Riyad looked up from his workbench with a grimace. "What now?" he asked as he dropped his fine knife and pulled his magnification specs off, turning the magnified gold-tinged blur hovering beside him into Jin's smirking face. He was holding a datapad in one hand and a stylus in the other, extending both for Riyad to accept. Riyad groaned with understanding. "No."
"Afraid so, Boss. This one's real simple, though." Jin moved closer to stand beside him, allowing them to both peer at the small screen together. It was an invoice several screen-lengths long, but no different from any of the others Riyad had looked at and signed off on over the past several days. "Just look over it carefully, okay each item, and sign off at the bottom."
Riyad nodded obediently and took the datapad from him. Approving invoices was just one of the many new, redundant tasks that he was now responsible for, and it seemed to be his responsibility only because it served as a reminder to everyone else that he was now in charge of the Protectors of Antiquity. Riyad had been bred for leadership, some would argue, but it left a chill in his gut taking the reins. It was Ath'ran's dreams that had been the company’s foundation; it didn't seem right that it should continue without him.
But disbanding felt even more wrong when it meant his friends would be out of a job and a home. That made his options clear, though: get Ath'ran back or don't. He was still in the process of trying to figure out a way to accomplish the former as he quickly he jumped down to the bottom of the list on the datapad, scribbled his signature in the designated box, pressed the submit button and handed it back to Jin. "There, it's fine. Now stop bothering me."
"Wow, you really suck at being in charge." Jin winced slightly as he shook his head, reading over the invoice himself. "You know how long it took me to put this together and you didn't even read it?"
"I trust you to do your job, Jin." Riyad ignored the insult but reminded himself to save rubber bands for an all out assault later as he brushed the tiny metal shavings he'd amassed on the surface in front of him onto the floor.
Jin continued to shake his head in disappointment. "See, that right there would be your first mistake. I mean, I even made sure I hid the massage chair in with the bulk items so the price wouldn't jump out at you and make you suspicious. And forty pounds of dehydrated rations? Man, I thought you'd laugh at that one."
Even though he was paying attention to what Jin had been saying, somehow the words still felt like they were being whispered halfway across the room. For a moment Riyad thought he had misheard his associate, but the almost grim expression Jin wore told him he hadn’t. Riyad groaned again as he rubbed at the bridge of his nose where the magnification specs had left little footprints. "What would possess you write up a false invoice?"
"Oh, no, it was real. And you just submitted it. Um...thanks for the chair, I guess, but I have no idea what we're supposed to do with those rations, because I hear they taste about as good as they sound."
"Real or not, you still input false data. You're supposed to be the one in charge of that kind of stuff and I'm supposed to be able to trust you to do your job. What made you put that stuff in there in the first place?" Irritation was boiling away at his patience, but Riyad stayed calm. "If this is some kind of new management hazing, I'm not at all amused."
"Riyad? Amused? Now why would I ever think Riyad Shihar D'sen would be the kind of guy to loosen up and have some fun at work?" Jin sat on the corner of the workbench, poking at his datapad as though annoying its sensors would provoke it into undoing the damage. "Not recently, anyway. Besides, it's not just you. Me and Ath'ran did this all the time. Every order, in fact."
"And he never fired you?" Riyad asked, not quite sure he believed it.
Jin's smirk was lopsided and cocky. "Are you kidding? He loved it. I mean, you're right, having to double check my work is kind of insulting to my intelligence, but he was the boss and that was his job. It's real tempting to do what you just did and slap an arbitrary approval to the order. So I'd slip in the odd item and he'd have to carefully look over the whole list to make sure he found what was wrong with it. He got to have a hands-on part in everything that came in and left the facility, and I got to have a little fun to break the monotony. Worked so well with Ath'ran, thought it might work with you too."
"Well, I'm not Ath'ran. I've got other things to do here, like the appraisals, and the less time I spend okaying invoices the more I can spend doing my real job."
"Your real job?" Jin scoffed. "Riyad, when I came in here you were carving something into the countertop and as soon as I get a magnifying glass I'm going to read it."
Riyad put his hand over the tiny message he'd scrapped into the surface. "That's not the point," he admonished, cheeks reddening. "When I do get some more work, I'm not going to have the time Ath'ran did to play invoice games with you. I need to trust you to keep things concise and tidy so I can focus on the artifacts."
"So that you can just scroll down to the bottom and sign them without reading them? Should I just sign them and send them off myself?"
"Ideally, yes. I imagine it'll save us further frustration over the matter."
