"Say it," Bobby Hobbes muttered.
"Go on, say it, get it over with."
Darien Fawkes glanced up from where he was sitting, idly toying with the mouse from the Keeper's computer. "Oh, I would, believe me, but I'm just savoring this for a little while."
The Keeper shot him a nasty look. "That's not very compassionate of you, Darien." She turned back to Hobbes, who was seated but fidgeting in the lab's examining chair, and continued probing his eye with latex-gloved fingers.
"Ow! ... thanks for the support, Keep. Some people don't have an appreciation for the demands of duty."
" 'Don't touch the suspect's kid, Hobbes,' " Darien started reciting aloud, looking up at the ceiling and not at either his partner or the Keeper. " 'She looks pretty grubby, Hobbes, you don't know what she's crawling with, Hobbes.' But does he listen to me? Nope. I told you so, man. You're lucky you didn't end up with head lice."
Hobbes snarled at his partner and rubbed at one eye vigorously. "The kid was about to fall over that railing, Fawkes. Was I supposed to let her just go over or was I supposed to grab her and stop her? Didn't think so. I'd rather pick up head lice - the little SOB's would be homeless." He paused for a second and smirked, pointing over at Darien with the hand that wasn't attacking the side of his eye. "And hey, you said it. 'I told you so.' That's all your told-you-so points used up right there, so I don't wanna hear another - ow!" Cut off in mid-tirade, Hobbes held his hand where the Keeper had slapped it.
"I told you to stop rubbing it! You'll make it worse." She peeled off the latex gloves and reached for the telephone. "Conjunctivitis is no laughing matter. I'm going to phone a friend of mine at the drugstore to set you up with a prescription."
Darien stifled a snicker. "Busted." As the Keeper rattled off details into the phone, Hobbes slid off the chair and started pacing around the lab angrily.
"I can't believe this ... freaking pinkeye." He heard the phone being set back in its cradle and glanced up at the Keeper with hope in his eye. "Is that all set, then?"
"Mm-hmm - you'll have to pay up front, of course, but the Agency will reimburse you --"
Hobbes snorted and absently picked at his eye again. "Like I'm holding my breath - whatever, it's just more meds, I can just pick 'em up, be back before lunch --"
"What?" The Keeper interrupted. "Oh, no, no you don't. Conjunctivitis is extremely contagious - I won't have you infecting the entire building. I'm calling the Official and having you put on leave until it clears up."
Hobbes stopped in mid-pace. Even Darien sat up in the computer chair and put the mouse back beside the keyboard. "You're kidding me, right?" Hobbes moaned. "I mean, come on, Keep, me and Fawkes have an important job to do. We don't take off 'cause we've got the sniffles - " He was cut off again by the Keeper, who raised one finger to silence him.
"It's bad enough having to doctor one of you on a regular basis," she said, scowling. "I don't care how much of a tough man you think you are - I'm not having this whole department come down with pinkeye. Trust me - the Official is not a pleasant man when he's ill. Just go home, try not to touch anything on the way out, and don't rub it!" She pointed to where Hobbes had raised his hand to his right eye. He shook his head and jammed both of his hands into his pockets, but then immediately started blinking with force.
The lab telephone rang, preventing any arguments from Hobbes. The Keeper answered it. "Keeper ... yes sir, yes, they're both here," she said, glaring at Darien and Hobbes. "Sir, there's something we need to discuss." Pausing, she held a hand over the mouthpiece. "Darien, the Official would like to see you in his office. Hobbes, pick up your prescription and go home. Call me tomorrow, let me know how the medication is working. If I hear that you're in this building, I will call Security and have you arrested. Am I clear?"
A sigh from Hobbes. "Yeah, yeah. Yes, ma'am."
"Good. Now if you two will get going, I need to talk with the Official." She nodded towards the door and turned back to the telephone. Darien shrugged and left the lab, followed by Hobbes, who was picking at his eye again.
"Hey, you're not supposed to do that," Darien said with a grin.
"Don't you start now, pal. Dammit! Of all the rotten things --"
"Well, at least you'll be getting a few days off, even if you do have to spend it cooped up in your apartment. Me, I've got a date with the fat man right now - maybe he'll cut me some slack, too. I mean, I can't do this job without my partner, right?"
"Damn straight," Hobbes replied. "Bobby Hobbes is an integral part of this well-oiled machine we got going here." They paused in front of the elevator, but as Hobbes reached for the button, Darien's hand darted forward and beat him to it.
"Hey, hey, no touching stuff. Keep 'em in your pockets, that way nobody else gets the pinkeye you could have avoided if --"
"Thought I told you to knock it off, Fawkes."
"Was that 'I told you so'? No? No. It wasn't."
Hobbes shook his head and stepped into the elevator. "See if you get any sympathy from me next time your eyes go red, buddy," he muttered.
"Yah, so, what've you got?" Darien slid into the chair in front of the Official's desk and sprawled out, tapping his fingers against the armrest. The Official and Eberts glared at him from the other side of the desk silently. One of the Official's eyebrows twitched.
"Besides constant high blood pressure thanks to the efforts of my agents ... this." The Official snorted and pushed a manila folder across the desk surface.
Darien ignored the insult and opened the folder. The first thing that caught his eye was a glossy photo paperclipped to the inside cover - a craggy face with eyebrows running together and aged acne scars up and down its cheeks. "Yikes. Who's the mug?"
"His name is Malcolm Flynn - that's his prison record there on the right. Mr. Flynn until recently worked as a hitman for hire for some of the local crime groups - little fish, drugstore gangsters, all of them."
"Wait - 'until recently'?"
The Official opened his mouth to reply, but Eberts piped up from behind before he could start a word. "Ah, Mr. Flynn was found last night in his apartment on the south side of town - he'd been shot several times. They admitted him to the ER and have him under observation in the ICU, where he's still comatose. There's reason to believe he was preparing to testify against one of his suspected employers - his most recent employer, actually. A group of small-time investors from Sweden who are looking to secure part of the local action, so to speak."
Darien closed the folder. "Sweden? What, these guys are like wannabe Swedish mafia? You've gotta be kidding me."
The Official shrugged. "I told you, Flynn worked low on the food chain. He was the hired gun for all of the local hustlers who'd seen The Godfather too many times." He pushed a second folder towards Darien. "These are your Swedish mafia - your job is to keep an eye on then, try to get something to connect them with Flynn. The man might've been a scum-level hoodlum, but he operated like a professional. We know that the Swedes were worried about him turning informant, but they shouldn't have had any way of locating him or his home. According to records, that was the way he worked. If it was them who tried to kill him, we'd like to know how they managed to find him."
The folders landed back on the Official's desk. "Look, guys," Darien replied, rolling his eyes, "I'm just as eager as you are to catch these guys at work, and I'm not even going to ask who's putting you up to this one, but I really don't see how this can possibly involve us. I mean, how are you going to justify it? Unless you pull out something about endangering Swedish fish --"
"That's our concern, Agent Fawkes. You just carry out the surveillance and report back. We'll worry about what comes afterwards."
"Uh-huh. Well, hey, it's not the first time you've thrown me a job like this. Guess I'll just get going then - " Darien sat up as though he was about to leave, but then slid right back down into his chair. "Oh. Oh, wait. No. Can't do it."
Twin glares again. The Official scowled. "What now?"
Darien pointed at the empty chair beside his own. "Got no partner."
The Official and Eberts exchanged a quick look. For a moment it almost seemed like Eberts was trying not to smile. "Yes, we heard from the Keeper about Agent Hobbes' illness. He's been put on leave for the duration."
"Good for him. Can't have me goin' out in the field alone, though - I go crazy, Agency'll have a lot of bad press, might wreck the gland, can't have that happening, so I guess I'll probably go home until Hobbes' pinkeye clears up - "
" - which is why I'm assigning Eberts to accompany you on the surveillance."
