I had the car drop me off a block away from my apartment building. There wasn’t anyone obviously watching so I slouched up and entered the lobby door. When I reached my apartment I noticed that the sliver I’d left jammed in the frame had moved. That meant company. The scent of perfume suggested Paul’s wife had found his copy of my key. Failing that, since her perfume was cheap and fairly common, it meant some other broad was waiting for me. I didn’t feel up to entertaining company so I slipped out the fire escape and walked off. I needed to think, without the interruptions that would have accompanied my return. Even if it was just Celine. Especially if it was just Celine. I could have dealt with normal thuggery more easily than overblown hysterics.
The main streets would be covered with snooping eyes, but I could hear the distinctive low buzz of a drone. That meant the alleys were out. Better to act normally, and hope you were missed than to attract attention by looking like a common house thief.
So I strolled out onto 12th street. If the police stopped me, I could be looking for a burger joint. If I walked far enough along the street, I could be looking for a joint joint. We’d see what turned up first.
In the end I didn’t get far. There at the intersection with Keyes, was a woman. She was furtively looking my way. I waved and called, “Teresa!”
At least she didn’t run away. It was a start. I caught up with her and said, “I know we said, ‘let’s meet up sometime’, but this is a bit quick. How about a meal?”
“I wasn’t looking for you.”
“Sure. If you weren’t looking for me, what where you looking for? Because you found me.” She smiled, “You’re right. I was looking for you, thought we could chat. Too bad we didn’t hit it off.”
“I don’t know about that.” I left unsaid that we’d had it off, more than once.
“Well, you know. I had to go East.”
“Look Teresa, just friends.” I held out my hand. She paused, then shook it. “Friends, just. No benefits.” Darn.
“I did mean it about dinner. I haven’t eaten since this morning.”
“There’s a good Vietnamese place towards town.”
“As long as it’s not live monkey, I’m game.” It was an old joke. I guess you had to be there to understand it.
She chuckled, “Just noodles, with fish.”
We were finishing up the first course when I asked her, “So outside of the librarian gig, how’s life?” Not exactly a stellar line, but I hoped it wasn’t crossing the ‘just friends’ line. While I wouldn’t have minded going there, this wasn’t the time or place.
“Boring as all Hades. The wife’s off on a business trip and there’s nothing to do.”
“Didn’t you know?”
“Well no. So you’re a-”
“A lesbian, and married. Heather’s a sweet woman and I’m lucky to have caught her.” She noticed my skeptical look and continued, “Yeah. Figured it out when I left you. I’d have felt more cut up if we’d had anything special.”
“It was sort of special for me. I missed you.”
“Sorry. It wasn’t going to work Alan.”
“Your wife won’t mind you meeting an old flame?”
She laughed, “Not hardly. Not the jealous sort. Knows I’m not going to have it off with a man.”
“Now Alan, if you’re going to be awkward.”
“That’s the last of my intentions. Actually I was dodging someone.”
“I think Celine – Paul’s wife, sorry, his widow. Someone, probably female or else with an odd taste in aftershave, is in my apartment waiting for me.”
“Do you have your cell?”
“I’m going to call myself. See what my cell says.”
Teresa handed me a dainty phone and I typed in my number. My cell answered, took one look at the camera and bluntly texted me, “Don’t come home. Female not Celine.” Then she hung up.
“Shit.” I handed her the phone.
“What was that about?”
“My visitor. Not Paul’s widow.”
Teresa leaned toward me. She spoke with a level on interest in her voice that I hadn’t heard since debugging programs together at the academy. “Sounds like you lead an exciting life Alan.”
“Not really. Usually it’s just divorce, with the occasional adultery and missing kid thrown in. This one. Oh boy.”
I whispered, “National 3-letter agency serious.” Then I added in a normal voice, “You know, if you’re interested I need a new partner.”
“Do you remember what I said five minutes ago. I’m not interested, I’m married and my wife.”
“No. Don’t get me wrong, Teresa. You don’t screw your partner in this line of work.”
“What do you mean?”
“You don’t screw your partner, either literally or figuratively.” Though I was going to have to check our account books when I had a chance, Paul had a tendency to pad things. “That leads to complications, and complications can get you killed.”
“I don’t know.”
“Think about it. It isn’t boring, and you said you were bored.”
She laughed, “You’re right. I did, didn’t I? Have to be careful about what I wish for.”
“You have my number if you’re interested.” I changed the topic into what I hoped were safer grounds, “What’s it like being married?”
