be a good time to sell that company’s stock short. You have someone on the investment end of this?”
Pagemaster waved a hand. “I mean, I hate those Wall Street crooks, but I know a thing or two.”
“You mind if I lend a hand?” Something about Sharpe’s smile shifted and softened as he looked at Pagemaster. “I have a connection or two that could prove handy.’
Pagemaster made a considering noise and reached over to tap Mike’s hand, the agreed-upon signal for Is he telling the truth? Mike nodded slowly, and she turned back to Sharpe. “Sure. Sounds good.”
The interaction hadn’t been lost on Sharpe. “What, is Mike your investment consultant?”
“Mike’s our bullshit consultant,” said Claire with a smile that invited Sharpe to keep his mouth shut if he knew what was good for him. “He tells us whether you’re full of it.”
Sharpe laughed at this. “This job just gets better and better. All right, Ben, I’m in.”
Ben let out a sigh of relief—this plan really wouldn’t have worked without Sharpe’s help—and said, “Welcome to the team, Mr. Sharpe.”
“Hey,” said Sharpe with a shrug, “since we’re working together and all, why don’t we go ahead and stick with ‘Foggy’ for me, huh?”
Of all the names he could have given Ben to call him, he was apparently going for the one that didn’t sound like a real name, but whatever, his choice. “Foggy it is,” he said with a smile, and Sharpe—Foggy—smiled back. Ben turned to Pagemaster. “All right, Pagemaster, why don’t we—”
“Karen.” Everyone turned to look at her. Even Mike pointed his face in her direction, looking curious. Under the focus of all their eyes, she flushed slightly and looked down. “Well. It’s a little weird to keep getting called by my online handle. We’re all sort of in this boat together, and I know for a fact that you’re not going to be able to find out anything I don’t want you to even with a name, so. You can call me Karen, if you want.”
“Karen?” Elektra asked, one eyebrow raised. “I wouldn’t have thought it of you. It sounds so...normal.”
The newly named Karen rolled her eyes. “Well, we can’t all be named after characters from Greek tragedy.”
“Are we all telling each other our real names now?” Mike scratched at his head. “Or is Karen not your real name, you just want us to call you that?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” asked Karen with an arch smile that was obviously completely wasted on Mike.
“Huh,” said Mike. “It really is your real name. Karen.” He shrugged, tilting his face toward his plate and shifting around a piece of his mutilated hamburger bun. “Okay. I guess you can call me Matthew, then, since that’s actually my name. Or Matt. Murdock. But Mike’s fine, too. At this point I don’t think it matters whether you know my name or not.”
Matt Murdock. The name niggled at something in the back of Ben’s mind, but he put it aside to think about later. They had more important things to worry about now.
“Really?” Claire asked, looking baffled. “Your name is Matt, but you go by ‘Mike’ professionally? Why?”
Mike—Matt—made a noncommittal noise. “It’s my middle name. Michael is, anyway. Easy to remember, doesn’t get me tangled up in old connections.”
“Huh,” said Ben. “Matt. Karen. And that’s what we’re sticking with.” This was going to take some getting used to.
“That’s what we’re sticking with,” said Karen firmly. Matt poked at his hamburger bun like he expected it to leap off the plate to attack him and nodded distractedly.
Foggy, who’d been watching these exchanges with amusement, shook his head. “Wow,” he said. “Clearly I need to work with other freelance crooks more often, because this musical names shit is amazing.”
“Well, you all already know my name,” said Elektra. “So if we’re all done with the first-day-of-school introductions, what is our plan?”
All eyes turned to Ben, and he put his elbows on the table to rest his chin on his hands. “Since when did I become the mastermind here?”
“Hey, you came to me, man,” said Foggy. Karen shrugged, Matt hummed thoughtfully, and Elektra tapped her fingernails on the table impatiently.
Claire grinned at him and said, “Don’t even front, Ben, you’ve been running this show the whole time.”
In for a penny, in for a pound. “Well. Since that’s the direction we’re going, I did have a couple of thoughts….”
When the planning was done, Claire and the Merry Men (and Women) went to go grab dinner. They invited Ben along, but he was feeling exhausted and old, and all he really wanted to do was sit with his girl for a while and maybe order some Chinese food. There were still probably assassins targeting them, after all. Maybe Elektra could take them all down single-handedly, but Ben just wanted a little relaxation for a while. And some sleep.
Doris was awake when he walked into the bedroom, propped up against a veritable mountain of hotel pillows and flipping through the TV channels. When Ben came in, she turned the TV off. “Now, I don’t want you to think I’ve been eavesdropping or anything,” she said, “but who the hell are all those people you’ve been talking with?”
Ben shook his head. “Doris, that…that’s a long story.”
“You in some hurry?” she said, raising her eyebrows at him.
“Lemme—lemme take a rain check on this one,” he said. “Just ‘till I figure out if it’s gonna work out.”
“Hmm,” said Doris, in a tone that didn’t really indicate agreement or disagreement. “You gonna tell me what we’re doing in this ritzy hotel, at least?”
Ben took a seat in an armchair situated by the window near the bed, and just about moaned in pleasure as he sunk into the soft cushions. Jesus, he was tired. “Well,” he said, “our place is a mess right now. I’d like to sort things out before I take you home, and a friend offered us the room here.” All of it was, he reflected, technically true.
