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Wunderkind-Season 2

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201-DIY or Die

 

SOMEWHERE IN SYRIA

MARCH 2014

“Agent Cage.” Sam blinks, she’s still getting used to that name. She buried Deborah Riddick two years ago in a river outside Brisbane, but some part of her still hasn’t accepted Samantha Cage as a replacement.

Samantha is her way of remembering the good pieces of her past, it’s her sister’s middle name and the last tie Sam still has to her old life. To the world before Scorpion. The last name was her way of laughing at the darkness she left behind, the cages literal and figurative that Marton gave her the keys to escape. But it’s been over a year, and sometimes the name still feels foreign in her ears and on her tongue. Accepting it means accepting who I am now. Some days, that’s easier than others. And tonight, preparing to do something she did a hundred times for very different people, there’s a part of Deborah creeping back in. She pushes it away, the way she has all through training, through every one of those missions she’s completed.

Beside her, Roger Marton adjusts his comms. It still feels odd to have a partner she can actually trust, who won’t potentially turn on her if the mission goes south. Working for the legal side of things has its benefits. It’s taken her a long time to trust that she’s not expendable to these people. Or at least not to Marton.

She’s not sure the SAS approved of him hiring a known hit woman with over fifty confirmed kills in her dossier, but for some reason, he’d refused to give up. He walked her out of the black site where she’d spent the six months after Brisbane, and he’s been beside her every step of the way, from training to her first sanctioned field op to now.

She breathes steadily in and out, willing herself to focus, to remember what she’s doing here and why. Who she is. Samantha Cage is an SAS agent. Not a criminal. She’s not a cold-blooded killer. It turns out, almost a decade of turning yourself into a soulless creature with one goal is hard to undo.

She lifts the scarf over her face, the same one that’s disguised her in the streets, and ties it tighter, pulling her hair in tightly, ready for a fight if need be. If all goes well, they’ll simply be retrieving the intel they’re after and leaving. But the one thing Sam’s learned in life is that there’s no such thing as a simple mission.

True, this time failure won’t result in potential death threats from her own agency. But that won’t help her if she’s caught by this terrorist cell.

The night wind off the desert is shockingly cool. Sam can see her own breath curling up in front of her in the darkness. She glances up at the wall of the compound and then at Marton. He nods, and then tosses the wrapped hook to the top of the wall. It makes barely a sound as it catches in the decorative edging.

Sam scrambles up the wall, Marton behind her, and waits until the patrol passes before dropping soundlessly into the courtyard. Staying in the shadows, they slip around the perimeter to the back entrance of the main compound building. Marton carefully slips the lock, and both of them step inside.

The papers they’re looking for are supposed to be in a room on the second floor. Sam opens the door to the hallway that should get them to the stairs, and then freezes. They’ve been lied to. Intel said this compound was nearly deserted, basically just an information storage site.

This is an active operation. There are at least half a dozen armed guards inside the building.

She hopes she can simply close the door and step back, that they’ll be able to get out and regroup. Unfortunately, she’s never been a very lucky person.

There’s a yell from the hall, and a spray of bullets peppers the door as she pulls it closed. She shoves a crate in front of it, hoping to delay the guards a little, and she and Marton run for the door, ducking to avoid the bullets splintering the wood.

The second they’re outside, Sam can see multiple shapes closing in on them. They’re going to be trapped between the guards inside and the guards outside, and their only chance of escape is to get to the wall.

Sam’s SAS training slips aside, replaced by the faster, deadlier Scorpion methods that are far more lethal. She barely feels it when a knife slashes across her ribs, when a bullet grazes her shoulder, when a man’s neck snaps under her hands. This is what she was made to be.

“Agent Cage!” Marton’s voice in her comms snaps her back from the wild fury. She looks down, panting, at the destruction she’s created. “We need to go! Now!” She can see him coming toward her, his own assailants dealt with. He saw this. He saw me turn back into the monster. Her hands are shaking, and she tries to push it all aside. This isn’t the first time she’s lost control on a mission, but it’s the most devastating. There are at least five bodies at her feet.

And then there’s a spattering of shots, and Marton stumbles. He lurches forward, dark patches spreading on his hip and side. Sam freezes.

“Go! Get out!” He yells at her, reaching down to grab a gun from one of the men she took out. “I’ll cover you!”

She shakes her head. She’s already killed heartlessly. She isn’t going to leave someone to die for her, she’s not worth that. Marton is a good man. It should be him that survives, not her. “I can’t leave you here!”

“This is my job.” His voice softens. “Sam, get out. Now.” It’s the tone of voice that won’t take no for an answer.  

She remembers seeing a heavy truck, military type, in the front of the building when they first came in. It’s her only way to get out fast, and it will give her a lot more cover than trying to climb back over the wall.

She runs for the truck, and every second expects to feel the shot that takes her down. But she makes it to the truck unscathed. She scrambles in, yanks out the wires under the dashboard, and hotwires the truck. It roars to life, and for a split second she contemplates driving back, snatching up Marton, alive or dead, and getting them both out. But then five more guards pour out the front door and shots tear through the canvas and smash the left side mirror.

Sam jams the truck into gear and barrels toward the gate. The shots from the guards there shatter the windshield, and she hears a tire blow and feels the vehicle lurch, but it’s still moving, and the smash as it shatters the wooden gate is a relief.

Sam clenches her fists around the wheel of the truck, shuddering. This isn’t even close to the first time I’ve been forced to leave a man behind. But now there’s an ache in her chest over doing it. Is this what it means to be one of the good guys?


103 MILES OFF THE COAST OF FLORIDA

MAC WOULD FIT IN WELL HERE

Being in Cuba reminds Mac of his vigilante days working in the Hispanic neighborhoods in LA. He recognizes the dialect, the food people are hawking on street corners, and the kindness of strangers.

Unfortunately, he’s also currently being given plenty of reasons to remember the violent gangs. He blinks and flinches as what he’s pretty sure is the fifth punch cuts across his cheek. Another lands on his ribs. He’s fairly sure he heard a soft snap both times.

He still has a cast from breaking his hand in the fight at the Phoenix a few weeks ago. He’s not really interested in adding to the broken bone collection he’s already sporting.

Jack’s apparently got the same idea. “You keep punching on the kid, I’m gonna get jealous over here.” Mac shakes his head. He’d like this to stop, but he doesn’t want the man’s anger to get transferred to Jack. He’d rather just get them both out of here. Which is what he’s trying to do. Unfortunately, being repeatedly punched in the face doesn’t make turning a button into something sharp enough to cut through the duct tape they’re tied up with an easy job.

“Where’s the love?” Jack asks, and their captor stalks around the chair to land what sounds like a solid punch. But Jack just chuckles. “You know, my five year old neice can hit harder than that.” There’s another pounding crack. “Ok, now that’s better. That’s more like the eight year old.”  

There’s a crackle of paper, and then the man’s voice. “ Mira! Look at this . “Why are you looking for this man?”

“He’s dating my sister.” Jack’s chuckle is cut off with another punch. Mac flinches and rubs the button against the rough spot on the chair a little harder. “My cousin?” Another punch. “ Mi madre?”

Mac jumps slightly when the edge of the button slices across his finger and he feels warm blood start to drip down. Okay, sharp enough. He tries to judge where the edge of the tape holding Jack’s wrists is, and slices through it. Jack flinches, and Mac can’t tell if it’s because he moved his probably badly bruised jaw, or if it’s because Mac accidentally cut him.

“Okay, if you know nothing, maybe I will go back to your friend here.” This time, Mac jabs Jack with the button on purpose. Hopefully he realizes what that means.

Jack starts laughing. The man stops in his tracks and stares at him. “What’s so funny?” And then Mac hears the distinctive sound of of Jack’s skull slamming into someone else’s.

He just shakes his head when Jack stands up and starts tearing the duct tape off Mac’s hands. “You know, you could have just punched him.”

“Well, a headbutt sends a much clearer message. And besides, I don’t want to end up with one of these monstrosities on my hand.” Jack nods to the cast as he finishes untying Mac. “Aww man, it tore off the spot where I signed it.” He holds up the strip of tape, which is now covered in green cloth webbing with black Sharpie scribble on it.

“Good. I’m tired of people asking me how I got Bruce Willis to sign my cast.” Mac rolls his eyes. Jack thought it would be a great joke, and despite the fact that he could easily scribble over it, Mac’s left it there because every time he sees it it makes him smile.

Jack leans over the dazed man on the ground. “Okay, my turn, sunshine. Tell me what you know about this guy.” He taps the man on the head with the photo of Murdoc.

“Why do you want to know?”

“He’s tried to kill me and my friends, and I kinda take that personally.” Jack glances back at Mac, and Mac knows there’s so much more to it than that. He’s still fighting nightmares from those interview sessions.

“Okay, okay. All I know is he wanted to talk to someone called Miguel. He owns a garage in town. That’s it, I swear.”

Jack punches the guy again for good measure and stands up. “Let’s go say hello to Miguel, then.”

On the way to the garage Mac calls Riley to update her. She’s still working her way through the damage the attack on the Phoenix did to the servers. She’d offered to come with them anyway, but Mac assured her they’d be fine. And really, they are. It’s just some bruises and cracked bones.

Jack knocks on the door of the garage, then pushes it open. There’s only one person inside, a man leaning down under the hood of a beat up car.

Buenos dias! You Miguel?” Jack shouts.

The man looks up and starts toward them automatically, but Mac can see the second his eyes catch sight of the bruises and blood. He knows something’s not good. He starts to back away.

