The Devil's Code · Preview Chapters
ST. JOHN CORBEIL
A beautiful fall night in Glen Burnie, a Thursday, autumn leaves kicking along the streets. A bicycle with a flickering headlamp, a dog running alongside, a sense of quiet. A good night for a cashmere sportcoat or small black pearls at an intimate restaurant down in the District; maybe white Notre Dame-style tapers and a rich controversial senator eating trout with a pretty woman not his wife. Like that.
Terrence Lighter would have none of it.
Not tonight, anyway. Tonight, he was on his own, walking back from a bookstore with a copy of SmartMoney in his hand and a pornographic videotape in his jacket pocket. He whistled as he walked. His wife, April, was back in Michigan visiting her mother, and he had a twelve-pack of beer in the refrigerator and a bag of blue-corn nachos on the kitchen counter. And the tape.
The way he saw it was this: he'd get back to the house, pop a beer, stick the tape in the VCR, spend a little time with himself, and then switch over to Thursday Night Football At halftime, he'd call April about the garden fertilizer. He could never remember the numbers, 12-6-4 or 6-2-3 or whatever. Then he'd catch the second half of the game, and after the final gun, he'd be ready for the tape again.
An unhappy thought crossed his mind. Dallas: What they hell were they doing out in Dallas, with those recon photos? Where'd they dig those up? How'd that geek get his hands on them? Something to be settled next week. He hadn't heard back from Dallas, and if he hadn't heard by Monday afternoon, he'd memo the deputy director just to cover his ass.
That was for next week. Tonight he had the tape, the beer, and the nachos. Not a bad night for a fifty-three-year-old, high-ranking bureaucrat with a sexually distant wife. Not bad at all...
Lighter was a block and a half from his home when a man stepped out of a lilac bush beside a darkened house. He was dressed all in black, and Lighter didn't see him until the last minute. The man said nothing at all, but his arm was swinging up.
Lighter's last living thought was a question. "Gun?"
A silenced 9mm. The man fired once into Lighter's head and the impact twisted the bureaucrat to his right. He took one dead step onto the grass swale and was down. The man fired another shot into the back of the dead man's skull, then felt beneath his coat for a wallet. Found it. Felt the videotape and took that, too.
He left the body where it had fallen and ran, athletically, lightly, across the lawn, past the lilac, to the back lot line, and along the edge of a flower garden to the street. He ran a hundred fifty yards, quiet in his running shoes, invisible in his black jogging suit. He'd worked out the route during the afternoon, spotting fences and dogs and stone walls. A second man was waiting in the car on a quiet corner. The shooter ran up to the corner, slowed, then walked around it. If anyone had been coming up the street, they wouldn't have seen him running...
As they rolled away, the second man asked, "Everything all right?"
"Went perfect." The shooter dug through the dead man's wallet. "We even got four hundred bucks and a fuck flick."
They were out again the next night.
This time, the target was an aging '70s rambler in the working-class duplex lands southwest of Dallas. A two-year-old Porsche Boxster was parked in the circular driveway in front of the house. Lights shone from a back window, and a lamp with a yellow shade was visible through a crack in the drapes of the big front window. The thin odor of bratwurst was in the air-a backyard barbecue, maybe, at a house further down the block. Kids were playing in the streets, a block or two over, their screams and shouts small and contained by the distance, like static on an old vinyl disk.
The two men cut across a lawn as dry as shredded wheat and stepped up on the concrete slab that served as a porch. The taller of the two touched the pistol that hung from his shoulder holster. He tried the front door: locked.
He looked at the shorter man, who shrugged, leaned forward, and pushed the doorbell.
John James Morrison was the same age as the men outside his door, but thinner, taller, without the easy coordination, a gawky, bespectacled Ichabod Crane with a fine white smile and a strange ability to draw affection from women. He lived on cinnamon-flavored candies called Hot Tamales and Diet Coke, with pepperoni pizza for protein. He sometimes shook with the rush of sugar and caffeine, and he liked it.
The men outside his door stressed exercise and drug therapy, mixed Creatine with androstenedione and Vitamins E, C, B, and A. The closest Morrison got to exercise was a habitual one-footed twirl in his thousand-dollar Herman Miller Aeron office chair, which he took with him on his cross-country consulting trips
Morrison and the chair rolled through a shambles of perforated wide-carriage printer paper and Diet Coke cans in the smaller of the rambler's two bedrooms. A rancid, three-day-old Domino's box, stinking of pepperoni and soured cheese, was jammed into an overflowing trash can next to the desk. He'd do something about the trash later. Right now, he didn't have the time.
Morrison peered into the flat blue-white glow of the computer screen, struggling with the numbers, checking and rechecking code. An Optimus transportable stereo sat on the floor in the corner, with a stack of CDs on top of the right speaker. Morrison pushed himself out of his chair and bent over the CDs, looked for something he wouldn't have to think about. He came up with a Harry Connick Jr disk, and dropped it in the changer. Love Is Here to Stay burbled from the speakers and Morrison took a turn around in the chair. Did a little dance step. Maybe another hit of caffeine...
The doorbell rang.
Eleven o'clock at night, and Morrison had no good friends in Dallas, nobody to come calling late. He took another two steps, to the office door, and looked sideways across the front room, through a crack in the front drapes He could see the front porch One or two men, their bulk visible in the lamplight. He couldn't see their faces, but he recognized the bulk
"Oh, shit." He stepped back into the office, clicked on a computer file, and dragged it to a box labeled Shredder. He clicked Shred, waited until the confirmation box came up, clicked Yes, I'm sure. The shredder was set to the highest level: if the file was completely shredded, it couldn't be recovered. But that would take time...
He had to make some. He killed the monitors, but let the computer run. He picked up his laptop, turned off the lights in the office, and pulled the door most of the way closed, leaving a crack of an inch or two so they could see the room was dark. Maybe they wouldn't go in right away, and the shredder would have more time to grind The laptop he earned into the kitchen, turning it on as he walked. He propped it open on the kitchen counter, and pulled a stool in front of it.
The doorbell rang again and he hurried out the door and called, "Just a minute." He looked back in the computer room, just a glance, and could see the light blinking on the hard drive. He was shredding only one gigabyte of the twenty that he had. Still, it would take time...
He was out of it. The man outside was pounding on the door.
He headed back through the house, snapped on the living room overhead lights to let them know he was coming, looked out through the drapes-another ten seconds gone-and unlocked the front door. "Had to get my pants on," he said to the two men on the stoop. "What's up?"
They brought Morrison into the building through the back, up a freight elevator, through a heavily alarmed lock-out room at the top, and into the main security area. Corbeil was waiting.
St. John Corbeil was a hard man; in his early forties, his square-cut face seamed with stress and sun and wind. His blue eyes were small, intelligent, and deeply set beneath his brow ridge; his nose and lips narrow, hawklike. He wore a tight, military haircut, with just a hint of a fifties flattop.
"Mr. Morrison," he said. "I have a tape I want you to listen to."