“Rich friend,” Doris commented. She looked curiously around the room. “So this is how the other half lives.” Suddenly, she fixed him with a glare. “Ben Urich, are we sitting in some mob boss’s penthouse?”
“No,” said Ben, because Karen wasn’t exactly a mob boss, and Doris rolled her eyes.
“Yeah, okay, I can see why you’re not telling me anything. Fine, get yourself in over your head, it’s nothing new for you.”
Ben scooted to the edge of the fabulous chair and reached out for Doris’s hand. “Baby,” he said, “I’m gonna tell you everything when we’re on the other side of this, I promise. And if it works out, it’s gonna be a hell of a story.”
Doris studied his face, her dark eyes keen and searching. She was as alert as Ben had seen her in months. Finally, she leaned back again against her pile of pillows and said, “Well, whatever you’re into, beautiful, I haven’t seen you this excited about anything in ages. You just keep yourself alive, okay? I’m really going to want to hear this story.”
“Oh, I’m not—” ‘Excited’ seemed like the wrong word. He had a plan, he had skilled people to help him with it, but when it came down to it, he was still on the hit list of a criminal billionaire with connections everywhere, working with a quartet of career criminals on a crazy scheme that might not even keep them alive. Any reasonable person would be horrified.
“Not excited?” Doris grinned at him and shook head. “Sure you’re not, Ben. You just keep telling yourself that.”
At nine o’clock in the morning, a heavyset man in a suit so expensive that only an expert in these things would have been able to judge just how expensive it was marched into the offices of Confederated Global Investments. He walked with an air of self-assured confidence, and when he reached the desk of Anneliese Lindberg, James Wesley the COO’s secretary, he said “I’m here for my nine o’clock meeting with Mr. Wesley” with a friendly but certain firmness that didn’t seem to accept the possibility of a negative response.
Anneliese Lindberg was a fairly confident person herself, however, and she frowned as she pulled up Wesley’s schedule. “I don’t think—” she began, but there it was, in black and white: 9:00, Robert Smith, from Smith and Stalling Ltd. She wasn’t a woman who was ever caught off-guard for long, though, and it had been an unusually busy week, so perhaps something had just slipped her mind. “Of course,” she said, and picked up the phone to call her boss.
Ben, who was sitting next to Claire and watching all this through a button camera that Karen had fitted Foggy with, nodded to himself. So far, so good.
Wesley emerged from his office after about five minutes with that familiar slimy smile and shook Foggy’s hand. “Mr. Smith,” he said. “I’ve heard good things about your company; I’m glad to finally meet you.” The Robert Smith alias, Foggy had explained, was one he had set up almost a decade ago, and he’d had built up enough legitimate records under that name that whatever cursory investigations Wesley had time to perform wouldn’t raise any immediate red flags.
“Likewise,” said Foggy in a warm voice. “Confederated Global’s building quite a name for itself. That’s part of why I’m here, actually.”
“Of course.” To his secretary, Wesley said, “Anneliese, send me those reports as soon as you’re done with them,” and to Foggy, he said, “Why don’t you come with me to my office, and we’ll talk about what we can do for you?”
“You know, Mr. Wesley,” said Foggy, “I just came from another meeting, and I’m actually starving. There’s a great coffee shop around the corner from here, would you mind terribly talking with me there?”
Wesley shrugged. “I could eat. The coffee in our executive lounge leaves something to be desired.”
Foggy laughed. “You too? I don’t know what it is about those lounge coffee machines, but every company I’ve ever worked for has terrible coffee. I suppose if I were a better man I’d take it as a sign to wean myself off caffeine, but alas.”
“Alas indeed,” said Wesley with a chuckle. “Let me grab my jacket.”
Ben waited until Foggy and Wesley had made it to the elevator and were heading down before said to Karen, “Okay, do it now.”
Karen pushed a couple of buttons. “Done.”
A few minutes later, a phone rang over their earpiece microphones. On the other end, Matt picked up his cell phone and said pleasantly, “IT, how can we help you?”
“I was just answering an e-mail and suddenly the computer gave me the blue screen of death,” said Anneliese, sounding stressed out. “I had unsaved documents open, and I really need my computer to get any work done!”
“Sure, of course,” said Matt. “Have you tried turning it off and turning it on again?”
Karen laughed. “I told him to say that,” she said. “Have you ever seen The IT Crowd?”
“No,” said Ben.
“It’s a TV show about IT people, and—”
“Maybe tell us about it later?” Claire interrupted. “We don’t want to distract everyone.”
“Right,” said Karen, sounding a little miffed. As Matt told Anneliese that they had an IT person on the floor and would be sending someone up almost immediately, Karen said, “I don’t know why you sent Elektra to play the computer person. Doesn’t it seem like I’d be the best choice for that?”
“We need you to actually be the computer person,” Ben pointed out. “Focus.” Karen had barely slept the previous night, and Ben got the distinct sense that, as brilliant as she obviously was, she was running on fumes and caffeine at this point. He just hoped she could keep it together long enough to get them through this.
Elektra as an IT person was, admittedly, hilarious. She’d done her hair in two long Pippi Longstocking braids, found some glasses that looked even more Clark Kent-ish than Ben’s, and dressed herself in fleece-lined jeans and a flannel shirt that made her look like an L. L. Bean model, or would have, if they had actually fit her. The effect was very much like the “before” in an “ugly duckling gets a makeover” movie—Elektra was still a gorgeous young woman, but her outfit made Foggy laugh as soon as he’d seen it. Elektra had allowed herself one quick, amused grin before slipping into character.