Darien blinked. "Huh?" He involuntarily glanced over at Eberts, who was doing his best to fight back a big Cheshire Cat grin. "What?"
The Official ignored him and began shuffling papers around on his desktop. "It shouldn't be any problem - it's just a surveillance job. There won't be any confrontations or arrests, and there shouldn't be any need to use quicksilver on this mission, but I'm sending Eberts with you to make sure of that. All the information you need is in those files right there. I've even allocated an undercover Agency car - it's parked out back, keys under the passenger seat. Take care of it or it's coming out of your paychecks. Have a good time, boys, and don't come back until you have something."
Eberts shuffled nervously out from behind the desk, gathering up the manila folders as he did. Darien looked at him, and at the Official, and back at Eberts, who was still twitching like kid on his way to Disneyland.
"Um, shall we?"
It took Eberts all of five minutes to grab his briefcase and coat and meet Fawkes out back, next to the car. By that time, though, Darien had already removed the keys from underneath the passenger seat and was leaning against the car, turning the keys over in his hand.
"All right, before we do this we have to lay down some ground rules, okay?"
Eberts frowned. "Okay."
"Rule one - I drive." Darien held up the car keys, jangling them for emphasis, and watched Eberts' eyes follow them like a kitten's following a tennis ball.
"Rule two - you have to lose the tie." Eberts glanced down at what he was wearing and grinned weakly. "I mean, come on, this is covert surveillance here. We're supposed to be inconspicuous and here you are looking like the accounting branch of the Men in Black. Not gonna work - "
"Rule three," Eberts interrupted, unbuttoning his jacket. "Don't take it out on me because Agent Hobbes is sick and you can't be trusted in the field by yourself." He narrowed his eyes at Darien and started loosening the knot of his tie.
Darien paused for a moment. "Good one," he finally muttered, unlocking the driver's side door. "For that one I'll let you get in the car."
"Gee, thanks," Eberts shot back, but he had the makings of another grin on his face. Darien rolled his eyes and slid into the driver's seat. It was looking like a long day ahead of him.
The files that the Official had given them weren't elaborate, but they offered at least a couple of potential starting points - the Swedes' folder, especially, had a few helpful Post-It notes stuck to photos of the Swedes and the massive Cadillacs they used to get around the city. Eberts found a scribbled address beside the glossy shot of the lead investor, so they decided to check the place out.
"It says here," Eberts read, "that this man Knutson spends half the day just sitting there drinking coffee."
"Must be a diner or a restaurant," Darien remarked, turning the car onto the indicated street. "Where does he find the time to do all his investing and knee-breaking and things? ... I think that's the address over there, and that looks like one of the guys' Caddies out front," he added, pointing at a coffeehouse further down the road. It was a bistro-style upscale place, with sliding front windows removed to brighten the interior and give an open-air feeling.
As Darien parked the car about half a block away, Eberts pulled a pair of binoculars out of his briefcase and peered in the bistro's direction. "Hey, I think that's him."
"Aren't you the prepared Boy Scout. C'mon, lemme see." Eberts handed over the binoculars and Darien caught a glimpse of Knutson - a pudgy, tow-headed man dressed in a garish warm-up suit, perched on a cafe stool and tapping away at a laptop. "You're kidding me, right? ... guess that answers how he gets his work done, but, Jesus, pick one, pal - either you're the cutting-edge-technology coffeeshop investor or you're the gangster taking a page out of the Goodfellas book of mob fashion sense. Don't try to do both."
Eberts giggled for a moment and then regained his composure, looking at Darien and then back at Knutson. "So, um, I guess we should just, ah, watch him now, then."
Pushing the back of his chair down a few notches, Darien shrugged. "That's my general impression of surveillance, yeah. You tell me - you and the fat man know more about this than I do. Why are we out here?"
"Oh. That. Um, it's classified."
"... okay then. Get watching." Darien shook his head and turned back to watch Knutson sitting beside one of the empty windows. Okay, true, Eberts did deserve to get out of the office from time to time, but that didn't mean that Darien wasn't going to chafe at having been assigned a babysitter whose closest brush with danger was standing too close to the paper shredder. Especially for one of the Official's mystery missions which would probably turn out to be an under-the-table favor for some congressman in the next district. Darien sighed, wondering how long conjunctivitis took to clear up.
"Eberts, quit flipping through that thing. You're driving me nuts."
"Sorry." Eberts set the Swedes' folder back on his lap and looked up again. They'd been watching Knutson for almost two hours, and the man had done nothing but make calls on his cell phone and visits to the men's room. "I guess I was just hoping that I might be able to find something useful."
Darien looked over from where he was leaning back in the driver's seat. "That's what we're supposed to be doing here, Eberts. But I'm sure that you could be doing more useful work in the office. Maybe you'd like to head home? I can hold down the fort here."
"Nice try, Agent Fawkes." Eberts shot him a grimace that would have made the Official proud. "You and Agent Hobbes have done these kinds of assignments before. What do you two usually do?"
"Um." Make fun of the Official. Rate the girls who passed by. Prank call the Keeper. Play 'I'm thinking of a number'. " ... We just watch the guy."
"Oh." Grabbing the binoculars, Eberts peeked at Knutson another time for good measure. "No, he's still just drinking coffee."
That actually sounded tempting. "Man, I could go for some coffee," Darien muttered.
"You want some lunch? I brought a bag lunch, if you want to share."
" ... sorry, I think my mom would be mad if I traded away my PBJ sandwich."
"Ha ha. You want it or not?" Eberts reached for his briefcase. "There's two chocolate pudding cups."
" ... yeah, okay." Darien accepted the extra dessert. "Breakfast of champions."
"Here's a spoon ... hey, is that someone talking with Knutson?"
"What?" Darien dropped the unopened pudding cup and reached for the binoculars. "You're right! Finally," he said, adjusting the focus. "I don't recognize this guy - he's not one of the Swedish guys in that file. If this turns out to be a coffeeshop attendant, Eberts, you're getting this pudding cup upside the head. ... Jesus, this guy looks tense."
"Can I look?"
"Knock yourself out." Darien handed the binoculars over and started peeling the foil off the pudding. He nearly dropped it when Eberts sat up unexpectedly with a surprised "Huh!"
"Now that's interesting," Eberts mumbled, not taking the binoculars from his eyes. "Wow, why is he here?"
"What? Who is it?"
The binoculars came down. "That's Chuck Ryder - don't you read those issues of Computer Currents that are down in the lobby? Plus I think he was in the paper a few times - he's a local software programmer trying his hand in the start-up business, but last I heard TechRyder wasn't doing well - "
"TechRyder. Like his name. It's the name of his start-up." Eberts went back to squinting through the binoculars. "Knutson's listening ... now he's typing something on his laptop ... oh, this is good, he's just pushed an envelope over to Ryder. Now he's ordering more coffee --"
"Knock off the play-by-play, Eberts. Just concentrate on the important stuff. You said that the Swedish guy just tossed your computer friend an envelope. Is he doing anything with it?"
"Um, no. He's leaving."
"Crap." The two men watched as Ryder scurried out of the bistro and hopped into a lime green Volkswagen, leaving Knutson behind to enjoy his coffee. As Eberts continued spying on Ryder, Darien slammed the back of his chair upright again and turned the key in the ignition.
Eberts dropped the binoculars onto his knees. "Agent Fawkes, what're you --"
"C'mon - we're not getting anything watching Knutson. Maybe we can score something on your computer guy here. Hey, we might've just been witness to a serious crime there - you don't wanna try to follow it up?" The green Volkswagen peeled away, leaving Darien to count for a few seconds before steering the Agency car out of its parking spot and into pursuit.
"Um - ah - ah, Agent Fawkes - " Eberts spluttered, staring nervously through the windshield and grabbing for the support bar overhead, "Agent Fawkes, we're meant to be watching Erik Knutson and not blindly pursuing other unrelated suspects --"
"What's up, Eberts? I thought you'd be happy to see a little action today." The Agency car had a surprising amount of pickup, letting it keep pace with Ryder's car. Eberts clutched the binoculars with white-knuckled fingers.
