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The Dead Reckoner : Volume Two: Urban Ungerground

This is a work of fiction.  Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to any actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2015 by Peter Sargent

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.

 

THE DEAD RECKONER

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Part Two: Urban Underground

 

“Know thyself.” Rosetta said as she walked across the log, keeping her arms outstretched to maintain balance. “It’s kind of nonsense, Sam, don’t you think? You go to all that work and what it does for you is leave to someone else the job of making you a fool.”

“I guess so.” said Sam.

He didn’t try to cross the stream. It was narrow and not very deep, but it was full of sharp rocks. Instead he stood on the bank, tossing pebbles and watching them disappear down the toothy runnels and miniature waterfalls.

He said, “Isn’t it worth at least something if you’re a better person?”

“Now how does that make you a better person?” As she said this she stopped in the middle of the trunk and leaned her head over. Now she was showing off. “So you can know how you’re going to screw up instead of surprising yourself? What good is that?”

- Manoah’s Regret, by John Smith

THIRTEEN

Jason wasn’t yet out of diapers before the day his father died. The previous evening, Ruth was sitting at a computer in the Brighton police office, glancing now and then at an earring to see who might take it. The gold colored jewelery was on a table in the nearby break room. Ruth, a uniformed officer in those days, was nearing the end of her shift. She needed to make a copy of a file before she left. As she searched for it, she hoped that some woman might come by and claim the bait she had left in the next room.

These two goals for her evening left her with two problems. First, the file was missing. Second, no one had even noticed the earring. Then she saw a young, pretty woman enter the break room. It was June, one of the evidence vault clerks. She poured herself a cup of coffee without so much as a glance at the table. Another fail. Ruth figured that perhaps June could help with the first problem instead. It was June’s job, after all, to upload these files. Ruth called her over.

“Sergeant Keller wanted me to help transcribe some audio.” said Ruth. “I can’t find the file.”

“Oh, you mean the Yancy tape?” said June.

Everyone still called them tapes, even though they were just digital files now.

“You know about it then?” said Ruth.

“Sure.” June said. “Everyone’s talking about it. Your man’s a hero.”

“I know.”

“You could sound a little prouder. I mean, I know luck had something to do with it too. If Frank didn’t look so much like Yancy’s book man it wouldn’t have worked. But it still takes brass balls to walk in there pretending to be the book man and pull it off.”

“Well, the audio’s not here.”

“Let me see.”

June leaned over and entered a search, as if Ruth wouldn’t have done the same thing herself. Ruth noticed a strong perfume on her younger colleague. She was pretty sure it was a Victoria’s Secret fragrance. It was very odd for the workplace, especially one such as this. Ruth knew, however, that June had a reputation.

“You’re right.” said June. “Maybe I didn’t upload it. Let’s go find the original.”

She went off and Ruth followed. On their way they passed through the break room and Ruth snatched the earring. They went down to the basement and found themselves in the evidence vault. It was a tight space, with little clearance between the high density shelving and the walls. June spun the wheel to make the shelves ride down the track and open a space between the two of interest. She looked inside for the flash card containing Ruth’s evidence, but found nothing. Ruth joined her in between the shelves and pulled out a couple more trays around the spot where the flash should’ve been, just in case. It wasn’t there.

Ruth checked the logs and saw something very disturbing. Someone had checked out the evidence. She had checked out the evidence, according to the log. It wasn’t the sort of thing one could fake with ease. It wasn’t a matter of forging a signature, but a matter of entering a PIN. Someone who knew her PIN had used it to take the audio recording.

Ruth called for June.

“Did Frank come down here earlier?”

“Yeah, why?” came June’s voice from behind the shelves.

“About what time?”

There was silence. After a few moments she appeared before Ruth with one hand on her hips.

She smiled and said, “I heard he was at James’ stag party tonight. Jealous?”

“What does that have to do with my question?”

“Do you ever smile, Officer Holland?”

“You should see me at parties.” said Ruth. “I break them up.”

The younger woman chuckled and let the arm on her hip go slack.

“He was here around quarter of four I think.” she said.

Ruth didn’t like that answer. It matched the time in the log. Her husband, Frank Holland, another cop, had come down here and entered her PIN to obtain Keller’s evidence.

“June, did he take the Yancy tape?”

“I would’ve told you if I knew that.”

“June?”

“What is it, Ruth?”

Ruth squeezed the fist that held the earring. What she wanted to do was bring that fist right up to June’s face and open her fingers. She wanted to confront this woman with the gaudy little stud and ask her – what? What exactly? As she felt the edges of the thing bite into her fingers she realized that she was going about this in the wrong way. She was angry at Frank and she still believed he was hiding something, but confronting this little waif wasn’t going to get her anywhere.

The officer breathed. She met June’s eyes and then she spoke.

“June. Do you know anything about the women Frank met while undercover?”

“I see how it is.”

“Word gets around to you somehow about things.”

“I have heard rumors.”

“Such as?”

June smiled and turned her back on Ruth, walking back up the stairs.

She said, “If I knew more than that, I would’ve told you already.”

At the end of her shift, Ruth drove her squad car home and walked onto the porch. There were three doors, each leading to one of the three apartments in this building. She unlocked the one on the far left and went upstairs. She found her father sleeping on the couch. The TV was on. He awoke when she entered and stood to great her.

“Frank went to the party.” he said.

“Jason’s asleep?”

“Yeah,” said Dad. “But he had a hell of a time getting there; just tossing and turning. I swear he’s like the princess and the pea.” Her dad put his hands on her shoulders and adopted a more serious tone. “Are you sure about Frank?”

“That’s a broad question, Dad.”

“I get the feeling he’s up to something. Are you sure he’s at that bachelor party?”

“If there’s a party, I’m sure he’s there.” said Ruth. “And I know there’s a party.”

“Interesting answer.”

“Dad, I’m really tired.”

“Sorry.” He said, sitting down again. “Let me just finish this show and I’ll head home.”

Within a few minutes, Ruth’s dad was asleep again. Ruth went in to check on Jason and saw something out the window. A black Dodge Ram pickup parked by the curb. She left the room and hurried down the stairs. She looked through the peephole in the door and saw the Ram’s driver climbing out of his truck. He was a big guy, thick in his gut and limbs. He wore a vest with lots of pockets and under that he wore a flannel. Ruth couldn’t see his face because he wore a fishing hat with a wide brim and his head was turned down.

Then he removed the hast as he approached the door and Ruth saw who it was. She reached for her phone and started to dial.

“I wouldn’t call your colleagues.” came the voice through the door. “You will regret it.”

He unbuttoned one of the pockets on his vest and pulled out a camera. After selecting an image, he held the screen up for her to see. There was Frank and his buddies walking under a sign reading “Centerfolds.”

The man said, “I know who your husband is and I know where he is.”

Ruth opened the door.

“Hello Mr. Yancy.” she said.

She lifted her shirt a few inches on one side, revealing the service weapon next to her hip.

“I’m not alone either.” said Ruth. “My dad’s upstairs and he’s a retired cop.”

“I have something for you.” said Yancy.

With his free hand he reached into another of his vest pockets. When he pulled the hand out, it was closed into a fist. Yancy held the fist in front of Ruth and opened it. A gold colored earring rested in the palm of his hand.

He said, “Frank is in the habit of losing things. I thought I’d return this.”

“It’s not mine.”

“No. And that’s your problem. It’s my problem too, as it turns out.”

“Who’s is that?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know.” Yancy offered Ruth the earring, but when she didn’t move he closed his fist and said, “But I’m not that generous.”

“Then why are you here?”

“As you’ve figured out by now, I know who your husband is. I know he spent a few months pretending to be my book man.” Yancy tipped his head and grinned. “I’m not so stupid. Your people, on the other hand, were all so pleased with themselves they failed to consider this simple fact. They must have known that the man Frank Holland was trying to impersonate was my step brother. Did your friends really think they’d fooled me?”

“I suppose they did.”

“I discovered Frank on the first day. I offered to play along in exchange for something.”

“What was that?” said Ruth.

“Your son is upstairs?” he said, with a tilt of his chin.

Ruth backed away and slipped her fingers on her pistol grip. She slid it out of her waist band and held it by her side. Yancy responded with two open, outstretched hands.

He said, “If I was going to harm Jason I wouldn’t do it while you were around.”

“I don’t even want to hear you threaten to harm him.”

“Too late.” he said. “You should also know that my deal with Frank came with some other stipulations and rewards. Obviously, I wasn’t going to play along with the game if it meant I was going to become a victim. For me, the point was to redirect the department’s attention away from me and towards your Sergeant Keller.”

“Keller?” said Ruth. “Why Keller?”

“Oh, he’s been working for me for ages. But I tire of him. I recognized immediately that Frank Holland was so much better for the job. So I offered him the job and he took it. As a bonus he got to bust Keller, become a hero and get a promotion at his day job. Everyone’s a winner.”

“Except Sergeant Keller.”

“Honestly, do you think he was ever going to be a winner?”

Ruth shrugged. “What’s the job?”

Yancy held up the hand with the earring again. He opened it so that she could see it once more.

“The girls.” he said.

“The girls?”

“That’s his job. The girls.”

“What girls?”

“Ask Frank.” said Yancy. “My purpose here tonight is to warn you that Frank can’t get too close to the girls. His job is to handle them, not romance them. I don’t ever want to see this sort of thing happen again.”

Yancy put the earring back in his pocket. He tapped the screen on the camera a few times and turned it around again so that Ruth could see a new photo. It was a family of five in their living room. They were gathered around the TV, the parents sprawled on the floor with their throats slit. The children were on the couch and positioned with their feet against the back and their heads hanging upside down over the cushions, the way some kids watch TV. Their necks were also opened. Their heads looked as though they might drop off and roll away. Though their faces were hammered in, Yancy had left their jaws intact. A wilted pink tulip rested in each mouth.

He said, “People who don’t do what they’re told pay the price.”

Ruth was silent.

Yancy turned his back to her and walked away.

“Tell him to stay away from the girls.”

He climbed back into his truck and drove away. Ruth stood in the open door for a minute. Then she stormed back upstairs, past her sleeping father, and into Jason’s room. She wrapped Jason up and lifted him onto her shoulder. The baby boy yelped a little on the way up but settled once he felt his mother’s presence. Ruth peered out the door. Jason hadn’t woken his grandfather. Ruth took the spare car seat from the closet and left the apartment. Several adjacent multifamily homes shared a lot in the back and that is where Ruth kept her cruiser. She set Jason down in the front passenger seat while strapping his car seat in. Once they were both secured in the car, Ruth turned the ignition and sucked in a deep breath. She looked through the cage wire and saw the back of her son’s car seat.

Here goes nothing.

When she turned her head to the front again, Dad was standing there. He came around to the driver’s side window. Ruth put it down. Though the man wore sweats and no shoes, his expression and stance gave him all the authority of an officer about to ask for her license and registration.

He said, “What’s going on?”

“Maybe I’m going a little crazy, Dad.”

“Where are you going?” With that tone, he might as well have added, young lady.

“To find Frank.”

“Why?”

Ruth put the car into reverse and pulled away, saying, “I can’t tell you that.”

A few minutes later she showed up in front of Centerfolds. She noticed the startled expressions on the men waiting out front as an unkempt woman in jeans and a black button up shirt climbed out of a cop car. In particular, there was a doughy village idiot type who wore his bangs greased to his forehead and did nothing to hide an open stare. The others at least pretended to look away until she pulled the baby out.

Ruth walked up to the bouncer and flashed her badge. He hesitated and she showed him where the gun was stowed. The big guy opened his arms and shrugged, letting her by. As Ruth passed the marshmallow man, he tapped her on the shoulder.

“Are you one of the acts?”

One of his buddies punched him in the gut. Ruth moved on. She surveyed the room for any of the guys she knew. She looked at all the male faces that were fixed on the female bodies on stage and thought to herself, god they all look the same when they have that expression. Near the back of the room she saw her rookie trainee, Luke. He didn’t notice her. Coolie was watching the stage. He wasn’t wide eyed and slack jawed. Rather, he was leaning back with one leg crossed over the other and a drink poised on his knee. This kid, not more than twenty five, was taking in the scene like he owned every girl up there.

His demeanor changed when Ruth came close enough for him notice. He stood up, almost tipping his glass over as he did so. Ruth didn’t give him a chance to say anything.

“Where’s Frank?” she said.

“What did he do?”

“Where is he, Coolie?”

“I don’t know, in the bathroom maybe? I mean, it’s not my job to watch him.”

“None of this bros before hos BS.” she said. “Where. Is. Frank?”

“He’s in one of the back rooms.”

“What?” When Luke began to answer, she leaned in and said, “With a girl?

Luke shrugged and shook his head. “I saw him go back there a few minutes ago with James, so you know it was probably a thing for him – I mean James. He’s the man of the hour, after all.”

“And they went with a girl?”

“Well,”

“Don’t lie.”

“I think so.”

Ruth left Coolie standing there. She passed through a black curtain, baby still slung over one shoulder, walking down the hall and yelling for her husband. Near the end a door opened on the dim corridor. It cast a triangle of light into the space. Frank stuck his head out.

“Ruth?”

She ran up to him.

“Look at this.” she said, patting her sleeping child on the back. “You’re hurting him, not me.”

“What are you doing here with Jason?”

Ruth stormed into the room, so blind with fury that she didn’t see who else was inside.

She said, “You’re a cop, the same as me. Stand up like one. This ends, or we do.”

Another voice spoke to her, “Ruth?”

She turned and saw James, the man of the hour as Coolie had called him. He was yet another cop. James didn’t look like he was having a good time. His eyes were red as though he’d been crying. There was a woman in there too, just as Luke had reported. She was wrapped in a white robe and her face sparkled with glitter. Her purple eye shadow was smudged down her cheek. She too had been crying.

“What?” said Ruth. “What in the hell?”

“Is this your wife?” said the girl to Frank. “And your kid?”

Frank nodded. The dancer stood and came over to Ruth.

She said, “You know this guy is something else. Come here.”

The girl closed the door and drew Ruth over to a red couch, where they sat.

“My name is Kathy.” she said. “Or Majestic. Take your pick. Jimmy and I used to date. Frank tells me Jimmy came here for his bachelor party because he wanted to see me one last time before tying the knot. He wanted to make sure he was doing the right thing; not that I have an interest in him any more.”

Frank said, “I didn’t know until James went a little berserk.”

The other man was staring at his shoes as Frank said this. He looked like he was praying. Then he lifted his head and met Ruth’s eyes with his own sorry pair before returning his gaze to the carpet.

“So I rented a room and asked Kathy to come back.” said Ruth’s husband.

Kathy was quick to add, “He wanted me to help talk him out of it.”

“Not out of the wedding.” said Frank.

“Yeah.” said Kathy, with a dirty look. “Out of his funk. Jimmy needs to go through with it.”

Ruth stood, waved a dismissive hand at the woman, and closed the distance between her and her husband. With her free hand she pulled the earring from her pocket and showed it to him. Before either of them could say anything about it, Majestic barged in between the two of them and snatched it away.

“That’s mine!” she said. “Where did you get this? Do you have the other one?”

“That one was with Frank’s things.” said Ruth. “Yancy has the other one.”

“What?” said Kathy. “Why?”

“Kathy.” said Frank. “You need to leave now.”

Ruth said to her, “Do you know Yancy?”

“Not really.” said the dancer. “I work for him, but I don’t know him.”

“You should leave.” said Frank. “Please, take James and go. Party’s over.”

“Sure.” she said. “Come on, Jimmy.”

Majestic tugged on the seated man’s sleeve. He stood and followed her as she left.

At the door she said to Ruth, “I don’t know what trouble he’s in, but for what it’s worth I think your guy did a great thing tonight. He saved a marriage and that’s saying something.” She turned to Frank and said, “You only have the room for a few more minutes.”

When the other two were gone, Frank become more belligerent.

“You brought our son here because you thought I was sleeping around?”

“You’re doing more than that as I understand it.”

“Did he threaten Jason?”

“In so many words, yes.” said Ruth. “He knows you’re not his brother. You work for him.”

“Ok.” Frank sat down on the red couch. “Fine, so I do security sometimes.”

“Where?”

“Here. At the club. You heard Kathy; he owns this place. It’s legit, even if Yancy isn’t.”

“Why not tell me then?”

“Come on, Ruth.” said Frank. “Would you have agreed to this? But I have no choice. Our son is going to need a lot of help as he gets older and someone’s got to pay those bills. Don’t talk to me about the state programs. Our son deserves better.”

“Don’t pretend to be a hero.” said Ruth. “Yancy said stay away from the girls.”

“And you think the girls are the real reason I’m here?”

“Yeah Frank I do. That and the chance to put the knife in Sergeant Keller.”

“Right!” He stood up as if struck by a revelation. “So you know. For years that man has been on the take with this mobster, and we have a chance to get him what he deserves.”

“You’re on the take with a mobster.” said Ruth.

“Oh it’s nothing like what Keller does. All I do is look after the dancers. And besides, I already told you why I do it.” He reached for his son and Ruth backed away. “I have a reason. Keller has no family. He has no friends that I know of. What’s in it for him besides simple greed?”

Ruth said, “What about the earring?”

Her husband switched his voice to an “are you stupid?” tone that made her want to taser him.

“How do you think?” he said. “The dancers change costumes all the time. I stay close to them. Sometimes, their stuff falls in with mine.”

“Yancy seemed pretty sure.”

“Well,”

“Frank.” said Ruth. “Yancy wants to kill you. And if he doesn’t I just might.”

“You’re not going to listen to anything I have to say, are you?”

“Get yourself out of this mess.” said Ruth. “I could pack my bags and leave tonight.”

“Ok, Ruth. I will think about it.”

“Think hard, Frank.”

She left the room. She walked back through the dark hall and pushed aside the black curtain. She carried her baby through the club and back onto the street. The idiot and his friends were still out there, but this time they let her go without so much as acknowledging her presence. A few minutes later, Jason and Ruth were home. Her father was no longer on the couch. She figured he had gone back home. Ruth put Jason back in his crib.

The baby tossed a bit and begun to fuss. Ruth remembered her father’s comment about the princess and the pea. She picked Jason up again and pulled the layers of blankets off the bottom of his bed. Under the last one there was a small plastic square. It was a flash memory card. Her first thought was, this is the missing recording. Frank had forged her name to check it out of the evidence vault and hide it here. Ruth put the blankets back and put Jason down. He sorted himself out and went back to sleep.