Karen, on the other hand, grumbled to herself as Elektra chattered amiably to Anneliese about Doctor Who and the new Star Trek movie. “Ha, ha, very funny,” she said. “Eighties stereotypes, that’s great. Like the only people who can be into computers are total nerds. It’s the twenty-first century! Anyone can be good at computers!”
“Karen,” said Matt, “not to belittle the oppression faced by computer nerds everywhere, but could you help me find the files I’m supposed to be grabbing off Wesley’s computer?”
Karen sat up straight. “You’re in his office already?”
“This building has very spacious ventilation shafts,” said Matt modestly.
“Ah—sorry, let me—” She rushed to pull up her connection to Wesley’s computer. “Didn’t mean to get sidetracked.”
“No worries,” Matt said. “I like listening to your voice.”
Karen flushed, smiling.
Ben grabbed a tablet and while Karen described what was on Wesley’s monitor for Matt, Ben flipped back over to Foggy and Wesley. The buttonhole camera had a great view of Wesley sitting across the table from Foggy, an egg-white omelet sitting untouched on his plate.
“Of course, we help many of our clients deal with overseas investments,” Wesley was explaining unctuously.
“Sure,” said Foggy agreeably, “the ‘Global’ part of ‘Confederated Global.’ The problem we’ve always had at Smith and Stalling is the, hmm. How should I put this? The part where we figure out just what exactly we owe the overseas governments versus what we owe the guys in Washington, D.C., and figuring out where exactly we can put our money to minimize those obligations.”
“I understand completely,” Wesley said. “I think we’re on the same page when it comes to minimizing tax burdens.”
“Yeah?” Foggy took a sip of coffee. “I’m so relieved to hear that. It makes things so much less complicated at the end of the fiscal year if the profits on the bottom line are…clean, shall we say.”
Wesley gave Foggy that weaselly smile that made Ben want to punch him in the teeth. “Agreed.”
“So if I were to invest, say, ten million dollars with you, can you walk me through what I could expect to happen with that money?”
“Ten million?” Wesley raised his eyebrows. “I was given to understand Smith and Stalling was operating on a rather larger scale.”
“Ooh, aren’t we an eager beaver?” Ben was kind of amazed that Foggy managed to make that sentence sound archly amused rather than completely ridiculous. “Let’s start small, see how things turn out, and if we’re both satisfied with the results...well, then, the sky’s the limit, isn’t it?”
“I do like the sound of that,” said Wesley. “Of course, I’ll have to talk things over with the rest of the executive board. A little research has to be done before we take on new clients, particularly those of Smith and Stalling’s caliber.”
“Oh, of course,” said Foggy, waving a nonchalant hand. “Research is good. I’d hope that you’d do a little research when it comes to handling my company’s money.”
“Oh, we do more than a little research when it comes to that sort of thing, Mr. Smith.” Wesley dug out his phone. “Allow me to pull up my agenda for the week—ah.”
As they agreed to an appointment at Foggy’s—or rather, Robert Smith’s—office for the following day, Ben switched his focus back to Karen, Matt, and Elektra. “Hey,” he said, “what’s the status on Wesley’s office?”
“Bugs are planted, data’s stolen,” Matt said promptly. “These vent shafts are dusty as hell.” As if to confirm the accuracy of that report, he sneezed.
Claire, who’d been sitting with Karen to supervise that aspect of the operation, laughed and said, “Well, thanks for that update, Matt. Why don’t you get back here and I’ll find some antihistamines for you. Karen, we got a location for the ‘Smith and Stalling’ office?”
“Yep,” said Karen, typing furiously. “Tell Foggy to send Wesley to the Dubenich building on Broad Street. The accountants on the forty-second floor are going on a retreat, so we’ll have the office space. All we have to do is go in and update the signage. I’m updating the Smith and Stalling website and the Google Maps location now.”
Ben peered over her shoulder at the half-dozen windows she had open on the computer. He wasn’t too proud to say he had no idea what the hell she was doing. “Color me impressed,” he said, and she favored him with a bright grin.
“All in a day’s work, boss,” she said, and Ben, feeling mildly like some kind of boundary had been crossed, cleared his throat.
“Foggy, did our mark take the bait?”
“Wow, listen to you breaking out the con man lingo!” Foggy’s voice was clear and cheerful over the earpiece, and it sounded nothing like Robert Smith. Eerie. “Our mark is hooked, man.”
“All right,” said Ben, doing a little mental arithmetic. “Stage One is complete.”
They were all still a little nervy about hitmen and arsonists that night, Elektra’s bravado aside, and they ordered pizzas using a credit card that Matt produced from his ratty sweatshirt pocket. Ben thought it was probably best not to ask where, exactly, Matt had gotten the credit card, which was under the name ‘Devon Parrish’; he didn’t think he would like the answer. Elektra went to give the guy his tip, a knife in one of her expensive boots, and not one of them relaxed until Matt announced, “He called his boss to tell her the pizza was delivered, and she told him to get back because their other delivery guy called in sick. Unless the whole thing’s some elaborate code, I don’t think he’s working for Confederated Global.”
Doris insisted on eating with them. Ben had tried to protest, but she’d given him a withering look and said, “What, you gonna keep me locked up in that room like Mrs. Rochester in the attic?”
