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The Red Men

_________________

(Wednesday)

Mathew sneered. The firewall had been embarrassingly easy to hop through and in a few keystrokes he’d accessed the drive. He did a quick search for the document, found it and replaced it. He backed out, making sure his tracks were covered. If anyone did happen to look at the document’s date, he doubted they’d question it—people made changes to files all the time and they rarely notified anyone of the alteration. It was a sloppiness he’d taken advantage of time and again. He tapped a few more keys and was out.

He looked at his watch and frowned. All told, it had taken him a minute thirty-eight seconds. He’d bet Luke he could make it in a minute thirty. Oh well, as long as the job was done…

He shrugged and turned—Mark was draped over the settee, looking bored out of his mind, as usual. Probably still pissed because John hadn’t chosen him to take the lead on this one.

Mark thought Mathew couldn’t handle it. He’d been going on about it two nights ago when he and John had thought Mathew asleep over his keyboard. Supercilious bastard. Experience in Mark’s particular field wasn’t everything. Besides, he wouldn’t know how to do a simple decrypt if you gave him detailed instructions. And then walked him through it.

With a nasty smile he took care not to show, Mathew called out, “Tell himself it’s done.”

Without a word, Mark got up and left. Mathew turned back around and let his smirk loose. Then he logged into his Facebook page and began typing.

_________________

 

(Thursday)

“It’s your own fault. If you weren’t so good at what you do—” Lisbon slipped the papers back into the envelope and pushed it towards Cho.

Cho stifled his reluctant smile. Coming from her it was a compliment, but still…

But still she was waiting for his answer and there was really only one he could give. “How long?”

“I’m not sure. Minelli originally said for the entire length of the conference and two days before and after. But,” she added, holding up her hand when Cho leaned forward to protest, “I told him no way, that I could give him ten days at the most and that was it.”

Ten days. “Who else is on the detail?”

“SAC Luckner, Inspector Blount, of course. From our office: Van Pelt, Michaels and Jameson. Plus another two from Washington who are…” She pulled a sheet of paper towards her and frowned down at it. “LaSalle and Martinez. Here—” She handed it to Cho.

It was a fact sheet, listing a brief bio of each agent with an accompanying photo. There was nothing to distinguish one agent from the other, even with the uneven mix of sexes and ethnicity. They looked like every law official Cho had ever seen or worked with. He handed the sheet back to Lisbon. “Wouldn’t Rigsby be a better choice?”

“Instead of Van Pelt?”

“Yes.”

Lisbon shrugged. “Van Pelt is lacking security detail experience, but she’ll be fine. And you’ll probably need another woman—Agent Martinez would be on her own and Luckner says the scientists are bringing their spouses.” She grinned at Cho’s expression. “Besides, she could use the field time—she’s been stuck in the office for the last three cases.”

It was on the tip of Cho’s tongue to say that was hardly his fault and that the assignment wouldn’t really hone any skills Van Pelt might be lacking because it was going to be a milk run, but he kept his mouth shut and stared. Which was ineffectual—by the knowing tilt of Lisbon’s head, he might as well have spoken.

She smiled regretfully, sympathetically. “I know, I know, but it’s not like we can say no. It’s the Governor for pete’s sake, and besides, the Carina Luna is supposed to be a beautiful hotel. At least it’s not a Motel 6.”

Cho nodded shortly. He didn’t give a damn how beautiful the hotel was and he’d stayed in much worse places than a Motel 6. “When do we leave?”

“You’re meeting here tomorrow at seven a.m. The plane leaves at nine.” Lisbon shook her head, clearly amused at the idea that they needed to fly such a short distance.

“So much for going green,” Cho said as he stood. He picked up the envelope and was at the door, hand on knob, when he paused. He craned his head to see if Jane was anywhere near—there he was, on the couch in his usual position. Too far away to hear, but just in case, Cho turned and muttered, “What about him?”

He wasn’t surprised when Lisbon shook her head firmly. “Absolutely not. Minelli wants him here. You know what Jane’ll do if he finds out.”

“Yeah,” Cho said, more than a little gloomily. International incident would be the least of it—treaties smashed, science put back a couple decades… But it was almost five o’clock which meant he had over twelve hours of lying time—twelve long hours and he couldn’t possibly keep Jane in the dark that long. “You want to bet he knows within an hour?”

“Not from me, he won’t.”

Her words were a pointed warning and reminder. Cho wanted to object, wanted to say that just because he was sleeping with Jane, that didn’t mean his attitude was anything but professional when it came to classified intel. And then he wanted to growl at himself because who was he kidding? Jane was the one person he’d never been able to hide from and that was something he both loved and hated. “Is there anything else I need to know?”

Lisbon’s smile died. “You know the drill. Stay sharp, stay alert. I doubt anything will happen, but this conference has some pretty heavy hitters from the international scientific community and we’ve guaranteed their safety.”

“Do you want me to send Van Pelt in?”

“Please. And Cho?”

“Yes?”

“I’d get you out of this if I could.” She held up her hands to show the futility of the supposed effort.

“Thanks, boss.” Cho left, closing the door gently behind him.

Back in the bullpen, Van Pelt and Rigsby were busy at their desks. Or rather, Van Pelt was—she was filling out some paperwork, probably from the Olsen case. Rigsby on the other hand…

The main part of Rigsby’s monitor was filled with a spreadsheet, but a small Minesweeper window was open in the corner. He was hunched over, trying to hide it from the rest of the office while his fingers worked quickly.

Cho shook his head, then caught Van Pelt’s eye and jerked his head towards the office. “The boss wants to see you.”

Van Pelt nodded and jumped up.

“What’s going on?” Rigsby asked absently.

“Nothing.” Cho sat and kept his head down, but he could practically feel Jane’s ears perk up. Don’t look, don’t look, don’t look. You’ll only give yourself away.

“Yeah?”

“Do you want to try that new hamburger place tomorrow?” It was a distraction—maybe too obvious? Jane hadn’t moved which wasn’t a good thing.

“Yeah, that’d be— Dammit!”

Cho turned. Rigsby was bent over so far that Cho could only see the crown of his head. “Got zapped?”

“I was almost there, too.” Rigsby straightened with a glum sigh. He tapped a few keys, then began to type slowly as he looked back and forth between the screen and his notebook. Back to the grind.

“I’d say something about playing games on company time, but it’d be pointless.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Rigsby leaned back in his chair and looked at Cho with a smile, his normal, equitable mood restored, just like always. “Yeah, lunch sounds good. Maybe we can get Lisbon to come. Van Pelt won’t. She’s on another veggies-only diet.” He shook his head in disgust.

Cho nodded and turned back around. And he didn’t jump, but just barely.

Jane had moved, cat-quiet, cat-quick, and was sitting on the edge of his desk, staring down at him. Cho raised his eyebrow. “You up for lunch at the new place?” He’d forgotten to put away the envelope and it lay there by Jane’s hip, like the proverbial Purloined Letter.

“Yeah, Jane—you can profile the staff for us,” Rigsby chimed in.

“Sure, that sounds good,” Jane said pleasantly, but he didn’t look away and Cho’s heart sank. There was no way he was going to get out of this clean—it just wasn’t possible. But since he had to try—

He returned to his part of the Olsen report, picking up where he’d left off.

Jane didn’t move and he was still watching Cho when Van Pelt came back with a serious look on her face. She hurried to her chair and began typing quickly.

Jane turned, just slightly. “Grace?”

Van Pelt didn’t look up. “Yes, Jane?”

“What’s going on?”

“Nothing.”

“Hm.”

“Jane?” Cho craned his head to look around Jane to find Lisbon, standing in the doorway, hands on her hips. “Minelli just called. He wants to meet with us in his office at five thirty.”

“Can’t. Busy.”

Lisbon snorted. Cho always thought it was adorable when she did that; it was kind of like a kitten channeling a bulldog. Not that he’d ever tell her that. “Busy? I don’t think so. Besides, he says it might have something to do with Red John.” She returned to her office before Jane could say anything else.

They all looked at each other and went back to what they were doing: Cho to his report, Van Pelt to whatever she was typing, and Rigsby to his papers. Jane didn’t move—he folded his hands on his lap and his smile turning even more pleasant, more bland. Cho’s stomach tightened and he made himself type methodically, just like always.

A few seconds later his cell buzzed as a text came through. He picked it up and, using the late afternoon sun as an excuse, turned the cell’s face away from Jane. He read, ‘running interference’. He didn’t smile as he deleted the text. He went back to his report.

It was an uncomfortable seven minutes while Jane sat there with that little smile. While Cho did everything he could to remain focused, calm, and unflappable. Inscrutable, was the stereotype but he didn’t care—he’d used it before, mostly to get answers from a perp; he had no problem using it again.

And then he realized he’d just called Jane a perp, if only mentally, and was trying not to clear his throat when Lisbon returned.

“Jane?”

Jane finally looked away. “Yes, ma’am?”

“You’re with me. Rigsby, if you’re done with Minesweeper, get back to work and don’t forget the paperwork on the Lewis case. See you all in the morning.”

Jane got up and Cho hoped it was only an accident that his thumb landed squarely on the corner of the envelope as he stood. “This should be fun,” he said to no one in particular.

Lisbon ignored Cho as she waited for Jane. If they weren’t who they were and where they were, he’d get up and kiss her. No one made him worry like Jane did, sweat like Jane did and it was nice having her at his back.

Even though it was kind of nice when Jane made him sweat.

“Something funny?” Jane, at the door, had turned to look back.

Cho didn’t know how he did that, the seeing from the back of his head thing—he probably used the reflection from the glass but it could be something else. “Tell you tomorrow,” he said evenly.

Jane’s eyes narrowed and he stuck his hands in his pockets. “Hm.” And Cho was sure he was going to come back and just force the truth out of him, but Lisbon saved the day by calling out, “Jane! Come!”

Jane left with a sweeping, narrow-eyed glance around the bullpen.

Cho sighed and closed the Olsen report. He’d finish it later, after he cleaned up his desk.

He backed up his documents, answered his email, and filed away all the folders and notes. He picked up the envelope and thought about leaving a decoy behind, but decided that he was over-thinking the whole thing.

He started to pick up his stakeout book, then put it back down. He’d get it in the morning—its absence would be like a red flag, something Jane would definitely notice if he came back. He thought about leaving it altogether, but Sydney Carton was preparing to spring Darney out of jail and he didn’t want to wait two weeks to see what happened.

He got up, murmured goodbye to an oblivious Rigsby, shared a long glance with Van Pelt, and was out the door.

***

It took him fifteen minutes to get home, twenty minutes to pack and remove all signs of packing, then another six to get his gear down to the car. Van Pelt called while he was in the elevator, going up, and they shared a brief conversation. Her house, she said, was further away and she might as well do the driving; he nixed the idea. Her SUV was having engine trouble and it sometimes died while idling. The last time she’d driven them all to lunch, it had taken her a couple tries to get the car started again—if Jane insisted on open windows tonight there was a slim chance he’d hear the car. If he even came by; if he even spent the night.

But Cho couldn’t tell her any of that so he made a weak excuse about having to stop by the store in the morning and he’d meet her at work as planned.

He didn’t ask her if she’d had to lie to Rigsby about where they were going and thankfully she didn’t ask about Jane. He still wasn’t sure if she or Rigsby knew and didn’t really care. Lisbon knew, of course. What she knew was another question. He had the feeling she thought it was a big romance. Or a big mistake, although she never hinted at either. It was another reason why he loved her and why he’d do anything she wanted. Including a guard detail for a group that probably didn’t need it.

He was pondering that devotion and what it was getting him into when the elevator doors opened; he stepped out into the hallway.

His door was open, just a crack.

He was still armed, but he didn’t think about pulling his weapon—he could hear the hollow sound of an audience booing and then, much clearer, a loud laugh. Jane was inside, watching Dr. Phil.

Cho sighed, metaphorically girded his loins, then pushed the door open.

Jane was slouched on the couch, eating a double-scoop, mint green ice cream cone. He’d taken off his shoes and socks and had propped his feet on the coffee table. The sun streamed over him and Cho wondered if he ha done that on purpose—sat in the sun, eating ice cream, barefoot, because Cho had made the mistake a few weeks ago of telling him that he thought his feet were sexy. And it went without saying that Jane eating ice cream was sexy at any time, in any situation, so…

“Hey, your lock is still sticking,” Jane called out without looking over. “I almost couldn’t get in. I thought I was going to have to wait at Lisa’s again, but never mind that.” He tipped his head and waved the cone, smiling broadly. “You gotta see this guy. He’s been cheating on his wife with these three ladies, at the same time—sometimes on the same day—and he just tried to pick up this woman in the audience; the one in the red dress. It’s hilarious.” He turned back to the TV and giggled. “Dr. Phil is gonna have a field day with this cretin.”

Cho locked the door and put his gun in the side table drawer. Then he scooped up the stack of mail that Jane had ignored and sat on the corner of the coffee table with his back to the couch.

He pretended to go through the bills, the ads and the notices of free credit cards. If this were a normal night, or rather, a night when Jane stayed over, he’d go for a run along the riverfront while Jane caught up on his daytime shows. Then dinner in front of the tube and afterwards he might work until bedtime while Jane read.

And then they’d have sex.

It wasn’t normal, Jane staying over, but even so, Cho was used to in now. Was used to going to bed at the same time, used to waking up to Jane’s lips on his, his body on is. Or, the other way around—waking up before the sun, using blind touch to find Jane, cool and sleek in the dark, to kiss clumsily because his mind always woke up before his body did.

The thought of being without that for even a few days made his chest hurt. Just like it had months ago when he was falling in love and hadn’t realized it.

Just like it now and he wanted to skip all the ‘normal night’ bullshit and go straight to the sex. He wanted to push Jane’s legs apart and drop to his knees and give Jane a blowjob that he’d remember for the next two weeks just in case it turned out that Jane didn’t miss him as much as he was sure to miss Jane.

Jane could even keep the ice cream cone as long as he didn’t let any of it drip. But no, maybe that would be all right because then Jane could bend over and lick it off his neck and—

Cho screwed his eyes closed. If he did any of that, Jane would know something was up; he always did. Besides—he touched the back of his neck where the imaginary ice cream would have landed—he really needed to get his hair cut and not just because—

“What’s wrong?”

Cho twisted to look around. Jane was still smiling, but that watchful look was back. “Nothing.”

The right side of the ice cream was starting to sag. Jane licked it back into shape, his clever red tongue making an even swipe all the way around. Cho forced his eyes away. “You know I don’t believe you, right?”

“Yeah, I know.”

“And you know I’ll find out sooner or later.”

“Yeah, I know.”

Jane got up and walked a few feet, then—from fifteen feet away—he threw the cone into the sink. Cho frowned; Jane was such a slob sometimes. He was getting up to see if any of it splattered when Jane padded back, coming to stand close behind. He pressed his knees and thighs against Cho’s spine and bent over, whispering, “Can I try to seduce it out of you?”

Cho snorted and tilted his head back. “Knock yourself out.” And then he shivered with pleasure when Jane kissed the top of his ear, his lips still cold.

They had sex on the couch in the fading sunlight with the TV still on. Cho was silent, afraid to even moan because a moan might turn into words and words might turn into, ‘I don’t want to do this,’ or ‘Come with me; I’m not sure I can stand it, being away from you for ten days.’ 

And Jane, he put his heart into it, did everything he knew that Cho liked and then some.

When Cho came with Jane on top, moving skillfully between his thighs, he bit his lips hard, muzzling the words that wanted to come, too.

***

It was after nine when he woke up. They were still on the couch, Jane on top, draped over him with one foot on the floor. Dr. Phil had been exchanged for one of the Law & Orders and he watched for a moment, thinking that they always got it wrong. And then he moved, wincing as his lower back twinged and his numb right arm began to tingle.

Jane made a noise, a soft protest that Cho answered with a fugitive caress and a whispered, “Come on.”

It took a couple tries to get Jane upright. Cho steered him into the bedroom and then guided him down. With a mumbled, “I’m not sleepy,” Jane crawled between the sheets and lay back with one arm out flung, waiting for Cho to fill the space.

Cho resisted temptation. He touched Jane’s comforter-covered foot and said softly, “I’m going to get a little work done.” He waited for an answer and when none came, he got dressed.

He went to the couch and gathered up their clothes, hanging Jane’s pants, vest and jacket up, tossing the rest in the hamper. As he passed the bed, he paused and stood there, memorizing the fluid line of Jane’s chest and arm, the way he smiled softly, even in sleep.

Then he told himself to stop being such a lovesick idiot and get a move on. He went to the kitchen to write the note. He got as far as ‘Dear Jane,’ and stopped, realizing it was at once too melodramatic and too much like the classic Dear John kiss off. He threw it away and started a new note. He tried again, this time starting off with ‘Dear Patrick,’ and it sounded so weird because he rarely used Jane’s first name that he crumpled up that note and threw it away, too.

Finally, getting a little desperate because he really did need to leave, he settled for a simple, “Will be gone a few days. Lisbon will fill you in. K.’

He’d placed it under Jane’s coffee mug and had turned away when his feelings got the better of him. He went back and between the last two lines, he added, ‘Take care of yourself. I’ll be in touch,’having to scrunch the words a bit.

He got his gun, keys, and wallet and left, making sure to shut the door gently. He used the stairs and not the elevator and was down in the parking lot in a few minutes.

It wasn’t until he was pulling out of the parking lot that he realized he didn’t know where to go. He’d planned for everything but what he should have planned for—what had he been thinking?

He could drive around the city for seven hours­ or he could get a hotel—both would be a waste of money. He looked at his watch: it was only nine-fifty. He tapped his thumb a few times on the steering wheel, then got out his cell and hit speed dial two.

Lisbon picked up on the second ring. “Hey.”

“Hey.”

“How’d it go?”

“Fine.”

“He knows, doesn’t he?”

“Not specifics.”

She sighed and then said resignedly, “He tried to worm it out of me and Minelli.”

‘Worm?’ I bet it was more like threatened.”

“Yeah, he tried. Minelli, as you can imagine, didn’t respond to that too well.” She sounded peeved and amused, both at the same time. “Where are you?”

“In my car.”

“I take it you left without actually telling him.”

“I wrote a note.”

“Baby.”

“Yes.” It was true, and the thought of the note, just sitting there waiting for an unsuspecting Jane to find, suddenly seemed so cowardly that he couldn’t quite believe he’d actually done it. Maybe he should turn around and—

“And you don’t have anyplace to go, do you?”

“I could go to my sister’s?”

She sighed again. “All the way to Napa? No, c’mon over. I’ll protect you from the big, bad Jane.”

He smiled. “I’ll be there in ten.”

***

When he got to Lisbon’s house, she opened the door without a word. Her hair was in a ponytail and she was dressed in sweats and a t-shirt. He felt a momentary spike of guilt that he immediately quashed. It was her fault that he was having to sneak around like this. Sort of.

She led the way to the living room. She’d already put the sheet on the sofa, tucking them into the end. She silently handed him a pillow and pillowcase. There was something bothering her and it took her the time to get a blanket from the closet and toss it over the back of the sofa to say, “I asked him once, so now it’s your turn. Do you know what you’re doing?

“Yes.”

She tugged on a corner of the blanket, straightening it. “Even knowing that he has trust issues a mile wide.”

“Yes.”

“Jane hates being made a fool.”

“I know.”

She tipped her head, her eyes narrowed. “I’d say you’re leaving me with the fallout, but since I’m responsible in the first place, I’ll deal.”

Cho tugged the pillowcase over the pillow and opened his mouth to argue but she held up her hand. “It’s okay. And, don’t worry—I’ll keep him in the city even if I have to tie him to his couch. Sleep well.”

She was gone before he could thank her.

He took off his boots and socks and settled in. At eleven-fifteen his phone started buzzing. It continued in ten-minute increments until eleven forty-five and then fell ominously silent.

____________________

(Friday)

Luckner nodded once. “That’s it ladies and gentlemen. Do you have any questions?” He looked around the room and Cho found himself looking as well, thinking if anyone did have a question, he’d probably shoot them—they were now in hour four of what was supposed to be a two-hour review of the morning’s meeting and he really needed to stand. His lower back was aching, thanks to this very ugly, very uncomfortable chair. Of course, the fact that he’d spent a restless night, tossing and turning more than sleeping didn’t help. Maybe he was getting old.

Martinez leaned forward on both elbows and Cho sighed silently. Martinez was tiny, about Lisbon’s size, and as if to make up for her lack of stature, she’d been the most outspoken, had asked the most questions. But then, she and LaSalle had been Interpol’s first contact when they found out the Red Men had jumped the Atlantic. Cho could tell by her eager, intense demeanor that she was hoping to make a career move out of the assignment. Her bio said she’d just turned forty-four. Which wasn’t ancient by any means, but old enough to start questioning whether or not she was going to advance any further. He wished her luck with it—all he wanted was to get the job done and go home. “Sir?”

“Agent Martinez?” Luckner said.

“When are the current guests checking out?”

Luckner looked at his clipboard and said, “Ten a.m., tomorrow morning, no exceptions. By twelve hundred all of the non-conference guests will be gone. That will give us nineteen hours to make sure all our security measures are in place.”

“And the missing bellboy.” Martinez looked at her notes. “Gaiter. That’s not an issue?”

“No, the hotel has assured me that he’s done this before and that his replacement has been thoroughly vetted.”

Martinez nodded and sat back.

And then Van Pelt raised her hand tentatively.

Cho stifled a groan.

“Sir?”

“Yes, Agent Van Pelt.”

“You’ve told us why Doctor Wallach is worried that the Red Men might have designs on his research, but I was wondering what the name meant. Of the group, I mean.”

“As in, the origins?”

“Yes, sir. All it says in the case history is that Interpol named them.”

Luckner tossed his clipboard down and sat on the edge of the conference table. “According to the Inspector…” He nodded to Blount, sitting at the head of the table. “…it was a nickname given because the only thing connecting the robberies were the dead bodies. Well, that and the victims were all involved in various high-tech industries, but of course, Interpol didn’t know that at the time.” Luckner shrugged and glanced at Blount.

Who nodded and said, “As much as I’m reluctant to admit it, what you see before you is what we know. Over the past eleven months, there have been various leads. All dead-ended.

That got Cho’s attention. “Why aren’t the leads noted in the brief?”

“Because, Agent Cho…” Blount turned towards Cho and Cho once again thought that he’d never seen anybody that so embodied the word, lugubrious. Or grey. Or greyly lugubrious. “We’re satisfied that they mean nothing. The general surmise is that they were placed on purpose to lead us astray. To focus on them now would detract from the purpose of this investigation.”

Which didn’t sound like a ‘nothing’ to Cho, but he could hardly say so. Blount might not be an asshole, but so far he made it pretty clear that the American contingent were only there because he had no other choice.

Behind Luckner, at the front of the room, stood the white board and its row of silhouetted heads that represented the members of the Red Men. The silhouettes were distinctly male and Cho wondered if they even knew that much, that all the members were men. Gender wasn’t something to discount or gloss over—it seemed a dangerous assumption to make.

But maybe he’d been working with Jane for too long and was overly paranoid.

Van Pelt straightened the folder in front of her and cleared her throat. “So we’re not looking for someone with the last name of ‘Red.’ Or maybe the first?”

Luckner smiled. “You’re thinking of Red John and your colleague, Patrick Jane.”

Michaels snorted under his breath and Van Pelt frowned. “Yes, sir.”

“No, Agent Van Pelt, the Red Men have no connection whatsoever to the serial killer, Red John. The group’s M.O. is completely different, their goals are completely different.”

“So, in other words, two separate entities,” Van Pelt concluded a little despondently.

“I’m afraid so. Any more questions?” He looked around the room and whatever he saw made him stand up and put his hands on his hips. “Look, I know a few of you are frustrated by the lack of details, but remember, the profile in front of you took Interpol over a year to gather when they had a boatload of equally urgent matters. On the surface of things, these Red Men are hardly the 911 conspirators. They don’t seem to want to cause chaos, they don’t seem to be working from a religious mandate. What they are, are incredibly elusive, opportunistic, and yes, they have no problem killing, as the body count listed on the fact sheet shows.

“But Interpol believes, and I agree with them, that given the profile, this conference is right up their alley. And if they get their hands on Dr. Wallach’s research, well then…” He shrugged. “Now, any more questions?”

Cho held his breath and luck was with him—no one answered.

Luckner nodded. “Good. Remember, your packets have your ID cards and your new phones already loaded with your calendars, schedules, and the Carina Luna’s schematics. Do not use your own cells, not until the detail is over—no exceptions. The guests will be trickling in at eight a.m., but as the agenda says, I expect you fed and ready at six.” And then he smiled. “And now, if you’re as hungry as I am, you’ll find your cells have a listing of all the good restaurants within a two-mile radius. Thank you.”

There was a small rumble as everyone pushed back their chairs and began to gather up their things.

Cho picked up his packet as he eyed the exit. Van Pelt did the same, only with a little sigh. She looked tired, or maybe it was just that she was feeling what Cho was feeling: that the CBI was small potatoes when it came to the combined experience in the room. Compared to the other agents, they were junior in that and in age. Even Michaels didn’t have the years that Luckner had and Cho wondered at Lisbon’s decision to have Michaels come along. He was a waste of space, unlike Jameson, unlike Van Pelt.

Of course, it didn’t help that Michaels had been needling them for almost twelve hours straight. Cho had ignored him, as always, but Van Pelt hadn’t been able to and was starting to get seriously pissed, judging by her annoyed huffs every time Michaels said something under his breath.

Cho smiled—she was as stubborn as Jane and Lisbon, in her own way.

She caught it and rolled her eyes, murmuring, “Looks like were going to have fun.”

Michaels heard—he leaned across the table and whispered loudly, “Too bad your pet psychic isn’t here. He could just close his eyes and point to the bad guy, by osmosis.”

Van Pelt stiffened and Jameson sighed. The entire group had heard and they all stopped what they were doing.

Cho said, “I don’t think that’s the word you want.”

Michaels sneered and Cho waited, thinking, Okay, yeah, let’s do this, because he was tired and cranky and he was just itching to wipe the smirk of Michaels’ broad face.

But before anything could happen, Luckner spoke, “Agents?”

Cho straightened. “Sorry, sir.”

Michaels gave his own reluctant, “Sorry,” and then left with Jameson in tow. The others left as well but not before throwing curious glances at Cho and Van Pelt.

Luckner watched Michaels leave. “I take it there’s history there?”

Cho shrugged. “Some.”

Luckner turned to his assistant who was putting away the presentation gear. “Give us a minute, David.” He nodded to Blount. The inspector nodded in return and followed the assistant out the door. When they were alone, Luckner said, “Am I going to have a problem with you four?”

