San Diego
Friday March 24 2006

"I'm so glad you guys are coming with me. This is going to be fun."

Caitlin was at the wheel of the minivan, as usual, with Sarah riding shotgun, also as usual; Roxy shared the second seat with Anna. "So, what do you want to do at the mall, Anna? Sears having a sale?"

"Roxanne, I wouldn't drag you all out with me to bargain hunt at the housewares store. You like shopping for clothes, don't you?" Roxanne, she was sure, was speaking for all of them; the older girls, she noted, were listening, Sarah rather more intently than Caitlin. Just as expected.

"Are you kidding? Just hand me a credit card and step back. What's going on?"

"I thought we could go through some stores, grab something to eat at the food court, maybe catch a movie afterwards. My treat. I was looking for a little advice picking out girl stuff; I don't have much practice, and I plan to buy a lot. Help me out?"

Roxy glanced towards the front of the car; Anna saw her meet Sarah's eyes in the rear view mirror. "Sure. I mean, I'd be glad to. How old's the girl you're shopping for?"

"Oh. I guess I wasn't clear about that. It's me. You see, I've been putting the moves on Mr. Lynch, and I really need to start looking more like a girl and less like part of the furnishings." She could hear all three of them stop breathing for a few heartbeats, then resume.

Roxy was wide eyed. "Why?"

She shrugged. "It's not obvious? I'm crazy about him." She smiled. "Why would you wash a guy's shorts for two years?"

"So you haven't known him any longer than we have? I thought you two were together forever."

Anna studied the posture and body language of her fellow passengers. It looks like Roxanne's taking this better than Caitlin, or even Sarah; or maybe the implications haven't sunk in yet. "I met him a month before you did. To make a long story short, I was a guard in an IO storage facility he was interested in. It seems he was already planning his defection from IO, and he wanted to take some things with him. He … convinced me to come along with him. I've been working for him ever since."

Sarah spoke for the first time. "How far are you … capable … of taking a romantic relationship, Anna?"

A very good question, Sarah, clear and direct. A question that could have saved Jack and me a lot of time that first night. "As far as you, Sarah. Or anyone else in this car."

"And you think Lynch would … reciprocate your attention?"

Anna sat back in the seat. "I have every reason to think that he would."

Roxanne, surprisingly, got it first. "Gawd, you've already done it!"

"Caitlin. Hon, you just went through a stop sign."

"Well, well," said Sarah. "And I suppose the boys know already?"

"They found out by accident, night before last. They agreed to let me tell you, as long as it was soon." And why are you behaving like a prosecutor, Sarah? I expected surprise, incredulity, denial – not this sitting-in-judgment attitude. What standard of conduct in your rule book have I offended?

"I'll bet." Sarah was coolly observing Caitlin, who was staring straight ahead as she pulled into the mall's parking garage; one tire rode over the center divide as she turned up the ramp. Anna was sitting behind Sarah; she leaned forward and laid a hand on Caitlin's shoulder. "Are you okay, hon?"

Still looking straight ahead, the girl took one hand off the wheel, reaching back to pat Anna's hand absently. "I'm fine. I just need to find a bathroom as soon as we get in."

As soon as they were inside, Caitlin headed for the nearest bathroom without a word. Roxanne hesitated, then hurried after her, glancing back at Anna and Sarah. They stood in silence for several minutes before Sarah spoke.

"So. You're here to buy clothes to make yourself pretty for Lynch, and you want some fashion advice. Are you looking for pointers for the rest of your performance, or is he giving you all the instruction you need?" The venom in her voice was startling.

"I imagine I should be blushing, right about now."

"But you can't, can you?"

"No. One of many things I can't do – like understand your attitude. Where's all this hostility coming from, Sarah? I thought you, of all people, would be ready to show me some tolerance."

Sarah wouldn't meet her eyes, but her voice was firm. "It isn't just you I'm expected to show tolerance for, and, you know, some things don't deserve tolerance. Isn't it just like a man, to want a woman he can mold into any shape he wants, even if she isn't really human; and you're so damned eager to fit in, you're letting him do it."

Anna shook her head. "I'm not following orders, Sarah. I'm following a dream."