Wasn’t much Ben could say to that. Doris was lucid and seemed to have a fair amount of energy, and even if he hadn’t been pretty sure that none of the crew would hurt Doris, it wasn’t like they didn’t already have all the information they’d need to do damage if they really wanted to. Meeting her in person wouldn’t change much.
Ben carefully helped Doris walk into the kitchenette, where they were all grabbing pieces of pizza. Matt was perched on the counter, Elektra and Foggy were seated at tall stools by the counter, and Karen and Claire were sitting at the table. It was like a little party, but all went silent as Karen pushed her chair back hurriedly from the table to stand and wave awkwardly. “Mrs. Urich!” she exclaimed. “It is such an honor to meet you. The investigative work you did at the VA, I mean, wow, that was so brave.”
“Why, thank you, sweetheart!” exclaimed Doris as Ben helped her into a lower chair and handed her a can of Coke. “I didn’t know anybody remembered that these days. Now who are you again?”
Karen’s exuberance failed. “Oh, um. My name is Karen. I’m a…a source? For your husband?” She looked frantically at Ben, who sighed.
Doris, though, took that in stride, and said, “Well, nice to meet you.” Only the quick poke she made to Ben’s ribs gave away that she hadn’t taken Karen’s words at face value. Turning to Claire, she said, more warmly, “Claire! Wasn’t expecting to see you here!”
Claire shrugged. “Not every day you get to hang out in a hotel like this! Figured I’d better take up Ben on his invitation when he asked.” She smiled at Doris and said, “You’re looking really good. You acclimating to the Razadyne better?”
“Eh,” said Doris. “Still can’t keep much of anything down. But God willing I’ll be able to keep my marbles together long enough not to embarrass myself in front of all these young people.” She gave Matt, Elektra, and Foggy a curious glance.
“You can call me Foggy,” said Foggy, walking from behind the kitchenette counter to go shake Doris’s hand.
“Foggy?” asked Doris, amused. “That short for something?”
“Foghorn,” said Foggy with a laugh. “I snore a lot, so my cousin Tammy started calling me that, and the nickname stuck.”
Ben didn’t know if Foggy was telling the truth or not, but it didn’t really matter, because between him and Claire, the atmosphere in the room had warmed enough that Matt and Elektra introduced themselves and actually sounded like vaguely normal people doing it.
“And you’re all Ben’s sources?” asked Doris, looking them over.
Elektra made a considering face. “Well, that depends what you consider a source. But we are doing some interesting work together.”
If it wouldn’t have been totally noticeable, Ben would have given Elektra an “ixnay on the orking-together-way” sign, but Doris didn’t press, and they had a pleasant half-hour of eating pizza and chatting about current events (Karen and Claire), the shows playing on Broadway (Foggy), music (Doris and Matt), and art (surprisingly enough, Elektra). Ben for the most part sat quietly in the corner, marveled at how normal the meal seemed, and helped Doris back to her room when she started to fade.
When Ben came back out, the crew had migrated to the big sectional sofa in the sitting room part of the suite. Matt turned his face in Ben’s direction and said, “She’s nice. Mrs. Urich, I mean. I like her.”
“Yeah, well, you all steer clear of her,” said Ben. “She’s not involved in this business with Confederated Global, and she’s not going to be.” Somehow, he couldn’t make it come out as stern as he’d meant it to.
“You know, you can relax a bit.” Elektra gave him an unimpressed look. “You’re getting revenge on a very bad man. Is it so bad if you enjoy it a little?”
Elektra, according to rumor, had once killed ten men with her bare hands in under a minute. Ben was a reporter, not a criminal mastermind, and he was in way over his head. This was a one-time thing, and forgetting that, forgetting exactly what and who he was involved with, could wind up sending him to an early grave. “Yeah, it is,” he said shortly.
“Ben.” He looked up, and all of them were looking at him, though it was still Elektra who was talking. “No one will touch her. I promise.” Matt nodded, looking determined.
“And if anything happens to us…” Foggy shrugged. “Look, you don’t really know me, but I have some connections, and I like Doris, and if you want, I can make some calls to make sure someone’s watching her back even in the worst-case scenario. It’s gonna be okay.”
“And give her a little credit!” Claire laughed, but her eyes were serious. “Doris isn’t some fainting violet, right? You tell her what’s going on, I’m pretty sure she can handle it.”
Karen reached out awkwardly to squeeze Ben’s hand, offering him a sincere if tremulous smile. He looked at her face, and then at all the others, and then let out a long breath, feeling something in his chest ease. “Thanks. Now, let’s go over tomorrow’s plan.”
There was a lot to be done in the morning, errands to be run and calls to be made, and, for Karen, a lot of data to be on top of. Ben settled Doris in front of the hotel TV, which was playing a marathon of Columbo, and got to work.
The Dubenich building was big enough and crowded enough that they were all able to make it to the forty-second floor without being questioned by anybody, though the other occupants of the forty-second floor looked at them curiously.
“Building manager’s temporarily renting out the space while the usual tenants are out,” Claire explained to one particularly perturbed-looking businesswoman.
“That…that’s a thing?” she said.
Claire shrugged. “For this suite of offices it is. Check your lease agreement.”
The woman went off looking kind of dazed, and Foggy shot Claire an admiring grin. “You know, you’re not bad at this, Claire,” he said. “Keeping a cool head and improvising is like, necessity número uno when grifting.”
