Nick's smile was slipping. It was going on for six years since the last time he'd seen Kara Royal, slim and brunette and perky and far too interested in Cody. He'd forgotten that last bit when she'd sashayed down the gangplank a week ago, wearing a short skirt, a neon orange bikini top and a hopeful smile.
He'd been more than pleased to see her - he'd dated her back then and so had Cody, back when the two of them were still figuring things out. She was a fun girl, and Nick figured he, Cody and Murray would have a good time with her. Fishing, maybe some water-skiing, a couple of nights dancing at Straightaway's to satisfy Kara's party-girl side.
But that wasn't the way it had turned out. Kara and Cody were stretched out in deck chairs, swapping college stories, as Nick was forcibly reminded that Kara had left King Harbor to go to college. She was relating some frat-boy prank now, full of Greek letters and stupidity, and Cody was laughing too loud, too heartily.
Nick turned away in disgust. College talk always got Cody like this, as if he had something to prove. As if fitting in mattered. For Nick's part, he didn't see the point. You were who you were, college or no college. Take Murray, for example. He'd spent more years in school than anyone Nick knew, and yet it hadn't done him any harm, as far as Nick could see. Murray'd learned a lot about computers and robots and that sort of thing there, Nick figured, but that wasn't where he'd learnt to be a man. Nick smiled to himself, a little grimly. That was the kind of thing you learned early or not at all, and no amount of college education or frat-boy fuck-ups would teach you.
"Hey, Boz." Nick went down the stairs into the cool interior of the boat, sticking his head into Murray's room. "What're you doing?"
"Oh... just working on the Roboz, Nick." Murray looked up, brandishing a screwdriver, and the Roboz made a sorry-sounding whir. "No, no, Roboz, stay still."
Roboz whirred again, and Nick realized the little robot was trying to turn his head. "Be gentle with the little guy, Murray," he said, coming further into the room.
Murray chuckled and prodded the Roboz's arm with his screwdriver. "He's got a loose wire in here, and that's why he overturns plates and glasses so often. I've finally been able to trace the source." Murray stuck the tip of his tongue out the corner of his mouth in concentration. "That's got it!"
Nick nodded, leaning against the desk, watching with interest as Murray replaced the panel and covered the wires he'd been working on. The metallic gleam disappeared, replaced with Roboz's familiar orange skin.
"Hey Murray," Nick said reflectively, "were you ever in one of those fraternities?"
"Me? Oh, no, Nick. You see, when I was at college I was too young to be able to join any of those things - and by the time I was old enough, well, I'd already graduated, and they're undergraduate organizations. With a few notable exceptions of course, but - "
"Thanks, Boz," Nick interrupted hastily. "Seems like Kara's in one of them or something."
"A sorority, Nick." Murray nodded, and licked his lips nervously. "It sounds like she and her sorority sisters got up to some pretty wild stuff."
"I bet," Nick said, trying not to sound as sour as he felt. He didn't want to think of Kara turning her wild sorority games on Cody.
"Kara's a pretty fun girl," Murray said. "Cody seems to like her a lot."
Nick shrugged despondently. "It's good catching up with old friends?" he tried.
Giggling from the galley interrupted him, and Nick and Murray found Kara and Cody rummaging in the fridge. "Listen, guys, Kara has this great recipe she wants to cook us for dinner," Cody proclaimed, bounding over to his partners. Nick dropped a hand on Cody's bare back automatically, and Cody shifted, just a little, closer to him.
"Thought you wanted to grill?" Nick said carefully.
"Oh, we can grill any time." Cody shrugged, his eyes straying back to Kara as she bent over to the fridge. Nick bit his lip.
"Sure we can, Cody," Murray agreed cheerfully. "Kara, what is it you want to cook? Would you like me to help?"
"No thanks, Murray." Kara turned around, smiling mischievously. "I know from old that Nick's the man I want helping me in the kitchen. Aren't you, baby?" she cooed.
Nick swallowed painfully. Murray was grinning and nodding, but a shadow had touched Cody's eyes and his grin looked slightly forced. "I dunno," Nick muttered, looking away. "I'd thought of going over to Mimi for a couple of hours."
"No, Nick, leave those plugs till I can help you, huh, big guy?" Cody looked at him anxiously, and Nick nodded slowly. Working on the Mimi with Cody was eminently more enjoyable than working on her alone, and despite Cody's griping, he never missed an opportunity to help Nick work on the helicopter.
