Hey everybody! I'm back again! I hope everyone's having a lovely quarantine. Anyway, if you're a returning reader, welcome back! If you're new, stop right now, because this story cannot be read without first reading the following:
MURD 201: Syllabus by Haven126
MURD 201: Exam 1 by me
MURD 201: Exam 2 by me
MURD 201: Pop Quiz, also by me.
Other than that, good to have you here! I hope you enjoy this, and as always, I have to thank Haven126 for her absolutely invaluable help. Seriously, up until the exam, she wrote, like 80-95% of what you're reading. She's a boss and honestly the best.
Now, without further ado, on with the show!
Riley was fidgeting.
She was self-aware; she knew it was a tell, and she knew what she was telling the other people in the room—particularly the disapproving figure standing in front of them. But somehow, she just couldn't bring herself to care.
She wasn't the one causing the tension.
That blame lay solely on the three men in the room. Mac was standing on the right, valiantly trying to project calm and ease, but the speed with which he was mangling paperclips gave him away. Bozer was finally back in an official capacity, perched a little uncomfortably on the War Room sofa, sitting ramrod straight thanks to the various wraps that were still supporting his healing core muscles. And Jack was basically glued right to her ass, literally standing between her and the door like he thought Murdoc was going to barge in at any moment and try to haul her away by her hair.
Matty stood at the front of the room, silently regarding them. Riley couldn't help the thought that she found them all wanting. It was obvious that their boss was aware of the lack of harmony amongst her agents, and it was just as obvious how much it irritated her.
Finally, Matty spoke. "Riley." The tech tried not to physically react to the sharpness in her tone. "Is the room clean?"
"Yes." That, at least, she could say with one hundred percent certainty. "The protocols are working as designed. We've found and disabled seventeen devices in all, and none of them were on Phoenix property. Well, except the ones we carried in," she clarified. "The ten in the fleet vehicles being used by our security details, the one on Mark Kyser's wheelchair and the spare in his apartment, one in my bag lining, one in Mac's bomber jacket lining, the pair in the soles of Bozer's loafers, and the one in Jack's spare holster."
She had to give the assassin credit; he'd only bugged items he knew they'd take with them to each and every safehouse, and those items had been under relatively tight security the entire time.
Matty gave them all another hard look, and Riley fought not to drop her eyes.
"And you're certain the Phoenix systems have been scrubbed."
That, she was a little less sure about. Maybe eighty percent. "As sure as I can be. Whoever got into our systems, they did it eight months ago by making their software look like one of our own security apps. The code in the software worm and on the physical bugs is sophisticated stuff, it was definitely written by the same guy. So I'm running scans on our systems looking for that signature or anything else even remotely like it on a random cycle, just in case he left himself a back door. In the last two weeks I haven't found any other instances of it."
And sophisticated didn't really cover it. The bugs were downright ingenious. Each had been individually programmed to their schedules, to ensure it was never transmitting when they were in a Phoenix building and the transmission might be detected. They had on-board recording capabilities, and the compression algorithm was truly elegant. They were tiny, light, easy to hide—once she found the one on Kyser's wheelchair, which is where it had to be to get recordings of his voice during his physical therapy, she was able to backwards engineer it and loaded them all down with personal transmission detectors. After that, it had been a simple matter of waiting for the detector to beep, and then stripping the environment down—in some cases down to its boxer shorts—to find the damn things.
And after the elation of finally, finally getting something actionable, finally being able to throw a wrench in Murdoc's plan, the trail ended almost as soon as it began. She'd never seen this tech before; it was nation-state-level sophisticated, but none of the US intelligence agencies—supposedly—had any record of any devices like it. As for the worm, it had been used to great effect to exfiltrate the intimate details of the drowning of Zoe Kimura abord the R.V. Bancroft, the human trafficking compound where Bozer and Sofía were kidnapped, and even more simple things like remotely activating their smartphone mics so Murdoc could listen in on the duck game and glean Bozer's pastrami recipe. It had been coded to look exactly like the Phoenix VPN security software.
Software she'd upgraded about eight months ago. Software she'd taken off premises to work on after hours in her apartment. Whoever had done all this, he'd gotten onto her rig without her knowing, and he'd done it before Murdoc had swooped into that warehouse the night Jack was shot and Mac almost got char-broiled.
She hadn't brought the worm into the Phoenix, but she'd given this guy everything he needed to disguise it and hide it from them. If he hadn't had that leg up, if he hadn't gotten that copy of her code, she might have found the worm before Matty was taken, before Bozer was taken—
And whoever the hell he was, not only was he good at hiding from her, but her old hacker contacts hadn't turned up anything either. A guy—or girl—this skilled didn't just fall out of the clear blue sky. Murdoc had found and hired him or her somehow. Someone, somewhere had to know who this person was in order to broker deals, advertise their services. The fact that even with her own contacts, she couldn't track this asshole down, was driving her crazy.
It was very clear to her now that Murdoc had an accomplice. Maybe the person Mac had seen pacing in his kitchen the day Murdoc shot him in his own garage. She glanced almost unconsciously at MacGyver, noting that even from her angle, his blond hair was finally able to completely cover the scar that the bullet had dug along his skull.
"I'm sure that our phones are clean," Riley added, when she realized she'd been quiet too long. "I installed versioning software on all of them that does integrity checks eight different ways. I don't think even I could get around it undetected."
Behind her, Jack gave a quiet grunt of approval. "Then it'll stop the Anti-Ri for sure."
She resisted the urge to roll her eyes. "Can we not call them the Anti-Ri, please?"
"I'd love to call them by their real name," Matty pressed, and Riley gave her an open 'me too' look.
"I've got all my dark web contacts looking into it, but so far..." She spread her hands, only then realizing how deeply she'd been picking at one of her cuticles. It was bleeding, and she hastily crossed her arms to hide it. They were already concerned about Mac falling apart, she didn't need to give Matty any more reason to suspect that she was just as neurotic.
Besides, she wasn't. She was just...tense. They'd been waiting for literal months for Murdoc to make another move. Long enough that Bozer was actually in the War Room with them, ready to take on an op. She half wished it would just happen already, because the anticipation was probably leeching years off her life.
Matty gave her another hard stare. "Because what I have to say to you all absolutely cannot be communicated to Murdoc. Not if we're going to have any shot at this."
All four of them perked up immediately; even Mac's incessant worrying at his paperclip stilled. "We have a lead?"
Matty's eyes cut to Mac, and after an endless moment, she gave him a single nod and the smallest of smiles. "Yes, Blondie. We have a lead."
She gestured to the screen behind her, where a middle-aged woman's smiling face appeared. "Meet Lara Clayton. Or at least that seems to be her go-to alias these days. We believe she was one of the members of Murdoc's Collective, and like most of the others, she's since fallen out of favor with her ex-employer."
Riley gave the woman a once-over. Her short brown hair was cut in a stylish bob, and the wrinkles around her eyes could have easily been mistaken for laugh lines, instead of hours of squinting down a sniper rifle's scope.
"So she's on the run," Mac murmured, and Matty nodded again.
"Don't let the soccer mom smile fool you. She's implicated in over forty murders, and those are just the ones we know about." Behind Riley, Jack whistled through his bottom teeth. "A CIA team in deep cover was way up north and stumbled across her in a gas station in Jasper."
"Alberta," Mac added quietly. "Canada."
"Right again. She's been seen there for the past three days, probably renting a cabin or another off-the-grid property. She's too smart to stay there long, which is why you'll have to move fast."
On the couch, Bozer shifted a little. "...you're sending...us?"
This time there was no mistaking it; Matty was definitely giving them the stink eye. "Yes, I'm sending you," she confirmed. "You three are going to have a boys' weekend out. All the hiking, fishing, and camping you can shake a stick at. Find Ms. Clayton and bring her in. At the rate Murdoc has been hunting down her fellow assassins, she needs our protection as much as we need her intel."
"Let me get this straight." Riley didn't even need to turn around to see the look on Jack's face, to know he was waving his hand in the air. "You want us three to backpack around Canada and convince a stone cold assassin she's better off in prison than out in Call of the Wild country."
"I'll personally make sure her prison has a five star Michelin rating if she can help us take Murdoc out of play," Matty shot back. "If we can find her, so can he. Make sure she understands the position she's in."
In front of her, Mac pocketed the paperclip. "Is there any reason to suspect Murdoc knows where she is?" His voice was deceptively calm, but Riley could see the tension thrumming right under the surface.
The director turned her attention back to him. "No, but if I were you, I'd make that assumption anyway. If she knows anything that can help us locate him, silencing her will be Murdoc's first priority."
Awesome. So they were going up against an assassin that had managed to stay one step ahead of Murdoc all this time, and they might also have to deal with the sociopath on top of it. At the very least, if he was in Canada, he couldn't also be in LA. Riley quietly cleared her throat. "And I'm working the op from here, I take it?"
"Yes." Matty's tone brooked no argument. "Our intel indicates she's off the grid, no phone, very little online presence, so your talents are better suited continuing to track down Murdoc's accomplice. I want you where I can keep an eye on you."
Mac very carefully didn't look at her, and a warm, comforting hand settled on Riley's shoulder. She resisted the urge to shrug it off. "Fine with me."
"Good. I'll have secure transport waiting for you three when you touch down, including an armored vehicle. You're wheels up in thirty."
Though it was clearly a dismissal, no one immediately moved. Mac glanced over at Bozer, trying to gauge how he felt about going back into the field, and Boze flashed his friend a bright, not-fooling-anyone smile. Riley knew Boze had to be a little worried—even just pretending to backpack or camp in the Canadian wilderness was going to be uncomfortable, and he'd probably been hoping for a slightly easier mission his first time out since—
And there was no missing the fact that Mac and Jack were once again out of sync. After he checked in with Bozer, Mac turned fully, giving his partner a cordial but guarded look, which Riley was pretty sure Jack was giving him in turn. They were cooperative with one another—they hadn't fought since that day in the hospital as far as Riley knew—but there was definitely still tension between them. From what Simmons and Jada had told them, the fight the pair had while Mac was in the hospital got pretty heated, and neither had given any indication that they wanted to patch things up. Not even when prompted by the rest of them.
