The emergency meeting was held in Conference Suite A. The room was sweltering but they kept the door closed for privacy and huddled around battery-powered lanterns, their faces glistening with sweat.
“It’s a challenge,” Alex said. “They brought the body here to provoke us.”
“But it’s also a message,” Mundo pointed out. “They took May, they trashed her shop, and now they’ve killed our middleman. They know something’s up and want to make sure we know that they know. The question is how much information they really have.”
“If they’re not suspicious of the embedded team already, they will be soon,” Julilla said. “Unless it’s a bluff and they’re hoping we’ll freak out and do something dumb.”
Cassie nodded agreement and tried to act like the mission was her only reason for concern. One of Cuervo’s jobs had been to recommend the services of the embedded team to the Obits, claiming they were a renegade band passing through the area, willing to work for food. It wouldn’t take much for someone to trace Cuervo back to the group, if it hadn’t happened already. “We need to get a message to our people. Tell them to come back.”
“We can do it,” Alex agreed. “We know where they are.”
“We know where they were last week,” Mundo corrected him.
“And depending how long the Pharms were on to Cuervo, even that could’ve been a lie,” Julilla pointed out. “I agree we should pull them out, but how do we make sure we’re not being led into a trap? What if they don’t really have anything on us and they’re hoping we’ll act too fast and lead them there?”
They talked for over an hour, the heat in the room rising with their tempers as they went around in circles, unable to come up with a plan. Finally they agreed they weren’t getting anywhere and could do with some fresh air and rest. Mundo dismissed them to their rooms with instructions to sleep on their balconies where the air was cool and meet him at the pool deck in the morning. “We can’t not respond,” he said. “I’ll expect all of you to be ready to agree on a course of action.”
But in the morning, they still disagreed, only this time everyone was red-eyed and irritable after a restless night in the hot summer air. Worse, there were bugs in the morning oatmeal and the coffee was so weak it resembled tea. Everyone sniped at each other, unable agree whether they should send a team to the north-side suburb that was the last known location of their embedded team, or try to work with a new contact and hope the embedded allies would take instructions from a stranger. The fact that the team might not even be alive was enough to give Mundo pause. “I had hoped we could come up with a plan on our own,” he said in annoyance. “But it looks like we’ll need to call the alliance together.”
“And hope the Pharms don’t show up,” Alex said. “I guarantee they’re watching. We’ll be putting our allies in danger.”
“Then what’s your idea?”
“Hit the north side hard and send a message that we’re strong enough to do what needs doing.”
“’Pretend that you are weak, that your enemy grow arrogant,’” Julilla said, quoting from The Art of War. “We aren’t big enough, even with our allies, to let the Pharms draw us into a trap. It’s better to wait and see if we can make them overplay their hand.”
“But we can’t let them get away with this,” Alex reminded her.
“And what about our people?” Cassie said, blushing at Julilla’s knowing look.
Before Julilla could speak, there was a scuffle at the patio door. They had told Truong to keep everyone out, but Doc was arguing with him.
“They’ll want to know,” he said, trying to push past. “Quit being a literalist.”
“I haven’t read a book since the Telo,” Truong said irritably. “Literature’s got nothing to do with it.”
Mundo called for Truong to let him through, and when Doc was finally standing, rumpled and sweating in front of them, he said, “The twins are in the clinic. They got in a fight of some sort. They say they have news for you.”
* * *
They found the twins lying together on a bed in the treatment room. Based on a bandage count, Danica seemed the worse off. Danny lay stretched out beside her, tracing a bruise on her face. “This is a nice clinic you’ve got,” he said. “Even if it does need air conditioning.”
“Thank you,” Mundo said. “It’s all Doc’s work. The rest of us just run interference.”
Doc flushed slightly, although it could’ve been from the heat. “Bruises, abrasions, a couple cuts that needed stitches, a contusion and a concussion,” he said. “I’ve recommended an overnight stay for observation.”
“Better put them in a private room,” Julilla muttered. “Or you’ll be doing some observing, all right.”
