John just finished ordering the wine when Dana came in. She was dressed in a short dark green dress made from some fabric that seemed to shimmer as she moved. It was obvious she had her hair done; it was short, layered, and very stylish. She broke into a wide smile when she saw him and came to the table. He held her chair out for her then sat back down.
"Dana, you look great," he said. "I had no idea."
"You look pretty spiffy, yourself."
John glanced down at the Italian suit he was wearing, and shrugged. "Well, I needed new clothes, so"
"You know, John, we've only ever worked together before. To be honest, I was a bit surprised when you invited me to dinner. Usually its drive-through while we are on stakeout."
They paused as the waiter brought the wine. John tasted it before he poured some for both. As the waiter faded away John replied, "Well, we've been working hard and its been paying off. But I realized we weren't acting like we were succeeding. This is a celebration of our first year as partners."
They touched their glasses together and sipped the wine.
They traded chit-chat and shop talk while scanning the menu and ordering and were mostly quiet through the meal. After they finished the cognac arrived. John raised his snifter to drink but paused, looking at Dana. Her hair was so black it looked like a shadow, contrasting with her pale skin and blue eyes. The sapphire earrings she wore were the precise shade of her eyes but seemed less luminous.
Damn! She is the prettiest woman I've ever seen, he thought. Why, oh why didn't I ever think of this before?
As she glanced up he took a drink. She looked at him quizzically and seemed about to speak, but John beat her to it.
"Dana, we've known each other for a couple of years now and we've been partners for a year. There's something I've wanted to say for some time but never have." Dana was about to speak, but John waved her off. "No, please, let me finish." John paused, gathering himself, before he went on. "I couldn't have done this without you. Your hard work, long hours, and attention to detail are half of the reason we're a success. When we started, I convinced you to come along on this hare-brained scheme as my chief investigator and you get a salary."
John fished an envelope out of his jacket pocket and put it on the table.
"This is your copy of some documents I had drawn up last week. The Pierce Agency is now the Pierce-Quinn Agency. You're a fifty-fifty partner and we split the excess profits down the middle."
Dana stared down at the envelope with her jaw moving like she was trying to say something. After seeming to give up she looked up and uttered a bark of laughter.
"I-I don't know what to say. This certainly isn't what I expected!"
John smiled. "Well, I hope it doesn't disappoint you."
Something flicked over Dana's face, then she smiled again. "No. No, John, I'm pretty happy. I just have one question."
"And what's that?"
"Do we have any excess profits?"
"Sure. Even more once we stop paying your salary."
The next morning, Conduit was prowling the Seattle docks. Tu had tipped him off that someone that no one could vouch for was trying to hire the man that boosted the British anti-missile logic module. The two of them had used channels they normally didn't to set up a meet. Even more paranoid than usual, they had kept a lot of distance. Finally John had cut Tu out of the loop to "contact the freelancer." Now Conduit sat in an empty shipping container, watching the meet point with binoculars setup on a tripod.
As the day wore on, Conduit ate a stack of sandwiches and drank a few liters of Mountain Dew. He also had a small chemical toilet. From time to time he would check with his handheld PC; he had a digital camera on a crane preprogrammed to aim and focus at the most likely vantage points. It was using an old carphone, modified to broadcast digital images to the cellular modem on his palmtop.
About twelve hours before the meet he finally saw something. At roughly the same time, men with cameras set up in two nearby buildings where they could see the meet point. Another two guys came in and put something under the bench that was mentioned in the e-mail, probably a microphone with a remote activator. And, most ominously, a guy in civilian clothes setup on a rooftop with a sniper rifle. Even the camera almost missed him.
Conduit was impressed, and worried. They moved quickly and were obviously pros. But they were also careful to avoid cops and the harbor patrol. So they weren't cops.
Unconsciously, Conduit scratched his forehead and let out a whispered "Hmm."
This was going to be interesting.
Right on time, a man sat on the designated bench and started reading the San Jose Mercury News while drinking a Slurpee. Conduit really liked unusual meet signals. He left the doorway he had moved to and sauntered up. He was wearing a balaclava and a big scarf as a disguise. On a blustery day near the water, he looked pretty normal. When he got to the bench he looked down at the contact.
Son of a bitch!, he thought, trying his best to not looked surprised. Itís the agent from the alley.
