Charlie O'Bannon shifted uncomfortably in the back of the tiny rental van, and let out a sigh so loud it made his lapel microphone crackle.
"Remind me again why we're doing this?" His New York accent seemed to emphasise his dissolving patience; something to which Christine Kowalski had long ago become accustomed. Charlie had endless patience in some fields, and non-existent patience in others; and sitting in the back of a cramped van, with nothing to do except re-read yesterday's newspaper, definitely came into the second category. The voice of Kowalski, resolute FBI agent and Charlie's immediate superior, filtered back to him over the tiny ear piece that he was wearing.
"You're doing it because the circumstances of your parole require you to do what I tell you. Now shut up. One more sigh like that and my ears will still be fizzing two weeks from now."
"Hear hear." The harsher, more forceful voice of Ice Gregory, one of Charlie's oldest friends, came not from the ear piece but from the front of the van. "Now quit fidgeting, man. If you want to get out and walk around, fine; but if you're staying in here then sit still."
"My leg's gone to sleep." Charlie sounded as though he might be considering going into a sulk, but Ice knew him better than that.
"Good." He sighed almost as loudly as Charlie had done, and flopped back into his seat. "Why don't you go join it, and leave the rest of us in peace?"
Christine Kowalski should have been in good spirits. She had been entrusted with one of the more important cases that the FBI was currently investigating, she had more men than usual at her beck and call; everything, in short, was going just the way that a rising young operative's career should be going - save for one, rather sizeable factor. She liked them really, she knew that. She had to tell herself several times a day that she liked them, in order to be sure that she didn't give in to the multitudinous attacks of frustration and send all three of them back to prison - but she did genuinely like them. They were warm, friendly, funny, intelligent; they liked her, their hearts were in the right place, they got the job done better than most... Sitting on her own in the large, spacious interior of one of the FBI's most well-equipped surveillance vans, she glowered at the large monitoring device before her - the closest she could get to actually glowering at the guys themselves. Yeah, okay, so they were funny, intelligent and capable; but they were also criminals, out on very unconventional parole, and frequently they appeared to be extremely anxious to get sent back inside. Like now.
They were supposed to be watching a shop, one of the many cover businesses set up by their mark, Jackson Felton, a known operator on the darker side of the Underworld. Charlie and Ice were in a small van near to the front of the shop, Ice with a long-lensed camera and Charlie with the noisy end of a hidden microphone that was currently being wielded by the third and most unpredictable member of their extremely unpredictable, three-man team. Alphonse Royo, posing as a rich German businessman, was supposed to be trying to negotiate a very shady deal with Jackson Felton; but Felton, apparently thanks to the overactive sixth sense possessed by many a dangerous crook, was resolutely refusing to bite. Hence Charlie's impatience, Ice's boredom, and Chrissy's growing frustration.
"Come on Alphonse. What's the hold up?" She knew that he couldn't hear her, but she hissed the words anyway. Ice's voice came back to her, sounding faintly accusing.
"He's doing the best he can, Chris. Do you want him to blow the whole thing? That way we lose Felton and his whole operation, and probably spend the rest of the decade trying to recover all the missing pieces of Alphonse. Let him play it out at his own speed."
"His own speed is going to get him killed and me taken off the case." She scowled, tapping with her pen on a clipboard still clean and devoid of writing. "Can you see anything?"
"Yeah." His characteristic lack of emotion showed as clearly in his voice as Charlie's natural anxiety showed in his. "I can see two shop assistants eyeing up Alphonse, and some guy washing windows. Felton isn't going to bite, Chrissy. Face it, he's just not interested in our bait."
"It looks like you're right." She leaned back in her chair, wishing that she could see what was going on, instead of having to rely merely on sound. She could hear the gentle buzz of the conversation going on inside the shop; Felton's cultured Boston accent contrasting with the Germanic tones that Alphonse had adopted for this job. Whatever the accent Alphonse could copy it, and he was showing that talent now with remarkable flair. If she hadn't known she would never have believed that he was really a native New Yorker... but maybe that was the problem, and Felton knew who he really was too. "Send him the signal."
"Consider it sent." There was a silence from Ice as he clambered out of the small van, his muscles pleased at the sudden action. She heard the click of his shoes on the tarmac, heard the zoom of traffic passing close by his mic, then another sharp, quick sound that she could not identify. A second later the frenzied blare of a car alarm filled her earphones. She snatched them off, wincing.
"Sorry. Forgot to warn you about that one." It sounded as though there was the echo of a laugh in Ice's usually unreadable voice, and she glowered at the lowered 'phones. Instead of responding to his words, however, she slid up into the driver's seat of her sleek black van.
"Just get a move on guys." They couldn't hear her any more, for she had moved away from the microphone, but she said it anyway. She wanted this wrapped up, now that they had made the decision to withdraw. Somewhere nearby, raised above the sounds of the passing cars, she thought she could hear the car alarm for real; muted and faint now that she was hearing it live, instead of relayed over the air. She still couldn't see anything, but her mind filled in the scenes that she knew were unfolding. Alphonse, in the shop, claiming that the car alarm was his; leaving quickly, with just the right amount of worry and embarrassment showing on his face and in his voice; Ice, retreating back to the van, sliding in behind the wheel and revving the engine just to be sure of a quick getaway; Charlie, muttering about how everything could still go wrong, worrying in case it did, looking out for Alphonse and wondering why he hadn't reached them yet; and Alphonse, striding out of the door of the shop with all the legitimacy of somebody who had a perfectly good excuse for so hasty an exit. He would cross the street, heading all the while towards the wailing car; then at the last moment move aside and slip into the van. Ice would hit the accelerator and zoom away. With any luck, Felton would no longer be watching anyway, and would never know why his erstwhile customer had failed to return; or why he had never turned off his car alarm.
At least, that was the way it was supposed to happen.
Alphonse was in mid-spiel when the alarm went off. It made his pulse quicken, for he recognised it immediately as the pre-arranged signal. It could be an accident; it could be that somebody genuinely was trying to steal a car; but they had agreed that he would give up and leave the shop when a car alarm sounded, even if he suspected that it wasn't a signal from the others. That was the way it worked when you chose signals. You acted on them, using the judgement of your partners to keep you out of trouble. A polite smile was already forming on his lips when one of the shop assistants glanced up out of the window and groaned.
"That's my damn alarm again. I don't know what's wrong with it lately. Three times in two days. The man at the shop swore he'd fixed it."
"That's your car?" Alphonse kept his voice level, ensuring that his accent did not waver. "Are you sure? It sounds very like mine."
"No, it's mine. I can see it from here." She flashed him the sort of grin that ordinarily he very much liked to receive. "I'd better go and turn it off before somebody complains."
"Well if you're sure." His eyes drifted back to Felton, still standing beside him, clearly wondering why their conversation had been brought so abruptly to its end. "Oh, Mr Felton. I'm sorry, I thought--"
"Car alarms." Felton was smiling at him, in much the way that he had been smiling all along. Alphonse hadn't liked it to start off with, and he liked it even less now. "They all sound the same."
"I suppose they do, yes." He wondered what Ice would think when he didn't emerge from the shop, and managed to force out a careless little shrug. "Who can tell whose is whose on a crowded street? Anyway, Mr Felton, as I was saying..."
"Oh you'd said it all as far as I remember." Felton's smile didn't waver. "I'd told you that I wasn't interested in your deal, Josef." The emphasis that he placed on the name definitely wasn't encouraging. Alphonse experienced a sudden desire to run away very fast.
"But I'm sure there's some kind of mutually beneficial deal that we can reach. I have something that you want, you have something that I want..." He smiled, one of his best salesman's smiles. "Isn't that so?"
"I don't know." Arms encased in hand-tailored material folded neatly and firmly across an immaculately clad chest. "What is it that you have that I'm supposed to want? Counterfeit money is hardly to my taste. As you know from our previous, long-distance dealings, I'm in rather a different line of business."
"I have an unlimited supply." Alphonse reached inside his jacket, producing the small envelope of perfectly reproduced hundred dollar bills that Chrissy had found for him in the FBI evidence cupboard. They were beautifully made, by somebody who knew their craft. In a moment of heartfelt professional courtesy, Alphonse hoped that it was just the bills which had found their way into FBI custody, and not the person who had created them. "High denominations, easily obtainable, entirely untraceable. You can pass them anywhere and they'll go unnoticed. Even the banks can't tell the difference."
"Is that so." Felton still looked disinterested. "And in return you say that you want involvement in some kind of drug smuggling scheme that you seem to think I'm running. I'm intrigued you see, Josef, to know how you come to know so many things that I've never told you. All those telephone conversations... all those letters and faxes... I never had an inkling that you might be involved in any illegal practices. What gives you the idea that I am?" The step that he took towards Alphonse was so lazy, so small, that it almost appeared as though he had not moved at all. Alphonse knew better though, and had to fight the urge to back-pedal. He smiled again, glad that he was cool-headed enough to avoid breaking out in a sweat. Hell, he'd been doing this sort of thing since he was too young to know what fear really was, so why start to worry now?
"We all have our favoured sources of information, Mr Felton. I use mine, you use yours. Mine is a mutual acquaintance who is unfortunately no longer with us. Don't try to pretend that you haven't been asking just as many questions about me as I have about you."
"Oh I have, Josef. I have. And do you want to know what I found out?"
There isn't any danger, there isn't any danger. He can't possibly know - but somehow, deep inside, Alphonse knew that he did. He managed to keep up his slight, gentle smile though, and crooked his shoulders in the most casual of shrugs. Damn it, but it was a shame that the others weren't here to see this performance. He should be taping the whole thing for posterity. "And what's that?"
"I found out that Herr Josef Braun was arrested six days ago by the FBI, and is still being held in a prison not far from here. Apparently he was charged with several cases of counterfeiting and possession of controlled substances; and he didn't make bail."
Alphonse still managed to sound off-hand, although his heart was definitely now working double time. "I changed lawyers."
"Really." Felton nodded slowly, as though considering the validity of this remark. "And what about the description that I came up with? The details on what Braun really looks like?"
"I like to change my appearance a lot." Alphonse, not for the first time, wished that he was allowed to carry a gun. Damn rules of parole. Well, that and the fact that he was a lousy shot. Felton's smile broadened.
"You're good, I'll give you that. You had me fooled for a while, until I made those last few checks. You see, I have my favoured sources of information just like you, only mine are rather better placed than most."
"Meaning that I don't know who you really are, but I do know that you're not Josef Braun. Are you even German?"
"I doubt it." Dropping back into his native New York accent, Alphonse allowed himself a quick glance about the room. The guy washing the windows was obviously armed, and although one of the shop assistants still hadn't returned from turning off her car alarm, there was one left in the shop. He had no idea whether she was a trusted associate of Felton's or an innocent bystander, but either way she was an obstacle. She might be armed. Felton certainly was. "Now what?"
"That's up to you." Felton was drawing his gun, a large black weapon with a wicked looking muzzle and a calibre that looked suspiciously as though it might reach into triple figures. Alphonse took a step back.
"Guns aren't exactly the equipment of gentlemen now, are they." Where the hell were the others? Surely they had heard what was going on? Behind him he heard a light click, and knew that the shop assistant had drawn a gun of her own. So much for being an innocent bystander. She was probably a crack shot. Knowing his luck with girls just lately she'd have eyes only for Felton as well.
"Who said either of us was a gentleman?" The gun levelled, pointing at his chest. "Are you going to tell me what I want to know?"
"Is there anything you don't already know?" He contemplated another step back, but sensed rather than saw the shop assistant moving into place behind him. Retreating against the body of a beautiful woman was one of the things that he usually enjoyed a great deal, but somehow he didn't think that he would find her embrace especially welcoming. The window washer was watching him as well now, staring through the glass with undisguised menace. He was thinking so hard about what to do that he jumped violently in surprise when the bell above the door rang out, and a customer came in.
He was a reasonably tall man, taller than Alphonse although probably not quite so broad in the chest. Cheerful eyes were hidden behind a pair of eminently sensible bifocals over which he peered with all the intensity and sincerity of a professor looking at his students. He was black, although pale in skin tone, and had a stylised goatee that suited his squared face. With a turn of speed that was truly remarkable, Felton stuffed his gun away inside his suit. The shop assistant did likewise, fading away into the background with the skill of somebody who knew exactly what she was doing. The new arrival smiled around at them all, looking like some kindly old grandfather who had suddenly found himself transported into the body of a much younger man.
"Er... hello? I was hoping to buy a computer. Have I come at a bad time?"
"No, not at all." Felton, an expert at customer relations even if he was a lethal drug runner with a trail of murders in his recent history, was suddenly all courtesy and smiles. "It's always a pleasure to greet a new customer. Herr Braun, if you'd wait in the back room, we'll finish our discussion later." He inclined his head in the slightest of nods; a gesture that was an unmistakable reminder of the presence of the well armed window washer. Alphonse smiled back.
"I think we were finished, thanks." He looked towards the new customer who, whilst faking an expression of nonchalance and disinterest, was clearly listening to everything. "And I'd recommend you find yourself a different store. I came in to ask for advice on the computer system I bought from these guys, and they're trying to claim they're not liable. So much for a two year guarantee of free support."
"That so?" The bespectacled man steepled his fingers and peered thoughtfully at Felton. "Perhaps I should look elsewhere."
"We're the best this side of town." Felton was eyeing him suspiciously, as though suddenly beginning to wonder if there was a reason behind the remarkable timing of his entrance. "You won't find better prices or better equipment anywhere outside of the big stores - and we all know how over-priced a lot of them are."
"Yeah." His customer was nodding sagely. "Well okay. I'll give you the benefit of the doubt I guess. If you don't mind me pushing you aside for the moment, Mr... Braun was it? I'd be happy to listen to what you have to say, Mr Felton."
"Don't mind me." Alphonse grinned rakishly at everybody who happened to be looking, and strolled at an easy pace towards the door. Ice might be the least likely computer geek on the planet, but as long as he kept Felton believing that he really was interested in buying a computer, there was every chance they would both get out of the shop alive. He turned the door handle, pulling the door open just a particularly attractive young woman began trying to open it from the outside. Alphonse smiled at her through the opening, recognising the second shop assistant before she recognised him.
"Don't let him leave, Megan." Felton's voice was lazy, careless; but Alphonse didn't need to turn and look to see that he had drawn his gun again. He groaned.
"Hey man, that's a gun!" Still hopefully clinging to his disguise, Ice gaped at the weapon with slightly overdone amazement. Felton smiled at him.
"Yes, it is. How very observant. Now I don't know who you are any more than I know who your friend is, but I do know that neither one of you is who he claims to be. So we're all going to go into the back room, I'm going to ask you both some questions, and some time before tomorrow morning you're going to get the chance to convince me not to kill you. Move."
" 'Move'." Alphonse jerked a thumb back at Felton, smiling ruefully at Ice all the while. "Why do these people always talk like bad gangster movies?"
"Because they lack originality, man." Ice pulled off his glasses, his timid customer character peeling away like Clark Kent shedding layers during the transformation into Superman. He turned to address Felton, letting another character take over instead; this time a hard, ruthless type who looked as though he might be prepared to tear limb from limb anybody who stood in his way. "We're leaving. You can try to stop us, but the street out there is full of FBI agents, who'll shoot you down as soon as look at you. You make one move after us and they'll fire."
"Yeah." Happy to let Ice do the negotiating, Alphonse joined in only to emphasise the point. Ice shot him a vaguely irritated look that made it clear he should shut up.
"FBI agents." Felton's eyes scanned the street through the large windows. His confederate in the window washer's gear also looked up and down the road, finally holding up three fingers - indicating three suspect vehicles parked within range. Felton swore.
"Hey, there's ladies present." Taking it as read that they were to be allowed to leave, Alphonse was sliding back into his usual, smooth form. The girl who had only just arrived back in the shop was still blocking his path, and he moved closer to her with a blatantly flirtatious gleam in his eyes. "You are a lady, aren't you?"
"You come any closer and you're going to find out." Her eyes sought out Felton, but his only response was a simple, hard nod. She glowered, but obeyed his unspoken order and stepped out of the doorway. Alphonse grinned at her.
"Thanks. Say, what time do you finish work tonight? I mean, call me fresh if you like, but I was thinking candles, a fine dinner - I'm a pretty good cook as it happens - maybe a little gentle music over the--"
"Alphonse..." Pushing him out of the door, Ice walked backwards all the while, attentive to the last. He well knew that the only FBI vehicle in the area was the tiny van within which Charlie was no doubt currently quaking - and since there were no weapons of any sort onboard, his claim that Felton would be shot if he tried to do anything had been exaggerated to the extreme. Chrissy presumably had a gun, but was parked so far away that she wouldn't be able to reach them until long after they were all dead and Felton had made himself very scarce. He didn't like the idea that one of the drug runner's companions might decide to put the threat to the test, and come out shooting.
"Heads up Charlie!" He was heaving the passenger door open as he was speaking, forcibly thrusting Alphonse into the cramped and darkened interior of the van. Charlie shuffled forwards to look out into the street, grabbing up the camera to take a few final shots of the building as the window washer turned his face towards the lens. His gun, a large automatic, was easily visible inside his overalls, and it seemed to the nervous ex-con currently watching him that there was a fist already reaching for that gun, ready to draw it and begin firing after the van.
"Get us out of here Ice!" He sat up sharply, narrowly avoiding banging his head on the roof. Ice gunned the engine, wincing as it groaned and protested. "Ice!"
"I'm trying, man!" He wrenched at the stick, muttering in irritation at the number of gears. What was wrong with automatics, anyway? Finally the engine caught, and with a last cough and splutter the van pulled out into the road and moved away. The window washer did not shoot after it, and instead turned around and went back into the shop. Charlie breathed a heavy sigh of relief.
"What the hell was that?" Crawling up behind the front seat, he hung over Alphonse's broad shoulders to talk more easily with his compatriots. "Easy in and out, that's what you said Ice, and we end up nearly getting our heads blown off by a nut armed with a Magnum and a squeegee. That is not what I call 'easy in and out'."
"Nobody was trying to blow our heads off, man. Don't get so damn excited." Ice manoeuvred the car down a side road, heading back towards the place where Chrissy awaited them. "It was just a minor glitch, that's all."
"Didn't feel terribly minor." Alphonse leaned back, reviewing the prior scene with little enthusiasm. "I'm telling you guys, he knew who I was before I'd even stepped into his shop. I mean, he didn't know who I was exactly, but he sure as hell knew who I wasn't."
