Distinctive moved warily around the woman sleeping in his bed. It was like Goldilocks, except this woman had dark hair. Her hair was jet black actually. She had olive skin. Distinctive could see a bit of a tattoo peeking above her collar. The woman had collected every pillow in his flat and created a sort-of chaise lounger situation. She was propped in the middle.
This was the woman who, the morning before, had stolen his backpack on the train. Distinctive recognized her. And, he was pretty sure this woman was the Voice. The Voice who had hacked him, harassed him, sent him to Texas, badgered him for over two weeks and Distinctive was sick of it.
Distinctive debated what to do. He wanted to drag her to the door and kick her out. He wanted to call the FBI. He didn’t want her in his bed.
He hadn’t any definite proof this was the Voice, but it fit. What was she doing here? How did she get in? Why did she return? Why had she fallen asleep? Was she high? Drunk? Distinctive paced quietly, thoughts racing. His eyes didn’t leave the woman. She lay perfectly still, apparently unaware he was in the room.
Distinctive hadn’t seen a woman in his bed in a long time. In fact, no woman had been in this particular bed, ever. Distinctive couldn’t even remember another person even being in this particular flat. He hadn’t realized how isolated he’d become. The woman moved a little. That protective vest she wore seemed to be making it difficult for her to sleep. Distinctive wondered why she didn’t take it off when she laid down. Was she worried about her safety?
Quietly, Distinctive brought in a chair from the kitchen and set it down next to the bed. He was tired. But he wanted to think about his next steps. He wouldn’t be able to sleep, and he didn’t yet want to wake this woman up.
When she did wake up, he needed be in a powerful position. Maybe have some sort of blackmail of his own. How could he accomplish that? This Voice had been manipulating him for several weeks, tweaking his phone, harassing his life, embarrassing many of the people he loved. He stared at her. She slept, but didn’t look like she was getting anything out of it. Distinctive wondered what he looked like sleeping. Did he look like this? Disheveled, uneasy, restless?
Then he remembered. His backpack! His computer was in the living room. His computer! His phone, too. When he stood up to retrieve them, his phone rang.
It was the phone Geri given him. Distinctive desperately tried to reach for it, to silence it, but he couldn’t find the button to send it to voicemail. He pulled it out of his pocket and finally found the “ignore” button and tapped it. Relief swept over him, until … he looked up. The woman in the bed was awake and looking at him.
She said, “Do you have ibuprofen?” Her voice was quiet. She moved stiffly but didn’t attempt to get up.
Hungover, Distinctive thought. Figures. He stood up and walked to his bathroom. A moment later he returned with a bottle of ibuprofen. He went to the kitchen and filled a glass with water and brought it back. She downed four tablets, and accidentally dumped some of the water on her shirt as she struggled to sit up enough to drink it.
She appeared to be in a lot of pain. It must have been a doozy of a night.
Distinctive said, “So.”
The woman said, “Yeah. You probably have a lot of questions.”
Distinctive sat down. He said, “Yeah.”
The woman said, “Go ahead then. I have a broken back. I’m not going anywhere.”
Distinctive said, “Your back is broken?”
“You need to see a doctor!”
“Oh, I’ve had my fill of doctors. What I need is to not be around doctors. That’s why I’m here.”
“If your back is broken, you should be in a hospital.”
“Okay, ‘broken’ is a little dramatic. It feels broken. Back in March, I bashed a few vertebrae around, rearranged things a bit. It’s been a long road back.”
Distinctive realized the vest wasn’t a vest. He said, “Wait, that’s not a protective vest. That’s a back brace.”
“Yeah. And, I could use some help getting it off. It’s doing more harm than good right now, but I can’t manage removing it by myself.”
Distinctive felt a moment of power. He finally had some control. He said, “I don’t know. I think you should answer some questions and then leave.”
“I don’t have anywhere to go.”
“Not my problem. I should call the cops.”
“You aren’t calling the cops.”
“Yeah, why not?”
“You know I got too much dirt on you. You’d be ruined.”
“So, you’re the one blackmailing me?”
“Duh. That took you long enough.”
“I knew it yesterday after the train pulled away. I was just confirming it.”
“Yeah… So, about this brace? A little help?”
“Answer some questions first.”
“It’s really painful.”
“Then you’ll answer sooner.”
The woman sighed and said, “Let me sweeten the pot a little. This brace goes under my shirt, against my skin. Like a bustier. When I take it off, I’m going to be topless.”
Distinctive: “Answers first.”
The woman gestured at her breasts and said, “Really? Your really passing this up?”
Distinctive said, “No, I’m just delaying it.”
She looked at him thoughtfully and asked, “Oh, are you not into women?”
Distinctive said, “I’ll ask the questions.”
