Special Agent Phillip Henry is sitting in a wooden booth covered in graffiti, staring down at a pizza set on their wooden table, which is also covered in graffiti.
“I can’t eat all this.” His voice carries a mixture of amusement and genuine alarm, causing the man sitting across from him to burst into laughter.
“They don’t sell by the slice, boss.” Special Agent Alan Grant shakes his head, grinning at Henry’s discomfort. “Anyway, you don’t have to eat all of it. I promised to save Hu a slice, and I’m pretty sure our guest is going to be hungry. Assuming he shows up.”
They look slightly out of place—both men dressed in black suits, the shorter dark-skinned man wearing sunglasses indoors, the taller pale-skinned man wearing a black trench coat along with the suit. Everyone else is wearing t-shirts and jeans, with maybe the occasional polo shirt sprinkled in the crowd. But this is New York City, and nobody pays much attention.
Agent Henry sighs and carefully extracts a slice from the pan.
“Think he’ll show?” Grant sounds skeptical.
Henry nods. “It was his idea.”
“Yeah, but you’re not alone, and you’re not exactly hiding that.”
“That’s true,” a familiar voice says. “But it’s the company he keeps that’s important.”
Peter Raphael Travers looks down at the two of them, smiling his trademark polite, mildly friendly smile as he takes in their looks of surprise. His smile is the only thing recognizable: his head is shaved, he sports a thick, unkempt beard, and he’s wearing blue jeans and an unbelievably garish orange and red Hawaiian shirt. He holds a New York Mets baseball cap in his left hand, and a lime green backpack—the kind a pre-teen student might carry—hangs over one shoulder.
“Love the look,” Grant says. “Very inconspicuous.”
“In this city? You’d be surprised.” Travers slides into the booth next to Agent Henry, nodding to Grant amiably. “It’s not whether Phillip comes alone. In a situation like this it would be stupid to come alone, and your boss isn’t stupid. If he looked like he was alone, I’d assume he wasn’t and wonder who he was trying to hide. He didn’t bother doing that—instead, he put you in plain sight, and if you’re here, that means Hu is probably around here somewhere…” he scans the room, then shrugs. “If he’d brought Frank and Malloy, I’d be expecting a trap. They’re the ones he brought when he came to arrest me. But you and Hu… that means he thinks we’re about to go off script.”
Agent Henry doesn’t bother to protest. Travers helps himself to a slice of pizza.
“I am wounded,” Grant says. “Cut to the quick.”
“I’m sure. Phillip, is it safe to talk here?”
“Until Grant tells us otherwise,” Agent Henry says. “I won’t say you look well, because you don’t.”
“Field work doesn’t suit me,” Travers agrees. “As long as you don’t say ‘I’m placing you under arrest,’ I’ll manage to carry on.” Travers’ expression doesn’t change, but Agent Henry can hear the caution creep into his voice. “You aren’t going to do that, are you?”
Agent Henry shakes his head. “For the time being, the video you sent us of Clive Darius contaminating our crime scene has convinced me that our chain of command has become… unreliable.”
“Unfortunately,” Travers says, “insider threat in the DHS is not what you need to focus on right now. At least, not entirely.”
Agent Henry raises an eyebrow. “All right. Tell me what I should be focusing on.”
Travers opens his backpack, pulls out a thumb drive, and sets it in front of Agent Henry. “This.”
Agent Henry glances at Grant, who nods once. He stares at the thumb drive thoughtfully. “What’s this?”
“I have given copies of this to two other people,” Travers says. “Curveball got the first copy, back when the Forrests' home was attacked. The second was given to one former police lieutenant David Bernard.”
“Which is what led to your current status,” Agent Henry says.
“That’s right,” Travers says. “That has everything I know about PRODIGY. And I’m more certain than ever that there’s an important connection there. One that your unreliable chain of command is trying very hard to prevent you from finding.”
Agent Henry picks up the thumb drive and sticks it in his jacket pocket. “Anything else?”
“There’s something happening in Farraday City,” Travers says. “I don’t know what, but I’m pretty sure it has something to do with—”
“We gotta go.” Agent Grant stands and heads toward the back, expression grim. “Now.”
Travers follows immediately, relaxed and alert. Agent Henry slides out of the booth without comment, straightening his jacket as he stands.
“Come on.” Grant makes his way past the restrooms, to a heavy security door that opens into the alley behind the pizzeria. He steps through, looking around warily. There’s not much to see—the backs of stores, mostly, all looking pretty much the same: cinderblock walls, heavy metal doors with industrial lights set into the wall above them. A large green dumpster sits to the right of their exit. It’s half filled with trash, and the smell of rancid pizza sauce fills the air.
“What’s going on?” Travers doesn’t sound worried, but his eyes linger on doors and rooftops.
“There’s a van prowling around out front,” Grant says. He unbuttons his suit coat, revealing a shoulder holster. He unsnaps the thumb break on his holster, fingering the handle of his Glock service pistol. “Hu doesn’t like it. If she doesn’t like it, neither do I…”
Travers looks puzzled. “How is she telling you this? You’re not wearing an earpiece.”
