"See anything?"

Ferris peered at the hill a mile distant. The convoy was parked beside the dirt road leading up to it. They'd lost contact with Gierling twenty minutes before. "No. Wish I'd packed binoculars."

Jeffrey handed her his phone. "Camera's got a zoom."

She looked through the two-inch screen at the magnified image. "Just the car. Either he's not here yet, and she's lying low, or they're gone already."

"Why keep low with the car visible for miles? They're gone, Ferris. And getting farther away every minute."

"I don't think it matters." She felt defeat weighing down her shoulders. "Lynch is a very resourceful guy. We had zero chance of catching him without bait. Now they're together…" She put the car in gear. "Let's see what they left behind."

A few minutes later, on the hilltop, Jeffrey pulled his head out of the getaway car. "I'm no expert. But I think she must have done him as soon as she took his phone." He shook his head. "Jesus Christ. She gave him all ten. His heart was probably stopped by the third time she hit the plunger. But she just kept tapping him till it went dry."

She nodded. "That's a lot of hate."

"You suppose she planned it this way from the start? She did him twice in the motel room, knowing…" He shook it again. "What a sick little bitch."

She shrugged. "Julius was going to fuck her and then double-cross her, sell her to Ivana. I think I might have been pissed enough to kill the son of a bitch, too. The Academy was training her to be a killer. This was graduation day, I guess." She turned to the rest of her team, gathered around the car. "Lesson here, people. You may find yourselves being tempted by an offer from Lynch or one of his crew someday. This is how they do business with turncoats, or anyone they can't trust."

June 19 2004

Albrecht was sitting at his new desk, going over some work and wondering why his contact at the Shop hadn't called. By now, the girl should have led them to the others, or broken and revealed their whereabouts. Albrecht was feeling eager and impatient; when IO paid off for this job, he'd never have to work again.

But, even more, he was looking for news of the girl.

He set his papers aside and daydreamed a bit, savoring the memory of their encounter. From the moment she'd appeared in his doorway, he'd been smitten by her beauty, and drawn by her obvious inexperience. All through their conversation, he'd imagined playing with her, introducing her to a whole new world of sensations, and, in so doing, adding her to his collection.

He flattened his palm on the glassy surface of the desk, imagining the feel of her bare skin. It would be like this, cool and smooth and unresisting. At the end, that is. In the beginning, it would likely be twitching and wonderfully sweaty, the muscles underneath jumping deliciously at his touch. And as he applied his tools, she would jerk about to the limit of her bonds, exciting him almost unbearably, before she lapsed into apathy from his attentions.

It was usually so easy. His clients often came to him in secret, after all, prepared to disappear without a trace. Not all of them were scarfaced ogres; some were young women, and occasionally quite lovely. If one took his fancy, and a few casual questions determined it was safe, she need only to accept a drink or a morsel from him to wake an hour later in his basement playroom.

He smiled, imagining the statuesque redhead writhing in the embrace of his restraints downstairs. She'd probably be noisy too. That would have made it even better. He never gagged his guests, but none of them had ever been heard from the street as they screamed and cried and pleaded; the soundproofing was excellent.

He sighed. An impossible dream that he'd discarded as soon as he'd seen her strength, even as it had ramped up his excitement. The idea of taking a female of such power and beauty and making her wholly his forever had been excruciatingly pleasant, but even if he'd been able to get her down there, none of the bindings in his tack room would have restrained her for a minute, not even the chains. He'd had to content himself with imagining what his patrons would be doing to her once they acquired her. He had no more than a vague idea of the treatment subjects like her received, but the rumors were enough to send shivers of pleasure down his spine. And a detailed description of her interrogation had been part of his price.

He stroked the surface of the desk again, his sensitive fingers pausing over the invisible join where the damaged part had been replaced. He'd had a new desk made from the old, as he'd told her; so unusual a conquest called for an unusual memento, he thought. He usually took some small keepsake from his guests: a lock of hair from head or pubis, usually, something non-perishable. But one of his girls had had the most exquisite fingernails; he'd had to restrain her hands with extra care to keep her from damaging them before he'd pulled them out.

Light fell across the desk as the office door opened. Without looking up, he said, "Yes, Paul. What is it?" When his driver- cum-bodyguard didn't answer, he looked up. John Lynch stood in the doorway, silhouetted by the light behind, dark and silent as Death.

A mask of calm dropped over his face as his heart raced, and he summoned a small smile. "Jack. What an unexpected pleasure. Do you have something else for me so soon?"