"In other words, you want me to run the company. Okay. But I'll need the title turned over to me in writing and I'm sorry but Protectors of Antiquity is just too long a name. My first order of business will be a name change and to hire a systems tech because if I'm going to run this place, the last thing I need is to occupy all my time with invoices and marketing."
Riyad ran his fingers through his curls and pulled. "Sands, Jin, can't anything be simple and straightforward with you?"
"It takes all of five, maybe ten minutes to read an invoice over and if you can't spare that much of your time to run this business, you probably don't need to be running it anyway. You're not the only one taking on the extra responsibilities with Ath'ran gone, so don't talk to me about the added work."
Riyad opened his mouth to respond, fifty snide comments coming to mind to use in his counter assault, two which called into question the repute of the acrobat’s mother, but got as far as three syllables before the lights flickered and the stale scent of ozone filled the air. The hairs on his arms rose and a tingle shot up his spine as he turned round to stare in the direction of the sound.
Surge stood only a few feet behind him, patiently waiting for the surprise of his sudden appearance to fade, wearing a mask of indifference. It was a different sort of man from the one Riyad had met at the Maxwell estate, more calculating and cold by the look on his face. Riyad smiled a bit despite himself, a bit of boyish delight sustaining the elevation of his pulse. "You really know how to make an entrance."
The Surge was not amused. "I need to speak with Ath'ran. I don't suppose I need an appointment."
"Not like I could kick you out." Jin pouted and hopped off of the counter. "But unless it's of a personal matter, and I doubt it is, the man you want to see if Riyad now. Ath'ran resigned."
A bit of alarm registered on the Impulse's attractive face before the scowl overtook it. "I see." He looked around the room as though inspecting it for lurkers, his posture rigid as his eyes probed the surroundings. When he was satisfied that they were alone, he turned back to Riyad, still looking perturbed but not yet hostile. "In that case, before I get to business, may I remind you that I didn't exactly have a choice when it came to trusting you all with my identity. I'm grateful for what you've done, but I'm starting to think maybe having Julian contact you wasn't the smartest move I've ever made. So I'd be happy if you could keep that sort of information to just the original five of you. I....haven't ever really give much thought to the lengths to which I'd go to maintain my anonymity and I don't really want to have to."
It was either a thinly veiled threat or a confession of vulnerability. Either way, Riyad nodded enthusiastically and rose from his chair, appreciating the diversion. "No, I understand completely. To put your mind at ease, we're not looking for any new members for the team--things will remain as they were. The last thing we want is to jeopardize our clients, you have my word."
Surge's eyes bored into him for a moment, then softened just slightly as he nodded. "Alright. Make no mistake, though, if Cross is the next to disappear, I will be shutting you all down permanently."
He nodded, arms folded across his chest. "I believe Julian's been abducted."
Riyad blinked and took a step back. "And you think we--"
"No, I don't," Surge assured them. "But I will be checking your security measures. I came here because I need someone to act as the middleman and get in touch with the SPD for me. I have evidence that will help Julian, but I can't turn it over as the Surge."
Riyad nodded and pushed aside the voice telling him to call Ath'ran and get his advice on the matter. Being out of the loop might make his friend envy his days with the P of A and long to return. Besides, as the boss, this was Riyad's job now and he was going to manage it like the professional he was. "I don't foresee there being an issue with us helping in that matter. If you're worried about ties back to you, though, aren't you concerned that someone from an organization looking for the Surge popping up with information probably received from the Surge would be bad?"
"You're the most removed but safe option I have and if Julian's not already dead, he could be by the time the SPD catch up to what I already know. I'm lacking in options."
"Dead? It's that serious?"
Surge nodded, emotionless but stern.
That wasn't good. Neither was unintentionally laying a path from a governmental organization back to the Surge with them in the middle. Was it acceptable for the Protectors of Antiquity to risk one Shard to help another? They'd done it before with Cross to aid Surge, but it wasn't exactly a precedent Riyad was comfortable following. His stomach felt tight, his instincts telling him that there was a better way if he would only wait long enough for it to come to him. He was not the most patient of men, though, so it was fortunate that he didn't have to wait long.
Riyad heard the door open in the front room and watched as Jin, who had been very silent through the conversation, peered around the corner towards the door. "Du'shan just let Rabbit in. Want me to tell him now's not the best time?"