“Sheesh. Alright. Let’s get this over with. Fire away.”
“You’re the Voice?”
“Yeah, that’s what we call you.”
The woman started to laugh, and then winced and stopped. “Oh, don’t do that. It hurts to laugh. I dread my next sneeze.” She tried to adjust her position and Distinctive felt bad about ignoring her pain. He just felt like… was it real? Was she playing him, or was she really in pain? At any rate, he had some control, and he needed it.
Distinctive said, “Why did you steal my stuff?”
“I knew you didn’t have any more days off from work. I thought if I stole it, you’d follow me to the airport, I’d convince you to get on a plane. We fly to London.”
Distinctive was surprised, “Wait, London? Why London?”
“It’s a working theory. But, you didn’t follow me. You went to work anyway, and I didn’t know you’d keep your phone in your bag, so now I couldn’t even track you, or contact you. I re-injured my back when the train locked up later that day, and I fell. I decided tonight to come here and just beg for your help. You weren’t here, but I couldn’t go anymore. I had to rest.
“So, now, here we are.”
“What happened to your back?”
“I hurt it.”
“Look, evade the questions all you want, it just means it will take longer to get that brace off.”
“Okay, look, I know what questions you have, so just let me explain everything. Okay?”
“Okay, last year my brother was murdered and I’m going to kill the guy who did it.”
Distinctive started to interrupt but the woman said, “Yes, as you know, my brother is Sergei Gordova. Yes, that means I’m Zoya Gates.”
“Yes. You can call me Zoe. Now listen. Let me explain so I can get this stupid brace off.”
Distinctive nodded for her to continue.
“I broke into this office building in Dallas. You told me Stoney figured this out. The office was on the top floor, it was hard to get in. I thought it would be cool to just BASE jump off instead of trying to sneak out without getting caught. I’d be able to exfiltrate, I’d get an adrenaline rush, I wouldn’t get caught. Triple win, right? So, I did. I BASE-jumped off. It didn’t go well. It was really windy and I’d never done it before and I got all tangled up. I dropped like a stone and it happened so fast and I ended up getting the chute almost figured out just as I was about to land, and I ended up hitting the side of this small building and tumbling down to the street. I hurt my back. It was bad. I could barely walk. I was in so much pain. Worse than now. I managed to get an Uber all the way to Fort Worth, then hitched a ride south. I was worried about the FBI finding me. I was trying to get back to Austin, but I made it only to Waco.”
“I passed out, the woman I hitched with dropped me at a random hospital. I woke up about two days later. At first, I had no idea where I was. I had no ID and told them I didn’t remember anything. The NSA didn’t realize I had done anything at first, and no one found me there. I’d been in that hospital until about two weeks ago. The waiting room on the floor had a computer for families to use and I got on there as often as I could, when I wasn’t in surgery or recovering. I needed some help. I needed someone who could do some footwork while I was laid up. I’ve been watching you for a couple of years. I like what you do. I like how you help people. I hatched a plan to get you to help me.
“That’s pretty much it.”
Distinctive said, “No, that barely scratches the surface.”
Exclusivor said, “Can we get this brace off?”
Distinctive was silent for a moment. Then, he said. “Okay. But, afterwards I’m going to put on some coffee, and we’re going to keep talking.”
Exclusivor nodded. Her eyes were wet. She choked out, “Thank you.”
Distinctive didn’t roll his eyes but he felt like he was being played. He felt little sympathy as he followed her instructions and cut her shirt off with a pair of kitchen scissors.
Out of her shirt, Distinctive could see what it was so painful. The brace was very thin. Thinner than a sweater would be. Like Exclusivor had said, it basically looked like a bustier, but in a carbon fiber mesh with several LED indicator lights and some sort of post-modern sensor along the top. It looked like it had been custom made. It was rigid and there were little fist-sized lumps or bulbs that pushed inward, like golf ball dimples. There were buckles on each side that reminded Distinctive of ski boot buckles, but flush with the brace. Exclusivor told him she had a tool in her bag, to help with the buckles. She pointed behind his bedroom door and Distinctive saw a rolling carry-on bag standing there. He hadn’t seen that before; he realized he had been so focused on the woman, he hadn’t really looked around.
He went to the bag, set it on his dresser and unzipped it. He looked at Exclusivor but her eyes were closed and she was breathing quick, shallow breathes, like Lamaze. He was going to ask permission to rifle around in her bag, but after seeing her like that, he opened it and started digging. She had packed some clothes, a laptop, a dozen phones in a ziplock bag, various cords and chargers, a little toiletries bag and that was it. He finally found, in the bag with her toothbrush, what must be the tool she referred to, and went back over to the bed.
“How do you want to do this?”
“That’s the hard part. I’m trying to psych myself up.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to go to the hospital?”
