|Finish I: The Box
Author: Guede Mazaka
Langley always gave Will the creeps. It wasn’t the dark inner halls or the rooms full of nothing but glowing screens and pasty-skinned, perpetually red-eyed agents—he found that familiar and even somewhat comforting. Geeks everywhere were the same. Nor was it the bullshit and pandering he got fed and sometimes had to feed back, because by now that was just how a lot of the world worked. No, what creeped him out was the cold. The outermost doors always opened with an arctic blast that had made people skitter before its force, and inside it was never warm enough. Halls, people, atmosphere…once Will and Jack had tried fucking themselves warmer, but it just hadn’t worked. Will had been too busy trying to spot bugs and Jack had been too tense.
And at his age, he couldn’t take relaxation for granted. The thought gave Will a momentary laugh, but soon he pressed his fingers to his lips and made himself stop. He was the only one up here at the moment, and that made things even worse. So he was trying to finish early and get back to Miami.
With a sigh and a back-stretch, he went back to the laptop. Five seconds later, Will had resisted the urge to spit at the nonexistent last three sentences he needed to complete his report and had switched windows to surf for a morning flight. He was still doing that when his email pinged. Will absently switched over and glanced down the brief paragraph.
His bare feet hit the floor hard enough to sting. He squinted and read it again, and then read it a third time while cursing. “Goddamn it.”
In the event that you are reading this, look after the Pearl. Apologies, Jack.
The computer blinked. As in, it flashed black and when it came on again, the email was gone. No sign of—Will reached for the keyboard, then swore again and punched the edge of the desk. He’d shown Jack that trick; there wasn’t any way to retrieve the email. “Fuck.”
Someone knocked at the door and Will instantly dropped beneath the desk. He snagged his coat and bag as he did. “Yeah?”
“Mr. Turner? The Director would like to see you. May we come in?”
May they come in. Of course they could. And then they and Will would act out some stupid, impossible scene from an action film and Will would go out a window that didn’t exist this deep in the building and make a break for Miami. Sure.
Will pushed his hand past his gun to his cellphone and his PDA. He flipped the second one open, fiddled with it till he was certain he’d bypassed any CIA interception and sent off an email to Elizabeth. Go back to Miami and take care of the Pearl. Of course, Jack. And then Will and everyone else would do what? Hunker down while Jack and probably James did their damned retirement dance out of sight? Chew off nails and defensively fend off HQ so they didn’t end up chips played against Jack? “Well, I won’t be your chip either, Jack.”
Return email. Not Elizabeth, but Anamaria, which meant they had to be sleeping over together. That simplified things, and that meant that Will shouldn’t have to worry over Elizabeth because Anamaria could handle a lot more than a cannibalistic Langley. He shouldn’t.
He was biting his nails. Which meant he couldn’t type a response fast enough, so Will irritably yanked his hand from his mouth and messaged back while he yelled at the door. “No. Not until we set down some ground rules. And as acting commander for the Caribbean region, I have the authority to negotiate that.”
Jack’s game or Langley’s, it still was going to muscle in on Will’s life. It had muscled in, and the taste in his mouth was already souring at claiming Jack’s title. Whenever Will tracked Jack down, he was going to make the man suffer for that. And Jaime as well for not even—
--Will’s phone vibrated. It made Will jerk, then sag with relief for at least he hadn’t had it on ring. The silence in the hall told him they were discussing things, and the less they or anyone knew about exactly what Will knew, the better.
God, he already hated the job. He dug out his earpiece, plugged it into the phone and did his level best to whisper. Earlier he’d debugged the room, but he hadn’t had time to go over it properly—had been saving that for after finishing the report—and anyway, it was Langley. No one ever assumed they’d gotten everything. This was stupid. This was insanely risky and Will wasn’t even on his home turf, and he only had his PDA and Horatio in his ear yammering about bloody comp systems—comp systems.
“All right, Mr. Turner,” came from the door. “We’d like to suggest the park nearby as a neutral ground.”
“It’s nearly two in the morning,” Will shot back. He flipped through his PDA…and interestingly, discovered a few files that hadn’t been in it before. At least, as far as he’d known. “I want somewhere with coffee. Where’s the nearest Starbucks?”
Which he, being a night owl, had memorized ages ago. And he didn’t really need the caffeine; the pounding in his head was better than any drug at keeping his nerves on edge.
Will opened up the files just long enough to get the gist of them, then closed them. Thank you, Jack, and also, fuck you for not briefing me better on plan B. “Horatio, I’ve got a situation here. Go find Archie and relax, for God’s sake.”
Then he hung up on the man, prayed hard that Horatio would get a clue, and slowly turned himself around to face the door. “Hey.”
“Your suggestion is acceptable.”
* * *
Horatio stared at the phone. “He hung up on me.”
“Did you insult his programming skills?” Gillette ducked in the door, smelling of gardenias and ripping at his hair. He rushed on to deal with someone calling from the far end of the office.
Up until five minutes ago, it had been a regular if very late night in Miami. Several ongoing operations and Norrington out of contact on a personal matter meant that nearly everyone had pulled a night shift, but they’d come in expecting an easy eight hours. Half of them had gone ahead and hit the streets, and the half that had stayed in the offices were by far not the most experienced. So when suddenly all the computers had blanked out, then back in to show madly scrolling data that no one recognized, it’d been near to chaos.
A preliminary examination had told Horatio that it probably wasn’t a hack, and if it was, then it was coming from an insider. But he knew everyone that could have done it, and none of them were a remote possibility. So that left the explanation that someone had embedded a self-executing program in the system and had just triggered it. But what kind of information would need that sort of treatment? And why trigger it now?