"Certainly sounded that way." Taking out much of his frustration on the steering wheel, Ice brought them over to the shiny black van housing their supervisor. She was sitting in the back with the doors open, staring down at them as though they were recalcitrant children returning home after staying out later than allowed. It was a scene with which all three men were becoming horribly familiar, and they were not at all surprised to see it now.
"Chrissy!" Leaping out of the car almost before it had stopped, Alphonse advanced towards the agent with a huge grin stretched across his genial face. "What did you think of my performance? Oscar winning stuff, huh?"
"Oscar winning?" She shook her head. "Get in the back of the van Alphonse. All of you get in the back of the van."
"Huh? What did we do?" Bridling at her tone, Ice folded his arms and looked typically stubborn. "We did what we were supposed to do. It's not Alphonse's fault if things went a little cock-eyed.
"No, I suppose it isn't." Chrissy scowled around at the group, as though somehow it was their fault that she seemed to have no-one to blame. "Come on. We'd better get back to head office. Somebody is going to have to explain all of this to O'Connor."
"Ain't gonna be me," commented Ice, voice firm despite the smile. Charlie nodded fervently.
"Me neither. That guy hates us enough already, without adding to it by making him think we screwed up his operation. Sorry Chris, but you're going in there alone."
"Yeah." With a last grin in her direction, Alphonse followed the others back to the cramped little van they had arrived in. His eyes were sympathetic, but his voice was definitely not. "We love you Chrissy, but..." His hands waved in the air, illustrating a shrug. "Sorry."
"Some team players you are." She turned her back on them, acting out her irritation to the full even though it was not real. "Go on then, get out of here. I'll see you back at headquarters."
"We're already gone." Sliding into the driver's seat, Ice started up the engine as the others were tumbling into the back. Chrissy watched them until they had gone from her sight, then she let out a long, loud sigh, and climbed up into the sizeable driving compartment. The boys had a point, she couldn't deny that. Explaining the failure of this little undertaking to her department's irascible boss was going to be very unpleasant indeed.
"So you don't have him."
"Well no sir, but you see-"
"All I see, Agent Kowalski - all I really care about - is that you don't have him." O'Connor folded his arms and rocked back on his heels, staring down at the simmering agent with eyes that brooked no argument. "You screwed up."
"We did not!" Although they had claimed no desire to take part in the discussions, as usual all three parolees were present. Alphonse, bridling at the suggestion of failure, almost rose to his feet with his outburst, and ignored Chrissy's furious glare. "We were the guys on the spot, okay? We handled it the way it had to be handled. He knew who I was!"
"Impossible." O'Connor's dismissal stung, even though Alphonse had no reason to care what the man's opinion of him was. "The only people who know about you work for this department, and we don't have a leak."
"Well you must do. That man knew who I was, and he made damn sure I was aware of it." This time Alphonse did stand up, using his fierce body language to make O'Connor move backwards a step. Ice also rose, but only to pour a little of his characteristic cool onto the situation.
"This is stupid, okay? We're not going to get any closer to taking this guy down while we're fighting in here all the time, right? Now Alphonse, quit acting like some jerk on his first play. What makes you think he knew who you were?"
"You heard him." Toning down his temper somewhat, Alphonse turned his back on O'Connor. "He knew that I wasn't Braun, and he seemed pretty certain that I was working with the cops."
"None of which means that he knew you were with the FBI." O'Connor raised a disdainful eyebrow. "And when I say 'with' the FBI, I mean it in the loosest possible way, naturally."
"Now listen here-" Beginning to boil over again, Alphonse swung around. Ice stopped him, talking over him with cool determination.
"He's right, man. Think about it. If he knew you were with the feds, why would he tell you about his informant? And if his informant is also with the department, he'd have even less reason to boast, wouldn't he."
"Maybe." The truth of this was sinking in, but still Royo didn't look convinced. "I don't know though. I mean, he obviously wasn't planning on letting me get out of their alive. Maybe he figured it didn't matter what he told me?"
"That's a fair point." Beginning to waver in her own certainties, Chrissy looked to Ice for yet another explanation. This time, though, it was Charlie who came up trumps.
"If he knew 'Phonse was working for the feds, or even just the ordinary cops, he'd figure he was wearing a wire. He wouldn't have told him anything important then, would he. He might have let something slip that wasn't supposd to come out, but I doubt it. He's too careful for that. If you think about it, there's lots of ways he could have heard about Braun being arrested. Journalists, lawyers, civilian workers down at police HQ, right? It doesn't have to mean that there's a leak here."
"Thankyou." O'Connor sounded a bit sulky at having been defended by one of the trio of parolees, but he accepted the explanation was some considerable good grace. "Well that settles it. We go on tip toes from now on, and we take it slow. We don't tell anybody anything that they don't need to know, and where possible we go over the heads of the local cops. There are enough people going in and out of a police station every day for it to be easy enough to find one of them that's willing to make a little money on the side, whether it's civilian support, or just one of the writers for some local rag. They're always crawling around on the seedy side of things looking for a story, and I wouldn't put it past one of them to try hooking up with Felton to get a line on some interesting copy."
"And what do we do in the meantime?" Chrissy was thinking about the long hours of research and leg work that had gone into setting up the meeting with Felton this morning. It hadn't been easy getting Alphonse in there, and fitting him up with Braun's ID had been the hardest part of all. It hurt to see so much work go to waste when she had felt so close so recently. O'Connor shrugged.
"Try a different tack. Doesn't have to be anything fancy. If you ask me, these three get more and more complicated in their planning every time we point them at a case. Maybe this time they can go back to basics, and help you with a little old fashioned investigative work, instead of all this rôle-playing rubbish. Less of the fancy false identities, more of the long range lenses and powerful microphones. It's worked for us for fifty years, Agent Kowalski. I fail to see why it can't work for a few more."
"Yes sir." Subdued but simmering, Chrissy turned to head for the door. "Come on guys. Let's get back on the case."
"Getting too complicated. Who the hell does he think he is?" Still fuming, Alphonse pushed ahead of the others as they left O'Connor's office. "If we're not supposed to con people, what exactly is the point of having us here?"
"That's probably his point." Charlie sounded almost as bitter as his companion, although not quite so angry. "He never wanted us here in the first place. Probably figures if he can stop us from doing our stuff, he'll have no reason to keep us on the staff. Then we get ferried back to prison before you can say 'overly ambitious experiment'."
"Cut it out you two. Anybody would think we'd been sacked." Striding over to Kowalski's desk, Ice threw himself into her chair and landed his feet on the table's neat surface. She scowled at him, but he pretended not to notice. "Nobody's getting rid of us, and nobody's getting sent back to the joint. We just have to tread gently around O'Connor for the next couple days, that's all."
"Some of us try to do that anyway." Kowalski gave each of them a very meaningful look, and was pleased to see a glimmer of contrition in the eyes of all three. "I actually have a career to worry about here, remember? Something I've been working at for quite some time. So." She sat on the corner of her desk, rather hoping that Ice would take that as a hint to give her back her chair. He didn't.
"So what?" Charlie was toying with her computer, seeming to give her only a tiny percentage of his attention. She knew better, but it was still a little off-putting - and how the hell had he got hold of her password again? She had only just changed the damn thing after he had broken into her system a few days before.
"Now we get back to business." She reached over to push the keyboard out from under his fingers, and also to snatch a confidential file from Alphonse's hands. He flashed her one of his charming grins, and she glared at him as fiercely as she could. "There's not likely to be any point in trying to con our way into Felton's good books again. He's wise to us now, and there's no telling how detailed his information is."
"He's not going to get anything new now. Not unless his informant really is somebody in FBI headquarters." Ice was spinning backwards and forward on her revolving chair, something that was apparently helping him to think. He looked a little peculiar, sitting there with his fingers steepled, peering at her through the neat, designer frames of his reading glasses - something like a street hood accidentally blended into a college professor.
"We hope he's not going to get anything, certainly - but there's no way to be sure of that, is there." She coughed loudly, making Charlie look up rather guiltily from where he was once again doing something on her computer. She decided that she probably didn't want to know what, and was rather relieved when he turned away from it. "At any rate, he's going to be much more on his guard than before, and that's bound to make him more suspicious of strangers trying to make friends. We have to try a different tack."
"He's got to have a computer somewhere. Get me inside and I'll see what I can do with that." As usual Charlie spoke as though nothing could be easier; but then, given his abilities with computers, probably nothing was, at least for him.
"That's an idea I suppose." Chrissy wasn't convinced though. In her experience people rarely put anything too damning into computers, especially given the number of cases that had hit the news in recent years, of people being prosecuted after incriminating evidence was found by technicians fixing the usual little hiccups and glitches. It was far more likely that the really interesting pieces of information would be hidden away in old style folders or sheaves of paper. Either that or they weren't written down at all.
"I got an idea." Leaning back in his chair, hands folded behind his head, Ice was staring at nothing somewhere on the ceiling. "He already knows we're after him, and we're under orders to keep this one simple, so why do any sneaking around at all?"
"You want me to just walk in there and ask to poke around in his computer?" Charlie sounded horrified, but Ice laughed.
"Not exactly. I mean, why do anything like that? Why not just play it straight?"
"Straight?" Alphonse was looking rather as though his partner had just suggested that they all grow three extra heads, and try threatening Felton in archaic Japanese. "Ice, we're players. We don't do straight. If Chrissy wanted straight she'd work with regular agents, right Chris?"
"Oh for the chance." She smiled at him, then looked back to Ice. "What exactly do you mean? Are you suggesting that you play this one entirely by FBI rules?"
"Hardly." He seemed almost upset by the idea. "I don't know any FBI rules, and I think I can get along without changing that. I'm just saying that if Felton knows we're trying to con him, why bother? We go in there, and we let him know that we want something from him. Then we keep the pressure up. Make sure he sees us everywhere he turns. Every time he looks out of a window, he'll see us siting outside. Pretty soon that kind of pressure would get to anybody. Maybe then he'll come to us."
"I don't know. It'll probably take a lot more than that to crack Jack Felton." Chrissy thought back during the length of the investigation, and all the attempts that had been made to take him down before the three paroled convicts had even been considered for the case. "And what good will it do turning the pressure on? He's not the sort of man to give in."
"He doesn't have to give in. He just has to know that we're serious - and that we're convicts on parole." Ice was no longer smiling, and his face had taken on an expression of such seriousness as only he was capable. It was his thinking face, Chrissy knew that by now; the expression he assumed when he was coming up with a plan designed to ensure that somebody else was left a loser. It went with a hard, determined tone of voice so confident and assured that she could easily see why Alphonse and Charlie had been so ready to accept him as their leader. "If we get to him enough maybe he'll try to make a deal. Not with you, but with us."
"Try to buy us out you mean?" Alphonse didn't sound convinced. "More likely he'll try to kill us."
"Maybe." Ice apparently wasn't that concerned, but then his ability to appear so was of course one of the reasons for the nickname bestowed upon him. Whatever his true feelings were, he was good enough at keeping them hidden. Just one of the things that made him so very different to the ever-fiery Alphonse.
"I'm not sure I like the sound of this." Unhappy with the talk of possible violence, Kowalski almost considered putting her foot down, although she was certain enough that such a move would have no effect. She could order them to do, or not to do, whatever she liked, but they would always go their own way in the end. It was one of the things that made them so effective; the fact that they couldn't be dissuaded from a course that they themselves had faith in; but it was something that she was sure would one day turn her prematurely grey. She cared for them, even though at one time she would never have imagined feeling that way.
"You don't like the sound of it?" Charlie, of course, could turn plain nervousness into an art form, and was doing so now with his usual relish. "Ice, are you sure this is a good idea?"
"Can you think of anything better?" Having chosen his course of action, Ice didn't like it to be challenged. "Come on Charlie, this is a piece of cake. It'll work just like that time when we got that crooked vice cop to pay us off that time, remember?"
"Carey Waddington." Alphonse didn't sound as though the memory was a particular favourite of his. "I wound up with three broken ribs and a concussion thanks to that guy not cracking half as easily as you thought, remember?"
"That was a slip up anybody could have made. I didn't know the guy had three brothers." Ice folded his arms, presenting an image of rigid immovability. "Come on Alphonse, you know this plan is sound."
"Er... would it be unfair to ask who this crooked vice cop was?" Try as she might, Kowalski couldn't think of anybody named Waddington that the trio had dealt with under her guidance. Charlie pulled a face.
"One of the first cases we handled for the FBI, when we were still stationed in New York. We were supposed to help the feds bust him, but Ice here figured that the best way to get to him was to make it look like we were as crooked as he was. We were going to get him to pay us off, so we could prove he really had been taking bribes and back-handers."
"But he was ready for you?" She had seen it happen before, in more conventional investigations; crooks guessing what was going on, and taking steps to halt the progress of the agents sent after them. Alphonse shook his head.
"Not us. Me."
"Yeah. The plan was for 'Phonse to go in first and cut the deal, while we sat out front with our FBI contact, and listened in." Charlie sounded almost as ginger about the whole affair as he might had he been talking about a misfortune of his own. "Waddington made the pay off alright, but when Alphonse left the building to head back to us, he was jumped by a bunch of guys who were waiting for him. We managed to get there before they shredded him, but it was pretty close."
"But we got the money and the arrest." Ice tried out a little smile, intended to convince his friends that things would work better this time. "It's tried and tested, and we never make the same mistakes twice. Right? Come on guys. How many disasters have we had since we fell in together? Real disasters I mean. How many times did things get really bad?"
"Not that often." It was clear that Alphonse was being won around to Ice's plan, and just as clear that both men were certain Charlie would also soon give in. Christine held up a hand to still their growing enthusiasm.
"Hang on. Listen, I don't care how often or how rarely things go bad. You're working for the FBI, and that means that whatever you do, it has to be squared by me first - and I'm not about to sanction anything that's likely to leave you in traction. Or dead."
"Then don't sanction it." She knew Ice well enough by now to know that he had made up his mind. He had decided upon his course of action, and he was going to follow it through regardless of his supposed superior's opinion on the matter. What was more, it was already apparent that Alphonse was going to follow him, and that therefore Charlie would too. She groaned.
"Hey, come on Chrissy." Flashing her one of his strangely irresistible grins, Alphonse reached out to drop an arm around her shoulders. She froze, primly, making her usual objection to his attempts at close physical contact, but for once didn't remove his arm. "It'll be fine, we'll be fine, and you'll end up with a great arrest."
"I'd better." She wondered if there was anything that she should say to O'Connor, or whether it wouldn't be simplest and safest to say nothing at all, at least until everything was well and truly over. She wished that she could be sure of getting away with the second option. "When do we get going?"
"We don't." Ice had put only the tiniest emphasis on the 'we', but she heard it anyway, and began to protest. He cut her short before she was able to get past a vexed exclamation of his name. "Sorry Chrissy, but this isn't the kind of work that we do best with spectators. Besides, you'd probably prefer to stay back here. We're not going to be doing this by company rules."
"When do you ever?" She wasn't convinced, and didn't want to agree even though it probably wouldn't make any difference to their action in the long run. "Guys listen, I really think--"
"Chrissy..." Ice's gentle tone started to win her around, just as it invariably did. "Believe me, you don't want to come with us."
"Do I want to know what you're going to do?"
"Probably not." He smiled at her, eyebrows raised as though to cajole her into an acceptance of the situation. "But we'll be in touch."
"You're damn right you will be." She pointed at him, determined, and for a moment angry. "You're still on parole, remember. All three of you. So you'll call in at least twice every day, and give me a full run down of what's been happening, and how close you are to making a breakthrough. And if anything goes wrong, I want you back here right away."
"Sure thing Chrissy." As usual Charlie sounded as though butter wouldn't melt, and she glared at him suspiciously.
"I mean that. Back here. Right away."
"Sure." Alphonse was grinning at her again, those forever flirtatious blue eyes glinting with all the force of his personality, not to mention all the lack of sincerity that so annoyed her. "You worry too much, Chris. We'll call in twice a day, we'll behave ourselves, and we'll all come back in one piece. Promise."
"I'm not worried about the one piece." She was lying, and felt sure that they probably knew that. "Just come back, or at least leave detailed instructions on where to find your bodies. It's my job on the line if you vanish without a trace, because it's me that has ultimate responsibility for you meeting the terms of your parole. Remember?"
"Hey, have we ever let you down Chrissy?" There was a trace of annoyance in Alphonse's tone now - hurt perhaps, or frustration at her continuing lack of trust. "We always come through, right?"
"Right." That much she had to concede. They sailed close to the wind, they had stretched her patience and her trust to their limits more than once - but they had never, ever let her down. O'Connor might still be suspicious of them, but she had long learnt that they were the good guys in every way that mattered. Well, almost every way.
"Then we'll get going." Ice's natural calm and confidence was as present as always, infecting the others and going some way to easing her lingering doubts. He was already heading towards the door, just as if he suspected that she might still try to stop him.
"Good luck." She wondered if there was something she could do that would make them stay, or at least to let her accompany them, but she knew that there wasn't. Once upon a time she would have tried anyway, but their relationship had grown since then. She still felt weird though, letting them go off alone. Surely she wasn't worried that they might not come back?
"Thanks Chrissy." Charlie, as ever, sounded as though luck was exactly what they would be needing, and that it was probably the one thing that they would not get. "We'll call." It was his parting shot, for as he spoke he walked past her, and opened the door. Outside the corridor was empty, which was probably just as well. It was likely to be better for all of them if the threesome went out unseen.
"Three days," She knew that they probably wouldn't take any notice of her, but she had to try anyway. "No longer."
"Hey, no sweat Chris." Ice smiled at her, so cool, so certain. She watched him stride out of the door, and found herself believing that they really could do this, with him at the helm.
"Want a goodbye kiss?" Alphonse was already leaning towards her before she was able to get out of his way. She glared.
"I'm going. I've gotta say though, Chris. You don't know what you're missing."
"I can imagine." She pointed at the door and he went out through it, joining his companions out in the corridor. There was something so irrepressible about him, and even though he annoyed her most of all of the three, she couldn't help being fond of him as well. "Be careful, okay?"
"For you, anything." He seemed about to blow her a kiss, but Ice caught his arm before he could do so, forcibly leading him away. Kowalski had to smile. The expression faltered, though, when the threesome walked away, and once they had vanished it faded completely. All she could do now was to hope that she hadn't just seen the last of her friends.