Morrison was nervous, but not yet frightened. There'd been a couple of threats back at the house, but not of violence. If he didn't come with them, they'd said, he would be dismissed on the spot, and AmMath would sue him for violating company security policies, industrial espionage, and theft of trade secrets. He wouldn't work for a serious company again, they told him.
The threats resonated. If they fired him, and sued him, nobody would hire him again. Trust was all-important, when a company gave a man root in its computer system. When you were that deep in the computers, everything was laid bare Everything. On the other hand, if he could talk with them, maybe he could deal. He might lose this job, but they wouldn't be suing him. They wouldn't go public.
So he went with them. He and the escort drove in his car "So we don't have to drag your ass all the way back here," the security guy said while the second security agent said he'd be following. He hadn't yet shown up.
So Morrison stood, nervously, shoulders slumped, like a peasant dragged before the king, as Corbeil pushed an audiotape into a tape recorder. He recognized the voice: Terrence Lighter. "John, what the hell are you guys doing out there? This geek shows up on my doorstep..."
Shit: they had him.
He decided to tough it out. "I came across what I thought was anomalous work nothing to do with Clipper, but it was obviously top secret and the way it was being handled... it shouldn't have been handled that way," Morrison told Corbeil. He was standing like a petitioner, while Corbeil sat in a terminal chair. "When I was working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, I was told that if I ever found an anomaly like that, I should report it at least two levels up, so that it couldn't be hidden and so that security problems could be fixed."
"So you went to Lighter?"
"I didn't think I had a choice. And you should remember that I did talk to Lighter," Morrison said. "Now, I think, we should give the FBI a ring. See what they say."
"You silly cunt." Corbeil slipped a cell phone from a suit pocket, punched a button, waited a few seconds, then asked, "Anything?" Apparently not. He said, "Okay. Drop the disks. We're gonna go ahead on this end."
Corbeil's security agent, who'd been waiting patiently near the door, looked at his watch and said, "If we're gonna do it, we better get it done. Goodie's gonna be starting up here in the next fifteen minutes and I gotta run around the building and get in place."
Corbeil gave Morrison a long look, and Morrison said, "What?"
Corbeil shook his head, got up, stepped over to the security agent, and said, "Let me."
The agent slipped out his .40 Smith and handed it to Corbeil, who turned and pointed it at Morrison.
"You better tell us what you did with the data or you're gonna get your ass hurt real bad," he said quietly.
"Don't point the gun at me; don't point the gun..." Morrison said.
Corbeil could feel the blood surging into his heart. He'd always liked this part. He'd shot the Iraqi colonels and a few other ragheads and deer and antelope and elk and javelina and moose and three kinds of bear and groundhogs and prairie dogs and more birds than he could count; and it all felt pretty good.He shot Morrison twice in the chest. Morrison didn't gape in surprise, stagger, slap a hand to his wounds, or open his eyes wide in amazement. He simply fell down.
"Christ, my ears are ringing," Corbeil said to the security agent. He didn't mention the sudden erection. "Wasn't much," he said. "Nothing like Iraq."
But his hand was trembling when he passed over the gun. The agent had seen it before, hunting on the ranch.
"Let's get the other shot done," the agent said.
"Yes." They got the .38 from a desk drawer, wrapped Morrison's dead hand around it, and fired it once into a stack of newspapers.
"So you better get going," Corbeil said. "I'll dump the newspapers."
"I'll be to Goodie's right. That's your left," the agent said.
"I know that," Corbeil said impatiently.
"Well, Jesus, don't forget it," the agent said.
"I won't forget it," Corbeil snapped.
"Sorry. But remember. Remember. I'll be to your left. And you gotta reload now, and take the used shell with you..."
"I'll remember it all, William. This is my life as much as it is yours."
"Okay." The agent's eyes drifted toward the crumbled form of Morrison. "What a schmuck."
"We had no choice; it was a million-to-one that he'd find that stuff," Corbeil said. He glanced at his watch: "You better move."
Larry Goodie hitched up his gun belt, sighed, and headed for the elevators. As he did, the alarm buzzed on the employees' door and he turned to see William Hart checking through with his key card.
"Asshole," Goodie said to himself. He continued toward the elevators, but slower now. Only one elevator ran at night, and Hart would probably want a ride to the top. As Hart came through, Goodie pushed the elevator button and found a smile for the security man.
"How's it going, Larry?" Hart asked.
"Slow night," Goodie said.
"That's how it's supposed to be, isn't it?" Hart asked.
"S'pose," Goodie said.
"When was the last time you had a fast night?"
Goodie knew he was being hazed and he didn't like it. The guys from TrendDirect were fine. The people with AmMath, the people from "Upstairs," were assholes. "Most of 'em are a little slow," he admitted. "Had some trouble with the card reader that one time, everybody coming and going..."
The elevator bell dinged at the tenth floor and they both got off. Goodie turned left, and Hart turned right, toward his office. Then Hart touched Goodie's sleeve and said, "Larry, was that lock like that?"
Goodie followed Hart's gaze: something wrong with the lock on Gerald R. Kind's office. He stepped closer, and looked. Somebody had used a pry-bar on the door. "No, I don't believe it was. I was up here an hour ago," Goodie said. He turned and looked down the hall. The lights in the security area were out. The security area was normally lit twenty-four hours a day.
"We better check," Hart said, dropping his voice.
Hart eased open the office door, and Goodie saw that another door, on the other side, stood open. "Quiet," Hart whispered. He led the way through the door, and out the other side, into a corridor that led to the secure area. The door at the end of the hall was open, and the secure area beyond it was dark.
"Look at that screen," Hart whispered, as they slipped down the hall. A computer screen had a peculiar glow to it, as if it had just been shut down. "I think there's somebody in there."
"I'll get the lights," Goodie whispered back. His heart was thumping; nothing like this had ever happened.
"Better arm yourself," Hart said. Hart slipped an automatic pistol out of a belt holster, and Goodie gulped and fumbled out his own revolver. He'd never actually drawn it before.
"Ready?" Hart asked.
"Maybe we ought to call the cops," Goodie whispered.
"Just get the lights," Hart whispered. He barely breathed the words at the other man. "Just reach through, the switch is right inside."
Goodie got to the door frame, reached inside with one hand, and somebody screamed at him: "NO!"
Goodie jerked around and saw a ghostly oval, a face, and then WHAM! The flash blinded him and he felt as though he'd been hit in the ribs with a ball bat. He went down backwards, and saw the flashes from Hart's weapon straight over his head, WHAM WHAM WHAM WHAM...
Goodie didn't count the shots, but his whole world seemed to consist of noise; then the back of his head hit the carpet and his mouth opened and he groaned, and his body was on fire. He lay there, not stirring, until Hart's face appeared in his line of vision: "Hold on, Larry, goddamnit, hold on, I'm calling an ambulance... Hold on..."
The Canadian winter arrived on Friday morning.
Bleak Thomas and I had been fishing late-season northern pike along the English River, sunny days and cold, crisp nights, the bugs knocked down by the frost, pushing our luck down a lingering Ontario autumn.
The bad weather came in overnight. We'd gotten up to a hazy sunshine, but by nine o'clock, a dark wedge of cloud was piling in from the northwest. We could smell the cold. It wasn't a scent, exactly, but had something to do with the sense of smell: you turn your face to it, and your nose twitches, and you think winter.
