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throw it on the fire (you won't need it any more)

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Cataleya drifted west from New Orleans. She kept under the radar for a few weeks, hiding out in dying motels on dusty back roads. A long time ago she had paid a lot of money for a special app on her cellphone. It would tell her if the local police sent out an alert or an APB with her real name, any alias she typed in, or any physical description that matched her own.

The alert never came. She didn't see her face in the paper or on the news. She was almost surprised at how little effort it took to evade detection. Could be Agent Ross was still afraid of her. Maybe he still thought she'd target his family.

She wouldn't, not now. Her mission was over. There wasn't any reason to keep hurting people. She wondered sometimes about calling Ross, sending him a letter. Trying to explain that it really was over. But he wouldn't believe her. Why should he? Better to leave it alone.

There were secret bank accounts she'd never accessed. Resources even her Tío had never known about-- passports, car keys, cash, unregistered weapons. She went to Phoenix, broke into an empty, foreclosed house and dragged a rucksack stuffed with twenty-dollar bills out of the crawl space. She'd put this money aside for the hunt for Sandoval, but she hadn't needed it. Well, she was bored of motels. At the Greyhound station she saw that a bus was leaving soon for Las Vegas. She'd never been to Las Vegas as a tourist. She bought a ticket.

* * *

She rented a room on the Strip, pulled the curtains shut and slept. Something about the constant noise, the flickering lights barely blocked by the curtains, was soothing. She got into the habit of sleeping during the day and leaving the room in the evenings, slipping past crowds of people all lost in their own heads-- jet-lagged, drunk, shrill with excitement, hazy from heat exhaustion. Nobody looked at her. Nobody saw her.

She would walk in the heat until her skin was slick with sweat, then cool off with a swim in the hotel pool. She played poker, went to clubs and listened to jazz. Men tried to pick her up. She ignored them. The nights were short. She slept a lot. Occasionally she bought new clothes, changed her hair, moved to a different hotel.

One night she ate at a diner decorated with movie posters and memorabilia. She looked at a poster for "Scarface" a long while, until the shapes and colors stopped making a picture, and then she remembered where she'd seen it before: on the wall of her dead cousin's room, that first morning at Tío Emilio's house. Later all her cousin's things had been put away. She would have understood if Tío Emilio had wanted to keep everything the same, but he had said Cataleya should have a room of her own, and so he had packed everything up in boxes and put them into storage somewhere.

Those boxes were probably garbage now. Cataleya felt that realization like a hand locking around her throat. No one remembered her cousin any more. Of course no one wanted his things. She left some money on the table and walked out of the diner. Halfway back to her room she realized she was walking to last month's hotel, and had to turn around, disoriented, stumbling and pushing through the crowd. All she wanted to do now was to be in bed, to put the extra pillow over her head and cry, holding it tightly against her face to muffle the sound.

Even that was pointless now. Her grandmama and Tío Emilio were dead. No one was listening.

* * *

Not too many days later, Cataleya woke up. Someone else was in the room.

She sat up, staring. There was a pale redhead in a white dress standing in the corner of the room. For a second Cataleya thought it was an illusion, a sliver of light and shadow, but it wasn't. She was real.

The woman had had long, straight hair brushed back behind her ears. The bell sleeves of her white cotton dress were fastened loosely with drawstrings just below the elbows, and the flowered hemline was just long enough to hide a knife or a gun, strapped high on one thigh or the other. If she was carrying, Cataleya couldn't tell where. Her body language was serene. Cataleya sat still.

"Ms. Restrepo," said the woman. She introduced herself. Her name sounded Russian but Cataleya had never heard of her. "Now that you've had some time to decompress... have you made any plans?"

"No," Cataleya said. "Are you offering me a job?"

"There are a lot of positions open in our organization for people like you." She leaned back against the wall. "Or like us."

"Killers."

"That's not the official job title. I think of myself as a consultant. A problem-solver. It isn't always about pulling a trigger."

