Copyright © 1998
The office was quiet. I hadn't had a case in weeks and my funds were at an all-time low. I was reading the collective works of Taria, who many critics considered one of the better erotic authors at the dawn of the net. Erotic literature was a passion of mine, especially historical. Oh, people still wrote stories, but few modern authors approached the greatness of Sven, Pendragon, Hunt, Bronwen, and the other giants that dominated the early days of the net. Maybe it's the fact that these people wrote their stories without ever expecting to see one thin dime; maybe that's what inspired my interest. Today, if you want to read the latest Naughty Nell story, you have to shell out a buck to do it. And while Naughty Nell is a good author, she doesn't write about anything that hasn't been written about before, and usually the old stuff was written better.
My office door swung open and I clicked the story shut. Of all the people I expected to see walking into my office, the rotund figure of Bill Stein was not one of them. I saw him often enough when I made my rounds at the prescient; a P.I.'s got to keep up old ties, after all. But, in living memory, Bill had never visited my office. A buddy on the force might help me out, on occasion, but the reverse was rarely true. In many ways the cops were just another street gang; they protected their turf, and I respected that.
"Bill!" I exclaimed, rising to shake his hand. "What brings you this way, buddy?"
"A bit of unofficial business. A favor for someone," Bill replied as he took a seat. I was all ears as he began. "You seen Crystal Dawn on the net recently?"
I nodded. Crystal Dawn was one of the hottest rising stars in Hollywood. She had starred in the last major VR blockbuster and had a top-rated net series as well. I didn't keep up all that much with the latest entertainment, but you'd have to be a hermit not to know who she was.
"Well, she put a call in to us this morning," Bill continued. "She's been getting some threatening letters and thinks maybe someone is tailing her. We don't have time to go after every celebrity stalker; that's why the stars have their own security forces. But she's still new to the business and doesn't have a company yet."
"So she gets a company to watch over her," I shrugged. "What's the catch?"
"The catch is, I read the letters. They're really sick. But whoever wrote them is sharp as a tack; there's no way to tell anything about the perp from what's written, other than the fact that if he ever gets Crystal alone she's going to be in a world of hurt. I also found a spot he had used to stake out her home. He's got a DNA scrambler, so there's no way to reconstruct a physical profile from what he left behind. Crystal needs a real pro right now, not a bunch of rent-a-cops. So I dropped your name with her, and she's interested. I told her I'd drop by and send you over around five."
I considered carefully. My usual cases involved catching the spouse committing adultery, or, occasionally, recovery of stolen goods. But before I became a P.I. I had specialized in hunting hunters: serial killers, terrorists, the most dangerous people who walked the earth. I had also been younger in those days. I almost turned it down. I was closer to fifty than I cared to admit, and, while I tried to keep myself in shape, I really wasn't ready to go chasing after bad guys at my age. But I hesitated just long enough to feel the excitement, a special kind of excitement you only feel when you're hunting the most dangerous animal on the planet. Before I realized what I was doing, I found I had agreed to take the case, and Bill was pushing a card into my hand. It was his office card, but it had an address written on the back.
"Good luck, Steve," Bill said as he got up to leave.
"Thanks for the lead, Bill," I replied. "I owe you one."
"Shit. For the chance to hang around Crystal, you owe me ten!" Bill laughed.
Usually I have to root around for my clients' biographies. Privacy laws and security concerns dictate that there's no central repository on everybody's comings and goings. But computers tended to collect data, and if you know the ins and outs of the net you can usually get a pretty good idea about a person just on the data that's floating out there. With Crystal there was no need to root; as a celebrity, her life was an open book.
She had grown up in rural Texas, with a pretty unremarkable childhood. She wasn't noticeably attractive, even into puberty. But at around seventeen she came into her own and started developing features that most women spend a fortune to obtain. She attended the University of Texas for one semester, but flunked out. She moved to Los Angeles and worked as a waitress for a year, where she met her future husband, one Nick Dawn. She also met her agent at the job, and she was soon a regular cast member on "Virtual Lights", a third-rate net soap opera that was on the verge of cancellation. The introduction of her character breathed new life into the show, and it didn't fold until she left to star in the number one rated netshow "George's Girl".
