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From Fire by Fire

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PART TWELVE

The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.

- T.S. Eliot

 

(Before)

How many times in your life can you be orphaned?

They say that you can’t choose your family, but that isn’t true. You lose your parents to a dark road and too much whisky, so you choose again. Your mentor betrays you for petty vengeance, so you choose again. Your brother boards a bus and leaves you standing in the middle of the street, bow in hand, and it occurs to you that maybe you’re better off as a solo act anyway.

But sometimes family chooses you. Sometimes, when you don’t take the hint, it even knocks more than once. It comes dressed in a suit, wearing wingtips and a wry smile and saying the sorts of things that your dad might have said if your dad hadn’t been a raging alcoholic asshole. It comes in a flash of red and black that resolves into the most dangerous, most beautiful, most fascinating woman you’ve ever met.

You find work. You find purpose. You find friendship. You find love.

But you always have to keep choosing, because eventually they all leave you.

 

(Before)

How many times in life can you be lost?

You are a child: your mother’s hair is soft and your father’s beard smells pleasantly of pipe smoke. You have a doll and a bed and a place where you belong. And then you have none of those things.

You are found by others. They are armed with steel and syringes and vicious words. No sculptor ever worked his clay as cruelly as they mold you. You had a doll and now you are one until the night you can’t take it any longer. You were shaped for a purpose. You fulfilled your promise. And now you have neither.

You find yourself alone. You turn your skills into money, into bread, into a roof, into an identity. Names can be bought and sold, reused and torn away; they taught you this. You eat and sleep and breathe but you do not exist. Are you alive? How would you know? You bleed, but the dead also bleed for a while.

He finds you before the storm, the scent of honeysuckle in the heavy air. You owe him your life, and before this you have only owed death. What madness leads him to lower his bow? The same madness lowers your own weapon.

You find yourself. He finds you. But you know it can’t last. Home never does.

 

 (43)

“I really wish you wouldn’t do that,” says Stark. Despite the politeness of the words it’s less a request than a threat… a threat from a man used to getting his way.

Joey has never been threatened by a celebrity before, either implicitly or otherwise, much less a celebrity in a suit of armor equipped to wage war on a small country. It’s unnerving. Joey’s starting to think that his initial instinct about this case was correct: he should have bugged out when he’d had the chance, dropped the whole damn thing into Bernhardt’s lap and gone home to eat cold, congealed macaroni and cheese.

But now the Fed is gone, disinterested in the dead woman or her facility despite his contention that he’d been pursuing her as a wanted fugitive. Maybe her being dead was good enough for government work. Maybe he had bigger fish to fry.

Unfortunately for pretty much everyone else involved, including Joey, the agent had split before Stark had learned about the kid.

It was obvious that Stark didn’t trust the source of the intel, but then Thor had gone back into the half-burned building to investigate further. When he’d reemerged, empty-handed but undeniably grim, Stark had tried to delay the inevitable. “Don’t tell me…”

“I found a room,” Thor had intoned, and then he’d told them about it, about rough walls and cold concrete floors, about a child-sized bed with pale blue-flowered sheets, and a small white desk with a neat stack of picture books, all smoke-damaged but unmistakable.

“Well, shit,” was Stark’s assessment.

Silently, Joey agreed. A kid changed everything. The building was about as damaged as it was going to get; the victims, likewise, couldn’t be any deader than they were now. In terms of the clinic and the women, the emergency was over. But now they were talking about child abduction.

Joey had cancelled the fire engine from Needles and had ordered his uniformed officers back to their patrol cars with strict instructions to stay radio silent and off their phones, all in the hopes of avoiding the inevitable media circus, but to do more would be to court professional disaster. “I’m not saying I want to go out and get a warrant for your friend,” he tells Stark now. “But if there’s a missing kid involved, at the very least I’ve got to put out a BOLO for both of them, or I might as well just hand in my badge right now. And I know you might not care about my job, but I have a wife at home who’s already pretty pissed at me, and if I go home and tell her I got fired because I was running interference for superheroes, she will kick my ass.”