I finished chatting with Teresa, and paid the tab. Since I asked her to replace Paul, it could count as a legitimate business expense if nothing else. Besides, it was nice to chat, even if she was married, to a woman.
The serious business of the night remained. I kept looking over my shoulder as I approached the apartment building. There weren’t cars waiting down the side streets to follow me and none of the classic giveaways for surveillance cutouts were immediately obvious. That didn’t they weren’t watching me if they weren’t there. Heck, if they’d hacked the machine, they could watch me while sitting in their living room. Over a bowl of popcorn, and in their underwear. So I waved to the cameras, at least the ones I saw.
The cars in front and behind my building were neither suspiciously all the same, nor equally suspiciously all different. There weren’t any erstwhile lovers, rocking their car’s suspensions as I passed, nor was there anyone checking their makeup in the rear-view mirrors. I thought about that a second. Long before the convergence, cars had improved to where you could no longer drive yourself, as it was too dangerous to mix people and automata, so there shouldn’t be any mirrors. Old habits die hard. The few manual cars were reserved for far away in the country off the grid or dare-devil racers on isolated tracks like Leguna Seca. Or in places like the Free State of Nevada.
The lobby was empty when I entered, and I wandered to the back exit, nominally to check the washing machines. No surprises. So I started up the stairs to my room. The chips in the doorframe were still missing, and the smell of perfume, while weaker, remained. I stood to the side of the door, behind the wall and slipped my key into the lock. I gave it a turn and started to punch the access code when the door opened.
“So Mr. Blake, are you surprised to see me?” It was the woman who first commissioned us to search for her husband. She’d ditched the veil, but was still dressed in a stylish black gown.
“Somehow, not at all.” I entered the room and pulled the door shut behind me. It latched and locked automatically. “Why are you here?” I figured if she were armed she’d show it to me soon enough.
“I’m scared. They got Paul.”
“The boss and his gang.”
“Mr. Guezman. I’ve already exchanged a few words with him.”
There was real panic in her voice as she said, “He’s not coming here, is he?” Either that or she was one hell of an actress. Looking at her, I decided it was most likely the later.
“Not to my knowledge.”
She relaxed. I asked, “The story about this man, your ‘boyfriend’. That was a load of crap wasn’t it?”
She put on the tears and said, “Yes. You see there wasn’t any other way I could convince one of you to follow him.”
“You could have tried telling us the truth.”
“The truth. What is truth?”
“I was always told truth is beauty and beauty is truth. Trouble is, I’ve met too many beautiful liars in my line of work. I don’t even know your name. Paul wasn’t a good one for keeping notes.”
“I’m Jane, Jane Grey.”
“Is that what it says on your birth certificate?”
“No, but it’s good enough.” She reached for her wallet and pulled out a credit card and state ID, both in that name. The picture on the ID matched her.
“In other words, you’ve pulled an informal document switch?”
“Let’s just say Jane’s parents were happy to have a grown up daughter. To help support them in their old age.” The identity hole of taking a dead infant’s name had been plugged years ago. Although if you had the money you could find parents who were willing to open it up again.
“So Jane, what do you want me to do? Other than standing at the wrong end of barrel like Paul.”
“Don’t you remember?”
“What I remember is you asking Paul to track down this man. Who?”
“Jean Leclerc. Be careful because he’s quite a hacker.”
“Fine, now babe, why? The money you gave Paul hasn’t turned up, at least it wasn’t in the office when the police searched. I’d have heard.” To be honest I’d be down at the precinct being sweated.
“I don’t know about it. He p-put it in the safe when we left.”
“Let’s try this one more time. I know it’s hard to be honest when you’re used to lying. Who was Paul supposed to track?”
She broke down in tears. I handed her a handkerchief and started over.
“Who was Paul supposed to tail?” Seeing that tears had no effect on me she dried up.
“Jean, Jean Leclerc.”
I thought, it could be the name, but it probably didn’t matter. It still sounded like one she pulled from a history book to me.
“Alright. Now why, babe, did you want to tail Jean?”
“He, he.” She stopped, and then after a moment to catch her breath looked at me and said, “He was chasing tail, other women.”
“That why you have the ring? Is he your husband?”
“Yes.” There was a little flicker of discomfort in her eyes. “OK, Ms. Grey or Mrs. Leclerc, why’d he shoot Paul?”
“I never said he did.” She tried crying again.
“No, but if Paul was tailing him, and Paul was shot, it follows that Jean was involved.”