After two years, "George's Girl" was still the top-rated show on the net, and, just a few months ago, the VR blockbuster "Dancing the Flame" confirmed her star status. She would probably be considered one of the finest actresses of her generation; or maybe not-- Hollywood and the viewing public are notoriously fickle. I punched in her address and the printer churned out a nice site-to-site map for me. It wouldn't be very hard to find her pad. There were still three hours before the meeting, and so I punched in some commands and read through a few Douglas stories while I waited.
At five o'clock I stood before the posh beachfront abode of Crystal Dawn. It wasn't a typical Hollywood mansion; it was a rather modest, if trendy, beachfront house in a nice, respectable neighborhood. I was surprised when Crystal herself answered the door, and a bit angry as well. A person being stalked should take more care with such matters.
"Yes?" she asked, studying me carefully.
"I'm Steve Whiley. Bill Stein said you had need of my services," I replied.
She smiled. "Come on in, Mr. Whiley."
"Steve, please," I insisted, as I stepped inside to a nice, elegantly appointed foyer.
"OK. Steve it is," she replied.
Trying to keep my mind off her softly swaying hips, so elegantly framed by a white low-cut dress, I asked, "No servants?"
"A maid," Crystal replied, as she led me into a very cozy living room.
"I was raised to do things on my own, but life's a bit too busy these days for me to fuss all that much over cooking and cleaning."
As we sat, I forced my eyes away from her inviting breasts with deliberate effort. An afternoon of reading erotica was perhaps not the best way to prepare for this meeting. "I'm ready to take the case," I began. "But my fee is a thousand a day, plus expenses." Normally I charged five hundred a day, but for wealthier clients I didn't mind padding my wallet a little. I made up for it by accepting a case or two where the clients couldn't afford even my regular fee. It all balanced out in the end.
"That's fine," she said. "Just so you catch the bastard." She considered me a moment and said, "Officer Stein said you were the best. Do you think there will be any problems?"
I shrugged. "I'm not good at fortune telling, but I'd say if you're careful the next few days, such as letting the maid answer the door instead of you answering it, everything will be just fine."
"Did you really work for the CIA?" she asked.
"Yes, and the FBI, and the police. I've caught men and women who were trained to be un-catchable," I replied, and not without a hint of pride in the statement either. "But I'd better get started. I'll want to look over the letters you've gotten; then I need to scout around and find out where your stalker has been hiding."
She nodded and pushed a manila folder over towards me on the coffee table. I took it and glanced through the contents. I leafed through them. Bill was right; this guy was a sicko. Every last one of them detailed how she would die at his hands, but not a single one revealed anything about the man behind the letter other than that one desire. As I was reading, I heard the front door slam and muffled footsteps. I glanced up at Crystal, my hand moving toward my shoulder holster.
"It's probably Nick," she said, then called, "Nick, can you come here a moment?"
A striking man wearing the latest urban fashion appeared in the doorway. "Nick, this is Steve Whiley. I've just hired him to track down my stalker."
He stared at me a moment, with an expression that was part glare and part contemplation, before breaking into a wide smile that, to me, did not seem at all genuine. "Well, that is good news!" he said, walking over to me. I rose to shake his hand. "It's about time this foolishness ended."
I smiled. "Then the sooner I start, the sooner it can all be over," I replied. "I'll scout around outside." I handed a card to Crystal. "The card has my mobile number on it; set it up on your autodial so if anything happens you can get me quickly. I'll be staked out outside, so I'll be able to get here quicker than the cops."
She accepted the card and escorted me to the door. She paused in the foyer and said, "Thank you Steve. I feel safer already."
"Don't." I said sternly and with a bit more force than I had intended. "Until I catch this guy, you don't have the luxury of feeling safe. You're an actress; for the next few days, you've got to play the role of a paranoid woman. Don't even go to the bathroom without thinking he may be waiting for you there."
Her face hardened. "That's not going to be easy, but I'll try."
I smiled. "Good. I need you alive when all this is over with to sign my check."
I surveyed the property. The house had a well-tended lawn and a long line of head-high bushes marked the property lines. It didn't take me long to find the spot the stalker had used to spy on his target. The branches of the bushes were broken and a few leaves were strewn about. It was near the back of the property, with a good view of the bedroom window. It was also a secluded area where he wouldn't likely be spied himself.