“Well, we have really good communication ski—whoa, dumpster! Now!”
Agent Henry shoves Travers behind the large metal dumpster and draws his weapon just as Agent Grant rounds the corner and dives onto the ground. Brakes squeal as two unmarked vans race around a corner and come to a stop at the end of the alley.
“Grant?” Agent Henry sounds a little annoyed.
“Yeah,” Grant says. “We didn’t notice them. Uh… oops?”
“Right,” Agent Henry says. “Travers are you armed?”
Travers pulls a .45 semi-automatic out of his backpack.
“OK,” Agent Henry says. “Grant. This is not where I want to be.”
“Only cover I could find on short notice.”
“Yeah,” Grant says. “I know. Hu is on her way. I’ll try to make a path.”
He grips his pistol, reaches into his coat pocket, and pulls out two extra magazines, setting them in his lap. He takes several deep breaths in rapid succession.
Five shots fire in the distance (bam, bam, bambambam) followed by shouts of alarm, followed immediately by two more (bam, bam) sounding much farther from the dumpster than the first set and then all they can hear is chaos. Men shout incoherently. Automatic weapons start firing in short, controlled bursts, though none appear to be firing at their position behind the dumpster. It sounds to Travers as if they’re not trying to advance on the dumpster at all, but to respond to an entirely different ambush.
Grant releases the magazine in his Glock. It slides smoothly out of the grip and falls to the ground. He grabs one of the magazines in his lap and slides it into place.
“How are we doing?” Agent Henry can’t see anything—the dumpster blocks everything.
“Uh, well, OK…” Grant’s voice is strained. “I’m just waiting for Hu to—”
More shots fire, this time farther back.
“—get here so we can get some proper—”
Someone decides to switch their weapon to fully automatic (dakkadakkadakkadakkadakka) and Grant yelps in surprise.
“—shit, where’d he come from—”
(Bam, bam, bambambambambambambam)
“—and they’re wearing body armor, what the fuck—”
(Bam bam bam bam)
He releases the magazine in his pistol a second time, and grabs the third.
“Where’s Hu?” Agent Henry sounds as he always does—detached and calculating. Travers knows it’s a facade—the man who can always detect a lie has the best poker face Travers has ever seen—but it’s a very effective facade at the moment. He appears completely unfazed by current circumstances.
Grant shrugs as he slides the third magazine into his gun. “She was on her way last I checked. Look, they’re distracted, we might be able to make it back into Dobretti’s.”
“No,” Agent Henry says. “Too many civilians. Need backup?”
“I’ll need ammo pretty soon.”
Agent Henry reaches into his jacket and pulls out three more magazines.
“It’s shame we didn’t get access to the armory today, that’d make things a little easier.”
“I didn’t think we’d need it. Sorry.”
(Bambambambambambambam, bam, bam, bambam, bam, bam)
The alley is silent.
The last of Grant’s magazines slides out of his pistol. He picks them up (all empty, Travers notices) and puts them in his suit jacket pocket.
“I think that’s all of them.” Grant takes one of Agent Henry’s magazines and reloads. “Let’s go find Hu.”
They walk around the dumpster. Two black, unmarked vans block the end of the alley. Bodies are everywhere—ten in all, all armed with rifles and wearing body armor. None of them move.
“Fucking body armor,” Grant says. His voice shakes with adrenaline.
Travers look at Agent Grant steadily. “I never did learn what it was that got you placed in Division M, Agent Grant.”
“My winning smile,” Grant says.
Agent Henry says nothing. He’s staring at one of the vans and frowning. Travers looks at him questioningly.
Agent Henry nods at the van. “It’s one of ours.”
Grant looks at the van. “Seriously?”
“Definitely one of ours,” Agent Henry says.
“We just got swatted by our own guys?” Agent Grant’s face starts to twist into a scowl, then his eyes go wide. “Did I just…?”
“Hold that thought.” Agent Henry runs to the closest van. The windshield has three bullet holes in a tight grouping on the driver’s side, angled as if the shooter was standing on the hood of the van, shooting down. The windshield is tinted, but he can see a vague silhouette slumped over in the front seat.
The side door is open. Agent Henry pokes his head in and immediately notices the surveillance gear. He swears, which surprises both Travers and Grant more than anything else that’s happened so far.
“They were tracking our phones,” Agent Henry says, looking at Grant. “Mine, yours, Hu’s. They weren’t after Travers. They were coming for us.”
“But that doesn’t…” Grant’s voice trails off. “Fuck. Where’s Hu?”
The alley opens into a narrow street that doesn’t look as if it gets much use, other than to provide access to the alleyways that empty onto it. Grant looks down both directions, frowning, unsure which way to go.
“She was supposed to—”
A gray Cadillac DeVille skids around the corner, the back fishtailing up onto the too-thin sidewalk and smacking into the corner of a red-and-tan brick building, smashing the right rear taillight as it tries to straighten out and keep moving. Another black van, identical in every way to the two parked in front of the alley, smashes into the side of the car, engines roaring. Glass breaks, the back doors crumple, and the DeVille is hurled into the brick wall, tipping sideways from the force of the collision.
