MERcURY OFF COURSE
Couldn’t tell whether everyone was relieved or disappointed the cyber-spiders were destroyed. I mean, we could have found out a whole lot about the mutated species related to tiny, artificial microbes, the latter of which had brainwashed a bunch of my superhero friends right before our wedding.
Loredana, for her part, was placid as the sky outside the hotel conference room. Could be because she’d come to peace with our failure.
Or she could have been following my lead—keeping our mouth shut while Agent Bowe paced the room and railed at us.
“This is exactly why I tell my superiors that Homeland should sidestep Procyon!” he snapped. “Better yet, why you all should be locked up in Leavenworth or Gitmo or somewhere just as desolate.”
“Nevada’s pretty remote,” I said. “I could recommend a quiet town.”
“You shut your trap!” Bowe shook his finger at me.
“Really? That’s what you’re gonna go with?” Remember how I said I was keeping my mouth shut? See how long that lasted? I waggled my finger back at him in exaggerated fashion. “This isn’t high school and you’re not our principal, Bowe. We stopped Syndax from stealing those creatures. Heck, we even disabled a member of the Ashen!”
“Oh, right, my bad.” I rolled my eyes. “We’re not supposed to talk about them. Like they’re Voldemort. Look, I think we’ve all established that the Garrison and the Ashen exist, they’re flying around out there, and they don’t care one bit about our plans, because if they don’t like them, they’ll swoop in and tip the table over whenever they feel like it.”
“That’s another matter. It’s above your pay grade, Mercury. So you keep yourself—”
“What was the arrangement you made?” Loredana’s question was a soft, but firm, interruption.
“Beg your pardon?”
She gazed out the conference room window onto clear blue skies over a beach dotted here and there with umbrellas, pinpricks of color on white sand. Her hands, clasped behind her back, tapped a slow beat on her waist. “With the Garrison. Weld, as he called himself, countered the offer or arrangement or whatever you want to call it. What did you want from them, and vice versa?”
Loredana looked over her shoulder, eyebrow raised.
“She’s gonna keep asking,” I mock whispered.
“You two are a colossal pain. Especially together.” Bowe picked up a half-full glass of orange juice from our table and downed it like he was taking a shot of liquor. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Fine. All right. That Weld guy supposedly agreed to transfer the creatures—”
“Cyber-spiders.” I raised my cup of coffee.
“To Homeland Security’s custody. Had some way of taking them that wouldn’t require your gun and your stave weapon.” Bowe made a face like he’d stepped in dog turds while wearing his cowboy boots. “So much for that grand scheme.”
I shook my head. “Hey, that’s on you and the feds. We did our part. Like always. So, how about you quit treating us like terrorists and let us head home?”
Loredana joined me at the table, where she proceeded to butter a warm bagel. “I would hardly equate paying for a private breakfast with treating us like terrorists, Mercury.”
“Well, maybe, but I bet the terrorists get yelled at less.” I slugged coffee. Ah. Great warmth suffused my body. Even better than the pulsar stave’s energies. Okay, close second.
“Doesn’t matter now,” Bowe said. “I was an idiot.”
“No argument there,” I muttered.
He glared at me.
Loredana sighed. She poked me with a fork.
“What? He said it.”
“Agent Bowe, I hope you’ll forgive my operative, but our concern is understandably heightened now that the Garrison have shown themselves in a more public fashion than we’re used to.”
“This isn’t the first time they’ve showed up and rubbed our faces in their powers,” Bowe said. “I’ve got footage from Drake City … Never mind. Just know that Homeland’s got them on their radar.”
“I feel better already.” I swirled the last of my coffee, trying for a miniature version of the whirlpool that the Ashen had used to toss a shipwreck up to the surface. “Look, I’m sure you guys have got your hands full with Syndax, when you’re not chasing the more mundane terror threats. Why not let us lend a hand? You have to admit, we’re pretty handy with those hands.”