A few men were camped out on the beach at the back of the house. From the cameras, I judged them to be paparazzi, and I wasn't wrong at the guess. I walked over and struck up a conversation with them.
"What's the story, Joe?" one of them asked me as I approached. He answered my puzzled reaction by elaborating, "No camera on you. You a fan or admirer?"
"Biographer," I lied smoothly. "Crystal's thinking of doing an authorized biography. I'm just doing prelims now, scouting the field."
The man I was talking to laughed. "Well, if you've come to find out if this is a good spot to study your client, you'll be disappointed. The real action is next door, but they're nobodies; so if you get any video, it's just for private amusement. If Crystal did what the people in that house do, you'd have to BUY a ticket to get on this beach at night!"
"Sounds like this job may have some fringe benefits," I said, not really interested in the goings-on next door. "But I'm curious to know if she's got any late night habits," I probed, hoping I could find some way to ask if he'd seen anyone hanging around, without raising suspicions.
"None," he said, disgustedly. "She goes to bed early, about eight- thirty or so, and stays there. We regulars usually break camp about eleven-thirty. We'd leave earlier, but the show keeps us otherwise occupied. Ought to be real interesting tonight."
"What about tonight?" I asked.
He grinned broadly. "The quake, man! There's supposed to be a solid 5.0 about nine tonight."
"You're kidding!" I said, honestly surprised. Modern science could predict earthquakes right down to size and time these days. I'd heard rumors of people who used that to time their lovemaking, allowing the rolling ground to enhance the experience, but I usually dismissed it as fantasy. I always sat in my chair, terrified at the powerful forces being unleashed around me.
"Not at all," he said with a wink. "A couple of months ago they did it on a 3.5, and it was wild!"
"Hmm... Is that the reason you're staked out on the beach instead of out front where you can track her comings and goings?" I asked.
He laughed. "One of them, anyway. The major reason is the paparazzi law they enacted after Princes Di died in that car crash. We lowly scum-sucking vermin may not loiter on public grounds for more than five minutes. But nothing says we can't loiter on the public beach."
The conversation drifted after that and I excused myself. I checked back in with Crystal and told her I'd be back in about an hour after retrieving some equipment. I also asked how the letters had arrived, something that I had neglected to ask earlier. These days deliveries were always marked and logged; letters and documents were usually transmitted by e-mail, and the post office only survived by delivering packages and merchandise. I wasn't surprised to learn the letters were always found slipped under the door.
That evening I set up camp out on the beach, a ways away from the three paparazzi. Stakeouts are dull; they always are, and this one was shaping up to be no different. Through the night viewer, a little more powerful variant than the ones the paparazzi were using (since mine was a momento of my days with the CIA), I saw Crystal enter the bathroom and, presumably after a nice long bath, emerge in a simple white nightgown and settle into bed. Stakeouts are always at their dullest when you're watching someone sleep.
A short while later, a murmur of excitement and anticipation rippled through the men next to me, and I swung my viewer over to the house next door. A stunningly attractive redhead and an equally handsome blond where busy at work pushing the bed around to face a different direction. The man consulted his compass and seemed to judge that all was perfect. On a whim I had checked tonight's forecast. The quake would be centered on the Joshua Tree fault and register a 5.0 on the Richter scale. While the couple in the next house probably had more detailed information, I'd say they had lined the bed up to point directly towards the epicenter.
They began to disrobe, each making a show of it for the other. The woman, however, was far more interesting as she removed her dress to reveal exquisite and expensively cut lingerie. When they climbed into bed, the man softly began to fondle her as he removed it. I swung the viewer back to the house, making a quick scan of the property. I was torn between wanting to watch the show and the compulsion to keep my mind on the task at hand. In the end though, it was no contest at all. Given the choice of watching a dead, lifeless property, or a real-life sex act -- well, even closing in on fifty, I wasn't dead yet; I swung my viewer back.
