Part 3

Part of the information Jonah provided were the names of companies who had reported extortion by the Riders. Robert felt much more comfortable investigating living, breathing perpetrators and went to interview the people involved while Ann lost herself in the cybernetic maze.

"How did they contact you?" Robert asked a very nervous young man in the development section of a company that made missile guidance systems.

"I already told all this to the FBI," the young man dithered.

"And now you're going to tell me. How?"

"By email. I was to get access to some plans and transfer them to a location they'd tell me about."

"And how did they know you could get access to those plans?"

The young man flinched. "Well, I – uh…"

"You're a hacker," Robert sighed. "Good lord, is every computer operator poking in where they shouldn't?"

"No. Only the good ones." He flinched at Robert's glare.

"Yes, I've heard that answer. I don't like it. How did they get on to you and where did you send the information?"

But the young man had no useful information; neither did any of the other targets Robert talked to that day. All of them were revealed to be hackers of one stripe or another, and none would talk about how the Riders had found them.

Afterwards, Robert met with Elizabeth Gold to reassure her that he was working to help her son and to ask after William's activities. The boy spent every spare hour in his room, and Mrs. Gold admitted shamefully to listening at his door when she heard him talking to someone on the phone – the new line, not the house line. But the conversations had been too quiet and too cryptic for her to make out.

In Greenwich, in a small room in the boarding house across from Nibble & Byte, Robert acquainted Jimmy with the situation.

"Here's a picture of the boy," Robert said, handing over a school picture Mrs. Gold had given him. "He won't be here during the day, so you could probably get some sleep then. I'm sure he's sneaking out at night."

Jimmy studied the picture. "Is he skipping school?"

"The school computer says not." Jimmy chuckled quietly at the obvious unreliability of any computer being able to keep track of William Gold.

"When the bar's open, I'll be awake. You want me to go over there?"

"No, just keep an eye out. Call me if he shows up and I'll decide then. Oh, and if anyone who's obviously not a student shows up, make a note."

"Right. Say hello to Ms. Marshall for me," he added as Robert put on his coat.

"I certainly will." Robert pulled an envelope out of a coat pocket. "You'll need some money for expenses."

Jimmy relaxed visibly. "I was going to mention…"

"Now you don't have to. Stay warm, and call me if you need anything."

Robert didn't let his smile escape until he was on the stairs to the street. Jimmy was very reliable but predictable. And neither one ever commented on the fact that those envelopes always contained more than expenses generally required. One had to respect a man's pride.

All in all, though, Robert headed back to Chelsea with a feeling of having wasted the day. He knew how to track the stealthiest villain through the streets of world capitals and through the plains of Africa. But the byways of electronics were a mystery to him. He always hired people to go poking through computers, and he knew how to read the clues discovered. But tracking people who didn't want to be found in a world where you could erase every sign of your presence – that was hunting of a different sort.

Ann was ensconced in the library, empty pop cans littering the floor and a pizza box balanced on top of one of the computer towers. Ankh and Tut, the cats, slept in the window seats. The room was lit only by the flickering monitors, but Ann didn't blink when Robert switched on the lights. She had a pair of large headphones over her ears; her eyes shuttled between the screens of the two desk computers and her laptop, which was wired in off to one side.

Robert glanced at the stereo. The case of a heavy metal CD rested on top of the main unit, and the EQ lights were pegging at the top of the ranges. He debated a moment, then switched off the stereo.

Ann jumped, looked around quickly, then blinked absently at Robert when her eyes finally locked on him. He went over and pulled the headphones off her head.

"Hello, darling, take a break."

She blinked a moment more. "You broke my train of thought." She started back towards the computers.

Robert put a hand on her shoulder. "Ann, your eyes are blood shot. Take a break."

"Just – "

"No. It'll still be there when you get back."

She looked longingly at the computer, then she noticed the desk clock. "It's never nine o'clock." She checked her watch.

Robert held his own out for confirmation. "Come downstairs and tell me you've had a more productive day than I have."

Ann followed reluctantly, but the cats' indignant reminders of their lack of dinner brought her back to her senses. Robert fixed coffee as he talked.

"There's nothing there to get a grip on," he complained. "I can't send people to keep their ears open because there's nothing to hear. It's all happening inside little boxes. There's nothing real, no people interacting with people, just sterile electrons going back and forth."

"Conan interacted with somebody," Ann said quietly. "At some point people got to him. No electron blew the back of his head off."

Robert studied her worriedly. "True enough," was all he said. "I checked the forensics report, but they covered all the angles then."

"I know." Ann stared into the depths of her coffee cup. "The investigating detectives did the best they could."

"How did you get to the forensics report? I had to get my friends in the police department to pull it out of archives."

She glanced up at his very neutral tone. "All they did was print it out, and they had to put it in the current files to do it."

"You're into the police, then."

They looked at each for a moment. "How often have you had Jonah poke around in there?" Ann asked quietly. "How is what I'm doing any different?"

"The difference is that I already knew Jonah was an unscrupulous pillager who can only be trusted as far as you let his leash run."

Her head came up, but she bit her tongue.

Robert sighed and sat down at the kitchen counter. "I'm sorry, darling, that's not – "

Ann hurried to his side and put her arms around him. "No, I know what you meant. Robert, I thought you knew the kinds of things I'd be doing. Where do you think this information comes from? And how?"

"I know. I know very well." He swiveled around to cup his hands around her face. "I don't care if Jonah corrupts himself with casual pillage. But you said you gave all this up. And you're enjoying yourself, I can tell."

