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Saturday, July 9th, 2011 12:27 am
Title: To Each A Tempo -- Chapter 16
Fandom: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney/Elite Beat Agents crossover
Revision date: March 8th, 2011
Rating: PG-13
Wordcount: 4845
Characters: Phoenix, Maya, Agent J, Gumshoe, Cherry, Barley.



     It was the longest cab ride to the detention center Phoenix had ever taken. Maya must have felt the same, because she squirmed beside him and saved her chattering.

     After a forever of waiting, bailiffs ushered Stewart into the visitation room.
     "Hey," he said, and nodded to the bagged shoes he set in his lap. "I think they're startin' to think I'm weird, for bein' so picky about these."
     "I'm sure the detention center guards have seen worse," Phoenix said.
     "Yeah," Maya chirped, "They don't look twice at me anymore!"
     Anyone but Maya would consider that a bad thing.
     Stewart smiled sympathetic, as he settled in his chair. "Awright, so I got an infra transmission from Foxx. Short an' sweet, but she's workin' on alternate com lines. In the meantime ... Guess you got some questions, huh?"
     Phoenix nodded. "Yes, about Sior Pathos. Just who is he?"
     "He writes articles for paranormalist magazines an' tabloids an' stuff. He talks about the Agency a lot -- our suits, our mikes, the music sense an' the dancing, he's described all of that. He's got a pretty big grudge against us."
     "A grudge?" Maya brought a hand to her mouth. "But why would anyone hate Agents?"
     
     For a moment, Stewart was quiet, slouched and hitching his thumbs into his pockets. A stirring in the air pulled Phoenix's attention: cool and silver, grim and clattering. By the time awareness spiked in him -- the hurt sensation secrets always brought, the urge to grip the magatama and pry for truth-- the clattering drained to calm silence, and Stewart was looking at his feet.

     "Well ... He used to be a business exec with Nexus Broadcast, real successful guy. Had the corner office an' a secretary an' everything. Seemed like he had a great career ahead of 'im." Stewart paused, and raked hair momentarily out of his face. "An' then he had a report due, some proposal to the higher-ups. Had to have it finished by the time his boss walked in the next morning. So Pathos was hunched over this report in the middle of the night, focused and workin' as hard as he could, an' he didn't have the viewership stats he needed. How was he supposed to make a decent report outta nothin', right? He was scared an' runnin' outta time. That's when the Agency picked up his signal."
     Stewart's gaze flicked off to one side. Chains stirred.
     "He got an assist from a team of three Agents. Those were the early days -- we didn't even have transducers in the suits or anything, we were still figurin' out the protocol for just goin' around helping' people who needed it. Pathos needed help, but ... not from us."
     Stewart sighed.
     "It didn't go well. The rhythm was there, I mean, he wrote the report but we just didn't think about what happens when you try to compose a serious business proposal on that kinda energy rush. The report bombed, an' Pathos got written up ... Long story short, he got fired."
     "And that made him hate Agents," Maya wondered. "So that means he knew Agents were there?"
     "You look at a big crowd of people," Stewart began, "Like a grocery store on a busy day, or somethin'. Maybe four or five of those people have the potential for music sense. They can tell when somebody's feelin' scared or sad, or they know things they shouldn't. Maybe they get a tune stuck in their head that gets 'em through a tough spot. Most of the time, they got no idea what they're sensin' until somebody tells 'em." His voice dropped. "Pathos knew. He felt it an' he looked out the window for us. He knew."
     