“That sounds like two things,” said Matt. “Necessities números uno y dos.”
Foggy reached out to flick Matt on the nose. “You know what’s not a necessity when grifting? Being a nitpicky little nitpicker.” Matt swatted his hand away with a grimace.
“Break it up, boys,” Ben said. “According to Karen, we’ve got five signs to replace, plus the nameplate on Foggy’s office. Let’s get to it.”
Foggy’s meeting with Wesley was set for one in the afternoon, so they didn’t exactly have a ton of time. Luckily, there wasn’t anything in the accountants’ offices that couldn’t pass for the contents of an investment firm; one white-collar office environment looked much like another. Replace the signs, replace the business cards on the desks, replace the nameplates on a couple of the office doors and desks, throw in a couple of pictures for a personal touch (but not too personal, Foggy said—the person most of these crooked types loved best was themselves). Voilà. Smith and Stalling.
“Who’s Stalling?” asked Claire curiously.
Foggy winked at her. “Silent partner. We set the con up together back in the day, but I’m sure she won’t mind if I use it now.”
“You guys,” said Karen over the earpiece mics. “He’s coming.”
Shit. Ben checked his watch; five ‘til. “Okay,” he said. “Places, everyone. Foggy, you have that tape recorder?”
Foggy patted the breast pocket of his suit. “Ready and recording.”
“Okay.” Ben took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “It’s showtime, people.”
Wesley strode into the Dubenich building with the confidence of a man who knew absolutely that no doors would be barred to him. Ben watched him march through the lobby via his tablet, which Karen had hooked up to the building’s security system. He winced as Wesley veered uncomfortably close to the building directory—if he should happen to have forgotten Foggy’s instructions and look at the directory, Smith and Stalling wouldn’t appear on it—but after a moment his path to the elevators straightened and he disappeared into a gleaming, glass-enclosed elevator.
On the forty-second floor, he followed the signs to the suite of offices labeled “Smith and Stalling.” Opening the door, he was met by a serious-looking young man in horn-rimmed glasses not unlike his own, who looked up from the stack of papers on his desk as Wesley entered. “Mr. Wesley?” the young man asked.
Wesley frowned thoughtfully and said, “Yes. I’m here to see Mr. Smith; we have an appointment for one o’clock.”
“Of course,” said the young man. Picking up the phone, he said, “Mr. Smith, your one o’clock his here.”
Foggy strode out of the office. “Wesley!” he said in tones of jovial bonhomie, like the two of them were old friends. “Come on in!”
The accountant’s office they had taken over was a nice one, all warm rosy-colored wood and tasteful dark green carpeting. Foggy looked right at home behind the large desk. “So,” he said to Wesley, “how’s your day going?”
“Quite well, actually,” said Wesley with his viper’s smile. “It’s been an interesting morning.”
“Mmm, here too,” Foggy said agreeably. “So what’s the story? Is the board giving us the go-ahead on this ten-million dollar deal? If it works out, I think this could turn out to be a very profitable relationship for both our companies.”
Foggy leaned back in his chair, apparently startled. “No what?”
“No, the board didn’t okay the deal.” Wesley brought his fingertips together and tapped them against each other like a supervillain in a movie. “And no, I don’t think this relationship is going to turn out to be very profitable for you.” He reached into his leather briefcase and pulled out a file. Opening it, he slid the photo inside across Foggy’s desk. “You see, Mr. Smith—if that’s your real name—this is a picture of you with a man named Ben Urich. The security cameras outside Confederated Global’s headquarters caught it yesterday.” His grin showed a little tooth. “Until quite recently, Mr. Urich was a perfectly respectable investigative reporter. Unfortunately, he’s had some money difficulties lately and fallen in with a bad crowd. My friends over at Pierce and Pinkwater have suffered an unfortunate data breach recently, and I have reason to believe that Mr. Urich and his friends are behind it, and that as wild as it may seem, they’re now trying to blackmail me in order to keep me quiet.”
“That’s a pretty serious claim, Mr. Wesley,” said Foggy quietly. “You have anything to back that up?”
Wesley pulled something out of his pocket and held it up for Foggy’s inspection. “As a matter of fact, I do. You know what this is, Mr. Smith?”
“It’s a recording transmitter—a bug, if you will. I imagine that Mr. Urich and his band of merry men were trying to use it to record incriminating information, just as you’re using a wire to record this conversation.” Wesley pocketed the bug again. “Of course, since I’m a businessman dealing in perfectly legal transactions, such a device obviously failed to record anything incriminating, and in fact, I think it’s pretty convincing evidence that this crew of criminals can add breaking and entering to their list of offenses.”
“Anybody could have planted that,” Foggy pointed out.
“Oh,” said Wesley with that infuriating smile. “I think not.” He produced another file folder from his briefcase. “Information from Mr. Urich’s bank, showing that he sold Pierce and Pinkwater’s data to another, sadly unscrupulous competitor of ours, and was handsomely paid for it. Security footage from Pierce and Pinkwater’s building, showing three of his associates breaking into a secured room and exiting disguised as police. Even evidence that one of his associates used identity theft to pay for the hotel they’re holing up in.”
“It’s funny you should mention that.” Foggy’s voice was still low and calm. “Maybe you ought to open that folder.”
