Chula Vista

"We're on site, ma'am, and things could be worse." The Security agent spoke into his phone as he watched his people releasing the bound men. "Looks like casualties are much lighter than we were expecting, and mostly among the Razors. We found Dr. Ivery, and he's fine."

"What about Colby? Did he leave with the Specials?"

A Medical team arrived; he waved them urgently towards the overturned wheelchair. "No, ma'am. He's here with us. But I don't know for how long. He's hurt bad."

"Shot?"

"No. At least, I don't think so." He watched the medics cut the Assistant Director's bonds and ease him onto a stretcher with the exaggerated care they usually reserved for people beyond their help. "They tied him up in a chair and beat him within an inch of his life, and maybe a little more." He shook his head, even though he knew she couldn't see. "Never seen anything like it. He looks like he drove his car off a cliff."

He lifted his eyes to the curdled sky. The weird storm surrounding the site had dissipated, but there was still plenty of rain overhead, ready to fall at any moment. But he was more worried about witnesses than rain. He could see the twinkle of police lights at the entrance to the complex, but he knew the cops couldn't hold a perimeter this big; curious eyes were probably watching the goings-on right now. "The Razors are already out of here and on their way to debrief, and the SS are right behind, but we've got a parade of ambulances going out the front gate, and we're leaving behind five crashed assault helicopters."

"Leave that to me. Where's Ivery?"

"Helping tend the wounded, ma'am."

"Get him to the phone."

*

Dr. Benjamin Ivery ran a trembling hand over his bald head, returned his borrowed stethoscope, and took the proffered phone. "Ivana?"

"Ben, are you all right?"

He couldn't help smiling briefly at the uncharacteristic concern. "I'm whole and undamaged, but I had a few tense moments. You heard about Frank?"

"Yes. How bad is it, really?"

"Bad enough I was afraid to move him without a team and an ambulance waiting. Multiple broken bones and internal injuries, for a start. She worked him over pretty good."

"'She'? The chameleon?"

"No. another one." He lowered his voice. "Ivana, she had your face too. but she wasn't the same one, I'm certain of it. And there are more of them."

"So he was telling the truth."

"Beginning to end, I think. We blew his cover in the restaurant, and that's the real reason they came here in such force. To hand us our heads and set us back on our heels, certainly, but mainly to pay back Frank for abusing their confidence. He must have been very close." Driven to imprudence by conscience, he added, "We treated him pretty shabbily, Ivana."

"Whatever mistakes we made, they're done," she said dismissively. "I promised I'd make it up to him if his story was true, and I will. I'll just have to up the reward. Considerably."

"If he lives."

"If he lives."

Thursday April 6 2006
San Diego

When the door chime at the front of her shop sounded, Elise struggled to rouse herself from behind the sales counter, even though visitors were rare lately. Almost everyone entering her store since last Friday had been a cop or a gawper who barely stuck her head in before she was gone. Elise hadn't made a sale in two days, and her rent was due in nine. Another week like this, and Estrellita's was done.

The two who entered weren't cops, but they weren't good prospects either. In fact, they looked like models for her competitors come to check out her goods. They were younger than her usual clientele, likely looking for trendy Aeropostale and CK rags rather than the mostly conservative imports on Estrellita's racks.

The two separated and stepped among the racks. Sure enough, the little brunette with the purple hair frosting spread a top across the rack, looked at it, and frowned; the dark one with the long black hair didn't even pull out the item she was examining, just glanced at the tag and let go of it like it was dirty.

Elise approached the dye job. "Can I help you?"

The girl put the top back in the rack and looked at Elise with gorgeous violet eyes. "Just looking around." Then she added, "Everything in here seems so, I don't know…"

"Old-fashioned?"

The girl nodded. "Sorry."

"Don't be. The proper term is 'classic.'" She pulled the top back out. "Feel the material."