Maybe an op would help them settle back in, or at the very least force them to deal with it, Riley thought as the three of them left the War Room and she picked up her laptop. Either way, she wasn't exactly sad that she'd been sidelined. At least with Jack out on the op, she could get a little breathing space, maybe make some headway.
And maybe, just maybe, they'd get another lead.
It turned out Matty was speaking literally when she said, 'I want you where I can keep an eye on you.' Instead of letting her retreat to the lab, it became apparent that Matty expected her to work exclusively in the War Room, and Riley therefore curled up on the couch and irritatedly fished her dangling right bra strap back onto her shoulder. For the third time.
The director carefully didn't look her way, instead choosing to watch the image of the Phoenix jet, now more than halfway to its destination. "Chinese or Italian?"
It took Riley far longer than it should have to translate that. "Chinese or Italian...food?"
"For lunch." There was an undercurrent of humor in Matty's voice, though the director never took her eyes off the screen. "One more skipped meal and you'll have to buy a new wardrobe."
She wanted to argue that she didn't skip meals, that protein bars counted, but after a few seconds, Riley realized she just didn't have it in her to argue anymore. And the director wasn't wrong. She knew why she couldn't stop fidgeting, why her clothes always felt so uncomfortable.
It was because her skin felt so uncomfortable.
"Anything as long as it's not pizza," she finally muttered, and yanked this time on her left bra strap.
"Mmm. I take it Jack's been having skeeball conversations with you."
"Every week." Of course Matty knew that; both her and Jack's details were also forced to go with them, and in some cases Jack had even insisted they also play skeeball and eat the greasy pizza. As it turned out, Jada was a skeeball master, which irritated her partner, Simmons, to no end. Riley was glad to know the ladies could hold their own.
"He's worried about you."
"He should be worried about himself," she retorted, maybe a little sharply, glaring at the innocuous little jet on the big screen. "Was sending them out really such a good idea? Boze is barely back, and—" She cut herself off.
"...and Mac and Jack aren't working well together," Matty finished. "What would you suggest I do about it?"
"Trust me, if I knew how to fix that, I would." And the thought of poor Bozer, all alone with those two, trying to play peacemaker—
Matty took a deep breath, as if considering her next words carefully. "Murdoc crossed a line, with Bozer," she started, and Riley was so shocked she actually looked at the director. Her boss's expression was a cross between steel and sympathy. "He tortured him, Riley. And there was absolutely nothing that Jack, or Mac, or you, or I could have done about it."
Riley carefully unclenched her teeth, and put her eyes back on the screen. It was supposed to be safer territory, but staring at that tiny plane, and imagining the suffocating silence inside of it, just pissed her off more.
"Murdoc snuck into my apartment for weeks and used my own phone to take pictures of me." Even before he'd shot Kyser and kidnapped Matty. And even after Mac figured out how, figured out how to keep Murdoc physically out of her bedroom, he'd still been there. Virtually. Still infecting her phone, still using the mic or the camera whenever he wanted.
Even though she'd started keeping it in a folding case after that, so that the camera was always covered, she hadn't slept well since then. Felt comfortable in her own skin since then.
"I knew that he'd gotten around our network security, Matty. I knew it. If I'd found that worm faster, if I'd—"
"But you didn't." There was more steel there than sympathy, and Riley closed her mouth. Because ultimately, that was the only thing that mattered.
She hadn't. And Murdoc had gotten to Bozer. Had gotten to Mac.
"What you're doing to yourself, what you're blaming yourself for...you are playing his game, Riley. You are doing exactly what you're angry at Mac for doing."
That felt a little like a slap in the face, and Riley focused her glare on her rig. "Thanks for the pep talk, boss."
"Riley, you've taken his eyes and ears. You've put Murdoc at a disadvantage, maybe for the first time since all this started. We have a credible lead. I know you're scared—"
"Do you?" Riley shot back, glaring at her boss. "Do you really? Because I think we all know what's going to happen to me if—"
If they couldn't stop him.
Murdoc's prison comment to Mac. The pictures, and more importantly the setting. The absolute glee as he'd sliced into Bozer, the pure sick pleasure on his face when Boze screamed—
There was no doubt in her mind what was going to happen to her if they couldn't stop him.
And watching Mac and Jack avoid eye contact, avoid even being in the same room with each other, standing beside Jack while they played skeeball, and knowing half his attention was on everyone around them, even with four Phoenix tac members watching their backs—
Jack knew. He never said anything about it, but he knew what would happen if they couldn't stop Murdoc. And she could see in the lines of worry on his face, the tension even when he hugged her, that he didn't believe they were going to get Murdoc before Murdoc got to her.
And she could see that knowledge, that resignation reflected in Matty's eyes. The older woman had put it all together a long time ago. "Riley—"
"They'll be landing in an hour," she interrupted, reasonably steadily, and focused back on her rig. "I need to make sure that armored car you promised them is ready to go."
It was an excuse, and not even a good one, but Matty let her have it. There really was nothing else to say. She knew she was doing exactly what Mac was doing. Withdrawing, burying herself in work because she felt guilty for every single second she wasn't a hundred percent vested in the search for Murdoc. And she knew, on some level, that she and Mac were probably doing it for the same reasons. Because they were afraid of Murdoc, of what he could do to the people they loved. What he could do to them.
But that didn't make one bit of difference to her anger. She'd already fucked up once, hadn't seen what was right in front of her. So had Mac. If they both ended up doing that again—
She couldn't afford to, because it was her ass on the line. And with the three of them out there in the Canadian wilderness, hunting an assassin who didn't want to be found—one that Murdoc had thought was worthy of his Collective—she needed to be on her game. Which meant this conversation with Matty needed to be over.
And maybe Webber realized that too, because she didn't press her again. She did, however, order Chinese. And Riley did have to admit—only to herself—that it actually tasted okay, and she felt slightly better after she'd eaten.
Of course, once the boys landed, her stomach tightened right back up again.
"Okay, mic check one-two," Jack's voice came over coms with a lighthearted drawl that made Riley crack a tiny smile in spite of herself. "Can you hear me now, Riles?"
Riley scoffed. "Yeah, I can hear you, Jack. Button cam looks good, too."
"We've got the car," Mac chimed in, sounding a bit more stiff than his partner, although it seemed as though both were doing their best to make her feel a little better. It wasn't quite working, but she appreciated the effort. "Gonna head into town, see what we can find."
"Where the hell are we gonna start?" Bozer chimed in with a doubtful huff.
"Well, we know she's not living in town, otherwise we would have found some kind of trace of her, right, Riles?" Jack asked as he climbed into the driver's seat of the car.
"Right," Riley confirmed. "I've looked through everything I can digitally access, and there's no evidence of her living in Peace River itself."
"If I were her, and I had Murdoc on my ass, I'd be as off the grid as I could get, out in the woods somewhere," Bozer added.
"I figured as much," Matty nodded. "You three have some hiking equipment in the back of your car, but it's just the basics."
"Let's start with the hardware stores in the area," Mac suggested. "She has to be getting supplies from somewhere. Plus, I could use a few things, myself."
Jack just grunted in agreement, and Riley watched as their GPS marker made its way into the town proper. There was a tense silence in the car, and the tension was spilling over into the War Room. Riley was actually relieved when they finally arrived at the hardware store—well, actually, Hector's Haven sold a bit of everything, from hardware to auto parts to camping and survival gear.
Mac and Jack's dream store, Riley thought to herself as her companions hopped out of the car and headed inside. They split up, gathering everything they might need in addition to what they would find in a standard pack, and remained pretty silent, prompting Riley to absently shift gears and keep running down her dwindling digital leads. It wasn't until she heard Mac utter a quiet "Hmm." that she finally checked back in.
"What is it, Blondie?" Matty asked.
"I mean, it might be nothing," Mac mumbled quietly, "but the place seems to be sold out of a few...questionable things."
"Meaning?" Jack pressed, his voice just a bit abrasive, making Riley's jaw tighten.
Mac was quiet for a beat before he spoke, and his face was tense in the view of Jack's button cam. "Boze, do me a favor, and go see if any of the toilet bowl cleaners are sold out."
"What are you thinking, Mac?" Riley asked.
"Well, they're out of acetone, peroxide, Tarn-X tarnish remover, and all the jewelry cleaners. If I'm right, then they might also be..." he trailed off, likely going to check a different part of the store, "yeah, they're almost out of Crisco."
"All of the flushable tablets are sold out," Bozer reported. Jack made a scoffing sound.
"Okay, Crisco and toilet bowl cleaner I get—a town fish fry can clean you out, but—"
"But everyone in town's cleaning their jewelry and silver, too?" Boze chimed in. "Pretty fancy fish fry."
"Mac, if you look at that list, what do you think someone's making?" Matty asked.
"Poisons and/or explosives," Mac replied immediately. "Riley, can you check when the tarnish remover was bought out?"
"Yeah, but I doubt she used a credit card," Riley reminded them.
"They have cameras in the store," Jack reported.
"Closed circuit system," the analyst countered. "I'll need you guys to get me in."
Mac and Jack looked at each other, then at Bozer, then wordlessly nodded. Riley caught a glimpse of Boze walking off in Jack's button cam before the pair flagged down the worker behind the counter. As the pair began talking, asking some questions like they were trying to get a recommendation, Riley watched over the worker's shoulder as Bozer slipped behind the counter and plugged a USB into the computer. In seconds, the analyst had full access to their system.
"Okay," Riley sighed. "Looks like the tarnish remover was bought two days ago in cash. Going to the camera feed now..."
Riley quickly navigated to the proper timestamp, and sure enough, there she was, handing over several bills to pay for the large haul she'd amassed. The analyst and her boss both watched as she left the store and Riley quickly switched to the view of the parking lot.
"Got her license plate," she reported, watching Lara Clayton load her bags into the back of her black pickup truck with a notable dent in the rear passenger side door. "Photo coming to your phones now."