"You let them go?" O'Connor had never been likely to approve of the latest development, but even so Kowalski was surprised at the level of his incredulity. Over the last few months he had apparently become almost accustomed to the presence in his team of the three con-men, and she had been under the impression that he no longer minded them quite so much. Perhaps that had been a slightly optimistic view on her part, but it had seemed that icy fronts had been thawing. This, however, was a complete return to his behaviour early in the experiment, when Ice, Charlie and Alphonse had first stepped off the plane from New York, and O'Connor had had to accept that they weren't going back any time soon. He looked livid. Trying to remember why she had decided to keep him informed, she took a deep breath.
"Agent Kowalski, those three men are under our care. They are criminals, fulfilling the strict criteria of their terms of parole. They are not supposed to be sent off to do what they like, without any form of supervision. They could do anything!"
"They're not going to sir. They each have more than twenty years in prison hanging over their heads, and that'll double if they try to escape. They know that, and there's no way that they're going to take that risk."
"And you don't think that it might be a temptation, since you've just given them permission to go out there and probably try to trick Felton into paying them off? They could wind up with hundreds of thousands of dollars in their pockets, and you still think that they'll come back here, hand that over, and go on as before? It hasn't even crossed your mind that they might prefer to keep it? Maybe try for South America?"
"I can't see any of them living in South America, sir. Ice needs to see at least one skyscraper every morning or he feels homesick, and you'd never get Charlie living somewhere where there's no electricity supply for his computers."
"You really believe that do you?" He did look a little mollified, as though her own confidence had restored a little of his. "But if you're going to use this to bring Felton down, you're going to need to trust them completely. Will they hand over any money that he gives them in bribes?"
"Yes." She answered with all the confidence that she would have displayed had he asked about the honesty of one of her more conventional FBI colleagues, even though, were she to be brutally honest, this was one point that she was not sure of. Ice would tell he the truth, that much she did believe - but she would double check anything that Alphonse handed over. O'Connor didn't seem to notice her minor misgivings, and merely offered her a brief, grudging nod.
"Alright. I won't get in your way, and I won't call a halt to this. But if anything goes wrong, Chris - it's your head that's going to roll."
"Don't I know it." She had thought that many times, especially when she had first been assigned the three parolees. At the time she had been sure that it would mean the end of her career, but so far they had done her reputation nothing but good, raising her profile within the FBI, and increasing the average number of closed cases amongst her file load.
"I'm glad you're aware of the situation." O'Connor regarded her with his canny eyes, and she wondered what was going on in his mind. He did, after all, have the power to call an end to all of this, and have her three unorthodox friends shipped straight back to prison. She didn't think that he would do that though. Not now, when they had been together long enough to get to know one another. "I've gotta tell you, Chris; if it was me, I wouldn't trust them this much. I wouldn't let them out of my sight."
"Well I do trust them." She felt a little belligerent, if only because his words were beginning to make her doubt her own convictions. He nodded.
"Good. Very good. And for your sake, I hope you're not making a mistake." He waved one hand at the door, and taking that as a dismissal, she wandered back out of his office. Great. Now she was beginning to believe that she might really have made a mistake. Was it too late to call the others back? To tell them that there had been a change of plan, and that she no longer really believed that Ice's plan could work? She shook her head, angry that she had allowed O'Connor to undermine her confidence. Of course she trusted the guys. How could she not? On the other hand, a little voice inside her was saying, why did she trust them? What exactly was there about these three con-men, renowned for their ability to make others believe in them, that made her so certain they really would return? It wasn't as if she had really got to know them, and they remained just as big a mystery now as they had been on that first day, when they had arrived from New York and been dumped into her care. Charlie in particular confused her. He was intelligent - so very, very intelligent that she could understand why a normal life wouldn't have appealed to him. He needed challenges, but why had crime been such a perfect answer? Certainly he got plenty of chances to test himself, getting the thrills that even somebody as phenomenally nervous as he was required every so often - and of course he got to indulge his almost puppy-like devotion to all things bearing microchips, keyboards and modems. On a more basic level, though, he really wasn't the criminal type at all. Most of the time he seemed almost entirely honest, and his general conduct was certainly not that of a man with several prison sentences behind him. That might all have been an act of course, but she wasn't convinced. Charlie just wasn't a criminal, even though that seemed to be his chosen profession. Presumably the judge had shared her views, given that of the three of them his sentence had been the shortest. He had been slated for release in August 2013, some years before the others. Those innocent eyes and good manners were a formidable weapon of course - Chrissy had fallen victim to them herself more than once.
Ice was a little easier to figure out. Although he came from a good background, he had been raised in a tough neighbourhood - and goodness knew enough people from places like that turned to crime. Whether it was an acceptable excuse or not, it certainly happened often, and Ice was too unconventional to have taken a nine-to-five job anyway. On the other hand he had otherwise always been respectable, if not as much so as Charlie. A God-fearing mother, according to the files; no records of juvenile offences or other trouble before his first jail sentence, when he was already in his twenties. A sister, married to a respected man with a good job. There was no indication in any of that as to why Ice had turned out the way he had. Perhaps he was simply one of the many kids from the poor side of town who had got sick of seeing how the other half lived, and wanted a piece of it for himself. He didn't act that way though. Usually that type of criminal was bitter, and Ice certainly wasn't. He was polite, generally well-spoken, and certainly honourable. There didn't seem to be anything bad about him at all, save for the list of crimes she could almost believe he had not really committed - not counting those moments when he was using his remarkable talents to con her as easily as he had once conned his victims. It was just as though, like Charlie, he had fancied a challenge that he had been unable to find elsewhere, and which he had eventually found in a life of crime. Either that or there was something in his past that wasn't mentioned in the files.
Alphonse she did understand, or thought that she did. It was a familiar enough story in her line of work, if not exactly an explanation in itself. A father who had run off before Alphonse had even been born, a mother no longer able to cope, and a succession of foster homes and care institutions that rarely made it possible for him to remain with his brothers and sisters. Add a string of juvenile offences, plus time in prison for car theft before he had even finished high school, and you had the childhood of half of the criminals she had dealt with in her career. He was certainly a more recognisably criminal type than his friends, and flaunted his skills much more readily than did they. He was the most light-fingered of the three, had the most explosive temper, and was the one who tried to con her most regularly, and yet still there was something amiable about him. She certainly trusted him more than she would have done any of the other, apparently similar types, that she had come across over the years. She could say the same of all three of them; and that, perhaps, was why she trusted them all. Most of the time. Needless to say the rest of the department didn't feel the same way - and right now Chrissy's main hope was that this wouldn't be the case where everybody else's suspicions were the ones to be confirmed. With a bitter smile, she draged out Felton's file and began to go through it yet again. This was one case that she was really going to be glad to see closed.
Jackson Felton was enjoying a moment of extreme self-satisfaction after his triumph that morning. Finding out about the plant, and thereby ruining somebody's carefully set up operation had made him feel good about himself, and he was going to enjoy the memory for some time to come. He had decided that it would take the authorities probably as much as a further month before they were able to move against him again, and that reasoning filled him with confidence. It would give him a little time to move some of his assets, rearrange a few little details, and update his more important clients. By the time the authorities had camped themselves outside his door again, and were once more trying their sneaky backdoor information gathering techniques, he felt sure that he would have secured everything against them.
It was with some surprise that he noticed the three men walking up his garden path, strolling casually along the wide, white strip of gravel between the neatly sculpted bushes that were his gardener's pride and joy. One of them in particular looked familiar, but it wasn't until they were all a little closer that Felton recognised him as the man who had pretended to be Josef Braun. His hackles rose, but the expression on his face didn't change.
They were a motley bunch; that was the first thought that crossed his mind, even before he began wondering what he should do about them. The one in the middle, who walked perhaps a fraction of a pace in front of the other two, appeared to be some kind of leader. He was the tallest of the three, with a build that suggested great hardness and strength, but which also gave him the sort of lanky, athletic look of a basketball player. He was black, although so pale that so broad a classification barely passed muster, with close-cropped hair, a determined, serious expression, and an obvious fondness for expensive clothing. Felton didn't have a clue who he was, but he felt a grudging respect for the man. He had a strength of character that showed itself even in the way he squared his shoulders.
The man on his left was a different matter, although it would be charitable, of course, to remember that appearances could be deceiving. Felton wasn't usually the charitable sort, but he felt sure that there was something about all of these three men that could be very deceiving indeed. This second of the men was a little smaller than the first, with the appearance more of a man of books than one of action. He was of the type who looked younger than his years, and perhaps rather more innocent than was entirely feasible for a man of his age. That was an image that was projected even to his clothes, which, in the form of an open-necked sports shirt and a pair of well cut slacks, made him look almost as though he had been dressed that morning by his mother. Only something indefinable in his stride prevented Felton from dismissing him altogether.
The third man, the one on the right, was different again. Felton was familiar with him of course, for his ill-fated, if audacious, attempt to pretend to be a German gangster earlier in the day. He had the look about him of somebody used to being audacious somehow; something about his very poise that threw a challenge at the world. He was of a similar height to the other two; perhaps was a fraction shorter than the first man; but had a stronger, more bulky build than either. Possessed of looks almost delicate enough to be described as feminine prettiness rather than masculine handsomeness, but toughened by an undeniable inner strength, he looked as though he were incapable of taking anything seriously. Felton didn't like him, and suspected that he wouldn't be much more enamoured of his two friends, either. He knew that they were something to do with the FBI - had to be, although his informant at the local newspaper had told him that they weren't actually agents. What could they want here and now?
"He's watching us." Charlie, as usual, sounded nervous. Ice, equally usually, did not.
"I know. We want him to see us, Charlie. This isn't a sneak job."
"I know, I know." Straightening his collar the smaller man tried to look cool, but failed dismally in the shade of the far cooler Ice. "I just don't like going up to his front door like this, that's all. It all feels just a little bit risky."
"Would you rather we used the service entrance?" Alphonse nodded at a second, smaller door, set further along the wall. There were a couple of bottles of milk standing by the step just beside it, and they were proving a great temptation. Ice elbowed him in the ribs.
"Did I touch them?" Alphonse managed to look affronted, even though he was far from innocent. Ice glared at him.
"Somebody's coming. Just try to remember that the three of us are supposed to be experts here, okay? You haven't been out of the game that long."
"Hey, have we ever let you down?" It was Charlie's turn to appear affronted. Ice might have been planning to deliver a suitably irritable riposte, but was silenced by the opening of the door. A very heavily-built man crammed inefficiently into an expensive suit stood two steps above them, his features composed in the expression of superior disinterest shared by butlers across two centuries and at least as many continents. Unpleasant eyes flickered over all three men, seeing all and letting nothing slip.
"Yes?" He had the butler's voice down pat as well, although he couldn't have looked less like Jeeves if he had been trying. "Deliveries to the other door please."
"This isn't a delivery, man." Ice eyed him from the ankles upwards, and decided that this was one man not to try to fight unless things were really desperate. "We're here to see Jackson Felton. It's important business."
"Is he expecting you?" The voice was no longer quite so polite, nor quite so typically butlerish, but Ice didn't let the building animosity worry him. Things were unlikely to get unpleasant all that quickly. He had dealt with enough situations like this to be a fairly good judge.
"No." He folded his arms, making it quite clear that he was not intending to go anywhere except into the house. "But I think he'll want to see us anyway. It's definitely in his interest to."
"In my interest?" Appearing around the door jamb as though he had been skulking there for some time, Felton looked down at the three new arrivals from the vantage point of height offered to him by the doorsteps. "How do you figure that out exactly? I could have all three of you kicked off my property, and nobody could touch me for it. Police or not, you're still not allowed on my property without a warrant."
"We're not the police, Mr Felton." Despite his usual jokey mood, Alphonse had slipped into smooth professionalism with just as much ease as had Ice. "As a matter of fact that's part of the reason why we're here. We only work with the FBI when they need our special input on cases. Believe it or not we don't actually have any choice."
"Oh?" Felton could not have sounded less interested, and the butler's belligerence did not abate. Charlie managed a shiver, looking irritated and upset all at once.
"Choice. When did we ever have any choice? They think they can push us around, just because we don't have any legal rights or whatever. Getting us to do their dirty work, whenever they feel like getting some easy credit. Man, you wouldn't believe the way we get treated sometimes."
"I wouldn't, huh." Perplexity had replaced a little of Felton's displeasure, but he made no move to allow the threesome into his house. "Just what is this?"
"A business deal, Mr Felton." Ice had acquired a new force to his tone, adding a little of the street hood, and taking away a corresponding amount of educated refinement. The result was a hundred and one of the people he had spent time in prison with, and it suited his current needs perfectly. "We figure you need something from us, and there's something we want from you."
"Yeah." Alphonse nodded, one of his best smiles lending his face the look of a man on the prowl. "We hear you've been having some problems lately, Mr Felton. Shipments getting discovered by the feds, trusted associates being arrested. The FBI are closing in, and you know it."
"All that I know, 'Herr Braun', is that three men I have no desire to talk to are currently standing on my lawn. You give me one reason why I shouldn't have Leo here drag you all out onto the road?"
"Josef Braun is exactly the point, isn't he." Alphonse's smile had lost its predatory edge, and was now extremely good-humoured. This couldn't have been easier if they had all been following a pre-prepared speech. In many ways, of course, they were, for with the exception of Felton's part, this was a play that they had all performed before. "Don't you find yourself wondering just what he's told the police? He's been in custody some time now you know. The authorities have him just where they want him, and he's spilling the beans like there's no end to them. Much longer and there isn't going to be a dealer in the whole of California that he hasn't dropped right into the FBI's lap. And we all know who's top of their list, right?"
"Supposing there was something that I had to hide from the authorities, what makes you think that a man like Braun would know what it was?" Felton's eyes flicked from one to the other of his guests. "What makes you think that anybody is in a position to inform on me and my organisation?"
"Somebody must, given what the FBI already knows about you, man." Ice folded his arms, using his hard, business-only approach to neatly wrap up Alphonse's smooth spiel. "We figure you've got a lot to lose here, and we're standing to lose a fair bit ourselves. All we want is a chance to talk to you."
"Yeah." Charlie glanced about, letting his eyes dart from one end of the noticeably empty garden to the other. "And if we're gonna be talking, can we do it inside? I can feel eyes staring at the back of my head when I'm standing out here."
"Nobody's watching the house." All the same, Felton looked like he was ready to give them entry. His sharp eyes were still travelling from one to the other of them, showing distaste every time they landed on the jumpy Charlie, suspicion every time they hit Alphonse, and unpleasant neutrality whenever he was looking at Ice. It made it hard to read his thoughts, but the eyes gave away other things instead.
"We're telling you the truth, man." Alphonse had swelled out his chest, looking as confident and swaggering as he could, like any one of the brash criminals he had had dealings with in the past. It was the sort of character that people like Felton were more likely to trust, for they presented an essentially brainless image to the world, and did not appear to be the kind with hidden depths. With Charlie's ultra-nervousness and Ice's hard man act, the three of them didn't look as though they would be much of a danger to anybody. Felton hesitated for only a moment.
"Let them in, Leo." He stood aside, waiting for his mammoth of a butler to do likewise. "I'll give them a few minutes."
"A few minutes, sir." The butler stepped away from the door with a stride bigger than half a dozen of most people's paces. "Any longer?"
"If I'm not impressed by what they have to say, you can do what you want with them approximately three and a half minutes from now." Felton turned a charming, businessman's smile on to the three con-men. "I think that sounds fair enough, don't you, gentlemen? Three and a half minutes ought to be time enough."
"Depends on whether or not the clock's already started." Striding over the threshold, Ice looked about at the hall beyond. It was decorated in the sort of style beloved of so many rich people who possessed no real sense of taste. Expensive pieces of furniture looked out of place beside newer, fashionable pieces, and the seasoned, dark woods of the old clashed with the often gaudy materials of the new. The pictures that lined the walls were mostly photographs of Felton, generally in outdoorsy settings, all framed in glossy black.
"Hey, nice place." Alphonse looked around like an enthusiastic potential buyer. "Great furniture."
"It's lousy furniture. My wife did the decorating." Felton folded his arms, looking expectantly around at them all. "And your time is running out."
"Great. We're already out of time." Charlie looked at the closing door with obviously unhappy eyes. "Story of my life."
"Shut up Charlie." Ice took a measured breath, still in character, always aware of the passing time. "See, it's like this, man. The FBI, they own us. We've got no choice but to work for them, or we go back inside. Fifty years a piece if we're lucky. We got hit for some lousy murder charge, 'cause the stuff we were selling turned out to be contaminated. I mean, is that our fault? People buy the stuff, they know they're taking a risk, right?" He shook his head. "Anyway, now the FBI uses us to trap other dealers. They think we've got the inside line, so we'll get the job done, but they treat us like dirt, and we're sick of it. We figure we'd be doing a whole lot better if we make a break for it, and try to set ourselves up some place else."
"And what's that got to do with me?" Felton was standing beside his butler again, both of them between the three guests and the door. He looked odd and angular beside the massive manservant, but the coldheartedness of his general demeanour lent him something that negated any deficiency he might have in the area of physical strength. Ice didn't like the man, and knew that the instinctive reaction had nothing to do with his knowledge of his criminal record.
"We know what the FBI knows. We know what they've got on you, and what they're planning to do with it. We also know a lot more than that - like things that the FBI wants to know, and is trying to find out. We could send you down, man. Way down."
"You think you have information about me that the FBI could use?" Felton sounded distinctly unconvinced. "Such as?"
"Such as everything Braun told me when I was researching how to pretend to be him." Alphonse had begun to move around the hallway, using an amplified swagger calculated to annoy the hell out of his target. If he could make Felton even more irritated that he was already, Ice's side of the argument was certain to have more impact. They had learned that some time before, doing other cons, in other places, and jackson Felton was no different to any of those other marks.
"Braun doesn't know anything." There was enough discomfort in Felton's eyes to show that the German crook might actually know rather a lot, but nobody showed any sign that they had noticed that slip. "Nobody knows anything."
"If that's true, man, then how come the FBI have just got warrants sworn out to search just about every building they can prove belongs to you?" Ice let the right amount of belligerence into his voice, playing it confrontational, whilst still retaining some of his cool. Charlie wiped imaginary sweat from the palms of his hands, and hurried to the nearest, lace-curtained window.
"Yeah, and they could be coming here any minute. Do you know what we're risking by coming here? Huh? We get found here with you, without there being a reason for it, and we'll be back in the slammer so fast you won't even be able to see us moving. I'm not going back in to do some fifty year stretch just for killing a few drug addicts."
"Am I really supposed to care about your problems?" If Felton was worried about this talk of the FBI searching his properties, he was well able to keep such concerns to himself. "Now if you've come here hoping to get something from me, you're going to be disappointed. I've got nothing to hide from anybody."
