The phone booth on the corner was forlorn and unused. Placed under a sputtering streetlight, it glowed intermittently, leaking yellow over Jim's vision as he gripped the handset closer to his ear.
"We're aware of the security updates," the voice on the other end of the line was saying, crackling through the scrambled filter Jim had attached to the wires. It was a familiar voice. The voice from the tapes. "They're routine in most embassies now, but to our knowledge, IMF technology remains impervious to them."
Jim turned his head. "And that's all you can tell me?"
There was a long pause. "We're looking into it."
They knew something.
Light flickered bright through the side of the booth then dimmed abruptly—a car driving past the lip of the alley with its brights on. Jim pressed the tips of his fingers to the glass, staring out at the street. He spoke carefully. "A member of my team…" He stopped, cleared his throat and started again. "My team could be in trouble. The mission could be in trouble. If there's information I don't have, I need it. We need to know what we're up against."
"We'll provide you whatever we can, Jim, but it will take some time. We'll notify you when we have something, but we can't do it over the phone."
"I understand. How long?"
"Twenty-four hours." There was another pause. "Be careful, Jim." The phrase was followed by the quick click of a disconnecting line, the dial tone treading steadily after, vibrating into Jim's hand. He dropped the phone, stepped back, and pulled the scrambler from its attachment—too roughly. It clattered against the base of the booth as it loosened.
He stood motionless, mind clicking through the possibilities, the plans, the angles. He came up empty. There was too much they didn't know. They were shooting in the dark while his team was out there, fumbling for targets and standing exposed. One of them missing with no reason why.
He tucked the scrambler back into its holder and folded it into his pocket, thumb brushing his communicator as he did so. He pulled it out and stared. After a moment, he pushed the button that should have connected him to Nicholas, and listened to the silence.
Another car moved past the alley, wheels rolling over loose gravel, lights brushing the black asphalt.
Making a decision, Jim cleared his throat and activated the link to a different frequency. This time, fully expecting an answer.
Max returned two-way sound to his communicator. "Jim," he said, then checked his watch. Sixty-seven minutes since he'd last seen Nicholas. He refocused, tracking his eyes to where Grant was strolling through the parking lot. "Jim."
"Max. Any sign?"
"Nothing. We're still tracking Wesson. So far, it's not leading us anywhere."
"Nothing at all?"
Max rubbed a hand up the back of his neck. "If we do have anything, we're not liking the implications." He looked in the other direction, at Wesson in the rose garden, and said his next sentence carefully. "If the man we're following did something with Nicholas, he's not acting the part." He pulled the communicator away from his lips and waited for what he was suggesting to sink in.
"You saw Wesson talking to Nicholas?" Jim finally responded. The tone of his voice reflected Max's inference, but he was waiting, like he needed Max to say it.
Max released the air from his lungs. "I saw someone who looked like Wesson talking to someone who looked like Heming."
Max closed his eyes. "Wesson isn't involved. Not the one we're following." Frustration knotted his muscles as he said it, because if Wesson wasn't involved, who was? Saying it aloud felt like shutting down their only lead.
"Someone's using our playbook," said Jim.
"Is it possible, Jim? What did you find out about the consulate?"
"It's being looked into. Where's Grant?"
"Setting a tracking device on Wesson's car… just in case."
"You can see him?"
Max stiffened his shoulders, hair itching taller across his scalp. He looked again at the parking lot. There were rows of shiny bumpers lined together, colors meshing, reflecting lamp light across the blacktop. But no motion. No Grant. He felt his chest expand, felt blood drag up to his head—felt his eyes pulse with it.
Then, movement. Grant. Weaving between a groomed Interceptor and a classic BMW.
Max whistled out through his nose, letting his ribs relax. "I can see him, Jim. I'm watching him now." He kept his eyes pinned as Grant neared Wesson's bumper and accidentally-on-purpose dropped his keys, hunching low to attach the tracker to the car, then glanced briefly over his shoulder to check Wesson's fuzzy outline. "Grant's okay," Max relayed. "He's setting the device. Jim—"
"Good." A crackle of static snapped across the connection. "If he goes anywhere, we'll know. In the meantime, I want you and Grant to get back to the bunker. Both of you."
"What about Nicholas? We can't just—"
"We're not. But we can't help Nicholas until we know more about what's going on… and you know it."
Tightening his grip on the com-device, Max flexed his jaw. Grant's shadow straightened in the distance, head rising behind a white Lexus.
"If this is a set up…" said Jim.
"I know," answered Max. A shift of wind wound around the corner, soughing roughly through the trees. He tapped his heel against the wall, staring steadily as Grant weaved back to him. Jim was right, but what he was asking felt like abandonment.
"Max," prompted Jim.
Max swallowed. Grant jogged softly up to him, wind sweeping at his jacket, tugging slow ripples across the sleeves. "I hear you, Jim. I've got Grant, now. We're on our way."
Grant's eyebrows creased.
Max clicked the communicator off, tucking it into his pocket. He met Grant's eyes and patted a hand stiffly against his shoulder.