|07 Actions Of Last Resort
Author: JonGraeme PM
Masters is out of patience, Megabyte is out of options, and the new Tomorrow People are out of time. When desperation sets in, all bets are off.Rated: Fiction T - English - Sci-Fi/Adventure - Words: 67,745 - Reviews: 1 - Published: 05-03-10 - Status: Complete - id: 5942764
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Prolog: Previously on The Tomorrow People...
The vision had already lasted Damon several orders of magnitude longer than any previous vision he'd had. Finally it seemed to return to some level of sanity. Jake lying on the ground in the sunshine, by a stone wall somewhere, desperately needing to pee but not having the energy. And there was someone else there watching, definitely not the same guy as before, this one was a little younger and had very distinctive red hair. He was staring at Jake lying there as if he was searching for something, then he reached down and took the watch off of Jake's wrist, whispering something about owls as he did so. And then the darkness came. Just darkness again.
The first shot grazed Jake's arm, the second smashed into his leg. He felt the bone splintering, he fell in agony, face down into the mud. His consciousness was blurred by the pain and the only thought his mind seemed to be able to process was that this was not what was meant to have happened, this was not part of the sodding plan.
"I'm stuck in this bloody wheelchair for another four more weeks they figure, I can't even get up and hobble around on crutches until then with my shoulder being as trashed as my leg. You're laughing, but do you know how sodding embarrassing it is when I need to go to the toilet right now?" Jake ranted. His first day home after a week in hospital had not been working out so well.
"Serves you right for getting yourself shot." Damon wasn't in a mood to offer too much sympathy.
He shook his head curtly. "I'm Masters. Colonel Masters."
"Military?" Misako asked, immediately apprehensive. ~I'm sensing truth here, but what the hell interest do the military have in this?~
"Retired. Whitehall desk job these days."
Jake got to the point. "And what exactly do you want?"
"Unlike the police, I happen to believe you about Stellman having an accomplice. You described him in your evidence as having red hair, and someone fitting that description has been following you for weeks, there has to be some kind of link, and you've already worked most of that out, haven't you?"
"Yes, we know about the guy with red hair," Damon responded cautiously.
Master smiled gently. "Then it seems we do have something to talk about."
Jake acknowledged the concern. "I don't quite see what there is to talk about. I think we can take care of ourselves."
"Can you? Are you sure?"
"What do you want?" Jake shouted after Masters as he started to walk away.
Masters spoke without looking back. "I want the man with the red hair. I intend to find him, I think he's after you, and I can help. You may not think you need help, but I assure you, whatever advantage you think you have over him, think again. He's dangerous, you're going to need my protection."
Kath stared at Jake. "Are you actually admitting I have a point?"
Jake took a deep breath, this wasn't the direction things were meant to be going. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Since you ended up in a wheelchair it's been just about impossible for anyone to talk to you without you going apeshit. Three weeks ago you were acting like you were about ready to slit your wrists, you got over that by sticking your head in the sand and biting peoples heads off if they tried to make a point. It's good to see you facing up to reality for a change."
Kath never pulled her punches. Jake admired her for that, even when it pissed him off
"So, how are you really holding out?" she risked asking.
Jake shrugged. "Impatiently. I'm waiting for medical technology to improve to the point they can do a prosthetic knee replacement for someone whose leg got as badly fragmented as mine did. It could be a long wait. I still refuse to believe that I'll never walk again, though."
"It's hard, the stuff you see," Nick Smart continued, "the challenge it is for these people just to make it through to the end of the day and stay alive. The days you're working and kids you expected to see don't turn up, and you never know why, and you hear the gunfire in the distance, and you start to wonder. Luck runs out for all of us in the end, I guess."
"And yet, you did your six week tour out there, and then you're back for one weekend and you've signed up for another three months. You still got that death wish?" Damon asked, genuinely curious.
"No. Sod it, Damon, you know I don't. I actually feel useful for the first time in my life. I finally feel like there's point to waking up in the morning."
"So if you don't have a death wish any more, how do you wake up hearing the gunfire every morning and rationalize the thought that today might be the day your luck runs out?"
Nick was coldly pragmatic. "You get to a point where you can't live every day in fear of something that might never happen, or you just wouldn't live."
"So what exactly do you know about the Whitehall angle?" Laura Shepherd asked Jake.
"Whitehall's main focus is into whether potentially crucial evidence was ignored. Like, there's evidence that Stellman wasn't working alone, but the police for some reason deliberately chose not to follow that line of enquiry. Question is why?"
"Deliberately ignoring evidence? Bloody hell, Jake. You didn't mention any of this at the inquest, why?"
"It wasn't relevant to Stellman's death. Look, the official line is that the police investigated the possibility that there was an accomplice, but they found no evidence to corroborate it. They don't want to believe it, what am I supposed to say?"
Jake couldn't completely conceal his bitterness, but sod it, it didn't matter that the police didn't believe him, because he could sense that Laura Shepherd did. His gamble was paying off.
"This accomplice, what do you know about him?"
"He's in his late twenties, red hair. We all saw him, the descriptions match. What's even more creepy is that he's still following us. He's been stalking Misako, she even managed to get a photograph of him." Jake sat back to to watch, and Laura Shepherd's reaction didn't disappoint.
"When I said I'd sell my soul for a good story..."
"I would say your soul is the least of your worries," he cautioned. "This guy is an accessory to the torture and murder of ten kids and right now he's effectively above the law. Keep in mind he might not appreciate you printing a story about him."
"Reassuring little bugger, aren't you You don't think you're being over-melodramatic?"
"We saw the guy standing in the crowd outside the inquest this morning, watching us. What do you think?"
"I think your story is worth checking out," she kept her words upbeat and practical despite her nerves. "You mentioned you had a photograph of the guy, I don't suppose there's a chance I could get a copy of that is there?"
"Thanks for agreeing to see me, Colonel Masters."
Masters remained seated. "You left me very little choice, Miss Shepherd. You're making some extremely serious accusations here. You must be extremely confident if you're willing to risk the consequences of publishing this."
His words made her uncomfortable, it was difficult to interpret them as being anything other than a threat. Life as a rookie reporter on the East Riding Gazette had never really prepared her for a confrontation like this.
"So you're assuming there's a conspiracy. Answer me this, if Stellman was working with someone, who do you think that someone might be?" Masters continued.
"The police claim he doesn't exist. Officially they considered the evidence there was someone else involved and found it lacking. Someone inside the police force was either blackmailed or was paid off. And it has to be someone high up. And you have no evidence as to who that is, or you'd have acted against him already, you wouldn't be sat here talking to me right now..." she left the thought hanging.
"Keep going," Masters prompted.
"So you need another way to flush him out. The general public, of course, are more interested in vengeance than justice," she continued. "They like to see their enemies paraded through the streets and burned at the stake, the need for evidence and the process of law is a inconvenience when it comes to a lynching. And you know, Colonel, with public opinion as skewed against the police as it is right now, if they're told the police failed to investigate the existence of an accomplice, they won't be bothered by the need for evidence, they'll demand a witch hunt."
Masters remained silent.
Laura Shepherd worked it out. "And that's what you want, isn't it? For me to do your dirty work for you. You aren't here to deny any part of my story. You actually want me to publish."
"You might think that," Masters smiled a thin lipped smile. "I, of course, couldn't possibly comment."
Kal led Jake into a supplies closet and shut the door behind him. ~They're loading up the rescue ship to head out. This is goodbye I guess. So, we don't have much time. Drop your pants.~
Jake hesitated. "I didn't think you were supposed to do things like this?"
Kal grinned back at him. ~I'm not. Not supposed to have sex either, but I do.~
Jake dropped his pants, unsure of what to expect. He found himself mildly concerned what anybody might think if they came into the closet right now the way Kal was kneeling down in front of him. It had to look pretty dodgy.
Then he rapidly had to clench his jaw to avoid shouting out in pain. He couldn't work out why the sonic disintegrator should hurt more than the bullet that had originally shattered his knee, but it bloody well did.
"No sign of a limp at all any more. How the hell are you planning on explaining that one?" Misako looked across the burger restaurant table at Jake.
"Hey, this is me, I'll work out a way. Somehow," he didn't sound convinced. He wasn't convinced. He'd spent the best part of the last eight hours trying to come up with an excuse, and so far had failed. "Just one of those weekends, you know."
"Look, mate, take the costume with you, change when we get to Kristen's," he suggested, trying to pre-empt Jake from doing anything too silly.
"Damon, you're underestimating my mom here. She's suspicious now, she thinks I'm going to try something, which is fair enough because this time I totally am. But whatever I do, it can't be the obvious, because she'll be looking for it. I guarantee she'll check my bag."
Damon tried to think for a minute. "So jaunt out and stash the costume somewhere nearby and we can pick it up on the way."
Jake smiled, picked up his phone and dialed.
"Kath, worked out what you're wearing to Wimbledon yet?' he enquired. "You know you hurt me when you say stuff like that... Well, yes actually I do need a favor, nothing serious, just, need to stash a bag at your house for a few days... No, nothing like that, just a fancy dress costume, not allowed to wear it to a party... Yeah, well, you're someone I would call impartial, I'll bring it over and you can tell me if you think it's indecent."
Damon looked up, interrupting Misako's attempt to get him to see reason. "Why is it bad things happen to good people, Misako, why is that?"
Misako lost her cool. She was pissed off at Jake, but Jake wasn't in any state to listen. "Who are you to judge that, Damon? Who the hell do you think you are to judge?"
"What if Jake had died, what if he'd ended up with brain damage?"
"Well he didn't. You just told me he didn't. Damon, Jake is an idiot. He's an immature, irresponsible, idiot. You said it yourself, what he needs most is a good kick up the rear end. Maybe this is exactly what had to happen, Damon. Maybe he'll finally get it into that thick skull of his that he can't go on taking irresponsible risks. It wasn't you that nearly killed him, it wasn't hyperspace, it was the poppers. I don't object to people weighing the risks and making reasoned choices about how they live their lives, but we don't have that luxury, Damon, because we don't know what the risks are. It's about bloody time Jake learned that, about bloody time he grew up."
Damon made no attempt to answer back.
It was Saturday morning, an early Saturday morning in mid-December. The kind of early in the morning that sane people reserved for still being in bed. Jake was sane, still in bed, and planning to stay in bed for a good few hours longer. Damon should have known better than to wake him telepathically this early in the morning. Unless it was something serious.
Jake opened his eyes. That was it. Something serious. It was always something sodding serious. Couldn't they just have a quiet weekend where nothing actually happened for once? Maybe if he just ignored Damon then the problem would go away. Yeah, right, some sodding chance of that.
~You still in bed you lazy git?~ Damon called out, confirming Jake's pessimistic evaluation of his chances of ever getting back to sleep.
He made no effort to conceal his antipathy. ~What are you doing up you sad twat? Can't you just piss off and go back to sleep? Like I was until you bloody woke me up.~
~Yeah, you can thank me later. Go check the news, you want to see this.~ Okay, he certainly sounded kind of serious, but then Damon was quite capable of sounding serious even when he was taking the piss,
Jake yawned and rolled over, reaching down for the laptop he'd left... actually, he'd left it on the bed, it must have fallen off onto the floor while he was asleep. Bugger. He shook it, but it wasn't making any questionable rattling noises, so he chanced it and turned it on. It still worked, which kind of surprised him. He really needed to be more bloody careful with the thing in future. No more Sadville in bed at night when he was that tired.
He rubbed his eyes, it wasn't easy to get his eyes to focus this early in the morning. Generally the activities he used the laptop for in bed on a Saturday morning only ever involved looking at pictures. Reading text took a set of skills that were even less awake than the rest of him was right now.
Jake navigated clumsily to the news front page and stared blankly at it. He didn't need to read the anything; the picture that accompanied the headline told him all he needed to know.
Scandal. Manhunt. Jake snapped awake.
It was the picture of the guy with red hair, Misako's picture, the picture Jake had given to the reporter from the East Riding Gazette. Except now it was national headline news.
Jake fell back in the bed and laughed. Laughed until there were tears in his eyes. Best Saturday morning wake up call he'd had ever, without exception. Jake grinned a perversely satisfied grin.
It felt like a good day to be alive.
A single light burned in the old converted Victorian office building. It was closing on midnight, the corridors were cold and empty and silent, the building almost deserted, but some people never seemed to catch on to the idea that there was more to life than slaving behind a desk, some people never seemed to find time to go home. On this occasion security recorded two people as still being signed in; the usual suspects.
The office itself was dimly lit. The fluorescents were turned off and only a desk lamp illuminated the room. Other than that one lamp, the desk was bare; the Dell PC that had once sat there had been unceremoniously dumped in the corner. The man behind the desk didn't much hold with new fangled technology like that.
He wore thick rimmed reading glasses, his hair was unashamedly grey, his face careworn. He was in his sixties, but looked much, much older. A relic of a bygone age, he still wore a brown nylon suit in an age where more casual work attire had long become the norm, still held onto an old fashioned formality in a world that had long since abandoned the old structured hierarchies of the work place. But this was no civil servant counting down the days until his retirement; he was a crusader on a mission, a mission that after more than four decades was finally entering it's end game. His eyes burned with a passion undiminished by the passing of time. He had a duty to Queen and country to fulfill; retirement was a luxury he couldn't afford just yet.
And so, as the seconds ticked over into another empty Friday morning in February, he sat at his desk contemplating how the hell he would ever get the job done and be able to retire, surrounded as he was by complete incompetence.
"That's it?" Masters pulled apart the file and stared dispassionately at the single side of paper it contained. "The culmination of two months of intensive surveillance, and all you've got for me is one potential sighting. Potential?" Masters shouted angrily, throwing the report down on the desk in front of him in disgust. "He's a wanted fugitive, for heaven's sake, he's hardly likely to be hanging out in an internet cafe, booking a package holiday for two to the Costa del Sol. Do we employ anyone who understands the concept of common sense these days?"
"The publicity was your idea, national tabloid newspapers offering a Ôø°10,000 reward for information leading to his arrest, all it's done is make him an order of magnitude more paranoid," the man stood in front of Masters desk wasn't about to be bullied into admitting any responsibility for the failure. "There is very little our surveillance team can do if he doesn't want to be found. Let's face it, he has the entire world to hide in; a world where our influence no longer holds the sway it used to, where we can't touch him."
Masters looked about to argue, then shook his head and leaned back in his chair, his joyless demeanor betraying an air of exasperation. "I might, perhaps, have miscalculated there," he finally conceded. "He's a dangerous man to underestimate, I never thought for a moment that my mistake would be to over-estimate him, but I really didn't think he'd give up so easily. I thought he'd go after those kids whatever we did to get in his way."
"So how do we proceed?"
"We need to draw him out, force him into the open."
"Kill one or more of the kids, that'll get his attention."
Masters thought for a moment. "Will it? I don't know any more. His behavior isn't entirely rational or predictable any more. I'm not sure killing one of those kids would buy us anything here."
"Would it hurt to try?"
"There was a time I might have seriously considered that option," Masters admitted, "but not any more. Those kids are a valuable asset, too valuable to risk on a speculative gamble like that. Right now I genuinely believe there's a significant chance they'll listen to reason, make a deal with us, and while that opportunity remains I will do nothing to jeopardize our relationship with them, nothing whatsoever. Particularly not arbitrarily killing them. No, we need a new approach, I just don't have any ideas right now as to what that new approach might be. None at all."
The younger man hesitated a moment, waiting to see if Masters had finished speaking. He wasn't in any hurry, he could wait there all night if necessary, like Masters he had no life to go home to. Having hesitated long enough to work out that Masters was done, he broke the silence. "Then can we discuss other business?"
Masters looked up at the second file that was being offered, held there in front of him and yet kept just out of his reach, as if by way of temptation. "Good news or bad news?" he asked.
"Identification report on a suspected Habiruan scroll."
"So there is a Santa Claus," Masters pondered curiously. "And I thought he'd just forgotten me."
He had to rise a couple of inches from his seat in order to reach out far enough to grab the report.
"In Iraq," Masters said, reading carefully through the summary. "It would be Iraq, of course, wouldn't it."
He read it a second time, then sat and considered his options for a minute or two before speaking again. "It used to be so easy," he mused, "back when there was a war. Items like this could be spirited out of the place without any of the incumbent red tape. Now there's a government there, a department of antiquities, and an expectation that items like this belong to the people of Iraq. What are our recovery options?"
"Official loan, to the British Museum?"
"They'd never agree to that. Not unless we had some way of twisting their arm, earning their gratitude. Try again."
Masters was handed a third file by way of answer. He extracted the document inside and stopped reading abruptly after the first line.
"Coincidence?" he asked, frowning.
"Coincidences do happen."
"Indeed. But a coincidence like this?" Masters said quietly. "All a little too convenient for my liking."
"You really think our elusive friend could contrive something this improbable?"
"Yes he could, his mind is twisted enough, and he has the ability to pull it off. It just doesn't make sense. Unless he's gone so far off the deep end that he's lost his mind altogether."
"You mean he's setting a trap for us?"
"Or setting a trap for those kids. Or maybe it is just a coincidence. But whatever, it's a rare opportunity, and one we can't afford to pass on; the chance we've been waiting for to kill two birds with one stone."
Masters hesitated, his mind working overtime.
"No," he corrected himself. "Make that three birds with one stone. We get him, we get those kids, we get the scroll."
Masters noted the look of concern he was getting.
"Oh, I know. I realize there's a certain risk involved," he continued. "What if he gets to them before I get to him? That could get messy. What if they work out what the scroll is really all about? That's equally a gamble. But sometimes you have to gamble big to win big."
Masters smiled. "He's making mistakes, he's not invulnerable any more. We can afford to take a few risks. And as for those kids, I should have pushed them harder at the inquest, if I want them talking to me then I need to scare them more, a lot more."
"With respect, sir, I still think it would be safer just to eliminate them outright."
"I don't see the need, I really don't. The old ideologies are dead and buried. We've broken the cycle of learning, they're clueless about who they really are and what it is they can and can't do. That makes them ours to mould as we see fit. They could be powerful allies, and God knows we need every advantage we can get right now, what with all these budget cuts."
The younger man could see that Masters wasn't about to be swayed. "So should we alert our people in Iraq?"
"Yes. Not that there's any chance it'll be that easy," Masters cautioned. "Obviously if they see him, their orders are to shoot on sight, blame it on insurgents. It's still a dangerous place after all, innocent bystanders die all the time. But they won't see him, he's not that stupid."
Masters thought carefully. He was going to have to lay his plans meticulously; he would need a back up plan, and then he'd need a back up plan for the back up plan, because there was every likelihood it would come to that. He was backing a dangerous adversary into an awkward corner; there was every likelihood that things would get very, very ugly indeed. But then, Masters contemplated, when national security was involved a certain degree of ugliness was an inevitability.
"We have the advantage on both sides. We'll never get a better chance than this," he made his decision. "This Nick Smart in Iraq, make contact, trick him, give him a sob story, I don't care, do whatever it takes. Use him to get the scroll out, then throw him to the wolves. Meanwhile I'll put together a reception committee here, and await a call from our young friends."
"What if they get suspicious?"
"They will. I'm depending on it," observed Masters. "So stay close."
Listen For The Screaming
"Forty-seven... forty-eight... forty-nine..." Jake stopped. This was pointless, bloody pointless, completely bloody pointless. Bench presses, and he wasn't even slightly out of breath. He slumped back on the bench still arguing with the futility of it all. School insisted he still did some kind of physical exercise, he understood that, but this fitness regime they'd agreed with his physiotherapist was completely sodding useless.
He stared up at the peeling paint on the ceiling, lost in thought. The weights room wasn't exactly in the best of repair; The equipment was old and rusted, the room itself had no ventilation, it smelled, it got hot, it was a shit hole in there. The equipment was located in what had previously been the boys changing rooms before those had been condemned on health and safety grounds; the school had been forced into a phased renovation programme, but then the cash had run out before a new weights training facility could be built. They'd even had the bollocks to argue that the existing facility wasn't used enough to justify spending anything more on a new one. Right, except that the only reason it wasn't used was because of the bloody crap-awful state it was in.
It was certainly not where Jake would have chosen to spend his Friday afternoon games lesson. He would rather have gone swimming, or cross country running; something that got the blood pumping, anything that got him out of breath. But no, he was lying on his back in the weights room pretending to exert himself doing bench presses; the inactivity was winding him up something chronic, and all because of his bloody physiotherapist.
His really hot Norwegian physiotherapist. And that was another problem; it was now 1:35PM, he had an appointment with her scheduled for 3:00PM, and he hadn't managed to work out how to talk his way out of it yet. Half an hour with his pants off getting his knee prodded and poked, followed by a sauna and full body massage that was guaranteed get him totally inappropriately excited; he genuinely couldn't think of a better way to finish out a Friday afternoon. She was attractive, she was spirited, she had a great sense of humor, and no, of course nothing intimate would happen, but he could dream, and the dreams would feed his fantasies for weeks. Only Jake Laris was having none of that. He was desperate to spend the afternoon in a stuffy classroom pretending to give a shit about maths instead. What the hell kind of messed up was that?
The insanity of the proposition would play in his favor, all he needed was a half plausible excuse to go with it, but so far the best he'd been able to come up was claiming he'd been distracted and had inadvertently forgotten all about the appointment. It was a totally crap excuse, it was bordering on desperation, but this was the fourth time he'd had to come up with a way to avoid his physiotherapist and he was running out of ideas.
And the excuses weren't getting him any closer to solving the real problem; the fused bones in his knee had been repaired, she'd be able to spot the lack of paralysis in like six seconds, and no web of lies he could weave was going to explain that one away.
Stuck in a closet with an alien, being offered the chance to walk again, it had all seemed so easy at the time. The consequences of that decision were turning out to be more bloody complicated than he ever would have anticipated. In a post-modern cynical world how the hell did you convince people to believe in miracles?
He'd half seriously considered trying to get his family to take him to Lourdes, then he could claim a real miracle. It would be a lie, of course, but enough people would fall for it. Then the doctors would examine him, and faced with having to concede the miraculous in complete contradiction of all their scientific reason, they'd lie. Jake understood human nature, the overwhelming need humans had to bend the facts to fit with their own perception of truth. The doctors would resort to whatever bollocks it took rather than give credence to a supernatural faith, and Jake would have his plausible scientific excuse to convince any doubters. Then maybe everyone would shut the bloody hell up about it and let him get on with his life.
That wouldn't work on his mother though. She was too rational to be blinded by any slight of hand miracles, and too open minded about the possibilities to need to delude herself with made up answers. She was too bloody pragmatic altogether, it wasn't exactly easy to manipulate someone like that. Unfortunately the truth wasn't all that likely to convince her either. Jake had absolutely no clue what to say. What the hell could he say?
He hated lying. All he ever wanted to do was to tell people the truth. But it was never that simple, the truth was complex and all too often it was just easier to lie; and if Jake had a personality flaw, other than his arrogance, and recklessness, and... alright, he conceded, he had a lot of personality flaws, but one of them was his tendency to be lazy and take the easy way out whenever he could, which was usually more often than not.
That said, a lie might be convenient in the moment, but the consequences were seldom straightforward. As a game he played with teachers, lies were an amusing diversion, but as that hobby had turned into a career, it was starting to lose it's magic. Keeping his stories straight was stressful. The inquiry had pretty much done it for him; knowing a single slip could have cost him an untold amount of trouble, that was sleepless nights kind of stressful. Lies only worked if they were kept simple, less chance of screwing them up; the story he'd spun for the inquiry was the most audacious, hacked together, barefaced fabrication of a cover story he'd ever had to come up with in his life. Sure it had worked, but the cost had been high. Too high, he was going grey; two actual grey pubes, and he was only seventeen years old. He hadn't had pubes long enough for the bloody things to be going grey already.
It wasn't fun any more. Somewhere, somehow, the lies had to stop. At least that was his theory. The reality was that he couldn't stop yet, certainly not until he'd solved the little problem of his physiotherapy appointment anyway. And over that one he'd managed to get himself backed into a serious corner.
Jake's mind kept going round in circles, which made for a great mental workout, but wasn't doing any bloody good for his physical fitness. Not that it really mattered whether he worked out or not; he wasn't exactly going to get fit on the totally lame fitness program they'd assigned him, and anyway there was no one there to know whether he was bothering to follow it or not. The weights room was such a shit hole, not even teachers bothered to venture there, especially not on a Friday afternoon. Which meant, Jake contemplated vacantly, there was no one to catch him if he did push himself. So, sod it, why the hell not?
He loosened the straps on his leg brace and adjusted the weight on the leg press up to 180kg. His knee was feeling stiff, which was no bloody wonder when he kept it strapped up in the leg brace most of the day. He had to keep it strapped up to help him fake the limp all day, every day; no question the lie was totally out of control. That was stress. Exertion helped the stress. He lay back and started to push.
It started to get tough as he approached forty repetitions, but he kept going, he was determined to hit fifty, and he was actually starting to break a sweat.
"Forty-seven... forty-eight... forty-nine... fifty." He stopped. Jake was happy with his performance, not bad at all for a guy who three months earlier had been confined to a wheelchair with most of his knee bones fused and the nerves partially severed.
He bumped the weight up to 200kg. Time for a real workout.
The voice startled him. He looked around in panic for a moment, terrified someone had been watching the whole time. He had his shirt off, he was sweating like crazy. He'd been pushing himself hard for twenty minutes, and doing shit with weights that no one with a crippled leg had any business doing.
The voice came again, this time Jake managed to work out that it was someone calling telepathically.
~I'm kind of busy,~ he sent back, trying not to sound rude, but Damon knew better than to call him at school.
"Lying on your back, barely even half dressed, sweaty, I don't want to know what you were doing. And is that smell you or the room?" Damon sounded distracted for a moment.
Jake frowned. Those words had been spoken out loud.
"Damon, you ignorant twat, tell me you weren't so stupid as to jaunt over here."
"No, course I wasn't. What the hell do you think, Jake?"
"I wasn't visualizing, and our one attempt at long distance jaunting without visual assistance got so totally screwed up I didn't think any of us were up to trying again any time soon."
"I could see you okay, telepathically. You don't actually have to actively do the visualizing thing for it to work, that just makes it easier."
"So you can sneak up on me now. That's creepy. And stop that bloody evil grin," Jake joked.
Damon's face remained emotionless and blank. "I'm not grinning," he said. His words were anxious, calculated.
Jake was puzzled. "Then what the hell are you here for?"
"In a biology class. What's it to you?"
"Nick, left me a message, garbled, said he'd done something stupid, Kath was in danger. He'd tried leaving messages for her, but he wanted to make sure. So, I came."
"Came without thinking through the consequences or the practicalities?"
"Came without any plan about what to do when you got here, even less plan about how to get back?"
"Kath, in danger, have to warn her. What part of that don't you get?"
Jake sat up. Damon was genuinely worried about something. "I get it. I totally get it," he replied, grabbing his shirt from the floor and using it to wipe himself down. Damon wasn't the excitable type, if he said danger then he meant danger. It was just the attitude; Damon and Misako still acted like they were pissed off with him half the time. And okay, maybe they had every reason to be, Jake knew his behavior at the Christmas party hadn't exactly been exemplary, but he'd apologized, he even meant the apology, he felt bad about what had happened, what the hell more did they want from him?
Damon's impatience spilled over. "We haven't got time for this, Jake. Can't you just get over it already? I'm sick of this shit getting in the way. Alright, come on, let's get it out of the way right now, what's your point?"
"You, spontaneous. You, acting without thinking. I do that, people get all pissed off. I'm not trying to get on your case here, but explain to me why that isn't a double standard?"
"This is getting stupid, Jake? We had a screaming row in a field in Wiltshire at four in the morning, remember? We had this out already."
"We did?" Jake frowned. But now he thought about it, he did vaguely remember. Maybe that was it, maybe they'd resolved everything but he didn't remember because he'd been completely shit-faced, out of his head drunk at the time. Great, that was all he needed, more bloody stupidity to feel guilty about; it was already awkward enough dealing with Damon half the time as it was.
"Jake, if you want to have that argument again, I'm fine with that, but can we do it later? This is serious."
Jake let go. Damon was right, that was an argument for another time. "Serious. Right. Take your jacket off, tie off, now. As for those bloody pants... Let me think a minute."
"What?" Damon stared back blankly. "You want I take my pants off as well? What is this?"
"Anyone walks in, sees you wearing that uniform, they'll know you're not from around here. And that will immediately cause complications that won't help us get to Kath."
"Right," Damon accepted, starting to understand the problems his sudden appearance was going to cause.
"What kind of danger? Do we need to get Kath out of her class?" Jake tried to get a feel for the level of urgency.
"Something to do with a package he sent her, he needs it back, and she's in danger as long as she has it. That's all I know. I'd say we can wait until she's out of the class, but I'd like to be watching for her coming out of the class."
Jake checked the clock on the wall. "Half an hour. Only safe place to hide you for that long is in the store room. I'll take you down there, then I'll need to come back here, get a shower, and see if I can raid the lost property, find something that'll make you a little less conspicuous."
"I need to call home as well, they'll have worked out I'm missing by now. Ideas?"
"Fix your own problems, you're the twat that jaunted here without a plan." Jake replied unsympathetically.
~Teacher coming, look left.~
Damon looked away. He tried to make it look just the right degree of casual, which wasn't easy because teachers were always good at spotting behavior that was suspiciously over-casual.
The corridor was crowded and noisy, kids bundling out of lessons as quickly as they could, determined to take as long as they could getting to the next lesson, pushing and jostling between people who all seemed oblivious to the existence of anyone outside their own small groups of friends. Teachers at Damon's school wouldn't have tolerated it. They wouldn't have tolerated the lax attention to dress code or the casual attitude to personal hygiene either; there was a distinct smell of stale afternoon sweat permeating the air. Damon couldn't work out if the boys at this school didn't understand the concept of deodorant, or if were they just too inept to buy any.
He couldn't work out how Jake put up with it; Jake at least understood deodorant. Then again, Jake had other challenges when it came to personal hygiene that in some ways were far more gross; in his favor though, Jake's challenges were comparatively discreet and a lot easier to ignore than smells were.
Anyway, despite the white shirt he had on, and despite how he was the only guy there who wasn't wearing jeans, so far no one had given Damon a second look, thanks largely to the regulation hoodie in the school colors that Jake had set him up with. It worked exactly like an invisibility cloak; eyes just seemed look right through him.
Jake was in a better mood as well; he'd snapped out of the guilt trip thing for the moment. Two months ago the rant they'd had at him had seemed measured and proportional, but when Jake was still acting so apologetic and defensive this long afterwards, Damon was starting to feel like it was possible he and Misako had overdone it a bit. Then again, Jake hadn't done anything stupid and irresponsible in two months either, so maybe Misako was right, maybe it was the exact kick up the arse Jake had needed.
~You're clear,~ Jake let him know.
Damon turned back around.
~So,~ Jake continued, ~you manage to scare the shit out of Mike when he turned up down there? What the hell did you tell him?~
~I just shook my head dismissively and confessed it was one of your nefarious schemes that I'd gotten myself dragged into. He commiserated and let it go. He knows better than to ask questions. I like the guy.~
~His ability to keep his mouth shut has saved my butt on more than one occasion...~ Jake paused. ~Okay, this is Kath now.~
"Kath, got a minute?" Jake called cheerily.
Kath looked across, her smile giving way to a worried look as she spotted Damon.
"Hi, Damon, your friend Pete is totally sick," Lisa, who was walking out of the class with Kath shouted dreamily across.
Damon tried to smile nonchalantly, uncomfortable with having any attention drawn to him, but no one seemed to notice, it was just Lisa being Lisa.
~Tell her Pete mentioned her a couple of times.~ Jake prompted.
"Lisa, right. Yeah, Pete, he talks about you," Damon stumbled out. He could instantly sense Lisa's happiness quotient rising, and figured out what Jake was up to; making it easier for them to grab Kath away without upsetting her best friend. Jake was disturbingly thorough at this kind of stuff. Damon wasn't sure he'd be able to deal with Jake if it weren't for the fact he could see inside his mind, see whether he was telling the truth; that was the only way he could be friends with someone who lied that casually.
Still, immoral as it might have been, the ruse worked; Lisa departed and Jake, Damon and Kath quickly dodged out a side door. They managed to hold off any further conversation until they were out in the school yard and sufficiently out of earshot of anyone else as not to be overheard.
When Kath finally spoke, she spoke impatiently. "What the hell is going on, what are you doing here, no offense, but..." she froze, looking at Damon's humorless expression. "Something's happened to Nick. Oh dear God please don't be here because something's happened to Nick."
"He's been trying to call you, you not getting his messages?"
"I just got a new cellphone, had to get a new number, long story, I texted him the new number though."
"Texted? His landline in Iraq?" Damon was incredulous, but held back showing his impatience too much.
"Right. Kind of pointless," Kath admitted. "So what's this all about?"
"He said he sent you a package."
"Right. Arrived this morning just as I was leaving. I hid it in the bag with that sodding fancy dress costume of Jake's I actually finally remembered I was going to bring into school because I know Jake is too useless to remember, I didn't want my mum seeing the package, so I hid it back in my bedroom," Kath rambled. "I certainly wasn't going to bring it in to school, because, well... you know Nick's sense of humor..."
"No, not the way you do anyway," Damon confessed. He figured he could guess what Kath was alluding to, Nick hadn't shut up talking about her for the last three months, but he didn't want to go there. He found it tough to think of Nick as someone who got up to those kinds of things; it just seemed gross.
"Look, he said he made a mistake." Time was short, and Damon pushed himself to get back to the point. "Nick said he didn't know for sure, but he thinks it might be dangerous."
"What kind of dangerous?" Kath looked distasteful.
"Not that kind," Damon answered quickly. "Real danger."
Kath understood. "Dangerous enough he contacted you when he couldn't get in touch with me, dangerous enough that you cut school and headed over here to warn me. Dangerous to have in the house dangerous? You don't know that either, do you?"
"Nick isn't exactly the hysterical type. He said dangerous."
"We need to get over there now," Jake interjected. Damon wasn't the hysterical type either. "Give me a couple of minutes to make my apologies to Miss Hinton, meet me... Kath, you know the bus stop up the road towards town?"
"Meet me there in five or ten minutes. And watch Damon, you know, make sure he doesn't do anything stupid."
Kath frowned disdainfully at Jake. Damon tried not to react; Jake's reputation for acts of stupidity clearly went back a long, long way.
"So, you park right outside the staffroom, where they can see when it's gone. Doesn't that make it bloody obvious you're cutting classes?" Damon asked as he graciously climbed over the into the back so that Kath could have the passenger seat.
"Yes it does. Bloody obvious," Jake answered cryptically.
Damon frowned. There had to be a trick.
"And you abuse that mercilessly, don't you?" Kath revealed, pausing so as not to distract him as he pulled out into traffic, "See, Damon, the other side to it is that if they can see the car, they assume he's still at school, even when he isn't. He had that worked out the first time he ever parked there."
That made a lot more sense. Typical bloody Jake.
Jake grinned an evil grin. "Do I need to worry about you knowing all my secrets?"
"I've known you long enough to figure out how some of that devious mind of yours works, Jake Laris." She glanced conspiratorially over into the back seat. "Be his friend, Damon, but don't ever fall into the trap of thinking you can trust him."
"Don't think there's any danger of him ever trusting me again, not after how badly lost I got us walking back from the Christmas party. Took a wrong turn, ended up in a field in Wiltshire," Jake joked cynically.
"The party was in Southampton, Jake. Don't overdo the hyperbole," she scolded.
"Who's joking?" Jake smirked in retaliation.
Kath was not impressed by Jake's attitude. It was bad enough that he was irritating her like that, worse that he was maliciously telling the truth. ~You have to say that?~ Damon complained. ~What if she believes you?~
~I know Kath, she always thinks I taking the piss.~
"But this time you've taken the car, so what's your excuse? How'd you convince Hinton to let you skip?" Kath persisted.
Jake grinned smugly. "I'm going to my physiotherapy appointment."
"There's lies, damned lies, and Jake's excuses," Damon observed dryly.
~A minute ago you were complaining about me not lying.~
~Sometimes I wonder if you know the difference.~
~I've got it under control. What's your problem?~
Damon stared quizzically through the back of Jake's head; Jake was playing a dangerous game. ~I thought you said your excuse for missing the appointment was that you'd forgotten about it. What if they cross reference.~
~Don't bloody go on about it, Damon, I know.~
~Ten weeks it's been, you have got to work this out, Jake. Sooner or later you won't be able to hide it any more,~ he pushed.
~Yes, okay, so drop it, alright?~
~Fine, don't stress then,~ Damon gave up. ~Seriously, you don't need any more grey hairs.~
~I solved that problem.~ Jake said with more than a hint of exasperation at where the conversation was going.