"You're the best, Riley," Bozer muttered before removing the USB and quickly walking back out into the store, pretending to look at the nearby sunglasses. Mac and Jack finished their conversation with the worker and shook his hand before wandering a bit deeper into the store.
As the three of them gathered the remaining few things they'd need before they trekked out into the wilderness, Riley got to work tracking that truck. Older model, no lojack or built in GPS, but luckily the town seemed to have a problem with people running four way stops, because they had a higher than average collection of intersection cameras, and all with the same administrator password.
"Guys, I think I found it," she reported after about fifteen minutes. "I followed the truck about fifteen miles north, and there's only a couple structures out there. She's gotta be in one of them."
"Great job, Riles." Jack put a little effort into making it sound extra sincere, and she silently shook her head at him in fond exasperation.
"Yeah, well, don't thank me yet. All four are on the top of a pretty big hill, all along a cliff with a great view of the valley. Including the one and only access road."
"Which means she'll see you coming a mile away," Matty murmured, studying the map Riley had pulled up.
"Four miles, actually." Riley helpfully highlighted the route. "You'll have to ditch the vehicle and hike up the rest of the way."
"Oh, yay," Bozer grumbled, less than enthusiastic.
"Sorry, Boze," Riley apologized sheepishly. "Wish I had a better answer for you. I'll check satellites, see if I can't get you guys a better idea of where you're going."
Her three companions grumbled in agreement as Riley typed away on her keyboard. By the time Mac, Jack, and Boze had begun their trek into the wilderness, she had a pretty good idea of where they were headed.
"Slightly good news, guys," she reported. "I'm about ninety-five percent sure she's in the cabin closest to you guys, so you'll only have to go four miles instead of six."
"Yippee," Bozer still didn't exactly sound thrilled.
"You could wait in the car, if you want," Mac suggested in a voice that indicated that it wasn't a real offer, that he knew Bozer wouldn't want to do that. He was right.
"Oh, yeah," their newly-recovered friend scoffed sarcastically. "Let me, a black man, just go wander off by myself in the middle of the woods where at least one psychotic killer is hiding! Great idea, Mac."
Mac, Jack, and Riley all chuckled, and even Matty cracked a smile. The team then lapsed into only-mildly-uncomfortable silence while the boys hiked their way towards their destination. With nothing for her to do, Riley switched her attention back to her Murdoc leads. They were just as grim and disconcerting as listening to Bozer try to get Mac and Jack talking.
She had a few scripts hitting all her favorite dark web haunts, looking for samples of software with the same signature as the worm. Signature was a very good word for it, because despite the fact that they all used the same alphabet, each coder's work was recognizably different from the others. The way in which a developer would conceive of the operation to be done, what order services would be stopped and started in, the code injection string—it was as unique as a fingerprint. You could fake someone else's style, if the ask was small enough, but once you passed twenty lines of code, it got too complicated for all but the very best of forgers.
Which was why she was absolutely sure that the few folks she'd found so far offering up their 'services' in this particular area of surveillance were, as Boze would say, not the droid she was looking for.
Artemis why u stompn around?
Riley toggled over to one of the three chat agents she had running, doing a quick confirm by exchanging encryption keys before replying. After all, she knew she was making a lot of noise; the time to be subtle was over. If she couldn't find this person on her own, her best option was to crowdsource it and risk tipping the guy or gal off.
Even if they went underground, at least she'd get a damn name.
Lookn 4 a guy
It was kind of a lead-on; she wasn't above flirting to get what she needed, and whatever gender B4ndzz was, he or she was always willing to play along.
Lol no j/k
Bitty bugz rite?
Hard n soft, Riley sent back, and the chat window went idle for a few moments.
Still an angel?
Riley smirked, just a little, before she typed back. Nvr but I fly like 1
"Friend of yours?" Matty inquired dryly, and Riley glanced up to find her boss had snuck up and was watching the screen over her shoulder.
Riley made sure their coms were muted. "Yeah. B4ndzz has been around a while, hit the web about the same time as Artemis37. They're one of my pixel people." At her boss's unimpressed look, Riley elaborated. "A pixel person is a person you've never met physically, just online. We used to try to hack each other, figure out who the other was, but after I got arrested B4ndzz got caught up in another squad." Riley gestured to the window. "The bitty bugs refer to the hardware and software varieties, and asking if I'm an angel means am I still in the LA area."
"So this hacker knows you live in LA?" Matty's unimpressed look was moving towards disapproving.
Riley offered the other woman a one-shouldered shrug. "General geographical data isn't too dangerous, I mean it's not like I chat with a lot of people who can reroute nukes."
"Well that makes me feel so much better." Matty's tone indicated otherwise. "How many of your dark web contacts have you reached out to?"
Riley sighed. "Most of them. There's no way this guy just appeared, even if you get a new handle you came from somewhere. The code is just too sophisticated, so whoever wrote this worm for Murdoc, they've had to have pulled jobs before this one. I tried being subtle, but it's not getting me anywhere, so..."
"So now you're going Godzilla on Tokyo," Matty finished, and Riley nodded.
The chat window became active again. I know a guy. Qtr gets you a referral
Riley actually snorted. "A quarter? Who do you think you're talking to here?" However, she typed Orly and then let the chat window go idle again.
"A quarter? A quarter of what?"
"A coin," Riley told her boss. "B4ndzz is offering to introduce me, but wants a quarter of a coin up front. Which I am totally desperate enough to do, by the way."
Matty looked off into space a moment. "Aren't coin up to almost nine grand these days?"
"Yeah. And honestly, if it's the real deal it'd be worth a couple thousand dollars." Riley glanced back up at the big screen, watching three GPS dots making their way through the woods.
"You're...waiting for the price to come down?" Matty surmised, and Riley frowned.
"That, and a sample of the goods. There are a lot of people who make good coin writing surveillance apps for phones and webcam systems. If I'd gone darkside, I would have made a steady living," she added quietly, still staring at the big screen. Where the GPS dots didn't seem to be moving. "...what are they doing...?"
Riley had muted her and Matty's end of coms, but not the boys, and they were all silent. At Matty's nod, Riley took them off mute.
"Mac, Jack, what's wrong?"
While they could hear a few sounds of breathing. The coms were in their ears, not on their throats, so a soft whisper wouldn't be that useful. Someone, however, tapped the com in their ear twice.
"Riley, do we have satellite yet?"
She'd already anticipated the question. "No, not yet. And the first one we get won't have infrared capability, so all we'll see is the tops of trees. That forest is designated as a 'state natural area', so no logging, no hunting. That's why there's only one road through."
The GPS dots eventually did move, though; they grouped closer together, and then all apparently took the same route around something, though what she couldn't tell. Once they were far enough from whatever it was, Jack finally responded.
"She might be off the grid, but she is definitely a fan of tech." His voice was still low, as if he was afraid of being overheard. "We got battery powered wildlife cameras out here, and they focus on motion."
Great. "Well, they probably aren't operating on bluetooth; you're still two miles out from that cabin." Riley brought up a different kind of map, looking for the nearest cellular tower. "Uh, give me a minute, let me see if they're on 3G."
"3G? Like, cell phones from the nineties?"
Riley couldn't help a little smile at Bozer's doubt. "Yeah. Slow but it still exists. 3 and 4G are getting phased out, but because this tower is older..." Riley finally managed to make contact with the cellular tower, and confirmed there were—
"Wow. There are forty-two 3G devices out there."
"Riles..." Jack's drawl was back. "Unless she plans to live here permanent, that seems like overkill."
"Pretty sure everyone of Murdoc's little collective is overkill," Bozer chimed in.
"Riley, is there any way for you to get manufacturer information from those devices?" Mac was all business. "Jack's right, she can't have set all of them up. My guess is, some are legitimately state-owned wildlife cameras, and if you can map them for us—"
"Then you'd know which ones to avoid," Riley finished. "Hang on."
"Hey." Jack's voice was a little sharper, and Riley saw shaky footage of Mac, turning to give his partner a faintly annoyed look. "Hold up, hoss. I spotted the camera, I'll take the lead."
"Yes, but now that we know what to look for—" Mac cut himself off abruptly. Riley glanced at Matty, who had her lips pressed into a thin line.
After a couple beats, Mac stepped to the side, and extended an arm. "After you."
"Why thank you." The sarcasm was barely veiled, which meant either the camera had been a closer call than it looked on their little screen, or the last mile and a half of nature walk hadn't calmed either of them down.
Matty nodded back at the laptop, and Riley frowned and got back to work. And Mac wasn't wrong. Thirty-six of the cameras were the same brand—their MAC addresses were in numerical order. The other six were all over the place.
"Okay, good news and bad news. Good news—looks like she only put out half a dozen. Bad news—"
"You can't figure out which six it is."
"Give that man a prize," she murmured, studying the map. "What I can do is use them as my eyes."
"So...you could figure out where they are by what landmarks they see?" Bozer's voice turned hopeful.
Riley almost smiled. Bozer's total faith in her was astounding, and actually more reassuring than she'd thought it would be. "Yeah, Boze. They're near trees."
They heard someone scoff, and Jack's button cam caught that he'd turned to glance behind him, where Bozer was silently mimicking Riley's announcement and Mac was giving his best friend a small—but genuine looking—smirk.
She wished they weren't making him work so hard. Even as Jack turned, Riley saw Mac's arm suddenly shoot out, and they heard Bozer give a little grunt. Probably slipped on something.
"What I can do," Riley added dryly, "is watch them, and the second I see motion, if it's you I can tell you to stop. And if it's not you-"
"You can give us a head's up. Sweet."
Riley moved the six windows up onto the main screen, and Matty studied the images closely—probably trying to do what Bozer had wanted, which was find some landmarks that could help them. Riley left her to it, and toggled back to her chat window, which was still idle.
Ffs u gonna pony up goodz r what
It didn't take B4ndzz long to respond to that. Keep ur pants on o wait
As if. That's what she said, Riley typed back, and then deliberately focused back on the op. She'd been let down too many times to get her hopes up, but B4ndzz was the real deal—and probably wouldn't screw her out of a couple grand for a tip.
Maybe a few hundred. At this point Riley would use her own scratch.
