Part 2

Robert called Mrs. Gold to tell her that her son's entanglements were being investigated and to ask her what she'd told her son. She said she'd told him the truth, that she'd been worried and called for advice. Yes, she'd given William Ann and Robert's names. When told this, Ann nodded and added a note to her list of manipulations.

When Robert finally took her home, Ann walked slowly to her library and stared at her computer. Robert sat at the big library table, studying her and remembering the sheer chaos Red Sonja had caused. For all the chuckles it had inspired, the raid had been a monumental breech of security. And she'd done it for laughs. What could someone serious have done?

"Why did you do it?" he asked softly.

"Because it was there. Because I could. I was nineteen years old in an advanced comp sci course at the best technology school in the country. It was expected."

"Peer pressure did not produce Red Sonja." He had a sudden picture of her as a barbarian warrior, shouting defiance and swinging a sword. He found the picture more than a little appealing.

"No." Ann smiled and relaxed when she heard the grudging respect in his voice. She sat across from him. "The professors expected us to try and hack into their grade systems and tests. It was unofficial homework. Dr. Tuttle said he only gave A's to those students who made the attempt. A reward for creative problem solving, he said. He denied it when he was sober." She saw the question in Robert's eyes. "I got an A," she said, sheepish and proud.

Robert remembered being nineteen, young and powerful and immortal. And idealistic. So had Ann been, thankfully. She could have done immense damage if she'd tried. But what about the others like her who weren't that noble? Well, that was why the Agency had people like Jonah, rogues who hopefully would stay bought.

He still felt some of the shock that had hit when he had realized the woman he planned to marry was guilty of major federal felonies. And Control had been holding that file for months. Robert wondered at his old friend's thought processes, then decided he'd never know for certain.

"Were you planning on telling me?" he asked.

Ann didn't meet his eyes. "No," she finally said. "It's the past. I know how stupid it was. Hell, I guess I grew up."

The past, that rich field of horrors and potential conflicts. A lot of the past had been mutually ruled irrelevant.

The question brought one to Ann's mind. "Would you ever have told me about the Company if I hadn't stumbled on it?" She watched the light play in her engagement ring's emerald as she waited for his reply.

The fait accompli of her knowledge had been one of the reasons for Robert to pursue the relationship. With that secret unnecessary to hoard, he'd been free to relax with her. But there had been other women he'd been interested in that he'd never considered telling his secret to. "No," he finally said in turn. His heart shook with how close he'd come to never discovering the gift of her love.

"Maybe there is a God," Ann said softly. "Would we have found each other elsewise?"

"I prefer not to ask."

Ann smiled at him a moment, then sighed and looked at her bookcases. "There's no reason not to show you this now."

Robert got up and followed her to the section of computer books. She pulled out a thick volume on Fortran programming and reached through. Robert peeked in. A toggle switch was on the wall behind the book. He looked at her in half-amused surprise.

"All right," she grinned, "so I've watched too much 'Mission: Impossible.' Over here."

On one of the shelves for tall books, down at just below Ann's shoulder height, was a set of beautifully bound books in German on computational mathematics. The spines lined up to show the Imperial double-headed eagle across the entire set. Ann pushed on the last volume, and the magnetic catch on the false front popped loose.

"Hang about," Robert gasped.

Ann giggled as she swung the panel out. The face of a safe hid behind the faux books, which were just the spines attached to the panel.

"It only works after you turn off the switch," she said proudly. "The current runs an electromagnetic catch. It keeps people from knocking it open by accident."

The highly-trained, experienced field operative, known to have a knack for safes, couldn't decide between delight and outrage. "I've walked past that at least a hundred times."

"Uh huh," Ann grinned. "Pretty cool, huh?"

The lock was an electronic key pad, with a keyhole next to it.

"A key for power failures?" Robert asked, feeling just a touch out of sorts. "Where's the key?"

"In here somewhere." She chuckled. "I'll leave the location as an exercise for the class."

"Anastasia," he muttered, but his mind was already sorting clues. "Are you going to tell me the code?"

She ducked her head sheepishly. "0817, the day we met." She punched it in.

"And people call me sentimental."

Inside the safe were several notebooks, a box of computer disks, a small metal box, and a flat green velvet box. Ann pulled out the velvet box. "My great-grandmother's ruby necklace."

"Oh, really?"

She opened the box. "18th birthday present." The necklace was a half dozen thumbnail-sized rubies in a heavy, old-fashioned setting.

"And you found my Christmas present to you spectacular?" Robert lifted the necklace and hefted it in his hand.

"It was from you. Besides," she added, blushing at his smile, "the only time I've worn this was at a costume benefit ball during my debutante season."

"Yes, your mother showed me those pictures."

"Darn her." Ann held the box out for Robert to put the necklace in. She pulled the notebooks out of the safe. "I should have burned these."

Robert took them. "Incriminating documents?"

"They're old, but still…" Ann felt remarkably unsettled at those papers in the hands of a sometime Federal representative. "Does the rule about spouses not testifying against each other apply to fiancés?"

Robert sobered, glancing from Ann to the notebooks he held. "I don't think so." He held the stack out to her.

"Hold on to them," she said, banking on her trust of him. She riffled through them. "Your friend Control might want to see the fourth one down." She turned away as Robert pulled it out. "Robert, can I trust him? Will he really get me off, or am I going to have to be afraid of short-haired men in suits and sunglasses? Or will he just let me think I should be afraid so I'll do what he wants?"

The questions were too much what Robert had been wondering. "Darling, I wish I knew. But until we do, don't give him any documents." The notebook she'd indicated was full of phone numbers, codes, and arcane jottings. "The State Department?"