“No, it’s okay. It’s just pain at this point. The doctors say my back is fine structurally, I just have some weird nerves or something. They say I can’t do anything to really hurt the back any worse. The pain isn’t usually this bad. I’m only supposed to wear the brace for eight hours at a stretch. It’s been over twenty-four hours since I’ve had it off.”
“Okay. Tell me what to do.”
Exclusivor instructed him on how the tool worked, which was like a slim-jim. Slide it under each buckle – three buckles on each side, six total – and swipe up. Distinctive had to do the middle buckle on each side, which meant that he had to walk all the way to the other side of the bed to get the other bucket. Exclusivor was breathing quickly, and hard and Distinctive started to get a little stressed out. She didn’t say anything. Next, it was the bottom buckle on each side and when they were both unlatched she started breathing faster. Then Distinctive unlatched the first top buckle and hurried around to the other side of the bed as Exclusivor held her breath and bit her hand. Then, he unlatched the last one.
She let out an orgasmic groan and grabbed the front half of the brace and pulled it off. There was a large tribal tattoo across her stomach and chest, covering her sternum and her left shoulder. The tattoo appeared to spread onto her back, and disappeared below her jeans. Distinctive realized he was staring at her and looked away.
Exclusivor breathed heavily for a moment and then said, “That’s the most painful part. Those last two buckles. Every single time. The doctors say it should start to get better in the next month or two.”
She set the brace next to her on the bed. Then she reached out her hands, crossed at the wrist, and said, “Help me up. Don’t pull. Just grab my hands and let me lift myself up. This is the second-worst part.”
Distinctive did as she asked. He turned his head out of courtesy but could still see her in his bedroom mirror.
He watched her lift herself up, slowly. When she was almost all the way up, she swung her legs to the side of the bed and then sat there. Distinctive grabbed a dress shirt from his closet, unbuttoned it and went over to drape it on her shoulders. He gasped at what he saw. Those golf ball dimples on the back of the brace had left deep red welts.
He said, “Holy cow. You should see your back.”
“I know. That brace has these adjustable pressure points to help keep everything aligned. It hurts.”
“Yeah. Wow. One of them is bleeding. Let me get a washcloth.”
“Thank you.” Distinctive left to get a wash clothe and she called after him, “It’ll be fine in a couple of days. I’m not going to be able to wear that brace until it heals, though.”
Distinctive returned and wiped her back with a damp wash clothe. He said, “Where are you going to go, do you have a place near here? Do you need a cab?”
Distinctive finished and Exclusivor put her arms through the arm holes. She looked at Distinctive and laughed a little, then winced and said. “Oh no, I don’t need a cab. I’m staying here. We’ve got work to do.”
Despite saying they had a lot of work to do, Exclusivor did little but sleep all day Sunday. Distinctive felt bad about her back and dropped the questions. At lunch, he grabbed soup from the corner deli, then takeaway Chinese for dinner, and they talked a little while they ate, and Distinctive hacked her laptop while she slept.
Hacking it was so easy, he suspected it was a plant. There must be something on the laptop she wanted him to see. And she probably figured that if he found it by hacking, it would more believable. Everything made Distinctive suspicious.
He also started disassembling his own laptop. No way he trusted that thing now. One of the best hackers in the world had access to it for over a day. It was a goner. He’d keep some of the parts. His phone was a goner, too. He powered it down and put it in two faraday bags and locked it in a drawer. Using his new computer, he sent a few messages to the IRC channel about this new development and Q and Lita flooded the channel with individual tirades. Distinctive had a lot on his mind and just shut it down, barely scanning what they wrote.
One of the things on his mind was something Exclusivor said during dinner. There was an awkward silence and Exclusivor broke it, saying to Distinctive, “Oh, your mom called yesterday. She’s nice.”
Distinctive had just taken a bite of a won-ton and about choked. “You talked to my Mom?”
“Yeah, for about two hours. She says you are supposed to talk on Saturdays. She said you hadn’t been answering.”
“Yeah, because you hacked my phone and sent me off on this… this…”
“Oh, relax Sean. I told her it was my fault.”
“I told her you and I were seeing each other and you’d been spending more time with me.”
“She was over the moon!”
“But, we aren’t seeing each other! You’re like this menace to me! She’s going to be asking about this forever.”
“I’m a menace to you?”
“Yeah, a bully. What do you think all this is?”
“Look, I needed help.”
“You could have asked.”
“No way you say yes. I couldn’t risk it.”
“Maybe I say yes.”
“We’ll never know, will we? You didn’t give me the chance!”
With that, Distinctive went out to the living room, loudly pulling the bedroom door closed behind him. A little while later, Exclusivor came out of the bedroom. Except for a couple of bathroom breaks that she needed help accomplishing, Distinctive hadn’t seen her out of bed. She’d made it up by herself. She walked gingerly. Distinctive didn’t look at her.