~Shaving it off hides the symptoms, Jake, it doesn't solve the fundamental problem.~
~That wasn't the only reason I started shaving,~
Damon could see the usual Jake tactic there; confuse and distract. He wasn't falling for it. ~I don't want to know.~
~Look, if it bothers you that much, you figure out what I'm supposed to say. I'm happy to take suggestions here.~
~I've only got one answer for you,~ Damon retorted coldly. ~Because you do still have that baseball bat in your bedroom. And you I'm here for you, mate, seriously, I'm more than willing to help fix your knee so the limp isn't a lie any more.~
"Well, the house is still there," Kath observed hopefully as they turned the corner into the street where she lived. It hadn't taken long to get there, her house was barely a four minute drive from the school.
Damon looked nervously up and down the street. Just another semi-detached suburban street; two point four cars in every garage and snowdrops blooming unimaginatively in every garden. At least the flowers had some bloody weird idea that winter was over, even if they look blindly optimistic in the cold, persistent drizzle. Damon shivered sympathetically; he'd left his school jacket in the store room at the school and the appropriated hoodie he was wearing wasn't nearly as warm.
Still, normal street, boring street, that was all that mattered. ~Kath's joking, I know that, but with us around, turning that corner to be confronted by a gaping hole in the space time continuum wouldn't have surprised me much,~ Damon said sarcastically.
Jake didn't seem to have entirely caught up, his mind still stuck on the previous conversation. ~How is it, Damon, that I can happily confront the prospect of dimensional anomalies like I haven't a care in the world, and still can't work out how to come up with a single bollocking excuse for one pathetic medical miracle?~
~Because you're oblivious and you're thick, maybe?~
~And why are we friends exactly?~
~Mutual survival, that was your excuse wasn't it? I mean, why would anyone put up with a miserable bastard like you unless it really was an act of desperation.~ Damon suggested.
~So, what you're saying is, you're desperate for me?~
Damon attempt to keep a straight face failed. He just about managed to choke back an audible laugh. He could sense that Jake was just about pissing himself laughing as well, but somehow Jake was able to hide it completely. Smug bastard.
Kath had no clue. "You'll have to park across the road," she unknowingly interrupted their juvenile telepathic amusement.
The parking was easier said than done. It took Jake two attempts to back into the space; he wasn't the world's most accomplished parallel parker. The delay got Kath impatient, she had jumped out the car before the engine was off, and had sprinted across the road in seconds. Jake and Damon hurried to catch up.
At the door she froze. "My mum wouldn't leave it open like that, no way, she's obsessive about shit like that."
~Rift in the space time continuum?~ Damon suggested, half mischievously, but also half expecting it to turn out to be some kind of weird shit like that.
Jake immediately got serious. ~I sense one person in there. Emotions anxious, impatient,~ he looked for confirmation.
Damon nodded. ~Something not going well, a feeling of running out of time.~
"Stay here, stay quiet, I'll go take a look," Jake whispered.
~That leg brace is a bloody liability, watch yourself,~ Damon cautioned, he knew Jake better than to try and talk him out of it.
"Shouldn't we just call the police?" Kath protested.
Ignoring Kath's concern, Jake pushed gently on the door and stepped inside.
"... Because, Jake, the last thing we need is for you to go do anything heroic or stupid," Kath muttered after him, sounding more than a little exasperated.
"Heroic, no chance," Damon weighed in with his opinion. "Stupid, I don't know. I'd like to think he's learned his lesson, but on the evidence of past form..."
"... he'll get himself half killed again. I'm definitely calling the police." Kath pulled her phone out then hesitated, still trying to make sure she had all the risks worked out. "You think," she suggested cautiously, "this has anything to do with the package Nick sent? I mean, that would be way too random, right?"
"A cliché that cheap? Even Dan Brown wouldn't bother."
"So the package thing is totally coincidence?"
Damon shrugged unconvincingly, then gave up. Jake might be able to pull off a lie like that, but Damon wasn't even going to try. "No, not really. Not a chance in hell."
Jake edged silently around the front door and gently pushed it closed it behind him. Standing there in the hallway an unusual wave of common sense overcame him, he knelt down and loosened the straps on his leg brace; Damon was right, the fake limp was a complication he didn't need right now.
He straightened up, trying to work out what the hell he was going to do next. If there was someone else there he needed to know where. Jake turned his head slightly to listen more carefully. He'd played in that house so many times since he was five years old that he knew every tick, every click, every sound it made. The place was old, built in the 1980s, the interior wasn't all that well soundproofed, it should have been easy to pick up on any extraneous movement, but there was nothing, not a single sound he didn't recognize. Whoever was lurking there was was keeping creepily quiet.
There was definitely someone there though; the one thing that humans couldn't keep quiet was the cacophony of thoughts and feelings that leaked out of their minds whether they knew it or not, whether they wanted it or not. Jake could sense loud, persistent emotions coming from directly above him. Someone upstairs was methodically tearing through Kath's bedroom.
He crept towards the bottom of the staircase, flooded by memories of sneaking about Kath's house for all manner of nefarious purposes across the years. Some of the memories were frustratingly vague though, like the time he'd trailed mud into the house right after Kath's grandmother had just spent hours vacuuming ahead of a birthday party. Jake had tried to sneak upstairs to escape her, but one of the stairs had creaked and had given him away. The old bat might have been completely barmy, but she had bloody good hearing and she could move like snot. She'd caught him and made him scrub the carpets; Jake had not been happy. Lovable old witch when he wasn't being naughty, though, and she'd taught him an important lesson about not getting caught. Jake closed his eyes, counted, and avoided the fourth step.
There was silence, hopefully that meant he'd got it right. If not then on the next step things were liable to go very badly tits up; Jake figured it might be wise to have an escape plan ready just in case. ~So. Damon. You in a good position if I need to make a fast exit here, danger of death, that kind of shit?~ he asked inappropriately cheerfully.
~With Kath standing right beside me, no, not so much.~
Damon made a decision. Sure the police were on their way, but he had pretty low expectations of what use they would be. He needed more effective options.
~Kristen?~ He called out into the telepathic emptiness. ~We've kind of got a situation here, I was just wondering, what are you up to right now?~
It was a moment or two before Kristen responded. ~Sailing. On a small yacht with two people I'm trying to teach.~
~Right. Not good timing then.~
~If you want me there, no. If you need a way out, the shoreline of the lake here is heavily wooded, there I can help. If you don't mind getting stuck in Hampshire for the night.~
~Might be an option as a last resort, stay alert, listen for Jake screaming.~
Damon wasn't quite sure why this should feel like he'd ended up acting as Jake's social secretary.
Misako responded instantly, and with some apprehension. ~That tone says Jake is doing something dangerously stupid again. I thought he'd learned his lesson?~
~He made a judgment call, he made the right call, I'm backing him there,~ Damon answered defensively. ~But you know how things can escalate. What are you doing right now?~
~Finished lessons, on my way back to the dorm. You want me there or as back up?~
~Here,~ Damon was defensive but pessimistic, ~in case I need help picking up the pieces again.~
Jake reached the top of the stairs. The only significant emotion he could sense now was frustration. No desperation, no futility, not really any indication that the situation was going to turn dangerous on him. Which, in the scheme of things, was just as well, because as always he had no bloody clue what his plan was.
His first thought was to just shut the bedroom door and trap the intruder in there until the police arrived, but there was a way out through the window, so that wouldn't work. Creeping up behind the intruder with a blunt instrument to administer a quick blow to the back of the head wasn't an option either. That was the flip side to being empathic, what Kal had called the 'Prime Barrier'; Jake just wasn't capable of unprovoked violence, his ability for actual malice would extend about as far as creeping up behind the intruder and loudly shouting boo. The best he could hope for was to make the guy wet himself.
Jake smiled. Actually, it wasn't such a bad idea. This was why he never tried to make plans; the best ideas were always the crazy, spur of the moment ideas that couldn't ever be planned. Scaring the bugger off empty handed; that would be enough, he didn't need to over-think it.
Jake quickly returned to the fourth stair, this time he didn't step over; the loud creaking noise it made was exactly the way he remembered it. The noise didn't cause a panic, the intruder was far too professional for that, what Jake could sense was determination, a single minded desire to get away, and quickly.
A figure emerged from the bedroom, a woman, kind of a manly looking woman, but definitely a woman. She was dressed in overalls, bland and anonymous, a hood obscured most of her face. She was carrying a bag, a sports bag that Jake recognized; his sports bag. What the hell was she doing with that? The woman was also feeling satisfied; at the last moment she'd managed to find what she was looking for. The bag was the bag Kath had stashed the package in to hide it, the woman's emotions started to make an unfortunate kind of sense.
The woman stopped at the top of the stairs as she made eye contact with Jake. She was weighing up her options, trying to work out whether to try and jump over him, or charge straight through him. On consideration, Jake preferred the idea of her trying to jump over him, it came across as less likely to hurt; he stared through her eyes trying to work out what he could do that would nudge her decision that way.
Before he had anything worked out, she jerked her head upwards, staring anxiously towards the bathroom, acting like someone else was there. Nice try on her part, but Jake couldn't sense anyone back there; cute tricks like that didn't work on him. He remained motionless, his eyes still fixed resolutely on the intruder.
A flash of movement over his left shoulder caught him completely off guard. Before he had time to think, the woman seized the chance to make a break for it. She launched herself straight at him and managed to slam her way past. Jake fought off the momentary shock. There bloody had been someone back there, the woman hadn't been faking it, why the hell hadn't he sensed that? He pulled himself shakily to his feet. By now the second figure, a ninja hooded figure who looked a hell of a lot scarier than first intruder, had jumped the bannister in a single bound, tackled the woman, pulled the bag away from her and was making a break for the door.
~Damon, thing, stuff, incoming.~ Jake managed to send a garbled warning as the woman took off in pursuit. He caught his balance and tore off after the both of them, running as hard as he could. He bolted out into the front garden, barely even registering that Damon was lying there on the ground, twisting in agony. No permanent damage, just kicked somewhere particularly inconsiderate. Kath was already there for him, there was nothing useful Jake could do to help. He kept on running.
Jake was young, he was fit, he was easily catching them up. He grabbed for the bag as the ninja guy tried to jump the hedge at the front of the house. For a moment he thought he had it, until a side kick from the woman sent him stumbling back into a rose bush. The thorns cut into his face and arms and he pulled himself away bleeding, thankfully the kick hadn't been anything too serious, he was winded, but still a lot better off than Damon was right now.
What it had done though was to screw any chance of him being able to catch up. Jake stumbled back over to the hedge. The ninja guy with the bag was already clear off in the distance and had a significant head start; the woman was still running flat out, but there was no way she would catch up with him now.
Jake choked back a satisfied smile, noting that the ninja guy still had one little problem to contend with; he might be fast, but Misako was faster. Jake watched smugly as Misako launched into a flying tackle and took the guy down, kicking the bag away from him. Encouraged by the reversal of fortunes and ignoring the blood he was dripping, Jake jumped the fence and sprinted to catch up with Misako.
The ninja guy wasn't in any apparent hurry to give up or leave without the bag. Misako for her part wasn't letting him anywhere near it. It wasn't really a fight, more kind of a stand off; the two of them cautiously circling each other. Unfortunately the both of them weren't paying enough attention to the bag itself.
~Misako, the woman,~ Jake called out urgently, but his warning didn't have quite the intended effect. Misako turned at just the wrong moment, turned as the woman grabbed for the bag and swung it round aggressively, the blow taking Misako full in the face. She stumbled backwards dazed, losing her balance, and collided with the ninja guy who managed to steady her, which ironically almost certainly saved her from a worse injury; she'd been on a trajectory to hit her head hard on the concrete paving.
The woman meanwhile had run off, closely followed by the ninja guy who had very quickly and deftly managed to extricate himself from underneath Misako. Misako, in turn, was in no state to pursue either of them; her nose was bleeding badly.
Jake watched in frustration as the two intruders turned the corner in the distance. For a moment he tried to figure out if there was any practical way of jaunting after them, but then his sense of reason kicked in; that wasn't an option, he had an awareness of too many eyes at windows and figures standing in doorways gawking at the spectacle.
He reached Misako who had picked herself up and was staunching the blood with a handkerchief.
"It was him," Misako had no time for sympathy. "It was the guy with red hair."
Avoiding Awkward Questions
"We definitely could have handled that better." Damon observed weakly as they got back to the house. His voice wasn't any higher pitched than usual, but there was definitely an odd timbre to it. Kath had helped sit him up against the wall; he had his knees pulled tightly up to his chin. Misako and Jake didn't look in all that great shape either, a lot less pain than Damon, but both of them were dripping blood.
Still, Misako noted, it didn't feel like her nose was actually broken. "Can we get inside, people are staring," she prompted the others, anxious to get off the street.
"Right, we should... Misako? Where did you come from?" Kath sounded confused.
Misako didn't have a good explanation but she figured she had to say something. "Damon called me earlier, he was worried. I was already finished for the day so I thought I'd head this way," she kept it vague enough to remain semi-truthful.
"Right." Kath didn't sound convinced, but let it drop.
Jake held the door open as Kath and Misako between them helped Damon into the house. Kath had then grabbed the phone and headed out in to the hallway to check for messages.
"I'm going to be badly bruised again. People might wonder what I get up to," Damon complained.
"There are people who habitually examine your bollocks for signs of bruising?" Jake deadpanned. ~Anyway, look, bruising's easy to fix psychokinetically, at least that's what Kal said. I'll give it a go if you want,~ he added telepathically.
Damon wasn't impressed. ~I'd rather stick with the bruising than let you anywhere near me, I don't care how much pain I'm in. Also, I'm a little worried about your motives here...~
Misako distanced herself from the adolescent humor. In spite of her reputation she didn't fundamentally object to all innuendo, but this really wasn't the appropriate time and place for that kind of humor, not with Kath as upset as she was. Thankfully Jake and Damon caught on, and there were no more jokes as Kath returned looking distracted.
"'They're after it, they'll hurt you to get it, just get it out of the house. I screwed up, I'm sorry. I love you." That's all he said. What the hell kind of trouble is he in?" Kath frowned, struggling to make sense of the situation. Then she broke down as the reality of arriving home to find an intruder in her house finally got through to her. "Listen to me. Listen to what I'm saying, it's all bollocks, it isn't real, it can't be. Shit like this doesn't happen to normal people."
"Shit only ever happens to other people. At least, that is, until the day it happens to you," Damon observed knowingly.
"I just, Nick is, well, Nick, I..." Kath lost the ability to string words together.
"Kath," Jake grabbed her attention to try and distract her from the panic he could sense her closing in on. "The police will be here any minute. You need to go look, now, check what's missing. Make sure it's only that package."
"Right," Kath agreed reluctantly, managing to focus long enough to latch onto the sense of purpose she was being given.
Misako watched thoughtfully. For all Jake pissed her off at times, there was no question he was good with people like that. He had so much potential, unfortunately that potential was continually offset by a complete inability on his part to keep his reckless streak under control. She wanted to like him, but he was just too unpredictable, and Misako needed predictability; it was the only way she knew how to deal with people.
Then again, maybe that was her problem, not Jake's.
Jake was holding a bunch of tissues to his face to try and stop the blood dripping on the sofa. Kath's mom probably wouldn't appreciate blood stains, blood was always tough to get out.
He sat there frustrated and pensive. ~The guy came right up behind me and I didn't sense anything at all. Like he wasn't even there, totally freaking weirded me out.~
~He's a robot?~ Damon tried to rationalize the irrational.
The others frowned at him.
Damon glared back obstinately. ~Well it isn't any more stupid than aliens, is it?~
The three of them were sat awkwardly in Kath's living room waiting for Kath to get back. There was nothing to do but fidget on the furniture and speculate silently on their predicament; Kath was taking forever.
Damon tried to put his feet on the floor, but the pain forced him to hunch forward, resting his elbows on his knees. It was only pain, though, he could handle that; he'd handled a hell of a lot worse. The trick was to keep his attention focussed elsewhere.
Like focussed on something that was pissing him off way more than the pain; something that was reawakening an old fear. ~So what the hell was the redhead guy doing here anyway?~
~He has contacts, he could have found out Nick was in trouble, could be he saw that as potential leverage, maybe he thinks it's a way to get to us.~ Jake speculated.
Damon could see that, or, at least, it made as much crazy sense as anything. ~But someone else beat him to it.~
~And who was that woman?~ Misako said, making no effort to keep the conversation focussed.
~His business partner?~ Damon suggested. ~That whole getaway could have been tag teamed.~
Jake dismissed the idea. ~I might not have been able to sense him, but I could sense her thoughts well enough; she had no clue who he was, and she was pretty determined to take that bag back off of him.~
Damon managed to sit himself upright again at last. ~Which she did. Which ought to be a good thing, but then, we don't actually know which of them is worse.~
There was a lull in the conversation, all the obvious things had already been said.
~I realize this may not be a popular answer, but, do we care? I mean, it's over, the package is gone, the guy with red hair didn't get it, Kath is safe. We should let this one go,~ Misako argued pragmatically.
Jake was reticent to give in so easily. ~You really think the bastard will let us let it go just like that?~.
~No I don't,~ Misako conceded. ~But that doesn't mean we can't try. Jake, you promised me a long time ago that this wouldn't ever turn into a vendetta. We're supposed to be better than that.~
~He's the one that's obsessed here, not us.~ Jake fought his pent up frustration; he was learning, he could see it was a lost cause, but he still couldn't much stand the idea of walking away.
Damon felt more than a little sympathy for Jake's frustration. ~What bothers me...~ he started, then hesitated; he knew exactly what response he was going to get, but he still had to try. ~It's like there's a manhunt going on for the guy and he waltzes in and out of here like he doesn't even care. Like no one can touch him...~
~I know,~ Misako agreed cautiously, nervous about where Damon was headed, determined not to say anything that would encourage him too much. ~And I don't know what we're going to do about that, but I do know that chasing off after him is not the answer.~
Damon gritted his teeth and got it over with. ~There is something practical we can do about it, though. What we have to do is what we didn't do last time. Call Masters and let him deal with it.~
~Deal with what?~ Jake challenged. ~We don't have anything useful to tell him. And I don't see that we're in any danger. I hate to say it but maybe Misako's right, maybe we're overreacting here.~
Damon resisted the temptation to fly off the handle. Misako and Jake would argue the toss, but mention Masters and they immediately put on a show of unity that pissed Damon off something serious. The pair of them were ready to compromise anything to keep Masters out of the equation.
~We're all pretty upset right now. And maybe you have a point, Damon, but I don't think now is a great time to be discussing something major like this,~ Misako tried to diffuse the tension. She wasn't offering any concession, but at least she was a little more diplomatic about it than Jake had been. ~We need to calm down, walk away, get some perspective...~
~And we need Kristen here, it's got to be her decision as well,~ Jake added. It was a fair point, and that just pissed Damon off even more.
Damon gave up. ~Right. Fine. Avoid the problem,~ he dismissed angrily. ~There's no point talking about it, is there? Obviously you've both made up your minds already.~
Jake didn't answer, he didn't have an answer, and under the circumstances that was probably a good thing. Damon wasn't in the mood for it.
They sat in silence, and the silence lasted longer than anyone was really comfortable with. Jake finally shrugged off the melancholy contemplation. ~Kath's been gone too long,~ he announced. ~I'm worried about her. I need to go find her.~
Jake stopped in the hallway to collect himself. He hated arguing with Damon. Hated the real arguing, anyway. Yes, they had their differences of opinion, differences they could both be pretty blunt about expressing; but it was usually all about taking the piss, even when it got heated it was still just a game. When it came to Masters though, Damon couldn't seem to take it as a game any more, and the clash became confrontational to the point it made Jake feel uncomfortable.
And Damon had his reasons, Jake understood that; Damon more than had his reasons; it wasn't that long ago the kid had been waking up in a blind panic every morning. But he was past that now; they hadn't had to ask for Masters help to sort that problem in the end, and there was no reason they needed help this time.
Jake figured they were more than capable of fixing things on their own; except, of course, fixing things meant going after the guy with red hair, and Misako would call any attempt to do anything like that irresponsible and an unacceptable risk. Jake felt trapped.
But dwelling on his lack of options wasn't going to help, so he finally straightened himself up and wandered into the kitchen where he found Kath sitting alone at the table.
"You guys alright?" she asked. "You were sat in there so quiet you were creeping me out."
"Just thinking, I guess," he explained, more than half truthfully.
He sat down opposite Kath. unsure of what to say to her; there was a storm of frustration going on inside her head that made it tough to work out what was pissing her off most. He'd walked out on the others in the living room to get away from the frustration there, this wasn't much of an improvement.
"The package is all that's missing. Well, that and your bag with that fancy dress costume. Sorry about that." Kath spoke quietly, staring down at a salt cellar on the table, avoiding eye contact.
Jake wasn't happy, but he smiled gently anyway. "Not your fault. And it was just a stupid fancy dress costume. And the bag was old. Doesn't matter. It's over, that's what matters."
More lies. He was lying again. Losing an alien space suit and a jaunting belt for the sake of a fancy dress party, Misako would go ballistic over that one as well when she found out. And Jake couldn't argue with her, because she'd be right; it was yet another bloody reckless and irresponsible screw up on his part. His smile didn't waver though, Kath didn't need to know about any of that; bothering her with his own problems was the last thing on his mind.
"Never had my home broken into before," she said. "Feels weird, feels out of control."
Kath didn't give a shit about the break in, Jake could see that much in her thoughts without having to pry. "Nick's going to be fine. He won't give a shit about the thing getting stolen, all he'll care about is that you didn't get hurt. I'm not saying it's okay the place was broken into, or okay that the thing got stolen, but, you know, they've got it now, they've got no reason to come back, you're safe. Yes, it's all screwed up, but that's how life works, the world is screwed up."
"I'll be happier when I've had a chance to talk to Nick."
"I can understand that." Jake acknowledged, then paused, there was no point ignoring what he was sensing. "You know, I've never seen you get this worked up about anything before."
Kath knew better than to make a pretense of it. "You think I'm crazy? You're right, I think I'm crazy."
"I like the guy, I think he deserves someone like you. That's all I'm going to say," Jake picked his words carefully.
"Thanks Jake, you even sound like you mean it."
"Why wouldn't I?" Jake asked curiously. She hadn't said that as a joke, she'd said it as a put down.
Kath looked up, and Jake worked out there was a lot more bothering her than just Nick's fate. He just couldn't work out what.
"I thought I had you worked out, Jake, thought I had a handle on how to tell when you were telling the truth, and when it was all just bullshit, then you go pull a stunt like this."
"Like what?" Jake was conscious he was in danger of digging a hole for himself, but Kath had genuinely managed to confuse him.
"It was impressive how you ran after that woman, how you jumped over the hedge like that, pretty cool," Kath started in an uncharacteristically roundabout fashion.
"You have a point here?" Jake pushed.
"Three months ago you were stuck in a wheelchair with no hope of ever walking again, today it's parkour. You want to tell me what the hell happened?"
Jake went blank. He'd completely forgotten he was supposed to be limping, too many other bloody things on his mind. It was a screw up he really couldn't afford right now, it was a screw up too far. He had no bloody clue what to say, and even if he'd had the beginnings of an excuse worked out, this was the worst way possible to have to confront it. "It's a long story," he stumbled over his words, desperately trying to buy time. But buy time for what? He had nothing.
"No, cut the bullshit, Jake, I'm serious. What the hell is going on?"
He could try the truth, she'd never believe it, but it might give him a minute or two longer to panic more effectively. "Alien, crashed his flying saucer, fixed my leg with psycho-kinetic energy in return for help getting him back to outer space, alright?" Jake accompanied the words with a dismissively innocent look.
"You're keeping a spookily straight face saying all that crap. Now the truth, Jake."
A lie occurred to him, a much better lie. Why was it all his best excuses came out of moments of panic? "It was never as bad as people thought," he confided. "I was faking it all for the sympathy. But I've taken the deception too far, and it's in danger of getting out of hand. I've got to back out of it, I just haven't worked out how yet. Alright? Better?" Actually, for a spur of the moment thing, Jake had even managed to impress himself. Except it wasn't working, he could sense it wasn't working.
"It's plausible, but all your lies are plausible, that's what makes you such a damn good liar. I just don't understand why. I mean, we've known each other since we were five years old. Doesn't that count for anything? I thought we were supposed to be friends. Why are you lying to me Jake?"
"I'm not..." he backed off, Kath was genuinely angry.
"No, don't Jake, don't make it worse. You're lying. Look, I saw the X-ray, the inside of your knee was a disaster area. I saw how frustrated you were, stuck in that bloody wheelchair. You're an arrogant, self assured bastard Jake, and the humiliation of being dependent on other people, you couldn't deal with it, it was tearing you apart. Twelve years I've known you and that's the only time I ever saw something get to you like that. You were depressed Jake, I was worried you were about ready to slit your wrists when you found out you were never going to walk again. You weren't faking a bloody thing, no one fakes shit like that. Then you went through the denial phase. Faking it for the sympathy, Jake? Anyone so much as hinted at sympathy and you went of the deep end. Mike and Dean were too afraid to talk to you in case you misinterpreted it as sympathy. Sympathy? It's all a lie, Jake, it would be laughable if it didn't hurt so much because I actually didn't think you would insult me like this. I thought we understood each other."
Jake felt like crap. So focussed on congratulating himself over the quality of the lie that he'd forgotten who he was lying to. She didn't deserve it. But what the hell was he supposed to say? "It's seriously complicated, alright. A whole bunch of things here are seriously complicated and the truth... the truth is just a whole can of worms you don't want to get in to."
"Now that sounded honest and sincere. Although, the story about the alien, that actually sounded honest and sincere as well, which just means I have no bloody clue what to think."
Jake paused, he wasn't sure what to say next, Kath didn't seem to be expecting an answer as such, she was angry, she was disappointed in him, and he hated that. She was one of the very few people whose opinion of him he actually cared about.
He tried to be conciliatory. "I told you I'd walk again, whatever it took, whatever the odds. So I beat the odds, completely, I always do. Me and the impossible, you know, I thought you'd worked that out by now."
"There's different kinds of impossible, Jake, and you just crossed a line. I'm not going to sit here and demand an explanation right now because there's other shit I'm more worried about. About Nick. Because actually, you're right, I really do care about Nick. But I'm giving you notice, Jake, when this is over we are going to talk, you're not getting away with this, not this time."
Kath stood up stiffly and walked out. Jake closed his eyes, he was angry with himself. All he seemed to do these days when he was faced with awkward questions was to find ways to avoid them. And all that did was delay the inevitable, he wasn't solving anything, just making it worse. He cared about Kath's friendship, absolutely he cared. Pissing Kath off had not been part of his plans. It was turning out to be a really shit day.
"You left the environment suit and jaunting belt at Kath's house for two months? Then it gets stolen?" Misako fumed. For one moment, one delusional moment, she'd dared think there was some hope for Jake. But no, once again the guy had shown himself up to be completely bloody useless.
"And you're blaming me for that? I had no reason at all to doubt it was safe to leaving them here. They were stolen by accident, anyone looks in that bag and all they'll see is a fancy dress space suit and a goofy belt, you'd have to be telepathic to work out any different. And if losing them is such a big deal, we can track the jaunting belt, we could go after it, but you're the one doesn't want us doing that. But don't get judgmental, don't get pissed off at me because you can't have it both ways."
Misako could sense Jake was at the end of his rope. Despite his protestations he was already more than pissed off with himself about losing the bag, she didn't need to make it any worse. She wanted to be angry with him, but there was no point. As shit a day as Jake was having, the anger would be lost in the noise, it wouldn't achieve anything.
"I'll listen to reason, but I want a better reason for going after the bag than just because we can," she pointed out, her tone more conciliatory.
"Which, I can't come up with right now," Jake backed off from the confrontation. "Also need to consider that if we do go after the bag, we risk drawing more attention to it."
Misako felt vaguely satisfied. Jake actually had a good point there. Maybe she'd managed to get through to him just enough to make him think a little objectively about what he was doing, it was a victory of sorts. She started to relax a little.
"So. Kath said I could stay here the night. I don't think there's any danger still, but..." Misako didn't much want to impose, at the same time the prospect of wasting a Friday evening traveling back to school didn't much appeal to her either.
Jake made the decision easier. "I'd feel safer if you stuck around for her, thanks. I'll drive you back home tomorrow."
Misako could see he was still distracted, and she'd picked up enough from Kath to be able to work out why. "So what do I say to her when she asks? Because she will, you know that."
"I don't know, it's all getting out of hand."
"Lies will do that," she reminded him gently.
Jake was still upset, defensive. "Don't lecture me, I know that. You think I want to lie?"
"I think you treat it too much like a game sometimes, and it's not a game. It's a betrayal of trust."
"We have a secret to keep, and sometimes we are going to have to lie to protect that secret, I make no apology for that."
"I'm not telling you what to think, Jake, I've never done that and I never will. I just want you to think about the consequences of your actions more. No lie should ever be told lightly."
"You want to know the truth? The truth is that I'm out of my depth here. I don't know what to say," Jake confided, speaking more quietly now.
Misako didn't answer, she just smiled gently. It felt odd having a grown up conversation with Jake. It wasn't often that the two of them made a philosophical connection like this. There was something to be said for Jake having a really, really shit day.
"Okay, how about this; tell her how bad I feel," Jake started hesitantly, "tell her the truth is complex, tell her I really do care about the friendship, tell her I'm trying to work out how to make it right. And when she points out that all I need to do to make it right is to tell her the truth, tell her that you're pretty sure that deep down I've already worked that out for myself, I just, need time to work out how to say it. All of which is true."
"I think I can handle that."
"Which leaves I just need to work out what I'm going to say to Damon. He's not going to shut up about it, and unfortunately he's right, we probably should call Masters."
"I don't want Masters involved any more than you do..." Misako had nothing personal against Masters, she hated all government types equally. "Look, I'll be honest here, if you came up with one of your schemes to keep him out of the picture, I'd probably go for it, however batshit insane and reckless."
"I'm the lesser of two evils?" Jake laughed, finally lightening up a little. "That about sums up my life, doesn't it."
Misako was on the verge of saying something nice to Jake when their conversation was interrupted by a loud knocking at the front door, followed by Kath walking past on the way to go open it.
~The police, and it only took them an hour,~ Misako observed cynically. ~They'll want names and addresses of witnesses, they'll want to know what we were doing here when we should have been in school.~
That, at least, was something Jake could handle. ~The truth will be fine. You and Damon are just here to visit for the weekend, they aren't investigating us, they won't go digging.~
~So do we tell them about the red hair guy?~ Misako asked awkwardly.
Jake shrugged. ~I'm not saying we lie, but, they'll never believe us anyway, so whats the point? I say we just say nothing.~
It was getting on for midnight as Jake pulled his car into the driveway back home, disappointed but unsurprised to note his mother had waited up for him.
He'd stayed out all evening. Kath's mother had arrived back while the police were still there and had been badly shaken up to find out the place had been broken into. She had been more than appreciative of the noise and company to keep her distracted, and had pretty much insisted they all stay for something to eat. She'd even ordered out pizza and let them rent movies, although their choice of movies had been constrained to screwball comedies. Not that anyone had much wanted anything too serious under the circumstances.
Jake had remembered to call home at some point to mention he'd be late back, and to confess to missing the physiotherapist, and to ask if it was okay if Damon stayed over. His mother had taken it all pretty well, considering.
He tightened the strap on his leg brace before limping up to the house. He still had a illusion to maintain. He wasn't worried about Kath giving him away, she was pissed at him, but she'd keep her mouth shut, she was reliable like that. But he still had his physiotherapy appointment to worry about, and from the moment his mother intercepted him at the front door, it was clear she wasn't going to let him forget about it either.
"That was the third time you've missed your appointment, Jacob, the third time. Now I'm not saying you were responsible for Katherine's house being burgled, although I do sometimes think you attract trouble like that, but it beggars belief how every single time I arrange for you to go to the physiotherapist, some inexplicable crisis like this just happens to get in the way. Well, you were very lucky this time, I called and they can fit you in on Monday afternoon. And this time I'm picking you up from school and driving you there personally, there will be no more excuses. And in broad daylight, I can't believe her house was broken into in broad daylight. I mean, I suppose it's just as well you'd offered to drive her home on the way to your appointment, although we do need to talk about how you went inside and tried to tackle the intruder, it may seem all grown up to you, Jacob, but it isn't, it was irresponsible, I mean, didn't you learn anything from being stuck in a wheelchair for six weeks? And look at those scratches on your face and hands, how did you get those? The police probably think I beat you. But you did scare the intruders off I suppose, and they didn't get away with anything. Anyway, Damon, good to see you again. Unfortunately Jacob wasn't organized enough to mention you were coming to visit for the weekend, or I would have stocked up on eggs for breakfast tomorrow, I know how you enjoy your breakfast..."
Jake heard very little of the rest of what his mother was saying. He'd been hoping the earliest she'd be able to reschedule the appointment would be weeks away, now he was fixated on the fact that the burglary had only bought him a three day reprieve. There was no way he'd manage another extension. He had three days left to work out what he was going to say. Three days before the real shit hit the fan.
His entire web of lies was falling apart and he had no one to blame but himself. The idea of taking a baseball bat to his knee was starting to gain a serious appeal.
"Is Kath alright, did you warn her?"
The voice was Nick's. Damon snapped fully awake and propped himself up in the camp bed on the floor of Jake's room, struggling to keep the cellphone pushed up to his ear.
"She's fine, yes, I got the message to her. She's a little bit shaken on account of someone broke into her house yesterday, the package was taken, but Kath is alright." Damon reassured him.
"They took it?" Nick tried to clarify, the quality of the line wasn't great.
"Yes, it's gone, it that a problem?" Damon managed to ask through a yawn. He tried to keep his voice down, but Jake was half awake anyway.
Jake stuck his head over the side of the bed to listen in, his hair sticking up in a way that was mildly bemusing. Damon managed to keep a straight face.
"No, good thing," Nick continued, "Good riddance to the bloody thing. I was so scared they'd threaten Kath to get it back, they're not nice people, little boy, they're not playing games."
~Find out what the bloody thing was,~ Jake prompted.
"What was it? Why'd you even send it to Kath?"
"I was duped, we made some copies on a 3D printer, I thought I was sending her one of the copies, she's got a thing for all this archaeological stuff, but then they switched it so they could smuggle the real one out of the country and blame me if anything went wrong."
"Smuggle what?" Damon persisted, still not grasping what the hell it was Nick was talking about.
"A pre-Sumerian scroll. That's, kind of a cylinder, nine inches long made of stone, carved with text, although the writing wasn't quite Sumerian, they hadn't fully deciphered it."
~Starts to make some sense finally,~ Jake observed as Damon telepathically relayed as much of Nick's reply as he could. ~Cylindrical, nine inches long. It's a pre-Sumerian sex toy...~
Damon tried not to laugh. "Valuable?" he asked Nick.
"It's a lump of mud brick. There's a black market for this kind of stuff, yes, but, it wouldn't sell for that much. That's the part that still doesn't make sense, smuggling is a cut your goolies off offense here, the thing is no way worth the risk they're taking,"
"Yeah, but they aren't risking their own goolies, are they? They're risking yours. How bad is this going to get for you if the shit hits the fan?" Damon really didn't like the sound of what he was hearing.
"Bad. I don't know. I just have to pray I don't get caught. My tour's up Thursday, I've just got to keep my head down, try and make it through the next five days."
"It was a bait and switch, you didn't know you were smuggling it, at least not at the time, you did nothing wrong."
"But when I found out, I should have reported it. I didn't because I was afraid of what would happen to Kath. Look, there's no point arguing about this, Damon, I'm fine. And if I'm not fine I'll take the heat."
There was a hint of genuine fear in Nick's voice, or at least Damon thought there was, it was impossible to read people telepathically over the phone, so he couldn't be sure.
~Ask him if it would help if the scroll mysteriously and anonymously found it's way back into the hands of the authorities,~ Jake prompted.
"No it bloody wouldn't," Nick retorted. "Tell Jake to go screw himself."
Jake shrugged. ~He's a crap liar.~
"We're worried," Damon argued back. "We just want to do what we can to help."
"You can help by not doing anything stupid. I'll be fine."
"How worried are you?" Damon pushed.
Nick tried to be offhanded, he was only partly successful. "You know how it is, little boy. You can't live every day in fear of something that might never happen, or you just wouldn't live."
Damon was frustrated. Nick had run out of time and the call had ended before Damon was completely satisfied with any of the answers he'd been getting. Then two minutes after that Jake's mother had been banging on the bedroom door announcing breakfast was on the table, a cooked breakfast that was getting cold. Damon knew how persistent Jake's mother could be about stuff like that, there would be no escape.