“No, sir,” Cho said quietly. Van Pelt shook her head.

“I heard there were some words between you and Michaels on the ride over.”

“There were.”

“Because we can’t have any distractions or slip-ups, not on this one.”

“No, sir.” He could feel Van Pelt practically shake with the urge to defend him. He glanced sideways; she backed down.

Luckner hadn’t missed the exchange. He pushed his papers out of the way and sat down on the table again. “Did Agent Minelli tell you I asked for you personally, Agent Cho?”

“Agent Lisbon informed me of your request, sir.”

Luckner smiled fondly. “Agent Lisbon. I first met her in Washington—she’s a pistol.”

Cho literally didn’t know what to say—‘pistol’ was the last word he’d used to describe Lisbon. He finally managed a minimal, “Yes sir.”

“Your stellar track record and background are perfect for this job. I didn’t tell the others because I didn’t want them getting sloppy, but I highly doubt anything will happen. The reports of the Red Men’s interest in this particular research are just that—reports. But on the slim chance that something does happen…” He clasped his hands together.

“A cure for viral pneumonia, if it’s as effective as Doctor Wallach says it is, would make any pharmaceutical company in the world foam at the mouth. And they wouldn’t care if it was stolen or not—as long as they could study the data, the payoffs would be limitless. So,” he stood up again, “Given these outlandish circumstances, we’ll do our best to stay on top of the situation and I’m counting on you to help me with that. And you as well, Agent Van Pelt. I’m told you’re quick on your feet.” He waved briefly. “I’ll see you later on.”

It was a dismissal and they left, holding the door for the assistant as he hurried back inside.

Van Pelt was brimming with comments but she waited until they were through the main lobby and out on the wide plaza that overlooked the grounds before asking, “Why didn’t you tell him that Michaels was the one making trouble?”

“What would be the point?”

“Well,” Van Pelt began, then stopped. “None, I guess. It’s just…” She shrugged and frowned into the distance.

Cho followed her glance—the ocean, barely seen through the foliage, was only a faint blue strip. “Michaels is an asshole that wears ugly ties. He’ll always be an asshole that wears ugly ties. Nothing will change that.” He made a face and looked around. The plaza was warm and there were a few guests about, most in the shade.

“Shouldn’t we stick up for Jane? The things Michaels said—they were so mean.”

Cho almost laughed. She was always so serious, always so dedicated to doing the right thing. He thought again that Rigsby was a fool for not stepping forward. “Jane can take care of himself.”

“I know.”

“And he wouldn’t care if we stuck up for him or not.”

“I know.”

“It’s best to just leave it alone.”

“All right.”

They were both silent for a moment, then Van Pelt said thoughtfully, “I like him.”

Cho frowned and looked at her in disbelief. “Jane?”

“Luckner. I like Luckner.”

“Because he gave you a compliment?”

“No,” she quickly, “of course not.” And then she smiled when she saw his small grin. “No, seriously, I like him. He reminds me of Tom Selleck, only older.”

“I do too.” He waited a beat, then, “But not because he reminds me of Tom Selleck.”

Van Pelt rolled her eyes. “You know what I mean.” Her smile died and she looked around. She sighed like a schoolgirl. “It’s so pretty here.”

Cho shrugged his shoulders. Conspicuous wealth made him uncomfortable at the best of times but what he was looking at went beyond conspicuous wealth.

Designed as back-to-back, double half-moons, the hotel was as graceful as it was impressive. The front half curved towards the east, the back, towards the west. Inside, the center of the building held the reception area, the indoor restaurant, guest amenities, and the offices. Between all that was the common area that was filled with planters of every size, sofas, chairs, and—in the middle near the staircase—a baby grand piano.

The west side cradled the plaza and the gardens, the gardens—in turn—cradled the individual guest suites.

The suites were linked by paths that meandered here and there, carving through a landscape that was more jungle than anything else. Cho hadn’t walked the grounds but the map said that among all the trees and bushes were bridges, benches, and a couple gazebos. There was even a swimming pool somewhere near the west gate. Martinez and LaSalle were going on about it earlier in the day.

So, yeah, the place was beautiful, but it was also a logistical nightmare. Luckner had said it best during his opening remarks: ‘Outlandish circumstances that will make our job harder.

Hard, indeed, because no only were the suites secluded among tall bushes and trees, each had at least three entry points. The paths were difficult to navigate and they followed no rhyme or reason that Cho could see. The only things working in their favor were the high adobe walls that separated the property from the outside world, the security cameras hidden at strategic points, and a supposedly foolproof alarm system.

“Jane would like this,” Van Pelt mused.

“Hm?”

“This–” She made a sweeping motion, indicating the grounds and the sky. “He’d like it.”

“He would.” He’d also laugh at it—the ostentatious dolphin fountain that stood in the center of the patio, the nooks in the common area that were meant for privacy but were in plain view of anyone that happened to step foot on the patio.

But…

It was getting dark and the patio lights were waking up, one after the other. To the right of the plaza, in a broad vine-covered alcove, a quartet was setting up, their white shirts glowing in the soft light. Cho never thought of himself as someone with a good imagination, but now he could easily picture Jane at one of the tables, happily listening to the music, the faint candlelight making his eyes shine.

Van Pelt was right—it was pretty.

“And then,” she added resignedly, ignoring Cho as he cleared his throat, “he’d insult someone on the hotel staff or a guest and he’d get us kicked out.”

He grinned and repeated, “He would.”

She crossed her arms and looked down at the stone pavers. She tapped one with her toe, as if checking it for faults. “Cho?”

“Yes?”

But she frowned and looked away quickly, her face coloring. Or maybe it was just the fading light. “I guess we better call Lisbon and check in.”

“And then dinner.”

She smiled. “That would be great. I’m starving. I’d like to get out of this suit, first. It’s too hot.” She tugged on her jacket sleeve.

“I’ll call Lisbon; meet you back here in thirty minutes?”

“Okay, only…” she took her key card out of her pocket and looked around, “…where are our rooms?”

“Yours is over there,” he pointed to the right. “See that statue behind that big tree? Just head that way, then take a sharp right when you get past the bridge.”

“Yours is on the other side? I wish they’d put us together. I’m going to get lost. I have to figure out how to use that digital map they gave us.”

“We can do that at dinner.”

With another smile and a murmured, “Good idea,” she left, hurrying across the patio with that long stride of hers.

He found a stone bench away from the dinner guests and sat down. He pulled out the phone from the envelope and examined it. It was deceptive—it looked like a simple cell, but had been modified with a sophisticated tracking device and a hack-proof signal. Supposedly—he had yet to find anything electronic that lived up to its security promises.

He dialed and draped an arm over the wall, trying to ease the pain still residing in his lower back. The hotel had a masseuse that came in every other day—maybe he should check her out. If it wasn’t too expensive and he had the time.

He tapped his fingers on the wall—Lisbon wasn’t answering, which was odd; she always answered. He was getting ready to redial when it clicked through.

“Lisbon.”

“Hey, boss.”

“You have a new cell? The caller I.D. says ‘unknown’.”

He could hear voices in the background—he wasn’t sure if she was at the office or watching TV. “Yeah, we were issued new phones. They’re supposed to be more secure; they have a tracking device.”

“We should get Jane one.”

“Like belling the cat?”

“Exactly.”

“Where are you?”

“Following him around.”

Cho hesitated, then said, “You’re kidding.”

“Nope.”

“Where’d he go?”

“To the library. For about three hours. Don’t ask me what he was doing there. Then he went back to the office. Now he’s on his way home, only– Huh, that’s weird…” she said faintly, her mind clearly not on the conversation.

“What?”

“He’s not going home. I wonder—”

There was a very long pause and Cho sighed. His parents did this to him all the time and he really hated it. “Boss.”

“Sorry, I just realized he’s going to your place.”

“Then he knows you’re tailing him.”

“Probably. Yep, we’re heading towards the river. Anyway,” she said louder, distraction gone, “how’d it go?”

“Fine. The place is a like a rabbit warren.”

“That’s not good.”

“No, it is not.”

“Luckner hinted that the location wasn’t his choice.”

“He’s not happy about it.”

“How are the other agents?”

“Fine. Michaels is being an ass.”

“Is he getting on you about Jane.”

“Of course.”

She sighed. “I wish he’d get over it already, but whatever. How’s Van Pelt?”

“Good. She’s a little nervous, but she’ll be fine.” The patio was almost completely in shade now and a man and a woman strolled in from the gardens. They wandered around, looked at the fountain, at the quartet, then sat down.

“Watch that she doesn’t get too wrapped up in the delegate’s personal lives—she needs to learn a little emotional distance.”

“Will do.”

“You two haven’t had much of a chance to work closely together—how’s that going?”

“Good. She’s a good agent.” It was a poor response, but Van Pelt wasn’t who he wanted to talk about right now. Only, he couldn’t say that. He waited for what felt like hours, but was probably only a few seconds before asking with a casualness he couldn’t help, “How’s Jane?”

“You mean what did he do when he found out you ditched him?”

“Yes.”

“Hold on, we’re at your place. I’m going to wait until… Okay, he’s in the parking garage. When did you give him your parking pass? Never mind, let me find a spot.”

She did something to the phone, probably sat it down on the seat. He recrossed his legs and checked his nails—they were getting too long—he should’ve taken care of them before he left. That and his hair. There was also a barber on site, but he’d probably cost a small fortune for a simple trim. Not really worth it.

The sound of breaking glass made Cho jump. One of the guests had dropped his wine glass—he was being descended upon by what looked like the entire staff. They smilingly shook off his apologies and cleaned up the mess. Beyond them, a man hurried out of the jungle. He passed behind the musicians and on into the hotel, buttoning his jacket as he went.

Cho sighed and looked at his watch. Fifteen minutes before Van Pelt was due back and he needed to do this without any eavesdroppers. It was bad enough having to go through Lis—

“Okay, I’m back,” Lisbon muttered. “I’m looking up at your window. And… Yes, he’s opening the blinds, one by one.”

“He never does that. I always have to.”

“Then he knows I’m down here.”

“Yes.”

Lisbon laughed. “It’s kind of cute in an obnoxious way. I’ll hang out here for a while, just to make it worth his while.”

“You two—” Cho stopped. He never trespassed into Lisbon’s personal space, not even to tease affectionately—he couldn’t think what came over him.

“Yeah, we like to play off each other a little too much.”

Cho shrugged and didn’t answer.

She sighed again. “So, yes, he was angry. About you, I mean. Was it only yesterday that I asked you if you knew what you were doing?”

Cho leaned forward, elbow to knee, and rubbed his forehead. “I know.”

“Because he was furious. I mean, really furious.”

“Boss—”

“No, I’m not blaming you. I just hope—”

She broke off, but he knew what she was going to say—basically a reiteration of the other night. That Jane hated being made a fool. That Jane trusted a very few people and their relationship or whatever it was might not survive this mini betrayal.

Cho’s throat closed up. What he and Jane had, it was so new and untested—anything could break it apart.

“Cho, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”

“No, it’s okay. I just—” ‘Don’t know how to talk about this,’ and ‘I don’t want to talk about this.’

“Yeah, okay, I’ll leave you alone.”

“Thanks.”

“Of course.” And the affection was so clear in her voice he felt like she was sitting next to him, giving him that warmhearted look she so rarely shared. “Check in again in the morning, then at night. Minelli is hovering, so stay in contact.”

“Will do.” Movement made him look up. Van Pelt was back, threading her way around the tables. She stopped at the fountain and looked around. “Are you going to tell Jane I called?”

“Should I?”

“No.”

“Then I won’t.”

“Thanks, boss.”

“No problem.”

“Okay.”

“Bye.”

Cho closed the phone and made his way to where Van Pelt was waiting. He held up the cell and said, “Lisbon says hi.”

Van Pelt grinned. “No, she didn’t.”

“No. She didn’t. What sounds good?”

She thought a moment, then said hopefully, “Mexican?”

“Fine.”

***

Cho got back to his room at ten, tired from the long day and the heavy dinner. He hesitated, then stripped for a shower. For all his exhaustion, he was still wired and since he couldn’t go for a run, he’d do the next best thing.

He’d finished and was drying off when another need, this one more subtle, more insistent, got the better of him. He picked up his cell and sat down on the bed, still naked, mostly wet. He told himself he had three rings—if Jane didn’t pick up on the third, he’d hang up and call it a night. He let it ring twice, then hung up.

“Coward,” he muttered to himself as he stood up and went back to the bathroom. He needed to get a grip and remember why he was here. That there were things more important than missing Jane. That it was only going to be for a few days, after all.

But his sleep was fitful, breaking every now and then. At two he jerked up, wide awake, sure he’d heard Jane’s voice in his ear, disappointed when he realized it was only the laughter of a man outside.

____________________

 

(Saturday)

Jane was late.

He rushed across the street, then up the sidewalk, scaring a huddle of pigeons into flight. He hadn’t slept well again. He had, in fact, stayed up most of the night only to fall asleep at five. When he woke up at half past six, he sprang out of bed, thankful that he didn’t have far to drive because he was already late.

Even on a Saturday, Starbucks was packed. He said his ‘excuse me’s’ to the people waiting in line and edged behind them, almost knocking over a tall basket full of empty coffee cups in the process. He straightened it and looked around. Exley was in the far corner, looking at his watch.

He hurried across the room. When he got close enough, he held out his hand, saying, “I’m so sorry. I overslept.”

Exley took his hand and gave him that pompous once-over he remembered so well. “Yeah, you look tired.”

Jane brushed away the false concern. “Which makes the oversleeping ironic, wouldn’t you say?” He sat down and crossed his legs, then drew a deep breath.

Exley tightened his lips at the sarcasm. “I suppose. Do you want any—” he waved to the counter.

“No, no, I’m fine, thanks.”

“So, Mr. Jane,” Exley sat back, “how can I help you? You said it was a sensitive issue, which I imagine it must be, since you’re not, I take it, involving Agent Lisbon in whatever it is?”

Jane smiled, going for innocent and non-threatening. “No, I’m not. It’s a simple matter, really, but I’m not in the…” he made air quotes, “…official loop, and I need some information.”

“And I imagine that is driving you crazy.”

Jane raised his eyebrow as Exley’s accent thickened and he wondered, again, if it had only been the guard detail that had taken Exley so far from New York. He knew why he’d stayed, of course, just not why he’d left. “You’ve got me there.”

“Then what is it?”

“There’s an event happening in a few days. I just need to know what it is.”

Exley narrowed his eyes. “That’s all?”

“Yes.”

“Since it’s something that’s in the…” Exley made air quotes, “…official loop, I’m assuming that means the event is confidential.”

“Yes.”

“A kind of, for your eyes only, thing?”

“Perhaps.”

“Why are you asking me?”

“Because I like you.”

Exley smiled like a shark. “And because my office isn’t attached to the CBI and there’s no way Agent Lisbon would find out if I did some snooping?”

Jane leaned forward and grinned, keeping his clenched hands in his lap where Exley couldn’t see. He was losing this one, but he had to give it another try. “Something like that.”

Exley frowned and then shook his head. “Sorry, Mr. Jane. I can’t help you.”

Jane sat back—it had been a long shot, but still… “Would it make any difference if I told you my reasons for wanting to know have absolutely nothing to do with the event itself?”

“Probably not.” Exley shook his head again, this time truly regretful.

Jane nodded, then stood up. He held out his hand and Exley took it.

“I’m sorry Mr. Jane.”

“It’s Jane, and yes, I can see you are.”

“Let me know if there’s anything else—unofficial—that I can do for you.”

“Will do.” Jane walked away, then turned back and called out from a distance of ten feet, “I hope you and ex-Agent Knox work things out; you make a cute couple,” just to see Exley sputter in embarrassment.

This time around, he strolled down the street to his car, hands in pockets, only half aware of the passersby. He wasn’t sure what to do now. His resources, when the CBI’s computer system wasn’t factored in, were fairly limited. He could try bugging Lisbon’s office or hacking her computer. Which would be fairly useless since he had no idea how to bug an office and even less how to hack into a computer—that was Van Pelt’s purview.

He might be able to enlist someone else, maybe someone he could hire on a consultant basis, on the sly. A consultant for a consultant—it had a nice ring to it.

But, no—he thought as he slipped around a woman walking three dogs on leads that were too long—the risk was unacceptable, even for him. The minute he brought in anyone new, Lisbon would be all over it. No, his best bet would be to sit down with Rigsby and see what he could contribute. There was a sharp mind inside that forever-hungry body—maybe he’d see something Jane couldn’t.

And if that didn’t work, why then he was just going to hypnotize Minelli again.

The thought cheered him up. He stuck his hands in his pockets and picked up the pace, whistling ‘Oh, Susannah’.

***

He was back in his car, halfway home when his cell rang. It was Lisbon. “Where are you?”

“Out and about.”

“Get to the office as quick as possible. Rigsby and I will meet you in the parking lot.”

“We’ve got a case?”

“We’ve got a case.”

***

“Damnit,” Lisbon muttered under her breath as she pulled up to the scene. “I told them to keep the reporters out of it.”

Jane craned his head. A crowd had already gathered in front of the house and Lisbon could only drive so close without hitting a bystander.

“This will be fun,” Rigsby said grimly.

“Yeah, listen,” she turned to Jane, “we don’t have jurisdiction, so you’re here to observe. No touching, all right?”

“Until you get jurisdiction, I’m assuming.”

Lisbon smiled. “You assume right. After that, you can touch all you want.”

They got out and pushed through the looky-loos, Lisbon ahead like a miniature tugboat. Jane followed slowly, hands in pockets, examining the faces around him. At one point, he found himself in a dead space between a reporter and the crowd. He turned just as the camera panned his way. He wanted to wink or say, ‘Hi, Mom,’ but Lisbon would kill him if she found out, so he just settled for a small smile, then pushed back into the crowd.

Inside, the crime scene was atypical—no blood, no overturned furniture—just a forties-something house in a forties-something neighborhood. He was wondering what the hell they were doing there when Lisbon called him to the backyard.

He found her in the car-less garage, kneeling beside a grey-haired man face down on the floor with blood pooling around his body. The stench of burned flesh was thick and Jane got out his handkerchief and covered his mouth and nose. Lisbon gestured for him to take a look and he bent over the body. The man’s right hand was charred and wrapped around some sort of device, as if he’d been killed in the act of whatever it had been that he was doing. His face, from what Jane could see, was burned as well. Jane winced behind his handkerchief and straightened up.

A small troupe of FBI milled about, talking in low, serious voices. They were examining the garage and Jane found himself following one of them as she walked the tiny perimeter.

Like the home, the garage was maybe sixty, seventy years old. It hadn’t been improved much since then but the homeowner had taken care of it. The floor was spotless and there were only a few cobwebs to be seen. In the corner by a shop vac rested a tall stack of fertilizer bags and next to those stood a workbench full of electronics.

In odd contrast, the opposite wall was filled with shelves and on those shelves were gardening supplies. The upper shelves held pots and boxes of plant food, the lower, the plants themselves. Jane paused before the potting table still covered with dirt and touched the rim of one of the pots—white, blue, and red petunias. Not his favorite flower, but still pretty.

He turned back to catch Lisbon’s eye, jerked his head toward the door, then left.

Outside, he stuffed his handkerchief in his pocket and took a deep breath of clean air.

He wandered around the backyard, coming to stand in the shade of an apple tree. The yard was tiny and beautiful—not grandiose, but loved, as if the homeowners spent a lot of time out here. There was a single chair near the tree’s trunk, and beyond that, an old sundial. Jane walked over to it and traced the surface with his finger. ‘I count only the sunny hours.’ He smiled softly.

“What is it?”

Jane turned. Lisbon was standing behind him, her arms crossed tight—her worried frown said she wasn’t convinced about the FBI’s obvious conclusions, either.

He waved a hand. “I know what they’re thinking in there, but this isn’t the home of an anarchist. He was happy, content. Look…” He pointed and led Lisbon to the north side of the yard where a shallow trench was dug. He crouched and touched the soil gently—it was soft and cool under his fingertips. “He was getting ready to put in some new plants, probably the ones in the garage.”

He stood up and brushed the dirt off his fingers. Rigsby joined them, notebook open. “How long ago did—” He turned to Rigsby. “What was his name?”

“Wilson. Mr. Eric Wilson. Seventy-three years old.”

“How long ago did Mr. Wilson’s wife die?

Rigsby frowned and looked at his book. “Eight years.”

Jane nodded, absently. He didn’t really need the confirmation, but Lisbon would. “He’s not a bomber.”

Lisbon huffed a little and said, “Why, because he likes to garden?”

Jane turned to her, one eyebrow raised. “Well, yes. This isn’t a movie. You’re looking at two completely different profiles—the one creates and nurtures, the other plots and destroys. Wilson has no rage. Maybe a little sadness,” he added with a shrug because the garden gave off that air. “But no real anger.”

She nodded slowly. “Okay, but the boys in there,” she jerked her head towards the garage, “are going to need more than that.”

“Okay, I’ve got more. C’mon in while I dazzle you with my powers of observation.” Lisbon raised her eyebrow as he turned back to the garage and Jane had to admit, silently, that, yeah, it hadn’t been one of his best efforts. He pictured it again, Mr. Eric Wilson, seventy-three years old, carefully tending his garden all alone. So sad.

***

They were finished by five. Lisbon let Rigsby drive and they got back to the office by five-thirty. Jane made a cup of tea and went to sit down on his couch. Lisbon no doubt had a stack of paperwork to file, and he wanted to make it easy on her because he’d given her such a hard time the day before. Which would in turn lull her into a false sense of security.

He finished his tea and lay back, thinking about Wilson and Exley and their two different, yet similar circumstances. As well as his own—he was alone as they, for all intents and purposes.

Which was an unhappy thought, so he forced his attention to his problem at hand. At seven, he gave up trying to figure out what to do about Cho, gave up waiting for Lisbon to finish. He stood, winked at Rigsby and waved at Lisbon. She didn’t wave back.

When he drove past the gate, he hesitated. He really should go home. To his real home, but he couldn’t, not yet. Besides, he’d promised Lisa that he’d look in on her—her husband was out of town and she had a summer cold. She’d looked quietly miserable when he’d seen her the night before.

That’s what he’d do. Run by the Hong Kong Cafe, pick up dinner, then see if she needed company.

He knew picking up a meal for a relative stranger was a silly thing to do just as he knew it really wasn’t Lisa that needed the company. He frowned, almost angry, and turned right.

_________________

 

“Copy that,” Cho said into his receiver. He signaled to Van Pelt and Michaels who were still flanking the big doors that led to the plaza and then turned to the front doors. He glanced around as he passed the baby grand—everything looked as it should. But then, everything had looked as it should for a couple hours now, and they’d been waiting, in position that entire time, thanks to a couple technical glitches.

Glitch one, was the vehicles arranged by Governor’s office had been late, arriving at the airport at ten instead of eight. Glitch two—and Cho clenched his jaw again because it was the kind of oversight that was so damn easy to avoid—was that the SUVs hadn’t been fueled properly and the drivers had to find a place to stop for gas on the way to the hotel. Which, on a Saturday morning, had turned out to be problematic. Still, as Luckner had said, if a two-hour delay and a stop to re-fuel was the worst of it, they’d be lucky.

Luckner and Blount were already outside, standing by the passenger drop-off as Cho took his place on the left, by the overflowing planter. Luckner turned and nodded. Blount didn’t. Which was what Cho expected. He hadn’t got much one-on-one time with Blount, but maybe that was a good thing. He was impressed by the man’s dedication and skill, and unimpressed by his inability to communicate and inspire.

Blount had been everywhere the past two days, making sure things were done right and as they got closer to arrival time, he’d gotten more and more frustrated. He was angry about the choice of venue, angry that the staff was poorly trained, furious that ‘there aren’t enough men to cover such a large area, not by half.’

Luckner had taken the criticism pretty well, Cho thought, until Blount had brought up the security issue at a mid-morning meeting.

Luckner had put his pencil down, then escorted Blount to the corridor. What they discussed no one knew, but whatever Luckner had said or threatened, when they came back in, Blount wasn’t quite so red-faced.

In a way, Cho felt a certain amount of sympathy because all of Blount’s objections were dead on, down to venue, security and staff.

He turned his head slightly and looked to his right.

Arrayed out in front of the doors was the hotel staff, such as it was—two bellhops, two guest service liaisons, four maids, the chef, and in front, bouncing nervously on her high heels, the hotel manager. Her name was Leslie Bryant. She’d gone to CSU Fresno and couldn’t believe she had this opportunity, couldn’t wait to prove herself because she’d graduated the top of her class and had done her internship at Disneyland, just last year and had been waiting for a job like this ever since.

She’d told Cho all that within the space of a few seconds—he’d tried to shut her up but she just plowed over him, obviously anxious, hopelessly out of her depth.

She was tall, thin and blond and—he assumed, after talking to her for two minutes—hired for her looks. Or maybe she was a relative of the owners. Whatever—when the computer system went down right after breakfast, she’d panicked and rushed about until Luckner took over. He sent his assistant and Van Pelt in and within the hour, everything was up and running.

While waiting for the arrivals, Cho and Van Pelt had a quiet talk about it. Van Pelt thought Bryant would step up as soon as she got herself together. Cho thought she was just too young and it was a lost cause.

Which was par for the course, in a way, because by then Cho had talked to most of the staff and found out that there had been a general turnover, just weeks ago, and they were uniformly young. An effort, according to the sour-faced chef, to attract a younger clientele. Except for chef and the new bellhop, the entire staff was under thirty. Not a good thing if anything unexpected happened, but there was little Luckner and company could do about it now.

He turned back to stare out at the long, tree-lined drive. It was another beautiful day. Calm and cool and bright, the morning’s clouds had already dissipated and he imagined that if he were to go for a run on the beach right now, he’d be able to see far out to the huge cargo ships that cruised up and down the coastline. And that’s where he’d be, if he had his way—on the beach running. Babysitting a bunch of eggheads wasn’t his thing.

And then he chastised himself for the prejudice. Not all smart people were eggheads. Look at Jane—he was one of the smartest people Cho knew and he could hardly be called an egghead. Frustratingly arrogant, annoyingly opinionated, outrageously beautiful, yes. But not an egghead.

He was still smiling when his earpiece buzzed and Luckner said, “Here they come people, let’s stay sharp.”

By habit, Cho straightened and clasped his hands together as the first SUV took the loop along the hotel drive and parked smoothly at the curb. The driver jumped out and ran around to open the door and Bryant stepped forward eagerly and he sighed—here we go.

***

The controlled chaos that followed was over by one. In a flurry of many languages and colorful clothing, the guests were registered and shown to their rooms. They walked off as a group, still chatting furiously. Cho watched them go, watched them be gently separated by Bryant as they were guided to their guesthouses, ten to the north, ten to the south.