The bad weather was no surprise. We'd seen it on satellite pictures, forming up as a low-pressure system in the Arctic, before we left the float-plane base five days earlier but waiting for the plane on the last morning, looking at our watches as we listened for the noisy single-engine Cessna 185, with nickel-sized snowflakes drifting in from the northwest... maybe we began to wonder what would happen if the plane had gone down. And if there'd been a mix-up, and the people at the base thought we'd gone down with it.
Winter was long in northwest Ontario, and Bleak Thomas probably wouldn't taste that good. Bleak might have been thinking along the same lines, with a change of menu. When the Cessna turned the corner at the end of the lake, like a silver wink, and the roar of the aircraft engine rolled across the water, Bleak said, "Only an hour late."
"Really? I thought he was a little early." I yawned and stretched.
"Sure," Bleak said. "That's why you chewed your fingernails down to your armpits."
The pilot was in a hurry. He taxied up to the rickety dock, pushed along by a gust of snow. Bleak and I threw our gear onboard, and we were gone, bouncing across the whitecaps and into the air. The pilot didn't bother to check that the boats had been rolled or that the fire was dead in the potbellied stove; he took our word for it. Ten minutes after takeoff, we broke out of the snow and he said, "Good. I always land better when I can find the lake." Then, to me, "You got some woman calling about every ten minutes."
"Yeah? Did she say what her name was?" I was thinking LuEllen because she was the only woman I knew who might want to get in touch in a hurry. But the pilot said, "Lane Ward."
I shook my head. "Don't know her."
"Well, she knows you and she's hot to talk," the pilot said. We were half-shouting over the noisy clatter of the engine. "She didn't say what about. She says she's traveling and doesn't have a call-back number."
He didn't have much to say after that. We all concentrated on the lakes and canyons flicking by eight hundred feet below. In three weeks, the pilot would need skis to land. A few miles out of the base, as the pilot slipped the plane sideways to line up with the long axis of the lake, Bleak leaned forward from the backseat and said, "We were getting a little worried about you, back there."
"Had a little trouble with the plane, getting off this morning," the pilot said. "I was warming her up and the prop come off." We both looked out at the prop and then over at the pilot. He just barely grinned and said, "That joke was old when Pontius was a pilot."
The pilot's wife's name was Moony. She was a leftover hippie with a toothy grin, paisley shifts, and a little weed growing in the window box. After thirty years of cooking for fly-in fishermen, she still couldn't put together a decent meal. Clients would take her flapjacks down to the lake and skip them off the water like rocks. When they sank, the fish wouldn't touch them.
Moony offered to throw together a quick lunch, but we hastily declined, jumped in the rented station wagon and drove down to Kenora. Six hours later, we were walking up the stairs at the local-carrier ramp at Minneapolis-St. Paul International.
"I been on worse trips, I guess," Bleak said.
His way of saying he'd had a good time. Bleak was a furniture maker, who got a thousand dollars for a chair and fifteen thousand for one of his hand-carved, ten-place craftsman-style walnut dining sets. He gave most of the money away, through the Lutheran Social Services. Bleak believed that craftsmen who got rich got soft, a sentiment I didn't share. Not that he was a religious fanatic: he was on his fifth wife, and all five of them had been excellent women. And as we walked up the stairs into the terminal, he spotted a dark-haired woman standing at the top and said, quietly, "Look at the ass on this one, Kidd."
"Jesus, Bleak, you can't talk like that in Minnesota," I muttered; and looked.
"Intended purely as a compliment," Thomas said, under his breath.
The woman turned, and was looking us over as we climbed the steps, taking in the duffels and gear bags and rod tubes. She checked Bleak for a minute, the way a lot of women check Bleak he had long black hair and was bronzed like an Indian guide then her eyes drifted back to me. As we crossed the top of the steps, she asked, "Are you Kidd?"
"I am," I said.
"I'm Lane Ward." She looked like her father might have been Mexican. She had the black hair and matching eyes, and the round face; but she was pale, like an Irishwoman. She stuck out her hand, and I shook it, and picked up the faintest scent: something light, flowery, French. "I'm Jack Morrison's sister."
"Jack," I said. "How is he?"
"He's dead," she said. "He was shot to death a week ago today."
That stopped me. I looked at Bleak and he said, "Yow."
The parking garage at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport is under permanent reconstruction, a running joke perpetrated by the Metropolitan Airports Commission. Since parking is impossible, we'd all taken taxis in. Bleak would take a cab down south of the cities to his workshop, and Lane and I got a cab to my place in St. Paul.
"How'd you know I was Kidd that Bleak wasn't me?" I asked, as we waited for a cab to come up.
"You looked more like a criminal," she said.
"Thanks. But I'm an artist."
"Oh, bullshit. I know about Anshiser," she said. "I know what you and Jack did."
That she knew about Anshiser was disturbing. Anshiser had been a rough operation which, in the end, had taken down a major aircraft corporation. If I'd known Jack would tell her about it, I wouldn't have worked with Jack. But then, that might not be realistic. All kinds of people knew a little bit about what I did. They just didn't know each other so they could compare notes. "You think I look like a criminal?"
"You look tougher than your friend, with your... nose."
Hell, I've always thought I was a good-looking guy. Forty-something, six feet and a bit, hardly any white in my hair, and I still have all of it. The nose, I admit, had been broken a couple of times and never gotten quite straight. I thought it lent my face a certain charm. "It's part of my charm," I said, wounded, as the cab came up. I held the back door for her.
"Jack said you can be charming... if you wanted to be. He said you didn't want to be, that often." She got in the cab, and I slid in beside her.
"What happened to Jack?" I asked.
"Let's wait until we get over to your place," she said, her eyes going to the back of the driver's head.
Though winter was on the way, for the moment it was still in Ontario. St. Paul's trees were shedding their leaves, but the temperature was in the sixties as we crossed the Mississippi and headed down West Seventh Street into St. Paul. Lane was quiet, checking out the local color: most notably, a cigar-chewing guy humping along, slowly, on an ancient Honda Dream. He was wearing knee shorts and black dress socks. "Sophisticated place, for a Midwestern capital city," she said.
"Yeah. We're blessed with individualism," I said.
We spent the rest of the ride in idle chitchat; and I sort of took her in, physically. She was pretty, with a good figure, but a figure that came from a careful diet, rather than exercise; a magazine-model's figure, not an athlete's.
She had an undergraduate degree from Berkeley in philosophy and mathematics, and a couple of graduate degrees in computer science from Stanford. She now lived in Palo Alto and divided her time between an Internet start-up and teaching at Stanford. The start-up, called e-Accountant, would provide billing, collection, accounting, and tax services to Web sites too small to efficiently do it on their own. She expected to get modestly rich from it. She was no longer married to the guy named Ward.
"He always said he wanted children, but he always wanted one more thing first," she said. "A car or a boat or a house or a vacation place. I told him that I couldn't wait any longer, and if he didn't want to start on a kid, I was going to pull the plug. Even then, he couldn't decide."