     Quiet smothered again. Phoenix swallowed, gathering the nerve to say it:
     "Stewart ... It sounds like you were there."
     There was metal in the air, but Stewart didn't hesistate. "Yeah. That was my second mission." He chuckled, limply. "I hadn't even broken the suit in. Still needed line-of-sight to know for sure who my target was. Still had Derek an' Morris flankin' me in case I tripped on my own feet. It's ... I can still remember that moment Pathos finished the report, an' his rhythm settled an' it all clicked, but there was somethin' still not right. He looked at that report -- this really long look like he couldn't remember writin' it -- an' then he turned an' looked out the window, across all the rooftops, right at me. He knew, I could sense it."
     "That's terrible ..." Maya murmured. "You were only trying to help."
     "Things you learn," Stewart said -- like he had thought those exact words until they wore threadbare. "We pretty much don't touch business situations anymore, they're too finicky for us to charge in there with music energy. But that first time with Mr. Pathos, we just did what we could. We just felt somebody feline' desperate and we did what Agents do."
     A thought forced out of Phoenix's mouth: "You ... can't tell what's going on at a first glance. So you just put everything you have into helping, and ... all you can hope for is that everything falls into place."
     Maya turned to beam at him. And, slowly, Stewart smiled, too.
     "Yeah, you got it," he said.

     Finally, this Agent business made sense.

     Phoenix leaned forward, forearm over his knee, running a hand through his spikes. There were still more puzzle pieces to shift into place.
     "All right. So Pathos is holding a grudge against the Agency, and he has some idea of how Agents work. If what Chef LaFlamme says is true, he had a plan on the morning of the murder."
     "Could be," Stewart said, resigned, his voice weighted. "We keep track of all the articles he writes. He doesn't know about the Agency, exactly, he thinks we're a civilian secret project. Figures we have a com network just to find an' target people when they're upset, like a-- Like we're pullin' some kinda mean joke. He thinks we should all be locked up."
     "Wait." Maya flailed her hands. "Didn't you say you thought he was doing okay? If he's mad enough to write things like that ..."
     "That was--" Sighing -- frustrated and sharp -- Stewart raked at his hair again. "I thought he was doin' okay, I honestly did! An' the Commander figures as long as Pathos doesn't know our actual ops, we're better off just keepin' quiet and letting 'im be. An' I saw 'im at restaurants an' coffee shops when I was patrolin' sometimes, I kept an eye out for his rhythm. He seemed calm, like everythin' wasn't perfect but it was at least goin' the way he wanted! DIdn't seem like he was still sore about losin' his job ..." Stewart's gaze slunk down and away. "Guess I was wrong 'bout that, too."
     
     The quiet was worse than ever, a heavy pain in Phoenix's chest. He tried to fish up the right words.
     
     "Stewart …"
     "Hey, we got a chance to figure this out," Stewart offered. "It's another shot at the mission, I guess."
     If Pathos was the killer, an investigation wouldn't help him -- and neither would Phoenix.
     "There's still time, Nick." Maya tugged at his sleeve, her own smile creeping back. "You could learn a few dance moves."
     That wouldn't help anyone.
     "Hey, Ms. Fey, you didn't get a com link, didja?" Stewart peeled wiring from around his ear. "There's no sense keepin' me wired when you're the one out in the field."
     "Wow," she squeaked, "Really? Thanks!" She scooped up the little electronic spider from the slot in the plexiglass, and sat there transfixed by it -- either contemplating how to put it on, or just hypnotized by the shiny metal.
     "Center node tucks into your ear," Stewart said, "An' the longest wire goes forward. S'like those ear bud headphones, almost. But the receiver mike's ... Uhh, sorry, I can't give ya that. Nothin' personal."
     He lifted a fine chain from around his neck, a quick glimpse of gold before he dropped it back into the safety of his T-shirt collar. Maybe it was Agency policy to only bug objects of sentimental value -- it would keep the equipment from getting lost.
     "Just stick close to Mr. Wright an' use his mike. Foxxie'll know what's up when she sees my transmit on the move." Stewart rubbed where his com wires used to be, and looked between Phoenix and Maya like it was the first time he ever had. "We got a startin' place to find Pathos now. Just remember we're in alert mode. Be careful, awright? Foxx'll be back in touch as soon as she can. We're all right behind ya."
           