They returned a half an hour later for a trip into town. Luckner had argued mildly against the outing, saying it would be difficult to guard them in such circumstances. Doctor Wallach had insisted, pointing out that one of the reasons he chose Carmel was for the sights and that being cooped up in the hotel was out of the question.

As if staying in such luxury was a trial and not a treat. But maybe it was. Cho had no idea how the guests spent their day to day—maybe they were used to lots of servants and twenty-room houses.

Van Pelt had grumbled quietly when she heard the news—being the only other female agent, she had no option but to go. She’d given Cho a quick look, then left, helping one of the wives into the first SUV. He wasn’t sure what she was complaining about—she usually liked trips. She probably thought all the action was going to be at the hotel and she hated being left out. It was a character trait he’d noticed a while back.

He took position on north side of the patio, near the main doors; He nodded to LaSalle on the other side. They were the only agents left behind.

Mostly because three guests had chosen to stay at the hotel—Doctor Zaharoff, her husband and Doctor Gallegos. Zaharoff hadn’t had a good flight and had waved away her husband’s attempts to get her out of the lounge chair by the fountain. Gallegos stayed because he was more interested in whatever was on his laptop than sightseeing. But like Doctor Williams, he was single, so maybe he just didn’t want to shop. Or maybe he was watching porn. He was hunched over his computer as if he was viewing the most fascinating thing in the world.

Cho stood there for another fifteen minutes, then signaled to LaSalle that he was going to walk the perimeter again. He’d been on two that morning, but it was either stand and be bored or investigate.

He went clockwise this time, taking the eastern-most path. It took him behind a couple service sheds and two of the guesthouses and finally, to the beachfront wall. The entire section of this wall was made up of interspaced adobe and wrought-iron rails. Because of the foliage, an air of privacy remained, but every once in a while the plants thinned out, showing the beach and ocean beyond.

He stopped before one such space and looked out. About fifty feet away two guys were tossing a football back and forth, making a show for the two girls watching them. Further out, closer to the waves, a family was building a sand castle. It was a happy, normal scene. Cho hoped it stayed that way. ’They have no problem killing, as the body count listed on the fact sheet shows…’

All told, Blount tallied a possible nineteen people dead at the Red Men’s hands. The first seven had occurred in the Baltic States, which, according to Blount, was why they’d gone unnoticed for so long. It was only when three bodies were found on UK soil that Interpol got serious and started to investigate.

What they’d found were a string of unexplained deaths, the only link, as Luckner had said, being that the victims were all involved in some sort of high-tech business. Cho had seen the photos—a high-level software engineer with her throat slit, a researcher for a pharmaceutical company neatly bludgeoned in the back of the head, both laying in a pool of their own blood, both still wearing looks of similar surprise as if they’d hadn’t had time to be afraid. Except for the death wounds, there had been no bruising, no signs of a struggle.

In profiling terms, the murders were clinical and dispassionate and that worried Cho more than anything else. Focused, almost indiscriminate, mayhem that accounted human lives as nothing wasn’t something one could plan for—the best one could do was react accordingly when that something did happen.

Not a process he was looking forward to—he’d had enough of that in the military—that endless waiting, then acting. But, he thought with a shrug, in the long run it was neither here nor there. He had a job to do and that didn’t entail freaking out about things that hadn’t yet happened.

He turned back to the path and continued on to the north.

He’d reached the next corner and was turning east when movement out of the corner of his eye jerked his head around. He paused with his hand on his weapon, waiting.

There it was, a flash of maroon and black through the trees, probably one of the hotel staff on break, but just in case— He circled around, coming up from behind. The man was on the path near one of the countless, useless bridges. He was gesturing with his right hand as he talked softly into the phone, his movements somehow similar to Jane’s.

He waited until the man hung up, then said, “Hello.”

The man spun around, almost dropping the phone as he turned. “Oh, hello—” He quickly closed the phone and stuffed it in his pocket.

It was the bellboy from this morning. Or bellman, really—in his mid- to late-thirties, he could hardly be called, ‘boy.’ “Sorry,” Cho said, although he wasn’t really sorry. “Didn’t mean to startle you.”

“No, that’s okay. I was just on break.”

Cho relaxed enough to let go of his weapon.

The man looked around and said, “It’s a beautiful day, no?”

“Yes, it is.”

The man came forward, hand out. “Sorry. I’m Mathias. I’m sorta new here.”

Cho took his hand and shook it briefly. Tall and clean-cut, Mathias didn’t look like a bellhop—he looked like something from a James Bond film. “Agent Cho.”

“You’re guarding the doctors, right?” Mathias didn’t wait for Cho to answer, but nodded eagerly. “Yeah, I saw you this morning. Must be fun, all that cloak and dagger stuff. Better than being a bellboy.”

Cho shrugged. “I don’t know. You get to work at a place like this, right?”

Mathias smiled—his teeth needed work. “Yeah, I guess. Anyway…” he backed away and jerked his thumb towards the hotel, “…guess I better get back to work or they’ll hunt me down.” He waved and hurried towards the hotel.

Cho watched him go with a frown. There was nothing significant about the guy—so he’d made a bad career choice and needed to see a dentist? That didn’t mean anything. Still, there was something off about him, the way he’d jumped, so startled that he’d almost dropped his phone—

But mostly, Cho thought with a sinking feeling, it was because for a minute there, when the man first spoke, he thought he’d heard an accent that could only be British.

He hesitated, then found a stand of tall bushes, out of view of the path in case Mathias was watching. He pulled out his cell and dialed quickly.

***

Luckner shook his head and said, “I’m sorry, Agent Cho, it’s just not enough to go on. Because of the circumstances of his late hire, I checked Evans out myself. He’s got a clean record and the hotel vouched for his references, besides which, the manager won’t hear of letting him go. She about had a heart attack when I suggested it.”

Cho shifted from foot to foot. Beside him, Van Pelt crossed her arms the way she always did was she was trying to hold herself back from doing something rash. Cho gave her a sideways glance and shook his head, very quickly.

Like before, Luckner had caught the exchange and he glanced at Van Pelt, then Cho. “We’ll keep an eye on him—it’s the best we can do.”

Cho nodded briefly. “Thank you, sir.”

He turned, but Luckner stopped him with a hand on his arm. “It’s good work, Agent Cho. I’m glad you’re here.”

Which meant nothing if Luckner wasn’t willing to listen to him. “Thank you, sir.”

He led the way out of the conference room and stopped when they got to the reception desk. It was almost six, the guests had just gotten back after their all-day shopping spree and he was officially off the clock.

“Do you think he’s right?” Van Pelt asked softly.

“About?”

“About Evans being clean.”

Cho shrugged and turned to her. She’d had a hard day following the group around, mostly, she’d said, because it was so boring and it made her feet hurt, all that standing around. When he’d told her of his suspicions and that he was meeting Luckner to discuss them, her eyes had lit up. Her eyes hadn’t lost any of that fire and there was a small smile on her lips—she probably wouldn’t mind some action. “He could be right and still be wrong.”

She thought about it for a minute, then slowly said, “Yeah, I guess. But you think he’s all wrong, don’t you?”

“I don’t know. There’s something off about Evans.”

“If Jane were here, he’d figure it out.”

It wasn’t said with any accusation and Cho didn’t take it as such because she was right—if Jane was here and Cho told him there was something off about Evans, he’d already be investigating. “Maybe it’s just this place.”

She lost her frown. “You mean it’s so beautiful, something must be wrong?”

“Our own serpent in the garden. There’s no pleasing me, is there?”

Van Pelt grinned. “Never.”

Cho couldn’t help his own smile—as odd as it was, he’d missed her for the few hours she’d been gone. “I was thinking of taking a run on the beach—the hotel staff says it’s maybe eight or nine miles before the shore ends. You want to go?”

“With me? Sure.”

“Meet you back here in fifteen?”

“Make it twenty.”

“Got it.” He pulled out his earpiece and strode off to get changed.

***

The run was more than nice—it was what he needed. Van Pelt set a good pace and by the time they got back, the stress of the day was replaced by a pleasant exhaustion. He checked in with Luckner and Blount. Neither reported anything out of the ordinary. He and Van Pelt grabbed a quick dinner in the hotel restaurant, then went their separate ways.

This time, when he got to his room, he showered and went straight to bed, mind carefully blank, refusing to even look at his cell.

_________________

John was in the kitchen, making a sandwich when the call came through. He pushed the speaker button and said, “Yes?”

“Sir?”

Mathew’s voice was calm and cool and John knew before he said anything what his news would be. He placed a layer of limp lettuce over the roast beef wishing he were back home where he could get a decent head of greens. “I take it everything went well.”

“It did. I’m sending the photos in a minute. The doc isn’t very careful in his choice or care.”

Which meant the laptop was a common variety and banged up. Which meant John’s job would be easier. “I’ll call when I’m done at the shop.”

“Yes, sir.”

John hung up. He cut the sandwich in half and carried the paper plate to the lounge. Luke was almost asleep on the sofa, not really watching the news. He rubbed his eyes and grumbled a bit when John pushed his legs to the floor and sat down. “Anything?”

“Yeah, there was an newscast just now. They say that he acted alone, that they’re lucky they caught him before he bombed anyone, but they’re investigating.”

John raised his sandwich to the TV and said, “Long may they investigate. And Mark?”

“On his way back. He waited, like you told him, then completed the job. Should be here within the hour. He wants to take a nap, then he and I are heading back out.”

“Very good.”

Luke crossed his arms and settled into the corner of the sofa. “They also showed the guy.”

“Mr. Jane?”

“Yeah, he was on for a bit. He’s kind of a nut, I don’t know why you admire him so.” He was already nodding off.

John didn’t comment because Luke would hardly understand. He just said mildly, “What channel?”

“Uh, four, I think. Something like that. The channels here are weird.”

John finished his sandwich, then got up.

Luke looked up at him, upside down. “What about the Johnsons? Should I do something about them?”

John waved away the question. “No point. By the time their absence starts to—” He shrugged with a smile, “…attract attention, we’ll be long gone.” The basement walk-in freezer was one of the things that had made John choose this house. Well, that and the beautiful view of the ocean.

He threw the paper plate away in the plastic bag by the sofa and left Luke to his own devices.

The marble floor was deliciously cool against his bare feet as he climbed the stairs, as he made his way to his borrowed study and sat. He woke the borrowed computer by nudging a key with the back of his thumb and leaned close.

It only took him a few minutes to find the broadcast—news of this magnitude would be everywhere, repeating for all and sundry. He propped an elbow on the desk and cradled his chin on his fist, waiting for just the moment—

He smiled. There it was, there he was, appearing out of the crowd that had gathered in front of the tiny house. Walking into the camera’s view as comfortable as could be.

He was wearing one of his three-piece suits, his hands stuffed in his pockets—a ridiculous affectation that was endlessly charming. He hesitated and turned and looked straight at the camera and his face changed—not a smile, not a smirk, but somewhere in between. And then he was gone, melting back into the crowd.

John hit ‘replay’ and watched it once more. Then he closed the video window and returned to the page he’d abandoned when he’d stopped for dinner. He picked up his cooling tea and with a sense of deep satisfaction, began reading once more about the life and times of one Patrick Jane, former fake psychic, current federal consultant.

___________________

 

(Sunday)

Jane lay flat on his back, head cradled comfortably by his hands, lost in a daydream about how he was going to repay Cho for his duplicity when Lisbon called out, “Hey, sleeping beauty!”

He raised one hand without looking around. “Present.”

“We’ve got a homicide in Van Nuys. It sounds cut and dry, but you might want to come along, just in case.”

He shook his head. “Two in a row? I’ll stay here, thanks.”

“Okay, let me rephrase: I want you on this one so get off the couch.”

He smiled. He loved pushing her buttons. “Okey dokey.” He rolled to his feet and patted his stomach—it wasn’t quite as effective when there were the only two of them. “Can we stop for donuts?”

“Didn’t you eat breakfast?” Lisbon asked as she pulled on her jacket. Rigsby was standing behind her giving Jane a look of quiet satisfaction. He must’ve managed to elude her questions without incriminating himself. Or Jane. They’d been in Lisbon’s office when Jane had gotten in, and from the frown on her face when he’d walked by, she was questioning Rigsby about Jane’s cunning plan, and unhappy with Rigsby’s answers.

“Breakfast? Of course I didn’t eat breakfast, Lisbon, and before you give me that, ‘breakfast is the most important meal of the day,’ malarkey, you should know that I hurried in early on a Sunday, because you’re two men down—or two people down, as the case may be—and I wanted to help out.”

“Whatever. Yes we can get donuts as long as you don’t take all day. Rigsby?”

“Yes boss?”

She tossed him the keys. “You’re driving.”

***

Jane looked up at the three-story house, then around at the concrete vases flanking the wide concrete porch. The gardens began at the drive and ran in riotous waves around concrete statues and more concrete vases, continuing on, presumably, to the backyard. He figured Mr. Sullivan owned a concrete company—he’d never seen so much of the stuff in his life. “Why do the most gruesome murders always happen in the most bucolic of settings?”

“To illustrate the dark belly of the human soul,” Rigsby intoned.

Jane snorted softly. Rigsby had been dipping into Cho’s Dickens again. “Or maybe because when they happened in the middle of an urban city amid a setting of squalor and abuse, we don’t notice.”

Rigsby frowned. “I guess.”

“It’s rather sad.”

“Which one, the first or the second?”

Jane turned to squint up at Rigsby. “Both.”

Rigsby nodded uncertainly. And then grabbed Jane’s sleeve as he began walking up the drive. “Hey, she said to stay here, remember? The locals have jurisdiction.”

“You don’t honestly think I’m going to stand around here and miss all the fun, do you?”

“Where are you going?”

Jane waved his hand at the house, the grounds. “A place like this always has people drinking tea on the veranda at this hour, yes?”

Rigsby’s eyebrows rose and his mouth dropped open as he struggled for a reply. But he forgot to hold on and Jane took off.

The gardens were indeed extensive and he followed them as the swooped and curved and rolled. The property was more beautiful than the front—at the end of the multi-level patio was a small replica of the mansion. Jane peeked inside—there was a kitchen, a living area and a game room, all seemingly empty. What a waste.

He turned to the stairs that led to the lawn. All around were more planters, more furniture. Above, fairy lights hung off tall standards in a lacy network that swayed in the breeze. It would probably be beautiful here, late at night with the little lights everywhere.

Still, he thought as he made his way across the lawn, it was a manufactured beauty and had none of the charm of the dead Mr. Wilson’s tiny garden.

The only thing he found of any value was in the back, hidden among the tall trees near the property line. It was a small water fountain, plain, almost too simple for such an elaborate setting. It was only when he looked closer did he realize that it was made out of copper and teak, sophisticated, sleek. It was startling similar to the one he’d been thinking about buying for his own terrace before—

Well, before, and he stuck his hands in his pockets and closed his eyes against the familiar pain. He’d always read that grief muted with time—all the novels and poets and singers said so. They were such liars. Including himself, he supposed. He’d said the same thing, countless times, back when he’d made lying his profession.

Because grief didn’t mute, didn’t lessen—it fed on itself, maintaining its own existence, coming like a knife in the dark to stab you just when you least expected it…

Before, the only thing that had helped was the knowledge that he was working inexorably towards the day he and Red John would stand face to face and his wife and child’s murderer would pay. Now however, he had something else to ease him through the nights when memory was too strong, too insistent. And without it, without Cho within arm’s reach—

It was a complete surprise, how affected he was by Cho’s absence. Yesterday, as he’d fruitlessly tried to convince the FBI that Mr. Wilson wasn’t a terrorist in the making, he had turned to share a look with Cho, forgetting for a brief heartbeat that he wasn’t there. The same thing happened on the way back to the SUV as Lisbon attempted to talk him out of his bad mood because the FBI thought he was a nutcase and had kicked him off the scene.

He didn’t make mistakes like that very often and never twice, and it was almost shocking, this sense of loss. As if it was a physical thing, as if he was suddenly, irrevocably, completely incomplete again…

He eyes opened wide as the thought resonated its way through his soul and he murmured it aloud, testing its strength, “I miss you.”

That first night he’d been angry and restless, but the latter wasn’t new, so he paid it no mind. The second night, however… Lisa hadn’t been in and he’d eaten in front of the television, alone. He’d stayed up until two, watching one bad program after another. Finally, when it was either bed or Tomato Tree infomercials, he chose bed. He lay there for hours, slipping in and out of false sleep until it was time to get up again.

And here he was, still tired, still out of sorts, grateful for the distraction of work. There was no use whining about it, not really. At least not to himself—now Lisbon was an entirely different story. He needed to make her see that he had to know where Cho was, that no matter what was going on, he’d be a help, not a hindrance—

Nodding firmly to the fountain, he turned around and headed back towards the house.

He never found anyone drinking tea, but he did find an annoyed Lisbon. She was stomping along the path, peering here and there as if she expected to find him, hiding in the bushes. When she saw him, she called out, “There you are!”

“Sorry. Thought I’d see if I could find anything out of the norm.”

“Why do you even say it anymore?”

“What? Norm?”

“No, you jackass. ‘Sorry.’ You’re never really sorry, so why say it?”

Jane raised his eyebrow and said, “Oh, sor— I mean, all right. I’ll stop saying it.”

Lisbon pursed her lips, her irritation already gone. “No you won’t, but thanks for the offer.”

“Did you find anything unusual?”

“Not really,” she sighed as she turned to walk next to him. “Mr. Sullivan locked his two daughters in their closet, then murdered his wife in the kitchen. We found the note he left crumpled under the body. She’d been cheating on him with a family friend. She’d taken all their savings and was about to run off to Mexico with the boyfriend, the kids, and the cash. Standard stuff, sad to say.”

Jane frowned and said, “Hm.” Standard stuff, indeed. He’d been hoping that the case would turn out to involve a complicated kidnapping or maybe cross-state-lines activity—anything that would require more manpower and possibly get Cho back home early. “How are the kids?”

“Scared out of their minds. They don’t remember much. Apparently Mr. Sullivan drugged their morning juice.”

At least he loved them that much. “What’s going to happen to them?”

“Sullivan’s sister just got here. She’s going to keep them until the family decides what to do with them.”

“So, nobody to question.”

“Nope.”

And another reason not to call Cho back home to do what he did best, damnit. “You’re good at your job.” It was part conciliatory, mostly accusatory, but she didn’t need to know that. They were passing under an arbor and he reached up to push back a trailing honeysuckle vine that had caught at her hair.

She stopped and turned back to look up at him in surprise. “Thanks.” A little pink and white flower lay on the crown of her head, giving her the air of a woodland nymph. He removed it carefully and handed it to her. She smiled, almost sadly, and repeated, “Thanks.”

They continued on.

It would be so much more convenient, he thought as he watched the fugitive sunlight play on Lisbon’s face, her green eyes, if he could just fall in love with her. It would be a little awkward when it came to the Red John business and they really did have vastly different outlooks on life but other than that…

But no, the heart wants what it wants, and for good or ill, he wanted Cho.

They reached the patio and he touched her lightly on the arm. “I’m going around the way I came.”

“That’s a good idea. It’s a little messy in there. We’ll be done in about hour.”

He nodded and turned to the side of the house.

***

He left the office on time for once. He walked out with Rigsby and got in his car, just like a normal person.

And again like a normal person, he turned left instead of right this time and drove slowly home. He checked a few times, but Lisbon wasn’t following him. She was probably as bored acting chaperone as he was bored with being chaperoned. When he got inside his empty house, he listened to a voice message from his lawn service, read his mail, then puttered about, making sure everything was as he’d left it.

At seven, he made himself a sandwich, bare of everything but the essentials and ate it in the kitchen while he watched the evening news. He half thought he’d see something about an important conference or meeting, but there was nothing except reports of trouble in the Middle East, updates on the housing crisis and other run-of-the-mill news items.

He washed the dishes and countertop, still in a quiet state of mind, then sat down again to make a list of the things he wanted the gardeners and the cleaning service to do. Finally, out of lists and excuses, he went upstairs.

He climbed the steps and walked slowly to his bedroom door and stopped. He stayed there for the longest time, leaning against the doorjamb, staring at the neatly made bed, the night table that held no magazines, no books. It looked so lonely, his room. Lonely and desolate, just like this mausoleum of a house. How would it be possible for him to ever be happy here again?

And the realization that he was no longer comfortable in his own house, that he felt like a stranger that needed to tiptoe around, ignited the anger that had never really died—anger towards Red John for changing his life so completely, at himself for the same. At Lisbon for not telling him where Cho was, and a little bit at Cho as well, even though it was completely unfair. But Cho knew how much Jane needed him, didn’t he? He could at least call.

Still in that fugue of anger, he packed a suitcase full of clothing and his toiletries. He hurried downstairs and went through the refrigerator, throwing out the fruit and vegetables that were already rotten, putting the rest in a couple grocery bags. He called his security company to let them know he’d be gone for the foreseeable future, then made sure the doors and windows were shut tight. Loaded down, he left.

He was halfway to Cho’s when his cell rang. He fumbled for it and was more than disappointed when he saw it was only Lisbon. He thought about not answering, but knew she’d keep calling until she got worried enough to hunt him down. She was like a bulldog that way. He pressed talk and said cheerfully, “Checking up on me?”

“Like I don’t have better things to do. No, I just wanted to let you know that we have another case that I’d like you in on.”

“You’re joking?”

“No.”

“When it rains it pours.”

“So they say. Where are you?”

“On my way to Cho’s.”

She was silent for a long moment and then he heard a soft sigh. “Okay.”

“And I’ll probably be there from now on.”

“Does he know that?”

“Lisbon.”

“No, you’re right, it’s none of my business.”

“But?”

“Nothing, really. It’s just…”

“What?”

And her voice changed, became light. “Funny enough, I’m happy for you.”

He shifted in his seat. “Well, thanks. I guess.”

“Do you want to meet me at the office or at the scene?”

“Where is it?”

“Salinas.”

“Office.”

“I’ll be there in five.”

“’Bye.” He closed the phone but not before he checked messages again, just in case. There were none, of course.

So, he’d meet Lisbon and when he was done, he’d go back to Cho’s. Then he’d clear out space in the bureau, the closet, the medicine chest. And if Cho objected in any way, well, Jane would just hold him down and make love to him until he saw reason.

_________________

 

Cho pressed ‘end’ and placed the cell back on the table but it was too late—Van Pelt turned from the bar and saw him.

By the time she sat down and handed him the beer, he had his excuse ready. He didn’t need it. “Wrong number?” she asked innocently.

“Yes.”

Van Pelt simply nodded even though she clearly didn’t believe him. “Cheers.” He held up her glass.

He tipped his bottle to her. “Cheers.”

She was wearing a dark blue sweater tonight and her hair was loose on her shoulders. She looked beautiful—several of the other diners thought so as well and Cho wondered if he’d have to do something about the guy at the bar. He’d been looking back and forth between them ever since they sat down, probably wondering if she and Cho were on a date, if she were available.

At least, he thought with surprise, he hoped it was Van Pelt that had caught the guy’s interest. He was dark-haired, tall and built like linebacker—definitely not Cho’s type.

Van Pelt raised her eyebrows. “What’s so funny?”

Cho wiped the stupid grin off his face and said, “What?”

She shook her head at her glass of wine. “Nothing.”

She’d said the same thing more than once that evening, had made offhand comments that she’d never finished. Cho knew what she was working up to and he’d silently told her to back off each time. He knew that besides Lisbon, she was the most closed-mouth and trustworthy of the team, but still—

He took a sip of beer, then said, “Did you have any trouble?”

“You mean on our second shopping excursion?” Her voice was as dry as dust. “No. What about you?”

Cho shook his head. He’d spent another day at the hotel while most of the guests went sightseeing again. This time Luckner had placed him inside in case he had a chance to do a subtle recon on Evans. Which he hadn’t because Evans had spent the day outside, skimming the dead leaves off the pool and sweeping the paths. “I got a message from Lisbon.”

Van Pelt’s face brightened. “Yeah?”

“They’ve been busy. They caught a would-be bomber yesterday and this morning they investigated a murder-suicide.”

“Wow, that’s a lot in two days.”

“Yeah.” And, before she could turn the conversation to more personal matters, he asked, “Did you buy anything?”

“When?”

“While you were out. Today.”

Van Pelt’s face cleared and she grinned. “No. Lisbon would kill me if I bought something on company time. But, wow, do those ladies know how to shop. I’ve never seen anybody buy so much in so little time.”

“They’re probably already bored out of their minds.”

Van Pelt shook her head. “No, I don’t think it’s that. I mean, Mrs. Salvi, yeah, but the others seem genuinely glad to be here. Mrs. Aakjaer, for example was telling the others that if her husband thought she was going to spend the entire two weeks shopping and sitting around, then he had another thing coming. They’re really invested in this project.” She leaned forward. “Imagine it—a cure for pneumonia. I looked it up; did you know that pneumonia kills millions of people each year.”

“No, I didn’t know that.”

She sat back. “Well, it does. It’s a little shocking. I mean in this day and age and all. Mrs. Kim and Mrs. Mahir both said they come from very small towns that were recently devastated by some sort of strain of pneumonia.”

Cho had to smile. Mostly at her combined enthusiasm and naiveté, but because Lisbon had been right, as usual—Van Pelt was getting too involved in the attendees’ lives. “How was working with Luckner? Still have a crush on him?”

She rolled her eyes. “Please. It isn’t a crush—he’s just an interesting man, that’s all.”

“I guess.”

“Well, you’re a guy, you can’t under—” She stopped short and blushed violently.

He waited for her to say something, but her embarrassment grew and he could only sit there and stare. He was reminded of Katie from the Paul Frick case—he’d been just as surprised when she burst into tears, equally unsure what to do. In an effort to jump over the awkward moment, he said abruptly, “How are the other agents?”

Van Pelt gulped her wine, then said, “Agent LaSalle is okay. He’s from Pennsylvania. Agent Martinez has a stick up her butt.”

Cho snorted, not really sure what Pennsylvania had to do with anything, not really surprised by Van Pelt’s assessment. Agent Martinez had indeed turned out to be an overly aggressive. Not a bad thing in their line of work, though.

Van Pelt looked down at the table and shook her head. “That was mean. It’s just that…” She searched for the words. “I get that they’re with the FBI and have been agents a lot longer than me, but still—”

“What did she say to you?”

Van Pelt actually huffed. “She said my good white coat was inappropriate and that when we have a detail in San Moritz, then I can dress like I’m doing a photo shoot for Vogue. Like I would. Do a photo shoot for Vogue, I mean.”