Frowning for the first time since he’d entered the office, Wesley said, “If you think you’re going to con me into giving something away, Mr. Smith, you’ve got another think coming. And I don’t know what Urich and his crew offered you, but I assure you, when my employer is done with you, you’re going to wish you’d turned it down.”
Foggy yawned. “We’ll see. Open the folder.”
Looking at Foggy warily, Wesley used the tip of a finger to flip open the folder, gingerly, as if he expected it to explode.
It was empty.
Before Wesley could say anything, a knock at the door made him turn his head. Standing in the doorway was the young man who’d let him into the office, holding up a sheaf of papers in one hand. “You looking for these?”
Ben had to grin at Wesley’s look of utter shock. Clean-shaven, with a decent haircut and an actual suit, Matt was nearly unrecognizable. Though his eyes drifted a little, they were clear enough, and behind the glasses, he could easily pass for any near-sighted young yuppie. Until, that is, he grinned, the same smug grin he’d given them all when he’d handed their pickpocketed goods back to them during that first meeting.
“Ooh.” Foggy stood up and walked over. “Wow, Mr. Wesley. You kept a lot of information in this folder, didn’t you? And this one here isn’t Ben Urich’s bank statement.” Foggy pulled a sheet out of the folder and peered at it. “Nope. This one’s for a guy named Daryl Hanlon, who’s come into a lot of money lately. Daryl Hanlon—you know that name, buddy?”
“I know that name,” Matt answered. “He’s a hitman for the Irish mob, wanted on half a dozen first-degree murder counts. Also he tried to kill us.”
Slowly, Wesley stood up. “You can’t tie that to me.”
“Oh, I’m pretty sure we can,” said Claire, appearing in the doorway beside Matt. She pulled a phone out of her pocket and set it to speaker. “Elektra,” she said, “how’s our friend Mr. Hanlon doing?”
“Not nearly as grateful to you as he should be,” said Elektra, her voice crisp and clear in the small office. “But ready to talk. About all sorts of jobs Mr. Wesley and his employer hired him to do.”
“You know that if I go down for that, you all go down for that,” Wesley said. Though his tone was light, controlled, there were lines of strain around his mouth, and his complexion had gone pasty.
“You think?” Now it was Karen’s voice, coming out of the fancy-pants looking landline phone on the desk. “Hey, Claire, flip on the TV to channel 6.”
With a broad smile, Claire did as she asked. It was a local news channel; Ben had known the anchor, Marissa Moskowitz, for going on six or seven years now. Sharp woman. Good chess player. Clearly digging her teeth into the story she was telling onscreen as she stood in front of the Confederated Global building. “…being investigated by the FBI and the SEC for multiple trade violations, including bribing a state congressman, and for hacking their competitors’ databases and stealing privileged financial information on hundreds of thousands of consumers.” Even without hearing the beginning of Marissa’s report, the images in the background of dozens of men and women in FBI jackets swarming the building, carrying out boxes and questioning well-dressed men and women who appeared to be talking quite a lot, made it pretty clear just what kind of story this was.
Wesley was downright gray. “None of that will stick.”
Now it was Ben’s turn. He tapped Matt and Claire on their shoulders, and they graciously stepped aside to let him into the office. “Doesn’t have to,” he said. “Not now, anyway.”
If looks could kill, the look Wesley was giving Ben would have downright incinerated him. “You’re going to regret this.”
“No,” said Ben. “I think you are. You could have just paid us and gotten us out of your hair, but instead you had to fuck with us.”
Behind Wesley, Foggy was shaking his head. “Bad move, man,” he said. “Bad move.”
“Whether the charges stick or not, your days of being Wilson Fisk’s public face are coming to a rapid, rapid end. Because I’ve been a journalist for going on forty years, and I know a lot of people in the media business, and believe me when I tell you that Confederated Global’s downfall is going to be on people’s minds for months. Your stock’s already down….” Ben checked his phone. “34% since trading opened this morning. There are going to be criminal investigations, and some of your little shell companies are going to be found out. Not all of them,” Ben admitted with a shrug. “But enough of them.”
“I hope you know where your wife is,” said Wesley, his gray face starting to flush with rage. “One phone call, and—”
“Shut your fucking mouth or it will take you days to die.” Elektra wasn’t shouting over the phone, but she might as well have been; you could hear a pin drop in the long seconds after she fell silent.
Ben cleared his throat and said, “Thanks, Elektra. Now, as I was going to say, you found one of our bugs. The one we wanted you to find, because we knew that, being the overconfident son-of-a-bitch that you are, you’d think you had us licked once you found it. But we tapped your phones, we hacked your computer, we bugged your air vents. Pagemaster’s gotten enough off of your computer and your phone conversations to put you away for a long time. And your little trick of having reams of paper files to keep people like Pagemaster out?” He tilted his head at Matt, who smiled and gave Wesley a little wave. “That’s what we have people like Mike for. He can’t read the files to find the important ones, so we just had him steal them all. But we’re nice people. We figure we’ll let the FBI and the SEC chew on what they already have for a while, before we give them more ammo.” He stepped forward into Wesley’s personal space; Wesley tried to back up, but he ran into Foggy, who’d planted himself behind Wesley with a grim look on his face.
“Now listen,” Wesley began, and Ben leaned into his face.