So they'd reluctantly crawled out of bed and headed downstairs, stopping only long enough to pull on the minimum of clothes that they weren't looking entirely indecent at the breakfast table. Even that had been a challenge, working out whose clothes were whose after they'd dumped them all in a tangled heap the night before on top of the clutter of clothes that had already been left dumped on the floor. Picking through Jake's discarded underwear wasn't exactly the most fun way to start a day.
And then, as usual, Jake's mother had proceeded to dominate the entire conversation at breakfast, leaving them little scope for a conversation of their own, even telepathically.
Normally Damon would have been able to handle that, but he was still wound up about Nick and he desperately needed to get away and just have some time to himself so he could think. Thankfully once they'd finally gotten done with breakfast, Jake was able to contrive a way to keep his mother distracted long enough for Damon to escape into the garden.
The day, for a change, was gray and damp. One of those February days where it wasn't even a certainty it would ever really get fully light out. Bloody miserable really was what it was.
Damon sat on the damp garden swing, ignoring the moisture that was slowly soaking into his butt. It didn't matter, it was Jake's pants he'd ended up wearing. He needed to talk to someone, and he was falling back on the old favorite ruse of pretending to be talking on his phone; aways the best way to have a telepathic conversation without anyone interrupting or getting suspicious about what the hell it was he was up to.
~Twelve point, about point six, ish,~ Kristen answered after a moment.
Damon had an idea growing in the back of his mind and he'd contacted Kristen because he figured she was in the best position to be able to help. Literally the best position from a geographical point of view. Damon checked, cross-referenced and roughly triangulated the bearings.
~Hull, give or take,~ he worked out. ~That's about four hours drive according to my phone.~
Kristen was pragmatic. ~If you can talk Jake into driving you there.~
Damon didn't figure that would be a problem. In fact, it was more like the kind of idea that he would normally be trying to talk Jake out of. It was a bad idea. Nick had told them to back off, Nick wasn't in any immediate danger, and there wasn't exactly that much they could do about it anyway. But it was Nick, Damon felt the need to do something, anything, even if it wasn't going to achieve anything, he had to try. It was a guilt thing, it was a loyalty thing. ~You think I'm being crazy?~
~You want to know what I think?~ Kristen asked.
~Then ask me how my day went yesterday.~
Damon missed the disconnect there. What the hell was Kristen on about? ~So how was your day, yesterday.~
Damon wasn't sure he wanted to play. ~Just Frustrating? That's meant to help? What happened?~
~I was teaching a couple of twelve year olds about rigging yesterday. They managed to capsize the sailing dinghy. No big deal, happens all the time. Good lesson, they learned how to avoid screwing up next time. Then I get ashore and have this idiot mother ranting at me for endangering the life of her kid.~
Damon could sense Kristen was as much in need of someone to talk to as him. He couldn't work out her point though. ~Sounds like my mum. I mean, she's better than she used to be, but there was a time she was overprotective to the point of it being ridiculous.~
~Life isn't risk free. There are dangers associated with capsizing a boat. You have to learn that. And it's natural to be afraid when it goes wrong. I could sense the fear in those kids when the boat rolled. Same fear I felt the first time I took an airplane out for a solo flight and hit a little bit of turbulence. Part of the lesson is about keeping the danger in perspective.~
~And you think we aren't?~ Damon had started to work out where Kristen was headed.
~The jaunting belt, it isn't that different from the way those relay beacons worked. I can sense the destination, I'm pretty sure I could lock on to it. I'm almost certain I could jaunt there directly if I tried, there shouldn't be any need to drive there.~
~But like the rest of us, you're too afraid to try.~
~Right,~ Kristen acknowledged ruefully. ~The thing is, there has to be a safe and controlled way we can practice. Where we can make mistakes and learn from them.~
~How though? We screwed up jaunting once already and we learned nothing. It's not like your sailing, we don't have anyone to helpfully point out what we did wrong.~
~John and Elizabeth and Carol, they learned without anyone to teach them, so why is that beyond us? Because we're afraid? Because we aren't even trying?~
~Because we're the kids of a generation of overprotective parents who are more worried about health and safety than they are about pushing us to experience the joy of exploration.~ Damon understood Kristen's frustration, he shared it, and still felt trapped by it. ~You think Jake's the one who's got it right? You think we should all be danger junkies? But then what happens to tomorrow's Tomorrow People if we get ourselves killed?~
Kristen was blunt. ~They'd have to fend for themselves. But what's the point in us being there for them if there's nothing we can teach them because we were too scared to learn it in the first place,~ she argued. ~Look, flying an airplane is insanely dangerous if you don't know what you're doing. But in the early days of flight the only way to learn was to get in the damn airplane and try. And all of those first pilots had to be danger junkies.~
~I'm guessing a whole bunch of them wound up as dead danger junkies.~ Damon still had absolutely no clue what point it was that Kristen was trying to make. ~The few that survived to be able to call themselves pilots were the lucky ones. You saying we should be willing to risk death just to learn how to jaunt?~
~John might have ultimately grown up to be a responsible pensioner, but from what I heard, when he was fifteen he was at least as reckless as Jake. You sure you want to use him as a good example?~
~My point is that John wasn't the first of his generation of Tomorrow People, he wasn't the first by a long way. He was just the first to survive the learning process. Because he was willing to take risks.~
~John had balls, I'll give him that.~
~But so do you, Damon, so does Jake. So does Misako, metaphorically speaking. Remember there were at least ten of our generation of Tomorrow People died before you and Jake came along. You went through hell, Damon, all that suffering, but you're still alive. Long distance unassisted jaunting is possible, we know it is, we did it once, without help, and we're still alive.~
Damon remained doubtful. ~We only survived because Jake had an argument with his mother about his costume for the Christmas party. That was luck, not judgment.~
Kristen answered with passion. ~You said it yourself, Damon, that's what it takes. It takes a certain amount of luck. Yes I do think Jake's got it right. There's a time for responsibility, for growing up, but we have to learn about who we are first. And that's going to involve taking risks.~
~Which is all a long winded way of telling me you think we should go do something to help Nick?~
~Basically, yes,~ she agreed.
Jake looked up as Damon stuck his head back inside the kitchen. He nodded to let Damon know it was safe, his mother had cleared the table and had finally run out of things to say, which was no minor miracle. She was heading off to sort out laundry, which left Jake feeling a little guilty. Thankfully Damon was back to distract him.
Damon had picked up on the emotion and didn't much understand it. "What is it you actually do with your laundry, Jake, or do I not want to know? Particularly as I'm wearing some of it right now."
Jake shook his head. "You really don't want to know."
Damon took the hint. "So, anyway, I talked to Kristen, and it's stopped moving."
Jake could see that Damon had made up his mind, which was a good thing; Jake still figured he had to give be measured in his response though, he didn't want to open himself up to being accused of pressuring Damon into the decision. Alright, that was probably a bit unfair, Misako would never be that unreasonable, but as much as he'd screwed up recently, he felt like a little bit of caution wouldn't go astray.
"You really want to do this then?" he asked.
"I have to," Damon reiterated his determination.
"Not wanting to piss on your plan," Jake pointed out cautiously, "but you know they'll have ditched the bag."
"I know that. It's not about that. It's about the fact that I still have to try." Damon had thought it all through pretty carefully.
Jake nodded his agreement. "Provided you can convince Misako."
"Which," Damon tried to tackle his concerns delicately, "will be easier if you don't back me up, here. If she thinks you think it's a good idea..."
Jake got the point.
It wasn't meant as an insult, Damon was just being practical. Jake still couldn't work out why Damon wasn't more pissed off with him though; he hadn't mentioned Masters once since they'd left Kath's house. Not that they'd stayed up talking for long after they'd headed to bed, they'd both been too tired for that. But Damon was being abnormally conciliatory, and Jake half felt like he needed a big argument just to clear the air once and for all.
"So if it isn't desperation, why do you put up with me? Not joking this time," he asked.
Damon helped himself to coffee and sat at the kitchen table directly opposite Jake. He looked up from the cup thoughtfully. "Because I've seen so deep into that twisted mind of yours, and never seen anything but good intentions, even if you do screw those up more often than not.~
Jake was a little uncomfortable with the sentiment. It was too much like Damon was treating him as a responsible grown up, and that was plain wrong. "You're freaky at times, you know that?"
Damon grinned. "I'm freaky? That's the best insult you can come up with? Seriously? That's lame. You're losing it, mate."
"Piss off, Damon."
"Now that's more like the Jake we know and love."
Jake solemnly threw a scrunched up paper towel that bounced playfully off Damon's forehead. "Alright, I know I can be a bit reckless at times, but, it never feels that way when I'm doing it. I do what I think is necessary. Sometimes I get it wrong. But I don't set out to piss people off." It was as close as he was ever going to manage to an apology.
"I know that. I'm not pissed off with you."
Jake hated it when Damon was this bloody reasonable. He had to get it out of the way, so he went for the jugular. "Not even pissed off because I won't listen to you about Masters?"
"Yes I am, but that's different. That's just because you won't listen. I'm more pissed off by the guy with red hair. And so are you. It's not a problem that's going away, and I'm no way backing off on that one. But however much we disagree on how to deal with him, doesn't mean I question whose side you're on, Jake. I still trust you." Damon stubbornly didn't rise to the bait.
Jake hesitated, "Trust me? Even though, didn't I nearly get us all killed once?"
"More than once. And no, I'm not worried about that."
"You insane?" Jake frowned.
Damon shrugged. "No, I just trust you. Doesn't matter if you screw up, in the end you always make it right. That's what you do, Jake. That's why I put up with you. That's why I'll always put up with you."
~We go there, we see how difficult it is. I'm okay with that.~ Misako tried to word her answer carefully. She had no problem with what Damon was proposing, but she still wanted to make sure she didn't agree to anything that was going to lead to things spinning out of control; at least as much as it was possible to guarantee anything like that.
Jake and Damon were still sat at the breakfast table, they'd telepathically conferenced in Misako and Kristen, and they were trying to come up with a consensus on the plan. Misako was sat outside at Kath's house; she'd felt ambushed to a degree, but then she'd spent half the night up talking to Kath. it was tough not to be sympathetic after that. She accepted they had to do something, even if it was just a gesture.
Her conversation with Kath had been enlightening in other ways as well. Kath was someone who was so easy to trust, really straightforward, Misako didn't have any friends like that. Okay, sure, she had plenty friends, but none that she was all that comfortable confiding in, and the consequence of that was that she had no particular need to lie to anyone. But she could see that with friends like Kath, objectivity became a greater challenge. It taught her something; she understood Jake a little better now. She didn't necessarily agree with his approach any more than she had before, but she was more ready to accept that the complications he faced in trying to tell the truth weren't quite as simplistic to overcome as she might have argued they were.
So, anyway, she'd pretty much already reached a decision to back down, but she was determined not to let them take her one time concession as a precedent in any way. And 's silence made that task a lot easier, even if it was obviously a pre-meditated tactic on his part.
~As long as we can establish that that there's something practical that we can do that doesn't involve any risk, and I mean the no risk part, then I don't see why not,~ she concluded.
~If we can get to the package, I have a few schemes for how we can hand it over to the authorities without anything getting connected back to us,~ Jake finally felt confident enough to contribute to the discussion.
~No connection? How?~ Kristen asked from her bedroom where she was lying on her bed staring up at the ceiling and not feeling all that convinced by Jake's vagueness.
~Those two police officers that turned up at Kath's yesterday, I'll fake a trail of clues that will have them think they resolved the case all on their own. Easy as piss.~
~And the guy with the red hair?~ Kristen persisted.
~If we run into him, we back off. I'm okay with that. Despite what you all seem to think, I don't have a total death wish," he defended himself.
Misako sometimes wondered if that was exactly Jake's problem, but she had to find a more diplomatic way to word it. ~No, you just get yourself half killed on a regular basis.~
Okay, maybe that hadn't come out quite as diplomatically as she'd intended.
~Like that's going to happen. We all know he's a closet masochist,~ Damon laughed. ~But don't worry, I'll make sure he doesn't get himself excessively excited if anyone tries to kill him.~
Misako could tell that Jake appreciated the insult.
~We'll plan to rendezvous in about five hours, then,~ Damon confirmed.
~Call me when you're ready,~ Kristen signed off, and Misako departed the conversation as well.
Jake stared down at the map on the kitchen table. "You know," he observed sarcastically to Damon, "in the movies the spies always chase the mysterious package to a shadowy rendezvous somewhere exotic like Vienna, or Algiers. We, on the other hand, get to go to scenic bloody Hull."
Do They Really Recycle Hosiery?
The drive to Hull was long and not particularly exciting. The roads were congested, the weather was grim. Not quite cold enough for snow, but they hit sleet a few times and the traffic was crawling along. What should have been a three or four hour drive had turned into a five hour test of Jake's endurance. Damon was thankful that Jake was in an incomparably better mood than he had been the day before, otherwise it would have made for a pretty miserable drive.
Damon had contemplated skipping out on the trip; he could have stopped off with Misako when they'd dropped her back in Leicester on the way. She'd invited him to join her quad biking, which wasn't something Damon had ever done, could have been a lot of fun, but he was still feeling distracted. Problem was he couldn't stop thinking about Nick, and that wouldn't have made him much company for Misako; better to ride with Jake and piss him off instead. Plus he'd have felt bad going off and having fun when Jake was stuck in the car driving all the way to Hull, he felt obliged to do the decent thing and suffer in solidarity. And it hadn't worked out too badly, Jake had been appreciative of the company.
They made one stop, for lunch, at some truck stop in Nottingham. They'd coordinated that with Kristen, who'd grabbed them burgers from some generic fast food outlet in Southampton and Damon had jaunted down there to pick them up. Jaunted there twice, the first time he'd forgotten ketchup. Then they'd sat in the car, parked on the edge of the truck stop, overlooking a waste dump, watching the rain relentlessly pound the car windscreen for entertainment while they ate.
Jaunting nearly two hundred miles to Southampton in the blink of an eye, and still stuck with a two hour drive to Hull, even though that was only a hundred miles away. It was bloody ridiculous. Damon could understand why it wound Kristen up so much. She was right; to have all that power, and yet to have it limited so much by their own ignorance, it wasn't bloody fair. It made him wonder if life just sucked for the sake of it sometimes.
Anyway, life's general suckiness aside, they finally made it to Hull town center around mid afternoon. It then took them another half hour driving round the one way system in the Saturday afternoon shopping traffic to find the city center shopping mall, which seemed as good a place to start the search for Jake's stolen bag as any.
The rain was finally starting to ease off as Jake and Damon pulled into the car park. They could have done with a break, a chance to sit down and grab a coffee or something, but there was no time, they needed to get on with the job. Jake was already calculating their chances of making it back home any time before midnight were remote.
Jake went to get a pay and display ticket and Damon headed for the cold, concrete stairwell. It was dank and covered in graffiti and smelled like a public toilet, there might as well have been urinals in there, but it was out of the way, no one in their right mind would hang around there. Damon still figured better safe than sorry though; he took a moment to double check that he couldn't sense anyone anywhere nearby before he gave the all clear. Both Misako and Kristen were jaunting in; they'd discussed it, there wasn't any need to be leaving someone behind for safety, it wasn't as if they were planning to get up to anything dangerous.
It only took a matter of seconds for them to materialize.
"Fun drive?" Misako smiled sarcastically.
Damon laughed darkly. "Me and Jake, alone in a car for five hours, the conversation got kind of strange."
Misako and Kristen exchanged a knowing glance.
Damon caught sight of Misako's rucksack. "You know in Hull, I know they talk with funny accents, but they have shopping malls, roads, basic sanitation, don't let the smell around here give you the wrong idea, it really is safe to drink the water. You look like you're set up for a week trekking in Outer bloody Mongolia."
"I like to be prepared," Misako explained as they headed out and caught up with Jake at the car. He stared equally questioningly at the bags as they approached. "See, Damon," Misako continued, "you could learn something here. Jake is thinking exactly the same as you were, but he at least knows to keep his big mouth shut."
Jake pretended to look offended, but it didn't work, he was smirking too much.
"So, that way?" Kristen pointed in the direction of a featureless brick wall, trying to get a bearing on the jaunting belt.
"Towards the docks is that?" Misako queried.
Damon nodded, checking the map on his phone. He wandered over to look out of the car park. It was misty, the clouds were so heavy that it looked like it was getting dark already, even though they should have had a couple of hours of light remaining.
It was cold, it was wet, it was miserable, it was the usual. Kristen shivered and pulled her light jacket tight. "Great. You know it was bloody sunny in Southampton two minutes ago," she complained.
"You should have come prepared." Jake told her snarkily.
Misako could sense the direction of the belt, but it was difficult to get any sense of range. From the map though they could see that anything more than a ten minute walk would put them in the Humber estuary, so their destination couldn't be all that far away. The trail led to an industrial estate close to the docks, and they quickly found themselves circling round a rather nondescript warehouse in a sea of other nondescript warehouses.
The place was down in the less fashionable end of the urban squalor. Surrounded on two sides by derelict land, weeds poking through the broken concrete, punctuated by rusted steel reinforcement rods. There were no streetlights, it was not the kind of place anyone would want to get stuck after dark.
"Barbed wire fence. Sign saying beware of the dogs. Inviting place." Kristen observed. The warehouse in question was locked up tight and very definitely closed for the day.
Damon shrugged. "Not sensing anyone around."
"More importantly, not sensing any dogs," Misako added.
Jake had wandered further round the corner to try and get a second bearing. At such short rang it was fairly easy to triangulate by sight. ~In the dumpster, sorry mate,~ he sent back to Damon. He didn't bother trying to conceal his disappointment, if they'd dumped the bag then there was zero chance of finding the package, and he'd wanted to find the package just as much as Damon.
Misako was somewhat ambivalent. It was exactly the outcome she'd expected; they had found the belt, which meant one less thing for Jake to have to feel guilty about, but their chances of finding the package now were looking very, very slim, which meant Nick was on his own.
~The dumpster isn't easily accessible, there's got to be a connection between the package and this warehouse. You think it's worth a look inside?~ Damon asked, although he knew fine well he was reaching.
There was no one round, no obvious danger. Misako tried to come up with an objection, but she couldn't. The idea was harmless enough, even if she knew it was nothing more than an exercise in futility.
Jake meanwhile was staring over at the dumpster. ~I can sense it in there. I just can't work out an easy way to get to it without climbing in there. And as it's my fault it's in there, I've got this feeling like I'm the one who has to go get dirty.~
Misako put a hand on his shoulder in sarcastic sympathy. ~No way I can talk you out of it, is there?~
Jake cheered up a little; climbing into the dumpster was his penance, it would be cathartic. ~It's going to take me a few minutes to work this one out, Damon, so you've got time. You're not going to find anything, you know that, but if you want to go look, you might as well. You should. Just to be sure.~
Damon made up his mind. "Misako, you want to go break into the warehouse with me?"
"No, I want to sit here and laugh while I watch Jake dumpster diving."
"You make that sound like a euphemism for something I'd rather do in private, not with you watching," Jake complained.
Misako smirked. "Now I'm definitely staying to watch."
Damon shrugged, seeing he wasn't about to change her mind. "Kristen, you want to go break into the warehouse with me?"
Kristen frowned. "No. Not really. Why would I want to do something insane like that?"
"For shits and giggles?" Damon suggested brightly.
"Yeah, okay then," she accepted.
Jake walked back across to Misako, grinning in a way that Misako found a little disconcerting. "Why is it that I think they got the easy job?" he noted masochistically.
~Kind of ironic to think they opened the bag, took the package from Nick, and had no clue whatsoever that they were chucking out even more priceless alien artefacts,~ Damon mused as they headed around the back of the warehouse. They were looking to find somewhere to break in that was a touch more discreet than doing it in full view of the road.
~Probably just thought there was something disturbed about anyone who would wear a fancy dress costume like that,~ Kristen joked.
~Just as well it wasn't Jake's original choice of costume that was in there. I don't know what they would have done. Well, other than scream when they had to rinse their eyes out with bleach in order to cleanse their memories of what they'd seen.~
Kristen hesitated, she'd never managed to get a straight answer out of Damon about that. ~So, alright, I'm probably going to regret asking this, but what exactly was Jake originally intending to wear to the party?~
Damon grinned provocatively. ~I saw Jake in that original costume. It was a sight that would traumatize children, have women stare in morbid horror, make grown men fall to their knees and weep...~
~Damon...~ Kristen tried to interrupt.
~If he'd gone out dressed like that he'd have triggered a riot, maybe a revolution, maybe a second armageddon.~
~Damon, you're overdoing the exaggeration.~
~No,actually, I'm not. There are some sights that burn the eyes, drive you insane...~
~You're already insane, Damon, you're still in therapy for it,~ Kristen reminded him unapologetically.
~Look, you'll just have to trust me, there are dangerous secrets out there you don't want to pursue, and the true nature of Jake's original Christmas costume is one of them.~
The scary part for Kristen was that she could see that Damon was partially telling the truth there. And perhaps fortunately her opportunity to pursue the question ran out.
~Shit.~ She exclaimed silently, telepathically, as she realized the scale of the problem they faced getting into the warehouse..
~You think they were expecting trouble?~ Damon asked rhetorically.
~I think they're paranoid.~
~The feeling is mutual.~
Kristen scanned the outside of the building. ~Cameras, I guess infrared detectors as well. And that's just outside. There'll be motion sensors everywhere.~ The building was locked down tighter than a bank vault. Someone had something to hide, and wasn't being all that subtle about it.
Damon frowned in concentration. ~That security system is all derived from a single nerve center, I can follow it back so far, then loose it.~
~Show me, I'll see if I can trace it any further.~
Kristen cleared her mind and tried to see what Damon was doing. She could sense vaguely lines of force stretching outwards, but the image in his mind was blurred and indistinct despite their proximity to each other. She thought for a moment, what the hell was it Kal had shown her about minds combining power?
~Damon, hold my hand. It might just work.~
Damon reached out and took the offered hand. Immediately the clarity of the what they were sensing improved drastically. They could both see the lines of energy, spiraling inwards, well defined, converging on a point, Kristen could see the point.
~You see it too?~ Damon asked.
~Scares the willies out me, you know, thinking what we could do if we had any bloody clue what we were doing.~
Kristen agreed. ~It would scare a lot of people. I hate to think what would happen if anyone ever did find out about us, they'd either want to use us, or want us dead.~
~Which is why no one is ever going to find out.~ Damon was uncompromising. ~Like John said, trust no one.~
~I think we're missing a trick there though. I think Jake and Misako have their heads in the sand, I think Masters is okay. Just so you know, I'm on your side there.~
~Thanks,~ Damon responded appreciatively. ~I just don't don't know what it's going to take to convince them of that.~
~I know the feeling. I sometimes think the two of them don't listen to much of my advice at the best of times.~ Kristen was still focused on the point where the lines of energy converged, there was something curious about it. ~It's weird, you know, I'm not losing focus on the image like I usually do. It's not far. If you want to try giving me a boost, I really think I could jaunt in there even though I can't see it. This is how Kal did it I think.~
~We got stuck in hyperspace last time we tried this.~
~No, this is not the same, not even nearly the same, we've got something very specific to lock onto here,~ Kristen argued.
~You sure?~ Damon was still uncertain,
~Like we talked about earlier, we're never going to learn if we don't try. Look, it's twenty meters, not twenty miles.~
Damon hesitated. He'd promised Misako there wouldn't be any risk taking; on the other hand, Kristen seemed pretty sure of herself. ~Alright,~ he conceded, ~but stay connected, be ready to jaunt back instantly if things go wrong.~
They cleared their thoughts and saw the place where they were and the destination as one. And as Kristen passed from one to the other, she felt their minds parting, and she felt the hand she'd been holding dissolve into cold air.
For a moment Damon panicked. In fact for several moments Damon panicked, wondering if Kristen was alright, not sure if he could still sense her or not. Finally he received a definitive confirmation and Damon breathed a sigh of relief. The gamble had paid off, she was alright, she was inside.
~I'm looking at the control panel for the security system. Ideas?~ Kristen asked.
Damon looked through her eyes at the panel. This part he was comfortable with, this part he knew. ~Pull on that thing over there,~ he said.
~The thing that looks like a frog's knob.~
~Not sure I want to pull on it now. What is it?~
~Circuit breaker I think, it'll force the alarm system onto internal power. When it does I can track back the alarm's internal relay and trip that. The alarm should reset, and come up in factory default mode.~
He watched as Kristen hesitantly pulled the frog's knob. Nothing appeared to happen, which was exactly what Damon had been hoping for. He crossed over to the gates. He could jaunt inside easily enough now, but there was something he needed to check first. He placed his hand over the lock, it was way too complex a locking mechanism to be able to bypass, but that was fine, all he wanted to do was to see if he could trip the alarm.
~Be ready to jaunt out in case I screwed this up,~ Damon warned her. He indiscriminately tripped a bunch of relays inside the lock. There was silence. Damon was a little surprised, he'd figured deactivating the alarm would have been a lot harder; his idea had actually worked. Actually, screw modesty, he was bloody impressed with himself. He allowed himself a gratuitously smug smile, then locked on to Kristen's location and jaunted to join her.
He found himself in an upstairs office. Deserted and dusty, there were windows along one side overlooking a walkway and steps down into what looked like the main part of the warehouse that they used for storage; rows and rows of pallets stacked high with boxes. There wasn't much he could see down there, what little light there was streaming thorough cracks and gaps in the corrugated iron walls gave rise to just enough glare to stop his eyes adjusting properly.
"So what exactly happens with the alarm now?" Kristen asked. "Can you reactivate it when we're done?"
Damon shook his head. "Not without setting it off. Doesn't matter, they come in Monday, they'll just think some idiot forgot to set it. No big deal. So, you want to look around?"
Kristen laughed "Again, no, but, I guess that's what we're here for. So what is this place?"
"Shipping warehouse, apparently," Damon answered, looking at a pile of invoices stacked on the desk in front of him. "Recycled hosiery." It sounded like the kind of crap that Jake would make up as a cover story.
"What?" Kristen asked disbelievingly.
Damon shrugged. "That's what it says."
Kristen looked down to the warehouse floor. "A thousand boxes of worn out tights. If they've hidden the package in one of those then there's no way we'll find it. And there's bugger all in these offices, I mean we can look, but... Hate to say this, Damon, but I think we hit a complete dead end."
Damon looked around. The offices were unusually bare for a shipping warehouse. A couple of cheap and uncomfortable looking office chairs, plastic veneer chipboard desks the veneer badly peeling. A cracked and dusty coffee maker and an errant role of Sellotape, but no computer equipment, no filing cabinets, no drawers, nowhere to hide anything at all. Suspiciously empty to be honest, like the place hadn't been used in years. The heavy handed security made no sense at all.
"There looks like there's more offices across the other side," Damon noted. "I still want to take a quick look over there, but, you're right, we're not going to find anything here."
They headed out of the office and clomped noisily down the metal steps. The steps rattled, there was no quiet way of doing it. But there was no one around, and the alarms were off, Damon gave up any pretense at trying to be quiet.
Kristen stuck her head briefly in one of the other offices, it was a wasted effort, those offices appeared even emptier than the first. Damon checked one further down with no more success. He gave up trying. In the distance he could sense Misako laughing uncontrollably as something amusingly unpleasant happened to Jake, it was time to call it quits.
Nick hadn't wanted any help, he'd be fine. They'd given their best shot, and okay it hadn't worked out, but what mattered was that at least he'd tried. Anyway, It hadn't been a completely wasted trip, they'd found the environment suit and jaunting belt. That would give Jake a little respite from Misako's nagging. They'd pushed themselves a little, they'd achieved something. Damon tried not to feel too bad about it as he headed back to catch Kristen.
"Jake's recovered the bag," Kristen shouted across to Damon. On his way back across he'd gotten himself distracted trying to get into a box to see if it really did contain recycled hosiery. Exactly why he was doing this Kristen hadn't dared ask, just in case it turned out it was a fetish thing, she didn't want to know. Anyway, they'd been there longer than was advisable, she was more than anxious to depart. "We got what we came for, let's get out of here."
"Give me just a minute," he shouted back.
She froze. ~Quiet, I heard, it sounded like footsteps, over the other side of those pallets,~ she telepathed urgently.
Kristen walked slowly towards Damon, trying to keep quiet, trying to listen, but there was only silence. She tried reaching out with her mind, and all she could pick up on was Damon's nervousness.
~Maybe something fell, I don't know. But there's no one there, I don't sense anyone.~
~Me neither, but I know footsteps when I hear them, that's what bothers me,~ Kristen didn't appreciate the implication she was imagining things.
"So Jake found the bag? I'm impressed, how'd he manage that?" a loud voice echoed out around the warehouse.
Kristen was momentarily freaked, she looked wildly around, but with all the echoes it was just about impossible to hear what direction it was coming from. There was a voice but she couldn't place it; she still couldn't sense anyone else in the place. Was it possible it was some kind of loudspeaker? An intercom system?
The resonance was all wrong for that though, which left only one possibility; whatever her senses might be telling her to the contrary, there was definitely someone there in the warehouse with them.
~You guys okay?~ Jake called urgently, picking up on Kristen and Damon's concern.
~No. Weird shit happening,~ Kristen called back.
~Guys, get back to back, it's safest, maximizes your combined field of vision,~ Misako advised them. ~And get ready to jaunt out.~
"You know, it's not really nice to ignore people." The voice rang out again. It was kind of an American sounding voice, with a Canadian twinge, or like a Canadian trying to fake an American accent, it was hard to place exactly.
~You getting this?~ Damon asked.
~Yes.~ Misako confirmed. ~Where is he?~
~Don't know, we can't see him, can't sense him either.~ Kristen was very well aware of the implication of her words.
~And we don't know if he can see us or not, seriously, jaunting has to be a last resort,~ Damon added.
"Who are you?" Kristen tried calling out, trying not to sound as nervous as she felt. She had her back to Damon now, following Misako's advice, but as much as they did have a wider field of vision between them that way, they still couldn't see anyone out there in the darkness.
At that moment the two of them caught a flash of movement from above, caught it a moment too late, someone had thrown a net down on top of them, it seemed to be made of bungee rope, the kind used to secure the boxes onto the pallets. For a moment both Damon and Kristen were disoriented, struggling to pull the net off, and within that moment a figure jumped down from the top of the stack of boxes and within seconds had unleashed a roll of black carpet tape, spinning it around them a couple of times and binding them tightly.
Damon stopped struggling, there was no point; the tape and the net weren't exactly going to stop them jaunting out of there, it was an inconvenience more than anything. There was no danger, well, certainly no immediate danger.
Kristen picked up on Damon's cautious confidence and relaxed as well. But she was still puzzled; ~you heard him walking on the other side of those boxes, I heard him when he landed. How the hell did he get up on top of those boxes without either of us hearing?~
Damon didn't answer, he had other concerns. He could see the guy clearly now, standing only a few feet away. The guy was in his late twenties, athletic looking, red hair as Kristen had suspected, and yet neither of them could sense telepathically that there was anyone there at all.
The disconnect was more than a little freaky. ~I'm still calling robot here, I don't care how screwed up that sounds,~ Damon observed.
"What do you want," Kristen challenged out loud.
The red haired guy paused thoughtfully for a moment. "There's this really cool show on TV, where they do home makeovers, they just transform ugly, nasty places into homes with real character. And I really like the part where they go out looking for, you know, those crazy little items that pull the whole effect together. And, I'm not saying I'm into wanting to be an interior decorator or anything like that, don't get the wrong idea, I'm definitely not that kind of guy, but this place I'm living, it's just, you know, dark and oppressive, needs brightening up, desperately needs a makeover..."
Kristen frowned. The guy was being obtuse; he probably meant it as a joke, but she wasn't exactly laughing. "What do you want with the package?" she persisted.
"It's not the package, it's what's in the package. The perfect element to offset the ambience of the room and to draw the eyes into understanding the theme of the inner turmoil that drives my choice and style of my d√©cor."
~Did a single word of that make sense?~
~Well, it's the exact kind of bollocks they come out with on those makeover shows, so I don't know. It's tough to make a call when we can't read him, but I actually think he's taking the piss.~
~Right. I'm just not at all sure about his sense of humor,~ Kristen observed coldly.
"You into pre-Sumerian d√©cor?" She asked hesitantly, she wasn't sure he wanted to humor the guy, but they had to keep him talking while they tried to come up with an escape plan.
"You know what's in the package then? And you still came after it? Are you really that stupid?"
"Yes," Damon answered pointedly. Then realized what he'd just said. "And yes, and no." he tried to recover without much success.
The guy with red hair shook his head gently. "You do act a bit thick at times though, Damon. And that's a problem."
"Is that supposed to frighten me? Ooh, scary, you know my name," Damon reacted defiantly, then quickly bit his tongue. He was tied up and supposedly powerless, he didn't want the guy getting suspicious.
"That came over as threatening? Cool. Why is it I only ever seem to come over as threatening when I don't mean to? I need to work on that. Help me; what exactly would you say made it feel threatening?"
Damon didn't answer, he wasn't all that interested in getting drawn into such a weird discussion. ~We just need to distract him, get rid of him long enough so we can jaunt out of here without being seen,~ he said to Kristen.
~What about the burglar alarm?~
Damon thought hard for a moment. ~Reach round, try to grab hold of my hand, that'll work but it's going to take both of us to pull it off.~
The guy with red hair hadn't picked up on any of their telepathic exchange. The guy was oblivious. the guy was rambling. "No, the thing about your name is just, it's kind of funny. Feels weird saying it. Just seems so backwards, except it isn't, and I'm pretty glad it isn't, because if it was, that would be seriously too weird."
~It's not his sense of humor that concerns me,~ Kristen considered logically, ~what concerns me is that he's a complete and total basket case.~
The guy seemed to have lost interest in them momentarily, he was concentrating on trying to work out how to set the timer on something.
"It's a chunk of carved stone, it has no intrinsic value. And it's unique, you can't easily sell it on the antiquities black market," Damon tried to re-engage the guy in conversation, reciting from memory some of the stuff Nick had told him. He needed a minute or two more for Kristen to work her hand back around.
"If it has no value, why do you care about it so much?"
Damon had no immediate answer.
"We were just trying to return the scroll to it's rightful owners, the people of Iraq, which we were doing because it's the right thing to do." Kristen interjected, making a final attempt to reason with the guy.
"And you can't see the fundamental problem there?" he asked, actually taking a serious philosophical interest in the conversation for the first time.
Kristen was clueless, she had no idea what the guy was getting at. "It's called altruism."
"It's called saving Nick's butt, that's not exactly altruism. You want to help Nick, you need the scroll. That's what it's really about. Whoever owns the scroll owns you, which is why I needed to get to it first."
"That doesn't make any sense. You have us, right now, we're here, tied up," Kristen argued.
"And if I untied you right now, you'd just walk away. The scroll is about control. Hey, that rhymes. What was I saying? Oh yeah, control. If I had the scroll I could untie you and you wouldn't be able to walk away. That's the power it has."
Damon didn't buy it. "You talk like it's magic."
"It's not magic, kid, but it works. Think about it, it had the power to bring you here. If I was stood here holding it, I could tell you to jump, and you'd jump. You'd have no choice, because you care about Nick."
"That's insane," Kristen objected. "It's just a piece of rock. And anyway, I don't know where you get your information from, because Nick isn't in that much trouble."
"You need to learn a lesson about the people you're messing with here, nothing gets left to chance. Before the day is out, something is going to happen, something that will make you need the scroll so badly you'd be ready to sell your souls for it. Think about it, kid, you ready to sell your soul?"
"At least I've got a sodding soul," Damon retorted angrily. He couldn't sense anything from the guy, no frustration, no satisfaction, no nothing. If the guy had no feelings, maybe he really didn't have a soul either.
And yet there was an incongruous note of sadness in the reply. "I'm taking the scroll back whatever the cost. I don't want a confrontation because I have better things to do with my time, you can't afford a confrontation because you'll lose. Your best option is to back off, because you're way out of your depth here."
The guy was paranoid, all that shit about control; there wasn't any negotiating with someone who was that paranoid. Then again, Kristen contemplated, they didn't need to negotiate; he didn't have the scroll, and as soon as his back was turned then she and Damon would just jaunt out of there. In the end the guy's rant was actually more pathetic than it was frightening.
The guy with red hair pulled some tape covering off an adhesive strip on the something that he'd been fiddling with and attached the thing to the side of a nearby packing case. What it looked a lot like, Kristen thought, was an explosive device of some description.
"You're blowing the place up?" Damon asked awkwardly.