Lynch said nothing, simply stared at him as he entered the room with a careful, deliberate stride, a predator walking through the jungle. He'd dispensed with his eye patch, and the regard of that milky orb seemed more penetrating than that of the live one, the evil eye of a sorcerer. He wore a shoulder holster, but hadn't drawn the weapon; the forger took that as a good sign. Taking firm control of his unease, Albrecht continued, "Is the young lady you sent to me still satisfied with my work?" He gestured with one hand, for misdirection, as slid the other casually to the back edge of the desk and pressed a button under its top with the side of his thumb. "As I told her, it was a rush job, but if she's dissatisfied with the quality in any way, I'm sure we can come to some arrangement." Lynch was only a step from the desk now; where the hell was his security? He stroked the button again.

"This is where I'm supposed to tell you to keep your hands on the desk. But frankly, I don't care. You can lean on your panic button until you wear it out. Paul's not coming." Lynch stared him down as he stood alongside the big guest chair. "Neither's the man in the courtyard." Hope rose in him briefly, until the black-clad man added, "Or the two you've got set up in the apartment across the street. It's just you and me, Hans."

His guest slowly folded his arms. "I'm very disappointed. Very. You should have just played the role I gave you, Hans. You should have done the job, sold the copies to Ivana, and collected your money from both of us. Everyone would have been happier. But you got stupid. You sold my girl to them."

Albrecht recognized the man's unnatural calm, then: John Lynch, a former government assassin of legendary reputation, now possibly the most feared and ruthless arms dealer in the Western Hemisphere, was standing in his office fighting down a killing rage. He felt the blood flee from his limbs.

"What made you do it? I'm sure they offered you a wheelbarrowful of money, enough to retire on, since the betrayal would have cost you your reputation if it got out. But it sure as hell wasn't worth your life." Albrecht opened his mouth to say something, but the killer plowed on, "I've been thinking about that, the whole trip over, along with what I should do about you. I'm sure you were toying with the idea of betraying me before she arrived; otherwise, you wouldn't have had the bug handy. But you knew the risks, and you're a prudent man. You wouldn't have gone through with it."

The man's face became terrible to look upon. "But I should have given more thought to your tastes, Hans. I was told all your playmates were willing, but now I've gone through your basement, and I know better. You took one look at her and had to know she was bound and in torment somewhere, even if you couldn't do it; you just couldn't help yourself."

The killer looked through him with a softening expression. "Just looking at her, you'd never guess, but she's a gentle soul. I've seen her carry spiders out of the house rather than squash them. Other people's blood and suffering make her physically ill. She's also a little naïve. She told me you'd touched her. She knew you were off somehow, but she didn't understand. I said you were a homosexual. I didn't know how to tell her she'd been fondled by a sadist."

Lynch looked down at the desk. "I'm in a bit of a bind here. The people I deal with know I mean what I say and I keep my word, and sometimes that buys me things that money can't. I demand the same integrity from my associates, at least when they deal with me and mine. Some of them deliver because they want to, others because they're afraid not to. But I can't afford to let any of them think someone can get away with screwing me over. But I made a promise to that girl."

The room brightened slightly, a dim yellowish glow like northern lights that reflected weirdly off Lynch's eyes, the living and dead one both. "I'm sure you've got a defense of last resort under the desk. I'm betting twelve-gauge; if you may only get one shot, you want to make it count." He glanced around the room. "Now, slug or shot? Guessing again, but I'd say slug. You've got a lot of pretty things in here you'd hate to mess up. That means you have to immobilize your target." He looked at the guest chair deliberately. "Big and heavy. High arms. I bet you sink right into the cushions. You put somebody in that, I'm sure it would take him a second or two to get up, even if he knew his life depended on it." He stood with a hand on one chair arm, and the angle of his jaw flexed as he clenched his jaw briefly. "I don't know how, but she made me promise not to kill you unless I had to. I'm sure an attempt on my life would be an extenuating circumstance, though." He slid in front of the chair and dropped into it. "Go ahead, Hans. Force my hand."

Albrecht slid his hands off the desk and made as if to grab the chair arms. "Jack, I don't understand, truly. Has something happened? I'm sure-" His hand darted under the desk and pulled the trigger. The shotgun roared.

