Countdown to Zero: Five – Manifest Destiny

TROUBLESHOOTER:
Countdown to Zero
by Andrea Speed
Five – Manifest Density

By the time they returned to Shan’s place, the cops had already cleared off, although Gilbert’s apartment was sealed off with police tape. Z stopped by the mailboxes on the inner side of the apartment building to see if she could get a full name, and it paid off: Bennett Gilbert. Now she had two names to run.

Once inside his cramped but oddly neat (for a bachelor) place, he said, “So, can I offer you a drink? I have … uh, shit, I don’t know what I have. Lemme check.”

weirdbuild.jpg“Am I right to guess you want me to stick around?” She sat on the arm of his couch, and looked up at the off white ceiling. Was Gilbert directly overhead? If there was someone in the apartment, she could hear it, and so far she didn’t hear anything.

“Yeah. I mean, if that’s okay …”

“Fine. I’ve got no plans. Can I borrow your laptop?”

“Uh, sure, it’s under the, uh … “ he kept pointing helplessly at the end table on the opposite end of the sofa, the one with the clear glass lamp and tacky beaded shade that he picked up at the thrift store for three bucks. His words had left him, or he got caught off guard by how genuinely awful the lamp was.

“Got it.” It was beneath the table, on top of a phone book, and she was surprised some genuine dust on its lid. “Wow, you haven’t been on line?”

“No. What with the nightclub and my work at the rink, I haven’t had much free time. Want some Red Bull?”

“No. So you’re porn free?”

He scoffed. “Oh, come on! Men don’t only use computers for porn. Orange juice?”

“No.” She set the laptop on the black plastic coffee table and started to boot it up. “Took too long to download, huh?”

“Yeah, that thing’s a piece of crap. Ginger ale?”

“No.”

“Margarita mix?”

“N-” she paused mid-refusal, and stared at him. “Margarita mix? Since when do you drink?”

“Huh? Oh, no, I just have the mix, no tequila.”

She suspected she was being set up for a punch line, but she had to ask anyways. “Why?”

“I like the taste. I know, I know, it’s too sweet, and nothing in life is that green without bein’ radioactive, but -”

“Okay, Shan, you’re scaring me now. Are you sure you haven’t been workin’ too hard?”

He shrugged, still searching his fridge as if for lost treasure, even though she could see from here it didn’t really have that much in it. It was nearly as pathetic as hers, but contained far more fast food packets of mustard, ketchup, and taco sauce than hers ever did. It looked like he had enough of them to build a raft. “Naw, I don’t think so. I’m just keeping’ busy, y’know …”

“Sex life in the toilet?”

“Yeah, pretty much. Coke?”

“How many fluids do you have in there?”

“Umm, that’s it, unless you count Dijon mustard. Want some mustard?”

“Okay.”

He pulled his head out of the fridge and stared at her, looking almost endearingly befuddled. “What? You’re … you’re joking, right?”

“No, set me up with some mustard, mate.”

He stood before his open refrigerator and put his hand on his hip like a Jerry Springer guest about to launch into a finger waving tirade. “Okay, I know you’re shitting me.” She let the pause drag out between them, her attention aimed at the laptop. Finally, he added, “You are, right?”

She glanced up at him, feeling just a little bit bad, because sometimes it was just too easy to get him sometimes. “Of course I am. Give me the Coke if it’ll make you stop playin’ waiter.”

He sighed. “See, was that so hard? You could just ask …”

“Now where’s the fun in that?”

He kicked the fridge shut and joined her on the couch, handing her the can of Coke as soon as he sat down. “Sadist.”

“I never claimed not to be.” She opened the can and had a sip, grimacing at the both the sweetness and the acidity, which made her salivary glands hurt. Shan wasn’t trying to hide the fact that he was looking at the monitor over her shoulder.

“Who’s Jackson Rand?”

“The guy whose ball you broke.”

He hissed a sharp breath through his teeth. “Ya know, I didn’t mean to do that.”