"That was my first plan. Then I thought, no, don't need to any more. Then I thought again, and thought, maybe I do still need to." the guy sounded confused and puzzled. Probably puzzled why Damon would ask such a stupid question when the answer was bleeding obvious. "Although specifically," he continued, "because I like to be specific about these things, it's a series of shrapnel devices. Not much in the way of big explosive blowing up things happening, it's more about having millions of tiny shards of metal flying through the air. They rip through the cardboard packaging, tear the contents to shreds, no more smuggled cigarettes, one pissed off smuggler. At least, that's what I was hoping," he paused and then sounded like he was still trying to convince himself. "I'm pretty sure it'll work. Better work, the price of good explosives these days, I'd really hate all this effort going to waste."
"So are you cutting us loose, or leaving us to get cut to pieces as well?" Kristen made a real effort to sound nervous, which was tough, on account of how she wasn't actually nervous in the slightest. "I mean, you might as well let us go, because you're right, we're out of our depth, we're no threat, we don't want any trouble..."
The guy wasn't interested in listening to them any more. "There's a nationwide manhunt out to get me because of you lot, You already are trouble."
If the guy was holding that against them then Damon didn't see much point in trying to be conciliatory. "You were stalking us for months, what the hell did you expect us to do?"
"I expected you to have some sense," the guy with red hair answered, his voice betraying a hint of disappointment. He casually attached another device to the packing cases opposite Damon and Kristen, then stepped back to survey his work, whatever he'd been doing, he was done.
Kristen finally managed to wriggle her fingers through the netting and stretch just far enough make contact with Damon's hand. Damon immediately reached out with his mind and and with Kristen's help he was able to trace through the security system back to the source. All it took was a simple telekinetic nudge and Kristen smiled smugly as the building alarm went off. The guy spun round instantly, Kristen couldn't sense much, but the guy looked irritated. It was kind of petty, but it made her feel better.
"Bummer, but, no one'll get here in time to rescue the cigarettes, that's the main thing. Well, it's been fun, I'd love to stay and chat longer, but there's this monster movie marathon on TV tonight. You know how it is," the guy smiled cheerfully at them, then turned and departed casually through a side door.
Damon and Kristen couldn't really see him go, they had no way of knowing for sure that he was gone. From where she was, Kristen could see one of the devices, but unlike on TV there was no big flashy countdown. There was no knowing how long they had. They didn't wait; they took a gamble and jaunted out.
Getting Sent To Belgium Is A Euphemism
"The bastard. The bastard just left us there to be ripped to pieces by flying shrapnel. If we hadn't been able to jaunt, we'd be dead," Damon let out his pent up frustration.
"Yeah well, just think about the look there'll be on his face when he finds out he failed," Kristen pointed out. She was as wound up as Damon was, but she had a very different way of expressing it.
Damon started to calm down. The image Kristen was conjuring did help him with his perspective.
It took Jake and Misako a couple of minutes to extricate Damon and Kristen from the taped up netting. That was one of the problems with jaunting, attached items generally came along for the ride. Well, actually, usually that was a good thing, jaunting would have been an interestingly different challenge if things like clothes didn't come along for the ride. But on this occasion the guy with the red hair couldn't have made things more awkward for them if he'd tried.
Damon stood up and paced up and down a little, shaking off what was left of the discomfort of having been tied up, looking round to see where he actually was. It was starting to get dark and there weren't many street lights around, but the river was kind of a giveaway; he was somewhere down by the docks. They'd jaunted directly to where Jake and Misako were, and Jake and Misako had used the few minutes they'd had after the alarm went off to put a safe distance between themselves and the warehouse.
"So what was that stuff he was saying about cigarettes?" Misako asked, picking on something she hadn't understood.
"The boxes in there, I opened one, no hosiery, all cigarettes, and I'm guessing the tax man didn't know anything about them as well," Damon filled her in. "Anyway, it's... what the hell is that smell?" he paused. "Jake, what the hell was in that dumpster because you smell like you've been rolling around in shit? You actually smell worse than you did yesterday before you showered, and that was bad enough."
Jake ignored the insult.
Misako grinned. "He got in and out of the dumpster fine, it was just paper waste in there. Then the idiot managed to stand in dog crap when we crossed the cycle path on on the way down here. Really nasty, messy poo. Jake never was one for looking where he was going."
Jake had looked about ready to answer back when the sound of a siren in the distance reminded them where they were.
"Time we got out of here." Jake prompted them. "Anyone else feel like they need a drink?"
"I could murder a cup of tea," he clarified reluctantly.
Damon tried not to cough as a cloud of smoke drifted across. "I don't know how smokers put up with the stench."
"Easy. They don't have any sense of smell left." Jake pointed out snarkily.
~You have to say that out loud? People can hear,~ Misako reminded them, glancing away as someone walked past and sat down at the next table.
"I don't see why we couldn't sit inside. We'll get lung cancer and die sitting here, assuming we don't get pneumonia from the cold and damp first," Damon complained.
Misako had insisted they sit outside at the pub. They'd found a place along the docks, more of a Disneyfied theme chain pub than anything genuinely olde-worlde, but they weren't complaining, they weren't exactly there on a quest for authenticity.
From their vantage point overlooking the estuary they could even watch the ferries loading and unloading at the docks. Which wouldn't have been all that exciting even if had still been light enough to see. The choice of an outdoor venue had completely failed to impress Damon; Misako had been the one insisting on it, she had a practical reason well enough; she didn't want them drawing too much attention. Right, a bunch of underage teenagers at a pub, and not one of them actually drinking anything alcoholic, what the hell could be more suspicious than that? Damons objections hadn't exactly gotten him very far though.
Still, it wasn't actually raining, and the patio heaters were just about effective in keeping them functionally warm, so it wasn't such a bad deal. Plus, as unpleasant as the cigarette smoke was, it was helping to mask the even more unpleasant smell of Jake. No one was particularly looking forward to the imminent drive back home.
Misako was also a little worried about Kristen.
Kristen was sat silently; staring at her tea. Her reaction had largely been the opposite of Damon's. Damon had been wound up escaping, but he had calmed down very quickly. Kristen, on the other hand, had been fine getting tied up and escaping, but now she was coming down from the experience she was visibly shaking a little. She wasn't quite as well adjusted to the whole getting tied up thing as Damon was.
"You okay?" Damon asked her.
Kristen made an effort to lighten up. "I think so. I just. I knew being around you guys could get dangerous, I just, never had anyone actually try to kill me before. And I know it wasn't really all that dangerous, I could have escaped any time I wanted, but, you know, it was still kind of freaky."
"You did a pretty good job of not showing it back there though, you were making sarcastic quips in the face of danger like a real pro," Damon tried joking, and it kind of worked.
"Well, our good friend Colonel Masters told us the guy with red hair could be dangerous. I guess we've got the level of danger fairly precisely qualified now," Jake contemplated out loud.
"So can we have a serious conversation about this now?" Damon tried his luck, though without much expectation. "Isn't it more than about time we called Masters and asked for help?"
"Except, we also beat him again," Jake pointed out.
"And he's a crackpot," Misako argued. "I'm not saying he's a harmless crackpot, but he's definitely a couple of eighths short of an ounce. I'm a lot less worried about him than I was before."
"He's barking, I'll grant you that..." Damon started unsuccessfully.
"And that bullshit about the scroll having power," Jake interrupted. We're not going after it any more. We won't let it have power over us. You know, let's just leave the tosser to his sad delusions."
Damon sat silently, staring at his tea.
"You okay, mate?" Jake asked softly. "Look, I know we sound like we don't care, I'm not trying to write Masters off completely here, I just... I'm pissing you off again, aren't I?"
Damon shrugged, "I don't think the guy with red hair is ever going away. And you can't go on avoiding this conversation forever. That's all I'm saying."
"Fine, but we're rid of him for now, so can we... I hate pissing you off, can we just let go of this?"
Damon wasn't sure why he'd bothered. "So once again we're not even going to talk about it?"
"We will, Damon, just not now," Jake argued.
"When, then, Jake? When?"
The conversation stalled. Misako had long since backed off and let the two of them get on with it; she figured it was the safest option.
Finally Jake stood up. "Look, I need to go clean the dog shit off these shoes. I'll be back in a few minutes."
Misako waited until he was out of earshot. "You sure you're okay?" She understood the risk of asking the question, but she still felt an obligation to ask.
Damon took a deep breath, which didn't help, the smoke was getting to him. But when he spoke he was sounding more philosophical than upset, which had to be a good thing. "I just want to know what it's going to take to get through to him. What it's going to take to get through to you."
Misako wasn't sure she had any answer there. Damon went back to silently sipping his tea.
~Erm, Damon?~ Jake interrupted after a moment.
~What?~ Damon answered impatiently.
Misako looked up; Jake was standing just inside the doorway to the pub. She was thankful that he hadn't managed to make it as far as the toilets yet, because she hated it when Jake initiated telepathic conversations while he was peeing. He was prone to doing that and way too many of the background emotions that were involved would leak through.
~I know I said we were rid of him for now, but, looks like I was wrong. Don't turn around, but the bastard is sat right there, right now, about two tables away from where you are.~
Misako frowned, it had all the hallmarks of being a wind up, and as pissed off as Damon was right now, that really wasn't a good idea. She hadn't figured even Jake to be that stupid; it took her a good few seconds to realize that Jake was being completely serious.
~Is he watching us right now?~ she asked urgently.
~No, he's looking away, like he doesn't want you seeing him. But there's no way you can make a move without him seeing you.~
~Why follow us here, you think he has the scroll already?~ Damon considered.
~Or he's noticed that he didn't manage to kill you and me properly, so he's after us to finish the job,~ Kristen suggested.
Damon was contemplative. ~I don't think so. At the warehouse our problem was that we got in his way. He was rambling on about controlling us, I don't think killing us was ever part of his plans.~
~How do exactly you do non-lethal blowing people up?~ Kristen asked awkwardly.
~The objective isn't to kill, but if you expect to live then you have to demonstrate that you're worthy to survive. If you do die, it's for no good reason other than because you failed to live,~ Damon recited, allowing a memory to bubble to the surface, a memory he usually kept deeply suppressed.
Misako shivered. Memories stirred that, like Damon, she'd rather not be reminded of. ~Stellman gave you the same speech he gave me.~
~That's screwed up,~ Kristen had heard a little about Stellman from Damon, but Damon had rarely dwelt on the detail.
~It's eugenics. Survival of the fittest,~ Damon was emotionless; cutting off his feelings was the only way he could think back to what had happened. ~Stellman did want us, but only if we could survive his attempts to kill us. I'd say it's the kind of twisted logic you'd get from the bastard with the red hair as well. He may act two eights short of an ounce, but this is why he winds me up, why I can't let go so easily.~
~So we prove ourselves worthy, then what?~ Kristen asked, looking uncomfortable.
~No one ever survived to find out.~ Misako answered coldly.
~Or,~ Jake stepped in, his vantage point affording him the benefit of a little more detachment, ~he keeps looking at the bag, is it possible he's after the bag?~
~Why?~ Damon asked.
~Because he thinks the package is still in there?~ Kristen suggested. ~He showed up right after I shouted that Jake had found the bag, that we'd got what we came for. He doesn't know we found the bag abandoned in the dumpster. He said he was going to take the scroll back. What if he thinks the scroll is still in the bag? What if he's here because he's still after it?~
~It's plausible,~ Jake agreed.
Misako was more cautious. ~I'm hearing a lot more speculation than facts here.~
Jake shrugged. ~There's one easy way to find out.~
~You've got that tone in your thoughts that you get when I'm about to get scared by one of your ideas,~ Damon said nervously.
Jake grinned. ~I don't suppose anyone brought a passport with them did they?~
~I did.~ Misako answered, although she wasn't sure it was the most sensible admission to make under the circumstances. She could see it was a leading question on Jake's part.
~Sorry, but, why the hell would you do that?~ Damon challenged inquisitively.
~You've know my gran...~ Misako reminded him.
Damon understood. ~Right.~
~Anyway,~ Misako continued, ~I didn't know it was going to get me mixed up in one of Jake's harebrained schemes, or I'd have left well alone.~
~My schemes are not harebrained.~ Jake objected.
~Yes, usually they are,~ Damon wasn't supportive.
~What's the risk?~ Misako persisted, worried, but feeling the need to hear Jake out. ~He's already tried to kill two of us today.~
For the first time in months, there was a hint of confidence in Jake's voice again. ~He tried, he failed, and he's going to fail again. Trust me.~
Misako and Damon exchanged nervous glances.
~What's the down side of the plan?~ Damon asked.
~Cost I guess. A wasted ticket to Zeebrugge.~
Misako stared telepathically at Jake for a moment, her mind catching up with him, and then she smiled cautiously. Actually, it really wasn't all that bad an idea. ~Let him follow me on board, then watch, wait for the loading ramp to disengage, then make a discrete exit.~
~Send him to Belgium, and hope he likes Belgian food.~
Misako tried not to laugh, laughing would not have been sensible when they were being watched. ~That sounds like a euphemism for something amusingly unpleasant. You've got an evil sense of humor, you know that Jake?~
Misako thought for a moment. ~So, okay, we do it.~
The car ride back was a total laugh. The four of them were rowdy and shouting and joking, and feeling pretty bloody pleased with themselves. They'd gotten the better of the bastard with red hair twice in one day; life didn't get much better than that.
Damon had quickly forgotten about his argument with Jake, even as soon as they'd left the pub; they were too busy having fun. They'd already checked ticket prices online before heading out; the cost was more than a bit extortionate even for a foot passenger, but they'd agreed to split it four ways, and between them they'd just about had the cash to cover it.
The four of them had then split up, heading off in different directions, Misako carrying the bag. Kristen had been right, the guy with red hair had ignored the others and followed Misako, he was only interested in the bag.
Once Misako was safely on her way down towards the ferry terminal they'd all doubled back to meet up further down the docks; Damon had picked out a vantage point there from where they had a perfect view of the ferry. It was pretty much completely dark, but the ferry was lit up like a Christmas tree, almost an inverse silhouette against the unbroken darkness of the North Sea beyond.
As ruses went, it wasn't the most exciting one; even Misako had found it bordering on the boring, stood on the deck of the not particularly crowded ferry in what felt like an interminable wait for the bloody thing to get underway. She was tired, getting hungry, and there was nothing to do but stand there and watch the world go by.
She had managed to spot Redhead once, just after she'd boarded. A fleeting glimpse, but it was enough, knowing that he'd fallen for the misdirection, that made the whole thing worth it.
Finally the boarding ramp had been retracted; Misako had waited a couple more minutes to be sure there was going to be no other way back to the docks without swimming, then she'd jaunted directly to meet the others, leaving the guy with red hair stuck on board the ferry heading for Zeebrugge.
She wasn't exactly sure what would happen in Zeebrugge when she failed to disembark, not so much from the point of view of Redhead, she was more worried what customs and immigration would figure was going on; that was the only major loose end. Misako was hoping it would all just be explained away as yet another computer error.
And so she'd materialized alongside the others at the dock side, and the four of them had stood there in silence for all of about twenty seconds before Damon had broken out into a fit of giggles.
Then, laughing and joking and getting more cheerful by the second, they'd headed back to the car, stopping only to grab an insanely unhealthy round of super-sized double cheeseburgers in the shopping mall's food court on the way.
It was a little after 8:00 PM by the time they'd got on the road and out of Hull. They'd spent half the drive back speculating how long it would be once the ferry got there before the bastard worked out he'd completely lost her. The other half had been spent making obscene jokes about Hercule Poirot and Jean-Claude Van Damme. And one joke about Van der Valk, until Damon had pedantically reminded them that Van der Valk had absolute bugger all to do with Belgium.
Damon knew they hadn't seen the last of the guy with red hair, none of them were under any illusions there. But what did that matter? If he was that easy to play games with then what was the point in taking him seriously? They'd proven there was nothing to worry about, that there was no need to go running to Masters. Maybe Jake had been right.
And yet, as always, Jake wasn't the sort make a big deal of it, didn't gloat, that wasn't his style. He was gracious in victory. That was always the bloody way with Jake, part of the reason why however much he wound Damon up, Damon just couldn't ever seem to stay pissed off with him for long.
It was getting on for midnight by the time they dropped Misako and Kristen off; Kristen was going to stay over with Misako and head home Sunday. Jake had taken the opportunity to grab more coffee to help him stay awake, that and to clean his shoe off properly there so that he wouldn't be smelling quite so suspiciously disgusting when he finally made it back home. With all the interruptions it was nearly 1:00 AM by the time they finally turned the corner into the street where Jake lived. Jake already knew he'd be in trouble for getting back so late, he'd called, but he hadn't quite admitted how late he was going to be. He was hoping his parents would be in bed already and he could sneak in with Damon without them ever knowing.
Parking turned out to be a problem; there'd been a car blocking Jake's driveway. He had to continue on half way down the street to find a parking space he could awkwardly back into.
"Something's wrong," Damon murmured quietly. He wasn't sure what he could sense, but whatever it was, it wasn't anything happy.
"That's Kath's mother's car that's parked in the way back there," Jake confirmed. Whatever was going on, it was definitely not the homecoming he'd wanted.
Damon frowned worriedly. Without waiting for Jake he jumped quickly out of the car and ran back up the road towards the house. Someone inside must have heard the car pulling up, and the door was opened before either of them had got there.
"You were supposed to be back an hour ago Jacob, and why did you turn your phone off?" Jake's mother shouted into the street. It wasn't an angry shouting though, more kind of a worried shouting.
"Plugged it in to charge it up," Jake came up with what he figured was an impressive improvised excuse, but no one was listening closely enough to care.
"Kath?" Damon asked, seeing her appear at the door. She was upset, she was beyond upset.
"In, now, both of you, we're not discussing this in the street, Jake's mother instructed them urgently.
The front door closed behind them. Kath acted like she wanted to speak, but as distraught as she was she couldn't get the words out. Kath's mother appeared at the kitchen door, looking as anxious as she had been right after the burglary the night before.
Jake's mother was left to explain the situation; succinctly, bluntly. "Kath had a call from Nick's parents, they got the information from the British Embassy. Your friend Nick was arrested earlier today on charges of espionage and sedition."
They Cut People's Goolies Off For Less
Damon was having trouble containing his emotions. For a moment, just a moment, he'd felt like they had the guy with red hair on the run, that they were winning. Now all that hope had evaporated.
Playing jokes on the guy, maybe in retrospect that hadn't been such a great idea. Damon couldn't get it out of his head that by putting him on a ferry to Zeebrugge they'd forced his hand, forced him to escalate.
The whole thing had been a typically bloody Jake idea; a childish response that achieved nothing more than to demonstrate how totally clueless and out of their depth they really were. Except Damon desperately didn't want to blame Jake, it wasn't Jake's fault that the guy with red hair had no sense of humor.
Damon was desperately trying not to blame anyone, because no one was really to blame; and trying not to feel guilty himself either, because nothing that he could have done would have changed a damn thing.
The next hour had passed painfully slowly. Kath hadn't really wanted to leave; she hadn't wanted to head back to a house that had just been broken into, she'd wanted to be around people for the distraction. Not that she'd spoken much, no one had been in all that talkative mood, which was a lot of the reason why the hour had passed so slowly. It was getting of for 2:00AM by the time her mother finally managed to coax her into heading home to try and get some sleep.
Jake and Damon had headed upstairs to bed shortly after that, desperately tired as well, but neither of them was much in the mood for sleeping. Jake had waited until he was sure his parents were sleeping soundly before giving the all clear to Kristen and Misako, who had then jaunted directly over.
The time before they'd arrived had been used wisely; Jake had taken the opportunity to hurriedly tidy his room. Well, maybe not so much tidy, but he'd at least taken the opportunity to strategically relocate of some the more embarrassing items to places where they couldn't be so easily be seen. Damon had declined to help, citing health and safety regulations pertaining to dealing with hazardous waste and potential issues of contamination. He knew his rights.
Now the four of them were sat in Jake's bedroom, the room light off, just a bedside lamp for illumination. The mood was downbeat, subdued, uncomfortable.
"He said it," Damon whispered, thinking back to the warehouse, giving voice to his fears, getting more agitated as he spoke. "He said something would happen, he said we'd need the scroll so badly we'd be willing to sell our souls for it. Bloody, sodding... Why is it we're the ones stuck with being non-violent?"
~Keep your voice down,~ Jake cautioned him.
Under normal circumstances Jake's mother would undoubtedly have been delighted to catch him in his bedroom with uninvited female guests, but these were not exactly normal circumstances. For the morning he already had the excuse worked out; if there were any awkward questions asked he would pretend Misako and Kristen had caught the first bus to get there. He wasn't worried, in the scheme of things talking his way out of that one was a minor worry. But that was for the morning; right now Jake couldn't afford for anyone to be making too much noise.
~Espionage and sedition for stealing archeological artefacts?~ Kristen asked, she was finding it difficult to get her head around what was going on. ~And the embassy pointing out that those are considered capital offenses, it all seems a bit over the top to me.~
~It's politics,~ Misako replied. ~The worse the charges the more the leverage. It's a set up; the redhead guy has set us up.~
~But why tell us his plan? I mean it seems all a bit too Dr Evil, and a bit dipshit of him to give himself that away like that.~
"He's playing mind games with us. That's what he does. He's taunting us, screwing with our heads," Damon argued cynically.
Jake disagreed, trying to remain diplomatic. "I think it's more straightforward than that. He wants us know. He wants us to know that Nick's arrest was orchestrated, he wants us to know who it is we'll have to negotiate with if we want to help Nick."
"Negotiate what? We still have no idea what he wants," Kristen pointed out.
Jake stared at the floor, half lost in thought. "He wants to control us. He told us that. And it's pretty obvious why. There's a manhunt out to get him, there's an ongoing investigation into police corruption that's threatening to expose his connections in high places. He's after us because we can identify him, somehow we have to be silenced, they can't come after us directly because we're too high profile, so they use Nick. Did I miss anything?"
"Nick's been arrested. They'll bloody behead him or something unless we can help. He was there on a humanitarian aid mission, he was just trying to help people." Damon struggled to contain his anger.
Misako made an attempt to calm him down. "They won't behead him, there'd be too many political repercussions, let's not get hysterical here."
"This is Iraq, they cut people's goolies off for less."
Misako avoided catching Damon's eye. "He's been accused of spying and treason in a foreign country we can't even get to. I know he's your friend. I want to help. But this is out of our league. Even if we knew how to jaunt that kind of distance reliably, which we don't, what are we supposed to do when we get there? Damon, this is just, I'm sorry."
Jake kept his mouth shut. Misako wasn't helping. She was right, but she wasn't helping. There was a standoff.
"The guy with red hair is on a ferry to Belgium, they don't have the scroll yet, we still have a chance if we can get to it first." Kristen observed calmly.
"We don't even know where to start looking," Misako reminded her.
"Meaning we're screwed?" Kristen couldn't look Damon in the eye either, she could sense he was getting more and more frustrated. She fell silent again.
"We're screwed. That's the best we can manage?" Damon almost shouted. "So we give up, let them walk all over us? I'm not sodding..." He stopped and forced himself to breathe deeply, he couldn't frame the words properly any more, he was too upset.
"We're not giving up, Damon, I promise you that. Whatever it takes," Jake interjected, choking himself off as realized his own voice was getting too loud, ~however long it takes, we're not giving up.~
He was resolute, he was supportive, Damon appreciated that, even if he could see that Jake didn't have the slightest idea of a plan. He hadn't thought it through, but that was Jake. Loyalty first, practicality second. Damon glanced across at Misako, fully expecting her to start chiding Jake for his lack of responsibility again.
She managed to surprise him. ~I don't disagree. Jake's right, maybe it is time we took a stand,~ she explained cautiously. ~My gran always taught me to avoid battles, but she also said that there comes a point when the battle is going to happen whether you try to avoid it or not. We're in a corner, I don't like it, but that's how it is, so sod it, we fight. They want to escalate, we show them we can escalate. I just want to be practical here, we come up with a plan; the plan has to be realistic, it's going to have to work.~ Misako finally looked up at Damon.
Damon was thankful for the sentiment, but he was looking for more than words. ~So how do we escalate?~
His words provoked silence; no one had any immediate suggestions.
~He's going to get off that ferry in a few hours, work out we gave him the slip, then he's going to turn right back around and come after us. If we could be waiting for him...~ Jake mused, thinking out loud, telepathically, so to speak.
~And what if he's worked out we don't have the scroll?~ Damon asked.
Jake shrugged. ~Then he'll go back after the smugglers, who I'm guessing are the ones who really do have the scroll right now. And once he's got it, then he'll come after us.~
~Only this time with a weapon he really can use against us,~ Misako concluded. ~None of this is helping.~
"Maybe it's time we called in a favor." Kristen finally broke her silence.
"What?" Damon asked, confused.
Kristen stood up and walked over to stand by Damon, facing the other two. "Damon's right, we have to do something. Maybe it's time we got over our endless procrastination and just accept the invitation. At least lets try. Sit down and talk to him. How can that hurt? Masters just might be able to help."
Damon was impressed. Kristen always picked her battles carefully. She kept her opinions to herself more often than not, but she understood that timing was everything. So when she did make her opinions known, she got their attention.
Jake glanced across at Misako, who nodded gently. There were no arguments left that justified their continued objections, not now, not when the life of an innocent bystander was being threatened.
Kristen pulled out her phone. "Anyone got the number?"
It took Jake a minute or two to hunt through the mess on his desk, finally retrieving the business card from underneath a neatly stacked pile of dirty socks. He handed it to Kristen.
Damon felt numb. They'd finally given in to him over Masters, but he didn't exactly feel vindicated. This was an action of last resort, this was an admission that they couldn't handle it themselves. And that was a tough truth to have to confront, for all of them.
"You think he meant it when he said call any time?" Misako asked, feeling uncertain.
Kristen shrugged and dialed the number on the card she was holding. "If he didn't mean it, he shouldn't have said it."
They waited, listening to the ringing sound coming from the handset. How long were they going to sit there waiting? What if they didn't get an answer?
The line went silent. Kristen put the call on speakerphone.
"Who is this?" a sleepy voice asked.
"This is Kristen Walker. I want to talk."
There was silence for a moment. "Two months, then out of the blue you call me at two in the morning?"
"You still want him? We know where he'll be in about ten hours from now. If you want to talk, it has to be right now."
There was another pause.
"Not on the phone," Masters answered. "We'll meet. Give me half an hour."
"Avonbank Gardens, by the river, you know it?"
Kristen shook her head silently and glanced across at Jake. "Yeah, but t'll be locked up this time of night," Jake answered for her.
"Then break in. I'll be on the bench, by the bandstand."
The line went dead, Masters hadn't even stopped to wait for an answer.
Misako looked uncomfortable. "I hope we all know what the hell it is we're doing."
The bandstand; Jake's main memory of that bandstand was the time Mary-Sue Fuller had taken him on a date there to watch an outdoor performance of Romeo and Juliet. Talk about a choice of play with ulterior motives; she was full of them. They'd held hands, then afterwards they'd gone behind the boat sheds and snogged, first time Jake had ever had a serious snog involving tongues. But for all she was cute and fun, and he'd seriously been tempted to go further, there'd just been something not quite right about it all. She'd been, well, just a bit too human; even at the age of thirteen Jake's teenage boy hormone thing had understood that he was something different.
He circled the bandstand once before sitting himself down on the park bench opposite. He was early, he still had a few minutes.
It was perverse given the time, but Jake was feeling a lot more awake than he considered entirely decent. After a day of emotional swings he was getting his confidence back for a second time. There was no way that talking to Masters would have been his preferred course of action, but Jake felt that at least he was doing something positive, something that might just work, and with the confidence came a hint of the old arrogance, and with the arrogance came the sense of inappropriate enjoyment Jake always had when he felt like he was in control and screwing the odds. Most of all, he saw an opportunity to redeem himself for the mess he'd made at Christmas, a chance to prove himself. He was okay with the accusations of irresponsibility, and of acting without thinking, those were qualities he was proud of, but not the recklessness. He wasn't ever intentionally reckless, and he desperately wanted to make the others understand that.
Colonel Masters turned out to be as good as his word. Exactly thirty minutes after hanging up on the phone, he sat down beside Jake on the park bench.
He was alone, Jake wasn't; Kristen and Damon were watching from a safe distance, hidden in the trees across the river, and Misako was watching from the very safe distance of Jake's bedroom, just in case any of them needed to make a swift exit.
Jake sat back and waited for Masters to speak first. He could sense Masters didn't like being there, was wanting to get the job done and get out, Jake figured he could play on that. Masters was also afraid of rats. Jake couldn't work that one out... if the guy was so bothered by rats then why the hell had he picked a spot down by the river like this to meet up?
"Going to the press was a bad idea, Mr Laris. You drove him underground, you drove him to desperate measures." Masters opened the conversation without any nod to courtesy.
Jake found the accusation a little hypocritical. he had no hesitation in throwing the charge right back at Masters. "Laura Shepherd wouldn't have published that story on my word alone. She would have needed independent corroboration, and that could only have come from you. That means you sanctioned the story, which means, Colonel Masters, that you're the one who's really behind the current manhunt, and you're the one who's responsible for the consequences of it."
Masters seemed impressed at Jake's forwardness. "You have an incisive mind, Mr Laris. Yes, I sanctioned the manhunt. My point stands, however, that in retrospect it was a bad idea. All that publicity and not one sighting in the two months. He was pushed too hard, and he's backed away."
Jake stuck to his agenda. "Well something's flushed him out, and he's after us again. Can you help?"
"I can offer protection."
"We don't want protection. We want him caught, handed over to the police."
"You would trust the police with that?" Masters challenged.
"If we leaked the story to a certain reporter, then the police would have to be trustworthy, they wouldn't have a choice."
Masters smiled thinly. "I'm impressed young man, you seem to understand the reality of politics. It's refreshing to hear sense and reason in someone of your generation. It gives me hope for the future."
Jake found himself uncomfortable with the complement.
"So, this redhead guy, who is he?" Jake asked, wanting to change the subject and seizing what he figured might be the only opportunity he'd ever get to ask.
"It's hard to say," Masters replied cautiously. "He keeps making names up, it's always something different. He acts like he has no real name, at least not one that means anything to him."
Jake could sense Masters words were essentially truthful, although conspicuously vague, and he wasn't actually answering the real question. It wasn't exactly a reassuring response.
He tried another approach. "Other than the eye witness stuff, what other evidence is there tying the guy to Stellman?"
That elicited a more substantial answer. "Not much. When the investigation started unwinding Stellman's last movements, they uncovered a property owned by him that he'd occasionally rented out to research students. The place was searched, they found nothing, but forensics suggested there had recently been a break in there, that items had been removed. And certain items we know Stellman had in his possession never did turn up; his copy of the ContactPoint database for one. We know someone was trying to cover up a trail, trying to eliminate evidence, so while there's no conclusive proof that our friend with the red hair was responsible for the break in, that is my working conjecture. The style of the break in certainly fits his profile. It is my expectation that when we apprehend him we'll recover the missing items, and then we'll have all the proof we need."
Jake kept his mouth shut. He was the one who'd broken into the place with Damon. He had the ContactPoint database hidden in his bedroom, stashed under the mattress along with his porn collection. Somehow he'd have to figure out a way of planting that evidence somewhere it would help incriminate the guy with red hair; It wouldn't be perverting the course of justice too much, after all, the guy was guilty, but it was an added complication that Jake could have done without.
Masters wasn't too far off the truth though; someone else had broken into that house before Jake and Damon had gotten there. But if the guy with red hair hadn't gone there for the ContactPoint database, then what the hell had he taken? Unfortunately Jake couldn't think of a way of asking about that without implicating himself.
"What will you do with him?" Jake changed tack.
"Accessory to murder; we can lock him up for a long, long time on that charge."
"Sounds near enough justice," Jake agreed.
"I suppose you could call it justice, but I'm more practical than that. Oh, you'll get your justice, but I'll be happy just to see him taken out of the picture," Masters observed coldly. "So what have you got for me?"
Jake collected his thoughts, he needed to get his explanation straight. "There's this ancient scroll got looted from Iraq," he began. "Redhead thinks we've got it and he's coming after us, thinks possessing it will give him some kind of leverage over us. Maybe he thinks he can stop us testifying against him, I don't know. I don't care. We bait the trap, you pick him up. All we want is to see the scroll get back to the Iraqi authorities so we can clear our friend Nick who was framed for stealing it in the first place."
Masters seemed unsurprised. "You lead a complex life, Mr Laris. But how and what you've gotten yourself mixed up in does not interest me. This is my position; I have no influence over foreign powers, I can help you pursue this scroll in as far as it remains the context for the trap, but let me be clear about this, it's the trap I care about, not your friend Mr Smart."
~What are you getting from him?~ Jake looked for a second opinion.
~He's telling the truth. The whole truth, and he really doesn't give a shit about Nick,~ Kristen confirmed.
"You're blunt, anyway, I can respect that," Jake spoke out loud again. "The looted artefact was being processed through a warehouse in Hull. Any information you can provide will help."
Masters opened his briefcase and pulled out a laptop. "What is the address of the warehouse?"
"It was on Valletta Street, down by the docks."
Masters tapped away on the keyboard for a moment or two then read out what he'd found.
"Operation Ziusudra. Since the liberation of Iraq there has been a steady trade in looted antiquities. The police have been investigating that warehouse as a possible transit point. I have access to the police file here, they have pages and pages of details on the investigation."
"Anything about this scroll?"
"Particularly valuable, may be a fragment of the epic of Gilgamesh, only it seems to be from significantly earlier than any existing fragment, which is why the Iraqis were having trouble with the translation. Appears to describe a journey, they're speculating it might be a prototypical version of the story where Gilgamesh crosses the Waters of Death, only, unlike later versions, the descriptions actually seem to relate to real places. More like a map than an allegory. Is any of this really relevant?"
"Probably not. Anything about cigarettes?"
"Smuggling archaeological artefacts and smuggling tobacco and alcohol often go hand in hand. That's what the police suspect here. The view is that these people are small scale crooks, not particularly dangerous."
"That's consistent with what we saw there."
"It also says the police were planning a sting operation, but they needed to catch the crooks with the merchandise. There was an explosion and fire at the warehouse yesterday that destroyed all the evidence. They have no idea what happened. They suspect their surveillance may have been compromised, so they've backed off. They need time to regroup, and they now need to wait for the next shipment of cigarettes as well. Which they estimate will be some time in two to three months. That explosion anything to do with you?"
Jake was tired of being drip fed the information. "Give me that file, and I'll give you a shot at the guy with red hair."
"I was hoping for something a little more concrete."
Jake shrugged. "I can't make any promises. We'll help you in as far as it remains within the context of helping Nick. We do want the redhead guy caught, but just to be clear, it's Nick we care about first and foremost."
Masters smiled. "Just tell me where and when to find him, Mr Laris, I'll need two hours notice."
"Be ready. We'll call."
Masters copied the file onto a memory card which he ejected and set down on the park bench next to Jake. "You know," he observed, "I think we can do business, you and I."
Jake grabbed the memory card and held it tightly while Masters packed the laptop back in to his briefcase. Without saying another word, Masters stood up and walked silently off.
~What's up Damon?~ Jake could sense nervousness.
~Nothing, I think. I saw movement over behind you, but I couldn't sense anything out there. I'm getting tired, I think I'm imagining things.~
~You think you saw someone there you can't sense?~ Kristen asked.
Damon agreed it didn't make much sense. ~But we know he's still stuck on a ferry half way to Zeebrugge right now, right, so it's not possible that it was him,~ he paused, ~unless we're talking multiple robotic clones.~
Jake frowned. ~Multiple robotic clones? Damon, you seriously need sleep. Or a lobotomy.~
"What's this?" Damon asked as Misako offered him a can of Red Bull and a couple of small pills.
"Pro Plus. Amphetamines aren't an option I'm willing to sanction. I checked with my gran; she says a caffeine overdose is the next best thing."
Damon eyed the pills nervously. He had an intense distrust of medication of any kind, a distrust that bordered on the edge of paranoia. It was the one psychological trauma the therapy hadn't managed to help with. He reminded himself that the pills consisted of nothing more than decoffeinated caffeine, but it still required an act of will to swallow them down. "Thinks of everything, does your gran," he complained.
"Is this really safe? Will it work?" Kristen asked, as she was confronted with the same offer.
Misako shrugged dismissively.
"It'll make you feel less tired, it doesn't stop you needing sleep. It'll keep us going through the next twelve hours or so, after that we'll be completely trashed," Damon tried to keep the explanation in terms the others would understand for once. "The effects only last three or four hours, we'll have to dose up again more than once before the night's out. The half life is about five hours, at this dosage level we'll avoid caffeine intoxication, but there might still be some symptoms of irritability, muscle twitching, insomnia, shit like that..."
Damon decided to shut up, he could see Kristen already regretted asking. That said, she took the medication, as did Jake. As much as the four of them were desperate for it, sleep was going to have to wait; they had a long, long night ahead of them.