"Everybody's got something they want hidden." Ice spoke it as a challenge, but it was one that went unanswered. "Believe me, you don't want us going to the FBI with what we know."
"You'd have to be crazy to take a risk like that." Alphonse moved in to take up the slack, neatly picking up the threads of Ice's insinuations. "All we're asking is a little fee. Say... one hundred thousand dollars apiece. It isn't much, against what you could be losing."
"Not much at all." Charlie grinned his freshest, most innocent grin, whilst his eyes still darted nervously towards the window. "When you think about the trouble we're going to, and how it could go for us with the feds - and about the trouble we're saving you."
"But like I said." Felton fixed coolly appraising eyes upon him, and smirked as though at some private joke. "You can make all the threats you want, but I won't pay you a penny. None of you. Now I'd suggest that you get out of my house, before I ask Leo here to remove you."
"You're making a big mistake, Felton." Despite his usually placid nature, Ice was very good at acting like a thug. Felton was unmoved by the display of threatening behaviour however, and his expression did not so much as waver. Still he looked uncaring, and decidedly unmoved.
"I don't make mistakes. Now get out of here, before I forget my good manners." He turned around, spinning neatly on a narrow heel. "I don't want to see a single one of you again."
"Don't say we didn't try to help you, when you're sitting in a prison cell starting a life sentence!" Charlie's excitable shout echoed in the hallway, despite the lack of suitable acoustics. Felton didn't even flinch.
"You'd better go." Leo was heaving open the door, his massive frame straining the material of the suit as he bent to his task. Ice shot his two companions a searching glance.
"Sure." His tone was casual, that of a man who didn't care anything for the riches he had just been denied. "We're going."
"And if you need a job when your boss gets taken away..." Alphonse flashed one of his showier grins. "Don't bother coming to us."
"Yeah, great Alphonse. It's always a good idea to get on the wrong side of the biggest guy you can find." Giving the bulging butler as wide a berth as he could, Charlie went out of the door and back out onto the white gravel path. It seemed darker outside now than before, even though just a little time had passed by since he had last been out of doors. They stood there together, in a loose, falsely casual group, until the door had slammed shut behind them. Alphonse let out a sigh of relief.
"Don't get too relaxed." Ice's voice was quiet, but firm with the tones of warning. "Somebody's sure to be watching."
"Aren't they always?" Even though he no longer had to act the part of the paranoid member of the group, still Charlie seemed to be relishing his rôle. He rather gave the impression that he had hardly been acting at all.
"So what did you think?" Striding away down the path, Alphonse kept pace with the fast steps of Ice. Charlie wandered behind almost like a child unable to keep up with its parents, although he was listening to the conversation with his usual intense scrutiny.
"He's a tough nut." Ice might have shrugged, but he was not usually given to such indecisive actions. "Either he's telling the truth about having nothing to hide, or he's certain that nobody's going to find whatever evidence there is against him. I sure hope Chrissy's feeling patient."
"She's not going to haul us in." Alphonse looked back at the house, wondering how many eyes were watching through the many windows. Not that many, at a guess. Felton wasn't the sort of person to have many close associates. That at least was one point in favour of the unconventional trio set against him. "She trusts us enough to let us play this through, right?"
"Yeah." Ice nodded hard, his own faith in their supervisor rather more strong than her own faith usually was in them. "So we're not in any immediate hurry. What's our next move gonna be?"
"We may not be in any hurry, but we shouldn't let things get slack all the same." Charlie caught up with them at last, drawing level as he spoke. "You know what the feds are like. They don't like hanging around. They're not going to wait for us to finish up here if they think we're taking too long. Whether they trust us or not, they're going to get restless sooner rather than later - and then they'll make their move and ruin everything before we've even got started. Remember how big an operation this is. It's not just Chrissy that we're working with this time."
"Yeah, I know." Ice wandered along in silence for a few moments, remaining that way until they had left the white gravel path behind them, and were once again out on the road. The large, sleek van they often used for their FBI work awaited them, and Alphonse practised a few simple sleight of hand tricks with the keys whilst he waited for Ice to speak whatever was on his mind. Both he and Charlie had learned long ago not to interrupt when their companion was thinking, and they both knew that he would break his silence readily enough when he had worked everything out in his mind.
"Felton thinks he's got nothing to fear from the FBI, right?" Climbing up into the passenger seat of the van, Ice stared thoughtfully at Alphonse, who was clambering into the driver's side of the cab. Charlie settled himself in the back, between the two front seats.
"Right." It was him who answered. Alphonse started the engine and gave a terse nod.
"Sure. He's obviously got everything all figured out. His kind often do." The engine roared a little more loudly than he had intended, and he let it settle again before he pulled away from the kerb. "So what do we do? Try to find some of this damning evidence that he's so sure doesn't exist, or trick him into revealing it himself? "
"He's not going to be easy to con." Charlie was clearly enjoying being pessimistic, which was probably why he spent so much of his time being that way.
"We don't have to con him necessarily." Ice was relaxing back into his seat, staring out of the windscreen as Alphonse began to drive the van away down the road. "We only have to get to him. Let him know we could be a threat to him. He doesn't even have to believe that we really do have the information that the FBI is after, just as long as we can be as much of a nuisance to him as it's possible to be."
"Great. Are you trying to get him mad enough to kill us?" Distinctly unimpressed with Ice's plans, Charlie sank back into his seat with his arms folded across his chest. He looked petulant, which along with pessimistic was one of his favourite expressions. Alphonse smiled into the rear-view mirror.
"Hey, it'll be a piece of cake. We get him mad, he comes after us, we get the whole thing on tape."
"Which will be so much use to us once we're dead." Charlie shook his head. "Sometimes I think I'm the only one around here with any brains. Think about this, guys."
"We are thinking about it Charlie." Ice shook his head, vexed and amused. "And we're not planning on getting killed. It might not even go so far as him threatening that. Maybe he'll just try to pay us off. Either way, we'll have an opening, and maybe then we can get him to talk to us. It's worked before."
"I guess." Charlie didn't like the plan, but wasn't going to do anything to prevent it from going ahead. Like many of the plans that the threesome had worked out and carried through together, it seemed insane to him in the planning stages. Most of the time Ice and Alphonse seemed to carry things through on a wing and a prayer, whilst he tried in vain to stop them being quite so reckless. It had become a habit, just as much as it had become a habit of theirs to ignore him when he got too insistent.
"We should call in." Pulling the van back out onto the main road, Alphonse performed his usual check in the mirrors for signs of pursuit. Ice, who had been doing the same for most of their brief journey, nodded his assent.
"Chrissy will be wondering where we've got to."
"And so will O'Connor." Reaching for the mobile, Charlie couldn't resist putting in this additional shot at what he considered to be his companions' inability to take anything seriously. "When we get back we'll be lucky if he doesn't have us all fitted with electronic tags."
"Charlie..." Ice held out his hand for the 'phone, ignoring his partner's nervous act. He had known Charlie too long, and knew him too well, to really take the performance seriously.
"I just want to make it clear that I don't like this plan." Having handed the mobile over, Charlie once again slumped back into his seat. Ice and Alphonse shared a grin.
"Yeah, I think we got that, Charlie." Pulling the van over to the side of the road, Alphonse brought it to a halt. Ice switched on the little telephone and set it to dial a stored number.
"Huh." Charlie was scowling, although without much conviction. "It's not easy being the only member of this team with any sense, you know."
"Charlie..." Ice glanced back at him, a long-suffering expression adding a smirk to his eyes. "Shut up."
"Ice?" Christine Kowalski was alone in the office, which was something she was not used to. Usually she was surrounded by noise when she was at work, whether from the other agents milling about the place, or just because of the three con-men arguing amongst themselves. Today, though, she had been left alone there. Everybody else had gone home, and only a stray cleaner still roamed the place, out of sight now, working silently.
"Hey Chris." His honest fondness for her sounded clearly in his voice. "You're working late."
"I was waiting for the call." She relaxed a little, suddenly realising for the first time just how tense she had been. He laughed gently.
"I could always have called you at home. I was going to try there first, but I figured I'd give the office a ring first."
"You don't know my home number." She didn't know why she said that, for she knew straight away that he must. Of course he knew - they had probably found out that information as soon as they had found out her name, back when the New York office had made the decision to transfer them to the Los Angeles branch. It was the kind of thing they did. Scowling at the faint chuckle that she could hear at the other end of the line, she shook her head and tried to sound businesslike and stern.
"What have you found out? Anything?"
"Felton's got a flash house, and a butler that could probably win the strongest man in the world competition without breaking a sweat." He said it as though it was the kind of information that she was after. "Other than that, no. We made contact though, and I think we got to him. Now all we have to do is keep on pressing. Chip away at him and see what falls off."
"It doesn't sound very safe." She didn't like the plan any more now than she had when it had first been discussed. Ice laughed.
"Now you're starting to talk like Charlie. It'll be fine. What can go wrong?"
Charlie rolled his eyes. "Anything, now you've gone and said that. Why'd you have to go and say that?"
"Charlie..." Alphonse waved his hand at the phone, trying to silence Charlie and catch Ice's attention. "Hey, is she really worried about us?"
Ice quirked an eyebrow. "Alphonse wants to know if you're really worried about us."
"Oh." Smiling despite her nagging concerns, she raised her voice a little, trying to be sure that the incorrigible flirt would hear her. "Of course I'm worried, Ice. About you and Charlie..." The laugh she heard told her that Ice appreciated the joke, and she could imagine the sulky look in Alphonse's oh-so-expressive face. She felt a bit bad about teasing him, given how dangerous she was still convinced that their task would be; and yet somehow it came so naturally, as a reaction to the devil may care attitude that Ice apparently couldn't help but display.
"I heard that." Alphonse's voice echoed tinnily in her ear, sounding less melodious than usual over the telephone's inefficient speaker. She couldn't hold back a small laugh, but it died quickly.
"You will be careful, won't you Ice." Her tone made it clear that she was being serious this time, although she didn't really expect a similar sort of gravity in the answer. Sure enough, Ice still sounded as though concern of any sort was far from his mind.
"Sure, Chris. Don't worry about us. Now we'll call again later, okay?"
"Okay. Any time, it doesn't matter. And if you need anything..."
"We'll get right on the 'phone. Sure." He smiled fondly, wondering at the same time just how he had come to be so close, so soon, to a law enforcement agent. They had been the enemy for most of his adult life, and yet he had never thought of Christine as anything other than a friend. "Goodnight Chris. Speak to you soon." He hung up, before she could tell him once again to be careful, or try once again to make them give up this plan. He appreciated her concern, and liked to know that she was worried about them, but he had chosen his course of action and didn't like being told to change it. FBI or no, Ice was still in charge of himself, and liked to be the one to decide what he did. He knew that his method was far more inclined to succeed at taking Felton down than anything the authorities were likely to try, and that only added to his determination. Chrissy was just going to have to live with that.
"What did she say?" Gunning the engine once again, Alphonse guided them back out onto the road. Ice grinned lazily.
"That she doesn't like what we're doing."
"That makes two of us." Charlie's interjection was entirely expected. Ice threw the mobile at him.
"She's also worried about us, and wants us to be careful." The threesome's ice-cool leader stretched out in his seat, staring through the windscreen with a gleam in his eye. It was nice to be worried about, especially when it was by somebody other than his own, generally disapproving, sister.
"We're always careful." Alphonse's driving style had become noticeably more jaunty. "But it's nice to know she cares. See, I said she did. She always pulls that ice queen rubbish, but I can see it in her eyes. She's crazy about me."
"Whatever you say, man." It definitely wasn't worth arguing with Alphonse when he was dreaming of beautiful women, so Ice didn't try. "Now can't this thing go any faster? It'll be getting dark before much longer, and we ought to find some place where we can spend the night. We probably shouldn't go home."
"Yeah. Ought to find somewhere anonymous." Alphonse turned the steering wheel, pointing the van towards the seedier side of town. It wouldn't be difficult to find a place, for even though he was not a native of LA, he knew more or less where to start looking. Any city in the world was the same in that respect, with its darker corners, its secret refuges, and its places where anybody could disappear. As somebody who had been making use of such places, albeit on the other side of the country, since the rather misspent years of his youth, Alphonse knew almost instinctively where to find them. He knew the kinds of streets to look out for, and the kind of buildings most suited to their purpose. Ice trusted him to find somewhere, and closing his eyes the little team's leader turned his thoughts towards the work ahead. Behind him he could hear Charlie tinkering with the miniaturised listening devices that they had used in so many of their operations in the past. He was modifying them again, trying, as ever, to improve their range and sensitivity. It was an annoying noise for some; a persistent, high-pitched scratching that continued without a break. For Ice it was a comfortably familiar sound, and one that spoke of the excitement of a new con being set in motion. It spoke of heightened nerves and gathering tension; of adrenalin, and the challenge of keeping the different threads of the job from tangling. It helped him to think. Beside him, so faint that it hardly compromised the sounds of Charlie's work, Alphonse had begun to sing. Ice didn't recognise the song, but it sounded old; a faint musical whispering that, once again, might have been distracting for anybody else. Ice merely relaxed further, letting the noise of his two companions ease him into his thoughts. So familiar was it all, that he could easily forget how much had changed. Their arrest, the trial, the long, long sentences imposed by a judge determined never to be sympathetic; the time in prison, the arrival of the FBI, the parole under such peculiar circumstances; he might just as well still be back in the old days, before any of that, doing the same old scams with his two closest friends. A faint smile played across his face. It was all so different now; all for such different motives; but he felt so footloose and carefree that it might just as well have been another time and place altogether. The first time maybe, when he and the other two had first been together like this. They had made a drug dealer their mark then too, he remembered. A diminutive, middle-aged peddler with bad breath, known on the streets simply as Turk, who had contributed to the threesome's rainy day fund to the tune of twenty-five thousand dollars - most of which Ice vaguely remembered blowing on a large party designed to celebrate such a success. It seemed a shame that they couldn't put the squeeze on Felton for the same kind of money. Going (reasonably) straight rather diminished the fun quotient of times like this. Maybe that was what made remembering so much more enjoyable than it had once been. Ice's smile levelled out, too cool to crank itself up by another notch. Plans were beginning to take real shape inside his head, lining themselves up into steps on the way to victory. It was all coming together nicely, and he nodded his head in satisfaction. Reminiscing about the good old days never failed to help him plan ahead.
Old Turk - Ice had never discovered his real name, even after he had successfully relieved the poor fellow of his earnings - had become a target after his name had arisen so many times in discussions in the prison canteen. Ice had been inside doing six months of a sentence administered as punishment for a minor incident involving a would-be film producer, and had heard Turk's name often enough to raise his interest. He had discussed the possibilities with his newest friend, a nervy, permanently tense man of about his own age, who had been foisted upon him as a very unwilling cell mate. Ice had known that it had been Charlie's first time inside the moment that he had first seen him, being hurried along by the guards whilst complaining bitterly that his uniform wasn't tailored properly, and that he was sure he was supposed to be getting his own room. Hadn't anybody been told that he couldn't possibly share a room with anybody? Just who was in charge of room allocations anyway? Ice had found the other man rather entertaining, particularly when he had realised that Charlie was nearly as talented a con-man as he was himself. His blustering act with the guards had made them all relax in his presence, certain that he was too much of a fool to cause them any trouble; an act of gross underestimation on their part which had been very useful in the months to follow. That the guards had been wrong in their estimate of him had been obvious, if not in his earliest conversations with Ice, then certainly during their later discussions about the highly promising Turk. Half of their fellow inmates seemed to have some business with the dealer, and knew how he worked and what he could be counted upon to be worth; what his weaknesses were, and which were the best ways to gain his confidence. Charlie had been full of ideas, most of which seemed to involve pieces of high-tech equipment that Ice had never heard of before, as well as seemingly incomprehensible, and unnecessarily complicated, procedures involving computers. Ice had been fascinated, and had thrown himself into the new project with gusto. After that almost everything had fallen into place, awaiting only the unexpected arrival of Alphonse to complete their efficient little band.
They had been in the second month of their time together when a recreation period had been broken up by the sounds of a fight emanating from one of the washrooms. Everybody else had been studiously avoiding it, which was one of the reasons why Ice had headed in the opposite direction, and had gone to find out what was happening. With Charlie complaining loudly, though of course never once leaving his side, he had found his way to the source of the noise and discovered remarkable mayhem. Five men, four of them clearly ranged together against the fifth, were fighting a battle of impressive proportions involving most of the washroom's battered furnishings and a copious amount of ice-cold water. The result - five very bruised, soggy and slippery convicts - was something halfway between Raging Bull and The Keystone Cops. Ice hadn't been entirely certain whether he should be laughing or fearing for somebody's life, but having been well acquainted with the foursome forming one side of the ill-matched contest, he had decided to throw amusement aside and intervene on the behalf of the fifth contender. A well-built, athletic looking individual, this fifth man had fallen into a rhythm alongside Ice that might have been the result of years of synchronised rehearsal, and involving him later - when they had cleaned up and got dry and dodged the over-eager guards searching for anybody connected with the fight - in the discussions about Turk had seemed the natural thing to do. Charlie had worried about whether or not he was trustworthy, Alphonse had muttered about Charlie being more nervous than any human being had a right to be, and thus they had squabbled for the remainder of their sentences. They had been friends ever since, even though the squabbles still continued. Ice still wasn't entirely sure how they had found the time between arguments to make that much planned strike on poor Turk.
He had been an easy target, all things considered. Ice, done up in Armani and bedecked with gold and diamonds, had pretended to be interested in buying out Turk's interests in the drug peddling business; a hostile take-over if necessary. He had laid it on thick, acting up the part of thug turned entrepreneur with the sort of enthusiasm that he always liked to bring to a rôle. Turk, terrified, had fallen for the performance, and when Ice had started getting physical, Turk had been so grateful towards the total stranger who had turned up out of nowhere to save him from his attacker that he had practically fallen to his knees. Alphonse, sporting the ratty clothes of a man who had been living rough for some time, and adopting an accent that suggested he was rather closer to his Latino roots than was entirely the case, had 'beaten off' Ice, saved the day, and found himself offered the job of bodyguard to an increasingly panicked Turk. He had accepted, and the following day, cleaned up, shaved, and now dressed in a designer suit courtesy of his new employer, had accompanied Turk and his business takings on a trip to the local money launderer. The money, predictably enough, had never arrived; although Turk eventually did, six hours late and claiming that all the hordes of hell had risen against him. The 'hordes of hell', being Ice, Alphonse and Charlie, had by that time been merrily living it up at a bar less than ten blocks away, doing an excellent job of losing almost every dollar they had so recently acquired. Ice didn't think he would ever forget that night, with its sense of excitement and glee, the happiness of realising that he had found himself a remarkable team, and the sheer, unadulterated joy of eight straight hours of something very close to debauchery. He remembered the taste of unfamiliarly strong wine; the sound of Charlie, drunk for perhaps the first time, attempting to sing Yankee Doodle with his head in an ice bucket - why exactly Ice had never found out, but he had an idea that it had had something to do with Alphonse; and Alphonse himself, commandeering half of the dance floor to give tango lessons to anything female he could get close enough to. By the end it had looked more like the lambada than the tango, but the girls certainly hadn't been complaining. Good days. His lazy smile hung motionless at the pleasant recollections.
