The Price of Unfinished Business 

(Volume 7 of the Tales of Ann & Robert)

Part 1

The shuttle from short term parking to the La Guardia terminal was bogged down by the remnants of the latest February blizzard. Robert McCall gave up on waiting and slogged along the slushy sidewalks with the rest of the masses. The outer portion of his mind stayed alert for the usual hazards – pickpockets, Krishnas, idiots who'd gotten hold of bad drugs – while his interior mind picked on his personal troubles.

Ann had left a week ago for a big computer convention in Las Vegas. Robert had planned to go with her, but an insurance fraud case had appeared at the last minute. Ann had gamely swallowed her disappointment and gone alone.

The case had led into the fringes of agency activity via shady military contractors and foreign dealmakers, and by the end of it Robert had acquired another lifeless face to add to the collection that kept him up nights. And he'd realized how many of his coping mechanisms he'd let slide with the discovery of Ann's love. Without her the guilt and recrimination hurt a great deal more. And he found himself moping without having Ann within easy reach. As for sleeping…

He loved her and wanted to marry her, he didn't want to become addicted to her and dependent on her for his basic functioning abilities. For God's sake, he'd managed for decades alone, he couldn't let all that fall by the wayside now.

Besides, they'd be apart at other times in the future, he had to find a better way to deal with temporary separation other than feeling utterly bereft. It was embarrassing.

"Why did God invent women?" he muttered to himself.

"If He tells you," grumbled a black man in a shabby deck coat, "tell me, dude. Cloning works for amoebas." He shrugged his duffel bag onto his shoulders and headed for the bus.

Robert laughed in understanding and went into the terminal.

Delta flight 634 from Las Vegas was on time. Poor Ann, she was coming from sunshine and 70 degrees to cloudy high 30s with spitting snow. Robert hoped she'd kept a coat handy.

He started fidgeting anxiously when the airline personnel began setting up the ropes for arriving passengers. Through the windows he saw the plane coasting to a stop and the jetway sliding out to the hatch in the side. He craned his head for a view, then the internal observer laughed cynically. Silly men in love acted this way. He bridled a little at the assessment, then he remembered that he was a man in love. And he'd been alone for an unpleasant week. He hated feeling that alone again.

Pushy businessmen were the first down the ramp, followed by a pair of families with fussy children. Then too many people clogged the passageway for Robert to see.

Then she was there, rubbing her eyes and flexing her shoulders from the long flight, a big shoulder bag on her left shoulder and her laptop bag in her right hand. The man behind her bumped past her to get ahead, and she muttered a curse as she glared after him. Then she spotted Robert, and her face was transformed with a huge smile.

A week of frenetic dashing-about and glad-handing and networking with both electronics and business cards had left Ann's nerves a frazzled mess. And every fun activity had been soured by not having Robert there to share it. She was a grown woman, for God's sake, she was surely capable of entertaining herself for a few days. But she'd called his answering machine twice in the early morning hours just to hear his voice. Oh, she had it bad.

She eeled through the line, incidentally stepping on the foot of the man who had pushed her. Robert moved to meet her at the foot of the ramp. Enough strategy was left to him as she threw her arms around his neck to get the both of them out of the crowd's way.

And then he was kissing her, and the worries that had tormented him scampered away. The new bruise on his shoulder where her laptop had bounced, though, finally claimed his attention.

"Ow," he murmured against her lips.

Ann pulled back and stared at him. "Ow? Not even a hello?"

Robert chuckled, and more of his soul re-knit. "Hello, I love you, I missed you, and ow." He reached to the relevant hand and took the laptop away from her.

"Oh, I'm sorry, sweetheart – "

"Hush." He put his arms around her waist again and went back to kissing her. Sighing happily, she put her arms around his neck and went back to kissing him.

The flight crew passing by and chuckling finally distracted them. Ann snuggled briefly against his chest until she could get her tears of happiness under control.

"Let me take that," Robert said, reaching for her shoulder bag.

"No, I'll fall over without it. You can get the bag from the luggage carousel," she added at his frown.

"But you only took one bag." He tsked fondly. "You went shopping. What is it, books or software?"

"Both, actually, but they're in the shoulder bag so they wouldn't get mushed." She smiled sheepishly as Robert put an arm around her shoulders and they headed for baggage claim. "I bought a new suitcase for my clothes."

"You didn't take that many clothes."

"Well, there are the T-shirts I bought and the stuffed white tigers and this really pretty pyramid…"

"I'll watch you unpack. Where's your coat, it's been snowing for days."

"Bleh."

Robert gave her a pointed glance when he saw the size of the suitcase she'd bought, but it was mercifully light for its size and on wheels. The baggage encumbered them too much to walk hand in hand, but when they finally reached the Jaguar and loaded the cases in the trunk, Ann took advantage of having free hands to hug Robert as hard as she could.

"Dear God, I missed you," she murmured.

Robert savored the feel of her body against his. Yes, he was dependant on her. That was the way it always was with love. He would let himself heal with her presence before trying to deal with whether or not he'd given too much of his soul to her. Now he felt the missing part of his spirit click back into place.

Ann leaned her head back and smiled up at him. "I love you. I'm glad I'm home. I wish you could have come with me, but it's probably just as well. You'd have been bored stiff with most of the places I hung out in. Listening to a two-hour debate on chip speeds was pretty mind-numbing, and I was interested."

"I would have been glad to sit by the pool. The Mirage has dolphins, don't they?"

"The Mirage has everything. Atlantic City is dull compared to Vegas. Good Lord, Caesar's – "

"We'll go together next year. Or sometime when you aren't stressing over chip speed. Come on, it's cold."

They were crossing the Brooklyn Bridge before Ann got the nerve to ask about the case. She hadn't missed the haunted look in the back of his eyes, and she thought she knew what had put it there. "Did that case work out all right?"