“Hey man, we just want to talk.” Apparently Jack’s not too reassuring with a bloody nose and black eye. Miguel races for a car parked outside, jumps in, and speeds away. Mac and Jack run for the door, but it’s too late. The car’s already at the corner of the street.

Jack runs back inside, glancing around the shop before hurring to the ancient motorcycle with a sidecar parked in the middle of the room. It’s the only thing in the shop that doesn’t have its engine torn to pieces.

“Oh, baby, haven’t seen one of these in years. Looks like Pops’s.” He shakes his head as the engine groans but refuses to turn over. “Good thing he didn’t listen when Momma told him not to teach me how to ride it.”

Mac looks around quickly. He’s spent plenty of time in places like this, and he already has an idea. Thanks to years at Weathers’s shop, he knows exactly what he’s looking for. He snatches a chain, a couple curved wrenches, a piece of metal tubing, and a road hazard flare, then jumps into the sidecar just as Jack succeeds in getting the engine to turn over.

“Man, this is what your heaven looks like, isn’t it?” Jack asks.

“Yeah, everything’s improvised!”

They roar out of the garage, and take a corner at a speed Mac thinks just might be a bit unsafe. “Say your prayers, Jack’s driving!” Jack whoops as they zoom after the car.

Miguel has quite a head start, but it’s fairly easy to follow his trail; he’s driving a lot faster than a lot of the other people on the road, and there are plenty of horns and shouts to mark his progress. Plus the car he left in was a red convertible, which does make him a little more identifiable. Mac leaves the navigating to Jack and focuses on creating his makeshift grappling hook, it gives him something to focus on that isn’t how Jack is going to kill them.

Jack catches up with the car on the highway, overlooking the ocean.

“Get us right behind him,” Mac says, putting the finishing touches on his grappling hook contraption.

“Are you sure this is gonna work?” Jack asks.

Mac figures he might as well be honest at this point. “Nope.”

“Cool.” Jack’s voice has that characteristic sound it gets when he’s smirking. Somehow at this point, I think telling him I’m not sure of something is actually reassuring. He aims carefully and lights the road flare.

The hook scrapes down the back of the car and catches on the bumper, and Mac groans. That won’t last long; they’ll need to move fast. He secures the chain around part of the bike and slowly works them closer to the car. Once they’re close enough, he ignores Jack’s wordless warning and raised eyebrows and jumps from the sidecar to the back of the convertible.

The bumper snaps free, and Mac gets a glimpse of Jack’s motorcycle weaving wildly before hitting the seawall and tossing Jack into the ocean. He turns back to the driver, who’s glanced back to see what the rending screech was. Mac dives forward and grabs for the wheel, and the car fishtails wildly and then heads straight for the same wall Jack just got tossed over.

Mac wonders why his last thought before the car smashes through the seawall is damn it, they told me not to get my cast wet.


ONE MONTH LATER

HOLLYWOOD HILLS, LOS ANGELES

It feels good to be home. Jack tosses his go bag on Mac’s porch chair.

They called ahead, so Bozer has the firepit going, Matty, Riley, Cage, and Patty are standing around with drinks already, and Mickey is grabbing excitedly for the rope toy Mac bought for him at a street market in Argentina. Jack swears that dog is twice as big as he was when they left.

He grabs a beer of his own from the fridge and joins the crowd on the patio.

“So, how was the trip?” Bozer asks. He winces when he stands up to give Jack a hug, and Jack wonders if his healed injury is still tender. Stab wounds are no fun.

Jack decides to start at the beginning, and with the important stuff. “Cuba was great. I did get to, uh, Evel Knievel a seawall, which was nice, and pick up a box of these bad boys.” Jack holds out the box of cigars. Riley reaches for them, but Patty takes them first.

“I think this should just about cover that month of vacation time you requested, Dalton.” He groans.

“Didn’t anyone ever teach you about sharing?”

“Oh, I’ll share,” Patty says, opening the box and holding it out to Matty and Riley. “Just not with you.”

It’s a little odd having her back inside the circle. Especially since she’s now Oversight, and their last version never showed his face to any of his underlings. Granted, that was probably because he was a psycho conniving with the Organization, or Omnus, or whatever they were, but still. Having the agency’s actual head of operations sitting on the back porch is a little surreal.

Mac finally gets Mickey to stop trying to smother him with licks and joins them. Riley tosses him a beer, and he pops the cap off with his new knife. He’s already lost the toothpick, and it’s picked up a couple scratches and dings, Jack notices.

“Oh my gosh, Mac, what did you do to your hair?” Bozer asks, as Mac leans forward into the circle of firelight.

Mac shrugs. Jack knows he doesn’t want to talk about the guy in that alley in Bosnia who backed him against a wall, grabbed a fistful of his hair, and held a knife to his throat before Jack got there to take him out.

“Jack cut it.” It had been a rush job, in a hotel bathroom, at three a.m., after Mac woke up from the same screaming nightmare of Bishop prison for the fourth time. He wanted to know no one else was going to do that to him.

“I kind of figured,” Riley chuckles. “If you want, I can fix it for you.”

“I don’t know, Riley, I think the patchy porcupine look is popular right now,” Sam cuts in. Mac punches her shoulder. Despite the few incidents on their trip, Jack has noticed that on the whole, Mac’s a little sassier and less likely to roll with the punches than he used to be. Probably a side effect of not having to worry about going back to prison. Jack likes this new version of Mac.

“So what happened in Cuba besides motorcycle tricks?” Riley asks.

“We did manage to track down a guy who let Murdoc into the country. Unfortunately, he was only picking up some cash and papers from a stash he had there, and then he ghosted. But when we finally got our man Miguel talking, he led us to the stash site, and I guess Murdoc was planning on us paying a visit.”

“What do you mean?” Matty asks. “Did he set a trap?”

“Surprisingly no,” Mac says. “Murdoc had left a letter there addressed to me.” He goes silent, staring into his bottle like there’s a message in there too.

Jack picks up the story. “Apparently, his dad’s playing ‘where in the world is Carmen Sandiego’ and Mac’s supposed to follow the clues.”

“Any luck?” Riley asks.

Jack mentally ticks off the stamps in his passport. “Well, we tracked him to a hostel in Barcelona, a crash pad in Kiev, and then a cabin in Patagonia.”

“Which was a dead end, aside from this.” Mac lifts his wrist, Jack kind of gets the creeps every time he sees the leather-banded watch there. Kid’s obsessed with tracking down his evil dad. It can’t be healthy how much Mac’s fixated on the whole search. It’s one thing that he wants to bring in a guy the Phoenix and every other alphabet agency’s been after for years. It’s something else entirely that he’s willing to play that man’s mind games to do it.

Something about the trail they’ve been following rubs Jack the wrong way. Like James is making Mac prove he’s good enough to meet him. Kid shouldn’t have to prove himself to anyone, least of all a scum monster like that.

“We’re gonna get him, Mac,” Jack says, rubbing the kid’s shoulder before resting his hand there as a reminder that Mac’s only reason to find James should be closure. His family’s here now, us . Mac nods and stares into the fire.

“You know, I used to hope,” Mac whispers, and Jack can’t tell if he’s forgotten they’re not alone anymore. These are the kind of conversations usually had in a car staking out a likely hiding place James could have used, or sitting on the edge of a bed in a hotel room when Mac’s having a harder time than usual keeping the nightmares at bay. “I used to think he might come back home. I even thought it would be okay if he had another family somewhere. I kind of hoped he did, maybe he loved them more than me and that would explain everything. But I think somehow I knew what he was. I just wanted to lie to myself.”

Jack’s heard a hundred variations of this over the past month. Coming from anyone else, the repetitive stories would frustrate him, but he can tell Mac’s simply trying to process the truth that’s been withheld from him for the past fifteen years. That would do a number on anyone, let alone a kid with Mac’s issues.

They shouldn’t have even left LA when they did, Patty had wanted Mac to wait until his hand healed. But Mac couldn’t bear to be in his own house, wondering if Harry had known. If his grandfather had lied to him all those years. He’d been so desperate for closure. And so far, they have nothing.

Sam’s phone rings, and she rolls her eyes and pulls it out, glancing at the screen. Suddenly her face goes white and she stands up, knocking over her beer as she practically jumps over the bench and walks to the deck railing.

Jack can only hear her side of the conversation.

“Are you sure? Oh my God, he’s alive?” Her free hand is wrapped white-knuckled around the railing. “They can’t do that. They can’t abandon him, not now.” Jack glances at the others, but even Patty shrugs.

Sam hangs up and turns back around. “I need your help,” she says, and her voice is oddly quiet. “We have to save the man who saved my life.”


THE PHOENIX FOUNDATION

MOST PEOPLE THINK IT’S JUST A THINK TANK

It’s odd to see Cage up front doing the briefing. Mac knows she’s now classed as a field agent again after everything that happened with the siege of the Phoenix a couple months ago, but he hasn’t been around to see that change. Just seeing her in the War Room is somewhat unusual.

There’s a dossier on the screen, and a picture of a smiling man in his early forties. Mac recognizes the insignia watermarked on the files as SAS, from the quick rundown Riley gave him of the various covert organizations when they started. Australian field ops agency. He would have expected as much anyway, given that this guy is tied to Sam’s past.  

Sam’s normally composed demeanor is shaken. She’s pacing back and forth in front of the screen, arms crossed, and Mac can see her right index finger drumming repetitively on her other arm.

“Roger Marton was the one who pulled me out of a black site prison and offered me another chance.” Mac knows the kind of shadowed haunting in her eyes. When you expect the rest of your life to be spent in a place like that…

Cage has been a lot more open in talking about her past since Tennant’s been captured and her former black agency, Scorpion, is now dissolved. “He had been working an op that tied back to me, and for some reason, when he interviewed me, he decided I was worth trying to flip. He worked out a deal, even though his superiors were strongly against it.” This is sounding more and more familiar; Mac blinks away the memories of being cuffed to an interrogation table in California Correctional, listening to Jack and Riley lay out the terms of his release.