Ruth slipped the card into her computer and put the headphones on.

Yancy’s voice said, “You’ve done well. I have another job for you.”

“What kind of job?” said Frank.

“Well, same kind of job. A security detail. But this time it’s not at the club.”

“You want me in on the show?”

“I do.” said Yancy. “I have a shipment at the Allston rail yards tomorrow morning.”

Ruth stopped the playback. She told herself that it was possible that Frank hadn’t accepted the offer. After all, she was not the first person to hear this recording. Sergeant Keller had asked her to transcribe it. If he’d already heard these details, wouldn’t he have taken action against Frank? The only way her husband could have accepted this offer and still be walking free to attend stag parties is if he had gone even deeper undercover. There was always the possibility that Keller and the department leadership had known all along that Yancy would figure out that Frank wasn’t who he said he was and use that as leverage to draw him in. This could open up new and more significant lines of investigation, such as what was going on at the Allston rail yards tomorrow morning.

And yet, if that was so, why would Keller give her the task of transcribing this meeting without telling her about its contents before hand? She concluded that it was because what Yancy and Frank said was true. Keller was on the take. Yancy wasn’t turning Keller over in favor of Frank, he was using both men to exact revenge on the department. At the door he’d said that he’d offered Frank the opportunity to catch a crooked cop and look like a hero. Perhaps he’d made the same offer to Keller and set up this meeting for Keller to record. This would be consistent with the sergeant giving Ruth the tape. The man did have a sadistic side, after all.

For Yancy, there was always another twist. Having used Keller to dispose of Frank, he would use information Frank had gathered to expose Keller. They would both catch fire and the entire department would find itself distracted and hog tied by the ensuring controversy. That would of course mean that the event at the rail yard was a ruse.

Ruth couldn’t take all the speculation. Today had been long enough without her working out every possibility. She’d had enough and it was time to sleep. She slept without finishing the recording, only to awake a few hours later. She didn’t know why she bolted out of bed. There was no sound or light. All she had was the sense that someone was in the room with her. Ruth reached for her sidearm and turned on the nightstand lamp. There was Frank, sitting in the half light at the end of the bed. The part of his face she could see was bruised. He wore a brace over his nose.

He said, “I just got back from the ER. Your dad isn’t always a nice guy.”

“He must have followed me.” she said. “I suppose you filed charges?”

“No.”

He stood and went to the bathroom. He sat on the toilet and his phone rang.

“Yeah.” he said. “I’ll be there.”

Frank hung up. He stood and flushed.

“Was that Yancy?” said Ruth.

“Take a look for yourself.”

He came up close to where she lay in the bed and handed her the phone. She pulled up the call history and saw the photo of the person to whom Frank had just been speaking.

“Majestic.” she said.

“You were right.” said Frank. “There’s nothing more to this.”

“What is she, your girlfriend?”

“I don’t know. I’m sorry Ruth. I’ll understand if you want me to go.”

“No.” she shook her head. “That can’t be all this is about. There’s more to it than an affair.”

“There is nothing else. Look.”

He sat down next to her and scrolled through the rest of his call history. There were dozens of women in there. Several of them were faces she’d seen on stage at Centerfolds.

Ruth said, “All of them?”

Frank’s voice was very quiet when he said, “I’m impulsive. You know that.”

She tried a chuckle. “I don’t believe they’d all sleep with you.”

“Only a few did, but I got somewhere with most of them.”

“Frank-”

“I’m going now.”

He walked out the door and was gone. She didn’t chase after him. Instead, she pulled out her computer again and listened to the rest of the recording. Frank agreed to the job. It was in just a few hours. There was, however, something strange about the sound. She heard something in the background. It was a man’s voice, but she couldn’t make out the words. Ruth played the file through her enhancement software. After trying a digital few knobs, she managed to get a decent lift.

The voice seemed to be saying, “Make sure you substitute the manifests.”

She didn’t think much about the words at first. She was occupied more with the speaker. It was Sergeant Keller. He had been there with Frank and Yancy and who knows else. Then her thoughts turned to the words. Substitute the manifests? The manifests for what? He could’ve been talking about freight manifests. He could’ve been talking about the rail yard.

Ruth listened to a little more and the story cleared up. Keller’s background conversation was indeed about the freight manifests at the Allston rail yard. It was happening. It was real. Whether or not Frank had been cheating on her, there was more to it than that. Ruth looked at the clock on her computer. It was happening in a few short hours. She set an alarm and put her head down, but that was no use. She didn’t sleep at all.

The next day she saw him for the last time, collapsing in frames made by the gaps between moving train cars, like a flip book of a man getting hist chest blown out of him. A part of her had expected it to end that way. What she hadn’t expected was what was in the truck behind those rail cars. Nothing in her life had prepared her for that.

FOURTEEN

Mel Price sat in the service vehicle level of the parking garage under the Atlantic Mall, waiting for John Smith and his van to arrive. He was enclosed in a security booth and reading messages from Bethany on his cell. They were very hot. Bethany might not lost, but right now she was the best thing that had every happened to him. She was his practice run, an exercise in ego boosting on his way out of the service vehicle level.

Mel glanced up for a moment to see if Tommy, his shift partner, had run off. There were two entrance lanes, one for pass holders and one for stopping and search vehicles. That didn’t have a pass. That standard black and red striped gate and tire teeth stood watch at these approaches. Beyond that was a small office. The windows were large and the darkness in the garage made the space glow a little. Tommy was there, dressed in his gray jumpsuit, combat boots and square hat. He tried to keep the rifle strapped to his back from shifting as he popped a cup onto the instant coffee machine and talked up the woman who restocked the refreshments and emptied the garbage.

Price checked the delivery schedule. The van from Judge Network Solution was due to arrive soon. He switched his phone to intercom mode and spoke.

“Tommy get in here.”

The other guard jumped and splashed coffee on his boots. As the woman with him didn’t already find it threatening that a well armed man of six foot two was leaning over her in a lonely, cramped room five stories below ground, she jumped away at the sound as if under attack. She wheeled her trash bin in front of her and back through the exit.

Mel found it amusing because neither he nor Tommy were much of a threat to anyone. In these days of the war on terror and mass shootings at schools, the pressure to populate the world with both more and fewer weapons. People needed more menacing security to feel safe and better regulation. The new rules stretched up and down the spectrum, from Semtex to Glocks. That didn’t make it impossible or even hard for a place like the Atlantic Mall to fortify its access points, because uniformed personnel got more than exception. They were encouraged to carry ever bigger deterrents. However, such expectations levied unforgiving amounts of liability on corporations should one of their soldiers of fortune waste the wrong guy. Driven by the relentless desire to optimize their bottom line, it didn’t take long for those corporations to realize that theater mattered more than reality. Besides, would a clock watching mercenary like Mel Price put his life on the line for his faceless employer? Certainly not, which is why their weapons weren’t even real. Should someone drive in their garage with a bomb, they would be the first to run.

Price didn’t like his job. He’d been looking for alternatives when he got an email from Polymath, a company in the very building he and Tommy guarded. He used to be like Tommy, before the Sorter straightened him out. Polymath offered him a free trial. They said they wanted to gather data to improve their algorithms and in turn he would reap the benefits of the technology. It was well worth it. He got right to work on fixing his love life. He just answered a few questions and the next thing he knew he was sleeping with another participant of the free trial. That was Bethany; she of the dirty messages on his cell phone. That was when Mel turned to the Sorter for career advice.

Tommy walked up to the booth and pounded on the door. Mel buzzed him in. The other guard flipped him off and grabbed his boots, which were resting on of the only other seat in the room. Tommy pointed at the phone.

“You can’t watch stuff like that at work.”

Mel shrugged an slipped the phone in his pocket, saying, “Your first problem is that you have an angry face. When that cute janitor looks in your eyes, she sees the hate you have for every woman that’s turned you down. She knows you blame her when she does the same.”

“I’m a nice guy. She see that if she gave me a chance.”

“A nice guy?” said Price. “Seriously?”

“Shouldn’t that be enough.”

“Not nearly, Hulkster. You say you’re a ice guy as though you want an award for masteing a skill that ought to be a standard feature for every human. Was you forth grade teacher hot? Is that why you equate sex with a gold sticker for good behavior?”

Tommy gave Mel a stupid look. It was that cave man grimace that was starting to make Mel think that maybe he was cut out for better stuff after all. The Sorter had told him he wasn’t stupid. And he wasn’t stupid, not even a little. After he nailed his romantic problems right to the wall, he was bound to believe it. Some day he’d have an opportunity to prove it, but maybe that wasn’t today.

He said, “We’ve got a van on the schedule. Oh look, there it is.”

Tommy looked at the approaching van and said, “Great. It’s a plain white van. A tear down search will lift my spirits.”

“Be nice.” said Price.

“And ruin my day?”

FIFTEEN

Marianne walked down the balcony overlooking the Atlantic Mall’s lobby. She stopped before the big letters that read POLYMATH and checked her phone once more. Dale hadn’t returned her call. He had been on the ground before her. He must have gotten it. Dale never failed to return her calls. That he had failed to do so this time it meant only one thing. He was furious with her. She looked up at the doors leading to her destination. She was sure Dale was in there somewhere, waiting for her. It was bad enough that she was on the front line of this search and destroy mission, and so much worse to go into it with a partner who may or may not be ready to toss her to the wolves.

She took a breath and charged in.

Something was wrong.

The place was deserted. She stood in a vestibule that reminded her of a dentist’s waiting room. There was a large, but abandoned, desk and an array of plants and empty chairs. A fish tank with alternating lighting was mounted to one wall and a gigantic video screen was mounted to the other. The screen worked through a silent montage of data and charts regarding Polymath and its signature product.

Her phone rang. It wasn’t Dale. It was the hospital.

“You should come when you can.” The doctor was saying. “Your mother doesn’t have long.”

She should have turned and left. It would’ve been an easy way to avoid Dale. Then again, he might assume she had left for different reasons. Perhaps if she saw him and explained what was going on with her mother, she could bring back his sympathy. He would certainly forgive her, even if she left him alone to do this job.

Marianne told the doctor she would come as soon as she could and stepped through the inner doors to the main office. She found herself in a quiet hallway with enclosed window offices on one side and a half-height wall on the other. It reminded her of the wall between her living room and her kitchenette, where she’d last seen her mother. At the end of the hall was a door with a window that looked into some sort of electronics workroom. She wondered if that was the gateway to this wonderful technology she’d lost so much sleep over. The thought of it made her shiver.

Besides its eerie silence, there was something else strange about this room. There was a blue light in the ceiling. It flashed. Two seconds on, two seconds off. Marianne stared at it and tried to sort through the queasy disquiet that was developing in her gut.

Wrong, she thought, this is wrong. Just go.

She turned her head and screamed. There was a woman standing next to her. That woman had not been there before. She couldn’t have crept up on her from anywhere. It was as though she had just appeared.

The woman said, “My name is Cass.”

“Marianne Madora, from Blue Water Private Capital.”

Cass didn’t shake Marianne’s hand when offered. She turned and motioned her to follow.

She said, “You can wait in the conference room.”

“Where is everyone?”

“You’ll have to ask Mr. Binder. He’ll be with you shortly.”

Cass escorted her through a common area and a row of cubicles before reaching a large conference room at the end of the office suite. The wall facing the cubicles was made entirely of glass, with opened blinds along the length of it. Marianne sat and Cass left. A moment later a human mannequin walked in the door. Reginald Binder.

Not a hair on his gray head was out of place. It’s perfect symmetry matched that of his face. He wore nondescript khakis and a blue blazer. None of these things were his strangest feature. Rather, that was his shoeless feat. Marianne had been in plenty of offices where the normal attire included flip flops or even bare feet, but on Binder those socks without shoes looked out of place.

So far, Marianne had been out of luck in her search for a sign that she hadn’t entered a strange and dangerous place. Instead, she’d gotten deserted rooms, an ominous blue light, a ghost receptionist and a catalog cutout with no shoes. She could add onto that her suspicions that Binder was not right in the head.

“Good morning, Mr. Binder.” said Marianne. “The place seems a little quiet today.”

“I sent most of my staff home.” he said.

That didn’t help things.

Reggie placed his hands on his hips, pushing back his blazer and revealing a curved pistol handle. What? Thought Marianne, Is that a gun? She’d never seen a pistol in person before. She’d seen plenty of hunting rifles in her day, but never a handgun. Now she was in room with one snuggled under the belt of a soulless narcissist. It terrified her more than she ever thought it could.

“Marianne.” said Reggie. “I want to show you some things that I hope you can explain.”

There was a manila folder sitting on the table. He opened it and removed a single page.

Binder said, “ This is a hard copy of an article I came across this morning. A blogger of some sort approached me on the train into work this morning so that he could ask me my opinion about my partners. This journalist, if you can call him that, was under the belief that a mutiny was under way at this company.”

The man had been standing and now he sat. He folded his arms across her chest and watched her. Marianne said nothing. She waited for him to speak again.

“Ok.” he said. “I’ll continue. This man could be a trouble maker or delsional. God knows there are more of those than there are useful people in the world. There is one piece of evidence, however, the stands out.” Reggie pointed at a quote on the page, about half way down. “He claims this exerpt was written by Rosalind Munro. In it she discusses her frustration with my leadership and assures the recipient that she will follow through with her plan to oust me from my own company.”

Binder subjected her once more to the silent stare and she waited him out.

After a minute he said, “I can confirm the authenticity of this email if I can identify the recipient. Would you happen to know who that is?”

“Why don’t you ask Rosalind?”

“I’m asking you.”

“I don’t know.”

Reggie nodded. “Don’t be so detached. If this story is true then it is not my problem alone. Rosalind’s duplicity is a threat to both of us.”

He stood again and put his hands on his hips again, flashing the but of his pistol.

Binder said, “That is true whether you are involved or not.”

SIXTEEN

“Are you okay now?” said John.

He was driving down Atlantic Avenue and past the public facade of the Atlantic Mall. There was semi-circular taxi stand and valet drive bending away from the street. Beyond that, the glass wall. It was curved and slanted toward the base of the tower above. Then John turned right down a little alley toward the entrance to the subterranean garage. The mall was on his right and a couple smaller buildings were on his left. Through the gaps he saw the marina. He caught a glimpse of what looked like two men in fist fight on the deck of a boat. He thought about backing up to get another look but then Jason answered his question.

“I’m okay.” he said. “Why wouldn’t I be okay?”

“You were sitting on the ground rocking back and forth. I thought I heard you humming.”

“I do that when I’m bored.”

“So you’re really okay?”

“Are you going to do something?” said Jason. “This is the place that took Alice away.”

“I’m going to do my job. We’ll see what happens after that.”

John pulled his truck into the parking garage and went all the way down to the service level. He was surprised to seen and armed guard at the gate. This guy wasn’t carrying a sidearm. He had an assault rifled slung over his shoulder. It seemed like these operations were everywhere lately. Everyone was afraid that a random madman might blow them at at any moment.

“It’s not real.” said Jason.

“Looks real enough.”

“It’s just for show. That’s what my mom says.”

“I don’t care.” said John. “Shut up until we’re through this.”

“You used to be nice to me. What happened?”

What happened is that the entire legal system, which seemed poised to give itself up to the machine clicking away several stories above him, had decided he was a threat to his sister. After all these years of caring for her they just changed their minds.

The guard stopped them at the gate and John rolled down the window. The guard, who’s name tag read Thomas Wright, was enormous and mean looking. That put John a little on edge, but what did he have to worry about? He had paperwork for everything. He pulled out a folder and handed it through the window. Thomas Wright flipped through it and tossed it back.

“Okay, Mr. Smith.” he said. “Could you open the rear doors?”

“Why? Is there something wrong with the paperwork?”

“Everything’s fine. I just need to search the back.”

“You didn’t even read the papers.”

“Sir.”

“Fine; just don’t make me late.”

John told Jason to stay put and hopped out. He went around back and opened the doors.

The guard shook his head and said, “I don’t know about that.”

Okay. John could see there was going to be a problem. He had his paperwork. Everything was in order. And yet somehow the system was gnawing on him again. He wished he had his bat. Or maybe a sub-machine gun. John closed his hand into a fist and opened it again. Then he noticed another guard leaving the booth. If this was going to be a fight, it wasn’t to be one he could win. Even if the gun’s weren’t real, he wasn’t close to being evenly matched here.

The other jack boot, whose name tag read Malcolm Price, came over and asked what the matter was. His partner, Sasquatch, pointed inside the truck. The head of the other guard and John moved together. The big man was pointing at the fire safe with the hazard label.

He said, “Can you open that?”

“How about I open your head?”

“Really?” said Malcolm Price. “Is it so hard just to show the man what he wants?”

“They must teach you something in rental cop school.” said John. “You don’t open things with hazard labels unless it’s the right conditions. You should know that even if you dropped out before the eight grade. Besides, there some very expensive equipment in there that you will ruin if I open that here.”

Price raised an eyebrow at his buddy.

“Well, Tommy…” he said. “Do you think a terrorist would put a label on his bomb?”

“Maybe.” said Wright.

“And the guy’s got a kid with him too.”

“A kid?” He said as he walked around to the side door.

Price said, “Have you no powers of observation at all?”

John ran up behind big Tommy, shouting, “Leave the kid alone!”

“Guys, this is nothing to fight over.” said Malcolm.

Tommy said, “He’s hiding something.”

“Does he have paperwork for this thing?”

Tommy stopped. He looked at John. Then he looked at Malcolm and said, “I didn’t check.”

Price looked at John, saying, “Well, do you?”

John wasn’t sure. He didn’t have a clue what was in any of the forms he’d handed to Thomas Wright. He’d just picked them up before leaving and followed instructions. Impatient to get out of this, he nodded. Price came closer.

“That right.” he said. “You do, don’t you?”

John said, “Yes.” He paused. “I do. Okay?”

To Tommy, Price said, “Check the papers again if you want, but he’s telling the truth.”

“What’s wrong with you?” said the other guard. “You think you’re shrink now?”

John watched Price pull out a cell phone and load up a picture of a blond woman. She was good looking, if a tad on the overweight side.

Price said, “This is all the evidence you need. I’m dating a girl who does live sex chats for a living and you’re jumping out of bushes at janitors. I’m a new man, Tommy. I see things differently now. I’m thinking that maybe conflict resolution is my true calling.”