"We really really shouldn't be doing this," he squeaked. "We're supposed to be watching Knutson. Nothing hard. Just surveillance."
"Oh, come on. Sit back and eat your pudding cup. It'll be interesting."
"Interesting, ha!" Eberts snorted. "I know what kinds of hijinks you and Agent Hobbes get into - I'll be lucky to get out of this with all my limbs intact - "
"Shut up. Jesus, I thought Hobbes was bad." That closed Eberts' mouth. He shrank back into the seat, staring glumly at the road ahead Darien kept them close behind the green car. Minutes passed, and more, and more until most of the city buildings were behind them and there was little in the distance besides electricity pylons and scrubby bushes at the roadside. The other car showed no signs of stopping.
"Where is this guy going?" Darien asked, his voice betraying his impatience. It was taking effort to stay within following distance but still far enough behind to remain inconspicuous.
"He's probably heading back to work. There's nothing out here but office parks at cheap rental cost - I bet that's where TechRyder HQ is." Eberts appeared to have relaxed a bit, but the tension still came out in his words. Darien almost felt a bit of pity - the guy hadn't expected this and probably wasn't looking forward to reporting back to the Official at the end of it - so he tried distracting Eberts until they reached their destination, wherever that was.
"Hey, Eberts, what does TechRyder do, anyway? Anything that Knutson would be interested in?"
"Huh? Oh," Eberts frowned, trying to remember. "It was something Internet-related - who isn't doing that nowadays - search engine stuff, I think. The article wasn't specific. I don't think that Knutson would be interested, unless he was planning on funding the company, but the file says that these Swedes are more interested in brick-and-mortar ventures."
"Uh-huh." The green car turned left past a street sign and onto a long, badly-paved road. On the horizon, Darien could see a set of squat buildings surrounded by parking lot and a few out-of-place trees. "You said that TechRyder was on hard times, though. Do you think that Ryder would approach the Swedish guys for money?"
"... that would make sense. It says in the file that they're known in the small-time investment circles, so Ryder probably would have heard of them. It would explain what happened back at the cafe, too." Ahead of them, the Volkswagen finally screeched to a halt in one of the many empty parking spaces. Darien slowed the Agency car and watched as Chuck Ryder scrambled out of the car, slamming the door behind him.
"Someone's in a hurry ... oh, we've gotta follow this guy. He has 'I'm up to no good' written all over him." With a jerk, Darien stopped the car in one of the nearest parking spaces and nodded to Eberts. "C'mon, let's go."
"Go? You mean follow Ryder inside?"
"No, I mean let's go to a foreign film festival. Of course we're following Ryder inside! He's way too jumpy to be doing anything legal. Maybe we can catch him at it." Before Eberts could protest, Darien was out of the car and already striding across the parking lot.
Eberts grabbed for his jacket and darted to catch up, immediately falling into step with Darien and trying to fake an undisturbed appearance for anyone who might be watching. "I'm not really used to this kind of thing," he whispered, tugging the sleeves of his jacket down nervously.
"You're fine - if anyone asks, we're just ... aw, crap, there's a security desk." Without warning, Darien changed direction and headed off to the right, away from the open glass door of the building which was observed by a beefy watchman sitting just inside, behind a wooden greeting desk. The two men stopped just out of the watchman's view.
"We can't go in the front," Eberts hissed. "We have no idea what they'd do to uninvited visitors, especially if people like Knutson are involved here. Should we head back?"
"We should find a back door is what we should do. Leave it to me - you just stay here and try not to stand out too much. I'll catch up with you." Darien broke away from Eberts and let the familiar cool tingle of quicksilver slip over his skin. He resisted the urge to tease Eberts for a moment and headed into the building, ambling past the imposing security desk carelessly. He checked a wall directory for TechRyder's office number and then wandered down one of the corridors of the first floor. Some cheap framed landscape prints and a few office doors, but no exit to the outside. There was a stairwell leading down into the basement, though, with dim reflected light shining up through the stairs. Darien trod carefully, following the light downstairs until he reached another hallway - and, thankfully, an unalarmed exit to the parking lot. Propping the door open, he checked that he was alone and then let the quicksilver fall, shedding it to the dusty asphalt.
Eberts was extremely glad to see him. The two of them quietly doubled around the building, avoiding the front door as well as any windows. When they reached the door that Darien had left ajar, though, Eberts halted in his steps just inside the doorway. "What is it?" Darien whispered.
Eberts didn't move, but turned slightly and glanced back over his shoulder. "Did you see this? There's a huge glass window in this hallway - and I think there's someone inside working."
"Crap. I didn't notice. Hold still for a sec, against the wall." Quickly Eberts flattened himself against the brick wall as Darien crept in behind him, closing the door gently. The glass window showed a cluttered room behind it, full of computer monitors and untidy wires hanging from the ceiling and littering the floor. Inside, a dark-haired young man paced around, avoiding scattered computer parts and old soda cans on the floor. Further down the hallway, a door opened into the room, letting some of the man's conversation with his cellphone escape into the corridor.
" ... Chuck, slow down ... but I thought he promised ... yeah, but that wasn't our fault, we did our part - Chuck, for Christ's sake, slow down! You're breaking up ... no, don't do that." Exasperated, the man ran his free hand through his hair and shook his head angrily. "Yeah, okay. I'll be right up." Kicking an empty soda can across the room in frustration, he poked at the cell phone and thrust it into his pocket. Eberts and Darien froze as the man stormed out of the room and into the hallway, but fortunately for them, he chose to head towards a second stairwell at the opposite end, missing them completely. They listened until his steps grew faint and then stepped away from the wall.
"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Darien muttered, peering in through the glass. Eberts tiptoed further down the hallway and inspected the door to the room.
"Definitely. I bet this is TechRyder's machine room - you know, where all their system computers and things are. Here's their doorplate. Where did that man go, though?"
Darien pointed to the ceiling. "TechRyder has their office listed as being on the third floor. I saw the listing when I went in through the lobby. Bet he's going up to bend old Chuck's ear right now." He turned and looked through the window at the chaotic computer room, frowning at the jumble of wiring and machine components tossed around the place. "What a mess. We should get upstairs - they could be talking about something important, Eberts ... Eberts?"
His temporary partner was staring intently into the machine room, obviously doing a sight check of the computer setup and evaluating something that was lost on Darien. "Look - he left himself logged in," Eberts pointed out, gesturing to one of the monitors.
Darien tried to follow Eberts' line of vision, but he couldn't figure out where the man was looking. He knew where this idea was leading, though. "You think you could find something useful in there?"
Eberts blinked and looked back at Darien, half worried and half eager. "Maybe. Do you think I should take a look?"
"You do that - I'm going to head upstairs and see if I can catch any of what's going down with Chuck and company." Darien turned and followed the dark-haired man's path towards the second stairwell.
"Agent Fawkes - what if someone catches me?"
Darien paused at the foot of the stairs. "You used to be IRS, right? Threaten them with an audit or something."
"Will that work?"
"Beats faking a seizure - that's always Hobbes' backup plan."
Panicked would be a good word to describe the situation in Chuck Ryder's office. The dark-haired man had shut the door behind him, but as Darien found when he crept into the third-floor hallway, cheap thin walls and two men yelling made for convenient eavesdropping, which definitely beat turning on the quicksilver and sneaking into places any day of the week. Leaning back against the wall, he stared blankly off into the hallway and concentrated on the conversation raging away inside the office behind him.