“No,” he said. “You listen. We’re willing to let things lie for now, but we are never giving that data back. Every one of us is going to have a copy of it. That’s six copies out there. And if you go after any one of us ever again, I’ve given my friends the contact info of every journalist I know. You might get one or two of us, but it’ll only take one to release all that information, and then it’s bye-bye, Mr. Fisk. Maybe it won’t stand up in a court of law, but I’m willing to bet it’ll help the feds find something that will.” He smiled bitterly at Wesley. “We’re done here. You understand me? I don’t ever want to see your face or hear your name ever again.” He was about to turn to leave, before one more thing occurred to him. “Oh, yeah. Almost forgot. Fuck you for using my wife as a pawn in your bullshit game.”
Ben contemplated punching the guy, just to finish off the moment, but Matt cocked his head, apparently listening to something in the distance, and put a hand on Ben’s arm. “Whoops. Sounds like Anneliese told the cops where to find her boss. They’ll be here in five minutes.”
“You guys ready to clear out?” Karen asked.
Ben took one more look at Wesley, who was looking genuinely shocked and resentful, all of his composure vanished like it had never been. Ben didn’t think of himself as a vengeful kind of guy, but God, did it feel good.
“Yeah,” he said. “We’re ready.”
After the dust had cleared a little bit the next day—and Ben had had a long talk with Doris—they met in Central Park to split the score and go their separate ways. Ben had had enough of meeting in dark, private corners.
Karen started. “So, first things first. Pierce and Pinkwater’s data…well, I kept a copy of it.”
“Color me surprised,” said Elektra.
“Tiger can’t change its stripes,” Karen said with a shrug. “So I guess the question is, well, I deleted the data from Confederated Global’s systems, but what do you guys think I should do with my copies?”
Claire raised an eyebrow. “You’re asking us?”
“Hey, weren’t you guys the ones who said I should learn teamwork?” asked Karen defensively.
Apparently, a tiger could change its stripes. At least a little bit. Ben did Karen the courtesy of thinking about his answer before he spoke. “As much as I hate to say it, I think the only ethical move here is giving the data back to them.”
Matt made a face. “Ugh.”
“I know, I know, Pierce and Pinkwater are awful,” Ben said. “But it’s not really their information, it’s their clients’ information, and no doubt some of them are shady as hell, but some of them are probably legitimate, and in order to find out which is which, we’d have to dig through all of them. That’s a lot of privacy we’d be violating.”
“And that’s a bad thing?” asked Karen dubiously. “I mean, weighed against the shit that some of them might be up to?”
“Yeah, Karen,” said Claire with a resigned sigh. “That’s a bad thing. I mean, keep an eye on them if you want, take ‘em down later, but preemptively fucking them over seems like a bad idea.”
Elektra rolled her eyes. “What, you really want to stick around this mess? Just give the data back and find something fun to do with your time.”
“Stealing from crooked Wall Street guys is fun,” Karen muttered. She pulled a flash drive out of her pocket, rolled it between her fingers with a contemplative frown, and finally said, “Yeah, okay. I’ll give it back. Because you guys want me to.”
“Hey, compromise reached!” said Foggy jovially. “Mission accomplished, loose ends tied up! Good work, team!”
Elektra shot him an impatient look. “Now if we’ve finished with the sophomoric ethical debates, in case some of us have forgotten, we’re here for the money.”
“I know,” Ben said, “But before we part ways, I have to say—thank you. All of you.” He looked around the circle, taking in each of their faces. He wasn’t ever going to forget any of them. “I knew when I got into this that I was in over my head, but I really didn’t know how much. If any one of you hadn’t been here, none of this would have worked, and I’d probably be dead. So. I don’t know that I’m ever going to see some of you again, but I’m glad to have met you.”
Karen, who was looking a little teary-eyed, nodded. “Likewise,” she said. “This was really...this was really great for me.”
Matt shuffled from foot to foot and let out a sigh. “Wish I'd met you guys under better circumstances. Though I guess under better circumstances, we really wouldn't have had any reason to do the whole team thing. It was good, though."
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” said Elektra, and Ben grinned. He had seen Elektra truly irritated, and this wasn’t it. When it came down to it, she’d put herself on the line for Ben and for their team, and no amount of impatience put on for show could erase that. “I suppose you all turned out not to be completely incompetent.”
“You softy,” said Claire, and Elektra gave her a genuinely warm look.
“You especially,” she said. “I didn’t expect a nurse to be so….”
“Badass?” Karen supplied.
“Coolheaded?” Matt gave first Claire and then Elektra a bright, amused smile.
Elektra made a noise of disgust in her throat. “Ugh. I give you people an inch, you take a mile.”
“Well, we are crooks,” Foggy pointed out. “It’s kind of our MO. So!” He clapped his hands together. “Coming back to the topic of money, I know you all were aiming for a million each, but....”
“If you’ve fucked us over,” Elektra began, looking murderous, but Karen broke in with a smile.
“No, no, no, it’s not that. Foggy knows someone who’s really good at moving money around and turning it into more money, and, well, we did have some pretty impressive inside trading information going into the market, so between me, Foggy, and Marci....” Foggy and Karen started passing checks out. Ben took his without really looking at it, and then he had to do a literal spit-take.
That...was a lot of zeroes.
“Oh, my God,” said Claire, completely floored. “That...oh, my God.”
“What?” said Matt, turning his head to face them one by one with an inquisitive expression. “What is it? How much did we make?” Elektra turned to whisper in his ear, and even behind his sunglasses it was obvious how much Matt’s eyes widened at what she’d told him. “Wow,” he said, and shook his head.