“Because of the Sorter?” said Tommy.

John said, “You’re kidding me.”

“Yeah.” said Tommy. “He thinks he’s a genius now.”

The two of them had a laugh together.

Malcolm started to get upset. “If you took the test, you’d understand.”

“I took the test.” said John. “Told me I’m not worth the skin I’m made of.”

Malcolm walked off in a huff. As he went back into the booth, John called after him.

“You should see my girlfriend. She’s got a lot more going for her than that chick.”

The guard slammed the door on the booth shut. Tommy slapped John on the shoulder and gave him a broad grin.

He said, “Is that true?”

“Sure.”

John pulled out his own phone and showed the big guy a picture of Ruth.

“She a real cop?” said Tommy.

“Yep.”

Tommy walked back to the booth now, saying, “She’s amazing.”

When he got to the door, he yanked it open and shoved his partner aside. Tommy flipped a button and the gate lifted and the tire teeth retracted. As John drove away, Tommy smiled and waved. John waved back.

John found a place to park the van and looked through the folder again. He found nothing that mentioned the hypoxic container.

“So?” said Jason.

“Huh? Oh, it’s not in there. But it doesn’t matter.”

“That guard thought so.”

“I don’t think he knew any better.”

John found a list of prohibited items that were stapled to the back of the folder. These were the things that required special arrangements to get into the building. Pressurized liquid nitrogen was on the list, due to dangers of explosion or asphyxiation. So he did need a registration after all, but he didn’t have one. That hardly mattered to John. In the end, it wasn’t his turkey on the line. Polymath had ordered this thing. They could deal with the consequences.

SEVENTEEN

The restaurant where Dale had met his daughter was in the South End and Polymath was along the Greenway, near the waterfront and North End. The distance was a matter of a few miles, but those miles crossed though the heart of the city and its colonial road system. When the cab arrived at Atlantic Mall, it was just in time. Dale paid his driver and entered the lobby, which was packed with shoppers. The atrium was a spectacular sight, with its trees and waterfall rising multiple stories above its marble floor. Dale was at the foot of the large curved staircase when his phone rang. It was Lorie.

“Dad.” she said. “I wanted to say that I do appreciate how you tried to protect me.”

“It’s all that matters.” he said.

“No. No it’s not. I still don’t think you did the right thing.”

“You know what they say about hindsight.”

“You shouldn’t have sacrificed yourself.” said Lorie. “If you had stood up to Mom maybe she would’ve gotten the message. And I’d have had more respect for you.”

Dale guess that he could only hope for so much from Lorie. She was trying to see things from his point of view. He figured there was no way she’d be able to grasp the complexities of the situation. That would take time and experience on her part.

“Will you come meet me later?” he said.

“Yeah, I just might do that.”

They finished their call and Dale looked up the staircase. He was supposed to be meeting with Marianne now. She would be arriving soon or may have already arrived. Although Reggie and his partners had flown down to New York a few times, Dale was the only one from Blue Water who had been to Boston. This was Marianne’s first trip and he couldn’t leave her alone with these people. And yet, for the first time he felt a moment of hesitation. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to rush in to save her this time. He wasn’t going to let her hang, but he wondered if it wasn’t better to let her falter, just a little. After all, her voice message seemed to be saying that she was ready to strike out on her own.

Dale pushed through the crowds and found a Dunkin Donuts. He order himself a regular coffee and sat by one of the fountains. He breathed three times and took a sip. He agreed with himself that this was better. He could take a moment to relax after one crisis and prepare his mind for the next.

A few minutes later he climbed those stairs. After a brief pause at the security check-in, he barreled down the hall and into the Polymath offices. Dale saw Cass and asked her if Marianne had arrived. When she confirmed that Marianne was in the conference room speaking with Reggie, Dale showed himself in. Inside he noticed a blue emergency light blinking. He wasn’t sure what to make of that, but Cass hadn’t seemed alarmed about anything. Dale ignored it. He saw Marianne in the glass walled conference room on the other side of the office suite. Reggie was standing across the table from her, with his back turned to both of them and his hands on his hips. Neither was speaking, but it was clear that something had just happened.

Before he could take a step in that direction, Dale noticed something in the corner of his eye. There was a door at the end of the hall with a window looking into the engineering room. Cass was standing there. She crossed the room and a door on the other side opened without her touching it. As she walked through the doorway, she stumbled. This surprised Dale because Cass was the most poised woman he’d ever met. Then again, everyone had their off days. What he found less explicable was how she’d gotten over there. He should’ve seen her in the hall.

He told himself to never mind that and go see what the matter was with Marianne and Reggie.

The latter turned when Dale entered and said, “Dale Benedict. Welcome, once again.”

“What’s that?” said Dale, pointing to the single page on the table.

Reggie said, “Your colleague was about to explain it me.”

Marianne looked at Dale. Her expression meant there was danger. Dale pinched the corner of the paper between his thumb and forefinger and pulled it away from them. It was an article of some kind, with a quote from Rosalind. He’s seen this email before. He didn’t know how this came into Binder’s possession, but that didn’t matter. Dale had no expectations that Blue Water’s true intentions would be confidential forever, although he’d hoped to keep reality at bay until the critical phase had passed. He was, nonetheless, prepared.

Dale said to Marianne, “And what were you going to explain to him?”

She turned her eyes away, saying, “I think I was just going to tell him the truth. Sorry.”

“And what makes you think you’re entitled to tell him that?”

“Dale, I know you’re upset, but trust me I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this…”

“You’ve been doing some thinking? This has nothing to do with you.”

Marianne’s gaze snapped back to him, covered with a look of bewilderment.

To Reggie, Dale said, “I knew it would come out sooner or later.” He tossed the paper back on the table. “About Rosalind and me.”

Binder said, “This plan is just between the two of you?”

“What plan?” said Dale. “What, do you think we’re getting married or something.”

“Please, I’m confused. Start at the beginning.”

“Rosalind Munro and I have been seeing each other. That’s what this is about, isn’t it?”

“Is it?”

“Of course it is. Rosalind wrote me this email. She wasn’t sure she wanted to continue our personal relationship in light of our professional relationship. She didn’t like keep it a secret. Rosalind is terrible with secrets, as I’m sure you must know.”

Reggie considered this in silence for a moment.

Then he nodded, saying, “Thank you for informing me. Rosalind’s concerns are accurate.”

“Sorry to get this off on the wrong foot.” said Dale. “We can discuss further, perhaps when Rosalind arrives, but right now I need to speak to my partner privately.”

“Of course.” said Reggie as he left and closed the door.

Dale walked to the side of the table where Reggie had been and sat across from Marianne.

Marianne said, “What was that about?”

“Buying time. Marianne? Don’t be upset if I was short with you. It was for show.”

“I could see that. He’s not going to trust you now.”

“That’s okay, given the circumstances.” said Dale. “One of us had to step in.”

“And that had to be you? I was close to telling him, you know.”

“That would’ve ruined your career, Marianne.”

“Dale. Seriously. I don’t need any rescuing you of all people know that.”

“I wouldn’t call that a rescue. But I am watching out for you. I always have, haven’t I?”

Marianne looked at the ceiling, sighed, and said, “Sure you have, but that never meant this.”

“What?”

“You know Rosalind wrote that email to me about the deal. You know that somehow I am responsible for letting it fall into Reggie’s hands.” She tossed her hands at him, saying, “But you through yourself on the fire like some kind of sacrifice. Where did that come from?”

In all his years working with Marianne, Dale had never thought of that before. The realization fell on him and flattened him. He had always thought of his workplace as a refuge. What he did there was meaningful and many people, if not all of them, appreciated what he did in ways that his wife and daughter could not. What he hadn’t seen what how this extended to the way he related to people. Yes, Marianne was like a daughter to him. He consoled her and encouraged her and instructed her when she needed it. However, unlike with Lorie or his wife, he’d never shielded her or accepted blame for something that wasn’t his fault.

Marianne went on, “All I ever looked for from you was a little advice. I don’t want a rescuer.”

“Of course. You’re right and I’m sorry.”

“But there’s another way you let me down, Dale. You said it was a show. Just a show. Do you want to know the number one reason why I’ve always respected you? Despite everything we do in our line of work, somehow you found some kind of moral center. I had my doubts at the beginning of this project. It’s the most questionable think we’ve every done. It was you who convinced me that Reggie was bad for this company and for all its clients. Together with the senate vote…”

“I just remembered.” said Dale. “Your message said something about Paul.”

Marianne shook her head. “That’s the thing. I thought Paul had a heart too, but there’s only one way that email could’ve gotten to Binder. He always said he thought Blue Water could take the Sorter in a different direction, one that he would be happy to endorse. All he was doing was using me to scuttle the company.” She gestrued at the paper. “When this goes public it will kill the senate vote.”

Dale said, “Has something happened between you and Paul?”

“You haven’t seen the news?”

“When would I have done that?”

Marianne laughed, but it wasn’t a happy laugh.

She said, “Paul slept with a teenager and now he’s in prison.”

“My god, Marianne. I had no ideas. I’m sorry.”

“It’s all for show. None of this is real.”

She stood up and started for the door. Dale opened his mouth, but she spoke over him.

“I’m tired of these games.” she said, “I’m going to tell Reggie what’s going on here. After that I’m going to report your relationship with Rosalind to our management along with my resignation.”

EIGHTEEN

The elevator doors opened and John found himself in a bare white hallway. Jason was standing next to him and followed after him as he dragged his two wheeler hand truck out of the carriage. The doors closed and after that there was only silence. The corridor stretched far enough away to make seeing the end of it difficult. The color didn’t help. After a few feet it looked as though it disappeared into blank space. The place smelled of rotting garbage.

The right wall was blank. A row of doors lined the wall on their left. One of these doors opened on its own and a woman passed through it, her heels clicking on the floor. John liked the way she looked. The three top buttons on her blouse were open, but she’d made the come-on into a tease by wrapping her neck with a silk scarf and tying a loose knot over her collar bone. She wore a skirt with an angled hem. It exposed on leg above the knew and the other only near the ankle.

John said, “I’m here to fix the fire suppression system. I’ve got a hypoxic chamber you ordered too, but it’s still downstairs.”

“I’m Cass.” the woman said. “Who’s this boy?”

“Jason. He’ll stay out of the way.”

“Do you normally bring your child to work?”

“He’s a favor.” said John. “But he might be able to help; he’s pretty good with this stuff.”

Cass was still standing near the door, about a dozen feet away from them. She tipped her head to one side as though looking at Jason sideways would make him go away.

She said, “This wasn’t in the plan.”

“I promise he’ll be fine. Does he look like trouble to you?”

“He’s not in the plan.”

“Well, do you want want me to go?”

Cass came toward them, waving her arms and saying, “No it’s too late. Come in.”

John shrugged and pushed the hand truck through the door. Jason followed.

Cass said, “I still wish you hadn’t brought this kid.”

As she brought up the rear, the door closed behind them. Then she stumbled. The movement was so sudden it startled John. One moment the woman was walking with perfect poise, as perpendicular to the ground as a flagpole, and the next she was tipping and waving her arms like as if suffering from a seizure. In another moment she was walking again. She said nothing about what had just happened.

John found himself in familiar surroundings. This was an assembly lab, full of opened server casings on tables. One table held some of the more impressive machinery he’d seen in his life. A rolling tool chest stood next to it, with an opened drawer revealing tool cutouts. This ensured that every piece found its way back to the exact same spot at the end of each day. Next to the toolbox, an electro-static discharge bracelet sat on the table. Someone had been working here not long ago, but the place was empty now.

There was a heavy door with a little glass window on the opposite side of the room and it opened. A young man with long red hair appeared. He wore his shirt open and John could see a part of something written in Latin on the man’s chest. Cass turned her back to John and came very close to that chest. They were nearly touching, but they didn’t. One looked into the eyes of the other and both smiled.

“It’s almost time.” said the red headed dude.

Cass tipped her head in John’s direction without looking that way and said, “He’s got a kid.”

The man’s head snapped around.

“You brought a kid with you?” he said.

“Focus, George.” said Cass. “We can’t send him back. It’s too late.”

The red head’s body slackened. He reached into a pocket and pulled out a device that John had seen before. It was that roulette wheel toy with all the spinning letters and eyes that Norman Shaw had been carrying when he burned the school down. He remembered Ruth having taken it from the man when they escaped the building. He also remembered how Ruth had explained about the Sorter’s warning and some stuff that Norman had said that made it sound as though he believed the Sorter was controlling his life. It was a feeling that John was familiar with. Now here was this kid with the same mysterious mechanism. Did it connect? Could it? How?

Whatever the significance, all John knew for sure was that a part of him felt like lighting his own little fire.

George waved the wheel in Cass’s face and said, “We should expect the unexpected.”

“It’s what got us here, but I don’t like it.”

“I’m sure he’s harmless.” George jutted his chin out at John and said, “Right?”

“Yeah, yeah the boy’s fine.”

George opened the windowed door again and Cass left, sending googly eyes his way.

“You made me what I am.” she said. “I won’t forget that.”

She left and the red head came up to John and Jason.

George said, “The control box is over there. That’s where I’d start.”

“Okay.” said John. “The hypoxic chamber is still down in my truck.”

“Right. Leave it there, we’ll deal with that later.”

“Can I ask…” said John. “What it is?”

“No.”

He went to another door, this time without a window. There was an electronic keypad lock mounted next to it, but George didn’t touch it. Instead he pulled on the door and it opened.

As he went through he said, “You’ll notice the security system’s too. So we’ll be watching.”

George disappeared. John started his work on the fire suppression and security system. Jason wandered around and looked at the equipment. He started rattling off what it all was. John wondered how Ruth could put up with this all the time.

Then Jason said, “What do you think’s behind that door?”

“I think the Sorter’s behind that door.”

“Really?”

“What else could it be?”

“Are you going to do something to it?”

John put his tools down and turned to face the boy. He brought himself to one knee so that he could look in Jason’s eyes and put his hands on Jason’s shoulders.

“I’m going to do my job.” he said. Then he laughed a little. “Here I am, in the belly of the fish. And you’re right, all I want to do is kill it.” He glanced at the unlocked door that lead to the Tomb and then back at Jason. “I wouldn’t just be helping myself, I’d be doing everyone a favor.”

Jason leaned in and whispered, “They’re watching us.”

“I know.”

His came even closer and his voice was even quieter when he said, “I think you should do it.”

Jason’s comment so surprised John that he was speechless. After a moment with a blank mind, he began to wonder just what conclusions the boy had drawn from his mother’s complaints on the subject of the Sorter. Perhaps they were both sent here as agents of destruction.

Jason said, “You’re a hero, remember?”

John stood and smiled and said, “Maybe you’re right. This isn’t how heroes win.”

Cass said, “How do heroes win?”

John spun around and saw her standing there. There were only three ways into the room. One was the door from the hallway, the other was the door with the window, and the last was the door with the malfunctioning electronic lock. All of them were heavy and he’d heard all of them open. He should’ve noticed Cass enter.

John said, “You’re not what you seem you are.”

“Neither are you.”

NINETEEN

Ruth stood outside the District One federal courthouse on Fan Pier. She had completed her testimony in the old gang case she’s worked under Keller a few years ago. It was a big deal for the Lieutenant, not that Ruth believed she would get anything out of him for it. He was already pissed at her for being late due to Jason.

The courthouse stood on a former industrial pier that was now a part of the high rent South Boston Seaport district. The harbor stretched behind the courthouse, with the airport beyond that. Ruth stood with her back to the building and facing a parking lot. Ruth went to her car. As she pulled open the door, her phone rang. The caller ID told her the number belong to Polymath. This wasn’t good.

“Mr. Binder?” she said.

“This isn’t Mr. Binder.” said a female voice.

“Then who are you? Is this about John and Jason?”

There were a few seconds of silence on the phone. Ruth was facing Seaport Boulevard, which ran along the edge of the parking lot. She watched a row of Silver Line cars emerge from their tunnel and stop at a transit station just to the east of the courthouse. Three passengers disembarked. Why should she notice this? Despite the ominous caller that she was waiting to fess up, something about one of the passengers caught her eye and she couldn’t let it go.

The caller said, “I didn’t know if you’d heard.”

That statement made Ruth’s stomach tie up.

“Should’ve heard about what?” she said. “Who is this?”

As she said this, Ruth searched for pen and paper in her purse.

“My name is Cassandra. I work for Mr. Binder.”

“Do you have a last name, Cassandra?”

“There’s been a bomb threat.”

Ruth dropped the pen and it rolled away on the pavement.

She said, “Where is my son?”

“I don’t know about your son.” said Cassandra. “All I know is that Mr. Binder left a note to call you if anything happened. He seems to think he can trust you.”

The strange woman that Ruth had seen exit the Silver Line bus approached a building across the street. What was odd about her is that she was dressed in an overcoat, but her legs were bare. In that moment, she turned in such a way that Ruth could see her front. The coat wasn’t zipped, revealing that she wore nothing but a nightgown beneath it. The woman disappeared into the building.

“Well, if he trusts me he can do me a favor and look for my son. Jason Holland.”

“The Sorter has identified the source of the threat and believes it’s credible.”

It was happening again. Ruth felt like a damn two headed penny. Then again, there was that side of her that wondered if this had anything to do with luck. Perhaps the Sorter, and Reginald Binder, were doing this to her on purpose for some reason.

Cassandra said, “She’s coming after him.”

“Who?”

“The bomber. She wants to destroy Mr. Binder’s work. The Sorter says she’s on her way to his residence now. He lives in suite 914 in the Millennium Towers on Seaport Boulevard.”

“Near the federal courthouse transit stop.”

“Yes, you’re familiar with it?”

Ruth started toward the end of the parking lot. Her quick walk broke into a run as she crossed the street.

She said, “Cassandra, I’m on my way. Find my son and make sure he’s safe.”

“Yes detective.”

“Jason Holland. Okay? Jason Holland. Tell him I’ll call him in a few minutes.”

“Yes detective.” she said, and hung up.

Ruth looked up and saw the Millennium Towers, the very same building into which that woman with the nightgown and overcoat had gone. She entered the lobby and found an elevator. She pushed the button for the ninth floor, reminded of the time she sprinted to the top of the third floor of Edison Middle School while trying to avert another disaster. Nothing happened. It was a secure elevator. Access to the residence levels required a key of some kind. Ruth found the front desk and flashed her badge. The man there called for another employee, a kid really. I guess the guy’s too good to help a cop, thought Ruth.