Robert sighed. He hadn't wanted to deal with all that. "Well enough." It sounded abrupt even to him, but she nodded and went quiet. At the next red light, he reached over and squeezed her hand. "I tried to call you Monday night."

"Oh, that was the night I went to see Siegfried & Roy. I'm sorry – "

"Oh, love, it's all right. I knew you'd be home. I just – I wanted to hear your voice." The light changed color, and he put both hands on the wheel.

"In case you were wondering who called your machine and didn't leave a message, that was me. I felt dumb for hanging up instead of just saying Hi, but… well… "

Robert chuckled. "I understand. But now you're home, and everything will be all right." The cynical observer raised an eyebrow, but there was someone else down there who was becoming strong enough to knock the cynic back in his place.

"Have the cats been behaving themselves?" Ann asked as they entered Chelsea.

"Tut thinks I've murdered you and hidden your body in the basement, and Ankh is having a moral crisis over why she still likes me with you having disappeared. They wait till I leave to eat."

"Spoiled brats. Home, home, I'm home, home," she sang happily as Robert guided his car into the garage next to the VW microbus. "Hello, Freida," she added, patting the van as she got out.

"Why do women always name cars?" Robert asked.

"Why do men name their – never mind. I'm going to get the alarm." She retreated from Robert's disbelieving look.

He found her upstairs in the atrium trying to talk the cats into coming down from the fourth floor to say hello.

"You stupid, spoiled creatures," she said. "I'm going to play with Robert, then, instead of you."

"That sounds pleasant," Robert said, putting down the bags.

"Doesn't it, though?" Ann contentedly put her arms around him, glad to be free of luggage and heavy coats. They didn't break off the kiss until they both felt small bodies winding insistently around ankles.

Ann looked down at Tut. "Oh, now you want to be sociable. I don't know, I think I'm going to sulk." Tut mewed persuasively up at her. "Silly beast."

Robert let Ann go to detach Ankh's claws from his knee. "Stop shredding my pants."

"Oh, is she? I'm sorry."

"Nothing to worry about, darling. Well, it's the last mile, let's get these things upstairs. Are you hungry?"

"I think so," she replied as she snitched the shoulder bag out of Robert's reach and headed up the spiral stairs. "What time is it?"

"6:30. I've made reservations at Salvatore's for nine."

"Why so late?" Ann ducked into the library to leave the laptop and the shoulder bag on the table, then rejoined him.

Robert put the big suitcase on its wheels and wrapped his arms around his fiancée again. "I thought you might like the chance to get some rest, freshen up, unwind a little."

"Unwind, that sounds pleasant." She grinned up at him. "You're the best thing for stress relief that I've ever found. And that flight was very stressful."

"Oh, dear. We'd best deal with that. Don't you touch that suitcase, that's my job."

"I was just going to show you what I bought."

"Later. I just want to look at you."

They were almost late for their reservation, what with snuggling, talking, playing with cats who demanded apologies for being left alone, and whatnot. By the time they did get to the restaurant, lingering doubts had been dispersed and they'd remembered why they liked each other so much.

"Missed you," Ann said softly in the car on the way to the restaurant.

"I missed you too, very much." Robert had remembered how to drive one-handed, and his right hand rested on hers, where it lay next to the gearshift.

"Was it very bad?" she dared. She hated prying, knowing how important his privacy was to him. But she'd have to deal with these moods, and best she learned now how to do it.

"No more than usual, I suppose."

"Oh, dear."

He glanced at her in surprise. "Is the usual that bad?"

"On you, generally."

He sighed. "I suppose you're right. I'm sorry, I was hoping to keep all that from ruining your homecoming."

"No," she said firmly. "It hasn't. I'm sorry it happened, and now I want to know how to help you feel better."

"I am not going to impose on you like that with you barely two hours off a plane."

"Impose?" Ann tried to think of the words. "I love you. You're hurting. I want to make it better. It works both ways, sweetheart. You make me feel better, now it's my turn to do the same for you."

Robert was quiet as he found a parking space. He'd thought he'd put his tendency to stoic suffering behind him, but apparently not. When he'd opened his heart and invited Ann inside, he'd let in someone who wasn't going to let him wallow in misery. No matter how much he masochistically enjoyed it.

Ann let him be, seeing thoughtfulness when she'd been half-afraid to see annoyance. She relaxed at the smile on his face when he opened her door.

"Truly, my love," he said, tucking her arm under his, "having you near and happy to be at my side comforts me tremendously. And your willingness to listen is a blessing. Give me a couple of more days and I'll be willing to talk about it."

"Sure," she said easily.

He held onto her a little more possessively. "Instead, you can tell me everything you saw in Las Vegas."

"Good lord, everything?"

"I'm in no hurry."

The next day, Robert called Ann's office just after lunch. Marsha, her secretary, peeked through the door of her office. "Just like clockwork," she grinned. "You come back and I start fielding phone calls from sexy Englishmen again. Line three."

"Thank you, Marsha, go away." Ann laughed as Marsha pointedly closed the door. "Hello, love," she said into the phone.

"Hello, darling. Your secretary reads too many romances."

"Careful how you word that, she and I trade books. What's up?"

"I know it's asking a lot with you just getting back to the office, but could you take some time off this afternoon? I need your help on something."

Ann blinked. He hadn't asked for her help – beyond listening – in months. "A client?"

"It's quite simple, actually. A lady called me this morning, and she's worried about her son's computer habit."

"If he's hooked on Ultima Online, I can't help."

"Nor I. No, he has a great deal of equipment she doesn't understand and she's not sure how he got it. I was wondering if you could come with me and look at his set-up."

Ann glanced at her desk. "Surprisingly enough, I think I can. Everything's under control here. I'm not sure if that's a comment on my competent staff or on lack of business."

"Excellent, I'll be there in half an hour."

"I'll warn Marsha."

"Please tell her not to smirk at me again and avoid any reference to afternoon trysts."

"Sure. But she was right that time."

Robert chuckled. "True enough. Unfortunately this is work."

