Troubleshooter – Eight

TROUBLESHOOTER
by Andrea Speed
Eight

She laid her windbreaker on the floor and emptied the contents of the briefcase onto it, and it was surprisingly meager, considering how much this stupid thing had ultimately cost. Once that was done, she gathered the coat into a sort of makeshift bag, and put the slightly mangled suitcase back in the slightly mangled locker. Yes, it would be obvious it had been broken into, but she didn’t care – she just didn’t want to be spotted with the briefcase at the moment. Not until she was ready.

Once that was done, she tucked the bolt cutter under her arm, grabbed her “bag”, and headed out the back. It was actually an emergency exit, but it wasn’t hooked up to any alarms. She had already told Shan she’d meet him back at Caffeine Rush, and to give her five minutes. Since Shan was a stickler for time, she knew she wouldn’t have to wait too long.

city2.jpgShe didn’t. She had barely sat down at one of the outside tables when he came loping across the street, avoiding the cars so easily you’d think he never really saw them at all. He was smiling in that slightly off kilter way of his the whole time, but once she stood up, his shit eating grin seemed to collapse in on itself. “You got it, right?”

She started walking and quickly steered him down the street, shoving the bolt cutters in his hands for safe keeping. “Yeah, not so loud.”

“Umm, this is the wrong direction -”

“Change of plans – we’re going back to my apartment building.”

“Oh okay.” He paused, and then, after a long moment, asked, “Did I do good?”

“You did great. I’d give you an Oscar if I could steal one.”

This made him inexplicably happy, and kept him grinning until they reached her building. Once again, she had to steer him in the right direction, as he thought they were heading to her apartment, but that wasn’t where they needed to go. Still, how was this going to go? There was a good reason she didn’t like the weird people in her new life to meet.

She rapped firmly on the door, and when she heard shuffling inside, she said, “Saj, it’s me, Z. Sorry to bug ya, but I need your help.”

“Saj? Is that that weird guy you’ve mentioned?” At least Shan had the good manners to whisper it.

She shot him an evil look, and hissed back, “Yes, he’s weird, but he’s sensitive, so don’t say anything about … well, anything, okay?”

“Freaky?”

“Eccentric,” she insisted, but knew damn well that didn’t even begin to cover it. And wasn‘t she one to talk? “Be nice.”

There was the metallic click and clank of locks being undone – she counted five – and then the door opened a crack as Sajeet peered out cautiously. “Z? Is, uh, is something wrong?”

“I just have something that I know you’ll be interested, but I can’t discuss it in the hall. Can we come in?”

Sajeet’s dark brown eyes settled warily on Shan, who pasted on his best grin, and gave him a small beauty queen wave. “Hi. I’m Shan, I’m just with her. I’m her ineffectual sidekick.”

Sajeet studied him for a full twenty seconds before sighing and opening the door wider. “Okay, come in. Ignore the mess.”

Although he was Indian by race, he had such a hacker’s tan now he pretty much looked white, almost all the natural pigment in his skin bleached away by weeks of seclusion and the radiation of a computer screen. He was five foot five, but looked much shorter with Shan in the room, and one of those men with the build of a stick figure gone to seed: scrawny limbs, round face, and a small but visible gut, where every single ounce of his body fat apparently lived. He may have been handsome if he had some muscle tone, saw the sun every few days or so, and washed his hair more than once a week. But in spite of the stereotype of the hygiene challenged geek, his hair was the only thing showing any signs of neglect; he never smelled, and his clothes were reasonably clean, considering he was an inveterate bachelor. His place always smelled like a combination of ozone and chili cheese flavored Fritos, though, and the air conditioners kept the place at a chilly sixty five degrees.

She had to take her sunglasses off, because it was also as dark as a frigging cave. The blinds were not only shut, but no light bled in at the edges, because the windows were covered with dark plastic that he said “cut the glare”. The only illumination was the white glow from two operating computer screens – the third was currently off. Hard drives and what had to be compact servers loomed in the background like miniature skyscrapers, attached to the screens and each other by thick clumps of cables and wires spread out over the carpet like spilled entrails.

Beyond the mammoth desk and its sprawl of machinery, there was little furniture in the front room. He had a plush leather desk chair in front of the monitors, an overstuffed bookcase on one side of the room, a tatty loveseat half covered in crap (magazines and CD-ROM drives, by the look of it), and a lone end table. If he wanted to watch a movie or a show, or listen to music, he did it like he did everything else – online.

“Oh, um … huh,” Shan said, clearly trying hard to remain on his best behavior. He tried to hide his shock as he took a good, long look at the dimly lit room, and crossed his arms over his chest, everything in his body language saying it was killing him not to say something about their surroundings.