"You're afraid I'm going to get sucked into it all again."

He kissed her. "Yes. Ann, take the rest of the night off. Give your mind a break. Let's go to O'Phelan's and get some food."

"Oh, lord, real food." She relaxed against Robert and put her head on his shoulder. "I'm tired."

"You're not nineteen and immortal anymore."

"Ten years," she murmured. "I should have looked for him, Robert. He's been dead for over ten years, and I never knew."

"Sh, love." He stroked her hair for a moment, then leaned around to kiss her. "Let's get your coat and go."

Ann straightened and slowly headed out. But when they reached the atrium, a loud beeping was coming from the library.

"What the fuck – " Ann snapped, and she ran up the stairs.

"I'd had hopes," Robert muttered as he followed. "What is it?"

Ann was back behind the desk, tapping commands into all three computers. "I'm being hacked," she said crisply. "Someone's tripped the alarms."

"The Riders?" Robert came around to her side.

"I don't know." She grabbed the cordless phone and handed it to him. "Call Jonah. He went off-line an hour ago. I need his tracer link."

Robert pushed buttons. "Where's it coming from, can you tell?"

"Out of the city." She pulled a screen up on one of the big computers and tapped a finger against a number on it. "That's the link it's coming through, but I doubt it's the origination. What are you after?" she muttered, turning to the laptop to trace the activity in her own system while blindly punching commands into the third computer.

Robert felt the adrenaline start to run despite the lack of physical action. "Ann, that's a Washington area code. The prefix belongs to the Company." The phone kept ringing in his hands.

"God damn him! I warned him," she growled, fingers dancing on keys. "I told him what would happen. Yes, the sonofabitch is on line."

"How do you know?"

"I got a link on him while he was putting a link on me." She smiled grimly at her fiancé. "Unscrupulous pillager, you said." She grabbed her disk box and reached into the back. "Has he answered?"

"Not yet."

"He will." She dropped a black disk next to the laptop, then took a deep breath. First, on her base computer, she lured the link into a potentially juicy directory. "Bastard," she growled, as the hacker started rummaging through files. She then shut down the second big computer and shoved the black disk into the laptop's drive. "Disconnect the back," she told Robert, patting the deactivated computer.

"Still no answer," he told her, obeying the tone of voice and not asking why.

"Hang up and get ready to try again. Stand by the cables for this one." Ann nodded at the second desk computer as she worked on the laptop.

Robert saw a black box appear on the laptop's screen, and a calm voice came out of the speaker. "I can't let you do that, Dave." The words "Yes or No" appeared in the box.

Ann hesitated, then glanced at the computer. The hacker had gotten to the command line and was running a copy command. She reached over and pushed two keys. The screen froze.

"Call him," she snapped at Robert. "He'll answer. And pull those lines."

Robert pushed redial. The other end was picked up before the first ring. "What did you do!" Jonah screamed.

Ann gestured for the phone as she pushed Y on the laptop. Robert finished pulling cables.

"Shut up and listen," Ann snapped. "You have less than a minute to isolate the computer you're hacking me with, or every network it's connected to is going to crash. Every network, Jonah. Forty-eight seconds. I warned you." She slammed down the phone and disconnected the laptop.

Robert let her breathe for a few seconds. "What did you do?"

"A very nasty virus of my own design." Ann sighed as she pulled out the black disk.

"What if he doesn't get it isolated? Jonah is tied into some very delicate things." He tried to keep the disapproval out of his voice.

"A small fib. It'll only go one tier out. It's nondestructive, and I have the antidote. It'll screw things up but won't hurt anything – much."

Before Robert could ask, the phone rang. Ann let it ring a while, then picked it up. "Hello?" She held the phone away from her ear. "Don't swear at me, Jonah, it's your own fault. Did you get it isolated? Good boy. No, that computer's dead, dude. Use it for anything but landfill, and it'll corrupt every bit that touches it. Oh, and Jonah, don't think you can use that virus on me, you can't transmit that form. I've got the trigger. Good-bye." She hung up the phone and sat back. "You mentioned food?" she said to Robert.

He sat down. He'd just witnessed a hit, never mind that the victim was only a collection of plastic and metal. He still had that sick feeling in his gut. "He'll never forgive you. And you said you had to work with him."

"I can do without him." The phone rang, but she ignored it. "He was a convenience, I can do the hacking he would have done. Besides, I think I've got just about everything I need for an assault." She turned off the phone's ringer and stood. "I'm starving."

Robert caught her arm. "You said you were going to let Jonah run the infiltration."

Ann sighed. "You said that, Robert. I always intended to be in on the kill. I don't want to fight about it!" she said quickly at the look on her fiancé's face.

He bit down hard on his protests. "How can you be almost ready? You said it took you and Conan months to find everything you needed."

"Back then I had to sneak computer time and had to worry about getting caught." She chuckled. "And I've got better toys now. By the way, I cleared up that glitch you were complaining about with your credit card, it was a parasitic random in multiplier that sneaked in from the free miles generator at American Express."

"You're into my bank records now? What else have you been prying into?"

Ann took a deep breath, then turned away, knowing to her soul there were things that, once said, could never be retracted. She stared at a bookcase and kept her voice even. "I was in their computer to look for William Gold. It was an incidental thought about your credit card. I do not pry."

Robert would have given a couple of months of his life to be able to take back that word. "I know. I'm sorry."

She almost let the apology stand, but the hurt got away from her. "Of course you're sorry. You're always sorry. I wouldn't love you if you were the kind of man who wouldn't be sorry. But you said it anyway. Which means you've been thinking it."