Cho grinned again and was about to make a comment that maybe Martinez was just jealous of Van Pelt’s height when Van Pelt glanced over his shoulder. Her indignant looked faded to a frown and she pushed her wine glass away. He didn’t have to guess who was coming their way. They’d chosen this very expensive restaurant specifically to avoid Michaels and Jameson—it looked like their ruse hadn’t worked. He said quietly, “Do you want to leave?”

She shook her head determinedly. “No. We got here first. But if he says one more mean thing about Jane—” She broke off and smiled over Cho’s shoulder. “Hi guys.”

Cho leaned back and nodded to Michaels, then to Jameson as they came into view. They were still dressed for work and he thought again that Michaels really had horrible taste in ties. This one was a broad blue plaid with little yellow diamonds shapes in the center of each cross section. It was so ugly, it was almost mesmerizing.

He’d have to remember to tell Jane—he’d get a kick out of it. And then he remembered that he was missing Jane like crazy and it wasn’t a good thing, thinking about Jane while Michaels was anywhere nearby.

Michaels sat down with a grunt. “Cho. Van Pelt.”

“John. Frank.” Cho nodded to Jameson and wasn’t surprised when he got nothing in return. There’d been a bet, when he’d first joined the unit, to guess how many words Jameson would say in a given day when not on a case. He had won with twenty-six—he was off by two. Still, Jameson was a good agent and an excellent shot. If it weren’t that he was Michaels’ partner, he and Cho would probably get along.

Michaels looked around. “You guys order?”

Van Pelt nodded. “A while ago. It’s really crowded isn’t it? You’d think that nine-thirty was too late for people to eat.”

Michaels leaned his elbows on the table and smiled thinly. “That’s because you’re a little country mouse and used to country ways.”

“Michaels,” Jameson murmured.

Michaels shrugged and said reluctantly, “Yeah, all right. Sorry, Van Pelt.”

He and Van Pelt traded glances—he tried to remember the last time Michaels apologized for anything and couldn’t. “When’s your next shift?” He already knew, but anything for neutral conversation—he never lasted more than thirty minutes in Michaels’ presence without getting irritated. Maybe with Jane out of the picture, he’d make it to forty.

“Six-thirty. Yours?”

“Same.”

Michaels grunted. “I like the overtime, but what a waste, guarding a bunch of tree huggers. Hey,” he called out to a passing waiter, “can me and my friend get what he’s having?” He pointed to Cho’s beer and added, “We also need a couple menus.” The waiter nodded and hurried off.

Van Pelt rested her arms on the table and waited for Michaels to turn back before saying, “They’re not tree huggers. They just want to have a better future for their countries and they want to help eradicate a disease that kills millions of people each year.” She straightened up and said primly, “I think it’s noble.”

Cho smiled into his beer.

“Noble shmoble,” Michaels sneered. “They come here and spend money like it’s going out of style. Conference, my left nut. This is more like a fucking vacation for them.”

So much for neutrality. Cho sat his beer down and asked in mock wonder, “You just can not do it, can you?”

Michaels frowned. “Can’t do what?”

“Make a fool of yourself. I’ve known you for five years and I can’t remember one time where you didn’t act like an ass.” He shrugged. “At least you’re consistent.”

While Michaels sputtered, Cho looked at Van Pelt and jerked his head. “Feel like picking up a burger somewhere?”

She got her purse and stood in a flash. “Please.”

Cho downed the last of his beer. “I need to make a phone call, first.” He was reaching for his cell when Michaels whispered, intentionally loud, “Going to call your boyfriend?”

Cho hesitated, but so briefly he hoped no one noticed. He turned away and nodded to Van Pelt. She’d paused at Michaels’ words, but when Cho looked at her, she followed him, her lips pressed tight with anger.

He stopped at the entrance and told the hostess they had to leave—he tried to pay for the dinner they hadn’t eaten, but she refused, saying the meal wouldn’t go to waste.

When they got out to the parking lot he called Lisbon and left her a brief message that things were going well and he’d call back in the morning.

He didn’t speak until they were in their rental car, on Cabrillo going south. “I’m not sure where anything is around here.”

“I asked the concierge, earlier. There’s an In-N-Out about a mile from here, straight down Cabrillo.”

He grinned despite himself. “You hate that kind of food. Why do you always know where the nearest fast food restaurant is?”

“Habit. Rigsby is always hungry.”

It was a strangely sad comment and they were both quiet again until they’d pulled into the driveway of the In-N-Out and Van Pelt said cautiously, “Cho?”

“Yes?”

“Do you miss them?”

“The team?”

She nodded.

“Yes.”

She sighed, as if relieved at his admission. “Me too.”

And except for minor exchanges that Cho forgot the second they were made, that’s all they said for the rest of the evening.

***

They got back to the hotel at ten-thirty. Cho saw Van Pelt to her door and took the long way back to his rooms. He did a quick security sweep of the suite and found nothing. He checked the hotel message service—Luckner wanted to meet at six to go over Monday’s agenda. He set the alarm for five.

He hesitated, then took off his jacket, shoes and socks and went out onto the deck. He sat on the broad wall and drew one knee up to his chest.

His room was in the southwest corner of the property. To the front and left was the high white wall that blocked most of the view—it was probably the room they stuck the least important guests, but he didn’t care. It was private and quiet and if you stood in the right place, you could see the ocean. He couldn’t see much now. Just a bare slice of horizon and through the space in the wall, a couple strolling hand in hand. He hoped they weren’t part of Wallach’s crew—they had strict orders to be back at the hotel by ten. It was the one thing Luckner hadn’t budged on and he’d raise hell if someone disobeyed his order.

But Cho wasn’t going to worry about that now. He was off the clock and his time was his own. He rubbed the back of his neck, trying to get the muscles to relax. If Jane were here, he would just go up to him and turn his back. Jane had great hands, strong and warm and he always knew just where to touch, where to press.

And this time, when he thought of Jane, imagined his smile and blue eyes, he didn’t push the image away as he’d been doing all day—he welcomed it eagerly.

As Van Pelt had said a few days ago, Jane would love it here. He’d get a kick out of the gardens, the guests, the beach. Especially the beach and Cho squinted out into the dark, picturing him out there, near the water’s edge.

But no, dark didn’t work, not for Jane. Instead, it would be bright with light and Jane would be barefoot because the first thing he’d do when he hit the sand would be to take off his shoes and socks. And then he’d take off his jacket and roll his pants up to his shins.

Only that didn’t work, either, even though he had seen Jane do that very thing, so he changed the picture to Jane in khakis and an open white shirt, and yeah, that was it…

Because Jane would be flushed from the sun, his pants riding low on his hips. He’d be playing with the surf, laughing as the cold water rushed over his toes, up his ankles. Cho would walk up to him, around him, and tackle him. Down they’d go, Jane on his back, Cho on top. And He would take his time positioning himself just so, knees and toes planted deep in the soft, crumbling sand.

Always the prodder and pusher, Jane would spread his arms wide, daring Cho to do something to him out on this very public beach where anyone could walk by. When he took Jane up on his challenge, when he bent for a kiss, Jane would open up and take him in, his mouth as hot as the sun, as the sand, and perfectly, perfectly Cho’s. He’d be laughing a little, because he was always happy when they had sex, and he’d push Cho’s clothes off first, then his own and they’d be naked and Cho wouldn’t even have to ask, Jane would spread his legs wide and Cho would move in and somehow, magically, he’d be deep inside like he’d always wanted only never had…

Cho wrenched his mind back to the present, took a shaky breath and quickly looked around. No one was there, of course, no one saw him grab the muscles of his calf, fists curled tight around wool and flesh. And no one heard his sharp breaths, the soft groan he hadn’t been able to stifle.

He looked around again, then tilted his head to the night sky. He drew another deep breath as he stared up at the black, trying to calm his racing heart. It was no use. Even before he’d finished with the second breath, he was up off the wall, striding into the bedroom. He grabbed his jacket, got out his phone and was dialing before the jacket hit the bed.

The call went to Jane’s voice mail and this time he didn’t hang up. He waited for the beep and then said, “Hi. It’s me. Cho.” Idiot, of course he knows it’s you. “I just wanted to say hi. And see how things are. Going, I mean. I talked to Lisbon. She says you guys have been busy. I hope everything’s all right and you’re—” Being good and not pissing anyone off and getting hurt. Missing me as much as I’m missing you. “Anyway, just wanted to say hi. I’ll call tomorrow. When I can.”

He hung up before he could make any more of a fool of himself than he already had. He thought about calling back and seeing if he could somehow delete the message, but no, he didn’t have the access code. He might be able to call Jane’s service, though, and use his rank to get the code…

With a snort of disgust, he tossed the phone on the bed and locked the French doors. He stripped off his clothes and hurried to the bathroom. He turned on the shower, got in and jerked off to the image of fucking Jane on the beach.

It wasn’t until after he was out, drying off, that he realized that there was no good reason for Jane not to pick up. He was a light sleeper—he always heard the phone. And always answered it, even if it was an unknown number, even if it meant waking Cho in the process.

He walked to the bed and looked down at the cell and touched it lightly. If he called Lisbon to check up on Jane, at best she’d laugh at him, at worst she’d order him to get himself under control. Neither was acceptable, so he finished drying off, then went to bed.

_________________

(Monday)

… ‘Anyway, just wanted to say hi. I’ll call tomorrow, when I can.’ Jane hit replay and listened to the message a second time, holding the phone tight to his ear because Cho’s elevator was so noisy. “Hi. It’s me. Cho…”

When he got to the third floor, he saved the message and looked at the time stamp. Twelve past eleven—almost six hours ago, and Cho would most likely still be in bed, at least for another hour or so.

Jane would love to return the call immediately, love to wake Cho up because his voice was especially sexy when he was half asleep. Only…

He hesitated, then decided not. Cho’s voice had been low, breathy, almost as if he’d been running, only who would run at eleven o’clock at night? Cho had crazy exercise habits, but even he wouldn’t be out that late. And if he’d been busy, maybe he’d try to sleep in.

It was just as well, Jane conceded as he managed to unlock the door without having to swear at it—he was exhausted, too tired to do anything but eat and go to bed.

He sat the phone on the table by the door and started for the kitchen. The idea of cooking actually made him more tired, but he had to eat, if only to appease Lisbon. When she’d dropped him off in the parking lot, she’d leaned over and implored him, ‘To eat something andnot just donuts Jane, because that’s not a real breakfast. Where were you raised? In a 7-11? ‘

He opened the refrigerator, poked around, then closed it again. Like he’d been planning all along, he headed straight for the couch and fell on it. He turned on his side and stuffed a pillow under his head.

One of these days he was going to drag Cho to the mall to get different pillows—these were covered with little knots of yarn and they left matching dots on his cheek every time he used them. It made him look like he had a skin disease. Like the guy that played the mafia boss on that television show he hated so much. He smiled at his reflection in the blank TV. And then his smile died as one thought led to another, as he remembered what he’d been doing for the last six hours.

He was starting to regret the ‘never rains but it pours’ comment because as if the words had some magic power, a seemingly criminal floodgate had opened up and out came the worst of the worst, for the third day in a row.

The latest, a gang initiation misidentified by the locals as a mafia-style hit, had taken them to the Salinas Valley, a place Jane had never visited before and one he wasn’t eager to return. Lisbon hadn’t needed him even though she’d insisted on his presence. He trailed behind her, bored, watching as a crowd of Federal agents figured out what he’d surmised ten minutes in—that the victim, one Joseph Thomas Robertson, had the bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Still, the wrap-up had taken hours.

Jane had whiled away the time in Lisbon’s SUV, leaving message after message on Cho’s old cell number. The presumably not working cell number. He fell asleep around ten-thirty, then woke up again when Lisbon opened the car door and told him they were done. When he got back to the loft, he was furious to find that though his cell had been in his pocket all along, he’d slept though Cho’s call. Which was typical for the way things were going.

Because he was at a standstill in his own investigation. On Sunday he’d tried to corner Minelli near the elevators, but after giving him a rather arch smile, Minelli told him it was his day off and he wasn’t really there. And then simply walked around Jane.

Jane turned up the heat on Lisbon, which got him exactly nowhere. The only thing he’d gotten out of her was a side mention to Rigsby that ‘the others’ would be back in a little over a week and she was sorry he was having to put in all the overtime.

So… A week wasn’t that long. Balanced against the sum total of an average life, a week was nothing. But as the hours had crawled by in that SUV, two things had become perfectly clear: That his day-old epiphany was even more, well, epiphanic. That he was in so deep that even just the thought of Cho set up an ache in his stomach, in his chest.

And the second, something even more disturbing because he’d only just become aware of it, was that the events of the last few days had been slowly rearranging themselves in his head and a pattern was emerging. Nothing clear, nothing concrete, just a vague impression of meaning, like a landscape seen through a steam-fogged piece of glass.

It wasn’t anything he could point to definitively and say, this is what is happening, but he felt it nonetheless. Just as he had so many times before while working for the CBI, just as he had in the past when he’d sifted through the aggregate of a client’s life, picking and choosing in order to guide them to the healing center. Or what they thought was the healing center.

This new thing, it was there, just out of reach and he rubbed forehead as if that would clear his mind and make the hidden known. It didn’t, of course, but the more he thought about it, the worse the feeling got, cold and grim, as if all these murders were being committed simply to—

He shot up off the couch, almost tripping over the coffee table in his haste to get his phone. He grabbed it, punching in the numbers quickly, not wanting to bother with the speed dial. Before she’d even finished her greeting, he broke in, “Lisbon, tell me this isn’t you.”

“What the— Jane, I was sound asleep. What the hell are you talking about, of course it’s me.”

He rubbed his forehead again. “No, not that, sorry. These murders. Promise me that you aren’t behind them.”

Something clattered in the background and then Lisbon came back, voice high with disbelief, “Jane, are you asking me if I murdered these people, because if you are—”

“No, no! That’s not what I’m asking. I’m just—” He hurried to the kitchen and sat down. “What I’m asking is, are you arranging that the CBI is notified of these murders so we’ll investigate? To keep us busy?”

There was a long pause that he barely noticed. The pattern was becoming clearer, it’s edges solidifying into fact and if he was right— “Lisbon?”

“I’m here.”

Her voice was cold and stony and he realized he’d made a mistake. She was as surprised as he. “I’m sorry, truly. I was being stupid, but I think there’s something going on here. I’m sorry,” he repeated because she still hadn’t said anything.

“What do you think is happening?” she said slowly.

“All these murders, one after another. Doesn’t that strike you as odd?”

“No.”

“Sacramento and the surrounding counties had forty-eight murders last year. That’s four per month, or one every week.”

“I don’t even want to know why you know that fact, but your logic is faulty. If you take into account that violent crimes occur more in the summer than winter and you graphed it out, you’d see the bulk of those murders happened within a relatively short period of time, probably in a very short period of time. In other words, normal.”

Jane hit the tabletop, even though she couldn’t see. “No Lisbon, this is wrong. We can go over every day of the last year and I’ll bet you any amount of money that we won’t find three murders right in a row, in three consecutive days, that require the very specials skills of the CBI.”

“Any amount of money?” But her voice had grown faint and distracted—he’d hooked her. He heard a hollow clang of metal—she was probably getting up to make coffee. He should feel guilty for waking her, but he didn’t—this was too important. She’d be getting up in a couple hours anyway. “So what you’re telling me is… What are you telling me?”

“That someone is deliberately staging these murders to keep us busy.”

“Why would anyone want to tie up the department like that, Jane? It’s crazy.”

“Not the department, Lisbon. Me. For some reason, they want to keep me busy, they want to keep me here.”

She almost laughed. “Your arrogance is beyond belief, you know that?”

“So you’ve said on numerous occasions. It doesn’t mean I’m wrong.”

“You’re telling me that someone is randomly killing people just to give you job security?”

“It’s not that and statistics don’t lie. They can’t. It’s the only thing that makes sense.”

“No, it’s not the only thing that makes sense. If you gave me thirty minutes, I could give you thirty different reasons. Thirty better reasons.”

“So you don’t believe me?”

“No, I don’t. It’s insane. Why would anyone go to those lengths, run the risks they’re running, tell me that.”

“You know the answer.”

“Jane, if you’re right, then the Sullivans were killed for nothing, Mr. Wilson was murdered for nothing, and I—” She choked off whatever she was going to say. Jane could almost see her shaking her head back and forth, her green eyes hard and resolute. “No, no, no. This has nothing to do with the conference.”

Well, if nothing else came from this conversation, at least he now knew that Cho and Van Pelt were at a conference. “Yes it does. It’s too great a coincidence and you know how I feel about those.”

“No, I don’t. One day you believe in them, then next you don’t. And how do I know you’re not murdering these people yourself, just to convince me it’s someone else so I’ll tell you where Cho is?”

“Lisbon,” he rebuked quietly, even he was a little proud of her for going that route. He would have suspected himself at least a day ago.

“Damnit, all right, that’s even more crazy than your crazy theory.” She hesitated, then said slowly, regretfully, “I’m not convinced. It’s too farfetched.”

Jane shrugged his shoulders wishing she were in front of him so he could look deep into her eyes and persuade her. “If I’m right, then someone else will die, probably later on today.”

“You’re not right, Jane.”

“We’ll see.”

“Yes, we will. Go get some sleep. You need it.” And with that, she hung up.

Jane pressed ‘end’ and sat the phone carefully on the table, then spun in a circle, thinking hard. As they’d talked, the feeling had grown tenfold and he knew he was right even though all the missing details were keeping him from seeing the truth. If he knew where the hell Cho was, the picture would be complete. He touched the phone—he could call Lisbon back, use that to convince her to tell him.

But she would take one look at the caller I.D. and ignore the call.

He frowned and reached for Cho’s note, still laying in the middle of the table. He read it once more, then folded it into a neat square and tucked it into his pocket. He looked at the clock. It was a little after six and Lisbon was right—he needed sleep.

This time he bypassed the couch and went straight to the bedroom. He changed into his pajamas, crawled under the sheets and turned on his side. He hesitated one small moment, then grabbed Cho’s pillow and pulled it to him.

_________________

Cho pushed another low hanging branch out of his way while hesidestepped a rose bush. For the sake of security, the landscaping service had been given two weeks off and it showed. Bushes and trees were already growing over the paths; leaves and blooms littered the ground. It was if the plant life had jumped at the chance to go wild, knowing no one would do anything about it. It was picturesque but also a little claustrophobic.

But maybe that was just the pressure he was feeling—a pressure that seemed to be growing every hour and it made him crazy, the idea that he was sensing doom, of all things—that was Jane’s thing, not his. He had no real reason for the worry. Other than his gut instinct that said that Evans was up to something.

Just that morning, he had searched what he could of the hotel, thinking he might find something out of place. When he came up with nothing, he requested permission to search Evans’s room—Luckner had refused, categorically.

Van Pelt still believed him—she’d offered to interview the staff and he thanked her but told her to be cautious. He didn’t want it getting back to Luckner that they were circumventing his authority, because he just wasn’t sure. And he hated not being sure. If Jane were here—

He pressed his lips tight, strangling the thought before it could fully form, and turned to go the long way around the pool.

Unlike the past few days, it had been a quiet day. The party mood of the weekend had dissipated completely and the scientists, when he saw them, were focused, serious. The conference had started at eight sharp and except for a short break at ten, they were still going at it, four hours later.

The spouses had assembled at the plaza at noon. Cho had smiled to see Mr. Zaharoff and Mr. Kim make a beeline for each other, leaving the women to gather in small groups. Some things were universal, it seemed, and men were men. If there were a TV nearby, no doubt they’d be sitting in front of it.

His two-way crackled and he touched the mic. “Yes?”

“Inspector Blount and I are on the plaza—can you meet us there?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And…” Luckner hesitated a long moment and the tension that had been riding Cho’s shoulders increased. “On your way, keep a look out for Mathias Evans.”

“Is he missing?”

“No, we just want to be careful.”

“Very well, sir.”

“Thank you.”

He found them on the far side of the fountain, some distance away from the crowd of women. And just by body language alone he could see that they were having a disagreement.

Luckner waved him over. As soon as he was close, he said in hushed tones, “Agent Cho, I just wanted to inform you that Inspector Blount and I have been digging a little deeper into the Evans situation.”

“And?”

Blount shook his head. “And nothing. I’ve talked to the man himself. I can find nothing out of the ordinary.”

Luckner shot a quick look at Blount. “That doesn’t mean we’re discounting your suspicions, it just means that for now we’re at a dead end.”

He nodded. And then, when his frustration got the better of him,  asked, “You called me in to tell me that?”

Blount raised his eyebrows but Luckner cracked a smile. “Yes, you’re right, we could have easily just radioed it in. The fact is, your seed of doubt has taken root and in my digging I found something else.” He shot another look at Blount and this time Blount shifted uneasily and looked away.

“It’s nothing,” Blount muttered, “you yourself said not ten minutes ago that no one has a perfect past.”

He ignored Blount and asked, “What did you find?”

Luckner stuck his hands in his pockets and for a brief, sharp moment, he was reminded of Jane. “Nothing, really. For the last fifteen years Evans worked as a pastry chef in San Francisco. He moved south when he had a sexual harassment suit filed against him. He floated around, working various jobs until last year when he applied at this hotel for the position of a lower level cook. I think Bryant said a sauce cook, whatever that is.”

‘Saucier,’ Cho thought, but didn’t say.

“The hotel didn’t hire him. So he moved onto a Starbucks until two weeks ago when he re-applied by e-mail for the position of general staff. She turned him down. When Mr. Gaiter went missing a few days ago, Bryant e-mailed Evans and hired him on the spot.”

It took him a minute to remember who Gaiter was. “This Gaiter—who is he, exactly?”

Luckner took his hands out of his pockets and rubbed them together. Cho’s chest tightened—he didn’t need Jane to point out it was a gesture someone made when they were unsure or nervous. “Robert Gaiter was a long-time employee of the hotel. He’s the only one that had been retained when the previous staff was fired, other than the head chef. Bryant says it’s because he was a friend of the owners.”

“And he’s still missing?”

“Yes, but as I said in the briefing, apparently that’s not unusual—he’s got a girlfriend in Berkley and he takes off once in a while to see her. Bryant wanted to fire him, but the owners told her no.”

“Where does he live?”

“When he’s not here, he’s got a place in Pacific Grove. I sent LaSalle over there yesterday. He talked to the neighbors—no one has noticed anything unusual and his car is missing. They didn’t seem worried.”

He looked out over the patio, muttering, “He doesn’t look like a pastry chef.”

“What was that?”

He turned to Blount and looked at him steadily. Blount had about five inches and about sixty pounds on him. “Does Evans look like a pastry chef to you?”

“What does a pastry chef look like, Agent Cho?”

“Not like Evans,” he said quietly, firmly.

Blount smiled falsely. “Agent Cho, I appreciate your concern, but we’ve done the research and there’s nothing to say that Evans isn’t who he says he is. I’ve talked to him myself and can find no trace of the accent that you say is there.”

He crossed his arms across his chest. “And it doesn’t seem suspicious that the one man that could identify Evans, the first Evans, has gone missing?”

Blount sighed. “Not especially, no. And before you ask it, the hotel doesn’t keep photographic records of their applicants.”

“What about Starbucks?”

Luckner glanced at Blount. “Do you mean in case they might have a photograph of Evans in their employee records?”

“Yes.”

Luckner paused, then said slowly. “I don’t know. I can ask, but I don’t know if it’s policy and there might be some privacy issues.”

“And if it’s up to the individual shops, well then, we might be out of luck. I know of at least ten within a five mile radius,” Blount said dryly, then added, “We don’t even know which Starbucks it is.”

“Ask him.”

Blount’s face darkened and Luckner held his hand up as if to say wait. “We will, Agent Cho, but if Evans is lying as you say he is, then he could just say he worked for a store that closed down.”

Cho put his hands on his hips. The pressure in his chest was increasing and he wished he could loosen his tie. “Can you ask the hotel manager to fire him or at least give him a leave of absence?”

“I already did,” Luckner said patiently. “She insists on keeping him on, as I said before. She says that without any sort of concrete evidence, Evans could sue and she won’t risk that. Between you and me, I think she feels sorry for him.”

He ignored that. “I suppose you won’t let me have a crack at him?”

“Under what guise?” Blount broke in.

“Under the guise that I know he’s up to something and I want to find out what it is.”

“And what would be the point?”

His mouth dropped open and for the first time he wondered if Blount was out of his element on this one. “We’d be able to confirm he’s who he says his is. If I could just have five minutes with him, or at least get into his apartment—”

“You’d need a warrant,” Luckner broke in.

“Yes, sir.”

“No judge will hand you one on such flimsy evidence.”

If Lisbon were with him, she’d already be on the phone, convincing Minelli. He added her to the short list of people he was missing like crazy. “Yes sir.”

Blount and Luckner stared at Cho for a long, long minute, then Luckner nodded slowly. “I’ll tell you what—I’ll ask David to follow up on getting some sort of photo. Maybe from a passport or the San Francisco DMV. The hotel’s computer is still acting up, so it might take a couple days, but we’ll find him.”

“Yes, sir.” Cho nodded and didn’t bother saying that by then it might be too late. If Luckner had half the experience Cho assumed he had, he knew the odds.

“And Cho?”

“Yes, sir?”

“Why don’t you take the afternoon off. We’ve got the entire crew here, and you’re probably sick of walking the grounds.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Just let me know if you go off the property.”

Cho jerked a nod to Luckner and Blount and left, walking quickly.

He thought about calling Van Pelt to see if she was free and then decided that a run on the beach by himself was the only thing that would get rid of the bad taste in his mouth.

He texted his plan in to Luckner, got changed was on the sand in ten minutes. He skipped his usual warm-up and started off at a fast clip, heading south.

Unlike the days before, the beach was almost deserted. Only the family from Saturday was there, up on a dune, eating their lunch. The mother smiled at him as he ran by; he nodded back. About two miles on, an older couple was walking along line where dry sand met wet; he ran around them, one foot landing in the surf.

The shock of the cold choked a grin out of him and his shoulders and fists relaxed. His body was loosening up, his anger bleeding out. He checked the time, then picked up the pace, forgetting everything but the need to move.

***

He ran four miles out, three and a half back, stopping within sight of the hotel to walk the rest of way.

He never once in his career shirked his duty, but now he wanted to do anything but go back to that enclosed paradise. The freedom of the run was fading, bit by bit and he could almost feel the suit he would put on later, feel the weight and the binding.

He stopped and said a mental ‘screw it.’ Luckner had said afternoon, so he’d take the afternoon. He thought about going back in for his stakeout book, but two hundred year-old revolutions didn’t seem as exciting today. No, he’d stay out here for a while, then visit the hotel’s barber. Never mind the expense—he was going to get a haircut and his nails trimmed.

He pulled off his wet t-shirt and wiped the sweat off his face. Then he turned his back on the hotel and sat in the sand and took off his shoes and socks.

