It was summer dark, one of those nights when daylight’s soft yellow glow lingered on the horizon to create the illusion of endless night. Warm and inviting memories of cottage country permeated my senses. Thrown into the mix, a full pale moon rose on the opposite horizon to bathe everything silver, slowly taking back the night. Kira was nowhere in sight, but I knew she was garbed totally in black, patrolling the area with a hoodie pulled up over her head, blended into shadow. Whether it was real or imagined, I felt her presence as surely as I felt the wind wash over my skin. If the Machine had uncovered this address, I trusted Kira to notify me of their arrival and to strike lethally without warning. I knocked at the door of a quaint little bungalow. No answer, so I knocked again, louder, curbing the desire to glance over my shoulder. Lights inside the dwelling fluttered on. Two minutes passed before the outside light snapped to life. The deadbolt drew back. The door cracked open yet fastened by a decorative gold chain. A wrinkled and sleepy face became visible.
“Yes? May I help you?”
Garbed in a warm terrycloth housecoat, sandy sleep gathered in the corners of Claire’s eyes. Long grey hair hung halfway down her back. She closed the collar of her robe with her free hand.
“I need to speak with you, Mrs. Fraser.”
“Do I know you?”
“It’s me, Bruce.”
Her sky-blue eyes widened and then narrowed, devoid of fearful apprehension. The news seemed to jar her toward full consciousness. She did not close the door in my face.
“What makes you think I won’t ring the polis?”
“Arrogance. Common sense. Blind hope. Take your pick.”
“Cocky of you to show up here.”
“I’m a morning person,” I quipped, reading the growing trust in her eyes.
“Ah rooster, eh,” cackled Claire. “Very well. If you intended me harm, you could have broken through this wee chain easily enough and needn’t have knocked to begin with. I’m too auld to be afraid.” The door closed, followed by the sound of the chain unfastening. A moment later, it opened. “Come inside.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Fraser.” She headed for the living room leaning heavily on her cane, enduring arthritic pain. “May I give you a hand?”
“I’m nowt a bloody cripple. Close the door. We’ll speak in here.”
Claire shuffled into her living room. The rubber stopper on her cane thudded heavily against rich, plumy hardwood floors. She lowered herself carefully into a deeply cushioned chair. Handcrafted crocheted covers hugged its wide arms. Paper doilies placed beneath a ceramic candy dish, and beneath a flowerpot protected the coffee table. Eyes brimming with ancient wisdom tracked me, sharp and pellucid despite her age, or the lateness of the hour. Avalon, her calico cat, brushed back and forth around Mrs. Fraser’s ankles. I shucked my boots but kept my coat on.
“Hang up your coat, Bruce.”
After complying, I walked into the living room to find Claire leaning forward with both hands resting on the top of her cane. Curiosity flickered through her expression, quickly replaced by fear and concern and hope. Every one of those emotions waited to respond to my words.
“May I sit?”
“Yes. Yes. No need to be so bloody polite. Tell me what you’ve come to say. You obviously did not come here to make idle conversation.”
“No ma’am, I didn’t.”
I started with my arrival at work Monday morning and did not leave anything out. Claire’s eyes studied me as I told my story, boring into mine with the same appealing intensity of Odera’s intrusive gaze. She listened patiently and did not interrupt. I concluded with the information I had learned hours earlier. Long minutes passed while she processed my tale.
“You do not believe the polis should be told?”
“No, ma’am. The Machine will kill Odera if they show up on site. According to the property deed, the plant has been in business about three years. You can’t begin to imagine how much capital an operation like that produces. Tens of millions each quarter. Safe to say it’s on a scale that would stagger us. Although they would obviously rather not uproot, they will do so in order to protect themselves.”
I paused to center my thoughts.
“If it was me, I’d rig the plant to explode and burn. A fire would incinerate evidence. An insurance claim might then be submitted. It shouldn’t be too hard to stage an industrial fire in a commercial plant. I’m no chemist, but I’ve done a little homework. Gypsum is a mineral by-product extracted with sulphuric acid and phosphoric acid. A fertilizer known as superphosphate remains after filtration. These acids and phosphates are the building blocks used in explosives. Seems to me they could obliterate the plant with plausible deniability.
“They don’t have a vested interest in Canada beyond our lax borders and the manufacturing plant itself. Odera becomes unwanted baggage if they decide to leave the country, or if the police discover the truth of the facility, whichever happens first.”
“Can you prove any of what you’ve just told me?”
“Some of it. No one but me has played a role in everything I’ve shared. Even the chemical composition Odera emailed work isn’t empirical proof. Anybody could have reproduced characters on a piece of paper and then handed them to me or anyone else. I can’t prove attempts have been made on my life or the reasons for them. I can lift my shirt and show you wounds, but they mean nothing other than I had an altercation. And I can’t prove this Machine abducted Odera, or that she’s even there, but it does seem pretty damn likely. It’s possible they could have moved her to a safe house, but someone at the plant will know where. If necessary, I’ll persuade them to share the information. The bottom line, I can’t prove everything. All I have are bits and pieces telling a larger story.”