“All right,” said Elektra, straightening up. “Karen, Foggy, I’ve underestimated you. I might actually call you two with my money questions once this runs out, and I am seriously tempted to kiss both of you.”
“Thanks, Elektra, I’m flattered,” said Karen with a sunny grin, and Foggy did a joking little bow.
“‘Once it runs out’? Jesus!” Matt gave Elektra a horrified look. “How fast are you planning on spending it?”
Elektra smiled intently at him, running a finger under his chin. “Oh, Matthew. You would be amazed.” For a moment, Ben thought she might actually kiss him, but instead she simply patted his cheek and pulled back. He opened and closed his mouth a few times, looking like a fish out of water, and Foggy reached over to clap him on the shoulder.
“She’s a pistol,” he said cheerfully.
Ben couldn’t think of anything to say. There wasn’t anything to say. He suddenly had more money than he had ever dreamed of having in his life, and he’d gotten it short selling on the stock market. The Ben of ten years ago, who’d written scathing pieces about Tony Stark and the housing bubble and the wolves of Wall Street, would have been disgusted. But Ben didn’t have time for that now. He was just grateful.
Elektra was the first to leave. She cleared her throat and said, “Well. Not that this hasn’t all been lovely, but if you’ll excuse me, I have a plane to catch.” She glanced quickly around their little circle, her eyes solemn, flicked a lock of hair back and strode off, looking like a supermodel. After a few steps, she looked back over her shoulder and said, “If any of you ever need someone to watch your back. Well. I’m sure you can find me. If you really need it.” Without waiting for a response, she walked on.
After that, Foggy looked at his watch and said, “Yeah, I guess I’d better be going, too.” He looked at them all, smiled, and said, “This was wild. You guys ever need a con artist again, I’m around. You know all my aliases.” His grin turned mischievous and he added, “Not for long, though. Gotta stay fresh.” They watched as he flagged down a taxi and vanished into the city streets.
“You know,” said Karen thoughtfully. “I feel like I really misjudged that guy, back when we were thinking of bringing him on. He actually kicked ass. Maybe con artists get an unnecessarily bad rap.”
Claire huffed out a chuckle. “I don’t know that I’d go that far.”
“Hmm,” said Matt, still fingering his check and looking about as dazed as Ben felt.
“You seem pretty out of it, man,” said Claire, her voice still light and amused.
Matt took off his sunglasses and rubbed at one eye before replacing them. “This is so much money. I have to—I have to go do something with this.”
“Well, if you need financial advice, Foggy’s friend Marci was really helpful,” Karen offered, but he shook his head.
“I was thinking more along the lines of ‘go hide it under a rock, and then crawl under the rock with it.’” He laughed self-deprecatingly. “It’s been a hell of a week. I need to get some sleep.” Without ceremony, or a goodbye, he shuffled off, his cane scraping against the gravel.
“He said he was from New York, right?” asked Karen, staring after him.
Ben turned to her, coming out of his money-related daydreams. Matt Murdock. Blind. From New York. The connections he hadn’t made before were coming together now, and the picture they made wasn’t a happy one. “Yeah,” he said slowly. “Why?”
Karen shrugged. “I don’t know. You never know when you’re going to need to track down a good cat burglar. And he cleans up nicely.” Shaking her head, she smiled at Ben and Claire. “But seriously. I really had my doubts about this whole job, but...well. It was great. And Ben, if you ever want a source for a story, I think I’ve gotten over my press hang-ups. Seriously, a free press is the hallmark of a democratic society. If I learned nothing else from this job, I learned that.”
Ben had to laugh at that. "Sure, Karen, I’ll let you know."
She nodded. “You do that. And Claire, you do the same, if there’s ever something you think I could help you with.”
“I don’t know what that would be,” said Claire, “but I appreciate the offer.”
Karen shrugged. “I don’t know. Tech support? I know a lot of people have trouble with the automatic software upgrades on their computers. Or maybe, uh. Maybe you’ll get approached by another mysterious shady corporation and need someone to look into them for you. You never know. Anyway.” She looked down. “Guess I should go.”
“All right, Pagemaster,” said Ben, reaching to shake her hand. He felt a strange kind of loss, like he’d finished a months-long investigation and was finally sending the story off into the world. “You take care of yourself.”
She smiled. “I always do.”
When it was just Ben and Claire, Claire turned to him. “It’s…it’s over. We did it.”
“We did it,” Ben echoed.
She sighed. “God, it’s going to be hard to go back to the normal day-to-day routine after this.” Clutching the check in her gloved hand, she added with a smile, “Not that it’s gonna be all that normal. I’ve got some big plans for this.”
“Well, I hope every one of them works out for you, Claire,” said Ben sincerely. “You deserve it.”
She was silent for a long moment, just standing next to him. All around them, joggers ran, dogs barked, children played. The normal sights and sounds of a city in the bright daylight of an autumn afternoon, a far cry from CCTV footage and whispered plans over earpiece microphones in the dead of night. “Thanks,” she said finally. “For everything.” She cleared her throat and said in a more normal tone of voice, “So, what are your plans for the day, Big Spender?”
Ben didn’t even have to think about it. “Heading back to the hotel to pick up Doris,” he said. “She and I are going home. And then maybe to Paris.” He smiled. “It’s been a really long time since we’ve taken a vacation.”