“Oh, my God.” Tom’s shout was still echoing across the common room when he came flying in the door, tie flapping and papers flailing from his hand. He slapped them down in front of Horatio. “Look. My God, if this ever got out—”
“If this ever got out, half of London would have to stick a pistol in their mouth,” Horatio gasped, scanning the top paper. He promptly dropped it as if the sheet were on fire, and it might as well have been considering what information was printed on it. “Lockdown, now. Collect everything, but so help me—” Horatio had a thought and kicked out of his chair, then hung out the door “—Lockdown! And if a trace of any of this gets out, I’ll have the perpetrator booted to the Colombians!”
Behind him, Tom was still exclaiming over the scandalous information in the papers. Official memos, copies of emails…if even a tenth of it could be verified…“Norrington,” Horatio said. He waved to catch William’s eye. “Last we heard of him?”
“Just before he left,” the other man called back, hands full of printouts.
“He should have been back by now.” Dread creeping into his voice, Tom abandoned the printouts to stare at Horatio.
Yes, he should have been, and Will should have sounded irritated at Horatio for chancing a call while he was at Langley, but not…curt. Nervous. Horatio flung himself around the desk and seized his keyboard. He frantically typed one-handed on it while dialing on a secure line with his other. “Tom, call in everyone we can. Send a warning to Sharpe—he’s independent of us now but I don’t know—”
“—if London knows that.” Said very quietly, because what they were thinking was treasonous, and what they were probably about to do was even more treasonous.
But in that case, Horatio asked himself, what did one call the betrayal of an agent by his own superiors? Doubtless they were acting in the best interests of Britain, or what they thought were the best interests, but they were about to destroy a man Horatio admired and owed a great deal and, most importantly, that Horatio knew was acting for Britain and not himself. It was London. HQ.
And about two years ago, Horatio wouldn’t even have known so many qualifiers could be applied to the description of a situation, let alone debate over them.
“Horatio.” As if sensing Horatio’s sudden freeze, Tom had leaned over the desk and was speaking earnestly, rapidly, every word a bullet aimed to knock Horatio…off or on-course.
Theodore, who had the most experience, was in London right now to transact some routine matters. Apparently routine matters. With him were Alexander, who would have known something more of the personal politicking in the upper echelons, and Giselle, who at least would have had firsthand experience with evading MI6. Will was in Langley, and under such circumstances that Jack had to be…in similar straits as James, whatever those were. Elizabeth and Anamaria were in town, but they were probably asking the same questions as Horatio was. Well, with the exception of which sacrifice to make.
And put that way, the situation became a good deal clearer to Horatio. Once upon a time he’d seen a friend try to sacrifice himself for a rotten greater good, and he’d…lost his taste for it. “Find Norrington. That’s top priority. Get everyone we can spare on it. You can run that—you know the streets better than I, and you handle Anamaria better. When Archie gets in, he can take over running the office.”
“What does that leave you with?” Tom was already scrabbling for his cell phone.
On the laptop screen, diagnostic windows were flowering like weeds in an abandoned lot and none of them were telling Horatio anything useful. He disgustedly closed them down and instead concentrated on jury-rigging the system so it wouldn’t crash under the weight of the information flooding it. “After I raise someone from Sparrow’s team who won’t hang up on me—damage-control, I suppose. Calling London and seeing if there’s anything to be done on that end.”
“Good luck.” The other man turned to go, then stopped with cell half-raised. His eyes were moist and his face was already taking on a haggard aspect, and his mouth was twisted with irony. “Sir.”
Horatio opened his mouth to contradict Tom, then closed it because frankly, Tom had it right. He was acting commander until someone with more seniority showed up. God help him.
“Tell Theodore—if you raise him—tell him…I said to watch his back.”
Before Horatio could look up, Tom had already shut the door. Dear God, they had so much riding on this…
…he’d better get started.
* * *
“Fille, we don’ have time for this.” As Anamaria tightened the holster strap, she caught her nail in her haste and ripped it off. That hurt like not much else, but only for a second. Then it behaved and settled into a low throb with which she could deal; she sucked it, tasted the glue and absently cursed it for a waste of a sixty-dollar manicure. “Jack’s pulled th’panic strings, Will’s callin’ for info an’ it looks like it’s all routed through Norrington’s offices.”
“But they were supposed to—this was supposed to happen seven years from now! Forty-five! Jaime said he’d retire at forty-five!” Elizabeth was filling up her bag with the necessities for a long stay-over. Or she was trying to, but her hands were distracting her wild eyes and her hair tossed about her like a golden confusion. Exactly like a golden confusion. Her voice kept shrilling and breaking, and when Anamaria moved towards her, the other woman panicked. Flailed backward into a chair. “He’s only thirty-eight now,” Elizabeth desperately said, staring up at Anamaria.
Will had taken it better, said the nasty little voice in Anamaria’s head that also told her about how everyone was one day going to leave her high and dry with only her misery for company so she might as well be a bitch. She shook it off as best she could, given that her damn nerves weren’t settling as easily as the pain in her nail had. Maybe Will had sounded calmer, but he was as terrified as Elizabeth. Just showing it differently.
Anamaria grabbed Elizabeth’s shoulders and closed her eyes against the other woman’s instinctive thrashing. She shook Elizabeth till a gasp fell out, then shook her some more till she heard Elizabeth say, voice back to its normal register, “What the hell are you doing? Anamaria! That hurts!”
“Good, y’re back.” There wasn’t much room but Anamaria squirmed around till she could level her eyes with Elizabeth. “Look, fille. It ain’ goin’ like it’s supposed to—I’ll take y’r word for it, since I’d not know much about how it was supposed to go. So merde. Fils de putain. Au nom de Dieu, what do those fucking loa think they up to?”
Questioning stare. It was rattled but clear, and Anamaria could see Elizabeth’s mind kicking into gear behind it.
“Now that that’s done with, we need t’find Jack, an’ to get Will his information so he can work some voodoo wi’ those goddamn connards. Comprend?” She held onto the other woman for another moment, then let go.
