Troubleshooter – One
by Andrea Speed
Fear did have a smell.
It varied from person to person, like sweat, but usual was acrid, heavy with ammonia and vaguely reminiscent of piss, but never quite that bad. It could be dismissed as body odor if you didn’t know what you were smelling.
But Stark knew. She was more familiar with the scent of fear than she would ever admit.
The man who came into her office stank of fear. He looked like the template for every middle manager who had ever existed: average height, pudgy enough that his rounded belly stretched the material of his button down white shirt, complexion unnaturally pale and blotchy from being under artificial lighting far too long. His hair was thinning at the front, both the color and texture of straw, his eyes so pale they were almost colorless, with only broken red capillaries giving them anything approaching visual interest. His face was so generic, she forgot what he looked like while actually looking at him. That was a real talent.
Mister Bland looked at her, a startled look on his slightly doughy face, then looked around the honestly austere room as if searching for a plaque that read ‘You’re in the wrong office, jackass’, but he was out of luck – she hadn’t put that up yet. “Um, uh,” he began, immediately impressing her with how articulate he was. “Are you, uh, Z. Stark?”
It was one of those moments in life whether the future branched off in two separate directions, and hinged merely on choice of words: yes or no. She really wanted to say no, but then she remembered her last bank statement. “I am.” That’s all she gave him; he wasn’t paying her to help yet.
He stared at her dumbly, and she just waited for him to pick up his loose strands of thought. “Uh, er . I found your card, and I was wondering if you could, uh, help me.”
“What’s your case?” She asked. She gestured to the chair in front of her desk, as he seemed to need the cue to sit down. He followed orders well, and she mentally dubbed him Dog.
He had taken out her business card and dropped it on her desk, in case she questioned his legitimacy. They were stupid things that made her grimace, but they were Alex’s bright idea, before he walked in front of a bullet. Several bullets, actually – talk about bad timing.
The cards were nothing special. Plain old business cards, little rectangles the color of parchment, with bold black type on it.
‘Troubleshooters – No problem too difficult.
Z. Stark and Alex Chang. 22 Center St. 999-555-7821.
No calls before 7am or after 6pm.’
There weren’t that many cards out there, actually; it wasn’t like their business was easily classifiable. They called themselves a private investigators office or a security service, depending on their mood at the time. But they were far more specialized – or, more correctly, she was, since Alex was out of action. Although there were few cards in circulation, they had a knack for ending up in the hands of those that needed them.
“Well, um, see, it’s kinda . um, complicated.”
She had to resist the urge to drum her fingers on her desk. It was an Ikea special – it couldn’t take much abuse before it collapsed like wet cardboard. “What do you need me to do?”
“Uh . find something for me. A briefcase, it was stolen.”
She raised an eyebrow at him. “You are aware this isn’t a lost and found?”
“I know, it’s .If I don’t find the briefcase in forty eight hours, I’m a dead man.”
Exaggeration. But the fear reek suggested it was more than hyperbole. “What happened to your briefcase, Mister ..?”
“Oh, Ward – Andrew Ward. Sorry. My briefcase was taken by, uh . my friend. Roommate. Well, not anymore, but -“
“You can say boyfriend. I don’t care.”
He bobbed his head nervously, a parody of a nod, flop sweat starting to glisten on his wide, pale brow. “Okay, yes. We had a fight and he left while I was at the store, the big drama queen. I mean, it only happened the one time! It was a long business trip and I was as drunk as hell – how was I supposed to know they were filming it for a website?”
She really didn’t need to hear this. “The briefcase, Mr. Ward. What was in it?”
He fidgeted in his hard plastic chair. In spite of his slightly disheveled look, and off the rack navy blue sports coat and matching slacks, the platinum Rolex on his left wrist suggested he had money, or at least knew people who did. That was always a promising sign for a client. “Do I , uh, have to tell you what was in it?”
That was too stupid to deserve a sarcastic retort. “If you wish to hire me, yes.”
He sighed, running a hand through his brittle hair. “Okay, it’s just that . I work in R&D for Osiris.”
“The software company?” Not really a question; she just wanted him to keep talking.
“Yes. See, it was a project . I took two weeks off work, supposedly as a vacation, but really I was working on this new interface.”
“You mean a browser?”
“Basically, yeah. You know the problems Osiris has had with corporate espionage. Last year, there was that whole thing -“
“- with Microtech, yes, I am aware of current events, Mr. Ward. So you chose to work on a sensitive project, in an unsecured location? That doesn’t seem any safer.” Actually, corporate espionage was usually what clients wanted to hire them for, which was endlessly disappointing. They were highly skilled, trained professionals, and it was a waste of their talents to play temps and plant bugs in the boardroom. Still, that’s where the money generally was.
Guilt flashed through his eyes, but his thin lips curved up in an almost defiant grimace, like he was expecting to take this hit and wasn’t going to stand for it. “I did the best I could in a short amount of time. My boss okayed It.”
“But your boyfriend took it. How?”