"Poo. See you soon."

Marsha kept her speculations to herself, though she did grin a bit when she asked how long Ann would be gone. But Robert's annoyance faded as Ann sang happily along with the Muzak in the elevator. One or two staid business people frowned at her, though there were a few chuckles. Robert figured a few frowns were a small price to pay for a woman who sang because she was happy to be with him.

"So what's the scoop?" Ann asked as she settled into her seat in the Jaguar.

"Elizabeth Gold lives in Queens," Robert began as he navigated traffic. "She is a widow who works two jobs to keep up with her house payment. There is one child, the boy, William, fourteen years old, who is worrying her. He quit his after-school job but still manages to collect expensive computer gear. Mrs. Gold isn't very clear on what computers do, and her son has told her that the equipment is a loan from some friends."

Ann snorted. "Yeah, right. More likely he's using stolen credit card numbers to order the stuff and is then wiping the orders from the stores after it's delivered."

Robert glanced at her, wondering if her familiarity with the procedure came from experience. "It's always possible he's telling the truth," he said mildly. Ann was even more cynical than he was on a day to day basis.

"Well, I want friends like those," Ann laughed. "Or maybe not, depending on what kind of friends they are."

The Queens neighborhood was hard-working, middle-class, slipping just a little at the edges but still willing to let the kids play in the front yard.

"She called in sick this afternoon so she could talk to us," Robert explained as he and Ann walked up the front walk. "William won't be back from school for an hour yet."

Mrs. Gold was a thin, tired, edgy woman, continually fussing about the small living room as Robert and Ann drank the coffee she'd insisted on giving them.

"He never goes out to play," she said. "Always it's upstairs in his room ticking away. I don't mind the explosions and such – " She missed Robert's look of concern " – that's just those silly games." Robert relaxed. "But he'll sit for hours over that keyboard, typing away and muttering to himself. I asked him once what he was doing, and he just looked at me. 'You wouldn't get it, Ma,' was all he said."

Ann glanced at Robert, who nodded for her to go ahead. "What are his grades like, Mrs. Gold?"

"A's & B's. He's always been a good student. But he says he's bored. I've tried to get him into the advanced classes, but there's the fees…"

"Good at math, not so good at everything else?"

Mrs. Gold looked at her in surprise. "Why, yes."

"Does he have any friends in the neighborhood?" Robert asked.

Mrs. Gold went to the front window and fiddled with the curtains, lining up the pleats. "There's Robbie next door, they used to be together all the time. But since they've gone to junior high, they've drifted apart. Robbie's into sports, and Billy's – not."

"Mrs. Gold," Ann said sympathetically, "your son's a nerd, a geek. It's not that bad, geeks can do pretty well for themselves. I'm living proof."

"That's what Robbie called him the other night, but he wouldn't tell me what it meant. I remember it wasn't a nice word when I was young."

"All it means is that he'd rather read a book than catch a baseball, that he knows the answers in class when everybody else thinks it's cool to be stupid."

Mrs. Gold lost some of her nervousness as she looked at Ann. "Why does it sound like you know exactly what my son is going through?"

Ann chuckled, but she looked away. "I had friends, though, and other thing I liked to do. Does Billy do anything else except work with his computer?"

"He does have some new friends." Mrs. Gold began fidgeting again. She went to the mantelpiece and rearranged the porcelain figurines. "He says he met them at school, but they seem too old. They might be teachers or something, but they certainly don't seem like it."

Robert considered. He doubted it was drugs: The stereotypical nerd wouldn't want his mental processes screwed up. But new friends and new, mysterious behaviors were certainly signs William Gold was up to something. "You mentioned expensive computer equipment. May we see it?"

"It's in his room." Mrs. Gold started towards the stairs, but hesitated. "I've never pried. I always thought kids deserved privacy as much as adults."

Robert patted her shoulder. "If he wasn't giving you reason to worry, you wouldn't have to do this."

William's room was at the back of the house. The door wasn't locked, but a brief buzzer sounded when the door opened. Robert scanned the doorway quickly, tracking the wire from the sensor to a small blinking box on the desk opposite the bed.

"Good lord," Ann breathed, walking slowly into the room and to the desk. "Mrs. Gold, have you won the lottery?"

She laughed nervously. "Oh, no, Miss Marshall. Like I said, Billy says this is a loan."

Ann stared at the twenty-two-inch monitor sitting on top of a large, flat surge suppressor box. The CPU tower was too big to sit on the desk, so it lurked on the floor, its top almost on the same level as the desktop. Large speakers flanked the monitor, and CDs were piled on top of the tower. A color laser printer/scanner took up an entire table of its own.

"Well?" Robert asked after a moment.

Ann straightened from peering at the back of the tower, and she glanced at the shelf of manuals next to the closet. "Mrs. Gold, this set-up is worth, quite conservatively, a good twenty thou, probably more."

Mrs. Gold gasped.

"That does not include this very expensive software. And what's your power bill look like?"

"Same as always," she said faintly.

Ann grimaced. "And how many phone lines do you have?"

"Why, just the one, of course."

"Have you ever noticed him tying up the line so you can't make or get calls?"

"No, why?"

"I hate to tell you this, but unless your son is running a secret and very profitable business out of this room, he's up to a great deal of no good. There's heavy duty communications cable hooked to that thing, the kind Internet companies use for heavy traffic. He's probably connected to a network somewhere, and your power bill should have gone through the roof." She looked at the cables around the desk, then crouched to look under. "I thought so, a UPS."

"UPS?" Robert asked.

"Uninterruptable Power Supply, a power back-up. People who don't want to risk power failure crashes use them. And even the little one he's got there is not cheap."

"Can you find out what's so important on that system that he wants to protect?"

Ann stared at the system. "I can try." She hesitated and looked at the other woman. "Unless you don't want me to."

Mrs. Gold hesitated, wringing her hands, then nodded. Ann sat at the desk and studied the work space.