“Yeah. Yes. All right.” Elizabeth started to get up, but halfway there she suddenly decided to cling to Anamaria instead, nearly knocking them both off-balance. Her nails dug into Anamaria’s back. A soft gasping ragged sound shivered over Anamaria’s neck.
Anamaria hunched back down and held Elizabeth, stroking the long gold hair. It was funny how Elizabeth was the one who snapped, since usually it seemed she was the one who thrived under chaos. But then, maybe Will’s devotion to order was a better habit upon which to fall back when the world truly was playing hardball. “Fille?”
“Kill them,” Elizabeth muttered. She took a deep breath that was only slightly jagged. Against Anamaria’s throat, something was making an angry grinding noise. “I’m going to kill them.”
“Which?” She was going to be fine, Anamaria thought. After letting go of Elizabeth, she tossed the other woman her cell and got them moving towards the door. Lucky for James he’d gotten to fully integrate a bunch of new agents before the shit had rained down; Jack had kept putting off his house-stocking and so it was going to be tough covering all the bases.
“First whoever Langley decides to send here to replace Jack.” When Anamaria looked surprised, Elizabeth shrugged and kicked the door shut. One thing that did have to be said about the panic-attack method: she tended to get over it and back into gear fast while Will could stew for weeks. “Obvious next step—Will is an American citizen, but he wasn’t born here and I know Jack hadn’t finished getting him and I set up as successors. Then I’m going to kill those political bastards that ordered this, and then I’m going to kill Jack and Jaime. They didn’t tell me half of what they set up.”
True, true and true. Which only gave Anamaria an even better reason to break the driving laws of the state of Florida. She cut her usual time to the office in two and pulled up just as Gibbs came running out, anxious words damn near visible on his lips. Nearly all the parking spaces were filled, so he’d gotten on the boat pretty quick—there was even Scarlet’s gaudy confection of a convertible pouting in one corner. “All right, fille. Don’t scratch her.”
“What?” Elizabeth had been getting out, but now she stared confusedly while Anamaria yanked her across the seats.
She cupped Elizabeth’s face in her hands and gave the woman a hard deep kiss that should set her lips to tingling, just in case Elizabeth had forgotten it wasn’t just a couple lives on the line. Then she slapped Elizabeth’s hand on the car keys, still in the ignition, and got out. “Mine’s faster. Head over t’MI6’s offices, get a line o’ communication set up an’ then scoot back here so I can get onto th’streets.”
“But…you never let anyone drive…never mind. I’m going.” The last word was nearly cut off because Elizabeth slammed the door so fast.
It damn well looked like she was all the way back. Good. Left Anamaria one less person to worry about, and worrying about Jack more or less used up all her energy. Damn the man—what the hell had he been up to?
“Joshamee,” Anamaria greeted her colleague.
“It’s not looking good.” He was still breathless from his short run into the lot, which meant he’d probably taken the stairs.
She took him by the arm and pulled him towards the elevators; there would be enough scrambling later for them to need to pace themselves now. “Noticed. Tell me what we’ve got comin’ at us so far.”
* * *
Theodore had taken the call. He’d spent exactly five hushed minutes talking before he’d handed off the phone to Alexander and then dashed off. Shortly thereafter, a fearful-looking Giselle had appeared with her laptop and had started setting up in a corner of the room while Alexander had gotten the story from Horatio.
*Theodore should have easily gotten an interview with M with the information I passed him,* Horatio was saying. It had been nearly an hour and during that time, he’d periodically stopped to bark orders at what sounded like a chaotic office, so by now his voice was quite hoarse. *But they’re not going to stop whatever operations they’d already set in motion merely because he’s closeted with her.*
“There’s incoming to Miami—he’ll be at the office tomorrow—” Giselle blinked at the computer screen “—this morning. Projected time 8 A. M.”
Alexander told Horatio, who cursed in a way that previously Alexander had only heard in movies. With good reason, since if memory served Alexander right, Horatio was the only one in the office with sufficient authority to take over in Norrington’s absence. And he clearly didn’t intend to hand over his newfound command very easily. Nor did Alexander wish he would—the only reason MI6 hadn’t had him cashiered entirely out of service was because he’d been specially requested by Norrington. With his patronage gone, matters would be more difficult. “We can’t stall him if he’s already on his way. And I don’t believe Theodore will get anything extracted from M in time to countermand his orders.”
*Never mind that.* Papers were shuffling; it sounded as if Horatio were sitting in a book factory. He coughed, said something to William and then got back on the phone. *I’m here and you’re in London, so you have to handle that end. We’ll see to the agent—do we have a name yet?*
“Name?” A look at Giselle resulted in her holding up a scrap of paper with a number written on it. As was usual procedure, Alexander memorized it as he repeated it to Horatio and she burned the note in the ashtray directly afterward. “What on earth am I supposed to see to? Theodore has M and her advisors busy.”
*And obviously there isn’t enough pressure on them. I can’t raise him so I can’t pass him more bargaining chips, so you’ll have to make them for him.* The bite in Horatio’s voice could have cracked steel, and the harried undertone seemed just a hair shy of a nervous breakdown. He coughed again. *Firstly, Norrington has a father in MI6, who still has some influence.*
There wasn’t a chair nearby so Alexander perched on the edge of the desk. He groped in his jacket, then turned around only to see Giselle already holding a glass of scotch out to him. She had a possessive grip on the bottle, so Alexander smiled a thank-you. Then she went back to frantic typing—she wasn’t nearly Horatio’s caliber when it came to computers, but she certainly was better than Alexander was—and Alexander went back to Horatio, with a quick pause to down the whisky. “Michael Norrington? Influence is an overstatement.”
