Sean planned to stroll into work Monday morning with a bounce in his step. He planned to breeze in, a perfect smile on his face. He practiced a care-free attitude. He really had. He had practiced while he showered and shaved. He practiced because he needed a cover. He needed people to believe he had nothing to do with Avanta’s disappearance.
Because, Avanta had been kidnapped. And, she was kidnapped while Sean was committing a crime. And, well, Sean felt very responsible for it. Sean’s hacker handle was Distinctive. Distinctive was being blackmailed at the time, so he couldn’t just go to the cops and he didn’t think any help the cops would provide would amount to much anyway.
Now it was Monday morning and, it was tough to leave his flat to go to work. In Distinctive’s bed, with a very bad back, was his ruthless blackmailer, a hacker called Exclusivor. And, an hour before Distinctive had needed to leave for work, his good friend LOL-Lita had arrived from California, walked into his flat, and had tried to kill Exclusivor. Lita’s boyfriend Stoney, who was with her, and Distinctive struggled to hold her back. Exclusivor wasn’t in a position to be able to put up much of a fight. But, instead of being scared, Exclusivor looked amused.
This upset Lita even more. She called Exclusivor a murderer. She shouted, “I was in the hotel room where you hacked his Jeep!” She all but spit on Exclusivor. During this moment, Sean thought he saw murder in Exclusivor’s eyes, but it was just a flash.
By the time Sean left for work, things had cooled a bit. Stoney promised to take over helping Exclusivor with getting food and also help her take restroom breaks. LOL-Lita wanted nothing to do with any of it and was content to sit on the couch, seething that this blackmailer, and in her opinion, murderer, was not being hauled away by the FBI.
It was an uneasy truce, and it added another uneasy layer to Sean’s stress. It was another reason he had been practicing acting care-free. Because, really, there was nothing free or care about it, and Sean just wanted to leave all of these anxieties; just run and never stop.
Sean was very familiar with anxiety. He had a personal Mount Rushmore of anxiety. Instead of dead presidents, carved into the granite were his top four stressors. On this day, his Mount Stressmore looked like this: Avanta’s Safety next to Geri finding out Avanta was kidnapped next to Lita strangling Exclusivor next to Distinctive’s Mother.
They were all legit stressors and truth be told, there were another dozen anxieties waiting for a spot on Mount Stressmore to open up. Bench-warming anxieties, hoping to get in the game. That’s how Sean thought of them.
Sean sucked at stress management.
One of those lesser anxieties was taking the train. Sean was getting a little train-shy. So much had happened on trains lately. So, just before he stepped onto the escalator to go underground, he decided against taking the train, and hailed a cab instead. Taking a cab might make him late. Today, he didn’t care.
While the cab poked it’s way through traffic and the morning news blared on the radio, Distinctive thought about how strong Lita was. She was petite but it took Stoney and Distinctive all they had to hold her back. Stoney was actually smaller than Lita, but Distinctive was probably half-again her size. And yet, it was not easy. Distinctive had underestimated how mad Lita was. Lita was often hot-headed but Distinctive hadn’t realized how much the blackmail had upset her. Distinctive realized that he had been pretty self-centered, lately. He had only thought of himself. He hadn’t even thought about Lita and Stoney’s engagement, other than a quick congrats to Stoney two weeks before.
The cab made better time than it should have, given the traffic and the route, and Distinctive noticed that he had some time to spare. Still a half-mile from his office, he asked the driver to let him out. The driver looked at him quizzically but stopped. Distinctive paid cash, stepped onto the sidewalk and moved close to a building. In the distance, he heard sirens.
Distinctive stood there, watching. He was cataloging the people around him. Was anyone familiar? He didn’t see anyone he recognized. He tried to remember the people here, so when he did this again before going in the office, he could recognize someone, if they were following.
Distinctive didn’t concentrate on faces. Distinctive recognized bodies better. The length of someone’s torso compared to their legs, the size of their chest, what kind of hair they had, whether they seemed fit or not, the shape of their backside, how square their shoulders were. Most people say they don’t remember faces well, and Distinctive agreed. He rarely forgot a body, though.
None of the bodies he saw triggered concern, so Distinctive started walking again. He had a few extra minutes and didn’t want to arrive early, so he changed his course to walk a couple of blocks out of his way. More sirens joined in the ones he had been hearing. While he walked, he thought again about this morning at his flat.
Exclusivor was smug and unconcerned by Lita’s show of strength. Exclusivor had something about her. Distinctive recalled Avanta’s weird vibe. But for Exclusivor, the vibe was more like… Swagger. Exclusivor was fearless and confident. Distinctive had seen another side of her yesterday. A softer side. Which was real? Was this attitude a front? Or, had Exclusivor been playing Distinctive yesterday?
After Lita had stopped trying to get into Distinctive’s bedroom to strangle Exclusivor, the first thing Exclusivor said to Lita was, “congratulations on the wedding!” She smiled at Lita and Stoney and really seemed to mean it. Then she said, “I think you planned next April, right? Something about Stoney’s parent’s anniversary?”