"Well, wake up and look around, then, because you're trying way too hard to pass for something you're not."

Jack, you were so right. Having the kids find out about us is complicating our relationships already. Sarah was always the proper, distant one with me, the only one who actually treated me like a servant; I should have been looking for trouble with her. So far, just about all my guesses about the kids' reactions have been wrong. How could I know so little about them after two years, living with them, studying them? How can I model myself so successfully on their behaviors, yet guess so wrong about their reactions to something new?

"Well, I'm sorry to hear that you think I'm being uppity, and don't know my place. I'm sorry I dragged you along, on what's probably going to be a miserable afternoon for you. I'm especially sorry to be in a position where my happiness seems to detract from yours. This isn't about you, Sarah. It's between me and Jack."

"Oh, and what about Caitlin? This isn't about her either, I suppose."

So, that's finally out in the open, at least between the two of us. "Nothing was going to happen between them, Sarah, not ever. Jack has a strong code of ethics, even if it's so foreign to yours that you have trouble believing it exists. There was no way he could bring her into his life as a lover and maintain his self–respect."

"And yet, you got past his reserve."

"I'm not in the same position. Besides, Caitlin couldn't have used my methods, not and maintain her self-respect. I was aggressive and shameless."

"What did you do, threaten to quit baking?"

She felt the corner of her mouth twitch, but not in a smile. "The way to a man's heart."

She was relieved to see Caitlin on her way back with Roxanne. What little makeup the tall redhead had worn was scrubbed off, but she looked calm. Her arm was looped through Roxy's and they were both smiling. "All set. Where to first?"

"Where do you shop? Vickie's? I think it would be a big help, just to see you pick something out for yourselves." And more importantly, what you wouldn't buy, and why. "Roxanne, what's wrong?"

"No dinero." She looked embarrassed. "At least, not enough for something worth buying."

"Sweetheart, I said this was my treat, didn't I? You go in there and pick out the nicest outfit you can find; explain as you shop, so I can do for myself when you're not around."

Caitlin looked at the display window. "I don't shop here, Anna. There's not a thing in here that'll fit me." She looked down at Anna, forty-three centimeters shorter and half her size. "And the places I shop wouldn't have anything to fit you."

Anna looked up, meeting her gaze. "There has to be common ground somewhere, hon. What about jewelry? I'm going to need some of that, too." You couldn't pierce my ears with a power drill, but – "Bracelets and necklaces require shopping technique too, don't they?" She started towards the door, and the others followed.

"Sure. Did you want some perfume? That stuff can set you back a fortune, but I've got some that's pretty good, and it doesn't cost an arm and a leg."

Caitlin, you're a darling to offer and I love you to pieces, but I'd rather douse myself with vinegar than bring your scent to Jack's bed, let him smell it on his pillow the next morning, and again when he sits next to you at breakfast. "Thanks, but I've already got a recommendation for perfume. I'll be picking it up later."

Sarah said wryly, "Am I included in this deal?"

"Absolutely. I'm sure I could learn a lot from you, if you're willing, Sarah."

"Does your man know we're all going shopping on his dime?"

"It's my treat, not his. I earn a salary."

"Really. I thought that was just part of the masquerade. When did he start paying you for your services?"

She glanced back at Sarah. Caitlin and Roxanne, bringing up the rear, exchanged looks. Anna said levelly, "He offered me a paycheck when you arrived."

Roxanne snorted.

"No, really, he insisted. About three weeks before you all arrived, Mister Lynch told me that he was going to need a lot of help with the house and with you, and if I would take on the job, he expected me to accept payment for it. He claimed he'd have to hire two full-time employees and several part-timers to match the twenty-hour days I was putting in – if he could find anybody competent that he could trust - and that my compensation would reflect that. Housekeeper, cook, personal assistant, security and bodyguard detail, groundskeeper – by the time he added it all up, he made it sound like he was getting a bargain at a hundred thousand a year."

"A hundred grand a year? That's some allowance."

"I don't spend ten percent of it; I don't know what he expects me to do with it. Most of it's still in my savings account. Anyway, I think I can afford a shopping spree for four." She looped her arm inside Sarah's elbow and pulled her rather stiffly into the store. "Come on, kids, let's spend some money."