“Quite repetitive,” Loredana said.
“Yeah, but I think he gets the idea.”
Bowe snorted. “You guys and your gobs of money and your protection from—well, blazes, I don’t even know who’s got your back. All I know is, I got new orders to let you waltz out of this hotel like you’d just finished up your next honeymoon.”
“Not a bad idea.” I rounded the table and held out my hand. “Shake on it, partner.”
He glared at my hand like he’d rather cut it off. “How’s about you hunt your monsters, and I’ll chase the humans.”
“Sounds fair. Except if said humans are busy conjuring said monsters.” I held up a finger and wagged it back and forth. “That’s a big no-no in my book. They get the stave just like their astral fiend pets. Keep that in mind.”
Bowe’s phone buzzed at him. He glanced at the screen and rolled his eyes. Wow, he could give me a run for my money with that disgusted face. “Get out of here, you two. Best if we stay out of each other’s ways.”
Best idea I’d heard all week.
Cordelia was kind enough to give us a ride to the airport since, you know, we’d trashed our rental in the car chase and I didn’t know about Loredana, but I had no desire to bounce along the expressway in the bed of Randy’s truck, no matter how awesome a ride.
Loredana’s jet sat on the tarmac outside a private hangar, perched for takeoff like it needed just the barest nudge from a pilot. She smiled. “Thank you for prepping her, Delia. Would I be surprised to find she’s somewhat lighter of fuel in our absence this morning?”
“Sorry, Lori, I didn’t have time for a joyride.” Cordelia laughed. “It might not seem like it, but I do have bosses who expect reports. One, in particular. Tyrone’s not one to let a sixteen hundred miles dissuade him from a face to face talk.”
“Video chat.” Randy spat on the tarmac. “Makes me look fat.”
“Could be the haircut,” I said.
He chuckled and chewed on a toothpick.
“Have a safe flight.” Cordelia embraced Loredana. Randy went in for a handshake, which Loredana returned just as firmly, while Cordelia pecked me on the cheek. “Good to see you again, Mercury. Take care of her.”
“Doing my best.” I winked at her.
She pressed a small, plastic object into my palm. “Light reading.”
It was a flash drive, a third the size of a typical model—black and silver, no bigger than my thumbnail. I tucked it into my pants pocket, glancing at Loredana. She was smiling rather dryly at Randy’s pontification on the best private aircraft engines. “This, ah, a group project?”
“Your eyes only.”
“Very James Bond.”
Cordelia’s smile faded. “I’ll leave it to you when to tell Loredana. There’s a lot of background to Procyon that’s been filtered out of the Historic Archives since 1848. I’m glad you came here. I’d thought about sending it to you but…”
She turned sidelong, shielding me, as Loredana approached. “Ready to go, Lori?”
“Indeed, though it has been a bracing visit.” Loredana raised an eyebrow. “Mercury?”
I saluted. “Co-pilot reporting, Mrs. Lark-Hale.”
“Then let’s not tarry. It’s a long flight home.”
She started for the airplane, Randy carrying our bags. I frowned at Cordelia. “Do I want to bother asking what’s on the drive?”
“Sightings. Rumors. The scraps I’ve been able to gather about our pals the Garrison and the Ashen. I’ve spent too many years tiptoeing around their brawls—and then you show up, able to put one of them down. Break through his powers like they weren’t there.” Cordelia smirked. “Nothing I like better than new information.”
“Yeah, but they know it, too.”
“Which could give Procyon an advantage in the future. Guard it.” Cordelia watched Loredana climb into the plane’s cockpit. “And guard her.”
I nodded, but really, I had no clue what she wanted me to do.
“Loaded up, Dee.” Randy jogged back to us. His arm extended—
I spun past him and slapped him on the back.
Randy winced. He rolled his shoulder, but he grinned back, instead of, you know, shooting me. “Been waiting for that, haven’t ya?”
