It was late, almost time to call it a day and go to bed. Denise was curled up on the couch reading a book on her tablet. She stopped and looked up at me. I don’t know if she made a noise or if I just felt her eyes boring into me as I worked at the small table I had set up in front of my chair, but in any case I stopped what I was doing so that I could pay attention to her. When I looked up, she asked in her sweet, almost melodious voice, “Uncle W, have you ever killed anyone?”
Denise is my little sister’s only child. Sis is almost twenty years younger than I am and Little D, as I call her, is in her first year of college... or would be if everything hadn’t been screwed up by a worldwide pandemic. Sis’s husband Theodore, usually called Theo, is some sort of high level genius inventor-engineer who works for a company with offices and plants all over the world so they travel a lot. This was a very short notice trip that was going to last a couple of months and Sis asked me if I could “babysit” Little D.
Anyone who saw Little D curled up in her babydoll pajamas would immediately know that she really didn’t need babysitting. She was old enough to take care of herself. But despite her 18 years, she was still very naive and innocent. She had inherited her father’s extreme intelligence and all of the social awkwardness that often goes along with that. She was a nerd– no she hates that word. As she told me many, many times, nerds are kids who obsess about things like Star Wars. Geeks, on the other hand, obsess about knowledge and technology and actual space exploration. Denise is a self-described Geekette.
But she is a Geekette who has inherited her mother’s beauty. There are many men– and women– in this world who would love to take advantage of her innocence for their own purposes. There had been a series of nannies and governesses to watch over her as she grew up and blossomed into a woman. And normally someone like that would be watching over her now, but she was supposed to be away at a very good, very exclusive, private college, so the last governess had been given excellent references and gotten a job with a different family. On short notice it was impossible to find a governess that Ted and Sis could truly trust, so Sis batted her little sister eyes at me and said, “W, could you watch her for a few weeks... a couple of months at the most. Just keep the wolves away from her until we get back. Please...”
I hate video calls for many reasons, but now I have one more. Little sisters can throw the full melt your heart act at you and get you to do just about anything. My line of work allows for a lot of down time– if I want it. And a lot of it is design and prep that can be done anywhere. So to satisfy Sis, I am sitting in a fortieth floor apartment in a Virginia suburb just outside Washington, DC, playing nanny to a little girl in a woman’s body.
I stared back at her for several long seconds. “How much do you know about what I do?” I asked evenly.
“I know you invent things,” she said. Then she looked down at the floor and added, “... kinky things.” She looked back up at me and gave an embarrassed smile before continuing, “And I know that you work as a private detective even though you don’t really need the money.” She paused and looked back down at the floor. “Mom said you run with– and sometimes against– some very dangerous people and that I should never ask you about your life.” She looked up at the ceiling and stuttered, “Dad... dad... dad once talked about you having to shoot your way out of some really nasty places. So, I guess, you probably have killed people.”
She suddenly became very calm and looked me directly in the eyes and said, “What I really want to know is how you became who you are. Were you born that way or did something change you? What was the first time you had to... had to kill someone?”
I took in a very deep breath and held it. No matter what I said at this point Sis was going to end up very pissed at me, so I let out the breath and said, “Do you want the truth or a fancy story?”
“The truth,” Little D said softly. I hadn’t realized it, but she had gotten up off the couch and was now curled up on her knees on the floor directly in front of my chair.
“Did your mother tell you I started out from college as an engineer working for The Company?” I asked.
“The Company?” she replied. Her face was furrowed and reflected her confusion.
I laughed slightly and said, “The CIA... the Agency... Big Brother.”
“Oh,” she said. “Yes, she said something about that once.”
“I was good at what I did,” I replied, “... maybe a little too good. I got sucked into some really super secret projects and ended up with a really high level security clearance. Then one day one of the other techs came into my office and set a folder on my desk. ‘Are you willing to work on this?’ he asked, tapping on the front of the folder.”