"Jack, stop!" Matty was using her command tone, and on his button cam, Riley saw him immediately freeze. One of the other cameras was panning, had caught the motion, and Riley quickly remoted it and panned it away. It showed that it had been put into 'Manual' mode, and as soon as she had it looking more than a hundred degrees from where it had picked up Jack, she put it back on 'Automatic.'
"Okay, Jack, you're good, just go behind it," she coached, and they watched Jack do as instructed.
It happened twice more—apparently Miss Clayton had anticipated that the most likely path for hikers was going to be the one Riley had mapped out—but she and Matty were able to get the three Phoenix agents within one hundred yards of the cabin in question. It was more of a small lodge, with a large main room that included a fireplace—working, according to the smoke rising from it—as well as three small bedrooms and a generous kitchen. It was built for the cold as well as the view, so there were skylights and the larger windows were all facing the cliff and the valley. It actually didn't look like a half bad spot to lay low.
Except for the resident assassin, of course.
"Can't get a visual," Mac murmured, and Jack's cam caught him tucked behind a couple saplings, peering through his hiking binoculars. "Most of the windows back here are curtained off."
"Riley, can you get me infrared yet?"
She gave her boss a headshake. "Not for another thirteen minutes. And with the fireplace going, I'm not sure how useful it would be."
"At the very least it'd tell us if there's anyone on the far side of the house," Jack grumbled. "I don't wanna knock on the door, but if we've got the wrong place, I don't wanna scare the Hendersons either."
There was a brief pause. "Really, Jack? Harry and the Hendersons?"
Riley could almost see the expression on Jack's face, simply through his voice. "Bozer, I am tellin' you, yeti are real and if we were in Bigfoot country, I wouldn't just be packin' this pea shooter."
"Let's worry about Bigfoot later and focus on getting eyes inside that cabin," Mac suggested tersely. "We don't want to make any noise, in case we've got the wrong place."
Jack exhaled loudly through his nose. "Okay, brainiac, what's the plan?"
"I'm—" Mac cut himself off again. "...actually...maybe we do want to make noise."
"Come again?" That, thankfully, came from Bozer, and was more of an invitation to continue than criticism. It helped Mac take the edge off his tone.
"We want to know who's in there, right? Let's make them come out to us."
"Mac, don't forget who you might be dealing with," Matty cautioned. "I don't like the idea of scaring a totally innocent renter either, but there could be a trained killer in there."
Motion towards the bottom of the big screen caught her eye, and Riley glanced at one of the six camera feeds. What she saw almost stopped her heart.
"She's not in the cabin—she's coming up the trail behind you!" And any idea that she was unaware of their presence crumbled; she had a military-style rifle up against her shoulder, and as she passed under the camera, Riley could see the grip of a gun tucked into the back of her jeans.
"Mac, Boze, go in the front and wait for her—"
"Jack!" It was a hiss, but Jack's button cam showed that he was already on the move.
Mac watched Jack dart off to the north, standard flanking tactic, and he mentally swore, grabbing Boze's shoulder and guiding him towards the south. Wilt tripped again, leaving a very obvious mark in the softer dirt near the cabin, and Mac mentally added that to the list of problems.
"Boze, here's what I need you to do. Make a very obvious trail towards that dry creek bed we passed a quarter mile ago. Forget everything you ever learned about good hiking and forestry practice—"
But Bozer was already nodding. "Break all the twigs, got it. What about you? We doin' this Ewok style?"
A short burst of rapid fire interrupted him, and Mac froze as he heard Jack swear under his breath.
"Sitrep!" Matty demanded, and Mac hesitated, glancing at Bozer. When Jack didn't come back after a second, then two, they both wordlessly dashed in Jack's general direction.
"Hey there, Lara," Mac heard Jack loud and clear over coms. She replied with another volley of automatic fire.
So much for being quiet. Mac motioned silently for Bozer to stay back, then advanced as soundlessly as he could, using the many Pinus banksiana—colloquially known as 'Jack Pines,' which was irritatingly fitting—as cover.
The next time Jack spoke, Mac could hear both his actual voice and the echo in his comm. "How about before you blow my head off, you hear me out?"
"Whoever you are, whatever your offer is, I don't care," Lara snapped, and her words were followed by another short burst of gunfire.
Mac couldn't help a grimace as he darted closer, looking for telltale tracks in the soft dirt, disturbed needles, anything that might give him an indication of what path she'd taken to get to Jack.
"Now come on, if we wanted to fight, we'd'a brought a small army, or better yet just leaked your location," Jack called out, still sounding friendly and casual. "Gimme two minutes, and I betcha I can change your mind."
"Yeah? Well I betcha you can't. You people can't stay ahead of Murdoc for any length of time; I've been at it for over a year!"
"You people?!" Even through coms he managed to sound offended.
"Jack, keep her talking," Matty ordered over coms. "Blondie, get him out of there."
I'm trying, he wanted to growl, but he knew any noise he made now meant he'd have the same problem Jack did—and he didn't like his odds of outrunning bullets. Besides the pine trees, there was some old growth still intact, which gave him height, it gave him potential leverage, if he could lead her to a specific spot he could probably rig up—
"Listen up, Clayton," Jack tried, but whatever he said next was chewed up by automatic fire. Mac was still a good twenty yards away, but he clearly heard her exchange the weapon's magazine for a fresh one. Whatever cover Jack had found, she had to be chewing it up fast.
He didn't have time for clever traps. Mac hesitated, then picked up a fist-sized rock and chucked it in the direction of the weapons fire.
"I see you brought a friend," Lara almost sounded amused as the rock thudded to the ground, missing her entirely. "Whomever they are, they can't aim for shit."
"Boze, I need you to make a little noise," Mac murmured softly over coms, and his best friend stepped up in the most Bozer-like thing he'd done since Murdoc's cooking show.
"If he was tryin'a hit ya, trust me, you'd be in orbit." It sounded like Bozer was literally yelling through cupped hands. "Look, we just wanna talk."
"Oh, so rock-boy was MacGyver. Brought a knife to a gun fight, eh?" She was no longer close enough to Jack to be heard over coms, but Mac could hear her clearly; she'd obviously turned in his direction. He backed off quickly, making just enough noise to be noticed, and scanned his immediate surroundings one more time. Plenty of small, rocky ledges nearby. Any one could be useful for cover—that was probably what Jack was using, and why he hadn't returned fire.
Once he got her off Jack, that flanking maneuver he'd tried earlier would work.
When the automatic fire kicked up again Mac hit the deck, but nothing around him exploded. He didn't feel a thing—until Jack yelped in his ear.
"—she didn't take the bait. Get outta there, Boze; she's headed right for you—"
"For me?!" The bravado that had been in his voice earlier evaporated like Mac's breath, steaming in the air as he abruptly changed course. "Are you freakin' kidding me right now?!"
Mac sprinted back towards the cabin, barely caring about cover, following the impression of motion skimming parallel with him, even as a few rounds of semi-automatic fire—Jack—struck a tree nearby.
"She knows Mac's not carrying! He's not a threat—"
"Didn't I say a black man runnin' through these woods was a bad idea?! I said that! I know I said it!" The griping sounded slightly out of breath as Bozer ran for his life.
But he wasn't a hundred percent yet, and even when he was Mac could beat him flat-footed. The smoke from the cabin's chimney marked its location even through the taller trees, and Mac adjusted his course about fifteen degrees to his right.
Another burst of automatic fire, and this time it was Bozer who yelped, followed by the sounds of a body hitting the ground.
"Bozer!" It was Riley, this time, not Matty, and Mac burst through the scrub pines on a ridge about five feet above where Bozer had fallen. It looked like it had been voluntary; he had some grass on his snazzy royal blue North Face jacket, and had just pulled himself back up into a crouch, but she'd cleared the treeline by the cabin and had the rifle raised—this time she was taking aim.
Mac threw himself off the ridge with his left arm outstretched, hitting the rifle a hair's breadth before his shoulder crashed into hers. Another burst of automatic fire, and then she was cushioning his impact with the ground.
Unfortunately, he simply had too much forward momentum, and she used it to her full advantage. The assassin agreeably tumbled in the same direction, and Mac was forced to tuck his head and roll off her to avoid breaking his arm. He did manage to keep his left hand on the rifle, however, and tore it away from her. He came up on his feet, with the rifle's barrel still secure in his left hand, and found that Lara Clayton had also recovered her feet. Her right hand was just moving away from her waist, and Mac caught a flash of silver even as Bozer yelled.
She flung it underhand, and it was more luck than skill that had Mac moving, batting the blade aside like Lou Gehrig with the bases loaded. She'd counted on it, charging him, and with his left arm crossed in front of his chest he was unable to defend. Mac let go of the rifle and met her halfway, checking his left shoulder hard into her breastbone. She had more momentum but he had her beat in the weight department, and his right hand was able to catch hers, in the midst of an upward strike that would have landed under his ribs and ended with an inch of steel buried in his heart.
Mac locked her wrist and spun her, forcing her onto one knee, and applied pressure until she dropped the second blade. The assassin was winded from the chest strike, and it gave Mac just enough time to get eyes on his best friend, wild-eyed but standing just a few yards away. There was no blood on his blue jacket.
Bozer was okay.
"Dude!" His voice was a little strangled. "Are you alright?!"
Mac gave him a confident smirk as he got control of Ms. Clayton's left arm and dragged her to her feet. She tried to bridgestomp him but his hiking shoes took the brunt of the impact, and he shook her a little.
"I don't want to hurt you; we just want to talk." At her derisive snort, he aimed that smirk at the back of her head. "And what was that quip about bringing a knife to a gun fight?"
She turned her head a little, trying to catch him in her peripheral vision even as Jack crashed into the clearing. "I like to keep my options open."
"Good to know." Mac held the assassin tightly as Jack exchanged his pistol for a pair of handcuffs—metal, not their usual ziptie restraints. Mac silently agreed; he had a feeling she knew how to defeat both, and he didn't take his hands off her as Jack approached.
"What the hell was that?" Jack demanded under his breath, applying the handcuffs tightly, and once Mac was a hundred percent sure he had control of the assassin, he moved in front of her to pat her down for any additional weapons.
