The Edge of Chaos CHAPTER 2: “The Death of the Prophet”

This is the second chapter of the unfinished story I was writing back in 2004 called The Edge of Chaos; the Prelude and First Chapter I posted earlier was the precursor to this. It’s just as rambling as before, and the language feels as forced as a sitcom in some places. I hope to update this or completely rewriting it sometime soon. There’s also the stereotypical “jerk-ass cop/Federal agent” in this chapter; I’ll probably get rid of his character when/if I rewrite this. I post it here only to receive feedback, and to show how far my writing has come. I will post two more chapters after this. Does the story interest you thus far? If so, let me know!

For some reason, the footnotes completely disappear in this chapter. This chapter was written with an old friend of mine, Taya, whom I haven’t heard from in years. (The dialogue for her self-named character feels more natural, I think.) Taya, if you’re reading this, contact me so I can link back to you and give you proper credit.

On with the show…


A single shaft of blinding light pierced the empty darkness, rousing Ian from slumber. There was something dramatically different from this light, however – it somehow seemed more angry and threatening than the hallway lighting he was accustomed to. Whatever the light was, it definitely was not from any light source he knew of. The deep crimson glow of the strange light cut into Ian’s retinas with the sharp sting of a dagger, causing him to shield his aching eyes with the back of his hand.

Peeking through the small spaces in between his fingers, Ian could see the light bathe every tiny corner and hidden space in his office in deep, violent shades of red. As he squinted in a worthless effort to keep the light from burning his eyes, the strange crimson light melted into a hopelessly deep, impossibly dark torrential pool of blood. This horrific tsunami carried with it shadows too terrible for his beleaguered mind to interpret. Ian closed his eyes to the ocean outside, waiting for the intense agony of the shadows that had invaded him to subside.

Another shadow had invaded Ian’s inner sanctum while his eyes were closed, a sinister presence whose darkness drowned the black of the bloody shadows in the office. This dark presence carried with it faces of those Ian loved, of his co-workers and old friends… and this presence had a name Ian knew all too well.

Cull,” Ian rasped weakly as a crimson-stained claw lifted him from his chair and threw him against the back wall of his office. His back hit the wall hard and he slid into the waiting red ocean surging underfoot, the crimson waves threatening to drown him. Again he was lifted up by the horrible hand and slammed against the wall, Cull’s red hand holding him there by the neck. The Shadow’s fingers constricted very slowly, squeezing the breath from Ian’s lips and forcing the young man’s eyes open. Ian fought to keep his eyes closed, the image of Mister Cull’s predatory grin already seared into his brain. No matter how hard he fought, the claw-like fingers applied blistering hot pressure to Ian’s skin, and eventually he had to open his eyes…

…And face the eyes of the other that stared into him.

Ian blinked once, twice, thrice in confusion as his eyes adjusted to the soft, suffused light surrounding him. The tired, weary honey-hazel eyes he knew so well stared back at him from the small bathroom mirror before him. Weeks of sleep deprivation had taken their toll, leaving deep circles under his eyelids. His cheeks bore a sickly pallor; the only sustenance he had allowed himself for days was coffee or soda. The dreadful fear that held his mind captive radiated from the mask of exhausted indifference he wore. He could act as stoic and solid as he wanted to for his coworkers, but the undeniable truth was that Ian was considering backing out of the case.

Ian had grave misgivings about the case the moment he accepted it and those misgivings had only grown. At first he could hide his feelings easily. He kept his features neutral during the mission briefings back at headquarters, telling his team only what they needed to know to function: a senator was found dead and they had been asked to assist with the investigation. For the most part, the team treated the case as “business as usual”; only Ian and one other person on his team knew the full details. Those details had been replaying continuously in his mind ever since he set foot on the plane and the nagging sense of dread has tightened in his stomach like an unyielding, painful knot.

The tiny First Class lavatory shook around him as he splashed water on his face to fight off the drowsiness. The nearer their plane flew to their destination, the more turbulence rocked the airliner. The pilot already had to divert course twice since takeoff. Steadying himself against the lavatory door, Ian stood and waited until the brief turbulence passed. Once the plane was steady again, Ian put on his most reassuringly neutral expression and quietly crept back to his seat, being careful not to startle any sleeping passengers.

“Ian, are you alright?”

Her voice tinged with the merest hint of concern, Taya Fujikawa peered over her black wire-frame glasses at Ian. Though she was far better than he at hiding her feelings, he could almost see the worry in her dark eyes. Only someone who had known Taya for a very long time could read her as well as Ian could.

“Of course,” Ian responded cordially, sitting upright in his seat to conceal his uneasiness. He hoped no one would notice him sneaking off to the lavatory to regain his composure, but Taya always seemed to notice more than anyone else on his team.

“You sure?” she asked. “If you were any paler the pilots would mistake you for a landing beacon.”

“I’m perfectly fine, thank you,” he added sharply, somewhat irked more by her attentiveness than by her comparison. In a gentler, apologetic voice he added, “I’ll be alright, I promise. Thank you for your concern, Taya. I guess I’m… still having a hard time with Drosnin’s death.”

“If you say so, Sir,” Taya said, returning to her laptop. She could tell when Ian was hiding something, but she let it slide. She knew Ian would tell her what was going on with him when he felt like doing so. Though he said nothing, Ian was certain she knew how grateful he was for her acceptance. Nightmares – especially the kind that occurred while he was still awake – were not something he cared to share.

Once he was certain Taya was concentration on her work Ian slipped his own slim black Macintosh laptop out of the duffel bag resting at his feet, set it atop the fold-out tray table and began to type, his fingers gingerly tapping away at the keyboard. Undoubtedly Dr. Madden would want every detail of the trip recorded. Madden’s wanderlust aside, she had almost threatened Ian with physical violence – in a playful way, of course – if he did not write in his journal every day he and his team were gone. He sighed in protest – journals were not among his favorite things to write – and tried to focus on his task.

We’re on the plane en route to D.C. at present, about halfway into the final leg of the journey. I awoke from the strangest of daydreams, the details of which shall be transcribed at a later time. This one wasn’t quite like the other dreams at all, but there was one common element: him. I feel he’s stalking me somehow… Then I remind myself how very silly the idea that I’m being pursued by an imaginary bogeyman is and I feel ashamed to even mention it. I’ll go into this more in a later entry.

My team and I are flying First Class aboard American Airlines Flight 238, no stopovers. (I wonder how much that cost the Consortium.) Everyone seems at ease and they appear well-rested, for the most part. Four specialists are with me on this case: Doctor Harold Murphy, our Senior Political Analyst, will touch base with his D.C. contacts immediately upon arrival to gauge the political situation and determine its potential impact upon the possiblemurder; Chief Technologist Chaz Essex, whom I’ve known since high school, will be our “eyes and ears” at the crime scene; Dr. Myra Wreynolds, our one-woman CSI team, will be the brains there – she’ll coordinate with both the FBI and local GSIC forensics teams and take full command of both staffs immediately upon arrival; and Lead Programmer Taya Fujikawa will record all findings, work out profiles of possible suspects, coordinate with literally everyoneinvolved and design a virtual model of the crime as it took place using all data available. Taya is my secret weapon. Al Drosnin was a Mac addict in the most truthful of terms (hence my decision to employ only Macintosh systems on this case); he kept records of everythingon his old G4, and if he was as paranoid as I recall all his files will be heavily encrypted. If his recent records are on his computer, I will need Taya’s expertise to retrieve them.