Cataleya pushed her covers and sheets aside, swinging her legs over the edge of the bed. Her skin prickled in the air-conditioned chill. "You work for the government?"

The woman shrugged, and said the name of an agency. It was long and complicated. They really needed an acronym. Anyway, Cataleya hadn't heard of them, either.

"What if I say no?"

"Why would you do that?" The question seemed honest. "What else is there?"

"There's me and my money and Las Vegas," Cataleya said, just a little irritated.

"Why did you let Agent Ross live?"

"'There wasn't any reason to..." Cataleya said, and stopped.

"Sandoval's handler at the CIA?"

Cataleya smirked. "That would have been a waste of a bullet."

"And Daniel Delanay?"

Cataleya frowned. Did people really think she would have murdered Danny, just to keep him from telling what he knew? He didn't even know that much. She'd made sure of that. Why mention him at all?

The woman smiled as if she knew what Cataleya was thinking. "Nothing's going to happen to Mr. Delanay. Nothing's going to happen to you. In fact we've helped to keep you in the clear ever since Phoenix."

"But that could change," Cataleya said, just so everyone's cards were on the table.

"Eventually, everything changes," the woman said. "Except people like you and me. Are you in?"

* * *

A helicopter took them to a small private airstrip, where they boarded a small private jet. They flew through thick clouds for a long time. Cataleya fell asleep.

* * *

Training was challenging. There were physical tests, mental tests, lectures, quizzes. She suspected several of her fellow trainees were ex-military or law enforcement, but could see that others definitely weren't. Nobody talked about their past.

She was briefed on various topics. She was debriefed about her time working for Tío Emilio. She told them everything. There was no one left to protect, and she assumed her new employers didn't really care about the details; they just wanted Cataleya to know there was no going back.

She was fitted for a uniform, which she wore all the time. Why not, since she wasn't allowed to leave the base. She chose the full catsuit, no skirt.

"You're braver than I am," said Gabi, a short round blonde from Cataleya's tracking and reconnaisance class. They were sitting across from each other in the mess hall. Gabi had latched onto her after the first couple of weeks. Cataleya hadn't bothered to brush her off. It was just possible they were being graded on their successful social attachments as well. "No, I mean, let's just be honest," Gabi continued, "your legs are way better."

"Decorative and useful," Cataleya said, then regretted it. That was kinda bitchy. Whatever Gabi had been before being recruited, wilderness survival training probably hadn't been necessary.

"No, it's fair, it's true. My legs are mostly a convenient portable laptop desk," Gabi said good-naturedly. "Not that I'm allowed to own a laptop any more," she said under her breath.

"You're curious about what I used to do before this," Cataleya said.

Gabi nodded.

"Don't be."

Three weeks later Gabi didn't show up to the morning lecture. Cataleya went by her room afterwards, wondering if she just wasn't feeling well. Then she felt like an idiot when the door wasn't locked and the room was empty, the bunk stripped. None of the instructors said anything about where Gabi had gone or what might have happened. For the rest of the day Cataleya sat alone in the mess hall and in the rec room. She didn't study with anyone. She didn't talk to anyone. Fine. She was fine. She understood; this was just how it was going to be from now on.

* * *

A few days later Russian woman pulled her out of class. They took a black towncar off base and towards the nearest city. She gave Cataleya an expensive black dress, some nice underthings and a pair of sheer stockings. She glanced politely out the window as she changed, then helped her fasten her bracelet and the straps on the sturdy, but frivolous-looking shoes.

"Well?" Cataleya said.

"We have an issue," the Russian said. She gave Cataleya a folder with a dossier inside. Stanley Jamison, a programmer and prodigy who'd been... adopted... by the agency after hacking them at age seventeen. He'd been building a database of information, scientific readings taken from some kind of... object. An experiment of some kind?