*He’s a retired agent, damn it, and he’s still got access to HQ. Secondly, I’ve got some interesting information about Agents 006 and 007 here that--*
Thank God Alexander was sitting down. Not much in the world was capable of flattening him, but what Horatio was about to suggest made him feel a distinct one-dimensional wave of unease coming on. He tipped the glass again, realized it was empty and told himself that was a fortunate thing. Clear minds were both a necessity and a rarity. “You want me to blackmail a pair of double-O agents. Not only that, the pair. You do realize they’re currently on the outs with M?”
*So they’ll be more disposed towards sympathy with us,* Horatio relentlessly went on. If Alexander didn’t know better, he would have said the other man was overplaying his part in order to cover up some insecurities. Archie might have been in the office, but even he wasn’t nearly this…ruthless wasn’t a word Alexander wanted to apply to Horatio. *For God’s sake, you owe him your career at least.*
“I’m not objecting to the need, Horatio—only the method.” Something beeped behind Alexander, but it was only the laptop signaling reception of data.
Horatio emitted an eerie strained shadow of his normal shy chuckle. *Alexander, you’re an Earl. Be snotty and cool like you usually do and don’t make sudden movements. Also, don’t get in between them.*
Alexander blinked. “My God, did you just assert yourself?”
*I’ll have you know—* Horatio indignantly began. Then he stopped, let out another awful-sounding laugh and sighed. *Do it exactly like that. Dear God, I hate this job already.*
“I am not snotty. Merely discerning.” A deep breath helped where the whisky hadn’t. After another one, Alexander squared his shoulders and pushed his resignation aside so he could get on with planning a suitable attack. Actually, with figuring out how he was supposed to track two of the most elusive…
Giselle tapped him on the arm. When he glanced over, she turned the laptop to show him a map and directions. Girlfriend of a girlfriend, she mouthed, grinning.
Super-agents or not, they did have a reputation as womanizers to maintain. Alexander committed the directions to memory, then nodded to let her know she could get back to work. “Is Archie around?”
*He was—I sent him out to see if the Cubans know anything. William’s…why are you asking?* But before Alexander could answer, Horatio dragged them back to business. *Thirdly…I might need you to pay a call to Norrington’s mother, if Theodore can’t get to it.*
“I was asking because if you collapse, there’d be no chain of command left. Archie’s got a good nose for when you’re about to.” Alexander listened to the surprised intake of breath and then the short silence. He damned himself for a sentimental fool and added more in spite of himself. “If they’ve got a team down there that went after Norrington, you realize it could be easily turned around to—”
A frustrated growl. *I know, and I’m seeing to it. I’m—I’m not a fool.* Then Horatio sighed a second time and lowered his voice to a resigned mutter. *And no, you aren’t snotty. Well, now.*
“Well, you sound far too tempting when you’re commanding. I do wish I had the time to properly express my appreciation, but I suppose it’d be a bad thing to make you mess over whatever you’ve got currently lying on your desk.” There was a chip in Alexander’s nail that he needed to see to on the off-chance that he’d be doing any delicate work in the near future, and a giggling Frenchwoman next to him. He smiled conspiratorially at her, bade a fond farewell to a choking Horatio, and passed the phone to Giselle with the feeling that at least he’d restored the old balance in one arena.
“Hommes foux.” Giselle was still smiling as she put the phone to her ear, but very soon the cheer wiped off of her face to be replaced by intense concentration.
Alexander didn’t have any idea what dirty action she and Horatio were about to coordinate, but he wagered it was at least as potentially explosive as what he was about to try. He pulled his coat off the chair and put it on, then checked his gun. “All men are mad, but few are wise to it.”
* * *
Will sniffed at his coffee. The assorted sunglasses-in-suits arrayed against him instantly stiffened. They probably thought he was going to try and get a venue change on grounds of shitty coffee, and he might have considered it if not for the facts that one, showing how desperate he was didn’t do anything for his negotiating position, and two, he was so damned nervous that he probably could’ve eaten chili peppers without tasting them. The steam rising off the coffee was heat, and only a vague heat at that; he couldn’t seem to smell anything either.
“Mr. Turner, the computer systems at Langley seem to have suffered an attack of sorts,” one of them finally started. It wasn’t a bad salvo, since it came as a complete surprise to Will. Apparently Jack had been paying more attention to Will’s escapades in secure-network invasion than Will had realized. “An attack that I will admit our experts say should have been impossible to originate from the outside.”
The woman to his right slowly took off her shades with an air of great sadness—clearly she was to be the good cop. For a second, Will had the inane thought that it made no sense for the CIA to have kept wanting to put him and Elizabeth through regular training, since it looked like watching cop shows were a rough equivalent. “It should come as no surprise to you that we have become increasingly dissatisfied with your team leader, Mr. Jack Sparrow. While he has an excellent track record in terms of results, his methods leave something to be desired. Particularly his…association…with a James Norrington of MI6, whom I believe you know.”
“It’d really be best to scrap the whole damn region and start a new team from scratch, but we’re trying to allow for salvage.” The man stabbed his stirrer into his coffee as if he were in a Shakespearian play. “So…”
“…enterre os peixes,” Will muttered, playing with his creamers. He wasn’t looking at his so-called colleagues, though their faces must have been a sight. Nor was he really listening to them. Instead, he was actually concentrating on figuring out who was wearing the wire.
As predicted, one of them jumped, most likely because someone listening had cursed like a motherfucker. Will turned towards him and spoke with a casualness that was paperthin. “So you think I found out you’d tried—I say tried because if you’d succeeded you wouldn’t even have agreed to negotiate, let alone let me pick a coffeeshop for it—to kill Jack. And therefore I got angry and…did what? I’ve been up here two or three times a year for a couple of days apiece. Did your experts also tell you how long it would’ve taken to undetectably insert a sleeper program into your system?”
Dead silence. Looking flustered, the woman put her sunglasses back on.