The man had mounted the woman now and was proceeding with slow rhythmic thrusts, while her hands played along his back. Then the ground began to move. There was a brief moment of motion sickness as I felt my body moving, but the image of the viewer stayed rock steady as the computer worked overtime to keep the image from jerking. An earthquake, unless you're at the epicenter, is not a sharp jolt. Rolling is a better way to describe it, like swells on the ocean. The man had picked up his pace considerably to time the thrusts with the rolling of the earth. The woman had her legs wrapped around his and was clutching hard at his buttocks. Their movements stopped just a little before the earthquake passed.
"Awesome!" one of the photographers muttered. The other two quickly agreed.
I shifted the viewer back to the house but nothing appeared out of the ordinary. The couple next door however were just getting started. The man had drifted down and was orally stimulating his partner, and, judging from how she squirmed, he was doing a pretty good job of it.
"They do this every night?" I asked my companions, a note of awe in my voice.
"They usually don't start this early -- usually around ten o'clock or so -- but, yea. Every night for about an hour and a half. Sometimes they have friends over; then it gets really interesting."
The couple finished around ten-fifteen and turned out the lights. The paparazzi packed up their gear. "You coming, bud?" one of them asked me.
I shook my head. "Not right now. The first night I'll do the whole ball of wax just to satisfy myself."
"Your time. But, trust me; after two years of watching this house, I'll tell you: there's nothing to see after the lights go out." And then he turned and followed his companions back to the street.
And he was right. The only thing which broke up the dull monotony was when Nick left the living room and retired to his own bedroom. It was a long miserable night on the beach. I set up a proximity detector that would alert me if anyone were moving about; it was tied in to the one I set up front before I started the stakeout. I slept, but it was not a gentle or easy sleep. By the next morning, I had pretty much decided that my stalker had staked out the house for one night before getting bored out of his wits.
The second night I staked out on the beach again, and again Crystal turned in at eight-thirty. The hoots and catcalls of my companions indicated that the couple next door were beginning their theatrics, at around nine. I started to watch, but caught myself. I was on the job, and I was getting paid. The first night was understandable, but to satisfy my voyeuristic urges on my client's dime went against my principals, and I stubbornly kept my viewer locked on the house.
A few minutes later, I was startled to see a movement at the side of the house and brought the viewer around quickly, zooming in to get a better view. I almost dropped it when I recognized the face and body; it was Crystal! I swung the viewer back up to the bedroom, enough to see that someone was still sleeping in her bed. Either it was another person, a droid, or a hologram. Unless Crystal had a twin sister, she was now skulking about outside.
She slipped through the bushes and into the house next door. I scooted down the beach a ways. The viewer would be useless here, with the shades all drawn and the doors all closed. I sneaked a glance at the paparazzi, but they were too absorbed in the neighbors' sex play to notice what I was doing. Still, when I set up the snooper, I positioned myself between it and the photographers down the beach. The snooper was definitely not something you wanted other people to know you had.
I had known about the snooper long before I went to work for the CIA, but I had never appreciated how valuable an investigative tool it could be until I first used one. When a photon or light hits something solid it generally stops dead in its tracks, imparting a little energy to the atoms along the way. But sometimes, maybe one photon in a million just keeps right on going, no matter how dense the material, and somehow it manages to do this at up to five times the speed it normally travels.
No one's really been able to figure out why it happens, but at least a few people realized that light sometimes escaped from enclosed rooms. They were right; it was almost undetectable, but, when added to the latest gee-whiz computer technology, the snooper could gather that light and simulate a picture of what was going on behind a solid wall, as well as if a video camera had been placed on the other side. It's illegal to own one. The guys at the agency probably know I have it (most people would be surprised at how much they do know), but they give ex-agents some leeway. After all, everyone would be an ex-agent sooner or later.
It took a minute to get it all set up. An added advantage was that I now had sound, thanks to the invisible laser that was bouncing off the glass sliding doors. I frowned at the glow from the display and quickly switched it off, after a few quick instructions to set up an infrared link to the viewer. This had the added benefit of allowing me to face Crystal's house without missing what was going on in the house where the real action was happening. I wasn't worried that the paparazzi would pick up the signals; this was all CIA issue, and the infrared signal was encrypted with a code that would take ten lifetimes for the most powerful computers in the world to decode.
Crystal was sitting on a couch next to a girl almost as pretty as she was. "...word?" the other girl said as the audio kicked in.