They'd retreated to Jake's bedroom where in the half light and while trying to keep to the minimum of noise so as not to wake Jake's parents, they were busy making their plans. Jake had printed out two copies of the file on Operation Ziusudra and had handed one to Damon, which might not have been the most advisable course of action under the circumstances.
"It was our own sodding police that ratted Nick out to the Iraqi authorities? You have to be kidding me," Damon fumed as he read the final paragraph.
~Keep your bloody voice down, will you.~ Jake pleaded forcefully.
~Sorry,~ Damon acquiesced, ~It's just winding me up that we're fighting people who ought to be on our side.~
"The police are corrupt; they're not on our side, they never were." Misako reminded Damon cynically. She gestured at the report, "what this tells us is that the corruption is either wider than we thought, or goes way higher up; this has the hallmarks of being some shadowy governmental level conspiracy. We have someone out there very, very scared, and that someone is lashing out."
"And playing dirty," Kristen pointed out.
"They're not playing. This is not a game," Misako objected strongly. "If we treat it like it is, we'll lose."
"We lose if they get to the scroll before we do. Redhead was right, whoever controls that, controls us," Damon managed to get past his anger and started to contribute rationally. "But he's been sent to Belgium, they don't have it yet, so we still have an opportunity."
~We have two objectives,~ Jake summed up. ~Helping Nick, and then taking down whoever it was that set him up. Because if we don't do that, they'll just find another way to come after us. The scroll is the key to both those objectives. It's power alright; redhead wasn't kidding. We have someone out there very, very scared, and when they find out we have the scroll they'll panic, and we'll be the ones who get to dictate terms.~
Damon looked away, trying to keep a straight face. ~I'd feel happier if saying that didn't turn you on quite so much.~
He had to dodge as Jake threw a pillow at him. The pillow hit the bookshelf, rattling the dirty cups and plates he kept stacked there. They all froze, sensing movement in the hallway outside, but a few moments later they heard a toilet flushing, and Jake finally nodded an okay.
~So, is there a reason you keep dirty underpants hidden under your pillow?~ Kristen asked, noticing there were a number of pairs revealed underneath where the pillow had once been.
~Yes,~ Jake answered, frowning, really not wanting to answer, ~and it's none of your bloody business, so piss off.~
~At least they're his dirty underpants,~ Damon reassured her. ~I'd only worry if I found out he was keeping someone else's dirty underpants under there. Especially if they were mine, because that'd be inappropriate.~
~Guys?~ Misako interrupted, ~can we focus here?~
Jake took another swig of his Red Bull and grinned. ~This is our chance. We act now while the guy with the red hair is still out of the picture, we go after the original smugglers. We get to the scroll first, then we coordinate the trap with Masters.~
~Should be piss easy. The file gives us the names and addresses of all the people in the smuggling ring. Almost too good to be true. My one worry is that it's a police file; can we trust what it says?~ Kristen observed somewhat suspiciously.
~We can't trust anyone,~ Misako stated bluntly. ~But the police don't know about Masters. He gave us the file, and he wants the guy with the red hair. He was sure as hell telling the truth there; I think we can trust that much.~
~As I see it, it's a gamble we have to take,~ Damon concluded. ~Because Nick doesn't exactly have a hope in hell without us.~
~Light's on, she's not asleep,~ Damon called back. He'd walked over to Kath's house, he'd actually volunteered for the job, Jake hadn't had to manipulate him into doing it or anything. He'd been desperate for the fresh air. The Pro Plus was helping him stay awake, but it was also making him restless.
Jake was restless himself. Especially right now, sat in his bedroom, trying to work out what he was going to say. This was the part of the plan that was going to be the hardest; getting Kath to cooperate without messing up his friendship with her even more. He collected himself and called her number.
"Kath. I'm right outside," he lied. "We need to talk, now, not on the phone, it's urgent. There may be a way to help Nick. Come down the stairs, let me in, be quiet about it."
She hadn't freaked, not yet anyway, it was a good start. Jake materialized alongside Damon and put a hand on his shoulder. "Go back, mate," Jake whispered. "If you need some time to yourself, get it now. This is going to be a long, long night."
Damon understood, nodded and jaunted away.
Jake walked up to Kath's front door, timing it so that he arrived just as he sensed her getting to the bottom of the stairs. He wanted to be ready so that when she opened the door he'd be able to start talking to her before she had a chance to get a single word in. He had to control the agenda.
"What's more important, subjecting me to a long list of awkward questions I'm not about to answer, or Nick's life?" he challenged her.
It was the most basic technique for dealing with people when you were short of time; give them illusion of a choice where the options were so stacked that the answer would always be a certainty. Jake had learned that particular lesson from his mother when he was three years old. It still worked.
Kath stared at him suspiciously. "What is this Jake? What are you doing?"
"Nick or the questions, we need to get past that now."
"Nick," she answered without hesitation.
Jake nodded gently. "Can I come in?"
Kath led Jake quietly up the stairs to her bedroom. Jake hadn't been inside her bedroom in years; not since his fifteenth birthday. Then it had been painted hot pink, Barbie pink, no dignity, shameless consumerism. Now it was purple, just a hint of Goth, and was a powerful reminder that somewhere along the line, Kath had grown up.
Once inside Jake handed her the printout. Kath took it, questioningly at first, then in disbelief as she scanned through.
"This is a confidential police report, Jake. You walk in here at three in the morning with a confidential police report, and you don't want me asking questions..." she sat down on the bed, the confusion overloading her already stretched emotional state.
"Want to see Foo Fighters in concert? No problem, Jake can organize a reunion tour, get tickets, manipulate the board of school governors into letting us go to the concert on school time and con the school into providing the transport. Thanks Jake. Want tickets to a Wimbledon center court final? No problem, Jake can get himself half shot to death by a serial killer, then cynically abuse all the sympathy he gets just to lay his hands on a Wimbledon VIP day pass. Thanks Jake. Want to see a lame man walk? Check Jake out. Want state secrets delivered to your door at three in the morning?..." she reached an angry crescendo, her confusion spilling over into tears. "Damn it, Jake, I used to think you were arrogant, but arrogance is when you have an overinflated opinion of yourself, and you don't; if anything you under-play it." Kath threw the report back at him, "This world has rules, Jake, but you, you just do what the hell you want anyway."
Jake remained composed, he couldn't afford to lose sight of why he was there. Kath was upset, she had every right to be upset; he was just going to have to let her work through it.
"If I really could do what the hell I wanted, Nick would be free already. He isn't. I'm as constrained by the rules as you are. What I do have is a gift for exploiting loopholes and a far more nuanced perspective on risk than most people are capable of, and that sometimes lets me pull off what appear to be miracles. It also sometimes screws things up so badly that I end up hurting the people I care most about. There's a lot of stuff I haven't been telling you, a lot more than just about the knee; I'm sorry for that, but you have to get past it fast if you want to help Nick. We have to act, we have to act now, and I need your help on this. You in?"
Kath closed her eyes and looked away. She didn't like it, didn't like it at all, but her only concern right now was for Nick. "Yes," she conceded reluctantly.
"Along the way there will be little time for questions or explanations. There will be times when you'll have to do what I ask, whatever that is, even if it sounds crazy or wrong, without argument, without question. Do I have your word on that?"
Kath looked up. "Yes, I will do anything for Nick," she answered indirectly.
"You're as bloody minded as he is, you know that?"
"And Jake Laris knows a thing or two about being bloody minded. I care about Nick, and I'll do whatever it takes to help him. Because that's what you do for people you care about. That's a lesson I learned from you, Jake."
"And you think I've forgotten?"
"No. Because you're here right now. It's the only thing about you I'm still sure of. Bugger knows why, but in spite of all the lies you tell, when it comes down to matters of life and death, I still trust you implicitly."
"You're freaky at times, you know that?"
It was reluctant, it was a little forced, but he managed to get half a smile out of her as she nodded in reply. It was a start. More importantly he'd managed to convince Kath that just maybe he had a workable plan; and he desperately needed her to believe that, because the first part of that plan hinged entirely on Kath being able to keep herself together and functioning.
"All phones, turn them off now," Jake whispered in through the back door.
Kristen moved over as Kath got into the back seat. Jake's car wasn't really big enough to hold five people comfortably; it was going to get a little cozy in there on the two hour drive they had ahead of them.
Jake had been insistent on bringing Kath along, said it was part of his plan; Kristen wasn't so sure Jake even had a plan, and if he did then it could only be a half baked plan at best. But Kristen knew when it was best to keep her mouth shut.
"What have you got for me?" Jake asked Misako as he climbed into the driving seat and closed the car door.
"It's been nine hours," Misako reported. "He'll be hitting Zeebrugge soon, totally pissed off."
"That's his problem." Jake said unsympathetically. "How long will it take him to get back?"
"Quickest way would be flying, taxi to the airport in Brussels. I checked the schedule, it's feasible he could make it to London in about four and a half hours, then at least another two to get here. Midday is the earliest he could catch up with us again."
"This is not a guy to underestimate. We need to be ready for him long before that."
"You're expecting him to turn up early?"
"I'm counting on it," Jake revealed cryptically. "Kristen?"
Kristen distributed a new set of printouts she'd been working on while Jake had been over talking to Kath. "Maps and optimal routes to all the safe houses on the list we got from the police. I've taken the liberty of programming the GPS on Damon's cellphone with everything he'll need as well. How are we going to handle this with only one car?" It was the one gap she could see in Jake's plan that she felt comfortable challenging.
Jake wasn't too concerned. "I have an idea that'll get us a second car. Damon?"
"I've studied the notes on the all the security systems, although for the most part it's easy, we want to trigger them, not bypass them. We're good to go. Just need to know what it is you want us to do when we get there."
"I'm, kind of still working on that part," Jake failed to sound particularly convincing. "The other thing you and Misako will have to handle is the anonymous tip off. Arrange to hand the scroll over to the police at twelve noon precisely."
"You counting on Redhead to be there as well?" Misako didn't sound convinced.
"He's connected with the police somehow; whatever you tell them, he'll find out, he'll be there. And so will Masters. You get to watch him taken down."
"We're bait?" Misako sounded unenthusiastic.
"I'm so excited I could leak," Damon added sarcastically.
"Not wearing my bloody underpants you won't, " Jake deadpanned.
"So where do I fit in all this?" Kath interrupted, watching the exchange; she felt trapped by a growing sensation of isolation, a feeling like she didn't belong there.
Jake smiled gently. "You get the fun part. You get to confront this guy who ordered the break in on your house, you get to scare the living shit out of him; we're going to push him until he gets on his knees and begs to hand over the scroll. Interested?"
Kath was cautious. "How dangerous is this, Jake?"
"His name's Sam Dashiell, he lives in a five bedroom semi-detached house in Sheffield. The file says he's an advertising copy writer by day, and by night he's into tax fraud and trading in stolen goods, that's all. It's minor league shit, I'm not worried. Anyway, I'll go in first with Kristen and check him out. If there are any risks, you won't be the one taking them."
Kath nodded purposefully. "What do I have to do?"
Jake pulled into a lay-by. They were still about half an hour out from their final destination in Sheffield, on time for the next part of his plan. He pulled out his old phone and handed it over to Kath.
"I thought this one got stolen last year?" she said.
"No, it didn't, but the police think it did. So they can't trace it back to me. And no more questions; I dialed already."
Kath quickly put the phone up to her ear. "It's gone to voicemail already," she whispered urgently.
"Not a problem, just leave your message," Jake prompted.
Damon and Misako exchanged glances; this was the part of the plan that worried them the most.
"Bad move, darling, you picked the wrong people to mess with. So you smuggle cigarettes hidden in crates of recycled hosiery. You like what we did to your warehouse yesterday? I'm sure you're looking at the loss in perspective, after all, you have seven other warehouses. One might be compromised, but the rest are safe. Except they aren't. I'll make this simple; I want the scroll. Hand it over, and nothing unpleasant will happen. Fail to hand it over, well, there'll be consequences, and they'll suck. Consider your answer carefully. I'll be in touch."
Kath hung up.
"Bitchy enough?" she asked.
"Convinced me," Misako was impressed. Impressed with Kath, impressed with Jake as well. The plan had sounded crazy, but Kath's performance had made her reconsider. Jake was never quite as insane as he came across at times.
"What if they don't buy it?" Kristen didn't really doubt the theory behind Jake's plan, but she had very little faith in the intelligence of the people they were up against.
"They won't," Jake conceded reluctantly. "Not until we prove we mean business. All else fails then blowing up one of their warehouses should do it, that kind of shit."
Damon's laugh cut off abruptly. "Whoa, are you completely out of your bollocking mind? This was all meant to be a bluff; we scare him, he gives in, piece of piss. Blowing things up wasn't any part of the plan you explained, even as a last resort."
"How did you figure we were going to scare him? Creep up behind him and shout boo?"
"Blow them up how?" Damon was totally unconvinced.
"I don't know. Don't sweat it, you'll think of something. You just need to get his attention; shouldn't be too hard."
Misako remained stony faced. "I wish I could see another way out of this, Jake, but I can't. This had damn well better work."
Jake shrugged. "I honestly don't want to have to escalate that far, but we might not have a choice here; if he calls our bluff, then we have to be ready to make him understand that we aren't bluffing. This is Nick's life we're talking about. We are going to do whatever it takes to get that scroll; we're not playing games any more."
Not Playing Games
~Time?~ Misako asked, not wanting to look away, not wanting to lose sight of the security guard who had awkwardly stopped over by the exit for an illicit on-duty cigarette.
Damon checked his watch. ~Five thirty.~
The car park was out the back of Sainsbury's, well away from the main customer car park, this was where the delivery trucks loaded and unloaded. It was also presumably where employees parked, but right now it was pretty much deserted; it was Sunday morning, and and by that peculiarly British definition of twenty-four hour opening, the store would be closed for another four hours yet. The security guard didn't have much to guard right now, and wasn't in much of a hurry to finish the cigarette.
~Come on...~ Misako mentally willed him to give it up and head back inside. Unfortunately telepathy didn't work like that, all they could do was wait. Rain, on the other hand... The guard stubbed out the cigarette to save it for later as it became apparent that it was more than just a few drops that were starting to fall.
Misako grabbed her backpack and threw it over her shoulder. ~He's leaving. You ready?~
~Been ready for ten minutes. Now I'm getting wet.~ Damon complained.
~Quit being such a girl. Go,~ Misako gave the nod.
Keeping low they ran swiftly around the perimeter of the car park to the car. They checked the registration plate to make sure they were stealing the right car; it belonged to the smugglers and Jake had argued that there was no way the smugglers could report the car as stolen when they knew it had a fake tax disc. Misako reluctantly had to admit that he was probably right. Hemight be making things up as he went along, but he was doing a fairly thorough job of it all.
Damon was pretty confident he could deactivate the alarm; it was pretty much identical to the one on his father's car. Misako watched him move round the car and crouch down beside the left door and place his hands in contact with the car. He had to touch it, the physical connection was part of how the telekinesis worked, Misako figured she would have to remind him to wipe the prints off later. She waited as he allowed his mind to drift into the car, locate the alarm main activation switch and block it.
~Safe, try the door,~ he prompted her.
Misako projected her mind into the mechanism and the door clicked unlocked, she pulled it gently open a small way and squeezed inside. There was no warning beep from the alarm.
~Okay, it's secure.~ She reached across and opened the door for Damon from the inside. Damon climbed into the passenger seat and pulled his seatbelt on.
Misako touched the ignition and brought the car to life. She put it into gear and pulled off. Immediately they were out of the car park and onto the road she switched on the lights, she didn't want to draw any attention. A minute or two later they caught up with where Jake was parked waiting.
~See you at the rendezvous in about five hours.~ Jake called out to them as they passed.
Misako nodded almost imperceptibly, she didn't need to make a show of it, Jake would pick up the acknowledgement well enough telepathically. She had to keep her eyes on the road, which wasn't easy; her eyes were heavy and the second dose of Pro Plus she'd taken hadn't quite kicked in yet.
Damon was in even worse shape, his attention wandering all over the place. He stared awkwardly at the windscreen. "You know, I'm not trying to be pissy here, and I know we've got the right car, but that tax disc looks bloody convincing to me."
It was 6:00 AM. Jake, Kristen and Kath had parked just round the corner from Dashiell's house. The three of them sat huddled in the car; they were cold, and staring unenthusiastically into the orange glow of the street lamps diffused through the damp and misty early morning air.
Kristen was trying unsuccessfully to get something more out of Jake about his plan. It was a hopeless challenge; Jake didn't know the plan well enough himself to be answering questions on it, he was sat there desperately trying to work through the holes. And there were still a lot of holes. Kristen was fairly chilled about that, she could sympathize with his preference for improvisation, she was more worried that he'd fallen asleep.
"What are you thinking? Horse's head on his pillow?" She prompted, trying to keep as much of a straight face as she could muster.
Jake frowned. "You're joking right?" he asked incredulously. "Where the hell would we get a horse's head from at this time of the morning?"
"Decapitate his favorite teddy bear then?" Kristen tried again.
"You know, I don't think I could do it. I can't do cruelty, not even to teddy bears," Jake answered quite seriously.
"Then what? We're short on time here."
Jake thought for a moment longer, then went with the closest he had to an idea. "Kath, check the police file, just make sure for me the guy doesn't have a heart condition or anything.
Kath scanned the file with a pocket flashlight. "Survived throat cancer, no other medical problems mentioned. You'd think someone like that would know better than to smuggle cigarettes."
"So what are you thinking?" Kristen asked again; she could sense Jake had an idea, she just couldn't sense what.
"You really want to freak someone, be nice to them when they least expect it. Malicious niceness. Give me that file a minute Kath."
Kristen stared uncomfortably at Jake. "Are you serious?"
"Completely. You have a problem with that?"
"Yes, a lot of the time I have a real problem working out whether you're being serious or not," Kristen admitted obtusely.
Kath handed the file over suspiciously. "That trick works great on teachers at school, what makes you think it'll work here?"
Jake scanned quickly to a particular page he'd remembered from earlier. "I don't, not for sure, but there's one way to find out. Kristen, I'll need your help here. Kath, wait in the car, we won't be long."
Jake didn't wait for an answer, he jumped out of the car and headed up the street leaving Kristen to catch up.
~Why did you bring Kath along if you're just going to leave her in the car? I can't help feeling you're making this harder than it needs to be, Jake. What if we need to make a fast exit?~ Kristen voiced the one objection she had to Jake's plan so far.
~Dashiell knows about her, I can use that connection to get him to listen to us, it'll be a lot harder without Kath's help. Anyway, you can see the state her mind's in, there was no way was anyone going to convince her to stay home. She'll be safe in the car, it's the best compromise I could come up with.~
Kristen nodded; the argument made a kind of sense. For once Jake wasn't just spewing another of his made up excuses.
About a minute's walk later they stopped outside the house. Kristen could sense a motion triggered light, but that was about it. Not much in the way of security, and for all the house was big, it wasn't any more impressive than the average suburban semi.
~I was expecting something a bit more flashy,~ she noted. ~You sure this guy makes his money as a smuggler?~
Jake ignored the question. ~I make two jumps, one to the kitchen window over there, second jump into the kitchen. Follow me.~
Again he didn't wait. Moments later Kristen jaunted into the kitchen after him to find Jake was already rifling through the fridge and was grinning at something he'd found on the shelf. ~Eggs. Free range organic. Large. Find something to write with. And I need an egg timer if you can see one.~
"He likes them soft boiled?"
"Scrambled. With smoked salmon, and a slice of toast." Jake helped himself eagerly to some bread and eyed the toaster thoughtfully.
They were there for a purpose, and Jake was having altogether too much fun acting like an amateur chef. This was an example of the kind of childish levity Misako found so irritating. Kristen was more pragmatic, she did her best to ignore it, stuck to the task she'd been given.
Scanning around the room, she immediately spotting what she was looking for, a write on, wipe off message board pinned to the fridge. Kristen scribbled a few words on it and held it up to show Jake.
~You forget to say please. Maliciously nice, remember?~ Jake pointed out as he lit the stove and grabbed a frying pan.
~You're disturbed, Jake. Did I ever tell you that?~ She rubbed off the message board and reworded the ultimatum. ~It's a waste of bloody good scrambled eggs as well, he won't eat them, he'll think we're trying to poison him. How's this?~ she held the board up again.
Jake glanced up and silently nodded his approval. ~Alright, get out, get away from the house, but not back to the car yet. Somewhere out of sight, let me know when you're there. I'll finish fixing breakfast, leave it by his bed, set the egg timer to wake him, and jaunt to you directly."
Kristen hesitated. "You really think this will work?"
"If someone managed to sneak into my bedroom at night to serve me breakfast in bed when I wasn't expecting it, yeah, that would get my attention," Jake admitted. "That would scare the living shit out of me."
Jake and Kristen slipped back into the car. From where they were sat they could just about see the corner of the window of the bedroom Jake had just been sneaking around in.
A light came on.
"Now?" Kath asked.
"Hold off," Jake cautioned. "Let him find Kristen's message first, give him time to check his voicemail."
Jake was anxious. It was really difficult to know how people were going to react when he wasn't there in person to be able to read their minds. Did he have the guy spooked? Had he cooked the scrambled eggs right? The psychological profile he had on Dashiell was fairly comprehensive, but it couldn't tell him all the nuances he needed to be sure. And that was way more uncertainty than Jake was comfortable with; he hated guessing.
The delay seemed interminable, but finally Jake gave Kath her cue. Kath dialed the number, waited for the pick up, and tried to sound cool and menacing, which was difficult when all she really felt was nervous as hell. "Imagine that was a shrapnel device instead of an egg timer. You know, like the ones we used at the warehouse. And yes, that is meant to be a threat. So. How about we meet to discuss the return of the scroll?"
"Who is this? I have no idea what you're talking about. Stop bothering me or I'll call the police," a tired voice came from the phone.
Jake nodded, it was pretty much the response he'd expected. What he wasn't any more clear about was how much further he'd have to push.
Kath had her part rehearsed. "I'm sorry you feel that way. I would rather have avoided a confrontation, but if you want one then so be it. Enjoy your scrambled eggs..."
She didn't manage to finish her sentence, there was a click as the guy hung up.
"And the older generation accuse the us of being impolite." Kristen lamented.
~Damon, Misako,~ Jake called out, feeling a certain regret that he hadn't been able to come up with a less sledgehammer approach. ~Were going to have to push.~
"Push, right, thanks Jake. Easier bloody said than done," Damon complained out loud. They'd deactivated the alarms and broken into the warehouse without any trouble, but working out what to do now they were inside was turning out to be a little more tricky.
Just another bloody warehouse, Damon contemplated. They all looked the same. Big, cold, stacked with crates. But at least they were inside out of the rain. He waved the flashlight around to get a better look at the place; he wasn't too concerned about anyone seeing them, he'd scanned the place telepathically and there was no one else around. Well, probably no one. Unless it was the guy with red hair again, which wasn't exactly likely on account of how he was stuck half way to Belgium right now.
"Arson?" Misako contemplated out loud. Seeing the layout of the warehouse she could understand why a series of shrapnel devices would be more effective than conventional blast effect explosives; they'd cause intense localized damage to the merchandise without having any significant effect on the building itself. The only thing odd about his choice was that Shrapnel devices weren't exactly the kind of thing you could pick up at the local Woolworths; arson would have been far cheaper and easier, and okay, maybe a lot heavier on the collateral damage side, but why the hell would the guy with red hair care about minimizing risks like that? Sure, Misako would have preferred to go to those kind of lengths, but shrapnel devices weren't a luxury she had; arson was the only practical solution she could come up with.
Damon was circumspect in response. "I'm not saying I disagree, but, I just have this pessimistic idea that it's really not as easy to burn a place down as it looks. Especially when it's pissing down with rain outside."
Misako's patience snapped; "We're stuck with each other for the next eight hours. Can you cheer up please?"
Damon shrugged. "What do you expect coming with me? Haven't you worked it out yet, I always get given the shitty jobs."
"We're made to suffer, it's our lot in life," Misako echoed back sarcastically.
Damon stared blankly at her, unimpressed by the humor. Misako stared back, and Damon blinked first. He always blinked first, it wasn't a game he was good at, he didn't know why he ever bothered playing. Reluctantly he smiled. "So arson's easy then?"
"No, no way, not unless you have access to a decent quantity of an accelerant," Misako noted, staring into the darkness.
"Like gasoline, that would work."
"Right, and where are we going to get..." Damon trailed off as he followed Misako's gaze.
Damon's smile became a grin as he spotted the neatly stacked cans. "It would seem capricious not to take advantage."
"Absolutely capricious," Misako agreed seriously.
"That's a lot of gasoline, do we need all that?"
"No. That would be overkill."
"You think we should take what we don't need back to the car?" Damon mused.
"That would be stealing."
"Not if we give it back to them."
"You mean at the next warehouse?" Misako asked just to clarify that Damon was thinking what she thought he was thinking. "I suppose that would be okay then."
Misako stopped to survey the warehouse they were about to burn down. She put a friendly arm around Damon's shoulder. "You know," she contemplated, "I'm starting to understand how Jake gets his kicks out of this kind of shit."
Damon glanced across, worried for a moment, until he realized she was just joking.
He grabbed a can of the gasoline and surveyed the stacked boxes. "I take it there's more to this than just sloshing the stuff around. So you get arson lessons at that fancy stuck up school of yours, or is this just your Gran again?"
Misako quickly grabbed the can from him. "Demolitions was one of my gran's particular specialties. And no offense, but..."
"Yeah, right. I know. You get the fun job, I get the shitty job. I'm used to it."
Misako felt a little guilty forcing Damon to have the fun of ferrying the spare cans of gasoline out to the car, but she was the one who had a much better idea of how to douse the stuff around for maximum effect, she was also by far the one less likely to screw up in a way that would get either of them badly burned when the time came she had to light it.
It only took five or so minutes to work out the fire dynamics she was going for; the geometry of the room, ventilation factors, where to deploy the accelerant for maximum effect. She hadn't really paid that much attention all the times her gran had talked about that kind of stuff so she was impressed just how much she'd actually managed to remember.
As soon as her preparations were completed she checked Damon was safely away from the building, then took a match and carefully threw it across to where the last gasoline can was sitting on the floor. It wasn't so easy, she was keeping an overly cautious safe distance and it took a couple of attempts to get her aim right; her gran had always managed to make it look so much easier. Misako waited a few seconds to watch the flames take hold before jaunting out to catch up with Damon.
Kristen was getting antsy and had gone for a short walk to stretch her legs. Jake was waiting for a confirmation from Damon and Misako before he had Kath make another call. Waiting was always the hardest part.
Kath was handling it better than he'd expected her to; it helped that she had no grasp of what was really going on, all she could do was to hold on for the ride. Jake felt a twinge of frustration that he couldn't explain it to her better; she deserved better than that, she deserved the truth. But it was a pointless frustration, the truth wasn't an option, she'd never believe him anyway. He just had to hope he could come up with a better lie before she started asking too many awkward questions.
Thankfully Jake found himself distracted from that worry by far more immediate concerns. He'd managed to watch some of the warehouse fire from Damon's vantage point. Misako to her credit had turned out to be an incredible pyromaniac, not that she would have appreciated the complement, but burning the place down was only half the problem.
~It went fine. But it's going to get harder every time. He escalates, we escalate. How far is this going to go?~ Misako was objecting to some holes she could see in Jake's plan.
"Left at the traffic lights," Damon whispered. He was studying the map, keeping his focus on the navigation, not wanting to get drawn into the conversation. Jake couldn't blame him.
~I don't know far it'll have to go. I'm expecting him to try something more to put us off,~ Jake admitted, ~but there's a limit to how much more he can escalate. I don't think he can afford to lose many more of those smuggled cigarettes, not if he wants to maintain the supply chain, I'm hoping one more will do it.~
~We're supposed to be linking up with Masters in less than four hours from now. We have to be ready. We can't afford Dashiell taking forever making his mind up.~
~I'm not going to give him that choice,~ Jake was blunt. ~Get back to me when you're in position.~
~Understood,~ Misako signed off.
Jake turned to the still silent Kath, interrupting her contemplation. "Okay, he's had enough time. Call."
Kath dialed, the phone was answered almost immediately. She was careful not to give Dashiell a chance to speak, not until she'd clearly defined her terms and conditions. "We only want the scroll. Nothing else. Is that really worth the pain you're putting yourself through here? Did you really need to lose two warehouses? Do you still need to lose more, or are you ready to hand over the scroll?"
"We can talk about it, let's meet, let's discuss a deal," Dashiell came back.
Jake shook his head, it was another delaying tactic.
"No. No more talking," Kath instructed. "Tell me you want to meet to return the scroll, or this conversation is over,"
It was the night for clandestine meetings in exotic places like rat infested bandstands; this time it was a municipal kids' skateboard park. Actually the night was pretty much over; it was 6:40 AM already, and just about getting light out. Luckily being a Sunday the town was still mostly asleep. Kristen had spotted a few solitary people out walking dogs, but they were the exception. The skateboard park seemed like a reasonably safe bet for a quiet, uninterrupted meeting; this early in the morning the fourteen year olds who would normally congregate there would still be safely tucked up in bed nursing their hangovers from having spent a heavy Saturday night out underage drinking and clubbing.
Jake had parked on a residential street overlooking the park. Well, it overlooked the park if you crossed over some waste ground between the houses and then climbed a tree that backed on to the park. Kristen and Kath were both up the tree, Jake remained stood at the bottom. Kristen conceded there was a real danger of getting odd looks from passersby sat up there, but little chance of being spotted by Dashiell, and that was more important.
Kristen, for her sins, loved skateboard parks. Great place to hang out and stare at half naked guys make an exhibition of themselves. They liked it when she stared, and there were always a disproportionally high number of guys worth staring at. She couldn't understand why so many girls hung out in malls to watch the boys. Skate parks were way more hot. Except of course in the freezing early hours of a wet and windy February morning like this.
The rain had eased off a little but there was still a clingy mist and little indication conditions would improve much. Kristen had never really given much credit to the old myth that it was grim up North, at least not until now. Another day without sunshine would be enough to drive her over the edge; how could people live like this? It wasn't any surprise to her that Dashiell was cranky.
"It bothers me how easily he agreed to hand the scroll over. I really thought we'd have to take out more of his storage facilities first," Kristen said from her vantage point up the tree.
"You're right." Jake agreed with her. "I'm not sure he's got any intention of handing the scroll over just yet. This is to size us up, warn us off maybe. He's going to see if he can stop us causing him any more trouble."
"That doesn't bother you?" Kath asked.
Jake shrugged. "Not my problem. Might irritate Misako and Damon, but I know they'll come up with something; I have faith in them. What really matters here is that I get to confront him face to face. I need that, I need to size him up. I need to know how far we're going to need to push him, and how far he'll push back."
"There's a complete psychological profile of him in the police file," Kath reminded him.
"Which tells us how he reacts, doesn't tell us how he thinks, how his mind really works. That's what I'm missing. For that I need face to face," he stopped short of mentioning mind reading.
"That's him, there now," Kristen had spotted Dashiell arrive. She reached out telepathically to verify. "Two goons with him, they're hanging back, behind the trees on the other side."
"How can you tell?" Kath asked, seeing only Dashiell.
Jake jumped in quickly to diffuse the curiosity. "Sorry Kath, but that's a question, we agreed, no questions."
Kath was frustrated, but thankfully complied. Kristen really hoped Kath wouldn't ask any awkward questions once Jake was away from there, she wasn't nearly as good at lying as he was.
~Kristen, keep your eyes open, keep scanning. Warn me if those goons make a move, and be ready, I might need to get out of there fast.~
~Yeah, right, with Kath watching?~ Kristen said as Jake headed off, although she was fairly sure he was too focussed on working out what he would say to Dashiell to be listening, ~and how the hell are you going to explain that one if you have to?~
Jake wandered over and sat at the top of the ramp after wiping it with his sleeve to try and get as much of the morning dew off as possible. Last thing he needed right now was a damp butt.
It was a little past sunrise; the sun should have just been visible over the horizon through the trees, but wasn't particularly visible on account all the cloud. Jake took a deep breath, sucking in the morning air to try and help clear the sleep out of his lungs; it didn't help much. He could smell the familiar musty smell that he'd never been able to work out. Something maybe to do with the wood-chip they used in the park, or the way they constructed the ramps, or maybe just the countless years of deodorant-phobic pubescent teenage boys getting all sweaty there. The kind of smell Damon wouldn't like at all. Jake smiled gently to himself, whatever it was, it was distinctive.
He felt curiously misty eyed, engulfed by a wave of nostalgia; It was a good couple of years since he'd been into skateboarding seriously, but skateboard parks still reminded him of endless hours of carefree, wasted youth, of making a spectacle of himself so he could chat up girls. He'd met Mary-Sue Fuller at a skateboard park; seemed like it was the day for being confronted by ancient memories of her. Memories of meeting a girl who he wasn't all that interested in because she was human, not that he understood about any of that at the time; in his naïvety he had wondered if he was gay, but then he hadn't been much interested in chatting up the boys either, so he'd ultimately put it all down to youthful confusion. Now he was feeling old. He didn't want to have to get old. He seriously wasn't looking forward to his next birthday much, just thinking about it got him all depressed. Or maybe the melancholy was just his lack of sleep finally starting to kick in.
"You all kids?" Sam Dashiell asked, standing uncomfortably by a rail, trying to work out if he'd ever manage to get up again if he sat on it, trying to conceal his incredulity that the people he was up against seemed so impossibly young.
Jake caught onto the emotion and capitalized on it. "Yeah," he replied sarcastically. "We've got a team of seven year olds assigned to taking out your warehouses."
The guy didn't appreciate the levity, didn't like Jake at all, considered him disrespectful. Jake stared through Dashiell's eyes and into his mind, looking for other ways to wind him up. Dashiell was almost too easy to read.
"Oh, and they know all about the reinforcements you're sending out to protect the other warehouses." Jake added quickly, that was the kind of detail he could never have picked up from a telephone conversation.
"I don't know what you're talking about," Dashiell lied, unable to admit he'd been caught out.
Jake suppressing a bemused grin; he didn't want to look too cocky, that would spoil the effect. ~You getting this guys?~ he called out to Damon and Misako. ~You have thugs of low intelligence incoming.~
~No problem,~ Misako came back quickly. ~They won't even know we're here. We have a plan based on sneakiness.~
He was reassured by her pissy attitude, reassured by her confidence; he needed that, because it was obvious Dashiell didn't have the scroll there, Dashiell wasn't taking them seriously.
Jake continued to stare through Dashiell's eyes. So, if the guy didn't have the scroll, then what the hell was his agenda for turning up? Jake quickly worked it out.
~Kristen,~ Jake sent urgently. ~It seems he has an eighteen inch iron bar concealed in his jacket, some idea about teaching me a lesson here. Nice guy. Have Kath call him, now.~
"You don't have the scroll here, do you? You're not interested in making a deal. You're wasting my time," Jake said out loud, looking for a way to delay and distract Dashiell.
"What's your hurry? What happens if you don't get it?" Dashiell challenged, sounding confident, probing for a weakness.
Jake shrugged nonchalantly. "If I don't get the scroll, I don't get paid. Which would suck. If my employer doesn't get the scroll, she'll get angry. Which would seriously suck for you."
Jake's poker face started to work it's magic; when Dashiell spoke again he sounded a little less sure of himself. "Then maybe I should be dealing with your employer directly."
Dashiell's phone rang; a ringtone so old it even predated some of the classic 1980s tracks in Jake's mother's 'Now That's What I Call Music' collection. Jake wasn't impressed. On the other hand, he couldn't have faked the timing better.
~Get Kath to relay this message,~ he quickly instructed Kristen. ~'You will deal with whoever I dictate you deal with. And for the record, I'm not his employer, just another intermediary.'~ If Dashiell didn't like dealing through intermediaries, didn't like being told what to do, then Jake intended to play on that.
"So I'll deal with you, now. What the hell is it you want?"
~'To arrange the return the scroll to Iraq, to get the courier freed. You made a mistake with who you messed with there, and unless you do exactly what you're told you're in danger of making the mess you're in a lot worse.'~
"You think?" Dashiell was cocky.
~'You think that iron bar scares us? You think that the knife taped to your left leg is any protection? Backscatter X-ray is a wonderful technology; from where I'm watching I can see right through your clothes, I can see you have a small penis and I can also see you don't have the scroll with you. And that's a problem.'~
"Backscatter X-ray? Who the hell are you people?" Dashiell frowned. "And don't give me any of that bullshit about doing this to help the courier. He was gullible, he was expendable, he was a nobody. That's why we picked him for the set up."