That feels like a lifetime ago. When they first approached him for his help to track down that stolen virus, he’d had no idea that less than a year later he’d be standing here as a trained Level 1 Phoenix field agent, without a life sentence and charges of murder and domestic terrorism hanging over him. Sometimes he’s still afraid he’s going to blink and wake up and this will all have been a dream.

“Marton handled my training personally, he might have been the only SAS agent who trusted me not to kill him the second he turned his back. After that, I was his partner for seven months. We ran twenty-three ops together. The last one was a raid on a Syrian terrorist compound.” She pulls up a mission briefing that’s date-stamped March 2014.

“It was supposed to be a data retrieval mission, but we had bad intel. The second we were inside, we were walking into a trap.” She flicks to an action report. “We got made as soon as we entered the building, and ended up having to fight out way out. Marton was wounded and stayed behind to buy me time to get out. He sacrificed his freedom, and at the time I thought his life, to save me.”

“But he’s alive?” Riley asks.

“This was sent yesterday, to Marton’s wife.” Cage pulls up the image of an email, the spelling occasionally subpar, that clearly demands a five million dollar ransom for one Roger Marton, to be delivered in a week.

“His wife and parents have started an online fund, hoping to raise the money. Unfortunately, that’s the extent of what’s being done at this point.”

“No one’s going after him?” Jack asks.

“The official position of Australian authorities is that this is a hoax.” Cage shakes her head, catching a strand of her hair and twisting it. “After no contact or evidence of his survival for two years, and without definite proof of life, this note could be attempting to profit off false hope.”

“But you believe it’s legitimate.” Matty’s not asking a question.

“I don’t know. Two years is a long time, but if anyone could survive that, it would be Roger.” Cage glances back at the dossier photo on the screen. “Even if he is dead, I want to find the people responsible for twisting the knife for his family, and trying to profit off his death. At least it would mean there was some closure.”

Jack nods. Mac glances at him; he’s heard Jack tell the story of how one of his early missions ended in a man left behind for dead, who later turned out to have been captured and tortured for six months. He’s promised he’ll never leave anyone else behind, no matter what.

Patty speaks up, finally. “This is not an officially sanctioned mission. Neither the US government or the Australian authorities have authorized action on this intel. You would have to volunteer, and if you are captured in-country, the agency will deny all connections to you and you will be disavowed.”

Mac glances at Cage and he knows exactly how she feels. What Marton did for her is what Jack and Riley and Thornton and Matty did for me. If any one of them was out there, I wouldn’t stop until I brought them home. Even though the thought of getting disavowed again scares the hell out of him, he’s not letting her go alone.

“I’m in.”

“Hell yeah. Leave no man behind,” Jack says.

“I’m game.” Riley and Bozer glance at each other and then yell “jinx”, breaking the somber mood for a moment.

“Well, it looks like we’re going to Syria,” Cage says, and Mac can hear the relief in her voice. “Wheels up in twenty.”


SOMEWHERE OVER EGYPT

TOO CLOSE TO CAIRO FOR JACK’S TASTE

It feels odd to have Cage on the Phoenix jet. Jack’s unable to avoid fidgeting as they pass over Cairo, and of course Sam the mind reader picks up on it. Jack’s half tempted to call her Professor X, if he wasn’t just a little afraid she might actually be able to kick his ass for it. He’s seen the footage of what she did to those Scorpion agents in the Phoenix.

“Impatient, Jack?”

“Just to get out of bad luck central.” He’s pretty sure she’ll mock him for his superstitions, but instead, she just glances out the window.

“Cairo?” She asks. “I can see how the threat of nuclear annihilation would make you a little jumpy.”

“How the hell…” Maybe she actually is a mind reader.

“Don’t look at me like that. Riley told me everything.” She leans back in her chair with the self-satisfied smirk that reminds Jack of the barn cat who taught herself to crack eggs.

Jack shakes his head. Cage has been Riley’s roommate the better part of a year, and she’s only recently moved out. Now that she’s a full field agent, not just a temporary consultant, she gets the perks that come with it, including an apartment; and she’s decided to accept it. Fresh start, and a new place to do it in. He knows she and Riley didn’t have a problem living together, but it probably feels good to have a place all her own. Jack’s pretty fond of his space too; comes with the territory of being an agent. But he doesn’t have a problem with one particular housemate; he’s starting to think the guest room should be more properly called “Mac’s room”. The kid needs to feel safe right now. Jack’s lost count of the times Mac fell asleep in his arms over the past month, after a rough nightmare. He’s never been allowed to be scared or to need comfort. The first time it happened, Mac kept apologizing. Jack quickly realized that physical comfort is apparently just another thing James taught Mac he didn’t deserve. That man didn’t deserve a son like Mac. Not that Jack does either, but he’s trying to do his best. Kid deserves better than me, but I’m gonna try.

Riley is curled up on another couch, Jack has half a mind to go scold her for spilling the Cairo secret, but she’s sleeping so he decides he’ll pester her later.

Mac shouts an indefinable successful cheer from the back of the plane, where he and Bozer have been playing Uno for what seems like forever. Jack hears Mac get up and walk over to where he and Cage are sitting; the kid’s step pattern is burned into Jack’s brain. How did I get attached so fast? Calling Mac “Carl’s Jr.” and second-guessing his crazy methods seems like something another person did. Sometimes I feel really guilty for how badly I treated him. But there’s nothing Jack can do about it now, and Mac doesn’t seem to hold it against him.

When Mac sits down, he’s fiddling with that damn watch again. He keeps twisting it, and it’s rubbing a raw red line around his wrist. Jack hates that it looks a little like the kind of damage handcuffs leave.

“I’m surprised you decided to wear that on a field op,” Cage says.

“It’s just a watch,” Mac mumbles.

“No, I think you just don’t want to let it out of your sight. It’s the only thing you have to still tie you to James, and it’s the last clue you found. Even though you don’t know what it means.” Jack smiles. Sam’s blunt, perceptive honesty is painful when directed at him, but he’s glad she’s willing to call Mac out.

“I just don’t understand.” He twists the band again. “There’s nothing written on it, it doesn’t mean anything, really. He just always wore it. And before you ask, it’s the same watch, see how the gold line for the 11 is loose and stuck to the crystal?” he taps the glass. “He never fixed that. He took that watch apart all the time, working on the gears and movement, but he never repaired the face.”

“Could that be a clue?”

“Believe me, that’s the first thing I thought of. But the number 11 doesn’t have any special significance, and besides, the watch was like this long before he left.”

Jack sighs, settling back a little further into his chair. They know nothing. But Mac won’t let go.


OUTSIDE ISTANBUL

HOPEFULLY

Sam huddles under the straw, trying not to breathe too deeply and praying one of the goats doesn’t find her headscarf appetizing. She’s never been a fan of sneaking through borders like this, some checkpoint guards are more thorough than others. And it absolutely ruins clothes. Still, she thinks the chicken truck in Mexico was probably the worst experience.

She can hear yelling in Turkish as the truck grinds to a rattling halt, and even though the sound is muffled by straw, she can tell the driver is being asked to stop for a search. She holds her breath, as much to keep from sneezing on the powerful smell of goat as to avoid detection by someone overhearing her breaths. There’s a swish and thud as something sharp is jabbed into the straw just beside her head.

She and Jack put Mac between them, in the very center of the vehicle. It’s the safest spot, in theory. If the guards prod around the outside edges, they might not be able to reach that far. If they think something’s wrong and decide to start shooting, that’s another matter entirely, but then no place is safe anyway.

There’s a soft grunt, and Cage flinches. Did they hit Jack? She braces herself for the shouts and gunfire, but nothing happens, and she dimly hears someone bang on the side of the truck and yell at them to go on.

When the rattletrap vehicle stops at the edge of an abandoned town, Cage slides out, shaking out her headscarf and rewrapping it carefully, handing the driver the rest of the money she promised him. This is as far as he’s going in their direction.

Mac and Jack are crawling out the the straw as well, both of them taking grateful breaths of fresh air and brushing at their clothes.

“I thought they had you back there at the checkpoint,” Sam says as Jack joins her, slapping exaggeratedly at the straw on his chest.

“Damn goat stepped on my hand,” Jack mutters. “Man, they stink. Give me a good old cow pie any day over these things.” He waves a hand in front of his face and brushes some straw out of his short hair.

Mac brushes straw out of his own hair, although in actuality it’s hard to see the difference between the pale stalks of dried grass and Mac’s blond hair. Riley did actually tidy it up a little on the flight, it looks marginally less like someone hacked it off with a blunt knife. Sam switches on her comms, there shouldn’t be anyone scanning for radio traffic here in the middle of nowhere.

“Well, I have good news and bad news,” Riley says. “You’re through the most problematic checkpoint, but you’re still thirty miles from where I’ve tracked that terror cell’s ransom message’s origin. Bozer and I are going to be here to provide overwatch until you get there, but I can’t find you another transportation method.”

Sam glances around her at the bombed-out town, cars torched or cannibalized for parts. “I guess we’re walking.”

“Not necessarily.” Mac is kicking around the weeds, and he holds up an old M-134. “One of these cars is only missing a starter. I think I might be able to get it running.”

Sam glances at the vehicle in question, an old beige sedan with smashed-out windows and one flat tire. It looks past repair to me. But I guess I of all people should know not to give up on things.