I held my hands as if I was holding that folder and looked up at her for a moment. Then I continued, “The folder was the standard red of all of our work order folders, but it had a strip of black and white striped tape diagonally across the front that said, ‘EYES ONLY’ on it. That meant it was so secret you weren’t supposed to speak about the contents out loud in case the room was bugged. It also had an extra signature and a bunch of initials on the work order slip stapled to the front of the folder. I wasn’t sure who the initials belonged to at that time, but I absolutely recognized the signature of the President of the United States. I learned later the initials were five members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This was a work order for an assassination device.”
I waited for the shocked look to leave Little D’s face and then continued, “Bill– the other tech– needed someone with my level of security clearance who could accurately make RF measurements. He was a photo specialist, but that wasn’t why he had been tagged for this particular job. He was also a private pilot and more importantly, he kept a plane at a certain local airport. He could show up there without raising suspicion. We went out to the airport and he showed me his plane. We even taxied it around a little bit. Then he pulled it over next to a taxi area and I set up some equipment around the plane. We acted like we were working on his plane, but what I was doing was providing cover so he could sneak into another nearby plane and replace the crash beacon with a tracking beacon. He triggered it on for a moment and I made sure it was transmitting like it was supposed to. Then we shut everything off. We had to assume that it would turn back on when the plane got above 3000 feet. We had tested it back at our facility with a negative pressure chamber, but we had no real way of testing it once it was in place on the plane.”
Little D was now staring at me. “Did someone catch you? Did you have to fight your way out?” she asked.
“No,” I answered with a laugh. “We both went back to work like nothing had happened.” I stopped for a sip of my dark ale. Then I continued, “But about a week later, Bill came into my office with a newspaper. One of the stories on the bottom half of the front page said ‘High Level CIA Official Killed in Plane Crash.’ Bill pushed the door closed and then said softly, ‘They suspected he was a mole and that he would try to escape to Cuba before they could close the net. He often flew down to the Company Base in Florida so a flight wouldn’t be suspicious until it was too late. About twenty minutes out of Miami, he declared Mayday and said that he had engine failure. Then he dropped below radar and headed east for Cuba. What he didn’t know was that there were two fighters shadowing him. As soon as he headed east, they locked onto the beacon and fired their missiles.’ Bill gave me a minute to digest what he had just told me then he said, ‘I was afraid that if you figured it out, you might say something to someone.’ He smiled broadly at me and then added, ‘But now that I’ve officially told you, it is part of the folder. So don’t ever tell anyone or the next missile might be right up your ass... or mine.’”
“But you didn’t kill him,” Little D said, shaking her head.
“I didn’t pull the trigger,” I answered, “but it’s the same thing. I was directly responsible for his death.”
“When did you first pull the trigger?” she asked. Then she raised up on her knees so she could look directly at me and said, “I’m not being morbid. I really am trying to figure out how you became you.”
There was something behind her words... something hidden behind her innocent face. Something was deeply troubling her. I think she was trying to figure out who she was and what she would become. But her only way of handling it... for now... was to ask me how I became me.
“The first time wasn’t a trigger,” I said softly. In my mind I was suddenly back on a dark side street in Mexico City. “I was in Mexico City,” I finally said. “I was down there to install some special equipment for El Presidente. Unfortunately, someone high up in the Mexican police thought I was a secret agent trying to sniff out corruption or drug traffickers– meaning them– so they put out a contract on me. I had to leave for a while to give the right people time to talk to the right people in the Mexican police and assure them that I was just an engineer installing some equipment for Numero Uno. They canceled the contract, but for the remaining weeks I was down there I had to be really careful.”
I took another sip of ale. “You learn from your mistakes– if you survive them. One night I got careless. I went out of the hotel alone after dark. I just wanted to see the city lights. But as I turned down a side street to return to the hotel I suddenly realized that there was someone walking behind me. He was matching my steps very carefully– perhaps to help hide his presence– but he was gaining on me. When we got to the center of the block he called my name... or more accurately, he called out the cover name which had only been used in the cable traffic arranging for me to enter Mexico and work with El Presidente.”