But Lynch was half out of the seat, having slid down towards the floor. His body was turned, pressed against the chair arm, and his wrist poised above his head. Looking under the upraised tricep, Albrecht could see a smoking hole in the seat back, just at heart height. The killer stood. "It's clamped to the desk, isn't it? It's useless now, even if you had another round." He pulled a flat black automatic from his shoulder holster, and Albrecht felt his heart stop. But Lynch set the weapon on the desk between them and took four steps back. "Ten rounds. Knock yourself out."

Albrecht's hand crept towards the pistol, but stopped as a stack of papers on the desk slid towards Lynch all by itself and fell to the floor; several sheets lifted and whirled around the dark figure, as if in a strange updraft. His fear blossomed into terror. "No." He drew it back still empty. "You said you wouldn't kill me."

"Suit yourself. But I didn't say you'd find the alternative preferable."

He felt a hammer strike the back of his head, driving his face into the desktop. He tasted blood. But he couldn't wipe his face. He couldn't move at all. His left hand was lying on the desk, inches from his face, fingers twitching in an intricate pattern. He stared at it, amazed: it was the left hand portion of a piano piece he'd practiced as a child; he hadn't touched the instrument in twenty years, but he was certain his fingers were beating it out perfectly.

The weird light faded. "Just a tap, not the blow you'd have got if you'd reached for it. Maybe it'll be enough. Strokes are tricky things, Hans, especially ones as bad as this. You may make some sort of recovery. You may even be able to talk and feed yourself someday. But I doubt you'll be altering any more passports. Or torturing young girls."

He heard Lynch key in a phone number. "Paul. If you and the others have finished your espressos, I have one final job for you. Come pick up your former boss. He's in need of medical attention." As his body shivered with the beginning of a convulsion, he heard the phone click shut. "Goodbye, Hans. I hope you've been saving your money. Oh. One more thing. If you ever give up anything on my people again, I'll be back. Just so you know."

June 26
Eagle Nest

Jeremy pulled his scooter into the carryout lot just a couple of minutes before his shift started. Coming into work was harder than usual these past two weeks, since all his spare money was going towards a new phone and the goods that girl had taken, and he grudged every unpaid minute he spent at work. He parked next to the building and glanced up at the bare scorched mountaintop before turning towards the door.

Dave, the guy he was relieving, was grinning at him like an idiot. "Dude. Why didn't you tell me? I had a chick like that, I'd be telling the world."

"Oh?" It was the cleverest thing he could come up with, since he didn't have a girlfriend presently. Suspicion stirred in his mind.

From under the counter, Dave produced his missing cell phone. "She stopped by with your phone. Dang. Said she's so sorry she missed you, but she couldn't stay." In his other hand was an envelope. "And she left this. Took it off the rack and wrote it out in the bathroom."

He took them both. "How long ago?"

"Maybe an hour. I've been going nuts staring at that envelope. C'mon, open it up and read it."

He looked at the envelope: greeting-card-size, with 'Jeremy' written in big letters across the front; on the back flap, in smaller script, 'Thanks for everything,' along with a lipstick kiss. He tore it open. Inside were a blank greeting card, the kind you write your own message on, and a pair of hundred-dollar bills.

"Shit. She's giving you money? Playah, your rep is made. What's the note say?" Dave leaned across the counter, but Jeremy stepped back out of reach. He headed back to the clothing racks; standing among them made the vision of her fresh in his mind. When he was mostly out of sight, he opened the card.

Dear Jeremy.

By now, you've probably figured out I didn't tell you the truth. I'm sorry, but I was driven by a dire need. I hope you're not mad at me. Here's the money I owe you, and some extra for your trouble, and your phone. I don't suppose we'll meet again, but I'll remember you. Thanks for being so kind and helpful.


P.S. I see you fixed the wall. I hope insurance covered it, and you didn't get in any trouble.

"Caitlin," he said softly. He checked the phone's call history: no new numbers, and no new entries in his directory. Gone forever, then, unless she called him, and the note sounded pretty final. Damn. He let out a breath, put on a satisfied smile for Dave, and emerged from the racks. "Told her not to come around here while I'm working. But you know how redheads are when they get an idea in their heads."

Dave looked at him as if he'd lost his mind, "Redhead?"

He waved the card. "Yeah. Tall redhead."

The guy's expression changed to amusement. "Bad news when you can't keep your girlfriends straight, dude. This one didn't look like she'd be used to sharing."

He got an unreal feeling, like he had when he'd seen the girl come strolling out of the woods in her underwear looking like Sheena the Jungle Girl. "What did she look like?"