At present, all’s quiet on the allegorical Western Front, though I feel this is only the calm before the storm. (Wow, two clichés in one sentence! I think I’ve reached my limit for the day.) It’s 11:59 local and Myra (in #15) is sleeping in, Harry (#17) and Chaz (#20) are watching the in-flight film (the old Abbot & Costello classic Sons of the Desert) and Taya (#25) is once again coding programs for her website on her PowerBook. She has yet to get sleep, nor do I expect her to. She’s the only other insomniac I know who puts in as many hours at work as Ido.

I know I worry about Taya more than I worry about anyoneelse, but I can’t help it. She’s morethan an employee or another Second Chance to me; she’s the little sister I always wanted but never had. Since she first began working with the GSIC over two years ago she has been my closest friend and comrade. When I went through… what I did back in February, she pulled me from the Edge and back into reality when it felt like no one else even wanted to try. She didn’t try to change me or make me see “the facts” as everyone else saw them. She accepted me as what I was – what I had become – and learned what she could from me, as I have learned what I can from her. To see how she handles what she herself has gone through… She is a miracle in somany ways. I owe her my life, Liz. To be honest, I was very reluctant to bring her with us.

I’ve had a bad feeling about this case since I first took the files from Dr. Kurtzweil’s hand, as you are well aware of. Much of it is confidential (is there ever a case that’s not?) and you know how much I hate keeping secrets from my team. What I can say with certainty is that he didn’tkill himself, regardless of what the Feds may or may not think. Drosnin was a warm, friendly, charismatic man who honestly believed that the System could work if we all did our civic duties to the best of our abilities. He loved his wife Margaret and their three children – especially his youngest, Marcus – more than life and gave them as much of himself as he was able. He was a brilliant, passionate, driven man who felt it was his responsibility to keep the American government free from corruption. (Sure, he got kind of weird when I last heard from him, but that is to be expected. His wife had just left him! Remember how weird Igot when… it happened?) I am understating the obvious when I say, “He will be missed.”

There is no way in Heaven, Hell or anywhere else that Al Drosnin could have killed himself. The man I knew and the man the case files describe are miles away from one another in all aspects of psychology and personality! How could one man change that much in such a short time? Everything about this case feels very, very wrong, and somehow I know this is only the beginning…

A sudden loud noise – as thunderous as a gunshot in the quiet confines of First Class – gave Ian a terrible start. Only then did he notice that the plane was shaking again, worse than it had before. Ian nearly leapt from his seat to escape, dropping his black laptop. The Macintosh hit the floor with an equally resounding clatter, the noise bringing Ian back to reality. Nobody else had moved from their seat. The noise he heard could not possibly have been a gunshot. Ian forced himself back into his seat and looked around with wide, panic-stricken eyes for the source of the sound.

A sandy-haired passenger in a dark business suit with bloodshot eyes was caught in the throes of a nasty coughing spasm. His harsh, phlegm-throated coughs reverberated through the First Class cabin, overpowering all other sounds; this was the deafening blast Ian heard only moments earlier that gave him such a fright. Out of the corner of his right eye, Ian could see one of the flight attendants heading to check on the passenger. Feeling incredibly foolish, Ian sunk deeper into his seat and closed his eyelids tightly to hide his embarrassment.

“We’re hitting another patch of turbulence,” the pilot said, his voice tinny and hollow over the intercom. “I’m making another course correction, so we’ll be arriving a few minutes later than planned. Sorry folks.” The other passengers groaned in disappointment. Almost apologetically, the pilot added, “That should be the last of the turbulence. Just sit tight and we’ll be landing before you know it. Thank you for flying American Airlines Flight 238.”

Ian quietly retrieved his black laptop and sat it in the empty seat next to him. The urge to write – a fickle thing indeed – was long gone by then; all he wanted to do was hide away in his seat, watch the in-flight film and forget what a total mess he was. He leaned back in his seat and kept his head as far down as possible, as though he was trying to become invisible. Through great effort he fixed his eyes upon the dismally ancient black-and-white comedy playing on the movie screen before him and forced the outside world from his mind. Drosnin, he asked, thinking of his departed friend, what have you gotten me into this time?

Emptiness is all that remains in the eyes of the dead. When Louisiana senator Alfred Drosnin passed away, this emptiness – the cold, harsh emptiness of an open grave – was all that remained of him in his once cheery and tranquil estate. The spacious den of the Drosnin residence was at one time the calm center of the senator’s busy, bustling universe. When the hectic environs of the capitol city seemed poised to overtake him and drown his sanity in the manic musings of politicians and financiers, Senator Drosnin could escape to this inner sanctum of thought. Here he would rest, study and draw upon his reserves of intellect and energy to face the days ahead. Here, in his spacious den, the lifeless and empty body of Senator Alfred Lyle Drosnin was found.

The low light that fell on the deep mahogany work desk was ample enough for reading and cast friendly shadows across the oak walls. The dark navy blue rug that bore the emblem of the United States Senate gave the den a quiet, stately elegance. The bookshelves and work desk held numerous bric-a-bracs and novelty items given to Senator Drosnin by his constituents: a painting of an old Saint Francisville plantation estate; multicolored beads from celebrants of the previous year’s Mardi Gras; a large chunk of the Berlin Wall received from a resident alien in Baton Rouge; and an autographed photo of Judge Jim Garrison – Senator Drosnin’s childhood hero – resting atop his desk.

The ancient mahogany work desk, every drawer filled with legal files, classified documents and complicated forms, was stacked (as always) with mountains of new laws and bills awaiting a vote. A gleaming new black Macintosh computer sat on one of the work desk’s cleaner areas.

Sitting on the desk – behind the computer, facing the door – was a small plaque bearing the words of the late John Fitzgerald Kennedy:

We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.

For Senator Drosnin, this quotation was much, much more than a motto. Those words were a statement of faith, a battle cry and an affirmation of his belief in the United States federal government. Drosnin often repeated this quote in many of his political speeches, and his speeches were more effective because of it. Senator Drosnin truly believed in freedom of information and the freedom of mind that information brought. Here, in Drosnin’s den, he had freedom unparalleled – freedom of privacy, freedom to move at his own pace. In the friendly and familiar confines of his den, freedom became a reality for Senator Drosnin.

All of this changed with the death of Al Drosnin. The warmth and tranquility of the senator’s den had been stolen, and Drosnin’s onetime fortress of solitude had become a crime scene.

The overhead lamps were off; only a small, grinning skull-shaped candle on Drosnin’s desk brought any illumination. The candle – a gift from an author in New Orleans, left burning in Drosnin’s memory by some local cop with a dark sense of humor – had nearly burned out, and the light it cast was gloomy and dim. Deep, sinister shadows haunted the walls, lending the room a threatening and chilling air. What once had been light shades that rested gently upon the wooden walls had been transformed by Death into hostile specters that cast their cruel pallor upon every surface wounded by their presence. These were the spirits of the temporary, demons of decay that awaited the end of all souls. When the crime scene investigators and forensic teams that hovered about the den as carrion fowl completed their grim tasks, the shadows would engulf the room and swallow it, devouring whole the joy that once resided within these walls.

There was no blood; none had apparently been spilled. A white chalk outline had been quickly drawn on the dark brown leather sofa where Drosnin’s corpse had been found. To the left of the chalk outline laid a clean black Glock pistol. In the midsection of the chalk outline, a bullet-hole had been dug into the leather of the sofa. It was assumed that the bullet was still there.