Riyad nodded an affirmative but then quickly grabbed hold of Jin's arm, keeping him from leaving the room. "No, wait. Jin, tell Rabbit I need to see him in my office." He smiled as an idea that had suddenly popped into his head began to take on life and grow. "Surge and I will meet him there. No visitors or calls until the meeting is over."
Jin hesitated only a moment, and smiled as the idea spread into him. "Alright, yeah. Sure thing, boss. I'll tell him." Jin turned and walked away as Riyad quickly took off in the other direction with Surge, who did not seem pleased, in tow
"What exactly are you planning?"
Sometimes--just often enough to be a little unsettling--it seemed that fate was on his side. Riyad smiled as tingles ran through him, either because of his good fortune or because the close proximity of the electric man. "Rabbit does work for the SPD on occasion. He's one of those types who's really smart and analytical, so he likes to take on the challenging assignments that would tie up SPD manpower. He also works with Alan Keys, though, who’s a Necromancer and owns an occult shop. He's got the connections you need to the legal teams and an open enough mind to not question how you came by the information if I tell him it's top secret."
Despite Riyad's confidence in his plan, Surge seemed less than enthusiastic about it. "In other words, you want me to come out in front of yet another stranger."
"Rabbit's seen you here before. If we tell him you're an informant, he has no reason not to believe us. And if I remember correctly, he also knows Julian. However you look at it, he's the most secure route we have."
"It's still risky for me."
"Riskier than drawing a link between the Protectors of Antiquity and the Surge by doing it your way?"
The Surge grimaced at him but remained silent as he took his position standing beside the large desk in the office facing the door and guest chairs. Riyad fell into Ath'ran's high backed chair and waited, knowing Rabbit couldn't have been more than a minute behind them. He entered looking a little confused, goggles pushed up on his forehead, making him look like he was in a hurry.
"Hey. I actually didn't bring anything for you today. Alan just wanted me to put some pressure on Du'shan to transfer his books to digital media faster." His eyes fell and remained on Surge as he spoke, taking him in and perhaps trying to remember where he'd seen him before. Surge did not shift under his gaze at all, but remained fixed and unchanging until Rabbit looked away and cast Riyad a questioning stare.
"Well, that's a shame. Given our current situation, though, I don't suppose it matters. I wanted to see you about something else. You remember Teyen, right? He was here that night when...well, that night."
Rabbit nodded, but neither man made any move to shake the other's hand in greeting. "I remember. You're the guy who left with Julian."
That got a reaction. Surge looked to the side, jaw set. "It's not like that. He was just giving me a place to stay for the night."
"I didn't say anything." Rabbit put his hands in his pockets and turned back to Riyad. "So, we've met. I take it you wanted more than to introduce us?"
For two people who hadn't properly met before, there seemed to be an awful lot of hostility in the air between them. Riyad made a note of it, but decided against mentioning it. Rabbit respected people who were to the point and he intended to earn that respect as the new boss. "A lot more, really. Let me start by saying we'll cover any expenses you incur if you agree to help us."
Rabbit raised one of his pierced brows, his stony expression cracking with intrigue. "You want to hire me for something? That's a first." He paused, thinking it over, then shrugged. "Alright, let's hear it. I'm not agreeing to anything until I have all the details."
"You won't get all the details until you agree," Surge announced. He and Rabbit once again stared each other down.
For whatever reason, the image of two powerful magnets of the same polarity, pushing off harder the closer they got, came to mind as Riyad watched the two of them. Perhaps it hadn't been such a good idea to involve the two together.
Rabbit leaned hard on the arm of his chair, as though it was all that was keeping him from getting up in Surge's face. "Am I dealing with you or am I dealing with them? Because if it's you, you can forget it. I'm honestly not all that impressed by you and besides that, I only do favors for friends and close acquaintances. So if you even want me to consider for a second doing anything to help you out, you'd better leave this to Riyad."
"So nice we can all be friends." Riyad sighed heavily and cast a frown towards Surge, which he followed up with a tired smile at Rabbit. "I know you're not for hire, Rabbit, so it means a lot to me that you're willing to hear this out. If you can't help, I'd appreciate it if you could pass the information on to the SPD for us, at least."
"I don't see why not. Why don't you just talk to the SPD in the first place, though? Business related?"
Riyad nodded. "You could say that it falls under our primary objective. That's enough of being cryptic, though. You've agreed to hear us out, so let's get right to it, shall we?" He cast a quick warning glance to the Impulse, making sure he understood who was in charge at the moment, then returned his attention to Rabbit. "It seems Julian Vaughn has disappeared. Teyen has some evidence to help with finding him, but because he came about it by less than legal means, there could be problems with getting the SPD to consider it. I don't suppose there'd be an issue with you using it, though, if I can vouch for its authenticity, nor would there be if you then took it in for us. The latter is the least we can ask of you."