She took a breath, and Robert jumped in. "It was a very poor choice of words, all right? But you're right, I did think it. My god, Ann, what do you expect me to think when you casually tell me you got into the credit card computer and fixed my account? What other things might you have adjusted and fixed or just glanced over for problems?"

"Nothing," she whispered. "I have not gone hunting for information on you that you don't want to tell me. I just happened to be there."

"No one just happens to be inside a bank computer. Ann, it's not that I really think you did, it's that you could."

She wanted to stay angry, but she saw his point. She still wasn't up to being very logical. "You're capable of doing a lot of things yourself. But you don't do them. It's no different."

Robert stared at her, not liking to admit she was right. He got up and paced a little, avoiding looking at her. "I suppose it's my own fault," he finally said. "Loving you, I keep expecting you to be better, nobler somehow, than the rest of humanity." He laughed in self-mocking. "It's what men think of women."

"Instead," Ann said carefully, "you're stuck with a common mortal with her share of flaws."

"Oh, not stuck. And never common."

"Disappointing, all the same."

The first shock was past, and Robert could see the damage that had been done. He went to his fiancée and put his hands around her face. "Startled, dismayed. I am never disappointed by you." He debated for a difficult moment. "I don't want you looking around the corners of my life because I don't want you to see some of the things lurking there. It's not a nice place, my life."

She leaned her face against his hands. "I'm quite fond of it, actually."

"Still…"

"I don't want to know what's there. I really don't. If it's important, you'll tell me. It's just that William Gold activated a credit card in his name at the same bank you use. I'd never have done it otherwise." She licked her lips. "I know you have other accounts. I've never gone looking for them. I never will."

"Could you?"

Ann fought down anger. "Why would I?"

Robert's thoughts had gone on to less happy arenas. He toyed absently with her hair. "If something happened to me before I could tell you where everything was – "

She put her hand over his mouth. "No, please. Not tonight. It's been a bad enough night without going into all that."

"You're right." He pulled her into his arms and held her tight. Their fights never lasted long, thank God. Besides, Mickey knew where everything was if Ann needed it.

They went out to a late dinner and talked of nothing related to computers, Tolkien, or personal history. They talked of honeymoon locations, wedding logistics, and ancient traditions of bride capture and elopement. Finally, they went back to Chelsea, and Robert's earlier hopes for the evening were more than fulfilled.

But something woke him at three in the morning, and he saw Ann was gone. He didn't have to go far towards the library to hear the tapping of computer keys in the still of the night.

He went back to bed, knowing far too well that she wouldn't be moved. He knew that hunt, that focused drive. He prayed it wouldn't devour the woman he loved, as it had so many times devoured him.

Ann barely noticed when Robert left in the morning. He went back to his apartment to change his clothes, check his answering machine, and brood.

He wasn't very surprised to hear a knock on his door about midmorning, but he was briefly disconcerted to find Control on his door step.

"What was all that about last night?" Control asked without preamble, walking in without invitation.

"No, please, come in. What was what all about? Jonah invading Ann's computer after having been warned, or Ann proving she had the wherewithal to protect herself?"

Control glared and sat down. "She slagged a very expensive computer. Jonah spent all night trying to debug it, but he can't clean it up. You should have stopped her."

"I didn't know what she was doing." Robert started to make some tea, pointedly not offering any to Control. "So whose idea was it to attempt the break-in?"

"After I passed on Ann's warning, Jonah said he could get in without her knowing. I thought it was worth a try." He chuckled reluctantly. "Dear God, Robert, the shriek he let out when the computer froze and that picture appeared."

"What picture?"

"Red Sonja in all her full-color, comic book glory, lopping off the head of a demon with a huge sword. Her calling card, apparently."

Robert paused in measuring the tea. "Red Sonja. She signed it, did she?"

Control looked quizzical. "You didn't see it?"

"She said she didn't want to use that name again." Robert let habit finish the tea preparations; he was fighting sick dread. "Control, how large a piece of the Black Riders do you want to write off that warrant against Ann?"

"A few limbs won't do it. I need the head and enough of the body to make sure they stay dead." Control watched Robert carefully. "You want to talk deal, don't you."

"It's sucking her in," he said softly. "She's casually wandering through places, rifling their records, and it doesn't bother her."

"It's no different from what you've asked Jonah to do for you."

"Jonah could say no. And I don't ask him to break into private computers and rifle their data."

Control snorted. "Oh, yes, you do. You just don't want to admit that the woman of your dreams is the match or better than a hired electronic gun. Jonah is as much a spy as you and me, and he says your fiancée is better than he is." He sobered. "She could have crashed the entire U.S. intelligence computer system last night, Robert. If she hadn't warned him, every network would have gone down."

"She fibbed about that, you know," Robert said, staring at his tea pot. "It would have only gone out to the ones he was directly connected to."

Control was not relieved. "He was routed through the Langley mainframe, Robert. The communications network. The satellites. He had filters set, and that virus chopped through them. In any other circumstance, I would call it an act of terrorism."

"She's going to give him the antidote – "

"Give? Or blackmail us for?"

Robert pounded a fist on his counter top. "She would not be doing this if you hadn't threatened her like that!"

"Are you sure? Are you really sure? Or do you just want to believe it?" Control got up and went to Robert. "I'm not trying to sabotage this for you, Robert. But have you really thought about all this?"