“Doesn’t matter. This guy’s an asshole; he’s got a full house.”

“This isn’t video poker, is it?”

“No, smart ass. I mean he’s been charged with every drug related misdemeanor you could name, including a DUI last year.”

“So, a bad guy?”

She stared at his rap sheet, and tried to will the dull recitation of facts into a more coherent picture, but some of this just wasn’t adding up. “Not really, no. He’s a pissant, a peon, a small change kinda guy. So how did he go from a loitering charge to attempted murder and arson? That’s a quantum leap.”

Shan leaned in more, and squinted at the screen. “Holy shit, is this an actual police database? How are you in this? Aren’t these only open to cops – I mean, currently practicing cops?”

“What did I tell you about the sidekick’s mantra?”

He paused a moment to remember. “The less you know, the better off you are.”

“Too right.”

He sighed wearily, sagging back but never taking his eyes off the screen, as she entered the name Bennett Gilbert in the search engine. Noticing that, he sat up again. “Gilbert? Is that my neighbor?”

“Yeah. And he’s squeaky clean; no hits at all.”

“That’s good, right? I mean, there wasn’t a serial rapist living overhead, so I figure that qualifies this place as a good neighborhood.”

It was probably some attempt at a joke, but she figured he misfired completely. “It doesn’t make him innocent of anything, Shan – it just means he was never caught.”

“Wow, you’re a cynic.”

“We’ve been over that.” She went back to Rand’s record and stared at it a little longer, hoping it would make more sense. His last mug shot showed a plain looking man, neither handsome or ugly, with scraggly blond hair, a dark smear of five o’clock shadow, and the sallow complexion and glazed look of a hardcore junkie. The problem was, he looked like a lightweight, just like his record suggested – there was nothing that said or screamed this guy would cut your throat as soon as look at you. He didn’t even look desperate, just shagged out.

Drugs. The only reason he could have jumped the hurdle from minor crimes to major ones was his need for money to buy drugs. But where was the money here? Did Gilbert have a price on his head? Or was this some kind of blackmail? Revenge wasn’t very likely, although it couldn’t be completely ruled out yet. A quick check of his record showed he’d only been arrested with others once, for drunk and disorderly when he was seventeen. Since that was eight years ago, she doubted either of those guys he was pulled in with years ago was still an associate of his.

She glanced up at the ceiling again, wondering if they had someone watching the apartment from a distance. Probably not; she saw no telltale “undercover” cop cars in the parking lot when she pulled in. Maybe …

“No,” Shan exclaimed suddenly. “Oh hell no.”

“What?”

“You are not breaking into a crime scene. His building is perfect for me, it’s centrally located, and I need central location. You know that.”

It was important to him because his medical condition – namely the seizures – kept him from legally possessing a driver’s license, so he had to walk everywhere or catch rides. He took public transportation when he had to, but felt it was basically a special purgatory for the poor and carless, and didn’t like it very much. She couldn’t blame him there. “I’m not going to break into anything. Maybe have a look …”

“No. See, I know that look -”

He paused so suddenly she looked back at him, and found him frozen, staring at nothing, eyes slightly glazed. He was gone, and she was only surprised it hadn’t happened sooner since it had been such a stressful day. She glanced at her watch, watching the seconds fly past, then returned her gaze to the computer screen. His “spells” were getting longer and longer, suggesting he was getting worse, not better. She had thought about telling him, but he probably knew – how could he not? That’s when she discovered she could still feel some sense of pity, which was a big shock, as she wasn’t sure she could feel anything anymore, if indeed she ever had. But Shan was a rare good person, he didn’t have a mean bone in his body (former hockey player or not), but this just proved her personal theory that the nice were screwed over royal: if not by other people, by the intangible concept of life itself. If her theory held, Shan would die young, and she would live for bloody ever. Did this mean she had to start being good at some point?