     They left the detention center, thinking over these newest twists of the labyrinth. If he hadn't been reminded, Phoenix might have forgotten that he didn't have Foxx listening in. He glanced up and down the bus -- and decided the senior citizens were no threat -- before touching the round node of his communicator. Silence answered him.
     "It's not very secret if you keep poking at it," Maya informed him, as though she wasn't fiddling with her own wires at that very moment.
     "Sorry," Phoenix muttered, "I don't watch a lot of spy movies."
     "You stayed awake through most of Shuriken's Mark!"
     Phoenix blinked. "Wasn't that about ninjas?"
     "Well," Maya chirped, smoothing her hair into place over the re-fiddled com link, "They're practically the same thing, Agents and ninjas!" She bunched fists. "They both fight for what is right, hunting evil from the depths of the shadows! And they look really cool doing it!"
     Uncovering the truth behind an Agent mission, Phoenix could handle, but it was the sneak attacks from ceilings he wasn't so sure about. He sighed.
     "You're getting that look again, Nick."
     He looked up at her. "Huh?"
     "The look you get right before Sis shows up to help. Do you want me to call her?"
     He wanted to say yes; he could taste the word. Phoenix looked at Maya and remembered the com link hidden under her hair, and her bouncing effervescence in the Agents' base. Mia had the sharpest mind of anyone he had ever known, he felt less lost with the Chief by his side, but...
     "No," he decided. "This case is about Agents. They taught you about music sense, didn't they?"
     She lit with understanding. "Oh, yeah! It's a lot like my E.S.P., that's part of what they showed me!'
     Ignorance being bliss, Phoenix wasn't about to ask what else Maya picked up from Missy.
     "If this Mr. Pathos has music sense, we'll need to think like an Agent to figure this case out."
     "No problem," Maya beamed, "I can tell you everything you need to know, Nick! And teach you to do cartwheels!"
     Would it be easier to give in and learn a few dance moves? Phoenix nudged his briefcase closer to his heels, and shuffled through his thoughts -- their stop wasn't far off, and the Orchard had more to uncover.


     The breeze from Foster Park blew cooler than the past few days, and police officers' dark forms still milled on the forested path -- all using fine-toothed combs, if Edgeworth had any say in it. Phoenix and Maya crossed the street, heading straight for the alley's shadow, and the thought struck Phoenix that they weren't the first ones to take the route. Foxx's diagram swam vague in his thoughts.
     This time, a familiar broad, trenchcoated figure bustled among the boxes and rubbish.
     "Hi, Detective Gumshoe," Maya called, with a friendly flail.
     He started, and whirled to face them. "Hey, pal," he snapped, "You shouldn't sneak up on people! What if I was doing some delicate police stuff?"
     For one thing, Maya was about as stealthy as a herd of buffalos, and for another, police stuff?
     "Sorry," Maya said, and peered at Gumshoe, eyes bright. "Are you doing super-advanced tests for traces of things? Can I watch?"
     "Uhh ... It's nothing that important, actually." Gumshoe scratched his head. "Mr. Edgeworth just wanted Chef LaFlamme to sign some paperwork. We made a deal with her: we'll drop the perjury charges if she cooperates with the investigation."
     "You're investigating the alley some more?" Phoenix asked.
     "Yep!" Gumshoe's chin lifted, his chest puffing proud. "I'm checking one more time for evidence! But I don't think there's anything here, except the fingerprints on the fence door lock ..." He deflated. "I hope I didn't mess those up. Just between you and me, pal, taking prints is really tricky, especially with the lock still on the door. It's hard to check both sides."
     Apparently, Gumshoe hadn't thought to ask for the keys -- Phoenix knew an opportunity when he saw one.
     "So ... you talked to Chef LaFlamme," he tried.
     Gumshoe stared. "You want to know if she's in a scary mood, right, Mr. Wright? It's all over your face, pal."
     A heads-up would be nice. Phoenix rubbed his neck. "She does, uhh ... get a little testy." And if she resented Phoenix before he tore her down in open court ...
     "Watch out," Maya said, grinning, "She might bite."
     "You should stay up to date on your shots, pal! I am!" Gumshoe chuckled, then added, "After the weasel incident, anyway. Besides, Chef LaFlamme wasn't too scary at all when she was signing. It's like she's gotten something off her chest."
     With that, Gumshoe checked inside the pockets of his faithful coat, and poked the contents for good measure.
     "I'd better get back, Mr. Edgeworth needs these papers. Oh, Maya!" He stopped short. "Did you find a gold-coloured wire when you were making a zoo out of my whosits?"
      "Detective Gumshoe," she chided, "They're called whatsits."
     His shoulders fell to meek slopes, one hand creeping to the back of his head. "I think the technical name is doowhackeys. But you didn't see a gold one, did you?"
     Phoenix and Maya looked to each other -- were they supposed to be paying that kind of attention to a jumble of electronic scraps? They shook their heads.
     "That's okay," Gumshoe said, a wide smile spreading on him, "I always keep a spare one in the glove compartment. Anyway, let me know if you find anything good, pal!"