"Uh huh." She pulled out the metal box and discs. "I'm sure I've got notes on things I shouldn't in there. I'm not even certain I should have you look it over. You might recognize something you'd have to deal with."

Robert paused and studied her. He'd just stumbled on a page of names that looked familiar, and the memory trace had alarms on it.

She had tears in her eyes as she returned his gaze. "It's not that I'm ashamed of myself," she said softly. "But the way you're looking at me…"

"I can't help my instincts," he sighed. "I wouldn't love you if you were one iota less than honorable, but that information is dangerous." He closed the notebook and put the stack back in the safe. "If certain people I'm aware of knew you had these books, even as old as they are – " That path led to encouraging his ulcer.

"I'll burn them."

"No." He sighed and stroked her face. "No, you might need something to bargain with. Control can be trusted, as long as you don't give him any loopholes. What else is all this?" he asked, blatantly changing the subject.

Ann put the jewelcase back and closed the safe and hidden panel. "Well, the discs have a plethora of incriminating information. All the Black Rider stuff is in there. I didn't want to trust it on paper." She picked the metal box up gently. "This is a code breaker. It's much quicker than the programs I have, and mere possession of a couple of the chips is a felony. They were proprietary technology ten years ago, and I don't think they were ever taken off of IBM's restricted sale list. Slow as molasses, now, I imagine," she added thoughtfully. "That might actually help."

Part of Robert's brain kept nodding in approval, as he would if Jonah was displaying the tools of his trade. The other part, that expected his fiancée to be apart and above the sleazy world of hack and slash, kept being horrified. His dilemma was not made easier by the reminiscent smile on Ann's face as she contemplated the box in her hand.

Ann told her office that she had a contract form a sensitive company to test their security and that she'd be mostly working from home. As she went about her shady business, Robert investigated the definitive crime: the murder of Albert "Conan" Mayer.

The crime report listed a horrifying number of injuries. Robert wondered if he'd brushed against a professional torturer, but the sheer variety of wounds spoke of creative sadism rather than objective training. Whoever had killed Conan had enjoyed themselves.

Robert went to New York University, where Conan had studied and plied his hacker trade. His parents had left the city after his death, and Robert wondered if the move had been motivated from fear or memories.

The computer school secretary referred him to Records, but a discreet donation to the department coffee fund persuaded her to run a search on Albert Mayer herself.

"Hm, he never graduated," she mused when she found the record. "I don't see any transfer notation."

"He died," Robert said briefly.

"Oh, how sad."

"Do you remember him?"

"Before my time, dear. I was over in Physics then." She looked at the screen. "But his faculty advisor is still here, Dr. Ramashadran. Let's see, at this hour Dr. Rama will be in the lab with his grad students. Shall I call him?"

Robert elected to visit the computer lab himself. He went to a neighboring building and down several corridors of keypad-locked doors. The door to the lab itself was propped open with a chair. Robert started to walk in, but a warning shout made him jump out of the way. Suddenly a small two-legged robot came bouncing through the door. It paused next to Robert, who watched it suspiciously, attempted to bounce in a circle, then fell over on its face. Cheers erupted from the lab. A horde of young men and women ran out of the lab and hoisted the robot to carry it back inside.

"Isn't it wonderful?" enthused an older man in a white coat. His askew nametag read Ramashadran.

"It fell over," Robert couldn't help pointed out.

"Of course it fell over! You'd fall over too if you didn't have an inner ear! But it managed to cross the floor and almost complete its turnaround before it fell over. Oh, yes, our Sparky did very well today." Ramashadran grinned at Robert. "Your money is being well spent."

"My money? My tax dollars at work, you mean?"

Ramashadran peered at him. "You're not the man from Eurotech?"

"No, I'm sorry."

"Blast, he said he'd be here. Oh, well. Then who are you?"

"My name is Robert McCall, I'm here to ask you about a former student."

"Put me down as a reference, huh?" Ramashadran led the way back into the lab. Sparky lay on a table being dissected. "Which one?"

"Albert Mayer."

Ramashadran froze and stared suspiciously at Robert. "I'll be back," he called to the students hovering around Sparky, then he led Robert to his office. He slammed the door behind them. "Can't you let that poor boy be? He's earned his rest."

"You do remember him, then?"

The professor glared at him. "My most brilliant student ever? Yes, I remember him." Ramashadran went to a wall of pictures. "Who are you?" He was staring at a group portrait of students.

"I discovered Albert's death while looking into the activities of a group called the Black Riders."

Ramashadran gave Robert a very intent look. "MI5? Or some group that shall remain nameless? Why now? Albert was killed almost a decade ago."

"Dr. Ramashadran, may I sit down?"

With a snarl, Ramashadran gestured assent and threw himself into his desk chair.

Robert studied the scientist a moment. "Doctor, does the name Red Sonja mean anything to you?"

They stared at each other for several moments, then Rama sighed. "Yes, it does. So does Conan. But before I say anymore, I want to know why you're asking."

"I am not police, nor am I any government. Red Sonja has just discovered Conan's death, and I'm trying to make sure the Riders never get near her. If I could find some evidence linking the Riders to Conan's death, perhaps we can break them without Red Sonja having to get involved." It felt distinctly odd and unpleasant to refer to people by code names. Too much like field work.

"Daughter?" Ramashadran asked.

"None of your business."

"You want me to trust you, but you won't reveal anything? I don't think so. If you'll excuse me, Mr. McCall, I have test data to review."

"Fiancée," Robert snapped.

"Ah." Ramashadran relaxed back in his chair. His grim look faded into sadness. "She didn't know he was dead?"

"No. She laid low for quite a while and couldn't find him when she finally looked. What do you know of the Riders, doctor?"