Danny frowned, offended. “Doc said she’d get better faster if we weren’t having sex. Her health comes first.” He kissed Danica in an unusually chaste manner to punctuate his point.
“So what happened?” Mundo said. He motioned for Doc to bring him a chair. “We understand you got in a fight. Pharms?”
“None other.” Danny pressed a finger on Danica’s lips, preventing her from adding to his comment. “We waited until night to sneak into May’s shop. There were too many people around and it was easier to do it after dark. We got in and it was pretty trashed. Even the art stuff, which hasn’t happened before.”
Julilla frowned and whispered to herself, “’Begin by seizing something your opponent holds dear; then he will be amenable to your will.’”
Cassie nudged her, indicating with a gesture that she should quit quoting.
“It looked like they took a lot of stuff out of the lab,” Danny went on. “It was hard to know exactly what, since it’s not like we go in there and do inventory.”
“But there was no paper,” Danica said, resisting her twin’s efforts to make her lie still. “She had notebooks when we infiltrated her place before, and she had some when she was here with you taking information off the laptop. Other than a few science books, there isn’t any paper anywhere in that lab any more. Not even a gum wrapper.”
“She had tons of notes about the growth hormone research,” Doc reminded the group.
Everyone looked at each other, letting this information sink in.
“So the Pharms now know as much as we do,” Mundo concluded.
“If they didn’t already,” Alex said.
“I don’t think they had much of a clue until now.” Mundo rested his elbows on his knees. “They took the equipment instead of destroying it and they took May instead of killing her. If there was nothing new to be gained, they wouldn’t have gone to that kind of trouble. It would’ve been May they dumped on our driveway instead of Cuervo.”
“So what else did you find out?” Alex asked.
“Not much,” Danny said. “We thought since they had all the lab stuff, maybe they were taking her to Dr. Brody’s office, so we went there.”
“Too obvious,” Julilla muttered.
Danica tried to sit up. “If you don’t like how we conduct a mission, quit hiring us.”
Danny pushed her back against the pillows. “It’s okay, babe. Rest and get better. Then we’ll kick her ass.” While Danica and Julilla sputtered in indignation, he went on. “That’s where we went and we didn’t get to look around because we got jumped. It was weird because they’ve never had a watch on the east side of their perimeter, but they do now and the guy who heads it up is a vicious little fuck.”
“So May could be there,” Alex said. “Otherwise why step up security?”
“The two events aren’t necessarily related,” Julilla pointed out.
“Correlation doesn’t equal causation,” Mundo agreed. “So is there anything else we should know? Anything odd that you might not have mentioned?”
Danny and Danica exchanged glances.
“Sleep on it. We’ll talk again in the evening.” Mundo motioned to Doc. “Be sure there’s paper and pens by the bed so if they think of something they can write it down.”
* * *
The rest of the day passed in a haze of heat and irritation. The children whined and refused Alaina’s efforts at instruction. The goat brayed and kicked in its pen behind the concierge desk, and in the stifling air its smell made the lobby stink of goat. The guards, divided on whether they approved of Alex’s or Julilla’s course of action, bickered and cast surly looks at one another. The baby wailed from heat rash, Mella went into convulsions as she entered end-stage Telo, and Doc threw his PDR into the hallway and kicked it in frustration.
Everyone thought the final straw had come when the foraging team came back empty-handed, complaining of road blocks and heavily armed Pharms. Sandra hauled David into the kitchen, threw a few pots around and demanded to know what she was supposed to cook for supper. David suggested they cook her fat behind, and Eleven had to call for backup to get things quieted down.
Cassie was thrilled to see David get a little comeuppance. Too bad it was from Eleven, who she suspected was even more annoyed by the supply shortage, since it meant he had nothing with which to bargain for sex. Just as it seemed things were settling down again, there was a howl of sirens and squeal of tires outside the hotel entrance. This time the Pharms didn’t even bother stopping. They simply slowed down and tossed something out the window. Cassie got to the door too late to see it happen, but she recognized the cellophane-decorated object a guard held up for the group’s inspection.
It was May’s hair.