“It was on a removable hard drive secured in the briefcase. It’s a metal briefcase, and it has a coded lock. There’s no way he could unlock it, so it’s probably safe for now -“
“Until he figures it out, or finds someone who can cut it open.”
He sagged in his chair like he was deflating. “Bryce wouldn’t do that. He couldn’t; he’s really not that smart. He’s an actor.”
“Does he know what’s in the case?”
“Not . exactly.”
“No, no, it’s just that . he knows where I work, and I told him that it was important, what was in the case. But that’s all he knows. Believe me, he wasn’t interested in shop talk.”
She sat forward, clasping her hands together. Underneath the desk, she was trying desperately to suppress the urge to tap her foot. “You are aware my services are not cheap.”
He nodded and reached into his jacket pocket, extracting a worn leather billfold. He pulled out a small wad or bills held together by a rubber band, and placed it on the desk as delicately as if it were a sacrificial offering. She picked it up and thumbed through it. It was eight of those brand new one thousand dollar bills; they were crisp and sharp enough to cut yourself on, still redolent of soy ink. “I can pull more from my 401k if I need to,” he said, pocketing his wallet. “I’m not exactly hurting for cash.”
“So I see.” She opened her top drawer, and withdrew several sheets of paper, casually dropping the stack of money in like it had been an afterthought. She pulled the paper clip off the stack of forms, and slid them across the desk towards him. “You’ll have to fill these out before we can continue, Mr. Ward.”
He looked at them curiously, brow furrowing as he quickly scanned the pages. “What’s all this?”
“Just the standard forms. Yes, you’re hiring me, yes you agree to the standard rate plus expenses, yes you waive the legal right to sue if something goes wrong, or we fail to solve your case satisfactorily. But, understand if we do fail, your money will be refunded, minus the base rate and any expenses accrued in the line of duty.”
“You think it’s possible you won’t solve my case?”
“It’s just legal disclaimer bullshit, Mr. Ward. I assure you we have never left a case unsolved.” Even the one where Chang got filled full of titanium alloy; she finished that case on her own while he was in the emergency room getting his brains shoved back inside his skull. Troubleshooters was good for its word.
“This, uh . this will be kept confidential, won’t it?”
“You get what you pay for.”
He nodded, as if relieved, and she handed him a pen so he could sign, initial, and check boxes where applicable. She honestly hated the forms, but you never knew when you might need them.
And no client ever suspected you were pulling their fingerprints off the pen.
Once he was finished with the forms, she took the forms back and dropped them in the drawer, along with the pen, which she picked up very carefully by the end, so as not to smear or otherwise compromise his prints. “Now, what I need from you is every scrap of information on Bryce, including names and addresses of friends and family, potential aliases he might use, places he has been known to go, places he has mentioned he’d like to go if he could. Make and model of vehicle, license plate if possible, place of employment if applicable, his bank, where he likes to eat, drink, sleep, the type of people he generally hangs out with.”
His eyes widened slightly at that. “Uh, that’s a lot of info.”
“There’s no such thing as a detail that can’t be used,” she lied. Of course there was – most of it would be of little to no use at all. But she was curious if Bryce was a real person.
If he wasn’t, then Ward came well prepared – she had a whole dossier typed up on her portable computer in no time. Bryce Shaw – if he existed – was quite the rowdy boy for an actor-slash-unemployed waiter. In fact, one of the bars Ward mentioned as a hangout for Bryce and his crowd instantly made her suspicious. If Bryce was a real person, then perhaps he wasn’t quite the stupid pretty boy that Ward thought he was.
She waited until Ward was on his way out the door before she dropped the final bombshell. “Mr. Ward – if Bryce stole your briefcase, why didn’t you go to the police?” Yes, he’d take shit from his company, but if his boss did okay such a hair-brained scheme, it was unlikely he’d get fired. Oh, maybe he’d get shunted to a really shitty job until he quit, but then he could sue. It was a win-win situation.
Ward turned slowly, his posture suddenly stiff, his complexion the color of oatmeal. “I really don’t want the police involved in this. I could lose my job, and I really don’t want to get Bryce arrested. He was just angry; I don’t think he really knows what he’s done. You understand, don’t you?”
She nodded, attempted a bland smile. “Of course.”
He smiled back, relieved, and finally left. As soon as the door shut, the smile disappeared from her face.
Man, this guy was so full of shit. He was lying and terrified. But about what? There was enough information here that she could quickly verify the identity of both him and Bryce. If it was a prank, it was an extremely expensive one.
So what he was lying about – if the story was true – was the contents of the briefcase. Surely something illegal, something he couldn’t afford the cops to catch him with. Drugs? No, probably not. If he had a suitcase full of drugs, he’d probably have an entourage capable of tracking Bryce down and rendering him little more than a smear on the pavement.
Whatever was in that case, he was honestly afraid it would be the death of him, one way or another. She supposed she’d have to find the damn thing and pop it open herself, if only to see what was really going on here.
He was just lucky she really had nothing better to do.