"So you pulled the plug."
"Any candidates for the eventual fatherhood?" I asked.
"Yes. A very nice man at Stanford, an anthropologist. He's working on his own divorce."
"Ah. Were you involved in his problem?"
"No. He doesn't even know he's a candidate for the new position," she said. "Although he should be getting that idea pretty soon, now. He'll be an excellent father, I think."
"Good for him," I said.
The cab driver's eyes came up in the rearview mirror, and I caught him smiling. Pretty women are easily amusing.
I'm not sure how glad your heart should be when you arrive home in a taxicab with the grieving sister of a friend who'd just been shot to death, but when the cab dropped us, I was happy. Always happy to head up north, always happy to get back. The water gives you ideas, and if you're up there long enough, you develop an irresistible urge to work, to get the ideas on paper. Bleak was the same way; leave him in a cabin long enough, and he'll start improving the furniture with his pocket knife.
And things were going on around home. We had to walk up five flights of stairs because the elevator was jammed full of Alice Beck's stoneware and porcelain pieces, which she was moving out for a show. Alice yelled down the atrium, "Sorry, Kidd, we'll be out in ten minutes." We traipsed on up the stairs, me with the duffel and rod tubes, Lane carrying the tackle bag.
We stopped on the third floor for a moment, so Lane could look at some of Alice's vases. She liked them, and Alice invited us to the opening, two days away.
Lane shook her head. "I'd love to, but we've got a funeral to go to," she said, and we continued on up. At the next flight, she looked down and said, quietly, "Beautiful stuff," and I nodded and said, "People say she's as good as Lucie Rie, but I'm afraid she's gonna burn the building down some day. She's got a Marathon gas kiln in her back room. I can hear it roaring away at night, that whooshing sound, like the cremation of Sam McGee."
"Is that legal?"
"The cremation of Sam McGee?"
"No, stupid: the kiln."
"I doubt it," I said.
"Have you complained?"
"Nah. I helped her carry it up."
Home; and the Cat was in.
He was sitting on the back of the couch, looking out at the Mississippi, a red tiger-stripe with a head the size of a General Electric steam iron. He didn't bother to hop down when I came in. In fact, he pretended not to notice. An old lady artist downstairs, a painter, kept him fed for me while I was gone, and he had his own flap so he didn't need a cat pan except in deepest winter.
"Hey, Cat," I said. He looked away-but he'd come creeping around about bedtime, looking for a scratch.
"He looks like you," Lane said.
"Thanks." I supposed that could be a flattering comment; on the other hand, the Cat was pretty beat up. One ear had been damn near chewed off, and sometimes, on cold mornings, he'd limp a little, and look up at me and meow, like he was asking for a couple of aspirin. I dumped the duffel, stepped into the kitchen, and said to Lane, "Tell me about Jack," and asked, "Want some coffee?"
She agreed to the coffee. "I think he was murdered," she said, as we waited for the water to heat in the microwave. "He was supposedly shot to death after he broke into a secure area of a company called AmMath in Dallas. He was shot twice in the chest and died immediately. Another man was wounded."
"But not killed?"
"So he could tell you what they were doing..." The microwave beeped and I took the cups out.
"No, no, no... The man who was wounded was supposedly shot by Jack," she said. "They say that Jack had a gun and opened fire when he was caught. There were two guards or security men, whatever you call them, and supposedly, Jack shot one, and the second guard shot Jack."
"Jack?" You had to know him.
"Exactly," she said. "There's no way that Jack would shoot at somebody. He wouldn't shoot at somebody to save his own life, much less to keep from getting caught in a burglary, or whatever he was supposedly doing. Unless..." She looked sideways at me, and her eyes sort of hooked on.
"Unless, working with you, you taught him to take a gun along. A technique, or something."
I shook my head: "Never. I never take a gun. The only thing you can do with a gun is shoot somebody. I'm not gonna shoot somebody over the schematics for a microchip."
"That's what he told me," she said. "That nothing you did involved violence."
Nothing that Jack knew about involved violence, I thought. But violence had been done, a time or two or three, as much as I tried to avoid it, and regretted it. Or, to be honest, as much as I regretted some of it. I'd met a sonofabitch down the Mississippi one time, who, if he came back from the dead, I'd cheerfully run through a stump chipper.
"What was Jack doing?" I stirred instant coffee crystals into the hot water and handed her a cup. She had a way of looking at you directly, and standing an inch too close, that might have bent the attention of a lesser man.
"Nobody will say exactly. All they will say is that he entered a high-security area in AmMath they're the people doing Clipper II and that he opened fire when they walked in on him," she said.
Clipper II was an Orwellian nightmare come true, a practical impossibility, or a huge joke at the taxpayers' expense take your pick. It was designed in response to a fear of the U.S. government that unbreakable codes would make intercept-intelligence impractical. And really, they had a point, but their solution was so draconian that it was doomed to failure from the start.
The Clipper II chip like the original Clipper chip before it was a chip designed to handle strong encryption. If it was made mandatory (which the government wanted), everyone would have to use it. And the encryption was guaranteed secure. Absolutely unbreakable.
Except that the chip contained a set of keys just for the government, just in case. If they needed to, they could look up the key for a particular chip, get a wiretap permit, and decrypt any messages that were sent using the chip. They would thereby bring to justice (they said) all kinds of Mafiosos, drug dealers, money launderers, and other lowlifes.
Hackers, of course, hated the idea. They were already using encryption so strong that nobody, including the government, could break it. The idea of going back to less secure encryption, so that the government could spy on whoever it wanted, drove them crazy. No hacker on earth really believed that the government would carefully seek wiretap permits before doing the tap. It'd be tap first, ask later, just like it is now with phone taps.
The good part of the whole controversy was that everybody seriously concerned with encryption knew it was too late for the Clipper II. It had been too late for the Clipper I a decade earlier. Strong encryption was out of the bag, and it would be impossible to push it back in.
Lane had taken a sip of coffee, winced, and asked something, but thinking about Clipper II, I missed it. "Huh?"
She repeated the question. "Do people kill for software?"
"Not me. But Windows is software, and it made the creator a hundred billion dollars. In parts of some cities, you could get a killing done for twelve dollars ninety-five. So some software could get some killing done," I said. We both thought about that for a minute. Then, "If it really happened like you say it did hang on, let me finish if Jack shot somebody, it wasn't for the software, necessarily. It was to keep from getting caught and maybe sent to prison. Prison in Texas."
"But you know and I know," she continued, "that Jack didn't shoot anybody. Since somebody shot the guard, there had to be somebody else in the room when Jack was shot, even though the company says nobody else was there but the guard and another security man."
"Maybe one security guy shot the other to make it look like Jack shot first..."
I said it in a not-quite-joking way, but she took it seriously: "No, I thought about that. But the guard who was shot was hurt bad. The bullet went right through his lung. He's an old guy and he almost died on the way to the hospital."
"So the whole thing holds together."
"Almost too well," she said. "There aren't any seams at all. They searched Jack's house and found some supposedly secret files on a Jaz disk hidden in a shoe. Very convenient. That really nailed it down. The only thing that doesn't work is the shooting. Jack hated guns. They scared him. He wouldn't even pick one up."
