“Are you giving me a job or not?”
“That’s the deal you made with me,” Riley said. “And Uncle Sam. You work for us, doing anything we need you to do. So yes. I have a job for you.” She reached toward the briefcase she’d rested at her feet and unsnapped it to withdraw a thick folder. “Sign the paper clipped to the front before you break the seals.”
It was a contractor agreement in wordy legalese, and what it boiled down to was that Bryn was not an employee of the FBI, nor bound by its codes of conduct, but that by breaking the file seals she accepted the penalties for violating secrecy. The penalties weren’t specific. She assumed they included death. Everything in her life did these days.
Bryn signed, pulled the form off, and handed it to Riley, who filed it back in her briefcase. Then Bryn broke the seals and opened the folder. There was only one page in it, and it was short. She read for a moment, then looked up at the other woman and said, “You’re kidding, right?”
“We generally don’t kid at this stage of the process, after the paperwork.”
“You want me to work with Pharmadene?” The company still featured in her nightmares in a starring role…especially the clean white room where they’d left her to rot. The whole idea of going back there made her guts knot up. “Are you kidding me?”
“It’s not the company you knew,” Riley said. “You never have to see the lab area again. Just meet with the CEO in his office. He’s one of ours.”
“Ours? What, are we a team now?”
“One of the FBI’s agents,” Riley clarified without a flicker. “He’s in the process of dismantling the company and disposing of the assets, shutting down production lines. More of an accountant than a field agent, really. He’s discovered something in the books that needs some investigation—large payments made to an outside firm that don’t make any sense with how they’re coded.”
“Don’t you have people to ask questions? I thought that came with the shield and ID card and was, you know, kind of your whole purpose.”
“There are reasons we can’t approach these people. You’re not FBI, and you’re…uniquely suited to the task.”
As in, if this organization got suspicious and decided to put a bullet in her head, it wouldn’t matter; she’d wake up. Lovely. Bryn read over the assignment again, not finding anything that made the deal more palatable, and said, “Can I refuse?”
That was met with silence. She looked up and found Riley watching her with an indefinable chill in her expression. “I’d really rather you didn’t,” Riley said. “The consequences would be difficult.”
“For you or for me?”
“You don’t control my meds, not anymore,” Bryn said. “I don’t need Pharmadene, and I don’t need you.” It was bravado. Manny was supplying her daily shots, but he lacked the resources to stockpile the nanites; he took the allotments from Pharmadene and modified them, created his own variations. She still needed them, and Riley knew it.
But she was nice enough to ignore that part. “You do need Manny Glickman, your little tinkerer,” Riley said. “Like it or not, he’s a point of vulnerability, and if we have to cut you off from him, we will.”
That was unexpected, and sent a cold rush of alarm through Bryn’s body. “You wouldn’t. Manny’s one of yours.”
“Manny is ex-FBI, and frankly he needs meds and professional care—we both know that. But I’m not threatening him. I’m just saying that there are ways we can prevent you from reaching him, and if that happens for long, you know what the consequences would be.”
Bryn knew, all too well. She’d felt it before, in that white room at Pharmadene…the exhaustion setting in, the bruising and discoloration when she slept, the damp skin, the dissolution.…It hadn’t gone so far she couldn’t come back, but it stalked her, always, just a step behind. Death in real, waiting form.
Consequences. “You’re a real bitch, Riley.”
Riley shrugged. “Yes or no, Bryn. All I’m asking you to do is meet with one person at Pharmadene, then do a little fact-finding investigation and report back. It isn’t that complicated. Or that dangerous.”
Bryn closed the folder. “Fine.” She didn’t bother to point out how little choice she’d had; Riley knew all that. “If you threaten Manny again—”
“I didn’t,” Riley said. “And I wouldn’t. I like Manny, and I respect him. But you know that all I need to do is warn him he’s in danger, and next thing you know, he’s moved and left no forwarding address, and you’re roadkill. I’m serious, Bryn. He’s a failure point for you. You need to be careful how much faith you put in him.”
That almost was an expression of…concern. Which seemed very strange, coming from Agent Block. Bryn nodded and felt the tension in her neck relax, just a little. She crossed to her desk and locked up the file as Riley gathered her briefcase.