"Great." Kara took that as her cue and swayed slowly across the galley to Nick's side. "I'm glad that's settled. Now, I'm gonna need you to tell me the secret of your special barbecue sauce, Nicky. No arguments, mind."
Nick didn't argue, but he didn't tell either. He made his barbecue sauce for Cody and Cody alone, and he wasn't about to let anyone else in on the secret. Kara pouted prettily then gave up and took a bottle of ketchup out instead, making a salad while she bullied Nick into frying the sausages she'd found in the Riptide's fridge.
To Nick's way of thinking, a handful of torn lettuce and a diced tomato didn't qualify as a recipe, but he didn't say anything as Cody and Murray exclaimed over the meal. He stayed quiet all evening, contributing little as Murray and Cody enthusiastically told Kara about their last case, and about Murray's high-tech tracking device which had saved the day. The less he thought about the tense few hours the crooks had held Cody prisoner, the better, and when Murray explained the programming anomaly that had made them lose the signal, giggling happily as he described the workaround he'd figured out on the fly, Nick stood up abruptly and left the table. Even thinking about the moment when the tracker had gone dead made him feel like throwing up.
Nick had cleaned everything in the galley three times, carefully blocking out the too-cheerful voices from above, when Murray came downstairs, frowning. His expression cleared when he saw Nick. "Oh! There you are. We thought you'd gone to Straightaway's or somewhere, when you didn't come back." He looked at Nick inquiringly.
"Just didn't feel like company, I guess." Nick fashioned a smile, but judging by Murray's eyes it wasn't a successful one. "Sounds like you three were having fun, anyhow."
"Oh, sure." Murray smiled, a little uneasily. "Kara's got some great ideas for improving the tracking system. That is... well, some of the principles she expounded haven't been thoroughly tested but she believes very strongly..." Murray's voice trailed off, and he shrugged. "What the hell am I saying?" he said with unaccustomed violence. "My thorough testing was no damned use last week. Her methods can't be worse, right?"
"Hey, Murray, the tracker worked and we found Cody. That's what matters. And if Kara can help you fix it, that's great, right?"
Murray looked at Nick for a long moment, lips set in a thin line. "If it was broken, yes, Nick, it would be great," he said eventually, then shouldered his way past his friend. He went into his cabin and closed the door.
Nick looked after him, baffled.
"Nick! Wake up!" Cody's low hiss brought Nick awake in an instant and he was already rolling over, reaching for his friend, when Cody's hand landed on his arm. The salon had been empty, their cabin dark and deserted, when Nick had finally emerged from the galley. He told himself they'd gone to Straightaway's for a nightcap and went to bed, refusing to think about the quiet, private places on the nighttime beach.
Nick's hand on Cody's arm asked everything before Nick found his voice, and Cody was answering him in an instant, sliding close, his hands hungry and urgent on Nick's bare back. "You weren't at Straightaway's," he said, breathless, almost an accusation, but Nick heard past that, heard the fear.
"I was in the galley, you jerk," he muttered, pushing Cody's sweater up, finding his partner's skin. He traced an all clear, slow and sure, and even in the dim light he saw Cody's smile of relief.
"I thought you left. Kara said you left." Cody pressed closer, lips soft against Nick's neck, half apology and half excuse, and Nick turned his head, finding Cody's mouth.
"No," he said simply, Cody's relief sweet on his tongue. He pushed Cody down on the bed, tugging his sweater over his head and leaning down for another kiss.
Cody gripped his arms, holding him close when he would have sat back, pressing needily against him. "Nick," he panted softly, his urgency communicating itself to his partner.
Nick kissed Cody again, harder this time, freeing Cody from his jeans as he did so. Cody bucked beneath him, kicking free of his clothing, and Nick grunted with desire and anticipation as he felt Cody hot and hard against his stomach. His own cock was filling fast, desire making him breathless, the insistent throb between his legs stronger with every one of Cody's panted breaths.
Some nights they made love for hours, long and slow and gentle, but tonight was different. Desire was naked in Cody's voice, rough and breaking, giving Nick everything, and Nick took all he gave and more. He moved in Cody hard and strong, reclaiming him, every stroke pushing back the cold dread that Kara had brought to the Riptide.