She said, “I’m sorry. I was desperate. I didn’t really think it through. You know how hacking is. Sometimes, when you don’t see the other person, you forget there is another person.” After a pause where Distinctive didn’t speak, Exclusivor continued, “I’m sorry about your Mom, too. She was really friendly and I’ve been feeling really lonely and it was a God-send to talk to her like that. She sounded really lonely, too, Sean. I just got carried away. I hadn’t talked to anyone like that since my brother died.”
Distinctive sat silently for a minute, then said, “I’m sorry about your brother. And, yeah, I know. Mom is lonely, and I talk to her every week because I know she’s lonely. But, you’ve made everything really hard lately.”
Exclusivor fidgeted. “I know. I’m sorry. Look, I need help right now, but believe me. I’m a good friend. You help me here, and I promise you, your life is going to get much, much better.”
“Exclusivor, we aren’t friends. You’re blackmailing me. Friends don’t do that.”
“Yeah, yeah, forget all that. Forget the blackmail. Really, I just needed an ‘in’. I was desperate. I am desperate. I’m sorry, it won’t happen again. Okay?”
Distinctive felt some power returning. He felt like he was getting some control. He said, “I need sleep. I have work tomorrow. I know already, tomorrow is going to be a terrible day.”
“The Avanta thing?”
“Ha, yes. The Avanta thing. What a mess.”
“She’ll be fine. You’ll get some rest, and it will all work out.”
Then, realization dawned on Distinctive. “Wait, were you behind the lathe issues we had yesterday?”
Exclusivor shook her head. “No, but I think I know who it is. But, you need sleep, so let’s talk about that tomorrow after work. Sean, I need one more favor tonight.”
“I need help in the bathroom?”
“Ugh, the toilet again? I feel like a nurse in an old-folks home.”
Exclusivor was indignant. “Old folks home? I’m twenty-five! And, I’m smoking hot!” She smiled at him.
“I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just weird.”
Exclusivor nodded. “Yeah, I know. Try being me, pants around my ankles, some guy I just met helping me up. Besides, I’m not asking for help with the toilet. I want a shower. It’s been like five days. And, your tub has those high walls and probably is like an ice-skating rink. There’s nothing to hold onto in there.”
Distinctive knew what she meant. His old style, free-standing tub was a menace if you lost your balance. He nodded and said, “Alright.” To himself he thought this was the weirdest month of his life.
The next morning, “Neil Diamond’s America” started to play and Distinctive woke up, turned off the alarm and tried to create the willpower to get up.
He felt like a wuss for having the woman who had rocked his life for the last two weeks sleeping in his bed while he was stuck on the couch. But he couldn’t bring himself to kick her out. Plus, he figured his couch would make her back worse and he’d be stuck with her even longer.
Distinctive rubbed his eyes. He knew it was going to hit the fan when he got to work. He got off the couch and, on the way to the bathroom, he looked in his bedroom. For a moment, Distinctive watched Exclusivor sleep. She seemed to be sleeping deeply, finally getting overdue rest. Distinctive had to watch her closely, like a father watching a child, to be sure she was still alive. She wore a pair of his shorts and an old t-shirt. Though she slept soundly, her clothes were twisted like she had been tossing and turning. Part of the tattoo on her hip showed.
As he had seen when helping with the brace, and then even more when he helped her in and out of the shower the night before, she was covered in tattoos. Actually, it was just one big tattoo. She had insisted he stay near the tub while she showered in case she had a back spasm or started to slip. Through the shower-curtain, she told him all about the tattoo. Why she got it, what it meant to her. She had a guy back in Saint Petersburg she visited whenever she could.
Exclusivor stuck to discussing random, unimportant topics like tattoos, and not essential stuff like what she wanted from Distinctive and the rest of #TheCollective and why she had blackmailed him. He was okay with that. Suddenly everything with the Voice seemed less urgent. Some sort of revenge thing. Distinctive could focus on Avanta. Where was she? How was she? What he was going to say at work? Geri had already established that Avanta was with Sean when Avanta was last seen. So, now what?
These were the things on his mind when there was a knock on his door.
Who would be knocking at his door at seven on a Monday morning? Distinctive didn’t know, but he didn’t figure it would be good news.
He looked through the peep hole and heard a voice from the other side of the door say, “Distinctive, never look through the peep hole! I could put a bullet anywhere on this door and hit you! Your OppSec stinks!”
Distinctive knew that voice. He swung the door wide open. Standing at the entrance to his flat: Lita and Stoney. Lita bounced up and down and hugged him. Then she looked past him into his flat and said, “We came as fast as we could. Where is she? I’m gonna kill her.”