The standard yellow Police tape had been strung up all over the den, restricting all access points save for the main door to the adjoining bathroom. The smell of talc dominated the air as forensic investigators continued dusting the den for prints. Three officers with the District of Columbia Police Department guarded the den, keeping anyone unauthorized out of the area. Overseeing it all was a tall, well-built man with about three weeks’ worth of facial hair lining his chin who wore a dark tan trenchcoat over an expensive navy blue Brooks Brothers three-piece business suit. An ID card was clipped to his coat identifying him as Special Agent James Dean Darrencryst of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The local police officer in charge sighed wearily as she handed the slim file folder of crime scene reports to Agent Darrencryst. “You’re not going to find much in there,” she told him. “Just like Forensics told you, we’ve got nothing so far.”

Darrencryst flipped through the reports in the folder. “This doesn’t feel right,” he expressed. “Preliminary reports say Drosnin shot himself, right? Bang, then he’s gone?”

“That’s what the sparse evidence we have tells us,” the officer – Lieutenant Rachel Montoya of the Violent Crimes Task Force, dark-haired, keen-eyed and far too young for her dismal profession – replied. “Neighbors heard the gun go off shortly after Midnight, just like the reports say. He was gut-shot. By the time the paramedics arrived, he was long gone.”

“Every time I’ve had to shoot someone,” Darrencryst began, pointing to the outline on the sofa, “blood spattered everywhere. But, as your forensics team so insistently points out in their reports, there’s no blood anywhere. None on the corpse, none on the sofa, none in the room, none on the gun. A bloodless death. Call me skeptical, Lieutenant, but I find that very…”

“Odd,” spoke a rich tenor voice from behind.

Agent Darrencryst turned to see a stocky young man of average height standing in the main doorway. His wavy dark brown hair was short-cropped and meticulously combed, every strand and lock of his long bangs in place. His pale, boyish face was clean-shaven and deep black Royce sunglasses obscured his eyes. He wore a dark black suit with an equally black shirt and tie. Weathered black work boots contrasted sharply with his executive appearance. On his right lapel was clasped a small silver “GSIC” lapel pin.

Two women and one young man – all of them clad in dark thunderstorm gray lab coats with the letters “GSIC” embroidered on their left breast pockets and carrying (or wearing) all manner of complex, sophisticated equipment – burst into the room after the dark-suited young man and immediately set to work.

“Who the hell are you?” Darrencryst exclaimed as the three in gray lab coats practically took over the work of the DC forensics team. “You with the DOJ? CIA? Secret Service?”

The young man in black stepped closer to Agent Darrencryst and showed the agent his silver-blue-and-white plastic identification card.

“Coordinator Kincaid – I’m with the Global Scientific Investigations Consortium. We were… invited to this little get-together by the Department of Justice.”

“Oh, you’re the guys Montoya warned me about,” Darrencryst replied, reaching out to shake Ian’s hand. “Special Agent Jim Darrencryst, FBI. I guess I’ll be assisting you on this. You’re lucky you got here when you did; I was about to close this case – pending autopsy, of course.”

“Close the case?” Kincaid asked, his right eyebrow rising in confusion, marring the stoicism of his features. “I thought murder investigations took longer than this.”

“All evidence gathered so far points to suicide,” Darrencryst said.

“I was under the impression this was a murder investigation,” Ian rebutted, mentally reviewing Darrencryst’s earlier words about the bloodlessness of the crime scene.

“That’s what the family of the deceased thinks,” Darrencryst replied. “So far, the evidence tells me ‘suicide’.”

“Since we’re here, do you mind if we see what we can find?” Ian asked.

“Suit yourself, Mister Kincaid,” Darrencryst replied, digging a cigarette out of a pack he usually carried. “I was just about to head outside for a blaze.”

“I promise not to break anything,” Ian quipped, heading for the chalk-outlined sofa.

Agent Darrencryst started for the door, then paused. Turning back to Kincaid with venom in his eyes, he said, “You know, I heard about you guys back at the Academy. Our instructors called you ‘the Men in Gray’, told us about how you show up out of nowhere promising to help, then take over entire investigations as if the President himself had ordered you to. You guys think you’re God’s gift, and I don’t buy it. Just remember, Mister Kincaid, we’re still in charge here.”

Ian allowed himself to display an amused smirk. He knew full well what Agent Darrencryst was referring to. Many in the scientific community (and apparently government circles as well) who knew of the GSIC’s existence were intimidated by the GSIC, and with good reason. GSIC consultants cultivated a reputation of professional authority when in the field. When a client requested the GSIC’s expertise, they agreed to give the involved consultants full cooperation – this meant total access to all available resources and complete freedom to explore any potential solutions. All clients agreed to this because they realized they were paying for the best and most talented individuals, and paying dearly. Those regularly employed by the GSIC’s clients, however, did not see things in the same light.

Many were jealous and felt unqualified; Ian called it the “professional castration syndrome”. For many in the scientific community it was insulting when their employers brought in outside assistance on projects where outside help would seem unwarranted or unnecessary. For some, it hinted at an underlying lack of faith in their abilities. To others, GSIC consultants represented their fears of a “fascist bureaucracy” making inroads into the studies of science. Like the nosy, intruding “G-men” of the Cold War culture, GSIC consultants – faceless phantoms garbed in dark gray lab coats – seemingly appeared unannounced and uninvited from the mists to take over the toughest of projects and solve the most complex of problems. After the “Men in Gray” had “badgered and bullied” their way to a solution, they collected their fees and vanished into the ether as swiftly as they had arrived.

Ian, of course, knew what was not generally known by most of the professionals the GSIC worked with. For instance, the GSIC usually never took credit for their contributions. The GSIC believed in practicing “low impact” consultation; all their contributions were made in anonymity. This allowed the GSIC to perform whatever actions they deemed necessary during the course of consultation without hassle or harassment. History books would never know that the Global Scientific Investigations Consortium was one of the organizations that assisted in the deciphering of the human genome. Nor would anyone ever know of the GSIC’s landmark work in virtual reality. Only the archives of the GSIC would reflect these facts; the rest of the world would have no knowledge of the countless hours of tireless effort by GSIC personnel.

In the case of Al Drosnin, Ian knew that any credit for whatever new evidence discovered would go to the Department of Justice. As usual, the GSIC would remain a silent partner in the investigation.

Ian also knew that it was the FBI who was often guilty of the very offense Agent Darrencryst was accusing the GSIC of. He also knew that there would be at least five officials in the Department of Justice appreciative of the GSIC’s assistance for every field agent possessed of Darrencryst’s elitist mentality.

Ian wanted to gently remind Agent Darrencryst of the GSIC’s true nature, but thought better of it. Doing so was a defense mechanism and the last thing the GSIC needed was for Ian to be on the defensive. Rather than mention any of that, Ian merely smiled at the man before him. “Last I checked, Agent Darrencryst,” Kincaid replied, “we were both on the same side. Just like you, we’re just trying to find the truth here.”

Darrencryst glared at Kincaid for a few tense, silent moments… then stormed out of the room, hastily slipping his silver Zippo cigarette lighter out of his right coat pocket as he ducked under the yellow Police tape.

Ian shrugged and walked toward the brown leather sofa where the GSIC’s resident forensics expert, Doctor Myra Wreynolds, carefully examined the furniture for any clues that might have been overlooked by the DC crime scene investigators. He knelt down beside Dr. Wreynolds, who was cautiously double-checking the fingerprint dusting the local forensics teams had done earlier. “I do believe our pet FBI agent wants to have a pissing contest, Myra.”

“Typical alpha male behavior,” Doctor Wreynolds sang, gently brushing her long, sandy brown bangs out of her eyes. “He appears to be exhibiting symptoms of the professional castration complex.”

“My thoughts from your lips, my dear,” Ian said. “So, what do we have?”