“You know it.” We shook hands. “Good luck out there, Randy.”
“Thanks. Say, if I ever get bored chasing Syndax goons, I might roll to San Camillo and help you take out astral fiends.”
“Sounds like fun. Make sure you bring a change of drawers for when they scare—”
“Okay, boys.” Cordelia pulled on Randy’s arm. “Come on. We’ve got a drug dealer’s boat keys to return.”
He chuckled. “Sure. With some flotsam out by Nassau, if he wants to go swimming for it.”
They climbed into the Lincoln town car and drove off. Behind me, the Cirrus jet’s engine rose into a whine.
“Kindly board!” Loredana shouted. “Unless you’re planning to walk to California!”
“No way!” I jogged over, shoes splashing through a puddle, grateful to be alive and glad to put a lot of things behind me—like the terror the depths, and the factions warring over ancient medallions.
But not the mystery.
A couple hours into our flight west, after we’d exhausted idle chit-chat, Loredana cleared her throat.
“If I may ask,” she said. “What did Cordelia give you.”
“It wasn’t a good-bye kiss,” I blurted.
Loredana raised an eyebrow.
“Kidding. I mean, that’s true, but…” I scratched the back of my neck. “You saw?”
“She and I underwent similar training in our early Procyon days. While my grasp of espionage is not as thorough as hers, I can recognize a subtle passing of an object.”
I blew out a breath. Operationally, the contents of the flash drive were mine to keep secret. But it was Loredana. My handler. More importantly, my wife. “It’s information. I haven’t looked at it yet. She told me—”
Loredana shook her head. “I trust you to tell me when you’re ready. But if Cordelia meant it for you, then you must ascertain whether it is information you should share or not. I won’t demand it. I know her too well.”
“Thanks. That’ll make it easier.”
She smiled. “How are you feeling?”
I chuckled. “Same as the other four times you asked. Seriously, though—good. Better than good. It’s like, I needed that to get rid of the fear. Sure, the dregs are still hanging around, but I had to face it before I could rip it to shreds.”
Of course, I didn’t feel like I’d done it alone. Ramos had helped. He always did.
Him, and his faith.
Weird. I shifted in my seat. Metal clinked against the flash drive. “Hey, I almost forgot.” I dug into my pocket. “Picked this up at the hotel gift shop this morning.”
I pressed the triangle into her palm. She laughed at the miniature pizza, yellow and brown with three red circles. “It’s adorable. But am I to trade it as a chit if I want to share a pie with you?”
“Turn it over.”
A simple phrase was engraved on the backside: “I love you more than pizza.”
“High praise.” She kissed me. “I love you, too.”
I grabbed a tablet from one of our bags behind my seat and fired it up. No time like the present. “More than Dr. Who?”
I chuckled as I inserted the drive into the USB port. A folder opened. It was filled with dozens and dozens of more folders, each one stuffed with files. They were labelled with jumbled letters and numbers. I tapped on one. My eyes widened. “I … wow.”
“What is it?” Loredana grimaced. “No, wait—I said you didn’t have to share.”
Cordelia’s advice went right out the window as surely as if I’d cracked the canopy. “Oh, I think I’d better.” I twisted the tablet.
The image I’d opened was a scan of a black and white photograph. The subject? A chunk of tree bark, big as a waiter’s serving tray, judging by the spectacled young man with the slicked back hair holding. A cyber-spider, or a rough approximation of it,
was carved in rough strokes, by either a metal or stone implement.
Except the cyber-spider towered over a bunch of slender warriors with spears and bows wearing next to nothing, but lots of paint—side by side with Spanish conquistadors.
The scribbled notation at the corner of the photograph said 1903.
“I suggest you keep your findings to yourself, until you’ve had the chance to research them thoroughly,”she said.
“Yeah.” I gazed at the young guy who looked just as perturbed by the carvings as I felt. “Because finding out the symmachites had bigger and badder brothers could be the least of our problems.”