“A week at least, assuming I’m working in two-hour shifts at different computers each time. And that’s not counting reconnaissance work. No, that wasn’t me—though I am probably the only one who can make it stop, so your man by the door calm down.” If it weren’t for the coffee-cup, Will would have had to lay his hands in the open where everyone could see how much they were trembling. He felt the gorge rising in his throat and hurriedly sipped his coffee to head it off. “It’s also not the only program, and definitely not the most informative. Jack wasn’t—isn’t—an idiot. Now, take me to your leader.”
The reference went over like a lead weight. Pity they didn’t seem to watch science-fiction flicks, because Men in Black had gotten the bit about humor in the government right.
Will did his damnedest to turn his anger into a heartfelt sigh. He slowly began to stand and lean over the table, ignoring the way everyone else went tense. The hands dropping to hips and beneath arms. “Look, I’ve hacked your damn databases. I know who’s really in charge, and I don’t see any of their faces here. With what I’ve got, I think you want to take this to a higher level of…security. At least to one where I can’t tell where the bugs are.”
A second to hold the pose, and then he sat back down. His fingers were beginning to hurt from the tightness of his grip and his head was telling him lack of sleep plus sick worry was bad for him. As if he didn’t already know. He told it to shut up, and for the last time to not substitute images of a laughing Elizabeth because that wasn’t helping. Instead it just made him worry more.
“Your proposal is acceptable,” the woman said. She sounded a little respectful beneath her obvious teeth-gritting infuriation.
At the last second, Will kept himself from betraying his relief. He merely nodded and waited for them to make the arrangements.
So that was deviousness. Jack would have been proud, damn him.
* * *
The first thing Elizabeth saw when she walked in was paper—reams of it coming out of everywhere. A sheet floated about level with her eyes and she snatched it down, only to stare blankly at the words and numbers printed on it.
“Where have you been?” Gillette snapped, wading his way towards her. He seized a thick stack of documents from a tired-looking Bush and, for good measure, took Elizabeth’s paper as well.
She was about to chew him out when she smelled a familiar perfume coming from his direction. Ah. So it’d interrupted his time with Scarlet.
By then Gillette was halfway across the office and Bush was coming forward with an apology on his tongue. But curiously, he bit it down at the last minute and instead pointed towards Horatio’s office. “Horatio will tell you what we know—excuse me.”
He put his hand on her shoulder and gently shoved her aside to tackle a printer that was…Elizabeth couldn’t make out too much of the letterhead, but it was enough for her to identify it. Jesus Christ. If this mess was because of what she thought it was because…
…she hurried on into the room, only to find Archie shoving Horatio back in his seat. Tongues were in full play, and—“That’s disgusting,” Elizabeth blurted.
Archie turned around and eyed her. “Well, I never thought I’d hear that from you.”
“You—oh, not now. Where the hell is James?” She stalked past him and sat herself firmly on Horatio’s paperstrewn desk. Kicked back her heels. “Do you know?”
“We’re working on it,” Horatio riposted, absently wiping at his mouth. He exchanged a look with Archie that said humor the girl, and reluctantly, Archie did.
Even more reluctantly, Elizabeth let it pass. She hadn’t meant that—it just hurt to see people together right now. Which was irrational and unproductive and damn it, she was not losing Will. She wasn’t losing James or Jack either, so she’d better slap some behavior into herself. “Jack’s still MIA. Will declared himself acting commander and I’ve got orders to set up a more reliable communication line between our offices. I also need to see and appropriate some of the information that seems to be swamping you.”
Horatio leaned on a chair arm and looked at her in a way she hadn’t quite seen before. His eyes were nearly solid red with exhaustion, but the line of his jaw was firm and so was his gaze. That was it: he wasn’t shrinking back any longer.
“You’ve taken command here,” Elizabeth realized.
“As best I can. Tom has to handle the streets, so that only leaves me. I take it Anamaria’s got the streets on your end, and you’ve got…” He waved a hand at the stacks and stacks of papers. “We’re trying to sift them as fast as we can. Anything that seems top-level goes in here, but Theodore, Alexander and Giselle are in London and I’m trying to direct them and deal with the comp system.”
She could see that the latter task alone must be nearly overwhelming. And suddenly Elizabeth thought of everything she had to do with less people to whom she could—if she even dared, what with the stakes—delegate, and she felt a little faint. Not now, goddamn it, she thought. There was no time to lose. “All right. I need a phone line and at least one networked computer. If you can station one man to just keep us updated, I’ll have the same done in our offices, and that settles that.”
“Archie’s seeing to that.” A bit of pink colored Horatio’s cheeks, but it was nothing like his usual attack of embarrassment. He jerked his head at one end of the offices, then waved her to a nearby chair. It was full of papers and, belatedly realizing that, he started to get up and apologize.
But the buzz of several phone lines interrupted and Horatio sat back down to spend the next few minutes switching frantically back and forth between conversations. At one point Elizabeth thought he was talking to Alex, but he clicked over to someone else before she could ask.
Elizabeth looked down at the documents on the chair seat. Cocked her head so she could read the top sheet. Then she knelt down and began skimming, looking for…God knew what. Something big and potentially lethal to the CIA wasn’t difficult to find, but the thing about secret intelligence agencies were that they were used to big and potentially lethal. If she was going to get Will something useful, the information also had to be specifically threatening to a major operation or operations. Which was much harder to find, and not only because Elizabeth rarely paid attention to what other CIA agents outside of the Caribbean were doing.
Will would have known, for challenge-wars with Horatio aside, he liked tracking CIA activity just for the sheer knowledge of it. He could be slightly paranoid, which probably dated to his father’s untimely death, but in this case that paranoia would have been useful. If he hadn’t been trapped in Langley. “They timed it well.”
“Did you have or know of any warning signs?” Horatio had gotten off the phone for a second and was busily attacking his keyboard. He was punching the keys so hard that it was surprising they weren’t flying off.