He took her to the ninth floor. The door to suite 914 was ajar. Ruth dismissed the boy and retrieved her weapon. She went inside and found her suspect there. She had tossed her overcoat in the corner, along with her shoes. She was standing barefoot in her slip and considering what looked like a blood stain on the kitchen floor.

Ruth wondered what had happened in here. The stain was recent. Boston was a big city and the seaport was about as far from the Brighton precinct as you could get. It was possible that the police had responded to an incident at Binder’s residence without word of it getting to Ruth. She had started her day worrying about Jason and then went right to the courthouse. Despite these things, it was troubling that she hadn’t heard the slightest murmur of whatever had happened here. And what did this mean for Binder’s supposed trust? She knew she was walking into a trap, but she couldn’t help it.

Ruth said, “How did you get in here?”

The other woman jumped and turned to find herself staring at the barrel of Ruth’s sidearm.

“I have a key.”

The cop displayed her badge and explained who she was, but this did nothing to still the fear she saw. She could hardly expect it to. The woman looked at though she hadn’t slept all night. Ruth shouldn’t have been the apprehensive one. It was clear that her suspect was as poorly armed as she was clothed. What Ruth could not escape was the knowledge that the Sorter had sent her here. She had doubted its warning before and regretted it. Whether the Sorter predicted the future or caused it didn’t matter much at this moment. It still knew the future, that was clear. This woman may have looked harmless, but she never would’ve guessed Norman Shaw to be dangerous either.

Rather than place her sidearm, Ruth kept it trained and stepped closer.

She said, “What happened here?”

“Reggie made me shoot him.”

See? She thought. Not so innocent.

“Who?”

“The man he blames for killing is wife.”

“When? I mean, the man you shot, not the wife.”

“This morning.”

“Why are you here now?”

The woman pointed across the room. There was a desk there and it looked as though someone had taken a hammer to it. Bits were ripped off it, with the drawers hanging loose like teeth in a fist fight.

Ruth said, “You did this?”

The woman held up her hands. They were torn along the finger tips and soaked in her own blood. She had ripped apart the furniture with her own hands. That didn’t make Ruth feel any more at ease. Weapon or no weapon, this chick was a dangerous person. And there was something else. In one of those beaten hands there was a small, flat object. It looked like a memory stick.

“I did it.” she said.

She fell to the floor and sat on her knees. Ruth just stood there with her pistol still ready for business, unsure about what to do. Then she heard another voice.

“Sergeant, explain to me what the hell you’re doing.”

Ruth turned and saw her boss, Lieutenant Keller. He stood with two uniformed officers from the state police. There was another plain clothes man that Ruth recognized as a state police detective. She stood there with her weapon and looking dumb as a cow. The Lieutenant came to within three feet of her and crossed his arms.

He said, “I’m waiting.”

All she could say in response was, “My son is in the Atlantic Mall.”

“I know that and I know about the bomb threat.”

“You didn’t tell me.” She said this more to herself than to Keller.

“Look at this woman. She’s unarmed. What are you doing?”

“We didn’t I hear it from you.”

“Sergeant.” said Keller. “Your connection with all of this compromises you.”

Ruth replaced her service weapon in its holster. Her movements were slow, too slow. She wanted to move faster, but somehow her limbs wouldn’t respond. Nothing was hers anymore, not even her own body.

She said, “Why are you here?”

“Word’s come strait from the commissioner.” said Keller. “You are relieved of duty.”

“The Sorter told you to come here.”

Keller held up his phone.

 

RUTH HOLLAND. POTENTIAL PSYCHOTIC RISK. DANGER FACTOR: HIGH

 

He said, “I want you the hell out of my sight.”

TWENTY

The morning Jason’s father died, Ruth drove her cruiser to the rail yard to find him. She went to Allston, a western neighborhood in the city hemmed in by the river and the Massachusetts Turnkpike. From Cambridge Street the road rose up to a point where she could look across an expanse of train tracks and on the far end see the crystal towers of downtown. These tracks formed the Beacon Park Railyard, a vast intersection of freight lines running across New England. Ruth turned her cruiser from the main thoroughfare onto a restricted access road and passed beneath the Turnpike. It was a portal to another world where human figures were hard to see among the locomotives that plugged down the lines.

Ruth’s research had discovered that Yancy operated some sort of road transfer operation, where trucks unloaded freight and fanned out across the metro area. It was mostly furniture and other home goods. The department suspected that Yancy swapped out various big ticket items for cheaper replicas, but this was something they had yet to prove. She weaved among the tracks, looking for Frank’s car. She didn’t know where inside this expansive territory Yancy did his dirty work, but she knew the name of his company and could look for the delivery trucks. She hoped she’d find Frank in time to talk him out of whatever nonsense he was up to.

She spotted one of Yancy’s gray trucks about a hundred yards away, near the edge of the yard. Nearby, a long platform lined a rail siding. A three story building made of dirty yellow bricks stood behind the truck. It was windowless except for a few big glass checkerboards on the top floor. Ruth pulled her cruiser behind a pair of parked switcher locomotives and came closed the distance on foot. As she approached the building, a folding garage door opened and Frank emerged, dressed in tactical gear and carrying an assault rifle.

He saw her and said, “Ruth?”

“I found the recording.” she said. “There’s enough on there to bust Keller and Yancy.”

“And me too. I need to do this.”

“And what is this?” said Ruth.

After considering for a few moments, Frank said “Fine, follow me.”

The climbed onto the platform behind the truck and Frank unlocked the truck’s rear door. They went inside. On her left stood a stack of four black boxes, each about the size of a coffin. Or her right stood two of them.

“Yancy’s coming soon with the other two for here.” he said, pointing to the stack on the right.

We walked over to them. The one on top was about waist height. There was a key pad on the top and Frank punched something in. One half of the top panel slide away, releasing a billow of cold steam. The interior looked as though it were filled with large blue colored ice packs secured with elastic straps. Frank removed the straps and pulled out the ice backs. There was a woman underneath there. She was unconscious and wearing a face mask. There was a sticker on forehead. A bar code, as you might find on a piece of produce. Despite the mask, Ruth recognized the face. It was the dancer Coolie had been watching when she’d confronted him at the club. Ruth backed away and removed her pistol from its holster. She pointed it at Frank as she walked onto the platform.

Frank said, “They’re alive.”

“You tell me what the hell is going on right now.” said Ruth.

“Most of these women are here illegally. Yancy sells their organs and they disappear.”

“Yancy kills them?”

“I don’t know what happens to them.”

Ruth glanced at the woman in the coffin once more. The stage wasn’t the only place she remembered that face from. She had been in the list of numbers that Frank had shown her.

“The names in your phone.” she said. “Oh my god, Frank. All those women?”

“Yancy thinks I’m sleeping with them, but I’ve been forming a sort of underground railroad.”

Ruth shook her head and kept her weapon trained on him.

“Frank.” she said. “You can’t be doing this on your own.”

“I have help.”

“You need different help. Police help. That recording is enough.”

“It’s enough to bring me down with the rest of them.”

“So?” she shouted. “So? Your reputation comes second to the lives of these women.”

Another voice came from behind her.

“All this time.” said Yancy. “And neither of us could see the truth.”

Ruth saw two men who weren’t Yancy approach her. Each were pointed the barrels of their guns at her one. One looked very much like Frank. It must have been Yancy’s brother. Then Yancy himself appeared. He walked in between Ruth and her husband, so that now the end of Ruth’s pistol was aimed at him. The man was wearing the same hat and vest as the previous night, although the pattern of his flannel had changed.

He said, “This man doesn’t want to put his dick in girls; he wants to save them.”

“At least he’s got some decency in him.”

“Except he doesn’t want to be a hero. He wants to be seen as one.”

Yancy made a motion and the two armed men closed the distance between themselves and Ruth. They came close enough that she could see the muzzles of their assault rifles from her peripheral vision.

Yancy said, “Call your friends if you want. We’ll be gone by the time they get here.”

Ruth put her gun back in its holster. She watched as Yancy climbed off the platform and into the truck’s passenger seat. Without looking at Ruth, Frank exited the back of the truck and closed it again. He pulled himself into the driver’s seat, started the engine, and drove off. Ruth watched them go. Then she felt a shove against and her back and before she knew it she was falling. She tumbled off the edge of the platform and fell into the gravel below. She flipped over on her back and saw the two men staring down at her. They turned and walked away.

Ruth stood and ran for her car. Before getting in, she looked up to see where the truck was going. They were following a siding and it came to an end at a track that bowed outward away from her. With each passing yard they were getting further away from her. For a moment she considered the forty four ton switcher engine behind which her car was parked. Following its track with her eyes, she could see that it joined the other curved track. Beyond that, the road along the track passed under some pylon which carried the Massachusetts Turnpike before crossing over the track and coming to an end at Storrow Drive. The engine was hitched to a line of cars. If it were possible to start it, she might be able to cut off the truck before it exited the yard. It was just a thought, and one that Ruth quickly dismissed. She didn’t know how to operate a freight train. Even if she did, there was the chance of ramming it into the truck and killing all those women inside as well as her husband.

She decided instead to do the only thing she could do, which was race along the track in her cruiser. She had the advantage that the truck had to following a longer route. It was large and needed a more developed road, especially to protect its delicate cargo. Ruth, only the other hand, could follow the track without any road at all. She sped that way and calculated that she just might meet them at the point where they’d have to cross the tracks, before they would be able to exit the yard.

Then she noticed something big looming behind her. It was the engine and all its cars. Someone had started it up and was now following her. Ruth was traveling faster, but not by much. She was bouncing over the uneven gravel and mud, leaving the ground a few times before slamming into it again. There was no way a train that size could catch up with her on such a short straightaway. That did not mean it wasn’t a threat. She still had to engage Yancy somehow.

She reached the meeting point ahead of schedule. She watched the truck come at her head on from the other side of the tracks. Ruth pulled her pistol and fired. She hit the tire and the truck came to a halt. To her right, the freight train was still barreling in their direction. Yancy appeared with Frank in tow. He threw the other man on the ground and pointed his own weapon at Frank’s head. Frank sat there, knees in the mud and hands raised over his head like the imminent victim of an execution.

Ruth held the gun with one hand and with the other she reached for her radio.

Yancy yelled, “I wouldn’t do that. Take this.”

He reached in a pocket of his vest and produced that earring again. He tossed it over the tracks and it landed at Ruth’s feet.

“Your husband has a habit of losing things.” he said. “I told you that.”

“So?”

“So.” said Yancy. “That includes his house keys.”

Ruth’s phone rang. She pulled it out and there was a picture message. She recognized the number. It was the first number Frank had showed to her last night. It was Kathy’s number. Majestic. That dancer at Centerfolds who had met them in that back room. Frank had said he was sleeping with her, but now Ruth knew that wasn’t true. Instead, she was sending picture messages to Ruth.

A picture of Jason. Jason was sleeping in his crib with a tulip laying on his forehead.

The phone rang again. This time it was a call. Ruth answered.

“I’m sorry.” said Kathy’s voice. “Your son it still alive, but not for long.”

“Go.” said Yancy. “Go now.”

The train was now only a few yards away. It’s rumbling was so loud that Yancy had to shout.

“One more thing.” he said. “If you don’t destroy that recording, you will see me again.”

The train passed between them. Ruth was helpless as she watched the scene unfold in stunted clips and gaps between the rail cars. Yancy pushed his pistol into the back of Frank’s head. Ruth heard shots fired. Shots fired. Twice, but she only heard them. When the next gap appeared, Frank was laying face first in the mud.

TWENTY ONE

When Rosalind arrived at work, the office greeted her with the unnerving silence of a mid-morning weekday without any bustle. Most of the employees were absent and those who were present were secreted away in their own worlds. Cass was talking to someone on a headset. George Simon was in the lab with a strange man and a kid. Nagel was standing in the common area on the other side of the half wall. He was sweaty and trying to still his nervous hands by keeping them in his pockets. Rosalind spotted Marianne Madora, Dale’s partner from Blue Water. She was in the conference room with Reggie. The blue light blinked on the ceiling, indicating a problem with the security or fire system. Half the the regular lights were out, casting the place in a sort of indoor twilight.

Dale appeared from these shadows carrying a paper cup with a plastic lid. He was the first to acknowledge Rosalind’s presence. He placed the cup on the half wall and opened his arms, as if about to hug her. Rosalind stepped back. She wasn’t sure what to make of this public display of affection.

“It’s over.” he said. “Marianne is telling Reggie everything.”

Nagel said, “I came in and that’s what’s what was going on.”

Rosalind took a deep breath and shook her head. She had spent so much time keeping track of her own people that she hadn’t expected one of the Blue Water people might betray them, least of all the woman who seemed to want this deal the most. It was certain that Polymath would not survive this day in its present form. That didn’t frighten her. More pressing on her mind were the dangerous legal consequences of a game that she was never all that well equipped to play.

Her first thought was that maybe she should leave and never come back. Then she considered Dale, standing there with a dumb look and his arms outstretched. Dale had always been sentimental and in search of a larger emotional interaction than she was prepared to yield.

Rosalind said, “How could she?”

“Things have gone very wrong for her. She’s got some new thoughts about her life.”

“Does she have to take us with her?”

“What’s done is done.” said Dale.

His statement was simple and it was correct. Rosalind accepted Dale’s embrace. It felt good to her. If one were to ask Rosalind before today what Dale Benedict meant to her, she’d say that she was seeing him romantically. She wasn’t sure what that meant, but it sounded less juvenile that saying that she was dating him. Their relationship had begun just as Lucie’s illness had entered its final stage and Rosalind had pursued it at her sister’s suggestion. Seeing Dale and feeling this way about him was another reason for Rosalind to miss her sister. Lucie understood things that no one else could. This was not the first time she’d dared Rosalind to step into the dark, nor the first time she had been right to do so.

Rosalind had earned her bachelors in math, which lead to a doctorate in quantitative finance. She used to create derivative models for private equity firms. It was her job to feed mountains of data into impenetrable mathematical bulwarks and calculate the price of things that no ne could price. Her employers paid her well and respected her, but promotions were rare. Her problem was that she was always testing her intellect, moving from department to department and mastering new skills. She didn’t like the idea of becoming a specialist. There was too much to know. Her generous curiosity ensured that she would never become known for any one thing, and this never become known at all.

When the financial panic struck, she struck out on her own. It surprised everyone but Lucie, who had suggested it to her. Anyone else would’ve called Rosalind a quiet geek with too much love for the safety of corporate structure, not an entrepreneur who would be comfortable as someone else’s boss. But Lucie understood that Rosalind’s desire to test herself went beyond the academic. Lucie’s perception hadn’t failed Rosalind. It never had.

That was why she was ready to listen when Lucie was on her death bed and suggested that Rosalind try on yet another experiment. Lucie was not what anyone would call a hopeless romantic, but compared to Rosalind she was Percy Shelly. She understood that her sister was not a woman who needed a man in her life, but she suspected that Rosalind wanted one. Think of it as learning a new skill, she’d said. It was her dying wish, not that her sister fall in love with Dale or anyone specifically, but that she find a victim and make a go of it.

And now here they were, she and Dale, standing before the greatest threat to their careers. Lucie had died before Rosalind and Kevin struck their deal with Polymath. Rosalind had been certain that it was the right thing to do, but a part of her now wondered if she had gone astray. She wondered if she could really take those leaps without Lucie. What was she going to do now? Follow the Sorter’s advice?

“So it’s true.” said Nagel, pointing a finger at them. “About the two of you.”

Dale ignored the comment. To Rosalind he said, “I have something for your birthday.”

He let her go, crossed the common area and ducked into one of the cubicles. He returned with a wooden cube, six inches on a side. He handed it to Rosalind. When she opened the box, she found a brass sphere with engraved pictographs resembling hieroglyphs.

“A Horus Adventure.” she said.

She lifted the ball out of its box and it responded to her touch by lighting up curved bands made of willow glass. Images dances across these latitudinal arcs, making Rosalind tilt the sphere back and forth to watch them.

“And it’s warm to the touch.” she said. “Interesting. Is this the newest one?”

Nagel said, “What is that? Are we really doing this now? Here?”

Dale nodded, saying, “It was just released yesterday. You may be the first to solve it.”

Kevin was still trying to pry into their conversation.

He said, “It’s a kid’s game? Is that what you’re going to do in our company’s final moments?”

“It’s not a kid’s game.” said Rosalind. “It’s the most difficult puzzle series ever created.”

Dale said to Nagel, “I’d like to see you solve it.”

“Thank you.” said Rosalind. “It’s the best gift anyone’s ever given me.”

“I could solve it if I had your help.” said Kevin.

“You’re talking about this thing I have in my brain?” said Rosalind, tapping the side of her head. “Do you think it makes me everything that I am? Long before I got this implanted in my skull, I was playing Chopin at Jordan Hall.”

Dale said to Kevin, “Were you precocious at anything as a kid besides jerking off?”

Nagel walked off in a huff, saying, “I’m going to look for George.”

When they were alone, Rosalind said, “Today isn’t happening.”

“No.” said Dale. “We’ll have some free time though.”

“I can live with that.”

“One thing. I should call my daughter. She was going to meet me later.”

Rosalind nodded. Dale went through the door leading to the reception area and disappeared. Nagel returned a few minutes later and then Reggie came storming out of the conference room. Marianne was standing behind him, a silhouette in the door. There was silence.

Then Reggie said, “I want everyone in the conference room.”

“For what?” said Rosalind. “There’s nothing to discuss.”

Reggie swept back the sides of his blazer. There was a holster there, and a gun. He slipped the pistol out and turned off the safety. He gestured at Kevin and Rosalind.

“Don’t worry. I’ll do all the talking.”

TWENTY TWO

Dale left the office suite by the main entrance and stood by the big letters spelling POLYMATH. The place was quiet as death before an air conditioning vent came to life above him. Dale, however, was so preoccupied with what had just happened that he didn’t stop to think about how the expansive atrium had gone still. As he walked to the edge of the balcony, he retrieved his cell phone and selected Lorie’s name from his contacts and held his finger above the call button. He hesitated for a moment and then his phone rang. It was Lorie calling him.

As Dale raised the phone to his ear, he noticed something that stopped the voice in his throat.

“Dad? Dad?” said Lorie.