Little D was now listening intently. “I stopped,” I continued, “but I didn’t turn around. I felt a hand on my right shoulder and suddenly whoever it was pulled hard, spinning me around. He evidently wasn’t worried about me trying to hit him because he didn’t try to block my hand. He looked like the kind of man who had been hit on the chin many times in his life without any real effect. But my hand wasn’t formed in a fist, and I wasn’t aiming for his chin. The fingers of my left hand were curled back flat exposing the middle knuckle like I was going to do a Karate chop. But I wasn’t chopping. I was aiming my bent-over fingers for his throat. I hit hard at the top of his Adam's apple. A knife fell to the ground as he brought his hands up to his neck. He stood there gurgling for a moment or two and then I saw the life leave his body. His eyes became very wide and his pupils dilated fully so that his eyes suddenly appeared black. Then he crumpled to the ground like a puppet when the strings are cut.”
I waited for Little D to regain her own breath before finishing with, “But that didn’t make me what I am. It only revealed it. When I swung around, I was already a person who was willing to kill. Leaving that man dead in that alley merely showed me what I already was.”
“Oh,” she said. She shuddered in a strange way and suddenly stood up and turned away from me. I probably shouldn’t have watched her cute little butt as she carefully walked back to the couch, but I was appreciating beauty and perfection, not perving on my niece.
She settled down onto the couch and became very thoughtful after that. “Thanks for telling me that, Uncle W,” she said as she curled back up and set her tablet on her lap. I could tell there were deep thoughts going through her head, but something told me this wasn’t the time to push her to talk more about it.
About an hour later, we called it a night and both went to bed. I waited for her to go into her room and then asked through the door, “Are you in there for the night?”
“Yes, Uncle W,” she replied. Then she opened the door slightly and said, “Uncle W, would you call the building super in the morning and say that we need an exterminator. I keep hearing bugs running around in my room at night. I haven’t found any, but I can hear them.”
“OK, Little D,” I replied, “I will do that. Are you sure you’re in there for the night?”
“Yes, Uncle W,” she replied, sounding weary or perhaps upset. “You can set your special alarms now. I won’t come out of my room.”
She had her own bathroom, so unless she got hungry during the night she wouldn’t have to leave her room. I set up the scanner tripod in the living room and another in the hallway next to the kitchen. With the open doorway and serving window to the kitchen the scan would cover both areas and the front door. The living room scan would cover the windows and the sliding door which led out to a balcony. Her bedroom was interior to the apartment with no walls on the outside or against neighboring apartments. There was no way anyone was getting in there without me knowing about it.
The alarms were my own design. Actually they used standard components commonly used in the construction industry. They were basically 360 degree cameras which recorded the entire room and fed it into a special program that would create 3D views for planning or sales purposes. I added an additional camera for thermal images and fed everything into an AI program Boris had developed for me. The program continuously compared views from the cameras. No matter how surreptitiously you approached, your presence changed something and the AI would catch it.
I double checked all of the door locks, including the balcony patio doors, turned on the alarms, and went to bed. At around three in the morning, the computer that controlled the alarms started squawking. I used the remote to turn on the monitor and saw that Little D had stuck her head out of her door for just a moment. At first I was slightly pissed off that she had come out of her room like that, but then something in the back of my mind started screaming, “That’s not right.”
I brought up the thermal images for the past two minutes. They had barely started to play when I rolled out of bed and grabbed both my Glocks from their case on the floor. I knew no one was in the hall or living room, so I almost ran to Little D’s door. If I was wrong, I would have a lot of apologizing to do to my niece and a lot of explaining to do to my little sister. But if I was right, there was someone in the room with Little D.
The thermal image had shown someone behind the door holding on to Little D. Another vague image behind them meant there might be more than one intruder. I kicked in the door and jumped to the side in case someone started shooting. Then I jumped and slid through the door on my stomach with both guns out in front of me.
It was a waste of a very dramatic entry. The room was empty.
“How in the hell did she get out?” I mumbled to myself as I stood up. Then I noticed that the closet door was slightly open and a dim light was spilling out into the room. I approached very cautiously and moved so that I could see inside the closet. The closet light wasn’t on, but the floor appeared to be glowing.
I slowly opened the door and jumped back. The closet floor was gone. The concrete subfloor had been cut away in a very neat square and evidently lowered down into the apartment on the thirty-ninth floor. A smear of gray mud around the opening told me that a high pressure hydraulic stone cutter had been used to cut through the floor from the apartment below. So much for the bugs which Little D had been hearing.