“Hu!” Grant starts running down the street, weapon drawn. His outline blurs slightly, then he’s at the end of the street, closing in on the van and the car.
Fire erupts from the DeVille’s driver seat. The windshield and the top of the car vanish as a column of liquid heat shoots into the sky. Grant staggers back, covering his eyes, and the column arcs up and bends back toward the wreckage, hanging in the air over the van. The column coalesces into the shape of a woman—no distinct features, only unending flame.
Fire roils around the form, then streams down into the van. Agent Grant blurs again, and this time he reappears halfway up the street just as the van explodes, sending metal and glass in all directions. None of it seems to affect the burning woman in the least.
Agent Henry and Travers run over to Agent Grant.
“Thank God,” Agent Grant says. “For a second there, I thought she was in trouble.”
The burning silhouette floats over to them. The heat rises rapidly. The silhouette stops a few feet from Grant.
“Sorry I’m late.” The silhouette speaks with a woman’s voice. “I had a thing.”
“Yeah,” Grant says. “We saw the thing. We had a thing too. Glad you’re OK.”
Special Agent Lijuan Hu laughs. Flames trail off into wisps of smoke where her mouth should be. “These guys were not here for surveillance. They must want Travers pretty bad. Hi, Travers.”
“Agent Hu,” Travers says. “Always a little terrifying to see you work.”
“They weren’t here for Travers,” Agent Henry says. “They were tracking our phones.”
Hu turns in mid-air to face Agent Henry. “Our phones?”
Agent Henry nods. “I assume yours is no longer an issue.” He takes out his and places it on the ground. “Agent Grant.”
Grant stares at him blankly, then understanding dawns. “Right.” He reaches into his trench coat pocket and pulls out his cellphone. He sighs, then throws it on the ground next to Agent Henry’s.
Agent Henry steps back. “Agent Hu, if you would be so kind.”
Fire surges around her, and a stream of white-hot flame smashes into the phones. When the flame retreats, all that’s left is a bubbling puddle of plastic and glass.
“We need to leave,” Agent Henry says. “I expect police soon.”
“Or their backup,” Travers says, gesturing to the burning van.
“Police would be better,” Agent Henry says. “I’d rather be somewhere else, whichever the case.”
Agent Hu floats a little closer to Agent Grant.
“Alan…” Hu shifts uneasily. “I… um…” She gestures toward his coat.
Agent Grant sighs. “Oh come on, Hu. You didn’t wear your bathing suit? Again?”
“I didn’t know today was going to be so active,” Hu snaps. “Also, it’s not a bathing suit. It’s uncomfortable as hell, it’s made of fucking asbestos, and I’m not real keen on cancer.”
“Yeah, OK.” Still grumbling, Grant takes off his trench coat and holds it out. He turns his head. “Avert your eyes, gentlemen!”
Travers and Agent Henry comply. Immediately the wave of heat dissipates. Cloth rustles briefly, then Agent Hu sighs in relief.
“Thanks,” Hu says.
In place of the figure of pure flame is an attractive Asian woman with an oddly reddish tint to her skin.
“I was trying to bring the car around,” Hu says. “That van started pursuing. I tried to ditch it, didn’t work. When it sideswiped me I decided their intentions weren’t honorable so I lit up. Uh… sorry about the car, boss.”
“Later,” Agent Henry says. “Come on, let’s go.”
Travers feels himself starting to relax, and turns to look down the other end of the street. “Agreed. I know a few places where we might—”
“Gun!” Agent Hu shouts the warning, and Travers turns to see a figure rising from behind the twisted wreckage of the burning van, a pistol bearing down on—someone, but it’s all happening too fast, he can’t really tell where it will—
His vision blurs, then Agent Grant is in front of him, knocking him to the ground. A single shot is fired, and Grant jerks to one side, grabbing his head, face twisted into a mask of pain. The attacker falls back as Agent Henry fires four shots (bam, bam, bam, bam) waits to make sure he doesn’t move, then turns to kneel in front of… Agent Grant, lying motionless on the ground, blood pouring out of the back of his head.
Travers looks at the dead body of Agent Grant in front of Agent Henry, then back down at the writhing form of the still-living Agent Grant at his own feet. He’s not screaming any more. Just muttering no, no, no, fuck, fuck no, no to himself as he clutches at the back of his untouched head.
“Alan. It’s OK. Alan, listen to me, it’s going to be OK.”
Agent Hu kneels in front of another Agent Grant, curled up in the same position, clutching at the back of his head.
Agent Henry is looking at Grant as well. “Hu. He’s gotta leave the corpse.”
Agent Hu looks up, shocked. “Boss, this is going to be hard enough—”
“I know,” Agent Henry says. “Believe me, I’m not happy about it.”
She nods once, clearly frustrated, then returns her attention to Grant.
Agent Henry looks around the scene one last time, then holsters his gun. “Come on, Travers. Hu is taking care of Agent Grant. We need to take care of everything else, and we don’t have a lot of time.”