Mac glances around. “Jack, see if you can find the supplies to change a tire. That car over there is only burnt out in the front, and these models are old enough that the tires are probably interchangeable, at least for the amount of time we’ll be driving. Sam, siphon all the gas you can from every car that doesn’t look like it’s been here too long, and run it through a piece of your scarf into this can.” He tosses her one he’s pulled out of the car trunk, closing his knife. She guesses he used a blade to pop the trunk lock.

She finds an old hose behind one of the buildings, next to a weedy, wild garden, and cuts off a length. Siphoning petrol is old news to her, and in labout half an hour she has the can mostly filled.

She’s walking back to where Jack is dusting off his hands and Mac is putting the finishing touches on wiring the mini-gun motor to the car’s engine.

Jack joins her where she’s pouring fuel through a folded scrap of her scarf into the car’s tank. “You do realize the government is probably right about this, and your friend is dead, right?”

Sam knows. She’s been trying not to remember, this whole time. But the truth is, statistically, Marton is probably long gone. But she tries not to let Jack see how badly the thought affects her. Bottle up the emotions until the mission is over. That’s one thing SAS and Scorpion had in common.

“Then at least I get the satisfaction of finding the bastards trying to profit off his death and breaking some bones.” She smiles, but she’s sure both of them know it’s not genuine.

She sets down the empty can, and rejoins Mac at the front of the car. “Well, are you ready to see if this works?”

Her comms buzz, and Riley’s voice comes through, sharp and urgent. “Guys, you’ve got company. Something big just turned down your road, and it’s coming fast.”

And then the quiet desert air is cut by the rumble of something approaching. Between the trees, Cage catches sight of camouflage canvas and thick tires. Turkish military patrol. If they get caught here, they’re done. But she does have an idea.

Mac and Jack are both staring at the approaching vehicle as well. “Do you trust me?” She asks. Both of them nod. And then Sam snatches her gun from her thigh holster and trains it on Jack, just as the truck turns a corner and comes into full view of them.

She switches expertly to Turkish, praying her accent is still passable. “Get down. Down on the ground. Or I will shoot you.”

Mac and Jack slowly comply, raising their hands. The truck stops and two of the soldiers jump out, turning their own guns on Mac and Jack. Sam turns to the man who approaches her, making sure her scarf still covers most of her face.

“I caught these two trying to steal a car. There are more Americans in a building, in there.” She gestures to the town, and the man with the highest-rank insignia on his uniform waves to the vehicle and shouts. Four more soldiers scramble out of the back and follow him into the village.

Okay, two is good odds.

Cage smiles at the man left to help her guard her ‘prisoners’, and then smashes her elbow into his jaw. He goes down hard, and she fires a single shot over him through the windshield of the truck, not to hit the driver, but to scare him. He ducks, predictably,  and she wrenches open the door and yanks him out onto the ground, slamming his head into her knee to knock him out.

She scrambles into the truck. “Get in, let’s go.”

Mac and Jack scramble in the other side, Jack pausing to shoot out two of the tires of the car they just spent the better part of an hour repairing.

“Sorry about wrecking your plan, Mac,” she says apologetically.

“I don’t even know if it was going to work.” He shrugs, but she can tell it bothers him that he didn’t get to test his theory. When we get home, I’ll find a junker somewhere and let him rip it apart. “Besides, we should be able to get past the rest of the checkpoints without a problem, with this vehicle.”

Cage nods, that was her plan. No one should question a military vehicle. At least not until they’re long gone.


TEN MILES FROM THE TERRORISTS

AND GETTING CLOSER

“That was one badass Jedi mind trick back there, Sam,” Jack says. He’s leaning on the window, watching the scenery go past, trying not to think about all the missions he’s been on in places like this. In vehicles like this.

“I’m just glad they didn’t realize my accent was a fake.” Sam looks jittery too. Jack can’t tell if this is flashback central for her too, or if it’s just wanting to find out what’s waiting for them at the end of this. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been in this part of the world.”

Jack nods. “So quitting the field… was that because of Marton?”

“No.” Sam shakes her head almost imperceptibly. “I was a field operative for a year and a half after Syria. Roger wouldn’t have wanted me to quit. He didn’t save my life for me to walk away from the things he believed in. He died, or I thought he did, fighting for a cause he was willing to sacrifice everything for. The best way to honor his memory was to continue his legacy.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, why did you leave?” Mac grabbed some of the extra wires while he was working on the car, and he’s twisting one into a shockingly accurate outline of the continent of Australia.

“I was on an undercover operation in Singapore, and our covers were blown. One agent was injured and died during exfil, another still walks with a cane, and that’s where I got this.” She nods to a long scar just visible below her rolled sleeve; Jack recognizes it as the surgical scar for repairing a damaged elbow joint. One of the ranch hands has the same thing, after he got thrown by a greenbroke filly and got all busted up.

“I was able to identify the man who turned us in when I got a look at security footage after the op. He was Scorpion. Which meant that they knew I was working with the SAS now, that I was a major liability. Any time I showed my face, it would put every member of my team at risk. So I immediately transferred to an in-house position, and then when the opportunity came up to join DXS and move to another country, I took it.” She smiles a little. “I’ve had no reason to regret it.”

“Alright, guys, you’re right on top of the location,” Riley says, and all three of them jump. Jack glances through the truck window at what must be their target, a two-story concrete building that just looks nefarious. He’s always had a sort of sixth sense about these things, saved his ass in the Sandbox more than once.

“Yeah Riles, we’ve got a two story building with bars on every window, and…” He pulls out a pair of binoculars, “Looks like heavy gauge locks on every one of the lower level doors.”

“Exactly the kind of security upgrades you’d want if you were holding a high value military hostage.” There’s a bit of excitement seeping through Cage’s voice, and Jack can’t blame her. He knows what it’s like to want to bring every man home.

The last guy my team left was gone for six months, and it almost broke me...and him. I can’t imagine what two years did for Cage and Marton.

“Hey Mac, I’m guessing you gotta plan for getting us in there?” Jack asks. The kid’s staring at the building, eyes narrowed in that look Jack knows means he’s thinking.

“Yeah, I think I do.” He looks from the visible portico on the second level to a dilapitated chain-link fence nearby. “We’re gonna need that pipe.”


Mac snips the few remaining wires holding the twelve-foot section of fence pipe in place, and he and Jack and Cage pull it free. This should work. In theory. He ignores the fact that the last time he tried it, he ended up on the ground with a bruised butt and a sprained wrist. Bozer and I were using a branch, and it snapped. This won’t do that. He’d lost his interest in trying to be an even more sciency version of Spiderman for quite a while after that.

“Okay, I’m going to need you to grab the back of that pole to anchor me.”

“Anchor you for what?” Cage asks. Mac knows she’s never seen him work in the field, at least not very often. She’s read the action reports, and seen footage when they have it, but it’s really not the same as being on the ground in the thick of it.

“I’ve learned not to ask,” Jack says. “When it comes to Mac, I think the best option is just blind faith.”

Mac wishes he was as sure as Jack apparently is that this is going to work. Hopefully rambling about science will help. “Well, I’m going to use this pole to overcome the force of gravity.”

“You’e going to pole vault into a terrorist lair? Man, that’s awesome,” Jack chuckles.

“No, not exactly. I need both of you to walk this back, and then when I say, run straight toward the building, pushing up. It should give me enough support that I can walk up this wall.”

“We’d better do it fast. I haven’t seen a guard come around yet,” Sam mutters. Mac nods. He glances up at the wall and really wishes he’d had time to make some improvised climbing spikes.

“Okay, three, two, one...now!” He braces his feet on the wall and starts up, as Jack and Cage put pressure on the pipe. It’s not the fastest process, and his heart is pounding as much from the stress of worrying a guard is going to walk around any second and shoot them as from the feeling of being too far off the ground.

There’s a moment of panic when the pipe reaches its full extension, and the momentum ends. Mac feels himself starting to fall, but he shoves off the wall as hard as he can, throwing himself across to the railing of the little overhang and grabbing on. He has to take a few deep breaths before he can pull himself up and over.

Inside, the building is quiet, and there’s a disconcerting smell. Mac immediately recognizes it as a combination of human habitation and decay. He hopes these guys are just less than scrupulous about their trash pickup, but he has a really bad feeling about this. There’s no sound coming from anywhere, and he can hear flies buzzing frantically behind a door in the hallway.

He doesn’t want to be in here without backup. He sneaks down to the main level, more worried about not meeting a guard than if there was one. What happened? Did they leave? Are we going to find Marton’s body in here?

He unlocks one of the doors and peeks out. Jack and Sam are crouched in a corner, mostly hidden from view. He calls them over comms and they pop out from their cover and hurry to the door. “What’s going on?” Jack asks.

“I don’t know. It seems deserted.” Jack and Cage draw their sidearms and step inside, carefully sweeping the whole first floor. There’s nothing there.

They make their way up to the second, and Mac forces the lock on the room he heard the buzzing coming from. When he opens the door, he steps back, gasping and then choking on the smell. There are five men in the room, all dead.

Jack steps inside, apparently oblivious to the stench. “Two shots, center mass. Whoever did this was a professional.”

“Probably more than one someone,” Cage says. “This was fast, they never even got their weapons up to fire. It was a surprise attack.”

“And look what’s missing.” Jack glances at the floor.

“Shell casings,” Sam says. “They picked all of them up. Whoever did this, they were professionals.”

“Yeah, but what pros? Third party agency or rival terrorist cell?” Jack mutters. Mac glances at the floor again, mostly to avoid the sight of the staring blank eyes, and he sees a faint scuff mark near a set of shelving.