     He was gone with a wave and a flap of green-drab coattails. Phoenix looked back to Maya, who was examining the fence door, tugging it to hear the lock's moorings rattle.
     "Yeah, it's locked, Nick." She looked questioningly to him. "So we're starting with Chef LaFlamme?"
     "Well, I wasn't planning on jumping the fence."
     "Spoilsport!"
     Vaulting over things wasn't Phoenix's idea of fun, that was all. "Let's just ask around some more, first."

     The Orchard's jingling bells greeted them. So did Barley, popping up from behind the counter, compulsively straightening his cap.
     "Oh, M-Mr. Wright, Ms. Fey! Goodness, h-hello, I wasn't, err, I-I was just cleaning the c-coffee machine, I'm sorry. Are you staying?"
     "Are we ...?" Phoenix repeated. "Oh, no. We're not here to eat, Barley."
     "We're not ...?"
     He knew better than to look at Maya's puppy eyes.
     "We just need more information from your boss. Would it be all right if we talked to her?"
     Thought tightened Barley's face, and he fidgeted again at his cap -- it was a wonder he hadn't rubbed every hair off his head yet. And then Barley waved them closer, glancing back to the kitchen.
     "I-I think so," he murmured, "I can't thank you enough, Mr. Wright, really. She only cuts this much mirepoix when she's upset but s-she's more like the Cherry I know now, she's talking again, I-I was so worried." He twisted his side towel, smiling sheepishly. "Uhh, I-I think she'll help you, th-this time."
     "We need to know more about Pathos," Phoenix said. "We have to find him and we're running out of time."
     Barley opened his mouth to reply, and instead gulped like a goldfish -- Cherry, appearing from the kitchen, snatched his attention.
     "We're on the last bunch of celery, I'm-- Flank freakin' steak roulade, you again?" But there was no fire in it -- Cherry's jaw set, and she paid sudden attention to straightening her apron.
     "Chef LaFlamme," Phoenix tried, and ran out of words. If he couldn't expect bristling opposition from her, what exactly could he expect?
     "You got your truth, and I signed the cream-whippin' forms," she snapped, "What the hell else do you want?"
     "We just wanted to talk," Maya said. She crept closer, like she could peek around Cherry and see a sparkling wonderland of fine cuisine. "What are you making?"
     A laugh-like huff shook Cherry. "S'just mirepoix, kid, it's not anything yet. Have a look if you want."
     She stalked back into the kitchen, with Maya close at her heels. Feeling more sorely out of place than ever in the face of tile and cast iron, Phoenix followed.