"You still in there Ice?" Alphonse had stopped singing some time ago, although Ice hadn't been aware of it. He glanced up, stirred from his thoughts by the voice of his friend.
"You looked well out of it, man." Alphonse was pulling the van into a parking space - or more accurately the one piece of ground in sight that didn't have anything dumped on it - outside a lopsided building coated in slime. Ice laughed.
"I was just thinking."
"About the old days." The van braked, and Charlie squeaked in protest as whatever he was working on wobbled in his hands.
"Yeah." Ice waited until the engine had stopped, taking a second to enjoy the half-silence. In a place like this, far from the main roads, the lack of noise was as complete as it would ever be in a city, and the muted effect sounded peculiar. "Are you tempted to just squeeze Felton for whatever we can get, and then never report back in to Kowalski?"
"Hey, come on, man." Alphonse flashed him one of his typically charming grins. "This is me you're talking to, remember? I'm always tempted."
"I'm not." Charlie didn't sound as though he was being one hundred percent honest, but he seemed earnest enough. "If we run out, we'll have every law enforcement agent in the United States looking for us. You don't get away from the FBI, guys."
"We could try." Alphonse was staring out of the side window, thinking who knew what. "We could keep calling in, pretending we're on the case - and by the time Chrissy realises we aren't, we'd be miles away."
"Yeah, and before we could get any further, she'd have our pictures at every police station and FBI office there is. The airports would be looking out for us, they'd have our descriptions at both borders. We wouldn't get anywhere."
"Might be worth it though." Alphonse glanced back at him, clearly enjoying the idea. "Felton's got to be worth a lot of money."
"Enough to make it worth giving up Chrissy?" Ice was only half joking, but then he suspected that Alphonse had been too. The other man flashed him a speculative glance, clearly mulling it over.
"Good." With a satisfied nod, Ice pulled open the door of the van and climbed out onto the cracked tarmac. Unidentifiable puddles clung to his shoe leather, and he wondered if perhaps he wasn't making the wrong choice after all. "Then there's nothing else to talk about, is there."
"Except how we're going to take Felton down." Charlie seemed to have abandoned his grouses and grumbles, as Ice had always known that he would. They had been left behind in whichever place Ice had left his dreams of the past. Alphonse laughed, jumping down from the van, and somehow managing to miss most of the nastiest puddles.
"We don't need to take him down. We just need to put the pressure on, and let him take himself down. All we need to worry about is making it look smooth." He straightened his shirt and smoothed his hair and stood as tall as he could manage. "Gotta make it look good for Chrissy."
"You have a one track mind, 'Phonse." Charlie grabbed up his more sensitive equipment and jumped down to join the others. Needless to say, he didn't miss the puddles, and black goo spattered his trouser legs. He stared down at them, dejected.
"I may have a one track mind, Charlie, but at least I'm not a klutz." Alphonse took the smaller man's bag, and slung it across his shoulder. "And anyway, my mind has at least two tracks."
"Cut it out guys." Ice struck out towards the unhealthy looking building that they were parked beside. "We're supposed to be a team, remember? Whether we're working for ourselves, or for the FBI, or just for Chrissy, or whatever, it would help if we could stop arguing for five minutes."
"That never got in the way before." Charlie stared up at the front of the building that was presumably to be their home for the next few days. "Man, Alphonse. Couldn't you have found somewhere that was a little more structurally sound?"
"Somewhere with room service and a swimming pool maybe?" Alphonse shook his head, pushing open the front door, and ignoring the ominous squeaks and wobbles. "We're under cover, Charlie. Hiding out. Lying low. Remember?"
"And we thought about going back to this sort of thing full time." Charlie shook his head. "We must be nuts. If there's one good thing about working for the FBI, it's that we get to stay away from seedy hideouts. These places always did give me the creeps."
"They give everybody the creeps." Ice threw a fifty dollar bill onto the desk before the sleepy looking clerk, and waited in expectant silence for a key. Nobody asked or offered a name, and there was no sign of a register. The clerk didn't say a word.
"They don't give me the creeps." Alphonse was obviously in one of his high-spirited, chatty moods. "Reminds me of home. The sweet smell of wet rot, the scuffling of cockroaches underneath the floorboards... Interesting stains in the stairwell." He strode up the steps ahead of the others, his customary enthusiasm lending warmth to words that might, from another mouth, have been full of misery. Ice shook his head.
"Man, I always knew you belonged on a junk heap."
"You're only encouraging him, Ice." Charlie was trailing along behind, trying to make sure that he didn't step in any of the suspicious piles of dirt in the corners of each stair. "He's working you, man. It's his little boy lost routine, I've seen it before."
"Shame Chrissy isn't here." Alphonse had stopped outside a door, the number upon which corresponded to the large number scrawled across the key-ring Ice had been given at the desk. "She'd fall for a sweet tale of woe from my disadvantaged youth. Then I could leave you two to handle Felton, while I take care of... other business." He whistled to himself, ignoring Ice's glare.
"Man, now I remember why I used to work alone." Ice unlocked the door, although its rickety state strongly suggested that the key hadn't really been necessary. The door would probably have opened anyway, regardless of the lock alleged to be protecting it. "Listen guys, we have to be together on this. Jokes aside, Felton is dangerous. This could get nasty. I need to know you're both with me. Not thinking about computers, or dreaming about Chrissy, or wondering if we might be better off just running. We have to be together."
"Hey, we're always together." Alphonse strode into the room, glancing about at the grim grey walls and the threadbare curtains. A television stood on a coffee table, but it looked as though it was one that had rolled out of the factory before he was born, and he wasn't entirely sure that it had got a picture even back then. It didn't look as though it had. "We're gonna take Felton down, right Charlie?"
"Right." Charlie retrieved his bag and began to sort through its contents. "No problem."
"I sure hope there won't be." Ice pushed the door shut carefully, not trusting it to remain upright if he slammed it. It creaked loudly, but clicked shut without too much protest. "Ready to talk tactics?"
"Sure." Alphonse straddled the nearest chair, whilst Charlie commandeered the end of the bed. It sagged a lot, but it didn't collapse - always a good start.
"Good." Ice took a deep breath. He had a plan - a good one, so far as he could tell. It would need a little organising, a little skill, and a little luck, but he was fairly certain that it would work. Certain enough, anyway. Probably. "Then here's what we're gonna do."
Jackson Felton left his house promptly at seven thirty - to be greeted by the staring face of Isaac Gregory, situated in the front of a rental Ford across the street. He ignored it, putting Ice down as a potential pest that could easily be dealt with - but was surprised to find, on his arrival at his first port of call, that he had been followed by a second rental car, this time driven by Charlie O'Bannon. He scowled into his wing mirror, wondered if he should go over and give a display of force, and eventually decided that it wasn't worth the trouble. They were just small fry, after all - people who had got themselves in over their heads, and who would soon slink away to lick their wounds. Whether or not they went back to the FBI didn't bother him. He didn't really believe that they knew anything about his business. Since their hinted at raid on his house had not materialised during the night, he felt inclined to display a little bravura assurance.
He left the office at twelve for lunch, and was startled but not dismayed to see Alphonse Royo seated a few tables away at his favourite restaurant. He could see a pair of sharp, glittery eyes watching him sardonically over the rim of a mug of hot coffee. Felton ignored him, sitting down with his back to the other man. He ordered swiftly, ate hurriedly, and spent the rest of the afternoon with indigestion. After that he went home, tailed by Ice, to find Charlie sitting opposite his house, reading a computer magazine and eating doughnuts. Felton ignored them all, shutting himself up in his house, snapping at his butler, shouting at his guard dogs, and generally being rather ill-tempered. His feelings didn't improve when he glanced out of his window at a crossing during the drive to work the next morning to find, on one side of his car, a very cool looking Ice Gregory, and on the other, looking like a holidaying film star, a decidedly chirpy Alphonse Royo. Both men gunned their car engines at the same moment, racing forward in perfect tandem with his own machine. He lost them at the next set of traffic lights, but glowered all the way to work anyway. He didn't see Charlie when he arrived at his office, but found him waiting at the restaurant for him at noon instead. He ate too quickly again, and wound up with an even worse case of indigestion than before.
It was an extremely ungracious Jackson Felton who pushed past his secretary on his way home from work that second day, and an even less cheerful one the next morning, when he turned up at one of his other offices in the hope of find some respite there, only to find that it had been raided by the FBI overnight. They had decamped in totality, but had taken almost everything with them. All that he was left with was a computer keyboard without the computer that ought to have been attached, and the gently swinging remains of a broken door. One or two desks lay about the place, stripped of all paper and files, and a telephone stood on a leather-backed swivel chair. It had been ripped from the wall, and was no good to anyone. He would have thrown it in the bin, were it not for the fact that the FBI appeared to have taken that too. They had even taken the safe, presumably unopened, having removed it bodily from the wall. A gaping space, perfectly square, remained to mark its previous position, a new cobweb already spanning one of the corners. Apparently the spider wasn't terribly sympathetic to his plight. Felton glared around at everything as though accusing the room itself of betraying him - then stormed out. He drowned his sorrows at a local bar, then wound his way onwards to a third office whilst only just within the limits of legal driving.
There were people at the other office, so he assumed that it was still open for business. Ignoring Charlie parked on the corner, once again eating doughnuts, he stormed into the building, snapped at a succession of secretaries and employees, and spent the rest of the day, lunchless, biting the heads off anybody foolish enough to try to include him in the day's business. He left late, at gone six, only to be followed home by Ice. There was a package for him when he arrived home, which turned out to be a card signed by all three of his tormentors, and which wished him the most offensively cheery good day that he had ever encountered. He burnt it, swore at his butler, and demanded a bottle of whisky. When he went to bed it was without realising it, and when he woke up he did so with a hangover. He swore revenge on the three players, then turned over and went back to sleep. His butler roused him eventually, with the news that his third office had been raided by the FBI.
Jackson Felton had never been the nervy type. Nothing had broken him during years of work in the drugs trade. He had faced rivals eager for his blood, drug barons so cold that they could freeze water with one stare, and policemen so determined to put him away that they had not cared who they took down in the process. He had been interrogated by FBI professionals - and, unofficially, by the kind of people that the Bureau would never have admitted to keeping on staff. He had even, in his earliest days in the business, been dangled by his ankles out of a top floor window in a sixty story skyscraper. For some reason none of these previous encounters had wound him up as much as had Ice and his team. The threesome were everywhere, following him closely, turning up wherever he went. He saw them from the windows of his house and his office. He saw them in his rear-view mirror whenever he drove anywhere, and he saw them reflected in shop windows whenever he went for a walk. They left letters lying on his desk, even though he could discover no means by which they could have entered his house, and they had even left a typically cheery greetings card inside his locked safe. He had found it there, lying on top of a pile of sensitive files. All three men had signed it, and Ice had added a little cartoon drawing of a police car. He had been quite proud of the result, but needless to say Felton didn't share his delight. The card, cartoon police car and all, met their summary end in a metal waste paper bin, accompanied by a match and a measure of whisky.
The butler wasn't in the least surprised when he was called into his boss's home office at a quarter past three one morning, in order to discuss the problem of the three irritating ex-convicts. His only surprise came in the fact that it had taken so long for Felton to decide to do something about them. Leaving any kind of a foe untouched for long was not something that either man did often, and since the butler himself had become increasingly annoyed by the sight of the three men camped outside the house, he had been hoping to get the chance to do something about them fairly soon. He listened to the drunken ramblings of a man he had served faithfully for ten years, able to understand the angrily slurred words even when most people would have been lost, and nodded his head at moments that seemed to him to be the most encouraging. Only when he was sure that Felton had finished did he offer his own input into the conversation.
"Finally got sick of them, huh boss?"
"Sick?" Felton rolled his eyes, then wished he hadn't. He was still rather too drunk to risk making unnecessarily disorientating gestures like that one. "More than sick. You think it's a little weird how the FBI keeps hitting my offices lately? Well what if they have got more information than they've been letting on? What if those three jokers really did get something out of Braun? I didn't think he knew anything very sensitive, but I might have been wrong. I've known for a long time that he was looking to get himself more of a foothold in the local operations."
"You think these three guys could be a real threat?" The butler cracked his knuckles, one of the gestures that he was most fond of - largely because it required less thought that most, and because anybody that watched it was almost guaranteed to turn several shades paler than their normal skin colour. Felton made unhappy noises, somewhere between disparaging grunts and noncommittal humming and hawing. Finally he shrugged.
"Not worth the risk, is it. I wasn't going to bother with them at first. Bunch of losers, I figured. Ex-cons dragged into the game by the feds, and looking for a way out, or a firmer foothold. Something about them doesn't ring true though. My informer on the Herald hasn't been able to dig up anything about them. You remember he got me the dope on how Braun had been arrested, and the feds were planning on sending me an impostor? Well that was all he found out. After that all his sources dried out pretty quickly, so he wasn't able to use official channels, but I wouldn't have expected him to find anything there anyway. He tried pulling in old favours, and parting with a little cash here and there, but even the unofficial types hadn't heard anything. Nobody seems to know who those three are, except the FBI themselves. There's no doubt that they're working with the feds. It's in what capacity that I can't figure out."
"So we're better off getting rid of them." His butler nodded his large, flat head. "Okay. You want me to handle it?"
"I want your help, certainly." Talking about such things was helping to sober Felton up nicely, and his eyes had taken on a whole new glow. "Something a little different to the usual thing though, I think. Sneaking up on them and breaking a few necks isn't quite what I had in mind."
"I can follow them, boss. Find out where they're living." The butler liked the idea of a little subtle work, but his employer, clearly recognising the other man's inability to be terribly subtle at anything, merely shook his head.
"We don't need to know where they're based. We don't need to follow them anywhere, or grab them singly, or anything like that. Hell, they've practically served themselves up on a plate, remember? They asked for a pay off. Money in exchange for their silence, so that they could get away from the feds. I turned them down, but if they figure they've got to me enough with their lame tailing routine, maybe they'll buy a change of heart. I can tell them to come here. They'll never suspect anything if I ask all three of them to come at once. We'll play it all open and friendly, and then when they're here we'll have them right where we want them. A quick round of Questions And Answers, and then you can do what you want to them. Agreed?"
"Agreed, boss." His butler was looking pleased with himself, adjusting his perpetually straining suit in an attempt to stop the seams from bursting across his massive shoulders. "When are you going to deliver the message?"
"Tonight I think." Felton was smiling the way he hadn't since first spotting Ice sitting outside his house several days before. "By lunch time today I want this over with. Permanently."
"I'm getting bored." That was no surprise. Alphonse Royo seemed to possess the kind of personality that gravitated endlessly towards boredom when he wasn't constantly occupied. Ice sighed anyway, letting himself be irritated by his friend's restless nature. It was a sure sign that he was getting bored himself.
"You're always bored." Charlie was busy, as usual, in tinkering with something involving a laptop computer, presumably stolen from FBI supplies. A cup of coffee was beside him, representing another step in the building-up of his required daily caffeine dose. Ice thought it was about the seventh this morning, and they had only been up for two hours. The sun had just begun to rise, casting a sickly glow over the buildings, painting everything in an unpleasant mishmash of grey and yellow - the colours of a smoker's ashtray when it had been used far too often, which wasn't an inspiring sight to be greeted by first thing in the morning. Alphonse eyed his two companions sourly, and shifted his position with a restless energy.
"He's not going anywhere today. He didn't do anything yesterday except sit around his house drinking. Today it'll be a miracle if he manages to get up. We could be doing something interesting."
"True." Charlie tapped at a couple of keys, and gestured at the streams of data that flowed across his little screen. Most of it was unintelligible, but he treated it as though it was fully comprehensive text - which of course it might well have been to him. "I could use this. Add a few bugs to his home computer. I'm not interested in getting anything off it, but putting something on might help to wind him up a little tighter."
"You two are useless." Ice, making full use of his characteristic ability to appear calm and well-ordered whatever his feelings, spoke with a voice that suggested he had no real desire for action at all. "We've only been at this a few days, and already you're starting to twitch. We knew before we began that it could be a long job."
"Just so long as it isn't much longer than it has been already." Alphonse stretched out, resting his feet up on the dashboard and reaching for his own cup of coffee. He was only on his first, and even after his long association with Charlie he couldn't quite believe that the other man had managed to put away so much more. He reached for the bag of doughnuts that rested on the floor nearby, and began licking away sugar that had immediately coated his fingers. Ice sighed.
"You're losing it, you know that? Must be the easy living working for the FBI."
"I am not losing it!" Alphonse's indignation was almost hilarious, but Ice didn't laugh. Treating it all so seriously helped to make his partner's fury grow even more, which was sure to be entertaining.
"You are. You both are. Too much easy living, with everything provided by the feds." Ice shook his head in mock despair. "Two years ago you'd still have been raring to go, and you'd hardly have noticed the time we've spent on this. Face it 'Phonse. You're outta practice."
"I am not!" The other man's voice, never terribly deep at the best of times, now rose an octave in response to the jibe. "I keep myself in shape, man. You may sit back and let the feds pay your way, but I'm still out there playing."
"Yeah, we know." Charlie's voice, dry and somewhat rueful, came from behind him. "We're the ones who take the heat every time you get light-fingered, and Chrissy finds out about it."
"She doesn't find out that often." Alphonse folded his arms and looked sulky, obviously having realised that he was being wound up. He knew that he was an easy target, being such a fiery character, but knowing that didn't seem to make it any easier for him resist once the other two starting teasing him. Scowling into his coffee he turned his attentions back onto Felton's silent house. "What do you suppose he's doing in there?"