From the balcony he could see the entire atrium below. The trees rustled in the AC, the waterfall babbled, and the tink tink of faint piano music spilled from a speaker somewhere. There was no one but him inside the building. On the outside, however, a crowd of hundreds stood near the mall’s glass wall. The wandered to and fro and cast anxious looks into the street.

“Dad, please answer.”

The scene continued to unfold in Dale’s head as he took in what was happening on the other side of that three story window. There were a dozen police vehicles around the outside of the crowd. They were all parked along an empty Atlantic Avenue. The cops had blockaded the street. There was something wrong with that.

“Lorie.” said Dale. “What’s going on?”

“Dad, I can see you. Can you see me?”

Why are those people still there? thought Dale. The police had stopped traffic from moving into the area, but they were doing nothing to evacuate people out. Dale noticed a few people trying to leave and the cops forcing them back.

“You’re out there?” said Dale.

“Dad, they won’t let us leave. I’ve heard a rumor that the bomber said if they let us go, he will detonate the explosive. They’re saying its a white van parked under the building.”

“Bomber?”

“Dad, how are you still in there? You didn’t here the alarm?”

“No.” said Dale. “I had no idea about this until I stepped out here.”

“Oh god.” said Lorie. “You’re the target. Dad, what did you get yourself into?”

The blue light. The fire suppression and security system inside Polymath were offline. George had explained that while Marianne was singing to Reggie. George had disabled the system. Dale didn’t think that was a coincidence. Polymath or someone inside the office was the target.

He said, “What kind of a white van?”

“Someone said it had a funny name. Judge Network Solutions.”

Dale had seen that name before. The man he’d met outside Flour drove that van. He smoked Camels and had a kid with him. Dale remembered the strange looking container in the back of his truck, the way that Camels was ranting, and his anger with the Sorter.

“Lorie, you’ve got to find a way out as soon as you can.”

“I’m not leaving here until you do. Can you stay there where I can see you?”

With the phone held against his ear, he turned his head back to see the office door. He stared at it for a long time. Then he looked back at the crowd and scanned it for his daughter. He couldn’t find her.

Lorie said, “Marianne’s still in there, isn’t she?”

She was, but Dale was worried about more than her. Lorie didn’t know about Rosalind. Dale wanted to tell her that there were two people inside who needed him, but something stopped him. He’d told Lorie that he had not cheated on her mother and that was true. Though Dale and his wife had never been divorced, his relationship with Rosalind had started long after Lorie’s mom had moved out. Besides, Lorie had said she would’ve forgiven her father. Dale had to admit to himself that what he was afraid of was letting her on to yet another lie. It was a strange little thing, but sometimes the strange little things are the hardest to let go.

He said, “There are a lot of people in there.”

“They aren’t your responsibility.”

“What if you were here? Could you forgive yourself if you left everyone behind?”

“Sometimes,” said Lorie. “You have too much guilt to think straight.”

Dale shook his head. “It’s not as though I have the opportunity to leave anyway.”

“Promise me you will take the chance if you get it.”

Dale turned his head back again. Then he turned his entire body, showing his back to the atrium and the crowd. He heard Lorie breath as if about to speak, but then she hang up. Dale put his phone back in his pocket and entered the office once again.

TWENTY THREE

You thought I was a lion

Oh but you swept me off my feet

Now I catch you making me sick

Feasting on my insides

I hope it’s sweet

I hope it’s sweet

To you

 

John pulled the headphone bud out of his ear and looked around. He was standing at a network rack and rearranging the fibers in an optical patch panel so that he could make room for new cabling. He saw Jason in another part of the room, tooling away with who knows what. While he was trying to do his job and keep an eye on Jason, another scene distracted John. He watched it unfold through the window in the door.

There were no words, but John didn’t always need words. He was good with faces and hands. He saw three people, an attractive woman a few years older than Ruth, an old man and a fat man. He’d seen the old man before. It was Dale Benedict, the guy John has seen outside the building where his dad has worked. Dale and woman were in love. He gave her a gift and she lit up. John could tell that she often on the receiving end of compliments and more than a few lingering stares, but not many gifts. At first John was puzzled when he saw the two embrace. Dale was too old and too dog faced for her. However, John realized that this guy was perceptive and filled to the brim with empathy. Apparently, his girlfriend liked that.

The fat man was another story. He stood aside and watched with longing. Now here was a guy made of nothing but frustration. John’s first conclusion was the same as anyone’s. Big boy was jealous of old dog face. It was soon apparent, however, that this was not the exact truth. Rather, John could see that sweaty arms fatty pants hated them both. He wasn’t interested the woman. He wanted someone else who wouldn’t have him.

Dale left his lady and the fat one turned to someone that John couldn’t see. He and the woman were frightened. They walked off. John didn’t like what he’d seen. No more than five minutes had passed during this little vignette in the window and it was clear to John that something was very wrong here. After another few minutes, Dale returned and the expression on his face was anxious and unnerving. John found Jason and took him through the door.

“It is you.” said Dale. “Who are you?”

“I’m John, an outside tech.”

“Why would you bring your kid into this? Is this really worth it?”

“Um…” said John, “Not sure what you mean, but the answer that question is usually no.”

Dale looked away, to where everyone else had gone. There was a conference room. The fat man and Dale’s girlfriend were inside, along with George and some other, younger woman. They were seated. Another old man, this one possessed of far more vigor than the one standing next to John, was pacing and lecturing. John couldn’t make out what he was saying.

John said, “You work here? You looked worried.”

“I am.” he said. “About you and them.”

“You work with all these people? What’s going on?”

“Huh?” Dale said, still watching the conference room. “I work for Blue Water.”

“What the hell is Blue Water? Eh, forget it. So?”

“So what?” said Dale.

“Should I be worried?”

“Probably.” he said, turning to John. “Should I?”

“I really don’t know, man.”

Everyone in the conference room screamed. John and Dale looked back. The man who had been pacing had a pistol. The others were scooting away from him. Dale raced over. John knew better. He took Jason by the arm and went back the way he’d come. He found the service entrance door that lead to the elevator, but it was locked. The only other door was the one with the unresponsive card reader. Maybe there was an escape through there, but in case there wasn’t, John needed to secure the room he was in.

“Help me.” he told Jason.

“Is there going to be a gun fight?”

“Well, there’s only one gun, so no. Help me, okay?”

They pushed a table full of electronics in front of the door with the window. John was surprised at how strong the boy was. Then John pulled out his phone.

“Who are you calling?” said Jason.

“Kid, I’m calling your mom.”

One of the buds was still in his ears and playing the song, a number from the band Stanford Prison Experiment. It rattled through his head as he dialed up Ruth.

 

Open me and surprised to see

There are three… of me

One foolish lover that’s found his way to the truth

Oh he wants a piece of you

One lonesome traveler who has lost his way home

Oh he wants a piece of you

One blind man chained to the pillars of your heart

You bet your life

That he wants a piece of you.

TWENY FOUR

In few seconds it took him to cross the office, Dale’s brain assaulted him with snapshots of what might happen next. A bang and pieces. Pieces of glass, pieces of splintered wood, pieces of the people he cared about. All littered across the floor.

When Reggie saw him, he fired at him through the open door. Dale cowered before Reggie pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. The bullet must have missed. Reggie walked through the door with his arm held out. He had that look, that certain look. It was plain that he meant to pull the trigger as many times as it took. Reggie was out to end another man’s life today.

Dale ran. He saw the man and the kid he’d just spoken with inside the engineering room. Dale pushed on the door and it didn’t budge. Through the window he could see they’d barricaded the door. He could also see John on his phone. Dale pounded on the door and the guy held up an index finger. Wait a minute, he was saying. Take your turn.

Reggie found Dale and said, “You made this happen.”

“You’re going to kill for me it?” said Dale, crouched by the door. “In front of everyone?”

“I have my reasons. What happens to me doesn’t matter. The Sorter will survive.”

“You can keep it.”

Reggie held the gun very close to Dale’s head.

TWENTY FIVE

“What have you done?” said Ruth.

John hadn’t said anything yet. Ruth had known something before she even picked up the phone.

She said, “I know about the bomb threat.”

Bomb threat? thought John, though he didn’t have time to say it.

“Someone inside that building called me on my cell phone. They also told me to go inside Reggie’s condo and when I did it turned out the Sorter had framed me. I figure it’s not done with me.”

“And you think I’ve done something?” said John.

“I did a little digging. Another call came in about a white van. It’s your white van.”

John guessed that’s what had made Dale worry, even if he seemed awfully cool about it.

Ruth said, “So I’m asking the question again-”

“Did it ever occur to you that the Sorter may have framed me too?”

It hadn’t even occurred to John up until that moment. He pressed his palm against he forehead.

John said, “For a while I believed the Sorter. I believed it. You see, you can’t trust it.”

Ruth sighed. “Right now I don’t care. Are you and Jason still in the building?”

“All this time it was telling me I’m someone I’m not. What do you think it wants with us?”

“John. John? Are you inside or out? Is Jason safe?”

“We’re inside. We didn’t hear anything about a bomb threat.”

John heard more noise outside. He moved to a spot in the room where a bullet wouldn’t be able to hit him if it came through the door with the window. Jason came with him. The kid didn’t complain or show any fear. John liked that. He always considered himself an unlikely one to panic. He and his sister had grown up in the industrial city of Chelsea, on the north side of Boston across the Mystic River. These days it was posher, with the expansion of Tufts University and its muscular security apparatus. However, in their childhood it was suffering from the nadir of Boston’s post-industrial decline. It wasn’t so nice back then.

Ruth said, “John? Are you and Jason ok?”

“Yeah, Ruth. We’re fine.”

Ruth said, “You didn’t get a bomb threat? The alarm didn’t go off, did it?”

“The system’s broken. That’s why I’m here.”

“God, I thought so. The woman who called me and others within the department is inside Polymath. All we know is that she has a foreign accent that no one’s been able to place so far. She or whoever she’s working with set off an alarm in the mall and the other offices. Everyone’s been evacuated. Everyone but you and the others in that office.”

“I’m not a part of this.” said John.

“Were you outside a restaurant in the South End earlier?”

“Yeah. Ruth, I went there because the Sorter told Dr. Lane to take Alice away.”

“That doesn’t make sense.”

“I don’t know, it had something to do with my dad. I got upset and…”

“Did you make threats about doing something to Polymath or the Sorter?”

He was quiet for a minute.

Ruth said, “Did you?”

John was quiet when he spoke again. “It happened after I got the job.”

“And you’re not working with anyone on the inside to plan this?”

“The Sorter didn’t tell Dr. Lane about Alice until after I got the job. That’s what I’m saying.”

“I’ll talk to her.” said Ruth.

“Do that.”

“I want to believe you, John.”

“Do that too.”

“So you’re still inside.” said Ruth. “Do you know what’s in the package? In your van?”

“No idea, but I don’t want to know. Jason and I are leaving when we get that chance.”

“You can’t; it’s too late.” Ruth paused and then said, “The caller said that if anyone leaves now, the bomb will detonate.”

John swore under his voice and glanced at Jason. He was beginning to realize that they were at the tail end of this particular row of dominoes. The threat was out, the bomb was in, and he was already a suspect. He was a step behind, but he could find some hope that a plan as careful as this had a rational conclusion. It wasn’t the work of someone like him, some nut on a loose bolt. He was playing a game with a goal and that might be his salvation.

John said, “I’ve met the woman you’re talking about. Did she make any demands?”

“Not yet. What I can do now is figure out what’s in the box. Where did it come from?”

“A place called Sylvan Laboratory Solutions, 84 Vassar Street in Cambridge.”

“I’m going.” she said. “Promise me you’ll keep your head down.”

“I will.”

“Promise me, John.”

“I did.”

There was pounding on the door. John wandered out of his safe zone and was in front of the door again. He saw Dale. The man with the gun was behind him and Dale wanted in. John wasn’t going to let that happen. He held up a finger and turned his back to Dale.

“I promise.” he said to Ruth.

She hung up. John had left out the part about the gunman. What good was that going to do? He had decided to wait until he knew more, or until the police showed up. John was sure he could keep Jason safe in the meantime. He’d done the same for Alice. He remembered how is father had become more erratic after the man lost his job and his wife died. Dad had never been a stable man and these setbacks pushed him over the edge. John had become used to protecting his sister when their father was on a bender, but there was one incident that required a little more force. Just like now, John jad been cornered in a room with a helpless kid. Well, in chronological age Alice hadn’t been a kid as young as Jason, but mentally she had. And just like now, the man in John’s way had been a fierce, violent prick. Back then, John had found a way to dispatch his attacker in such a way that no one heard from the man again. He’d just been a teenager then. His adult self ought to be even more capable.

John looked for Jason. He wasn’t there. That was not a problem he’d expected to have.

He glanced through the window where Dale and the gunman had been. Now the whole gang was gathered around. There was something else, and it was the strangest thing John had ever seen.

TWENTY SIX

Ruth Holland, no longer a detective, crossed the Mass Ave bridge into Cambridge and turned onto Vassar Street. She found herself among the buildings of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Cement Jersey barriers narrowed the street to a single lane. Torn up black top and construction equipment filled the cordoned off space. Beyond that she could see the chain link fence and bleachers that marked the edge of MIT’s rugby field. Squat brick industrial buildings and parking garages lined the other side of the road. Some of those buildings bore an MIT name plate, but others were private companies.

One of the latter was number 84, a three story warehouse looking structure sheathed in corrugated aluminum. It was windowless, save for a wing that bumped out from a corner. The words Sylvan Laboratory Solutions, with office hours, were etched on the glass door. No passerby would know what this place was unless they took the time to read the little words on that sign. This wasn’t a Neiman Marcus and they didn’t expect walk in business. Greater Boston was filled with these small time suppliers of specialized equipment. People who needed them knew were to find them. Often, these operations worked with materials that were dangerous or expensive or both. Public recognition wasn’t their thing.

Ruth didn’t have a badge. She would have to use something else instead to get inside. In the interest of keeping it simple, she pulled on the door. It was locked. Ruth tried the buzzer and a young woman dressed in jeans and a turtleneck answered.

“Hi.” said Ruth. “I’m Christine Kerr and I work with Polymath. You sent us a package today?”

The woman said, “I’m Emily, the manufacturing supervisor on duty here.”

“I think we may have received your delivery by mistake; do you mind if I come in?”

“I don’t understand why you didn’t just call.”

“I’m sorry.” said Ruth. “I was conducting a college invitational and my boss asked me to stop by while I was out here. Is it a bad time? Is there someone else I should talk to?”

Emily shook her head and stepped back, “Let me take you to shipping and receiving.”

Inside, there was a small reception area with a desk and a Berber carpet, but no chairs other than the empty one behind the desk. The next room was a honeycomb of unassuming cubicles. Ruth wondered if these people really made bombs.

Ruth said, “Do you package products in hypoxic chambers? To be honest, my boss was worried the box might contain something dangerous.”

“Polymath, you said? The personality testing people?”

“The same.”

They came to a tall, wide sliding door. It was locked in the open position. They walked through a vestibule and another doorway covered with plastic strips, like the kind in an industrial freezer. This marked the transition to part of the building that had looked like a warehouse from the outside. Ruth found herself on a factory floor. She didn’t see much human activity, but she did hear and feel an overpowering hum.

She said, “What do you make here, Emily?”

“We’re a custom biogram production facility.”

“What’s that?”

The two women came to a wall with a panel marked shipping and receiving.

Emily said, “Other companies send us genetic material and we build the organism.”

“Excuse me?”

“It has all sorts of uses, such as bio fuels and pharmaceuticals. We mostly make microbes.”

“You mostly make microbes. Could you make a bomb? Or a disease?”

Emily shot her a condescending smile. “Yeah, we build dinosaurs too.”

Ruth didn’t take the condescension. “I didn’t ask about dinosaurs.”

“So you’re really worried this package could be dangerous?”

“Not me.” said Ruth.

“Right, your boss.”

“He knows this part of town. He knows what kinds of things people make here. Or so he tells me.”

They were standing in a room with lines of stacked boxes. Beyond that were piles of bubbled wrapped packages on pallets. A couple fork lifts sat nearby. Emily walked up to a computer and scrolled through records.

As she did so, she said, “Our customers are all reputable organizations. For example, MIT. We run a screen against all the genetic code that we get.”

“And that will find anything dangerous?”

Emily turned her head around and put her hands on her hips.

“You said your from Polymath?” she said.

“I’m pretty sure I did.”

“Because you seem to me a lot like a cop.”

“Oh?” said Ruth. “Do you have a lot of experience with the police?”

“Now I know you are.” said Emily. “Is this your first undercover assignment?”

Ruth was smiling inside. She had wanted Emily to come to this conclusion. She had wanted to convince this woman that there might be some trouble, but without the use of a badge. Emily continued without waiting for an answer.

“We represent the genome with something called Godel Encoding. Turning the code into a Godel Number allows us to analyze it for any number of characteristics. Nonetheless, it’s subject to the same limitations of any Godel Number.”

“Those limitations won’t find dangerous things?”

“You could represent anything as a Godel Number. The first application was mathematics, where Godel encoded theorems as numbers. He proved that you could not develop a function that would take the number as input and produce as output whether the theorem represented by that number was true or false. What I’m trying to say is that you cannot mechanically prove a mathematical theorem true or false and likewise you cannot detect every possible outcome of a genetic sequence.”

“So something could slip through? Like a bomb made of biological material?”

“Or a disease, as you said, but the people we work with aren’t fly by night.”

“They’re reputable organizations.” said Ruth.

Emily said, “You see how we’re housed in this plain building with a nondescript name written in small letters on the door? What we do is both legal and necessary, but if the public, which is by and large illiterate, were to know about us there would be riots. You saw what happened with genetically modified food. As if there were such a think as unmodified food. That’s why I had to explain to you all this stuff about Godel’s theorem. We can’t screen for all possible outcomes and it’s not because the technology hasn’t advanced enough. It’s simply not possible.”

“Then why do it?”

“Would you stop doing math because there are theorems you can’t prove true or false? While we wait for answers that will never come, the world is warming and people are dying of hunger. Sometimes better is the enemy of good enough. We have to move forward. There’s just as much risk in not doing something as there is in doing it. After all, you and I are the product or a genetic accident – millions of them actually.”

“So what you’re saying.” said Ruth. “Is that if someone were clever enough, he or she could design a weapon and sneak if past your screens?”