She refused to say more and sat there wiping the tears from her eyes.
“I suppose, it’s just possible that Paul got in the way and Jean was the target.”
She nodded, “Guezman. The boss wanted him dead.”
Her story almost made sense, but was a little too neat. I said, “I’ll go make us some coffee, then we’ll go over this a few more times. Sooner or later you’ll tell me the truth.”
“I did, I swear I did.”
I walked to the stove, put on some water to boil and reached for the coffee, the synthetic coffee anyway, the real thing being too expensive for my tastes and wallet.
“Put your hands up, and slowly turn to face me.”
I chuckled, but complied. She was pointing a small automatic at my chest. Nothing high-caliber, but still big enough to do the job if it came to it.
“Step back from the stove.”
She walked behind me and, without pointing her pistol away, turned off the stove. Then she slid around to my front and started asking, “Now you’ll answer some of my questions, Mr. Blake.”
“Sure, how about I sit down?”
She thought for a moment, then said, “Why not? In the middle of the floor, and cross your legs.” I was dealing with a professional, she could sit a couple of meters away and nail me before I could jump her. There would be no tell-tale marks from being tied up.
I sat and said, “This what you want?”
“It’ll do. Now Mr. Blake, where’s the money?”
“No idea, that’s why I asked you. Is it so important?”
“You can keep the money, I want the package you received last week.”
Keeping me covered, she brought her left hand up to her mouth and told her unit, “Trace package, to Blake and Bigelow.”
The band said, “Yes, Mistress.” Some people liked having that sort of power trip with their interface. It made them feel in control. I thought it rather puerile.
“Package 00131991039ab, Delivered Monday to office, signed for by one Paul Bigelow.”
“Oh that one.”
“What was in it?”
“No idea, Paul took it. Did you ask his widow?”
“That bitch? We searched his house, it wasn’t there.” So there was a reason Celine was trying to get in touch with me after all.
I thought, “In the future, I’ll have to tell my cell to be more careful about screening calls.”
There was a knock on my door, then I heard Celine’s voice, “Alan, you in? The light’s on so you can’t hide.”
I looked at my guest, and said, “Well, Miss Grey, do you want to answer the door, or shall I?”
“Get it, and don’t try anything.”
I slowly rose and walked to the door. Opening it a crack, I said, “Celine, what a surprise? You’re looking nice.”
“Not that you’d notice, you gay or something?”
“No. Just rather not get involved. Would you like to come in?” Ms. Grey shoved her pistol in my back, “Sorry I forgot, it’s a mess. We’re getting the exterminators in.”
“We’re? Isn’t your Mrs. Gonzales cleaning any longer?”
“She is. Still, you can’t come in. Um company?”
“The kind you pay for?”
I smiled, and she took that for a yes. “Alan, you need to find a nice wholesome woman, none of those whores.” As if she’d know.
“I have to support the local economy somehow. Why do I have the pleasure of your company?”
She handed me a small package, “This. Someone tore up my house to find it, and I don’t want it.” She shoved it into my hands and ran off.
My visitor poked her pistol in my back and demanded, “Give it.”
I slowly turned and handed it to her. She tore the package open and screamed in frustration. “Damn! Fucking Hell”
There was a photograph and a biometric data drive. The right person could open it, but it could do anything from refuse to work, to destroy the data, to explode if anyone else tried to open it. I could see why she was frustrated.
She picked up the photograph and showed it to me. “Know her?”
I did. Sarah Gonzales. It was a copy of the same class photo her mother had given me to help me find her. My visitor waved the pistol in my face, “You do, don’t you? Tell me or I’ll.”
“Patience Ms. Grey. Shooting me won’t help you identify the girl. Now will it?”
“It will make me feel better, and I’m sure someone else can identify her.” I had figured she was somewhere on the psychopathic spectrum, and she confirmed it.
I hinted, “There’s no guarantee that she’s the right person anyway. Could have been Paul, or even me. If you’ll put the firearm away we can take this to my lab and see what’s really there.”
I waited while she considered her options.
She said, “What the hell,” and then took the magazine out of the gun. She pulled the slide back to unload the round from the chamber and locked it open. After she put the ammunition in a pocket, she said, “Don’t get any ideas, I can load this in fifteen seconds.”
“Babe, I don’t need no stinking idea’s.”
I reluctantly shut the door to my apartment, while ‘Jane’ watched. It had occurred to me that my lifetime could be measured by how long it took me to crack the data drive plus however long it took Jane to reload. She said fifteen seconds. Unless I was lucky, and lady luck had been giving me the middle finger of late.