She was getting hot: I slowed her down with a straight factual question. "What was he doing in Dallas?"
"A contract job," she said. "He'd been there three months and had maybe another three to go. AmMath had a couple of old supercomputers, Crays, that they'd bought from the weather service, and they were having trouble keeping them talking. Jack had done some work on them years ago, and they hired him to straighten out the operating software."
I said, "Huh," because I couldn't think of anything wiser.
"Ask me why I came to see you," she said.
"All right. Why'd you come to see me?"
"First, to ask if you were in Dallas? Ever? With Jack?"
"No." I shook my head: "Jack and I haven't worked together for two years."
"Yeah, I'm sure. He rewrote some software for me." So I'd be able to plug into a Toyota design computer anytime I needed to. "Two years ago... November."
"Then what's this mean?" She dug in her purse and handed me a printout of an e-mail letter. "Look at the last couple of lines."
I scanned all of it. Most was just brother-sister talk about their father's estate their parents were both dead now, their father dying nine months back.
The last two lines of Jack's letter said, "I'm into something a little weird here. I don't want to worry you, but if anything unusual should happen, get in touch with Kidd, okay? Just say Bobby and 3ratsass3."
If you look in the shaving mirror in the morning and ask what you've become, and the answer is "Artist & Professional Criminal," then you may have taken a bad turn down life's dark alley. While other people were wistfully contemplating the grassy fork in "The Road Not Taken," I'd lurched down a gutter full of broken wine bottles, and kicked asses and people telling me to go fuck myself. Nobody to blame, really.
Well, maybe the Army. The Army had left me a roster of dead friends, a vicious dislike for bureaucratic organization, and a few unusual skills. And hell, it was interesting. At least I'm not stuck in a garret somewhere, with a pointy little beard and a special rap for victim women, trying to peddle my paintings to assholes in shiny Italian suits. At least I'm not that.
What I am, is an artist. A painter I make decent money from it. But even though I was working harder than ever, my production artists actually talk about things like production had been falling over the years. I'd always been a little fussy about what I sold, and I'd gotten fussier as I'd gotten older, so even as my prices went up, my income actually declined a little. The year before, I'd sold six paintings. I'd gotten a little more than $300,000, but let me tell you about the taxes...
Or maybe not. I sound a little too Republican when I get started on taxes.
In any case, I still worked at my night job. I stole things. Computer code, schematics for new chips or new computers, designs for new cars. I suppose I could have stolen jewelry or cash, but I wasn't interested in jewelry or cash and besides, that kind of thievery didn't pay as well as my kind.
I knew that for sure, because my best friend is a woman named LuEllen, who was exactly that kind of thief: she stole cash and jewelry and com collections and even stamps or anything else that was portable and could easily and invisibly be turned into cash. LuEllen and I had known each other since I caught her trying to break into another guy's apartment in my building. That was several years ago. Ever since, we'd been friends and sometimes more than friends.
Even with that history, I had no idea what LuEllen's real last name was, or where exactly she lived. She was comfortable with my ignorance
I'm not exactly embarrassed by the night job, though I've often thought I'd give it up if I could make nine paintings a year instead of six. Then again, I might not. If I were French, and philosophical, I might even argue that "professional criminal" wasn't that far from "freedom fighter."
But there was always that skeptical face in the mirror, the face that asked whether freedom fighting should generate large amounts of expendable income I could say-"Hey, even freedom fighters gotta eat." But what do you do when the face in the mirror asks, "Yeah, but should freedom fighters get condos in New Orleans and painting trips to Siena and fishing jaunts to Ontario and season tickets for the Wolves?"
Being neither French nor philosophical rather, a believer in the Great God WYSIWYG, that What You See Is What You Get I had no ready answer for the question, except...
You gotta shave faster.
I did not immediately believe, or believe in, Lane Ward; believe that I was getting what I was seeing. "Let me get out on the Net for a couple of minutes," I said.
"Check me out?" Ward asked.
"See if I've got mail," I said, politely.
"'3ratsass3' sounds like a password," she said. "So who's Bobby?" She had large, dark eyes. I'd first thought maybe Mexican, with an Irish complexion. Now I was thinking Oriental, one of the robust-yet-delicate Japanese ladies of the Hiroshige woodcuts. Something about the eyebrows. I would like to draw her, from a quarter angle off her face, to get the brow ridge, the cheekbone, and the ear. I didn't say that.
"Bobby runs an information service," I said. An information service for people like me, I might have added but I didn't add it. " '3ratsass3' is probably the password on one of Bobby's mailboxes."
"So let's see what's in it." She looked around. "Where's your computer?"
"In the back."
I've been in the apartment for a while. I own it, part of a deal the city of St. Paul had going years ago, to bring people back downtown. I've got a tiny kitchen with a small breakfast nook off to one side; a compact living room with a river view; a workroom with maybe three thousand books, two hundred various bits and pieces of software, and, most of the time, three or four operating computers; a studio with a wall of windows facing northeast; and a bedroom. On the way back to the workroom, Lane paused in the door of the studio, looked up at the wall of windows, the big beat-up easel and all the crap that goes with painting, and asked, "What's this?"
"I'm a painter," I said. "That's what I really do. The computer stuff is a sideline."
"You really are an artist?"
"Jack never told me," she said. She peered at me for a second, as if doing a reevaluation.
"Jack didn't know me that way," I said. "We mostly knew each other on the Net. I only met him twice face to face."
"He came here?"
"No, no, I saw him once when he was between planes, out at the airport, and once when I had some business out in Redmond."
"Redmond," she said, and, "Huh." She stepped over to a painting I'd propped against a wall. I'd finished it a few weeks before the fishing trip, a line of stone buildings dropping down a hill in the flat yellow light of a Minnesota September. The light is thin, then, but yellow-creamy almost like the light you get in central Italy on hot summer evenings, although in St. Paul, it only lasts three weeks.
After a few seconds of peering at the painting, Lane cocked her head and did a little shuffle step to get a better look. "Only two dimensions and all that light," she said, "but it looks so like... it might be." I shrugged, and she said, "Jeez. I really like it."
I never know what to say, so I said, "The workroom's down this way."
An old cow-box Pentium was set up on a table at the far end of the workroom. A shoulder-high stack of Dell chassis were sitting on the floor, with a couple of big cardboard boxes. She looked at the chassis and asked, "What're you doing here?"
"Some people in Chicago want to build an America's Cup boat," I said. "They need a supercomputer to design the hull, but they can't afford it, so I'm making one, with a friend."
"Yeah? Neat." She wasn't particularly impressed, as though she'd done the same thing a time or two herself. "What's the setup?"
"We're gonna chain sixty-four Dell Pentium Ills with an Ethernet array running through these stacked hubs" I whacked a stack of cardboard boxes with the palm of my hand "as a single distributed OS. We got the operating system off a freeware site..."
"Love the freeware," she said.
"... and my friend she's really doing the numbers will come over and write whatever connections she needs, and... go to work."
"Cool." She looked around again, taking in the books. "Where's your Net hookup?"