"Mr. McCall," Billy's mother asked faintly, "what does it all mean?"

Robert patted her shoulder again. "I'm not sure exactly what he's up to, but William is likely breaking into the utility company computers and rewriting your power bill. Who did he say this equipment was a loan from?"

"His computer club president, one of those new friends of his." She was still blinking in shock as she watched Ann investigate the hardware on her son's desk. "I'm very confused. Wouldn't the phone company have sent someone out to install that line? They wouldn't do it on the say-so of a boy, would they?"

"One would think not." Robert found himself wondering what this computer club president was like. He went to the window and noticed the wear marks on the sill where someone was in the habit of going in and out. "Tell me about this club of his."

Ann paid little attention to the conversation as she communed with the fast, powerful system. She finished studying the hardware set-up and let it continue its boot-up procedure. A picture flashed up on the screen. "Bloody fucking hell!" she gasped, her heart going to ice.

"Ann!" Robert protested, turning from Mrs. Gold. Ann didn't reply, still staring at the screen. Robert went to her side.

The picture was a finely detailed scene from J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings," the second book, if Robert remembered his chronology correctly. The evil Black Riders were riding out of their haunted city in full battle array on their way to besiege the heroic city of Minas Tirith.

Robert looked from the picture to his fiancée’s face. Ann was pale with horror, her fist against her teeth. Robert had only seen her look so scared when she'd told him about her ex-husband. "What is it, love? What does it mean?"

She found her voice. "Mrs. Gold, has William ever mentioned a group called the Black Riders?" Her voice shook.

"Why, yes, that's the name of his computer club. An odd name for a club, I thought."

Ann closed her eyes. "Dear, blessed Jesus." She pushed back from the desk and stood. "Mrs. Gold, I can't help you. Your son is into something deep and nasty, and I am not going to lift a finger to help him." She headed for the door.

"Hang about," Robert protested. "What do you know about this? What do you mean, nasty?"

"Robert, I'm sorry, but – " The front door slammed, and Ann whirled, fear and flight in her eyes.

"Oh, it's Billy," Mrs. Gold dithered. "He won't like us being in here." She headed out.

Robert stared at Ann, but she wouldn't look at him. She stared out the door as if expecting some serious threat instead of a fourteen-year-old boy.

"Ma?" said a surprised voice. "What are you doing home?" Quick suspicion flared in his voice. "What are you doing in my room?" Rapid footsteps came up the stairs.

"Billy, there are some people here," his mother started.

William Gold brushed past her and strode into the room. He looked at the computer and frowned. "Who's been messing with my stuff?"

Robert had seen too many kids with attitudes to be impressed. "We haven't done anything. Except wonder how you could afford all this." He studied the boy carefully.

William was better dressed than his mother, but as pale as anyone who spent all their time perched over a screen. He shoved his dark hair out of his face and glared around the room. Ann got a cursory glance, then William refocused his attention on Robert. "Who are you?"

"A friend of your mother's. Where did you get all this?"

"That's none of your business."

"Billy!" Mrs. Gold came back into the room. Ann made room for her and eased towards the door. "I taught you better manners than that."

"Ma, I've told you and told you where I got it. Angy lent it to me so I could study with it."

Robert strolled over to the computer. "And what are you studying that requires a phone line your mother knows nothing about? How are you paying for that?"

"Are you a cop?" William asked suspiciously.

Robert met his gaze levelly. "Now, why would you care if I was a cop or not? What are you up to?"

"Billy, Miss Marshall was asking about your club. She seemed to have heard of them." Mrs. Gold looked around, but Ann was gone. "Miss Marshall?" Mrs. Gold looked out of the room, just as the front door opened and closed.

"Ann!" Robert hurried into the hallway and partway down the stairs. He could see out the front door and he saw Ann headed down the street, away from the car. Robert hesitated, unsure if he should follow and demand an explanation or try to get something out of William Gold.

The decision was aided by William's door closing behind the adults and a lock audibly being thrown. Mrs. Gold stared at the door, started to raise her hand to knock, the slowly lowered it. "Mr. McCall?" she said anxiously. "What is going on?"

He went back up the stairs to give her shoulders a comforting squeeze. "I promise you I'll find out. Something very odd is going on. Call me if you need me."

He hurried out of the house, but Ann was no longer in sight. Robert swore. A shopping district was only a block away in the direction she'd taken, and she'd be able to grab a taxi or a bus. He kept forgetting how carefully she could move when she wanted to. He debated going to her office to wait for her, but he decided to get more information before delving into this mystery. And with Ann uncommunicative, there was one place to go for computer knowledge.

"McCall," Jonah said nervously, "I don't know why they let you past the front desk. Control told you to stay away."

Robert strolled casually around the agency's computer room, glancing at screens and raising an occasional eyebrow. "Control and I have an understanding. I just want some information."

"I always get in such trouble when you come around."

"If you can't stand the heat, go work for IBM. The Black Riders, Jonah."

He blinked as Jonah swiftly crossed himself and mimed spitting. "Don't say that name around my computers, McCall."

"I won't. Who are they?"

Jonah glanced over his shoulder. "Since when are you messing with high-tech international industrial espionage?"

"Just tell me."

"The – they are a very sneaky, very good bunch of hackers whose sole reason for existing is to break into sensitive computer systems and loot. They only work for themselves, and anyone who makes a deal with them is likely to find the Riders pillaging their system."

"I heard the reference in terms of a junior high computer club."

Jonah laughed. "Hell, they may be. They're always looking for new talent. Rumor has it they've got links in business and government. We've tried to trace them, but they erase all their tracks."

Robert thought back to William Gold's room. "Such as ordering expensive equipment and erasing the bill?"

"Jeez, that's simple. I mean like setting up bank transfers to hidden accounts then getting rid of the records of the transactions."

"Or setting up secret phone lines."

"Sure. When computers run everything, those who run the computers are in charge." He smiled smugly.

Robert wondered at the ways of the world. "Where do they get their money?"