Dave raised his hand to nose height. "So tall. A little doll, with purple streaks in her hair and violet eyes. A million-watt smile. Gorgeous. She called me by your name, thought I was you till I turned around. Man, you got so many hotties on the string you can't keep track, maybe you could throw one my way."

IO Headquarters

Jeffrey appeared in the doorway of Ferris's office, his face grave. She couldn't recall ever seeing him smile, but he seemed wound up in a way that was unlike him. "Got a minute?"

She indicated a chair in front of her desk. It was small, because the office was small, and all the furniture was scaled to match; she could have had a bigger space than this broom closet, but she spent so much time in the field that a larger one would have seemed vain, and maybe hinted that she was putting down roots. "Sit. I'm just finishing up the action report. Last of the loose ends tied up?"

He nodded. All witnesses had been talked to and induced to silence. The two bodies had been autopsied and disposed of. The fire on the mountainside had destroyed all evidence of foul play, and the incidents at Charlotte and Eagle Nest and Keyes and Euclid had become minor and unrelated news items, quickly forgotten. "How are you getting on with Deputy Dawg?"

She smiled. "Winding down nicely. Ships in the night, and all that." A long-term relationship with someone outside the Shop would have been emotionally impossible, of course, as well as a career risk. The sex had been satisfying, at least, and had made the man predisposed to believe her cover story. "What's on your mind?"

"You heard they're forming dedicated teams?"

"I heard." After Lynch's and Fairchild's rather neat escape, someone had decided on a sort of man-on-man strategy against the runaways. Any teams of Gens they could identify would now be hunted by pickup squads trained specifically to apprehend and contain individuals with their special talents. The first team to be formed, naturally, would be tasked to catching Lynch and the five kids he'd taken with him out of the Complex.

"Thinking about it?"

She shook her head. "No way. You've seen how slippery they are. You lock yourself into a specialized job that keeps you chasing them until they're caught, you could be off the career track for years."

"What I figured. I'm not the climber you are, Ferris. I just want to see these people taken down. I applied for transfer two weeks ago." He shifted in his seat. "Came back approved today. Effective immediately. I have forty-eight hours to report for training at Maclean."

"Wow." She stood, feeling a little lightheaded. She'd had no clue; she felt a little hurt that he hadn't told her, and surprised to realize how much she was going to miss him. She came around the desk and offered her hand as he stood. "Forget what I said. It's not for me, but I bet you'll do great. Clear out your desk yet?"

"Done. Signed in my equipment, all of that." Of course. He took her hand, but didn't shake it. "There's this other thing. You know all the Special Security people are going to be transferred from the Planning Directorate, into Research."

She shrugged. "Sooner or later. Just an administrative change. I don't care who signs my paychecks."

"Yeah, well, the new teams are already in Research's TO. Notifying you was my last official act here." He held on to her hand and stared down into her eyes until his meaning sank in.

He doesn't work for me anymore. Until I transfer, we're not even in the same line of command. "Oh." She rearranged a few assumptions in her head. "I should take you to dinner. To celebrate."

He nodded, face serious as ever. "Or we could cut all that crap and just get a room."

She stifled a startled laugh. "What?"

He still hadn't let go of her hand. "Ferris. We've been dancing around this for two years. Tonight's the break we've both been looking for. Are you gonna do something with it, or not?"

She was amazed to find she was thinking about it; more than that, she was on the verge of walking out the door with him this very moment. For too long, all her men had been like Brendan: considerate, conventional, and predictable; easily manipulated. Dupes. When was the last guy you had you didn't need to lie to, who was capable of surprising you? She reined in. "Pretty confident, Mr. Adams. Aren't you going to tell me I'm cute, at least?" If you so much as smile or nod your head, the mood will pop like a soap bubble, and I'll turn you down.

He shook his head slightly. "Never thought you were. Cute is for puppies. You're a million things. But you're not cute."

She felt an uncharacteristic uncertainty. Always, she was the one leading the courtship dance; this time, she felt as if she were being swept along. "I've been at my desk all day, Jeffrey. I'm starving." She made a halfhearted attempt to throw up a roadblock. "I want a big, fancy meal before I make any decisions." She tugged the hand still in his grip, with enough force to remove it from a bowl of Jell-O, possibly. It went nowhere.

"Will you settle for room service? Save time."

She played a final trump. "Not unless it's at a five-star hotel with a long menu." In this town, that means the Hewitt, which is booked solid a week in advance this time of year.

The corner of his mouth twitched. "Done."