“No.” That might…no, it wouldn’t act fast enough. The other problem was that whatever piece of information they chose to use as bargaining leverage had to be one on which they could, with their stretched resources, act on themselves. Or that by merely releasing into the wide, wide world of the Internet, would take effect far too quickly for the CIA to mount any kind of counteroffensive.
In the movies, that kind of leverage seemed to be a dime a dozen, but not in real life. Syndicates and rival agencies might be thirsting to turn on the CIA, but those would need time to mobilize. Elizabeth flipped the paper aside and shoved her hands deep into the stacks. She received a paper cut but only briefly stopped to lick off the blood before she went on.
“Not a single sign. Actually, that probably was warning enough. Usually we’ve got something going on with them,” she muttered. It was going to take ages to get through all of this.
“Oh, I’ve got—I was organizing them chronologically. Oldest goes over there and then it curls along the wall.” He absently flapped a hand, the other being preoccupied with hovering over the phone line buttons. His expression as he looked at them was comparable to a man staring at the instrument of his death. “Will was saying a few weeks ago that the quiet was making him nervous.”
There’d probably be better luck with the more recent documents, so Elizabeth scooted herself over just in time to nearly trip Archie, who was coming in with a fresh load of papers and a look for her. He glanced at Horatio, flicker of worry in his eyes, then got down beside Elizabeth and talked while he sorted. “We’ve got a line and a computer up in the second room to the right. William’s manning it—there’s no way we can enter in the information we’re processing.”
“Most of this can wait for after preliminary negotiations. Just keep us up on your men in the streets.” She took a sheaf of papers from him and began to leaf through them, then stopped. “Archie, you know I’d like nothing better than to be able to watch you and Horatio—”
“—but fortunately for our dignity, you’ve no appetite under the circumstances.” He shrugged and from somewhere produced a cup of coffee, which he handed to her. Behind them, the computer and phones simultaneously burst into a cacophony of whirrs and beeps; Archie looked over his shoulder and bit his lip. “Elizabeth, I’m sympathetic, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have my own worries.”
In the documents that she’d just been handed seemed to be something promising. Elizabeth flipped through till she found the linking memo, then settled down to consider both of them. “I think we understand each other perfectly.”
“Are you sure you’ve covered the whole district?” Horatio was asking. His forehead was a mass of furrows and he was distractedly typing. After a moment, he happened to see the screen and cursed bitterly as he frantically corrected himself.
Archie squatted besides Elizabeth a breath longer, his eyes fixed on Horatio. His hands twitched outwards, then curled into fists. “Swann,” he nodded, getting up.
Lucky bastard, Elizabeth thought. At least he got to worry where he could see the damned man. Men. Goddamn it, there had to be three of them, and none near her.
* * *
Anamaria strode into the office with a secret, closed-lipped smile on her face and an extra sashay in her hips. A good thing, because she’d guessed right about the replacement they’d been sent, and who was already attempting to order around the office. But he wasn’t getting very far; Jack had trained everyone well in the art of appearing to do much while accomplishing very little.
“Why, Anamaria,” he exclaimed, hand ostentatiously on gunbutt. A real old-time cowboy, Jerry was. But he’d obviously failed to gain any brains despite his show of caution, as was shown by the way his eyes oozed up and down her. “See you haven’t lost anything to the years. Still wasting your time with little girls?”
“I been thinking ‘bout movin’ up in the world.” She walked right up to him, saw that he kept his hand put and went on walking, though she did turn her head to smile at him.
Then she jumped back as Gibbs knocked him with a heavy stapler. Jerry was a tall, broad man and wasn’t immediately knocked out, but he went hard into Anamaria’s knee while someone else dove in to wrench away his gun. The end result was another bullethole in the wall and an unconscious CIA agent on the ground.
“Cannot believe they’d send him. Did they really think he’d be able t’take us?” Anamaria scoffed, poking at him with her foot.
Joshamee made a face at her. She sighed and rolled her hands for the bad news, then waved in a pair to take charge of Jerry. “You an’ you, secure him an’ keep him by th’door. One of m’frères is comin’ t’take him.”
“Your brother?” Her longtime compatriot uneasily twisted his hands together, his eyebrows knitted in tufty worry. He bent down to whisper, which didn’t exactly help the uncertainty she saw in everyone’s faces.
Anamaria held up a hand and jerked her head towards a backroom, then stepped around him to address the rest of the room. “All right, Jack’s got t’be found. Worry about that. Liz’ll be here after she gets th’latest from th’Brits—oh, you over there, start getting a communications center set up; they’ll be calling shortly from their end—an’ Will’s up in Langley, taking care of that.” She put as much blazing fire into her eyes as she could for the next part. “Till Jack’s back, consider Will acting commander, an’ Liz second. Now get.”
They got, and much to her relief, it seemed as if their backbones had been stiffened a bit. Not by much improvement in the situation, but by solid information, and in the shadow world, information usually counted for more. Maybe. As she followed Gibbs into the side-room, Anamaria had the feeling she wasn’t going to enjoy hearing what he had to tell.
“I know you said your family’d do anything, but that’s—that’s a colleague, if not a friend.” He paced to the end of the room, then put his hands against the wall and bowed his head. “Not worth the argument, is it?”
“Nope. Anyway, they owe me for more’n that…an’ if it makes y’feel better, I’ll wait for word from Will or Jack first.” There wasn’t a chair or a desk in the room, so she leaned against the door. “What?”
Gibbs turned around, looking inexpressibly sorry. “Jerry wasn’t the one taking over. He was just the… ‘holding man,’ so he put it.”
“So who’s th’real one, an’ where is he, an’ how fast can we get t’him?” Pushing off the wall, Anamaria started to reach for her cell, but stopped when she saw Gibbs’ mouth purse. She huffed and slapped her hands on her hips. “Goddamn it, what? We’ve got no damn time an’ too many putains t’chase down!”