"Yours is not to reason why." Jake was blunt. He was pissed off at Dashiell's casual apathy towards Nick's fate, and not in any mood to to be polite. "But if it bothers you, I imagine our employer is using you because you're a nobody, Mr Dashiell, you're gullible, you're expendable. What makes you think anyone would care about you any more than the courier?" Jake couldn't resist the temptation to throw the insult back at Dashiell.
"Dolan as well? Was she expendable? She's been missing since yesterday. Is that how come you're so well informed about my operations?"
Jake recognized the name from the police report, that was the woman he'd confronted breaking into Kath's house, the one who'd got away with the package. Last seen with the redhead guy in pursuit. Had he caught up with her in the end? Jake felt cold at the thought, it was an uncomfortable reminder that Dashiell was only a small part of their problem. Maybe getting Kath involved hadn't been such a good idea after all.
"Shit happens," he answered, carefully maintaining his poker face. Which wasn't so easy, Dashiell was callously unmoved by Dolan's fate and his casual apathy was unpleasant to sense. Jake hated how empathy forced him to share people's cold and heartless thoughts like that.
"Shit might happen in your business, but it doesn't in mine. I do tax fraud, doesn't hurt anyone."
The screwed up thing was that the guy actually believed what he was saying. "What? Doesn't even hurt the people you beat up occasionally?" Jake challenged.
"I don't kill them. And I never beat someone up who didn't deserve it."
The images in Dashiell's mind were not exactly subtle; the guy was fantasizing about how much pain he could inflict on Jake with the iron bar he was now tenderly caressing.
Jake could see the conversation was going nowhere. "And I never burn down a warehouse belonging to someone who doesn't deserve it. But you don't seem to have caught on here..." He pulled out his cellphone and pretended to call Damon, for show of course, he didn't even know Damon's number. "Torch it."
Dashiell stared at them angrily, the frustration of being outmaneuvered at every step finally getting to him. His nerve broke. "Alright, you can have the damn scroll. Just call off your people, back off, leave me alone."
~'Where, when?'~ Jake sent to Kristen who had Kath ask Dashiell.
Dashiell had forgotten he was still talking to Kath on the phone, it took him a moment to get his thoughts straight. "Give me half an hout to make the arrangements."
~'Thirty minutes, then,'~ Kath relayed. ~' But fail to deliver this time, and we'll take the scroll by force, completely wipe out your smuggling operation, and then decide what parts of you remain attached.'~
She abruptly hung up on him; Dashiell gave little reaction.
~Damon, Misako, what's your situation?~ Jake called out.
Misako answered. ~We're still outside. I take it this isn't good news?~
~Actually, as I'm reading him right now, he's pretty much given in already. But hold on there for now, be ready just in case he has ideas about changing his mind.~
~Understood.~ Misako acknowledged.
"Hold for thirty minutes, I'll be in touch." Jake said out loud for the benefit of Dashiell, and then pretended to end the call.
"Be ready? So he's going to make us do all the work, even though we probably don't need to." Misako complained. "Ideas?"
They'd picked a vantage point on a rooftop across the river from the warehouse. Damon peered out for a moment, then cowered back under the umbrella Misako had provided; the drizzle there was light, but it was persistent.
There was a skylight on the roof that looked vulnerable. "Two tonnes of popcorn and a laser beam would be a much more fun way of doing this," he suggested facetiously.
"Thanks, Damon, but, let's stick with arson," Misako wasn't amused.
"At least with a little old fashioned arson you know where you are," he joked.
"Exactly. Anyway, we have to return this gasoline, you did make a promise."
Damon smiled. Misako did have a sense of humor in there somewhere. It just got lost more often than not underneath her singleminded determination to be serious all the time. He kind of understood why, it was just, sometimes he wished she would lighten up a little.
"Are we worried about the busload of hooligans who've turned up to protect the place?" he asked.
"Armed with baseball bats, golf clubs, and what looks like a crate of badminton racquets in reserve, I imagine that's in case things get really violent. I'm not worried."
"I was thinking from a prime barrier point of view. Are we capable of torching the place if it puts people in danger?"
Misako thought for a moment. "I don't see that's an issue. I know there's no way we could leave them trapped or anything, but as long as we know they can leave any time they want, we're not exactly putting them in any real danger. "
"So no problem then, other than getting in."
"A frontal approach being right out now."
"I've always been more of the frontal approach persuasion myself, but that doesn't mean I've never been completely unswayed by the temptation to sneak in around the back on the odd occasion," Damon didn't even try to avoid smirking. "The trick will be jaunting over without being seen, it's not exactly a short hop to get there."
Misako pulled a pair of binoculars out of her bag and handed them to Damon.
"Is there any emergency you aren't prepared for?" he asked frowning.
Using the binoculars to help with the navigation simplified things a lot; Damon was impressed how effective the trick was. It only took them three or four minutes and several jaunts in relay to get the required cans of gasoline across to the warehouse roof. From there, jaunting through the skylight took them to a gantry overlooking the warehouse floor. Then once inside they pretty much had a free hand as long as they remained quiet.
The mob outside were oblivious; obviously not accounting for the possibility that anyone could sneak past them unseen, which wasn't an unreasonable assumption really, of course for the fact that it was also completely wrong.
After some consideration, Misako opted for a slightly different strategy when it came to planning the spread of the flames. "The damage itself it doesn't so much matter, this time it's definitely more important that it looks good."
Damon understood. "More about the how we strategically outflank rent-a-mob down there, you mean."
"Right. Totally all for show."
"Piece of piss, as Jake would say." Damon shrugged.
The Truth About The Lie
Jake, Kristen and Kath were back on the road, guided by the ever helpful GPS, headed for Sheffield university. Dashiell had arranged the handover to take place in a physics department lecture room. An odd choice, but Jake wasn't worried; it was too bloody weird a choice to be a trap.
It was only a short drive over there, but Kristen had somehow managed to fall asleep in the back seat of the car. He couldn't begrudge her a few minutes sleep, she'd been up all night. Jake himself was just about holding out okay, he'd dosed up heavily on Red Bull and Pro Plus again before they'd left the skateboard park and that was finally now starting to kick in.
Kath on the other hand was stubbornly fighting her exhaustion entirely by force of will. She was also awkwardly silent. Jake wasn't sure he liked that; she was thinking, and from the odd thought that leaked out he could see she was making a few intuitive guesses about what was really going on that were getting uncomfortably close to the truth. Fobbing people off with excuses was always easier when they didn't have time to think; he had to keep her distracted.
"Having fun yet?" he asked, deliberately trolling.
The provocation worked. "Fun? I was ready to strangle him, saying all that crap about Nick. How do you...?" Kath screwed her face up. " How...? I mean, the stress of this is driving me up the wall. How is that fun?"
"So you understand why it pisses me off when people call me a danger junkie?"
Kath shook her head. "You've got a reputation, Jake. You do weird things to get your kicks sometimes. Things most people would class as dangerous. What do you expect?"
"You think I enjoy this?"
"But it's like you aren't even afraid. Butting heads with some wannabe Don Corleone and you don't so much as break a sweat. Is this because you survived getting gunned down by a serial killer, you lost all fear of death? Jake, these people are dangerous. Those thugs are dangerous. You're playing mind games with them like you play mind games with teachers at school and you don't seem to get that this isn't the same."
"Yes it is," Jake pushed back, "Look, I don't know how to explain this. It's like, teachers, what's the worst that can happen? Detention. I had one of those once, I survived. Dashiell? You read the police profile on him. He's a wannabe, a wannabe who hasn't got the balls, not for murder anyway. A couple of broken legs and some serious bruising, that's the worst I was facing."
"Come on, Jake, that's bad enough, isn't it?"
"Compared to dangerous as in being gunned down and left to bleed to death by a serial killer? No, not so much."
"That's not a perspective most people are going to think about. They see danger, they see you totally relaxed about it, that's why people get confused."
Jake remained obstinate. "Fine, and you're right, but I can't fix how people think. That's not my problem."
"Then why keep on acting like you get some kind of twisted turn on out of adrenaline rush shit like this?"
"I do get turned on by adrenaline rush stuff," Jake said, still desperately trying to work out how to qualify the admission. "It's like..." he stalled. "Like the adrenaline rush of waterskiing, the adrenaline rush of playing mind games with teachers, the adrenaline rush of pulling off a miracle against all the odds just to make someone smile; nothing in the world at all beats that. That's what gets me off, not danger." He managed to make it sound sincere. It was sincere for a change.
And Kath seemed to get that. "I just think, you know, I don't know how to put this, about getting yourself off Jake. Seriously, you ever think about just getting laid instead?"
Jake frowned. Now Kath was getting snarky. "That'd be too much like doing something good for myself," he joked, then added reflectively, "it's just, selfish never works out for me, it's a bad idea all round."
Kath was left curious; she hadn't expected that revelation at all. "You've tried?"
"Sex?" he raised his eyebrows.
"Being selfish," Kath clarified sarcastically.
"Yes I've tried," Jake admitted, feeling rueful. "My knee, that miracle was entirely selfish. I guess that's why the result is so completely screwed up."
"Knee works great, I thought."
"Yeah, perfect. Better than good. So good that I can't work out how the hell to explain it away. I just, I thought I was doing the right thing, and I backed myself into a corner."
"I'm going to try and say this without prying," Kath started cautiously, still unsure exactly what she was and wasn't allowed to talk about, "but, look, I don't get why the truth is so much of a problem. If the lie is causing this much trouble, can the truth really be any worse?"
"Yes. I... Just trust me. There are ways in which my life is so screwed up you couldn't begin to imagine," Jake silenced Kath with his grim sincerity.
The GPS picked that moment to cheerfully announce they had reached their destination. Jake pulled into the car park opposite the main Physics building. It only took a moment to park, for once that was pretty easy; the parking lot was just about empty, then he turned off the engine and found himself staring back at Kath, wondering. What the hell was he doing? Why the hell was he still thinking about fobbing her off with excuses? Why the hell not just tell her?
Kath, however, was preoccupied with more immediate concerns. She'd remembered why they were there, what they were doing. "So what happens if this doesn't work, Jake? What if we can't do this? What the hell happens to Nick?" she asked.
Jake had no time for uncertainties. "Don't go there. It's going to work."
It was meant as positive thinking, but Jake could see that Kath saw it as him sticking his head in the sand again. He couldn't exactly blame her for thinking that, he'd given her more than enough precedent over the years.
"You think Dashiell's ready to make a deal?" she asked.
Jake was realistic. "He's convinced we mean business. The smuggling operation is worth a lot to him, the scroll is just a scroll. It all comes down to money in the end, He'll do whatever it takes to minimize his losses."
"And then it'll be over."
"Pretty much. You going to be okay?" Jake asked.
Kath was unsure of herself. "Not really. Sorry, not bugging out on you, I just want to get this over with and go home."
Jake smiled at her. "You go home after this, I promise. And Nick will be free before the day is over, I promise that as well."
Kath remained unmoved. "I'll believe it when it's all over."
"You're not convinced?"
"I don't doubt you, Jake, I know you'll do everything humanly possible to help Nick. But everyone has their limits, even you. What if helping Nick isn't humanly possible?"
Jake found himself very self-conscious about Kath's choice of words. She had no clue what she was saying; he let it go. "Doesn't matter. I still have a few tricks," he answered simply.
"Odd place to want to meet," Kristen observed as they stepped out of the elevator onto the fourth floor and looked around for some room numbers to give them a sense of direction. They turned left.
"I know it's a clich√©, but he's genuinely more afraid of us than we are of him," Jake replied, scoping out the corridor they were walking down.
"If he's that scared, this could easily turn into an ambush. You want me to hold back and keep watch?" Kristen asked.
Jake thought for a moment. "I want to keep a low profile, you'll draw more attention loitering without intent. I'm not worried, this is his funeral, not ours. I'd rather have the extra pair of eyes in there with us."
Kath, walking just ahead of them, gestured to a room on the left and stopped. The door was closed. She reached out a hand to open the door but Jake quickly stepped in the way.
"Safer if I go first, Dashiell's in there already," he whispered.
"Firstly, how the hell do you know that? Secondly, I didn't think there was supposed to be any danger?" Kath complained.
Jake wasn't really listening. He was more interested in making an effective entrance. He didn't stop to knock, he grabbed for the handle and barged in without waiting.
~Kristen, go wide, stand away from us,~ he called out telepathically as Kath and Kristen followed him into the room.
Kristen quickly picked up on Jake's intent and went to stand over by the window, making sure that Dashiell couldn't keep an eye on her and Jake at the same time.
Jake glanced around; he was unimpressed by the room. For a university classroom he'd expected something better. It was just as dilapidated as the classrooms he was used to at school. Chipped and battered tables arranged in a semicircle, a mismatched assortment of chairs in various states of disrepair, and an odd smell of stale sandwiches. Not that he'd expected anything ultra modern or pristine, it was just, if this was all that going to university had to offer, he was seriously going to have to revise his expectations downwards.
His attention turned to Dashiell. There were no greetings, no pleasantries, and Sam Dashiell wasn't alone; he was flanked by two heavily built thugs, probably the same two that had accompanied him earlier, only this time they'd made no effort to conceal their presence. Dashiell was also acting a lot more self confident this time, Jake didn't like it.
"After our last encounter, I didn't think you'd mind." Dashiell was dismissive, his whole demeanor had changed, Jake didn't like it at all.
Jake played along, maintaining a casual air. "No, no objection. I'm just surprised you feel the need for them. Am I really that scary?"
"I think you're a joke," Dashiell replied, punctuating his delivery, "but only a fool lets his guard down, however pathetic the apparent threat."
"That's good advice, thanks. You're right, I should keep my guard up," Jake parried. He was quite pleased with that comeback, doubly so when Dashiell couldn't come up with any effective response. Jake like he had the advantage again.
"So you have it then?" he prompted, getting to the point.
Dashiell nodded towards one of his goons who was carrying an anonymous looking shoe box. The box was sat down on the nearest table and the top removed. Inside, cushioned in bubble wrap, sat a rather battered, mud-colored stone cylinder. Dashiell threw a pair of white cotton gloves down beside it.
"Nice," Jake said, not actually impressed in the slightest. Nick had described it pretty accurately. It was boring. It looked like an oversized toilet roll covered in papier-mâché and painted a turdish shade of poop, the cuneiform writing was barely discernible; it was hard to believe the thing was priceless. Unless it was some kind of bait and switch. Jake tuned in to Dashiell's mind as best he could for a moment. The guy was leaking all sorts of thoughts about possible changes of plans, but there was nothing obvious in there about a bait and switch.
In the silence it became apparent that Jake was expected to examine the scroll, and it seemed only polite to play along. He grabbed the gloves; it was difficult to ignore how much it looked like it was made of dried dung and he pulled the gloves on carefully before picking it up. He held it up and studied it closely. What the hell was he supposed to do now?
Jake blinked. He was somewhere mountainous, down in a steep valley on a tract of level ground cut into the slope of the hillside. The flat ground was about five or ten meters above the level of a rocky, fast moving brook that did little to feed the dry and arid landscape it passed through. There were shrubs and patchy grass growing on the lower parts of the slopes, more yellow than green, being grazed by a bunch of skinny looking goats. Half way up the terraced slope there was a village of mud brick houses that delineated the fertile area. Above that was nothing but dry dirt and rock; wherever this was, it was at a very high altitude.
He took the sudden transition in his stride; Jake was starting to get used to this kind of odd shit happening. He was still stood in the classroom in Sheffield, but he was seeing something through the eyes of someone a long, long way away. Exactly what he was seeing and why he was seeing it, that wasn't so obvious.
Someone was sat at a rough wooden table doing what looked like homework. Or maybe this was school; his work was being corrected by an old dude in a white linen robe, Bedouin style. The kid who was being corrected must have been about ten or eleven, he was dressed only in a pair of baggy pants that wouldn't have looked out of place in a Disney's Aladdin cartoon. He picked up a handful of mud from a bowl, slapped it on the part of the scroll he was working on, using a flattened wooden implement to smooth out the surface and erase the mistake, then he picked up his stylus and got back to work on the inscription.
Further down the slope, closer to the stream, there were a couple of older boys firing what looked like a stack of the scrolls in a kiln. Upstream there were two girls at work wrapping some delicate looking carved glass cylinders in animal skins soaked in some nasty and smelly liquid, then slapping mud over the top to form the blank scrolls that were being handed off to the boy scribe.
It was a production line; someone was churning out dozens of these scroll things. Dashiell had been scammed, the thing was a fake. Or was it? Jake hesitated, there was something about the emotions of the people making the scrolls that was deadly earnest. Nothing here was quite what it seemed.
Like, how the hell could a lump of baked mud hold such a powerful echo of the emotions of the people who'd formed them? And what the hell were the inscribed glass things they were wrapping? Was the scroll just a way to smuggle out something that was older and potentially even more valuable? Jake couldn't work it out. He tried to look deeper into the mind of the boy scribe.
Then Jake felt darkness close in around him. The boy was kneeling, he was happy, his work was done. He was hopeful, expectant, drugged; the euphoria was chemical, not natural. And the boy knew that, he'd taken the drug knowingly, willingly.
It was night time, a camp fire was burning, the scrolls were all stacked on a reed mat to keep them off the ground, but it wasn't quite enough to keep the blood off of them; to the boy's right and left were the bodies of the other four kids who'd worked there with him, their throats cut, their blood seeping into the dry earth.
The boy closed his eyes; he had been the scribe; his was to be the greatest glory. The old man put a comforting hand on his shoulder and raised the knife, chanting, "šu šum šir dili, dam-on."
Jake blinked, he didn't want to see any more; he knew that last word, it meant 'companion of the gods'. He opened his eyes, still stood exactly where he'd been stood the entire two seconds his eyes had been closed. Visions were disorienting like that; messed with his whole perception of time.
He frowned and quickly dropped the scroll back into the shoe box, there was something seriously unpleasant about it. Maybe Misako had been right about the whole psychometry thing, maybe objects really could record the emotions associated with them, well, the more intense emotions anyway. Which meant the scroll, with all its gruesome history, had to be genuine; the memories locked inside it were ancient memories, that boy had died thousands of years ago, there was no way it was possible to fake something like that.
Jake was distracted. Across the room he could hear Dashiell talking, but for a moment the words sounded unfamiliar, foreign. Somehow he was still hearing from the perspective of the boy in the scroll. Jake forced himself to switch back to thinking in English.
"So how about we talk business," Dashiell challenged him.
Jake couldn't get the gruesome images of death out of his head, that and the even more chilling emotion of serenity he'd sensed; knowing the kids were all willing victims. Now the persistent voice of Dashiell was tearing him away from his moment of grief, which was crazy, the intensity of the loss he felt was out of all proportion, but as much as Jake could rationalize his emotions, he couldn't stop himself feeling them.
He wanted to get away, desperately needed to get away. Jake glanced down at where he'd dropped the scroll, then reached out with his mind to work out exactly where in the room everyone was standing. For a moment he was tempted to grab the thing and make a run for it, but getting Kath safely out of there past Dashiell's bodyguards, that was a complication he couldn't quite work out how to resolve.
~Jake?~ Kristen called out, worried. ~You still with us?~
~I think so,~ Jake replied, finally snapping back to reality. ~You got any insight on what Dashiell's thinking right now? I can't tell if someone's convinced him we're bluffing, or what.~
~All I'm getting a clear sense of right now is greed.~
Jake closed the shoe box. Immediately one of Dashiell's goons stepped forward to take the box back.
"I'm afraid there'll be a short delay before I return the scroll," Dashiell informed Jake. "I have to be sure I'm getting a fair price, wouldn't like to think I was being ripped off."
Jake stumbled, for a moment uncharacteristically lost for words, then he steadied himself. "Not acceptable. I can't have people think I've gone soft, because if I do they'll all start challenging me and then it'll just be work, work, work. You do understand it's nothing personal," he said.
"What will half an hour cost me?" Dashiell asked.
Dashiell was estimating costs and odds and possible returns; the thoughts were way to abstract to read in any detail.
"Is it really worth it?" Jake pushed.
"Shouldn't be. Black market value of a hundred, maybe two hundred thousand, no, not worth the bother. But then I got to thinking, if it isn't worth the bother, why do you want it so badly?"
"You tell me." Jake was fishing for answers.
"My nephew is a research student at the university here; he's been a useful resource for authenticating some of the artefacts that pass through my hands. I had him check out the scroll, I've just been looking at the results he found."
"Anything interesting?" Jake asked. He was hesitant to indulge Dashiell, but at the same time, after what he'd seen about the origin of the thing, he couldn't deny he was curious.
"What's that information worth to you?"
Jake resisted the temptation and shook his head. "Nothing. I'm here to recover it, not study it."
Dashiell shrugged, he was fully intending to tell Jake anyway. This wasn't some super villain needlessly giving away his master plan, this was a salesman giving a sales pitch; Dashiell was after a better price. "The density is wrong. How about that?"
Dashiell seemed to think that information would impress Jake. Jake remained blank faced, which wasn't difficult to fake, he was genuinely clueless. The thing had a glass core, obviously the predicted density would be wrong. But so what?
"If the resonance scans confirm the data we already have, and I think they will, then let's be frank here; your threats become academic. The smuggling business is not as lucrative as you might think, not compared to what that scroll might be worth."
Again Jake was left without an answer. If Dashiell was ready to sacrifice a business he'd spent a lifetime building up then Jake had no leverage, and he'd been depending on that leverage; without it there was little resort other than to steal the scroll back, which first meant getting Kath out of there.
He needed breathing space. "I'll inform my employer of your position," Jake lied. "I can't see your terms as inspiring joy."
"Tell them if they want the scroll, they'll have to pay. If this is what I think it is, there will be other interested parties."
Including, but not limited to, Jake surmised, the police and the redhead guy, assuming they found out, which of course they would. And that would be bad, he couldn't allow that to happen.
Jake watched as Dashiell and his goons turned and departed. He was going to have to move fast, and he needed to keep the pressure up. ~Damon, Misako. He's not cooperating, and I can't afford to have him think I'm bluffing. Sorry, but you'll have to torch that warehouse after all.~
Kristen stuck her head out into the corridor, then retreated shaking her head. "He's left one of his goons out there to keep an eye on us."
"No surprise there, I guess," Jake confessed.
~I could jaunt past him easily, though,~ Kristen said silently. ~What do you think?~
~I think we have to watch what we get up to with Kath stood here watching.~
~You're the one who invited her along. Look, you want my opinion here?~ Kristen asked rhetorically. ~This obsession with secrecy and lies is not helping us, it's getting in the way.~
~What the hell is that supposed to mean?~
~We need to keep an eye on Dashiell, you know we do. You brought her along, you deal with the excuses. But deal with them, Jake, because following Dashiell is the right thing to do.~
Jake consented reluctantly; he knew Kristen was right, but that didn't make it any easier to let go. "Watch Dashiell," he instructed, "We need to know where he goes, what he does. More importantly we need to know where that scroll goes. We'll hold out here for now, that'll give me time to think. We still have a little over three hours before we need to be at the rendezvous, we can still make it."
"On it." Kristen didn't stop to gloat, she slipped silently out.
Jake pulled up a chair and sat down to wait. For all the hurry, he was stuck between waiting for news from Kristen and waiting for news from Damon and Misako, and there wasn't exactly much he could do. It was an opportunity to chill out, he needed that; he'd been on the go too long and he was starting to make mistakes. Had he really been ready to screw everything up for the sake of covering up one of his lies?
"How will Kristen get past the guy out there?" Kath was pissed off that she couldn't get any more probing than that.
Jake cut her short. "We agreed, no questions."
Irritated, and starting to regret her promise not to ask questions, Kath headed over to the window and peered out. "I'm working things out, Jake, whether you want me to or not."
"See a way out that way?" Jake asked, determined to distract her.
"Three floors up? Not much. I mean, there are step ladders on that roof opposite, I suppose if we could get over there then we could use the ladders to get down from the window here. But as there's no way we can get over there in the first place, we're screwed. That's how bad it is."
Jake shrugged. "And people say my schemes are harebrained at times? Anyway, I've go this thing about heights."
"That being a euphemism for being shit scared."
She was getting anxious. Jake spoke gently, "look, we're going to walk out of here. With the scroll. Trust me on this."
"In case you hadn't noticed, we're being held prisoner, and you still talk like you're in total control."
"That's because I am," he told her.
Kath was at her limit. "Who the hell are you? Because you certainly aren't the Jake Laris I grew up with. You aren't the kid who used to come around to my house and play hide and seek. When you were eight your idea of daring was to sneak behind the garden shed and offer to show me yours if I'd show you mine. Now this? What the hell happened to you Jake?"
"That was nine years ago. I grew up." Jake tried to deflect the rant, but only half-heartedly, he could see Kath needed to get it all out of her system.
"You grew up, yeah, I spotted that when you were fifteen," Kath retorted sarcastically. "Then a year ago you had that nervous breakdown, the one everyone conveniently forgets about now. You were already well in trouble by then and you knew it, even tried to tell me about it once. I didn't listen. Maybe it's my fault that I wasn't more sympathetic back then."
"None of this is your fault, don't even go there."
"Then suddenly over the summer you end up friends with that Damon, and everyone thinks yes, you know each other because you were both nearly victims of the same serial killer. But you knew him before that. And you never actually got kidnapped, did you? Something very suspicious was going on there as well. Something to do with you being one of those Tomorrow People that the media was going on about back then. You, Damon, Misako, Kristen. And then the four of you just happen to show up to help Nick; and what happens is you're acting more like a special ops team than a bunch of people our age. It's all connected isn't it? So what is this? Are you Jake? Or are you just some impostor pretending to be Jake? And I'm sorry if that's a question you don't want to answer, but I don't care any more, I need to know."
"Would any but me remember what didn't happen the night before his fifteenth birthday?" Jake asked, dredging up an uncomfortable memory he hoped would be enough to reassure her. It was all he had, Kath was pretty much right about the rest; her insight was impressive, even if her timing wasn't very helpful.
She risked another question. "Is Nick part of this, whatever the hell it is?"
"No. Like you, he's just caught up in events he shouldn't be caught up in," Jake answered truthfully. For a crazy moment he considered breaking down and telling her everything, until an uncommon flash of common sense got the better of him.
"What do you think they'll do to him if we don't get the scroll thing back? Will they behead him?"
Jake half contemplated lying to make her feel better, but Kath never appreciated that, and Jake was getting just as tired of all the lies himself. "Governments don't usually execute foreign nationals, it's bad politics. They'll probably commute the sentence to life imprisonment. But being locked up year after year in a place like that without any hope? What the hell's the difference?"
"So he loses the best years of his life, if not all of them, because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time? What is wrong with this world Jake?"
Jake glanced across at her, he hadn't meant to read her mind, but it was kind of tough, she was upset and leaking thoughts left right and center. "Two people lose the best part of their lives. You would seriously stand by him, wait for him, wouldn't you."
"I don't know what it is about Nick," Kath confessed. "Since I met him at your party that one time, I can't stop thinking about him. Am I insane to go through all this for a guy after just one date?"
Jake smiled at her. "I think we'll get him out, I think in five years from now you'll wind up married to the guy and after that you'll have to suffer that happily ever after thing you once told me about."
Kath managed a small laugh. "Five years? Thanks, Jake. Let's just get past today first. Let's just get past school on Monday. Even if you do pull this off, how the hell am I supposed to get through Monday? I have to go back to school pretending like none of this ever happened?"
Jake looked up. "You think that's tough? That's my entire life these days."
Misako shone the flashlight around one last time. She'd emptied the last can of gasoline, she was done. All that remained was to verify she had a safe way out before she did anything stupid like start a fire.
She'd contemplated arguing with Jake that they should call the whole thing off, she couldn't see what it would achieve any more. At the same time she did kind of identify with Jake's determination, sticking with the plan even after it had completely fallen apart, in fairness there wasn't much else he could have done under the circumstances.
Jake always started out with the best of intentions, he generally scraped through in the end, but more often than not he ended up having to resort to reckless risk taking to get him there, and that was the part that always pissed Misako off. But for all her frustrations with him, she did have to accept that on this occasion it wasn't his fault; on this occasion he'd genuinely been dealt a crap hand. And their one consolation was that if anyone could improvise their way out of the hole they'd ended up in, she knew it was Jake. She had a reluctant admiration for the guy in that respect. He'd come up with something.
Misako completed her surveillance sweep. This part of the job was over; it was time to go plan the rendezvous with Masters. ~Damon, I'm...~
She stopped abruptly as all the lights in the building came on, momentarily blinding her.
~Misako?~ Damon called out.
~Hold that thought.~ Misako replied, looking nervously around. Then, remembering what had happened to Damon and Kristen, she quickly looked up, just in time to see the net fall. She could just about sense someone up there now, but somehow she'd completely failed to sense him creeping up on her.
She struggled, but within seconds she was bound tightly with carpet tape. How had the guy had managed to drop the net and get down to tie her up so fast? Unless Damon was right about the multiple robotic clones idea and the guy wasn't alone. She reached out, she couldn't sense anyone else, but then she hadn't exactly sensed the redhead guy in the first place either, and he was definitely there, she was looking straight at him.
"Funny, but, I really didn't think you kids would fall for that trap a second time. I bet myself a pizza, and I don't usually make mistakes that cost me pizza," the guy expounded with an impenetrable logic.
Misako stared blankly at him. Damon had been right, the guy was a complete basket case.
"By the way," he continued. "I figured it out, after you dumped out on me on the ferry..."
"Figured what out?" Misako asked anxiously, worried for a moment that he'd worked out how she got away.
"Figured out you didn't have the scroll."
Misako remained silent. That wasn't so bad, although, it wasn't exactly good either.
""So, brilliant plan by the way," he commended her. "Gasoline. Burn the place down. Like you mean business. Sends out that whole 'don't mess with me' thing." The guy continued to ramble out loud. He was staring at her as if trying to read her mind although he couldn't have done that, even if he hadn't been human, no one could, not without Misako knowing anyway.
"Wasn't that my idea?" he continued. "You stole it. Copied it. Same difference. I should have patented it. I mean patenting obvious ideas might be totally immoral, but it isn't illegal. You know, organized crime has it all wrong, they should get into patent protection rackets, corporate litigation. Or, maybe they already have; that would explain a lot about the mess the world's in these days. What's that line about how the world will only be a better place when the last lawyer is hung with the entrails of the last corporate executive?"
Misako had no clue how to react, the guy had gone completely off the deep end.
"So, anyway, I figured I'd wait for you to steal the scroll from Dashiell and then steal it back from you. Only, then I found out Dashiell had sent his men over to stop you, and my plan's no good if your plan doesn't work. So, I hurried on over here to help out. Turns out it was a wasted trip, you have everything in hand. So I really should be headed on to the university to keep my appointment with Jake and Dashiell right now."
The guy knew about the university, he was well informed. Too well informed.
"Clever as well, sneaking in through the skylight. You're good at this. You know it's just frustrating to see talents like yours go to waste," he continued. "You ever thought of switching sides?"
"No," Misako was puzzled by the direction the conversation was going.
"Oh well, hey, a guy's got to try. Now, the problem with the university is that it's a public place. Not so easy for me to show my face there, not since you sold me out to the press. You've got to give it to Masters, he knows how to use people."
"Masters had nothing to do with it."
"Yeah, right. Whatever. Hasn't worked, which is lucky."
"Lucky for who?"
"You and me. Both of us, actually."
"Why is it I don't feel the lucky one?"
"Because you have no clue how badly things would have turned out for you if your plan had worked."
Misako couldn't read him, she had no clue if that was intended as a threat or if it was just another invocation of his twisted logic.
"Look, our friend Nick is in trouble, we're just trying to help him. We're not looking for a confrontation."
"You still think your friend Nick just accidentally happened across that particular scroll?"
"We know he was set up. A corrupt element within the police force taking advantage of this Operation Ziusudra to set a trap for us."
"Operation Ziusudra? Doesn't exist. You do realize that don't you? The whole thing was staged for your benefit."
Was he telling her something valuable, or making shit up to confuse her? Faking Operation Ziusudra would have taken more than just an few corrupt police officers, a hell of a lot more. That kind of shit would take a government level conspiracy. It didn't make sense, he had to be trying to scare her.
He shook his head sadly. He stood there just long enough that Misako thought he was about to say something more, then he seemed to get disillusioned with her and walked away.
The guy grabbed a box of matches from his pocket. "It will probably make my job convincing Dashiell to hand the scroll over easier if you were to succeed in burning this place down, so..." he flicked the match across the room, the gasoline caught light and in only a matter of seconds the fire was raging.
Like Damon and Kristen before her, Misako gave up any hope of reasoning with the guy.
"Just so you know," he shouted to her, "escaping quickly is probably more advisable than escaping slowly here. On account of, if you escape too slowly, you might get lung cancer from all the cigarettes in here burning around you."
The guy waved cheerfully and wandered off. Misako struggled to twist round to watch him leave, but it was pointless, she was too well tied up.
It was just about impossible to estimate how long she had left; the flames were real, the flames were dangerous, and the flames were getting closer at an alarming rate. Four seconds was all it would take her to get out, still she hesitated.
~You, er, enjoying the scenery there?~ Damon asked nervously.
~I can't see him, I can't be sure he's gone.~
~Really, does it matter any more? How about you just get the hell out of there?~
Misako hesitated a moment longer, then gave in and jaunted.
~Redhead just tried to kill Misako,~ Damon called out.
~You okay?~ Kristen responded instantly.
~Fine,~ Misako answered, "but Redhead knows where you are, he's on his way there now.~
"Shit," Jake said out loud.
"What's up?" Kath asked nervously.
"Bad things are happening, give me a minute," Jake told her cryptically. ~Kristen, what's the status with Dashiell?~ he queried.
~He's down in the NMR scanning area. He just got the news about the warehouse; he was a lot less unhappy than he should have been, looks like he's given up all hope of rescuing what's left of his smuggling business. So I figure whatever he was hoping to find out about the scroll, he must have found it. Other than that, he's made a few phone calls, I couldn't pick up anything of what those were about...~
~Forget Dashiell,~ Jake interrupted. ~Get back up here. First priority is we have to evacuate Kath. No way she can be around when Redhead turns up. Misako, how long do you figure we have? Sod it, how did he get back this fast?~
~If he called ahead and had a helicopter waiting to meet him off the ferry, flew here directly, it's just about physically possible,~ Misako conceded.
~How long?~ Jake repeated patiently.
~Assuming he's on his way by helicopter, ten minutes. He could be half way there by now.~
"Shit, shit, shit," Jake stood up and started pacing.
His intensity bothered Kath. "You're scaring me, Jake,"
Jake stopped. He had to tell her something, had to make her understand. He'd done a great job of making her feel like there wasn't any danger at all, too good a job, his own bloody lies were coming back to bite him again. "Okay, there's a change of plans, you need to get out of here, away, as far away from here as we can get you. Kristen's already on her way back here to..."
"How do you know all this Jake?" Kath interrupted.
Jake shook his head categorically. "This is not the time to ask that, Kath, this is just not the time."
Kristen jaunted past the guard in the hall, materializing just outside the door to the lab, then quietly slipped inside. She was out of breath, desperately trying to collect her thoughts as she closed the door and locked it behind her. ~I just saw him in the entrance lobby now, sod knows how, but he's here already.~
Jake closed his eyes. How was it everything could be going so okay one minute, then fall apart completely the next? He was out of time and out of options.
"This is cutting it way too fine" he said to Kristen. "How do we get Kath past the guy in the hall? You think I can distract him while you two make a break for it?"
~You mean without him raising an alarm to the other guy they have guarding the entrance that we'd still have to get past?~
"Shit. There has to be another way out," Jake spat the words out angrily, his composure starting to give way. Jake looked around frantically for ideas, then noticed the puzzled look on Kath's face. She'd only heard one side of the conversation between him and Kristen. The confusion was hurting her, he could tell she was close to losing it.
Jake looked across at the window. The redhead guy was a cold blooded killer, they had to get Kath out, whatever the cost; desperation kicked in. "How are you with heights?" He asked Kristen.
Kristen stared at him, then jumped up on the ledge and stared across at the rooftop opposite. Shefrowned. "Didn't I break my neck the last time we tried something bonkers like this?"
"You might have done," Jake admitted. "So don't take any risks this time. Dodge the guard on the door, get out the building, across to the other roof, do the step ladder thing. It'll work," Jake tried to convince her.
Kristen continued to stare out the window at the roof opposite. ~They could be outside this room any minute, that door won't stop them for long. Do we have time for the pretense?~
Jake looked at Kath. Unfortunately Kristen was right, no lie was going to work here. The pretense was no longer useful, the pretense had become a liability, he gave it up.
"Or you could just jaunt across," Jake said out loud, confusing Kath even more. He smiled weakly at her, "believe me, this will kind of put the blowing things up part in perspective." He then looked over Kath's shoulder at Kristen. "Make for the car, get her out of here, do what you have to. I'll stick around here, make one last attempt to grab the scroll..."