     Mirepoix, it turned out, was just an enormous bucket of roughly cut vegetables. Yellow shards of onion skin littered Cherry's cutting board; her disturbingly large knife flashed effortless through carrots.
     "Carrots, celery and onion are the basis of everything in the kitchen," Cherry explained to no one in particular, scooping the cut pieces into the bucket. "Stocks, sauces, roasts -- everything. All starts with the foundations of flavour."
     "You must have to cut lots," Maya wondered, standing on tiptoe to peer into the bucket.
     "I dunno, it's kinda relaxing."
     Relaxing by hacking things to bits? Was that ... healthy?
     "So?" Cherry shot a glance to Maya, and a more pointed one to Phoenix -- maybe he wasn't huddled out of the way enough. "You'd better not be here just to watch prep, this isn't a bean-bakin' free show."
     "We need to know more about Sior Pathos," he said.
     "Hasenpfeffer, weren't you paying attention?" Cherry spat. She gave the carrots a particularly vicious chop.
     "Err, no," and Phoenix lifted his hands, "I don't mean on the morning of the murder. He's your best customer, isn't he?"
     "Are you two friends?" Maya added. She had busied herself gathering a fluffy handful of onion skin bits.
     The knife's rhythm stopped. Cherry scowled at the vegetables. "...Do you believe me?"
     "Uhh," Phoenix's mouth managed without him.
     "About Pathos. I know what I frickin' saw, I didn't want to think he was planning any ..." She shook her head, braids stirring across her bowed shoulders "I ... I wouldn't hurt anybody, how the hell would that help me, braise it in Cabernet! It's bad enough this place is my everything, but you never know who's the undercover newspaper critic, or who's gonna tell their friends the service was lousy, or who might just start eating your food every damn day and actually compliment you on the seasoning like he knows the first pepper-grindin' thing about it! You're only as good as your last order."
     Maybe Cherry didn't expect an answer. She hunkered back over the board and aligned her knife to the carrots, a samurai drawing blade.
     "I believe you," Phoenix said. He was fairly sure he meant it.
     She flicked a glance to him and considered, the narrowness leaving her gaze. And she glanced to Maya -- who nodded, and glowed reassuring.
     "Huh." Putting one hand on her hip, Cherry laid down her knife and rubbed knuckles hard on her forehead. "If Pathos made a teaspoon full of sense -- I guess we're friends, or something. Pathos's obsessed with these Agents, some conspiracy thing, hell if I know. I asked him once and he didn't say anything, just gave this little smile and whipped out some articles. Guess I should read those sometime. Never have the energy by the time I scrub the place down at night, and see if I can get any sleep with him tromping up and down the stairs! Who goes for a walk at three in the lemon-zestin' morning?"
     Phoenix blinked. "He's ... in the restaurant at night?"
     "Yeah, I've never seen such a stupid layout in my life," she hissed, "Contractors with tapioca for brains--"
     
     "U-Uhh, Chef ...?"