“So,” she said. “I guess I’ll get on script after all. Coffee, Riley?”
Riley smiled, and she seemed relieved. “Thought you’d never ask.”
When she told her boyfriend, it didn’t go well.
“Have you gone completely off the ledge?” Patrick McCallister asked. He didn’t yell it, didn’t even sound angry, but there was a tension in his shoulders that warned Bryn he was very unhappy. “You can’t do this for them, Bryn. It’s blackmail—Oh, come on, dog, that’s the third time you’ve watered the same spot. Move on.”
He was talking to Mr. French, her bulldog, whose leash he held; Mr. French’s start-and-stop progress was worse today than usual, and whatever scent he was trying to eradicate by peeing on it was clearly pretty stubborn. Mr. French ignored McCallister, nosed the grass, let out an explosive sneeze, and peed again on the same spot. Then he licked his chops, circled the perimeter, and must have decided he’d done his job, because he trotted on. For a few steps, anyway, before snuffling the bark of the next tree.
It was, Bryn reflected, a real test of a good boyfriend that he’d come out in the rain and put up with this. She was carrying the umbrella as the evening shower pattered down; Mr. French didn’t much care, but he would later, when she had to towel him off to take him into Patrick’s huge, fancy house. No, mansion.
McCallister gave her a straight-on look, and she read the worry in it. He was a good-looking man, although not drop-dead gorgeous.…It was more subtle than that with him. He was usually guarded, but not now, and not with her; she could see his concern, and all that went with it.
Bryn took hold of his right hand—he was holding Mr. French’s leash with his left—and leaned forward to brush her lips over his cheek. “Blackmail or not, it’s not worth it to test their patience just now,” she said. “Riley was right. Manny’s fragile, and he’d bolt at a real scare. Think about where that would leave us.”
She realized, when he cast her another look and a devastating smile, that she’d said us and not just me. Not that McCallister shared her…condition, but he was invested in her safety, both financially and personally. Without McCallister, she’d be dead several times over…but that was also true of Joe Fideli and even Riley Block. The difference was that when she got near McCallister, her whole body came alive and grew warm. She wasn’t quite prepared to call it love, at least not out loud. They’d started out as adversaries, then allies, then…something else.
And now he was walking her dog. In the rain. And worrying about her. She wasn’t sure what it meant long-term, but it felt so, so good to have him here.
“Manny’s fine,” he said. “And he’s tougher than he seems, trust me. He can’t be stampeded quite that easily, though they’d like to believe it. They’ve already tried scaring him off a few times.”
“Sure,” he said. “Manny was expecting it. The government would very much like to have total and utter control of the drug, but he’s not about to part with his own formulas.”
“They’ve got Pharmadene’s. They don’t need his, do they?”
“They want it all, of course, but their biggest problem is that Pharmadene encrypted the formula and all the developmental records, and the FBI scientists aren’t having much success at cracking it. They’ve got a refrigerated warehouse of the stuff to try to backward engineer, but it’s getting used up fast. They need Manny’s formulas, and he’s not sharing.”
“I’m surprised he doesn’t trade it to them and run.” Manny Glickman was a bone-deep paranoid, but he still held some residual loyalty to the FBI, who’d trained him; if he was going to give up the formula to anyone, it’d be Riley Block and her team.
“He’s not that keen on them right now.”
“I’m just worried that he could get spooked and leave us.”
“He’s already moved three times in six months,” McCallister said. “But he always lets me know where he touches down. Don’t worry about him. I’m busy worrying about you. You don’t have to play in the FBI’s snake pit, you know. You don’t really owe them.”
“I know,” she said, and squeezed his hand. It was a nice sentiment, for all that it was completely unrealistic. She took in a deep breath; the air was cool and heavy with moisture, and it tasted clean and sweet. They paused beneath another tree as Mr. French investigated the area, then finally decided to do his solid-waste business. Raindrops splashed heavily on the umbrella she held over the two of them, and Bryn leaned in closer. McCallister freed his hand and put his arm around her shoulders to pull her closer. They were much the same height, and she could feel the solid muscle of his body beneath his clothes; it woke all kinds of things inside her—hunger, pleasure, memories, longings. Living things. In his presence, at these times, she could forget a little. “Will you promise to keep an eye on me, though?”