As Saj relocked the door, she put her impromptu “bag” on the end table, knocking off some Extreme PC magazines and zip discs, but she was hard pressed to care. “I need you to work fast for me, Saj. I don’t think we were spotted, but I’m gettin’ down to time here.”

“Is this related to the cell numbers I texted you?”

“In fact, it is.” She opened the bundle, and pulled out the jump drive she had gotten from the briefcase, along with a CD -ROM still in its clear plastic case. “I need you to tell me what’s on these, and how they’re relevant to the papers I also found in the case.”

Sajeet came and took the objects with great curiosity, as Shan looked on. “What do the papers say?”

“I don’t know; I haven’t had a chance to read them yet. But I will while you work your magic.”

Saj just grunted humorously, and walked back to his altar of computers, while Shan drifted over for a closer look at the papers. “This was it?” He sounded disappointed, and she couldn’t blame him. “Sure this came from the right case?”

“Pretty sure.”

He scratched his head, sucking in a sharp breath when he accidentally grazed one of his scars, and opined, “This is what you call an anti … umm …”

“Yeah, I’m afraid it is.”

“Maybe not,” Sajeet interjected, already settled in and working at his computers. “These could be nuclear launch codes for all we know.”

Now there was a thought. It would probably explain everything too.

She let Shan help her sift through the documents as Sajeet went to work. After a few seconds, Shan groaned and rubbed his eyes. “Office memos. Oh god, I swear they make me narcoleptic.”

“If you fall asleep, I’ll punch you in the back of the head.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“What are friends for?”

They weren’t just memos but printed out e-mails, all within Osiris, and all referring to something code named “Slipstream”. There were several mentions of a “contract” with a small software company named Arcadia Systems; they had a secret deal with Arcadia to distribute “Slipstream” for them. Shit, was this actually about a interface? She felt like such a twonk.

“This is code,” Sajeet said, confirming her fears. “It looks just like basic … what the hell is that?”

“What the hell is what?” She wondered, as his fingers just flew over his keyboard.

“There’s an aberrant code string,” he told her, studying his screen intently. It looked like a bunch of random numbers and symbols to her, but then again, she was not the tech head. Her work was completely wetware oriented.

“Aberrant how?”

“It looks wrong. Can I network this?”

“Network it to whom?”

“Just Phisherphreak909. He’s on right now, and a white hat. If I ask him to keep this U-2, he will. I trust him.”

She nodded, relatively sure she’d regret it. “Yeah, okay.”

Shan sidled up to her, and whispered, “What the fuck did he just say?”

“He asked me if he could share the info with a hacker friend of his – a “white hat” is a good hacker, one who finds security flaws and lets the people running the show know about it without tattling to everyone else. And U-2 is Saj code for between us – “user to user”.”

“And it’s also a band.”

“And an old style bomber. It’s fun to learn things, inn’t?”

Shan waved the pages he was reading at her, and asked, “What does anything have to do with anything?”

“You can’t want me to spoil the ending for you.”

He gave her an evil look, and she found it hard not to laugh. It wasn’t anything against him, she just found it difficult not to burst out laughing when other people gave her the evil eye; for some reason, she routinely laughed at inappropriate things. That’s probably why she didn’t get invited to a lot of parties. Well, one of the reasons. “What I figure is Osiris has an under the table deal with this Arcadia to distribute something called “Slipstream” for them, presumably ‘cause Osiris legally can’t. But while this is scumbag corporate behavior, it isn’t worth ten thousand dollars, not to mention someone’s life. I‘d be honestly shocked if they even got a slap on the wrist for this.”

“So why the cloak and dagger shit?”

She shrugged, and nodded her head towards Sajeet, a black shadow against the bright flat screen monitor. “He’s gonna have to fill us in on that.”

They waited for Sajeet and his hacker buddy to work their magic, but she still didn’t understand what could possibly be on the jump drive or the CD that would be worth as much as this had already cost.

*****

It seemed ironic to tell the Osiris lackeys to meet her at Caffeine Rush, so she did. Hilda – or whatever the fuck her name was – didn’t want the meet to go down there, and suggested somewhere more private, which set off all kinds of alarm bells. She wasn’t going to pretend to be that stupid; she said Rush or nothing, but to give them a false sense of security, she scheduled the meet at one of the outdoor tables at one in the morning, after Caffeine Rush had closed for the night.

Shan had work, but he said Jamal owed him one (one what? Who knew?), and he could get away from the club by twelve thirty and meet her there. She told him not to bother, but he loved this shit too much to stay away and she knew it.

She showed up at midnight and did a reconnaissance of the area. Not that she was expecting Osiris to actually cough up the dough for a decent sniper, but since she figured out who the thug in the motel room was, she knew it paid to be cautious. And that didn’t even count that Dickeye business – what the fuck had that been about?