“You really have a one track mind.”

“You’re the one who thinks I’m a cop.”

“Fair enough. What you say is true, but it’s not as though anyone can mail order a biogram.”

“They have to be a reputable organization, I know. So who placed the Polymath order?”

Emily turned back to the screen. She found the record and said, “The MIT Advanced Storage Lab. We’ve worked with them before. They’re working on biological computer storage. It’s higher density and cheaper to make than traditional storage. That explains the hypoxic chamber. It’s all experimental and too delicate to transport any other way.”

Ruth said, “And you’re sure what you shipped this morning was a disk drive?”

“I can’t be sure. Only the storage lab would know what to look for. We just run the screen.”

“And if someone else forged an order from that lab?”

For the first time since Ruth had met her, Emily was silent. She stood there with her arms crossed over her chest and her mouth partway open. She was starting to understand what the problem was here. This place was probably the brain child of some former MIT professor. It was a close knit industry and they were used to working on trust. The look on Emily’s face showed that she was beginning to worry that someone had breached that trust.

She said, “Exactly what’s wrong with the package?”

Ruth said, “Right now, hundreds of people are standing in the middle of Atlantic Avenue because someone at Polymath has claimed that there is a bomb in that box.”

“I would suggest…” said Emily, “That you talk to the MIT Advanced Storage Lab.”

TWENTY SEVEN

Rosalind didn’t believe that Reggie would shoot anyone. The Reginald Binder she knew was a man of precision and control, not one to act on impulse. She had first met Binder years before they started a company together. Rosalind was a woman of many hobbies. Dale appreciated her love of puzzles, but he hadn’t stepped even toe deep into the woods yet. Rosalind tutored high school students in calculus. She played twelve tone pieces by Elliot Carter and Nikita Koshkin on the guitar. She followed the development of all forms of transportation technology. She was, in a couple words, a little weird.

Five years ago she visited the Alternative Clean Transportation expo when it came to the Bayside Center. The fair featured advanced batteries, solar cells, and even combustible algae. She encountered Binder in a railroad exhibit. Reggie loved trains more than a little boy. He was arguing with a docent about the history of electric light rail. He treated the subject as though it were as grave as nuclear war. Rosalind was never one to read people’s emotions, but she could tell that Reggie was angry. Even so, his voice never quivered and he never descended into the roughshod logic that people use when making a point about about which they are passionate. Reggie was never satisfied with winning a fight by force. Even if his opponent admitted defeat, a voice inside Binder would never let him forget that he hadn’t employed reason to humiliate his opponent.

A few years later, that instinct had brought to life Reggie’s one true love: the Sorter. Nagel may have conceived it, but Reggie had made it real by sheer will power. The Sorter was his baby and Rosalind believed he wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize his control, including turning the office into a blood bath. That’s why when the pistol appeared, she was willing to let him speak. A part of her even wanted him to use that logic engine to change her mind. She was wrong about him.

Before Dale reappeared, Rosalind had been in the conference room with Kevin, George, Marianne and Reggie.

Reggie said, “Kevin, how long have I known you?”

Kevin shrugged.

“Answer the question.” said Reggie.

“We met in college.”

“We were roommates. We’ve been best friends for more than half our lives. Without that friendship, you would still be begging to get your professor’s chair back.” Reggie pointed to Rosalind with the hand that wasn’t holding the pistol. “I would never say we were best friends. I’m not even sure we were ever friends at all, but I know you’re the most rational person I’ve ever met. How did you turn into a lovestruck, capricious little girl? In three years, that man will need a walker and someone to wipe his drool. I hope it’s worth it.”

Rosalind folded her hands on the conference table and said, “My relationship with Dale is a coincidence. You may have had the vision to get us this far, but you don’t understand what the Sorter can do.”

Pointing at Nagel, Reggie said, “Find someone else who can make reality out of this man’s lizard scratchings.”

Rosalind said, “I was working in finance when the crisis broke. We used think our models could predict whether the price of this or that derivative would go up or down. The premise of those models was a rational market and we failed to quantify the effects of irrationality. We erased money from existence and ruined the lives of millions.” Rosalind pounded on the table, surprising even herself. “The Sorter mines the mathematics buried deep beneath all that human emotion. It quantifies irrationality and offers us the hope of a more stable society.”

“I want nothing less.” said Reggie.

“All you care about is enforcing a moral code. Your vision of the Sorter is sharia law for atheists, an Inquisition run by omniscient software.”

“You seem to think money is more important than justice.”

“Whose justice?” said Rosalind. “The Sorter may tell you what people will do and maybe even why they will do it, but never whether it’s right or wrong.” She stood up. “The man who killed your wife is dead, Reggie. Let him lie.”

As Rosalind said this, she noticed Dale returning to the office. Reggie raised the gun at Dale.

God no he’s really going to kill someone, she thought.

The shot went off. Dale was still standing. He ran and Reggie went after him. For a moment, the others sat in the room, staring at each other. George was the first to leave. Rosalind had to tell herself to move, just move and do something for Dale, even if there was only a slim chance that she might love him.

Nagel and Marianne brought up the rear. When they all reached Reggie and Dale, the former had cornered the latter against the door to the engineering room. He aimed and Rosalind shouted.

“No!”

Reggie turned as if he’d decided to finish her off first. Then he looked past her and froze. Everyone turned and there was Cass, naked as a bird.

TWENTY EIGHT

The first image that slipped through John’s mind was that of a Barbie doll, or a mannequin. The beautiful receptionist who’d brought John and Jason inside stood unclothed, but not exactly nude. Cass was as smooth as plastic. If he’d seen a photo he might have thought she was wearing a skin color body suit, but from this distance and in three dimensions it was clear that her glassy surface was her skin. Whatever he was seeing was a deformity or not human at all. Given the kind of day he’d been having, John was leaning toward not human. Indeed, he had a pretty good notion of just what kind of not-human thing this woman was.

Cass blinked. She didn’t blink her eyes. Her entire body blinked. It vanished and returned. Then it happened it again. She spoke and John could hear her voice. The voice didn’t come through the door, but from everywhere, from the speakers in the PA system.

“You have to stop what you’re doing.” she said. “Or the child will destroy me.”

Then she was gone and stayed gone long enough for everyone’s expression to lose that momentary bewilderment and return to fear or anger. John didn’t want to see what happened next. He had another problem.

Somehow, he’d lost Jason. Of all the places and times for the boy to wander off, he had to choose here and now. There were only three exits from the room. There was a table in front of one door and the other was locked, perhaps because it was connected to the building’s security system and not to Polymath’s. This left the third door, the one with the nonfunctional keypad. John pulled on the third door and it opened.

He was sure Jason was in there, but not sure what else might be in there with him. Before passing through the door, John looked for some kind of weapon. The best he could do was a long Phillips screwdriver. The end of it was nearly a foot and a half long, suitable for reaching screws buried in the cavities of electronics. The tip was small and sharp. It would have to do.

John went through the keypad door and found himself inside a server room. This was a show room, with wide screens and computers encased in a fancy glass box. It was small and Jason wasn’t there. John opened a door at the room’s other end and entered a very different place.

This must be the real deal, he thought.

The dark chamber shrieked with high speed air handling equipment. Racks upon racks of ATC chassis filled the tight spaces. A few of the racks were empty. Someone had yanked computer boards out of them and dumped them on the floor. John stepped over the boards, calling for Jason. He found the boy standing near a row of gas tanks. These were likely a part of the suppression system that John was sent here to repair. Jason had his hand on a fire alarm switch. He’d stripped down to his underwear. He was shivering, crying and fighting a runny nose. He was more frightened than John has ever seen him.

“Jason?” said John. “What’s going on?”

“Who told you to do what?”

“The woman who let us in.” Jason sucked in a snot. “I need to pull the lever.”

“Why?”

“If anyone comes in with a gun, I need to pull the lever.”

“Jason, come away from there.”

The boy shook his head. John held the screwdriver in front of him and inched toward Jason.

“Come on, do what I tell you. Your mom’s coming and we need to leave.”

“I can’t.” said Jason. “She’ll explode the bomb if I let go.”

“There’s no bomb. You can I drove that truck here. We know there’s no bomb. That’s stupid.”

Jason shook his head again and John came closer still. When he spoken again, he was yelling.

“Kid, do what the hell I tell you. There’s no bomb and you’re mom’s coming.” When Jason sniveled, John stuck the screwdriver out and him and said, “Put. Your. Clothes. On. Now. Now, Jason. We’re leaving.”

“No.”

“I swear I will put this thing in you if I have to.”

“That lady wants to kill herself. Look up.”

Despite his frame of mind, John did. Because that’s what you do when someone says look up. He saw that there were two fire suppressant systems. One was based on CO2 gas and drive by the tanks along the wall. The other was a simple water sprinkler system. This was the one connected to the lever which Jason gripped. If he pulled that, the water would rain down and destroy this entire operation.

The lady wants to kill herself. The lady was Cass, and John was certain now just what kind of not-human she was.

“Cass is the Sorter.” he said.

She’d appeared to Jason like the ghost of Christmas future and told him to pull those board out. She told him to hang tight on that switch and reappeared outside in some kind of half-baked state. She was the Sorter. It was possible. John knew it was possible. What was more frightening was the question of who she worked for. Was she operating under the command of this company, or on her own?

From somewhere outside, a gunshot fired.

A few minutes later, Reggie appeared, soaked in blood and brains.

TWENTY NINE

Ruth parked her car in Kendall square, about a block away from Sylvan. Chances were that Keller wasn’t far behind and she didn’t want to stay outside the lab. She pulled her laptop out of the trunk. It was her personal computer, not a department asset. She walked to a nearby coffee shop and connected to the wireless.

The sergeant detective wasn’t sure how this would work. In reality, there weren’t many cops who smoked cigars and drove bad guys off the road with their 1970 Mercury Cougars. There weren’t many Coolies either. The daughter of a detective, Ruth always thought of herself as the cop who fell off the left end of that scale that went from walking rule book to irredeemable scapegrace. Her boss was a corrupt cop. Her husband had wanted to be better, but he died another corrupt cop. Ruth didn’t want that for herself. She didn’t want her dad to see it and she didn’t want her son to see it.

But she knew that her priorities lay deeper than those of the system that had imprisoned her.

Ruth would’ve liked to follow up on Reginald Binder, but she wasn’t going near him now. She read the Polymath website and press releases. She found some of the other high ranking members of the Polymath group. As a private company, it wasn’t required to release much about its corporate structure. This would do, however.

Binder had two partners, Kevin Nagel and Rosalind Munro. Nagel had posted a public curriculum vitae and it said that he’d once been a professor at MIT. He had worked in the computer science department, home of the Advanced Storage Laboratory. Nagel had worked in artificial intelligence, not storage systems, but the proximity was too close to deny. Emily at Sylvan had told Ruth to go talk to the university and now there was even more reason to do so.

Ruth went back to her car and retrieved a lock box from her trunk. Inside was her personal weapon. Unlike the standard sized 9 mm Glock service weapons carried by the Boston PD, this was a tiny Beretta Pico. It was small enough for her to conceal under her jacket, which is just what she did. Ruth wasn’t sure why she choose this moment to rearm herself. She told herself that as she drew closer to the source of this mess, she was more likely to encounter people who wanted her out. Yet there was a part of her that had to admit that sooner or later the Christine Kerr act wasn’t going to get her the answers she wanted and that a firearm might be more persuasive. It wasn’t a thought she liked, but it was the sort of thought one had to entertain when the walls started closing in.

She went to the AI lab. It resided in an immodest building identified as MIT building 32, otherwise known at the Stata Center. The Center was a showpiece, composed of walls that looked like crumpled chunks of card board stuck together and painted orange, yellow and silver. The closer Ruth approached, the more she felt like some slanted bit of jagged concrete and aluminum would drop off and crush her. The place was the opposite of Sylvan’s unassuming factory in a box. It wanted attention.

The interior was more conventional. It was upscale, but more in the sense of a swank hotel than a lunatic billionaire’s space ark, as one might have guessed from the exterior. Ruth took an elevator to the AI lab and found herself walking a spare hallway.

“Can I help you?”

Ruth turned and saw a man in his forties wearing glasses and long, curly blond hair. He carried a tablet in one hand and a paper coffee cup in the other. Unlike with Emily, his suspicion of Ruth was immediate.

“I'm Christine Kerr.” said Ruth. “I work for Polymath. We're a technology company -”

“I know about Polymath.” said the curly haired man.

“You don’t sound to happy about that.”

“I’m not. Why are you here?”

“I think we may have received a package that was intended for your lab.”

“Okay.” he said. “I’m Steven, the assistant department chair. Shall we talk in my office?”

Steven led Ruth into an office and closed the door. The room was filled with old computers shoved under the desk and more stacks of papers than one might expect from the assistant chair of a computer science department. Steven plugged his tablet into a docking station, bringing to life a battery of screens which lined one branch of his L-shaped desk.

Ruth noticed a photo of a girl next to the docking station. She was perhaps about nine. A pink stuffed dog holding a violin sat in front of the picture. When Steven set his tablet down, he bumped the dog and it played a few bars of Bach’s third Brandenburg Concerto.

“It that your daughter?” said Ruth.

“Yes, and I need to go see her soon. She’s in the hospital. Please make this quick.”

“Of course. Do you work with the Advanced Storage department or know how it operates?”

“ASL is a lab, not a department.” said Steven. “Since I help run the entire department, I am familiar with all the labs. What makes you think you have something for them?”

“We got a delivery of a hypoxic chamber from Sylvan Laboratory Solutions, just down the street from here. I talked to them and they said ASL had made the order. Do you have any way of finding out who from the lab had ordered it or what’s inside?”

“I do, not that isn’t any of your business.”

“I don’t mean any harm.” said Ruth. “I just want to tell them I’ve got their box.”

“Right. First let’s see if we were the ones who ordered it.”

Steven pulled up a web interface and scrolled through various entries.

Ruth said, “That’s a nice looking tool you’ve got. Is that something you can buy?”

“No, it’s custom.” said Steven. “We built a centralized system to handle all purchases. The entire university uses it to operate their supply chain. We make an order to them through their system and they purchase from suppliers. It allows us to get bulk discounts, screen vendors, and present a single purchasing entity to the outside world.”

“You sound like you used to work in supply chain yourself.”

He waved a dismissive hand, saying, “As an undergrad.”

“So anyone can use this system?”

Steven looked insulted. “Of course not. It’s a multi-tiered system. First of all, supply chain doesn’t control the money. You’ve got various sources of money, from department overhead to grants and the like. All of that goes through the finance people, who supply various charge numbers connected to the internal accounts. Each charge number has a primary signature authority – someone who owns the account – and that person can delegate to other people.”

“I get it.” said Ruth. “You’re not a fly by night operation.”

“Unlike Polymath, as I understand.”

Ruth recognized Steven’s disdain for the company and thought about how she might use it.

“There’s some truth to that.” she said. “I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to work with Reginald Binder. He runs the place like it’s his personal property and treats the rest of us like house servants. Do you know he sent me to pick up dry cleaning and then told me to come over here? And it’s not like I’m a secretary; I’m a paralegal!”

“That’s my impression of Binder too.” said Steven. “Around here, there’s more delegation. There are exceptions for certain purposes and only certain people can authorize that.”

“Those exceptions would include Sylvan, of course.”

“Of course.”

Ruth said, “And who has the authority to make purchases at Sylvan?”

“You’re funny.” said Steven. “It’s like you’re interrogating me or something. Why do you care about all this stuff? Let me find out if we made the order and then you can send it here. You don’t have to know anything else.”

“I’m sorry.” said Ruth. “I’m actually kind of looking for a new job.”

“That’s hardly the way to go about it. And I’m not interested in interviewing more people from Polymath.”

This comment was very interesting to Ruth. “Others have interviewed here? Who?”

“I can’t tell you that. And I can’t tell you who bought your hypoxic chamber or what’s in it.”

“It’s your hypoxic chamber.”

“Whatever, Miss Kerr. I can’t give you that information. Just describe the package to me and I’ll see if I can find it.”

Before she could answer, they heard a noise coming from another room. It sounded like a little girl singing “Over The Rainbow”. Her voice was quite stunning and it carried through the halls. Steven shot up as though rushing from a fire. Ruth went after him.

“Someday I’ll wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far behind me.”

Ruth came into a large room and had a lot of trouble making sense of what she saw. In the center of the room there was a table and on that table sat a black box about a foot and a half wide by three or four inches tall by three feet deep. Several humming fans were blowing warm air out of circular vents in the back and front. The front panel also featured a display dense with rows of scrolling a numbers.

A girl stood on top of this box, dressed in a simple blue gown. It was the girl from the photo on Steven’s desk. Beyond the girl and her electronic podium there was a man with his back turned to them. He was rifling through a file cabinet. The burglar turned when the other two entered. It was Lieutenant Keller.

The assistant department chari entered a code on the display with all the scrolling numbers and the girl disappeared.

“It’s a hologram.” said Ruth to herself.

Steve charged at the lieutenant and the latter showed his badge.

Ruth said, “What in the hell are you doing?”

“I don’t know Sergeant.” said Keller. “What’s your story?”

Steven said to Ruth. “You’re a cop too? Why didn’t you say so?”

“She’s not a cop.” said Keller. “Not now.”

“Keller.” said Ruth. She stepped closer to her boss. “Is something wrong?”

“There’s something I need.”

“Something you want to steal.”

Keller passed Ruth and came to within a couple feet of Steven.

He said, “I want Kevin Nagel’s files.”

Steven said, “I don’t think that’s something I can just give you without a warrant.”

“What’s happened?” said Ruth. “Something’s happened at Polymath?”

She found her phone and Keller held out his hand.

“Don’t talk to them.” he said. “You don’t know how it will react.”

“It? The Sorter?”

Keller turned back to Steven and said, “I know Kevin Nagel used to work here. And I know he worked on some stuff related to the Sorter because the department made a stink of it. You claimed he’d stolen it and that property belonged to the university. If the university believes it’s theirs, then they would never destroy it.”

“You wouldn’t find it in an unlocked cabinet.” said Steven.

“Where would I find it?”

Ruth said, “What happened over there? Keller, what's going on? My son -”

“Shut up about your son.”

