*This chapter contains strong language, questionable morals and lasagna.
28. Network Failure
Maggie was asleep when I got up.
She was still asleep when I got out of the shower. Flat on her back in the middle of my bed with her right arm across her stomach and her left up over her head. She didn't move much in her sleep. Because of her shoulder. I stopped at the edge of the bed, brushing out my hair and watching her sleep. The blankets and sheets had bunched around her waist. I put the brush on the nightstand and pulled the blanket up to her shoulders. I managed to do it without touching her or her skin. I knew if I touched her she'd sit straight up like she had last night and curse when she jerked her shoulder. I hope she sees the keys. Maybe I'll leave a note on the mirror in the bathroom. She'll see that.
"See what?" she asked, her eyes closed.
I didn't mean to wake you up. "Keys. I was going to leave you my spare set so you can lock up later."
"What time is it?" She blinked up at the ceiling before she turned her head to look at me. She pulled her right hand out from under the blanket and stretched both hands out above her.
I sat on the edge of the bed and watched the face she made when the stretch hurt. "Quarter to eight." Sleep as long as you want. I don't think there will be any new assignments today. I wished I could crawl back into bed. Three hours of sleep wasn't enough to face the old man, even with good news.
She lowered her arms and patted the bed beside her. "When do you have to go?"
I shifted closer. "A few minutes." I don't think he's going to keep me all day, if you want to stay. We could have dinner.
She touched the inside of my wrist and ran her fingertips along my skin and lingered at the crook of my arm. Her eyes cleared. "Call me after your meeting. If he wants to keep you later we can do dinner out."
My skin tingled where she touched me. "I'll call," I said as she reversed direction and ran her nails over the same path. You do that when I have to go?
She smiled. "I don't know what you're talking about. I'm fishing for a goodbye kiss."
I bent down when she tugged on my wrist. Just one?
"Just one," she agreed and lifted her head.
Her lips slid over mine and between them, taking my bottom lip between hers and sucking it. I leaned down into her and pressed her into the pillows. Her nails dug into my back. She kissed me with feverish intensity until we had to break apart for air.
She pushed against my chest, hand over my heart. "Go to work."
I looked down at my watch. 9:03. Damn. I have to go. The thrill of panic at the idea of being late didn't eclipse my desire to stay right where I was.
She ran her hand up and down my arm, soothing this time. "I'll see you tonight." She pulled her hand away and brushed her hair from her eyes. "Go make us look good so I can use your boss as a reference."
"I write all of his reference letters. He signs them." I slid off the bed before I convinced myself I could call in my report. Think about what you want for dinner. There are a couple of good places near here.
She watched me from the bed. "I'll think about it," she said when I paused at the door.
I took one more glance. Her pale skin stood out, stark against the dark blankets. Tonight, I promised myself as I walked into the living room to get my shoes and coat.
In the car I put the radio up and tapped my thumbs on the steering wheel to the music. I was in such a good mood when I got to the office that I even went through the front door and looked through the blinds in the glass boxes to see if Gates was in yet.
He was at his desk, the phone between his shoulder and ear while he pecked at his keyboard with one finger. He saw me and waved me in.
He hung up as I stepped inside. "Go ahead and shut the door," he said with a hint of a smile.
I pushed the metal doorframe until the lock clicked, careful not to get my hands on the glass. I set my briefcase down next to one of the chairs in front of the desk and sat down. "No problems with the courier?" I asked when a minute passed in silence. The folders I'd sent ahead were on his blotter next to the keyboard.
"No, no problems." He leaned back in his chair. He looked less worn down than he had a few days ago.
Good news can do that. "We were there six hours and it was over. Agent Childers and Dr. Lochlan will have their summaries for you tomorrow." I'll remind Maggie when I call her.
He watched me for a moment and then pushed the newspaper on his desk toward me. "You didn't keep up on the news while you were out on assignment, did you?"
Breaker's Illegal Tax Breaks, I read and scanned the first few lines. Breaker was being indicted for tax fraud. When did that happen? "This has to be great for our numbers." I put the paper back on the desk and made a mental note to get myself a copy of the Times when we were done.