The girl rubbed it between thumb and forefinger. "Heavier than it looks, but not stiff. Soft." She looked at it again. "Bet it'd be comfortable, anyway."

"Look at the stitching. It's probably the strongest part of the garment. If you know how to take care of clothes, this will still fit perfectly and look new after years of use." Elise put it back in the rack. "Which is why the styles are conservative. You pay a premium for this level of quality. This is no store for someone who empties her closets twice a year to stay in fashion."

The little dye job looked thoughtful. "But it might be a good place to shop if you wanted to look older sometimes, but still hot." She flashed a smile, and Elise smiled back, feeling better than she had since Frank Colby's visit. "Think I'll just look around some more." She glanced at the other girl. "Don't mind Sarah. She's not even looking at your stuff. She's just checking the tags, I bet. She's got this mental list of about fifty countries she doesn't buy stuff from. You know: this country's burning its rainforest to plant crops for export, that country exploits its workers, another one still allows product testing on animals, yada yada."

"I see." Elise approached the dark girl, Sarah. "Having trouble finding something you like?"

"No, but I'm having trouble finding something I can wear with a clear conscience." She pulled a satiny blouse out partway. "Do you know where this comes from, and what the working conditions are like?"

Elise examined the "Product of" tag, and the tiny monogram in its corner. She nodded. "This one comes from Atena."

Sarah's brows gathered. "Atena? What-"

"Atena Moreno, a twenty-six-year old widow with two boys just old enough for school. Her husband was killed on a bus, can you believe it?" She pulled the garment out, spread it across the rack, and smoothed it out. "She puts in a forty-hour week most of the year, except for a month in spring and fall, when she works Saturdays too. She'll never get rich on her wages, but she can afford decent food and clothes for her kids, and an apartment in a good neighborhood a short walk from where she works, and she can put a little money by if she's careful. She works in a garment makers' shop where the fabrics are a pleasure to work with and quality matters and her opinions are listened to. The manager is also the owner, and he's a decent sort who treats the girls like friends. He's very glad to be selling to a norteamericana who doesn't demand another price cut with every order; buyers for the big-box stores won't even look at his stuff."

She returned the garment to the rack. "If his buyers dry up or he fails for some other reason, Atena will end up working for half the pay in a shop clear across town, in a neighborhood she'd be afraid to move to. Between the twelve-hour days she'll be putting in and the two-hour commute, her boys will be growing up without her. And those twelve-hour days will be six and seven days every week, working in a sweatshop where the material starts falling apart as soon as it's cut, and the manager is looking over her shoulder every minute, demanding that she put fewer stitches in so she can sew more shirts every hour. And on Saturday, if she wants to have a job on Monday, she'll take his laundry home to wash, or let him bend her over his desk at lunch."

Elise turned to Sarah, and met the dark girl's eyes squarely. "Boycotts sound like a perfect way to stop people from behaving irresponsibly for profit, but unless they have the force of law, they always fail. Someone's always willing to buy the goods anyway. The exploiters still profit. If demand dips, it just means even more desperate times for Atena and those like her. I know what I'm doing is no grand solution. It's more like working in a soup kitchen. But, for a couple dozen people at least, it's working."

"Better to light one candle than stage a protest in the dark, eh?" Sarah turned the rack, searching, and picked out a light blue half-sleeved shirt. "I'll take this one."

Elise eyed the selection. "This isn't your size." Or your style.

"It's a gift."

The little dye job joined them with several outfits over her arm. "Found a couple things. There's some good stuff in your makeup display, too."

Sarah smiled. "Roxanne, I swear. You need an intervention or something."

At the sales counter, both girls dug into their purses and offered credit cards. Elise raised her eyebrows. Fashion models, for sure. No one their age could make enough money to qualify for Visa Blacks otherwise. But when she took them into her hand and saw that the cards bore no printing, signature pad, or Visa logo, the truth hit her: these weren't the status-appeal cards Visa issued in imitation of Black Cards; these were the real deal. Cautiously she said, "Are you sure these will go through?"