Keller lunged for Steven and grabbed him. Though the professor was a bit taller, he was startled by the move and peddled backwards. He tripped and fell out of Keller’s grasp, sprawling on the floor. His cell phone fell from somewhere on his body and slid across the linoleum. It hit the leg of the table on which the holographic projector had stood. Keller leaned over the man, placing one shoe between the man’s knees and the other on the outside of his legs. The lieutenant pulled his weapon from its holster and held it in front of him with two hands.

He said, “Where can I find it?”

Ruth was standing behind Keller when she brought her Beretta out. Then she popped off a shot. It was a single shot and then she let the gun down, but it was enough. She couldn’t have been more than five feet away. Her bullet hit Keller in the right shoulder and he fell on top of Steven. The professor shoved the lieutenant off him and the latter lay on the floor, on his left shoulder. He managed to wrap that arm around his body and hold the other shoulder, the one that was spilling blood all over the floor.

Keller fixed his eyes on Ruth. He held them on her and said, “You shot me.”

“I’ll do it again.”

Without another word, Keller scrambled to his feet and ran away. Ruth went up to Steven, who seemed reluctant to stand again. Detective Holland till had her weapon out and he didn’t seem sure what to make of her. With her free hand she ran her fingers though her hair and looked at the tiles on the ceiling.

“I shouldn’t have shot him.” she said. Then she looked at Steven. “He never told me what was going on.”

Steven pushed himself up into a sitting position and held his palms out, saying, “Can I stand?”

Ruth said, “I really need to know who made that purchase.”

“I see. It’s no different with you.”

“My son is inside Polymath’s office.” Her voice was soft, exhausted. “Everyone else in the building has evacuated because there’s a bomb threat. It appears that this box I’ve been talking about is the bomb. I went to Sylvan Labs and they said the order originated here.”

“Not many people can make that purchase. Just me and Mike Newell, the department chair.”

“And Kevin Nagel used to work here?”

“He was friends with Mike, but he left before I came here. My only encounter with him was when he convinced Mike to interview this friend of his for a technical assistant position. Mike asked me to interview the guy. It was someone from Polymath and the whole thing was fiasco.”

“Who was this guy?”

“I can’t talk to you about these things. I hope you understand better than the other one.”

“My understanding isn’t the problem. My son standing on top of your bomb is the problem.”

Steven’s phone rang. They both looked at where it lay, next the table leg. Ruth saw that the caller Id presented a photo that looked like the one on Steven’s desk, of the girl who’s effigy had been projected in this room.

“It’s my daughter.” said Steven. “I’m late.”

“Then you better answer my question.”

“She’s in the hospital. She has lymphoma, for Christ’s sake.”

“And my son is about to explode.” said Ruth. “To each his own.”

When Steven didn’t answer her, Ruth knelt down, still pointing the gun at him, and pressed the talk button on the phone.

“Daddy?” said a little girl’s voice.

“Don’t.” said Steven.

Ruth said, “Your daddy’s here, sweetie. He’s going to come see you after he answers some questions.” She turned back to Steven. “Your girl’s waiting for you.”

“Daddy? Who’s that?”

“The man’s name was George Simon.” said Steven. “Can I go?”

“Why was the interview a fiasco? Why risk your life for this information?”

“Daddy, what’s happening? What’s going on?”

“When George came all he did was complain about Nagel setting him up. I thought maybe Nagel was trying to push him out of Polymath. And maybe he didn’t want to fire the guy and pay severance. So he tried to find him a better offer. But this is MIT; what was he thinking?”

“And that was the fiasco?”

Steven nodded.

“You’re lying.” said Ruth. “Why wouldn’t you have said that in the beginning?”

“I’m just frightened, that’s all. You’ve got your name; can I go?”

“What happened, professor? Did George gain access to your system? Did he place an order with your credentials? Did you let it happen?”

“I could loose my job. I could go to prison,”

“You’ll die right here and your daughter will hear it happen.” Ruth stepped closer. “Does this George Simon still work at Polymath? Did Nagel send him here to create this bomb and purchase it using your credentials?”

“It’s possible.”

“What’s your opinion? Did he do it or not?” She turned her head to point her face at the phone and said, “Sweetie, dad’s going to loose his head in a moment if he doesn’t answer this so you tell daddy to answer the question.” To Steven she said, “You know what happened. There’s no maybe about it. You know and you’ve been hiding it so tell me what happened.”

The little girl screamed.

Steven said, “He did. Fine, he did. Everything you said was right.”

“What’s inside?”

“What?”

“Is it a bomb?”

“I don’t know. I tried to figure it out, but it’s damn near impossible. You can have the code if you want it. It’s in my office. A yellow colored USB stick stuck into my docking station.”

“I’ll be getting it.”

Ruth walked away. She heard Steven scrambling on the floor and grabbing his phone. As she left the room she heard him murmuring to her. Ruth found the memory stick where he’d said she’d find it. Then she found a ladies room and locked herself in a stall. She crouched on the floor and hugged her knees to her chest and pressed her forehead against those knees and cried.

THIRTY

The Atlantic Mall stood on the waterfront and its peaceful reflection floated on the surface of Boston Harbor. On the street side, a semi-circle of police equipment and personnel penned in hundreds of civilians along the building’s wall. It’s difficult to know how how a crowd will react to confinement or under what conditions it will turn into a mob. At that moment, the authorities were lucky. Their charges were quieter now than when the trouble broke out. Most people paced or huddled, according to each one’s typical way of resigning himself or herself to uncertainty. It was not that they were unafraid. Rather, they had become accustomed to fear and were conserving their energy for the catastrophe that was sure to come. They calmed themselves, tamed by nothing more than an idle threat from a computer.

On the inside, an atrium stood in near silence, save for a babbling waterfall and the shushing air vents. A few rows of leafy trees lined the marble floor. A grand staircase rose to an upper balcony an a row of offices. All except for the last in the row were empty. In one room of that office suite, a man with a gun chased another up against a wall. Two more men and two women watched and waited.

A third woman appeared and said, “You have to stop or the child will destroy me.”

She disappeared. Reginald Binder knew that the object of his love was slipping through his fingers. Since the death of his wife, Reggie had spent all of his waking moments and many of his sleeping ones dreaming of a machine with more insight into what makes humans go tick and boom than any psychologist. He hadn’t assembled any of the computers or written any of the code. And though he was wealthy, he didn’t fund the project. What Reggie did was make the whole more than the sum of these parts. He found the people who could make it happen and for a brief moment in time they made something together, something that might change the world. Reggie did it for love and what he loved was the Sorter and nothing else. He didn’t want to make money off it. He didn’t even want the show the world what a great thing he’d done. For all Reggie cared, no one had to know his role in making the Sorter see light.

What Reggie wanted was for every last breathing sack of flesh to get down on its knees and admit that they were, after all, nothing but programs, coded up by a blind programmer. And the Sorter had them cracked. At last, that was the secret, wasn’t it? All these years, all those people trying to make thinking machines, what they foolishly called artificial intelligence, thought that making something hum like a person was the pearl of greatest value. Reggie knew they were crazy to exalt three pounds of hamburger. No, it wasn’t better it to make a computer human. It was better to show humans they were computers. The first step to recovery is acceptance. Then let the doctor come and fix it.

That dream was crumbling. Cass, the Sorter, came and disappeared. Every watched the others for their expressions.

“What was that?” said Marianne.

George said, “Cass is the Sorter’s visual presence.”

“Happens now?”

George reached in his pocket and pulled out his spinning device. He let it go and watched the letter line up. When the wheels stopped, George help them up to his face so that only he could see what they said. The blood drained from his face and his expression changed to one of resolution.

Reggie said, “What does your magic wheel say, George?”

George leaped on Reggie. He clawed for the weapon, but he wasn’t quick enough. Binder tossed his attacker off and George spun back over belly onto the floor. He lay there, looking into the lights.

That stupid blue light is still flashing, he thought.

Reggie shot him. Reginald Binder had leaned in close enough to hear George’s last breaths escaping from his longs. He’d held the pistol inches from George’s face and there had been a star shaped flash. After that, George’s face was gone. The spinning wheels with the eyes lay beside them. Though it was broken in two, it was still easy to see the message it bore.

 

STOP HIM

 

Reggie stood up, covered in stringy slivers of muscle and that all important mush that had a moment before been inside George’s skull. He went off to the server room, to find this child that was killing what he loved most in this world.

THIRTY ONE

John couldn’t remember in what year he’d last seen his dad, but he knew that day had been in September. He was probably eighteen or nineteen at the time, because he wasn’t in school. Back then, John used to haul newspapers for a living. He wasn’t a paper boy, though that’s what some of his old high school buddies used to call him – as if they were doing much better. Every morning before dawn, John filled his dad’s Plymouth with twine bound stacks of the Boston Herald and drove all over the streets of his home town, the compact city of Chelsea.

He’d come home that morning to find John Sr. sprawled on the couch in his boxer briefs. The man always said about his underwear, “I need the length and I need the support.” He didn’t need either then. It had been six weeks since the General Electric River Works plant in Lynn laid off half its workforce and dad was living off a few dollars thrown his way by the union. They were fighting the layoffs, but there wasn’t much hope for a revival. It was up to John Junior now to support his father and his sister.

At first the sight of Dad struck him with a pang of sympathy. Big John, as people once called him, was never very large. Junior had been taller than him since high school. Big John was short and skinny, and this latest dead end had made him worse. His shorts barely clung to his hips, with the wilted rubber band folded up in waves against his skin. His ribs stuck up every time he took a breath. There was something kind of admirable in that sleeping figure, ugly as it was. Big John was starving himself so his kids could eat. Added to that was his very presence here on the couch. It was a frequent sight. The photos of the kids’ mom still filled their parents’ bedroom and for some reason Big John figured it was better to sleep out here than to take them down. He didn’t want to forget her, but he couldn’t sleep with her ghost watching him either.

The warm feeling in Little John’s heart didn’t last for long. On the coffee table he saw a tin box of Camel Rares. He picked it up and it was empty. Those were his Camels. His dad smoked Winstons. Those were some cheap, foul smelling sticks. Once Little John got a job, he decided that the one one luxury he’d allow himself was a decent pack of nails. He settled on Camel Wides and sometimes, when he came into some cash or was in need of a little happiness, he splurged on the Rares. They came in that sleek black tin box, which he swore made up half their luxury price, but they made him feel like a greasy millionaire.

His dad was happy with Little’s vice, because he kept snatching them. Junior tried to hide them, but where do you hide a carton in 1000 square feet of living space? All he ever got for the effort was a ransacked bedroom that looked like the target of a drug bust – and still no Camels. So he let his dad pinch one every now and then. That day – that last day he’d ever seen the man in his life – Big John had finished off the entire box. Their remains were decomposing in the ashtray.

“Hey,” said Little John. He nudged his dad with the point of his boot. “Hey, get up.”

Big snorted and opened his eyes and said, “What time is it?”

“I don’t know, the sun’s up. Isn’t that good enough for you?” Little John made a show of dumping the empty tin in the garbage. “When are you going to pay for your own smokes?”

“Whenever you pay me back for raising you.” The man stood up and searched the space under the coffee table for his pants and his shirt. “The only reason you’ve got expensive tastes is because you’ve got no babies. You’ll see how it is when the union money runs out.”

“So you want me to feel guilty for being born? If you don’t want to spend all your money keeping little mouths fed, then keep your dick in your pants. I’m not ever having kids.”

“Why don’t you just leave?”

Little John said nothing. His dad knew the answer. Alice was a minor – hell, more than a minor, a retard. Big could keep custody of her for the rest of his life if he wanted and that wasn’t something John was willing to let happen. The old man used to beat John when he was a kid. He used to kick him till it hurt to use the toilet. Like it was somehow the kid’s fault that mom was dead. The beatings happened less when it became clear that Little John wasn’t so little anymore. One day John whacked his dad with a flashlight, broke the lens and the bulb on his face and everything. It left a mark for days. Big kept his hands off since then.

The older man pulled his clothes on, saying, “It was so hot up here last night; did you feel it?”

It had been one of those Septembers that sneaked in a few days in the eighties after a week of breezy cool weather. They lived on the third floor of an old apartment block. Instead of circuit breakers, there were six fuses secreted behind a panel in the kitchen. There was no chance of a window A/C, let alone central air, becoming a reality. Every spring, Dad wedged a twenty inch metal box fan in the rear kitchen window. The damn thing filled the apartment with the sound of a jet engine for four months, but it had come out two weeks ago. Dad was always afraid of paying for heat and then blowing it out the window, so the moment fall set in there was no looking back.

“No.” said Little John. “I was out working most of the night.”

Dad went to the kitchen and started opening up cabinets. Most of them were empty.

He said, “Don’t we have any clean dishes left? And what about bread? All I want it toast.”

Junior said, “What are you going to do today?” When his father shrugged, he said, “They’re not going to come through. You have to face it that GE is shutting down.”

“You don’t think I know that?” He opened the fridge. “So there’s no bread and no milk.”

“So what are you doing about it? You have all the time in the world to look for work.”

“And who’s going to look after your sister?”

“You call what you do looking after her?”

Big slammed the fridge door, rattling the salad dressing bottles. The old man had perched them in the door upside down in a desperate attempt to leech every last drop. Now they tipped over and the two could hear them in there, crashing onto the shelves, rolling into each other and shattering. Dad didn’t swear. That was his thing. Sometimes, he reached a point where he didn’t swear or yell, but got real calm. It was that calm that had always made Little shit his pants when he was a kid. It meant trouble. It meant Dad was saving up his rage until it was time for a show.

The two were cleaning the mess in the fridge when Alice wandered in. She was wearing a T-shirt and sweatpants.

Big stood up and said, “I’m sorry baby, did we wake you?”

“We can have Raisin Bran.” She came up to her father, who was now standing over the garbage pail with a handful of broken glass. Alice pointed to the cupboard above him. “I’m going to get a bowl from the cabinet, okay? I need to get a bowl from the cabinet and put it on the counter so I can have my cereal.”

Her brother said, “There’s no milk.”

“We need milk.” said Alice. “We need milk for the cereal. Dad, you have to get milk right now. We can’t have cereal without any milk.”

The old man shot a look back to his son.

“Well?” he said.

“What, that’s my job? I’ll pay for it, but why don’t you get out of the house and get it.”

“Alice, your brother can’t get any milk right now.”

Little John raised his hands. “No, no, stop, I’ll get it.”

He knew what would come of this if he let his dad manipulate Alice in that way. She’d start screaming and she wouldn’t care if it was her dad or her brother who was at fault here. John wasn’t the most mature young man, but he knew that this fight with his father wasn’t worth upsetting his sister in that way. He gave the old man a dirty look, not knowing it was the last time he’d do that, and stormed away.

John walked down Broadway as the sun was rising above the buildings on his right. In front of him was the great green trestle of the Tobin Bridge. They called Chelsea the City Under the Bridge. The Tobin left Boston and crossed the Mystic River. Then it crossed over nearly all of Chelsea before landing in Revere. The city was just a few square miles, and its inhabitants were the sad figurines you might see milling about below you as you traverse between Boston and richer suburbs to the north.

He stopped into the Broadway Spa, a convenience store on the corner. The price of milk here was a scam, but at least it was close and John could get his cigarettes. He didn’t pick up Rares this time. He had only a ten and some ones and there was milk to buy. He thought about getting the Camel Wides, but that didn’t add up either, so he grabbed a carton of his dad’s Winstons and hoped that wasn’t a sign of things to come.

People always said you become your parents whether you like or not, but they never warned you how that reality crept up on you in unexpected ways. John had always been smart enough to avoid getting some girl knocked up. He learned that lesson from his dad. Once upon a time, Little thought that was enough to keep him out of trouble long enough to make a future for himself. As he walked to the counter without his Camels, he knew that this was his life from now on. It didn’t matter if he didn’t have kids of his own; the world would find a way to screw him in the end.

On his way home, John noticed something in the alley between his apartment block and the one next to it. There was a chain link gate spanning the gap and bits of shredded blue denim stuck in the twisted wires at the top. John tried to open the gate and found that the latch was bent. He slammed it three of four times until he bent it back far enough to let him lift it all the way. The alley led to the place the residents called the “backyard”, though there wasn’t a blade of grass in it. A concrete retaining wall lined the back, making the place into a pit. One of the kids from the building had drawn a map of America on the asphalt ground. Two plastic tricycles stood in the corner. One was pink the other was blue and both were caked in mud made impenetrable by repeated rainfall.

Another corner held a tiny aluminum shed where the caretaker kept some of his supplies. Its roof had suffered a couple big dents. Those weren’t there before. John went over and looked around. The thin gap between the shed and the retaining wall was full of glass beer bottles and pages ripped from porn magazines.

John looked up. A small hill extended from the other side of the wall. There was a grassy field, a couple trees, and several low brick buildings. There was a home back there for the deranged and mentally handicapped. It was the sort of place he feared his own sister would end up one day, or the sort of place he hoped his dad would end up. The strange thing was, John was the only member of his family who had been to the home – years ago, the dour brick building had been his elementary school. Perhaps there was some law that decreed the site should always be one kind of looney bin or another, because when the city built a new school they turned the old one into that asylum.

Sometimes, kids from the neighborhood liked to hang out in the secluded field where the playgrounds had once been. They’d dumped their trash over the wall. John started to pick through it. He found that the tattered pages weren’t from porn magazines after all; they were shreds of catalogs for sex toys and male anatomical enhancements. These kids weren’t even old enough or smart enough to get the real stuff. Maybe both. One of the crazies must’ve seen them back here last night and spooked them. Maybe they booked it over the retaining wall, down the alley and out into the street. They ripped their pants on the fence and broke the latch. John guessed they were too stupid to perform the simple action of properly opening an unlocked gate.

John found some other stuff back there too. There were firecrackers, both unused and unused. He also saw lighters – and something else a little more dangerous. He picked up a butane hand torch, like the kind used by jewelers. He bet one of the kids found this and it became a prized possession. This little treasure was likely the entire reason they’d been back there last night. They must’ve been finding out what things they could set on fire and that’s what raised hell with the inmates at the institution, or their keepers. So the kids tore off and left their prize. John slipped it into his pocket.

He turned to the back door of his building and stopped. There was a strange sound. It was a sort of hissing noise, or maybe a low breathy moan. The building wasn’t large, about four stories high by two apartments wide. His place was in the back, and he could see the kitchen window where his dad had put the fan. Though the fan was gone, there were a couple of broken shims still left in the window that prevented it from closing all the way. The moaning was coming through the open sliver under the window, from John’s apartment.