"It's a tactic cougars use in environments like this to take down prey," Mac replied lightly, not missing the smirk on Lara's face as he relieved her of two more throwing blades and a syringe of something translucent and light pink.
"'Course it is," Jack grumbled, not looking at him and instead turning to glance over at Bozer, who was clumsily making his way towards them. "You okay, Boze?"
"Fine," their friend assured him. "Not like she hit me."
Lara chuckled slightly, the sound oddly venomous, and Mac saw her grimace slightly when Jack tightened his grip on her arm. Then the former Delta almost reluctantly turned his attention to his partner, his mouth a thin line.
"You okay?" he asked, looking like he was trying to sound like he cared. Mac nodded wordlessly, his jaw tight.
"Trouble in paradise, you two?" Lara asked innocently, earning a glare from both Mac and Jack. "Murdoc always talked like you were the Hardy Boys, but I sense some tension, here. You know, I was a marriage counselor, once upon a time; if you got something you need to work out, I'd be happy to lend a hand."
"How about you keep your commentary to yourself and start answering a few questions?" Jack suggested with a frown, pushing the woman ahead of him towards her cabin. Mac first walked over to Bozer, helping him brush debris off of his jacket before they both followed. Once inside, Jack grabbed a chair from the kitchen table, pushed it into the living room, spun it around, and plopped the assassin into it. Without a word, Mac walked around behind the chair while Jack stayed in front of it, watching her hands, making sure she didn't try anything. Bozer hovered somewhere in between them, keeping his distance and trying not to show how tired he really was.
"Now," Jack sighed, folding his arms and offering up a smirk. "We all want the same thing, here, Lara. We all want Murdoc off the board. So why don't we help each other out?"
"We tried to help you do that," Lara shot back. "We handed the bastard over to you on a silver platter, and you lost him. Everything after that was your fault, not ours. So why should I even bother helping you again?"
Mac's jaw tightened; Drew had made much the same point in the warehouse. The blond man shook his head quickly, trying to stop himself from falling down that rabbit hole, as Jack's smirk became a smile and he stepped a bit closer to their prisoner, leaning in.
"Oh, honey, I'm not aiming to put him in that kind of box this time," he whispered. His voice wasn't loud enough to be picked up by coms, and since Jack was the one wearing the button cam, no one was going to be reading his lips, either. Mac let his breath out through his nose, giving his partner a look as he straightened up and stepped back. In the chair, Lara laughed.
"No offense, Dalton, but a lot of people have tried that before, too," she informed him. "I don't see why you'd be so different."
"Whether I am or not, we're your best bet at getting out from under this any time soon," Jack growled as Mac flicked his eyes to Bozer and jerked his head, calling him over. Bozer made his way around Lara's chair to his best friend's side, and Mac indicated the assassin's hands. The still-healing agent nodded, taking over Mac's diligent watching of their captive's hands, as Mac himself began to look around the cabin.
"Oh please," Lara scoffed. "You just want to put me in jail."
"You're practically already in jail," Jack chuckled, hardly paying his partner any mind. "You haven't been in one spot for more than a month since Murdoc got out. And frankly, sweetheart, we already gotchu; whether or not you go to jail is not the question. The question is how easy you make it on yourself."
As the two of them went back and forth, Mac took in their surroundings. All of the windows except for the ones looking over the ridge to the access road were covered with blackout curtains. There were two crudely set-up reflux reactions running, one on the stove—which had all but one electric burner removed—and one in the fireplace. Both had been transformed into makeshift fume hoods, venting the harmful byproducts of whatever reaction she was trying to achieve out into the open air. She was running an improvised condenser in one of the two sinks, distilling something pale pink into a Pyrex cup. Pulling the syringe he'd found on her from his pocket, he found that, at least visually, the two liquids matched.
The living room looked like where she'd decided to store her completed products—glass vials and jars were neatly lined up in cardboard boxes on and below the coffee table. Liquids and powders of various colors and textures filled them.
"You've certainly been busy," Mac noted, pulling Lara's attention as she looked over her shoulder at him. "Gotta be honest—it's kind of an impressive setup."
Lara offered a halfhearted shrug. "Girl's gotta make a living somehow."
"Yeah, being on the run from a deranged sociopath has gotta be expensive," Bozer scoffed, and Lara responded with an amused chuckle.
"Look, Lara," Jack sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. "The fact is, you're already caught. You help us, you make your life easier, and whether we catch him or not makes no difference to you. Clearly, if you've managed to impress Mac, you're a smart woman; I'd make the smart play if I were you."
"That was nice of you, Jack," Bozer mumbled, just loud enough for them to hear over coms, seeming surprised to hear the former Delta pay his partner a compliment. Jack shot him a look that told him not to push it, and Mac's jaw tightened as he looked out the window over the ridge.
For several seconds, Lara didn't reply, grinding her teeth with a sour expression on her face. It seemed to take hours for the seconds to pass, but Jack wouldn't break the silence. Mac busied himself examining their captive's stock, reading the chemical reactions hastily scrawled on the plexiglas cover that sealed off the fireplace. Finally, the assassin let out a heavy breath.
"What did you have in mind?"
Mac looked at her in shock for a second, watching his partner give a triumphant smirk and Bozer turn to give him a hopeful look. The former Delta opened his mouth to speak, and then several things happened at once.
He caught the flash out of the corner of his eye, from somewhere across from the cabin, but by the time it registered, Lara was dead, flopped on the floor beside her chair. The side of her head had exploded outwards, spattering blood, brain matter, and skull shards on the kitchen floor. Mac stared, frozen in shock, eyes locked on Lara's now-lifeless body and suddenly finding it impossible to distinguish from Annie's. He could hear Jack and Bozer's voices, but couldn't tell what they were saying. It wasn't until more bullets started tearing through the room, shattering the windows, striking the floor next to their feet, and destroying several containers of poisons and explosives that he blinked himself back to reality, but even then, he was frozen. Jack finally grabbed Mac's arm and yanked him down when he was slow to duck, and the three of them took cover behind the kitchen counter. Then a thought seemed to strike both Mac and Jack simultaneously.
This cabin was full of poisons and explosives. Those poisons and explosives—as well as the raw materials to make them—were being sprayed all over their general vicinity by the gunfire. And there was at least one open heat source in the immediate area—the stove.
"Go, go, go!" Mac shouted urgently, shoving Bozer ahead of him towards the door. Jack reached back and grabbed their teammate's arm, pulling him up in the direction of the door. The former Delta led the way, then Bozer, and then Mac.
Their exit was impeccably timed.
Mac had barely taken two running strides away from the front porch before the explosion threw him to the ground. He was dazed for a few seconds, and he could hear Riley and Matty shouting in his ear, but he couldn't quite catch his breath.
In seconds, Jack was on his feet, fury on his face, and he surveyed the area, trying to figure out where the shots had come from. Mac tried to push himself upright, and it took him a moment to realize that Jack was talking to him.
"Did you see the shot, Mac; yes or no?" His partner demanded angrily. Mac nodded, dazed and writhing in the grass.
"Other side...of the ridge," he gasped out, feeling his chest start to tighten. Beside him, Bozer was groaning. "Jack, stop..."
The older man wasn't listening, instead storming in that direction. But his steps were unsteady, and he was stumbling.
They had to get away from the cabin. It was spewing poison all over them as it burned. If they didn't move, they would die.
"Jack, wait!" Mac called after his furious partner, pushing himself to his knees and trying to pull Bozer—who was coughing and wheezing on the ground, some blood coming from a cut in his leg—away from the area, but he was trembling, and couldn't seem to get a good grip on his friend, or even get all the way to his feet. "Jack...please..."
It was getting harder to keep his eyes open, but when he looked up, he saw his partner pivot in the dirt, opening his mouth to yell only for a look of horror to cross his face. Jack started for them, moving quickly and urgently, but whatever adrenaline had been keeping him going was failing him, and he was soon brought to his knees, coughing and sweating and trembling. Mac could hear Matty and Riley trying to get them to answer, but he couldn't speak. He collapsed fully into the grass on his back, wheezing in desperate breaths as his eyes burned, and all the while he was being dragged towards unconsciousness.
If he passed out there, he was dead.
Mac shifted onto his stomach, trying one more time to get to the treeline, hooking his arm under Bozer's to try and drag him along, but he barely made it two feet before his body gave out, and his mind was finally pulled into the waiting darkness.
Riley didn't manage to get infrared until they'd actually entered the cabin.
Matty stayed quiet, letting Jack lead the conversation however he pleased, and Riley tried to filter out some of the excess static from the image. There were definitely two large heat sources, one was obviously the fireplace from the way the smoke was registering as a filmy vapor of multiple colors, trailing vaguely to the west. The other she figured had to be a kitchen stove, it was perfectly round, and she toggled off the screen to see if she could make any more headway on a floor plan, now that the fighting was over.
Jack didn't seem to be hurt, hadn't made a sound after that yelp, but it had still scared her. Just as much as the sound of Bozer hitting the ground. They said they were fine, but just having them on screen—even as little multicolored lumps—was reassuring.
Riley reset her brain to the Alberta Public Records website, but a blinking icon drew her attention back to her dark web chat window.
Sent the goodz pay up
Sure enough, one of the accounts associated with Artemis37 had a new email. Sender information was encrypted, no subject line, and one attachment. She transferred the attachment to a virtual machine, just in case this was a prank, and then opened the file—text only—in a compiler. Then she ran her signature analysis tool.
She had enough time to finish accessing the public records office—and they did indeed have the floor plans—and Riley overlaid them on the infrared image. Sure enough, that second heat signature was indeed the kitchen, and not some perfectly round accomplice.
It looked like the Mac dot and the Bozer dot swapped positions, and Riley toggled back to her compiler.
Where her signature program indicated a match.
Riley stared at it a few seconds before it actually registered. A signature match meant the code sample was the same style as the worm. A signature match meant that she'd found the guy.
Or rather, B4ndzz had.
"I found him," Riley murmured aloud, still not feeling much of anything. No adrenaline, no excitement. And Matty responded in kind.