"Not yet. I'm a little worried that he might find out about us, but I figured that if we could keep those bloodsuckers at bay for all this time, he probably wouldn't notice. At least he didn't say anything about it to me today."
The other woman put her arm around Crystal and pulled her close. "If he's as good as they say he is, he probably should have noticed, but I'm glad he didn't. I really didn't want to think about being away from you for a couple of days."
"Hmm..." Crystal moaned, grasping the other girl's hand. "Me either." Speech at that point stopped as they fell into a deep passionate kiss. With well-practiced experience, they removed each others' nightgowns, only briefly pausing in their kiss when it became necessary. Naked on the couch, they began to finger each other's pussies. It was a very slow, leisurely affair, and I was reminded of several classical portraits of two women embracing.
Suddenly Crystal flushed and she broke away from the kiss to throw her head back and moan, "Oh, Yes! Oh, God, Yes!" The other girl smiled warmly and continued her ministrations, while Crystal followed the explosion of pleasure. When she was done, Crystal smiled gleefully and then kissed the other girl, resuming her probing touch. A short while later the other girl responded with an orgasm of her own.
Without words the other girl lowered herself on the floor and, kneeling between Crystal's spread legs, dove right on in. Crystal gasped audibly at the oral stimulation and soon threw her head back, moaning loudly as she lightly massaged her breasts. It did not take long for Crystal's moans to become hisses of "Yes!" as her breasts rose and fell in large panting gasps. When it was over, Crystal moved to return the favor, but the other girl said, "No, you'd better be getting back. No use taking chances when you're being watched so closely. Tomorrow, maybe?"
Crystal smiled warmly and kissed her before pulling back and saying, "Tomorrow." She slipped back into her nightgown and in the near total darkness between the two houses quickly made her way back to her own room. I switched back to the regular viewer and watched her bedroom carefully. She must have crawled into the bed; there was a brief flicker in the sleeping image.
The next morning I sat down at her table and shared breakfast with her. "Anything yet?" she asked.
"Not really. I'd feel better though if you didn't slip out of the house for a few days. Visiting Sandra next door is probably OK, but it would make my job easier if you didn't make any other unplanned excursions."
She blushed deeply and studied the table. "How much do you know?"
"You and Sandra are lovers; you've probably been seeing her fairly regularly since she moved in a year ago. You bought the house next door around the same time. Vince and Jackie Greenwood, really Bob Howard and Jean Davidson, are high-priced escorts under your employ. You probably get them fairly cheap, since all their housing is paid for; plus they get some additional money on the side by entertaining people who get a thrill at being with another man and woman. It's very elaborate, and it's also been very effective at hiding your affair."
"You are good," she said as she considered me. "What now?"
She was probably thinking I'd use the information for blackmail, but that wasn't my style. Somewhere in life I picked up ethics, and ethics are rarely good for the pocketbook. "Now I go back and keep an eye out for our stalker, and you let me know when you plan to make any unannounced excursions."
She breathed out in relief. "Thank you," she said, with all the power and force of someone who has just been given the world's most perfect gift.
I smiled. "I guess I'm kinda like your doctor. What I find out stays between us until you say otherwise."
That probably wasn't the right thing to say, since I spent the next hour listening to how she met Sandra and how they had hit it off right at the start. She went into great detail about how lousy a lover Nick was, always finishing long before she even began; once he had finished he completely lost interest. But she couldn't divorce him and move in with Sandra because it would wreck her ratings in more conservative areas and countries.
As she talked and I sat there nodding, occasionally offering a word of support, I realized that I was probably the first person she'd met with whom she could discuss all of this. She could discuss Nick with Sandra, but she had no one else to talk with about Sandra.
"Does Nick know?" I asked.
She nodded. "Not all the details. But he has his own affairs, I'm sure. The marriage is a sham, but we keep it up; me for my ratings, and him because of the prestige of being married to Hollywood's favorite star of the moment."
With that last sentence, I began to wonder if Nick was as accepting of the affair as he had led her to believe. Nick had a great deal of prestige by being the husband of Crystal Dawn, but how secure was he that he would remain her husband? Where would Nick be when Crystal finally decided to stop living in secret? He'd be rich; yes, the divorce courts would see to that. But everyone would know that his wife had left him for another woman. Arranging a hit and making it look like a stalking would keep his reputation, as well as ensure that he retained full possession of Crystal's fortune.