"Not a lot." Ice stared through the front windows of the ground floor, using a particularly powerful pair of binoculars filched from the FBI store. It always amused him how secure the Bureau believed their stores to be, despite growing evidence to the contrary. He and his friends had stolen so much stuff in the past that there must be a severe dent in the inventory by now. Replacing the sour, grouchy old security guard with a bright young woman barely out of her twenties, who had swooned the moment Alphonse had first turned on his Latin charm, had certainly not helped to keep things secure. "I can't see him. Probably upstairs in bed drinking Bloody Marys for breakfast."
"Ouch." Alphonse smirked, remembering a good many mornings that he had spent nursings hangovers the size of Belgium. It didn't help that he had always hated Bloody Marys, a dislike that was not improved by Charlie's frequent insistence on making him try an old family recipe, of similar content, supposed to be a infallible cure-all. The problem was that Charlie could never remember the recipe exactly, and was always trying new combinations of ingredients in an attempt to capture the essence of the original. Whether or not the original worked, Alphonse couldn't comment. All he knew was that he had, over the years of his acquaintance with Charlie, spent his 'mornings after' downing some very peculiar things. All of them had come with the assurance that "this time it's right, honest", and all of them had left him with a bigger headache than before, and even less of a stomach for food. Presumably such things didn't bother a man like Jackson Felton though. He probably had his butler well trained.
"Anybody else want another coffee?" Charlie somehow managed to sound fast asleep, despite the impressive amount of caffeine already pumping through his bloodstream. Ice shook his head.
"You're gonna wear out that damn coffee machine."
"It likes the exercise." Toying with the shiny gadget, fitted in the back of the surveillance van courtesy of a forged docket allegedly from O'Connor, Charlie injected another stream of hot brown liquid into his cup. All he needed now, he figured, was a similar machine for making doughnuts. "And I'm starting to feel the need for exercise myself. How many more days are we going to spend sitting in cars doing nothing?"
"As many as it takes." Ice frowned, redirecting the binoculars onto something that had grabbed his attention. "Which might not be as long as we thought."
"We got some action?" Leaning across, Alphonse looked out through Ice's window. He saw the front door of the house open wide, and the unmistakable shape of the bulldog butler come striding out. "Oh great."
"What?" Popping up from the back of the van, Charlie also peered out through Ice's window, making Ice begin to feel as though he were crammed into a wine press. By now the butler was making his way across the road, his large legs powering him along like pistons. "Oh."
"He doesn't look like he's armed." Ice was still using the binoculars, and had a good view of the man coming towards them. "I guess he wants to talk."
"Maybe he's sick of making Bloody Marys, and wants to turn state's evidence." Alphonse reached for the door. "You want me to get behind him?"
"No." Ice sounded decisive. "Let's see how this plays out. Charlie? Keep back. He probably knows you're there, but don't be too obvious all the same. No need to let him know who's here without having him ask."
"Right." Grabbing the bag of doughnuts, Charlie retreated further into the rear. He was not terribly well hidden, but to anybody who wasn't looking directly through the windscreen he figured he was probably pretty much invisible. "Are you sure he's unarmed?"
"No." Ice pushed open his door, making no attempt to ease his friend's fears. "Stay here."
"Hey." The butler spoke as though he was trying to be courteous, something that he obviously hadn't quite got the hang of yet. "Mr Felton wanted me to pass on a message."
"Yeah?" Narrowing the distance between them, Ice slid on his best sunglasses, and managed the task of looking effortlessly tough. All the same, he couldn't help thinking that the other guy had the edge, so far as intimidation was concerned. Muscles like that would have been scary even if the butler had been dressed in a furry kangaroo suit.
"Yeah. He wants you to come over to the house. For lunch." The butler squared his shoulders, just in case he hadn't already made it clear just as big he was. "He wants to talk to you about your offer to him, and wants to discuss a suitable price."
"Fine." Ice smiled as lazily as possible, trying to rub the butler the wrong way. The only response was a glare that was so difficult to discern from the man's constantly surly demeanour that Ice chose not to think about it. "One o'clock?"
"One o'clock, sure." The butler's eyes travelled over the van, glaring at Alphonse as though hoping that the stare alone would prove fatal. Alphonse carried on eating his doughnut, and the butler turned the power of his glare back onto Ice. "Don't be late."
"We're never late." Ice grinned a calculating grin, beginning to understand that this would-be bully boy was under orders to be polite. "Should we bring a bottle?"
"Just come." The butler sounded strained, obviously from the unaccustomed struggle to be nearly well-behaved. "There are no conditions. You can bring guns if it'll make you feel better. It's just so you can talk. Mr Felton wants to know how much money you were wanting, in order to ensure that he's not bothered by you any longer. It's starting to become a little detrimental to his business. You're scaring away clients."
"Oh dear." Ice didn't need to try to sound unmoved. "Okay. One o'clock it is. We'll look forward to it."
"Sure." Clearly not caring how Ice felt about the upcoming engagement, the butler turned around and stalked back to the house. Ice watched him go, not moving a muscle.
"Hey Ice." Alphonse might have made another man jump, suddenly appearing behind him and speaking out of the blue. Ice didn't flinch.
"What." He didn't turn around either, but merely stood still, watching the house. He couldn't see Felton, but he was fairly sure that the gangster was looking out of one of the windows, watching him.
"You think this is it?"
"Yeah, I think this is it." Slowly he turned around. "You ready?"
"Sure. Sooner we get this sorted out, the sooner we can get set on with something more interesting." A broad grin, faintly lascivious in nature, underlined what those more interesting things might be. "I figure Chrissy will be pretty grateful, once we bring her Felton."
"Not that grateful." They climbed back into the van, where Charlie, much to their amusement, was trying to coax yet another cup of coffee out of their little machine. It was hissing at him, clearly unwilling to be forced into labour again so soon. He didn't look at them as they climbed into the back of the van, but he moved aside to let them have more space. Ice threw himself down onto one of the seats, snatching up the bag of doughnuts to liberate one of the few that remained.
"You think we can get it all wrapped up this afternoon?" Charlie sounded nervous, as usual. Closing a case, or a scam, inevitably made him even more nervous than usual, which was saying something. Ice nodded.
"No reason to hang around."
"Yeah. If we can get him to say enough to incriminate himself, Chrissy will have him where she wants him. I doubt we'll get him to say anything major over lunch, but it'll be a start." Alphonse shrugged. "Hell, if they can get Capone for tax evasion, I figure talking about a little illicit business is good enough to sink Felton."
"Right." Ice devoured his doughnut with hungry relish, somehow managing to conduct the operation without covering himself in powdered sugar. "I think his reaction to our mentioning Braun means it might be worth talking to him again too. Maybe he really does know the things we claimed to have heard from him. If Chrissy can get him to talk, I figure Felton's out of the picture for good."
"Yeah. If we can get him to sink himself first." Charlie was back to fidgeting with his pieces of equipment, coffee machine finally abandoned. Ice nodded.
"We'll get him - if you've got everything you need." Leaning over to look at Charlie's work, Ice surveyed the bits of equipment decorating the back of the van. There seemed to be far too many wires, which he suspected was a case of Charlie trying to look as though his task was a lot more complicated than it actually was. The thought made him smile, but he didn't say anything. Charlie glared at him anyway, as usual looking as though he was about to start tearing out his own hair.
"Of course I've got everything I need. Do you think I'd come out here without anything? I've just got a couple more things to set up, and then we're on our way, for all the good it's likely to do us. You'd better call Chrissy, and tell her we're just about set."
"Right." Ice punched in the number on the quick dial, and was surprised by the speed with which their FBI contact answered. Obviously she had been waiting for him to call in. "Hi Chris. How's things?"
"Ice, you'd better be calling to tell me that everything's going alright with you." Clearly O'Connor had been breathing down her neck. Sometimes the section head could be as nervy as Charlie.
"Yeah, I'm calling to tell you that everything's alright." His voice was coolness personified; everything calm and well ordered, no hint of the danger ahead or the strain of the job. "We just got an invitation to go and exchange pleasantries with the man himself, so we're heading out in about five minutes. Can you be ready to move fairly soon?"
"It's not easy getting an FBI unit to move in on a suspect without evidence, Ice. Do you have anything?"
"No ma'am." He allowed himself a confident grin. "But we soon will have. We're taking in a camera with us. One of Charlie's little toys. You remember that dummy web company we set up a while back, to help you take down the con artist from Tulsa? Well the site Charlie designed for that company is still out there. We're going to be putting a live broadcast of our meeting with Felton on that site, starting in a couple of minutes. Do you remember the address?"
"Yeah... yeah, er, thirdstrike.com, wasn't it?" Something to do with Charlie's warped sense of humour no doubt, referring to the infamous 'three strikes' law run by some states, where a third conviction, for any crime at all, meant life imprisonment.
"That's the one. When you think Felton's talked himself into a conviction - and we'll be helping him, so it shouldn't take too long - get on out here and snap him up."
"It might take me an hour or so. Felton's house is some way away."
"Doesn't matter. We can get ourselves out again, no problem. Then we'll sit across the street like good little pretend agents, and wait for you lot to come out and wrap things up. Okay?"
"Okay." She smiled at the telephone. "Be careful, Ice. If he sees that web-cam..."
"He won't." Ice eyed the little camera, which Charlie was currently buffing on his shirt sleeve for at least the sixth time. It was small enough to be hidden away rather well. "We'll be in and out again before he's had a chance to even wonder if we're up to anything. If he leaves, Charlie has scratched together enough bits and pieces for some micro-transmitters. They'll let you know where we are, so you should be able to follow okay. Ordinary FBI band ought to pick up the signal."
"Right." She nodded, taking it all in and filing it away. "Are you sure that's everything?"
"What do you mean?" As ever it was impossible to tell anything from his voice. She was suspicious, without quite knowing why.
"Are you telling me everything?"
"I reckon so." He had his fingers crossed, but more through habit than any other reason. He was almost as unaware of it as Chrissy herself.
"Okay. I'll see you later then, always supposing that this works."
"Sure. Bye Chrissy." He hung up, before Alphonse could snatch the phone away, and try to wish the agent his own special form of good day. Instead of looking annoyed to have been prevented from flirting with the woman, the jaunty con-man smiled.
"She suspects something, doesn't she." He hadn't been able to hear Chrissy's side of the conversation, but he must have been able to pick up the gist of it from Ice's end of things. A faint hint of admiration coloured his voice. Ice scowled.
"She figures there's something I'm not telling her. But what's the sense in listing all the things that might go wrong? If everything work out like it should, there's no reason for her to think about what might happen."
"Isn't she the lucky one. I can't think about anything but." Charlie was becoming more edgy by the minute, although his fingers, as he finished his preparations for the web-cam's bluetooth link-up, were rock steady. "We could get killed, you know. You do realise that, don't you? We could be walking in there, only to get dragged off somewhere by that Neanderthal butler, and sent swimming off the coast somewhere in concrete aqualungs." He shuddered. "And I hate this Californian sea. It might look all blue and sparkly, but it's a lot colder than it is back on our side of the country."
"Don't worry, man." Alphonse reached back to punch him lightly on the shoulder. "You'll drown before you die of hypothermia."
"That makes me feel a lot better." Charlie's stare was withering, but he seemed to be regaining his sense of humour. "Damn it, let's just get this over and done with, shall we? If I'm going to get washed up on a beach somewhere, and found by an early morning jogger or a kid playing Frisbee, I'd like to get started as soon as possible. I want to look my best when I go to make my Maker, and I never look good in the afternoon." He held up the web-cam. "Who's taking this?"
"Me." Ice was wearing a rather impressive three-piece suit, and its silvery colour, combined with the gleaming white handkerchief arranged neatly in the breast pocket, provided perfect camouflaging for the little unit. Felton could quite easily be staring right into it, without ever suspecting that it was there. "What's the sound pick-up like?"
"Extra-sensitive. Not enough so that'll it be picking up your heart beat rather than the conversation, but enough so that it'll hear what's being said without you having to stick your chest in Felton's face."
"Good." Ice looked around at the others. "Everybody set?"
"Sure." Alphonse was confidence itself, as ever.
"Yeah." Charlie was not.
"Good." Ice swung around, opening his door and jumping out onto the ground. He felt confident about this one. Everything was going to go according to plan. There was no reason to suspect that anything was going to go wrong.
Of course, he admitted grudgingly, that was usually the main reason for suspecting that it might.
Felton's butler welcomed them inside as though they were old friends, returning for anunappreciated visit. Ice led the way, striding over the threshold with the same calm indifference with which he faced everything in his life. Second came Alphonse, eyes dancing, interest showing on his face every time he noticed something that he knew was worth money. Somehow Alphonse never seemed likely to register the fact that he was supposed to be legit these days. Ice despaired.
Charlie brought up the rear, emphasising his natural nervousness just enough, playing on his own innate twitchiness to suggest a man who was playing a dangerous game. Here he was, anxious to take a bribe and escape from his unwanted FBI masters, worried all the time that he was going to get found out and returned to a jail cell. It was very convincing, but then Charlie had always been good at his job.
"Mr Felton will see you in the drawing room." The butler's attempt to speak like Michael Gough in a Batman movie did not work out at all, and seemed decidedly peculiar coming from his ungainly frame. he gestured down the corridor, stepping aside to let the threesome precede him. It was obvious where they were going, so they went along without a guide, stopping when they reached a large pair of white doors, with ornate, gilded handles. They looked like something out of Dallas, even down to the faint suggestion that they might not be as solid as they should have been. The butler knocked, then pushed both doors wide open.
"Your guests, sir." He was putting on a good performance, even though it was not a terribly convincing one. All of his energy seemed to be going into the attempt to butle in the proper fashion. Ice had handled a few genuine butlers in his time, and could easily have pointed out the main holes in this particular performance. He didn't suggest, though, and instead did his best to ignore the false servility of the bulging tower of muscle right beside him.
"Mr Felton." He advanced towards the man, hand outstretched. Felton shook it, although his expression was hardly one of welcome.
"Mr... I don't think we were every properly introduced, were we?"
"No, I don't think we were." Extracting his hand from a grip that seemed as though it was trying to be threatening, but was not coming anywhere near to fulfilling its goal, Ice kept up a placid, noncommittal smile. "It's Jacobs. Isaac Jacobs."
"Very Biblical." Felton turned away from him, eyeing Alphonse and Charlie with a smile that was losing warmth all the time. Perhaps he had registered the fact that Alphonse was running a mental tally of all the bits and pieces that were worth stealing. "And you are?"
"Charles Coulter." Charlie was still acting extremely nervous, letting his hand quiver unchecked when he held it out to be shaken. He flashed Felton a wobbly smile, then scurried over to the window as though to watch for signs of approaching police cars. Alphonse stepped up next, sharing a smirk at Charlie's expense with the bemused Felton.
"Alphonse Giletti." He didn't bother shaking hands, but instead strode past his host, standing firmly beside Ice. "You want to talk, Mr Felton?"
"Yes, I do." Felton's coolly appraising eyes floated over the threesome, before finally he allowed himself a smile. "Please, all of you. Take a seat. Can I offer you some coffee? Tea? Perhaps some orange juice?"
"Nothing." Ice's answer was for everybody, something that was clear without the need for anybody else to add a word. He sat down on a highly polished ebony chair, one of a set of eight ranged around a large oval table. It was worth a lot, but it didn't match any of the rest of the furniture. It almost looked as though it had been left by mistake, by removal men unable to find the right address.
"Then let's get straight to business, shall we?" Gesturing to other chairs, Felton also sat down. Alphonse and Charlie followed suit. "You wanted to arrange a deal with me, whereby I pay you a certain amount of money in order to assist you to start your lives afresh somewhere else, right?"
"Right." Ice was an expert at letting the right amount of belligerence and courtesy battle each other in his voice. "And in return we won't tell the FBI what we know about your drug smuggling operation."
"Oh, I doubt that there's much you know." Felton's smile didn't waver. Neither did Ice's.
"If you thought that, you wouldn't have invited us in here." He sighed, then waved a hand at Alphonse. "Hey, 'Phonse man. I guess you were right. This guy isn't giving us anything."
"Yeah. Maybe we should try the feds after all. At least they might give us something for helping them shut this guy down." Alphonse began to rise to his feet, whilst Charlie cranked up his nervousness another notch.
"Are you kidding? If we go back to FBI headquarters now, they'll lock us up and throw away the key. We absconded. We're parolees, and we've broken just about every rule of parole there is. You guys can't be serious?"
"Of course not." Felton spoke soothingly. "I'm sure we can come to some sort of arrangement that won't require you to go turning yourselves in to the FBI. Suppose you tell me the nature of the information you claim to have. Where you got it from, who else knows... who exactly you people are... I'd be willing to pay you a fair amount for that kind of information."
"You know who we are." Alphonse leaned back in his chair, looking about as relaxed as it was possible to be in such a formal setting. The hard wood of the chair wasn't especially comfortable, but he had all the appearance of a man reclining on a beach lounger. "And what we know ought to be pretty obvious."
"Perhaps." Felton's smile had become a little tight. "But I'm going to need something. Anybody could come here claiming to be working for the FBI, and to know sensitive business secrets. How do I know that you're not just con artists looking to make some easy money?"
"How would passing con artists know that you're a drug smuggler?" These arguments did not really feel worth his energies, but Ice went through them anyway. "Besides, you know we're with the authorities. Your leak - at one of the newspapers? - knew that Alphonse here wasn't really your business contact. You must have found out that we were working for the law back then."
"True enough I suppose." Felton's eyes were narrow now, the set of his jaw somewhat unpleasant. "Yes, I suppose you're right. "I do know that you're working with the authorities. I do know that you've certainly spoken to at least one person who knows things about me that I'd rather he didn't." He shrugged lightly, as though dismissing a point. "Although he doesn't know as much as he thinks. You don't act like amateurs either, I'll give you that."
"Then you'll give us the money?" Charlie seemed to be taking an interest in the conversation for the first time in some while. "How much?"
"Better be a lot." Ice let the confidence ooze out of every pore, enjoying the performance as always. "If you're willing to pay us anything in return for not handing you over to the feds, that's got to mean that you're worried. And that means that what we know must be worth a lot."
"Nice reckoning." The smile had gone from Felton's face, and his eyes had hardened noticeably. "You're right, I am worried about how much you know. There are a lot of details about my business that could put me away for a long time. When you work in this industry you always run the risk that somebody will find out about you. I've been very careful to cover my tracks, and believe me I've removed more than one person who found out more than he should. I'll do anything - anything at all - to stay out of prison. Which is why, gentlemen, I need to know what you know, and I need to know who you got it from, and I need to know who else you've told."