"I...the author of the worm." Even saying it out loud didn't trigger any kind of emotional response. "I found a match."
Matty's head jerked around to stare at her, and only then did her brain finally seem to click and come alive.
Riley broadcast the windows up on the screen, overlaying one corner of the satellite image. She typed quickly.
Then she waited a breath.
Matty was squinting at the screen. "Are you really trying to talk this person down—"
"If I'm too eager it sends up flags," Riley interrupted her quickly, then checked to make sure they were muted, and not about to interrupt Jack's interrogation. Then she typed again.
But worth a meet. Give ya a buck
Over coms came the very distinct sound of glass breaking.
Riley's eyes flew back up to the satellite image, which showed one shape on their side, lying down, and three more scrambling around the room. Glass was continuing to shatter, which could only mean—
"What the hell—" Boze cut himself off with a yelp.
"Boze, get down! Mac!" Jack was shouting to be heard over the cacophony.
Matty's voice was barely more controlled. "Riley—"
"On it—" She panned the satellite zoom out, twice just to make sure, waiting impatiently for the image to render. They were under fire, but now that she had infrared, she should be able to at least tell from which direction and how many shooters—
Riley opened another window and sent a priority 9-1-1 request. Law enforcement and paramedics, straight to the cabin.
"Go, go, go!" It was Mac's voice, and it was urgent. Riley looked back up in time to see three of the four dots sprinting for an exit, before that entire section of the screens was eaten in a bright yellow flare.
Matty, who was on her feet, didn't move, waiting impatiently for the heat flare to dissipate but they clearly heard multiple voices cry out. Even while the infrared was whited out, Riley could hear breathing, hear bodies hitting the ground. Could hear groaning.
"—goddammit, did anyone—see where it came from?" That was undoubtedly Jack, and the sheer anger in his voice counterintuitively relaxed her a little. If he was that pissed off, he was probably okay.
"Jack, sitrep!" Matty barked.
He didn't reply—at least not to her. "Did you see the shot, Mac; yes or no?"
Matty opened her mouth but Mac interrupted her, with a wheeze that Riley didn't like one bit. "Other side...of the ridge." Someone groaned, it sounded like Bozer, and Mac started coughing. "Jack, stop..."
The poisons. In the house. The explosion must have aerosolized them.
"Jack, leave the shooters to us," the director commanded sharply. "Get out of there!"
Riley focused on the ridges, unsure which one Mac meant. The valley was a true valley, hell, it could have been an ancient volcano caldera for all she knew. There were ridges on both sides of the one their assassin—their now-dead assassin, Riley surmised—had chosen, and more heat signatures than she would have expected.
Wildlife. It being Canada, those were probably caribou.
Several of them were moving in the general direction of the explosion, which seemed a little weird, and Riley focused on those, jolted out of her thoughts when she heard Mac's voice, significantly more hoarse. "Jack, wait!" Riley glanced back towards the burning cabin, making out their three shapes—barely—all three moving, but two together, and one moving away—
"Jack, get your team and get out of there!" Matty barked, but it was Mac's much more hoarse voice that seemed to do the trick.
She heard one of them take a difficult breath, the wheeze much more alarming this time, and then the third dot headed in a straight line back for the other two.
"Jack, what's going on?" Riley tried, and they heard a body land heavily on the ground. Someone was still wheezing.
The third dot stopped moving.
All the dots had stopped moving.
"Bozer, Mac, respond!"
Nothing. Not even coughing, anymore. Just the wheezing, like all three were in the midst of an asthma attack.
Matty turned to Riley. "Did that explosion damage coms? Can they still hear us?"
Riley's fingers flew across the keys, checking the uplink, but there was no diagnostic or error code being sent. "Our connection's still good. They should be able to hear you."
Matty continued trying to rouse them as Riley confirmed that cops and paramedics had been dispatched—and they had, and they would see the burning cabin and hurry but it was miles of winding roads—and she added 'respiratory distress' to the known injuries manifest. But that wasn't going to get them help any sooner, wasn't going to make the road any shorter.
The smoke was poisonous, and all three of them were unconscious. They were never going to make it.
"Riley, is there anyone else in the immediate area? Any hikers, any cellphones attached to that tower?" Matty's voice was calm and steady, Riley had no idea how she could be so calm when they were both watching and listening to the same thing—
"No, there's no one..." But that wasn't true, there was clearly at least one shooter, and Riley toggled back to the cell tower, even as she watched the three heat signatures continue to truck towards the cabin. Though the one in the back was smaller than the front two, and then the lead pair peeled off but the smaller one didn't. It continued along the ridge directly for the burning cabin.
And it was hauling ass.
Riley left it on the screen and quickly analyzed the list of connected devices. "No cell phones," she reported, and then windowed back to the Alberta Public Records office. Maybe someone in one of the other cabins would pick up a landline—
Of course, how the hell they'd missed that explosion and fire, the whole town had to be able to see it was burning, it was right there on the edge—
One of the wheezes cut off, suddenly, like someone with sleep apnea, and Riley held her breath too, waiting endless moments for the sound to come back. As bad as it was, the silence was worse. Whoever it was finally inhaled again, the sound wet, and Riley struggled to focus. She found the number for the next nearest cabin, or at least the phone number at the time the house was purchased, and dialed it. The dot that was headed for the cabin would be there within the next couple minutes.
And for all they knew it was the shooter.
Of course, she could get eyes on him—
The phone rang and Riley put it to the room to make sure Matty could address the homeowner directly, if they could reach him or her. Then she focused on the wildlife cameras. There weren't any pointed directly at the cabin, but there were a few on the side of the ridge where that heat signature was approaching. Maybe they could get a look at whoever it was, determine if they were human or not, friend or foe.
The phone rang four times before a click told her an answering machine was picking up. Riley terminated the call and dialed the next cabin, and there on the screen, the dot was finally within range. She tightened the zoom on the satellite image and confirmed that the shape was definitely a person.
Then she pulled up the nearest wildlife camera.
The next phone was ringing before the heat signature crossed the camera's path, but all the got was a shadow. Just enough to confirm what the infrared image had already told them.
"On it," she confirmed, and logged into the next camera. It was definitely a human, dressed in dark clothing, but again, they passed through the bottom of the frame, moving too fast to get a good look. It was someone wearing a black beanie and coat, and they didn't seem to be carrying anything. No hiking backpack—but no visible weapons either. And there were no more cameras between that dot and the rest of the team.
They couldn't do anything but watch the screens as the sounds of that person running up gradually became audible over the coms. There was a cough - a deep one, a male voice - and the dot seemed to consider its options, but then it headed for the two heat signatures that were closer together. It—he—passed Jack as he did so, but Jack had collapsed on his chest, and his button cam showed them only darkness.
"Matty..." She couldn't finish the question. Her boss had approached the screen, as if she could actually get closer to her downed agents, and she was frowning hard enough to burn a hole through the image to the actual ground in Canada.
"The shooter wouldn't have sprinted a mile to make sure they were dead. They'd wait and see what the paramedics did, and they'd take out the vehicles on the way down." Her voice was detached. Clinical.
And sure enough, whoever had run to the cabin started dragging two of their agents—and Riley was pretty sure it was Mac and Boze—away from the cabin. Whoever it was had a brain, too—he was pulling them perpendicular to the direction the wind was blowing the smoke, rather than down the cabin's driveway. He coughed now and then, but seemed to be either better equipped or was just taking careful breaths. Despite the fact that he'd run at least a mile over rugged territory at elevation he didn't seem to be having any trouble. Within twenty seconds he'd pulled Mac and Bozer about fifty yards, well out of harm's way.
Then he turned and went back for Jack.
"What's the paramedics' ETA?"
It took her a second to sort out the window with the paramedics' GPS. "Almost eight minutes." If they were away from the poisonous smoke, would fresh air be enough...?
The dot made it to Jack, they heard the man grunt, plant his boots, and then roll Jack over. A gloved hand shot out and covered Jack's button cam. A second later, Riley lost signal entirely.
She stared at the screen a second, not understanding, and the dot immediately began dragging Jack away from the fire, as well. He was coughing a little more, but still seemed in much better shape than Jack was.
"...did he just...?" But who would spot a button cam—and that quickly? Who would want to hide themselves—
She didn't finish the sentence; Riley instead rewound the last few seconds of footage they'd captured, until it was black again, and then tapped it forward, frame by frame. Blades of grass became visible as Jack started to turn over, then smokey sunlight, and the camera adjusted for a split second, and right before a black-gloved hand closed down on it she got a blurry shot of the good Samaritan's face.
He was neither good, nor a Samaritan.
"Murdoc," Matty growled softly. "Son of a bitch."
Once he dragged Jack to Bozer and Mac, he stopped, hovering there beside them, and outside of a cough now and then he didn't say a word.
"Murdoc!" Matty shouted, clearly trying to attract his attention through their com system, but either he didn't hear, or he just didn't feel like talking to them. He must have known they were wearing coms, he'd realized Jack had a button cam, he must've—
He must've located Lara just like they did. And once he found her talking to them, he had to take her out then and there, before she could give them a lead on him. A sharp crack alerted Riley to the fact that she was gripping her rig tightly enough to make the chassis pop.
Paramedics were still three minutes out.
The sound of fabric rustling came over coms, then, as if Murdoc was grabbing them to start hauling them someplace else, and Matty glared at the infrared image. It just didn't show them enough detail. Even if she switched back to regular satellite, all they'd see were the tops of trees.
"He's going through their pockets," Matty surmised, when the sound temporarily stopped, then started up again, this time with the clear audio of a zipper being unzipped. "Checking them for evidence."
But leaving the coms in their ears, even when he'd destroyed the camera. He wanted them to hear. To hear, and to worry about what he was doing to their family.
Whether or not he was hurting them.
There was a hard thumping sound, kind of hollow, and they heard a weak cough. It sounded like Bozer. And Riley pressed her lips together when she realized what it must have been, and exactly what that meant.
Murdoc had hit him in the chest to make sure he was still breathing. He was making sure they stayed alive until the paramedics got there. And the only place to hit him to make him breathe was—
Was right over the injury. The slice that had opened up his abdomen and chest.