I fished a pin out of my briefcase and handed it to Crystal. "Wear this from now on; it's a tracking device. If you're in trouble, touch it; the heat from your finger will trigger an alarm. If you touch it for longer than a second, to remove it or put it on, there won't be an alarm. I'm going to be away from you for a while today and I'll feel better knowing you're wearing it."
She smiled and attached it to her dress. "Anything you say, boss. I'll be a good girl and do what I'm told from now on."
"See that you do," I said as I headed out.
I spent the rest of the day following Nick and rooting around his history. Born in LA and lived here all his life, average in school, certainly no college potential, didn't even try for college, got a job as a waiter right after he graduated. Struggled a bit before he and Crystal hit the big time. Nothing unusual, nothing out of the ordinary. His only true passion in life seemed to be pool, and I was staking him out at the pool hall when the alarm was tripped.
Murphy said that if something can go wrong, it will. The corollary, of course is that it will go wrong at the worst possible moment. Well, the wrong here was that the alarm tripped when I was halfway across the city, and the worst possible moment was that it was lunch hour and the streets were packed. I cursed Murphy as I picked up my cell phone and dialed 911. I didn't know the half of it. Driving like a madman and an idiot, I had made it a quarter of the way towards Crystal's house when 911 finally answered the phone.
"I've got a code 11 at 215 Tanglewild," I said, trying to keep my breath steady as I swerved into an opening, nearly taking off the front of the car behind me in the process.
"Look, I'm sorry, sir, but all officers are taking another call right now; a major gang war's broken out and everybody who can carry a gun is out trying to contain it," the operator said, as frustrated as I was.
I cursed and thought fast. "Listen... all your calls are going to be about the riot. Take a break and get the numbers for the neighbors; I know the system can do that. Get them out in front of the house yelling and screaming if you can. At the rate I'm going, it's going to take ten, maybe fifteen minutes, to get over there."
"Hold the line; I'll see what I can do."
I held. And I drove, putting more than a few dents and scratches in the paint jobs of several cars, not the least of which was my own. I was almost at her house when the operator came back on the line and said, "I'm sorry sir; I tried the whole block. All I got was voice mail or people who just don't give a damn."
"Thanks for trying. I'm almost there. I hope it isn't too late."
"I'll log the call; we'll get someone out there as soon as we can. Call back when you get there. I'm operator 215."
"I'll do that," I disconnected. I try not to worry about things I can't control. Things like that are bad for you. But the adrenaline was pounding through my system, fear and frustration a tangible ball in the pit of my stomach. I never should have left her. Get the hit man, then go for the brains. Second guessing yourself is an occupational hazard when things go wrong.
Finally I pulled into the driveway. My gun pulled and ready, I slipped into the house, checking each room and straining to hear the smallest sound. The house was empty. In front of the garage door, the dress Crystal had worn, complete with the tracking pin, lay in a crumpled pile. I dropped my head in defeat as I realized the stalker had won. He had slipped in at the best possible time and made off with his victim. The letters did not provide much hope for Crystal.
But there was a slim hope, a very slim one. If Crystal had not been Crystal Dawn, megastar, I doubt if I could play the card I was about to. Quickly I rummaged through the house until I found the letters and made my call. The man on the view screen was Jim Green, my old boss at the CIA.
"I never expected to see you again," he said with a note of arrogance in his voice.
"Yea, same here. I'd love to chat, but I've got a crisis and only the agency can help," I said, speaking faster than I really should.
"We don't work for civilians." He used the word "civilians" as some people would use the word "nigger".
"You heard of Crystal Dawn? Well, she's just been kidnapped. I've got the notes her kidnapper sent. I know the agency can do a deep probe and find out where it came from. Crystal has maybe five, six hours, tops, left in this lifetime. If she dies, I'll go public with deep probe and point the blame for her death squarely at the agency for failing to use it. The public will hate you for having it; they'll hate you more for not using it."
"You know the penalty for violating your oaths!" Jim said in the most deadly threatening tone I'd ever heard before.