“Suicide, according to the evidence on file,” Dr. Wreynolds told him. “Weapon found to the left of the corpse, appears to be a standard model Glock 17 handgun. No prints on the gun, no prints anywhere except for Senator Drosnin’s.”

“Nobody but him ever came in here, and I mean nobody,” Ian added. “He valued his privacy highly, when he could get it.”

Doctor Wreynolds continued, looking up at Ian with sympathetic sorrow in her eyes. “Going solely by the position of the weapon and the outline of the body, it looks like a suicide, Ian.”

“I don’t buy it,” Kincaid said, shaking his head. “For starters, Drosnin wasn’t the type who would buy a gun. He hated guns. He even pawned off his old service revolver when he went into politics. Second, the position of the gun is inconsistent.” Before Dr. Wreynolds could ask what he meant by this, Ian promptly sat down over the white chalk outline.

Ian! What the hell are you doing? This is a crime scene!

“Gun is to the left of the corpse when looking down at the outline,” Ian said. “From the corpse’s POV, the gun is at the right.”

“Your point?” Dr. Wreynolds asked exasperatedly.

“Drosnin was a southpaw,” Kincaid explained. “How could a left-handed man shoot himself with a gun in his right hand? A Glock has a fairly nice kick; most newbie Glock shooters have a compensator installed to reduce it. There’s not one on this gun. There are no modifications on this gun at all. You’re telling me that a man who wasn’t in his best physical shape at the time shot himself with a powerful handgun in the wrong hand and still managed to compensate for the gun’s kick? Doubtful. And you overheard what the Agent said, just as I did – there’s no blood anywhere. None on the gun, none at the scene. Wouldn’t there be some sort of blood spray, at least on the sofa? Or on the gun barrel? The only way he could successfully kill himself with the gun, assuming he completely forgot what hand he shoots with and had the gun in his right hand, was if he pressed the gun to his torso. Yet – again I mention – no blood on the gun. Doesn’t any of that strike you as odd?”

Doctor Wreynolds frowned, her thin brown eyebrows furrowing as she thought. “That is rather puzzling… If you think our Federal friends would allow it, I’d like to perform my own autopsy.”

“They’ll allow it,” Ian said with a wink. “I know a few guys in the Department of Justice. One way or another, you’ll get that autopsy.”

“Being a political analyst has its advantages, I guess” said the Doctor as she returned to her tasks. “By the way, how do you know so much about handguns?”

“No reason, I’m just a very strong supporter of our Second Amendment rights,” he replied, rising from the sofa and walking over to Drosnin’s mahogany desk. Lead Programmer Taya Fujikawa was already seated at the desk trying her best to hack into Drosnin’s computer.

Ian stood behind her as Taya tapped the keys at a furious pace, her dark eyes fixed upon the screen before her. The features of her lovely Asian face were taut and void, her focus only on the task at hand. Ian had seen her like this many times before; Taya was as much of a workaholic as he was, if not more so.

Ian gently placed his hands on Taya’s shoulders to rouse her attention. He leaned in closer, his lips a breath’s distance from her left ear, and spoke in his quietest voice, “Well, my little ‘Secret Weapon’, what have you found so far?”

Through gritted teeth, she growled, “Take… the… hands… off.”

Sheepishly, Ian withdrew his hands. “Sorry; I forgot you hate that. So, what have you got?”

“You told me this guy was a senator.”

“One of the best. So?”

“He works his system more like a programmer than a casual end user,” she commented. “Each file is heavily encrypted, compressed, then encrypted again. He uses none of the standard encryption methods a novice would. Each file is encrypted with a different method, and I can’t recognize any of them!”

“In other words,” Ian sighed, “‘we got nothin’.’”

Taya shrugged nonchalantly. “Well, maybe.” She tapped in a few more commands, her white gloved, delicate fingers dancing nimbly across the Macintosh’s keyboard. “That is, if you call this nothing.”

Ian peered over her shoulder at the computer’s thin screen. The desktop area of the screen was completely blank before her typing. After her few keystrokes, however, a lone icon materialized from nowhere.

“So, what am I looking at?” he asked.

“I found one compressed file called ‘Trinity’,” she began, “loosely encrypted with one of the most common passwords known: ‘money’. When I unzipped the files inside, this is what I discovered.”

With a light tap of two keys, Taya brought up a screen displaying five new files: three massive text files labeled INTEL, FEDRES and FEMAXO; a much smaller text file named ZWKY; and a small QuickTime video clip entitled FINREC.

“FINREC?” Ian asked. “What’s that?”

“We’re about to find out,” she said as she double-clicked the file’s icon with the cursor.

A text message immediately appeared onscreen just above a password prompt. The blinking cursor on the prompt demanded input like a hungry, impatient five year-old child. The text above it read: ENTER KEYCODE TO CONTINUE.

Taya began to rapidly input all of the common passwords she knew, including the license plate number of Drosnin’s car – something she had taken care to note on their way in. Ian watched her type, barely registering her incredibly swift actions. He gave up on trying and thought back to his previous conversations with Senator Drosnin, hoping to think of something useful.

“What the hell…” Taya frowned as she finally stopped her rapid-fire random password input long enough to read one of the error messages that briefly flashed onscreen after each try.

“It says here,” she explained, “we only have two tries left until this thing kills itself.” Taya snorted, bemused. “Right. That’s intensely complicated programming. Drosnin wrote that himself and I’m a purple dragon. With six toes per foot.”

Ian ignored her, his eyes falling upon the plaque that rested atop Drosnin’s desk. He always included that quote in his speeches… “Try ‘Kennedy’,” he said.

Taya glanced at him, nervous despite her previous brave statement. “You sure?”

“Trust me.”

She sighed heavily. “Okay.” Her fingers tapped in the three letters, her eyes darting back and forth between the keyboard and the screen. She waited as the screen refreshed, silently hoping the password would work…

The password prompt vanished. Finally, Taya released a long breath she did not realize she had been holding. “We’re in,” she confirmed.

A new, smaller screen opened for the video clip. Senator Drosnin’s face filled the smaller screen, slightly pixilated due to the quality of the digital camera he had used. He appeared exactly as Ian remembered him: clean-shaven and well-groomed, possessing tender, caring eyes with strong steel beneath their crystal blue irises. He owned an ample, heroic cleft chin and the grim, determined face of a leader to match it. His dark strawberry blond hair showed its first real signs of graying, something Kincaid had never noticed before, and the bags under Drosnin’s eyes were more pronounced. He wore his favorite navy tweed suit with a shimmering dark golden necktie that defied the darkness of shadow. He sat at the very mahogany desk where Ian and Taya were presently. With all the room’s lights on and the sun shining brightly outside the window behind Drosnin, the den seemed much more cheerful and vivacious then.

Things were more cheerful then, Ian thought.

Drosnin spoke: “If you’ve managed to get this to play, then you must be my old friend Ian, or you work with him at the GSIC. If you work with him, please get this message to him at all costs.”

Drosnin cleared his throat softly and continued. “Ian, if you’re watching this, then I know I have left this world, my life’s work incomplete. I have worked long and hard on this project and given much of my life to this cause.” Here Drosnin paused; a more thoughtful, remorseful look set in his eyes. “I never told you why Margaret left me, did I? This project, Ian; this work, this life… It took her from me, Ian. The Truth is all-consuming, and it always has its consequences… but there is no price you could put on the Truth that I would not pay. I feel I have paid enough already… But if I had known that this project would cost me my marriage – my life – then I would gladly have done it all over again.”