A voice he didn't recognize, practically on the verge of tears by the way it was cracking. "It's a fucking pittance, Stevie! This might cover the rental costs, but not the contractors' payment, and definitely not the backup fees --"
And then a second voice, shaking a bit but definitely calmer than the first. Darien recognized it as that of the dark-haired man from the basement computer room. "Can't fucking believe this - like it's our fault they can't carry out their own job right. We give 'em the data they need, and when they fuck up the job, they take it out on us. Fucking typical." The source of the voice sounded like it was moving; Darien guessed that the man - Stevie, was it? - was probably pacing around this room just as he had done downstairs. "Okay. We can get through this. I mean, we worked without the backup service before, we worked out of your living room, for Christ's sake, I think we can handle some belt-tightening --"
The first voice was moaning again. This one probably belonged to Chuck Ryder, unless anyone else had sneaked into the office, which was unlikely. "Oh, God, God, I built this out of nothing and now - even this didn't work out - oh God, why did we trust them? Fucking foreigner thinking he's the second coming of Don fucking Corleone, oh Jesus."
"Chuck." Stevie interrupted the other man's wailing, and Darien mouthed a silent thanks; the conversation couldn't go on forever, and he'd much rather walk away with useful information than an earful of Chuck Ryder's stream-of-consciousness whining. "Chuck," Stevie continued, "did he say anything about what we arranged?"
This seemed to shake Ryder out of his crying for a moment. "Yeah - yeah, he did - he mentioned a business partner of his who, who needs the same kind of thing done. He said that this one might be harder. He's going to get in touch soon." Ryder lowered his voice, and Darien was forced to press his ear to the wall to hear the discussion.
Whatever it was that needed being done didn't seem to perturb Stevie at all. "Can do," he muttered. "And if it's harder we can probably up the cost, maybe break even on what we didn't get from Knutson. I can probably reuse a few of the code modules - hey, that reminds me, I finally finished writing the scripts for that new fileserver. Sorry it took so long - I mean, because of, um, all this. Did you want to see it? It's a pretty sweet set-up."
The relief of being distracted by work was evident in Ryder's voice. "That sounds great. Just let me check some of the query code back in - I didn't get a chance to finish it before meeting with the guy - then we can head downstairs and take a look at it."
Dammit. Darien had no idea how much time it would take for Ryder to finish what he was doing, but he guessed that it wouldn't be long. With a start he pushed away from the wall and sprinted out of the hallway and into the stairwell, bounding down the stairs two at a time. In the basement, the door to TechRyder's machine room was closed; he nearly threw himself against it getting inside.
"Agent Fawkes!" Eberts was sitting in front the monitor he had pointed out before, eyes wide at the surprise of Darien suddenly stumbling into the room. He blinked a few times and pointed to the screen. "I - I think I found what we need - I can't find all of the code, but I ran a search and --"
Darien held up a hand. "That's great, Eberts, that really is, but right now we need to grab what we can and get out - Ryder and his computer stooge are on their way down here in a few minutes."
Eberts was stone still for a moment, lips thinned. Then he quickly turned the chair back around and started typing commands into the computer. "I'm printing this out - listen for where the printer is and grab the hardcopy as it comes out." Darien nodded and started looking around the room, both for the printer and for a way out besides the one they'd used to get in. He found the machine sitting on a shelf next to the window, which, unfortunately, looked like the only exit available. As he examined the locks on the window, sheets of paper started rolling onto the printer tray.
"I got 'em," Darien said to Eberts, grabbing and flipping through the handful of printouts. The computer code was lost on him, but Eberts would probably be able to make something of it. "Is this all of them?"
"All I can get - just let me clear this --" Eberts was working feverishly now, fingers rigid with tension and nose just inches from the screen. Darien folded the printed code and crammed it into his pocket, getting ready to bolt from the computer room. Even Eberts was edging up in his seat. "Okay - I'm just about --"
Voices suddenly echoed from out in the hallway through the door that Darien had shoved open. Recognizing them as Ryder's and Stevie's, Darien froze where he stood. On instinct a rush of quicksilver flooded over his skin, hiding him from the sight of the men about to enter the machine room.
"That's all of them - Fawkes!" Crap. He'd forgotten about Eberts, who had finished at the computer and was now looking wildly around the apparently empty room, eyes like dinner plates. Ryder's voice piped up from just outside the room, berating Stevie for leaving the door open.
"Chrissakes, Stevie, this is expensive equipment here - what have I told you about locking the damned room up?" Quickly, Darien reached over and grabbed Eberts by the arms, forcing more quicksilver over the other man and shielding the pair of them from sight. Holding Eberts firmly next to him, he manuevered away from the computer and against a rack of blinking machinery.
"Don't move," Darien murmured into the man's ear. He could feel Eberts shivering beneath his hands and hoped that he wouldn't panic and try to make a break for it. They both watched as Ryder and Stevie stormed into the room and headed directly for the spot where Eberts had been sitting not thirty seconds before.
"Don't even start with that, Chuck. I've got enough on my mind right now." As Stevie tapped away at the keyboard, Darien felt Eberts shifting slightly in his grasp. He guessed that the man was inspecting his own hands, fascinated by the effects of the quicksilver.
"Whatever," Ryder snarled. "Half of it's only rented machines, I know you only care about the router you brought in, anyway. Let 'em all get stolen." He started absently nudging a bundle of wires on the floor with his shoe, growling to himself. For all his talk, Ryder had still left the door wide open behind him. Hoping that Eberts would be able to catch on to what he was planning, he gave a gentle squeeze to the arm closer to the door and started inching carefully along the machine rack, still holding Eberts close. Fortunately, the man had understood and was doing his best to match Darien's movements.
Then Stevie broke the silence. "Fuck. I think - has someone been in here?" Both Darien and Eberts stopped dead in their steps, almost losing their balance. The announcement caught Ryder by surprise as well; his jaw fell slack and he nearly knocked Stevie over in his efforts to see what was on the computer screen.
"You're kidding me!" Ryder squeaked. "How? When?" He drew a cell phone from a trouser pocket and held it clenched in his hand, waiting for Stevie to say more.
"I don't know," Stevie muttered, squinting at the monitor. "That's not - dammit, look at this command history. Fuck! Was this when I was upstairs just now?" Ryder frantically punched a number into his cellphone, which covered the slight sputter of Eberts cursing under his breath.
"Yeah, Gerald? This is Chuck Ryder from the third floor." Ryder took slow breaths, trying his best not to sound hysterical. "Yeah, listen - I'm not sure, but we think there might've been a break-in in our systems room ... no, of course it was closed ... yeah, thanks a lot." Trembling, Ryder poked at another button and thrust the phone in Stevie's direction. "I fucking told you! Lock the door!"
Stevie's face was just about the color of paper, but he sat unmoving in his chair. "What did Gerald say?"
Ryder jammed the phone back into his pocket. "He's sending a guy to look around - Christ, did I lock the door upstairs? I'll be right back." Ryder turned and hurtled out of the room, legs nearly flailing. Darien saw the opportunity and tugged Eberts towards the open door. Carefully treading over the scattered wires and machine components, they barely made it out before Stevie glanced back from where the computer sat and noticed that Ryder had left the door ajar behind him.
"Slack-assed hypocrite," Stevie muttered, slamming it with enough force to drown out the sound of the other door to the parking lot quietly opening.
Braced against the side of the building, Darien dropped Eberts' hands and let the quicksilver fall in a burst to the pavement. As he came into view, Eberts was goggling, his mouth wide open.
"That was - I mean, I know we were in trouble, but that was amazing!" He quickly stole a glance down at his hands and then looked back up at Darien.
"Yeah. I laughed, I cried, it was better than Cats, now can we get out of here? And this," Darien added, tugging the crumpled printout from his pocket, "is all yours. Hope you can make something out of it - I sure as hell can't."
"I can try," Eberts said, frowning. The pair quickly headed towards the parking spaces in front of the building, Darien craning his neck to make sure that no one was behind them. "Ouch. I haven't seen spaghetti code this bad since I was in the computer club in high school. No wonder TechRyder's going down the tubes, if they're hiring coders like this."