The file was so heavily redacted Cataleya didn't see why they'd even bothered to let her look at it. But somewhere in the middle, a set of numbers drew her eye-- strange coordinates, if they were meant to be latitude and longitude. Somewhere in the Arctic? That was interesting. Maybe it was a meteorite, found by government scientists who'd been out there studying penguins or something. But why would you need a stack of servers for information about a rock-- how much could a rock possibly tell you?

Irrelevant for now. But another fact was interesting: wherever it was currently being held, it couldn't be too far away. Jamison had been working on it less than eighteen hours ago, and they hadn't traced any flight records. Cataleya tucked that information away for future reference.

"So Jamison took, what? Some files, some hard drives? And dropped off the map."

"We thought he'd been taken. Wasted a couple of hours on that," the Russian said wryly. "But since then we've heard chatter that he's reached out to some... former contacts of current operatives, and we tracked him here. He might have had access to personnel files while he was working in the database cluster, so we need someone he doesn't know. That's you."

Cataleya nodded. "Who's he selling to?"

The Russian sighed. "We think the North Koreans."

Cataleya raised her eyebrows.

"Look, this should be simple. Find out who he's talked to. Find out if he's given away any freebies, and if so, what. Find anything he's physically taken out of the installation. Secure the information."

* * *

Stanley Jamison was sitting at the bar, staring at himself in the mirror behind the bottles. His nostrils were flared slightly, his jacket and tie were missing, and his sleeves were rolled up to his elbows. She watched him for a while. He just kept his eyes on the mirror. Like a dog that hadn't realized yet that it was facing its own reflection, not a threatening stranger.

Cataleya considered her approach. There was a certain type of predictable man who simply took it as his due when a well-dressed, beautiful woman suddenly wanted nothing more than to hear the story of his life. Most of those men were richer than Jamison, or at least better-looking-- Jamison had a long face, deep-set beady eyes, and hands too big for his gangly body. But he might be arrogant enough about his intelligence and his job, or high enough on the rush of his sudden blow for independence, that it could still work. If he got insecure and suspicious she could pretend to be a working girl. He might be more comfortable with that anyway.

She slid onto the barstool next to him. Ordered a Scotch to match the one sitting untouched by his elbow.

"Information technology," he said.

"Sorry?"

"Five minutes of small talk-- the weather, hotels, airports, your vacation plans, my vacation plans, except I'm here on business, so you ask what I do for a living-- I'm in IT."

"Oh yeah?" Cataleya laughed and swayed closer. "I'm so bad with computers, oh my god. I can't even--"

"It's not really about computers," Jamison said. He was still staring himself down in the mirror. It was starting to creep Cataleya out. "It's about the interaction with the human element. It's about what's in your head! Organized information is what creates intelligence," he said. "A complex thought is just a thousand simple thoughts. They form a pattern organically. They think. And they want out."

Okay, so he was a little strange. Cataleya put her hand on his thigh. "Why don't we go up to your room," she said, not smiling, "and you can tell me more."

He sat still for a long moment. He still wasn't blinking. Or looking at her. He took a few deep breaths, closed his eyes, and jerked away from her, standing up. His shoulders were tight. "Okay," he said. "Okay."

* * *

Cataleya followed a half-step behind Jamison, avoiding his gaze when they circled around each other to exit the elevator. It was out of character, bad technique, but she didn't want to look him in the face. She just didn't. When they got into Jamison's room he got lost again, staring into the mirror above the dresser. Cataleya waited by the door, but long minutes went by and he didn't snap out of it. She walked up behind him quietly, noticing his suit jacket and tie draped over the chair at the desk by the window. She didn't see a laptop anywhere.

"So why the North Koreans?" she asked. "Why not China? Russia? Why not the CIA or Blackwater?"

"More likely to find a person there with... vision," he said, still hazy-eyed. "Motivation. You can't just have the information. It has to be used. It has to be used." Cataleya shuddered, suddenly, and his eyes flickered around, confused, as though he couldn't find her in the mirror. His mouth started moving again. His eyes were still frightened. "No, you don't understand. You don't understand, it'll be easy. I just have to talk to people. They'll join us. They'll join us... They can put me on the radio... It won't take long. It won't hurt." His eyes glazed over again.