That set Lita off again. Apparently Lita and Stoney had discussed these details only in the shower, and only once. Distinctive had never seen Lita so rattled. Stoney seemed as unconcerned as ever. Distinctive wished he knew how Stoney did that.
And, when the conversation had finally turned to Avanta’s safety, Exclusivor repeatedly said that everyone was too concerned about Avanta. Exclusivor wouldn’t answer why she felt that way, but she said it every time Avanta’s name came up. The only thing that seemed to throw Exclusivor for a loop was Fishburne’s absence. Lita said that as soon as Fishburne heard that Exclusivor was in DC, laid up at Sean’s flat, he disappeared. They had no idea if he was flying back to update the FBI, plotting revenge, or fading into Bolivian.
When Sean finally left the flat to go to work, Lita laid on the couch, her laptop on her belly, reading some research paper about Cambodian refugees. Sean heard Stoney and Exclusivor laughing about something in his bedroom. Exclusivor was begging Stoney to stop because laughing hurt so much. It wasn’t on purpose, but Stoney had hurt Exclusivor more than Lita had.
Sean finished his excursion around the block and stopped and acted like he was checking his watch again. He glanced around. No one seemed to be following him. He noticed nothing unusual. Well, there was an unusual number of sirens, but that was at least a couple of miles away and growing fainter. He didn’t think about it too hard.
Finally, he could delay no more. Sean crossed the street to a building and went in. It was a building with generic markings and a long directory of fake businesses and law practices. These were actually multiple fronts for the company Sean worked for. It wasn’t really a government agency, not a even a covert government agency. However, the company had but a single contract, and it was with the US government.
Sean walked past building security, joined a crowded elevator, punched the button for his floor and once there, wound his way past security, which was tight like always.
Sean walked his practiced walk. It was bouncy, and he smiled at everyone. He headed for his office. Avanta’s desk was on the next row just past his office. He noticed a woman packing up Avanta’s desk. It seemed like Avanta already had an assistant. What a weird first day this will be for that poor woman. Packing up her new bosses’ desk, and then waiting for the boss that would never arrive.
As Sean neared his office, he turned to say hi to a couple of members of his team, did a double take at Avanta’s desk, and walked right into Barry, spilling his coffee. Sean was so shocked, he didn’t even apologize. For, it wasn’t Avanta’s new assistant packing up her desk.
It was Avanta herself.
A mixture of confusion and relief swam over Sean. But wait, what does it mean? Avanta’s free?
When their eyes met, Avanta looked tremendously relieved, too. But, she quickly looked away. Sean walked over to her, but she hurried away.
What in actual hell was going on?
For two hours Sean tried to get a moment with Avanta but failed. So, Sean forced himself onto her work calendar just before lunch, using the excuse that he needed thirty minutes to review updates to his Atomal programming language before Avanta left. Her flight to Longbeach was Friday. She would be moving there permanently. There was a lot of hand-offing that all the engineers needed to do before she left. Sean had legit Atomal questions, but he didn’t plan on asking them. He planned to ask her how she had escaped, what was going on, and why she hadn’t contacted him.
As the morning went on and she actively avoided him, Sean’s paranoia grew. What was she up to? Why was she avoiding him?
The time for his meeting finally arrived and Avanta would have to talk to him. But, then, there was a sudden commotion at security. A moment later, Geri called Sean and all other Lathe personnel into the north conference room. Most of the other engineers, IT staff and security people were there, too.
This particular office building was locked down more than most offices. Browsing CNN or Fox News wasn’t permitted. Most of the people there often heard news only after they left the building to head home. That’s why no one had heard the news Geri delivered.
Geri announced there had been a terrorist bombing on the Metro. She said it happened at a station near Georgetown. Geri looked right at Sean and said, “You are lucky to be alive, Sean. It was your station.”
One of the security guards brought Sean a cold bottle of water. He was seated, and he sipped the water, shaking. While Sean recovered, Geri reviewed the security plan for their building. They did this monthly and everyone knew it by heart and looked bored. No one was really worried about their building being hit by terrorists. It was all but anonymous what they did there, and the place was a vault. Their physical safety was top notch.
Sean thought about the people at his train station. Geri told them that one woman had died. She was a student at the university. There were over twenty people badly wounded. Geri said to Sean, “How come you didn’t see anything?” Sean told her what he did. At the last minute, he had decided to take a cab.
Geri seemed interested in that. Why would he take a cab? Did he do it often? She asked him what route the cab took. Did Sean have a receipt? Then, she grabbed Benjamin, who had flown in for the week for the hand-off of the Longbeach lathe to Avanta. Geri whispered quietly to Benjamin. Sean couldn’t hear what she said. Benjamin then left the room.
Avanta was also part of the group in the conference room, but she made sure to avoid Sean.