"I know they killed Albert and terrified his parents into leaving town." He reached into his desk drawer and pulled out some paper cups and a bottle of brandy. "A drink? I would like to propose a toast to young, foolish people who think they can make a difference."

"God bless 'em," Robert smiled. He accepted a cup, and they saluted each other.

Ramashadran put his feet up on his desk. "I caught Albert one night reconfiguring his proposal for a robotics test bed. The fact that he'd had to break into the school's computer and my personal directory didn't seem to phase him. When I asked him why I shouldn't just throw him out of the program, he told me I needed his help with my NASA project." He laughed. "Needless to say, those files were very carefully protected."

"So you kept him on."

"Kept him on? I made him my assistant." He shook his head as memory reasserted itself. "Why now, Mr. McCall? When the police came by ten years ago, they were looking for a drug connection. I owed it to Albert and his family not to tell the truth."

"Besides," Robert said wryly, "most police wouldn't accept information as something to kill over." He assembled an acceptable cover story. "My fiancée was investigating a computer system and stumbled on what she called their calling card."

"I know it," Rama growled. "It wiped six weeks of test data when Albert died. I had to reconfigure the whole lab, the gloating bastards."

Robert studied the scientist carefully. "Various influences have persuaded her to look into the Riders in the hopes of opening them up to the authorities."

Ramashadran snickered. "Cops or Feds? Never mind, I doubt you'd tell me. Oh, don't look so surprised, I've dealt with a lot of official types over the years. Half my work's done for tight-lipped men who frown and mutter 'Can you demonstrate a need to know?'"

"Dr. Ramashadran, do you know the identity of any Black Riders?"

"Their real identity? I don't think so. Albert said the head of the group called himself Angmar."

Robert grimaced. "The King of Angmar, the chief of the Riders."

"You know the books. Anyway, there's an inner council of eight plus Angmar, based on the nine riders."

"Surely there are more than nine. There's a fourteen-year-old boy in Queens who claims membership through his junior high computer club."

"Gah," Ramashadran snarled. "It's like drugs, they get 'em younger and younger. Oh, yes, there are dozens of members. But the council is the direction. Didn't Sonja tell you all this?"

"I didn't ask her. The Riders terrify her."

"With good reason."

Robert sighed. "I was hoping to keep her out of this. She insisted."

"Net runners are a stubborn lot." Ramashadran looked at his wall of pictures again. "Some place you might want to look into is a bar near here. It's called Nibble & Byte."

"Bite? That's an awful name."

"B-Y-T-E. And nibbles are small bytes."

"Thank you, never mind, I hear enough technicalese from my fiancée. Where is this bar?"

Robert got the address and left Dr. Ramashadran with his pictures and his robot.

Outside it was a cold, sunny day, what passed for beautiful in a New York winter. Robert wove through the crowds of class-changing students toward the parking lot. He frowned when he saw someone perched on the fender of his car, then recognized the ratty watch jacket and stocking cap.

"Get off my car, Mickey," he ordered when he was in range.

Mickey looked back over his shoulder. "There you are."

"Off, I said. And why are you here?" Robert stopped and glared. "Did Control sic you on me?"

Mickey slid to his feet and looked uncomfortable. "No, he didn't. I've got a confession to make."

"Go to your brother. What?"

"Control sicced me on Annie."

"He did what!"

Mickey nodded to the far end of the parking lot, the direction he'd been watching. "Her van's down there."

Robert glanced down. "There are thousands of orange VW microbuses in the city. Half the students live in them."

"And half of them have Grateful Dead stickers on them. It's her, McCall. I've been following her all day."

Robert glared at him. "And Control put you up to this. What did he tell you?"

"That she's helping crack a bunch of computer extortionists and that I shouldn't tell you I was in on it."

"I've always admired your adherence to orders. How long have you been here and where is she?"

"About ten minutes. She headed down that street."

"Why didn't you go after her?"

"I saw your car when I was looking for a parking space. I figured I'd better touch base with you in case you caught me."

"Good idea." Robert looked at the street Ann had taken, the same street where resided the bar Nibble & Byte. "And I think I know where she went."

"Damn it, McCall, you're always three steps ahead of everybody else. It's damned annoying."

"It's my job. Come on, you don't want to get a poor job evaluation."

The sign for Nibble & Byte was painted in computer-style lettering. Big plate glass windows filled the front of the bar. Inside the barroom looked like most other student hangouts, with concert posters on the walls between school banners.

Mickey and Robert walked by slowly, reconnoitering the interior as they passed. The tables in the interior of the big main room were mostly empty, while the booths around the walls were full of students with laptops plugged into outlets next to the tables. Across the back of the room was the bar proper.

Robert paused to ostensibly study a group of handbills plastered to a support column in the facade of the building. He observed the bar instead.

Ann stood at one end, sipping a beer and leisurely examining a big bulletin board of notices. She had her hair pinned up on her head and a pair of glasses that Robert had never seen before. As he watched, she lifted a few of the cards on the bulletin board to read the ones underneath. Then she attempted to slide the bulletin board itself to one side and seemed cynically amused when she couldn't.

A stack of index cards was piled on the end of the bar. Ann picked one up and went to a table. She pulled out a pen and spent a few minutes composing a message.

"Nobody seems to be paying her any attention," Mickey commented, turning from his apparent perusal of the front page of the Village Voice in a news box. "You want her to know we're here?"

Robert turned to watch the traffic. "I give it even odds she knows you're on her."

"What? No way – "

"Mickey, she's in field mode, she's on absolutely paranoid alert. She's even wearing a disguise, for heaven's sake, she doesn't wear glasses." Robert glanced over his shoulder and saw Ann tacking her note on the board. "Head back to your car, stay with her." He made an unpleasant decision. "I'm going to need to know where she goes, and she might not tell me." His stern look forestalled Mickey's dismayed remark. "Go."