"Does this mean we're not getting paid?" It was becoming easier to let the nervousness show in his voice now, and Charlie was beginning to feel distinctly akin to his ultra-edgy alter-ego, Charles Coulter.
"Oh you're very quick Mr Coulter." Felton gave a quick nod, and the three con-men heard the unmistakable noise of a gun hammer being cocked. Ice didn't need to look to know that the butler was lurking behind him, and from the sound of things was brandishing an impressive piece of hardware. Alphonse groaned.
"I sure hope Chrissy is on the ball..."
"Oh sure." Turning on him suddenly, ever the quick thinker whilst under pressure, Ice gave him a hard push to the chest. "Bring her into it. You always have to start going on about Chrissy, don't you."
"Don't push me about, man!" Alphonse pushed back, blue eyes gleaming. "You're just jealous. Everybody knows it."
"Jealous? Why you--" Gripping Alphonse by the shirtfront, Ice swung him away from the table. Charlie scuttled aside, tripping over his own chair as it toppled over.
"Hey! Hey guys, this isn't the time!" He made a few hopeless attempts to stop the arguing. The butler's large handgun wavered between the three targets, unable to settle on one. Slowly, inexorably, the threesome were heading for the large picture window that looked out onto a stretch of even, green grass.
"Butt out Charlie." Alphonse pushed him aside. Felton moved forward.
"Cut it out. All of you." His voice was cracked with apparent strain. "Damn it, sit down and shut up!"
"Not likely." Giving Charlie a mighty push that sent him stumbling closer to the window, Ice dragged Alphonse in the same direction, yelling at him all the while. Alphonse joined in, merrily adding his own input to the argument. He had a nasty suspicion that he was going to be the one going through the window first, but he could handle that, especially if there was a speedy escape that followed. It wouldn't be the first time that he had been thrown through a window, after all.
"Damn you, if you don't sit down and shut up I'll have you shot!" Felton was furious. Ice and Alphonse took another joint step towards the window. It was no more than an arm's length away, and Ice was just preparing to deliver the one, final push that would send his partner flying through the glass, when the sound of a gunshot shattered the noise of their argument. Alphonse felt Ice being torn from his grasp. The taller man's body slammed sideways, one hand going vaguely, confusedly, towards the chest. Ice's eyes blinked at the gun-toting butler.
"Hey man!" His voice was weak, but amazed. "You--" His head lolled to one side, and he was still. Alphonse froze.
"Ice!" Running towards his downed friend, Charlie stopped halfway here and looked up, back towards the butler. He saw the hammer going back again, even though this time he didn't hear it. "Alphonse. Come on. We have to get out of here."
"Ice." Alphonse didn't move, instead remaining where he was, rooted to the spot. Charlie ran towards him.
"Come on, man! We have to get out of here!"
"Neither of you is going anywhere." The smile in Felton's voice was horrible. Alphonse swivelled his eyes towards the gangster, then back to the fallen Ice. Charlie shook his head.
"Damn it Alphonse, we have to get out of here!" He was breaking into a run, making a desperate bid for the door. Perhaps he thought he had a better chance of escaping through an exit that nobody seemed to have covered. He didn't even make three steps. Alphonse watched as his friend collapsed in an heap, hearing the shots only afterwards, when the body was already still.
"Charlie." He stared at the fallen figure, then looked back up at Felton. "You - you--"
"Give it up, Mr Giletti." Felton was supremely confident, but Alphonse didn't seem to want to hear him. He took a step forward.
"Damn you, I'll--" He got no further. Silently the butler had come up behind him, and with gun reversed, had sent him into a whole other world.
werChristine Kowalski stared at the computer screen for several, horror-stricken seconds before she found herself able to move. She had been watching with interest, listening carefully to everything that was spoken, waiting for Felton to hang himself on the rope that her little group of con-men were giving him. She had felt the change in atmosphere even from a distance, and had been aware that her boys had been planning to leave. They had ben heading for the window, ready to jump out through the glass, and her hand had been poised over the telephone, waiting to put in the call to get her colleagues moving. Not that they could have arrived in time to really have been any help, but she would have felt at least that she was doing something. Now it looked as though whatever she did would be too late.
It had all happened so fast; the first gunshot, a full-screen image of Alphonse's face, shocked and disbelieving; everything moving and slipping past the hidden web-cam as Ice had slid to the floor. For a moment she hadn't really comprehended the magnitude of events, until a second shot had rung out, and she had heard a second body fall to the floor. It had all been confused after that, her own racing pulse almost deafening her, the sounds of the others in the office fading around her, drifting away as though she were encased in a cotton wool cocoon. A voice had broken her confusion in the end; not Felton's voice, so presumably his butler's. A matter of fact voice, dispassionate to the extreme.
"No pulse boss. He's dead." And then, a second later, "Same here."
Felton's voice answered, although the man himself was invisible for the web-cam was pointed at the ceiling. "Get this other guy up. I want him able to talk within the hour. Leave these other two wher they are for the time being. We can clear up the mess later."
"Sure boss." Chrissy heard the scraping and rustling of cloth, or, rather, a person wearing cloth, being lifted and moved around. Somebody made a noise; something like a moan she thought, although it was difficult to be sure. After that there was silence. Very slowly, very shakily, she reached out and turned off the monitor.
"James?" Her voice was cool now, and very, very steady. She didn't feel at all steady, but a part of her that was reserved for professionalism took over her now, and worked her like a puppet. She wasn't even aware of having lifted the receiver and dialled a number, but she felt the cold plastic of the telephone now in her hand, and used it as a focus, to ground her. "The units I asked for. Are they ready to go?"
"We're ready." James Stornov was one of her oldest friends within the FBI, a tall, stout, solid man who had lost all interest in promotion from the moment that he had taken part on his first raid. He was one of the best men to have nearby during a fire fight, and even though he disapproved of having Ice and the others on the team, still he was always the person that Chrissy would choose for a task like this. "Is everything on?"
"We're moving out in five minutes. Just give me time to get down there and join you." She was still keeping the quaver out of her voice, even though she wasn't sure how.
"Fine. See you." James hung up, and after a moment that seemed to stretch disproportionately, so did she. She rose to her feet.
"Christine?" O'Connor's voice took a second to be processed. She turned towards him, professionalism taking over as never before.
"How did it go?" He sounded almost excited, and she managed a nod.
"Good. It went good. Sir. Um... Felton's given us more than enough to work with. He obviously never suspected about the camera."
"Are you alright?" Surprisingly he had managed to see straight through her calm veneer, and even more surprisingly he seemed more concerned with her than with the case they had been discussing. She shrugged.
"Things haven't gone quite as well as expected, sir. There were... gunshots. Two of the boys are down. Dead, according to Felton's associate. I couldn't see..."
"Dead?" Something passed across her superior's face, and he almost seemed about to reach out to her. "Are you alright?"
"Yes sir. Of course." Professionalism, always professionalism. It was better than letting go, and having to face her real feelings. "I just... I want to get out there sir."
"Of course you do." He hesitated for a second, then took out his gun and checked to see that it was loaded. "Then come on. What are we waiting for?"
"You're coming too?" It wasn't like him to go out on a job, even though in his day he had been a highly respected field agent. He seemed to see promotion as the perfect excuse to no longer have to get his hands dirty. He nodded, already striding ahead.
"They're my people too, Chris." It was a simple statement, and Chrissy realised that it voiced something O'Connor had probably only just realised himself. "Now let's get moving. There may still be one of them that we can save."
Alphonse awoke with the distinct impression that his head was inside out. He was almost convinced of it. He could see nothing save swirls of red and black, the hammering of his angry pulse seemed to be coming from somewhere above him, and the pain itself felt like something external; a helmet of agony, enclosing his skull. He tried to give vocal expression to the pain, but trying to speak only made him cough, and that made everything hurt all the more. Somebody nearby said something to him, but he wasn't one hundred percent clear on whether they were a real person, or just somebody that his confused brain had stuck in his head as part of a dream. He thought he had been dreaming a few moments before, but it wasn't easy to be certain about that now that he was awake. Or nearly awake. Or neither.
"Giletti." The word was quite insistent, if it was possible for a word to to insist anything. He wondered what a Giletti was, then remembered. An alias. His alias. The one he had been using in the conversation with Jackson Felton. Damn.
"Ow. What?" His throat felt as though it was full of liquid glue, and he hadn't figured out how to use his eyes yet, but he was willing enough to make a stab at conversation. It was a good way of checking that he was still alive.
"Wake up." He was awake, wasn't he? What was the disembodied voice doing that he hadn't noticed that yet? He tried opening his eyes, having just discovered them to be closed, and was rewarded with the restoration of his vision. Bright lights, angry faces, and final confirmation that his head was not inside out after all. Not unless this expensively decorated room and its two glowering inhabitants were inside his skull, anyway, which didn't seem very likely.
"Ice? Charlie?" Damn. Ice had assured him, on more than one occasion, that he wasn't going to get beaten up at all during this case. He had underlined it, after Charlie had recounted the failings this plan had demonstrated during the last time they had used it. Now here he was, feeling dreadful, after having indisputably been hit by someone. He was going to be having words with Ice about that. He remembered the gunshots, and winced. Always supposing that Ice was still alive, anyway.
"I have some questions for you, Mr Giletti." Felton, arms crossed, face thunderous, was staring down at him. Now that his senses were returning fully, Alphonse realised that he was sitting down, on a wooden chair that felt as though it had been highly polished quite recently. There were ridges along the back that seemed complex, the imaginative carvings of a craftsman. An antique chair? That had to be a first, anyway. He couldn't recall ever being tied up and interrogated on an antique chair.
"Yeah?" The glue had gone from his throat, which helped. He could speak now, without feeling as though his tongue was going to stick to the roof of his mouth. "What do want to know?"
"I want to know what you know." The face moved nearer, finally coming into proper focus. "What is it that you think you've got on me? What did Braun tell you about my operation?"
"Oh, you know..." He was stalling for time, trying to get his still floundering mind to recall whether or not any of this had been planned. Was there a script he was supposed to be trying to stick to? There usually was. "The usual stuff... Names, dates, places. Details."
"What names, what dates, what places?" Felton was threatening in his voice, his manner and his posture; the picture of a man who was very worried indeed. Alphonse hoped that the microphone hidden in his shirt button was still doing its job. Any of this was surely evidence enough, even if the web-cam somehow hadn't picked up the events of earlier?
"Stuff..." He feigned greater pain and distress than he was actually feeling, but was not surprised to find that sympathy was in short supply. The act gave him a little breathing space, but not enough time to really think. "The new deal. With that guy from..." There were a lot of cities. A lot of places to choose from. There might not even be any new deal anyway. "From New York."
"Braun knows about that?" It had been an educated guess rather than a stab in the dark, but even so Alphonse felt like cheering. Enough drugs came through New York every year to make it a golden city so far as dealers were concerned. Anybody who was anyone in the Northern American drugs business aimed to strike a New York deal some day. It was the next best thing to getting a direct line into the South American operations. "How much does he know? What did he tell you?"
"I don't know. Stuff." Alphonse looked around, searching for the familiar figures of his friends. "Where are the others? Ice and Charlie?"
"Forget them. I want answers." Felton was pacing, irritable and anxious, barely bothering to spare his prisoner a glance. Alphonse felt a little encouraged by the man's state, since it suggested that he really believed his three antagonisers to be telling the truth about being in a position to bring him down. He couldn't remember why that was a good thing exactly, since it made his own position a dangerous one, but it was one of the things they had been hoping would happen, so presumably it was something to be happy about.
"I don't know any answers. Where are Ice and Charlie?" The butler was looming closer to him, a large, gleaming automatic pistol gripped tightly in one unnecessarily large hand.
"Your friends are dead." He pointed the gun at Alphonse. "We killed them, and in a little while we're going to kill you too."
"Not, however, until you've answered my questions." Felton pushed the gun aside. "Now what do you know about my dealings with the people in New York?"
"Dead?" Alphonse blinked, then stared from one to the other of his tormentors. "What do you mean, they're dead?"
"What do you think we mean?" Felton's lack of patience was making him lose his usual caution. "Just who the hell are you three, anyway?"
"Special ops, FBI. We work undercover. Deep undercover. And... stuff." He followed the restlessly pacing figure with his eyes, "Are you sure they're dead?"
"Very. What sort of undercover work?"
"Secret stuff. How sure is very sure?"
"How sure do you need?" Felton grabbed his shirt collar. "Now answer my questions, or I'll send you to join them rather more unpleasantly than I think you'd like. I want to know exactly what the FBI knows about my drug running operations. I want to know everything that my colleague Josef Braun told you, and I want to know whatever other things you've uncovered. Do you know about Tony Adell? About the trafficking through Chicago? About the money laundering through the casino I own downtown? You'd better talk to me."
"Sure. I know about all that." It seemed easier to go along with him, and hopefully coax him into saying more. Surely Christine would be here soon, with the back up she had promised? He wondered how long he had been unconscious. Clearly long enough for Felton to work himself into a nervous frenzy. Charlie's home-made mic had definitely better be working, because this was one performance that Alphonse had no intention of going through again.
"We know about Tony Adell. The FBI have had him staked out for weeks. As a matter of fact I was on that operation myself before I was transferred to this one. He's clever, but we've just about got him. The DA expects him to crack easily, and tell tales on everybody he works with, so he's quite an important figure in things."
"Tony Adell wouldn't crack no matter who was asking the questions." Felton turned away in disgust. "Whoever is running your operation doesn't know much about my people, obviously."
"He wouldn't crack, huh? Then how come we knew to hit Josef Braun? I don't know much about that end of things, but there are a lot of rumours about inside men on this operation. There are a lot of people higher up than I am who know a lot more than they're letting on. They've got somebody who knows a lot about you, and he's giving a little bit away every time he wants something from the authorities. Plenty of people figure it's Adell, and that he's keeping the DA dangling like some fish on a hook."
"You've got a lot to say for yourself, haven't you." The butler was looming closer again, but Felton waved him away. The gangster was beginning to look tired and drawn, as though he was losing interest in the interrogation.
"Sure he's got a lot to say. And most of it is sounding pretty convincing." He sat down on a second chair, an obviously old piece made of oak that clashed with the modern rugs beneath it. "Supposing you tell me what else you know about my operation?"
"We know you get information on police movements from a journalist who hangs around official places, and listens in where he shouldn't. He's the one that put you wise on what had happened to Braun." Alphonse shook his head. "I don't know. They don't tell me everything. I'm just one of the guys on the front line. An undercover man. They tell us enough to get us through a few days without getting out heads blown off, but they don't tell us any more than that. There was talk about some guy in prison. Somebody who's willing to tell all to get his sentence cut?"
"Has to be Benedick." Felton shook his head. "And I thought I bred loyalty. Make a note, Leo. We'll have to get in touch with somebody on the inside, and leave Ben a message he won't be able to read twice."
"Right." Whether or not his employer had meant it metaphorically, Leo the butler laboriously pulled a little metal-covered notebook from his pocket, and scrawled a message on one of the pages. Alphonse caught a glimpse of tiny words so conjoined that they looked almost like Arabic, before the notebook was snapped shut and stowed away. It might be worth looking at, he reasoned, always supposing that the handwriting was legible. Just another thing for Christine to thank him for, if she ever actually arrived. He stole a glance out of the window, in the hope that he would see a flak-jacketed sniper crawling around somewhere in the distance, but could see nothing. Nobody was outside, and nothing moved.
"What else do you want to know?" He didn't actually know anything, but it seemed better to remain apparently willing, and perhaps stave off any unpleasantness. Felton folded his arms.
"I want to know it all. Everything. Every last detail about the operation against me."
"Boss, there isn't time for any of that. The offices are gone, and this clown and his friends were talking like they thought this place was going to be next. We should be getting out of here." The butler gestured at a large grandfather clock; a brushed chrome-effect metal affair, that looked halfway between a reject from the nineteen fifties and something from a sci-fi writer's premature meanderings about the styles of the year two thousand. Whoever really had designed it clearly hadn't intended for it to be placed in a room full of antique chairs and massive, decorative candelabra. Even Alphonse, whose only idea of style was wearing expensive clothing, was aware of the clash.
"Yes, I suppose it is getting on a bit." Felton was silent for several moments, then rose to his feet and began to pace. "Are you expecting your colleagues to arrive soon, Mr Giletti?"
"I was kinda hoping that they would, yeah." Alphonse stole another glance outside, but the garden was as still as before. There were no snipers; no men in baseball caps and dark glasses, and flak jackets bearing the legend 'FBI'. He was alone, at least until Ice and Charlie turned up. Exactly what they were doing he couldn't imagine, since it surely shouldn't take them this long to get their thinking caps on and come to rescue him. It was disturbing to recall the certainty with which Felton had talked about them being dead. They couldn't really be - could they?
"Not good enough." Leo was looming over him, shoulders threatening to do some serious damage to the expensive suit that so barely contained him. "We want to know what the timetable is. When are your friends coming here? Do they have enough to make their move?"
"I don't know." It was too difficult to gauge what the best answer would be. Would saying yes or no be the quickest route to death? By the looks of things, Leo wouldn't need much persuading before he used that bulky gun to send Alphonse to the next world - or wherever it was that lapsed Catholics with decidedly chequered pasts got sent when their numbers came up.
"Put that gun away Leo." Felton was sauntering back, the fatigue and disinterest falling away from him as he came. "You won't get any answers with that thing. Will he, Mr Giletti?"
"Oh I don't know. I'm sensitive about getting shot."
"Maybe." A hand reached out, catching a handful of shirt and threatening to tear the expensive silk. Alphonse would have looked outraged, since the indigo number was a favourite of his; but he settled for just looking apprehensive, since it seemed to fit best. "But I think I have a far better way to get you to talk."
"Ow. Man, I hate these things." Moving more like an arthritic old man than the reasonably fit and healthy young one that he was in reality, Charlie struggled to a sitting position. "Why does it hurt so much?"
"You're being hit with a high velocity chunk of lead, Charlie." Already on his feet, Ice reached down and hauled his friend to his feet. "Of course it hurts. You're alive though aren't you?"
"That's debatable." Still wincing, Charlie rubbed at his back, where the bullet proof vest he was wearing was now showing through the hole in his shirt. "I think I broke my spine when I got hit."
"Yeah? Why are you moving around then?" Ice, immune to his friend's hypochondria, was looking around the room. "Now keep your voice down. They're still in the house, remember?"
"Yeah, I remember." Charlie crossed to the door, listening carefully. He couldn't hear anything, but was sure that Felton and his employee wouldn't have gone that far away. "They didn't look twice before they left us here though, right? And you know why that was."