Fear prickled up her spine. She thought about punching him in the throat to make him stop talking. But if she could think that then she was still okay, right? She curled her hand into a fist, just testing, but didn't take her eyes off him.

"It won't take long," he was repeating. "And broadcasts don't stop at borders." He shook hard, suddenly, like he was trying to shake something off, and when he opened his eyes, they were clearer than they'd been before. "You know about the plan-- They know--" His shoulder slumped. Was that defeat or relief? Cataleya's stomach was queasy. She couldn't tell. She avoided his eyes. Again, bad technique. She didn't care.

"You know who I work for," she said. Jamison closed his eyes, struggling with something internally. She moved closer, reached out and touched him for the first time, just a gentle hand on his shoulder, and he stilled.

His hand locked around her throat-- impossible. Impossible-- No one could move that fast. No human, no matter how vicious and motivated. Jamison was a code monkey, how could he-- Shock stilled her for a fatal moment. He raised his arm slightly, and she stood on her toes to keep her feet from leaving the ground.

"I thought you said it wouldn't hurt," Cataleya choked out, and his head cocked curiously to the side, beady eyes shining like a bird's. "You don't want to kill me. I want to join you, Jamison. I want to help."

He let her down. He let her breathe. His hand was cold and weirdly dry.

"I've worked for them too long," she insisted, bringing one hand up to rest on his bare wrist. "I'm tired of keeping secrets. I'm tired of a little room like a cell. I'm tired of eating in a cafeteria like I'm in fucking grade school." She leaned closer, and he bent his arm and let her. She slid her face next to his, breathed on his neck. "I'll help you get where you want to go. We'll split the money..."

She was still half-expecting him to protest, and he did, but not the way she expected. He let go of her, turning away, confused. "No, I wouldn't... not for money. It wasn't about the money... No, but she would. I believe her..." He turned to face her again. Cataleya smiled and tried to look venal and stupid. "How do we...?"

"We just need a few days. We confuse them, and while they're confused, we get out."

"How?"

"Easy." She put her hand on his shoulder, guiding him to sit down at the desk. "We make them think you're already gone." She kept her hands on his shoulders. There was hotel stationery and a nice fountain pen on the desk, all ready for writing notes.

"You're tired of it too, aren't you?" Cataleya said. "You want to get out. You want to make it stop. Just write it down."

He stilled under her hands. "It's-- so loud," he said. She was glad he wasn't facing the mirror any more.

"Jamison," she said, then let out a slow breath. "Stanley... Write it."

"But how will she..." he said, already writing. He wasn't even looking down at his hands. He looked as though it was a struggle to keep his hands moving and his head up. She cupped her hand under his jaw and felt him relax.

"Tomorrow we'll rent a boat from the marina. We'll go out together, with scuba gear. They'll find the boat drifting, maybe some empty beer cans, some blood. We won't come back here," Cataleya explained. She pulled her hands away, slowly. "The note will make it easier."

She glanced once at what he was writing-- sorry, didn't mean to, so loud-- and she picked up the tie from the back of the chair, looping the ends around the base of each hand.

"Thank you," he said under his breath, just as Cataleya slipped it around his throat and pulled it tight.

* * *

She searched the room, not bothering with gloves. She left the tie on the table next to Jamison. She tried not to look too closely at his face. She could have moved the body somewhere else in the room, made it look like he'd done it to himself, but if that was what they wanted, they could do it themselves. Cataleya was done.

She went back downstairs, crossed the street, sat down on a park bench and waited to be collected.

* * *

"This way," said a weary-looking Asian woman. Cataleya followed her through a maze of narrow hallways into a dimly lit, claustrophobically small conference room with brushed metal walls. She sat down at a brushed metal table across from a balding, pleasant-looking man in a cheap suit. He was reading through a file far too thick to be a report of just the last couple of days. When he closed the folder and put it on the desk, she could see her name on it.