"The computer club, huh? Now why doesn't that surprise ..." Darien's voice trailed away, and his steps slowed to a near-stop. They'd passed the corner of the office building and were threading between a couple of parked cars, but there was no sign of the Agency car that the Official had loaned to them that morning. In fact, there was an ominously empty space where Darien would have sworn that he had left the car. Eberts was still nose-deep in the code printout; without a word, Darien swiftly put a hand to the man's elbow and guided him back around towards the side of the building where they wouldn't be seen.
Eberts blinked and looked up. "Agent Fawkes, what's --"
"The car's not there."
More blinks. "What?"
"Look over there. That's where I parked the car, isn't it? It's not there anymore."
Eberts squinted for a moment and then raised his eyebrows. "Oh no. Oh, God, the Official's going to kill me -- "
"Eberts, I swear to God, if this is like that time that you guys sent me and Hobbes out in that undercover car with the expired registration --"
"Hey, I thought you were going to stop bringing that up! Do you think we wanted you to get pulled over in the middle of an investigation?" Eberts shook his head. "No, I checked this car myself just yesterday - it was fine. And that wasn't even us, that was one of the interns who was supposed to make sure your car was registered, and we fired him the next day."
" ... we have interns?"
"I bet they're authorized to tow unregistered cars in this lot, and since we just parked anywhere and didn't go in the front door ... Jesus, I wish they were that diligent at our lot - you know how many times the women from that pre-school keep parking in my space?"
"Hey, Eberts, we have interns?"
Both men paused for a second. Then Eberts spoke up. "Oh. Um. It's not your department to know, Agent Fawkes - "
"Forget I asked. Look, we have to get out of here - if they check the building and find there's no one in there, they might start checking the perimeter."
Eberts gave an involuntary look back at where the car should have been. "We're going to need to call a cab. I have my cell phone, so at least we won't have to go back in and ask to borrow their telephone."
"We're not waiting here until they show up, though." Leaning around the building's corner, Darien made sure that nobody was out scouting the parking lot yet. "Come on - we'll start walking, get away from the building - then we'll make the call."
"They might be watching the road. See who tries to get away without a car."
"We can fix that," Darien replied with a smirk. His expression changed when he glanced down and caught a glimpse of his wrist. "Crap. Okay, not for long, we can't." He held up his hand to show Eberts the snake tattoo, which had filled to over half-red thanks to his efforts in the computer room. It took a moment for Eberts to realize the significance.
"Oh. Oh!" He stared back at Fawkes and seemed to edge away slightly. "How are you feeling?"
Darien rolled his eyes. "Relax, Eberts - if I ever try to kill you, it'll be back at the office when you and the fat man try to give us the bureaucratic runaround." Eberts shrank back even further. "Joke, it's a joke! Look, I can get us at least to the end of the road that leads up here, and then after that we should be out of range enough not to worry. But do me a favor and call the Keeper after you call the cab company, okay? I wanna make sure she's filled in and prepped for when we get there."
Forcing himself to take a deep breath and trying to stay calm, Eberts nodded. "Okay." With that, Darien reached over and took Eberts' hand again, releasing the quicksilver over himself and up the other man's arm. The same look of wonder replaced any fear on Eberts' face, and within seconds the two men had vanished completely from sight.
"Hold on, don't let go, and we're gonna go quickly, got it?" Darien's voice seemed to echo around the seemingly-empty side parking lot; it was a brief warning before he jerked Eberts' hand towards the front of the building and the two staggered off half-blindly among the parked cars and out onto the sun-baked road ahead of them.
"I don't care about what happened in the past, sir. This is an emergency here and -- hello? Hello?" His voice strained from yelling, Eberts stabbed a button on his cell phone with disgust. "He hung up. I can't believe this."
Neither could Darien. They had managed to stumble their way out of the office park's immediate range of sight, but it had taxed Darien's abilities; the level of green on the snake's body was getting dangerously low, and he could feel a pounding headache beginning just behind his eyes. If they stayed where they were - just beyond the end of the road, stopped next to a telephone pole - the situation was going to be a lot unhappier.
"Eberts," Darien said with a groan, "you'll sound a lot more forceful if you don't call the guy 'sir'. Maybe I should call the next one - it'll sound a lot less like a high schooler prank calling numbers from the phone book."
That earned him what he was beginning to think of as the 'Eberts glare'. "I don't think it'll be any use. That's three cab companies I've called, and every one of them has blacklisted this office park. Trust damned Ryder and his cohorts to cheat cabbies out of their fares - oh, God, we have to get you out of here -- "
In spite of his own growing feelings of panic, Darien didn't want to make the situation any worse by having both of them lose their heads. He pushed himself up from where he was leaning against the telephone pole and gazed out at the long, empty stretch of asphalt ahead of them. "Call the Keeper - she can meet us - or maybe even the Official if it comes to that - and let's get walking. The quicker we're away from this place the better."
"How are you holding up?" Eberts asked in a worried voice, punching a speed dial combination on his cell phone and taking a few steps to catch up with Darien, who had already started heading down the road.
"I'm okay - but, you know, still call her. Better safe than sorry." He gestured to the cell phone, where Eberts' call to the Keeper was producing nothing but unanswered rings.
"If we can get through to her - hello, Doctor?" For a second, Eberts showed a glimmer of hope, which faded just as abruptly. "Dammit - she really needs to change that message. I keep falling for it every time. Yes, um, Doctor." His tone of voice changed as he dictated to the answering machine. "This is Eberts. I'm with Agent Fawkes and we're, um, possibly going to be in a situation soon. There's no transportation in sight, and, ah, well, we need someone to come and get us, please. We're pretty much stranded out in the industrial park area just outside the city - the directions are complicated but I can give them to anyone over the cell phone. You can consider this an emergency, yes. Um, thanks." With a weary sigh, Eberts ended the call and slid the phone back into his pocket. "She wasn't there."
"So I gathered. What about the Official?"
"Away this afternoon. Meetings. I set up his schedule before we left this morning."
"Well, that comes as a total shock." They continued walking for a few moments in silence except for the roadside dirt scuffing beneath their shoes. The throbbing in Darien's head was growing a bit harder to ignore.
Then Darien glanced up. "Hey, what about Hobbes?"
"Agent Hobbes? Isn't he contagious?"
"Hey, I'd rather put up with pinkeye than red eye, if you get my meaning. Give him a call." Darien gestured to the tattoo again for emphasis, which was all the encouragement Eberts needed. He quickly dialed Hobbes' number and let the phone ring for nearly five minutes before giving up.
"He's not there, is he." It was more a statement than a question, as though he hadn't expected anything good.
"When I get back I'm turning him in to the Keeper. He shouldn't be out infecting the general population. I'll be scanning the newspaper tomorrow for notice of pinkeye breakouts in any of the local brothels or gun shops."
"Heh." Eberts chuckled for a moment and then turned somber. "I'm sorry about this, Agent Fawkes." He looked down as he walked, not wanting to meet Darien's eyes.
"Sorry for what? I'm the one who said we should follow Ryder. You wanted to stay and watch Knutson some more."
"Yeah, but I should have stopped you from doing that - I should have kept you on the job. ... the Official is going to kill me -- "
"Eberts, I hate to break up your pity party here, really, but knock it off. We both screwed up, so hugs all around and shut up about it. Why don't you do something useful and take a look at that code? See if all of this has been worth anything."
"Right - right." Eberts seemed grateful to have a distraction. He pulled out the folded hardcopy and started leafing through it, talking out loud but mostly to himself. "I don't know - like I said, it's a mess. I probably need a few hours to go over it and work it out. It looks like there's some embedded SQL here - database interface stuff, nothing difficult. I told you I ran a quick search for files - hey, what is this? Dammit, that's just a header file --" He trailed off, mumbling and flipping back and forth between the pages. Darien was also thankful for something to occupy Eberts' thoughts; the unhappily familiar twinges of madness were starting to gnaw at the edge of his mind, and he didn't want Eberts hovering over him and panicking. That would just make it worse.