He raced up the stairs and burst into the kitchen. There was Alice, belly and hands pressed against the counter. Her sweatpants were around her ankles and Big John had pushed himself against her back.

Little John roared. Before the old man could even turn his head, Junior had grabbed his shoulder and flung him into the fridge. The man sat there, back against the fridge, legs sprawled on the floor, fly open and ragged, limp boxer briefs pushed down to make a space for exposing his parts. Little pulled his dad up by his pants, yanking them and zipping them so it hurt. The old man yelped, but that wasn’t the last of it.

Little reached and fumbled in his pocket for the butane lighter.

For once, the sound of Alice screaming didn’t stop him. He didn’t even hear it, not over the sound of his father crying in torment as the tiny blue flame melted the skin off one side of his face.  The old man was too skinny and too weak to resist. His son let up when Alice reached for the pair, and he shoved Dad to the floor again.

“Get out.” he said. “Get out. Don’t even speak, just get out.”

Big lay there for a moment, not moving or speaking or thinking.

Little said, “If you even open your mouth, I will burn off the other side of your face.”

Dad scrambled up and went for the door. His bare feet banged the steps in a disorderly shuffle as he found his way outside. John looked out the window, the one with the shim where the fan had once been. One of the kids had come out to claim his tricycle and was wheeling it around the map of America. Big burst into the backyard and the two froze and locked eyes. It was the man who looked horrified, afraid to be exposed for what he was to an innocent kid. He turned away and ran into the alley like some kind of cheap movie monster escaping the light. John heard the latch on the gate clank and that was the last sign of their father that either he or his sister ever heard.

THIRTY TWO

At the back of the Tomb, there was a door propped open and Reggie came through it, covered in George’s insides. Reggie had a gun and John Smith had a two foot screw driver. Jason shivered in his skivvies and kept his hand fixed to the switch that would douse the whole room in water. Reggie turned the muzzle to Jason, shouting,

“Get your hand off that switch.”

Jason said, “She told me not to move.” He breathed in and when his breath left it rattled in his throat. “Unless someone tried to make me move. Then she told me to pull the switch.”

For the last few minutes, John had wondered why Jason had undressed himself. And he wondered why Jason had listened to the woman. What else had she said to him that made him behave this way?

Then Jason said, “She told me there was a bomb in the basement. And I saw it so I know.”

From the other side of the door, Dale spoke.

“Reggie. The building’s been evacuated. Go see for yourself.”

Rosalind said, “A bomb?”

“Yeah, we’re the only ones left in the building. My daughter’s out there and she says the bomber threatened to bring this whole building down if anyone moved.”

“Why?”

“Ask him.” said Dale, pointing to John.

John said, “Someone here suckered me in.” He pointed at Reggie. “I think it’s this guy.”

“It’s true.” said Reggie. “You have a history. You’re an easy man to blame.”

“Is there really bomb?” said Rosalind.

Reggie shrugged. He turned his attention back to Jason and inched closer. Meanwhile, John came closer to him.

Binder said, “You’re going to attack me with a screwdriver?”

“You’re going to shoot a kid?” said John.

“I already shot one.” said Reggie. “He was a little older, but still a kid.”

Rosalind said, “Why a bomb?”

“It’s the Senate vote.” said Marianne, who had been hanging back. “You all know.”

“You leaked it to the press, didn’t you?” said Rosalind. “You told them this would happen.”

“Yes.”

John said, “They’ll figure out that you ordered that box here. You set it up.”

“The only one who can confirm that is a professor at MIT.” said Reggie. “And he has a dying child whose medical care depends on the good graces of an anonymous donor.”

“So.” said John, coming closer. “What happens now?”

Reggie said, “You were supposed to be the one with his hand on the switch.”

“And you were supposed to shoot me?”

“I clean up after myself.” He tipped his head, letting a bit of George’s flesh fall off. “Usually.”

Rosalind said, “Are you going to shoot this kid, just for this media stunt?”

“It’s not a stunt!” said Reggie. “Do you ever listen to me? What’s the life on one child compared to what the Sorter can do?”

“Then shoot him.” said John. “Or don’t, but whatever you’re going to do, do it.”

Reggie lifted his weapon up to Jason. John lunged. For the second time in a few minutes, Reggie had to fight off an attacker. He thrust at John with the same moved he’d tried on George, but John was much better in a fight. John wrapped his hands around the pistol. He pushed his finger nails into Reggie’s arm and dug in. He squeezed hard enough to draw blood and the gun fell on the floor. John jumped off and put his foot on the pistol. He slid that foot backwards, sending the weapon across the floor.

Reggie was crouched on the floor, disarmed. John rushed at him. The old man cowered and John drove the screwdriver into him. It was the best thing John had ever felt. His anger had always filled him with guilt. He’d felt guilty because it felt so good to let the rage loose. His temper wasn’t the problem. Pleasure was his enemy. When the gutters guy showed up at his door step, the voice inside John was saying come on, come on, come on, give me a reason. It doesn’t have to be a good one. That day inside the Tomb, that moment when he slipped the steel into Reggie’s side, was the second best of his life, because it was the second time he’d been able to gorge on his anger without any of the guilt. You branded me a criminal, you took my sister, you murdered one person and tried to kill a child… If had to eat you alive I wouldn’t feel the slightest bit of guilt.

John felt it building with each little blow. The blood flew from Reggie’s screaming form and pooled on the server room floor. No one shouted stop. No one said it was enough. Then John felt something he’d never felt before. The anger flowed away and he found himself satiated. He stood up and surveyed his work. Reggie was torn, but breathing. John turned to the door and spoke to Dale and Rosalind.

“If there’s a first aid kit, get it.” When there was no movement, he said. “If you want this man to bleed to death here, then you’re worse than I am.”

Rosalind departed and returned a few seconds later with a kit. John fixed up Reggie and asked for help moving the man. Dale and came over and Reggie didn’t fight the two men as they carted him off to a closet. Along the way, John saw the body of George Simon laying in the hallway. He didn’t flinch at it. He knew to expect something like that. The two men dumped Reggie in the closet and John reached down to pull a key chain from Reggie’s pants. He slammed the door and, after a few tries, found the right key to lock it. Reggie pounded on the door with his foot while John and Dale walked away. John put Binder’s keys in his pocket. Jason came running out of the Tomb, still in his underwear. He ran up to John and hugged him around the legs.

Jason said, “She said you would.”

“Your angel?” said John.

“She said you’d save me.” Jason looked up. “She said you’d put that man away.”

“Well I’ve got some questions for her.”

John went into the Tomb and looked for Reggie’s gun.

THIRTY THREE

At last, Ruth had a lead that Keller didn’t. At the very least, it was a lead that would take him some time to uncover. She looked up George Simon and found his likely address in Somerville, near the a neighborhood dominated by Tufts University students. She couldn’t be certain that she’d found the right George Simon, but it was the best match.

Ruth turned off her cell phone, fearing that her lieutenant would attempt to track her movements. Ruth drove to George’s address. It was an old five story building that looked as though it had a couple dozen apartments. She walked into tiny vestibule and saw a row of buzzers above a block of mailboxes. The inner door was locked.

One of the buzzers was marked for George Simon and another for the superintendent. Figuring that George was probably inside Polymath right now, she pressed the latter and there was no answer. She wasn’t exactly sure what she’d say to the person if she’d wrung him up anyway. This wasn’t a door Christine Kerr was likely to open. Ruth went back to her car and popped the trunk. She kept a cardboard box with ice melt and a shovel. She pulled that out and placed her laptop bag on the top. Ruth went back to the vestibule until she saw someone descend the stairs, looking at though he might exit. When he did, Ruth tried her best to mimic a woman about to loose control of her box. The man helped her right it and held the door as she entered. Ruth thanked him and asked about George.

“He lives in 311?” she said. “A young guy, with long red hair?”

In all her searching, Ruth had found only one picture of George. It had been a head shot on a sparse Facebook page. It wasn’t much to go on, but it was enough.

The man shrugged and said, “I think I’ve seen him. I didn’t know his name though.”

Ruth walked up two flights of stairs and put her box down on a landing. She hadn’t wanted to leave her laptop on the ground floor, but she didn’t want to approach George’s apartment with her hands full. Ruth stared at the ceiling and took a deep breath. She noticed how seeping water made bulging, discolored veins in the plaster underneath the next flight of stairs. Her attention always wandered to little details when the times were tough.

Detective Holland reloaded her Beretta and climbed the final landing to the third floor. A long hallway stretched before her. It was empty except for a figure near the end. As Ruth drew closer, pistol perched in front of her, she realized that she was looking at a woman sitting against a door with her knees pulled up to her chest. The door was marked 311, George Simon’s apartment, and the woman was crying. Ruth stopped dead when she recognized who it was.

“Alice?” she said.

Alice Smith, John’s sister, stood when she saw Ruth. Alice was shorter than Jason and heavier too, with thickened skin and sleepy eyelids. John had once explained that she suffered from some kind of a thyroid disease contracted from an infantile bout of whooping cough. It was a strange fact considering that children started receiving vaccines against whooping cough decades ago. This was yet another legacy of John and Alice’s father. According to John, his was a monster and a half wit with more than a little sympathy for Christianity’s more isolationist factions. It was no wonder that John hated him so, if he was all that stood between Alice and a disease that ought not to exist anywhere.

“No.” said Alice. “If your here than he’s dead. I knew it.”

Alice looked at her feet, which were too large for her shoes and squeeze out the tops.

“How did you get here?” said Ruth. “What are you doing?”

“Dr. Lane called me. She’s taking me away?”

“Um… I still don’t understand.” Ruth held her hand up. “Wait, forget it. I’m calling John.”

She turned on the phone and saw that there was a message from that very person.

“Ruth, Reginald Binder killed a guy. The rest of us are okay. Jason’s fine, not a scratch on him. He’s a bit shook up though. The problem is Binder. The guy he killed was George Simon, one of the lead programmers here. I don’t know why he did it, but this George guy jumped on Binder and may have saved another man’s life before Binder he killed him. Like I said I don’t know why, but Ruth you should look into it maybe. There’s another thing, which is that Binder set this all up. He said so himself. He ordered that chamber and made the bomb threat and brought me here to pin it on me. Ruth…”

The message ended there. Holland tried calling John but the phone rang out and went to voicemail.

To herself she said, “You better be getting out there now.”

She put the phone away and looked at the door behind Alice’s back. She was certain now that what she needed to do was get behind that door. She’d either find the answers she was looking for or a thousand more questions. Either way, there was no other way to go but through it.

To Alice she said, “How do you know George and what makes you think he’s dead?”

“Is he?”

Ruth sighed and placed her palm against her forehead. “Yeah, Alice.”

The other woman bit her lip and mumbled something to herself. Ruth was standing about five feet from her and felt as though she ought to come closer. Maybe the right thing to do was to put her arms around Alice and comfort her, but she didn’t do that. When she searched herself for a reason, she had to admit that it was because she was scared. She was terrified. Something unknown or unknowable was going on and it was all connect to whomever was holding her son hostage. There were a lot of ifs and buts and it all made her interior scream and crawl at the same time.

“Alice?”

“You wouldn’t understand.”

“Your brother and Jason are trapped in a dangerous place. You want to help them, don’t you?”

Alice said, “George sent me the last chapter of his book. Sometimes, his book says things.”

“Like what, Alice?”

“He might die.” said Alice. “And where to find my dad.”

“Well I’d like to see that book.” said Ruth.

Then she noticed how Alice’s skirt clung together at places near the hem. It was darker there too. Without a word, Ruth bent down and rubbed a bit of the fabric between her fingers and Alice let her. Pasty bits of dried blood came off in Ruth’s hands. She noticed blood on the floor, soaked into the carpet. It had seeped under the door and it was coming from George’s apartment. Alice had been sitting in it.

Ruth said, “Could you stand over there?”

Alice stood a feet away from the door and Ruth pounded on the door.

“Hollow core.” she said. “Cheap building.”

Ruth kicked the door under the knob, planting the entire underside of her foot against the surface of the door. She did this three more times and the latch splintered. The door burst inward. The room was dark, with unfolded brown paper shopping bags taped over the window. They were in the kitchen. There was a chair in the middle of the floor and tied to that chair was a woman’s body. She was cut open at the wrist of one hand and a long serrated bread knife lay near the feet of the chair. Her head was bald.

It was Sophie Lane. Someone had removed the purple and gold kerchief from her head and blind folded her with it.

In the unmangled hand she held the edge of a typed page. Ruth pulled it away from Dr. Lane’s hardened fingers.

From the hall, Alice said, “Can I come in now?”

“I wouldn’t recommend that.” Ruth carried the page into the hall. She held it up to Alice. “This letter is signed by your brother. Do you know what this is about?”

Alice took it. Her face lit up with a smile, but she didn’t say anything.

Ruth said, “What is it?”

“Not my brother.” said Alice. “Big John. It’s from Big John, Ms. Holland.”

“Your father?”

“I said that George’s book tells me things about my dad.”

“Alice.” said Ruth. “What’s going on?”

“Puritan Lawn. I have to find Puritan Lawn. That’s where he is.” Alice looked up from the page. “Do you know how to get to Puritan Lawn?”

“I don’t know, Alice. What is this about? And how do you know George?”

Alice turned and rumbled down the hall.

Ruth shouted after her, “Come back here, Alice.”

“I have to find my dad. He’s alive after all and he’s been trying to reach me.”

Ruth thought for a moment that she might chase the other woman. But then she heard a buzzing noise. She turned back to the body of Dr. Lane. There was a light shining through her blazer pocket. Ignoring all caution, Ruth reached in and pulled out a phone. There was the Sorter icon, and the words

 

COMMENCE PROGRAM ASSET ZERO

THIRTY FOUR

TWENTY MINUTES LATER

 

Ruth was sitting in her car, still parked outside George’s apartment building. She was still trying to make sense of the things she’d seen in the apartment. Sophie Lane’s body had been only the beginning. There was the matter of her final recorded words. And then there was the book. George’s book, which Alice had believed was some kind of prophecy. It was all too much. And now she was speaking to John and it didn’t look like things were going to get any better.

“Are you the only one who doesn’t feel the Sorter is trying to control you?”

I can’t get it out and I can’t let it stay.

It had happened to Yancy and Norman Shaw. Perhaps it had happened to Sophie Lane and George Simon, she couldn’t say. Now it appeared as though the same thing was happening to John. The strange thing was, Ruth didn’t feel it herself. What John had said was true. Perhaps she was the only one who didn’t feel the Sorter trying to control her. Despite how it had set them all up, despite how it continued to predict their movements, Ruth didn’t sense the presence of angels or demons on her shoulders or whispering in her ears. What she felt instead was an overwhelming sadness. And anger. There was plenty of anger.

She said, “I don’t have time for a philosophical discussion. Let Jason go, right now.

“Philosophy isn’t for alone time, Detective Holland.” said John, his dilated eyes filling the screen of Ruth’s phone. “It matters for each and every decision you make.”

She doubted that. Her mind took her back to her husband’s death. She had many regrets, but one in particular stuck with her. She had always believed that she could have prevented it. She’d been so preoccupied with her fear of infidelity that she hadn’t noticed that Frank wanted to be a hero more than he’d wanted to be a good cop or a father or a husband. If Ruth had ever held out any hope for the Sorter, it would’ve been that maybe she could understand better why people did what they did.

Now she realized that was fool’s gold. What difference would it make to have complete knowledge of herself or others if it meant that she could no longer ignore how everyone was a monster, an animal, a coward or any number of other unwholesome things. And then to face the reality that they were doing nothing but following their programming? The Sorter wasn’t controlling anyone. It was decoding them.

This lead Ruth to a final conclusion, which is that Yancy, Shaw and now John all believed that they were possessed because it was the last defense they could muster. It wasn’t a deep revelation of any kind, but yet another layer of self-deception. If you believe that someone or something is controlling your mind, then you believe that in its absence you could choose your actions for yourself. To give up that belief in the Sorter’s control was to give up the very myth of free will.

After some more arguing, John turned the camera away from his own face. Though the image was poor, Ruth could make out a typical office space. The camera passed over some people she didn’t recognize standing near a group of cubicles and looking stunned and in pain. One of them stared off to the left, at something outside the field of view. As the camera panned, however, it became clear what had put them in that state of distress.

Reginald Binder was sitting in what looked like a conference room. There was a table with chairs, but the walls were gone. Ruth supposed that they must have been made of glass, because the floor was covered with shards of it. Reggie was seated, with his arms hanging loose over the sides of the chair. He was staring at the ceiling. His neck was a mess. It looked as though someone had wounded both of his jugular veins with multiple tiny, tiny cuts. Binder’s motionless body made Ruth feel cold.

John moved the camera away, but it hardly out of mercy. The next image was worse than the first. There was another body laying on the floor. Its shirt was open at the chest and some tattooed words were visible on its skin. They looked to Ruth like Latin, maybe. Its hair was long and red and its face simply wasn’t there at all. It looked like a close range weapon had removed it, leaving a pulpy mess in its place.

Then came the last icon in this infernal little triptych. She saw Jason. He was not dead. Rather, a pistol hung by his side as he looked over the destruction.

Ruth decided that it was no longer time to skull in the darkness, avoiding Keller and kicking down doors in shabby apartments. She started the car and headed to Atlantic Avenue. Ruth Holland was going to go in there and get her son back.

  • * * *

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The Dead Reckoner : Volume Two: Urban Ungerground

This is part two of the four part serialized novel, The Dead Reckoner. In the first part, Ruth discovered that her son was trapped inside Polymath with a computer that believes it can program human behavior. She finally contacts him, only to find that he is standing over a body and holding a gun. In the second part, we find out what happened inside Polymath and how the deadly Sorter program has arranged forces both inside and outside the building to destroy Ruth, her son, and everyone else. We also learn what happened in the past to bring each person to this moment. What did John's father do to his sister while they were making ends meet in a hard scrabble industrial suburb of Boston? How did Ruth's husband die and what did it have to do with the mobster Yancy,whom we met in the first chapter of part one?

  • Author: Peter Sargent
  • Published: 2015-10-19 15:50:08
  • Words: 32217
The Dead Reckoner : Volume Two: Urban Ungerground The Dead Reckoner : Volume Two: Urban Ungerground