"I haven't thought of anything else, damn you. Do you think it hasn't occurred to me how much damage she could do if she wanted? That it's only the fact that she's a relatively honorable woman that's kept her out of dangerous places? But I swear to you, Control, that until I asked her help with William Gold and you discovered a chance to get to the Riders, she had been out of that world ever since Conan disappeared."

"How do you know? I think I believe you, but I want to know how you know."

The teapot began whistling, and Robert angrily snapped off the burner. "She spent a lot of money on new equipment, and she spent a great deal of time learning her way around again." He poured the water and began brewing the tea. "And she was truly terrified that the Riders would find her. I've seen her scared, Control. She wasn't faking."

"So," Control said reluctantly, "I've created my own monster by encouraging her to get back into this. I suppose it would be like getting a bank robber out of retirement, then being upset that he robbed banks." He rubbed his forehead. "I hate computers. I hate having that much power so vulnerable in one place." He sniffed the tea Robert was brewing. "Can I have some of that?"

Robert thought a moment, then pulled down a spare cup. He'd made extra anyway, in spite of himself. "Is Jonah completely against her now?"

"He uses her name as a swear word. Why?"

Robert stared into the steam crawling across the surface of his tea. "Ann intends to raid the Riders, with or without Jo nah's help, and she plans to do it soon. I'm afraid she's losing her caution, and if she goes in alone they'll catch her."

Control savored his first sip. "They'd have to go through you to lay actual hand on her. I doubt you'd let them."

"I can't help remembering what they did to Conan. They truly hated him, and Red Sonja got away. She found the forensics report, by the way. She knows exactly what they did to him."

"Damn," Control grimaced. "So she's out for blood."

"Revenge and expiation. It's a very dangerous mix."

Control leaned on the counter and thought, his hands wrapped around his cup. "It'll take some doing. Jonah kept muttering about an ax, her computers, and five minutes alone. Would she apologize?"

"For defending herself? Not likely."

"Try to talk her into something conciliatory. I think I can get Jonah to a meeting if I tug on his leash hard enough. Can you get Ann?"

"Whether she wants to or not. More tea?"

"Thank you. You'll make someone a wonderful wife some day."

"You're very kind."

"I don't have time for this," Ann complained as she followed Robert down a side path in Central Park that afternoon. "And I have no intention of apologizing to Jonah."

Robert glanced around in approval at the cold, gray day. The park was mostly deserted, the perfect place for a rendezvous. "You don't have to apologize, just let him rant at you and acknowledge that he has the right to be angry."

"But he doesn't – "

He turned and took hold of her shoulders. "You are not going after the Riders alone. And I can be more stubborn than you can. I've had more practice." He tucked her scarf closer about her ears. "I won't let them get you. But I'd rather not have to worry about them getting a chance. Will you please cooperate?"

Ann glared at him, then sighed and shrugged. She glanced down the path. "Is that Jonah?"

Robert turned. Control was strolling towards them, followed by a man who trudged along with his head bowed. Robert glanced around, looking for Control's bodyguards; one was lurking in the bushes nearby.

Control looked highly amused. "Good afternoon, Ann, Robert. Jonah, get up here and be polite."

"Good afternoon, Jonah," Robert said genially.

"Yeah," Jonah muttered, and he glared at Ann from under his eyebrows. "So you're her."

Ann glared right back. "Yep." She shoved her hands in her pockets and wished Robert hadn't talked her out of wearing her biker jacket.

"Bitch," Jonah muttered.

"Now see here," Robert snapped.

"Jonah, Jonah," Control soothed. "There's no need to be like this." He fought down a grin.

"Having to resort to name calling, are we?" Ann said with a smile.

"Ann," Robert warned. This was degenerating quickly.

"He's taking it out of my pay!" Jonah snapped, jerking his head at Control.

"Good! You were dumb! You were warned to stay out of my system."

Something like grudging respect came into Jonah's eyes. "Why did you have that virus, anyway?"

Ann shrugged. "It's a variant of what Conan and I did to the Riders. A lot of my clients come in with viruses in their systems. I try to stay current on how they're put together."

"Current? I'd say you're leading the game." Jonah studied for a second. "I want a copy of the trigger. I want to know how it got through my firewall."

"No," she said firmly. "God knows where you'd put it."

"For study only," Control added.

"Oh, yeah, right. No deal."

Robert looked at Ann pointedly. "I believe you were going to say something about needing some help."

"I'm not helping her with anything," Jonah protested.

"Something conciliatory might be in order," Control said helpfully.

"I don't need his help," Ann said firmly. "I can take the Riders by myself."

"The hell you can," Jonah replied. "You'll never get through that double-tiered firewall."

"I already have. I was in their BBS this morning."

"What? How? It's got a rotating algorithmic password, it'd take a Cray to figure all the combinations fast enough to keep the booby traps from wrecking your system."

"William Gold was on-line last night. I ghost linked in with him, got a copy of their whole structure. It's hyper-text to hell and gone."

Control raised an eyebrow to Robert, who shrugged.

Ann hesitated, then pulled a pair of disks out of her pocket. "Here, a copy of everything I could get to without risking getting caught."

Robert looked at her in amazement. "You went into the Black Riders' own system? All by yourself?"

She shrugged uncomfortably. "A scouting run only. I just watched Gold. It had to be done."

"Did you find out where their server is?" Jonah asked.

"The number was encrypted. Gold's software is well shielded."

Jonah shuffled the disks. "A ghost link isn't good for anything other than eavesdropping. We need a way to take over their system."

"We?"

He glanced at Control. "I've been informed that catching the Riders is a high priority on my job plan. But I don't need your help."