The view was limited today. The sun was out, but a heavy fog was rolling in and the only ships he could see were the small rentals from the Marriott that was further up the coast. To his left, the family had finished with lunch and the kids were playing tag. The littlest one, a boy, had a bucket and was shoveling sand in it, laughing all the while.

Like clockwork, Cho’s mind turned to Jane. He remembered how it had been last year during the case of the Snotty Kids, as Rigsby still called it, when Jane had ditched them for the beach, dropping where he stood, completely at ease, as if a grown man in a three-piece suit, lolling about in the sand was a normal occurrence.

But that was Jane for you—no worries about social conventions, always responding to the moment like a kid.

A runner crossed Cho’s field of vision and they nodded to each other, Cho, a little absently—he was still caught up in the memory of Jane, stretched out on the sand.

He wrapped his arms around his legs and closed his eyes. He wished Lisbon were on the case. He wished he could get Jane’s opinion on Evans. Mostly he wished he were there, with them, and not here.

_________________

“Will the laptop be all, sir?”

“Hmm?” John looked up from the camera he was studying. He really didn’t need it, but it was new and pretty and that was enough for him. “Is the memory already installed?”

“Yes, sir, I took care of that personally.” The clerk leaned closer as he spoke and John choked back his smile. The boy was barely out of his teens, on the homely side of gangly, the blue of his polo shirt clashing horribly with his red hair. It seemed even geeks could be gay. Gay geeks. They probably had their own Facebook or MySpace page or something.

Reminding himself that he was hardly one to point fingers, he said, “I’ll take this as well.”

“With the extra memory?”

“Please.”

The boy smiled again and John could practically see him totting up the commission. “I can install that for you now. If you’re free, that is.”

“No, it’s not necessary. It’s a present. For a friend.”

The boy read the subtle message and his face fell. “Yes, sir.” He rummaged under the counter and brought out the camera. “Will that be cash or charge?”

John got out his wallet and opened it up. “Cash.” And when the boy’s eyebrows rose at the bills, John lied smoothly, “I only carry cash when I travel. The charges my bank imposes on credit are enormous these days.”

The boy blushed and stammered, “I’ll have to— I mean, it’s store policy—”

John waved a casual hand. “That’s fine. Run whatever tests you need. I understand.” He handed the boy eighteen hundred dollars and watched him hurry away to speak to the man at the back of the store.

John picked up the camera and turned it this way and that, not really seeing it. Instead, he was thinking about the agent he’d passed on the beach, just hours ago. Agent Kimball Cho, according to Mathew’s sloppy notes. Of the California Bureau of Investigation.

It had a nice professional ring to it although the man himself hadn’t looked much like a Federal agent, not out of the suit. Maybe a footballer or rugby player—something that would require strength, speed and good body control.

John had caught the agent’s trail a couple miles south of the hotel and followed, keeping a careful distance, entranced by the smooth, steady gait, the play of muscles clearly visible through the wet shirt.

It had been a chance, running in front of him like that, but John had made sure to keep his face averted until he was only a profile. In any case, he was wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses, almost de rigueur among American men of a certain age—no one would notice.

And it had been worth it. The agent was short, but very, very fit, and—John realized as he’d run by—much more attractive than the service photo Mathew had dug up. It was a shame to cover all that up in a suit.

John smiled at the memory and put the camera down and tapped it once, speculatively. Pretty, he thought. And new.

___________________

 

(Tuesday)

Jane woke up at noon, groggy from the late night, eyes burning because he’d forgotten to pull the blinds and the bright light hurt. He groaned and rolled to his side, back to the windows, pushing his face into the pillow that still smelled like Cho. He lay there thinking as the previous day came rushing back.

Lisbon was right—his theory was wild, even for him. He was making too many assumptions, the foremost being that the murders were being committed simply to keep him in town. But, as he’d told her, three murders in three days were unusual enough to be noteworthy.

If it was true, if someone was pulling them to keep him busy, well then, they’d have to have a very long reach or be part of a crew—no one man could do it all. The murders were practically on top of each other and far apart, location-wise. And that would require care and forethought, and both took time.

They could, of course, be the work of Red John, but Jane wouldn’t believe that until Red John invited him to tea and explained why he’d gone off base so thoroughly. It had to be the work of another person or persons.

So, if he was right, if someone was murdering people to keep him busy, why not just kidnap him and hold him hostage until the event was over? It would’ve saved time and worry and probably be cheaper as well. Of course, he would figure out who they were, eventually, because that’s what he did.

Or—he turned to his back and restlessly kicked off the sheets and comforter—they could have simply killed him. He carried no weapon, had no way to defend himself other than his wits. And Cho and Lisbon weren’t around 24/7. It would be relatively easy.

So, they weren’t interested in kidnapping him or killing him—which was gratifying if a little frustrating. Because that meant—

He turned over again, this time facing the window. He squinted as he tried to bring all the threads together so he could see the whole cloth.

To pull off the scheme, they’d either have to be a very fluid, very organized, or very lucky. Or both.

He scrubbed his hands over his face and decided that he wasn’t getting anywhere. And that he was hungry. He got up and changed into a pair of Cho’s pants and a t-shirt, just to piss him off when he found out about it, then went to make breakfast.

He made an omelet and ate it as he wandered around the loft, snooping into cupboards and drawers he hadn’t yet investigated.

Cho had an interesting collection of CDs. Van Halen, Billy Idol and Bruce Springsteen, Jane could understand, but Duran Duran? “What is up with that,” he muttered to himself as he slid the CD back where he’d found it.

Cho also had an interesting assortment of cookware, none of it new. Which meant he’d been holding out on Jane.

In regards to meals not breakfast, the only they’d eaten anything other than take-out had been about a month ago when Jane had gotten the urge for eggs at two in the morning. He’d had to make them himself because Cho had refused, saying Jane had worn him out and he was too damn tired.

Jane had made the eggs, sort of. Halfway into it, Cho had stumbled into the kitchen and caught Jane up against the countertop and then the table, saying that no one but Jane could scramble eggs while naked and still make it hot. The eggs had burned to an ungodly lump while they made love, but it had been worth it. Cho had been worth it.

It was a good memory but for some reason it made Jane cross and since it was no fun being cross alone, he decided to go to work.

***

He strolled into the office a little after three, still crabby, still hungry. Lisbon and Rigsby were standing by Cho’s desk, examining a sheet of paper. Lisbon looked up. Her entire face was stark and bleak; Jane’s heart sank.

***

“It was a bomb. At First National Bank. The terrorist said he was doing it for Zion and that he’d kill anyone who stopped him. He detonated the device before anyone could act. He got away. Forensics is there now. They say they have some promising leads, things the bomber left by accident but we won’t get that for a few hours.” Lisbon’s voice was hoarse and strained. She pushed the photo of her dog an inch to the right then back again. In the chaos after the explosion, she’d been on the phone and in meetings with the FBI, with Homeland Security for the last four hours and it showed.

Jane twisted the plastic rod that opened and closed the window blinds and shook his head. “No, that evidence was planted to lead us the wrong way. There won’t be anything we can use.” He sat down in front of her desk and waited.

It was a measure of Lisbon’s anger and grief that she didn’t bother with the usual, ‘You can’t possibly know that.’ She just looked at him and said quietly, “We’ll see.”

In the bullpen Rigsby shouted, “Got it!” and hurried into Lisbon’s office, flipping through his notebook as he sat down next to Jane.

Lisbon asked, “What’d you find out?”

“Jane was right.” Rigsby shot an apologetic glance Lisbon’s way. “I checked the Sullivan’s bank accounts and there was no cash withdrawn in the last two weeks and nothing huge in the last five months. They were well liked in the neighborhood and no one knew of any affair. The only conclusive thing was that Mrs. Sullivan told a neighbor that she was secretly planning a second wedding. I got the name of the caterer from the bank and confirmed it.”

Lisbon closed her eyes and ran her hands over her face and hair wearily. “Damnit, how did I miss that?”

Rigsby opened his mouth. Jane kicked his shin and shook his head. Rigsby gave him an offended frown. And then shut his mouth.

Lisbon, said with her hands pressed tight to her forehead, “And the first one, the fake bomber, Mr. Wilson?”

“I finally got in touch with his daughter. She’s just arrived for the funeral. She has no idea why he’d want to bomb anyone. She said he was never good at handyman stuff and was afraid of anything electrical—apparently, he’d been electrocuted when he was really young and it had freaked him out. He even used to get her mom, Mrs. Wilson, to change the light bulbs for him.”

“Anything else?’

“Just that he’d been looking forward to the Fourth of July party he held every year for the neighborhood kids. It’s a regular event and the whole neighborhood comes.”

Jane looked down at his hands. Red, white, and blue petunias, ready to be stuck in the ground for the big day. He felt sick.

“I suppose we already know the answer, but check with Homeland Security to see if they’ve found out how Wilson paid for the fertilizer and electronics. And check with the gang unit, tell them of our suspicions and see if they can look at the Salinas scene from that angle.”

“You won’t find anything,” Jane said, still looking at his hands. “On either accounts.”

“We’ll check anyway.”

Rigsby closed his book. “Have the media been notified that they were staged? The murders, I mean.”

Jane raised his head.

Lisbon was staring at them both with a burning gaze. “No, not yet, and they won’t. Not until we catch the bastards who did this.” She leaned back with a heavy sigh. “If they’re watching us, they might want that very thing. We’re not going to give it to them.”

“Lisbon, this wasn’t your fault,” Jane said quietly. He knew what her response would be, but maybe, later on when she was alone, she would remember what he’d said.

“Seven people just died a few hours ago, Jane. You warned me. Don’t tell me it’s not my fault.”

“I wouldn’t say I warned you, and anyway, if anyone is at fault, it’s me.” He leaned forward and reached for her hand. She let him take it to him which was startling enough, but when she didn’t pull away, he held on. Her eyes grew watery, but just for a moment. “I should have seen it earlier. I was—” Distracted, so focused on Cho and his betrayal that even I was caught by surprise.

She nodded as if he’d spoken aloud and didn’t pull away.

Rigsby cleared his throat, pointedly looking at their clasped hands. He had a small, knowing smile on his face and Jane wanted to tell him that he was so, so wrong, but that conversation would have to wait. He released Lisbon’s hand and sat back. “So now what?”

Lisbon straightened a stack of folders that didn’t need straightening. “Minelli is on his way in and Luckner hasn’t returned my call. We need to inform him right away and see if anything has happened on their end.”

Jane cocked his head. “No, what we need to do is get in a car and drive out to wherever Cho and Van Pelt are.”

“There are so many problems with that idea, I don’t even know where to start.”

Which was such classic Lisbon that Jane smiled and crossed his legs. “Name one.”

She held up her finger. “One. People are being killed in order to keep us or you away from some event. An event which, by the way, has national and international significance, and you want to trot out there and stick your head in the oven?”

Jane shrugged. “A more proper analogy would be Daniel going into the lion’s den, but—”

Lisbon threw up her hands. “Jane, do me a favor, just—”

Whatever she was going to say or threaten or cajole was interrupted, thankfully, by her cell. She picked it up and snapped, “Lisbon.” Her face changed and she said, “Sorry sir, we’ve just— You heard? Good.”

Jane whispered, “Minelli?”

She shook her head and mouthed, Luckner, then said aloud,“Yes, sir, I’m sorr— No, I hadn’t heard.” She shot Jane a look he couldn’t interpret. “Yes, sir, we’ve come to a similar conclusion, although we’re thinking my team was split up for a reason.” She reached for the photo and nudged it again. “Yes, sir. My consultant, Patrick Jane, thinks the murders here in Sacramento were effected in order to keep him in the vicinity.”

Jane smiled at the growing formality of Lisbon’s speech. She always did that when faced with an authority figure, usually male.

She nodded and then shook her head, all in one motion. “We can be there by sev— Yes, sir, we’ll be at the airport in an hour.” This time the look she tossed Jane’s way was accusatory and he held his hands up—it wasn’t his fault that he was right. Lisbon nodded tightly. “Very well, he’ll be there as well.” And then she smiled slightly. “Thank you, sir, yes, he is and yes, I would like to talk to him.”

She leaned back in her chair and said, “Hey, how are you.” Her whole demeanor had changed, relaxed and open—she was talking to Cho. Jane’s heart jerked and he leaned forward before he could stop himself.

“No, we’re fine.” She frowned and listened for a long moment. “No, I hadn’t heard that part. Give it to me.” She motioned for Rigsby’s notebook and wrote quickly. Jane leaned over but her writing was shielded by her hair. “Gator as in the animal? With an ‘i’ and an… Yeah, got it. G.A.I.T.E.R.” She tossed the pen aside. “Yeah, Luckner told me. He also said you were doing an outstanding job at keeping everyone calm and focused.” She smiled again. “And maybe you should learn how to take a compliment.” She looked straight at Jane. “No, I wish I could say otherwise, but he’s fine.”

Jane reached out for the phone but she batted his hand away. “Do you want—? Yeah, okay, keep it short. We’re leaving in twenty minutes.” She laughed then, a little rusty, a little tired, but still a laugh. “No, I doubt that would work. Yes, tonight at the latest. Take care of yourself.” She made a face at Jane and handed him the phone.

He took it and waited with a raised eyebrow. She rolled her eyes and gathered up the papers, saying to Rigsby, “C’mon. Cho’s got a name for us. We’ll use your computer.”

Rigsby stood up, darting a puzzled look between Jane and Lisbon and followed her out. Jane waited until they were gone and the door shut, before he smiled into the phone. “Hey.”

There was a long pause and he wondered if they’d been disconnected when Cho answered softly, “Hey.”

And just the way his heart jerked again at the sound of Cho’s voice, just the way his palms started to sweat answered any suspicions he might have had left about the nature of his own feelings. “How are you?”

“Fine. Worried.”

“About me?”

“No. About Rigsby, you idiot.”

Jane got up and moved to Lisbon’s couch. He craned his head to examine the bullpen—Lisbon was standing over Rigsby with her back turned. He lay down. “I miss you.” When Cho didn’t answer, he asked, “Do you miss me? Where are you?”

“Hold on, give me a minute.” There was a series of muffled voices, a slam like a door closing, and then Cho was back on. “Sorry, it’s a mess here.” In the background Jane could hear a bird chirping and a rushing sound, like the ocean.

“Are you all right?”

“You already asked me that.”

“And I’m asking again now that you’re alone.”

Cho sighed and said, “Yes, I’m fine. I just wish…”

“What?”

“As crazy as it seems, I wish you were here.”

“I bet you do.”

“No, it’s not— I could really use your help. We don’t have enough agents and the scientists are all freaking out.”

Scientists. It was the first real clue Jane had gotten—Cho must be in a mild panic to let that slip out. Or what passed for a mild panic forhim. “What happened?”

“A camper found a body yesterday morning at Dunes State Park. He, the body, had been shoved into a drainage ditch.”

“Ouch. This would be the Gaiter that Lisbon mentioned?”

“Yes.”

“And he is?”

“The bellhop. We were told he’d skipped out of work to go see his girlfriend in Berkley. Forensics is down there now, but the Parks and Rec guys think the body’s been there for a while.”

“And all that leads to the next assumption: that one of the current staff members has gone missing.”

“Yes. We just found out that he never checked in for morning duty. The hotel manager, Bryant, didn’t tell us because she thought we would arrest him on sight.”

Cho’s voice had deepened with anger—Jane couldn’t wait to meet Bryant. “Which you’ll do anyway.”

“Yeah, she’s not too bright. They’re searching the grounds for him now.”

“I doubt you’ll find him. He’s most likely long gone.”

“Maybe.”

“What was he after?”

“Information, probably.” Cho hesitated, then he said gruffly, “Lisbon and Rigsby are flying out. I suppose if I asked…”

Jane sat up, his face hardening into a frown. “No, I won’t stay behind, so you can forget that right now.”

Cho sighed. “I figured. I told Lisbon that she should tie you up.”

Jane smiled and choked back a comment regarding Cho and ropes. “So,” he cleared his throat, reluctant to end the call that was already too long. “I guess you have to get back to work.”

“Yeah, Luckner is standing by the door, giving me the evil eye.”

“Do you want me to bring Tamsin’s ashes?”

“Don’t.”

Cho’s response was more tired than annoyed and Jane wanted to apologize, to say that he was sorry for teasing him. There was a tap on the glass and he looked up. Lisbon was at the door, pointing to her watch. “Just as well—Lisbon’s here, pointing at her watch.”

“Okay.”

“Yeah.”

Jane cleared his throat again. “Cho?”

“Yes?”

“Don’t—” Get hurt or killed, not now, not while I’m still angry at you, not when I haven’t told you… He cleared his throat and said, “I’ll see you soon.”

“Yeah,” Cho said quietly, “see you soon.”

It took him a few tries to find the disconnect button—he was going to need glasses soon, something he’d been trying not to think about. Then he got up and went outside. Without a word, he handed the phone to Lisbon, smiled at Rigsby, and followed them to the elevators.

 

_________________

 

Cho strode across the deserted patio, surveying as he went. The guests had been cleared out only an hour ago, but already it had a lonely air, as if it hadn’t felt a single footstep in a very long time.

He shook his head at his overblown thoughts and gave the area one last look before going inside.

Luckner was at the reception desk, still talking to Bryant. She was still crying, obviously frightened, and kept grabbing Luckner’s arm.

She hadn’t believed them when they told her that Gaiter was dead, hadn’t believed them when they found Evans was missing. Cho was starting to wonder if she actually needed to see Gaiter’s decomposed body or hear Evans’s confession before she’d admit she’d been wrong.

He stood off to the side, waiting for Luckner to finish. Across the room, LaSalle was in position by the main entrance. Michaels had the exterior front and Jameson was in the back, patrolling the grounds. He didn’t know where Martinez and Van Pelt were—probably working on the computer. Martinez, it turned out, was her department’s Van Pelt, and they and Luckner’s assistant had been with Bryant most of the day, going over the computer records.

As much good as it would do them. What they really needed was Evans.

Cho shifted from foot to foot as the frustration he’d been tamping down all day got the better of him. If only he’d had the chance to question Evans. If only Blount and Luckner had listened because he knew Jane was probably right—Evans was long gone.

At least he’d finally got a chance to talk to Jane. It was the only good thing in a totally screwed up day.

Jane had been quiet, but essentially the same and it wasn’t until they’d hung up that Cho realized he’d been waiting for another shoe to drop. Something along the lines of Jane so mad he refused to even speak to him. But other than sounding a little tired, he’d been just the same and the knot that had formed deep in his chest ever since they got word of the body began to unfurl. Not completely, of course—Evans was still a problem and if Lisbon was right, if Jane really was a target, or at very least, the reason

Cho clenched his fists, forcing down the impulse to rush over to Bryant and shake her. And then slug Luckner because he’d warned him—

If he had his way, he’d say to hell with the detail and get a plane, a car, or a motorcycle and be off, back to Sacramento where he could protect Jane properly.

At least Lisbon was with Jane. She knew more than anyone that Jane had a blind spot when it came to personal safety. She wouldn’t let him go running off.

And then he remembered all the times Jane had done that very thing, slipped the leash as it were, and the knot tightened again until he thought he would choke on it—

“Hey.”

Cho turned. Van Pelt and Martinez were right behind him. He nodded calmly. “Find anything?”

Martinez shook her head. “We could barely find Bryant’s shopping list. Her files haven’t been updated in weeks. She has a stack of documents five inches thick that she was ‘getting around,’” she made air quotes, “to inputting.”

Van Pelt nodded. “We started to go through those, but they’re sort of mixed up. Ms. Bryant isn’t very organized.”

Martinez shook her head at Van Pelt’s comment and jerked a thumb towards LaSalle. “I’m going to give him a break. If you guys want, I’m going to raid the kitchen in a while.”

Cho made a non-committal noise. Van Pelt said nothing.

Martinez shrugged her shoulders and left them, threading her way around the sofas, the planters.

Cho clasped his hands together and watched her go. “How was it?”

Van Pelt made a face. “I still think she’s got a stick up her butt, but she’s okay. She really knows her stuff. She just needs to learn a few people skills.”

“Hm.”

Van Pelt tilted her head towards the manager. “Ms. Bryant is still arguing about Evans?”

“People believe what they want to believe.”

“That sounds like Jane.”

“He’s rubbing off on me.”

Van Pelt took a breath, then scanned the room quickly before saying cautiously, “Cho?”

“Yes?”

“I know it’s none of my business, but—” Here it came. Finally. “Are you and Jane, like… dating?”

He snorted. “Dating?”

She made a gesture. “You know what I mean.”

“Yes, I do, and yes, we are,” he said bluntly and turned to her.

She nodded to the floor. She clearly hadn’t been ready for such a swift answer. “I, wow… Okay.”

“Okay?”

“Okay.”

He wanted to laugh out loud—it was a stupid conversation considering the gravity of the current situation—but there was something else coming but really, what could be worse than what she’d already asked?

“Cho?”

“Yes?”

“He still wears his wedding ring.”

And yeah, okay, he hadn’t been prepared for that, hadn’t been prepared at all. Her soft words echoed in his ears as if she’d shouted them aloud across a very deep canyon and it was surprising, how just a relatively few syllables could cause such an unexpectedly sharp pain. He tightened his lips against his immediate response and said calmly, “I know.”

Van Pelt blushed a bright red and stared out the wide patio doors. He wondered if this was the end of their amiable working relationship. Yesterday he would have said no, but today was turning out to be a fucked up day, so—

She turned and looked him straight in the eye and said, “I don’t care. You’re both adults and he’s had such a hard time, losing his family and all. If you’re what he—”

She didn’t finish, but she didn’t have to. Her embarrassment had cleared to trust again and he wanted to hug her, and not just for backing off something she would normally worry about, but because she’d grown up so much since he first met her. If the job didn’t break her she’d make a first-rate agent. But since he never, ever hugged, he touched her on the arm and said, “Thanks.”

She shrugged. “You don’t need to thank me.” And then she grinned and added, “In any case, I get it. He’s very good looking.”

“But not like Rigsby?”

She blushed again. “No, not like Rigsby.”

And that was all the time he had for his own personal Lifetime Movie Network moment. “I was going to call you. Lisbon and the others are on their way.”

Her face brightened. “Really? Finally.”

“Thanks.”

Her eyes grew wide and her mouth dropped open. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—” And then she saw his small smile and she hit him on the arm. “Jerk.”

Cho rubbed his arm in mock pain and changed the subject again, this time to the recent events in Sacramento.

***

By the time he was done relating the little he knew, Luckner had finished as well. He waved them, saying firmly, “Ms. Bryant is going to go through her staff photos and see if she can find one of our missing Evans.”

Cho frowned. “Can’t we just use a copy of his driver’s license?”

The hotel manager crossed her arms and looked at the floor.

Luckner glanced at her, then said evenly, “She can’t find it. She’s gone through her computer and all her backups. In all the hubbub of planning for this event, she somehow forgot to send the file to their corporate office. They’ve got his application and a W-9, but that’s it.”

“I was going to do it later, when we weren’t so busy,” Bryant said, managing to look haughty and abject, both at the same time.

Cho pressed his lips together. Luckner gave him a look that said, ‘I know, you don’t need to say it.’ “I’d like the two of you to run the photos out to Evans’s old neighborhood and make a positive I.D. You can use one of the rented vehicles. I’m going to the airport to pick up your crew. I’ll get Agent Lisbon up to speed as quick as possible. Michaels and Blount will go to the local P.D. and give them as much info on Evans as we have. That leaves LaSalle, Martinez and Jameson, here to protect the guests.”

‘And to keep them in their rooms,’ Cho silently added while Van Pelt murmured, “Yes, sir.”

Luckner handed Cho a set of car keys. “Be prepared for anything. At this point we know nothing about Evans—even though it’s unlikely, he could be anyone, even the leader of the Red Men. Your people will be arriving on the five-thirty shuttle. I want you done by then, if possible. We’ll meet back here to go over the next steps.”

Cho nodded briskly and gestured for Bryant to take the lead. They followed her to the office and sat down as she began rummaging through the stacks of paper on her desk.

He examined her as she searched for the photo, once again surprised by her relative youth. Her clothes, maybe, were what had deceived him. Her dress was sedate and colorless—he was pretty sure his mom had the same one in her closet although he hadn’t seen her wear it in a long time.

So, yeah, it was odd He’d assumed she wasn’t clever enough to be an international mastermind, but you never could tell. He’d learned that from his years with the CBI. And from Jane.

He coughed, not softly, and Bryant jerked and dropped the file. Van Pelt elbowed him with a swift glare, then knelt to help Bryant pick up the scattered sheets of papers.

He tightened his lips against the instant urge to apologize and watched as Bryant returned to her hunt.

She began pulling piles of paper out of a credenza cupboard, arranging them on the desk and he’d had it—he’d stepped forward with the intent to look for himself when she crowed triumphantly, “Here we are!”

She sat the folder down and shuffled through the photos. “I know there’s one here somewhere, we just took them five days ago, right before— Here we go.” She held up a print, then gave it to Cho. “I’ll get you his address.” She pushed aside some papers and found a bright pink, heart shaped pad of Post-its. She wrote swiftly while he examined the photo, Van Pelt looking over his shoulder.

It was a digital print, oversaturated and pixelated, but there was Evans. He was standing behind the rest of the staff, his head turned. Cho wished he’d seen this photo days ago—Evans was clearly trying to hide his face. Still, he was visible enough for identification purposes. With a murmured, “Thanks,” he took the Post-it and they hurried from the room.

When they got outside, he tossed the car keys to Van Pelt. “You drive.”

“Which car is it?”

“Use the remote.”

She clicked a button and an SUV on their right lit up. He pulled out his cell and dialed Luckner’s number. It was answered on the first ring.

“What’s the news, Agent Cho? Did you get it?”

“Yes, sir. It’s not perfect, but it will do.”

“Good. Call me as soon as you know something. I’m about forty minutes from the airport.”

“Will do.” he hung up and nodded. “Let’s go.”

***

“Thank you, GPS,” Van Pelt murmured fervently as they wound their way through the Oceanside parking lot. It had taken them fifteen minutes to get to the apartment complex, a typical Californian housing tract: cheaply built, alternating between beige and grey-sided units, each trimmed in white and nowhere near the ocean.

Van Pelt nodded towards number 263b and said unnecessarily, “Here we are.” She pulled into a space and they got out.

“We’ll try 263a.” And at Van Pelt’s look of inquiry, he explained, “Luckner interviewed a neighbor after I told him my doubts about Evans identity.”

“And?”

“No one could give a good description of Evans. The Director was told to talk to Evans’s neighbor in 263a—she’s elderly and can’t walk her dog so he did it for her. When Luckner went to talk to the woman, no one was home.”