“They were going to offer it to you,” Gibbs blurted. He immediately looked taken aback at himself, but grandfatherly demeanor aside, he was an old, old hand in a young person’s trade. It didn’t take him long to recover. “My guess is, the CIA was looking to shove out Jack but they hadn’t gotten anyone lined up yet. Then they got wind of a golden opportunity and they took it in a rush.”
Or they had heard about Norrington’s—thoughts clicked. Anamaria tapped her nail against her lip. “Or it wasn’t them—it was just MI6 gunnin’ for both Jack an’ James, an’ th’CIA’s tryin’ t’piggyback at th’last minute.”
The more Anamaria considered the idea, the more she was sure it had to be right. Jack disappearing off the radar had been exceptionally smooth, but everything since then had been haphazard even for bureaucracy: no agent ready to take over the team right away, Will able to get off an email to Anamaria, no apparent lockdown of the city. If it’d been MI6 doing the actual groundwork, they would’ve just planned a straight hit. They wouldn’t have had to worry about Jack’s control of the local crime underworld because they wouldn’t have a vested interest in keeping order in the city.
In fact, if they were being really clever, they might’ve figured on the headless CIA team blaming the MI6 office and thus eliminating both teams to leave a clean slate. If the CIA was just hitching a ride, then their biggest worry would’ve been keeping their position in Miami intact, which in turn required keeping the team intact for a little while. “’cept I bet Will’s shown them just how much th’damn cons underestimated us. Ain’t goin’ t’be dismantlin’ us any time soon.”
“So you think there isn’t a second agent running around?” Gibbs asked. He clearly hadn’t figured out all the consequences Anamaria just had, but she thought he’d gotten enough for his instincts to carry him the rest of the way.
She shook her head and reached for the doorknob. “No, but we’ll keep an eye out just in case. If so, we send him along wi’ Jerry.”
“I’ll pass the word.” Gibbs started to walk out in front of her, then paused. “Anamaria? Sorry if this is rude…but you aren’t tempted?”
“Yeah, for a moment. Everyone’s tempted. But then I remember why it’d be me they’d offer it to.” When he looked quizzically at her, she arched a sarcastic brow. “I’m th’one wi’ family, Joshamee. Easy t’threaten if I’ve got no one watchin’ m’back, an’ at th’top friends are pretty rare.”
After she gave him a few more orders, Anamaria locked herself in with a secure phone line and a Will-modified laptop. If reaching him were remotely possible, she needed to. Her calmness aside, she felt over her head and she wanted someone else’s opinion. There was a kind of comfort in being the one who did the reacting to other’s situations and took care of the clean-up, and she’d gotten used to it.
The phone didn’t work the first two times, and on the third she thought she heard a slight *click* of a tap, so she immediately abandoned that. With the laptop, she had slightly more luck; it connected and she wrote off a curt note detailing the disposition of everyone and the current situation. Then she sat back and prayed like she seldom did that he’d answer it soon.
* * *
Theodore stared at the woman across the desk from him. She’d done him the courtesy of meeting with him alone, but that was only a surface favor—the walls were probably packed with bugs and if he tried anything against her, he’d be shot before he could even touch her. The only reason he knew she wasn’t a holograph was because she’d poured them coffee…nearly two hours before.
They’d skipped breakfast and were apparently looking to skip lunch. What Theodore had told M had given her visible pause, but she’d instantly turned it around on him and he’d nearly lost the game in his indignant attempts to prove the information should matter to her. They both knew it did, but what she didn’t know and wanted desperately to was how much else he knew.
“Well, it seems we might be at an impasse,” M said.
“With all due respect, madam, if it were an impasse, there would be as little action outside of this room as there is inside.” She had to be getting a feed from somewhere, whereas Theodore had rushed in without picking up any of his earpieces. Though even if he had remembered, he probably wouldn’t have been allowed it; they’d already taken his gun.
Horatio was an efficient man under almost any circumstances, and he could be startlingly creative when pressed, so Theodore just had to hope Hornblower had come up with some more chips to place at Theodore’s disposal.
M looked displeased at his comment. That was to say, she looked slightly more dour than normal and Theodore had the damnedest time fighting off a hysterical urge to giggle. “If it were an impasse, I would be speaking to a representative of an independent organization, and not an insubordinate agent.”
“I’m classified as a deep-cover agent, madam. I’m authorized to temporarily disregard whatever authorities I think fit to if it forwards the safety of Britain.” There’d been a rumor at lunch yesterday—only a rumor, but Theodore seized on it. Even if it wasn’t true, it’d remind her that Norrington was not a lone man who could be easily isolated, but on the contrary had a formidable network within and without MI6. “It’s not quite double-O status, but then, the purpose of those and the purpose of a deep-cover team are quite different.”
The moment anything let up, he was going to faint. He could already feel it tapping faintly behind his adrenaline-fueled frenzy of thoughts. So he couldn’t think about it. Not it, not exactly who he was threatening, not James Norrington nor even Tom. It was just a game. Abstract. Theodore could say and do these things, and weigh the consequences of them on human lives because he was distant and detached and he was not going to pass out, damn it all.
Especially since M had just flinched. So she was having issues with Bond again over Trevelyan. Given the amount of damage that pair could wreak when someone tried to interfere with them, one would think the last thing she wanted was an entire sector turned against her.
“I think we could both use some refreshments,” M finally replied, very prim and opaque.
Good. She was stalling, and quite transparently no matter the durability of her poker face. Now if something would just tip in Theodore’s favor…
* * *
Alexander wasn’t quite sure where he should put his eyes. If he let them settle anywhere below Bond’s chin, it would be taken as fear or shyness, and neither of those were impressions that he wanted to give. Above the chin, the neck was out due to the prominent bite-mark showing just over the collar and the eyes were entirely too mocking.