Thor looks vaguely bored by this little tirade, but Stark flinches. Or does he? The look is gone so fast; it’s hard to be sure. “I have to follow protocol here,” Joey continues, “especially with the FBI involved…”

“If he really was FBI,” interjects Stark.

“Huh?”

Stark looks back towards the chopper’s erstwhile landing site, now only dimly illuminated by the patrol cars’ headlights. “There was something familiar…” he begins, almost speaking to himself, and then he turns back on Joey with a fierce scowl. “You could actually be putting them in worse danger, you know.”

“I don’t want to put anyone in danger! But I have to do my job.”

Thor steps up beside Stark. “I could render him unconscious, if it would help,” he suggests.

Joey edges away as Stark appears to consider this, but only for a moment. “No,” he says grudgingly, “although if I could take a rain-check on that offer…”

Thor doesn’t respond. Instead, he turns his head away, looking towards the north with a vaguely puzzled expression. Joey doesn’t see anything; the night is dark outside this small circle of headlights and flashlights, and the only way to tell where the sky ends and the land begins is to look for where the stars disappear.

“What’s wrong?” asks Stark.

Thor doesn’t reply. He walks a few paces away, towards the source of his unseen fascination. Joey reflects that he actually looks more intimidating without the cape, which is still being used as the dead woman’s funeral shroud. It’s like he’s saying shit’s about to get real; dress-up time is over. After a long moment he glances over his armored shoulder. “Did you hear that?”

Now they all stand in silence, straining for a sound. A mild autumn breeze stirs the sand at their feet, and the clinic door creaks softly on its hinges. An owl hoots.

“Say that I didn’t,” says Stark. “What is it?”

Thor listens for a minute longer, still facing north, head tilted to the side like Amber’s corgi when it hears her car in the driveway. Then he blinks in surprise, drawing in a breath.

Stark reacts as well. “JARVIS picked up that,” he says, looking grim.

“What?” asks Joey, bewildered.

In an instant, in the whir and snap of a closing faceplate, the rich celebrity in the metal suit becomes Iron Man one more: iconic, implacable, unstoppable. “Gunshots.”

 

(44)

Kamala wakes to a harsh metallic twang as the passenger’s side door is pulled out of a warped frame, a jostle as her seat belt is unbuckled, and a curious sensation of weightlessness as she’s lifted bodily out of the car. Before she can do more than raise her head and reach vainly for her weapon – not there, damn it, knocked out of her hand in the crash – Jason slams her back into the side of the Chevy with one beefy hand around her neck. “Where the hell have you been?” he snarls. “Why weren’t you answering your phone?”

Still disoriented, Kamala digs her fingers into a certain spot on Jason’s wrist, pinching a particularly sensitive nerve. He curses in pain and releases her throat but doesn’t back away. “Asshole,” she spits. “What were you trying to do, kill me?”

“No,” says Jason, sounding surprised and a little hurt as well as angry. He tilts his head and peers through the window at Romanoff. From this angle there’s not much to see: red hair gleaming in the Jeep’s blazing headlights, a smudged starburst of blood on the glass. If the Chevy had side airbags, they hadn’t deployed. “Who’s that?”

“She’s an associate,” Kamala says evasively. “She’s going to help… us.” Us sounds better than me, she decides, pushing sweat-dampened hair out of her eyes.

“Help?” Jason echoes, perplexed. “Help do us what? You were supposed to bring in Barton, remember? Instead, he shows up on his own, blows the place up, kills Sophia and takes off with the brat!”

“I know.”

“How the hell do you know anything?” demands Jason. He moves in even closer, pinning her to the car with his body, although he doesn’t try to put his hands on her again. “You’ve been gone for two days.”

She breathes in the scent of hot metal and spilled fuel, fighting for calm. “It’s a miracle of modern technology called a telephone, genius. Did you know that Fisher’s dead?”

He stiffens, staring at her as if she’s gone mad. “No she’s not. She sent me to come get you.” Kamala doesn’t argue, and her silence unnerves him. His voice goes up an octave, becoming a pleading whine. “She’s fine. Why would you even say that? Who told you that?