"Yeah Charlie. I know." Ice shook his head, faintly exasperated. "You're a genius, okay? Now let's get moving."
"Yeah, I'm a genius. I'm glad you noticed." The smaller man was smiling in happy self-satisfaction as he peeled the small patches of false skin away from his wrists and neck. They had been the perfect means by which to hide his pulse, guaranteeing that the diagnosis would be that he was dead. He was very proud of the patches, something that he had come up with several years ago. It had taken him a long time to get the colours just right, especially given Alphonse's annoying tendency to tan.
"Enough with the self-congratulations, huh Charlie. We have to find Alphonse." Crossing to the door, Ice cautiously went out into the hall. "With a bit of luck, by now our buddy Felton will have backed himself into a corner he'll never get out of."
"So long as he hasn't discovered 'Phonse's mic, or his bullet-proof vest, or the patches he's wearing." Charlie followed Ice out into the corridor. "Because if that happens we're all likely to end up as fertiliser."
"If he'd discovered all that, he'd have realised that we're set up the same way. He'd have come back then, wouldn't he." Patient as ever with his friend, Ice went on down the corridor a short way. "Do you suppose they went right or left?"
"One or the other." Charlie followed him. "What's our plan, anyway? I don't remember having discussed it this far."
"That's because we didn't know if we'd get this far. They might have tried to kill all of us, or none of us. There were too many variables for concrete planning." Ice listened carefully through the nearest of the doors. "I wonder how long it'll take Chrissy to get here."
"How long since we got shot?"
"I don't know. I figure we stayed put about fifteen, twenty minutes before we got up. Long enough to make sure nobody was gonna come back. If she got moving as soon as she heard the gunshots, that's got to mean she's gonna be here any time soon - certainly within the next half hour. Maybe we can get everything gift-wrapped for her by then."
"So long as it's not us that gets gift-wrapped." Charlie wandered on down the hall, listening to each door as he went. "You know, this always was a lousy idea."
"You always think ideas are lousy when you didn't think them up." Ice also listened to a door as he passed. "And will you try to keep your voice down? It's not going to give us much of an advantage of surprise if they hear us coming half the house away."
"We're not going to have an advantage anyway, Ice. They have guns. We have a camera."
"We also have the FBI coming to help out." They progressed down the corridor another few feet, both of the opinion that it was endless. How big was the house, anyway?
"Sure we do, but we don't have the slightest idea when they're getting here."
Ice sighed. "Shut up Charlie."
"Oh, that's nice."
"No, I mean it." Ice held up a hand, trying to shush his permanently talkative companion. "Shut up. Listen."
"Listen to what?" The faint sounds of conversation floated down the corridor towards them, and he froze. "Is that them?"
"No Charlie. It's the other sociopathic drug dealer that lives in this house." Ice took the lead, treading softly now. "Keep it quiet, okay?"
"What are we going to do?"
"For now? Just shut up."
"Aw, man. This is going to be another of those improvised things, isn't it. Come on Ice, you know how much I hate improvised plans! Last time you got on the improvisation kick I got a broken nose, remember?"
"I remember." They reached the door behind which the voices originated. "Ready?"
"Are you kidding?"
"Yeah, Charlie. It was a joke." Ice rolled his eyes. "Just be ready to follow me in there."
"With what? Our charming personalities and disarming grins?" Charlie shook his head. "We haven't got any weapons, Ice. They've got at least one gun, and next time they might not shoot us in the body. Bullet-proof vests aren't a lot of good if you get shot in the head."
"You don't say." Ice leaned a little closer to the door. "I figure there's only the one gun. Felton isn't fool enough to get his fingerprints on any weapons. So we go in there, and I'll take out the butler. If he drops the gun, you grab it. Otherwise head for Alphonse and watch out for Felton."
"You'll never take out that butler. He's bigger than three of you."
"Then I'll just have to fight like three of me, won't I." Ice held up his hand, ready to begin counting down on his fingers. "Now are you ready?"
"Yeah." His tone of voice clearly substituted the yes for a no, but Charlie was not prepared to leave Alphonse in the clutches of their enemies for any longer, and Ice knew it. He nodded.
"Good." Already he was beginning to count down; a silent count, dropping one finger at a time. He was on three when they heard a thud from the room beyond the door; a thud that was quickly followed by a second one, and then by an exclamation of surprise.
"I'm telling you, boss - it's like hitting rock!" The butler sounded indignant. A low laugh, faintly breathless, followed his words.
"I work out a lot. What can I say?"
"That's not working out that did that." There was a scuffling and a tearing of cloth. Ice groaned.
"I think they've found the vest."
"He's wearing a bullet-proof vest!" The butler's voice confirmed Ice's suspicion in hardly than a second, and Charlie groaned. So much for the element of surprise - now where the hell was the FBI?
"If he is, so were his friends." Inside the room an annoyed Felton was rounding on Alphonse. "How did they do it? How did they make it look like they were dead?" Light sparked in his eyes and he reached out, snatching away the skin-coloured patch that so cleverly covered the pulse at the con-man's neck. Alphonse winced.
"Ow. Didn't anybody ever tell you it's not nice to do that?"
"Shut up." Felton raised a hand as though to strike him, then looked disgusted and turned away. "Damn it. You weren't just wearing protection, were you."
"No." Flinging open the door, Ice sauntered into the room like a prince who had just heard his name being announced to a room full of eager dinner guests. Alphonse, uncomfortably held by the bulky butler, beloved silk shirt torn open to reveal the vest, glanced up at the same moment as his tormentors. Ice, resplendent in silver and cream, with gold glittering at his neck, stood with arms folded and back straight, his piercing eyes half hidden by the expensive sunglasses he loved to wear. He wasn't holding a gun, but somehow didn't need to be. There was something about his presence that suggested such things were no longer necessary; as though he were surrounded by allies all ready to shoot down Felton and his butler at a word. The fact that his only actual backup was Charlie, currently doing his best to look as determined as Ice himself, did little to dampen the image.
"Well well well. I was wondering where you two were hiding yourselves." Felton stepped away from Alphonse, regarding Ice as though appraising his worth as an adversary. "So what was it? Wires? I suppose I should have checked."
"It wouldn't have made any difference if you had." Charlie couldn't keep the pride from his voice even though now was not quite the time to boast. "The microphones wouldn't show up on any ordinary sweep, and you'd never spot them with the naked eye."
"So you people really are professionals." Felton glanced back to Alphonse. "I thought he was lying. Sounded good, but too glib somehow. I had you figured as just what you claimed to be before, out of your depth and panicking."
"We never panic." Ice moved slightly, letting the little web-cam sweep the room with its tiny lens. He made sure that it got a good look at all the main players in the little drama, as well as gathering enough evidence to convict Felton on the grounds of extreme bad taste in interior decoration. "Maybe it's about time you did though."
"Why?" Leo the faithful butler strode forward, gun raised and held steady. "You're not armed."
"No, but the twenty-five FBI agents waiting outside are." Ice had always been a good liar, even when he had been a well-behaved little boy without a thought of becoming a criminal. His talent held him in good stead now, for nobody in the room found his words unbelievable. Alphonse and Charlie, who knew that there were no agents positioned outside, were almost convinced, and Alphonse's eyes strayed once again to the window. This time he thought that he saw something moving, somewhere in the depths of the bushes.
"You're bluffing." Leo pointed his large gun directly at Ice, the barrel just a few feet from the con-man's stern and rigid face. "But it won't do you any good. That vest you're wearing is no use if I pull the trigger now. There won't even be enough of your face left for your best friend to identify you."
"You think?" Slowly, very slowly, Ice reached into his pocket and pulled out the web-cam. No bigger than a golf ball, it lay in his hand, lens facing his palm and invisible to Leo's searching eyes. "This is a grenade. Not your normal type. Just like Charlie here is a genius with electronics - can fix up any wire so a whole street full of people half the world away could hear our conversation and you'd never even know they were listening in - Alphonse there is a weapons nut. You want it, he can build it. And this is one of his." He lifted it up, waving it slightly so that Felton could also get a look at it. "You want to talk them through it, 'Phonse?"
"Yeah." Slowly recovering his breath after his earlier stint as Leo's punch bag, Alphonse was getting into the swing of Ice's con. They might all be about to be blown away by their enemies, but it made sense to go down in the middle of a con. "That's the Fireball Eight, or at least that's what I call it. It took a few prototypes to get that little baby put together, but I'm happy enough with it now. It's armed all the time, so there's no need to waste time pressing or pulling anything. All you have to do is drop it. That little ball has enough power in it to take out this room and everything in it, all within a couple of seconds. You shoot Ice, and he'll drop the ball. We'll all go up like the fourth of July."
"You're bluffing." Leo tightened his grip on the gun, trying to outstare the immovable Ice. Ice just stared back, as cool and as calm as ever.
"Gentlemen..." Felton, whatever his thoughts on Ice's honesty, didn't seem to want to argue the point. "This isn't getting us anywhere. Even if this is all lies, and the cops aren't out there, they probably will be by the time we've proved it."
"Then you'd better just give it up." Still standing firm, and still apparently unconcerned by the gun pointing at his head, Ice changed his grip on the web-cam, making a point of drawing everybody's attention to its sleek, round surface. Felton's cheeks twitched as the supposed grenade moved.
"You don't act much like feds." It was an observation rather than an accusation. If he disbelieved Ice, clearly he didn't trust his instincts enough to risk facing the bomb.
"You don't act much like a drug lord." Ice waggled the web-cam again. "Now what are you going to do?"
"You won't blow yourself up just to stop us from getting away."
"Good." Felton hesitated for a second, then nodded at Leo. "Come on. We're getting out of here."
"But boss..." Leo, clearly, did not care about the threat of atomisation. "We can't just walk out of here and leave them."
"And we can't very well do anything else." Felton's cold eyes surveyed the three con-men. "I never forget anything. If you're lying to me, and I find out about it, I'll know exactly where to find you. And I will find you."
"Sure." Ice raised his free hand, and waved it in farewell. "See you around."
"You can bet on it." Leo's voice was hot and thick, but he made no move on Ice, and instead turned away to follow his employer. As soon as the pair had left the room, Ice pulled out a knife and freed Alphonse.
"You okay, man?"
"Yeah." Alphonse breathed a long sigh of relief. "I thought we were goners then. You are one lucky son of a bitch, Ice."
"It's not luck, man." Ice clapped him on the back, then grinned broadly. "Now let's get out of here."
"You won't find me arguing with that." Charlie's heartfelt relief made the other two laugh, and as one they headed out into the corridor. They were some way along it when there came the crashing sound of wood splintering under force, and the front door erupted inwards. Two men in flak jackets barrelled into the building, guns levelled. Charlie jumped like a startled rabbit.
"What the hell-?"
"Don't move!" The two men came closer, invisible eyes glaring beneath the lowered peaks of their matching caps. Alphonse rolled his eyes.
"We're on your side, guys."
"Shut up and get against the wall!" The nearest of the two men pushed at Charlie, who was closest to him. "Spread out your arms and legs and keep quiet."
"You really are getting us confused with somebody else, you know." Ice's voice, so calm, so cool, so precise, seemed to inspire hesitation in the two men, but in seconds there were others clambering through the wreckage of the door. Outnumbered, and with so many guns pointed in their direction, the threesome decided not to argue. Flung up against the wall, they were checked for weaponry, and Ice was relieved of the web-cam. Nobody seemed to notice that it was a camera, and none of the con-men felt inclined to point it out. They didn't say anything as they were handcuffed and led outside.
Christine Kowalski, still numb from the realisation that at least two of her friends were dead, had been acting as though in a dream since leaving FBI headquarters. She didn't remember much of the drive, or the advance on the house. All that she remembered with any real clarity was the moment, just a few minutes ago, when Felton and his hulk of a butler had been brought over to her in handcuffs, struggling in the grip of their FBI captors. It gave her little pleasure to see them so imprisoned, even though she had been after Felton for so long.
"You're going away for a very long time." Her voice thick in her throat, she tried to keep her anger under control as she faced the two men. "I've got enough evidence to put you away for murder one, as well as any number of other crimes I feel like charging you with."
"Murder one?" The voice, raised to a challenging volume, filled with self-confidence and more than a little playful conceit, made her breath pause in her lungs. "Who have they killed?"
"Ice?" She turned slowly, not wanting to be wrong. "But--"
"What? You thought we were dead?" Pulling away from the officer holding his arm, Ice sauntered ahead of the others. "Who'd have the guts to try to kill us, with Charlie on our side? Felton was too scared to pull the trigger."
"You were wearing bullet-proof vests." Her eyes had slid from Ice and were resting now on Alphonse, whose torn shirt clearly showed the tell-tale protective clothing beneath. "You... you... you..."
"Clever people?" suggested Charlie, rather hopefully.
"Irresistible studs?" suggested Alphonse, even more hopefully. Ice just smiled.
"We got him, didn't we?"
"Yeah, we got him." She glanced back at him, as though seeing all of them for the first time. "Why is it that you three always wind up in handcuffs?"
"Probably because your boys are too damned quick off the mark." Holding out his wrists for somebody to free, Ice met Christine's smile with a gentle one of his own. "And because none of them ever bothers to read the internal memos. They don't know we're on your side."
"You don't have to fail to read memos to be wrong on that score, Gregory." It was O'Connor standing by his car, watching all with his familiar expression of detachment. Ice met his gaze for a second and held it, then nodded once in understanding. O'Connor nodded back.
"Good work." It was all that he said, and his tone of voice was not exactly encouraging, but nonetheless Ice believed that he had meant it. Irascible O'Connor might have been, but he was not the type to begrudge an accolade well earned. Chrissy ignored the exchange, unmoved by the bridge building going on between her boss and her friend.
"I can't believe you didn't tell me about this. I came down here thinking I was going to be finding your bodies. I thought you were dead."
"We didn't want to worry you." Ice put an arm around her shoulders, swallowing most of his desire to grin teasingly. "We didn't know if he would try to kill us. We hoped we could just talk him into hanging himself, but we wanted to be ready in case he decided to do things the tough way. What was the sense in telling you about something that might not have happened?"
"You should have said something."
"Maybe." He gave her shoulder a squeeze. "Now how about some coffee? We've had nothing to eat all day except doughnuts."
"Your fault for letting Charlie buy the food again." Alphonse crossed over to join them, leaning against the sleek car beside the FBI agent of his dreams. If his body language had been any less subtle it would have been readable by a blind penguin, but as usual she ignored his advances.
"It wasn't my idea to let Charlie buy the food," Ice reminded him. "That was your end of things, remember?"
"Details, details." Alphonse sat down on the hood of the car. "Are we forgiven? It'd be nice if somebody would show their appreciation for a job well done by not looking cross with us for a change."
"And by giving us a holiday." Charlie leant against the car next to Alphonse, and tried to look as though he needed a long break. It wasn't difficult. "It was hell in there you know."
"Anybody can get shot, Charlie." Alphonse was trying to act up for Christine, playing the wounded soldier with the skill of long practice. "You always get off easily in these cases. It's me that needs the holiday."
"I do a nerve-racking job!" Incensed, Charlie's voice rose an octave. Alphonse shook his head.
"I do the nerve-wracking job, Charlie. All you do is make bugs and hack into computers. Who was it that got beat up when we were up against the phony faith healer, huh? Who was it that got kidnapped when we were trying to help out that kid who was snatched for a ransom? It was me that got half the clothes torn off his back by a subway train back in New York, me who got doused in petrol by a madman during that bust a couple months ago, and me who got infected with the lethal virus, remember?"
"Can I help it if you're so damn clumsy?" Charlie scowled. Ice glared at them both.
"Cut it out, the pair of you. Man, you're worse than a pair of kids squabbling over toys."
"And besides." Opening her car door, Christine gestured for them all to climb inside. Nearby Felton and Leo were being loaded up into a van, and the other FBI agents were also in the process of moving out; that or heading into the house to continue their investigations. "You can't have a holiday. I've got half a dozen more cases waiting on my desk."
"Something nice?" inquired Charlie. He sounded as though he was hoping that the assignment would be nothing more deadly than redecorating O'Connor's office. Christine laughed.
"I doubt it. You lot don't deserve something nice after what you just did to me."
"We're never gonna live that one down, are we." Ice was smiling as he climbed into the car after the others. Christine smiled at him.
"You're damn right you're not."
"So where are we going?" Alphonse, who had of course managed to net the front passenger seat, so as to be as close as possible to Kowalski, edged a little nearer to her still. She glared.
"Oh, I think you'll like this next case, Alphonse."
"Something up my street, huh?"
"Yeah, sure." The smile became a wicked grin. "Have you ever seen yourself as a male prostitute?"
"You heard." The grin was growing wider all the time. "I mean, they're not going to buy Charlie in the rôle, and Ice doesn't quite look the part either, but you'd be perfect. You know you would."
"I would, huh." Defeated he slumped back into his seat. "I think I want to go back to jail." Behind him Ice was already beginning to laugh.
"Hard luck." Chrissy couldn't help laughing as well. "You'll be great."
"Yeah man. And Charlie can be your pimp." Ice seemed to be enjoying the joke as much as Kowalski. Alphonse sighed.
"And to think I was worried that they might really have killed you."
"Join the club." For a second Chrissy was silent, before she glanced into the rear view mirror with a serious look on her face. "I have mentioned how glad I am that that didn't happen, haven't I."
"We know, Chris." Ice smiled fondly at her, and she nodded.
"Good. Not that that means I'm not still angry."
"You won't be. Not when you hear what we've got on tape. Felton practically confessed to a whole lot of stuff." Alphonse tugged Charlie's special button from his ruined shirt. "He's got clever fingers, our Charlie. I'm sure he'd make a better hooker than me."
"Nice try, 'Phonse." Charlie leaned back in his seat. "If I'm the pimp, does that mean I have to wear like a green and purple suit or something? Green isn't exactly my colour. I look pretty stupid in any weird clothes."
"So do most pimps," pointed out Ice. "So what do we need to know, Chris?"
"I'll explain on the way back to the office. I had somebody take the van back there, so we'll pick that up and then get moving. All we have to do is pick up the files."
"It's all go, isn't it." Ice allowed himself a very cool, very refined yawn. "No rest for the wicked."
"You got that right." Alphonse was smiling. "But I don't see you looking to reform, partner."
"And you never will, man." Ice gave a contented sigh, and closed his eyes behind their expensive, designer shades. Despite the satisfaction of a job well done, nothing quite beat the feeling of adrenalin that came from a challenge that was still only just beginning. He felt good, and ready to take on the world once again. "You never will."