“Guys, I think there’s a secret room back here.” Jack helps him pull the shelving aside, and the movement reveals a small cell, with manacles on the wall and a torn straw-stuffed mattress on the floor.

Sam pushes past them both, kneeling down by the wall and using the tactical light on her handgun to illuminate something scratched into the plaster. “It was Marton. He was here, he was alive.” She points to a letter and two numbers crudely carved into the wall. “T-31 is short for Tiger 31, his agency callsign.”

“So our dude was here, but then someone else showed up, popped off the guards, and snatched him?” Jack says. “They didn’t bother to shoot him here, so they must have wanted him. But they haven’t turned him in either. Who are these guys?”

“I might be able to help with that,” Riley says over comms. “Guys, your phones just did a digital handshake with an open Wi-Fi router there, with the same IP as the ransom note was sent from. I’m going to scan the network and see if any other devices did the same.”

Mac steps out of the room, and Jack and Cage do the same. It seems even they’re starting to be affected by the smell.

It doesn’t take Riley long to get what she needs. “I’ve got five signals, not ones that normally used the network, popping up for about ten minutes twenty-three hours ago.” Riley pauses, and Mac hears a few more keystrokes. “About two hours after that ransom message was sent.”

“That’s too fast to have had any tactical response team in the area,” Cage says.

“Looks like someone else was snooping around, and when these guys sent out that note, they gave away their location. They were hoping for a payday, and they ended up getting full of lead.” Jack glances at the room behind them. “Any chance you can find where those phones are now?”

“They were burners, so they’ve been dumped. But I can track where they’ve been.” Riley taps away. “Okay, the only locations where all of them were together were there at that compound, and here.” There’s a beep, and a set of coordinates flashes up on Mac’s phone. He hears the others’ ping as well.

“Then let’s get going.” Mac’s only too glad to leave that place behind.


ISTANBUL

NOT THE TOURISTY PART

“This is it?” Jack glances up at the fortress surrounding them. “That’s a fortress, man. Probably got a moat and a drawbridge and everything. I don’t do castles, Mac. I always die in Dungeons and Dragons.”

“Dungeons and Dragons?” Cage asks, at the same time that Mac mutters something about this being a hisar .

“Riley was really into it when she lived in Portland. Guess she’d been doing it since she was a kid. It was a big deal when she was actually home for a game night.” He used to drive her to the coffeehouse and sit and wait for her to get done playing for the night.

“I know that, ” Cage says, grinning. “She and I still have a campaign running. I’m an elvish warrior…”

“And she’s still an archer, right?” Jack asks.

“Well, it’s a little more complicated than that…”

“That game is too damn complicated. Too many stats and math and stuff. I tried to play but it was just too much.”

“The way I hear it, you got kicked out for being disruptive.” Sam smirks.

“Hey! I was a wandering bard. I was just trying to get into character.” Jack stops, and realizes Mac’s been rambling on to himself this whole time.

“It’s one of the castles built by the sultans of the Ottoman Empire between 1299 - and 1453 A.

D.,” Mac continues. “Riley, can you get a map of it?”

“A map you can get on Wikipedia. I'm getting full schematics of all defensive upgrades since this hisar was built.”

“And?”

“Give me a minute, Jack, I'm hacking the secured network of a foreign government in a language I don't speak. But also, I’m totally in.”

Bozer chimes in. “So we're looking at a 6,000 square foot building, with two levels, not including the basement. And 13, 14, 15 rooms, which is bad because Marton could be in any one of them.”

“I might be able to narrow that down for us.” Riley continues typing. “There’s a video feed being recorded inside, and the camera is attched to a wireless streaming app. But the signal is too weak for me to hack it. I need to be able to bounce it off something else in the building I have access to.”

“What about a phone? If we could get one inside, could you use that?”

“It would probably boost the signal strength enough. But how are you going to get one in there?” Mac glances out at a group of kids kicking around a makeshift soccer ball made out of newspapers and plastic bags.

“I think I know.”


Jack watches Mac wander out into the square and start talking to the kids. He takes a few paperclips out of his pocket, bends them into some sort of shape, it’s too far away for Jack to see, and hands them to the kids.

In return, they toss him the makeshift soccer ball they’ve been kicking around. Mac walks back with the ball under his arm and a genuine grin on his face. He loves kids so much. Jack remembers him playing with the Dalton family nephews and nieces at Christmas. He would have been so good as a teacher. But now that’s not going to happen, no one’s going to let someone with Mac’s criminal past anywhere near children.

Mac makes some modifications to the ball, adjusting strings and digging into the mangled center of it. He holds out his hand. “Phone, Jack?”

“Hell no, man. Use your own damn phone this time.” Now that he’s off the most severe restrictions of his parole, Mac’s phone isn’t being monitored. He can break it without repercussions, and that makes Jack almost pathetically gleeful. He’s destroyed thirty-seven phones to date, most of them mine. The Genius Bar is keeping a running tally. And that doesn’t count the times Mac’s taken one of their phones and done something that leaves it still mostly in one piece.

Mac sighs, but digs his own phone out of his pocket. It’s still pretty new, they had to replace all their tech after that unplanned swim in Kiev. He shoves the phone into the center of the ball, and then glances from it to an open window on the second floor. “Now, we just need to get it into one of those windows.”

“I can do that,” Jack says, taking the ball from him. Really, he just wants an excuse to boot Mac’s phone at something. Finally.

Cage reaches for the ball as well. “I played soccer from the time I was four all the way through...well, until I left home.”

Jack doesn’t let go, fully aware that this is petty. But we’re finally using Mac’s phone for one of his crazy plans. “Yeah? Yeah? And I was the kicker for my middle school football team, okay? I once had six field goals in one game. That's a division record.”

“You did say middle school, though, right?” Cage shakes her head.

“And who has been actually out in the field in the past year, keeping up their targeting skills and muscle tone?” Jack asks, smirking.

Mac cuts in, looking seriously embarrassed at their antics. “Settle this like adults, okay?”

“Okay, fine.” Cage raises a fist, and so does Jack. Oh you wanna go rock-paper-scissors for this? He knows he probably doesn’t have a prayer of winning against her. Just hope my eye doesn’t start twitching again.

“Not exactly what I had in mind,” Mac mumbles.

Jack wonders if it’s possible to out-think the mind reader. The way I play, it’s second nature to switch to some other thing after doing the rock fist three times already, and scissors is the easiest to change to. But if she plays by making each of the shapes in turn, the next logical progression is rock again. But she’ll know that, so she’ll choose something else on purpose to compensate, because she’ll expect me to go to the easiest one. So paper is probably his best bet... Or will she anticipate that...now I just sound like Vizzini in The Princess Bride. I’m way overthinking this.

Jack watches as Cage’s fist pounds into her palm twice closed, and in that split second he knows exactly what his plan is. Jack pounds his fist into his palm three times and then flattens his hand into paper. Cage’s hand stays closed in a rock fist, and she sighs. Yep, she was counting on me doing the normal scissors thing.

“Give me that thing.” He snatches the soccer ball back, and then kicks it. It sails through the air in a smooth arc...and bounces off the wall a good five feet from the window.

“My turn, Beckham,” Cage chuckles.

Jack hands it over without a fight, he got what he wanted. The only thing better would be to break the phone completely, but that would kinda defeat the purpose and it would probably mean Mac would take mine.

“Okay, Riley, you’ve got eyes inside, do your thing.”

“I’ve managed to hack their camera and turn on the video streaming. I’m hijacking the feed and sending it to your phone now.”

Jack pulls out his phone and glances at it. There’s a heavily bearded man sitting tied in a chair, with two men flanking him and a third somewhere in the shadows. He holds the phone out to Cage. “Hey, that look like your guy?”

“That’s him. That’s Roger.” Sam sounds absolutely elated.

Then the man in the corner moves a bit more into the light,  and Jack nearly drops his phone. It’s him. What the hell?

“Riley, zoom in on that guy in the back.”

“The one in the funky hat?” Bozer asks.

“Yeah.” The video enlarges, and there’s no mistaking it. “That's the Ten of Spades.”

Mac frowns, and Jack decides it’s his turn to give a complicated explanation for once. “When they sent us to Iraq in '04, they gave us all decks of cards so we could memorize the faces of high-value targets.” They’re still burned into his brain. “Iraqi Minister of Defense was the Eight of Hearts. Saddam was the Ace of Spades, and that barrel of monkeys right there, he was the Ten. Tahir Ali al-Tikriti. A commander in the Iraqi Republican Guard and the last uncaptured war criminal of Saddam's regime. We've got everyone else in the deck, but the Ten of Spades was never found.”

“If we play our cards right, we can get him right now.” Sam smirks a little. “That’s an interior room, reinforced walls, no natural light source.”

“Those plans showed a room in the basement, right in the center. That could be it.” Jack says. “Now that we have proof of life, we can get a strike team.”

“Guys, you don’t have time for that.” Riley cuts in. “There’s a livestream scheduled for two hours from now. I think they’re going to kill Marton on live video.”


Jack glances at his watch. “Well, this ain’t good.” He knows that’s the understatement of the year. “Looks like if we wanna keep your friend alive, we’re gonna have to breach this place ourselves.” Damn, it really does feel like a DnD campaign.

“Sam, how would you do it?” She’s the one who’s been storming imaginary castles with Riley every week.

“Optimally, I’d wait until cover of darkness and parachute in. But we don’t have a plane, or parachutes…” Mac starts to object. “And we don’t have time.”

Jack glances at the plans again, and when he taps on the image that shows the basement room, trying to zoom in, a couple lines of red text pop up on the screen. Damn technology; I hate things that pop up like this. And then Jack sees something that might be exactly what they need.