“I have my sources.”Kamala shifts her weight, telegraphing that she’s about to knee him in the groin. He steps back instinctively, just far enough to get his hands between them, but she’s faster and shoves him square in the chest. He stumbles a little on the uneven ground. “Obviously it happened after you left to find me.”

Jason’s stunned expression darkens, roiling with sudden and intense hatred. “Barton…”

She snorts. “He was long gone. It was someone else. DeGrasse or his bodyguard or maybe even that idiot Damian… he wasn’t even fully processed, Fisher was stupid to even let him—”

Jason makes a choking sound. “Don’t… don’t say that about her.”

Kamala pushes him again, far enough that she can slide out from between his body and the car, not because she’s afraid of him but because she can’t stand seeing the kicked-puppy-dog look on his face. She remembers the days when she felt that same blind loyalty to Sloane Fisher, that brain-dead devotion.  Back then she hadn’t been the doctor’s puppet, but rather her ally, her comrade in arms. That Kamala Manesh had been a whole person, a woman with a history - a terrible, mangled history, granted, but a history nonetheless – and a purpose in life, and together with Ajax they had made up the powerful inner circle of the Witten Institute, even as they plotted against the titular founder.

Jason was no Ajax, for all that he had taken the other man’s place in Fisher’s bed. He was a petty criminal, not a drug lord’s attack dog. Ajax, while uneducated, had possessed a low, cruel cunning; he’d been a cheerful would-be killer of children, whereas Kamala doesn’t know if Jason has even taken a life.

He’s capable of it now, however; of that she has no doubt. She doesn’t know the specifics of his programming, but she has to assume the worst. “We need help, Jason. Fisher being dead means we could die too. You thought she was helping you after you got out of jail, but she wasn’t. She was… putting a leash on you and strapping a bomb to your chest.” Is he triggered? Coded? “Whatever she told you to do, whatever orders she gave, you’ve got to try to forget about it. Put it out of your mind. She’s dead, but we’re still alive, and if we want to stay that way we’re going to have to be smart. We’re going to have to deal with SHIELD…”

He reacts to the word as though slapped, rearing back and taking another hard look into the Chevy’s interior. “SHIELD…” he mutters. “So that’s Barton’s bitch. Does she know where he is?”

Kamala’s hesitation is brief – just a second of uncertainty, the memory of that phone call – but it’s enough to confirm the paranoid bastard’s suspicions. Jason sets his jaw and turns on his heel, circling the ditch-mired rear of the car, on a beeline to the driver’s side, and Kamala stumbles after him. “We need her, you idiot,” she shouts, but he ignores her, so she kicks him hard in the back of the left knee.

His leg buckles and suddenly he is kneeling in the sand with his back to her, and she prepares to apply the tip of her boot to the back of his skull, but this time he is faster. He swivels, still on one knee, and his Glock is in his hand. Pointed at her chest.

Kamala freezes.

“I was supposed to find you,” says Jason through gritted teeth. The gun looks like a toy in his big hands. “I found you. Now we need to get our hands on Barton and the girl. If this bitch knows where they are, all she’s got to do is tell me.”

“You know she won’t do that.” If she’s still alive. She’s got to be alive. SHIELD will never keep up their end of the bargain if Romanoff is dead.

“Maybe not at first she won’t.”

“What are you going to do, torture her?” Kamala asks dryly, glancing around the rock-lined swale as though expecting to see a rack or an iron maiden lying amongst the sparse tufts of brush. Foolishly, Jason’s gaze follows hers, and she’s able to reset her footing in that second of inattention. She’s almost close enough to kick the gun out of his hand.

“I’m going to do what I was told,” says Jason angrily. “And so are you, or I might as well put you down right here.”

When Kamala had tried to shoot Jason – ten minutes or an eternity ago, or both – her muscles had seized up, her joints locking in place. She’d broken out in a cold sweat, certain that if she did manage to push past the pain, if she fired that gun, something terrible would happen. A heart attack. An aneurysm. Worse.