I took her down to the cow-box machine. Some previous owner, or more likely the wife or girlfriend of a previous owner, had written "Fuck you, fat boy," on the beige front panel of the monitor, in pink indelible ink. "Top of the line, huh?" she asked.
"What can I tell you?" You don't need a workstation to read your e-mail. When we were up, I said, "Why don't you, uh, go look at the Dells?"
"Because I'm gonna dial a number I don't want you to see, and follow a procedure I also don't want you to see."
"Really?" she asked. "So it's out in the dark? Okay. I forgot."
She smiled, for the first time, a smile bordering on greatness: "That you're a crook."
She wandered down to the end of the room, and I dialed Bobby's 800 number, a number I'm sure that AT&T doesn't know about, since ten digits follow the 800. I then waited through ten seconds of electronic silence; in the eleventh second, the modem burped and a "?" appeared on the screen. I typed eight digits, got another "?" and typed "k" and got a further "?" I typed "MALE," which was either a deliberate misspelling in the interests of security, or a joke. When the final "?" appeared, I typed "3RATSASS3." A letter popped up.
OH, FUCK: UNLESS I'M READING THIS MYSELF, I COULD BE IN DEEP SHIT.
KIDD: GET DOWN TO DALLAS AND FIND ME I MIGHT BE IN JAIL. THIS IS THE DEAL: I CONTRACTED WITH AMMATH TO OVERHAUL THEIR SYSTEM SOFTWARE, WHICH JOB I GOT BECAUSE I HAVE A DOD CLEARANCE FROM WHEN I WAS AT JPL. IT'S ALL SUPPOSED TO BE SECRET, BUT EVERYBODY KNOWS THAT THEY'RE WORKING ON SOFTWARE FOR THE CLIPPER II IT'S BEEN IN THE NEWSPAPERS. SO I FIGURE THAT'S NO BIG DEAL, BECAUSE CLIPPER II IS DEAD IN THE HOUSE AND EVEN DEADER IN THE SENATE AND EVERYBODY EXCEPT THE INTELLIGENCE
GOOFS IN WASHINGTON KNOWS IT'S TOO LATE ANYWAY. BUT AROUND HERE, THEY'RE ACTING LIKE IT'S A NEW ATOMIC BOMB, AND THESE PEOPLE AIN'T GOOFS. in FACT, THEY SCARE ME A LITTLE BIT.
THE OTHER DAY I WAS MANIPULATING A BUNCH OF STUFF IN A FILE CALLED OMS JUST TO SEE IF THE SYSTEM WAS RIGHT. I GOT TO READING SOME OF IT, AND FUCK ME WITH A PHONE POLE IF IT HAS ANYTHING TO DO WITH CLIPPER. I WAS STILL READING THROUGH IT WHEN A SECURITY GUY CAME DOWN FROM CORPORATE AND ASKED ME WHAT I WAS DOING. I TOLD HIM, ACCESS TESTS, AND TOLD HIM I WASN'T REALLY READING ANYTHING, AND HE TELLS ME TO STAY OFF THAT LINK UNLESS I GIVE PRIOR NOTICE. I SAY OK. THEY MUST'VE HAD A TRIPWIRE ON IT.
SO ANYWAY, I'M GOING BACK TONIGHT WITH A BUNCH OF JAZ DISKS, I'M GONNA DISCONNECT THE TRIP WIRE AND DUMP THE OMS FILE. (OMS I FOUND OUT STANDS FOR OLD MAN OF THE SEA, BUT I DIDN'T SEE ANYTHING IN IT ABOUT HEMINGWAY.) ANYWAY, JUST IN CASE, I'LL STASH COPIES IN THE SAFEST POSSIBLE PLACE.
IF YOU'RE READING THIS, I'M PROBABLY IN A JAM. THE GUY TO WATCH IS A SECURITY ASSHOLE NAMED WLLLIAM HART. THERE ARE RUMORS THAT HE USED TO BE SOME KIND OF MILITARY SECURITY GUY OR SOMETHING, AND HE GOT KICKED OUT. ONE OF THE SECRETARIES TOLD ME THAT HE'D DONE TIME IN PRISON BEFORE HE CAME TO AMMATH, SO YOU WANT TO STAY AWAY FROM HIM.
SO, THAT'S IT. I HOPE TO HELL I'M READING THIS, AND NOT YOU. IF IT'S YOU, COME GET ME. SAY HELLO TO LUELLEN FOR ME... DON'T TAKE ANY WOODEN PUSSY.
That did not sound good. I looked at if for a couple of minutes, then buzzed Bobby: Bobby's always available. After I buzzed him, I got the "?" again, and went back with a "k." He was on immediately.
kidd, where you been?
been trying to find you: saw airline to kenora and then lost you.
out of touch. what's happening?
you read about firewall?
i know nothing. just back now.
go out on net, look at papers, new york times, wall street journal, washington post. we need to find firewall and give them to cops. but firewall names are not good. you are not firewall. stanford is not. one2oxford is not. carlg is not.
i don't know what you're talking about.
read papers and get back. your name is on list.
do you know stanford is dead?
Stanford was Jack's working name. There was a pause; something you didn't get with Bobby.
dead? are you sure? when and where?
last friday in dallas. supposedly shot to death during break-in at software company called ammath.
did not know. will check immediately. stanford is on firewall list.
do you know lane ward?
no. i've heard name. computers at berkeley.
i need brothers and sisters for lane ward and also photo for ward. soonest.
wlll dump to your box one hour. you must go out on net!!! read firewall. i will check on stanford.
ok... will call back.
Dial tone and out.
I read down the screen once more, wiped out everything but the letter, printed it, and then said, "Hey."
Lane drifted back. "What?" she asked.
"A letter from your brother."
I pulled it out of the printer and handed it to her. She took a minute reading it, a little vertical line between her eyes. Then she read it again and a tear trickled down one cheek. Finally, she looked up.
"Why would he do that?"
"Curiosity. Jack was a computer guy. If you tell a computer guy not to look in a file, he'll look in the file."
"Especially if he thinks of himself as some kind of cool James Bond guy," she said. Like it was my fault.
"Do you know anything about a group called Firewall?" I asked.
She gave me a long look and then asked, "Are you working for the government?"
That took a while to sort out. I told her about Bobby's strange anxiety and she suggested that I do what Bobby wanted: that I look up Firewall in the papers and on the Net. I went back out, with Lane looking over my shoulder.
Eight days earlier, as I'd been sitting on my living room floor sorting out pike lures, a National Security Agency bureaucrat named Lighter had been murdered walking near his home in Maryland. Jack was killed the next night, twelve hours before I flew out to Kenora.
According to the online papers, the Lighter killing was at first thought to be a random mugging, although the detectives working the murder had been disturbed by some of its aspects. There was no sign that Lighter had fought his assailants, or tried to run. He'd simply been gunned down. Lighter's wife told police that he'd been mugged once before, when they lived in Washington, and that he had calmly handed over his wallet while he tried to reassure the muggers that he was not a threat. In other words, there was no reason to kill him to get his money. And he'd been shot down on a quiet suburban street, where mugging, much less murder, was almost unknown.