“Hey, uh, Riley. My Turkish is a little rusty. Can you translate that text?”

“All right, it says, ‘The foundation was repaired in 1998 using the beam and base underpinning method’.”

“And that helps us how, exactly?” Cage asks.

Jack is grinning, the beginnings of a plan taking shape. “My uncle Tony used to be a house flipper. He’d buy a crappy place, fix it up, and sell it, before doing that was a big thing. I helped him for a couple summers. One house we worked on was over a natural aquifer, and we used that method to reinforce the foundation. It’s used when the ground beneath the building is unable to bear the load.”

“Riley, can you switch to a radar view?” Mac asks. He’s catching on.

“Are those…” Riley trails off.

“Tunnels.”

“Actually, they’re catacombs. The Romans built them everywhere,” Mac says. “That’s our way in.”

“The closest entry point is three miles away,” Sam points out. “Are you going to just walk in there, grab him, and walk out?”

“Oh no, we’d never make it,” Mac says. “I’m going to swim.”

“But the catacombs aren’t flooded.”

“Not yet.” Mac glances around, looking at the building guards. “But we’re going to need a big distraction up top to cover what I’m doing down below.”

“Consider it done. Bozer and I are en route.”

“You need to stay put,” Jack says. “Mac needs you on comms to direct him through the creepy Indiana Jones maze down there, and Bozer’s not getting anywhere near sharp objects for a while.”

“I’m coming,” Boze insists. “Mac needs my help, that’s what I’m here for.”

“Okay, fine, but you’re gonna be recon only, got it?” Jack is not going to be responsible for losing Mac’s best friend.

“Have fun stormin’ the castle,” Riley says. I think it is gonna take a miracle to get us in there .


WAREHOUSE OUTSIDE ISTANBUL

SAM’S BARTERING SKILLS ARE STILL INTACT

Sam pushes open the warehouse door and is instantly hit with an overpowering smell. She pulls the scarf she just purchased a little further over her face. It smells like horse and smoke and sweat, but it’s better than the chemical odor permeating the room. “I was able to get enough clothes for Jack, Bozer, and I from a local farmer.” She sets the pile on the table. “How's it going here?”

Mac looks up from something cylindrical, waving greasy hands. “I'm just finishing up with this thing.”

“What is this?” Sam’s seen his work before, but usually only small scale. The car today and now this...it’s impressive.

“It's a, uh, diver propulsion vehicle. Well, it's my quick and dirty version of one. It's how I'm gonna get through the three miles of catacombs so quickly.” She watches him take a deep breath before reaching for a screwdriver. Yeah, I’d be worried too. Just the thought of being down there in underground caves full of water is giving her the jitters.

She follows her nose to the source of the smell. “Jack, how's it coming over here?”

“Oh, well, it stinks to high heaven, but it's getting really thick.” He holds up a spoonful of pale goop. “Look at that.”

“Thick is good. That means it's ready.” Mac walks over and takes the pail from Jack, starting to scoop half the contents onto a piece of newspaper.

“That looks like C4.”

“Or at least the MacGyver version of it,” Jack says. “Trust him to know how to make something that goes boom out of whatever he sees laying around.” Mac sets the paper-wrapped goo in an old paint can.

“Jack, I need your watch.” Jack sighs, but unstraps it.

“As long as it’s not my phone, man.”

Mac fiddles with the watch, then attaches it to the can and hands the whole thing to Jack. “Jack…”

“Don't agitate the explosive. Yeah, I got it.”

“No. It's not shock sensitive. I was just gonna say, "hurry”.” Mac taps a crude drawing he’s made that shows the nearby aquifer and dam. “You have to put it right in the middle here, between the two I-beams.” Jack nods and rushes off.

Mac dumps the rest of the explosive into another can and wraps that one tightly in plastic bags, and then he and Sam climb into the car she ‘borrowed’ and drive off to the spot where they’ll be able to access the catacombs through the sewer system.

When they pry the cover off the manhole, Cage flinches. It’s so dark down there. It’s too much like night. Like an empty road, lit for a second by blinding oncoming headlights until everything goes dark. Until she wakes up in the seat of a car with her legs pinned and water rushing through smashed windows.

She shakes off the flashbacks. That was always my weakness in the field. Ops that had anything to do with water. She vividly remembers SAS swim and dive training. Being held underwater, panicking, scrambling desperately to get free and get out, forgetting every training move in a surge of blind fear.

She remembers the first desperate gasp, the water flooding her lungs, smothering her scream. And Roger instantly letting go, snatching her arms, pulling her to the surface and out of the pool, pounding her chest until she could breathe again and wrapping a towel around her shoulders, sitting with her until the shakes stopped.

It got better, thanks to him. She knows she was lucky to have such a patient mentor. And if all goes well, pretty soon I’ll get to thank him in person.

There’s a sound in the bushes on the side of the road, and Sam pulls her gun and aims at it. “Whoa, hey, just me.” Jack steps out of the trees, hands raised. “Your Campbell's Chunky Boom Boom's in place.” Jack grins. “And should be going off right about now.”

“Perfect. Now I just need you to help me get this equipment down here.” Mac sits down on the edge of the hole, dangling his legs in.”

“Mac.” Jack puts a hand on his shoulder. “It should be me that goes in there, man. There’s some bad dudes down there, and…”

“And if anything goes wrong, I’m just gonna have to improvise. I’m the only one who can fix this thing,” Mac taps on the propulsion vehicle’s housing, “if it breaks down. I’ll be fine.”

Sam checks her watch. “We've got 30 minutes till they live-stream Marton’s murder. Are you sure that's enough time?”

“It's gonna have to be. That shaped charge is gonna punch a hole in the dam and it's gonna flood the catacombs. Then after about 20 minutes, that pressure's gonna widen the hole.”

“Then the whole damn dam comes down.” She swallows. Unrelenting, uncontrollable chaos. That amount of water flooding through an enclosed space...

“Good luck down there, Mac.” And then he drops into the darkness.


Mac tries not to think of all the ways this could go wrong. The oxygen hose could break or snag on something. The propulsion unit could break down. I could have put too much explosive in the can and  not have enough to get to Marton. And that could also mean the dam weakens faster than expected. I could get washed away and drown down here somewhere. And that doesn’t even take into account the terrorists with guns who would very much like to kill him if they see him.

He’s got the improvised oxygen mask on, and he’s kneeling at the edge of a pit that is now filled with water. It’s getting higher, starting to lap at his shoes. Mac shivers. The tunnels are cool already, and the water, coming as it does from the bottom of a holding aquifer, is icy. He takes a deep breath and drops through the hole into the murky depths.

The initial shock of cold makes him tense and take an even deeper breath. He tries to steady himself, the oxygen still needs to last for the return trip too. He flicks on the propulsion vehicle and feels it drag him along. He has to be careful not to slam into the walls or go too far up and catch his back or head on the uneven ceiling.

By the time he gets to the location Riley says should be his exit point, he’s shivering uncontrollably. He uses a tiny bit of the explosive to blow a hole above him, lifts his little vehicle out, pulls off the oxygen mask, and glances around the tunnel. It’s almost colder out of the water than in it.

“Mac, you okay?” He can hear the relief in Riley’s voice when he answers in the affirmative. “You're now in the corridors right beneath the compound. You see a tunnel leading off to the east? 137 paces down that hall puts your right beneath Marton’s cell.”

He starts off, rubbing his arms. I can’t wait to get out of here.

“Okay, you’re right underneath him.” Mac stops, unwrapping his can of homemade C-4 and glancing up.

“H-how big did you s-say that r-room was?” He hates that she can probably hear his teeth chattering in his trembling voice.

“Ten-by-ten. But Mac, I can’t tell where exactly in the room Marton is. If you breach the wrong spot in the floor…” I could kill him. Yeah, I know. He may have gotten the charges dropped for the death of George Ramsay, but the thought of killing anyone with what he does is still terrifying.

“N-not gonna happen. I’m br-bringing the floor t-to me.” Mac carefully rolls the explosives and marks off the room dimensions above him. His hands aren’t shaking now, he can’t afford that.

“Okay, Jack and Cage have their attention. Time to do your thing.”

Mac sets off the explosives and ducks, covering his head with his arms and dust and stone and shards of tile rain down. The whole floor collapses into the center of the space, and Mac blinks at the sudden light. He runs to the single occupied chair and pulls out his knife, cutting away the gag and ropes holding Marton in place. The second he does, he finds himself pinned to the wall with an arm across his throat. Marton may be haggard and emaciated, but his reflexes are still impressive.

“Roger Marton?” Mac chokes out.

“Who are you?” The man asks, or rather growls. Mac knows the sound of a disused voice, he heard it echo around him in solitary far too often. When there’s no one to talk to, you kind of don’t see the point in doing it at all. Talking to yourself just makes you feel like you’re losing your grip on your sanity even faster. He’d bet that’s what the past two years have been like for Marton.

“A friend of Samantha Cage’s.”

The arm relaxes. “Sam’s here?”

“Yeah, she’s just outside; keeping them distracted.”

“I should have known it was her when I heard the commotion,” Marton chuckles. And then Mac hears a door fly open and bullets ping off the stone around them.

“Run!”


Jack watches with concern as Bozer loiters around the entrance to the building. He’s the least likely to set off warning signals; he’s not a seasoned field operator but that means his face isn’t common knowledge. After hearing about Cage’s blown op in Singapore, Jack’s just a little paranoid. Scorpion may be gone, but there’s still a lot of people probably floating around, who slipped through our fingers and joined up with other nasty little groups. And seeing as one of his own experiences in Turkey was less than stellar…

Bozer steps aside and speaks into his comms. He’s way too obvious about switching his on, Jack’s going to have to give him a crash course in field stealth at some point. “Front entrance has three guards, all armed. Two on the roof, two in the courtyard.” Okay, and a crash course in how to to sound exactly like you’re in a cheesy spy flick.