Another pause… Drosnin seemed frantic now, as if he could feel the icy, unseen hands of Death drawing closer… “This project must be finished – the Truth must be told to the people of this nation. Ian, my old friend, I am in trusting you and only you with this information. You must see this through to its end! This cannot have been in vain… Be my hands, Ian. Be my feet, my eyes, my voice. Go where I cannot go, do what I can no longer do. All that I’ve gained, all that I know I give to you. This is the final part of my Living Will; this project must continue. The American people must know the Truth.”

With that, the message was finished. Taya sat back, satisfied with her work. She paused for a few moments, considering the cryptic message. “Well,” she said finally. “That was… interesting.”

It was all she had to say on the matter, and she moved on briskly, as if the message contained nothing more than a recipe for a dish no one served anymore. “Ian, I hope you got all that, because it’s going bye-bye in about thirty seconds. And if not, you had better hope you’ll miraculously remember it.”

“What do you mean, ‘going bye-bye’?” he asked.

“Note the screen,” she said. On the computer screen, a black counter with red numbers had taken the place of the video clip. As the numbers rapidly counted down from thirty, pale white text appeared at the bottom of the counter. “‘This message will self-delete in thirty seconds,’” she read. “How very Mission: Impossible of him.” She leaned back and watched the numbers tick down. 20… 19… 18…

Ian paused, considering what he had just heard. Drosnin always did have a flair for the dramatic, but Ian wondered how valid that flair was in the current situation. He stopped wondering; there was really nothing to think about. Ian had already made his choice. He leaned in much closer and said, much quieter, “I realize I am asking much, my friend, but can you copy the files from this computer without our Federal friends knowing about it?”

She looked at him skeptically. “You realize that you could be taken to court for this – not to mention me…”

“I know, I know, don’t worry. GSIC bylaws state that only I can be held responsible for what I order you to do, and I am ordering this. Can you do it?” Twelve seconds remained on the counter.

Taya sighed heavily and ducked her head, as if ashamed; in reality she was checking to see if Drosnin’s computer had a CD burner tucked away somewhere. “Alright,” she answered. As the last five seconds counted down, she pulled back the front of her lab coat and pulled a blank CD out of one of her coat’s many interior pockets and quickly shoved it into the CD burner.

Ian looked around, making sure no one knew what they were up to. The other two members of their team were busy with various forensic tasks, and the local crime scene investigators had already finished up and left the room.

Taya growled ferally. “It’s not… bloody… working!” she exclaimed quietly. Hitting the “Escape” key repeatedly, she ducked underneath Drosnin’s desk to check the separate computer tower below. “It’s broken!

“What happened?” Ian asked. “How is it broken?”

“Nothing happened! It’s just… broken!” Frustrated, Taya gave the thing a vicious kick. When she received no response from the computer, she snorted indignantly. “Well that usually works.”

“Taya, breathe. Keep calm, try not to attract unwarranted attention, remember?” he said quietly through gritted teeth, displayed through his best false smile as he nodded to the new policeman at the door; apparently, it was a shift change for the guards.

“Well, it’s not my fault that Drosnin can’t keep his computer in working order!” she hissed, giving the computer another kick. This one was still harsh, yet was light enough to seem accidental.

“Maybe it could have been done intentionally?” he asked.

Taya glared at Ian. “I refuse to believe that anyone in their right mind would leave their computer in anything but perfect condition.”

“Check the system settings,” he offered.

Her glare grew colder. “Do I look stupid to you?” she asked. Yet as soon as she had asked, she began calling up the computer’s hardware settings. She quickly scrolled through all the data, scanning everything she could find.

“Well?”

“They’re fine,” she sighed again, tapping her foot impatiently. “So, what do you want me to do now, Einstein? Just shove the computer under my coat and walk out looking like we just had a Thanksgiving buffet?”

“No need for that,” he answered coolly. “The case is under our jurisdiction now; all evidence we requisition will go to the district offices here in DC. We just go in after hours and ‘borrow’ the files we need from evidence lock-up. We won’t be stealing anything, just… copying a few things. No harm just copying files, right?”

“Good,” Taya sniffed. “I may be antisocial, but I have some pride in my appearance.”

Ignoring her remark, he asked, “I assume you’ll be there with the rest of the team, yes?”

“Of course,” she replied, rolling her eyes.

“Meet me at the district offices tonight around twenty-one-hundred. Everyone else should be off duty by then. We’ll have the place all to ourselves.”

“I suppose we’ll have a drink afterwards and make a night of it?” she asked, sarcasm dangling from her words.

It was his turn to glare. “I know, I know. I shouldn’t be asking you to help me with something like this… but this is the request of a dead man, Taya, one who was closer to me than a father. How could I say no?”

Taya sighed heavily and crossed her arms. “You know I wouldn’t say no. Alright, I’m in. But you owe me. Big time.”

“I know. You name the equipment you need when we get home, it’s yours. No questions asked. How’s that for payment?”

Taya’s eyes glittered almost maniacally, as they always did when new equipment was brought up. As the GSIC’s resident virtual reality specialist, she prided herself in having rebuilt her entire lab from scratch with whatever equipment Ian requested for her. She loved having new “toys” to play with. “That’s good. Very good.”

“Great. Meet you then,” he said.

“I’ll keep searching his files until we leave,” she said. “Maybe I can see how extensive his computing skills truly are.”

Before he could reply, the female police officer – Lieutenant Montoya – returned. “Mister Kincaid?” she stated. “Someone is here to see you.”

“A visitor? Here? Now?” he asked, thoroughly annoyed. He waved his hands at the scene around him. “This is a crime scene, right? You tell him I was busy trying to determine the cause of a man’s death?

Montoya sighed, fed up with Ian’s attitude already. “Look, Kincaid, someone just came up to me dressed like Columbo and flashed credentials at me that would make the President piss his pants. He wants to see you, he’s going to see you. End of story.”

Ian sighed wearily. “Fine then,” he answered. “Go tell our ‘guest’ I’ll be out shortly.”

Lieutenant Montoya left to do so. Ian turned to Taya, the fury in his voice rising. “Can you believe this? Some almighty G-Man drops by for a social and I have to drop everything to make cordial for him! As if the murder investigation – an investigation into the death of a United States senator, no less! – is no more important than the nightly news!”

“It’s okay, Ian, we understand how important this case is,” Dr. Wreynolds replied knowingly, looking up from her evidence seeking. “Go see your ‘visitor’, we’ll hold the fort.”

“Thanks, Myra,” he said, exiting the room as quickly as possible. “Mustn’t keep our guest waiting,” he said with a sneer as he left.

Ian stormed out of the house, slamming the front door behind him. He immediately began looking around for the mysterious visitor whose presence alone was so incredibly important that it warranted the interruption of an LE-5 investigation.

The first observance Ian made upon exiting the Drosnin residence was the weather. As fat crystals of piercingly cold ice spattered on his black suit jacket, he quickly regretted having left his coat inside on the coat rack in the living room. Ian had stormed outside in such a rush he had forgotten he brought it with him. A native West Texan, Ian was not yet used to seeing so much precipitation – let alone heavy snow – in the wintertime.

The second observance he made was the total absence of police; except for the few officers inside guarding the exits and the lone squad car parked conspicuously down the street, there seemed to be no law enforcement presence at all outside. Almost every trace of the police officers, off-duty crime scene investigators and the federal agent who had been outside earlier had vanished mysteriously into the low, thick, depressingly gray capitol city fog. Only their footprints in the powdery white snow bore witness of their very hasty exit. “What the hell is going on here?” Ian asked, utterly confused.

“I thought we could use some privacy,” spoke a deep, raspy voice from behind and to the left of Ian Kincaid. Quickly, Ian turned to face the source of the mysterious voice.