"Anywhere finance travels over computer lines. They never have to touch real merchandise, they just make a computer somewhere think they have. A couple of years ago there was a big stink on Wall Street about where some capital gains were going. Seems some owners of stock didn't really exist. We almost had them, then."

"Could a fourteen-year-old boy be a member?"

"Sure, the FBI just caught a ten-year-old the other day who was making free with GM's research labs. They start young." Jonah brightened as McCall headed for the door. "Is that it?"

"Oh, heavens, no. I want a print-out of everything you have on them."

"Just like that."

Robert smiled. "Just like that. And I'll be sure no one knows how helpful you were."

"Thanks. Someday I'm going to say no, McCall."

"Just don't start today."

Robert headed down the corridors, hoping he didn't show how disturbed he was. Perhaps William Gold didn't know what was going on. Perhaps he was neck deep in major felonies. And what did Ann know that she ran in terror when the Black Riders' name was mentioned?

He wasn't so far gone in thought that he didn't notice the man lounging near the elevator. "Now, I wonder what you're doing here?"

"They always tell me when you show up," Control said, straightening easily. "So what brings you this time?"

They studied each other a moment, deciding if this was going to be a meeting for friendship or crossed swords.

"Computer gangsters," Robert finally said. "Jonah proved very enlightening at the mention of the phrase Black Riders."

He didn't expect Control's reaction. The man froze and stared at him. "Black Riders?" Control repeated softly. He looked undecided for a moment, then took Robert's arm. "Come with me."

"Where?" Robert demanded, shaking him off.

"My office. It's time you saw something."

Robert followed.

"No calls," Control snapped in passing to his secretary, who glanced at Robert and nodded. "Sit down, Robert."

"No. Whenever you tell me to sit down, it's bad news. I'll stand. Now, what do you know about the Black Riders?"

Control sat down and leaned back in his chair, studying his clasped fingers. "I suppose Jonah told you about their financial shenanigans. They're also quite active in scouting government systems. I don't know why, maybe just for the thrill. I've never heard of them working the political and intel circles. Not like those people Ann was involved with."

"What kind of government systems?" Robert didn't want to comment just yet on the tone of voice Control had said Ann's name in.

"State, Defense, FBI, Langley, to name a few."

"They came after us?" Robert sat down.

"Us?" Control smiled. "Robert, I didn't know you still cared."

"Control – "

"I know. I don't know how far they got, but I do know that their damned calling card popped up on half the screens in Cartography."

"Their calling card?"

"A picture of Tolkien's Black Riders riding out – "

"Riding out to the siege of Minas Tirith," Robert finished grimly.

Control watched him narrowly. "Where did you see it?"

"On a fourteen-year-old boy's home computer."

"The Equalizer's angle. Have you asked Ann about this?"

Robert glared at him. "So now we come to it. You didn't pull me in here because of the Riders. What about Ann?"

They stared at each other for several moments, then Control reached into a desk drawer. He tossed a file on the desk top. "Read that. I've been trying to decide when to show it to you."

Robert wanted to stand and walk out. But his suspicions pulled out his glasses and pulled the file around. Sylvia Anastasia (AKA Ann) Marshall. "Damn you," he whispered. "You've been running a surveillance on her."

"Not me," Control said firmly.

"Do you have a file on every woman I've ever gone out with?"

"Robert, that file does not exist because of you. Yes, I checked her out back in August, you knew that. That's when I found out about this file." He reached out and flipped the file open. "FBI, Robert," he said, stabbing a finger onto the emblem on the front page. "They started keeping a suspicious associates file on her six years ago."

"What?" Such files did not exist for people who knew questionable people, they were kept on people who were considered questionable people themselves.

"Just read it," Control said wearily. "And yes, I know what's in there. I asked for a copy when you told me you were actually going to marry the girl."

Robert paused in turning over the top page. "What is it, you're jealous that I managed to find someone – "

Control stiffened and looked daggers at Robert. After a dangerous few seconds, Robert dropped his eyes. "I'm sorry, that was – "

"Uncalled for, irrelevant, and untrue." Control didn't relax far. "And very like you."

Robert didn't react, knowing he deserved it. Never, ever had he attacked Control on the subject of lost loves. Control had too much ammunition of his own. Silently he reached for the file.

Ann knew she'd been staring at the same screen for over an hour, but it was the last screen of work she had for the night. Once it was gone, she'd have nothing to distract herself with. Everyone else had gone home hours ago. They were used to their boss working long hours, but her tense, edgy mood had discouraged farewells as they left. Marsha had been about to comment on Ann's swift return that afternoon but had wisely resisted the urge.

Finally Ann just saved the program and shut down the system. Avoiding the situation wasn't going to change anything, she should have known better. She'd been avoiding it for almost ten years. They were still out there.

A tap on her open office door made her gasp and look up. Robert stood in the doorway, wearing his most impassive face. It took a couple of moments for Ann to remember she'd given him a key to the office. She was a little surprised it had taken him so long to come after her.

She stiffened in dismay as another man stepped into view, the same man who had asked her pointed questions in an ambulance back in August. The Feds were involved, then. Worse, Robert's old cronies were involved. Ann saw several years' worth of protective silence start to unravel.

"We were never introduced," the man said genially. "I'm called Control."

"Hello," Ann said cautiously. "What brings you here, besides Robert?"

Robert stepped forward, tugging his gloves off. "What is your connection with the MIT Geek Squad?" he asked curtly in the same tone of voice he used on murderers and terrorists.

"I was treasurer my junior year and vice-president my senior year. Why?"

"Do you know how many people who were members of the Geek Squad while you were in school have been arrested for computer crimes?"

"Not off hand." Ann had all but forgotten the ring this man had put on her left hand two scant months ago. Now he was just someone prying into dangerous affairs.

Robert's eyes narrowed. He hated flippant answers. "Seventeen. Only four have never been implicated in such crimes. You are one of them."