As Mickey headed up the street, Robert faded down to the corner to look over the signs stapled to another doorway. In a few minutes, Ann came out of the bar, glanced around briefly, and headed back to the parking lot. Robert watched until she turned the corner, making sure both that she didn't turn around and see him and also that no one followed her out of Nibble & Byte. When she was out of sight, he went into the bar.

He expected what passed for modern music to be playing, but a Tony Bennett song was on the speakers. One girl in a nearby booth was singing along quietly as she typed on her laptop.

The bartender was a brown-haired girl who barely looked legal to sell alcohol. She was arguing with a young man about government spying on the Internet as Robert approached the bar.

"Yes, sir?" she asked brightly after excusing herself from her argument. "What can I get for you?"

"Can you manage a hot toddy, Renee?" he asked, glancing at her name tag. "It's a cold day out."

"I think so, just a minute."

Robert glanced around as Renee assembled the drink. A stack of old computer magazines rested next to a bowl of popcorn on the bar. He sampled the popcorn – surprisingly warm and lightly buttered – as he thumbed through the top magazine.

Renee returned with the drink. "I shouldn't look at these things," Robert commented after he'd paid for the toddy. "They just make me feel older than I am."

"Oh, I hardly know anything about computers," Renee laughed, leaning on the bar. "I'm a poli sci major. They talk about this stuff, and it just goes over my head. It's like listening to the math and physics majors talk."

"Except the math majors can't make my bank account disappear."

"Oh, I know. Those guys in the corner, they've been theorizing for days about what kind of security codes the UN must have on its computers."

Robert glanced at the corner. None of the group looked like any of the terrorists he was used to. "Isn't that dangerous, just talking out loud about it?"

"They don't seem to think so. I had a guy last night telling me how he could hold the whole country hostage by hacking into the air traffic controllers' computers. Made me glad I don't fly anywhere."

"I think the feds know such people are out there. Renee, have any of the people who talk in here ever mentioned a group called the Black Riders?"

Renee stopped polishing the glass in her hands. "Never heard of 'em," she said flatly.

Robert palmed the hundred in his pocket, then slid it under the napkin his glass rested on. "Never? No admiring rumors, no wishing they could join, no veiled whispers?"

"All I know is what I see on that bulletin board," she said nervously. "A lot of people come in here, look at it, and leave. Some of them aren't old enough to be in here, but the boss told me not to bother them if all they did was read and leave."

He pulled out of his pocket a picture of William Gold that his mother had found. "Have you ever seen this boy in here?"

Renee barely glanced at the picture. "I don't stare at them, I just make sure they don't try to buy anything."

"Do these boys ever meet anyone here?"

"Lots of people meet in here."

Robert nudged his now-empty glass on its napkin closer to her. "Is there anything under that bulletin board?"

Renee seemed grateful for the change in subject. "The hackers used to write down the passwords and phone numbers of big computers on the wall under there. The owner finally had to screw it down after the cops came in and found it."

"Thank you." Robert stood, pointedly leaving his napkin untouched.

Most of the notices on the board were want ads of equipment. Many of them were only ID'd with letters and numbers, and Robert had no idea what he was looking at. The others were announcements of meetings and events.

Ann's notice was half-covering an earlier posting. The card said simply "Conan call 212-783-1241." Robert had rarely seen such a blatant challenge, especially when he saw the card Ann's was attached to. The Minas Ithel Tolkien Appreciation Society had changed their phone number. Robert wondered briefly why she just hadn't signed the thing Red Sonja. His own experience answered that: Red Sonja had been buried nine years ago. Taking up that name again meant taking up the whole shadow world once more. How many times had Robert fought to keep from being sucked in there again himself?

He glanced around to see if anyone was taking any interest in him, then jotted down the numbers of the Tolkien Society. He was annoyed the Riders were using one of his favorite authors to cover their activities. If for nothing but the memory of his father's old friendship with the odd little Oxford don, Robert was going to see the Black Riders taken down.

Out on the street, he studied the neighborhood. He considered the apartment building across the street from the bar and its views of the street. As he headed for the car, he made a mental note to see if Jimmy was available for some surveillance work.

In the car, he called Mickey. "Where is she?"

"Currently inside an electronics wholesaler's place. She's been stopping by places like this all day, picking up pieces of equipment. I didn't know half these places existed. McCall, you know I don't want to do this."

"Yes, yes, I know. I suppose I should be glad Control chose you. I'm going to William Gold's school to get a line on this computer club. Call me when she heads for home."

"Right."

But William Gold's high school didn't have a computer club, not at all to Robert's surprise. The principal's secretary went so far as to giggle a little hysterically at the very mention of computers. Robert didn't ask. When he did ask her where kids who were interested in computers might go, she shrugged and said she had a hard enough time dealing with them in their scheduled events. A sudden gunshot and screams down the hallway outside underlined the last of her remarks. She told Robert to wait a few minutes until the on-site police had the traffic cleared out of the way in the hall before leaving. Robert felt a little shaky when he left.

The phone rang as he made his way towards the Queensborough Bridge. "Yes, Mickey."

"She's headed home. She got a couple of little boxes and headed out. How's the high school?"

"A dead end. I'm headed into Chelsea. Wait till I get there, then 'drop by.' I want to talk to you."

Mickey was silent a moment. "What are you going to tell her?"

"Everything. Eventually. Let me see what she says first."

"Better you than me. Traffic's getting worse, gotta go."

Mickey dropped back as Ann's route became more and more obvious. He got to her house as the garage door closed behind the van. A parking space opened up half a block down, and he slid into it.