Cody moved with him, stoking Nick's fire with his voice, with his body, until the blaze was all-consuming. Nick set his teeth in his lover's flesh, marking him as he came, covering Cody's body with his own as his seed pulsed deep inside him.
Cody cried out, his voice muffled against Nick's shoulder as he thrashed beneath him, his own juice hot against Nick's skin and Nick sobbed softly, holding Cody tightly, lost in the perfect joy of this moment.
Nick could see the mark he'd left just behind Cody's collarbone, mostly hidden by the collar of Cody's pink polo, and by 2pm, that was the only thing keeping him on the boat. Kara had spent the morning helping Murray with the tracking system, and all afternoon she'd had Cody jogging up and down the pier and then the beach, wearing the modified device, while she and Murray argued over a monitor on the salon table.
The dispirited beep the Roboz gave every time it lost the signal reminded Nick far too vividly of the terrifying hour he'd thought he'd lost Cody for good, but every time he made up his mind to leave them to it and go over to the Mimi, Cody would return from his latest assignment, flushed and breathless. And behind his flirty smile for Kara was a warm, hopeful look for Nick alone, and Nick would sink back down on the sunwarmed deck, eyes on the shadow on Cody's neck, mind on the day Kara would go back to her fancy college life and let them find the peace they'd lost.
By the end of the afternoon, the bugs in the tracking system seemed to be ironed out. The Roboz had stopped beeping and delivered a stack of printout detailing Cody's movements for the afternoon. Kara was grinning jauntily but Murray looked somber, and when Cody proposed a trip to Straightaway's, he shook his head.
"No, thanks," he said, frowning. "I have a new game to finalize, and you know, I've lost the day today. Not that what we learned wasn't important, Kara - thank you, I'm very pleased to - uh, that is, I appreciate your work today, a lot. You guys have fun tonight."
"What's up with him?" Cody looked after Murray's retreating back in bewilderment. "Boz -" He started to follow, but Kara laid a restraining hand on his arm.
"I think Murray's a little upset that I was able to solve the problem in his tracker," she murmured. "I guess he's used to being the best at things and - well, technology is advancing, and you have to move with it. I've advised him on some new texts he might like to read."
"You advised Murray?" Nick frowned. He wasn't surprised Murray was annoyed. If some green kid with 50 hours in the air told him how to fly, he'd be pretty damn pissed off himself. No matter how well the kid had been taught, no matter how good their ideas, respect for experience went a long way, and Murray was the acknowledged best in the business.
"Oh, sure. There's been a lot of new research published in the last few months, and sometimes the experts..." Kara pursed her lips. "Sometimes the experts are the last ones to read the findings of others. Or even to be willing to listen. Cody, you know all about that, I bet, with your background in law."
"Oh - I wouldn't exactly call it a background in law - " Cody hesitated, flushing, and Kara nudged him cheekily.
"Don't put yourself down," she mock-chided him, and gave him a push. "C'mon, let's get moving, or happy hour will be over!"
"Okay, okay." Cody chuckled and headed up the steps to the wheelhouse, shooting a glance over his shoulder at Nick. "Coming, big guy?"
"Maybe later." Nick managed a smile for Cody. "I've got a couple of things I want to do first, okay? I might see you there."
Cody hesitated a moment, then nodded. "Don't be long, huh?" he said, and Nick heard the plea in his voice.
"You got it, man." Nick nodded, making Cody a promise with his eyes, and the smile Cody gave him was thanks enough. He watched Kara bounce up the stairs with a jaundiced eye, and went below to check on Murray.
"She's right, you know," Murray said as Nick came into his room. He was pacing wildly, Roboz whirring dejectedly at his heels. "If a kid who's barely graduated can correct my work, I'm a has-been. She hasn't even had her doctorate thesis approved." Murray's shoulders slumped despondently. "Nick, I could've got Cody killed last week! I can't afford to make these kind of mistakes. You guys depend on me - and all I do is let you down - "
"Hey, Murray, take it easy." Nick laid a hand on his friend's arm, frowning, shaking his head. "That's not true, you know? You never let us down, not once. And last week, you fixed that glitch and we found Cody just fine. Thanks to you, Jefferson's standing trial and the whole gang was rounded up. Hell, Quinlan even thanked us, that's how impressed he was!"