"And for that you're angry at me?" She kept the proud smirk off her face. She hadn't known the exact number.

"I can't help but think that your clean record is less a statement of innocence and more an indication of a higher level of cleverness."

"Or a better sense of self-preservation. Some of those people were stupid greedheads."

"You knew what they were up to and you didn't do anything to stop it?"

"Robert, the girl with the locker next to mine in high school dealt drugs. I didn't do anything to stop that, either. Am I damned in your eyes for that as well?" Seeing the anger and disappointment in his eyes triggered the interior voice that begged her to tell him everything. But he'd brought that man with him. "Why did you bring your friend with you?"

Control made himself comfortable in one of Ann's office chairs. He studied her for an interested few moments. The last time he'd seen her she'd been in pain and shock. Now she sat in her own sanctum, backed into a corner and refusing to admit it. Control began to understand Robert's interest, but Control had met other admirable people he'd had to consider enemies.

He pulled up his briefcase and extracted a pair of files. "Robert told me about your meeting with the boy. We need to know what you know about the Black Riders."

Ann couldn't help flinching. She wasn't good at outright lying. "They're a bunch of sociopaths who terrorize the net."

Robert took the other chair. "We know what they are. We want to know what you know."

"What's this 'we?'" she snapped. "I thought you didn't work for them anymore."

"Similar goals," Control said, "different reasons." He opened one of the files. "So you just turned thirty. Happy birthday."

Ann flushed angrily. "What is that?" Part of her anger was caused by the reminder of how she'd celebrated her birthday with Robert, as compared with the unfriendly look on his face now.

"It's a file the FBI has been keeping on you for the past six years," Robert said quietly. His stomach churned with the nascent taste of betrayal.

"The FBI? Fuck," she muttered. "What's in it?" she asked nervously. He didn't answer, but she could tell he'd seen it. "Let me see it," she said to Control.

"This is federal property," he protested.

Ann dropped a hand on her phone. "If I have to go through a lawyer and the Freedom of Information Act, I will."

Control glanced at Robert, who nodded tiredly. Ann blinked in surprise and uneasy speculation. Why would Control be asking Robert's advice – and taking it? But Control slid the file across the desk, and she focused on it.

The first sheet was biographical information and family background. She scanned it quickly and moved on.

"My grandfather Nicholas was not a mobster!" she burst out on page two.

"Nicholas Nolan was instrumental in breaking the dockside unions in the Thirties," Control said.

"After the unions wrecked his wife's car, nearly killing her and my mother's younger brother. He refused to pay kickbacks to the union bosses." Ann glared at him. "I notice that's not in here. The quality of your intelligence gathering is not impressive." She went on through the file.

Great-Uncle Isaac's endeavors in Nazi Germany were outlined, emphasizing his willingness to give money to Third Reich officials. Ann's adventures began on page three.

"Chris Coltrane squealed?" she gasped, reading the statement from a Geek Squad member who'd gone state's evidence when caught with his modem in a defense contractor's development files.

"You do know him, then," Control confirmed, stretching his legs out comfortably.

"Hell, yes. He was president of the Squad." She shook her head in disbelief. Coltrane had named names and activities, but all he had on Ann was the knowledge that she was hacking into places, although he didn't know specifics. She'd never joined in on the brag sessions, rightly feeling that accomplices after the fact can land you in jail.

"You have no proof of anything," she said finally. "So why the evil eyes?" The question was aimed at Control, but she was watching Robert.

"You've admitted that you're a hacker," Robert said wearily.

"Everyone with the skill is a hacker. That doesn't mean I'm a criminal." But her voice revealed the truth. Robert looked away.

"What would a seizure and investigation of your computers reveal?" Control asked.

"Nothing incriminating," she answered easily. "My young and stupid days are behind me."

Control opened the other file. "The Black Riders look for people to recruit, and they only accept people who have proven they can get into places they shouldn't. How long were you a member?"

"I was never a member! They're a bunch of stormtroopers who will try to break anyone who stands up to them. They're the Mafia of the Net, and they need taken down."

"Why did you run when you ran up against them?" Robert asked softly.

Ann stared at him, wondering if the truth would save or destroy them. But lies would surely end everything. She stood and started pacing. She finally stopped in front of a framed Mucha print. "They asked me to join, but I turned them down. They accepted it but made the standard threats about revealing anything I knew about them. That pissed me off, and my partner and I broke into their system and wrecked it."

"You broke into the Black Riders' computers?" Control repeated slowly. "My people haven't been able to scratch them."

She chuckled. "I'm very good. And I did have help." Her eyes went distant. "The best hacker I've ever met."

Control and Robert glanced at each other again, and Robert took a deep breath for the question he was dreading. "What did you do that the Riders wanted you?"

Ann looked at him for several seconds. He'd told her things about his past that were horrifying, and she hadn't held them against him. But he regretted those deeds, was ashamed of them. Ann wasn't sure he'd be so accepting of her escapades.

But it was too late to sweep it under the rug. If she wanted to keep him, she was going to have to tell him. She still couldn't help a faint, proud smile. "I got into the frozen Iranian assets during the hostage crisis, shipped $5000 to the Ayatollah's Swiss account and sent a message to the State Department and the Iranian Embassy in London that they were to use the money to give the hostages a really good Christmas dinner."

"What!" Robert gasped.

"Red Sonja," Control gasped. "You're Red Sonja."

"I haven't gone by that in nine years, but yes," Ann sighed. "I am Red Sonja. Should I have Suzy find me a lawyer who's good at federal level things?"

Robert was staring at her, and Control had covered his eyes. His shoulders were shaking, and finally faint giggles were heard.

"Control, it's not funny!" Robert said, aghast.

"Oh, lord," Control finally sputtered. "Robert, do you remember Baker from State and McGee from Treasury, when they came in and demanded our help?"

Robert tried to firm his jaw, but a faint smile twitched at his face. Ann held her breath. "Yes," he said in what was supposed to be a forbidding tone of voice.