"They always do," Sarah said.

The cards processed without a hitch. Elise was careful to handle them separately; with no identifying features, it would be easy to mix them up. Don't suppose you see two of them on a counter at the same time very often. They must be heiresses out buddy-shopping in the slums.

Elise saw them to the door. When they left, she breathed a sigh of relief; not because they were gone, but because her light bill was covered for the month, assuming she still had a shop thirty days from now. She turned and looked into her place, at the neat carousels of clothing and the displays of accessories on the walls. It's no Neiman-Marcus, but it's a beautiful little shop. And it's my life now.

The door chimed at the same time she heard a deep male voice behind her. "Elise?"

She turned, and a gargoyle stared down at her. She gasped and took a step back.

"Sorry," the horribly scarred man with the eyepatch said. "Didn't mean to startle you."

She regained her composure. "My mind was somewhere else. Can I help you?"

He offered a hand. "I'm Jack."

She was too shocked to take it. "Annie's Jack?"

He raised an eyebrow. "She didn't describe me, I take it."

She pulled her eyes from the disfigurements and studied the rest. The right side of his face was rather handsome, and looked like it belonged to a man no older than forty or so. Under the light slacks and shirt, muscles rolled when he moved, and his body didn't look like it carried an ounce of fat. The cops had been intimidating enough, but this man looked like somebody who gave cops restless nights. "She did, but she didn't mention…"

"The scars. Odd. You'd think it'd be the first thing, wouldn't you?"

Elise felt a thrill of fear, despite the man's mild demeanor. This man was no stranger to violence. If Annie had displeased him in any way… "Is she okay?"

He nodded. "Out of town for a while. But I imagine she'll be back in your shop before long." He passed into the store, and she followed.

"If this is about the money she spent-"

"Hardly. What she bought was worth every penny, and more." Among the racks now, and mostly out of sight of the corridor, he turned to her. "One reason I'm here is to thank you. Not just for your help getting her away. For what you did before." His voice turned soft, the gravel in it changing to velvet. "I've known her for years, and she never showed any interest in clothes, or vanities of any kind. She used to have six identical outfits in her closet. The girls gave up trying to clothes shop with her a long time ago. Now she'll change outfits three times in a day, and she looks beautiful in every one of them. You did that for her."

She watched him touch a dress, just running the tips of his fingers lightly down the fabric, and she was certain he was imagining a woman in it. "This is good work. Not just the craftsmanship. The designers know what they're doing too." He turned his eye to her. "Why set up business here? A shop like this belongs at The Colonnades."

She scoffed. "I can barely afford the rents here."

"And I suppose you're paying down a business loan."

No. I couldn't get a business loan. I had to take out a second mortgage. Uneasily, she asked, "Is there a reason you're asking, Mr.… I didn't get your last name."

He offered his hand again. "Lynch. John Lynch, Jack to my friends. And any friend of hers is one of mine. Seriously."

She took his hand; rather, she placed hers in his and let it be swallowed up. She imagined those hands on little Annie, and swallowed. "Elise Brickner."

He gripped her briefly and let go. "So you took back your maiden name."

The little hairs on the back of her neck rose. "You've been checking me out?"

"No more than I would any prospective business venture." His gaze intensified. "She told you I've got money."

"Yes. But she didn't say how much, or where it comes from."

"Well." He looked out the door. "You've met all my girls now. Did they flash their Black Cards?" At her look, he nodded. "Seemed an easy way to prove my bona fides. Elise, what would it take to get you free of the bank and operating on a cash basis? I'm talking overhead, purchases, advertising budget, living expenses, everything."

She'd never thought of her business liabilities in those terms. She'd just taken out her loan for as much as she thought she could afford to service, and adjusted her business model to fit. She shrugged. "Hundred, hundred fifty thousand."