A couple of days later, rumors began to surface on the Net that he'd been killed by a radical hacker group calling itself Firewall. Firewall claimed to be taking "preemptive revenge" for the Clipper II, although the Clipper II was widely believed to be a dead issue. And some names had surfaced... CarlG, Dave, Bobby, FirstOctober, RasputinIV, k, LotusElan, One2Oxford, Stanford, Whitey.
"Oh, shit," I said.
To cover myself: "Do you know your brother's working name?"
"You mean, Yellowjacket? That's his gamer name."
"I never heard that. He'd always been Stanford." I tapped the list on the screen. "They've got him listed as a member of this Firewall."
She looked. "Stanford is Jack? Huh..." She turned away, slowly, thinking.
"You don't talk with the government," she said. A statement, with a question inside.
"No. Of course not."
"I have," she said, slowly. "They asked me not to tell anyone. I talked to them on Tuesday. I was interviewed for two hours by the FBI. About Firewall. Where Jack had been traveling and who his friends are. I didn't know any of that, except some friends we have in common. Jack would travel about once a year, to Europe, but that was about it. The last time he was out of the country was six months ago."
"You didn't mention me?"
"No, of course not. I know better than that," she said.
"What do you know about Firewall?"
"Nothing. I'd never heard of it. Jack would have told me, if he was involved. But those little Net conspiracies... you know what they are. They're socially retarded geeks who think they're living a comic book. Jack wouldn't have anything to do with them. Neither would I."
"Executing a guy because he's working on Clipper II... that doesn't sound like socially retarded geeks," I said.
"Oh, no?" she asked. "Then who else could it be? Murdering somebody over a chip not even a real chip? And who else would care, besides geeks ?"
"Oh, bullshit." She rolled her eyes.
"It's too... physical."
She put her hands on her hips: "Look at yourself, for Christ's sakes, Kidd. You're some kind of aging jock-nerd-engineer-fisherman-artist with a broken nose. What if it's somebody just like you, with a taste for blood?"
No answer to that. The question was urgent, if the feds and spy people and God knew who else were tearing up the countryside, because Bobby was on the list. And so was I. I was "k."
Lane kept going back to Jack's letter.
"Where's the safest possible place?" she asked.
"Somewhere I could get at them, I guess." I had an idea, but wasn't about to show it. Not until I knew her better. "Maybe he shipped them somewhere. I've got a bunch of mailboxes, scattered around. I've even got one at AOL."
I went back online, checked them, and came up empty. Lane was reading Jack's letter again. She snapped it with a fingertip and said, "One thing that bothers me about the letter is the line about not taking any wooden pussy."
"Wooden what?" I'd barely noticed the line.
"Pussy. The thing that bothers me is, I don't think Jack talked like that. Are we sure this is from Jack?"
I had to laugh, because it sounded exactly like Jack; and exactly the kind of thing that Jack would never say around, say, a sister, or any other woman. "Yeah, he did talk that way, sometimes," I said. Then: "Is it possible that you really didn't know Jack as well as you thought you did? That he might have a life that you didn't know about. Maybe involving guns?"
"No," she said positively. "I mean, I'm sure he did things I don't know about, that he'd hide from me. He got along very well with a certain kind of ditzy chick. Maybe he'd say pussy he just didn't say it to me. But with the guns, we're talking basic, rock-bottom personality. He didn't shoot anybody."
"Okay." Then I noticed something a little odd. "You say he was killed on Friday?"
"Yes. Friday night." She caught the puzzled look as I read the letter again. "Why?"
"Because the letter was time-stamped on Sunday the Sunday before he was killed. He said he was going in then..."
"What have I been telling you? There's something seriously wrong with the whole thing."
We talked about the possibilities; and in the back of my head, there was that "k" floating around out there. The feds were looking for k...
So are you going back to Dallas with me?" she asked, eventually.
"You're going back?"
"I've got to. I've got to sign papers and everything, when they're done with him." Another tear popped out and I turned away: I don't deal well with weeping women. I tend to babble. "So are you going? I made a reservation for you. I could really use somebody to lean on..."
"Yeah, yeah, okay," I said. "But don't cry, huh? Please?"
She'd made a reservation for that same night, on the last plane out. I took a moment to go downstairs to tell Alice to watch after the cat, and then I went back out on the Net and read everything I could find on Firewall: there was a ton of stuff, but mostly bullshit. Then I went to my box at Bobby's, and found a picture and a note. The picture was of Lane Ward, looking nice in a professorial business suit, a wall of books in the background. The note said, Her only brother was JM.
Finally, I called the Wee Blue Inn in Duluth, on a voice line, and got Weenie, the owner-bartender. He's a toothpick-chewing fat man with a steel-gray butch; an apron that he laundered every month, whether it needed it or not; and who always smells like greasy hamburgers and barbequed onion rings. I said, "This is the guy from St. Paul. I need to talk to LuEllen."
"She's off right now," he said. "I can take a message."
LuEllen was always off. Weenie theoretically paid her $28,000 a year as a waitress, and she paid taxes on the $28,000 plus $6,000 in tips. In reality, Weenie stuck the tax-free $28,000 in his pocket and sent LuEllen the W-2 form. Weenie was her answering service. The W-2 form explained to the government how she paid for her house, wherever that was.
"Tell her that Stanford was killed," I said. "The funeral's set for Santa Cruz next Wednesday. I'm going to Dallas, but I'll be in Santa Cruz for the funeral."
"I'll tell her," Weenie said. "That's Stanford, like in the university."
On the way out the door, on the way to the airport, I stopped, Lane already in the hall, went back to the workroom and got a small wooden box made in Poland. I stuck it in my jacket pocket. Just in case.
At the airport, I picked up the major papers, and as soon as we were off the ground, began looking for Firewall stories. They all carried at least one, but nothing on the front page. Firewall appeared to be suffering media death.
While I read, Lane kicked back and slept. She was not a large woman and could snuggle into the seat like a squirrel on a pillow. I stared at the seat in front of me for a while, and when she was asleep, took the wooden box out of my pocket. Inside, I kept a Ryder-Waite tarot deck wrapped in a silk cloth.
I'm not superstitious. More than that: I refuse superstition. Ghosts and goblins and astrology and numerology and phrenology and all the New Age bullshit of mother goddesses and wicca; the world would be a happier place if it'd die quietly.
Tarot is different. Tarot is can be a kind of gaming system that forces you out of a particular mind-set. Let's say you're trying to... oh, say, steal something. Your mind-set says X is a danger and Y is a danger, but the tarot says, "Think about Z." So you start thinking about things outside of the mind-set, and when you finally do the entry, you've considered a whole spread of possibilities that otherwise would have gone unsuspected.
Nothing magic about it; and it will definitely save your ass.
So I did one quick spread, of my own invention, working toward a key card. The card came up.
The Devil. Interesting...
I sat looking at the evil fuck for a few seconds, sighed, stood up, got my bag out of the overhead bin, and stowed the tarot deck. Thought about it for a second, then dug out the little eight-cake Winsor & Newton watercolor tin and my sketchbook. I got a glass of water from the stewardess and started doing quick watercolor sketches of Lane, the cabin, and the two business guys across the aisle.