Once she was satisfied it was relatively clear, she took a seat with her back to the wall of the coffee shop, and waited, She set up and activated her laptop, taking advantage of Rush’s wi-fi source, and tapped into the DOT camera feeds of the main intersection at the head of Chestnut Street, and the intersection on Elgin Avenue – there were no DOT cameras on Perry Street. But this way, she could see everyone coming before they even reached the same block.

Eventually, a weasel-esque young man in a brown leather car coat came over to her table. He reached of alcohol, pot, and cigarette smoke; she smelled him before she saw him. “Hey baby, what’re you -”

“Keep moving.”

“Senorita, don’t be -”

She opened her coat, so he could see the SIG Sauer she now had in her shoulder holster. “Stakeout, gringo. Walk.”

His beady eyes widened appreciably, and he glanced around quickly, obviously looking for the other cops on the stakeout. He backed away, holding his hands up so they’d know he wasn’t armed. “Chill, babe, chill. I’m goin’ …”

He actually did, and he was the only person that bothered her. This wasn’t a block for drugs and prostitution; that was a couple of blocks South, starting on Columbus Avenue. When the traffic died down, she could almost hear the echo of their solicitations.

She caught sight of a jogging figure – an oddity at this time of night – but the figure was familiar, so she guessed it was Shan before he actually showed up. “Oh good, I’m not late,” he said, panting slightly.

She eyed him warily. He’d obviously come straight from work, as he was dressed in black vinyl pants, and a black muscle t-shirt so tight you could see he had nice pecs and while not exactly six pack abs, at least two or three cans close to it. At least the cap sleeves showed off how muscular his arms were, as well as the bright green and black snake tattoo on his left arm. It looked like it was circling his bicep, biting its own tail; he apparently got it in college, before the “accident”.

At her dubious look, he looked at himself curiously, and asked, “What?”

She shook her head, and decided just to issue orders. She already knew that the boss at his nightclub had asked Shan to wear leather or vinyl, look trendy and as well as tough. (But muscle in vinyl pants?!) “Nothing. I just need you to loom in the background and look mean and discouraging.”

“Act like a bouncer, y’mean? What a stretch.”

“And if someone pulls a weapon, just follow my lead. Only intervene first if it looks like I’m gonna get clobbered.”

“You think someone’s gonna pull a weapon?”

“I scared the shit out of her earlier, so it’s possible.”

“If she had any brains, she’d never meet up with you again.”

“Yeah, well, brains are hard to come by nowadays.”

“I know I lost most of mine.” He flashed her a goofy grin, letting her know he was kidding. Mostly.

It wasn’t long before a black Lexus pulled up slowly to the intersection on Chestnut, and she had a feeling it was just what she was waiting for. After all, a car that nice was never seen this far downtown this late at night, unless they’d taken a wrong turn. Shan took a position several feet to her right, crossing his arms over his chest to emphasize the muscles, and pasted on his best, stern “Don’t even try it, pendejo” frown.

Soon the Lexus purred down the street, as menacing as a shark in the ocean, and pulled up to the curb about ten feet down the street from the café. The fact that they were putting even a slight distance between them made her sure her instincts had been right – this wasn’t going to go well. She quickly dropped the DOT website, and shut her laptop, as three people got out of the sleek, dark car: Hilda, and two tall, burly men in dark suits, muscle that was trying very hard to look corporate, and failing miserably. Now she was glad Shan had come, if only to make the sides seem more balanced.

“Ms. Stark,” Hilda said, giving her a perfunctory nod. She wore a dark pantsuit, perhaps to fit in with Tweedledee and Tweedledumb, who flanked her on either side, staying just two steps behind. They seemed to size up Shan, and Shan, too accustomed to being the authority figure on the door, sized them up without a flicker of emotion. If they wanted to intimidate either of them, they’d have to do better than simply show up and scowl. “You have the briefcase?”

Although it wasn’t actually a question, Z answered it anyways. “Sure do.”

Hilda’s pale eyes studied her, her pale eyebrows raising slightly in puzzlement. “Where is it?”

“Not here. Sorry to drag you out here in the middle of the night, but I wanted you to know if you fuck with me, I fuck with you back. I know what you’re up to, and you’re not getting it back. Thanks for the cash, though.”

Hilda’s eyes turned flinty, and her bald bodyguards deepened their scowls, as if they’d just bitten into lemons. “The briefcase and the contents are ours. You will turn it over now, or you’re not leaving here.”

The thugs fixed their stances, and crossed their arms over their barrel chests, casually slipping at least one hand beneath their coats, probably going for their own weapons. It made Z smirk, doing her best not to laugh. They wanted to make this ugly, did they?

Good. She was counting on that.

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