"Meaning three hundred. New startups always under-capitalize, it's why half of them fail. And you'll need a cash cushion while you build your clientele. In The Colonnades." He leaned over her. "I can have that in your account by close of business today, if you want it."

She found her voice. "Are we talking a loan, or a partnership?"

"No loans. A partnership, but a silent one." He smiled. "Well, mostly silent. I really think you should move." He looked out the door at the mostly empty corridor. "But if you think staying here's a better idea…"

"I… I'm not sure I want a partner, Jack."

"Then buy me out with the profits, which I expect will be substantial once you can spend with a free hand and you're not hag-ridden by the bank." He leaned back. "I know this is sudden, and I'm pressing hard. But, you know, once your wealth accumulates past a certain point, you don't think about buying stuff with it as much as doing stuff with it. Buy me out or allocate me a portion of the profits, I don't care which. But you're not going under for lack of operating capital if I have anything to say about it."

"Why?"

"You were a friend to her, and she doesn't have many. Not her fault; she loves people and she's friendly as a puppy. She's just had damn few opportunities. If she were in a position to ask my help for you, she would. It's that simple, Elise." He watched her silently, plainly waiting for an answer.

"Can I have a little time to think it over?"

"The offer stands indefinitely, but I don't know when we'll see each other again. I'm a hard man to get hold of." He went on, gently, "Take the money now, and wait three days, if you want. Maybe business here will pick up."

"No." She was filled with sudden decision. "I'll do it. Just draw up the papers."

He extended his hand a third time. "This is our only contract, Elise."

A moment later, he said, "At the risk of breaking our agreement already, what do you think of the idea of a plus-size line?"

She shook her head. "There's money in it, but it's hard to build a clientele. Large sizes are expensive anyway, and when you add on what I'd charge, not many women would be willing to pay."

"Well, then. How about custom orders? Will your people do that?"

"It wouldn't be profitable."

"I'm not talking about profit, actually." His scarred face softened again. "I'm talking about a beautiful girl who feels like a circus freak because she has such a hard time finding decent clothes."

Realization struck. "Kat."

"It wouldn't be safe to bring her in here for a fitting, but I'm sure I can get her sizes. See what you can do for her, will you?" He turned to leave, then turned back. "One more thing."

She smiled despite herself. "What, silent partner?"

"Your married name was Taylor."

She swallowed. "Yes."

"Your ex is up for his third parole hearing soon. You're going to be very busy for the next several weeks. You really can't afford the distraction of a court appearance."

"I have to go. The man haunts my dreams. If I don't show, they're almost sure to let him out on parole. And he said-"

"Precisely my point." His hand reached out and gripped hers, and she realized she'd been holding her stomach, the way she had that awful day, to keep her intestines from spilling out as she ran for her life. "Listen to me and believe, Elise. If he makes parole, you've already seen and heard the last of him." He turned to leave. "I think we're all due for some peace in our lives."

Saturday April 8 2006
Escondido

Anna knew it was too early to be looking for a message from Frank. She'd learned of the shocking extent of his injuries from Dixie, and she imagined he was still under sedation and unable to speak, much less sneak a personal ad into the San Diego Union-Tribune. But ever since Jack had revealed Frank's method of contacting him, she'd been resisting the urge to check.

She finally gave in, and called up the paper's Personals. She didn't find a message from Jack's friend. What she did find set her hands trembling as they hovered over the keys.

Sister, we're so sorry we parted that night. We'll never stop looking for you. If you are reading this, know that we love and miss you. Contact us.

Following this were two very long strings of numbers, all ones and zeroes interrupted by dashes. She converted them from binary to base ten as automatically as another person would read a line of print.

01-15-1990
970-503-6160

The second number was a phone number in western Colorado, judging by the area code. Which could connect to anywhere, she supposed. The first, according to Jack, was the date of the attack on the power plant, when the cybers mysteriously appeared on IO's task force and then disappeared forever.

Her hands steadied as she reached for her cell phone.