“Got it. Stay put and stay safe, Bozer. We don't need anybody else putting any more holes in you, man.” He hears the exasperated sigh from the other end of the line.

Sam breaks cover first. She walks up to one of the guards and asks him something in Turkish. The next second, she’s yanking him over the stair railing, grabbing his gun, and popping off the two guys on the roof before they can get a shot off.

“Hey, leave a few for me!” Jack scolds jokingly as he rushes over, taking out another guard on the way. “You just got back in the field, aren’t you supposed to be taking it easy or something?”

She shakes her head. “Maybe, if you can’t keep up, you’re the one who needs to quit field work, Jack.”

He glances over the railing and takes down another guard. “There, now who’s not keeping up?”

“Still you!” Sam takes aim and shoots one more guard, as Jack does the same. “That’s all the front accounted for. Almost too easy.” She vaults over the railing and starts to run up the stairs to the door.

Jack grabs Cage’s arm. “We just need to keep their attention.”

“We’ve come this far, the Ten of Spades is right there. ” Sam gestures to the hisar . “Roger would want me to finish the mission.”

“But the Ten isn’t the mission.”

“He is now.” She steps through the door. “Cover me.” Jack sighs. Guess we’re doing this. He hears a muffled rumble from below them and grins. Mac’s blowin’ stuff up again. Good for him.

Riley’s voice comes through the comms. “Guys, Mac’s got the package and he’s on his way out. I’m coming to you to back you up.”

“Sounds good. Let’s get him.” Jack slams a fresh clip into his gun. He’s not getting away from me again.


Riley stashes her rig in the van they’re using as a command center and checks her sidearm mag. Fully loaded and one in the chamber. She’s noticed that she obsesses about that now. Ever since the Phoenix siege, she’s found herself at the practice range more often, and she checks every once in a while, with a desperate compulsion, to make sure her gun is loaded and her backup mag is with her.

What happened with Horn in the server room shook her more than she’ll admit. I could have died, easily. It was sheer luck that his shot missed her. I can’t count on getting that lucky again.

She passes the bodies on the steps and portico, and flinches slightly. They do what has to be done, but it’s still a little chilling.

She’s sure Jack and Cage have cleared the front rooms already, and pulls out her phone to see if she can ping their location and meet up with them. There’s a faint scraping creak from somewhere to her left, and she spins around just in time to see a bookshelf now ajar and the muzzle of a gun leveled at her head.

Breach warning alarms screaming, server vent fans whirring, no time to think, no time to brace for impact. She breathes and swallows and the sunlit palace room is back. But the gun’s still very much there.

She recognizes the face behind it. The Ten of Spades himself. He must have hidden in a secret room. Jack and Cage walked right past him. She really, really hopes Jack doesn’t blame himself too much when he realizes what happened.

“Get on your knees.” Riley doesn’t move. She’s going to die on her feet, because this man is going to shoot her anyway. If he wants to kill me, he’s going to have to look me in the eyes and do it. “I said, kneel!” The gun jabs toward her.

“Not to men like you.” Jack would appreciate the Marvel reference. It’s not half bad, as last words go. She thinks a fictional old German man would agree.

And then there’s a cracking thud. Riley blinks involuntarily, flinching, but the Ten is falling to the floor, and Bozer pops up from behind him, grinning.

“It was Mr. Bozer, in the living room, with the candlestick.” His fake British accent is atrocious, and Riley chuckles hysterically.

“God, I’m glad to see you.” She wants to hug him but she’s not too sure she can move

Avengers, Riley? Really? Not even Bruce Willis?” Bozer shakes his head. “Jack’s gonna be disappointed.”

“It fit the context.”

“Wait, does that make me Captain America then?”

“Not even close.” And then the doors burst open and Jack and Cage rush in.

“What the hell happened?” Jack asks.

“We found your guy,” Bozer says. Riley glances down at her hand. It’s shaking, and her gun is gripped in a white-knuckled grasp.

Jack notices at the same time she does. “Riley, what happened?”

“He got the jump on me. I froze,” she admits softly. “Boze saved my life.”

Jack pulls her into a hug. “It’s okay, kiddo, it’s okay.” She can hear him starting to choke up, and she wraps her arms around him and holds on tight.

“We’ve got him, let’s get to exfil.” Sam, ever the practical one, speaks up. She grabs one of the Ten’s arms, and Jack gets the other, and all of them hurry out to the van.

Sam drives, and Bozer rides shotgun. Riley sits in the back with Jack, trying not to look at the man on the floor in front of them. Jack is definitely starting to freak out, he’s systematically disassembling his sidearm.

“Jack, what’s wrong?”

“It’s my fault,” he mumbles.

“What are you talking about?”

“If that son of a bitch shot you, that would have been my fault,” Jack says quietly. “The Ten was my last Delta mission. And we lost him.” He looks down at his hands. “He should never have been there. We should have got him back in ‘04. I should have found him in there. He never should have been able to get close to you.” His voice is shaking slightly, and Riley sees the faint shimmer in his eyes.

“No, none of that is your fault. The way you told it to me, he never even showed up where he was supposed to.” She wraps her fingers around Jack’s. “You did everything you could. And I’m still alive. I’m still here.”

“I couldn’t save you,” Jack says, almost too softly for her to hear. “I’m sorry.”

“Your job isn’t to save me, not anymore.” She’s a big girl now, and even though she knows Jack will always worry about her, she did sign on for this. She did agree to risk her life, just like he does. “Now, your job is to save Mac.” Which is exactly what they’re going to do.

“I’m never gonna stop having your back, you know that, right?”

“So it’s true. No matter how old you get, your parents still never stop seeing you as their little child.”

“And no matter what level agent you are, I’m never gonna stop seeing that sassy little trainee with a chip on her shoulder and a penchant for getting shot at.” Jack puts his arm around her.

“Oh, I think that’s because I learned from the best.” She smirks and punches his shoulder. And then they’re grinding to a halt outside the manhole, and Riley can hear something very ominous. A low, rumbling roar. Please, Mac, please be here.


Mac flinches as stone shards spatter around them and a burning pain creases his leg and side. Getting shot doesn’t hurt less no matter how many times it’s happened. Fortunately, he can tell none of them are worse than a bad graze.

He tosses Marton the oxygen tank and mask. “Secure this around your face, make sure it seals.” He jumps when the man hands it back.

“I’ve trained for years to increase lung capacity,” Marton says. “I can probably last long enough.”

“I didn’t come all this way for ‘probably’.” Mac shakes his head. “Take it. If we have to, we can buddy breathe.” And then there’s more ricocheting bullets, and both of them plunge down into the water.

It’s just as cold the second time around. Mac kicks to add his own momentum to the propulsion engine, he just wants to get out of here as fast as possible. When they’re about halfway there, his lungs start to burn. He doesn’t want to risk passing out and floating off down here, so he taps Marton’s leg. The man seems to understand, he pulls off the mask and pushes it into Mac’s hand. He takes a few grateful breaths of air before handing it back.

When he sees the light filtering down to them, he switches off the propellor and lets the little vehicle sink. It got the job done. He pulls himself out of the hole, next to Marton. There’s over a foot of water on the floor now, and it’s rising fast. They wade to the center of the tunnel, below the hole, and look up. He can hear something rumbling, he really hopes it’s Jack and the team en route. And then he hears brakes screech, but the low roar doesn’t stop.

“What is that?” Marton asks. The water is to their knees now.

“The dam breaking.” And then Jack’s head appears in the hole. “Hey guys, the swimming area is now closed; please exit the pool.” Mac chuckles and reaches down, linking his hands to give Marton a step up. Jack grabs the man’s arms and pulls him through the hole, then turns back. “Hey Mac, how you gettin’ up here, man?” The water is lapping at his waist now.

Mac’s about to suggest detaching the strap from his knapsack and using it as a rope, but he’s not sure it will be long enough. And that roaring is getting so much louder. He’s out of time to think, out of options. He has to get up there, now, or he’s going to drown.

Mac glances at the wall, then at the opening fifteen feet above his head. He can do this. When I was a vigilante, I got really good at parkour. It’s really all physics; mass and force and trajectory. It just hurts if you get it wrong. He glances at the wall again, doing the calculations in his head. And then he jumps up at the wall and shoves off, reaching up for Jack’s lowered arms.

For one horrible second, he thinks he missed. Did I gain more weight than I think I did? And then his hands are clenched around Jack’s straining, taut-muscled wrists, and he’s halfway up and out of the hole into the sunlight.

And then the water hits him. It feels like a semi truck slamming into his hips and legs. Mac swings sideways, his already damaged side colliding with the rough edge of the hole. He can’t muffle the cry of pain, but the water is drowning it out anyway.

The flood drags powerfully at his legs. Mac can feel chunks of stone that the water’s pulled loose tearing at him. He knows the math, that the pressure from the amount of water flowing through those catacombs is going to be stronger than his grip on Jack’s arms.

“Mac, don’t you dare let go of me!” Jack is shouting to be heard over the rushing water. Mac guesses his grip is probably loosening; he’s freezing and tired and there’s no point in fighting the inevitable...is there?

“I’m not letting go of you. So don’t you dare let go of me.” Mac’s arms are cold and going numb, but he can feel Jack’s rough, calloused fingers tightening around his wrists. “Come on, kid, we’re gonna get you outta there, but you gotta help us out, okay? Just hold on, a little longer.”