She’d had no such reaction when she’d killed Witten last summer, but then Fisher’d had no reason to protect her husband. What if Kamala had tried to shoot Ajax, or Saja, or any of the other Institute operatives? Would she have been paralyzed by that same pain, that same fear, or had Fisher only recently decided to keep her on a tighter leash? “I don’t think you can,” she tells Jason.

He fires. The shot goes wide, or is placed wide; she can’t tell. The bullet slaps into the side of the swale behind her with a horrendous, echoing crack, kicking up chips of rock that ricochet against her back and legs. A warning, or a last-minute involuntary reaction? Either way, she has to press her advantage. She brings up her right leg—

And he shoots her in the left. At least, her left leg suddenly goes stiff and numb, as though turned to stone, and she finds herself face-down in the cool sand without any memory of falling, gasping in shock and anger. She looks back, sees the dark blood flowing onto the rocks – flowing is bad, but spurting would be worse – and yet there is no pain, only heat and pressure and grit between her teeth.

The pain will come soon; she knows this, even though she’s never been shot since entering Fisher’s service. What the mind may forget, the body remembers.

Jason’s booted feet appear beside her face, sliding from one side to the other as her vision swims. Big boots. Thick leather. She can’t push herself up; she couldn’t even bite his damned ankles. She’s so weak

“Sloane told me I’d have to keep my eye on you,” says Jason’s voice. “She told me ever since Colombia, you were compromised.”

That’s not true, says Kamala silently. When I left Villavicencio I was as strong as I’d ever been. It was the night Lycaon broke us out of SHIELD custody that everything changed, that everything fell apart. My loyalty was rewarded with apathy and betrayal.

Maybe my programming was never that tight to begin with. Maybe I was in Fisher’s thrall because I wanted to be, because I was happy there, because I’d decided that she was my family and worth killing for. Maybe if I’d wanted to fight it, I could have broken free, like Romanoff. But it was after our escape, after the truth came out, that I did decide to fight.

Exhausted, she closes her eyes. And it’s been downhill ever since.

A gunshot, and then another, again with that horrible ear-splitting echo against the rocks. If she can hear the sound, at least he didn’t shoot her in the head. In the back, then, but there’s still no pain. No heat. No pressure. No blood boiling up in her lungs.

“Ugh.”

She opens her eyes. Jason’s boots are there still, and then his knees, and suddenly his whole big body is laid out in front of hers on the ground. His eyes are closed. His mouth is open, his lips frosted with sand. He does not breathe.

A car door slams. “Are you dead?”

Somehow, the thought of being facedown in the dirt in front of Romanoff gives Kamala the strength to roll onto her back. Her left leg protests this treatment, throbbing dully in time with her heartbeat.

In the east, the cloudless sky has lightened to dim, gunmetal gray. Desert sunrises are beautiful things, but this morning’s is still hours away and now she doesn’t know if she’ll be around to see it.

The gray fades to black, to white, to red, to silver. There is finally pain as something is tightened around her leg. Romanoff is trying to staunch the blood. Kamala tries to wave her off. Better to die like this – gently, quietly – instead of in terror and pain when her time runs out in four days. Or is it three? How long has she been lying on the ground with dirt on her tongue?

A man’s voice. Not Jason. Jason’s dead. Too bad. He didn’t deserve to die. Even though he shot her. Bastard. But this man says something about a hospital, and Romanoff’s voice agrees, then she hears the man say Banner and Jane and Stark will meet you. He keeps talking but now she is being lifted and the pain is incredible, bursting like bright points of light behind her closed lids.

A cold wind takes her, a swooping weightlessness in her stomach, and this must be what it feels like when Yama takes a soul to Naraka. She cannot feel the noose around her neck, but she can feel something wrapped tightly around her left leg – what happened to her leg? – and she senses, although its not possible, that she is flying.

 

(45)

On the other side of the window, beyond a set of cheap plastic vertical blinds that click-clack against each other like chattering teeth, the coming morning still seems like more of a possibility than a certainty, as though it’s likely the sun may just give up and go back to bed.