She was done chasing leads on the computer, so she shut it down and sipped her Coke, once again grimacing at its cold sweetness, and waited for Shan to come back. A watch check showed it had been over a minute and ten seconds, and sixty seconds used to be the norm.

Finally, he started up again, like an android who had been rebooted. “ – and you’re going to go up there. And you can’t do that, ‘cause not only is it illegal, but ‘cause you’ll accidentally leave behind some evidence that they’ll tie to you. I’ve seen CSI, I know.”

A minute and fifty two seconds. “I have a clean kit in the car.”

He was looking around slightly puzzled. He must have realized that, last time he saw it, the computer was on. “What’s that?”

“The kit? Gloves, a hat for containing the hair, sheathes for slipping on your shoes so they don’t leave treads.”

“You’re making that up.”

“Okay, sure.” She stood up and stretched, working the kinks out of her neck. She would feel a whole lot better if she had someone to punch. “I’m just gonna run out and get my cell. I left it in the car.”

“Bullshit. You’re gonna … I phased out there for a moment, didn’t I?”

“Yeah. Why don’t you get some rest? It’s been a long day. I promise I won’t do a B&E upstairs.” And that was generally true, as cops rarely remembered to lock the door on crime scenes like this. You’d think it would be a given, but it was overlooked more than coppers would ever admit. Of course, they usually blamed the forensic team or coroner for not locking up, and since this was Canada, it was a good bet no one was uncouth enough to barge in past the police tape and have a look around. (She wasn’t Canadian nor couth.)

He sighed heavily, rubbing his eyes. “I wish I could believe you.”

“Sidekick’s motto.”

“What if I was a partner?”

“Motto remains.”

“Ah man, that’s not fair.”

“Neither is life. Suck it up.” She headed out of his flat, headed for her car. Should she even bother with the clean kit? Forensics might be moot at this point, especially if they’d already been through the place.

“Your sympathy is overwhelming,” he called out as she shut the door.

She considered getting her clean kit, but decided to check out the flat first. As she headed up the stairs, she noticed a shadow lurking at the end of the exposed outer corridor of the complex. She didn’t look directly at him, just kept him in the corner of her eye until she hit the stairs and lost him. Sure, he was in direct line of sight with Shan’s place, but that didn’t mean anything, as there were a half dozen units between him and Shan’s place. But something had set off warning bells in her mind, so she waited until she was on the second level, and glanced down at where the man must have been, waiting long enough so if he’d glanced up he’d surely have gotten bored by now.

He was wearing dark clothing, like a guy who’d watched one too many ninja movies, and a black stocking cap that was such an odd shape it was probably a rolled up balaclava – a ski mask. And his nose was swollen, flesh shiny and taut, a small smear of blood beneath the nostrils, all indicating the break was fairly recent. A nose was surprisingly easy to break; certainly hitting your face hard could do it.

No way – nobody could be so stupid as to return to the scene of the crime so soon, could they? And be so obvious about it?

Oh, wait, what was she thinking? Of course they could. In spite of the firebomb, these weren’t brain surgeons they were dealing with.

He was staring towards Shan’s door with great intensity, and his coat was hanging slightly off kilter, like he had something heavy in his coat pocket on the left side. Certainly a gun, meaning he was a lefty. She filed that information away, as it could be crucial in a fight.

But she had to be sure. She couldn’t go after him until she had confirmation, and damn it, she left her gun in the car. She moved back into the shadows, and pulled out her cell phone, hitting the speed dial button for Shan. He picked up on the third ring. “Hello?”

“Shan, it’s me,” she whispered hastily. “Don’t ask any questions. Just give me ninety seconds from now, and step outside your apartment.”

“What?” He sounded both puzzled and annoyed. “Why? Where -”

“Trust me. Ninety seconds.” She then flipped her phone closed and stuck it back in her jeans pocket. Shan would probably stick to plan, although he might jump the gun – no pun intended – by a few seconds.

Now, it was time to nail this stupid bastard without getting anyone else hurt. Well, except maybe him – that guy was just asking for it.

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