"They were tearing back and forth," Control continued, "raging about National Security and us having to agree." He laughed harder.

Robert finally gave in and snickered. "McGee didn't even notice he was waving his toupee around."

"Oh, god, don't remind me." He got control of himself and grinned at Ann. "All this time we were looking for Red Sonja in an Eastern bloc nation, and you've been sitting here in New York."

"Eastern bloc?" Ann repeated cautiously. She was glad he was amused, but she couldn't help wondering if CIA people carried handcuffs.

Robert felt absurdly relieved. He hadn't thought she was the sort to do something for greed, but… "We were focusing on the Red part of the name."

"Red Sonja from the Conan stories, for heaven's sake!"

"That interpretation was dismissed as too juvenile." Robert's smile faded. "What else have you done?"

"Nothing for gain, nothing to cause harm," she said seriously. "Only for the pride of knowing I did it."

"And the $5000?" Control asked soberly.

She shrugged. "Why did Zorro leave a Z? The achievement needed some statement of style. What did they do with the money? Nothing ever hit the news."

"I should hope not, not after we stepped on it. No, the money went to the International Red Cross as a gesture by the Iranians to prove they'd had nothing to do with it." He chuckled briefly, then lost all amusement. "You broke the Federal Reserve, the Treasury Department, the State Department, international finance transfer systems, and the Embassy in London. Just for a prank."

"You'd rather I'd transferred a few million dollars to a secret account of my own?" Ann tensed, seeing battle again.

"You could have. You may have."

"True. But I didn't. I don't need money, I've got enough of that."

"Did this partner of yours help you?"

"No, it was all me. Conan's thing was pulling incriminating corporate memos and dumping them in the New York Times in box."

"Conan?" Robert repeated, disbelieving.

"Hey, we were kids. Nobody goes by their real name in the maze." She went quiet, thinking of Conan her partner.

"When was this, that you broke into the Riders?" Control asked.

"Nine years ago, the last piece of major hacking I ever did. I went pretty legit after that."

"Why?"

Ann paced some more, talking as she moved. "The Riders scared me. There were always rumors of what they'd done to the people who got in their way. And Conan and I really kicked the hive."

Robert recognized her proud, disbelieving smile as she reflected on the glory and folly of her youth. He'd kicked a few hives himself in his time.

"I stayed out of the maze for months after I was clear of the Riders, and when I went back in it was under a new name. I didn't want anyone knowing where Red Sonja had gone."

"They knew it was you?" Robert asked.

She smiled. "Oh, yes. We wanted them to know who had crashed their system. They were after both of us to join, and neither of us appreciated being threatened. We left our calling cards all over the place."

"And so when you realized you'd brushed up against them after so long, you panicked."

Ann sat back down. "I have never knowingly been in the same room with a Black Rider. That kid knows what I look like, and his mother knows my name. They have never been this close to me." She saw the way her hands were fidgeting and clasped them tightly. "So, now what? You've gotten me to confess to something that would have me on the inside of a federal penitentiary for a lot of years."

Control flipped idly through the second file. "True enough. There's been a federal warrant out for Red Sonja that's only been wanting a real name."

Ann looked uneasily at Robert. "If we need to cancel the wedding due to the indictment of the bride, Grandma would like to know as soon as possible." That was as blunt as she cared to get on asking him if he was still willing to marry her.

Robert briefly wondered if he should believe her, that she'd gone straight. But the fear in her eyes was more a dread that she was losing the man she loved than the fear she'd be found out in a lie. Maybe she wasn't a Robin Hood, but she wasn't a John Dillinger, either. "I don't think I'll need to worry about arranging conjugal visits to a federal facility," he finally said. "I think I still have some influence."

Ann refused to cry in front of Control But as soon as he was gone…

Control was still paging through the other file. "You think so, do you?" he asked without looking up. "Federal warrants aren't that easily vacated. The Federal Reserve was not at all pleased to be ransacked. McGee from Treasury made some very serious threats while waving his toupee around."

"McGee left Treasury five years ago. It's been ten years."

Control met Robert's eyes. "And she could have gone almost anywhere she wanted in State."

"Computer security there was a joke," Ann said before she could stop herself.

"Stop while you're ahead," Control told her. He closed the file and studied the cover. "If I'm going to talk Treasury out of a warrant they've been cherishing since disco was fashionable, I'm going to need something to trade." He stared at Ann with complete seriousness. "Give me the Black Riders, and you're clear."

Ann smacked her desk. "It took Conan and me six months working together to find the key to them. And we had a contact number. And they were sloppy then. I'm out of practice, and they've stayed on the cutting edge."

Robert grimaced. He'd suspected this was where Control had been headed. While he didn't want to get Ann mixed up in an agency deal, if it would see her free and clear… Once Control had a hook on someone, he didn't let go. "You've stayed current," he said reluctantly. "How hard would it be to find the proper applications of the technology?"

She stared at him. "Robert, I've been clean for years. To get what I need on them, I'd have to break into phone records and track them through whatever felonies they're currently up to. There's a lot of laws I'd have to smash. And he'd know it all." She nodded at Control.

Control tossed the other file onto Ann's desk. "Would the FBI/CIA file on the Black Riders be any help?"

Ann blinked in disbelief, first at him, then the file. Robert was taken aback as well. Control wasn't the sort to just toss information around. Unless he was luring Ann deeper into some Control-only-knew plot. Robert had been on the receiving end of more than one of those.

"Why do you want them so bad?" Ann asked suspiciously. "What have they done to you? And what happened to you people not getting involved in domestic operations?"

Control only smiled at that. "They haven't done anything to me. But they are the computer Mafia. They've got a protection racket going, and more than one company with a sensitive government contract has given them kickbacks to keep them out of their systems. We've tried to get them before, but they're very slippery."

"Why me?"

"I didn't expect to find the person who had cracked the Riders' security. I know you had to be good to be in the Geek Squad, and when Robert mentioned he was investigating the Riders…" He shrugged. "Will you do it?"