"I can't drive, no clue how," Kristen interrupted.
Jake frowned. "Boats, planes...?"
Kristen nodded. "But not cars."
Jake took his car keys and handed them to Kath.
"I only have a provisional license," Kath objected.
"You made a promise, said you'd do whatever I asked," Jake reminded her coldly.
"Yes, but it's illegal, Jake. You know, illegal, like in, illegal."
"No questions asked."
"Yes, I know, but..." Kath agreed pointedly.
Jake spelled it out. "You're going to break the law and drive out of here without a proper drivers license. If necessary you will speed and run red lights to get away. Do you understand?"
"Five minutes ago you were telling me the guy wasn't dangerous," Kath tried to argue.
Jake was impatient, they really didn't have time for this. "Look, I know, but it isn't about Dashiell any more. There's someone else wants the scroll, we thought he was safely out of the way, but we were wrong. This guy is willing to kill people who get in his way. You wanted to see me scared? This guy scares me. Kristen is going to get you out of here, right now. Understand?"
Kath nodded. She was looking shaken, the reality of the danger starting to sink in. It felt cruel to send her off in a state of fear like that, but it was the safest way to make her do what he needed her to do.
"You trust me?"
"Yes," Kath answered firmly.
Jake caught Kristen's eye. ~Go, now.~
Kristen stared across at the rooftop opposite to get a navigational fix. Then after a momentary glance back to give Kath a reassuring smile, Kristen jaunted. Moments later she managed to manhandle the step ladder up against the window.
Kath was still staring blankly at where Kristen had disappeared, half in a state of shock, completely unable to grasp what she'd just seen happen.
Jake glanced across at Kath and took her hands, trying to get her attention. He'd had no time to prepare her; she'd wanted to know the truth, now she had her wish, Jake just wished he'd been able to find a more tactful way of breaking it to her. "Just so you know," he said, "I didn't lie about the alien fixing my knee either, I tell the truth way more often than you think."
"I just, what just happened here? I..."
"Kath, it's time to go." Jake prompted her calmly, trying to get her to look at him.
"I'm not leaving you," Kath mumbled almost incoherently.
"I'll be fine."
Kath shook her head. "No, Jake, last time you told me that you got shot, ended up in a wheelchair."
"And now I don't even have a limp. And if I get in trouble, I'll disappear just like Kristen did, I'm in no danger. But you are, so go. You do what I say, you made a promise, remember?"
Kath nodded; the reminder of the promise managed to get through to her; Jake had pretty much known that would work. Kath wasn't always the most predictable, she could be bloody obstinate at times, but she always kept her promises. Still dazed she climbed out onto the ladder and headed down towards the rooftop opposite.
Right Deed, Wrong Reason
Jake held on long enough just to see Kath and Kristen make it safely down to the ground. Beyond that he was okay to leave it up to them to get out of there on their own. He had faith in Kristen's ingenuity and total faith in Kath's bloody mindedness.
Pausing only to check that there was no one else around, he slipped out into the corridor and effortlessly jaunted past the guard. From there he made his way cautiously back to the elevator and hit the button for the basement. Kristen had given him directions, and while it felt a little like he was asking for trouble wandering into the lion's den so casually, if he wanted to get his hands on the scroll, the NMR facility was where he had to head.
~How are you doing?~ Damon cut in. He'd actually been calling to give a status update, but after tuning in he'd been distracted by Jake's downbeat, contemplative mood.
~Fine, just, I think relieved actually. Telling the truth, not as bad as I thought it might be.~
~Newsflash; Jake Laris tells the truth, world doesn't end. Full story after these messages. What the bollocks did you expect Jake?~ Damon chided sarcastically.
~A minor earthquake or at least a tidal wave or something.~
~That only happens the third time you tell the truth.~
~That's okay then, because I don't exactly plan on making a habit of it,~ Jake retaliated. ~So where are you now exactly?~
~On the M6 somewhere, heading South. Misako is...~
~I contacted Masters,~ Misako broke into their conversation impatiently. ~Told him about the change of plans. He wasn't happy, but he didn't seem all that surprised that we were having trouble. I get the feeling he was just waiting for the guy with red hair to force a drastic change of plans on him like this. They're going to converge on your location. Where exactly are you?~
~Heading for the NMR facility in the basement, I'm in the Physics department main building at Sheffield University. But don't tell Masters that. Sheffield University is enough for him for now. I don't want him storming in before I've had a chance at grabbing the scroll out.~
~I'll hold off for now... Just don't go getting reckless on us again, Jake. You've been, you know, well... look, just don't screw it up. Seriously.~
Jake laughed. It was as close to a complement as he was ever likely to get from Misako.
~Right, speaking of which, if I need to get out of here in a hurry, all three of you are in cars driving places right now.~
Damon understood. ~There's an exit ramp up ahead here, I'll get out there. Give me a minute or two to get in place before you head in.~
~I need to find the bloody room first. I'll check in with you then,~ Jake responded, then broke the telepathic connection. He didn't need the distraction of listening to Damon chatter on while he ventured deeper and deeper into the uncharted bowels of the university, certainly not when he had to stay alert watching for trouble at the same time. And it didn't help that the effects of the Pro Plus seemed to be wearing off a lot more quickly this time.
He followed the twists and turns of the corridors. There was something oddly oppressive about the place, a feeling like the walls were closing in on him. He shrugged it off and pressed on. Right where Kristen had described he came to a door with a large warning sign on it; danger of asphyxiation, oxygen sensors to be heeded at all times, all metallic objects to be left outside. Jake knew his physics; the sign was exaggerating, it was only ferrous metals that were a danger. Only, that didn't help, he had no actual idea whether the studs in his jeans were made of brass or steel. He suspected they were brass, but he couldn't be sure, couldn't take that risk. And his phone was a definite hazard, he was going to have to find some way of unloading himself.
Jake tried to sense if anyone was around; it was a lot more effort than he figured it should have been. There were definite signs of life coming from the NMR area, he could pick up that much, although for some reason he couldn't work out exactly how many people were in there, like the telepathy was getting blurred or something. It was probably just the prep room next door, on the other hand, that was easy, that was empty, and that was what he needed first. He sneaked quietly inside.
It wasn't a large room. The light was harsh, fluorescent, and one end of the tube was starting to flicker. The atmosphere was antiseptic, but not in a surgical way, It reminded him a lot of the school changing rooms, and that wasn't a complement.
There were benches to sit on, lockers, a sink with industrial strength hand cleaner provided. No bloody toilets, and Jake desperately needed the toilet. All that Red Bull and Pro Plus was playing havoc with his bladder.
Jake locked the door and eyed the sink surreptitiously. No one would see, no one would ever have to know. The hard part would be doing it quietly enough that no one would hear. But he was too desperate to care; noise or no noise, he had to go.
He got done, washed up, then hurriedly checked through the lockers. As he'd hoped, there were sterile surgical scrubs in there. Scrubs or overalls, it didn't much matter which, what mattered was that they were ferro-magnetically safe, and they weren't bad as a disguise on the side. And bright pink too, presumably that was to stop people wanting to steal them. They didn't exactly make much of a fashion statement, looked like big pink bunny suits. but they would serve the purpose.
He stripped off and quickly got changed. As he turned to bundle up his clothes he caught sight of himself in the mirror. He tried a couple of different ways of adjusting the waistband, but it didn't help much; even he couldn't make that outfit look good.
What he hadn't been able to find were shoes. Going barefoot was great for keeping quiet, it wasn't so great for keeping himself incongruous; he'd just have to hope no one was looking too closely. Thankfully it was a Sunday and there weren't likely to be that many people around, plus, students were notoriously weird; hopefully anyone who did see him would just assume he was another weird barefoot student and wouldn't give him a second look.
Jake looked around, he needed somewhere to stash his clothes, his cellphone, and a bunch of other things he'd found in his pockets that he wasn't going to be able to take into the scanner room with him. Sure, there were lockers, but he'd almost certainly end up jaunting out in a panic he had no clue when he'd be able to get back to pick his stuff up, and the lockers didn't look entirely secure enough to be a long term option.
He swallowed back a couple more Pro Plus. It hadn't exactly been three hours since the last lot, but each time he took them they seemed to have less effect. And anyway, he couldn't take them with him, this would be his last chance to dose up before his escape.
As he washed them down with the last of the Red Bull he spotted what he was looking for; a filing cabinet in the corner, he pulled the bottom drawer fully open and pushed his few belongings over the back of it. After a couple of attempts he was able to get the drawer to go back in without catching. Getting the stuff out again was going to be a bugger, but that was a problem for another day.
Now all he had to do was to get into the scanner area itself. From Kristen, he had a pretty good idea of the layout in there; a fairly spartan waiting area with three doors, one leading off to the scanner room, one to the control room and one to an observation room. Kristen had been holed up in the observation room, and she'd had the sense to leave it locked from the inside; that was where he had to make for.
Jake reached out to double check where Damon was; waiting near a bus stop was the answer. Jake had his escape route in place, it was now or never. He crept back out into the corridor, and while he still couldn't get a clear signal, he was pretty sure there was no one in the waiting area. He psyched himself up, then made his move. It took only a matter of seconds to dart inside, head for the observation room, and then once inside to find the control by the door that switched the privacy glass in the vison panel back to being frosted instead of clear. So far, so good.
He was close, he was bloody close. Through the observation window he could see Dashiell in the scanner room itself, the scroll sat right there on the table next to him. And stood next to the table, talking to Dashiell, was the guy with red hair. Jake couldn't hear the detail of the conversation, but Dashiell was definitely excited about something. From the guy with red hair, on the other hand, he was picking up precisely nothing,
Jake stared curiously at him. If he concentrated really hard, he could just about sense that there was someone there, the shallowest hint of a presence, but that was about it. If the guy did have any thoughts, Jake couldn't read them at all; it was no wonder the others hadn't seen him coming.
The conversation was animated. The only way Jake was going to be able to hear any of it was going to be to get in there with them. He cleared his mind and peered into the darker recesses of the scanner room; there were plenty of places in there to hide. Silently he focussed and jaunted himself behind the imposing bulk of the scanner itself, there to wait his moment.
Misako was shown through into a small office. Local community center, notice boards that indicated the place was normally used by groups as diverse as the local photography society, a judo club, line dancing, flower arranging... and today it had been co-opted for use as a temporary command center by Masters and his merry men. Misako couldn't quite work out who those merry men were; certainly not army, not special branch either, not any branch of official that officially seemed to exist as far as she could tell.
The place had all the signs of having been commandeered in an extreme hurry. Laptops, video projectors, and a lot of trailing cables strewn everywhere in a pretty haphazard manner; but they were hooked up already, and they were working. Less than fifteen minutes to relocate their mobile command center, Misako was impressed. She'd been suspicious of Masters all the way along, but now that she'd had the chance to see his operation in action, she had to admit he was competent, and more than that, he wasn't just focussed on his own agenda, he did genuinely appear to be making an effort to help.
"No," Masters was giving orders. "We're moving the schedule up three hours, and Jake Laris is the bait in the trap instead, those are the only differences. I want everyone backed out of the exclusion zone now."
"You're keeping quite a distance back," Misako noted, studying the deployment map that was being projected on the whiteboard.
"His observational skills are exceptional, Miss Haruaki, we lost him last time because he saw us coming. Until I know exactly where he is, I'm not taking any risks. When do you expect Mr Laris to contact you?"
Misako was as honest as she could be. "As soon as he has a confirmed location for the guy. I can't be more specific than that. Don't worry, he'll find him. We're strongly motivated here, the guy did try to kill us."
"I wouldn't take it personally. If it's any consolation there may be hundreds of deaths connected with him, and those are the ones we know about. But don't turn this into a vendetta, because that's where you'll start making mistakes. Be objective."
Misako found the advice surprising. "You dislike him as much as we do, you think he's some kind of monster, that isn't exactly an objective viewpoint." That much was clear in what she could read of Masters thoughts.
"If you want my opinion, then yes, I'd agree, there is something inhuman about him. But whether we feel objective or not, we have to remain professional, we have to act objectively, Miss Haruaki."
Misako laughed. "And I thought we were the naïve and idealistic ones. My grandmother joked there had to be one person in Whitehall who wasn't a cynic, but she'd never met him. I guess she never met you."
"I've read the file on your grandmother. Remarkable woman. You have clearly inherited a great deal of her capacity to think on her feet."
"She was just doing her job."
"An admirable sentiment. Yes, I agree. But that we all could do our jobs as well as she did."
Misako couldn't help but like the guy. He wasn't being smarmy for the sake of it, he really did admire her gran.
She still had doubts about Masters' plan though. "You really think you can contain him when you move in?" she asked. If the guy had remained at large for this long, she couldn't quite see what was any different about this attempt to capture him.
Masters didn't much appreciate Misako questioning his professionalism, but he remained impeccably polite. "We're fully prepared. That's all I can tell you. I would point out, however, that I do have some experience at this job. So don't worry, this will all be over soon enough, and then you can finally put all that Stellman business behind you."
Misako acknowledged his objection. "I apologize if I sound skeptical, Colonel. It's just that we haven't had much luck with trusting people so far."
"I know the police response has been unsatisfactory so far." Masters conceded, "but I assure you, Miss Haruaki, it would give me the greatest satisfaction to be able to consider you and the others as my allies in correcting that shortcoming."
"One more question?" Misako tried her luck.
"If I can answer without compromising the investigation."
"Are the police systemically corrupt?" Misako asked.
"Within any organization there are elements of corruption. I certainly don't believe the corruption is systemic, I have nothing against the police. We're all on the same side after all. Well, most of us. But Stellman had connections, and I intend to seek out and expose those connections."
"You believe you can make a difference?" Misako challenged him.
"I believe in my job Miss Haruaki, I believe in the ideals this country stands for, even if we don't always get the application of those ideals right. I'll be the first to admit we aren't perfect, but we can be better. And we all have a part to play in making the future a better place," Masters said truthfully.
Jake was starting to get a headache and he couldn't quite work out why. There was something odd in the room, an odd sensation, something disorientating. Jake tried to shake off the discomfort. It was all psychological, most probably something to do with the fact he was crouching down inside the five gauss line of a superconducting magnetic field. That and he was hiding less than two meters away from a guy who had very recently tried to kill Damon, Kristen and Misako; that ought to be more than enough to give anyone the willies.
The headache messed with his ability to sense much, but that didn't matter, he could still hear. He crouched down, listening intently to the conversation that was unfolding.
Dashiell was summarizing the test results. "Dates to about five thousand years ago, looks like a transitional form between the earliest bullae and later Uruk tablets. It doesn't rattle, but it does more closely resemble a bulla on account of clearly being an envelope, as you can see from the scans, there is a token sealed inside. But interestingly the complexity of the markings on the outside are far more complex than you'd normally associate with a bulla, it's much closer to a cuneiform inscription..."
"I don't need a sales pitch, Dashiell. I know what I'm buying. What's your price?" the guy with red hair interrupted as he continued to study the results of the carbon dating.
"You're bidding, not buying, Mr Madoc. You aren't the only interested party; I have representatives of one of your competitors waiting upstairs right now. Bidding will start at one million."
Madoc? The guy with red hair finally had a name. Or did he? Jake couldn't be sure, Masters had said something about how the the guy had a thing for inventing fake names.
"I have no interest in dealing with competitors. What will it cost to skip the bidding?" Madoc asked.
Jake was puzzled. Very puzzled; Madoc knew fine well who the so-called competitor was, knew there wasn't going to be a bidding war, so why the hell hadn't he called Dashiell's bluff?
"Ten million," Dashiell answered, determined to salvage something from the wreckage of his life's illicit work; although ten million seemed excessive to Jake. That was overkill, that was greed. That was more than a little suspicious. "In gold. I know it'll take years to launder, but I'm a patient man, Mr Madoc. Recent events have made the smuggling business less profitable than it used to be, so I'm cashing out, this is my retirement fund. Get me the gold, you get the scroll."
"I'll pay two million..."
"Ten. I know the difference between Sumerian and Habiruan, I know what that thing is."
Habiruan? As in alien? Like the aliens Kal had told Jake about? That made no sense at all, Jake had seen the scrolls being inscribed and baked, and there hadn't been any aliens involved.
Madoc took the bunch of print outs from the scanner that Dashiell had offered him and flicked through them casually. He gave no indication of any emotion.
"I'm a rational man, Dashiell. There have been whispered rumors of Habiruan scrolls over the last few years, but there's never been a documented case of one actually turning up. You're pedaling a fairy tale."
"Fairy tale or not, that's my price."
There was a long silence. Madoc was thinking; Dashiell was holding his breath expectantly.
Madoc threw the file back at Dashiell, who struggled to catch it without dropping the loose sheets everywhere. "Two million, and a guarantee of protection. Or do you really think our friends upstairs will give up on coming after you just because they run out of warehouses to burn down?"
Jake desperately tried to stop himself from laughing out loud. It was all bullshit, but Madoc had Dashiell completely freaked out of his mind, Dashiell was about ready to agree to anything. The guy with red hair was bloody good at manipulating people, he was almost as good as Jake was himself.
"And I'm just supposed to trust you'll deliver?"
Madoc smiled disarmingly. "It would be bad for business if I didn't keep my word, Dashiell."
"I don't want to know anything about what happens to the people upstairs. I'm not a killer, Madoc, not like you."
Jake braced himself; the bartering was almost over, and he was running out of time. If he didn't act now then Nick was condemned to a short life of hell in some Iraqi prison and Kath would probably never get to have sex again, ever.
Holding his breath, he tore out from behind the NMR scanner and lunged for the scroll. He felt slightly detached from reality. He heard Madoc screaming something at him, something about the scroll still having a charge from the scanner. He ignored the warning, he knew fine well that mud brick couldn't get a charge through magnetic induction. Jake's fingers closed on the scroll; as he did so, the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. No knowing what other hairs would have been standing on end if he hadn't started shaving.
He should have listened, should have trusted his own senses, but his need to help Nick pushed him past all that. His fingertips made contact with the scroll; he felt a sudden jolt, an intense pain shooting up his arm like an electric charge, and his hand involuntarily clenched around the scroll, grasping the thing tight. The force of the shock sent him sprawling back onto the floor; he couldn't move, he was paralyzed, only barely conscious of his surroundings.
Jake felt the stone knife cutting into his throat, felt light headed as the blood flow to the scribe's head started to fail. There wasn't any pain as the boy died, just a darkness that fell over him. And then Jake saw another memory, a deeper and far more unpleasant memory, a memory of a desolate wasteland, of death on an unimaginable scale. He pushed the memory away, fought to stay connected with the here and now.
Across the room, Dashiell's nerve had broken. The guy was backing out of the room in a panic, repeatedly professing he had nothing at all whatsoever to do with Jake, and desperately disavowing any involvement in Jake's death. Madoc, meanwhile, was saying something about irritation at having to dispose of yet another body.
~Jake. For buggery's sake, Jake, answer.~ Misako tried to stay calm. Something had gone wrong. Badly wrong. Seriously, badly wrong. She glanced across at Masters, thinking fast, Jake was in trouble and there wasn't time to call the others for a consensus. Misako took the only gamble she could.
"Colonel, you have to move in now," she insisted.
"We don't have everyone in place yet. We don't have the surveillance intelligence we need. It's a university, it's a big place, a lot of civillians, we can't send a tactical assault team in there without more information to go on."
Misako shook her head. "You're out of time, if you don't move in now it'll be too late."
"And how exactly do you know that?"
Misako thought for a moment. Jake might already be dead, but maybe he was still alive, and maybe if Masters moved in fast enough there was a chance of keeping him alive.
"We've lost contact with Jake," she told him.
Masters stared at her. "What do you mean, lost contact?"
"Something's happened, I don't know what," Misako didn't have a clue how to explain. She knew it wasn't going to be easy, but for Jake's sake she had to make Masters believe her, believe the truth, and fast. "We're telepathic. we just, get a feeling when one of us is in danger."
Masters stared at her way more seriously than she'd expected. "Where is he exactly?"
"He was in the NMR scanner room, in the basement of the physics department."
Masters believed her? Misako felt it should have been a lot more difficult than that to convince him.
Masters stared at her for a moment, then picked up his radio. "Order all units to converge on the NMR area, immediately." He turned to Misako, "wait here, I'll be in touch."
"Stop the car, now," Kristen insisted. She wasn't sure what had happened, but she could tell Misako was extremely worried.
"We just passed junction twenty-three, I don't know when we get to the next one." Kath objected, trying to stay focussed on the driving. She didn't have a license, she wasn't all that experienced with motorway driving, she could have done without the distraction.
Kristen tried to get her bearings; they were on the M1 headed South, she had no more clue than Kath how far the next junction was, and there was something about the controlled panic in Misako's thoughts that implied that any delay was too long.
"Pull over onto the hard shoulder now, let me out. Something's happened, I have to go back there."
"That disappearing thing like you did before?"
Kath managed to stall the engine and coast into the hard shoulder. She turned on the hazard lights. Kristen was pretty impressed at the maneuver.
She opened the car door. "It's called jaunting, the limitation is that we have to be stationary to do it," Kristen answered Kath's question. "As soon as I'm out the car, don't wait; go, get home, barricade yourself in. Don't answer the door. Don't talk to anyone, not until one of us makes contact."
Kath nodded, trying not to let the fear overwhelm her. "What's happened? Is Jake okay? He said he was expecting it to get dangerous."
Kristen realized how much she'd scared Kath and tried to be a little more reassuring. "I just don't know, Telepathy gets a bit flaky at times, it may be nothing. We're all a little jumpy right now; I don't think any of us expected things to start running away from us quite like this."
Kath was half convinced, it was enough. Unfortunately Kristen was finding it a lot harder to convince herself.
~You okay?~ Misako asked.
Damon was sat in silent panic. ~No, I'm not okay. Jake's not answering and I'm frightened. What the hell are we supposed to do if something's happened to him?~
~Calm down, Damon, freaking out won't help. What's your status?~
She hadn't meant to sound condescending, Damon knew that, but her insistent tone wasn't helping. ~I'm sat in a bus stop to keep out of the rain. And I know freaking out won't help; we have to go there, we have to help Jake, we can't just sit around doing nothing,~ he argued.
~Masters is moving in right now, as we speak. That's what will help Jake. And we are doing something; you're standing by as backup, and I'm here keeping channels of communication open with Masters. Damon, he'll be fine; this is Jake we're talking about.~
She meant it. For all Jake wound her up at times, she had a hell of a lot of faith in his ability to survive. Damon did too, it was just that he found it harder to be objective where Jake was concerned.
Misako tried to keep him functioning. ~Look, just hold tight there, you need to be ready in case Jake needs to make a fast exit. Kristen's jaunting here to rendezvous with me...~
~You think that's safe?~ Damon interrupted.
~Safe from the guy with red hair? No. Right now I don't think anywhere's safe. But at least here we're protected by Masters and his special branch task force, and if that fails then we've still got you there to help us get out of here.~
Damon wasn't reassured. ~What went wrong, Misako? How did we get it all so completely screwed up?~
Misako didn't answer, she had no answer. She disconnected from his mind, and Damon was left alone. He sat in the bus shelter in the cold, hiding from the biting wind, watching the falling rain, trying not to think. Desperately trying not to think anything.
Jake was vaguely aware of being propped up by the wall. The guy with red hair staring into his eyes as if trying to work out if he was still alive.
"I don't know if you can hear me or not, not quite sure if there's anything coherent going on inside that head of yours right now. What happened, if you care about any of this technical stuff is that the core of the scroll picked up a charge from the electromagnetic field of the NMR scanner, which discharged through you. Seriously. I'm not making this up. Anyway, it proves something that I kind of thought I already knew, but that I wouldn't have wagered on a pizza over. That takes a lot of certain for me. Not the way I would have chosen to find out. It leaves you brain fried for, I don't know how long. Not permanent, at least I don't think so. Wouldn't wager a pizza on that either though."
The guy took a pair of gloves out to protect himself and tried to prise the scroll out of Jake's hands, but Jake's hands were locked rigid around the thing.
"Okay not going to get that thing out of your hands without breaking your fingers, and I don't have anything around here to lever with. The problem is breaking your fingers without breaking the scroll open. Not easy, the scroll is delicate."
He checked his watch.
"And I don't really have time to work on that here."
The guy disappeared, then returned a moment or two later with a laundry trolley which he somehow managed to bundle Jake into. Jake was conscious of flopping around uncontrollably.
"You see," he continued to ramble, "I'm guessing Masters knows you're here by now, so he isn't far behind us, is he? Which sucks, this university is no place for a confrontation, too many innocent people caught in the firing line, and you wouldn't believe how much paperwork there is when innocent bystanders get killed. So I need to get away from here, with the scroll, which is attached to you, which means you'll just have to come along for the ride."
Jake desperately tried to contact Damon, Kristen, Misako, none of them were responding, which didn't make sense; his body was paralyzed, his fingers still locked tightly around the scroll, his thoughts scrambled and not quite flowing properly, but he still had some level of awareness, his mind was still working. He could certainly still sense the guy with red hair; maybe not his emotions, but sensing his presence was enough to convince Jake that the rest of the telepathy thing ought to be working still. It was like something was blocking telepathic transmission, but not reception. But what the hell was capable of doing that?
He tried to call out, but the more he tried to call out the harder it got. It felt like when he was falling asleep. Each thought became more difficult, each idea that drifted through his mind harder to cling on to than the last. He probably still had the power to jaunt, but without the ability to contact the others there wasn't anywhere he could go. All he could do was to struggle to stay connected to what was left of his awareness.
Words floated around him.
"Stellman had this crazy idea you were important. He was right. But he never understood, never found the proof he wanted, I think he thought you were just a bunch of ordinary kids who accidentally managed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time." The guy laughed. "Well, repeatedly managed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And if he really thought that, then he was being extraordinarily thick, even if he supposedly was some kind of professor."
Jake could barely follow the reasoning, everything that was washing over him was indistinct, too nebulous to grasp hold of, all he could hear now was sound devoid of meaning.
"The tragedy here is that you four are pretty good at what you do; I've been watching. There was even a moment I almost dared to believe you were the answer to everything. But you're not. There's something missing. You have no direction, no purpose, and without that you're lost. Clutching on the coat tails of any idiot who spins a clever story to delude you with; me, Masters, anyone. There was no one there to teach you the game, and somewhere you took a wrong turn, and now you're lost. The problem is that no one can show you the way back Jake, you have to find it for yourself. I want to believe in you, believe me, I desperately want to believe in you, but I don't know if you have the ability to turn this around. And I don't have the time right now to play games with you to find out."
The guy grabbed some rope and used it to bind Jake's wrists and ankles.
"You'll be fine, we aren't going all that far. This is mostly to stop you doing anything too stupid on the way, because I've heard you have a bit of a reputation for reckless stupidity. And I kind of understand it. You know, you wouldn't believe some of the stupid, reckless things I've done in my life."
Jake blinked awake. He felt his nose starting to itch. He tried to scratch it, but his arms were still too weak, his hands still aching from where the muscles had locked in place. It was progress though; sensation was definitely returning and quickly. What the hell was it with that scroll? There was something majorly messed up going on there. And something else, he'd forgotten something important, something really important. He struggled to remember what the hell it was.
It was dark, he was still in the laundry cart, buried under a pile of unwashed overalls. They were rough, and rubbing against him in all sorts of places he'd rather not get rubbed in as he was bumped relentlessly up and down by the motion of the vehicle.
The scroll was gone. In a moment of panic he wondered if it had been taken while he was unconscious. Jake had to fight to work through the logic; the vehicle was still moving, he was still tied up, he was still alive. The fact he was still alive was the giveaway; the scroll had to be in the laundry cart with him somewhere, he must just have dropped it.
He'd dropped the scroll, and whatever the hell it was that had been messing with his head had ended abruptly. That wasn't a correlation the liked the idea of much; if the scroll was somehow responsible then jaunting out of there with it could get tricky.
First, though, he had to find the bloody thing. He tried to rummage around, but he was too well tied up for that to work. He needed another approach. Was there any way to locate it telepathically?
Telepathy... he knew he'd forgotten something important; ~Damon?~ he tried calling out.
Damon responded almost instantly. ~What the hell happened Jake. You had me scared shitless here.~
~I got hit by a shock from the NMR scanner. I mean, I understand the physics of the thing, and it makes no actual sense it would have that effect. It's some telepathic interaction I don't understand, and it's something to do with the scroll, but...~
~Sod the analysis, Jake, where are you? What's happening? Are you safe?~ Damon stumbled over his words.
~Tied up by a sociopath who last I remember was making plans for disposing of my body. Never felt safer,~ Jake tried joking.
Damon screwed his face up, he wasn't in the mood. ~We'll find another way to help Nick; get the hell out of there now, Jake.~
~Not an option right now, I'm in the back of a laundry truck, it's moving.~
~Then wait until the truck stops and then jaunt out.~
Jake could see Damon was upset, but there was no way he was jaunting back just yet. ~The scroll is right here, Damon, I just need a few seconds to get to it. I'm not giving up, not when I'm this close.~
~You're crossing the line again, Jake. Unnecessary risks.~
~I know. I'm sorry. Just, one last try. I promise this'll be it.~
Damon didn't answer, he pulled his mind away guardedly.
Jake could sense the pent up anger there. Damon felt helpless; the only two real friends he had in the entire world were both in deep shit trouble and there was nothing he could do to help either of them. Jake made a mental note, the fact that Damon only felt like he had two friends in the entire world was kind of sad.
And the kid wasn't going to lose either of them, not if Jake had anything to do with it. Especially not as one of those friends was Jake, It was just, tied up and being kept prisoner, Jake wasn't entirely sure how he was going to pull that miracle off yet.
~No, I know they didn't find me when they raided the university, I'm not bloody there any more. And tell Masters, nor is the guy with red hair,~ Jake was sounding exasperated.
Misako remained composed. She couldn't help much with Jake's frustration, his reaction seemed pretty reasonable under the circumstances; things really couldn't have gone any more wrong. All she could do was to keep Jake informed about what was happening, even if that information was just getting him more and more pissed off right now.
~Masters has put out a trace on your phone, but we're not getting anything. Is there any way you can get to it and turn it on?~ she asked calmly.
~It's back at the university. So, no, not exactly.~
"He's driving, in the back of a truck somewhere. Laundry truck, he doesn't have his phone," Misako relayed diplomatically.
Masters seemed unconcerned where the information was coming from. "We can locate the truck through the speed camera network then track it by air if we can get an ID on it," he suggested to Misako.
~Did you get the registration?~ Misako asked Jake.
~No, I'm in a laundry basket, limited vision...~
~Masters can get a helicopter up there looking for you, but we need more to go on. There has to be something.~
~Well I didn't see it, I can't help, I'm sorry.~
~Alright, alright. Chill out. What if we wait until you're stationary and either me or Kristen jaunts in with something we can use to track you, then jaunts out again. That could work.~
~That's also going to give the game away totally. Masters will work out about the jaunting thing, and I'm not bitching at you for telling him about the telepathy, I understand why you did that, I'm just wanting to contain the damage.~
~Does it really matter any more? Sooner or later we're going to have to start trusting people. I'm happy that Kath knows everything now. Why not trust Masters as well? He is trying to help us here.~ She was kind of surprised to hear herself defending Masters like that, but she was ultimately a pragmatist; under the circumstances trusting Masters just made sense.
She wasn't exactly surprised at Jake's reaction, though.
~Why not announce everything in the East Riding gazette?~ he fired back cynically. ~John said no one. Kath was an exception, her life was in danger. Anyway, twenty-four hours ago you didn't want anything to do with Masters, so what's he done, brainwashed you there or something?~
~Twenty-four hours ago you weren't in this deep shit. I've got issues with you Jake, but I don't want to see you dead. Anyway, I've had a real chance to talk to Masters here. I think he's okay, I think we can get away with trusting him.~
Jake was skeptical. ~Just like that?~
~It's your fault. You're the one argued that I needed to be less judgmental.~
~I meant that about me, not Masters. I was sick of you telling me to grow up.~
~You can't have it both ways.~
Jake hated it when he ran out of arguments. ~Okay, maybe you're right, and maybe we can trust him, but that's no reason to tell him everything. Not all right away, and certainly not until we need to, okay?~
~As long as you're not ruling the option out just because you're being bloody minded here.~
~I'm ruling it out because I think there's still a good chance I can get the scroll and get out safely. I'm not jeopardizing that to help Masters catch the guy with red hair. Nick comes first, we agreed that, right at the beginning.~
Misako still had a few residual concerns, but she let them go. For once Jake was actually making some sense. At the very least he deserved the benefit of the doubt.
She turned to Masters, "He's tied up in the back, laundry truck is all he knows."
Masters stared at her for a moment. "I'm sorry, but if you can't give me more than that to go on then I can't help you. We'll mop up Dashiell and his organization, but it seems that our red headed friend has slipped through our fingers this time."
He waited for a moment, as if challenging Misako to come back with a different answer, but she remained silent. She had no other answer to give him.
Misako reluctantly conceded it was over. ~Kristen, head for the car, I'll meet you there. Jake will recover the scroll and jaunt directly to Damon, we need to go meet them, there's nothing more we can do here.~
The back end of the van opened, a face peered in.
Jake tried to look past the face, see outside, see where he was. He could see a glint of sunshine, the first he'd seen in days, incredible as it was, it had finally stopped raining. As his eyes adjusted he was able to make out a patch of grass, trees, a mud bank sloping away. He could hear water flowing, that could mean he was by a river or stream maybe. And there was no one else around, which almost certainly made this one of those out of the way places that murderers seemed to favor. The kind of place his naked, decaying, dismembered corpse would be found weeks later by some poor innocent old lady out walking her dog. Well, would be found if he had any intention of sticking around long enough to get killed, which he didn't.
"Madoc?" Jake called out.
"Mel Madoc, it's a Welsh name, means 'on the side of the good guys'. I don't know, seemed like a good idea at the time."
So Jake really did have no more clue of the guy's name than he'd had before.
"Well, I seem to have lost Masters and his merry men," The guy looked happy, Jake still couldn't read him, but he seemed to be happy.
"Oh, and before I forget..." He fished among the laundry to pull out the scroll. "Couldn't forget this, could I?"
Jake didn't answer.
He'd come up with a dozen ways the scenario might have played out, all sorts of ingenious options for recovering the scroll, but the bottom line was that he was tied up and there was nothing else he could have done. Nothing at all. And that wasn't fair on Nick; Nick was the one who would suffer as a consequence and it wasn't even his war.
Jake spun the possibilities around and around in his mind and he kept on coming back to a single unavoidable stalemate. He hated where his thoughts were leading him, but there was only one approach left he could see that stood any chance of helping Nick. A last act of desperation.
He would have to surrender.
"Well I'd love to hang around and chat, lots of things to chat about, and I doubt Masters will get here any time soon, so there's time," the guy rambled, "but I don't know, I was planning on going to the opera tonight. I know, me, the opera. The insane things a man will do for a female of the opposite sex."
"I wouldn't know," Jake conceded impatiently. He was trying to surrender and the guy wasn't giving him the chance.
The guy shrugged. "Like that is it? Well, same difference."
Jake had no clue what the guy was talking about. He was used to dealing with people who leaked clues left, right and center about what they were thinking, but this guy, he wasn't giving any thoughts away at all.
"So," he continued, "I'll love you and leave you, in a strictly platonic way, just to be clear."
Time was up, Jake had to make his pitch. Helping Nick was the only victory that mattered, he owed Kath that, whatever the cost to himself.
"So it's over. You win. You return the scroll and I'll do whatever you want." Jake could do that, he had no pride.
"I can't let it go kid. Whoever owns it, owns you. You think I'm letting go of that?"
Jake stopped dead, puzzled. It wasn't the answer he'd expected, it didn't help, and it didn't make sense.
"It doesn't work like that, your logic is flawed," Jake argued. "Just possessing it doesn't give you control, it's only value to us is if you use it to set Nick free, it only has power if you use it. And once you've used it, it loses it's power. It has a one shot value. You see that, right?"
"I know that."
"So then that's it. Let's do this, let's get it over with."
"Patience, kid, you have to learn patience."
The guy actually sounded condescending. Jake didn't get it. "While Nick rots in an Iraqi prison? You've got what you want, you've got me. So what do you want? What do I have to do? What's the price? Whatever it takes to get Nick set free, I'll do it."
"Anything?" the guy raised his eyebrows. "Even if I asked for something, you know, inappropriate involving baked beans?"
Nick was stuck in an Iraqi prison, and the bastard wasn't even taking it seriously. Jake really wasn't in the mood. "You've won already, you don't need the scroll any more, except to make Nick suffer. Are you just dragging this out because you enjoy making people suffer?"
"Back off kid. I wasn't the one that got Nick into this."