"Yeah, and if that glitch, as you call it, had held us up even ten more minutes, we might have been too late. And then where would we be, Nick? You answer me that, if you can."
"But Murray, we weren't late. It didn't matter - "
"That's not the point." Murray tore himself free from Nick's grip, his brown eyes stormy. With a flourish, he yanked the power plug of the nearest computer out of the wall, and Roboz ground to an abrupt stop, one arm raised as though in supplication. "Nick, I can't work on cases any more, not while I cannot trust my results." Before Nick could stop him, he darted out the door, his footsteps clattering on the stairs.
Nick stared at the Roboz, silent and forlorn, huge fly eyes fixed on Nick. Nick shivered, turning from the dark accusing stare, feeling ice settling around his heart. Just how much damage had Kara done?
The last thing Nick felt like was an evening at Straightaway's, especially with Kara, but Cody had asked him to be there so Nick changed slowly into jeans and a short sleeved shirt and headed down the pier. He was worried about Murray, and in between wondering where the little guy had gone, he tried to figure out a plan to boost the skinny scientist's confidence, get him back in the saddle. Nick had been around the block enough times to know that everyone made mistakes, even geniuses like Murray, and what counted was how you fixed them. All he had to do was figure out a way to get the Boz to understand.
Shouts from up ahead brought him to attention like a pointer, and as the voices continued, Nick started to run. There was some kind of commotion at Straightaway's. He was too far away to see clearly, but he could hear a woman screaming. People milled in the doorway, and suddenly a gunshot cracked across the evening air.
Nick sprinted into the silence that followed, redoubling his efforts, arriving out of breath and terrified. He looked wildly around for Cody.
By the time he'd caught his breath enough to speak, Nick had established that Cody was nowhere in the press of people outside the restaurant. There was no sign of Kara either, and it was with relief that his eye lit on Straightaway, standing like a thundercloud at the edge of the crowd.
"Straightaway! What the hell happened? Have you seen Cody?"
"What happened? Three punk kids with guns is what happened. Emptied the till, robbed my customers..." Straightaway waved his arms angrily. "Where the fuck are the police, is what I wanna know. They're quick enough to write speeding tickets for honest men, but show 'em a real criminal and where are they? That's what I wanna know!"
"Cody," Nick interrupted the man urgently. "Did you see him tonight, Straightaway? Him and a blonde girl?"
"I did." Max appeared at Nick's elbow, looking decidedly green around the gills. "Right after one of those little bastards slugged me. They ran out, and Cody followed them."
The howl of sirens drowned out her next words, the police belatedly arriving to the scene, and Nick tasted bile. Cody, alone without backup, on the heels of three men with guns... he fought back nausea. "Which way did they go?" he shouted above the racket.
"Out back." Max pointed towards the service lane behind the restaurant and Nick nodded his thanks, spinning away. He couldn't afford to be caught up in police questioning, there wasn't time.
The alley was empty, but a puddle of warm oil and a pair of skid marks showed where a getaway vehicle had stood. Nick searched thoroughly, fear knotting his gut. He was about to give up when he saw, caught behind the dumpster, his partner's dark blue zip-front sweater. One sleeve was torn and soaked with blood.
Nick threw up into the nearest trash can.
Cold with terror, Nick sprinted back to the boat. He had no lead, no license plate, nowhere to start. His only idea was to find Murray and get down to the police station, and pray that if Quinlan had anything, he'd share it.
Murray wasn't on board the Riptide, and Nick ran from room to room, calling out until he was sure. Facing this alone was harder than he'd ever imagined. The idea of trying to find Cody without Murray beside him, listening, suggesting, flicking switches on some contraption and pulling impossible answers out of thin air, made the whole mess that much more unbearable.
Nick wanted to cry but swore instead, grabbing the Jimmy's keys and running back up the gangway. He swore again as he flung himself into the driver's seat, scrabbling to get the key into the ignition.
Something struck him a glancing blow from behind, sending pain spiralling down his neck, and Nick swung around with a sob, grappling with someone he couldn't see. Whoever was in the car had picked the wrong guy to carjack. With a roar, Nick flung his assailant back against the rear seat and raised his arm to strike.
"Nick! Nick!" Murray's terrified face stared at him in the washed out evening light and Nick dropped his arm, shaking.