“The Earl of Edrington.” Bond made a slight inclination of his head. He turned his back to the church doors and got out a cigarette, offered one to Alexander and shrugged when Alexander refused. “So, tell me why I’m risking M’s clean-up men for this meeting.”
“I prefer plain Edrington; the title does little nowadays and using it would be sheer vanity. And I rather thought you were a clean-up man yourself.” The sarcasm might have been overreaching it. Probably was overreaching it, and damn Horatio for assuming nobility could carry through anything. It didn’t even have an edge, much less cut, in certain groups of society. Moreover, Alexander had never actually met any of the famed double-O agents before and consequently he had no idea how to approach them.
He watched Bond’s face go cold and judging, then added the rest. Somewhat jittery, for it was nipping out. “In any case, you’ve got back-up so I hardly see why you should be worrying.”
The other man took a moment to react, and when he did, it was with an unexpectedly generous smile. He nodded at a high window in a nearby building. “I thought about bringing Alec down here, but threesomes are so awkward when you haven’t yet made introductions. On whose behalf are you here?”
“Not anyone in the regular chain of command. I had quite a time sneaking out of London.” Alexander caught himself fiddling with the gun in his pocket and made himself stop, for he had no doubt that Bond had already marked all his weapons. Good humor aside, Bond’s eyes were still cool. “Last night there was an assassination attempt on James Norrington.”
“Attempted?” The glow of Bond’s cigarette tip blended with the dawn rising before them.
Nerves turned Alexander slightly snappish. “Well, London’s not even tried to start a false rumor to the contrary. They’re staying quiet—outside of Miami, only a handful of people even know Norrington’s missing.”
Damn. He hadn’t meant to mention that they didn’t know where Norrington was, and now it was too late because Bond certainly hadn’t missed that. “Is he.”
“It would be in your best interests if he were found. If only because you might want a safe corridor of travel…on the off-chance that your own negotiations go badly.” Alexander nearly fumbled slipping out a corner of the papers Giselle had printed off for him. He let Bond have a sufficient look at them, then carefully passed them over to the other man.
Bond made them vanish into his suit without taking a second glance, but his gaze on Alexander was already re-assessing. “It’s always the conscientious ones. I hope you aren’t expecting to contract an assassination.”
“No. All we need is pressure on M, and I understand you have experience delivering pressure.” For once, Alexander regretted his tendency to spin every offhand comment into innuendo. That reminded him of some times with Archie and William that he really did not need distracting him.
“I do have quite a bit.” Cigarette half-gone, Bond took it out of his mouth and tapped off the ash. Then he stared at his fingers and wiggled them, a nostalgic look on his face.
Alexander had the impression that that gesture wasn’t for his benefit.
“All right,” Bond suddenly said. He finished off his cigarette in a single long drag, then considerately disposed of the butt in a nearby trashcan. “But I’ll hold this to everyone—no claiming it wasn’t actually done under Norrington’s authority, or under that of whoever is currently running Miami. And I want the rest of that.”
“We’ll have it transferred afterwards,” Alexander promised.
He watched Bond go without half the relief he should have felt, given how well that had gone. The problem was, he knew very well it couldn’t be an anticlimax because he was still on the upward slope, and it was daunting ahead.
* * *
“Horatio?” William stuck in his head. He briefly looked horrified, then coughed to clear his throat and consequently his face as well, which left only the deep worry.
It was, according to the computer clock, nearly seven in the morning. The insides of Horatio’s eyelids felt as if they’d been scrubbed raw, his wrists ached badly and his vision had gained a slight spin a few hours ago that left him constantly disoriented. He rubbed at his face and tiredly prepared for whatever had decided to present itself now. “Yes?”
“An Agent Maturin has arrived. He says he has instructions to see the…acting commander,” William said.
Acting commander. Probably he’d been sent to temporarily take over, but at the last minute something had changed. Horatio would have grinned if his face hadn’t hurt so much—some of the night’s work was paying off.
Now for the day’s. “I’ll be out directly. While I’m seeing him, try to track down Tom for a report.”
* * *
Damien Falco, the unofficial and effective head of CIA operations, sat back with a sigh and a melancholy look on his face. It was suited for that, being the most hangdog face Will had ever seen. But he knew better than to take anyone from the CIA’s upper ranks at face-value.
“Seems you’ve got us at a bit of a disadvantage, Mr. Turner.” Falco stretched his arms over his head, then put them down on the table. “We’ve established you seem to have a strong platform.”
Will shrugged and replied in his most bored voice. Which was easy, given his state of fatigue. “Thanks.”
“Now how about how ready you are to defend it?” The other man began fiddling with his pen. He had a good nonchalant act.
“I wasn’t aware that we’d reverted to Age of Empires,” Will muttered. He was hungry and when he’d gotten up to take a piss a half-hour back, they’d made him surrender his cell phone. That rankled, even if by dexterous palming around he’d managed to keep them from finding his PDA.
The pen between Falco’s fingers stopped moving. He flicked his eyes up. “Your loyalty to your leader is commendable, but Jack’s out. No negotiation on that point—we’ve gone too far. I am, however, willing to concede retirement. With qualifications.”
Slouching, Will waited for it.
“You’ve claimed the commander’s post—I’ll concede that, too, and later we can discuss some of the more unorthodox methods of yours that trouble us here at Langley. But first there’s the issue of the man we originally sent down.” Falco tipped his head and looked almost sorry about it all, the son of a bitch. “Don’t know if you’ve heard of him—Jerry Bruck. Stubborn bastard. Not all that great of an agent, except when you need a bulldog. I’m not countermanding my orders to him.”
“But…he was ordered to hold Miami against Jack or me at all costs,” Will slowly said. He was beginning to feel cold in his gut.
Nodding, Falco dragged his sad sagging face into a wan smile. But there was just a hint of sharpness in his eyes. “I’ve no doubt your men already have him under their control. Now, the question is—what will you, the commander, do with him?”