"I know," I replied grimly. "But you'll never get me before I reach the press. There are three reporters camped out on the beach behind me right now. Use the probe. Tell me where I gotta go. I save Crystal, and nobody's the wiser."
He gave a grim laugh. "It was a shame to lose you, Steve; you could play hardball with the best of them. I'll authorize the probe. BUT we'll discuss the consequences of blackmailing the agency later."
I nodded. I may have just signed my own death warrant. The screen went blank for an agonizing minute, then Candice appeared. She was one of the CIA net agents; actually, she was the best. We had worked together often when I was with the agency, and unofficially on a few occasions afterwards. Normally she'd start out with a crack about how time was not being kind to me, but Jim must have said something; she was all business. "Fax me the letters; I'll get the probe going in a few seconds," she said.
I punched the transmit button and then we waited. Deep Probe was a black project, one of the blackest in the agency's list. There wasn't a computer in existence that wasn't connected to the net, and, years ago, the agency created a little dormant virus that was probably the most brilliant piece of software design ever created. The virus hides itself in the computer, undetectable by even the most sophisticated virus checkers. It listens to the net, and when the right signal is found it begins to transmit the contents of every computer to the deep probe mega-computers. This includes deleted files, if they haven't been overwritten. For any deleted files that the owner has made a deliberate effort to delete and wipe, the virus stores them for a full year, always waiting for the signal.
My connection to Candice started to freeze and break up. The pipelines on the net were staggeringly huge, able to carry a trillion trillions of bits of information per microsecond; even that capacity was stretched to the utmost limit as every computer in LA began to dump its contents. I sat in front of the view screen for a full hour, anxiously awaiting the results. Finally the connection stabilized and Candice turned towards the camera and said, "I've got a positive match. A quickmap to the location's computer is printing out now. Be careful, Steve."
"Thanks, Candice. I will." I ripped the map from the computer and was out the door in five seconds flat.
It took twenty minutes to drive to a low-rent district, and I finally pulled in front of a dilapidated old house that didn't look like it could withstand too many more 5.0 earthquakes. My options on how to proceed were fairly limited, so I choose the direct approach. I went up and knocked on the door. I was genuinely shocked to find an elderly lady answering. I double-checked my map and the address matched. She was still looking at me inquisitively when I pulled my gun and motioned her inside.
She was terrified, and I didn't blame her one bit. I hated having to do it. The house was small, so I didn't feel too threatened leaving her in the living room while I checked the rooms. From all appearances she lived here alone. I went back in to the living room and found her still sitting where I had instructed her to sit.
"I'm not going to hurt you," I said. But then a lot of really bad men have said that, too; I didn't blame her for not believing me. "I'm a private investigator. One of my clients has been kidnapped. Your computer was used to generate the notes. You've got to tell me who's used your computer over the last two weeks."
She hesitated. My explanation and the fact that I had returned my gun to the holster seemed to calm her, but she had no reason to trust me and she didn't answer. "Look," I pleaded. "Someone's kidnapped my client. The notes he sent her are the worst thing you could possibly imagine. She is going to die, very soon, and very horribly unless I can stop him. Please."
A look of utter grief crossed her face and she began to weep. "It's Jerry. My son, Jerry. Three houses down at 915. Don't hurt him, please; he's the only family I have left!"
I wish I could have comforted her then, but time was my enemy, and as soon as she had said "915", I was already heading out the door. I raced to the house and knocked on the door. There was no answer, but I heard movement inside. I kicked the door; it groaned under the kick but did not give. My foot and leg, however, felt as if I had just stepped off a ten-story building. Gritting my teeth, I kicked again, and the door burst open.
I found them in the bedroom. Crystal was bound and gagged, spreadeagled and very naked on the bed, with angry black and blue bruises covering her body. The sheets below her crotch were covered in blood. Beside the bed, with a gun pointed at her head, was a tall, thin man with straggly, curly black hair, naked but for a pair of dirty white briefs.
"Put down the gun, Jerry," I said calmly.
He stood there, arm outstretched and shaking, the gun pointing squarely at Crystal's temple. He was panting and sweat was forming on his brow. His finger began to tighten around the trigger. If I had had time, and more information, I could have built a profile of him and talked him down; everybody has buttons, if you know how to push them. But talking blind like this I had as much chance of saying something wrong as something right.
