Chapter 101

                These kids definitely weren’t normal. They ran tighter security than Smitt had seen outside a military installation. He’d done some illegal checking of the power-grid, and both apartments had several devices drawing the right amount of constant juice to signify alarms and cameras. Before he’d even gotten the chance to place a bug, Smitt had noticed them sweeping for listening devices three times daily. He’d never have realized it if the girl didn’t always come out and run her hands under the railing just outside their apartments.

                Even watching them from afar held a certain amount of risk, as the well-muscled Asian one and the girl ran perimeter checks at unpredictable hours. They seemed to take orders from the young man who’d worn a mask on Halloween, known by his mail as Dig Bixby. That one at least had a class schedule he followed. Smitt had jotted some of it down, but Dig had proven slippery to tail. Either he knew he was being watched, or he took those kinds of precautions just because. Smitt was hoping it was the former; if this kid was already so careful out of habit then he’d almost certainly become a ghost if he realized Smitt was watching.

                Thus far he hadn’t been able to get anything on these three, not their real names, not their reason for being here, and not their connection to Vince Reynolds. It was that last element Chapman cared about. He’d never deigned to tell Smitt why he wanted dirt on the silver-haired student so badly, and Smitt hadn’t asked questions. Getting paid in envelopes full of cash had that sort of effect on his curiosity. The bonus waiting for him if he actually found something solid on Reynolds would make his daily rate pale in comparison. That was why he was sticking with this strange trio. Whoever they were, they were clearly up to something. If he could find a way to uncover it and link them with Reynolds, that cash was as good as his.

                Smitt watched the girl walk up the stairs, finishing her sweep. She gave a quick glance around, then entered the apartment registered to Dig Bixby. Getting closer would require some risk. Luckily, Smitt was an old pro. These kids could take all the precautions they wanted.

                Nothing stopped Smitt when he was on a trail.

*             *             *

                Nicholas was on the phone when Eliza walked in from her sweep, lying on the couch with the cell pressed to his ear.

                “Take your time circling back, Eliza and I will wait for you before we get dinner.” He pressed a button on the phone’s side, ending the call.

                “Everything go okay?”

                “Perfect.” Nicholas rose from his sprawled out position, giving a mighty stretch. “You held his attention long enough for Jerome to slip the tracker on his car.”

                “It wasn’t like it was hard. This guy might not be bad by California standards, but his thumbs would have been broken years ago if he tried this shit in Vegas.” Eliza went to the kitchen, withdrew a soda, and slumped into one of the chairs. “Do you really think there’s any chance he’ll lead us to Nathaniel?”

                “No, it seems highly unlikely,” Nicholas replied. His eyes were focused out the window, looking at the Lander campus that lay only a few streets away. “The agents Nathaniel has employed were skilled, so much so that they managed to get the jump on us. This gentleman is far too low-brow for someone with our level of connections to utilize.”

                “Could be a decoy; get us occupied with chasing the target we can see while someone else slips by.”

                “That has occurred to me, hence why we’ve doubled down on security; however it seems unlikely. Nathaniel is rarely the type to use convoluted methods; such is really more my style than his. It’s possible he’s learned new tricks, I refuse to underestimate him again, but the probable explanation is that this gentleman is pursuing us for his own reasons.”

                “Why bother?” Eliza kicked her feet onto the table and sipped her soda. She looked cheerfully unconcerned about the fact that someone was doing his best to spy on them. “Officially speaking, we’re nothing more than college juniors here to get an education. If he’s not connected with someone from Vegas, then what is there about us worth looking in on?”

                “Perhaps he isn’t interested in us at all; only in the company we keep. My old friends are a subject many people would like to learn more on.”

                The jovial look fell right off Eliza’s face. “Are you saying he might be after Vince?”

                “Vince, or any of the others,” Nicholas corrected. “It was Mary, after all, who was targeted in our freshman year. Until we know more, I think it’s best if we minimize contact with them.”

                “Look, I know you’re not thrilled about me and Vince-”

                “Eliza, I allowed you to stay, did I not? How you and a former friend of mine have fornicated isn’t really any business of mine. What I am concerned with is keeping my investment safe. Those people represent a tremendous resource if I can make them allies, to say nothing of their usefulness in uncovering my lost-self’s findings. Keeping away from them right now is the smart call, for all of us.”

                Her nimble fingers curled against the soft aluminum of the half-full can. She hated him for it, but Nicholas was right. Vince had already endured so much because of her; she couldn’t bear to do something that would make his life even worse. However, that didn’t mean she had to sit in this apartment with a thumb up her ass.

                “Get me some bugs, decent ones,” she demanded, setting her drink on the counter. “I’m going on the offensive. When we find out where this dick sleeps, I’ll get us wired for sound.”

                “Clumsy as he is, the man has still almost certainly taken countermeasures against just that. I’d be shocked if he doesn’t do his own sweep every night.”

                “Then I guess I’ll just have to hide them in a place he won’t look, and while I’m at it I’ll see what kind of information he’s got squirreled away.” Eliza stood from the couch and walked over to Nicholas. “I can do this. Let me do this. You’ve been gone a long time, and I’ve gotten a whole lot better. Ms. Pips wouldn’t have sent me down if that weren’t true.”

                Nicholas considered the proposal carefully. He did loathe operating in the dark with a new enemy, and Eliza was correct that Ms. Pips had significant faith in the girl’s skills. Still, this man was a loose thread who could easily be cut off if he caused something to start unraveling. A mistake might cost them this lead, and there was no guarantee the next one would be so easy to spot.

                “I’ll give you what you need, but it’s on you. Win the glory or shoulder the blame.”

                “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Eliza said. She needn’t have bothered speaking; the wild grin that sliced across her face conveyed the sentiment far more effectively.