"It has been. For all of our numbers. You see, I'm telling you this because I know how hard newspapers are to come by in Chicago." He paused to let the sarcasm sink in. "Waylan has picked up a lot of bad press about mudslinging since he uncovered this little accounting error of Breaker's. His numbers are down through the floor." The senator leaned back in his chair but his face was hard, set and serious.
So much for Steadman being priority. I felt stung that I was being reprimanded for keeping my eyes on the project I was assigned to and guilty for not keeping up with the papers at the same time. "That's good news."
He was silent for another long beat and I stayed quiet, not about to break the silence when I had no gauge of where I stood. "These are good pictures," he said.
"Good resolution. Agent Childers did a great job." I could afford to spread the praise around. Between his taxes and our evidence, Breaker was dust. Like he never existed.
"He did," Gates agreed. "We'll have to keep these on file, just in case." He pulled the newspaper toward him. "Though I can't see us needing them."
I was relieved that his eyes were on the newspaper and not me. I couldn't control my expression. I closed my mouth and swallowed. "Excuse me, sir?"
He looked up, mouth set in a stern line. "I believe you heard me. Tell Lochlan and Childers that their contracts are up as of tomorrow."
I was shocked and I couldn't hide it. I knew better, but the words came anyway. "We could bury Breaker with this." All of this time, the money, for nothing? I got shot at for Christ's sake.
He shook his head and sighed. "He's already buried. A grand jury is being convened before the election. Waylan is in the doghouse for making it happen. Do you think that I would take any chance of this camp getting tarred with the same brush? You know better."
"You're going to sit on it?" He's kidnapping people and we're going to sit on it? This was worse than using the pictures for blackmail. Even then I saw it leading to an arrest.
His expression softened and I felt the insincerity level rise. "At least until the election."
Does he think I don't know when he's lying by now? "After the election." I tapped my fingers against the arm of the chair, thinking fast. I could see Maggie and Carl's faces when I told them that we were shelving the pictures. Maggie's face when I told her that he might sit on them forever. Mudslinging. No mudslinging. "What if the information came from another source?"
He frowned. "We're dropping this, Elise."
I shifted in my seat. "We don't have to." Don't say anything stupid and melodramatic. Self interest would work better. "You always say any advantage is worth taking. What if Waylan's numbers rebound? What if Breaker can blame this all on his accountant? We could take the file we have on Steadman and Craig to the feds-"
He held his hand up to stop me and leaned on his desk with his elbows, head forward, intimidating. "I don't need you to tell me what I always say. We have nothing to take to another agency. This," he gestured to the folder, "is great for scaring the hell out of Breaker, but it's not going to get us anywhere if we take it to the FBI. This proves Steadman works for Craig. We'd need to tie the funding to Breaker to get anywhere." His tone had become conciliatory. He was telling me the way things were.
And he was telling me how I could do it. He gave me an opening. "What if I keep looking? Agent Childers was close with the financial records. He'd established that the money came from the Nevada Geological Surveys Department."
His eyes shifted toward the desk and then back up. "Childers and Lochlan aren't on staff as of tomorrow."
That wasn't a no. Maybe he wants to see if I can do it myself. "I have their notes. I can look into it." I didn't doubt I'd have willing help.
He pursed his lips and folded his hands on top of the desk. "There are other things I'm going to need you on."
You have me scheduled to work on this for another month. "If this comes from an outside source it's going to reinforce that you fight fair, that Waylan is a bully, and Breaker is ridiculous." I wanted to cross my fingers; they twitched against the arms of the chair. Haven't I stroked your ego enough? Let me do this.
He regarded me for a long time and I refused to look away. "Two weeks. After that I'll expect you here in this office full time. Are we clear?"
"Clear. I'll inform Childers and Lochlan about their contracts today." Working on this might help to distract Carl from Lynn but Maggie's going to need a new contract to keep her in cash.
"Good. Keep me updated." He said and turned back to his computer.
"I will.” I picked up my briefcase and went to the door.
I turned at the door to see him watching me with an air of expectation. "Yes, sir?" Did I forget something? I told him when they're sending in the summaries.
"You're welcome," he said and raised his eyebrows.
I cleared my throat and willed my face not to turn red. "Yes, thank you, sir."