His jaw dropped when Ann came out her front door, glanced around, then strolled down to where he was parked. He slumped guiltily as she walked around to tap on the driver's window.

He rolled the window down a crack. "What?"

"I'm not carrying all that stuff up the stairs by myself. You've followed me this far, don't you want to be able to report what I got?" She smiled to take the sting out. "Come in and get warm."

Crosstown traffic slowed Robert's trip back to Chelsea from Queens. There was something seriously wrong, he decided, with a city where it took half an hour to go three blocks. He watched pedestrians pass him and shook his head.

An hour and fifteen minutes after he left Queens, Robert pushed the button on his garage door opener. One of his presents on Ann's thirtieth birthday had been a retooling of the garage system to a highly secure numeric code rather than a single high-frequency signal.

He had to slam on the brakes to avoid running into Mickey, who was pulling a box through the side door of Frieda the van. Mickey managed not to drop the box as he ducked around the end of the van out of the way.

Robert parked his car and climbed out. "Mickey, I told you to wait."

"I got busted, OK? Then she drafted me into lifting. Come on, take that little box, it's the last."

Muttering under his breath, Robert picked up the box marked Tape Drive/Backup and followed Mickey through the house.

The library on the third floor had been transformed. Another big computer sat on Ann's desk, and one of the library tables had been pulled over to hold more equipment. Power cables snaked across the floor to connect to different circuits. The room hummed with the sound of at least half a dozen cooling fans.

"This is the last of it, ma'am," Mickey announced in the apparently empty room.

Ann climbed out from under her desk, a keyhole saw in her hands. "I hate doing this to an antique, but this desk wasn't designed for electronics." She paused when she saw Robert and shoved her hair out of her face a little uncertainly.

"What is all this?" Robert asked, saving revelations for later.

It went against Ann's grain to explain the mechanics of illegality, but Robert surely understood the ends justifying the means. "Well, some of it is a new phone line under an alias that I'm going to use for the main netrunning. Is that the tape drive?"

"I think so."

"Good, I can back-up the main system while I'm reconfiguring the new stuff."

Robert handed her the box. "But don't you have most of this stuff at your officer?"

"Too many questions if I bring it home. Besides, I'm rewiring some of it." She stripped off the packing materials and started poking at the controls.

Robert waited a few moments, but Ann appeared to have forgotten him, especially when she headed back to her desk and boxes of obscure stuff.

Mickey tapped him on the shoulder. "She's gone. She just mutters and waves when she gets like this. I promised myself food after I finished carrying. Let's go."

Robert allowed himself a few moments' annoyance that Mickey was telling him how his own fiancée behaved, then put it behind him. There were more important things to do. They compared notes over microwaved whatnot and coffee.

Jonah had been assigned, over his protests, to help Ann with the Riders. Mickey reported a cryptic phone call after they'd gotten into the house, something to do with phone lines.

"Did you catch the number of that new line she put in? And how did she get that so fast?" Robert asked.

"I think she had it already, from what she was muttering." Mickey grinned. "Kind of like the taxes you pay under all those different names."

Put like that, Robert could only nod. But he wondered if Ann was paying for the other line or jiggering the billing computers.

Ann finally wandered down after an hour. She didn't say anything till she'd dug out the number of the neighborhood pizza place and ordered a double pepperoni with extra cheese.

"Very healthy," Mickey commented when she hung up the phone.

"Hacker food. Old instincts are coming back." She sat down and studied Robert for a moment.

Mickey wondered if he should find an excuse to be elsewhere; Robert gazed back at his fiancée, a look of indecision in his eyes.

Ann sighed. "My vote is against these pregnant, distrustful silences. Who wants to join me in putting cards on the table?"

"That has my vote," Robert smiled, relaxing.

"Thank God," Mickey muttered. "It was bad enough you spotted me without us sneaking around each other."

Ann got a diet Coke out of the fridge and joined him at the table. "It's your own fault, Mickey. I know your van almost as well as I know Robert's Jag."

Mickey raised an eyebrow at Robert, who nodded. "You didn't spot my car, though, love."

Ann gaped at him. "You? You were following me, too?"

Robert took her hand. "No. We intersected at NYU, where I found Mickey. Conan's faculty advisor directed me to Nibble & Byte."

Ann relaxed with a chuckle that was half-sad. "Dr. Rama. Conan told me about him." She grimaced and drained her can of pop. "How far behind me were you?"

"I watched you put that notice up, then went in after you left."

A feral smile flickered across Ann's face as she gazed out the kitchen window.

"What did it say?" Mickey asked.

Robert tried not to sound approving. "Just the word Conan and instructions to call a number. It's pinned to a notice regarding a Tolkien study group."

Mickey winced. "Jeez, Annie, why not just buy air time and run ads?"

"Where's the style in that?" she grinned. "Did you leave it up?"

Robert took off his glasses, feeling sudden frustration. "It's your scenario." He contented himself with a short glare, which Ann wisely only smiled at. "Where does that number lead, the new line upstairs?"

"Good Christ, no. The Riders will be all over that number like leprosy. I've been paying for that line upstairs under my married name for years, the alias would not hold up." The empty pop can began crumpling in her hand. She shook herself. "The number on the card leads to Jonah, he swore he's got it set up to look like a residential line attached to an address in Brooklyn."

"Isn't that kind of hard on the people at that address?" Mickey asked.

Ann laughed. "The address isn't real, it's two numbers off the address of a police station. The Riders should think it's part of an investigation. But the mention of Conan should lure them in anyway."

"Where will Jonah lead them?" Robert asked.