"That piece of shit," she growled hotly. "He's taunting us."
"And he may have just saved their lives," Matty replied in a measured tone. "We're off script right now. He was forced to respond and now he's afraid he's damaged his toys before he finished playing with them." Her dark eyes followed his every move. "He's off balance, and we can use it."
The paramedics were less than a minute out, and Riley imagined Murdoc could hear the sirens, because he hovered over them again, then took off at a much more reasonable jog.
"Follow him," Matty growled, already picking up her phone. "He's isolated and he is not getting away."
"You're damn right he's not," Riley muttered, and panned their satellite back out, to make sure his dot stayed front and center. She also started lining up the next satellite so they'd have uninterrupted coverage of the Canadian authorities actually apprehending him.
Murdoc didn't go far, nor did he make a move for the incoming authorities. Instead, he jogged a few hundred yards north of the cabin blaze, then took a running head start and leapt off the edge of the ridge.
For one beautiful, beautiful moment, Riley wondered if he'd decided he was caught, and wasn't willing to be taken alive—but then the image shifted and something partially obscured his heat signature. She toggled the satellite out of infrared, and they beheld a royal blue parachute, the rectangular kind that base-jumpers used to cruise effortlessly through city streets after bailing off the roofs of skyscrapers.
He was going to glide back down into town and try to blend in with the townsfolk to lose them. She'd dispatched the town's meager police presence to the cabin, Murdoc would beat them back to town by at least ten minutes.
"Oh no you don't," Riley snarled, zooming the satellite back in and already trying to calculate his most likely landing spot, even as they heard several alarmed voices over coms, trying to rouse Jack, Mac, and Bozer.
"Stay with Murdoc," Webber commanded, her phone to her ear, and Riley glanced up at the screen, seeing multiple heat signatures gathered around the agents, and others fanning out into the woods, sixty seconds too late.
They were getting help, all the help she could possibly give them. The only other helpful thing she could right now was take Murdoc out of play, for good.
He kind of had his pick of landing sites; it wasn't a big town, but it had infrastructure from both a winter and a summer Olympics held there in years past, that played right into ease of disappearing. There were a few places where most of the townsfolk congregated, and the main street was plenty wide enough. Riley managed to upload a primitive targeting system to the satellite to assist, and Murdoc set himself down gently as you please smack in the middle of the main intersection of town.
Riley ground her teeth as she watched—in both infrared and the best zoom the satellite could give her—the surprised pedestrians giving him a standing round of applause. Like it was a show, an act. And damned if he didn't throw his arms wide and his head back, grinning broadly, right up at the sky.
At them. Taking his bow for killing their only lead.
"Keeping smiling, you smug bastard," she told him, hastily teaching the program what to focus on. Height, weight, black jacket, black beanie.
"He's going to ditch the clothes immediately," her boss cautioned her, watching her enter the criteria. "It'll be harder for him to ditch his pants and shoes."
Blue jeans—not black—and brown hiking boots, moving too quickly for her to nail down a manufacturer. Murdoc abandoned the parachute in the street, probably to tie up traffic even as his adoring fans hurried to claim it as a souvenir, and ducked into the nearest store.
Less than twenty seconds later Riley was into their security system, and she caught a disembodied hand swiping a red caribou ball cap off a display.
He fled out the back while the front staff was still trying to figure out what was going on in the street, and his jacket was ditched inside the cab of a sky blue pick-up, revealing a black short-sleeve tee shirt underneath.
"I hope you're fucking freezing" she growled, as he then ducked into the propped open door of a restaurant three shops down the strip mall.
No security system she could get into—at least no cameras—
But mobiles were everywhere.
Riley toggled out of the window to create a Shodan map, and one by one, every single internet connected device with a camera started popping up on the big screen. Matty didn't miss a beat; she put all her focus on those many moving images, and it didn't take her long.
"There. He's ditched the ball cap and just grabbed a rust red down jacket."
Riley threw the new criteria into the targeting app and glanced up, trying to follow him through the nauseating map of images. She caught a glimpse of him passing a couple sitting outside at a café, and then on a proper security system as he crossed the lobby of—
The town cinema.
"No, no no no no no..." Too many people, infrared was useless, and phones would be in people's pockets. He entered theater two, and Riley lost him after that.
"—don't care what you're doing, number three on Interpol's Watch List is in your damn theater!" Matty growled into her phone, as Riley started remotely accessing the nearest available devices. But all they got were black screens; apparently Canadians were better about netiquette than their southern cousins.
And he'd entered a theater that was almost finished with its showing.
"Matty, if they can't keep the people in there before the movie lets out—"
Then he could be one of a hundred people leaving that theater. They'd lose him.
And it wasn't like it was an Imax. It was old school film. Nothing to hack. Riley turned her attention to the cineplex's fire and emergency system. In case of active shooter they were designed to lock down—
In the United States. Not in Canada.
"Yes! Right now! In Theater 2!"
Riley saw it on the main screen first; a flash of light in the theater hallway, not unlike lightning, as the fire alarm strobes came to life. Matty whirled with a glare, and Riley shook her head vigorously, making absolutely damn sure she hadn't fat-fingered something.
The fire alarm had been triggered.
People began making their way out of all six theaters into the main hall, and Riley grabbed as many feeds as she could, trunking them directly to the analysts in the room next door. She also opened up the main chat group.
Facial rec looking for Murdoc—PRIORITY 1
And he'd already had a chance to go through the lobby, he'd already gotten a bead on all the cameras—
"No," she growled, scanning every face that came out of Theater Two, as best she could. "No, you son of a bitch, you don't get away this time—"
The throngs—and all of them putting on their winter gear, hats and coats and arms in the air—migrated as one giant mass through the main lobby and out the doors, and the cameras there showed on the backs of people's heads. There were a couple theater employees out there, whether just trying to control the masses or doing what Matty had told them, Riley couldn't tell, but—
But they were going to lose him. It's exactly what she would have done. Rendered all their cameras and satellites useless. Four hundred cars were going to leave the parking lot, and he could be in any one of them. They might get lucky on the analysis, figure out which car it was after the fact, but then they'd be playing catch-up again, instead of for once—just once—being out in front of him.
"Dammit!" Riley shoved her rig off her lap onto the sofa and stalked towards the main screen, willing him to turn again and smirk at them, to give himself away.
This time he didn't. The throngs started to thin out, and Riley watched her targeting software move from human to human without a hit.
"Okay, so we—blockade the main roads." He was relatively isolated, it was a small town so not too many paths in or out—
"They don't have the manpower and we can't get it there in time." Matty's voice was cool, and Riley ignored her, checking on the locations of their emergency responders for herself. She found nearly all of them headed up the road to the cabin, including their emergency hazmat team. One of the firetrucks had peeled off and started back down the mountain, but by now the movie theater had been cleared and she already knew the system was telling them someone had pulled a manual alarm in Theater Two.
Matty was right. There was no one to close the roads.
"Fine, we push the perimeter out—"
"Riley." The director never took her eyes off the monitors. "We're not going to pick him up on the roads. He'll have to fly out. Focus your attention on all the nearest airstrips—even if it's a street the local crop dusters use."
...Duh. Of course.
She was about to open her mouth to apologize, and her eyes fell back on the screen, where more than half of all first responders in town were putting a perimeter around what was probably still an incredibly toxic fire. There were too many treetops in the way, she'd lost track of which heat signatures represented Jack, Mac, and Boze, but they could clearly hear a never-ending, muffled chatter of paramedics over the boys' coms. Some doors slammed, indicating they'd been loaded up, and two of the ambulances almost immediately started back down the mountain.
Luckily, the driver was already transmitting to the hospital, and it was easy to bring the transcription up on the screen. Riley found her bottom lip firmly trapped between her teeth, and when she let go of it she tasted pennies.
"...all three are stabilizing, hypoxic and on oxygen," she reported, a little stiltedly, and Matty turned to her with a much softer expression than she'd expected.
"Dispatch a team to secure the medical facility in case they're admitted. I doubt Murdoc will make a play for them, but..." Her lips pressed into a thin line. "We know where he is, which is more than we've had in a month. We are going to get him, Riley."
There was a lot of anger in her voice, but also a lot of resolution, and Riley let it soak into her frantic brain. He might have gotten away temporarily, but it was only temporarily, and Matty was right—he had to leave somehow. They still had a chance.
She let that thought calm her, and when she put her fingers back on the keyboard, they were no longer trembling. Riley had already dispatched Phoenix's second jet and was more than halfway through getting a good handle on the available air options when one of the other analysts stuck their head into the War Room. "Hey, uhm, Director? Riley?"
Both women looked up to find Patrick hovering hesitantly in the door. He didn't continue until they'd both started at him for several seconds, and Matty had made an irritated 'get on with it' motion. "Ah, we've done the initial analysis and we didn't get a hit. There were a lot of faces obscured by headwear, so we're starting the second analysis trying to find a hit on height and build—"
"Let us know when you finish." It was both acknowledgement and dismissal, and the slightly awkward analyst bobbed his head and retreated to the glassed-in room next door. Riley finished up getting passenger manifests and started cross-referencing them against known aliases before a door slammed, over coms, and signaled to the women in the War Room that Mac, Jack, and Bozer had finally arrived at the area hospital.
Riley toggled back to the hospital feeds, getting them visibility into the receiving dock, and her chat window from earlier caught her eye.
A buck? Try 5
She snorted to herself, softly. "Nice try," she complimented B4ndzz, and replied.
Buck 50 OBO
"Well the price definitely came down fast," Matty noted dryly, and Riley was about to explain that that was fifteen hundred dollars, not a literal dollar fifty, when she realized what she was actually bargaining for.
The hacker who had supplied Murdoc with his goods.
Do all your base belong in NA
"I'm asking if this guy or girl is based in North America," Riley pre-empted the question, and Matty let it slide. B4ndzz had clearly gotten bored in the interim, and Riley's search of the passenger manifests in the area came up blank for known aliases of both Murdoc and of Lara Clayton.