A large square of white paper had been taped to the inside of the closet door. In black marker it said, “No police or your daughter dies. You will be contacted.”
Beneath the paper was a cheap print of an image that had obviously been taken against the door of the room. Little D was standing naked with a ball gag in her mouth. Leather straps went around her body just below the shoulders, at her navel, at the knees, and at the ankles. Written across the image was another warning. “No police. There are things worse than death.”
“Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit,” I kept repeating as I walked back to my room. I grabbed my cellphone and called the number Sis had given me for emergencies.
An unfamiliar woman’s voice answered the phone. I asked for Sis– actually I asked for Elaine Fredericks, her married name. I guess I could have asked for Mrs Theodore Fredericks, but I have never been that formal with Sis. The woman replied, “Who shall I say is calling?”
I tried to control my rising anger. “This is her brother. I’m babysitting her daughter and there has been an emergency. I need to speak to Sis.”
“I will put you through,” the woman said flatly. A moment later Sis answered with a shaky, “Yes?” and I immediately said, “Sis, this is W. Little D has been kidnapped.”
“Did you call the police?” she immediately asked.
“No,” I replied. “The note said that if the police were called, D would be killed... or worse.”
I half expected Sis to become hysterical, but instead she became very cool. “Don’t panic,” she said in a very controlled tone. “Call this number. Theodore and I will return as soon as possible.”
As soon as she gave me the number I almost yelled, “Christ, Sis, what in the hell have you gotten yourself into?” I recognized the number. It was a dedicated Company line for security emergencies.
I took a deep breath and then said, “Is there any codeword or phrase I should use to verify my identity?”
“No, W,” she replied. “Just say who you are and why you are calling.” She paused and said softly, “This call is monitored. They will know.” Her voice cracked a little and she asked, “Is she all right?”
“They left a picture to prove they have her,” I replied. I didn’t think it was the time to describe the picture.
“We will be there in about twelve hours,” she said firmly and disconnected her end of the call.
As soon as Sis hung up, I called the number. As expected, it was answered with just the number. There was a time when all Agency phones were answered with just the number, but now only the dedicated security numbers are answered that way.
“This is W,” I said, “I believe you are expecting my call.”
“What is your full name?” a male voice asked firmly. “My full name is W,” I replied. “I worked for you a long time ago and now my little sister needs my help... and yours.”
A different voice interrupted. “W,” he said quickly, “is the scene contained?”
“They cut in through a closet floor from the apartment below,” I said quickly. “I can’t verify what is going on down there, but things are contained here.”
“A team will be there within ten minutes,” he said. “Is there anything you can tell us about the kidnappers?”
“They made threats with sexual overtones and left a naked picture of Denise,” I answered.
“Damn,” I heard him mutter. “Tell the team I will be arriving shortly.”
A little less than five minutes later I heard someone put a key in the front door of Sis’s apartment.
“Open that door very slowly,” I said loudly, “I have a Glock 22 pointed at you so you’d better have your identification ready.
A hand reached around the door and held out an Agency Security ID.
“Is it safe to enter?” a female voice asked.
“My Glock is down, but ready,” I replied.
The door swung slowly open. A strikingly beautiful woman and a rather short, barrel-like man stood in the opening.
“Small world, isn’t it, W?” Eleanora Marshall said with a smile.
“You two know each other?” the short man said.
“We have a professional acquaintance,” I said tersely. “I build specialized equipment that Ms Marshall is interested in.”
“That Mistress Nora is interested in,” she said, again smiling. “Hugo knows all about me. My contacts in the scene are why I was recruited for this job.” She paused and then said, “I’m working on contract for a special operation.”
“I was supposed to tell you that he will be right here,” I said flatly, “only he never gave me his name.”
“You will know him,” she replied flatly as she walked over to the bedroom. As soon as she entered it she said almost angrily, “This isn’t good.”
I really wanted to say, “No shit, Sherlock,” but instead followed her silently into the room.
She walked over to the paper still taped to the inside of the closet door and leaned over to examine it more carefully.