"He said he was putting in a firewall – security barrier," she corrected at the baffled looks, "that should be hard enough to look real but not so tough that a bit of work won't bring it down." Her voice and eyes went colder. "Behind that wall are some of the files Conan and I yanked off their drive, some bogus investigative leads, and a copy of the calling card we left all over their system. Any Rider who was there at the time will know it." The pop can creaked in her grip again. "A picture we put together of the traditional Sonja and Conan atop a pile of Rider bodies and hacking at the rest. I wanted to put in a note signed Red Sonja, but Jonah said that was too much."

Robert nodded. "You want it to look like the police have found you, and either they've seized your files or you're cooperating in a plea bargain. And Jonah will be watching for them to take the bait."

"It's a pretty obvious trap," Mickey commented.

"Megalomaniacs love obvious traps," Robert replied, garnering a grim chuckle.

"There's a voice mail option, too, in case someone wants to talk," Ann added. She glanced at her watch. "I'm supposed to meet Jonah late tonight to compare notes."

"When and where?" Robert asked.

Ann fidgeted with the remnants of her pop can. "Actually, sweetheart, he asked me specifically not to let you come. He says you make him nervous."

Robert leaned back in his chair. "Now, I wonder why that would be? I don't particularly care what he wants."

"Robert, I need his help. He'll rabbit if he feels threatened." She swallowed. "And if he screws up, the Riders are on me. He's got links to my machine, he's got my real name on the phone line between us. If the Riders crash him because he doesn't want to give his full effort, they will be on me, and what happened to Conan happens to me."

Her voice was shaking, and she had to pause to get control. Robert's annoyed look didn't help. "Sweetheart," she dared, "you said this was my scenario."

"Take Mickey," Robert managed to say calmly.

"To a meeting with Jonah? Good Lord, Robert, if I said boo to him, he'd break. He's a total geek."

"Jonah is Company. Don't trust the Company. If he's trying to get you to a meeting alone…"

Mickey put down his coffee cup. "They wouldn't."

"Wouldn't what?" Ann demanded.

"Grab you."

"What? Why? I can't get the Riders if they grab me."

Robert studied the hinges of his glasses, his jaw tight. "Treasury or State may have decided they rather have you guaranteed than the Black Riders maybe."

Ann stared at him. She kept forgetting the danger of the other angle. "But – Control said…"

"Whatever suited him." Robert got up to pace. "You've given them access to the Riders they never dreamed of. The Company hackers, with time, would be able to break them."

"Or at least infiltrate them," Mickey offered cynically.

Robert nodded. "It wouldn't do Control's prestige any harm to deliver both Red Sonja and the Black Riders."

"Would he do that to you?" Ann asked, shocked.

Robert didn't answer, weighing what he hoped he knew about his old friend and what he was afraid he knew. "I don't honestly know," he said reluctantly. "But I do know you're not going alone."

At one in the frigid February morning, Ann crossed the East River and drove slowly into the empty docklands of South Brooklyn. Her old VW van made a dreadful amount of noise, and she kicked herself for having postponed that tune-up. But no one was around to hear the growling VW engine – no one who was going to bother anyone else out at this ungodly hour.

A steel barrel with a fire in it waited, as promised, next to the open door of an empty warehouse. Ann pulled up ten feet away, leaving her headlights on to illuminate the doorway. Then she slid slowly out of the driver's door and to the ground. She looked around carefully, seeing no one, then she reached under the driver's seat and slid out a pair of nunchuks. Holding one of the sticks, she let the other dangle at the end of its chain as she walked slowly towards the fire.

"Jonah?" she called softly.

"He couldn't make it."

Ann whirled towards the voice, scything the nunchuks in a wicked circle, then bringing them around her head into a guard position.

Control took a step further back into the warehouse and put his hands up. "It's all right." He forgave himself for the slight tremor in his fingers. He knew what kind of skill was required to keep from braining yourself with chuks.

Ann didn't relax. "What's going on?"

Control reached under his coat, but he moved slower as Ann shifted her grip on the chuks. He pulled out a thick envelope. "Jonah's report on his day's work. He didn't want to come out in this cold anyway." He smiled faintly. "Will you refrain from smashing my skull long enough for me to come by the fire and get warm?"

"Why should I?"

Control aborted his step. He debated conciliatory words, but decided truth was simpler. "Because my men would not approve anything else." He saw her glance around again. "You won't see them, ideally." He looked around himself. "Ideally, I shouldn't see your back up, either." He smiled at Ann's start. "You're not going to try and tell me Robert let you come alone. Or were you able to talk him into letting Mickey play bodyguard?"

"Mickey said you didn't want him communicating with us."

Control chuckled and walked carefully to the fire. Ann didn't relax, but she didn't shift to an attack stance. "As if Mickey would go along with that. But Robert wouldn't be happy if I was too obviously helpful. He'd start looking for even more convoluted plots."

Ann watched the genial-looking man warm his hands at the fire. The envelope allegedly from Jonah was tucked under his left arm. She thought a moment, then flipped the nunchuks around her shoulders and let them slap together in her right hand. But she didn't put them away.

"You're very good with those," Control commented.

"I'm adequate. Robert thinks you might be wanting to turn over the Black Riders and Red Sonja to the authorities."

"It occurred to me," Control said easily. "But I truly do not want to find out what Robert would be driven to do if I was the cause of harm coming to you." He lost his geniality. "Which doesn't change the fact that you are only a little better than any other computer terrorist out there."

"Don't be getting all self-righteous at me!"

"Trust me, I'm not." He stared into the flames. "You were wondering why I had that file on you. I've had it since Christmas. I think I was the third person Robert told about the engagement, after Mickey and Scott." He met her eyes. "I've known the contents of that file since that incident in August. I wasn't going to have Robert bedazzled by someone with ulterior motives. It's happened to better men than he," he added at her start of outrage.