The closest business guy looked like a salesman balding, pudgy, triple-chinned, exhausted. He sat head-down and dozing, his red, yellow, and black necktie splashing down his chest and stomach like a waterfall. The guy behind him was just as exhausted, but was too thin, his skull plainly carving the shape of his head. I got three good ones of the two of them, the thin man like death's shadow behind the fat one. I struggled to get the red necktie right, working the planes as it twisted down his shirt.
A stewardess stopped to watch for a few minutes, then disappeared into the front of the plane. A couple of minutes later, the copilot came back, watched for a while, said he did a little watercolor himself, and asked me if I'd ever seen the cockpit of a D9S at night. I hadn't, and he showed me the way.
I did a half-dozen sketches of the crew at work, and left them behind: they all seemed pleased, and so was I. In the twenty years after I got out of college, I don't think I went a day without drawing or painting something, except during a couple of hospital visits; even then, when I could start moving, the first thing I did was ask for a pencil.
In all those years, the work got tighter and tighter and tighter, until I felt like I hardly had the muscle to pick up a pencil or a pen or a brush: I could wear myself out in an hour, just moving a brush around. Then I broke through. The brush got lighter, and the work became fluid. The actual breakthrough came during a rough visit to Washington, D.C. I'd left behind the Washington nightmares hadn't had one for a couple of years, now but the fluidity seemed to hang around...
I got back to my seat, restowed the Winsor & Newton tin and the sketchbook, and buckled up for the landing. When the wheels came down, Lane started, stirred, woke up and yawned, covering her mouth with a balled fist, pushed up the window shade, and looked out at the lights of Dallas and then, as we turned, of Fort Worth.
"My mouth tastes like something died inside it," she said, her voice a little husky. A good voice to wake up to. She looked me over: "What'd you do? Sit there and stare at the seat back?"
"Not exactly," I said.
Going out the door, the stewardess squeezed my arm and said, "Thanks so much, you're really good." Lane looked like she might drop dead of curiosity as we walked up the ramp, but then she finally asked, "What was that all about?"
I said, "Oh. You know..."
"Be a jerk," she said. But she was smiling.
We stayed overnight at a Marriott. Early the next morning, she was pounding on my door, and at nine o'clock, we were headed down to Dallas police headquarters. Lane wanted me to go inside with her, but I don't talk to cops when I can avoid it. She went in alone, a little pissed. Twenty minutes later, she was back, and told me about it as we drove back to the hotel.
The cops had been pretty straightforward about it, she said. "I got into their faces a little bit, but they wouldn't budge. This guy I talked to said Jack was into something tricky. That's the word he used. Tricky."
"And that's what they've got? That's all? That he was doing something tricky?"
"No." She was reluctant to talk; I had to pry it out of her. "They say they traced the gun he supposedly used. It was stolen in San Jose six years ago."
"Uh-oh," I said.
"Yeah. I kept saying Jack would never use a gun, and they kept saying, then how come the gun came from San Jose?" She was looking up at me with her dark eyes, pleading with me to understand that what the cops had said was all bullshit. "They said, 'AmMath framed him using a gun that was stolen six years ago in San Jose? How did they do that?' "
"Good question," I said.
"Jack would not shoot anybody," Lane insisted.
"You can't always tell what somebody will do when he's cornered, and he thinks that his life may be ruined. Or that he might go to prison," I said. "Or maybe he thought the guard was about to shoot him, and it was self-defense."
She didn't want to hear about it, and after we'd snarled at each other for a few minutes, I let it go. "So that's it they got a gun."
"There were a couple more things," she said, reluctantly. Then, "Watch it!"
I hit the brakes; a blue Toyota pickup chopped us off just as we headed up a freeway on-ramp. He never knew I was there. I shook my head, and said, "Asshole," and then, "Listen, Lane, you gotta tell me everything they said. I don't want to have to drag it out of you. I'm supposed to be on your side."
"It's all bullshit. You should've come in, then you could have heard it for yourself."
"What're the other things?"
The cop had explained that there were three doors into the secure area two of them alarmed. The third door came out of a short hallway connected to the system administrator's office, and the main entrance of his office was well down the hall from the secure area. But if you knew which doors were wired with alarms, you could force the door into the system administrator's office, which had the corridor leading directly into the secure area. That one locked from the system administrator's side, so it would not have to be forced. An outsider trying to intrude into the secure area would not know any of that, and would be stuck with trying to find a way around the alarms...
"It turns out that the guard wasn't responding to anything. He was making his regular rounds. Another guy, this security guy, was on his way to his office, and they went up together in the elevator, and the guard noticed that the door to the office suite had some damage around the door knob. So they went in..." She stopped, shaking her head.
"So what they're saying is, it wasn't like there was a sudden shooting and then a bunch of explanations. It was just a guard's routine trip through the building."
"It still could have been set up," she said, stubbornly.
"Yeah, but, boy..." Didn't sound good.
I concentrated on driving for a couple of minutes, getting us out of a pod of Texans headed up the freeway in what seemed to be a test of Chaos Theory: you sensed an order in their driving, but you couldn't say exactly what it was. I could see the Toyota pickup at the head of the pack, like the lead dolphin.
After the shooting, Lane said, the police went to a house Jack had rented, with a second security man from AmMath, and found a bunch of computer disks "Two of them were in a pair of shoes in the closet, which doesn't sound like Jack at all" and a lot of other unauthorized stuff from AmMath, including manuals and confidential information about the Clipper II. AmMath wanted to take it, but the cops wouldn't give it to them: instead, they called in the FBI.
"They've still got it?"
"Yes. The FBI."
"And that's all."
"Well. They say the back entrance and the secure area at AmMath are covered with cameras. A call came into the building computer at TrendDirect that's the building owner and the security cameras were interfered with. The scanning range for the one in the back was changed so that it didn't scan a door at the end of the building; and the camera that watches the secure area was turned off."
"The guards didn't see that? Weren't the cameras monitored?"
"I asked that," she said. "The camera in back constantly scans back and forth, and the only change was to cut out part of the range. The other camera is one of about ten around the premises, with a constant cycle, three seconds at each station, and they cut out one station. They never noticed the changes."
We sat and thought about that for a moment; then Lane sighed and said, "They said we can probably get his computers back. Not the hard drives, but the rest of them. And the monitors, and his personal stuff."
"What about Jack? I mean, the body."
"I've got to go to the medical examiner's office and sign for him. They've released it... him."
"Huh. So maybe we should stop by his house and take a look around," I said. Over time, I'd crept up on the blue Toyota. He edged over to make it onto an exit, and I chopped him off, nearly sending him into the retaining wall. At the bottom of the ramp, I went right and he went left, but I could see his middle finger wagging out the window.
"For what?" Lane was unaware of the drama.
"Those Jaz disks. He said he'd put them in the safest possible place."
"You know what that means? I thought it was just a... phrase," she said.
"Maybe. But we could look around."
"The house is sealed."
"Yeah," I said. "With a piece of tape."