Then Darien stumbled, and Eberts slipped out of his computer reverie with fear in his eyes. He jammed the printouts back into his pocket and tried to support Darien, which would have made Darien laugh if he hadn't been in so much pain. "I'm fine - I'm fine," he gasped, trying to wave Eberts away. It wasn't convincing.
"Fawkes - I'm calling the Keeper again." He was stalling, obviously, but he didn't know what else to do. Before he could dial the number, though, a sound in distance distracted both of them. It was a small car making its way towards them, rattling and churning up dust in its wake.
Another surge of pain shot through Darien's system, and he dropped to his knees, holding the back of his head and tensing himself against another bolt. The car drew closer, and without warning Eberts stepped into the road, directly in its path. From inside his jacket he drew out a revolver and held it level with the windshield.
Fortunately for both of them, the car screeched to a halt several feet away. A young tangle-haired woman leaned out of the window with her mouth open to yell at Eberts, but she slammed it shut again when she noticed the gun. "Don't shoot me!" she shrieked, withdrawing back into the car.
"Federal agent!" Eberts bellowed, pulling his badge out with his free hand. "This is a national security emergency; ma'am, I'm afraid I need to commandeer your car." He glanced over at Darien and added quietly, "Agent Fawkes, get in the car."
The expression on the woman's face just about reflected how Darien felt, but he was prevented from speaking up by another agonizing shock flashing through the inside of his head. He did his best to struggle to his feet and edge towards the passenger side door, watching Eberts as he did. Eberts had closed in on the driver and was gesturing with his gun for her to get out of the car. She obeyed, huddling with her arms folded over her chest protectively.
Without lowering the gun once, Eberts tucked away his identification and pulled out a business card and a second cell phone. "I apologize for this, ma'am, but as I said, this is an emergency. We would offer you a ride with us, but to be honest you could possibly be in danger by accepting, so please take this cell phone and call for a taxi. This is our business card for retrieving your vehicle and for reimbursement for the cab fare. Ah, your government thanks you and appreciates your sacrifice," he said with a nod, and slid into the driver's seat. The woman stood there, speechless, as Eberts threw the car into gear, executed a clumsy three-point turn, and peeled away, leaving her at the roadside clutching the card and cell phone.
Eberts leaned his weight into the gas pedal and stole a glance at Darien, who was hunched over in the seat beside him, gripping the back of his neck hard enough to leave red marks. He coughed and muttered something that Eberts didn't catch.
"Agent Fawkes, did you say something?"
Another cough, and then, "'Appreciates your sacrifice'?"
Eberts chuckled slightly, a nervous giggle completely unlike the authoritative tone he had been staging a few minutes before. "I had to say something - I can't believe that actually worked. I hope she has better luck calling a cab than we did. And I hope she doesn't call Taiwan or Prague or anywhere exotic - that one was my personal cell phone." He set his eyes back on the road and carefully worked on dialing the Keeper again on his remaining cell phone.
Darien was fading in and out of lucid thought, but he heard Eberts suddenly start a conversation with someone on the other end of the line and breathed a relieved sigh. "Hey, ask her to ask the Official if me and Hobbes can get training in Carjacking Etiquette, too," he heard himself say before a spike of fire behind his eyes cut him off, leaving him wincing and digging his fingernails further into his scalp.
There were voices, and lights - they seemed like they should be recognizable, but to Darien they were passing by in a blur before he could get a chance to identify them. Then there was a sudden pressure at the back of his neck, followed by a warm rush through his veins that prickled his skin and sent his eyes rolling in their sockets. The ache in his head vanished almost instantly, and the noises around him softened as a comfortable darkness wrapped around him.
What seemed like just moments later one of the voices was speaking again, annoyingly close to his ear. "Darien?"
"Darien, are you awake?"
It was as though a dam suddenly burst; Darien remembered everything that had happened back at TechRyder's offices. He jerked himself up from where he had been asleep on the Keeper's examining chair and looked around wildly. "What -"
"Easy, Darien." The Keeper held a hand against his arm, trying to calm him down. "You know, Hobbes joked once about running a pool on how many times you come back to consciousness in this lab. I laughed it off originally, but now I'm wondering ...."
"Ha ha. Next time you can slip me some serious knockout drug and get extra money on the point spread." He brushed away her hand and eased himself off the chair, groaning. "What happened? How long have I been out?"
The Keeper glanced at her watch. "You passed out when I gave you the counteragent, and that was several hours ago. I decided to let you sleep. I thought that the Official put you on something simple today?"
After an involuntary peek at the monitor tattoo, which thankfully now sported a full collection of green segments, Darien ran a hand through his hair and smiled. "Ah, crap, he's not going to be pleased. We were supposed to watch this guy, but I talked Eberts into ... hey, where's --"
The Keeper held one finger to her lips and pointed over to her computer. Darien looked and spotted Eberts propped up against the desk, scribbling notes on what Darien guessed was the code printout and rubbing his eyes wearily.
"You can thank your guardian angel here for helping to bring you in. And he insisted on staying here until he made sure that you were okay." The Keeper spoke in a hushed tone and threw in an impressed nod, folding her arms.
"Really? Wow." Darien was fairly impressed as well; he'd expected Eberts to run immediately back to the Official's office when they got back to the Agency.
"I'm surprised, too. Actually, I was more surprised that you hadn't killed each other by lunchtime."
"Yeah, well ... he's a pain in the ass to work with, but he's not all bad, I guess." Darien shrugged, not exactly willing to offer up compliments. "He knows all that computer stuff. And he was pretty good with that woman's car - oh, Jesus, Claire, I wish you could've been there. Eberts waving his gun around like something out of Reservoir Dogs --"
"I know. He told me, but just a bit of it. Seemed more worried about what the Official would think."
"It doesn't surprise you that Eberts is wandering around with a gun in his pocket? Hobbes I can see, but even I'm not packing heat."
The Keeper smiled. "Yes, we've seen how competant you are with guns, Darien, and I think we're all thankful you're not even licensed to carry a pea shooter. And anyway, Eberts spends half his lunch hours at a shooting range downtown practicing, so I have more confidence in him than I do in you. No offense."
"Shooting range? Eberts?" Darien looked over again at the man hunched over computer code on the other side of the room, and then back at the Keeper. "That's a new one. ... hey, what are you doing following Eberts on his lunch hour?"
With an embarrassed cough, the Keeper turned her attention to a couple of test tubes propped in a stand on the table behind her. "It's across the street from the nail salon," she muttered, suddenly very interested in the contents of one of the tubes.
"Okay, okay, I'll stop prying before I hear something really personal. Hey, Eberts," Darien called out, crossing to the other side of the room. Eberts looked up and jumped to his feet.
"Agent Fawkes! How - how are you feeling?"
"Fine - I'm one hundred percent, really. Hey, um, thanks a lot for, you know ...." Darien's words trailed off and he waved a hand in an attempt to indicate everything that had happened. For all of Eberts' efforts, it was still uncomfortable to have to be in a touchy-feely thank-you moment with the man.
Fortunately, Eberts felt the same way with respect to Darien and brushed it off. "Oh, um, job description. Just protecting the Agency's investment. You know." From across the room, the Keeper snickered until they both stopped her with glares.
"You have any luck with that?" Darien pointed to the hardcopy, now half-obscured by ink circles and jotted notes.
"I think so. I need to test some of out before I can say for certain, though."
"Should we check in with the boss, then?"
Eberts shook his head. "It's already after 5:30, and he has a state dinner to attend tonight. He won't be there."