Leaning casually against the side of Drosnin’s house next to the frosted-over living room picture window was a strange middle-aged man who could only be described as average. His height was average, his weight and build were average, his hair was of an average shade of brown… everything about the man was average. If being of average appearance was a privilege, then this man abused that privilege. Even his clothing – a dark brown, full-length raincoat worn over a drab gray business suit with black wing-tip loafers – was considered average for the DC crowd. The one detail that set the man apart were his unnaturally piercing silvery blue eyes; merely glancing at them produced an eerily alluring hypnotic effect.

Nonplussed by the mystery man’s sudden appearance, Ian smirked. “This is cliché. A mystery man in a trenchcoat with impressive credentials appears out of nowhere during the most important case I’ve ever worked to… do what? What has the mystery man come for?”

The man smiled warmly, enjoying his part in the cliché. “I’ve got information for you,” he replied. “Important information.”

“Of course!” Ian mock-exclaimed. “You’re the ‘mysterious informant’, just like the ones in the movies.” Ian paused; the lack of police officers bothered him more than he cared to admit. Looking around once more, he asked, “So… where is the Law?”

“Pardon?”

“The cops, the fed – what did you do with the law enforcement? They disappeared so fast, I thought a new donut shop had just opened nearby.”

“Like I said, I thought we needed a little privacy,” the mystery man explained, raising his voice a little to be heard above the rain, “so I told the police to take a thirty minute break.”

“You must be someone very important, if you got the police to listen to you,” Ian noted, slightly impressed. “Who are you with: the CIA, NSA, DOD, Homeland Security? Are you with any of the alphabet soup agencies? Are you government, or something else?”

The mystery man chuckled softly; it was a strange, choppy chuckle that carried the sound of a voice cut off, of reality silenced. It was an eerie sound that made the hair on the back of Ian’s neck stand on end.

“No, no, I’m not affiliated with any agencies you’ve heard of,” the mystery man replied. “Is the measure of a man in the company he keeps? Who I’m with is of no importance. What is of importance is that I’m in a position to help you, Mister Kincaid.”

Help me? Why?” Ian asked, his cocky half-grin still frozen in place like a shield. “Why do you want to help me? Who am I to you?”

“I’ve been following your career in politics for a long while, Mister Kincaid. I was watching you back when you were a novice, and even then you showed spark. You were one of the best pundits I’ve seen in a long, long time. I can see why Al liked you.”

“You knew Al Drosnin?” Ian asked incredulously.

“After a fashion,” the man said. “He and I were what you would call ‘fellow travelers’. His death is a great tragedy. In a free-thinking society, his ideas would have been heard… but he entangled himself in dangerous study. His project was the death of him.”

“The project?” Ian asked, flabbergasted; as far as he knew, Ian was the only person Drosnin had ever discussed the project with. “What do you know of the project?”

The mystery man smiled morosely for a few brief seconds in reply. “Search Drosnin’s files,” he commanded. “Only the files he gathered for the project contain the answer to Drosnin’s death – and much more. All other concerns – the autopsy, his acquaintances – are secondary. The files are the key.”

Before Ian could ask anything further, the mysterious stranger turned to walk away. “Wait!” Ian exclaimed. “Who are you?”

The man paused, looked back at Ian and grinned. “Some would say I’m a… thorn in their side. You can call me that.”

“How will I reach you when I need you?” Ian asked.

“You won’t,” the man said. “I’ll come to you.” He turned away, and Ian knew that would be all he would get from the man.

Ian watched as the man walked away, sorting through the impressions of the man. As he watched, the man passed three streetlamps… and vanished into the thick, wet blanket of fog and snow as though he had never been there to begin with. Ian verbally summed up the entirety of his thoughts in one softly muttered word:

“In-sane…”

Unfortunately for Ian, the insanity of the night only intensified in the most frustrating of ways. He called ahead to the local GSIC offices and petitioned for full command of the autopsy. The FBI officials his contacts had spoken with guaranteed that an autopsy had not yet been performed. The Department of Justice had given the GSIC’s forensic team full control of the corpse, the crime scene and any evidence gathered from the case. They also assured Ian’s contacts that FBI pathologists and local Crime Scene Investigators would be waiting around the clock should Ian’s team have need of them. With much thanksgiving, Ian requested not only the corpse but the murder weapon and Drosnin’s computer as well. Unknown to Ian, however, some crucial evidence had been mysteriously misplaced.

“The corpse is missing?” Ian asked in very visible irritation, the expression less of a question and more of a command for information. “Well, this night is certainly getting better, isn’t it? Somebody at the FBI has to have some answers!

“Nobody I spoke with did,” said Doctor Endres, the resident pathologist with the GSIC’s District of Columbia offices. He shrugged nonchalantly as though the entire affair mattered very little and stubbed his Marlboro cigarette out into an ashtray shaped like a miniature examining table. He adjusted the wire-frame bifocals that were perched comfortably upon his rather pronounced snout before speaking. “They were very apologetic, of course, but not very helpful. All in all, exactly what I expected from representatives of our Federal law enforcement.”

Ignoring the pathologist’s final remark, Ian took immediate command of the situation. “Myra,” he said, turning to Dr. Wreynolds, “I need you to take Essex and whomever else Dr. Endres can spare back to the crime scene and cover every cubic centimeter of the place with Chaz’s scanning equipment. Double- and triple-check anything the Feds already went over; I’m suddenly not very confident in their ability to handle this case.”

“Understandably so,” she replied. “Chaz hasn’t unpacked the equipment yet, it should all still be in the car. We’ll go right now.”

“Perfect. Report all findings to me personally. Leave our Federal ‘friends’ out of the loop until I tell you otherwise.”

“If Darrencryst thought we were stepping on his toes earlier,” she snickered softly with a mischievous grin, “he’ll have a fit when he finds out what you’re planning.”

“Let him have a heart attack for all I care,” Ian replied. “His people shouldn’t have lost the corpse.”

“Anything I can do to be useful?” Dr. Endres asked.

“Actually, yes,” Ian said. “You can hold down the fort for us here. I’m sure I’ll have plenty of opportunities to scream at the Feds later. For now, I’ll let you have all that fun. Get ‘em on the phone and find out how a team of highly-trained Federal agents can misplace the corpse of a United States senator in transit to an autopsy! And whatever happens, make sure the family of the deceased doesn’t hear about this! I know Drosnin’s wife; I’ll handle that personally when the time comes.”

“You’re the boss,” Dr. Endres replied in an almost conversational tone, rising from where he was sitting atop his stainless steel desk to reach the cordless phone behind him.

“You’re very calm about all this,” Ian commented.

Without looking up from his old black plastic rolodex, Dr. Endres answered, “When you’ve been working with Feds examining VIP stiffs in D.C. for as long as I have, very little surprises you.”

“Right on,” Ian nodded, turning back to Dr. Wreynolds. “Okay, Doc, you and Chaz have your mission. Taya and I need to work on ours, so let’s get to it.”

“I will call with whatever we can find that may be useful,” she replied while heading out the door, “but I doubt that we’ll find much.”

“Standard reply: ‘Whatever you get will be helpful,’ Doc. Just keep me informed!” he tossed off after the end of her as her lab coat swished through the closing glass double-doors of the Coroner’s Lab. As soon as she was gone and Dr. Endres was busy with the Feds on the phone, Ian turned to Taya. As usual, Taya was typing furiously on her slim black PowerBook, the screen turned toward her enough for total privacy. She only looked up to meet his eyes once Ian’s rather substantial shadow blocked her light.

“Time?” she asked.