“How do we know if she’s home now.”

“We don’t.”

Van Pelt nodded “263a it is.”

As if they’d planned it ahead of time, they walked in tandem up to the door and took position. He waited until Van Pelt was ready, then rapped sharply. And rapped again when the only response was the muffled staccato bark of a small dog. Still no one and he was getting ready for a third knock when the door opened.

Yes, she was elderly, so small and bent over, her head barely reached his shoulder. She wore a shockingly bright orange and pink-flowered housecoat with matching pink socks. Her hair was thinning and white with pink streaks. Her smile, though, was cheerful and when Cho backed out of range of the dog’s sharp teeth, she said pleasantly, “I’m sorry about that. Henry’s a little cranky. He needs his walk.”

Cho nodded and got out his badge. “Sorry to bother you, ma’am. We’re with the CBI. I believe you talked to my boss the other day?” The dog lunged and he stepped back again.

The women cocked her head. For all her age and her thick glasses, her eyes were sharp with intelligence. “The CBI? No, an Agent Lackner from the FBI called, but no CBI.”

The dog made for Van Pelt and she hopped to the side with an annoyed grimace. “It was Director Luckner, ma’am and that’s us. We’re the California branch of the FBI.”

“Oh, the CBI,” the woman repeated as if that cleared everything up. “Can I see your badges again?” They held them up and she examined them carefully. “Henry,” she scolded as she bent down to pick up the dog, getting it to shut up a moment. “Don’t be so cross. We’ll go out in a minute. Would you like to come in?”

It took Cho a moment to realize who the woman was talking to and then he shook his head. “No ma’am. We were just hoping you could identify your neighbor for us.” He nodded to Van Pelt; she got out the photo.

The woman juggled the dog and took the photo; she didn’t look at it. “Mathias Evans? I don’t know anyone by that name. Ben’s his name. Ben Evans. He’s not here right now. He’s got a job at a fancy hotel and won’t be home for a couple weeks. Maybe Mathias is his cousin but he sure isn’t his brother—Ben is an only child.”

Cho and Van Pelt exchanged glances. The dog had finally stopped barking and the silence was heavy. This wasn’t going to be good. “Please look at the photo, Ma’am. Can you identify anyone?”

“If he’s here, I can. He’s lived here for—” She broke off and peered at the photo, then sat the dog down and adjusted her classes. “Which one are you asking me about? Ben isn’t in this picture.”

With a sinking feeling, Cho leaned over and pointed out the tall figure in the back of the group.

She shook her head several times. “No, that’s not Ben. Ben is short and bald. And he’s older than that boy there. I have no idea who that is.” She looked at it again, then handed the photo back to Van Pelt. “But it’s not Ben.”

Cho unclipped his holster and touched his weapon. “Do you happen to have a key to Mr. Evans’s apartment, ma’am?”

“Of course, I do, just as he has mine. Wait right here. I’m glad you’re here be—” Her voice faded as she bustled away, then grew stronger as she came back, the dog following all the while. “…and I told the manager about it, but he said it was fine, that it was probably just a cat or a dog that got into Ben’s apartment.” She handed Cho a key.

“What cat or dog?”

“That smell. The horrible smell. I told the manager about it, but he brushed me off like he always does. Mr. Know-it-all. He said the plumbing gets backed up and that’s all it is.” She picked up the dog and hugged him close, her annoyance changing to fear. “You run up now and make sure Ben is all right.”

She even shooed them away, but he was already on the move, weapon pulled, climbing the stairs with Van Pelt right behind.

Again, as if they’d been working as a pair for years, Van Pelt took the left, Cho, the right. He knocked. He waited a bare second, then used the key. When the door opened, he didn’t have to guess what they’d find. The stench was thick and rotten and it clogged his throat before he managed to cover his mouth with his arm. Van Pelt gasped, cover her mouth as he entered the apartment.

They found Evans in the bathtub, fully clothed. Except for the neat hole in his forehead and the bloat of being days dead, he looked peaceful, like he’d fallen asleep. Cho signaled a retreat and they hurried back out as he holstered his weapon and got out his cell.

Van Pelt shut the door behind them and he took a deep breath of fresh air. “Call 911 and get a unit over here. Make sure they know that this Evans, the real Evans, is involved in an ongoing Federal investigation. We’re going to need our forensics team so advise them that they’re not to touch anything.”

Van Pelt nodded and began dialing. He craned his head and looked down as he punched in Luckner’s number. Evans’s neighbor was still down there, looking up. She was holding her dog and covering her mouth with her hand, crying—he wasn’t going to have to explain anything to her. The phone clicked through and before Luckner could fully answer, Cho said, “Sir. We’ve got a situation.”

“Myself as well, what’s yours?”

“The neighbor identified Evans as an imposter. She gave us a key. Evans is dead and has been for some time. Van Pelt is calling in the locals.”

“Anything else?”

“Yes, although I don’t know what it means. Evans, I mean the fake Evans, took the last name, but not the first. The real Evans’s first name was Ben, not Mathias.”

Luckner was silent for a moment, then he said quietly, “It gets worse, Agent Cho. Agent Martinez just called. Wallach was getting ready for tomorrow’s meeting and discovered that his laptop and all his data have been stolen and replaced with a fake. A very good fake, according to the doctor. He estimates that it could have been replaced any time between last night and thirty minutes ago.”

Cho hit the railing, hissing, “Shit!” Van Pelt jumped. He shook his head, half in apology, half in frustration. After all they’d done, all they’d prepared for, it had been as easy as that. “And the imposter?”

“Still missing. I’m with Agent Lisbon now. You’re about ten minutes away. You and Van Pelt wait until the Carmel P.D. arrive, then get over here. We’re shutting down possible routes of escape, but the airport is the one we’ll concentrate on. You and Blount are the only agents that got up close and personal with Evans. You’ll have the best chance of spotting him if he’s wearing a disguise.”

If he’s not already long gone. “Yes, sir.” Cho hung up.

Van Pelt was watching him with a frown. “What is it?”

“Wallach’s laptop has been stolen.”

“The one with all the research?”

“Yes.”

“By Evans?”

“Looks like it.”

“Shit.”

Cho looked at her, startled into a grim smile. “C’mon. We might as well let Evan’s neighbor know she has to find a new dog walker.”

_________________

Jane stepped through the hatch and raised his head, sniffing the air. This close to the shore he could smell the indefinable, undeniable scent of salt and water. If he were a horse, he’d know exactly which way to turn. He smiled and waved goodbye to the flight attendants and descended the stairs to the tarmac. Lisbon was already on the move, walking quickly across the hot pavement to the terminal with Rigsby following close behind. Jane shrugged off his jacket and draped it over his arm, taking his time.

The airport was one of those tiny affairs—mostly just a field, a hanger, five gates and a terminal. Trees and bushes lined the perimeter and he thought he could make out bright yellow or orange—probably lemons or oranges. It was cute; it reminded him of the airports in classic thrillers made in the 50s—no long security lines, no cameras everywhere. Not necessarily a good thing, security-wise, but charming and picturesque all the same.

When he got inside he found himself in a tiny gate. A uniformed guard tried to stop him, but he nodded towards the path Lisbon had most likely taken and said happily, “I’m with them.”

The guard waved him on; he found Lisbon and Rigsby talking with a tall, mid-fifties gentleman that had to be Luckner—he had FBI written all over him. Near the long ticket counter stood a couple suits, who also had to be agents and beyond them, airport security. Jane threw a smile all the way around and came up to stand close to Lisbon. She was saying something about the flight or maybe it was the fight—whatever it was, she stopped talking when Luckner switched his sharp gaze Jane’s way.

She turned and made a small gesture. “Director Luckner, I’d like you to meet Patrick Jane. Jane, Director Luckner.”

Luckner held out his hand. “Good to meet you, Patrick.”

“Jane, please. Like the girl. Where’s Cho?”

Luckner raised his eyebrow but only said, “I’ve heard interesting things about you.”

“I’m sure you have. Where’s Cho?”

“I’m told you deduced that our two cases are tied together.”

Jane bounced on his toes, the words, ‘Yes, I’m very smart. Where the hell is Cho?’ on his lips but before he could say anything, Lisbon elbowed him in the side, not very discreetly and warned, “Jane, don’t.”

He held back a sigh. “I’ll behave.”

Rigsby coughed; Jane smiled at him.

“That’s good,” Luckner said tersely, “because we’ve got quite a situation on our hands and we could use your help.” He jerked his thumb towards the doors. “I’m at the curb.”

Lisbon shouldered her bag and followed with a Jane, come! look. “SAC Minelli updated us on the plane. Anything new?”

“Nothing much, we’re trying to establish the identity of the real Evans. Agents Cho and Van Pelt are on their way to Evans’s apartment to talk to his neighbors. Everyone else is back at the hotel, guarding the guests.”

“I take it the imposter is still missing.”

“Unfortunately, yes, he—”

A phone rang and everyone but Jane checked their pockets. Luckner was the lucky one. Jane grinned and wandered a few feet away, turning in a circle.

The interior of the airport was as old as the exterior. To the left was the long old-fashioned ticketing counter. On the right was a broad bank of floor-to-ceiling windows, a few molded plastic chairs and some potted plants. Down at the very end where the bright fluorescent lights didn’t reach, were the bathrooms. They were being cleaned—the area was blocked off yellow, /Do not enter: bathroom being cleaned,’ signs. There were only a few people about, maybe fifteen or twenty, and even fewer ticketing agents. The place had a sedate, sleepy feel.

But—he was happy to see—it also had a Starbucks coffee cart near the end of the ticket counter. He turned to tell Lisbon he was going to get something to drink when Luckner’s grim expression stopped him in his tracks. He went to stand at Lisbon’s shoulder, listening intently.

“You’re sure about this? The doctor is sure?” Another long silence and then Luckner said, “What about his backups?”

Whatever the answer was it, wasn’t good—Luckner rubbed his forehead and said tightly, “Understood. Inform the agents patrolling the grounds and the Carmel police, including Blount. I’m going to stay at the airport with the CBI; maybe we’ll catch a break. As soon as you’re locked down, let me know.”

He hung up and turned to the group. “Bad news. Doctor Wallach, the man responsible for the medical breakthrough and the reason for the conference, just found out that his laptop was stolen and replaced with a fake.”

There was a general grumble of dismay and Lisbon said, “He kept the data on his laptop?”

“Yes. He has backups, but they apparently had a breakthrough on something important and he hadn’t transferred that particular bit of information to his external drive yet. But that doesn’t really matter. What does is that the research is gone and maybe already on its way to the highest bidder.”

Rigsby raised his hand hesitantly. “Sir?”

“Yes, Agent Rigsby?”

Rigsby glanced between Lisbon and Jane before saying, “Does it make a difference in the long run? I mean, if they were just working on it, can’t they just, sorta, do it again?”

Lisbon raised her eyebrows and they all turned to Luckner.

“Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Contrary to all the advice he’s been given, Wallach refused to get a patent, refused to even register it or whatever they do with this type of thing. He wanted to give the cure out to all the world. And the pharmaceutical that gets their hands on this research, well, they could easily jump in and say they got there first. None of their employees would say otherwise and by the time the patent was challenged, billions would have been made off the stolen data. It would be an acceptable risk.”

“You know a lot about this, Agent Luckner.” Jane said pointedly.

“I’ve had a lot of time to study the material, Mr. Jane,” Luckner shot back, just as pointed. “And, I’ve had access to some of the world’s top medical minds.”

Jane was digesting that when Luckner’s cell rang again. He was still glaring at Jane when he said, “Luck—” He stopped and was quiet for a moment, then “Myself as well, what’s yours?”

Jane looked around, only half listening, still caught on the words, ‘medical breakthrough’ and ‘laptop,’ and ‘billions.’

Would any company, even one as large as some of the international pharmaceuticals, be bold enough to steal the research, then produce their own vaccine, knowing that ownership could easily be challenged in court? He supposed so. Pharmaceuticals were so big these days, they were like mini sovereign nations.

“…Agent Martinez just called. Wallach was getting ready for tomorrow’s meeting and discovered that his laptop and all his data have been stolen and replaced with a fake. A very good fake, according to the doctor. He estimates that it could have been replaced any time between last night and thirty minutes ago.” A pause, then, “Still missing. I’m with Agent Lisbon now. You’re about ten minutes away. You and Van Pelt wait until the Carmel P.D. arrive, then get over here. We’re shutting down possible routes of escape, but the airport is the one we’ll concentrate on. You and Blount are the only agents that got up close and personal with Evans. You’ll have the best chance of spotting him if he’s wearing a disguise.”

Luckner hung up and said to Lisbon, “Your people are on their way. They just found the body of the real Evans. He’s been dead for a while, according to Agent Cho.”

“Wow,” said Rigsby.

“Yes, wow.” Luckner nodded with very little humor. “And funny thing—the imposter took Evans’s last name, but not his first.”

Jane turned around. “What was Evans’s real name?”

“According to the neighbor, it was Ben.”

“Maybe Mathias was Ben’s middle name?”

“Maybe.”

“Odd.” He bounced on his toes and squinted down the long hall.

“What’s odd, Mr. Jane?”

“Oh, nothing. But Evans—I mean the fake Evans—he has the real laptop?”

“That’s what we’re assuming.”

He pulled on his jacket. “What does it look like?”

Luckner put his hands on his hips. “The laptop? I don’t know. Like a laptop. Rectangular, flat, thin.”

Jane adjusted his sleeves. “What does Evans look like?

“Why do you want to know?”

“Humor me.”

“Jane—” Lisbon started to say, but Jane gave her a look, the look, and she sighed.

Luckner glanced between the two of them, then rubbed his forehead again. “Sad to say, I don’t remember him very well. He was tall, maybe six-two, big, had close shaven hair. Why?”

Jane stuck his hands in his pockets. “No reason. Just curious. I’m going to go use the facilities. Wait for me.” As he strolled off towards the bathroom, he could hear Lisbon say something to Luckner, probably apologizing for her consultant’s rudeness. He hated when she did that, as if his bad behavior was her doing. Well, Luckner would be pretty happy, bad behavior or not, in about five minutes, if he were right.

The bathroom was quiet, seemingly empty. He looked under the stall doors—no feet, so he pushed the first door open, but no luck. The second was the same. But the third, even though he expected it, was not. He pushed it open, false apologies already on his lips, but they weren’t needed—a man with close-shaven hair was there, waiting. As was his gun.

His very big, very sleek, gun.

Jane’s arms shot up of their own accord. “It’s times like these that I wish I wasn’t so nosy.”

Evans grinned. “I’ll bet.”

He was big, as Luckner had said, wearing the standard jeans, t-shirt and leather coat but there was something about him that shouted European. Possibly German or Russian? “Ah,” Jane nodded. “You’re from the other side of the pond.” Maybe it was the boots. “Here on vacation?”

Evans shook his head slowly. “I’m American. If that’s what you mean.”

Jane raised an eyebrow and smiled. No, you’re not. “My mistake.”

“No problem.”

“Well, then,” Jane said with false cheer and he waved and pointed for added effect. “I’ve got a plane to catch. I’ll just be—”

Fast as a snake, Evans grabbed his throat and in one smooth move, spun him around and pulled him in tight, gun to the base of his skull. “You’ve got that wrong. I’m the one with the plane to catch and you’re gonna help me get it. Move.”

“What about your laptop?” He nodded as best he could. “In the corner there?”

“That’s not mine. It was already here.” Evans pushed Jane towards the door.

“Someone was careless,” he agreed. He wasn’t up on computer lingo but he assumed that if Evans was willing to leave it behind, it meant he’d already downloaded the data or something like that. Which was bad because he’d been hoping Evans would be in a quandary—hold onto the laptop or hold onto him… “You know, why don’t I get it. On our way to the plane, I’ll drop it off at the ticket—”

He gasped and arched, grabbing at Evan’s hands. Evans had switched throat for hair and he clenched his fist. He stuck his face up against Jane’s and murmured, bad breath and all, “Mr. Jane, all I want from you right now is no tricks, no mind games. We’re gonna walk out of here with no more talking, okay?” He dug the barrel into Jane’s head for emphasis and pushed.

Jane walked.

Out to the hall, hands held up, thinking furiously.

So Evans knew him, but where did they meet? He was sure it hadn’t been at the CBI. Maybe they’d crossed paths before, when he was doing two shows a week on three different cable channels? But no, he was positive they’d never met. Which mattered because…

…because nothing—all that mattered now was that the passengers wandering here and there had seen him—and by extension—Evans. They began screaming, their shouts echoing down the hall like a fading ripple in a wide lake. They scrambled for cover, hiding where they could until there was a long avenue between he and Lisbon, standing at the very end. Her face went from surprise to shock to—

Evans stopped so Jane stopped, too.

Lisbon was always so fast, at times moving before he’d even had time to think of reacting. Like now—she’d drawn her weapon in a flash and turned sideways in the same smooth motion, already creeping towards them, step by step. Behind her Luckner scuttled to her right, gun drawn as well. He couldn’t see Rigsby. He was probably getting something to eat because he’d been complaining the whole trip out and—

“Evans!” Lisbon shouted. Jane closed his eyes briefly at the fear in her voice. “There’s no way out. Be smart now and let him go.”

Evans didn’t answer. He prodded Jane and they started walking again, stumbling a little because Jane had realized something that had brought the first shiver of fear—Evans wasn’t sweating, wasn’t panting. His movements were unhurried, almost lazy. And his voice—back in the bathroom, his voice had been calm and cool with no timbre of anxiety or distress.

Evans was in complete control—the kind of control that took years to develop, even more years to master. If he took Evans’s pulse, he’d bet he’d find it steady, maybe even slower than what passed for normal.

It was a chilling thought, the only bright spot was Cho. He was somewhere not here and that was so good—if Evans was started shooting, Jane wanted Cho to be far, far away. Lisbon and Rigsby as well, only that ship had sailed and he wanted to groan at his own stupidity. He should have let Lisbon know the minute he’d seen Evans stroll by, heading for the bathroom.

They were almost to the center of the terminal. Off to the right, an airline agent was bent practically in half, hands covering his head. To the left, behind a potted fichus, crouched Rigsby, aiming through a shroud of leaves. The other guards were scattered about, ready to shoot.

What a time to be him.

“Okay, you want to run,” Lisbon said reasonably, calling out because of the distance, “we’ll let you run. Only let him go.”

She straightened a bit, just as Jane had seen her do so many times before. She was using her unruffled voice and her calm eyes to talk Evans down and Jane wished he could tell her not to bother. This one was different; this one couldn’t be bargained with. Sweat broke out on the back of his neck and he tried to smile at her.

They were almost there, almost to the end of the ticket counter when the terminal doors hissed and opened and the thing he’d been hoping wouldn’t happen, happened—Cho rushed in, gun rising, aimed, Van Pelt at his back.

And that got a reaction—Evans jerked him in tight, the barrel digging in so hard, he couldn’t help a small whimper. He wondered if it’d leave a scar. Better that than a hole in the head and at least his hair would hide it. He wanted to laugh out loud at the inanity of the thought, but didn’t when he saw the blank look in Cho’s eyes.

“Evans,” Cho called out as he sidled behind and around Lisbon, “you don’t want to do this. He’ll just slow you down.” He glanced at Jane, just a lightning quick gaze that jolted Jane to the core and he remembered his epiphany of the other day. “Let him go.”

Evans laughed. “Now, Agent Cho, you know I can’t do that. I’m just going to take this one…” He shook Jane like he was a rag doll. “…on a ride. I’ll return him safe and sound, I promise.”

“I’ll tell you what,” Cho answered. “Me for him. You let him go and I’ll go in his place.”

Lisbon glared and Luckner growled. Cho didn’t waver, didn’t look away. “Is it a deal?”

“No,” Evans said calmly, “no deal. C’mon,” he murmured in Jane’s ear, “we’ve got a plane to catch.” And he turned so Jane was facing the terminal, walking backwards. Everyone followed, Lisbon and Cho in front, the rest behind, a ragged parade of pointing guns.

They were almost to the tarmac doors when Cho looked straight at Jane again. He swallowed, wanting to say, ‘I’m sorry,’ because it had taken him far too long to realize it wasn’t just him anymore, that he was two again. He wanted to say, ‘Don’t,’ because he’d put that look on Cho’s face and it cut like a knife, that secretive pain and he’d never, ever wanted to hurt Cho like that.

He opened his mouth to say something, anything, but Evan jammed the gun in his head and murmured, “No.”

So Jane smiled at Cho and waved goodbye as best he could as he was dragged through the doors.

_________________

‘Victory at all costs,’ John thought as he slung the rifle over his shoulder and climbed the lemon tree. Not that Churchill would have considered this situation requiring a military show of force. No, Churchill would just view it as a product of poor planning and the result of relying on a henchman that couldn’t be relied upon.

Indeed, if the two problems were held up side by side—war with Germany and the problem before him—Churchill would no doubt swear a blue streak at the very idea that his situation and John’ssituation were even remotely similar. Churchill, or so his grandfather had always said, had a mouth like a sailor.

Smirking at the idea, John found a solid branch and crouched in the crook of the tree where trunk met branch. He rested the rifle barrel against the bark and peered through the scope.

Mathew had almost reached the plane but he was still wrapped around the psychic like a starfish around a mollusk. John chuckled at the weak metaphor and waited. Eventually, Mathew had to let go—he wouldn’t actually try to take Mr. Jane with him. Even he wasn’t so stupid.

John took a steadying breath and then let it out just as slow, waiting for that perfect moment so he could rectify a two year-old mistake.

_________________

 

“Damn him, who does he think he is, and you—” Lisbon turned on Cho, fiercely outraged. “Offering up yourself in an exchange? Don’t you ever do that again—what is this, Hostage Negotiation 101? Sir…” Without waiting, she turned to Luckner and said on the same breath, “We need to radio the plane, make them delay the takeoff.”

“The guards already have that under control, Agent Lisbon.”

Cho turned to the glass door again, ignoring the commotion behind him. He was focused on one thing, and one thing only.

Evans had dragged Jane out until they were standing next to the mid-size private plane. The pilot had left the cockpit and was hiding behind the hatch door, showing his head every second or two. Evans waved the gun and said something to the pilot. Cho said without turning around, “He’ll need to get the ramp back in place.”

Lisbon came up beside him and peered out, too. “Good. That’ll take at least fifteen, twenty minutes, maybe longer.” She called over her shoulder, “Van Pelt? You and Rigsby get in touch with anyone flanking the building—make sure they don’t do something stupid. We don’t want any heroes running around out there, scaring Evans into shooting Jane.” She turned back to the door and sighed.

Cho waited a minute, then muttered, “Sorry, boss.”

“No, it’s okay. It was stupid, but it’s okay—we all do stupid things where Jane is concerned.”

Cho nodded and then cupped his hand against the glass, trying to see through the tinting. Whatever was going on there, it wasn’t good. Evans was shouting, gripping Jane’s hair so tight that even at this distance, Cho could see Jane’s grimace of pain. “I’m glad you’re here.”

She touched his arm then squinted through the glass. “Me too. What’s he doing now?”

Evans began dragging Jane back again until they were a good fifty feet away from the plane and maybe a hundred and feet from the terminal. “Boss?” Evans had let Jane go; he turned and began backing up towards the plane, still aiming his weapon. “I think— Shit.” Cho reached for the door handle.

Lisbon grabbed his arm and held on tight. “No, don’t. He’s just—”

A muffled crack broke the relative quiet and Cho was through the door before his brain caught up with his instincts—gunshot.

He was halfway there, running flat out, when he realized that no, Jane hadn’t been shot—he was hunched over, hands still up, but he was okay. It was Evans that was down, dropped to the tarmac, arms spread wide. Cho didn’t care about that. He leaped over the body and rushed up to Jane, almost bowling him over in his haste. He grabbed Jane and hauled him upright and he was—

—so fucking angry that he let Jane go as soon as he saw that there was no blood, no wound. Behind him, the team came pounding up but he couldn’t look away from Jane’s blue eyes just as he couldn’t seem to catch his breath.

Jane touched the back of his head, behind his ear where Evans had held the gun. “Are you okay? Are you all right? You got your hair cut.”

Cho’s lips tightened. What a stupid question, what a stupid comment, after what had just happened and he saw it again—Jane bowed back, hands grabbing frantically as Evans dragged him across the slick tile, the unhappy look of goodbye in his eyes as Evans pulled him outside.

“Seriously, man, you don’t look so good. Maybe you should go sit down.”

There was a split second, maybe two when Cho thought he’d let loose all the angry words that were pressing against his lips, that he’d reach out and actually hit Jane.

He stepped back and took a deep breath.

“Cho?”

He took another breath. Thank god for Lisbon. “Yes?”

“Take a look at this.”

Cho pulled his gaze from Jane’s and turned. Lisbon was crouched over the body, already donning gloves. “It looks like a .22 or a .38.”

Evans lay face up, looking at the sky with nothing in his eyes. A chunk of his skull was gone and the blood and gore glistened in the sun. Cho put his hands on his hips—his lungs were finally beginning to work right. “Boss?”

“Yeah?” Lisbon said absently. She was still examining the wound, delicately, avoiding the pool of blood at her feet.

He jerked his head towards Jane even though she wasn’t watching. “Maybe we should get him inside. He doesn’t have a vest.”

“It won’t matter,” Jane said, coming to stand on the other side of the body. He was staring at Cho, serious and watchful. Cho looked down.

Lisbon glanced at Cho and then at Jane. “Why?”

“By the angle of the wound, the shot came from the west. If the sniper wanted me dead, I’d be dead.” He turned to look behind him. “And the highway’s just over there, west, right? Undoubtedly, whoever shot Evans is already gone.”

Lisbon gave Jane a dark look and got out her phone. “Sir? It looks like the shooter was on the west side of the field. That’s a lot of men.” She looked around and Cho found himself following her glance. “I agree. I’ll stay here—let me know if you find anything.” She hung up and tucked her phone away.

Cho still couldn’t look at Jane. “Do you want me out here or in there?”

“Here. You watch Jane while I take examine the body. Besides…” She began to go through Evans’s pockets. “Michaels and Blount just showed up. The airport is surrounded by six agents, five airport security guards and I don’t know how many locals.”

Jane was still staring at Cho, his gaze still watchful. Cho dug out a pair of gloves. He knelt on the other side of Evans’s body and carefully lifted his jacket. It was a pointless exercise—he knew they wouldn’t find anything incriminating. Still—

He searched Evans’s pockets, not surprised when he found exactly nothing.

“He knew me.” Jane said thoughtfully.

Cho and Lisbon looked up at the same time but Lisbon got there first. “What makes you say that?”