"Murray?" he managed. "What the hell are you doing here?"
"I thought of going for a drive, but I forgot to take the keys with me." Murray gave a half hearted shrug. "I didn't want to go back for them." He sat forward in the seat, laying a hand on Nick's arm. "But Nick, is something wrong?"
Nick looked at Murray dumbly for a moment, then collapsed into his seat. He felt his tears spill over. "Straightaway's was robbed," he whispered. "Cody's gone. He chased the crooks... I found his sweater covered in blood. There's no leads. Boz, I don't know what to do -"
"What about Kara?" Murray interrupted, leaning forwards, all business even as he patted Nick soothingly on the shoulder. "What did she have to say?"
"I can't find her either." Nick sucked in a deep breath. "I thought of going to the cops, seeing if they have any leads. Murray - "
"Listen, Nick, was Cody still wearing his transmitter when they went to the bar? Do you remember?"
Nick froze, picturing his partner, his heart skipping a beat. Cody walking up the steps to leave the boat, the black clip just visible on his belt, the sweet line of his ass marred by the flat square in his back pocket. "Yes!" he said breathlessly. "Yes, he was."
"Then don't worry, Nick, we'll find him. We'll find him!"
Two hours later, cruising slowly through a seedy downtown neighborhood, Nick's relief had turned to frustration. Murray chattered constantly in the passenger seat, flipping switches frantically on the control unit on his lap. They'd found a signal several times, but every time Murray thought they were getting close the gray box he held fell silent, its green signal light obstinately dim, until Nick wanted to kick the thing into next week.
"Nick! I know we've got a signal this time! It's at full strength, so we're close! Make a right as soon as you can and step on it!"
Nick obeyed, sending the Jimmy forward with a squeal of tires, tearing around the corner and narrowly avoiding a youth on a motorbike. He hardly heard the obscenities shouted behind them, one ear on the signal beeping clear and true from the receiver, the other on Murray's excited directions.
"We're within a few hundred yards, I know it!" Murray's enthusiasm was bubbling over, but there was nothing about the narrow, dirty street they were on that was good, from Nick's point of view. He looked from side to side uneasily, taking in the boarded shopfronts of an abandoned strip mall.
Suddenly, a high-pitched whine filled the vehicle, and Nick stamped on the brakes with an oath. "Murray, what the hell's that?"
"The signal's scrambled!" Murray wailed despairingly, pressing the buttons on his machine's control panel. "Nick, this is a disaster!" He flicked a bank of switches with a clatter, and as the sound died away, turned to Nick, his face white with horror. "Nick," he said quietly. "It's hooked into a radio frequency and it's causing interference. It's picking up every signal within range and... Nick, I don't know if we were following Cody's signal at all." The scientist dropped his head in his hands. "I can't believe it," he said, voice muffled.
Nick sat in stunned disbelief for a moment, a wave of cold dread nearly paralyzing him. Cody could be anywhere, alone, in danger, injured. Dead. He fought the thought away and grabbed Murray's arm, shaking him almost roughly.
"Boz! Can't you fix it, man? We've got to find him!"
"Of course I can fix it." Murray raised his head, eyes wild behind his glasses. "I can fix it, but we'll have to go back to the boat, and it's gonna take me three hours to undo all Kara's changes, and by then - " he gulped. "Well, by then it will be dark."
Nick nodded dumbly, turning away, barely listening as Murray berated himself for listening to the pretty student's recommendations. "Sure, my tracker had a glitch, but this isn't a glitch, it's a fundamental programming error. I told her I had doubts about the algorithm she wanted to implement, but oh no, she had to know best. 'Used it extensively'! Ha!"
A scared-looking punk appeared from behind the deserted strip mall, half-running, looking fearfully over his shoulder at something out of Nick's line of sight. Nick watched him, one part of his brain aware that the guy looked suspicious. His mind was full of Cody as he desperately fought against the terrifying possibility that they wouldn't find him, that this time their luck had finally run out.
Murray pressed more buttons and shook his head despondently. "Now I have nothing," he said in a hushed tone. "I can't believe - "
Sitting forward suddenly, Nick held up a warning hand. Outside, the running kid had swung around and Nick got a good look at him for the first time. His throat closed and he struggled for breath. "Murray," he managed, his voice sounding strangled in his own ears. "Look at that kid. Does he look familiar to you?"