"Fine." Ann turned and walked away.

"Hold on," Control called. "Jonah, that's not how it works. Do what I told you. Robert, would you go get her?"

"Ann," Robert called. "It won't hurt to listen."

She stopped, thought a moment, then turned and strode back. "I'm listening," she said, but her expression was hostile.

"I'm not going to apologize," Jonah muttered. "You told me to do it."

"Oh, the old song," Robert sneered. "I was only following orders. You were the one who thought he could get away with it."

Control shook his head. "I thought the point of this, Robert, was to build unity."

Robert peered suspiciously at him. "Have they been pushing interpersonal bonding at the Company again?"

"Just because it comes from Public Relations doesn't mean it's bad, old son."

Ann looked startled. "You have a PR department?"

"Can you think of anyone who could use one more?" Control nudged Jonah, who grimaced.

"I'm supposed to say I'm sorry I tried to get into your computer," he told Ann sullenly.

A faint smile crossed her face. "I think I prefer the honest resentment to a grudging apology."

"Oh, my resentment is honest. How the hell did you catch me? I've gotten into – "

Control cleared his throat pointedly.

Jonah blushed. "Oh, yeah. You're not Company."

"Though it lends an interesting twist to the term Company wife," Control said brightly.

Ann blinked, and Robert groaned. "I despise it when you get clever. Ann, ask for his help, or I will."

She glared at her fiancé. "I'm told I'm not allowed to go after the Riders by myself. I'm supposed to ask you to watch my back when I go in."

Robert glanced away, ostensibly looking for observers but in actuality doing his best to keep from chuckling and so getting hit.

Jonah and Ann stared at each other, he studying her from under suspicious eyebrows and her with her chin stubbornly in the air. Control joined Robert in his perusal of the surroundings.

"When are you going in?" Jonah finally asked.

"Tomorrow night," Ann answered.

"What?" Robert said quickly.

"Excuse me?" Control echoed.

"A front assault through the BBS?" Jonah protested. "They'll be on us in a heartbeat. We need more time."

"We don't have time. They've activated their Red Sonja file. On the main announcement board in the BBS is a request for all Riders to look into the identity of Red Sonja. There was a hypertext link to a file, but Gold didn't go there to look." Ann took a breath to get control of her voice.

"The note in the bar," Robert said grimly. "It looks like they've taken the bait."

"What's your plan?" Jonah asked.

"I thought I could Trojan horse in with Gold, then show myself and let them chase me to one of your links – "

"No," both Robert and Control said firmly.

" – but," Ann continued, smiling slightly, "I knew how that would go over."

"Why don't we just grab the kid and use his own system?" Jonah proposed. "Half his contacts to the Riders are bookmarked."

"No," Robert and Control said again.

"We don't have enough evidence to grab him," Control added.

"We can get it," Jonah offered.

Control pinched the bridge of his nose. "Jonah, what have I told you about manufacturing evidence?"

"Wouldn't need to," Ann grinned. "I found where he erased his mother's mortgage and is siphoning her payments into a high yield account."

"That's why he keeps peeking at the computer at Charles Schwab."

"No," Robert said firmly. "I told his mother I'd help him, not get him thrown in jail."

"You're cutting our options very badly," Jonah complained.

"Deal with it."

Ann paced a bit away, then came back. "I've still got the old files Conan used when we contacted the Riders. They've changed the protocols, but the underlying structure is the same. I think we can work with that."

"What about the embedded ID string?" Jonah asked.

"The what?" Robert asked suspiciously.

Ann didn't look at him. "The individual code that tells their server who it is that's coming in. You can't get in without it, and they assign it to people."

"They'd know it was you," Control said quietly.

An unpleasant note entered her voice, and she smiled faintly. "I thought of using Conan's I have copies of everything he had, and he had mine. He must have destroyed my stuff before – before they caught up with him, otherwise they'd have been on to me." Her smile grew more feral. "I like the idea of going in as a ghost to haunt them."

"I doubt they believe in ghosts," Robert said uneasily. "I thought you didn't want them to catch you."

She shrugged. "Go in fast, dump the virus, get out."

Control cleared his throat again. "The point of all this is to get copies of their data, not just wipe them out. You only slowed them down last time."

"That virus is nastier now. So am I. If you want copies of their data, I'd have to get on their Inner Council. And to do that I'd have to go back to serious cracking and find something so creative to impress them that they invite me back in."

Control looked thoughtful. "Control, don't even think it," Robert said softly.

"I know the perfect place to start," she added, smiling sweetly at Jonah.

"No," Robert said. "Now then, you have a way in, Ann. Why can't Jonah use that information and go in and see what he can get on them?"

Ann paused, then looked at her fiancé firmly. "Because I'm not going to give him the information. I'm going in and gutting them myself and writing Conan's name all over their walls. Jonah can come in with me to copy their data – that'll satisfy you, I hope," she snapped at Control, "but I'm taking them down."

"And Conan will still be dead," Robert told her. "Revenge won't change the fact that you didn't know about it and couldn't help him."

"No," she agreed. "But I'll enjoy doing it anyway. Jonah, I'll be in touch." She turned and walked away.

"Ann!" Robert called, but she didn't hesitate. "Dammit," he muttered, watching her head for the more populated regions near the streets. He turned and glared at Control.

"It's not my fault, Robert – "

"Yes, it is! You pushed the point and made the threat that started all this. They're going to catch her, and she doesn't care."

"Isn't that a good thing?" Jonah offered carefully. "You wanted to catch the people, they'd have to send people after her."