     It was anyone's guess how long Barley had been standing there.
     "Dempster." Cherry looked up -- there was something patient in her snap, something routine. "What?"
     "Coffee Guy is here." Barley shuffled closer, wiping his palms on his apron. "I-I started a pot of Panama roast."
     Whipping a side towel off her apron, cleaning the carrot-bright tint from her hands, Cherry muttered, "Probably drink seventeen frickin' cups as usual. Fine, I'll get him."
     "Um," Barley murmured, "I-is there anything else you want m-me to do?"
     "Stove could use a good scrub, caramel doesn't clean itself up. Use the purple degreaser stuff."
      Barley nodded, shifting out of Cherry's way, watching her sling the towel over her shoulder in a white arc. And once Cherry was fully gone, he scuttled to her workstation, picking up the few remaining onion skin shards, eyes flicking between Phoenix and Maya.
     "Really, t-thank you," he said, a grateful whisper. "S-She's ... I don't know if anyone can see it but me."
     "It's easy to see that she feels better," Maya offered, wandering to the garbage can and dropping her onion skins in like fluttering confetti.
     Phoenix edged out from the oven nook. Barley whisked out of his way, unconscious and automatic.
      "That's good," Phoenix tried, "But she didn't tell us very much. Except that Pathos can get into the restaurant at night ...?"
     "Oh!" Barley straightened with a jerk -- he twitched toward his hat, but both hands were full of vegetable scraps. "Oh, she d-didn't tell you about that? Uhh--" He started in five directions before remembering where the garbage can was. He quick-brushed his hands clean and dug into his apron's pocket. "I can-- I can show you! Um, t-there, now let me see, heavens, w-where are-- Ah!" He produced his little, precious keyring. "Ch-Chef LaFlamme made me copies of the back access keys, i-in case anything comes up, " he said, like it was a high honour. "T-This way, please."
     And Phoenix and Maya followed him, past the pots and down the dingy-plastered stairwell, back into the heavy, tantalizing scent of bread. Barley stopped at a scuffed door -- Phoenix had seen it before and guessed it was a broom closet.
     "That f-fence was put up in the alley for Mr. Pathos," Barley began, sorting the three keys with shaking hands, "Because the alley d-door, that's his front door, but there's n-no deadbolt or anything. H-he wanted a fence with a second lock. To feel safer, I-I suppose ..."
     Finally selecting the right key, Barley coaxed the locked doorknob into clunking open.
     "B-But the fence locks on the outside, with a padlock, so i-it can't be opened from the inside. H-He'll lock it, and then he has to go around, th-through the other side of the building, o-or through the Orchard sometimes ... I-It doesn't seem l-like a very good design, t-to me."
     Stepping through the door found them in a wide, steel-coloured stairwell, in the shadow of the box-circling stairs above.
     "So," Phoenix said, "Mr. Pathos lives here?"
     Barley nodded. "On the second floor, th-that's his apartment."
     And he could walk right through Cherry's kitchen whenever he felt like it -- more like a roommate than a customer.
     Fidgeting at his hat, shrinking, Barley murmured, "Cherry-- Ah, Chef LaFlamme says she d-doesn't mind. I d-don't know if she means it, s-she's so grateful to Mr. Pathos, i-if it weren't for h-him, th-the bills--" He looked to Phoenix and Maya with mouse eyes. "H-He's very nice, he just, uhh, m-makes me nervous. There's something about him-- And I think he's out right now, m-maybe-- Oh, Mr. Wright, Ms. Fey, heavens, m-maybe you shouldn't be here, I-I don't w-want--"
     "We won't tell anyone," Maya chirped, "And won't touch anything and no one will ever know! Promise!"
     Maya promising not to touch anything was like a city pigeon promising not to make a mess of car windshields.
     "Uhh, we just need to see where the alley door leads," Phoenix added, "For the case."
     Nodding, Barley wiped at his apron. "O-Okay. This door l-locks automatically, you w-won't be able to get back out through the Orchard b-but you can get back out t-to the street." He smiled weakly. "I ... uhh ... good luck!"