Murray stopped talking and followed Nick's pointing finger, frowning. "No... Hard to say for sure, but I don't think I've seen him before. Who is he?"
"I don't know." Nick was breathless with a mixture of panic and hope, and he slipped the Jimmy back in gear. "But I saw him two nights ago on the pier, hanging around the back of the amusement arcade. When I asked what he was doing he ran away. What do you want to bet he was casing the place? And came back this afternoon to do the job?"
"Nick! You think he's one of the robbers? Oh wow!" Murray was nearly bouncing in his seat with excitement, and Nick let the Jimmy crawl forward as the punk flung himself behind the wheel of a brown Datsun.
"I don't know, Murray, but it's the only lead we got, right?" Nick set his lips in a grim line and pulled back out into the light traffic, right behind the punk's sedan. "You think you can get anything like a signal on that box there? If we happen to get close?"
"You know, if I factor in the atmospherics..." Murray ripped the cover off the instrument he held, twisting frantically at the brightly colored wires that sprang into view. "The modulator on Cody's transmitter only broadcasts on a very narrow band, and given the weather conditions today, I think I can adjust the receiver - There!" Panting with satisfaction, Murray slotted the cover back into place and clicked the switches on its face.
The unit stayed stubbornly silent, and Murray's face fell. Nick reached out and rested a comforting hand on his knee. "Don't worry, Boz," he said, forcing himself to sound more cheerful than he felt. "We'll find him. We'll find him."
The Datsun wended its way back towards the docks, the rundown shopfronts and tenements giving way to warehouses. The light was fading by the time the small car nosed its way into a dingy alley between two buildings, their block exteriors drab with grime and soot.
Nick parked the Jimmy around the next corner and he and Murray slipped silently back along the empty street. Nick stayed low and close to the buildings, instinctively trying to use the cover, and Murray followed as best he could.
The Datsun was at the end of the alley, motor ticking softly as it cooled, and there was no sign of the driver. Nick led the way towards a small door set low in the wall, signaling Murray to follow.
Inside the warehouse was gloomy and silent, and Nick tiptoed along the wall, a hand on Murray's arm, keeping him close. Unused to silence, Murray stumbled, the bang as his foot hit the ground echoing in the huge space, and Nick pulled his partner back into a shadowy corner, finger over his lips.
"I'm sorry - " Murray hissed, and Nick put a hand over his mouth, leaning forward and shaking his head vehemently. Murray's eyes apologized and Nick nodded, removing his hand.
There was no sound in the warehouse save their own breathing, loud in their ears, and Nick hissed through his teeth in frustration. Had the punk come in here? Or had he backtracked down the alley?
Holding Murray's arm firmly, keeping the slim man close, he crept to the far side of the building. Damp smears on the concrete floor gave him direction and he followed the marks, hoping they were footsteps. Hoping they would lead him to their missing partner.
In the corner of the warehouse was a small enclosed room, an office or storeroom, Nick supposed, surveying the door grimly. The marks on the floor led there and he thought he could hear scuffling coming from the other side. Gesturing to Murray to stay put, Nick ghosted closer, as silent as he knew how.
The door was partly open and from his new vantage point, Nick saw the punk they'd followed rummaging in a duffel bag. As Nick watched, he brought out a wad of cash and stuffed it in his back pocket, then turned, pulling a gun from his belt. He was looking further into the room, and Nick snuck closer, trying to see.
On the floor in the far corner lay Cody, roped to one of the iron wall supports. His head lolled drunkenly, and as the kid raised his weapon, pointing it at Cody, Nick thought his heart would stop. He fumbled for his own gun, starting forward, trying to formulate a plan as he moved.
"Freeze! Drop the gun!" He ran forward as the punk spun around, gun coming up, and Nick braced himself for the impact. Even if he was hit, he could get off a shot, and then Murray could get Cody away. He saw the punk's hand tense and dropped, rolling and coming up in one smooth movement as the shot rang out.
Nick looked around desperately, realizing he couldn't risk a shot. If he missed, a ricochet in the enclosed space could hit Cody. The kid fired again as Nick dodged, but he was running out of options.
There was a sudden clatter off to his left and Murray leapt into view, brandishing his gun. "We've got you surrounded!" he shouted, waving the weapon.