We walked out onto 12th street. Ms. Grey said, “Should we call a car?”
“No, We walk.”
“There’s always a record if you call a car. So many people walk that even if you’re watched it doesn’t trigger any alarms.”
“So what, I’m often out at night. Nothing unusual there.” Although me walking with company was out of the ordinary. We started south on 12 street, away from the old highway and towards the barrio. Didn’t get far when my luck finally broke.
“Heather? Why aren’t you in Tokyo?” It was Teresa.
“Teresa I can explain.” The standard line of any cheating spouse. “It isn’t what it looks like.”
“Well I know you’re not having it off with Alan. He’s a man. What are you doing here?”
Heather was at a loss for words. I tried to be helpful, “Shall I?”
“Teresa, your wife was using forceful arguments to convince me to help her identify this package Paul received.”
“Did you know she had a firearm?”
“That old airsoft pistol? It’s mine Heather. Hand it over.” Heather reluctantly agreed. The pistol she’d used to threaten me was a toy, maybe. Though the trick of late was to lace the pellets with a drug or poison. Made them a little harder to trace and at least as lethal as a regular firearm. Just not as good at dropping an assailant.
“Oh Heather,” Teresa shook her head in dismay, “I love your sense of fun, but this really is carrying it too far. Did you know about Alan?”
“I saw a couple of your old emails. Why did you keep them if he didn’t mean anything?”
“It’s hard to delete old love mails. You know that, because you’ve your share too. Marriage means something, though, I’m yours and you’re mine. For keeps.”
Teresa put her arms out to hug her wife, and Heather reciprocated. They kissed passionately while I stood there, feeling decidedly awkward.
Finally, I gave a discreet cough and said, “If you two want a room, that’s fine with me. I’m still taking this package to my lab.”
They disengaged with one last squeeze. Heather said, “Later, I, we need to find out what’s on the drive.”
Teresa nodded, “So it’s turned up at last?”
It was a couple of blocks further on, my walking ahead while they held hands and chatted. I gather Teresa was now the forgiving sort. I guess she had matured, or maybe marriage had done something to her. I turned and dove down an alley. Then I waited for them before opening the door.
“Here is where it happens, as it were.”
I opened the door, turned on the lights, and was surprised by Guezman and two of his friends. The guns they held definitely weren’t airsoft guns.
He said, “Ah, Mr. Blake, I see we have the pleasure of meeting again. This time I don’t think you’ll dash off so easily.”
“I guess not. Why do I have the pleasure of your company?”
“The package. Do you have it?”
I handed it to him, and warned, “It’s a biometric drive. It will need to be opened properly.”
He sniffed, “Don’t trifle with me, I can see that.” He pointed to one of his helpers, “Even Jose here can see that. What you are going to do is to open it for me.”
“There are three of you. Since your librarian friend is almost as good as you at hacking, we’ll save her for last. Ms. Grey can go first.” He nodded and Jose pushed the muzzle of his firearm under Heather’s chin.
“Do it outside if you must, I’d prefer you not to make a mess in my lab.”
Teresa shot me a dirty look, but Mr. Guezman laughed. “You always were a cut-up, Mr. Blake. Even in high school. Do we understand each other?”
“Yes. Give me the drive and I’ll see what I can do.”
It took some careful work and far more time than Guezman liked. The gray pre-dawn light was beginning to filter through the skylights and the neighbor’s cocks were beginning to crow when I sat back and said, “Done.”
“Done? Give it here.”
“When I said, done, I meant ready for the next step. I couldn’t break the lock, but I was able to blank it out. Guezman, I need one of your fingers.”
“Whatever. It’s not my finger. The scanner needs to be reinitialized before you can read it. Something tells me it would be decidedly unhealthy for me if I used one of mine.”
“Wise choice, Mr. Blake.” Guezman heaved himself out of his chair and rolled over to my bench.
“Put your finger here.” I pointed to the sensor. He did.
“It’s yours. Take it. Can I keep the photo? She’s a pretty young thing.”
“Ms. Gonzales? Sure. It has been a pleasure doing business with you Mr. Blake.”
“Next time I’d appreciate payment for my services.”
“I let you and your friends live. Should be a good deal, and one I hope I won’t regret.”
He took the drive, motioned to his goons and disappeared into the dawn.
I turned to my two female guests and said, “Vamos. I’m tired and going home to sleep. I don’t care what you do, but you are not staying here.”