He cleared his throat and gave the meeting phrase: "Mind if I read the 'Opinion' page?"
The guy pulled out the section without looking up and placed it on the bench. Conduit took it and sat down, pretending to read.
After a moment, the agent spoke, still looking at the paper. "So, you came yourself. I'm a bit surprised."
"And how do you know I am who you think I am?"
"The voice. You are obviously disguising it, but its distinctive enough."
"That's pretty good. You were a bit busy when we met."
"So were you. Busy stealing the property of Her Majesty's government, actually."
"Hey, now. I was stealing it from the guys who stole it from you. I have no quarrel with you guys." He looked over at Conduit for a long moment, turned back to the paper, and continued, "We want to know who hired you to steal the device."
"Sorry. I have no idea. I work behind anonymous middlemen. Even if I wanted to help you, I couldn't. And I really am surprised that you guys need the help of little ol' me."
"You must have at least one contact. Just a name; they will never know where we heard it."
"Yeah, right. You're just asking me to give up my livelihood and piss of some really powerful people doing it. Not a chance."
Again the agent stared at Conduit, then smiled thinly. "You don't think we're just going to let you walk away from here, do you?"
Conduit grinned back. "I like you. I mean, you think the 'earnest look and quiet voice' schtick still works. What's your name, pal?"
"Eric? A guy with M.I. 6 and your name isn't Nigel or Roderick or something?"
"Holy Moley, loosten up, Eric. I'm just trying to lighten the mood. Yours and the mood of the three guys in the van down the street." Conduit let that sink in for a moment before he went on. "You ever wonder how we survived that alley, Eric? I mean, I was hit, you were unconscious, and those two guys were coming in with energy rifles. How did you end up in the hospital?"
"I'll admit, I am curious."
"I don't work alone. It took them a bit more time than I like, but they pulled us both out." Conduit paused again. "But I had them set up real early for this. I am going to walk away, quietly. And you'll let me go without following me. Otherwise we'll have to see how the guys in the van like sleepy gas. Oh, and I'd really hate to have my sniper shoot your sniper. After all, it would hardly be sporting since my guy can see your guy's cheap-ass coat and knows he doesn't get paid enough."
Conduit was impressed; Eric's expression never changed. After another pause, Conduit went on. "Eric, I really do like you. You risked your life to try to save me and I know that. But you're asking me to risk not only my life but the life of everyone I know. I'd love to help you, but I will not."
"This doesn't end here, Conduit."
"Wow. You even know my name. You guys really don't need my help after all, do you? Eric, I know that there are things you must do. And if we meet again I'll understand that. But I will do my best to make sure we don't ever meet again."
Conduit stood. "Tell your men not to move for ten minutes and they'll be fine. I'll be long gone by then. And so will they."
With that, Conduit turned and took two normal steps, then broke into a dead sprint for the shipping containers. He heard a commotion behind him, muffled by the noises he was making, then heard a crack! go over his shoulder. He dodged into the giant boxes as something tugged at his sleeve, then wove his way to "his" container. He slipped in and slammed the bar over the door. In moments he had stripped down to his costume and pulled on his hood. He paused, staring at the tranquilizer dart stuck in his coat, before tossing a thermite grenade onto his discarded gear.
After the actinic glare had faded, Conduit opened his eyes and moved to the back where he had cut a hole into the next container. There he dropped into another "new" hole into the storm drains, moving as fast as he could. Within minutes he had made his way to a culvert opening to the harbor. He donned the coat and hat he had stashed there in a bag then strolled out and up the steep bank. He casually walked to a beat up car, got in, and left.
A few hours later he had switched vehicles twice with long detours through malls crowded with shoppers and more clothes changes. He had taken a long drive in the country, then more dodges and a move to a bus in case of helicopters or satellites. Finally, half-convinced he was being too paranoid, he had slipped back into town and caught a cab home. He immediately swept for bugs and phone taps. Finally, he let himself relax.
Of all the bad luck. Now he had M.I. 6 after him. Just last month going full-time with his last employer had sounded great, but now going legit was sounding better than ever.
Tomorrow, he was going full-tilt into investigating the rough diamond heists in Los Angeles, the ones that were supposedly linked to the theft of the Warder blueprints from the Smithsonian. After all, Dana deserved the publicity of a big win after the agency's name change.
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