Clint had tried to catch a few more hours of sleep after the aborted phone call, but that had proved impossible. He had simply lain on his back beside Julie’s softly-snoring form, staring up into the darkness, listening to the thrumming of his racing heart as his mind gnawed over every permutation of fact and chance and feasibility.

Had that really been Natasha? If he couldn’t recognize her face when it was in front of him, how could he trust his senses to identify her voice over the phone? Are you okay? We found Fisher’s body. Clint, this girl… if you have her, you need to be careful… Then Manesh’s voice, speaking another language – speaking Russian? – and nothing but the impersonal hum of a dial tone…

And two sides of his mind at war with themselves.

She needs your help.

They’re just trying to lure you out—

She’s out there, right now.

It’s a trap. A trick—

She knew about the girl.

Of course she did. They’ll say anything to get her back. I can’t leave her behind, and I can’t take her into danger. And I don’t even know where Natasha is—

Finally he had risen from the bed, pacing the room, alternating between packing their meager belongings and peering through the window. He has a partial view of the parking lot and the walkway to the front office, although he isn’t yet sure what he expects to see. In the gray light all the cars look dusty, as though they’ve been sitting there for decades, untouched; the total lack of foot traffic near the office gives the morning a post-apocalyptic feel, like maybe he and Julie are the only people left in the world.

When he turns around he’s startled to find her eyes open, silently tracking his movements, although her small body is still curled against the pillows. “How long have you been awake?” he asks brusquely, embarrassed at being caught off-guard.

She blinks. “A few minutes. Why?”

“The staring thing. It’s creepy.”

She pushes herself into a sitting position and shrugs, as though to say I’ve heard that before, and Clint’s embarrassment turns to something more like guilt. “Are we leaving?”

“Eventually.” Clint glances back out the window and stifles a sigh. “Part of me thinks that if they had the resources to find us here, they would have by now. And they would have come while it was dark. But maybe I’m overestimating their abilities.” Or maybe Lycaon’s people don’t care about flying under the radar because they know they can count on someone else to come after and mop up after them.

Julie swings her legs over the side of the bed. Her feet dangle a good ten inches above the floor. “What about your friend? The one you were talking to on the phone?”

He’s surprised. “You were awake for that too?”

“I heard it in my sleep, and then I remembered it when I woke up,” she says simply, as though that’s perfectly normal. “You said we were in Las Vegas, and then you sounded worried and said, ‘Nat, what’s wrong?’ and then you hung up.”

Clint doesn’t remember using Natasha’s name, doesn’t really remember much after he heard Manesh’s panicked voice, but the girl’s words have the ring of truth. “I thought… maybe she could help us,” he says, feeling foolish.

“Do you have to go help her?” presses Julie, and she shrinks a little when she says it, as though cringing against the answer she expects.

Clint’s been partners with Natasha long enough that the thought of not going to her aid is strange to him, foreign and cruel, but he has no illusions about his new reality. “No,” he says, although it hurts more than expected. Don’t know where she is. Don’t know how I’ll react when I see her. Don’t know if I can trust her or my own eyes and ears. “She’s… very good at taking care of herself,” he continues, which is true enough. “And I promised that I was going to look after you, so that’s what I’m going to do.” But I have no idea how.

She doesn’t answer, just lapses back into that watchful silence – which, no matter how bad he feels about thinking it, is absolutely unsettling. So Clint goes back to the window and says, in an offhanded tone, “Remembering things you hear while you’re asleep? That must… come in handy.”

“Maybe,” says Julie solemnly. “Once when I was four a doctor did an experiment. He had me listen to a recording of a story while I was asleep. A story I’d never heard before. When I woke up he asked me questions about it, and I got them all right.” She’s not bragging; her tone is flatly matter-of-fact. “He thought I could learn in my sleep. Subconsciously. History, languages… all sorts of things. But my parents said no. My father said he didn’t want me to be any creepier than I already was.” When Clint looks back at her, she shrugs again. “He wasn’t saying it to be mean. They were good parents. They just never knew what to do with me.”

Clint opens his mouth… and then shuts it again, not sure what to say. He’s not exactly an authority on parenting, good or otherwise. Besides, hadn’t he himself called her ‘creepy’ not five minutes ago? Should more tact be expected from a father, or less?