Lunch followed the mass meeting and Sean didn’t get to speak with Avanta. He wasn’t hungry, but he got a green tea and sat in the cafeteria. Usually, he would be listening to his “Cafeteria – Monday” playlist but his phone was in a faraday bag back at home. Now, he was trying not to think about the dead and dying people at his train station. Then, Avanta came over and sat down. At first, Sean didn’t see her. But, Avanta had apparently just taken a cigarette break. He smelled her approach. Sean looked up and they both smiled at the same time. It was at this exact table, this exact seat, that two weeks ago Avanta had asked him to a baseball game. She had asked him on a date. It felt like a lifetime ago. So much had happened since.
Sean started to ask her how she had gotten away from Sindictive but she interrupted him.
She put her hand on top of his. When Avanta spoke, she said, “Listen. Don’t talk. I waited for this. I didn’t get away. I’m being watched, and monitored. I think Geri is doing it, but I’m not sure. The guy who kidnapped me is named Steven Matthews. He’s sadistic. Crazy. He’s after Atomal. He’s planning backdoors. He’s trying to get you. He planted that Metro bomb. I’m really glad he didn’t get you. I’m here to steal lathe plans for him. And, I have to. I’ll explain why later. Looked, don’t trust Fishburne, whatever you do. I will contact you as soon as I can. Tell no one anything. Look closely at any new Atomal forks on github. Look at the code. I’ll leave messages in the method names. Crap! There’s Geri. If she asks, you don’t know anything. Be cool, Distinctive. I’m in love with you, so don’t do anything rash.”
She said all of this very quickly, without taking a breath, and then she walked away.
Sean turned his attention to Geri, who was going through the food line. She didn’t seem to pay Avanta any attention at all. Sean thought about what Avanta had said. She confirmed the identity of her kidnapper, Steven Matthews. Sean already knew that but Avanta didn’t know he knew. Matthews was also-known-as Sindictive. She had said it was Sindictive who had planted the Metro bomb. No wonder she had looked relieved when Sean had arrived safely at work. She must have known Sean was in danger. But why hadn’t she tried to warn Sean that Sindictive was trying to kill him?
She also said not to trust Fishburne. Sean didn’t, and never had. He was way ahead of her on that one.
Avanta also said something about Sindictive forcing her to steal lathe plans. Definitely a bad sign, especially if he was already planting bombs on trains. Sean didn’t know what to do. Would the police even believe him if he reported that? He regretted not telling Geri about Avanta last week, when Avanta was kidnapped. Should he go to her now? But, Avanta said to tell no one, and that Geri was watching her. And what the hell? Avanta said she was in love with him? Was that, like, code or something? Did he hear her right? She was in love, but couldn’t bother to warn him he was in danger?
Sean was miserable the rest of the afternoon. Avanta stayed far, far away, refused any meetings or eye contact, and Sean wondered how he was going to get home safely with a Sindictive after him. Was his Metro station a crime scene? Had people died this morning because of him? What would be next?
Sean hit github to check out the recent forks of his Atomal programming language. He saved the list of forks so he could compare it in a couple of days. It was a weird way to communicate but Sean assumed Avanta had no choice. She was being watched, but who would check old diffs of deleted code? Avanta was smart.
As badly as he didn’t want to arrive at work this morning, Sean now didn’t want to leave. The office was a fortress. Once he hit the street, everything was fair game. Everyone was a threat. ***ARTIFACTS*** But, if Sindictive knew his station, he knew his flat. His friends Lita and Stoney were in danger. Exclusivor was there, too.
That was the only thing that kept Sean from sleeping in his office. That, and he needed to see his Metro station. He knew it was risky, but he had to see for himself. He needed to warn Exclusivor, to Lita and Stoney. He wanted to raise Q on IRC, and message with Bitslapt. He needed some support, and maybe a bottle of scotch.
Sean felt very shaky as he left his office building. It was still light out but there were long shadows. It was a warm day. He hailed for a cab, and two cabs nearly collided trying to get to him first. It was weird, there were tons of fares around. No need to be so aggro.
The more persistent cab edged in, and that act alone should have frightened Sean into walking briskly away. But, just as the cab pulled up, he saw Benjamin walking toward him. Sean hadn’t seen Benjamin since Geri had whispered to him and Benjamin had left the conference room. Benjamin, seeing Sean go for the cab, yelled, “Sean, no! Geri needs to talk to you!”
Sean acted like he didn’t hear Benjamin. Sean reached for the door handle. Benjamin yelled, “Stay away from the cab!”
Sean quickly opened the cab door. He hopped in, started to urge the driver to hurry off, but, this was weird. The cab was occupied. Sean was suddenly disoriented. There was already someone in the back seat.
Benjamin was grabbing for the door handle, but the driver punched the electronic locks. Benjamin banged on the window and was yelling. Sean started to apologize. But, then he recognized the passenger.
It was Sam Fishburne. He pointed a gun at Sean.
Fishburne said, “The FBI needs a word with you. Now.”