"Ms. Restrepo," he said. Unlike the Russian, he didn't introduce himself. "I'd like your report on the mission, please."

"Something got in his head," she said. It was harder to match his pleasant tone than she'd thought it would be. "This wasn't about missing files or hard drives. Something got in him, and it was using him to get out of the desert." The desert was a guess, based on Jamison's location when she'd picked him up, the tan lines on his wrists and neck, and a few grains of grayish sandy dirt still embedded in a few folds and creases of his clothes.

The man with the pleasant face remained pleasant. "You don't think he was a traitor."

"Maybe he was," Cataleya said. "Maybe it could tell he was on his way out... and that's when it... I don't know. Organized itself."

"The suicide note was a cute touch," the man said, opening the folder again. Cataleya saw a reproduction of the note, the meaningless upside-down handwriting squiggles. "I mean, we could have faked one up in post-- but hey. Good effort. But then you just left him there-- you didn't make it look like a suicide. So were you just showing off?"

"The note wasn't useful?" she said.

He looked back up at her and quirked his mouth to one side.

"Ease up, Ms. Restrepo. You pass. You're in."

She swallowed hard.

"Did you think this was about atonement? Always doing the right thing, even when there is no right thing you can do?" he asked. His voice was almost kind. "It's not. Sometimes you need to pull the trigger. Someone has to. You knew that."

Cataleya waited. "Is that all?"

"Well, you'll need a new name. We'll work on that." He closed the folder. "And we're done."

* * *

Cataleya was sitting in the rec room by herself. Gabi came in and plopped down on the couch beside her. "Oh, hey! I came back and you were gone. I was worried you went over the fence."

Cataleya stared at her. "No."

"It's Agent Chang's birthday today," Gabi said. "There was cake-- do you want some?"

Cataleya made a 'That's nice' face. "No."

Gabi was quiet for about eight seconds. "I think your code-name should be Xena. Then we could be Gabi and Xena."

Cataleya gave her a look, and Gabi kept a straight face for almost ten seconds, then started to laugh.

"I used to kill people for money," Cataleya said.

Gabi obviously believed her but couldn't stop laughing. Then she stopped. "Really?"

"Yep."

"Wow.... wow. Okay. So actually a better analogy than I thought."

"Except that Xena quit," Cataleya said. "Technically, I still kill people for money."

"No, not for money," Gabi said. "Not for the paycheck. But-- because if you don't--" Her voice twisted, high, then cracked. She set her jaw tightly, not looking at Cataleya, then stood up.

Cataleya grabbed her arm. They stared at each other for a moment, and Cataleya pulled her back down to the couch. An ache spread in her chest. She hadn't thought to wonder until just now where Gabi had been, when she'd vanished. What she'd done, or helped do. Sometimes seeing it was enough. "Gabi..."

Gabi sat up straight. "I mean hypothetically a lot of things could happen. Bad people could get the launch codes. And if you trace them, track them down, and then... something happens to them... They showed me pictures..."

"You did your job," Cataleya said gently. "And someone else did theirs." But Gabi's throat was working as if she were trying not to choke. Cataleya was still holding her arm, and she pulled gently until Gabi folded down into Cataleya's arms. She cried silently, the way Cataleya had never learned to. "No, listen, you're right," Cataleya said. "You're right. This isn't about being a good person. That train left a long time ago. But if we can protect the good people-- if we can stop the bad ones--"

She almost believed it herself.

"Come on, toughen up. You're a super secret agent now," she said after a while. Gabi sighed and sat up. She wiped her eyes, embarrassed, and Cataleya put her hand on her shoulder, then cupped her face in her hand, then smiled to break the tension and tapped her on the nose. "Wash your face," she said. "Let's get some cake."

"Okay," Gabi said. "Okay."

"I'll come with you," Cataleya said. "You have to help me think of a better code name, anyway."