Movement from outside catches his eye, saving him from having to tackle any thorny moral issues, although he might have preferred that to the sight of a squad car rolling up in front of the motel’s office.

He thinks of what maybe-Natasha had said, about Fisher being dead; if the clinic had been found, if Julie’s existence is now common knowledge, it made sense that law enforcement’s put an APB out for her. Maybe there’s one for both of them, if either SHIELD or Lycaon are in on it, and there’s no reason not to suspect that either group might hold sway over the Las Vegas Police Department.

“Come on,” he tells Julie, stepping away from the window and slinging his pack over his shoulder. “We’re getting out of here now.”

*

They walk between the rows of cars in the motel parking lot – or Clint walks while Julie runs ahead, shielded from sight as she tugs experimentally on door handles – and are rewarded when the passenger’s side door of a thirty year-old BMW coupe opens as though in invitation. Julie climbs into the seat and leans across the console to unlock the driver’s side door, then watches in squint-eyed fascination as Clint slides behind the wheel and pulls a screwdriver from his backpack. He’s got the steering column cover off and is pulling wires free before it occurs to him that this may not be an appropriate demonstration for a meddlesome girl genius with seemingly perfect recall, and he makes a mental note to give her a stern and completely hypocritical lecture on law-breaking some time later.

If there is a later.

 

(46)

In a gas station bathroom in Henderson, Nevada, just south of Vegas, Natasha uses a damp paper towel to wipe the last flakes of dried blood from her temple. Her head aches, but it’s a manageable pain, a pain she can box up and set aside until the crisis has passed.

When she emerges, weary and sore but at least presentable, she finds Tony Stark leaning against the stolen Institute Jeep, dressed in slightly-rumpled khakis, a short-sleeved Henley, and a baseball cap embroidered with the gaudy Welcome to Las Vegas sign. He’s drinking a Big Gulp.

Torn between relief and annoyance, Natasha crosses her arms. “I thought you were going after that fake FBI agent.”

“Alleged fake FBI agent,” Stark corrects. “Change of plans. Thor told you about the party back in Bugtown?”

Natasha nods. “Jane and Banner believe they have discovered how to close the rift,” the Asgardian had told her, standing beside the wrecked car with the semiconscious Kamala in his arms, “but they require someone with the power of flight.” Meaning, of course, either Thor or Stark… and all things considered, Thor was the better choice.

“Isn’t SHIELD still on-site?” Natasha had asked.

“They will not help. Jane says they wish to study the rift and perhaps capture one of the creatures alive. I believe that would be unwise.”

She had agreed, and that was all there was to it. Thor had departed with Manesh, destined for Puente Antiguo with a brief stop-over at a trauma center in Santa Fe, leaving Natasha with the dead Jason, his idling Jeep, and very few answers. She’d retrieved her broken cell phone from the Chevy’s carcass and mentally plotted the fastest route to Las Vegas.

“Suit’s in the Jeep,” Stark says now, as though she’d asked, taking a long pull from his Big Gulp before tipping the brim of his cap. “Thought it might be better to stay incognito for a while.”

Natasha raises her brows. “The Arizona authorities already know we’re in the area.”

“I think they’ll sit on it as long as they can.” He leaves unspoken what they both know: aside from the likelihood of Lycaon’s minions prowling the region is the very real presence of SHIELD agents in the neighboring state. They’ll come looking for Fisher too, sooner or later, and Natasha worries what their interest might be in the girl once they learn of her existence. There was a good reason Natasha had never surrendered the Volgograd drive, after all. Learning about the Phase Two tech had only made her more wary of what Fury and the Council might be capable of.

“We should still hit the road,” Stark adds, slapping the Jeep’s rear fender almost affectionately.

Natasha shakes her head. “We need to find new wheels. The Jeep is Fisher’s and it has a tracking—“

“I know,” Stark interrupts, straightening and walking around to the passenger’s side. “How do you think I found you? JARVIS already killed it.”

“Are you sure?”