"You think I'm only marrying Robert to get access to some sensitive information? You think I'd do that, or that he would let me?"

Control didn't answer immediately, just studied her across the fire. "I don't know. I hope not. I know him very well, I don't think he's lonely enough to throw good sense that far away. But he might be, and you've already proved willing to break into very important places you shouldn't be."

Ann let one of the sticks of the nunchuks drop as she studied the threat in Control's eyes. "Do you seriously believe I'm some sort of enemy operative?"

Control stared at her a moment longer, then sighed and dropped his eyes. "No." A grim look flashed up at her briefly. "If I did, you wouldn't be standing there."

Ann glanced around one more time, looking for those men of Control's. "Is this just the standard 'Don't you dare hurt my friend' or is it something more?"

He was silent, and she looked at him suspiciously.

"Robert accused me of jealousy," he finally sighed. "I don't know, I hope I'm not that petty. I do know that if this between you and Robert is real and honest, then it's the best thing that's happened since the Berlin Wall came down."

Ann wanted to snicker, but she got the impression that Control was being as honest as he knew.

"Robert has always felt things more deeply than everyone else," he continued. "He tries to be a cynic, but he's not very good at it. No matter how often it's happened, he's always shocked by a betrayal. The rest of us just shrugged and made a point not to trust the next person as much. Robert believes people, though he tells himself he doesn't."

Ann nodded. "Obvious scum he knows how to deal with. People with a good cover though…"She saw Control's look of agreement. "People like you."

He smiled and didn't deny it.

"Do you have a name?" she asked suddenly.

"Somewhere, buried in a file. I have identities. The people who know me best know I'm best defined by my job."

"How sad," she couldn't help saying.

They looked at each other for a moment that was best not studied too closely. Control silently handed her the envelope; Ann tucked the end of the nunchuks into her jeans pocket to take and opened it. She glanced through the pages, but she kept watch on Control all the same.

There had been forays against the number posted at Nibble & Byte, very cautious explorations into ownership and connections. Finally, several hours after it had been posted, someone called up openly and left a message saying they were a friend of Conan's who wondered where he had gone. Jonah traced the call and lost it among twists in the phone system.

Ann made mental notes on avenues of investigation. "Did he get anything on William Gold?"

"The last four pages. He's not sure which they are, but he's got a couple of dozen possibilities on the phone numbers the boy's using. There's some curious activity documented that he wants your opinion on."

Ann stuffed the papers back in the envelope. "He got my equipment list?"

Control grinned. "Yes, and he wants to know where you found that line scrambler. He says he had to build his own."

"Trade secret." A point came back to her from when she'd thought this meeting would be straightforward. "One thing I want you to make sure you tell him. Tell him that if I catch him sneaking around my system I'll fry him. I will not tolerate your people trying to hack into my stuff. And don't even bother with my office, there's nothing there."

He chuckled again. "What, you think we'd try something like that?"

"Yes. And I'm ready for it. He and your computers don't get another warning, and you won't like what happens if he ignores me."

"What if you don't catch him?"

Ann smiled. "I'll catch him. Is there anything else germane to the current situation?"

"No." But Control didn't leave just yet. He stuck his hands into his pockets and studied her, his eyes worried. "You do understand that Robert has enemies, don't you? What he was can't be left behind. It'll haunt him the rest of his days, both in nightmares and actual danger. Are you sure you can handle that?"

"I understand that the odds are against his dying a natural death," she said quietly. "I understand that I'll likely be a widow before fifty, barring good luck. But I will not give up the years before then for anything."

"You yourself could be in danger. Anyone after him will see you as a target. Are you willing to accept that?"

"He asks me the same question every few weeks, generally after a case ends messily." Ann gave Control the courtesy of thinking about it. The answer was the same. "Danger doesn't frighten me. Being alone frightens me. I'm willing to accept anything that allows me to be with Robert."

Control studied the dying flames in silence. The circle of light was fading, isolating the two of them away from the silent docklands around them.

Control sighed. "My wife said the same. But she couldn't find it in herself to stay. Robert's wife wouldn't stay. I don't know why you should be any different. But he's determined."

"He's not the man he was then. He's free of you."

Control snorted. "He'll never be free."

"And he's got me beside him."

He looked at her, this time seeing her objectively. A small, quiet woman with an illegal weapon tucked casually in her pocket and classified information under her arm. A dangerous woman. A fighting woman. The kind of woman who might not flinch at standing by a dangerous man.

But he'd seen too many good intentions go straight to hell. "I pray you can make it work."

"I've got as much at stake as he does."

Control paused in turning away. "If you believe that then you don't know him." He scanned the area. "I'm sure we'll be seeing each other again." He walked away.

Ann watched him disappear into the warehouse. It briefly crossed her mind that he shouldn't be wandering around alone, then she remembered who – and what – he was.

A car engine started inside the warehouse and faded off. Control leaving, and she was alone. She hadn't seen where Robert had parked; all he'd said was that he would be in view. She debated staying by the fire till he joined her, but the fire was almost out and the darkness beyond was crawling near. The night wasn't silent, and she quickly went for the refuge of her van – after checking behind all the seats.

Headlights flared into life to her left as she backed the van around to go out the way she'd come. Jaguar headlights, and she laughed in shaky relief. He hadn't been very far. She wondered if he'd bought a black car on purpose.

The plan called for a meeting at O'Phelan's if all went well. She headed back to Manhattan with Robert close behind and large in her thoughts.

What had Control meant when he'd said she didn't have as much to lose as Robert? She risked the same broken heart he did, the same return to loneliness. But maybe he had risked more to get to the point of letting someone else in his life. He had tried to break it off when he'd realized the danger she could be in because of him, and he'd only hinted at the soul-searching required to accept the possibility of harm to her. He'd given up the isolation and reserve necessary to do his job. He'd opened up to the possibility of more pain in order to feel new joy.