“They want us to know that they will deliver her to slave traffickers,” she said firmly, almost angrily. “It is their message that we should leave them alone.”
“So the ransom demand will not be money,” I said from behind her. “What will it be?”
Eleanora turned slowly to face me and said, “This isn’t your standard trafficker organization. They don’t supply low level whores and sex workers like the typical organization. They cater to elite customers who have specific... tastes.”
“Someone rich enough to buy a well-broken-in, true sex slave,” I replied flatly.
“Yes,” she replied. “They operate world wide and use world wide social media as their menu.” She huffed and then laughed in a flat sort of way. “What some girls post online these days. They show just about everything and talk about things that a girl wouldn’t even put in her private diary when I was a kid.”
“Yeah,” I said, “the good old days. But we live in today.” I paused and then said, “Nothing else to see here. Let’s go downstairs and see if they left any clues as to who they are.”
I took a minute to secure my Glocks back in their case, then we took the stairs down to the thirty-ninth floor. One of the units was already open and men in white paper coveralls with blue booties on their shoes were walking in and out. Agent Hugo held up his credentials and said, “These two have access, if possible.”
“Go ahead,” one of the men in white replied. “There’s nothing in there. They put up plastic sheets to contain the area they worked in and then sprayed everything down with a mixture of bleach, detergent, and hydrogen peroxide before they left.”
He pointed to two circular stains on the carpet in the hallway. “We figure they used commercial pump sprayers.” He shook his head and said, “Someone hacked into the security system and deleted videos from certain cameras over the past nine days. We know when they came and went, but have no record of who they are.”
“Get your report to the boss as soon as possible,” Hugo said and then turned to me and motioned with his hand for us to enter.
The place was a wet mess. Concrete dust mixed with a strong smelling liquid covered the floors. The hanging plastic we walked through to get to the bedroom was glistening with the same liquid. A strange-looking machine was sitting in the bedroom. On top of a big hydraulic cylinder was a square piece of concrete the exact size of the hole in Little D’s closet. Lower down was a strange square of rounded stainless steel pipe with a nozzle that evidently rode around the pipe like it was on a track. The thin high pressure hose connected to the nozzle led into the kitchen where there was a pump connected to the water pipes under the sink.
“It probably took them a better part of a week to cut through there,” I said. “They had to keep the pressure to a minimum and they could work only at night. Denise could hear them, but she thought it was bugs running around in her bedroom.”
“Well, there’s nothing to see here,” a voice said gruffly from behind me. “You will no longer be needed, W. We will take it from here.”
I felt bile rising in my throat. I recognized the voice. It was Anthony Bricker, often called Pricker by those who have ever worked with or under him. He was a high-level case officer with the Agency. Our paths had crossed once or twice before. It wasn’t pleasant for either of us.
I really wanted to tell this arrogant bastard where to shove it, but instead I said, “As you know, I have some rather special talents and contacts that could help with this.”
Bricker turned toward me and said brusquely, “I said your assistance will not be needed, W. Please leave.” He then shoved me slightly on the shoulder.
I said nothing. I just turned around and walked out of the apartment and returned to the fortieth floor. Bricker followed me every step of the way. When I got there I discovered that my clothes had already been packed into my suitcases. My computer was sitting on the kitchen table with a very young tech working on it.
Bricker said gruffly, “You’re already packed, W. Since the guns are legal and properly permitted, they are inside the suitcase.” He pointed toward the kitchen and added in almost a growl, “Your computer will be returned to you when we are finished with it.”
He then handed me my watch, keys, and billfold and nodded toward the door. I took them, but instead of leaving, I walked into the kitchen.
“You have some very impressive encryption,” the young tech said cheerfully as I entered the room.
“It has some other impressive features,” I said as I triggered the key fob in my hand.
That particular key doesn’t fit anything, but the fob, if you press the buttons in the right order, triggers a self-destruct on the laptop. The tech jumped back with a screech as the laptop burst into flames in front of him.
I turned to walk back into the living room, but Bricker was blocking my way. “I offered to work with you,” I said softly as I stepped around him. I tried not to sound too sarcastic or vindictive as I picked up my suitcase and left, saying “Nice to have met you,” to agent Hugo on my way out.