Jane smiled, barely. His face had paled and Cho guessed that the adrenaline was wearing off and he was going into mild shock. “For the simple reason that he called me by name. And, he knew of my past. ‘Tricks and mind games,’— I wonder…” Jane crouched next to Lisbon. “He’s not going to have any evidence on him. The laptop is in the bathroom, so that means—”

Lisbon sighed. Cho wondered if he had the same expression on his face that she did—frustration, exasperation. “Wallach’s laptop is here? At the airport?”

“In the men’s bathroom, yes.”

“Well, why didn’t you say so?” she said as Cho got out his phone.

He hit speed dial four and waited for Rigsby to pick up. “Hey.”

“Hey,” Rigsby answered. “How’s Jane?”

“Fine.”

“Evans not so much, huh?”

“Yeah. Listen, are you inside the terminal?”

“Yeah.”

“Jane just told us that Dr. Wallach’s—”

“We just found it. Director Luckner’s in there with Van Pelt. They’re going over the scene; I just called in forensics. Hey, what’s with Van Pelt?”

“What d’you mean?”

“She’s acting all cold or something. What’d you guys do?”

Cho wanted to roll his eyes but both Jane and Lisbon were watching, so he just said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Gotta go.” He hung up without waiting for Rigsby’s goodbye. “They found the laptop. They’ve got the bathroom sealed for forensics.”

Jane shook his head. “They won’t find anything.”

“I know.”

“And—as I was saying—he would have dumped the data already. His boss, or whoever hired him, probably already has it.”

“Are you thinking he’s part of these Red Men?” Lisbon asked without looking up. She was peering at Evans’s wound, trying to examine it without moving his head.

“Aren’t you?”

Lisbon looked up at Jane’s sharp tone and Cho gave Jane an even sharper look of silent rebuke. Jane shrugged. “Sorry. Nerves and all.”

“Oh, please,” Lisbon said, but her face had already cleared of any anger. “Why don’t you go inside since there’s nothing to do until forensics gets here.”

Jane smiled softly. “I would, but I can’t seem to stand up. Nerves and all.”

Without a word Cho took off his gloves and then reached for Jane’s hand. He helped him stand, holding him for a brief moment, the body between them. Jane’s face was shocky white, his pupils wide and dark. Cho swallowed and made himself let go—Lisbon was pointedly not looking up and Rigsby and Van Pelt were striding across the pavement towards them. Besides, he was still angry with Jane and he wasn’t sure what to do about that.

He went back to the body and didn’t watch as Jane returned to the terminal.

***

It took them two hours to wrap up the scene. As Jane had predicted, they found nothing useful. Airport security closed down the airport and did a sweep. They found the real Evans’s tiny Honda out in the parking lot, sandwiched between two SUVs. Cho and Rigsby went over it, but came up empty handed. Luckner called for a tow and sent the car off to the forensics lab in Sacramento with Michaels riding shotgun, just in case Evans’s partner decided to make a play for it.

After a brief tug of war with the Carmel police, the body went to Sacramento, as well. The airport reopened, the Carmel P.D. left grumbling about the high-handed FBI, and the team stood around in a loose semi-circle on the curb, at a full stop.

Cho stuffed his hands in his pockets and wondered dully where his jacket was. He’d taken it off hours ago when Lisbon had sent him out to walk the perimeter of the field to see if they could find any casings or any other evidence. LaSalle had joined him, but they’d found nothing.

A fancy SUV pull up to the curb. A blond woman, a dark-haired man, and two grade-school kids got out. The woman kissed the man then watched as he admonished the kids to be good and listen to their mother. The woman and the kids hurried into the airport, all smiles and happy chatter. The man got back into the SUV and pulled away, barely missing a middle-aged woman who had jaywalked across the road.

Cho thought about calling her over, thought about giving her a lecture why jaywalking was such a stupid thing to do and that her life was worth more than the need to save thirty seconds.

He didn’t. He was so damn tired and all he wanted was to be gone.

“It’s odd,” Jane said, head turned to the sky. He had his jacket draped over his clasped hands and was rocking on the balls of his feet.

“I’ll bite,” Lisbon said after a moment. “What’s odd?”

“The name, Mathias. If Evans was going to appropriate Ben Evans— I mean the whole man—why not the whole name? Why not call himself, Ben Evans?”

Van Pelt cocked her head. “That is odd. He could’ve just stolen Evans’s I.D.s and doctored them.” She paused and then said, “What does it mean?”

Jane shrugged. “It means he didn’t want to give up the name, ‘Mathias’. It means he has a connection to it.”

“Yeah,” Rigsby added with an eager smile. “Maybe he was worried about making a mistake, so he kept his real name. Mathias.” He nodded, already convinced.

Jane made a face. “Still, he doesn’t seem like a Mathias, does he?”

Luckner put his hands on his hips. “What, or who, does a Mathias seem like, Mr. Jane.”

“I don’t know; I’m just making conversation.” Jane stopped gazing at the sky and glanced around with a bright smile. “Here we all are, together again. I really missed you guys.”

Jane didn’t look especially hard at Cho as he said it, but still, he flushed.

Rigsby grinned. “Us, too.” He turned to Lisbon, “What now, boss?”

She looked at Luckner. “Sir?”

“Well, we still have the people at the hotel. We need to make sure they stay safe even though Doctor Wallach is thinking of cutting the conference short. Agent Lisbon, can I talk you into staying until tomorrow or the day after? I’m a man down and I could use your help; I’ll put your expenses on my account, of course.”

Lisbon nodded slowly. “Let me clear it with my boss, but I don’t see why not.” She looked around at the team. “How’s that with all of you?”

Cho spoke for the first time. “I want to go back to Evans’s apartment and help out the Carmel P.D.”

Luckner shook his head. “I already sent Martinez and LaSalle over, Agent Cho. They’re with the Carmel police right now. Why don’t you take a break. It’s been a long day.”

“Besides,” Jane said, before Cho could speak, “I want to see the hotel before it gets dark. Van Pelt has been telling me all about it. You can give me the fifty-cent tour.”

He shrugged. “I need to find my jacket.”

“I’ve got it, see?” Jane held his up to show the darker coat underneath. He gave Cho a sunny smile.

He didn’t smile back.

Which was a mistake because Lisbon noticed. She frowned and said, “C’mon. Let’s all go back. Cho, I’m with you. Van Pelt—Michaels’s rental is somewhere in the lot.” She tossed a set of keys to Van Pelt. “You, Rigsby and Jane take his car.”

Jane didn’t argue, but Cho could feel his gaze as he climbed into the driver’s seat of the SUV he’d left at the curb at such a crazy angle because it had been so easy to see through all that glass: Jane held at gun point by a man that looked a hell of a lot like Evans. He felt sick and angry all over again and he turned the key, using the rev of the engine for cover as he cleared his throat.

They were on the freeway heading southwest when Lisbon said, “All right, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing.”

“Cho.”

And yeah, he hadn’t expected that to satisfy her, but he hadn’t changed his tune—he really, really didn’t want to talk about it.

“I’m assuming it has something to do with Jane.”

The Van Pelt had caught up with them and was right behind. Jane was in the front passenger seat—he leaned over and said something to Van Pelt that made her smile broadly—Cho could see the white of her teeth. He put flicked his signal and changed lanes.

Lisbon shook her head, staring straight ahead. “See, this is why personal relationships between co-workers are against the rules. If Jane were anything other than a consultant—” She sighed. “Everything is fine for a while, and then, wham, it all goes to hell.”

“Wham?” Cho asked with a reluctant smile.

“Yes, wham.”

But she was smiling back and somehow her smile, the way she kept her eyes on the road helped him say cautiously, “It’s nothing. It’s just—”

“Just?”

Cho shrugged and shifted in his seat. “Just Jane. Being Jane.”

She held her breath for a moment, then said, “Don’t tell me it’s already over, because—”

“No,” he said quickly, because that hadn’t even occurred to him. “It’s just—” He made a gesture, trying to express the futility, the worry, the panic.

She got it. “You mean when he confronted Evans and got himself taken hostage?”

And even though that was only the tip of the iceberg, he said, “Yes.”

“You mean when you felt like decking him because he did something so incredibly stupid that you couldn’t actually believe he’d done it.”

His Jane experiences had taught him to expect surprises, but this had been different. “Yes.”

“Join the club.”

“Not helpful.”

“Well, what do you want me to say?”

“Honestly?”

“Yes.”

“Nothing. Let me work it out for myself.”

She nodded slowly. “Okay. Okay, I will. You just have to know that if it gets in the way of your work—” She shrugged.

“It won’t.”

She turned in her seat and said on a different note, an obvious change of subject, “So, what do you think about Jane’s ideas about Evans’s name?”

“You mean the fake Evans or the real Evans?”

She frowned. “Yeah, that’s going to be a problem, isn’t it? Let’s just call the imposter, ‘Mathias,’ and the dead man, ‘Evans’.”

Cho nodded, then leaned his elbow on the doorframe, feeling relaxed for the first time in a long while. He always worked best with Lisbon and it was good to be by her side again. “He’s right, it is odd. If Mathias wanted to assume Ben Evans identity, why deliberately use the same last name but a different first name?”

“Could he be telling us something?”

“Jane said Mathias had a connection to the name but I wonder if it’s more than that. Like teasing us? Like he’s smarter than we are?” Cho tapped his thumbs on the steering wheel. Van Pelt had moved up behind them again, as if they were playing a game of chess. He wondered if she was going to ask Jane the same personal questions she’d asked Cho—hopefully not. He didn’t want to deal with Rigsby to know for a very long time.

He switched lanes again, then turned his attention back to the subject at hand. “Yeah, that fits. There was something about him…”

“What?”

Cho shrugged. “Never mind what Blount said—I know I heard Mathias speaking with an accent. I’m sure he’s British or Australian or something like that.”

Lisbon nodded. “Jane thinks so too. In fact,” she said with a grin, “when he found out that you’d already told Luckner and Blount about your suspicions and why, Jane lit into them both.”

“What did he say?” No wonder Luckner had been so prickly.

“Jane?”

“Yes.”

“That it didn’t pay not to listen to you, that you weren’t the type not to notice things like that, and a bunch of other double negatives that I can’t remember right now. Basically, he told Luckner and Blount that they were fools for not listening to you.”

Cho glanced out the window briefly to hide his pleased smile. “Anyway, there are a few other things that are making sense. When we first met, Mathias was on the phone, almost whispering. He was probably talking to his contact.”

“What else?”

“He made an odd comment. I didn’t really think too much of it at the time, but now…” Cho shrugged again, then quoted, “‘It must be fun, all that cloak and dagger stuff. Better than being a bellboy.’ I thought he was just embarrassed because of his age. But now it seems more like he was playing with me, like a cat plays with a mouse.”

Lisbon cocked her head and thought about it. “So you’re thinking he’s some high-level agent?”

“He was obviously trained—just the way he handled Jane told us that.” Cho ignored Lisbon’s soft snort—he didn’t really want to know her thoughts in regards to, ‘handling Jane.’ “He was calm, in control—did you notice? He didn’t miss a mark and he wasn’t sweating. He could definitely be part of the Red Men.”

“So,” Lisbon mused, “we think he’s British or something like that, has some type of combat training, knows about Jane, and has someone working with him on the outside. Anything else?”

“There’s one other thing,” Cho said slowly. Like the other details, it hadn’t seemed significant at the time… “When he was on the phone, that first day, he made an odd squiggling gesture with his right hand, like Jane does when he’s trying to talk someone into one of his schemes. I couldn’t place it at the time. It looked like someone playing the piano or—”

“Using a keyboard.”

Cho smiled at Lisbon. He’d missed this, missed working with her. “Yeah, like he was typing on a keyboard.”

“It’s thin, but it would make sense. No matter how lax the doctor’s security system, there must have been some sort of firewall. Most people wouldn’t know how to break it. He also managed to hack the hotel system to delete the copy of his license, right?”

“I’ve seen the system—that wouldn’t be too hard,” Cho said dryly.

“Still, most people, yadda, yadda, yadda.”

“Yeah.”

“The next big question is why was he killed.”

“Two reasons come to mind: someone didn’t need him anymore or to stop him from talking.”

“I’ll bet you any amount of money it’s the second not the first.”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t take that bet.”

Lisbon nodded decisively. “Good. We’ll sit down with Luckner when we get back and start a new profile.” She leaned over and touched Cho’s shoulder. “Great work.”

“He got away.”

“Maybe.” She shook his shoulder, just a bit, then let go. “But you got a hell of a lot more information than Interpol and they’ve been working on the case for almost a year. You had five days, so relax and take a compliment.”

Cho snorted. And then settled back into the seat, her words soothing away some of the anger and frustration. He looked in the rearview mirror. Van Pelt was right behind them once again and he could see Jane, staring straight at him.

_________________

 

Jane was almost to the door when Lisbon called out, “Don’t go far!”

He waved to her without looking around and headed out into the night. He stopped by the overly elaborate dolphin fountain and stretched his arms and arched his back—the change from the air-conditioned interior to warm California night felt fantastic. Two hours sitting inside while they profiled Mathias Evans, two hours of going around in circles as tempers grew shorter and shorter.

He turned in a circle, examining the place. Van Pelt had been right—the hotel was beautiful. Overblown but still, beautiful. Too bad it was dark—no doubt it would be even more lovely during the day. He’d drag Cho out of bed before the sunrise so they could go for a walk before anyone else was up.

He smiled, stuck his hands in his pockets and strolled across the patio, exchanging smiles with the guests scattered here and there as they turned to look at him.

They were an eclectic group but somehow the same in their differences—wealthy, well fed, well educated. No doubt they thought they were on a journey for the good, but his cynical side couldn’t help wondering how much they stood to gain by a vaccine that had the potential to cure a deadly disease and prevent millions of deaths worldwide.

Ah, well, he thought as he reached the path that hopefully led to the ocean, tonight he wasn’t going to worry about any of that. The team was back together, he was staying at a beautiful hotel that someone else was paying for, and Cho—

He pushed a fern out of his way, some of his happiness fading because Cho wasn’t a happy camper, that much was clear.

Calm and silent, he’d sat on the other side of Lisbon, barely looking at Jane the whole time. He hadn’t been belligerent or combative—just quiet. The only time he spoke up was when Lisbon suggested Jane share his room. He’d said that his suite didn’t have a second bed and that he’d be working late into the night. He’d finally given in when Lisbon had leaned over and reminded him in a loud whisper that his other alternative was Rigsby and he snored.

Not that Jane blamed him. The ‘stunt’ as Lisbon had called it several times now was pretty stupid in retrospect, but it had all turned out fine. No call to be upset, six hours later.

Besides, Jane was just as upset, just as angry.

Wasn’t he?

It was hard to remember just what he’d been so mad about. Being left behind, being made a fool? In hindsight, both were somewhat extreme reactions. Considering the brainpower gathered on the patio behind him, he could understand the need for secrecy. Even though secrecy, in the end, hadn’t been enough. He’d met Doctor Wallach earlier and he liked him, for all he epitomized the stereotypical absent-minded professor.

So, yes, his anger seemed to be gone, crushed out of existence under the weight of his happiness at seeing Cho again. And he had time—he’d fix this thing with Cho as soon as Luckner and Lisbon were satisfied that they were getting nowhere and they called it a night. But for now…

The paths were well lit and he marveled at the cost and care to bring in such a variety of plants and trees. He ran across a pine that he was sure only grew in Canada and a lily that had to have come from somewhere in South America—maybe Brazil? He’d have to look them up when he got home. He’d ask someone on the staff, but they seemed a young bunch and not really botanically-minded.

He was wondering about the possibility of stealing a few cuttings when he crossed a rather useless bridge that led to a tall gate. The gate was flanked by cameras and had a digital lock that beeped red at him. Feeling around in his pocket, he dug out the keycard that Bryant, the very nervous, very red-eyed hotel manager had given him. He swiped it and the light turned green. He pushed the gate open.

“This is what I’m talking about,” he murmured to himself as he pocketed the card and looked around in delight. He was standing on a wide wooden landing before the broad, silvery-dark ocean. He inhaled deeply and looked up at the sky. A full moon would have been a perfect accompaniment to such a sight, but there was only a waxing half gibbous.

He removed his jacket and vest and hung them on the gate. Then he bent and took off his shoes and socks and rolled up his pants legs. He stepped onto the sand, almost sighing at the transient heat that warmed the bottom of his feet.

He strolled to the water, stopping where the sand was wet and firm. He stayed there for a long moment, just staring at nothing, and then he turned south and walked along the edge, trying to avoid the cold ocean, laughing when it insisted on catching him up.

There were few people cruising the shoreline—a few loners like himself and an older couple that had their arms wrapped around each other, hip to hip. He smiled at them as they passed and they smiled back.

He was examining a flat shell, wishing he had a flashlight to see it properly when his cell rang. He got it out, answering absently, “Jane.”

“Where are you?” It was Lisbon, sounding worried.

“I don’t know, wait—” He turned around and looked. The hotel was behind him, about a mile and a half away, just a bright spot on the beach. “I’m close by.”

“Well, get back here. It’s late and there’s a killer on the loose.”

Jane pocketed the shell with the others he’d collected and looked at his watch. Ten o’clock, much later than he’d realized. “Ah, he’s long gone. It’s just me and the fishes.”

“Jane—”

“All right, all right, I’m coming.” Which was just as well—now that his attention had been broken, he realized he was cold. It had been warm, earlier, and he’d unbuttoned his shirt. Now the breeze running off the ocean slipped inside his shirt, making him shiver.

“Well, hurry up. I’m tired and I want to go to bed.”

“Do you need any help?”

He could practically see her eyes roll. “Jane.”

“I’ll be there in a minute.”

“You better. Don’t make me worry about you.”

Too late for that. “I won’t. Mom.”

“Whatever.” She hung up.

Jane closed the phone, stuffed it in his pocket and turned to the hotel.

This time he ignored the waves and concentrated on getting back as quick as possible. When he got to the gate, he gave the outdoor shower a passing glance then decided it was too cold to sluice off out here. And there were probably laws about public decency. Or indecency, as the case may be. He stuffed his socks in his shoes and tied them together, then slung his jacket and vest over his arm.

When he was through the gate and back on the path, he held the card to the light to read, Suite Six, The Magnolia Room. He closed his eyes, recalling the map he’d studied while waiting as Lisbon checked them in—if he wasn’t mistaken, Suite Six, The Magnolia Room was to the south, towards the high fence.

He found the place easily enough and was more than a little disappointed to discover that there wasn’t a magnolia in sight. There were roses and pines and some sort of bush with flowers that would probably show yellow in the daylight, but no magnolia. False advertising, unfortunately.

He slid the keycard into the lock, pushed the door open and entered without calling Cho’s name. The rooms were dark and silent, and he knew without knowing that they were empty.

He dumped his clothes and shoes in the hallway and investigated the suite with growing pleasure.

If he’d been disappointed in the magnolia-less landscaping, he wasn’t with the rooms; three in all—a big bathroom, a separate sitting room complete with a computer and a TV, and finally, off to the side, the bedroom. The latter contained a very largeand—he tested it with both hands—very comfortable mattress. He smiled in anticipation and went to wash the sand off.

He didn’t bother with the glass-walled shower—he wanted to see what was beyond the French doors so he rinsed his feet off in the tub, then padded back to the bedroom, not bothering to turn on the lights.

He unlocked the doors and went outside. The terrace was maybe ten feet deep and held a table with two small chairs. Planters full of geraniums hung off the waist-high stucco wall and in the corners were more planters with a variety of flowers.

It would be the perfect place to relax after a busy day—there was even a fire pit in case the night grew cool. Plus—he wandered over and touched the door handle—the bedroom also had its own set of French doors; they could open the doors while they made love.

The only unfortunate feature was the security wall but that really didn’t matter—he could see enough of the ocean to satisfy him. It was very beautiful, very serene. He picked up a fallen geranium leaf and twirled it by the stem.

“Where were you?”

He spun around, truly startled for one of the few times in his life. He was going to blame it on the view, on being tired and not the fact that Cho was getting too good at sneaking up on him. He cocked his head—Cho was standing by the sofa, just a dark figure in the dark room, but his voice was calm—maybe he wasn’t still angry? “Out on the beach.”

“I’ve been looking everywhere for you.” Cho came forward slowly, the way he did when approaching a situation that could either be dangerous or not. “Lisbon said she called—” He reached the French doors and stopped in his tracks. He looked Jane up and down and said, almost in accusation, “What are you wearing?”

He glanced down. His pants were still rolled up, his shirt still open and untucked—nothing out of the ordinary. “Clothing. Shirt, pants—the usual. Oh, you mean my feet? Yeah, they’re still kind of dirty.” He rubbed one foot on his calf. “I guess I should have—”

“Come inside.”

“Why? It’s so beautiful. Maybe we can drag the mattress out here and sleep under the stars.” He tipped his head up and gestured to the stars he could only see faintly through the light pollution and haze. “I mean, sure, it might rai—”

Cho made an annoyed sound, stepped one long step, grabbed Jane and hauled him into the dark room. In a rough move he slammed Jane up against the wall, making the artwork rattle. And then his mouth was on Jane’s and Jane forgot what he was saying, forgot anything but Cho and Cho’s mouth.

Cho tasted of coffee and mint, a taste so familiar, so known, that his body woke up. Kind of like Pavlov’s do and how had he forgotten this? He shouldn’t have wasted any time roaming about on the sand when he could’ve been—

Cho bit his lower lip. Jane gasped and dropped the geranium leaf. He grappled Cho to him, and opened his mouth wider, pressing closer, the feeling of Cho’s smooth shirt and sleek tie against his naked chest making him crazy and he was grateful for the wall, for the floor, because he would have surely fallen without them.

He made another noise, half sigh, half moan. Cho pulled back, just a hair, and whispered, “Did I hurt you? Sorry, I didn’t—”

He shut Cho up by bitinghis tongue because Cho loved that so much. Then he moved to Cho’s chin and throat because he loved that even more.

“Yes,” Cho muttered.

“Yes, what?” he mumbled against Cho’s throat.

“You asked me earlier. Yes, I missed you. I missed this—”

Jane stopped and cupped Cho’s jaw, thinking that Cho never missed anything or anyone. And if he did, he kept it to himself. To give away even that much of himself—how much had that cost?

He smiled gently and leaned in to kiss Cho with all his heart.

And that, as they say, was that.

With little grace but a lot of intent, Cho backed him up across the carpet to the bedroom, kissing all the while. When they got to the bed, Cho gave him a little push and he fell with a surprised laugh.

He got Cho’s jacket off with clumsy fingers, then his footgear and trousers, taken aback to find that his skill had left him somewhere between the sitting room and here and he was shaking, just a little. But that was appropriate, yes? If his epiphany was truly epiphanic, it was right that he was shaking, because this meant something.

He paused, hand pressing Cho’s shirt-covered belly, absorbing the knowledge, letting it flow through him, head to heart to soul. It was kind of like that first moment when he found a way around someone’s lies and barriers and the thrill of it made his hands reckless—he gripped Cho’s shirt and with a broad, broad smile, he ripped the shirt open.

Buttons went flying and his smile changed to a laugh at Cho’s startled grin. “That was fun. Too bad you’re not wearing another one.”

“You’re paying for it.”

He tugged the shirt off and tossed it over his shoulder. “Happily.” He ran his hands up Cho’s stomach and chest, leaning close to kiss Cho’s sternum. “Happily.”

“What about my tie?”

He looked up. Then reached for the tie and wrapped it around his fist. “I think I’ll leave it on. With your newly shorn hair, you look sinful and debauched, like a choirboy that’s strayed to the wrong side of the tracks.”

Cho growled, “Jesus, Jane—” and fell on him.

He let Cho undress him, not helping a bit, and when he was completely naked, the cool of the quilt underneath, the heat of Cho above, he grabbed Cho’s tie and pulled. Cho came, slipping onto him fitting between his spread thighs and he thrust once, then twice, and—

Cho stopped, up on his elbows. He was trembling. And he wouldn’t look at Jane. The darkness was back in his eyes, the one from earlier when it seemed as if he either wanted to kiss Jane or kill him. Not a look Jane was unfamiliar with, but not from Cho, not— “What is it?”

Cho turned his head away and Jane grabbed his jaw, not gently, and held him in place. Still the same blank, walled-off look. “Did something happen? Is it Michaels? I know he’s been riding you. Van Pelt told me. Did he say something about us?”

“I—” Cho shook his head free, and pushed away, preparing to retreat. Jane followed, thinking to kiss it out of him but Cho jerked his head away for the third time.

Cho was never coy, never missish—when he wanted something, he went for it with his whole heart. But this was no good, not when Jane had missed him so much, not while his body was aching and hard so he said quietly and with complete sincerity “If you don’t tell me what’s going on, I’m going to leave and—”

“I want to fuck you.”

Before the words had faded to silence, Jane was smiling. Not in mockery or at the shocked look on Cho’s face because he clearly couldn’t believe what he’d just said… “I take it by your expression you thought I’d object. How could I possible object?”

“Are you serious?”

“Well, duh, as the kids today say.”

Cho tightened his lips and tried to get up again. Jane pulled him back down. “I’m sorry, that was rude. But, yes, I’d like that, I’d really like that.”

“Are you sure?”

“Do you really want me to answer th—”

This time it was Cho that shut Jane up with a kiss that was hard and thorough. Finally, he pulled away and covered Jane’s hand with his own. “Let me go.”

“Are you going to run?”

Cho looked at Jane’s lips and shook his head. “No.”

Jane let go and Cho got up.

He leaned on his elbows and watched as Cho pulled his tie over his head and went to the dresser. It was funny—he’d seen Cho naked more than a few times and it was still a treat, watching him move. He wondered what Cho would say if he told him he should always be naked. “What are you doing now?” He reached a long arm to turn on the light.

“What do you think, Kreskin?” Cho shuffled through a drawer, then held up a flat package and a slim tube without turning around.

Jane snorted. Always prepared for emergencies, was Cho. “Did you buy that in the hotel gift shop? I would’ve loved to have been there. Was the hotel manager there? What did she say?”

Cho turned and slowly walked back to the bed. He stood there for a long moment, lit up by the lamp, one side gold, the other side dark. “I bought them the week after we first had sex. I’ve been carrying them around since then.”

And that, that surprised Jane. His smile died and he whispered reproachfully, “Cho.”

“It’s okay. I survived. And you never mentioned it.” Cho shrugged, but he didn’t look away.

“I don’t—” He shrugged as well, trying to find the words that would match such a revelation. ‘Don’t keep those things from me. It’s not nice,’ he wanted to say, and, ‘It hurts that you don’t trust me, that you think we’re still separate in all this.’ And—because he was who he was—‘How is it possible that I didn’t find the condoms? I’ve found everything else, including the photo that Rigsby gave you of that girl from that job last month.’ But since he couldn’t say any of that, he lifted his foot—his still dirty foot—and traced the line of hair that ran from Cho’s chest to his groin.