     Barley left, closing the door behind him. The latching click rattled up and away. Phoenix hadn't thought his shoes clicked but everything seemed loud in here, especially Maya clomping up the stairs in her wooden sandals.
     "Nowhere to go but up, I guess ..." he wondered, and glanced to each empty corner before taking the wide, grey-painted stairs himself.
     They emerged in a hallway, a dingy-plastered one -- exactly like the Orchard's storeroom, just without the cooking paraphernalia. One dome-shaped light clung to the ceiling and gave flickering yellow light.
     "Down the stairs, and back up the stairs," Phoenix muttered, shifting his briefcase to his other hand, "Why isn't there a door straight through this wall?" His sense of direction wasn't the best, but they couldn't have moved far horizontally.
     "The contractors were too busy eating tapioca, I guess," Maya wondered, looking up and down the corridor so her hair whipped. "The alley is this way, right? So there should be a door ..."
     She scampered a few steps and peered around a corner, farther than the light reached. Rubbing his neck, Phoenix looked the opposite way, to the door he imagined led out to the street. A stern column of deadbolts stood out from the metal and the plaster -- one deadbolt was necessary, two were understandable, but wasn't five locks a tad excessive?
     "Yep, here's his front door," Maya called, waving Phoenix over with far too much enthusiasm. "And more stairs! Let's go look!"
     Phoenix didn't know why he even bothered consulting his better judgement anymore; Maya vanished around the corner, and he sighed, and followed.
     Pathos's front door entrance was the battered metal one they had seen from the alley -- it was just as battered on the inside as the outside, and there wasn't a deadbolt to be seen. If Phoenix's front door had a sliver of daylight showing around the doorknob like that, he'd probably want an extra fence, too.
     The flight of stairs was dressed with the same grey paint and poor light, but only a half-flight of stairs passed before floor spread out ahead. A high, white, angular ceiling appeared, with the kind of skylight a museum might have and a dust-speckled column of afternoon sun.
     "If that's his front door down there," Maya wondered, pacing a circle while she looked around, "Why does he have another one here?"
     This one certainly looked more like a person's front door: it was painted turquoise and fitted with a brass peephole, like every other apartment door since the dawn of time.
     "They wouldn't both be front doors, Maya," Phoenix said.
     "Why not?" Maya put a thoughtful finger to her cheek. "They're both at the front of his house, aren't they?"
     "The first one is the front door and the next one would ... just be a door."
     "How about a backup door? Or a runner-up door?"
     Why did everything have to be complicated? Phoenix passed a small table -- at least, there was probably a small table under the papers and clutter. He reached the door and, sparing a glance for the dust clumps trapped in the paint, tried the knob. It didn't budge. At least that made sense -- it was an ordinary apartment door, quite ordinarily locked.
     "I think it's just a door," he muttered.
     "Oh, come on, Nick, have some imagination!"
     He turned to find Maya bent over the cluttered table, inspecting the briefcase tucked beside it.
     "Like this briefcase! It's got swanky alligator texture in the leather and everything." She grinned up at him, clicking gold lock tumbles under her thumb. "What do you think is in here? I'll bet it has a million dollars."
     He raised an eyebrow. "You think so ...?"
     Maya nodded. "Or a monkey. Haven't you always wanted a monkey?"
     He'd had his fill of monkeys, thanks. Phoenix went to Maya's side and peered down over her shoulder -- it was an awfully nice briefcase, maybe the leather was even real. Between the briefcase and the table's piled notes, receipts and bent-edged business cards, this had to be one of those tables designated for dumping the odds and ends an ordinary day gathered. Funny that there weren't more candy wrappers, then, or maybe that was just Phoenix. Or, rather, just Maya.
     And then the oddly neat paper stack caught Phoenix's eye. He nudged aside a grocery receipt and seventeen cents to lift a sheet from the top: it was a photocopied magazine article, a neatly typeset column haloed with fuzzy grey.
     "What's this ...?" he said, and skimmed the first paragraph:

      --the inspiration for these acts could be from any number of sources. And while these Agents wear suits, the uniform of the people, just what end are they working toward?

     "Th-this is--"
     Phoenix lifted a page's corner off the top of the stack, and another, and another. They were all smudgy replicas of articles. The word Agent leaped off of every page.
     "What is it, Nick?" Maya asked.
     "I think these are the articles Mr. Pathos wrote."
     Yes, they had to be, with S.P. the only author credit. Phoenix sifted through the pile and pulled a selection of articles, different shapes and patterns of ink but the same weight in his gut, every skim-read word sinking into anxious tar.
     "Why would he keep so many--"

     Phoenix heard echoes, footsteps ringing up the stairs but they were too close and it was too late.

     "May I ask," came a level voice, "What you're doing here?"



~~~~~~~~~~~