"In that case," the Keeper interrupted, joining them next to her computer, "I suggest that you both go home and get some rest. That was a bit too close for comfort today," she said, looking straight at Darien. "Give me tonight to prepare some more of the counteragent - I don't want you doing anything to exert the gland right now. And I also don't care if you just had a shot - check in tomorrow morning before you start work, same as always."
"Finish up work for the day - hey, doctor's orders." Darien shrugged and glanced over at Eberts. "Check in with the big guy tomorrow, then?"
"Do you want to interrupt a state dinner to tell him that we didn't watch Knutson, lost the car, and had to use up a shot of counteragent to get a handful of poorly written C code?""Yeah, point."
It was a decent night's sleep, which was perfectly welcome as far as Darien was concerned. He opened the door to the lab the following morning and greeted the Keeper with a cheery grin. Surprisingly, Eberts was also there, listening politely as the woman tried to explain the theory behind one of her latest experiments. He looked up as Darien entered, plainly grateful to escape the impromptu lecture.
"Agent Fawkes," he said as a greeting. Darien nodded to both of them.
"Morning. Sorry to interrupt science class - just checking in like you told me, Doc."
"Not a problem," the Keeper replied, smiling. "Eberts has promised to help proofread my monograph as soon as I finish writing it. Let's take a look at you." Darien held out his wrist obediently, and to everyone's relief, the snake appeared entirely green, as expected. "Passed inspection."
"That's good to know. Eberts, you all set?"
Eberts held up a folder thick with printed papers. "I made some progress with the code last night - I have a pretty good idea of what it does, sort of. We need to check in and report this."
"Great. Let's go."
" ... shouldn't we call first and let him know we're coming up?"
"Eberts," Darien replied in a mock patient tone, ushering the other man out of the lab, "today begins your education. I will show you how it's done." With a nod to the Keeper, Darien followed Eberts out towards the elevator, ignoring the woman's yelled promises to email the first draft to Eberts as the elevator door closed.
At least half of the papers scattered across the Official's desk were seeing their last moments of daylight before being blacked out, shredded, or otherwise sent to the confidential document afterlife. It was top secret and very stressful work, and so it was no help to the Official's blood pressure when the door to his office was suddenly flung open with a bang. The Official quickly scooped a good portion of the papers onto his lap and out of sight.
"How many times have we told you to knock - Eberts?"
Eberts stood in the doorway, guilty hand still on the doorknob. He looked over his shoulder at Darien. "You're right - that was pretty funny. I can see why you and Hobbes do it all the time."
Darien smirked and followed him into the room. "You learn quickly, grasshopper." Before the Official could harangue them further, they closed the door and sat themselves in the chairs before the man's desk. They waited as he rearranged the stack of papers on his desk and turned his attention back to the pair of them.
"Well, I heard about your little escapades yesterday, boys. The young woman whose car you borrowed used Eberts' cell phone to call the police, and after taxing my resources to get that mess cleaned up, I received a telephone call about an Agency car needing picking up from the towyard. This had better be good."
Darien and Eberts looked at each other. "You'd better explain," Darien said. "He likes you better.
"True, but he doesn't like you, so any bad news is just the status quo. You can tell him."
"Dad always did like you better --"
"If I can interrupt," the Official grunted, "I didn't send Eberts out with you to learn how to banter like Hobbes. I don't know if you managed to get anything on Knutson, but it's probably moot. Malcolm Flynn pulled through, boys. He woke up this morning and has agreed to turn state's evidence against Knutson and several of his other employers in exchange for leniency and a 24-hour guard in his hospital room."
"Really?" Eberts looked down at the collection of printouts in his hand with a frown. "Oh. This might not be useful, then - against Knutson, anyway."
"Hey," Darien said, gesturing to the folder, "all the evidence we can get towards breaking up La Cosa Nostra Borgie Borg Borg is useful. And maybe we can use that for some kind of conspiracy charge."
"La Cosa what?"
"You know, like the Swedish Chef, and the mafia --" Darien looked from Eberts to the Official and back but met nothing but blinking stares. He threw up his hands. "Christ, you guys are illiterate."
The Official turned his attention back to Eberts. "Do you have any explanations that make sense?"
Eberts placed the folder carefully onto one of the desk's empty spots. "Dot-coms gone bad, sir. We think that Knutson hired a couple of computer programmers who were desperate for the money to track down Malcolm Flynn for him. We followed one of them yesterday and managed to find all that." He nodded to the folder, which the Official picked up and started leafing through. "It's only partial code, but I tested some of it and it looks like a nasty combination of hacking the Registry of Motor Vehicles database as well as possibly one of Social Security's servers and God knows what else. If Knutson didn't know how to find Flynn, this probably would have told him."
"We didn't really conduct a legal search, though, so that probably can't be used as evidence," Darien piped up. "But whoever's brought Knutson in can interrogate him, probably get him to finger these guys if we mention what's going on."
The Official looked up from the papers, frowning. "Nobody's brought Knutson in yet. They're waiting for ballistics to finish with the bullets they took out of Flynn."
"Wait a minute - you mean Knutson's still out there right now?"
"Well, not for long. Why?"
Darien sat up and drummed against the arm of the chair. "If you found out about Flynn being awake, Knutson might have found out, too."
Eberts' eyes went wide for a moment with realization and he looked over at Darien. "He might send someone after Ryder and Stevie. To tie up loose ends. We need to bring them in now."
"Who?" The Official asked, but the two men were already out of their chairs and heading for the door. Eberts paused and glanced back at the Official with an apologetic shrug. "The programmers, sir. We'll be right back, I promise." He closed the door gingerly behind him, leaving the Official shaking his head and making a mental note to assign Fawkes to something simple like stamp licking the next time Hobbes was out of action.
"This road is definitely a lot cooler when you're not walking on it," Darien remarked as they neared the office building where they hoped Ryder and Stevie would be working. It had been a bit of a risk to drive all the way out on a hope, but calling ahead to check would probably send the programmers into flight. They were accomplices to the crime, after all, and still faced potential jail time. It would be easier to get them on their home ground rather than tracking them down on the lam, possibly racing against Knutson to find them.
"We should see if they have a guest parking spot this time. I'm not going through all that again, even if everyone is in the office to pick up the phone when we call." As they entered the parking lot, Eberts started scanning just over the tops of the few cars in the lot, searching for a helpful sign.
Darien agreed. "Yeah, we'd better not get towed this time - this one's my car, and I protect it with my life. Hey, is that one over there? ... oh, crap, someone's already parked there." Darien pulled the car over behind the occupied spot and grimaced at the "Guest Parking" sign. Then his eyes drifted down and spotted the car parked in the spot. It was a perfectly polished blue Cadillac, gleaming with fresh wax and carefully tended chrome. As if on cue, his eyes met Eberts', both pairs uneasy.
"Agent Fawkes ...?"
"Screw the parking." Slamming his hand against the gear shift, Darien steered the car into the nearest available space and launched himself out of the car the split-second the brake took hold. They hurried towards the building, staying out of sight range from the large glass front door and entering only after Darien had peeked around the corner to make sure that no ambushes were waiting in the lobby.
In fact, the lobby was effectively empty. As they entered, they found a security guard slumped over the welcoming desk, still breathing but sporting a nasty lump on the back of his head. Darien caught Eberts' eye and put a finger to his lips, gesturing up with the other hand. Eberts nodded, wide-eyed but calm. They crept through the corridor on the first floor and towards the stairwell leading up towards the rest of the building.
The hallway on the third floor was deserted, but the door to TechRyder's office was wide open, and as Darien approached it, he noted the stark silence, a complete contrast to the yelling match the room had seen the day before. Eberts followed closely behind, but at the doorway, Darien put a hand up to halt him and peered around the corner. He drew back quickly, shuddering.
"Is he there?" Eberts whispered, eyebrows raised.
Darien shook his head. "Ryder's there, but ... it's a mess. You don't want to look." Suddenly, a loud chime sounded in the corridor, and both men jumped. It was the elevator bell just a few doors down, ringing out as the elevator descended. Darien turned and shoved Eberts towards the stairwell. "Quick! I didn't see Stevie in there - we need to get to the basement before this guy does!"