So what would happen to him if she decided she didn't want to deal with it after all? If she did what Kay and Control's wife had done? She paused briefly to be amazed that Control could ever have been in love, then she considered the problem soberly.

Robert would likely all but go to pieces. He'd said all his coping mechanisms had gone to hell, and he felt very vulnerable depending on Ann to soothe his soul. She felt a little ashamed of herself for ever having resented that dependency she saw in him, the dependency that spawned his protectiveness. It would be the height of cruelty to have inspired Robert to lay down his armor and then abandon him, defenseless to the storms he courted. More, it could see him dead.

She shook in fear for a moment, then she glanced at the black car reflected in her side mirrors. She'd sworn to herself that no harm she could prevent would befall him. She'd meant physical harm, but now she saw she had more to protect. For Robert to be as well defended as possible out there on his knight errantry, she was going to have to see his soul well-protected as well. The well-being of Robert McCall, body and soul. Sufficient work for one lifetime.

She surprised Robert by kissing him firmly when he met her on the sidewalk in front of O'Phelan's. He cooperated, of course, but he wondered what had inspired it.

"What did he say?" Robert asked as he escorted her down the steps and into the restaurant.

"He called me a computer terrorist and reassured me that he's not going to turn me in because he's afraid of what you would do."

"What else?" he asked knowingly. "Something's spooked you."

Ann returned Pete's wave absently. "Not spooked as much as thoughtful. I don't think he thinks I've considered all the ramifications of marrying you. He doesn't want me wimping out."

Robert muttered under his breath. "Remind me to tell him it's none of his business."

Pete came over as they sat down. "You two are out late. If it hadn't been for a couple of late theatre parties, I'd have closed already. Did your show run late?" She pulled up a chair to set as she pulled out a notepad for their orders.

"This was work, Pete," Robert answered.

"Ah," was Pete's only reply. As a former agent, she knew what kind of work kept people out at night.

"Not Company, private. But Control stuck his nose in."

Pete only raised an eyebrow. "Can I get you two anything? We've got lots of garlic tortellini from the special tonight."

Ann chuckled. "Garlic tortellini at two in the morning, just what I need. Sure, I'll take some."

"Make it two, Pete," Robert said. "But if you ladies would excuse me…"

Pete started to stand and leave after Robert, But Ann touched her arm. "Can I ask you something?" Of all Robert's old cronies, Ann thought Pete was the most sane, and a woman's angle on the old work came in very useful.

Pete sat back down. "What is it? Something about tonight?"

"Yeah." Ann kept an eye on the door Robert had used. "How well do you know Control? Do you think he might try to sabotage the wedding?"

Pete didn't immediately dismiss the possibility. "Robert knows Control best. Have you asked him?"

"No," Ann admitted. "I'd rather not."

"Just as well. He might, Ann. If he thought Robert marrying you was a threat to security, he'd do everything in his power to stop it. But he wouldn't be subtle, and he'd have done something overt by now."

Ann sighed. "Control has a file on me containing incriminating information from my stupid youth. He showed it to Robert."

Pete didn't ask for detail. "Why now?"

Ann briefly outlined the situation. "I can't help think Control's only been waiting for the right moment. Pete, would he do it out of pettiness?"

The older woman thought for several moments. "Ann, he's not above it, but I honestly think this is his way of making sure Robert's got his eyes open. They've looked out after each other for a long time."

"Control's capable of anything."

"True enough. But Control's taken awful chances to protect Robert before. They're friends, as much as two men can be in this line of work."

Ann mulled it over. "Control said he'd see me clear of that stuff in the past if I helped him get the Riders. Will he do it?"

"Did he have any witnesses when he told you?"

"Robert was there."

Pete snickered. "Then he'll do it. Robert's always been his conscience. Control will lie so well he believes it himself, but Robert will hold him to his pledges." She glanced up and saw Robert approaching. "So when are you sending out invitations? I've got a wedding present all picked out, but I need to know when and where to send it."

"We're going to start the beginning of March. I'm leaving Robert's friends to him." Ann smiled at her fiancé as he sat down. "He knows which people prefer to stay in the shadows."

"Sterno will be there for the food," Robert said easily. "Jimmy hasn't decided if he's willing to attend a wedding after taking so long to get divorced. You'll be there, Pete?"

"With bells on. Excuse me, I'll get your tortellini."

Robert waited till she was out of earshot. "So what did you two talk about?"

Ann glared at him fondly. "Control, if you must know."

He didn't return the smile. "He did spook you. What did he really say?"

She fiddled with the candle on the table. "He mentioned ex-wives," she finally said. "And why should I be any different?"

Robert bit back his outrage. "What did you say?"

"I said I had as much to lose as you did. And he said, 'If you believe that, then you don't know him.' Then he left."

He joined her perusal of the candle. "I won't say he's wrong. But I wont say he's justified in comparing you to Kay, either."

"I know. And I understand what he meant."

Robert glanced at her a little nervously. He'd hoped to keep his frightening dependency to himself. Trust Control to deduce it, but did he have to tell Ann? All he saw in his future wife's eyes, though, was sympathy and no little chagrin, as if she blamed herself for not seeing it before now.

She took his hand. "If you want to get rid of me, you're going to have to try something better than siccing your friends on me. You're stuck with me, Robert McCall."

"Good." He kissed her hand and blessed her silently for not commenting on how rapidly he was blinking. "Now, did anything of interest come out of this meeting besides Control butting in on things that aren't any of his business?"

Ann pulled out the envelope of papers, and they perused the information over tortellini and Pete's fond chuckles.

 

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