"Do I have much choice?" she said bitterly. "The blackmail is obvious. I'll say this: I don't want to. I don't want them to know I'm around. They're based here in New York, and I've got enough people to be scared of without worrying about cyber-psychos." She grabbed the Riders file. "But you haven't given me a choice." She paused to glare at Control. "One question before I start committing felonies on your say-so."

"If you get caught, you're on your own." Control snapped a warning glance at Robert, who had moved in protest.

Ann laughed. "Good Lord, Mr. Phelps, I expected that. I'd rather not have your help. What I want to know," she said with a serious look, "is why you so conveniently had a file on me when Robert showed up today."

Control had been glared at by experts, and he was a past master at uncommunicative silence.

"Yeah, right," Ann finally muttered, and she opened the file on the Black Riders.

Robert stood and strolled around the office until he was standing by Control. "She's not stupid," he said softly.

"I know. So I don't need to tell her anything." Control stood and stretched. "Keep those files with you, Robert. Just because I'm willing to let her see them doesn't mean she gets free rein."

Robert grimaced and glanced at Ann. "Sweetheart, what's wrong?"

Ann was staring at a photograph, disbelieving horror in her eyes. "Dear God," she whispered. She looked up at Robert, tears threatening. "What is this?"

Robert took the photo from her and winced. The body had been floating for some days by the look of it, and the bullet hole between the staring eyes didn't help the appearance. "Control, why was this in there?"

Control came over. "I meant to pull that, I'm sorry, Ann." He saw Robert's disbelieving look. "Really. I'll take it with me."

But Ann took it back from Robert. "The Riders did this?" Her voice was faint.

"Yes," Control said grimly. "Albert Mayer, he was pulled out of the Sound several years ago with enough clues on him to link his death to the Riders. He didn't go quietly, the poor devil. He must have been someone who'd double-crossed them or something for them to do all that to him." He shut up at Robert's warning look.

"They killed him," Ann whispered. "I tried to find him, but I thought he'd run. The bastards killed him." She brushed the tears away.

"Ann," Robert said slowly, "you know this man?"

"Conan. It's Conan."

Robert tracked down a bottle of whiskey from someone's desk, and Control wisely stayed out of the way as Robert tended his fiancée as she dealt with the shock. She sat on the couch where Robert could sit next to her. After one glass, she was able to talk again.

"Let me see that file," she said.

"No," Robert and Control said together. Control flipped through to the relevant section, scanned a couple of pages and pulled them out. "Ann, if I'd had any idea," he said as he worked, "I'd never have let you see that."

Robert glanced at him, not believing it. Control knew the value of a well-timed shock. "Tell me why they'd do this, love. How could they find him and not you?" He refilled her glass when she held it out, not commenting on the fact that she hated whiskey.

"We crashed all their drives, corrupted their databases," she said quietly. "Then we pulled out. But they were after us, running traces. We'd gone in through half a dozen transfers, but they were one step behind us all the way. We hadn't thought they'd be on us so fast. We had to erase things as we went."

Control raised an eyebrow at Robert, who only looked grim. Running for cover while all hell broke loose and people who didn't like you were hot on your tail. It didn't change.

"They'd gotten a lock on me." Ann's hands were shaking. "Instead of getting clear, Conan severed all my links to the phone company, including the voice link he and I were on. By the time I got everything back on line, he was long gone. I didn't dare try to find him in case the Riders had set watchdogs. When I finally did look, I couldn't find him." She glanced at the file and closed her eyes on new tears.

"By staying to make sure you got clear," Robert said soberly, "he gave the Riders time to get a lock on him." She nodded. "Brave man."

"And he didn't tell them where she was," Control added. "Very brave."

Ann didn't hear these tributes by men who truly understood Conan's actions. "He was an idiot. He was pudgy and asthmatic and wore thick glasses. No way could he have defended himself against them. I would have at least stood a chance."

"I don't think that was the point," Control said wryly.

"Damned stupid chivalry," she muttered, fighting more tears.

"Yes," Robert agreed.

"It gets men killed who don't have to." Ann looked fearfully at her fiancé, then away. "Damned, stupid…" She couldn't go on.

Robert took her free hand in both of his. "You are not going after them," he said firmly.

"Robert…" Control started.

"No! They can't have forgotten her. They got Conan, but Red Sonja got away, proving someone could invade them and get away with it." He glared at Control. "Rather reminiscent of a certain situation in Laos, isn't it?"

Control rubbed his forehead. "Robert, you were the only one for that job, you agree with me on that. And do you really think this is the best time to discuss that?"

They both looked at Ann, who had a grimly thoughtful look on her face. She glanced up at their silence. "I'm doing this," she said.

"No, Ann – "

"They killed my partner, Robert! They killed him and got away with it. He let them catch him to make sure I got away. I should have looked harder then, but now that I know what's happened I can't let it lie." She looked at Control. "I'm going to need some help from you. Which of your hackers is least likely to get me caught?"

"Jonah, probably," Control said, overriding Robert's protests. "But I can't authorize him to do anything illegal. Don't give me that look," he added as Ann snorted indelicately.

Robert jumped into the pause. "Ann, don't do this. Let Control get them on his own. It's too dangerous."

"Only if I'm caught."

"They caught you before. And it won't bring Conan back."

Ann glared at him. "They got away with it, Robert."

"Fine, they got away with it. Revenge doesn't solve anything, it doesn't make you feel better. Trust me on this."

"I can't just leave it!"

"Do the investigation, find the key to their defenses. Then let Jonah go in and break them. He's got the back-up."

"And I don't?" She smiled hopefully at him.

They looked at each other for several moments. "Control," he finally said, "if anything happens to her because of this…"

"I know, death, destruction, blood in the streets."

Ann started to glare at Control, then she analyzed his faint smile and the solemn look on Robert's face. They understood each other.

 

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