The kid swung his gun, terrified and cornered, and Nick's heart dropped as he pointed it at Murray. "No!" he yelled, running forward, making himself the only viable target. As if in slow motion he watched the punk's face change, the gun come around. It was their only chance.
Suddenly a piercing whine filled the space, echoing painfully, and Nick dropped in his tracks instinctively. The punk dropped his weapon and ran, sprinting past Nick and racing for the exit, and Nick scrambled to his feet again, ignoring the fleeing man. Behind him, he heard Murray shouting excitedly, but his attention was all on Cody.
Cody's eyes were open now and he was struggling weakly against his bonds, and Nick ran to him, dropping to his knees. "Easy, pal, easy," he muttered, getting an arm around Cody's chest, leaning his shoulder into his partner. "I got you. I got you."
Cody coughed and nodded, turning anxious eyes to Nick. "Shooting - are you okay?"
"I'm fine, and so's Murray," Nick said, releasing Cody from the ropes that held him. Cody collapsed into his arms just as Murray raced up, bending over them in concern.
"Cody! Are you okay? Wow, Nick, I thought he was going to shoot you - "
Cody tensed and Nick interrupted Murray hurriedly. "He was just a punk," he said dismissively. "But what was that sound, Murray? How'd you do that?"
"The receiver finally kicked in!" Murray gave a short laugh. "I guess Kara's modifications had some use after all!"
"Where is Kara, anyhow?" Nick looked around him, frowning.
"I can answer that." Cody raised his head from Nick's shoulder and sat back, flexing his shoulders. "She's in the Clam Cooker, talking to Myron about a job as a private investigator."
"She's what?" Nick and Murray said in unison, looking at Cody incredulously.
Cody grinned sardonically and started to get up. Murray grabbed his arm, helping, and Nick clambered to his feet too, arm still around his partner. "Thanks, guys." Cody stretched again. "I'm fine, really. Yeah, when we got to Straightaway's, Kara started telling me how I was wasted working with you guys, how she knew a guy who wanted to employ a couple of full time investigators. She thought that I'd be perfect as her sidekick." Cody's grin widened at the stunned expressions on Nick and Murray's faces. "And then she told me it was Myron."
"She - she - " Murray was speechless. He raised the receiver in his hand, looking at it with distaste. "I let her work on the Roboz!" he wailed.
"It's okay, Boz." Cody laid a soothing hand on his arm. "I laughed at her and she was kind of ticked off. She'd just left when these young punks marched in with guns and demanded cash from Straightaway, so I chased 'em, but I guess one of them jumped me."
Nick was still staring at his partners, his expression hovering between fury and disbelief. "She's leaving tonight," he said decidedly, brows lowering. "She was always kind of flaky, but this is bullshit." He moved closer to Cody, and Cody leaned into him, hip resting against Nick's, shoulder against the curve of his chest.
"I don't think she wants to hang around, big guy." Cody smiled at him and gestured towards the exit. "Let's get out of here." There was a dark stain of blood on his arm and Nick hissed worriedly, reaching for him.
"Oh!" Cody looked at his injured arm in something like surprise. "I guess I am." He moved it experimentally, and winced. "I don't think it's serious."
"Maybe not." Nick took hold of his arm and laid it across his chest. "Keep it there, okay, man? Murray, can you use that doohickey to call the cops and an ambulance?"
Quinlan soon had the area swarming with uniformed officers, and four young offenders were found holed up in a nearby squat and taken downtown. Most of Straightaway's stolen cash was found in the duffel in the warehouse.
After the slash on Cody's arm was bandaged, the three detectives accompanied Quinlan back to the station to give their statements. Nick finished first, his statement signed and sealed, and dropped onto a chair in the squad room to wait.
Cody was in the next room, and the door remained obstinately shut. Nick sighed. They wanted descriptions of the robbers from Cody, and the car, and everything else. It was gonna be a long night.
Through the glass in another office, Nick could see Murray, ensconced in front of the computer, talking excitedly to the young officer beside him. Nick shook his head. There was nothing Murray enjoyed more than those machines, he thought reflectively. That made Kara's interference that much worse, in Nick's eyes. Not only had she screwed up and nearly gotten Cody killed, she'd soured Murray's joy in his field of expertise.