He seems insulted as he swings himself up into the seat. “Am I sure? Of course I’m sure. Where’s the phone Barton called you on?”

Resigned, Natasha climbs behind the wheel and passes over the broken cell, its casing cracked and its screen shattered in the crash. Wordlessly Stark takes it, holding it back to back with his own phone. “This’ll just take a minute…”

The phone chirrups, the screen brightening, and Natasha leans over. “That was quick.”

Stark shakes his head. “That’s Steve,” he says, answering the call, holding the phone in front of his face. “Where are you, Cap?”

 

(47)

The four-person strike team arrives at McCarran as the sun is rising. Their leader, Lazarri, wants the money up front… money that John doesn’t have, not after paying for the girl.

That’s a mistake he will soon rectify. He’s tasked a pair of hackers in Montana with retrieving the funds from Fisher’s bank account, although he’s decided to let Artemiev keep his finder’s fee. At the moment, with everything up in the air, it seems prudent to stay in favor with the smuggler.

He has enough on hand to pacify the mercenaries for now, at least; nothing simultaneously paralyzes and focuses small minds like the sight of bundled cash. Lazarri is the only one with the presence of mind to ask about the time frame. “We’re waiting for dark, aren’t we?”

“No,” says John. The longer they wait to move, the better the chances that Barton will be able to skip out of the city… or, worse, that his friends will come riding to his rescue. And the moment any of those freaks show their faces, the local and national and international media will come pouring in, the bloggers and the groupies and all the rest of them, completely obliterating any chance to recover the girl with even a modicum of stealth. “We go in hard, we get out fast. He’ll never expect an assault in broad daylight.”

“That’s because it’s stupid,” says Lazarri, but he looks strangely mollified. Men like him despise waiting around, and he believes that a faster job means a quicker payday. “You know where they are, then?”

“I was able to trace Fisher’s Jeep to where Barton abandoned it on the Strip. Traffic and a few private networked cameras tracked him and the girl to a storage unit, a strip mall, and finally a motel about three miles from here. He checked in under the name Hearst.”

Lazarri and his pals look impressed. John doesn’t intend to tell them that the actual tracking was accomplished by his contact in the NSA. That misguided fool believes that John is an independent journalist, that he will use the information she gave him to expose the misuse of government surveillance programs, and that her computer-based pursuit of Barton and the girl was a test of the software’s capabilities.

Of course, he’ll have to burn her eventually, after he’s created his own back door into the NSA – the ones with a conscience are always the most unpredictable

*

There are three police cruisers arrayed in front of the motel, but John doesn’t dare reveal his dismay to his new employees. He tells Lazarri to keep the engine running and leaves the three other mercenaries sitting in the backseat, like children on a road trip, without a word of explanation. He wishes that DeGrasse was here. The doctor has a way with people that John, despite all of his experience in the world, can only attempt to mimic. He is a man of action and ideals, not idle conversation.

There is a cop still sitting in one of the cruisers, typing on a dash-mounted computer. She looks up warily at John’s approach, but rolls down the window once he flashes his counterfeit FBI credentials. “What’s the situation, officer?” he asks.

“BOLO out of Havasu,” she tells him, sounding slightly puzzled. “Possible child abduction. Desk clerk called in, reported seeing them, but they’d already cleared out. We’re setting up a perimeter, checking cameras.”

John nods tersely and hopes that his anger, if palpable, will be attributed solely to his quarry’s narrow escape. But it’s worse than that: the authorities are now aware of the girl. But how? Only a handful even know of her existence: DeGrasse, Artemiev, Fisher and her robots... no one who would benefit from going public. And Barton, of course, but he’s in hiding.

“Hey, are you here with…” begins the officer, but John isn’t listening any longer. He turns away and walks back to the Suburban.

“Problem?” asks Lazarri as John closes the door. His tone is slightly insolent. He probably would have driven away without John if he had been paid up front.

“No.” John closes his eyes. Thinking.

“I don’t like the look of all those cops.”

“It’s fine.” He opens his eyes. “If the cops are here, they won’t be where we’re going.”