He can feel himself rising, inch by inch. The smell of exhaust hits his nose, and he realizes Jack is actually attached to the truck now, that they’re creeping it forward to add to the pull to get him out of there. The water is spilling out of the hole now, and that’s helping a little, but there’s still that forward suction as most of it rushes on through the channel the catacombs are making for it.

The water lets go, with a roar that Mac could swear sounds angry. His ankles bang against the lip of the hole, and then he’s out, lying in the spreading pool of water on the road. Jack kicks free of the straps holding him to the truck and pulls Mac out of the way of the water, onto the sun-warmed asphalt.

Mac’s exhausted and freezing, and all he can do is lie there in the road coughing and panting and shivering. Jack sits down beside him, and Mac feels the man wrap his arms around him and pull Mac to his chest. He curls into the warmth.

“Here, kiddo, I’m gonna let go of you for a minute, but I’m not going anywhere, I promise.” Jack does, and Mac wraps his arms around himself, missing the warmth and contact. And then he feels Jack wrapping something warm around him, the longsleeved disguise shirt he was wearing over his t-shirt. It’s still holding plenty of Jack’s body heat, and Mac huddles into it gratefully. Jack pulls him back in close, running a hand through his hair and then putting his arm around Mac’s side as he helps him to his feet. “We’re goin’ home, okay?”

Mac nods. Yes, yes we are. All of us.


THE PHOENIX FOUNDATION

HOME SWEET HOME

It feels good to be back in the War Room. Riley listens to the post-mission debrief in a blur. She adds her own part mechanically, it feels distant, remote, like the whole thing happened to someone else. She knows the reality is going to crash in hard later. But for now, she’s a lot like that aquifer dam. There’s only a small leak. She figures she can keep it together until this is over.

“This was not a sanctioned operation, and Oversight has asked me to remind you that there will be an official warning, which is going into your permanent records.”

“Dude, I have so many of those on my record, I lost count,” Jack says. “Patty’s just getting a power trip, isn’t she?”

“Do you want to say that to her face, Jack?” Matty’s finger hovers over the hot call button on screen. Patty’s in Washington right now, smoothing out some final details of personnel transfer with the CIA. As it turns out, apparently keeping Matty permanently means lots of paperwork.

“No, I’m good.”

Matty turns to Sam. “Cage, you’ll be interrogating our friend the Ten of Spades. Since this wasn’t an official operation, we have no obligation to turn him over to any government until we see fit.”

“I’d kinda like to talk to him too,” Jack says, and Riley sees the raw rage in his eyes.

“We’ll save that till last, Dalton.” Matty glances at him; Riley knows she heard the whole thing. “I think Cage will learn more from him without you giving him a broken jaw.”

“Just his legs, Matty?” Jack asks, a wheedling tone slipping in. She shakes her head firmly.

“All of you pulled off a miracle out there,” Matty says. “Thanks to you, Marton has been reunited with his family, and a holdout terror cell is decimated.” She nods to them. “You’re all free to go.” Everyone heads for the door, but Riley hangs back, tugging Bozer with her.

“I don’t think I really got the chance to thank you properly for what you did back there.”

“Awww, it was nothing.” Bozer glances at the floor, scuffing his shoe. “I just didn’t want to lose a good friend, that’s all.”

She hugs him. “Well, it was pretty impressive. Points for stealth, even I didn’t see you there.”

“Stealth is my biggest advantage. And my stellar good looks,” he strikes a pose. “You’re talking to Stephen Windwalker, the greatest Mage of the seven realms.”

“You overheard Cage talking about DnD, didn’t you.” She chuckles. “Don’t tell me, the real reason you saved my life was to try and score an invite to the campaign.”

He shrugs and raises his eyebrows. “I mean, if you’re offering…”

“We’re definitely going to be playing tonight.” She knows she’s not going to be able to sleep. Sam probably isn’t either, not after all this. They might as well put the extra adrenaline and after mission jitters to good use. Fighting imaginary monsters instead of real ones.

“Awesome.” He grins. “You know, if you give me time to swing by the house, I can come in full cosplay.”

Riley just shakes her head. “Sam’s a great DM. If you ignore the fact that all the monsters she makes up are based off of Australian wildlife.”

“She can actually make Australia scarier? Wow.” Bozer laughs, and Riley smiles. It’s good to be back.


MAC’S HOUSE

Jack thinks he might actually feel more at home here than in his own apartment. And not just because I spent a three weeks here after the whole Murdoc thing, before we went off globetrotting. There’s something welcoming about the house, something that says it’s a place to sit down and stay a while. He’s slightly selfishly glad Mac didn’t decide to move.

He told me he was considering it. Said he didn’t want to live in a place where all his memories were of being lied to. Jack could respect that. He’d even offered to let Mac move in with him, if he wanted. But in the end, Mac seems to have concluded that his house is owned and paid for and he might as well use it. Plus, he does have some good memories here, even if they’re all mostly recent.

Jack grabs a beer from the tempermental fridge and wanders out to the deck. He could smell the smoke when he got out of the car, it’s another bonfire night. He gets the feeling that’s a pretty normal occurrence. Mac seems to have a truly disconcerting love of watching things burn.

Mickey barks, he knows Jack, and he also knows Jack always comes with treats. Jack fishes one out of a pocket and tosses it to the dog, who gulps it down and then runs up to nuzzle his hand, hoping for more. Mac’s leaning toward the fire, probably trying to chase away the last of the chill from the catacombs. He looks up.

“Brought something for you too.” Jack holds out the pizza box. “Thought you might get jealous if I only ever brought treats for the dog.”

Mac opens the box and grins, grabbing himself a slice. Jack made sure he ordered the kid’s favorite kind, the one with no mushrooms, extra green pepper and bacon, and the cheese in the crust. A little more expensive, totally worth it.

He pulls out another one and waves it at Jack. “Want a piece?”

“Thought you’d never ask.” Jack reaches for it, but Mac slaps his hand.

“Uh, no, sit. Stay.” He’s grinning.

“Don’t you know you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?” Jack asks. He spins the pizza box toward him, but overestimates the force, and it topples to the ground, pizza slices spilling everywhere. Seeing his chance, Mickey rushes in, snatches two in his mouth, and retreats.

Jack apologizes and starts quickly picking up the mess. “Three-second rule, right Mac?”

“You know that’s not really a very scientific…”

“I’ve followed it all my life, and I’m not dead yet. How’s that for experimental test subject?” Jack asks. The last two words come out more as “tmst smgged” because he’s shoved the last slice in his mouth.

Mac just shakes his head and takes another bite of his own slice.

“Where’s Bozer?” Jack asks.

“Still at Riley’s. I guess they’re fighting a three headed kangaroo dragon.”

“Dude, I thought I was the only one who messed up animal names.” Jack shakes his head. “Don’t you mean a Commodore Dragon?”

“It’s technically Komodo Dragon, but no. According to Boze, it looks like this.” Mac holds up his new phone, we’ll see how long this one stays in one piece, to show Jack a hand-drawn sketch of something that looks like a cross between a nightmare and a marsupial.

“Don’t tell me, Sam invented that.”

“Yep.” Mac takes his phone back, and then glances at his wrist, frowning.

“You still workin’ yourself up about that watch?” Jack shakes his head. “Mac, I’m tellin’ ya. There’s no shame in calling it quits. I mean, come on, every agency’s done their best to find this guy. I know you’re the smartest kid I know, but that doesn’t mean you gotta win every time.” He wants to take that watch away and throw it somewhere in a dark hole.

“I know. But I think it got water in it back there in the catacombs,” Mac says. “It’s stuck at the time from then.”

“I wonder how that happened,” Jack mumbles sarcastically. Everything was waterlogged after that. He had to hold onto a shivering, close to hypothermic Mac all the way back to the airfield where the jet was standing by. And Mac took almost twice as long as he did in the locker room shower after they got back, although Jack hung around and waited for him. Wasn’t like I was gonna be inconveniencing Matty, she’s the one who insisted Mac and Cage and I couldn’t come in the War Room until we stopped smelling like a goat farm. And he knows being alone or with strangers in the locker room makes Mac jumpy, with good reason.

“I’m gonna see if I can open it up and dry it out,” Mac says. “Might be able to fix it; Dad...James...was always taking it to pieces to work on the movements and stuff.” He walks back into his room, and comes out with a handful of tools and a small board with a shallow depression in the center. “He left all this stuff when he left,” Mac shrugs. “I couldn’t really bring myself to part with it.”

Jack nods. Mac sets the watch on the board, pulls out a couple thin tools, and starts putting pressure on the back. Jack watches; he mostly wears digital watches now but he has an old one of Pops’s that he saves for special occasions. The battery ran out a year ago and he’s never gotten around to taking it to a shop. Bet I could bring it over and Mac could work his magic on it. Jack smiles. He trusts the kid implicitly now. Whether it’s with his life or Pops’s watch.

“What the…” Mac whispers, grabbing a pair of tweezers and pulling something out of the back of the watch. It’s damp, but it’s a piece of glossy photo paper. And the kid in the image is pretty recognizable.

“Hey, is that you?” Jack asks. “Dude, I think that haircut is worse than the current one.” I forgot those atrocious long bangs were ever in style .

“This was taken right before my tenth birthday.” Mac glances at it. “He must have had it since he left.”

“So he put it in there for you to find?” Jack glances at the small, faded photo. “It’s gotta be some kind of clue, right?”

“I don’t know.” Mac turns the tiny scrap of paper over; if there were any words on it, they’ve been washed away. “But I’m going to find out.”