"Jonah, go back to work," Control said wearily. Jonah grinned and went.

Robert and Control walked slowly into the depths of the park. "He hasn't seen the part of the file on Conan, Robert," Control said. "He doesn't know what they can do."

"But you know."

"Yes." He was silent for a few moments. "And it's not a bad plan."

"What! How can you say – "

"Robert, for five minutes try to keep your emotions out of it. Try. What is wrong with a known target showing herself to her enemies and getting them to come after her?" He talked over Robert's intake of breath for speech. "She'll have complete back-up, Robert. This is a sanctioned operation. Whatever resources you want, you've got. There's no risk to her. I wouldn't do that to you," he finished softly.

Robert kept his voice even with difficulty. "They hate her, she's eluded them for ten years, and the first thing they did to Albert Mayer was to cut off his fingers."

"They won't get close to her, I promise."

"You can't promise any such thing! They're fanatics. If they had the slightest inkling who she was, they'd assault the house and take her."

"Past you? Past Mickey and Jimmy and all the other watchdogs you can whistle up?"

Robert shook his head. "I will not allow her to just walk into that kind of danger."

Control put a hand on his arm, stopping him. "Robert, she's going in whether you like it or not. She knows the danger, but she doesn't care. We've both seen this. You can't stop it, at least try to direct it. Would you rather spend your energy on trying to stop her or doing your damnedest to protect her?"

"Damn you to hell," Robert muttered.

Control chuckled. "You always swear at me when you know I'm right. If we're all working together, what can they do?"

Robert shivered, remembering several dozen incidents where working together hadn't saved a bloody thing.

He called Mickey to the house that night to go over everything. Ann was oblivious in the library, spending her time with Jonah on a hard link as they updated Conan's access software.

Mickey shook his head slowly as he closed the Black Riders file. "Real charmers, McCall. Whoever did in Conan knew his work."

"You think a professional?" Robert brought fresh coffee to the table by the kitchen windows. "I was thinking their own pet sadist."

"Could be. But he learned his stuff somewhere. The knee capping was straight IRA, and the – "

"Mickey, please."

"Oh, sorry." Mickey sipped his coffee quickly. This wasn't just a matter of outrage after the fact. Every torture visited upon Albert Mayer ten years ago, McCall was seeing applied to the person of his fiancée. "Do we have any kind of physical leads?"

"I'm not sure," Robert sighed. "Ann and Jonah were talking about the location of something called a server, which I gather is some sort of switching unit for their communications. They think it's somewhere on Long Island."

"And how many million people out there? Hell, it doesn't even have to be in anyone's house." Mickey shook his head. "I hate these jobs where you're protecting the expert who's doing something you don't understand. You hope the noises they're making are good, but do you ever know?"

Robert nodded absently. "They're going in tomorrow night. Can you be here?"

"Control told me to. Apparently he expected me to make contact with you over this. I wish I knew if that means he trusts me or if he always expects me to look for loopholes in orders."

"I think it means he knows which orders to give."

The phone rang, and Robert went to answer it. "McCall, it's me," said Jimmy. "The boy just showed up."

"And this a school night," Robert tsked. "How did he get there?"

"He came with a bunch of other kids in a car. It looks like some kind of meeting."

Robert hesitated. Greenwich wasn't that far from Chelsea, he could be there in minutes. But that would mean leaving Ann.

"What?" Mickey asked, knowing the look.

"William Gold's sneaked out of home and gone to a bar he's far too young to be in with several cronies."

"You want me to go so you can stay here and Jimmy can stay on lookout?"

William Gold wouldn't recognize Mickey, but Mickey didn't really look like the sort of man who would hang out in a geek bar. Robert could at least pretend to be a professor slumming. His sentimentality was interfering with the proper conduct of an investigation, anyway.

"You stay here," he said. "Jimmy, I'm coming your way. I'll be there soon."

"Right."

"You going to tell her?" Mickey asked, nodding upstairs as Robert hung up the phone.

Robert studied the ceiling thoughtfully. "No. She wouldn't notice anyway."

Mickey frowned but kept his mouth shut. "Call if you need me."

"Of course."

The anticipation of actual activity wiped a great deal of frustration from Robert's mind. He parked at the nearby NYU parking lot and walked to Nibble & Byte.

The place was packed, and no one paid Robert any mind. He saw Dr. Ramashadran over in a corner with a great deal of his grad class around him, and they were hunched over a pair of laptops and several scraps of paper. He made his way to the bar with difficulty.

An older man was working bar along with Renee, and he came to take Robert's order for a bottle of Harp. Once he paid for the beer, he turned to study the room.

In the same corner as before, several boys far too young to be in the place huddled together. They drank from bottles filled with neon-colored liquid and gestured with the same enthusiasm as Dr. Rama's group. William Gold was well in the midst of it, arguing and gesturing with the best of them.

Robert had noted the license number of the car Jimmy pointed out as having brought the boys, but no one in the group seemed old enough to drive. Then again, he thought with wry humor, some days he didn't think Scott was old enough to drive.

As he contemplated moving closer to eavesdrop, Renee came down the bar, wiping the top and collecting glasses. "Are you done with that, sir?" she asked, pointing to the beer bottle.

"Just a moment." He poured the last drops into his glass and handed the bottle to her. She smiled, then hesitated, staring at him. Her eyes widened as she recognized him, and she glanced uneasily towards the corner of boys.

The front door of the bar opened, and a man in his thirties came in. A cheer rose from the table of boys. The man grinned then dropped his trench coat off his shoulders into the hands of the large silent man who had accompanied him.