They scrambled back down the stairwell, Eberts hastily drawing his gun from his jacket pocket in preparation. At the foot of the stairs, they jerked to a stop and inched the door open. The hallway beyond was empty, but the door to TechRyder's machine room was closed. Darien put a hand to the doorknob and found it locked.
"Stevie?" Darien's call was met with a sudden cloud of glass shards as bullets shot from the room, shattering the massive window. Both Eberts and Darien dropped to the floor and shielded their heads. When the fragments had settled, Darien yelled out, "Federal agents! Freeze!"
"Oh God! Please help me!" A voice cried out from inside the room, audible through the now-empty window pane. Still kneeling on the ground, Eberts held his gun even with the doorknob and fired, breaking the lock and sending the door swinging inward. He and Darien leaned towards the doorframe and scanned the room for potential opposition.
"Federal agents, Stevie," Darien called into the room. "We're gonna get you out of here, but we have to go now." He climbed to his feet and stepped carefully through the now-open door. From the corner of the room, he could hear the futile clicking of a gun that was empty of ammunition. "And you gotta stop shooting at us, pal." Darien followed the noises and ended up standing over Stevie, who was cowering on the ground beside a stack of computer manuals. His eyes were watering, and the hand that held the useless gun still pointed it at the doorway.
"He shot Chuck - it was on the speakerphone, I heard the whole thing." Quaking, he nonetheless obeyed as Darien caught a hold of his elbow and pulled him towards the door.
Out in the hallway, Eberts was waiting nervously, still clutching his gun and glancing around at the otherwise empty gray corridor. As Darien ushered the trembling man through the doorway, Eberts reached out and grabbed his other arm, guiding him towards the exit at the far end. Stevie gripped tightly to Eberts, clinging to his elbow like a lost toddler.
"C'mon, Stevie, we're almost out of this - " Darien began, but his words died away as the three men suddenly became aware of sharp footsteps drawing closer to the corner at the opposite end of the hallway. Without a word, a massive blond-haired man in a badly-fitting suit and tinted glasses strode around the corner, pulling a revolver from inside his coat. Darien flattened himself against the wall. "Go!" he shouted to the other men.
Almost on instinct, Eberts drew his gun to aim at the man's chest and nudged Stevie towards the open door, but without luck. In shock Stevie grabbed for more of Eberts' arm and started shrieking nonsense wails.
"Ow, Stevie!" Eberts ripped his arm away from Stevie's clutches and accidentally fired his gun at the ceiling. Chunks and crumbles of ceiling tile fell to the ground, followed by a thick cloud of dust and insulation fiber.
Darien spotted his opportunity and quickly seized it. As Knutson's strongarm spluttered, fumbling to take off his sunglasses and feeling for the corridor wall, Darien flooded his skin with quicksilver and stepped towards the man. A thin dusting of powder outlined him as he approached the hitman, slapping the revolver away and sending a swift punch to the man's jaw. He fell with a clumsy thump to the ground, cracking his glasses on the concrete floor.
"It's not gonna bite you, Eberts." Darien laughed and shook his head from where he sat perched on the hood of the Cadillac, still parked in the Guest Parking zone. Eberts hovered anxiously in front of the car, wavering between almost sitting on it and holding a respectful distance.
"I don't think I can do it. It's too much of a quality machine to sit on." Eberts contented himself with just standing beside it, clasping his hands together as he watched a pair of paramedics prop open the front doors of the office building. Between them they pushed a wheeled stretcher supporting the injured security guard from the lobby. Further away in the parking lot, an ambulence sat waiting with open rear doors; next to them, a policeman kept an eye on Stevie as he sat handcuffed and wrapped in a blanket, recovering from his shock.
"Does this kind of thing ever get to you?" Darien asked, frowning. They had been waiting there in the parking lot for nearly half an hour after Darien had tied up the unconscious hitman with computer cables and Eberts had telephoned the authorities who were working on the Flynn case. The police and ambulence had arrived almost immediately, but the two men were still waiting to give statements.
"What kind of thing?" Eberts replied.
"This." Darien waved a hand towards the cluster of police cars several parking spaces away. "You go through all of this effort, you get the guy, and in the end half the time someone else gets the credit because the Agency's so hushed-up. What do you bet that these guys here are getting gold stars for this case when we busted our asses doing the hard part? I bet one of them even gets this Caddy after it's been impounded. I mean, where's the recognition?"
" ... well, nobody sends us any fruit baskets for a job well done, that's true." Eberts glanced down at the ground, nudging a pebble with his shoe. "Job satisfaction? Stevie's still alive, and this will probably bring Knutson in off the streets. And these favors get paid back to the Agency eventually, in one way or another."
"Yeah, I guess. Still sucks, though." Darien sighed and leaned back against the warm metal of the Cadillac's hood, squinting at the bright sun overhead.
"You're welcome to make a suggestion to the Official if you feel that your job is underappreciated, though, Agent Fawkes."
"Sure. Leave it in the Official's suggestion box."
Darien propped himself up on his elbows and caught the faint twitch of a smile on Eberts' face. "I didn't know the Official had a suggestion box."
"Sure he does. A big round one with an open top, on the floor next to his desk." Eberts broke into a grin and shook his head at his own joke, snickering quietly. Darien rolled his eyes and leaned back onto the hood of the car again, but smiling just a bit as he did.
"If it isn't Typhoid Bobby."
"In the flesh." Hobbes strode into the Keeper's lab and flashed a thumbs-up at Darien, who was sitting on the examination table after a standard dose of counteragent. Nearby, the Keeper glanced up from her clipboard and smiled.
"Glad to see you're feeling better, Hobbes."
"Glad to be better, Keep. How about you, hotshot?" Hobbes glanced over at Darien. "Get into any wild and crazy adventures in my absence?" Darien and the Keeper shared a knowing look. "What?"
The Keeper spoke up. "Let's just say that the Agency's auxiliary back-up Hobbes hasn't a patch on the real one."
Hobbes turned to Darien, who had slid off the table and was heading out of the lab, rubbing his arm where he'd been injected. "What is she talking about?"
"She's talking about the Agency's idea of babysitting. Don't go getting sick on me again, pal. While you were out the Official partnered me up for a surveillance job with Eberts."
Hobbes stopped still in the hallway and laughed. "Eberts? You're kidding me. Man!" He thumbed the button for the elevator and waited for the door to slide open. "What was that like?"
"What, working with Eberts?"
Inside the elevator, Darien looked up at the numbers as they lit up, one after another. "Actually, the guy's not too bad, I guess. He seemed to know what he was doing. He watched my back okay for a while there."
"Chill out, Hobbes, it's not like I'm putting in for a change of partner any time soon. I'm just saying that he wasn't as much of an office dick as he usually is."
"Oh. Okay." The elevator bell rang, and the doors slid apart to reveal the familiar corridor that led to the Official's door. "So, what, does your newfound respect say that we should stop bugging the guy, then?"
Darien paused in front of the office door. "Yeah, maybe."
" ... well, for a week or so, anyway." He opened the door and let his partner enter the office ahead of him.
DISCLAIMER: The characters of Darien Fawkes, Bobby Hobbes, the Official, Eberts, the Keeper, and the whole concept of Quicksilver do not belong to me. All main characters are copyrighted to the Sci-Fi Channel, I think. No profit is being made from this piece of fan fiction.
Also personal disclaimer - This story was written before "The Importance of Being Eberts" aired. Man! I hate when that kind of synchronicity goes down.
Credit must be given in any and all reproductions. This story may not be distributed publically without expressed permission of the author. Events, places, and incidents mentioned are ficitious and any resemblances to any persons (living or dead), is purely coincidental.
Special thanks to betareader Mysti for editing this story!
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