That time, now or never,” he said, extending his hand. “Dance with me.”

“I seem to recall that you’re an awful dancer,” she said dryly, taking his hand.

“Promise not to step on your toes this time,” Ian quipped with a sly half-grin as he gallantly helped her up and they headed for the mirror-clean glass double-doors.

Before stepping out, Ian paused and watched Dr. Endres. The older man had his steel gray cordless phone held intimately close to his cheek and kept his back to Ian. In a cordial tone, Ian asked, “You okay, Dr. Endres?”

Doctor Enders immediately held up a stiff hand, fingers tight pressed together and fully extended. The meaning was clear: I’m on the phone. Do not interrupt me.

“G’night Doc,” Ian said quickly and quietly as he and Taya slipped out the doors and headed for the nearby evidence storage room.

“According to the information Endres gave us earlier,” Ian began, “the Feds may have lost the body but they still sent us whatever material evidence they took from the site.”

“That means the Mac is with us,” Taya replied.

“Exactly,” Ian said, stopping at the door to Evidence Storage. He eyed the keycard-activated security lock bolted into the wall to the right of the door with interest. It was small, black and looked exactly like the keycard readers that District One used. “You sure you can ghost us in there?” Ian asked warily.

“See all the typing I was doing earlier?” Taya asked thoughtfully as she absently straightened her suit and adjusted her glasses. As if that weren’t enough, she then proceeded to reach over and brush off of Ian’s clothing an invisible piece of lint; the kind only women seemed to be aware of. For one so uncomfortable with physical contact, she was meticulous about grooming and appearance.

“See it? I could hear it, hon; you’re not exactly the allegorical church-mouse,” he returned, still eyeing the keycard reader.

She glared at him briefly. “As I recall, I’m not being paid the big – or little, as they may be – bucks to be a church-mouse,” she returned. “Now. Getting into District Forty-Two’s wireless network was easy; naturally, you will bear in mind that I helped redesign the GSIC’s entire security network. I still say whoever designed the first version should be found and shot. Unfortunately, the local sysadmin didn’t take my advice from the carefully prepared email I sent out to all of the network administrators practically begging them to please change the access passwords after implementing the new security measures. Sometimes I wonder just how much money you have to waste. I just ‘walked in’ with one of my older passwords without any fuss and started strolling through the system. Occasionally, when I run security checks on our networks, certain nonessential systems – such as security cameras or keycard readers – get taken offline for about five minutes or so. Nothing major.”

“So, you got us in?” he asked.

“No, like I told you: I just ran some basic tests on their security,” she said in her most casual monotone, the one she tended to lapse into when she was bored, or when she was with someone she particularly disliked. “If some of the lesser security systems go offline for about five minutes, that’s just what happens. And if you keep asking me about it, our five minutes will be up. Open the door already.”

Ian eyed the keycard reader by the door thoughtfully. Years of loyal service to the GSIC were playing havoc with his conscience. “Having second thoughts?” he asked sheepishly.

Taya simply glared at him.

“Right, of course not,” he said, swallowing his guilt. “No time like the present, then.”

With the keycard reader no longer an issue, Ian pushed the door open quickly and they stepped inside. The first thing Ian noticed was the near-darkness that contrasted so dramatically with the brightness of the morgue; the motion-sensor activated lights did not turn on when they entered the room. Most likely, that was another “minor system” taken offline by Taya, probably as a smokescreen of sorts. The only illumination in the room was provided by a small, silver desk lamp resting atop the Evidence Storage clerk’s desk. As Ian expected, the clerk had gone home for the night and was not present. Fortunately for him, the clerk forgot to turn off her desk lamp. He had just enough illumination to tell that Senator Drosnin’s beloved computer equipment was spread out all over one table.

“You open the case to Drosnin’s computer,” Taya requested, walking toward the clerk’s desk. “I’ll log back into the system and give us a larger window.”

“Not too big a window,” Ian added. “We don’t want this too look too suspicious.”

“Stop worrying,” she commanded impatiently. “I already left a tiny note in the sysadmin’s Inbox telling him about my security checks and that some of the lesser systems might have been affected. Other rooms in this complex were hit as well, so it looks random enough. I promise I know what I’m doing.”

“And that’s why you make the real money,” Ian said with a smile as he very carefully unscrewed the case cover to Drosnin’s computer tower with a screwdriver he borrowed from Chaz before leaving the murder scene. Once he slid the case off – making far too much noise doing so – he stopped in his tracks. “Well, that’s it for me,” he said in exasperation.

“What now, Kincaid?” she asked, looking up from her work at the clerk’s computer terminal, a slight look of annoyance crinkling her eyebrows. She only ever addressed her – mentor? Colleague? Friend? – by his last name when she was feeling particularly impatient or when they were joking around. In this case, it was most definitely the former.

“I’m familiar enough with PC hardware to know what a hard drive does or does not look like,” Ian said. “I know next to nothing about Macintosh hardware. It’s a freaking alien landscape! What the hell is what in here?”

“God, you are helpless,” she sighed. “Move over.” She swiftly strode to where Ian stood and shoved him aside, grabbing the screwdriver from his hand. “Give the Master her space.” Within mere moments Taya had all seven hard drives out of the heavily modified computer tower.

Seven hard drives?” Ian asked incredulously.

“With the capacity for much, much more,” Taya said in admiration. She was as much a scholar as a hacker, and she always enjoyed dissecting other people’s work. “He had this Mac more tricked out than even Steve Jobs’ personal system. I didn’t expect there to be that many in there…” Her black gloved fingers slipped four different Macintosh hard drives out of her coat pocket and placed them carefully into Drosnin’s tower, replacing the cover quietly when finished. “I brought these with me because I didn’t know how many files you’d want me to copy from his system or how many files he even had on this thing.”

“I’ll bet you were an excellent Girl Scout,” Ian commented softly in awed admiration.

“I wouldn’t know,” she stated flatly, glancing over at Ian with a veritable smorgasbord of emotions on her face: irritation, impatience, slight confusion, regret, dismay, wistfulness, and even a touch of anger. “In any case, I thought it would be nice to have some empty hard drives on me just in case. I’ve always got a few dozen lying around my office, PC or Mac. These are a tad old and I thought I might be able to put them to use this trip. They’ll make good enough dummies; this hardware just came in tonight, so I doubt anyone’s had a good opportunity to look the system over.”

Before Ian could comment further, a brilliant burst of light flashed through the crack of the door to Evidence Storage. “Security guard,” Ian muttered with a curse. “I forgot to check when they made their rounds.” Before he could tell her to, he noticed Taya had already ducked underneath the table that the Macintosh rested upon. There was just enough space for Ian to join her. He quickly ducked down and squeezed inside the space she reserved for him.

Heavy footsteps fell in driving rhythm as the night watchman patrolled the corridor at leisure, the flashlight beam peeking in and out from under the door every so often. “I guess they noticed the results of your security tests,” Ian whispered. Taya smacked him on the shoulder, lightly but hastily, and the room fell into silence once more.

The heavy footsteps grew closer and closer, matching the thunderous beating of Ian’s heart… and when they stopped, Ian almost thought his heart had stopped with them. His eyes grew wide as the realization dawned: the footsteps had stopped directly in front of the door to Evidence Storage.

Dreadful silence reigned in the darkness for several stressed seconds. Ian thought of how his career would end: with a flashlight beam blinding him and the rough words of a security guard barking at him to Stand up and explain what you are doing in here… But none of that happened yet. There was a very soft beep! and the door opened very slightly. The flashlight beam swept across the room almost imperceptibly fast and was gone. The door closed with a slightly audible thump, the heavy footfalls resumed their course down the hallway and Ian slowly released the breath he forgot he was holding.