"Hey, Angmar, here's a chair," one of the boys said, pulling a chair from a nearby table.

"Thank you, my boy."

Robert stared, only the glass in his hand keeping him from going for his gun. There he was, right there. Mid-thirties, average height, light brown hair, expensive clothes, shark's smile. And within reach.

"Sir, please," Renee whispered urgently. Robert looked at her sharply, and she cringed. "Not here. Not with so many people around."

He forced himself to relax both his grip on his glass and his anger. What must have his body language been shouting, to scare poor Renee that much? She was right, his only option right now was to grab the man and drag him away, which, though morally satisfying, would not resolve the Black Rider's threat. Control needed the organization, not just the man.

His eyes narrowed with calculation. "May I borrow your phone?" Renee handed him the cordless phone eagerly.

Jimmy picked up on the second ring. "Hello?"

"It's me, Jimmy. Did you see the man and his bodyguard who just came in here?"

"Sure did."

"Where's his car?"

"Right out front. It's like the spot was reserved for him or something."

"Did you see the license number?"

"Sorry, no. It's a big black Mercedes, looks like this year's model."

"Anyone with it?"

"Nope."

"Excellent. I'm leaving, but keep an eye out and tell me when they all leave."

"Right. Bye."

Renee took the phone, still looking nervous. "Don't worry, I'm leaving," Robert told her.

She sighed in relief, then looked embarrassed. He gave her a reassuring smile and a large tip.

He kept most of the crowd between himself and the Black Riders' table. Angmar was handing out cash to the boys, like Fagan divvying up the loot. William Gold was counting an impressive handful of bills. On the other side of the room, Dr. Rama was looking on with mingled disgust and uneasiness.

Outside, the Mercedes was half-parked in the red zone. Robert imagined Angmar routinely broke into police computers and erased his own tickets. He glanced around, saw no observers other than Jimmy across the street, and circled the car, memorizing the license plate number, the name of the dealer, and the date of the last inspection. All places where Angmar had intersected with the real world and had so left tracks. Robert knew the license plate was undoubtedly registered to someone dead for years or living in Abu Dhabi, but it was a connection. He finally had something to work with.

He waved to Jimmy and headed back to Chelsea, finally feeling like he had a grip on the situation.

Mickey told him that Ann had never noticed he was gone, but he took the information and headed back to the Agency to begin investigations. Robert went to stand in the library doorway, watching Ann behind her pile of computer equipment, oblivious to the world.

"Final check," Ann said quietly into the headset. "Do you read me, Jonah?"

"Yes, I read you fine, it's a secure Company link, of course it works."

Robert and Mickey snickered at each other over Jonah's faith.

It was just past midnight. Jonah was ensconced in his reconfigured den at headquarters, and Ann was settled at her desk. William Gold had gone on-line twenty minutes before with one of Jonah's computers ghost-linked with him. William was currently in a chat room for the lower echelons of Riders, and he was gloating over how easy credit card scams were these days.

Ann did a final check of the access program, her virus, and the eight transfer links she'd gone through to get to the Riders' front door.

"St. Vidicon of Cathode, avert power spikes and reboots," she muttered as she studied her weak link through the Bronx city sanitation network.

"Saint who?" Mickey asked curiously.

"Later." She swore as she misspelled dir for the third time. She sat back, laced her fingers together tightly, and took a few deep but uneven breaths.

Robert had stopped trying to talk her out of this; now he just wanted to do everything he could to help get it done right and quickly. "What do you need?" he asked quietly.

"I don't know." Ann fought down bile. "I'm scared," she whispered. "This is insane. I swore I'd never do this again."

"Control wants to know when you're moving in," Jonah asked.

"Tell him to hold his horses. You ready to link in? You know where I'm at?"

"Yeah, I picked you up three links ago. My copy software is ready."

Robert switched the voice phone to speaker. "Control?"

"Yes?" came a more distant voice.

"Just making sure you're really there. I want to make sure you know she's done her best."

"Yes, sir."

Robert grimaced at the speaker, then turned his attention back to Ann. "The sooner you dive in, the sooner it's over and behind you."

She nodded, but she still looked nervously at her arranged equipment. "They're going to come after us so hard…" She reached into a lower desk drawer and pulled out a promo still photograph from "Conan the Barbarian," with Arnold standing there with his sword looking grim. But she wasn't seeing Arnie, she was seeing a chubby, geeky guy who had covered her trail when everything had hit the fan. She propped the picture up against one of the towers, then nodded.

"Jonah, let's do it."

"Right."

Mickey glanced and Robert and felt a little relieved to see him rubbing his fingers together took in a gesture familiar to men in the field who don't have a weapon handy.

Ann initiated the connection to the Riders, refusing to think about how mad this was. She held her breath as the Riders' system digested her ID, then the computer beeped cheerfully and the Red Eye of Sauron appeared on her screen.

"Jonah, I'm there. You in?"

"Yep. Arrogant little shits, aren't they?"

"Stop talking and copy. I don't know if Conan's ID triggered anything. Can you move independent of me?"

"Yeah. I'm headed into that file marked Current Projects."

Ann nodded absently. "Be ready to pull out when I tell you. I'm going to dump the virus as soon as I think they're onto me." There was no answer, and she swore under her breath.

Robert came up behind her and started rubbing her shoulders. "Shouldn't you keep moving?"

"Yeah." With no little trepidation, she followed the link to the Red Sonja file.

