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Holding up a finger to signal me to quiet, Shaun pulled out his PDA and scrawled a message with the attached stylus. My watch beeped a second later, the message other side o/room w/investors what’s going on????? scrolling across the screen. The message I need to talk to Sen. Ryman w/o Tate hearing would have taken too long to type on the tiny foldout keypad. I deleted the message and kept walking.

“Georgia,” Rick greeted as I drew close. He was holding a flute of what appeared to be champagne, if you didn’t pay too much attention to the bubbles. Sparkling cider: another trick of working the crowd. If people think you’re getting as drunk as they are, they forget to be careful around you.

“Rick,” I said, with a nod. Shaun was shooting me a concerned look, and failing in his efforts to hide it. I put a hand on his arm. “Nice tux.”

“They call me Bond,” he said, gravely.

“Figured they might.” I looked toward the senator. “Gonna need to wade in there. I wish I had a cattle prod.”

“Are we going to find out what the situation is any time soon, or are we supposed to follow you blindly?” asked Shaun. “I ask because it determines whether I’m hitting you in the head sometime in the next eight seconds. Very vital information.”

“It’s a little hard to explain here,” I said. “Unless you know who’s broadcasting locally?”

Shaun groaned, attracting startled glances from several bystanders. A plastic smile snapping instantly into place, he said, “Jeez, George, that was a terrible joke.”

“I didn’t say it was a good punch line, just that I’d remembered it,” I said, stepping a little closer. Pitching my voice so low it verged on inaudible, I said, “Dave and Alaric had their big breakthrough. They followed the money.”

“Where’d it go?” Shaun was even better at this than I was. His lips didn’t even seem to move.

“ ‘Where’d it come from?’ would be a better question. It went to Tate. It came from the tobacco companies, and from some people they haven’t traced yet.”

“We knew it was Tate.”

“The IPs they’re pulling are from D.C and Atlanta.”

There’s only one organization in Atlanta important enough to bring me running the way I had, especially when we’d already known at least a part of the conspiracy. Shaun’s eyes widened, need for secrecy eclipsed by sudden shock. If the CDC had been infiltrated

“They don’t know for sure?”

“They’re trying, but the security is good, and they’ve nearly been caught twice.”

Shaun sighed. That was audible, and I elbowed him in the side for it. He shook his head. “Sorry. I just wish Buffy were here.”

“So do I.” Palming a data stick, I slipped it into his pocket. To an observer, it would have looked like I was going for his wallet. Let them call security. It’s not like there’d be anything for them to find. “That’s a copy of everything. There are six more. Steve doesn’t know he has one.”

“Got it,” said Shaun. Always back up your data, and scatter it as far as you can. I can’t count the number of journalists who have forgotten that basic rule, and some have never recovered from the stories they lost. If we lost this one, getting discredited was going to be the least of our worries. “Off-site?”

“Multiple places. I don’t know them all; the guys did their own backups.”


Rick had been observing our semi-audible conversation without comment. He raised his eyebrows as it stopped, and I shook my head. He took the refusal with good grace, sipping from his glass of “champagne” and continuing to scan the crowd. There were a few people who seemed to be holding the bulk of his interest. Some were politicians, while others were people I recognized from the campaign. I glanced to Rick, who nodded toward Tate. Got it. These were people whose loyalties he thought he knew, and thought belonged to our resident governor. Who just happened to be the man most likely to have caused the deaths of an awful lot of innocent people, as well as being responsible for the corruption and death of one of our own.

None of those people was standing close enough to hear our conversation unless one of them had listening devices planted on or around the senator. If I was going to risk anything, I needed to do it now. “I’m going in,” I murmured to Shaun, and began working my way through the crowd surrounding Senator Ryman.

I’ll give the flesh-pressers this: They didn’t give ground easy, not even as I was none too gently elbowing my way into their midst. A lady old enough to have been my grandmother drove the heel of her left shoe down on the top of my foot with a degree of force that would have been impressive in a younger woman. Fortunately, even my dress shoes are made of reinforced polymer. Even so, I bit my tongue to keep myself from swearing out loud. Casual assault might be A-okay with security, but I was reasonably sure shouting “cock-sucking bitch” wouldn’t be.

After a lot of shoving and several painful kicks to my shins and ankles, I found myself to the right of the senator, who was busy having his hand pumped up and down by a barrel-chested octogenarian whose eyes burned with the revolutionary fervor one only ever seems to see in those who discovered either religion or politics at a very young age. Neither man seemed to have registered the fact that I was there. I was neither the assaulting nor the assaulted, which left me on the outside of their present closed equation.

The handshaker showed no signs of stopping. If anything, his pumps were increasing in vigor as he started hitting his stride. I weighed the potential danger of octogenarian assault against waiting for him to tire, and settled on action as the better part of valor. Smoothly as I could, I moved to place my hand on Senator Ryman’s free arm and said, in a sugar-sweetened tone, “Senator, if I could have a moment of your time, I’d be most appreciative.”