-0-

Waiting for his IO contact in the westering light, Lynch heard movement below him: tires crunching gravel, a slammed door, and footsteps on the long flight of wooden stairs. His man came in the door, and shut it behind him; the low sun through the window flashed on his black-rimmed glasses. "Lynch, next time I'm picking the meeting place. We can be seen for miles here."

"Not if we're careful. There's no one around for miles, and if there were, we'd see them."

"Okay. I'm still picking the next meet. Maybe someplace with food and music."

It was the man's usual gripe, his notion of a casual greeting; Jack ignored it. "You're late, Colby. I was about ready to blow it off."

"That would've been smart, but I'm glad you didn't. I had to shake a tail. Three, in fact." The man stepped toward Jack, offering his hand. "You look good. Real good." The comment wasn't a polite remark; he looked Lynch over with careful appraisal. "Been getting more sleep?"

"Less than ever, actually, but better rest."

"Well, whatever you're doing, keep it up."

"Not the first time I've heard that lately."

"Good to hear you've still got friends."

If IO had used recruiting posters, Colby would be the sort of man selected to pose for them: tall, Teutonic-looking, with blond hair and blue eyes, clean-shaven and clean-limbed. Thirteen years younger than Jack, he had risen fast in the organization for reasons that had nothing to do with his looks. After two enlistments in the Army, followed by a brief stint on the L. A. police, he'd been recruited by IO, which was always looking for people who knew how to handle violence. Initially assigned to the Operations Directorate, he'd started out in one of IO's numbered X-teams, which meant that he'd been marked as a stone killer from the start. His skill at planning successful ops based on sketchy intelligence had jumped him over to administration early; his pragmatism and proven loyalty to the Company had quickly pushed him up the ladder to the job of Assistant Director of Operations, one of International Operations' top ten positions. He was also John Lynch's number-one inside man at IO and, therefore, the second biggest reason why the kids weren't back in IO custody, being shaped into psychotic super-assassins like the Callahan kids.

Jack grasped the offered hand firmly. "Three tails? Whose were they?" What other outfit would have the balls to shadow senior IO executives?

"Ivana's, I'm sure. Part of a whole team, I'm also sure. She's finally guessed that you're getting help from inside; I think she's putting tails on all the senior people."

"What about Alicia?"

"No special attention so far. Frankly, she's not the only one at her level who's helping me; she's just the only one who knows she's helping you. Ivana's … leadership style doesn't do much for morale or esprit de corps. The organization isn't as tight as it used to be; hidden agendas and … elastic ethics are common now. A lot of people get a kick out of doing little favors for the Assistant Director that they know would piss off the Chief, as long as they're very sure she won't find out." He drew a small manila envelope from his coat pocket. "Ivana's authorized Level One blanket investigations, feet on ground, in seven areas; two of them are in the States: New York – and San Diego."

"Too close."

"We've got to shift their attention to one of the five foreign areas. Study them, formulate some possibilities, and get back to me ASAP." Jack's and Colby's roles in such subterfuges were well defined by now. Colby would tweak the data coming in, to diminish the significance of the San Diego investigation, and convince the Powers that it was a dead end. Meanwhile, Jack would plant disinformation at the other investigations, sending IO's human assets haring off down promising trails that would inexplicably peter out.

"I can do that now. Expect a few sightings in the countryside around Stuttgart. Thanks, Colby. With three shadows, I'm surprised you made it here at all."

"Wasn't as hard as it should have been. Ivana's not hiring the talent we used to, and the guys who could have taught them better fieldcraft … well, they're gone, one way or another. We're not the global secret policeman we used to be; our direction is – elsewhere."

"Dog wardens for Project Genesis."

"Yeah. Kinda chilling, when the people who hold our nation's life in their hands start thinking that … all our problems can be solved with a company of unstoppable assassins. Anyway, you've got the next time and location. I've got to get back, while it's still plausible that I 'accidentally' lost them. They're probably stirred up as a nest of hornets."

"Lose them in a crowd?"

"A shopping mall."