Jake tried desperately to read what the guy was thinking, but the guy was so blank it was like he wasn't even there.
"I'm begging you. Please," Jake had no pride, and no shame either. He wasn't afraid to beg, not when it was all he had left.
The guy wasn't paying attention, wasn't even listening, he'd wandered off round the side of the van again. Jake struggled against the ropes that bound him, but only succeeded in making them tighter. He could feel the circulation in his hands being cut off. It didn't matter, he could escape, he could just jaunt out of there. Four thousand miles away, Nick didn't have that option.
"Hand the scroll over to Masters, what does that matter to you?" he shouted. "Do what you want with me, but I'm begging you, please don't take it out on Nick. He hasn't done anything to anyone, he was just trying to help."
The guy with the red hair reappeared and looked down at Jake with a face that suggested more an air of disappointment than malice.
"I thought it was you I wanted, but I don't know any more. You'd hand me over to Masters in a heartbeat if you'd had your chance, wouldn't you?"
"Yes." Jake could see there was no point lying, the guy wasn't stupid.
"All the time I wasted coming after you. I really thought..." The guy hesitated, then shook his head and continued, "but it doesn't matter. You're getting in my way and I don't have time to deal with you right now. You should have enough air for about three hours. I'm sorry for forcing this on you, but I can't have you following me. Just, try and use the time wisely, if that's even possible for you."
Jake stared back, it was hopeless, there was no reasoning with the guy. He closed his eyes, defeated. "Why are you doing this?" he asked, not much expecting an answer.
"Because I have no choice. Looks like I'm on my own, but I still have a job to do," the guy replied as he he slammed the door closed.
"But why go on hurting Nick when you already have what you want?" Jake shouted back, unsure if the guy could even hear him still.
A voice floated back through the closed van door; ~Nick wouldn't even be in this mess if it hadn't been for you, you do realize that don't you? He's a pawn in the game, just like you, just like me. I doubt they'll hurt him. They have nothing to gain from his death, and everything to lose if the truth ever came out. They won't take that risk.~
"You can't know that for sure." Jake tried one last desperate attempt to prick the guy's conscience. If the guy had a conscience. Jake couldn't sense any emotions at all, so either the guy could block the telepathic probing, which wasn't very likely, or he was a total sociopath, in which case there wasn't a conscience there to prick.
~No nothing's certain. Let's face it, I might not be the monster you think I am. You might not be the loser I think you are. Sometimes the owls aren't what they seem, kid. I guess that's the only constant I've noticed in life; the owls are never what they seem.~
Jake felt the van lurch, seconds later it lurched again as it plowed into the river. Slowly water began to trickle through the cracks in the doors. To imagine there was enough air for three hours seemed a little overly optimistic.
Failure Happens To Us All In The End
Damon watched as Jake materialized on the grass. He was soaking wet and struggling against the ropes that still tightly bound his wrists and ankles.
Damon pulled out his penknife and helped cut through the ropes. He tried to put a reassuring hand on Jake's shoulder, but Jake pulled away angrily and stormed off down the road, turned, stormed back again, turned, turned again, turned a third time and stormed off again.
Sunlight sparkled off of the raindrops on the long grass, a rainbow hung brightly in the sky overhead, and Jake could't appreciate any of it.
"I don't fail. I've never, ever, ever, ever failed," he started ranting in the distance.
Misako and Kristen pulled up at the bus stop in the stolen car. They jumped out and headed over to Damon.
Misako glanced down at the ground, not quite sure what to say. "Masters has Dashiell in custody, they're trying to track the stolen van still, but no luck. How are you holding out?"
"Better than Jake is," Damon responded blankly. Although to be honest he wasn't really handling it better at all; he was just handling it differently.
"I gave myself up and he didn't want me, what the hell kind of bolloxed up is that?" Jake had wandered past, muttering incoherently to himself, barely even registering that Kristen and Misako were there.
Misako took a step towards Jake, but Damon gently held her back. He could see this was something Jake just had to get out of his system.
"Is he...?" she asked, not sure how to phrase the question.
Damon shook his head. "He's not going to flip out on us if that's what you're worried about. The restlessness, it's mostly psychomotor agitation, result of caffeine intoxication."
Jake started kicking the side of the car, angrily at first, then more and more violently. "No. No, no, no, no, not beaten by some bloody, sodding, pathetic human, no way."
Kristen watched helplessly. "So what do we do now? We're screwed right? The bastard with the red hair has us completely by the short and curlies."
"All of us except Jake. Jake doesn't believe in having short and curlies, I'm starting to understand why." Damon whispered. He tried to pitch it as a joke, but it fell kind of flat; none of them had any more humor left in them than Jake did right now.
Misako stared at the ground, trying not to intrude on Jake's meltdown. "It's not his fault. He's beating himself up over this, but it's not his fault."
"He was trying to negotiate with the wrong guy, we'll get our chance to sell our souls to the people who were really behind this soon enough," Damon said.
"And you really think they'll hand the scroll over to the Iraqi authorities if we give them what they want?" Kristen questioned pessimistically.
Damon did nothing to lift the mood. "Not for a minute."
Misako was contemplative. "We walk away, we regroup, we start again tomorrow. That's what you do when you fail. It's not the end. We'll get another shot at them."
"And next time we don't wait, we go straight to Masters. Agreed?" Damon asked quietly. To his surprise even Misako nodded her agreement.
Kristen's cellphone rang, interrupting just as the conversation stalled. She glanced at the caller ID. "Now that's spooky... How the hell did Masters get this number?"
Damon shrugged, unsurprised. "He's the government, he has all our numbers."
Kristen answered the call. It was only brief. "He wants to meet and talk, one of us, all of us, he didn't seem to care."
"The state Jake's in, it can't be all of us," Misako was practical. Jake, had given up attacking the car and was sitting cross legged on the grass, his head in his hands. Not really crying, just lost.
"I'll go," Damon offered.
Misako put a hand on his shoulder. "You sure?"
"I know we failed to deliver the redhead guy, but we did honestly try. And Masters is the only hope Nick has left, so I'm going to go plead his case. That's my job, that's what I have to do."
"Without the scroll there's nothing Masters will be able to do to help, you know that right?" Kristen cautioned.
Damon nodded awkwardly. "I'm doing it for the same reason Jake tried to reason with the redhead guy. Not because I think there's any chance it'll work, but because there's nothing else left, and I'd never be able to live with myself if I didn't at least try."
"The political situation in Iraq is complex, Mr Jackson. A few years ago we had a lot more influence than we do now. Ironically having him freed would have been easy while the war was still raging there. But in peace time they have their own governments, their own laws, and their own justice. Justice we must respect however much this particular case may seem flawed to our eyes. You do understand we can't just walk all over a sovereign government?"
"I'm not asking for any direct intervention, or expecting any special favors. I'm just asking that you exercise whatever influence you can bring to bear. I'm not defending the mistake he made, but Nick was just trying to do what he thought was right."
"As do we all, Mr Jackson. As do we all."
"They have Dashiell, they have the smuggling ring broken, Nick was just a pawn, even if all you can do is get them to take that into consideration, maybe he can get a lighter sentence."
"I can make no promises. I suspect there is nothing at all I can do to help. But I will at least make enquiries."
"Thank you. I appreciate what you're doing for Nick. I only wish there was more we could have done to help you get your hands on the people who set us up."
"I'll get him them the end. I have patience. No one can hide forever. Which, is very much why I wanted to speak to you. I know we haven't had any contact in months, but, when information came your way you saw fit to pass it on to me. I would like to think that, despite the frustrations, despite the fact this hasn't worked out quite the way we would all have preferred, that you will still pass on information should this particular individual cross paths with you again any time in the future."
Damon saw his chance. "We suspect they'll try and use the scroll to blackmail us at some point, there was no point in them taking it otherwise. We've already discussed it, and I can assure you that the first thing we'll do is to get in touch with you."
It managed to get him a positive reaction. "Yes, you do that, that is something I can help you with. You know, young man, you certainly aren't lacking in determination; maybe all your friend Mr Smart will need to get through all this is a little patience."
Damon nodded cautiously.
"And just thinking this through one step further," Masters explored cautiously, "in the event I find any leads that can't be tracked down, shall we say, can't be tracked down using more conventional methods, is there any possibility that the four of you would be willing to offer us assistance in those cases?"
"I can't answer for the others, I'd have to talk to them."
"That's fine, I didn't expect an immediate answer. But out of curiosity, would you personally be supportive?"
"After what's happened the last few days, yes I would."
"Thank you. You know, I said this to your friend Mr Laris but it bears repeating. It's refreshing to hear sense and reason in people of your generation. It gives me a great sense hope for all our futures."
Damon nodded, although he felt Masters was overdoing the smarmy bit just a little there. "We'll be in touch."
The meeting was over. Masters stood up to shake Damon's hand as he left. Damon was a little uncomfortable with the formality, but went along with it.
Masters smiled. "It's been a pleasure to do business with you, Mr Jackson. It's so refreshing to get to deal with real pragmatists for a change."
Damon wasn't quite sure what to make of Masters' parting remark, so he glossed over it with a smile and a nod.
Damon watched the torrential rain out of the car window. He'd spent most of the last couple of days sitting around and watching rain. He was sick of it.
They were somewhere on the outskirts of Loughborough. Misako had insisted on avoiding the Motorway and it was slow going; she was driving excessively carefully, five hours for a drive that should have taken three. In fairness she was technically driving a stolen car, a car that was also looking kind of conspicuous from where Jake had gone crazy and kicked in half the side panel, and on top of that she was fighting off the nervous exhaustion of going on thirty hours straight without sleep, it was only the Pro Plus that made the drive possible. Alright, maybe she had every reason to be cautious; still pissed Damon off how long the drive was taking.
The caffeine levels bothered him as well. They'd been taking about 200mg every three hours for twelve hours, the drug had a half life of about five hours, and his mind was too fried to do the math properly, but technically that put all of them in the category of having taken an acute overdose. Which accounted for the nausea, headache, and irregular heartbeat he was feeling, and it didn't help with the general levels of anxiety either.
Jake was sat in the back seat next to Damon. He'd finally calmed down, his anger giving way to what was more of a desolate futility. Manic depressive mood swings were another symptom of intoxication and Jake had taken more caffeine than any of them; his intoxication levels were bordering on the severe. That dose might be about an order of magnitude below any lethal threshold, and probably not high enough to cause psychosis or hallucinations, but Jake was still seriously messed up.
"How the hell do I tell Kath?" he whispered. It was the first time he'd actually said anything in hours. "What the hell do I tell Kath? I saw it in her mind, I shouldn't have been looking, but I saw it anyway; dreams of marriage, kids. By the time she has any chance of seeing him again she'll be too old to have kids. But Kath is actually loyal enough she'd give up those dreams to stand by him. It's not sodding fair. I'm the one should be stuck in a jail cell in Iraq, I'm the sad twat with no chance of ever having a sex life, at least I wouldn't be missing anything."
"Jake, you never shut up about that, it's getting tired, we've been through it all, I'd shag you if you wanted, but you never ask," Damon tried joking dryly. It wasn't all that appropriate a joke, but he had to do something to break Jake out of his depression. And while none of them could sense Jake laughing in response, they could at least sense the emptiness that was consuming him lighten a little.
"So, any ideas what we do with this car when we get back?" Kristen asked, trying to change the subject.
"I got some ideas. Most are illegal. I mean, really illegal." Damon responded. "Illegal and fun, although, I have to admit, most of the ideas are bordering on the impractical."
Misako forced a smile. "It's got eight months left on the tax disc, no one is going to be asking for it back, I might just keep it," she answered objectively. "We can discuss it. But not today. Today let's just get people home and... well, just, home."
The conversation dried up.
"Damon?" Jake broke the silence after a minute or two.
"You want to go straight home or," Jake whispered,"can you, just, this afternoon, come hang out for a while. I'll drive you back later, I just..."
"That's cool," Damon answered quickly. He had no other plans.
Jake fell back into a vegetative silence.
"Jake?" Damon felt the need to say something.
He took a breath, he wasn't convinced Jake was in any mood to listen. "Look, people screw up. We all screwed up. Nobody's perfect."
Jake's reply was unexpectedly measured. "I know. I'm okay with screwing up, really, I do it all the time. What's pissing me off is that I let people down."
Damon understood. "I can tell Kath if you..."
"No way, Damon. That has to be me."
An hour later the car pulled up half way down the street from Kath's house. It was as close as they could find a space to park. Jake climbed out. He was still damp, still wearing a loose fitting pink bunny suit looking thing and not much else, and he hadn't complained once about any of that in six hours of driving.
He stood by the car to compose himself, then started walking slowly down the street. The others hung back, stayed in the car, fully expecting to have to pick up the pieces when Jake fell apart. They noticed a curtain move up in the upstairs window, Kath had been watching.
~What the hell is she doing smiling?~ Damon puzzled, and he was right, something seriously weird shit bizarre was going on again. Jake stared blankly in the direction of the house.
Kath came tearing down the stairs, running out into the street, grabbed Jake, kissed him on the forehead, and then hugged him, unable to speak through a cascade of tears of joy.
Jake was confused as buggery.
She let go for a moment to look at him.
"You're sodding wet, Jake, what the hell are you wearing, and... what the hell happened to you?"
"Tied up, bundled in the back of a van that was pushed into a river, I think the intent was to drown me," Jake was reluctant to tell her, he didn't want the sympathy, he just wanted a good way to break the bad news. Only there was never an easy way to give bad news, especially not to someone who was acting so overwhelmingly happy. What the bollocks was she doing acting happy like that?
"Shit, Jake. Someone tried to kill you, how the hell can you just dismiss it like that. I mean..."
"I wasn't in any real danger."
"What, because you can do that disappearing thing?"
"Well, I suppose at least I know why what didn't happen on your fifteenth birthday didn't happen now," she kissed him on the forehead again. "And thanks, Jake. Just, seriously, thanks."
"So... you want to tell me what's happened?" Jake managed to stammer out, still confused.
Kath pulled back and stared oddly at him. "Okay, you are totally messed up Jake. Are you still in a state of shock or something? And why are the others sat there in the car, silent again, like a bunch of sad twats? Come on, inside, you all look seriously like you need a chance to chill out," she waved at the others to follow. "And there's chocolate cake. I bought this enormous chocolate cake yesterday to try and cheer myself up, but I was too depressed to eat it. Come on, the least you deserve is chocolate cake, Jake," she joked.
"Right, chocolate cake," Jake said bluntly, blankly, putting a hand out to hold her back. "What are you thinking?"
"I thought you could read minds." Kath was puzzled.
"I can, kind of. Emotions mainly," Jake answered slowly,
"I can tell you're deliriously happy."
Kath laughed. "Sorry, Jake, but, that's kind of stating the bleeding obvious isn't it? Even I could have spotted that."
"I need to hear you tell me why you're happy, because I'm having trouble believing it," Jake felt disoriented, Kath's reaction had thrown him totally off balance.
Kath got serious. "I'm happy because you did it again, didn't you. You pulled off another bloody miracle Jake, another one. The scroll turns up, complete with all the evidence to prove Nick was duped. Alright. I'm not going to ask, Jake, because I don't care how you did it. But Nick called, I spoke to him, they let him go, he's booked on a flight back for tomorrow. And he wasn't exactly surprised you guys came through for him. I take it that he knows, well, about all that weird shit you can do?"
"Yeah, he knows." Jake repeated, his mind elsewhere. ~Guys, get on the phone to Masters, now. Find out what the hell is going on here.~
Misako came back into the living room to report what Masters had told her. Everyone was sat around in comfy chairs tucking into cake and orange juice. Well, everyone except Jake, he was just sat there blinking at an alarming rate and looking dazed still.
"Immediately after the arrest of Dashiell, the Iraqi authorities were provided with the full details of Dashiell's organization," she told them. "They acted immediately on the information to bust the operation at their end. When they catalogued the artefacts recovered in Iraq, they found the scroll still among them. Turns out it had never left Iraq in the first place, proving beyond any doubt that Nick had to be innocent."
Kath handed her a large piece of cake.
"That's bullshit, that's just, all bullshit," Damon shook his head. "They aren't even trying to make it sound plausible, at least Jake's lies sound good."
"It's a five hour flight to get the scroll to Iraq. Everything got resolved in six hours? The math doesn't even add up," Kristen sounded skeptical.
"It's all politics," Misako explained, trying not to speak with her mouth full. "They knew he was innocent all along, he was just being held hostage to international diplomacy. That's the way it works. That's why my grandmother in her retirement gets so cynical about it all. The scroll was just window dressing. As to how it got there so fast, well if there was a chance of a major scandal being made public, a military supply flight could easily get it there in five hours. Masters would have no problem arranging that."
"Except Masters didn't have the scroll; the guy with the red hair did." Jake still couldn't shake off his confusion. "I don't get it, Why put us through all that suffering, then dump the scroll like he didn't even care. What the hell's his game?"
"Maybe your begging got through to him," Kristen suggested.
"A cold blooded killer like that?" Jake was dismissive. "The only reason he'd abandoned the thing would be if he had no further use for it. But that doesn't tie up with anything we know about his motives."
"Unless it was just a warning?" Misako speculated. "Jump when we tell you to jump, or this is what'll happen."
"So they engineered all that shit just to scare us? They put us, they put Nick, through all that just to make a point?" Jake retorted angrily.
Kristen shrugged. "Nothing gets left to chance. He told us that. Misako's right, all along, they've just been playing with us."
"So what did he mean about not wanting us any more?" Jake countered.
Damon shrugged. "That bastard says all kinds of shit to mess with your head. He plays games, like Stellman played games. Winds you up, puts you in a situation, sits back and watches how you react. Maybe returning the scroll was all just another part of his twisted game."
"Or maybe we failed whatever test it was he set for us, maybe that's why he gave up," Kristen came up with another alternative.
Jake shook his head, he could understand her point, but he couldn't accept that anyone would go to those lengths and then just walk away. "There's more to it than that, there has to be."
Damon shook his head. "Why Jake, why can't it just be that simple?"
"You're saying this whole bloody charade was for nothing, then?" Jake challenged angrily, "and the last two days were a complete waste?"
Misako was quick to dissent. "We outclassed Dashiell and shut down a major smuggling operation; that's an achievement.¬† We survived multiple attempts to kill us, putting the guy with red hair on notice that we're no pushover; that's a second achievement. And Nick gets to walk away a free man..."
"Even if we don't exactly know why, and it wasn't exactly anything we did," Damon clarified.
"We learned how dangerous underestimating the guy with red hair can be. We learned Masters was right about that," Kristen added.
"And we learned Masters has resources that might be helpful to us in future," Damon concluded.
"So we didn't get the guy with red hair. So what? Say what you want, Jake, but I won't accept the weekend was a complete waste," Misako assured him, "we scored two out of three, and that has to be good by anyone's standards."
They hung out with Kath for an hour or so. Long enough to catch a late lunch, but after having been up for thirty-two hours without sleep they weren't exactly wanting to stick around too long; all of them were in on the edge of being too tired to function, and some of them still had a long trek home. Misako was taking Kristen back to Eastleigh in the stolen car, and Jake had offered to drive Damon home to Oxford. It wasn't the most sensible offer Jake could have made under the circumstances, he honestly wasn't sure if he was in any way up to driving the two hours it would take to get there and back. He desperately needed a break and a chance to chill out. More than anything he needed to sleep, but instead he was faced with having to pop even more Pro Plus.
He trudged back to his car with Damon. The first thing he figured he needed to do if he was going to drive to Oxford was to get changed out of the bloody pink bunny suit he was wearing. That meant a detour home on the way.
Jake stopped walking, he had a feeling like he'd missed something obvious again. He ran through the sequence of events in his mind, everything that had happened since he'd left Kath's house; he was stood barefoot in the middle of the road wearing a pink bunny suit, facing in the wrong direction. He could handle the lack of dignity, what he couldn't deal with was having forgotten why it was he was stood there.
"Look, I'll take a train back, Jake. Seriously, I need to be alive for school tomorrow. Hey, space cadet," Damon waved a hand in front of Jake's face.
Jake snapped to his senses. He was more used to walking home from Kath's house, he'd walked right past the car without even noticing it. He was in a bad way, couldn't focus, but he had no idea what he needed to do to get past that. "I need sleep, but, I'm too wired to even think about sleep right now. I can't face sitting at home on my own all afternoon, I need to do something, I just..."
"It's okay," Damon interrupted. As always he knew exactly what Jake was thinking despite Jake's inability to articulate. "You don't have to drive me straight back, we could go somewhere, go do something. I don't know. Whatever you want."
Jake nodded awkwardly, appreciatively. Saying thanks was always clumsy, thankfully he didn't need to. He didn't need to say anything, Damon could read his mind well enough. That was the great thing about having friends who were telepathic.
Jake climbed into the car.
"Another day, another fight for survival," he mused, trying to rationalize the emotions that lay beneath the confusion.
"We survived. Nothing else matters," Damon reminded him.
Jake was circumspect. "And what? We just keep on and on doing this?"
Damon shrugged. "It sucks, right, I agree, but what the hell can we do about it? This is our life."
Jake couldn't argue with that one. There was no escape.
"So. I wonder if this will cure Nick of wanting to live in a war zone," he contemplated.
Damon shook his head. "I doubt it. He's as stubborn and messed up in the head as you are."
"Thanks for that, Damon," Jake laughed gently. It wasn't much of a laugh, but even a small concession to amusement was progress.
He took a deep breath and started the car. He could handle this, they were only driving just around the corner. His eyes closed for a moment.
"So what do you figure? Pass the pink off as a fashion statement?" Damon asked the question as much to try and keep Jake awake as to get an answer.
Jake forced himself to think straight for a moment. Somehow he'd have to blag his way past his mother, which wasn't going to be easy. As fried as his mind was on too many hours of caffeine, keeping his lies straight would be a serious challenge.
When this was all over, he told himself, his behavior was going to have to change. Deception always worked better when he kept it simple; the lies were totally out of control, there just had to be some way of getting the simplicity back.
For now, though, there was only one course of action he could come up with that stood any chance of working; total avoidance. "I have to bypass my mom and get upstairs unseen," he announced.
"Good luck with that," Damon sympathized unsympathetically.
"What, you saying I should lie again?" Jake complained as they pulled into the driveway.
"You already have to," Damon reminded him, "or, do you want your mother worrying about how you nearly got yourself killed again today?"
"No," Jake conceded. "But, I just figure like, there has to be some kind of compromise."
Damon was puzzled. "Why the sudden conscience?"
Jake wasn't sure he had an answer. But for all it was hard to get empathic with a sociopath, there had been a moment back there that he'd looked up at the guy with red hair, and seen an echo of himself looking back.
"The redhead guy. I just," Jake struggled to explain, "what's the difference between his lies and mine?"
"You do it for the right reasons," Damon suggested. "Or at least you try to."
Jake didn't like it. "And that's an excuse?"
"Sure. I'm not saying it's a good one, but it is an excuse at least."
"That's insanely twisted logic, Damon. Misako's right, I'm not a good influence on you at all."
Damon grinned. "I don't know, there are far worse people I could have been corrupted by."
Jake glanced malevolently sideways at Damon, finally getting back into the spirit of the banter. "And on that note, this is where I need your help."
His tone made Damon get a little nervous. "Why am I suddenly part of your plan here?"
"You head on in, pretend nothing's happened. Well, other than the drama of Nick being arrested and released..."
"How the hell am I supposed to keep a straight face?"
"That's your problem. Once we get in, you'll have to distract my mom while I head upstairs and get changed into something marginally less sad."
"What?" Damon didn't like where this was going. "Hold her off? I'd rather do three rounds with the bloody redhead guy."
"It's just two minutes, then we'll get out of here, we take off for the afternoon. How about we go waterskiing, we never actually did get to go waterskiing."
"It's raining, Jake, it's cold. Get real."
"We'll think of something. And after that I'll drive you home. We can even stop off for pizza on the way. Deal?"
"Who's paying for this pizza?"
"You are. My wallet's still hidden at that university," Jake accepted the plan had one or two flaws. "That and my phone, and no time to go pick them up until next weekend. Shit knows how I'll explain that, or live an entire week without my phone. More bloody lies I guess."
"E-akub ur-gišgal. ĝae zae šu šum šir dili, gi ĝeš-dug-ušu," Damon muttered.
Jake smirked, half-arsed insults like that always sounded far more offensive in alien. "The trick, Damon, is just keep a focus. Keep the conversation to how great it is that Nick is going to be okay, the obsession won't be questioned, and it'll be easy to steer the conversation back to that. You just told me you trusted me absolutely, I know what I'm doing. Anyway, you're the guest, she's not going to grill you."
"So, Nicholas was at school with you, right, seemed a nice enough boy. So what in the world possessed him into thinking a gap year in Iraq was a good idea?" Judy Laris was grilling Damon.
Damon, for his part, was struggling to come up with an answer to her question, because the truthful answer was that Nick had been talked into the whole bloody thing by Jake. But that wasn't a tactful answer, and anyway, officially, Jake hadn't met Nick until after Nick had already signed up for the Iraq thing. It was a bloody mess, Damon had no idea how Jake kept track of it all.
"After I survived, well, you know..." Damon dried up. Focus on Nick, he told himself, focus on Nick and nothing else. He swallowed anxiously, then tried again. "Nick was, it made him think about life. About not wasting it. He wanted to help people, he saw that as a place where the help was really needed. I can kind of understand. Not that I'd go to Iraq or anything, I just, see where he's coming from." Damon wasn't convinced that one word of what he's said had made sense. ~Jake, hurry, rescue me, please, I'm dying down here.~
~On my way, don't worry, I've got a plan.~
Damon really, really didn't like the sound of that. ~Shit, Jake, haven't we had enough of your plans for one day,~ he complained.
Jake came running down the stairs.
"Sorry, Damon, I didn't see the time. If we head out now I should just manage to get you back before your mom has to head out. I just totally lost track of the time, thinking about Nick, you know, but..."
"Jacob," Judy Laris had a stern edge to her voice.
Jake was quickly on the defensive. "Sorry, I know, but, I'm in a hurry, I need to drive Damon home or he'll be in even worse trouble..."
"No he won't Jacob."
"But..." Jake was hesitant, argumentative.
Damon closed his eyes. Jake didn't get it, he was missing the point, he always missed the point when he started arguing with his mother. He thought her reaction didn't add up, that she couldn't know what trouble Damon might be in, that she was right out of line making it worse for him. What he seemed incapable of catching on to was that her wrath had nothing to do with Damon; it was entirely directed at Jake.
"Jacob..." she prompted forcefully. "In the kitchen. Now."
Jake glanced across at Damon, still clueless as to what his mother's problem was.
"We need to have a few words. About your appointment tomorrow. The physiotherapist. Your knee."
~Shit.~ Jake's face fell as the magnitude of his screw up dawned on him, and Damon looked away as Jake was led silently into the kitchen.
Damon could sense Jake desperately trying to run through every excuse he could think of, but it wasn't going to be that easy. He'd been so focussed on keeping track of the other lies that he'd forgotten his knee was still supposed to be crippled, and he'd come running down the stairs in a way no excuses were ever going to explain away. Jake's mother closed the kitchen door ominously behind them.
Damon sat uncomfortably in the living room waiting, listening to the shouting. It wasn't possible to ignore, the walls weren't that thick, and Jake was getting ripped to pieces in there.
He felt so sorry for the guy. After all the shit that had just happened Jake's luck had finally run out. Mortal danger was easy, mortal danger he could just jaunt away from. But this, this there was no escaping. None at all. He just had to stand there and let his mother shout. Shout at him until she got it out of her system.
Still, Damon contemplated, the matter would at least be closed after this. Maybe it was for the best. Maybe it was time for Jake to take the pain, and move on.
Jake slumped over the steering wheel of his car. It had all fallen apart. He was in serious, serious shit. His mother had stood there shouting at him for half an hour with barely a pause to take breath. She'd be shouting at him when he got back as well. Life at home wasn't going to get much better than miserable any time in the near future.
He'd managed to come up with an excuse though. Or, not so much come up with it, but remembered it from the last time he'd come up with it. Same excuse he'd tried peddling to Kath, only this time it had worked, his mother had bought it. She didn't like it, but she'd believed it. Definitely the nuclear option, he'd forsaken a hell of a lot of good will in the process. Good will that wouldn't be easy to rebuild. But that was always the price of lies.
He ran his fingers gently over the dashboard, staring blankly off into space.
"Is the fun all over?" Damon asked hesitantly.
Jake shrugged. "I don't get to spend the rest of the compensation cash on hookers and blow if that's what you mean."
"I mean, today I survived despite being abandoned to die by a psychopathic killer while assisting the police in the capture of a notorious international antiquities smuggler, at the same time rescued an innocent man from prison and then had to stand there like a complete twonker while I got told off by my mom. Superheroes shouldn't have to put up with this shit, should they?"
"You lied, you got caught. Happens to us all," Damon wasn't going to be sympathetic. "So what's the price?"
"I have to pay back the money they gave me to buy the car. Every penny. Two thousand quid."
"Where the hell are you getting two thousand quid from?"
"I can't, that's the point of the punishment. Means I have to sell the car."
"What about a Saturday job? There have to be options."
"Two thousand quid, Damon, do the sums. What kind of Saturday job pays that?"
"Prostitution?" Damon suggested flippantly.
Jake ignored him. "I really got to like this car. Sod it, why does life have to be so bloody unfair? What am I doing wrong?" he was exasperated. "Well, other than the lying part."
Damon tried a different tactic; actually thinking up a practical suggestion for once. "What about you offer some kind of a payments deal, once she's calmed down a bit?"
Well, practical but unrealistic. "My mom, calm down? Ever? You're joking. Face it, I'm screwed." Jake took his frustration out on the steering wheel, thumping it hard. "Sorry, Colonel Masters, I can't help you save the world this weekend, I'm sodding grounded," he sneered sarcastically.
Damon gave up trying to reason with Jake, there wasn't any point. "Stupid thing is," he reflected, "we shouldn't even need cars. We should be able to jaunt everywhere."
"Right, should be able to, but we can't."
"So what are you going to do about it?" Damon pushed impatiently.
"Put the car up for sale I guess," Jake shrugged in resignation. Damon was right, getting all angry and upset never helped anything. It was time to cut his losses and move on.
"That's not what I meant."
"We're going to have to re-evaluate our tactics, our opinions, about a lot of things, I accept that."
"Including about Masters?"
"Assuming we agree to help him."
"You ready to talk about that?" Damon asked hesitantly.
Jake finally gave in. "I guess I am, now," he conceded.
Two Out Of Three
A single light burned in the old converted Victorian office building. Late Sunday evening and the place was almost deserted; apart, of course, from the two usual suspects who never seemed to go home.
Masters was sat at his desk, rolling his eyes and largely ignoring the ramblings of the over eager intern who was on the other end of the telephone call. Seeing his chance to terminate the conversation, Masters jumped in. "Yes, of course, we'd be delighted. Oh, I think we can reassure them we'll have the security completely under control. Tell the ambassador we wholeheartedly accept the honor he offers us. Add the usual protocol to that reply, contact me when you have a confirmation on the schedules. That's all."
Masters ended the call, then redirected the phone to go straight to voice mail, he didn't want to be interrupted again. Then, just to be sure, he unplugged the telephone and dumped it on the floor next to the discarded Dell PC.
He stared thoughtfully at the empty desk, then cautiously allowed himself a small satisfied smile.
A figure leant half out of the shadows. "Success?" he asked Masters inquisitively.
Masters leant back in his chair. "Yes, I think so. We have the scroll. Official loan in appreciation of our help recovering it."
"Leaving only the problem of how to decode it."
"Well, we now have full access to the expertise we'll need to handle the translation, so no problem there. Oh, recovering the scroll was an achievement, yes, but establishing a working relationship with young Laris and his friends, that's an outcome I scarcely thought possible. It's not often life gives you a second chance like that."
"Can you really trust them?"
"Yes," Masters was confident. "Once we eliminate the competition. Once there's no one left who might inconvenience them with the truth."
"But we failed in that objective."
"Perhaps. But he's making mistakes. He let the scroll go to help out Nick Smart. That sentimentality remains his weakness,¬† the idiot. And I completely underestimated his paranoia; he doesn't trust Laris and his friends at all. He doesn't trust anyone at all any more, luckily for us, and that isolates him. He only continues to elude us only because he's very good at hiding. But with the appropriate motivation I think young Mr Laris will be more than up to the task of tracking him down. Let's face it, with Mr Laris properly motivated there's no place on this planet safe for anyone to hide."
"He won't go down without a fight."
"No," Masters conceded, "but that, I think, is a concern for another time. For now, let's celebrate our successes. We achieved two out of three of our objectives here. Under the circumstances, that's not a bad few day's work."
"Come back to bed," a voice called from the other room.
The guy with the red hair shook his head. "I'm busy."
"You what?" she sounded incredulous.
He stopped abruptly, working out what it actually was he'd just turned down. "No, I actually can't believe I said that either."
He stopped for a moment and wandered over to the window, staring out across the city lights. There was something almost alive about London at night.
The view from the penthouse apartment on Jacob's island was spectacular; out across the Thames, Tower Bridge to the left, the City of London to the right, there was something iconic about it, something reassuringly familiar.
He could easily have gotten used to it, but the people who owned the apartment would be back from vacation in a few days, and he'd have to be long gone by then. Life lived on the run wasn't much of a life.
"This obsession you have with those kids, it isn't healthy, you know that, right?" the voice shouted again.
"I'm not obsessed. Just very, very..." he hesitated, looking for the right word. "Alright I'm obsessed. Look, the police are incompetent, always were. Masters, he can't touch me, he knows that. But these kids, not quite what I was expecting. They have this agenda I don't understand. They could be dangerous."
"You know what I think?" she shouted back.
"You think I'm crazy, that I'm paranoid. You don't think they're worth the risk."
"Right. That about covers it."
He was frustrated. "I don't know who they think they are, or what they think they're doing, but I can't just ignore them any more."
The woman wandered through and stood behind the desk. "How about we just skip out of the country, forget about them. You just can't let go, can you?"
"No. You know that. I can't let anything go. That's what attracts you to me." He looked up at her, "that and the incredible sex of course."
"Talking of which..."
'Right," he grinned, "nearly done."
"So what is that?" she asked, pointing accusatively at the glass object that was sat on the kitchen table.
"That is what was hidden inside the scroll."
"So what's inside the scroll you returned?"
"A piece of carved glass the same size and weight. They think it's a priceless archaeological relic, they'll never dare smash it open to find out."
"And the writing?"
"On the token I put back in there? It's a recipe for chicken noodle soup."
"Written in ancient whatever-it-is?"
"It's a language spoken by a people called the Habiruan."
"Oh," she replied in a manner that indicated she wished she hadn't bothered pursuing that line of questioning. "And they're the aliens, right?"
"So how valuable is that thing?" she looked at it curiously. "Or was it really nothing more than a means to an end?"
The guy with the red hair wandered back over to the table and carefully moved the glass token over onto a napkin that he'd unfolded on the hard granite counter top. "It's valuable beyond imagining. That's the real joke. This thing has power beyond all their wildest dreams."
"And none of them knew?"
"Dashiell wanted it for money. To Jake it was about the power it had to free Nick. Masters came closest, he thinks it contains the secret of how to control telepaths, but it's far more dangerous than that."
"How dangerous?" she asked nervously.
He shrugged. "Oh, you know, end-of-civilization-as-we-know-it dangerous."
"And you wanted it why, exactly?" she asked even more nervously.
"I don't want it." He picked up a stone rolling pin and repeatedly smashed the glass token until there was nothing left but dust. "I saw what it can do once, and I swear, I'm not letting that happen again."
"And that's the end of it?"
He should have felt some satisfaction, he'd achieved what he'd set out to achieve, but it was just one more battle in what had been a long and difficult campaign. "I won't know if that was the last of the scrolls until I visit the gates. That has to be my first priority. Well, maybe second..." he noted awkwardly as she started to unbutton his shirt.
His personal nurse smiled. "You're still not going to leave alone, though, are you?"
The guy with red hair shook his head slowly. "I can't," he said with a sorrowful expression that betrayed more than a little regret. "I escaped Masters. I have the scroll. I failed to get a handle on Jake's agenda. That's only two out of three."
"And for you, two out of three isn't good enough?"
"No, not ever. We're talking about the future of humanity here, second best isn't any way good enough."
"So what happens now?"
"That Jake worries me. He already pretty much has the power to do anything he wants and he still only understands a fraction of what he's capable of. He has so much potential, but he just doesn't have the responsibility and common sense he needs to use that potential wisely. And it looks like he's sold out to Masters. I don't understand why, there's something going on there that I'm missing. But I'm out of options here. I need to find out where his loyalties lie. One way or another I'm going to have to deal with him. If necessary I'm going to have to deal with all of them."