Rabbit blinked in mild surprise. "How long has he been missing?"
Rabbit looked up at Surge with suspicion as the man spoke, but the aggression from before was absent from his eyes. "Kind of a long time to wait to call the authorities. Ransom requests?"
Surge shook his head.
"What can you tell me?"
Riyad rested his chin on his palm as he listened to the brief account.
"A total of twelve surveillance cameras on two different streets were all off for maintenance, creating a blind spot over a pedestrian through-street. Julian entered the blind spot and did not exit onto either street afterwards. No one else was unaccounted for, though. Julian was the only one to disappear."
Rabbit exhaled loudly. "Good news for us, bad news for him."
"Why is that?" Riyad asked, enjoying the way he could almost hear the gears in Rabbit's mind turn.
Still slouched in the chair, Rabbit cracked his knuckles as he responded, "That's a lot of work to abduct just one man. I doubt anyone would bother going to that extreme for a random catch off the street. That makes Julian the intended target and not a victim of circumstance. That also makes the list of suspects much narrower, since the motive is personal rather than random. So essentially I have more to work with. But someone who goes through all the trouble of knocking out surveillance cameras to abduct him probably isn't doing so because they just wanted to say hi. So the question becomes who would want Julian and why?"
"What about that Greg Waters guy, though? Wasn't he pretty random about who he took? And all those disappearances were without a trace, too." The moment the words left his mouth, Riyad wished he could take them back. Surge seemed to cringe, though he nearly masked it by turning away. Riyad had expected Rabbit to flinch, but Surge's uncomfortable posture was somewhat surprising. "I know he's dead; I'm not suggesting that maybe somehow he's not, just that it's not entirely unlikely that Julian might have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, is it?"
Rabbit shook his head, his bangs falling over his eyes. "You wouldn't know it for all the hype people like Waters get, but it's pretty rare you find someone like him. More than half the time, there's a connection between the suspect and the victim, and the abduction is generally caused by sexual desire, the intent to profit financially, or for retribution. Julian being Julian, any of those are possible. After four days, though, whatever evidence might have been in that street's gone. You've given me pretty much nothing other than proof that he didn't just move without telling anyone."
Surge scowled at him. "I found out an hour ago. I'm just trying to maximize efficiency with what I do know."
"Well, thanks for that, I guess. I don't suppose you also interviewed the key suspects and searched his apartment for me?" Rabbit asked, sounding more annoyed than grateful.
"No. The apartment wouldn't give you anything, anyway. Sasha's living there, so things have been moved around and thrown away." He stopped and made another displeased face in Rabbit's direction. "And it wasn't Sasha. Talking to him really won't help you much, either."
"Julian disappears and you don't want me to talk to the boyfriend? I'm glad you're not the one handling this case."
"He's not his boyfriend."
"Then shut up and let me handle this. If you were competent enough to handle this in the first place, you wouldn't be here asking for my help, so unless you can back up your words with hard evidence, I'm not interested in hearing them."
"Okay, time out!" Riyad stood, palms flat on the desk. "Is this a jealous lovers kind of thing, or are you both just five?"
"He started it," Surge muttered.
That answered that question. "Teyen, please send copies of any relevant files to Rabbit. Rabbit, I can't make you, but would it kill you to thank him for looking into this? It's better than nothing and we both know it could be the difference between finding Julian alive or otherwise."
Rabbit looked at least a little ashamed of his behavior. He didn't meet Surge's eyes, but his "thanks" was audible and sincere. The chair creaked slightly as he rose. "I'd better head out. Can you tell me what street I should be looking at?"
Surge rattled off the address, giving him the stores between which the walkway stretched. "If you need access to any information systems, Riyad knows how to contact me. I'll respond as quickly as possible."
"Yeah, I know. I doubt I will, but I'll keep you in mind." He nodded to Riyad and left, his boots heavy against the floor.
Riyad waited until he heard the front door close, then turned to Surge who still stood beside the table. "Seriously, what the hell was that about? I thought you guys didn't know each other."
Surge shrugged, rubbing his forearm uneasily. "We don't."
Riyad waited for further explanation, but received none. As suddenly as he had appeared, the Surge was gone, leaving behind nothing but a few sparks and the smell of ozone.