Though it would be a hell of a trick for Murdoc to convince anyone he was a 'Lara,' or any woman for that matter.
Riley watched the ambulances unload, and even though it had been clear from coms that none of them were talking, the video showed that none of them were conscious. They were all three wearing masks; all had been stripped to their shirts and in Jack's case had had his sleeve cut off to give them access to the agents' arms. Bozer also had stained white bandaging on his thigh, it was hard to tell at their angle how bad it was. They were quickly transferred into the ER, and Riley followed them on the cameras as she waited anxiously for B4ndzz to respond.
Her old friend didn't torture her too long. U angels flock together yo
So not just North America. Los Angeles.
"Of course," she murmured aloud.
"Why of course? I presume that's another reference to LA? Why would we be a hotbed—" But then Matty stopped herself. "Paparazzi," she answered her own question. "Spying on celebs and CEOs."
"You know it," Riley confirmed, drumming her fingertips feather-lightly on the keyboard as she tried to decide what to do. "Big money, not a lot of risk. Get a job as a valet, put a bug in the right car, and you've got blackmail material on everybody from Elon Musk to Beyonce."
Tell u what a buck and a key
She didn't even consider that one. A buck and get yr own key
"A private encryption key, and knowing B4ndzz, they'll want one with a link back to US intelligence."
Matty arched an eyebrow, and Riley shrugged. "We bonded over a mutual hatred of the man." Sad but true. "My first hack into the NSA was in part to show up B4ndzz here." For obvious reasons, Matty wouldn't let her do it even if she was willing.
Riley rolled her eyes. A buck if you get me a meet in 24
She figured that one was pretty self-explanatory when Matty didn't even glance at her. They split their attention between the chat window and the ER, watching nurses flitting around the three beds. A fairly large machine was being wheeled over—a respirator, Riley realized—and she licked her bottom lip when they stuck it between Bozer and Jack.
But no one immediately made motions to hook up either one of them; they took some blood samples and the first pieces of medical data started trickling in. Riley sent it down to Phoenix medical, quite sure that Matty had already looped them in.
On the screen, Mac's right arm moved a little.
Riley went back to the airports, making sure the analysts had every camera she could give them, and watched the Phoenix's much more powerful facial recognition software scanning everyone walking in. If he hid his face or something blocked him, the image would get automatically flagged and sent to a human analyst. "You're not getting on a plane that way, asshole," she informed him, quietly but fiercely.
...of course, Murdoc would know that. It was still more likely he'd try a small airfield, had scheduled his exfil just like everyone else did. None of those passenger manifests had indicated any of the flights were headed to California, but she'd tasked software to track each and every private jet, helicopter, and low-altitude prop that took off from the expanded radius around the town.
Now it was just a waiting game.
Do u 1 better how bout a date tonight?
With u? got a headache, she typed back instantly. As expected, her friend knew her better than that.
U don't want the warez that's fine
Riley sat up straighter. Matty didn't move.
"That they can set up a meet with you and whoever wrote the worm this evening, in LA. I can read," Matty reminded her curtly. And then didn't say anything else.
Riley stared at her, almost speechless. "...why wouldn't we jump on this?" Riley gestured at the screen. "If Murdoc slips out somehow, slips the net then—"
"Then B4ndzz will still be able to set up a meet when we've got some intel on who exactly you're meeting." It was crisp and sharp. "I'm not about to send another one of you into a situation blind in the name of expediency."
"But—" Riley stopped herself. "But we know where Murdoc is. And he knows we know. He knows he has to be more careful. If he calls up his guy, tells him to lay low, there's no guarantee of a meet at all—"
"Fine. Then get B4ndzz to cough up some information on this other hacker. An alias, a street address, something—"
"That's not how it works. And you know it," she added, a little hotly, somehow on her feet. "None of your Smoking Man contacts would tell you what you needed to know to just circumvent them! B4ndzz wants to get paid!"
"Then we'll pay him or her." Matty was unruffled. "Set up the meet, and we surveil. You'll blow them off, got stuck in traffic, doesn't matter. Once we know who we're dealing with—"
"Matty, you can't just blow these people off—"
"Riley!" It was almost a shout, and the diminutive woman turned so she was facing her directly. "This morning I sent your team out on sketchy intel and all three of them are lying unconscious in an emergency room in another country! I'm not about to send you on a date with someone who's been in bed with Murdoc!"
Riley stared at her, flabbergasted. But only for a moment. "We can't just 'surveil' this guy. He designs state of the art surveillance! Hardware and software that got past us! Got past me! What, you think we can just put two agents in a black SUV down the block?!" She almost laughed; it was insane. "Matty, you have green-lit ops with way less to go on than this! This guy could give us Murdoc's base of operations here in LA! We wouldn't even need to track down the plane, we could be waiting in his damn living room!"
"Or we could be walking directly into a trap!" Matty shouted back, then took a short, sharp breath through her nose. When she spoke again, her voice was controlled. "Murdoc got hold of our intel somehow. So let me ask you again. Are you certain you've gotten rid of all the bugs? Because if you haven't," Matty plowed on deliberately, before Riley could even take a breath to answer, "then you will be walking right into his trap, Riley. Do you understand that?"
If she hadn't gotten rid of the all the bugs, if Murdoc had gotten word from them about Lara Clayton, then he could very well find out she was going to meet his hacker friend, and tip the guy off.
"Then let's assume it's a trap," Riley said matter-of-factly.
Matty blinked at her, but then her dark eyes focused on something Riley couldn't see as the woman started putting it together. "You mean set up an ambush."
"That's exactly what I mean. I mean go in there and distract this guy and have tac get him. If I had access to his systems, I could confirm that Phoenix is clean, and even if we can't follow him back to Murdoc, he's got to have something. Places he met Murdoc, a money trail, something." Riley licked her lips. "But if we do that, we have to do it now, before Murdoc has a chance to dial back in and spy on us. Right now he's on the run or in the air, and if he does have a bug on us, he's not actively listening to it. Too risky, we might catch onto the transmission and use it to triangulate a location. But as soon as he catches his breath, he's gonna check in and find out what we know. If we do this, it is literally now or not at all."
Matty didn't say anything for a moment. "You'd burn your cover with B4ndzz."
But Riley was already shaking her head. "I'll say I was after the wares because I knew the feds were onto me. I'll slip away and ream B4ndzz a new one for not being careful enough. Matty, please. Send in as much backup as you want, but please let me do this."
She wanted to do it Matty's way, she really did, but if the answer was no, Riley was going to storm off to the ladies room, using Mac's paperclip in the toaster trick to start a small diversion, and set up the meet herself. They were never going to get a better shot at piecing together what Murdoc had been up to, what he had planned—
If they could catch him in the air, and get his hacker, they had him. He was done.
She could get him before he got her.
And maybe Matty saw it in her eyes, because her boss's hardened. "You go with a four man team."
"One," Riley corrected. "Otherwise we'll never even make it through the door."
The smaller woman frowned. "Riley, this is not a negotiation—"
"You can have four tac teams out there covering every direction, but they can't move in until I've gotten into the building. And to get in the building, this guy is gonna be expecting Artemis37. She doesn't run with a squad of guys, Matty, and anyone in our line of work can smell a fed a mile away. I'll take a member of tac with me, okay? A boyfriend is fine—four of them is overkill."
And before Matty could disagree, Riley grabbed her rig and replied to B4ndzz:
Set it up I guess
Then: Not 2 late I got school 2morrow
Meaning she had an early morning gig ahead of her. It would work perfectly into keeping Artemis cool with B4ndzz.
Motion on the screens caught both womens' attention: Mac was coming around, and he was apparently coming around with the expectation that he was still in immediate danger. Remarkably, the medics hadn't found their coms yet, and Matty put them to good use.
"Blondie, calm down! You're safe. Can you hear me?"
He was almost invisible beneath three startled nurses and an orderly, but his legs stopped moving quite so frantically, and they clearly heard him start hacking, with a deep, wet rattle that made Riley's lungs ache in sympathy.
"You're in a hospital, MacGyver. Tac's on the way, Jack and Bozer are right there beside you. Murdoc's gone." She spoke strongly to be heard over his coughing. "You're okay, Mac. Let them help you."
Whether he could truly hear her or not, he seemed to become less interested in getting off the gurney, and more interested in continuing to breathe. Once one of the nurses and the orderly peeled off, Riley was able to relax, and she saw that Mac's hand was on his oxygen mask – but to hold it in place while he coughed, not to fight with his caregivers.
It only made her more resolute. She re-muted coms. "Okay. We can't go in with regular coms, he or she will find them just like Bedlam74 would have if not for Mac's...thing." Which honestly probably wasn't a bad idea to try to recreate, except for the fact that Mac was barely cogent in a hospital bed six hours north and therefore unavailable to build another one. "I'm gonna get started on a workaround. Uh...who do we have from tac on prem?"
It was pretty clear Matty didn't like where she was headed. "I still haven't green-lit this operation, nor do you actually have a meet set up yet," the woman reminded her. "In the meantime, you seem to have forgotten that we're leading a massive manhunt for the very sociopath you're hoping to catch with this meet. If we get Murdoc now, we can go after that hacker at our leisure."
Riley knew when to push, and when to stop. She was on thin enough ice as it was. "I've sent everything we have to the analysts, and set up alerts for any anomalies. There's nothing else to do but wait for him to trigger one of those alerts. And it's going to take me a couple hours to make something we can activate and deactivate without being obvious." Not to mention cut through the known jamming technologies. There was no telling how paranoid this person was.
"And if we get Murdoc, then I don't have to finish," she added lightly. "But if we don't..."
The director slowly shook her head. "Fine. Prep work only. And the moment B4ndzz gives you the location, you send it up to me. Grant Simmons is Jack's backup, and he will decide if tac can support the op or not. Is that understood?"
Riley dipped her head in a nod. "Yeah, got it."
"Don't make me lock the building down, Riley. You and I are doing this together, or not at all."
And if not, she could always cancel the building lock-down if she wanted.
Ah, it's good to be back. I hope you all enjoyed this! Please, don't forget to leave a review!