He nodded in a self-satisfied way and waved me out the door.
I got into the hall and walked to my desk. I put my briefcase in my chair and stared at my monitor. What did you just agree to do? The office was felt too small. I grabbed my purse. Mark was on the phone so I didn't have to field any comments on my way to the back door.
I leaned against the side of the building with a view of the bank across the parking lot.
I had my blackberry out as soon as the door swung shut behind me. My thumb scrolled through the programmed numbers, and stopped on Derek. I hesitated over the call button. I put the phone back in my pocket. I wasn't ready to talk to Derek. I wasn't ready to listen to him try to justify baiting Maggie at dinner. I wasn't ready to hear what mom had said when I didn't show up on Sunday. Without even calling. I was angry at myself for wanting to call him anyway. To say what? I'm going to forgive you for now so you can listen to me bitch about my boss?
I pulled the phone out, thumbed through the numbers and stopped on Maggie's. I blinked hard, furious that I was tearing up and refusing to cry when I knew I'd have to walk back through the office with red eyes. You're not calling her about Gates either. My throat felt tight and I knew if I called her I'd break down. The thought made me angrier. I clenched my jaw and pulled up my email instead. I opened a new message and pecked out:
Good guess. Contracts end tomorrow. We should meet to discuss the outcome. Are you available tonight or tomorrow?
I shot it off to Carl and Maggie and sighed. Good. Nothing inflammatory about Gates in it. I shook my head. He's letting you use his resources to work on this and is paying you for it, I reminded myself, but being reasonable didn't make me feel any better.
The phone vibrated in my hand and I put it to my ear. Christ Carl is fast. He bitches about too many emails and he checks his every ten minutes. "Atwood."
"So you are alive," Derek said.
Shit. "What's up?" I thumped the wall with my fist and scraped the back of my hand.
He sighed into the phone and made the speaker crackle. "I tried calling you all weekend, that's what's up. You didn't come Sunday and you didn't return anyone's calls."
"I was out on assignment," I shot back. I should have at least emailed him. Aren't you supposed to be the responsible one?
There was a pause. "How did that go?"
I'd been ready to fight and the calm question threw me. "Gates wants to drop the investigation. I convinced him to let me keep on it for two more weeks but to get anything done I have to convince Carl and Maggie to work for free because their contract is up tomorrow."
I blinked, surprised that I'd decided to tell him.
"He won't extend the contract?"
I shook my head. Don't I wish? "Not a chance. I don't think he'd mind getting more work out of them though." I frowned. It was possible I'd been maneuvered into asking them. The Senator had to know that I didn't know as much about the case or have access to the databases that either of them had. My hand curled into a fist but I didn't hit the wall again.
"That sounds like something the old man would do. Is it worth it?"
I put my head back against the wall, looking up at the cloudless blue sky. "Yeah." How does he do that? It was why I'd wanted to call Derek in the first place. He could always put the Senator's maneuvering into perspective.
"About last week. I want to-"
"Did you do it on purpose?"
There was genuine worry in his voice. "No, you know I wouldn't do that to you."
My hand stung. There were two long scrapes along the side and one had welled up red. "You didn't mean it, she didn't mean it. It doesn't matter, ok?"
"I really wanted to apologize to Maggie. Think there's anything I can say that won't get me eviscerated?"
I laughed without meaning to. "You asshole. You're not funny."
He laughed too. "You have to help me figure something out. Claire was going kill me after last week."
"She likes Italian food. If you can convince Claire to make lasagna you might have a deal." At least he wants to give her a chance.
"You’re sure this is a deal for Maggie?"
Smartass. "I think you could start making it up to me too.”
I wonder what else he'll agree to now that he thinks he isn't in trouble? "Throw in some of that cobbler and I might forgive you for leaving me at that gas station in Texas."
He huffed into the phone. "Right after I forgive you for telling Marcy Clark that I wet the bed."
I coughed to keep a straight face. Almost forgot about that. "Maybe we're even there."
"Yeah, maybe. I’m still waiting for mom to ground you for that one."
My smile faded and I flexed my sore hand. "Hey, Derek?" What's mom been saying?
I glanced around and asked in a small voice, "How's mom been?"Derek sighed into the line and I regretted asking.