"We have a tracker in place, and we can solve this for you, but you have to understand, we can't work for free!" As if on cue, Kara's voice came to Nick from the lobby and he jumped up, surprised and angry.
"What the hell?" he muttered under his breath, moving so he could see through the squad room door. Kara, blonde hair swinging, arms akimbo, was confronting Quinlan, with Myron looking nervous and excited, right behind her.
"So, you've got all the gen on this robbery, have you, missy?" Quinlan was wearing his most genial grin, the one that meant he was about to tell everyone in earshot to go to hell. "And just how would you get something like that? That's the kind of thing that makes me very suspicious about your sources of information. Very suspicious indeed."
"No," Kara said impatiently, flicking her hair and pushing out her chest. Nick grinned despite himself. Hotter girls than Kara had tried their wiles on the Lieutenant, and if she thought she'd get what she wanted that way, she had another think coming. "We happened to have a tracker on the premises and my associate, Cody Allen, has managed to follow them. We can track him, and that will provide all the information you need. But there is a fee involved."
"A fee." Quinlan turned around, pointing to a young officer standing behind the desk. "You there! You heard this young lady. Did she, or did she not, just attempt to extort money from an officer of the law?"
"Uh," said the young woman, looking uneasy. "I'm not sure - "
"Come on, come on. What did you just hear?" Quinlan slammed his fist against his palm, and the woman jumped.
"She asked you for money?" she said.
"Exactly." Quinlan turned back to Kara and Myron, his grin turning sharklike. "That's exactly what I heard, too. And demanding money in exchange for doing your civic duty is a form of extortion. Cuff 'em!" He gestured imperiously at the officer behind the desk and she hurried forward, grabbing Kara as Quinlan took hold of Myron and pushed him into the waiting arms of the desk sergeant. "Get them out of my sight!"
Kara and Myron's protests were loud and voluble, and Nick walked slowly towards the lobby, watching as the two were marched away down the hall to the cells.
"Extortion?" he said, unable to keep the amusement out of his voice.
"You got a problem with that, flyboy?" Quinlan gave Nick a glare that was not entirely devoid of humor. "Or you think I shoulda taken her up on that fine offer of hers to find your partner for you?"
Nick grinned sardonically. "When you book her, add fraud. That tracker she's talking about doesn't work."
It was after ten when they finally got back to the Riptide and Nick breathed a silent prayer of relief as they boarded. Cody was flagging, the events of the day catching up with him, and Nick could see the strain showing in his partner's too-bright eyes and tight smile.
He watched Cody collapse into his chair, dropping the remains of his hot dog on the salon table, and moved to stand behind him, resting his hand lightly on Cody's shoulder. Softly he moved his fingers on Cody's skin, almost imperceptibly, a message for Cody alone, and Cody took a deep breath, relaxing as he did so and shooting a grateful glance up at Nick.
"Do you think Kara's okay?" he asked.
"Sure." Nick shrugged and tossed his own barely-touched hot dog next to Cody's. "Quinlan said he's not really gonna charge them, and a night in the cells wont do Myron any harm. I'll pack Kara's things, and Murray already booked her a plane ticket."
Murray grinned, taking the last bite of his hot dog and dropping heavily onto the bench seat. "She'll be fine - they put women in those special cells in the basement, you know, so she'll be quite safe. We'll pick her up tomorrow and take her straight to the airport. I guess at least she's learned something this vacation, anyhow."
"I guess she has." Cody yawned, shifting so his shoulder rested against Nick's hip. "Buddy, she's not the same girl she used to be, that's for sure. What the hell happened?"
"She's probably spent too long trying to impress the assholes in those Greek letter clubs," Nick said gently, squeezing Cody's shoulder. "I always said college guys were jerks. I guess college girls are, too."
"I don't know, Nick, that might be an unfair generalization." Murray smacked his lips in enjoyment of his hot dog, and frowned reflectively. "After all, you could hardly call Melba a jerk, and then there's Patricia, you know, from the pharmacy? She finished her degree last year, and - "
Nick let Murray's voice fade into the background as his friend enumerated every girl they knew with a college education, smiling down into Cody's eyes. Cody leaned his head against Nick's arm, smiling back as he relaxed, the shadows leaving his blue eyes. "No more college girls?" Nick teased softly, and Cody's smile became a grin.
"No more college girls," he agreed emphatically.