A summary of the Conan-Sonja raid – told from the Black Riders' point of view – was first. It mentioned the traitorous betrayal by people who had rejected the invitation to join. They described the capture of Conan as just vengeance, but all they said on the rest of the matter was that Conan had been "dealt with."

"Dealt with," Robert muttered. "Amusing little euphemism."

The file went on to say the Inner Council had received word that Red Sonja had finally surfaced and that her capture was a top priority. Robert tried not to squeeze too tightly as he gripped Ann's shoulders protectively.

For a summary of the current clues to Sonja's identify, the file continued, follow the link to the next file. Ann moved her mouse to that link, then hesitated.

"What?" Robert asked.

"I'm already in one step. If I get kicked to another server, they'll have two handles on me."

"We need to know what they know. But you're the expert."

Mickey came around so he could see the interesting stuff too. "McCall's famous hunches?" he asked knowingly.

"I can't decide if I'm just gunshy or really picking up something," Ann worried, running the cursor over the blue words that invited her deeper into enemy turf.

"Get out to the main section, see what else they've got," Robert advised. "Jonah, are you there?"

"He seems to be talking to himself," Control answered. "What is it, Robert?"

"I think we need to pull out."

"Already?"

"No," Jonah's voice contradicted. "I just found another link I need to investigate."

"How far in are you?" Ann demanded, moving uneasily through the main page of the Riders' installation.

"I dunno, three, four steps."

"Are you still in the main server?"

"I think so."

"He thinks." Ann reached over to the laptop and began the sequence to trigger the virus. She paged up several times, then her computer slowed down. "Oh, Christ."

"What is it?" Robert asked.

Ann tried not to panic. "They may just be busy – God damn it!"

A little block appeared at the bottom of her screen. "You won't get away this time, Sonja – Angmar."

Robert grabbed the phone. "Jonah, get out, they're on her."

"No, I've still got – "

"Move, damn you!"

Swearing horribly, Ann went to her third computer, which had been monitoring the phone link to the Riders, and her laptop. "Virus launched," she snapped, hitting the laptop's keys. "Mickey, disconnect this!"

"Jonah!" Robert yelled into the phone.

"Yeah, yeah…"

"Leave him, Ann," Robert ordered.

"No," she gasped. "Anyway, he's linked with me back three steps, they'll just follow him." She managed to wrestle her main computer out of the lock, and started backing out, using her other big computer to erase links.

"Do it, Jonah!" Robert heard Control order. "Get us out of there."

"Yes, sir."

"They're after me," Ann whispered, watching the activity on the screens. Another block appeared on her screen.

"Conan took two days to die – Angmar."

"God damn him!" Ann's fingers slipped on the keys.

"Easy," Robert told her, wishing desperately he could help. "Jonah, are you out?"

"Almost. They've got a bead on me, I think… Oh, hell. McCall, tell her I'm sorry." The line went dead.

"Jonah?"

"Oh, my God," Ann gasped, staring at the screen. "He bailed. He cut his links and dumped his pursuit on me." She crashed the section of the Bronx network she was in, hoping to catch her hunters. Two got through, according to the phone computers.

Robert furiously punched numbers on the phone, but Jonah's line was gone. "I'll gut that little bastard."

"Later," Mickey snapped. "Annie?"

"I've only got three links left," she said anxiously. "One's Schaeffer and Marshall. I can't let them in there. I'm going to crash the city phone system."

"You can't!" Robert protested, thinking of all the hundreds of thousands of critical links.

"I don't have a choice! It's the phones or the bank or – Hell."

"What?"

She didn't answer. She pulled out the black disk, shut down her old desktop computer, and shoved the disk in the new one. "Mickey, pull the cables on this one. Robert, when I tell you, yank the phone line on this."

"What are you doing?" he asked, obeying.

"I'm letting them find my alias, and when they get in, I'm going to dump the virus on them."

But the pursuit pulled over when it cleared the last link at the Schaeffer & Marshall bank.

"Disconnect it," she whispered shakily. "I think they're gone."

"They know where you went," Mickey said grimly. "They don't want to trip any defenses you've got."

Robert finished unplugging every line on the computer. "Basic pursuit practice. All right, we're going to assume they know who you are. Go upstairs and pack what you'll need for a few days."

Ann blinked at him. "Excuse me?"

"You're not staying here! You're coming to my place."

"I am not going into hiding!"

Robert came around and grabbed her shoulders. "You are not getting a vote on this. That Angmar was making blatant threats. You are not staying here."

Ann stared at her computer, horror starting to dawn as she realized the Black Riders had found her. "The cats…"

"I'll watch them," Mickey said. He was by the library windows, scanning the street "You want me in the house, McCall, or on the street?"

"In the house. You'll need to watch the phones. We'll be in touch. Ann, go pack."

She started to obey, but paused halfway down the room. "I want Jonah," she said curtly.

"Oh, you'll get Jonah," Robert promised. "In small pieces, you'll get Jonah."

"I need to see his computer, I need to see what he got."

Robert hesitated. "He's at the Agency. I'd have to take you in there."

Her dread of knowing more about those shadowing people – and they knowing her – warred with her fear of the Riders. "I need to see his information before he fiddles with it. Can we go now?"

Robert had his own reasons for wanting to keep Ann and his old cronies separate. But she was right. "All right," he said softly. "Go pack."

Mickey moved around the room turning off lights for better observability outside. "I wish I could be there when she lays into Jonah."

"She may not get to him," Robert said grimly. "He abandoned her. He'll regret that."

Mickey smiled in approval.

 

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