In less than five seconds after entering the room, my only sure course of action was clear. With a silent prayer that my old training would be good enough, I squeezed the trigger. Contact was made, and the battery powered up the electromagnets, pulling a slug of metal forward at an increasingly faster pace until, by the time it left the barrel, it was moving as fast as its gunpowder counterpart. With the bullet still in mid-flight, I lowered the gun to my new target and pulled the trigger again. His eyes widened as he realized what I had done. His jaw dropped a few millimeters and his finger tightened in reflex. The dice had been rolled, and for a timeless second the world stood still.
My first bullet hit him square in the hand as he was firing, pulling the shot back so its projectile hit safely in the headboard of the bed, and not in the head of my client. The gun went flying across the room even as my second bullet bored its way through Jerry's kneecap, causing him to collapse on the floor in a screaming, agonized mound. I walked over and calmly picked up his gun, placing it in my belt for safe keeping. Jerry would not cause me any more problems; he was about to lose consciousness, anyway. I checked Crystal briefly. She was breathing and had a strong pulse, though she was unconscious. She would live.
I ended up driving both of them to the hospital, the farthest one from the riots that I could find. I had to call twelve before I found one with beds open. The gang war really was a war, and half of the central city was in flames. The army was being brought in, and the radios gave warning that anyone on the streets with a gun would be shot on sight. Just another day in the city of angels.
My suspicion of Nick had been just that: a suspicion. In investigating Jerry, I found that he fit the profile of a fan stalker to an absolute T: lonely, repressed, paranoid, borderline schizophrenic. Nick may have wished him well in his endeavors, but he certainly didn't hire him. Jerry was also a near genius; he was paranoid enough to be concerned about his DNA, and smart enough to jury rig a scrambler that still had the guys down at the lab scratching their heads trying to figure out how it worked.
He was smart enough to go after Crystal on the maid's day off, when I was off chasing Nick, smart enought to pick the day the riots, which had been simmering for months, began. Crystal, aside from being bruised and mentally scarred from the rape and beatings, would be just fine. Another successful case to add to my resume.
I was at my desk when I decided to finally bite the bullet and get it over with. I punched up the CIA and Jim glared back at me.
"Congratulations," he said.
"Thanks. I believe I owe the agency a debt," I replied.
"IF deep probe existed, and IF you knew about it, and IF you had ever blackmailed us into using it for your personal benefit, there would most certainly be consequences. But, as you and I both know, deep probe does NOT exist. And my daughter is just enough of a Crystal Dawn fan for me to think you did a good job." The bastard actually smiled.
"Thanks," I said, and meant it.
"I wouldn't try it again, if I were you," he warned. "We can turn a blind eye towards a few unauthorized toys; a freelancing net agent we can tolerate, especially when she's the best we've got. But one day you're going to go too far, and you'll never know when you cross that line."
He terminated the connection and I stared at the blank screen. I was suddenly reminded why I left the CIA. The spooks knew far too much about people for their own good, and they didn't play by anybody's rules but their own.
"Incoming Call - Crystal Dawn - Memorial Hospital Room 315" flashed on the terminal, and I hit answer. Crystal's face filled the screen, still with a few bruises, but mending nicely. She'd soon be ready to get back to work.
"I wanted to call and say thank you," she said.
I smiled. "You already thanked me," I replied.
"I know. But I've never had someone save my life before; I'm not really sure how to make you realize I mean it!" She laughed.
"I'll believe it when you pay your bill on time," I ribbed.
Even bruised, she was beautiful when she laughed, though she brought her finger up to her face when it started to cause her pain. "I thought about what you said, about suspecting Nick at first, and why. I've already contacted my lawyer; I'm going through with the divorce. Nick's really a nice guy, and I don't think he could ever do it, but a sham marriage isn't worth providing the temptation."
"I think, more importantly, you'll be happier," I agreed. "I did a background check on Sandra; she's as pure as new-fallen snow."
"My knight in shining armor," she said softly. "Thank you again, Steve."
"You're welcome again, Crystal," I replied with a wink.
The office was empty and a long afternoon loomed before me. I sighed and punched up the works of Friar Dave and snuggled back in my chair.