Cho stroked his foot, his ankle, then pushed his legs wide and knelt on the mattress.

Cho made him turn over. Not that Jane cared—on his back, on his knees, sitting astride—Cho would still be in him and that’s all he wanted and he couldn’t wait—

And Cho was so careful. Watching Jane’s face closely as if looking for signs of pain or maybe lies, he delicately and patiently used one finger, then two, then three.

And yes, when it got right down to it, it hurt. But not like it had all those years ago, and he almost said that just to make Cho’s frown go away. He caught the words just in time, remembering that there were some subjects still untouched and it worried him until Cho twisted his fingers. Heat raced up his spine and he arched, forgetting all about the past, about phantom secrets and phantom pain. He closed his eyes and choked out over his shoulder, “Cho?”

He didn’t have to ask twice—Cho mounted him, still careful, and it hurt again and then it hurt some more. Cho moved in him, an excruciatingly slow push in and an equally slow retreat and there went the pain, gone as if it had never existed and he laughed a laugh that turned into a long hitching whimper that sounded sexy, even to him.

“Jesus,” Cho muttered, “do that again.”

Jane did it again, then moaned when Cho bit the back of his neck and again, this time quieter because Cho was rocking in and out, again and again…

It was like the ocean, Jane thought as he breathed deep, face cradled between two pillows that couldn’t possibly smell like Cho, but did—being made love to by Cho was like diving into an ocean that was clear and deep and so, so blue. A steady, seemingly cohesive surface of feeling and response, and underneath—

Underneath was the liquid sky of joy and love and lust and he rode it, pushing back hard, using his arms and back and the few words he could manage: “More,” and, “Yes,” suddenly wishing he knew how to surf because it would just like this, this wave of feeling, almost terrifying in its uniqueness, in its elementalness and if he could just learn how to let go

…he faltered and stilled as the joy slipped away to uncover a sick grief, like an undertow waiting in the dark. His heart lurched and the grief hit again—his wife’s face, the way she’d looked the last time he’d seen her, the hopeful smile in his daughter’s eyes as she made him promise absolutely that he wouldn’t cancel the trip to the zoo like he had the week before…

He reached out, grabbing blind, and found Cho’s fist clenched in the quilt, blindsided by the arrival of a pain he’d thought long asleep. He wasn’t supposed to be feeling these feelings, not now, not when—

He made some black noise and Cho stopped moving.

In the quick silence Cho stroked his hair, ghosting over the bruise that Evans had given him, down over his damp back, petting firmly. “What is it?”

“Nothing.” And that broken thing didn’t even sound like his voice.

Cho pulled out, just a bit. “It’s okay. It’s—.”

Jane wrapped his leg around Cho’s, holding him still. “Don’t.”

“Do you want me to stop? I will, if you—”

“No. No, just don’t— Don’t let go.” The strangled plea was out before he could stop it, and he flushed in shame. He hadn’t meant to say that and it was weak, weak, weak—

Cho relaxed over him, a heavy blanket of warm flesh and bone. He kissed Jane’s temple, his cheek. “No, never. I won’t—”

And he didn’t. With a muttered string of half-heard words, he brushed Jane’s hair back and began again, this time reaching under   to make a place for Jane and together they shoved and pushed through the one-sided grief, Cho saying all the while, “Shh, shh, never, shh…”

***

“I want to learn how to surf.”

Cho’s hand stopped moving. “What?”

“I want to learn how to surf,” Jane repeated.

“I thought you didn’t approve of strenuous activity. That’s what you always say when I try to get you to go running.”

Jane smiled into the side of Cho’s chest. “Well, you know, running— It’s such a lot of bother.”

“And surfing isn’t?”

“Won’t know until I try.”

Cho began stroking his hair again, combing it back because they were both still sweaty and Jane’s hair was matted into curls that kept falling into his eyes. “I can teach you.”

Jane pushed up to his elbow. Cho was on his back, diagonally on the bed where he’d flopped after Jane had cleaned them both up. His eyes were tired, but his mouth, his beautiful mouth, was still curved. He looked happy and pleased, and that made Jane happy and pleased. He traced the outline of Cho’s lips with his thumb. “When did you learn how to surf?”

“Everyone who lives near the coast knows how to surf.”

“That’s not true.”

“Yes, it is.”

“Lisbon doesn’t. Rigsby doesn’t.”

“Have you asked?”

Jane paused. “No.” He lay down and pulled Cho’s arm around him again. “How long do you think it will take me to learn?”

“Not long. Maybe a couple weeks. You’ve got good muscle control— Stop that,” Cho added when Jane bit the place where his chest curved into his shoulder. “Anyway, it’s mostly just balance and not being afraid of getting banged up.”

“Will I need to buy a board and a wetsuit?”

Cho didn’t answer. Jane looked up. Cho’s mouth was open slightly, his eyes full of sleepy lust. “What?”

“I’m just imagining you in a wetsuit.”

“Hmm,” Jane said distractedly, because now that Cho mentioned it— “You’d look great, too. You have a great ass.”

Cho snorted. “What?”

Jane laughed out loud with glee and turned onto his stomach, draping himself over Cho. He’d been waiting to pass on this bit of gossip for a while and had only just remembered. “I overheard—”

“You mean you were spying.”

He shrugged, “Overhearing, spying—there’s very little difference between the two. Anyway,” he covered Cho’s mouth with his hand before he could argue the point and said, “I overheard Heather tell Alyssa that you have a really great ass.”

Cho pulled his hand away. “Heather from accounting or Heather from the gang unit?”

“The former and should I be worried that you’re even asking?”

“Don’t be an idiot.”

He grinned and dropped back down, taking care to land hard enough to make Cho grunt and grab him again. They wrestled for a few minutes until he gave in. He settled against Cho’s side again and traced the curve of his ribs, the hollow of his belly. Cho made a contented sound. “What were you and Lisbon talking about, earlier?”

“When earlier?”

“You know, in the car.” And before Cho could pretend ignorance, “On the way from the airport and don’t tell me you weren’t discussing anything important.”

“It was nothing.”

“Uh, huh.”

“Really.”

He waited. Finally Cho sighed and muttered, “I can’t get out of this, can I?”

“Nope.”

Cho shrugged. “We talked about the case.”

“And me?”

“You’re so vain, you know that?”

“Which doesn’t mean you didn’t talk about me.”

Cho drew a breath, then laughed. “I don’t even know what that means.”

Jane kissed the skin nearest his lips and chided, “Yes, you do.”

“Yes. I do.” Cho carded his fingers through Jane’s hair. “We really did talk about the case—I told you all about it during the meeting. And yes, we did talk about you. Very briefly.”

“Hmm,” he nodded, satisfied. Lisbon wasn’t one to interfere with her agent’s private lives, but Cho was different. She was closer to Cho than anyone else; it would have made him jealous, if he were the jealous type. He stroked the hair on Cho’s chest. “What did you buy me?”

“What?”

“From the gift shop. What did you buy me?”

“How do you know I bought you anything?”

“Because you’re on a trip and that’s what lovers do when one of them goes on a trip. They buy gifts.”

Cho paused, then said, “I wouldn’t call this much of a trip.”

Jane tugged on a bit of hair and laughed when Cho slapped his hand. “Don’t quibble.”

Cho shrugged and said, “Look in the top drawer.”

And Jane was up, digging around in the drawer until he found a plastic bag with the hotel’s logo. Inside was a long rectangular black box with a distinctive yellow label. Mariage Freres. Jane turned around and held it up with a big smile. “Wow.”

“It’s not a watch.”

Cho’s voice was hesitant, unsure, and Jane hurried back to the bed. “Are you kidding? It’s better.” He jumped back in bed and leaned over to kiss Cho. “It’s better. Thank you.”

Cho stroked his neck. “I wasn’t sure if you had one of those spoon things, so I got that as well.”

Jane opened the box up and took out a slim canister. “The spoon thing is called a strainer. Let’s have some tonight.”

“Aren’t you supposed to have tea with scones or something?”

Jane put the canister back and got out another. Marco Polo—his favorite. “How many times have you seen me eat cookies with tea?”

Cho paused, then said, “Well, just a couple, I guess.”

“Exactly. Besides, what we need is dinner.”

“Now?”

“Yes, now. I’m hungry.”

Cho sighed, but it was an indulgent sigh—he always complained about Jane’s post-coital hunger, but Jane knew that Cho secretly loved it, that he loved that he gave Jane such a workout that he was always hungry after sex. “They have twenty-four hour room service. The menu is in the study.”

Jane was up again before Cho finished speaking. He padded to the next room, picked up the folder marked, Amenities, and opened it up. He wandered back into the bedroom, trying to decide what he was hungry for. “Breakfast or dinner,” he murmured, “breakfast or dinner?”

“Don’t go crazy. Luckner is paying for it.”

“Won’t go crazy,” Jane answered absently. Dinner sounded too heavy, but he wouldn’t be eating for hours—he needed something to get him through the night. “How about eggs and toast.”

“Sounds good.”

But it was still evening, technically—dinner would be more appropriate. And more logical—they’d just made love and that used up a lot of calories. But the steak was twenty-eight dollars a plate and Cho would probably have a heart attack if he ordered that. “Cho?”

“Yes?”

But who cared, really? He’d never stay here again and Luckner deserved it for not trusting Cho’s advice in regards to Evans. “Are you still angry?”

“Angry?”

Jane looked up. Cho was on his side, leaning on one elbow, watching him with a small, appreciative smile. Jane pointed the book at him and said, “Yes, angry. As in earlier, at the airport?”

“Of course,” Cho said with no hesitation. “You scared the hell out of me. I’m tired of seeing people put guns to your head.”

Jane thought about that for a minute. It hadn’t been that many times, but he supposed if the shoe was on the other foot, he’d be just as unreasonable. “Okay.”

“Are you still mad at me for ditching you?”

“I was. You made up for it tonight.”

Cho frowned. “So all I have to do is have sex with you and I’m forgiven?”

“Pretty much.”

“You’re easy.”

Jane threw down the menu and leaped into bed. “You have no idea. I’m ordering steak, I don’t care what you say. Oh, and we need boiling hot water. Fresh boiling hot water. And milk.” He reached over Cho for the phone and asked for room service. As he ordered the meal, he used Cho as a pillow so Cho could play with his hair.

When he was done, he set the phone on the nightstand and rested his chin on his crossed his arms. “Too bad you didn’t get a chance at Mathias.”

Cho’s face darkened and he stirred restlessly. “Yeah.”

“Forensics isn’t going to find anything.”

“How can you be so sure?”

He shrugged. “Because they haven’t found anything yet at the other crime scenes.”

Cho tightened his lips and Jane kissed his chest in unspoken apology. He’d probably been hoping that, unlike the other murder scenes, they’d find even the smallest measure of information. “You do know that is the real worry, yes? That the crime scenes were so clean?”

“I know.”

“We’re going to Evans’s apartment tomorrow?”

“We are.”

“We’ll get the guys and make a day of it.”

“Only you could make a picnic out of a murder investigation.”

Jane grinned. “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

Cho ran a fingertip over Jane’s shoulder, down to his wrist and back again. “Did Rigsby miss Van Pelt?”

“I don’t know. Did Van Pelt miss Rigsby.”

Cho nodded. “If he doesn’t say something soon, she’s going to move on.”

“Why don’t you go tell him? He’s in the suite right behind ours.”

Cho’s mouth dropped open. And then he was up, jumping off the bed so fast that Jane went sprawling. He hurried to the doors and pulled the curtains. “Why didn’t you say something? That house is twenty feet away! Jesus, Jane.”

“Relax,” Jane said, trying not to laugh at Cho’s panic. This was the man who’d faced criminals of every degree. Who’d kept his cool while victims raged and families accused and murderers threatened. “We weren’t noisy but if he asks about anything, I’ll just tell him it was the TV. C’mon.” He patted the bed enticingly. “No one’s outside, no one heard, and we have an hour before room service comes.”

With an exasperated frown Cho came back to bed and it was a while, maybe even five minutes, before Jane managed to kiss the smile back on his face.

_________________

 

(Thursday)

Jane was still in the shower and Cho was still packing when someone knocked on the door. He hurried to the bathroom and leaned in. Jane was turned away, but the fan was on and the glass shower walls hid nothing and he had a good view of Jane, hair slicked back, muscles of his back moving as he washed his face.

Cho’s mouth dried. It was like something from a porno or an especially vivid dream and he wondered if he’d ever get used to it, seeing Jane naked. Probably not. “Hey,” he said, and then again, because his voice wasn’t working right, “Hey!”

Jane looked over his shoulder. Then he leered, ridiculously over the top. “Thought you were too busy?”

“Someone’s at the door.”

“So don’t say anything untoward?”

“Yes.”

Jane turned around, casually stroking his chest. “Because you’re worried what they might think?”

Cho swallowed. “Yes.”

Jane’s smile widened to a grin and he ducked his head under the spray and ran his hands over his face and hair. Cho gripped the doorknob, making the metal squeak. “Then won’t they hear all this shouting?”

He opened his mouth, then shut it again. Damnit.

He closed the bathroom door but could clearly hear Jane laughing. The bastard. He wiped the damp off his face and went to the front door, opening it too forcefully.

Van Pelt jumped and Rigsby raised an eyebrow, saying, “Jeez, take it easy. We’re going to breakfast, not a double murder. Want to come?” Van Pelt had her overnight bag and Rigsby was carrying her laptop.

He kept his face blank, telling himself that there was no way they’d heard anything. “Where’s Lisbon?”

Van Pelt answered. “She’s already at the restaurant. She wanted to catch Dr. Wallach before they all left.”

“They’re gone?”

“Yes.” And Van Pelt gave Cho a small frown as if reminding him that the abbreviated conference wasn’t his fault. Lisbon had said roughly the same thing the night before. “She has some preliminary results from Evans’s apartment and wanted to go over it with us.”

Van Pelt didn’t look happy which meant one thing. “Nothing, right?”

“Zip, zilch, nadda,” Rigsby said. “At least for now. The Feds are bringing in their own forensics team, but…”

He shrugged and Cho sighed. He’d known it was too much to hope for.

Van Pelt reached out, as if she were going to touch his arm. “Maybe we’ll get something from the phone dump. Luckner’s team is on it and Blount is bringing in his people.”

Even if they did come up with something, it was probably too little, too late. “What about the staff? Did Martinez get anything from the interviews?”

Van Pelt shook her head. “No, they all told her that Mathias couldn’t be British. Most of them hadn’t even talked to him, but they all agreed on that. He kept to himselfalthough one of the doctor’s wives, Mrs. Salvi, said she met him and thought he was very nice. But not British.” Van Pelt shook her head.

“What about,” he began, stopping because just then, Jane started to sing. He couldn’t quite hear the words, but it sounded like a show tune. Maybe from the Sound of Music? He ignored it, ignored Van Pelt’s startled grin and Rigsby’s smirk. “What about the computer?”

Rigsby peered into the room. Cho gripped the door handle and stopped himself from closing it. There was nothing to see in any case. Other than the sitting room and beyond that, the unmade—and obviously only—bed.

“They’re waiting on that as well,” Van Pelt said loudly, shooting Cho a quick glance. “Something about the hard drive being booby trapped.”

Jane switched to Close to You and was really belting it out. Cho felt his face heat.

Rigsby stood on his toes, grinning broadly, still trying to see inside. “Hey, have I got news for you two.” He dropped back down and looked from Cho to Van Pelt, obviously waiting for a response.

After a moment, Cho rolled his eyes. “Well?”

“It’s about a certain someone and another certain someone,” Rigsby said archly.

“Rigsby—” Van Pelt began.

Rigsby laughed and said, “Okay, yeah, sorry. It’s just sort of big news.” He cleared his throat and straightened up, like he was about to deliver a proclamation. “Lisbon and Jane are dating.”

Later, when he thought about it, he realized he’d been grateful for Van Pelt’s presence because he’d felt like someone had punched him in the stomach. Or had thrown a bucket of ice cold water down his back and he wasn’t sure what he would have done if Van Pelt hadn’t been there, giving him that worried frown.

Rigsby looked back and forth between Cho and Van Pelt, then insisted, “It’s true. I saw them.”

“What did you see?” It took a second for Cho to recognize his own voice.

Rigsby’s smile faded a bit. “They were in her office, holding hands.”

Cho wanted to sigh. And then he wanted to punch Rigsby for scaring him so bad.

“Wayne.” Van Pelt rolled her eyes. “Jane holds hands with everyone. He’s held my hand a half dozen times. That doesn’t mean we’re dating!”

“What are you getting so angry about?” Rigsby was still glancing between them, his happy smile turning to a frustrated frown. “It’s good news, right?”

Van Pelt shook her head and grabbed Rigsby’s arm, saying, “Come on, Wayne. I’m hungry.” She tugged him away, looking over her shoulder, meeting Cho’s eyes ruefully, as if Rigsby and his big mouth were her fault.

Cho watched them go, then closed the door gently. On the way to the bedroom he pounded on the bathroom door and called out, “They’re gone, Placido—you can shut up now.”

The singing stopped and he returned to his packing. Which could wait, he decided, suddenly exhausted for no reason.

Well, good reason, he supposed as he sat on the bed, running his hand unseeingly over the sheets as he thought about the day before.

The investigation had been as unproductive and frustrating. They’d spent three fruitless hours at Evans’s apartment, searching for clues. Other than learning that the downstairs neighbor’s name was Harriet Rincer and that along with Henry, she had a pair of lovebirds that hated each other and had to be kept in separate cages, they’d found nothing to help them with the case.

Cho had watched as Jane did his thing, charming Mrs. Rincer into metaphorically eating out of his hand. She’d guided him around the tiny junk-filled apartment and introduced him to the animals and then her postcard collection. Cho had stood by, arms crossed, growing more and more irritated. Lisbon rescued them at noon and they returned to the hotel.

They sat around the conference room table for another three hours, adding onto the profile that, as Jane had argued, was little more than guesswork. Luckner took Jane’s input with strained grace, but Blount was surprisingly open and interested in Jane’s theories. So much so that at one point he wondered if Blount would come knocking on their door later that night. The image had made him choke and he’d had to excuse himself for a minute. They broke up soon after.

Jane had made some vague noise about a late lunch at a restaurant about a mile down the coast. Everyone had agreed except for Cho. Not in the mood for company, he said he’d see them later and headed back to the room.

He was changing into his running clothes when Jane tiptoed into the room and bolted the door. Holding his fingers to his lips with great exaggeration, he made sure the French doors were locked and then told Cho he’d given the others the slip. They thought, Jane said with more than a little glee, that he was communing with nature which gave them at least two hours. And that was Cho’s last coherent thought as Jane tossed the key card on the bureau and began unbuttoning his vest.

They came up for air at six-thirty, mostly because Cho insisted on making an appearance at dinner even though he wanted to stay in bed.

They ate with the team on the patio, taking up only one corner. He had to work at the conversation but it wasn’t too hard—he was generally silent. Everyone knew that.

Jane, of course, had been in his element, chatting about D.C. and New York with Luckner and London with Blount, engaging the others as he always did.

Afterwards, Jane had insisted that a walk along the beach would do them a world of good. Lisbon, Blount and Luckner declined, but Rigsby and Van Pelt said yes. They strolled through the gardens and then turned left when they got to the beach.

The night air was free of smog and the moon and stars were clear and bright. It was annoyingly romantic and Cho had to remind himself that they weren’t alone. Yes, Rigsby and Van Pelt were about a hundred feet ahead, but that didn’t mean they were alone and it was important to keep his hands to himself. Jane, though, wasn’t on the same page and he kept bumping into Cho as if by accident.

By the time they got back to the room, he had been more than ready for a repeat performance of the night before, and Jane obliged. This time, though, they had sex on the desk in the sitting room because Jane had thought it would be fun. It was hot and perverse and Cho remembered saying that, ‘You’re something else, Jane, you know that?” Jane had just laughed out loud and told Cho to put his back into it, that he could take whatever Cho gave.

The memory, less than twelve hours old, returned and he looked at the nightstand. He hesitated, then reached out and touched the little band of gold, still resting near the clock radio.

Jane never took his wedding ring off. Ever. Not for a case, not for a shower.

But this time he had. Right after they’d both come, still draped over the desk, Jane had pulled them up and they’d staggered to the bathroom. They’d showered quickly, then went to bed and it was there, as they were making themselves comfortable, that Jane casually pulled off his ring. He’d placed it on the nightstand and then had turned to Cho and gathered him close.

What did it mean, that Jane had taken off his ring, at that particular moment? Probably nothing, and how was he to know if Jane never took off the ring? They didn’t spend every waking moment together, not by a long shot.

He picked up the ring, tentatively as if expecting an alarm to sound. It was cool and smooth and Van Pelt’s hesitant words came back to him: ‘He still wears his wedding ring.’

Where was this thing with Jane going?

He hadn’t yet let the thought make it to the surface of his mind, and when it did, he’d pushed it back down, telling himself that he and Jane were too new, that he’d always preferred to take things slow and casual, anyway. And Jane, he wanted the same thing, right? He’d never asked for more, never mentioned anything about a future. Hell, he’d never even asked Cho over to his place, not once.

With a start, Cho realized that he was squeezing the ring, as if trying to bend it to a different shape. He shot a guilty look towards the bathroom and sat the ring back down, trying to remember exactly where it had been. Which was crazy, because not even Jane would notice a thing like that. Still—

When he was pretty sure the ring was in the right place, he rose and finished his packing. He was just zipping his suitcase when the bathroom door opened, carrying a warm scent of soap and wet. Without turning around, he said, “I assume you’re taking all the shampoo.”

“Of course I am. The body wash, too. These aren’t the cheap kind that the hotel staff is going to refill and put back.”

“You know…” Cho turned, thinking to remind Jane that he better not take anything else because he was an officer of the law and the hotel had paid good money for those products when his breath caught in his throat.

Jane was wearing just a towel. A towel with Hotel Carina Luna woven in fancy lettering down the front. Cho opened his mouth and nothing came out. Not, ‘Get dressed, we’re late,’ or, ‘Christ, you’re beautiful.’ Or even the honest, ‘Don’t walk around like that if this is nothing more than sex and by the way, are you sleeping with Lisbon?’

Which was ridiculous and he turned back to his case, pretending to zip it up again as he waited for his heart to slow down, for his brain to shut up.

“And anyway, I’ve already used them all so if I left them, that would be unhygienic.”

He heard the soft sounds of Jane getting dressed and had to forcibly keep himself from turning around to watch. “There were four kinds of shampoo in there and about a dozen soaps.”

“No, only six. Besides,” Jane padded up and turned Cho around. He was mostly dressed, his shirt still unbuttoned. He ran his hand over Cho’s hair. “When we get home, I want to see what your hair smells like with Misty Morning Magnolia in it.”

Cho wanted to make a face, wanted to say that there was no way in hell he’d ever put crap like that in his hair, but Jane was smiling and his eyes were so blue and there was simply no way to resist him when he was like that. So he settled for a muttered, “Whatever,” and tilted his head for the long kiss that Jane gave him.

Fifteen minutes later they were on the path, Jane lagging behind because he kept stopping to look at the plants, when Cho remembered something he’d been meaning to do all morning. He got out his cell.

“What are you doing?”

Cho looked back. Jane was bent over a plant with big leaves and bigger white blooms. His pants were already wet at the knees. “Luckner didn’t want us to use our cells while we were on the detail but now that it doesn’t matter, I’m picking up my messages.” He retrieved his mail just as Jane straightened up and hurried towards him, finger up.

“Oh. About that…”

_________________

 

Coda

 

John turned the page of the newspaper he was pretending to read, carefully not watching as the agents trooped by him, not thirty feet away. He’d been waiting all afternoon, hiding behind an older couple, and then a family of five, fielding call after call from Mark who thought he was more than a little reckless, taking such a risk. John had assured him that the last thing the agents would be expecting was a repeat performance, so to speak, of the Mathew incident.

Mr. Jane was there, of course. He strolled next to Agent Lisbon, smiling, saying something low in her ear. She ignored him. But Agent Cho didn’t. He was on Agent Lisbon’s other side, giving Mr. Jane a quick look every now and then.

The other two, Grace Van Pelt and the boy, Rigsby, trailed behind. Rigsby said something to her and she smiled. Maybe they were lovers. He wasn’t sure if there were any rules about such things in the States. There were where he came from.

Blount wasn’t with them. No big surprise there, John though sourly. Blount liked to arrive late and stay late—John had made his career based on that fact and he knew every single one of Blount’s foibles.

Yes, there was very little that surprised John these days. Fifteen years in the military, seven as CEO of a multi-national corporation, he’d seen it all, done it all. And yet…

Two nights ago he’d had the surprise of… Well, not a lifetime, because it could hardly have been called that. Just a minor shock—he’d assumed that Agent Cho was as straight as they came.

But no, apparently not, and after the agent had shut the lanai doors, John had jumped off the hotel’s useless boundary wall to land in the sand. He’d brushed himself off, gathered up his shoes and pack, and began the long trek back to where Luke and Mark were patiently waiting. He hadn’t been able to see much, even with the infrareds, but he’d seen enough.

And now, after he’d had time to react, time to think, he realized that this little bump in his path would be useful. Blackmail was never as easy as movies made it out to be, but in this case it just might work.

He waited until the agents were through the ticket line, then stood and threw the paper away. He went outside.

The sun was still behind the building, but he put his sunglasses on—a weak attempt at dodging any security cameras even though he was wearing his baseball cap.

An airport guard was standing by a newspaper stand; he nodded and John nodded in return. It was so pleasant here; one would never know that there’d been an international incident not twenty-four hours ago.

It was a pity they’d have to leave so soon. He quite liked this part of California and wouldn’t mind staying. But he needed a strategy and as he strolled across the pedestrian walk, he began to plan.

Revenge was for suckers was the popular saying and for the most part John had found it to be true. Looking an enemy in the eye, seeing their acknowledgement of the fate about to be delivered—it never felt quite as good as expected and generally brought at least one unforeseen consequence.

But forcing him to kill Mathew before he’d received the last two pages of data—

No, in this case, revenge, carefully planned, methodically executed, was the only answer. And, if he had a chance to go one on one with the pretty Agent Cho, well, all the better.

He wended his way through the cars until he got to the inoffensive SUV, the third row back. He almost made the mistake of getting in the wrong side and corrected himself at the last minute. He never made mistakes like that—he must be more tired than he thought.

Nevertheless, when he got inside and turned to Mark in the driver’s seat and Luke in the back seat, he grinned and announced, “This is going to be so much fun.”

 

 Continued in The Red Man