A small, feminine hand clamped itself around his left arm before he had the chance to move. “I wouldn’t leave the table yet, if I were you,” Taya told him, breaking the stillness.

“Why?” he asked, knowing he would probably fear the answer.

“You hear the ‘beep’ before the door opened?” she asked. Her voice was as calm as it always was, but there was a note of trepidation behind it, imperceptible to most, but easily detected by an old friend.

“Yeah, I did. Door go ‘beep’. So?”

“That means our window is up.”

Ian bit his lower lip in silent frustration. The night watchman had to open the door with his keycard; he had naturally assumed that no one was in the room if it was still keycard-locked and dismissed it as safe. “That means the cameras are back on, too,” Ian mumbled.

“Maybe,” Taya said.

“Why maybe?”

“I extended our window slightly, but I don’t know what systems were affected,” she said. “We may still have some time, but some of the ‘lesser systems’ I told you about may have come back online.”

“The lights didn’t come on when the guard opened the door,” he noticed. “So we know that system is still off.”

“But we don’t know about the cameras,” she countered in a low but urgent voice. “These are very sensitive cameras we’re talking about: infrared to ultraviolet, the entire visual spectrum and beyond. If they’re online, they need little light to see by. And in case you didn’t notice, the clerk’s desk lamp is still on!

Ian closed his eyes, trying to think… then he simply stopped thinking. There was no way around this situation. At this point, they either got away without notice or they would have much explaining to do later. If they remained where they were, they would still have to explain their presence there later.

A million childhood dares from days past danced through Ian’s mind. The ones he chickened out on as a youth taunted him, while the few he had taken without thinking during his teenage years roared back in rebellious reply. In the end, the few won. He simply had no other choice but to act. Ian slowly rose from his position and started for the door.

“What the hell are you doing?” Taya asked, her voice about a half-step higher than her usual melodic contralto. She was getting anxious; anyone who knew her half as well as Ian did could tell, though for him it ought to be obvious.

Ian, of course, offered no true explanation. She knew him as well as he knew her, and she had heard of the incredibly stupid and very out-of-character chances he had taken during the early years of his career. She knew of the many times those chances had failed, but she also knew of the few times that he had succeeded. She knew what he would say even before his lips parted to speak.

“One way or another, we’ve got to leave now,” he answered. He made his way, painfully and slowly, to the door then paused to look up. He saw only the darkness of the corner of the room. He blinked rapidly once or twice to make certain he was seeing correctly; still, only darkness greeted him. “Taya, you’ve seen our security cameras before, right?”

Anyone could practically hear Taya’s eyes rolling at this question. “I helped Doors pick them out. Why?”

“They have any lights or LEDs or any way to let me know if they’re on or not?”

“Green LED warning light on the front near the lens,” she said promptly. “Blinking red if the camera’s not working properly, no light if the camera is off. Why?”

“These cameras would normally be placed in the corner of the room, right?” he asked.

“Yes, our security personnel use the same setup as any convenience store does. Why?”Taya was getting impatient, as she was prone to do, and she was quite unhappy with their current situation.

“Cameras are off, then,” Ian said. “All I see is a black nothing when I look up at the corners of the room near the door where I know a camera should be. No blinking red, no steady green, no light at all. We’re clear.”

Taya stood and stretched her legs for a moment before striding swiftly to the door. Her voice was completely back to normal and there was no evidence of even the slightest tremble of her hand as she grasped the doorknob. “We have very little time left. Let’s leave now.”

“Agreed,” he said as they speedily vanished out the door of Evidence Storage. “What’s next?” she asked as soon as they were in the hallway outside.

“How long do you think it’ll take you to copy all of his files?” he asked, heading for the nearest employee lounge.

“I should be done before midnight,” she answered tersely.

“Good. We’ll work in the break room. Once we have what we need, we’ll return the ‘borrowed’ hard drives and head back for the hotel to see if we can figure out exactly what is in those files. After that, we get some sleep. I have a feeling we’ll need it tomorrow.”

Taya nodded in silent acknowledgement, her mind already working out the lesser details of the task before her as they entered the employee lounge. Ian’s mind, on the other hand, was already plotting out the next few weeks. Soon they would be out the doors of the building and back at their reserved hotel rooms as he had planned. Taya would get to work on Drosnin’s files while working out the details of her virtual crime scene model and the keys to the crime would unlock the entire mystery. It was a shaky plan, but it was the best one he had for the moment.

Ian had been imprisoned for so very long behind his office desk that he forgot what it was like to complete a case. Soon all the files would be printed out and handed over to whatever Federal judge was assigned the case, along with a commentary written by Ian that linked the pertinent evidence to the crime. Ian would probably be among the witnesses called at the trial and he would give account of all that he and his people had fought through for the solution. He would speak of the seemingly insurmountable odds they had faced and beaten and then hand the judge the entire case on a silver platter. The judge would have to rule in their favor; there would be no other option once Ian and his team were finished tackling every angle of the case. Darrencryst would be speechless; the FBI and NSA and the whole alphabet soup establishment would probably be speechless. Maybe Doctor Kurtzweil would put Ian out in the field again and Ian would once and for all escape that damnable desk job that shackled him so.

Of course, Ian had broken the rules somewhat and that bothered him more than he cared to admit. He had forgotten what it was like to be a risk-taker. So accustomed to his gilded cage had he become that his intuition – developed over years of working on cases in the field – had nearly atrophied. His imagination and his recklessness were lost to a youth too quickly discarded thanks to the burdens of what he once thought was his “life”. He felt guilty for having asked Taya to help him break into an official GSIC laboratory complex of all places, and he felt even worse for having tampered with the property of an old friend. But he did so to honor that friend, and while the voices of guilt plagued him he knew in his heart that Drosnin would approve. At least, that was how he tried to rationalize it. After all, nobody knew what the FBI would make of the data on Drosnin’s hard disks or if they would have even taken them into account. Agent Darrencryst seemed so determined to block Ian and his team from properly assisting with the case; for all Ian knew, it was Darrencryst who “misplaced” the corpse. Only Ian knew Drosnin well enough to decipher his files, or so Ian believed, and only he could truly make sense of it all. He and Drosnin were of like mind in many regards; Ian knew somehow he could figure out Drosnin’s files. He had no other choice.

The words of the mystery man – the one who claimed to be a “thorn” in the side of those who had murdered the senator – rang in his mind like police sirens. “Search Drosnin’s files. Only the files he gathered for the project contain the answer to Drosnin’s death – and much more. All other concerns – the autopsy, his acquaintances – are secondary. The files are the key.” For all Ian knew, the sounds of those sirens might be in his future if anyone discovered what he had done only moments ago. Ian would have to face those glaring klaxons by himself and accept the consequences of his actions if and when the time came to. The outcome of the case and Ian’s future with the GSIC depended on it.

No matter what happened, Ian was certain the files were the key; all the rest of the evidence would fall into place and the case would soon be solved once the files were deciphered. That thought gave Ian some measure of comfort and stilled the nagging voice of doubt in his mind long enough for he and Taya to get to work on the files, replace Drosnin’s hard drives and return to the hotel. The voice of doubt was still present when Ian went to sleep that night and it whispered its fears into his sleepless mind. Ian hoped he had made the right decision, and for the first time in years he prayed to God that night. Hushed pleas for a swift, relatively painless resolution to the case streamed from his lips as he tried to sleep. Eventually, his prayers slowed to a soft murmur as exhaustion overcame him and Ian reluctantly surrendered himself once more to the nightmares that waited for him.

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