“You do not have to,” Claire announced sitting up straight. “Ma granddaughter would nowt love a man who’d betray her for money. It should come as no surprise Odera told me aboot Sunday. The two of you are well on your way to sharing one life. If you’re lying, I cannot see your gain. If you’re guilty of everything I’ve seen on TV, you’ve been bloody well busy and I cannot fathom your motive. Mighty peculiar you’d commit all those crimes and now be lurking at ma door. Tell me what brings you here.”
“I’m going for her. There’s something you can do for Odera.”
“What might that be?”
“Take a train to another city and board a bus for a city beyond that one.”
“I’ve written a computer program that will log onto every city police precinct in the province and broadcast the truth about Cornerstone Gyprock if I fail. It’s also a bargaining tool.” Keeping the urgency out of my voice, I explained, “As long as you’re somewhere out there, somewhere I have no knowledge about, you’re leverage. Worst case scenario, the Machine can’t make me reveal that which I don’t know.”
At the end of my plea, I pointed to the laptop.
“I’ve set this to accept ten-second calls to verify the existence of that leverage. On the third call, it transmits its contents to the police.” Meeting her eyes, I said, “Call it a failsafe if I fail and they try to use the ten-second window to crash the program. Its default setting emails the police at 7:00 a.m., day after next in case I fail. If you hear from Odera before then, keep the power switch turned off; otherwise, fire it up just before dark. If they catch me, I should be able to use this to get Odera out alive.”
“I see. Won’t this Machine know you’ve set it to transmit and at what time?”
“No, they won’t, only that it contains the list and a written account of what I’ve learned. They’ll deduce the person on the other end has instructions. That’ll induce a bit of urgency on their part to listen and it’ll make them take me seriously. I hope not to use it, but I like to prepare for the worst.”
“You love Odera deeply to confront these scoundrels all by your lonesome.”
“I am not alone. One other person is joining me. Odera knows this person and she would approve of my choice. Epicurus, a Greek fellow way back, wrote, ‘If one is willing to stop evil but unable, he is impotent. If one is able to stop evil but unwilling, he is malevolent. If one is both able and willing, then evil will not persist.’”
“I suppose you mentioned this Greek fellow in regard to the polis and those who specialize at this sort of bric-à-brac?”
“Right. First, the police will bring a negotiator. There’s nothing to negotiate. These assholes don’t want money. They have no intention of surrendering. Second, police will set up a perimeter and exhaust the hostage playbook before sending in the Tactical Emergency Response Team. Odera dies the moment squad cars roll onto the property. Before the sirens stop sounding, Odera will be dead, and these guys will be on the move. If they’ve already moved Odera to another location, she dies the moment the plant is exposed to the authorities.
“The cops are willing, but they are not able to save her life. They are compelled to follow Canadian law. Their own departmental playbook places restrictions on their responses. Our way is better. No warning. No negotiating. Hit ’em hard as they scheme to bargain with me. We do not have rules. We will do what’s necessary to bring her back. Ma’am, I can’t put it any more straight forward.”
“What are your chances? Did not soften your reply, lad. I’m no feeble,” she said with steel in her voice.
“They don’t know we’re coming or what we’re capable of, and we’re smarter. The people we’ve run into so far have been amateurs. That gives us an edge.”
“That’s nowt a promising reply.”
“It’s the hand we were dealt,” I said tersely, spitting out the words with more animosity than I intended.
“All right, do not fash, lad. I’ll do as ye ask.”
I pushed an envelope across the coffee table.
“Here’s an unused pay-as-you-go cell phone and cash. Check yourself into a motel under an assumed name and only pay cash. Cheap motels are best. Tell them you lost your wallet. I’m sure you can do it convincingly. Your location can be traced if you use your real name, if you pay with a cheque, or if you use credit cards. Use cash for everything. Do not use the motel’s telephone for any reason. You may think I’m being paranoid, and maybe I am, but I’m also being careful. These people have enough money and clout to reach pretty far into cyberspace and locate just about anyone by electronic means.
“If anybody but Odera calls on the cell phone, hang up. That includes me; push the ESC key on the laptop if that should happen. It will activate the program. All of those instructions are inside that envelope as well. Questions?”
“I do not need your money. Bring ma granddaughter home, and you may have anything that’s in ma power to grant.”
“It would be unwise to go to a bank. Leave the city quietly. At some point the police will try to interview you. Perhaps tomorrow or the next day. You’re going to want to confess everything. We’ve been programmed to think the cops are the solution. If you do not resist that urge, you imperil Odera. Sure as the sun will rise, this Machine has cops on their payroll. It’s important you believe what I’ve told you. If you have questions, now’s the time to ask. I’ll do my best to answer them with as much detail as possible.” When Claire shook her head, I stood. “I’ll be leaving then. Get out of the city before dark, tomorrow.”
“Aren’t you going to help me up, lad? Bloody impolite of you nowt to offer. Do you no see that I use a cane?”
The arch of my eyebrow met Claire’s tight and pressed expression. She slipped her arm through mine and grasped my forearm with a blue-veined hand. I removed my cell phone, put the battery in, and snapped a picture of Claire’s cat before removing the battery and pocketing both. Claire did not ask why and I did not elaborate.
“What’s going to happen to you after this is over and done with?”
“I’ll go to jail for a long time. It doesn’t matter that I’m innocent. Doesn’t matter if Odera tells them I came for her or not. I’ll pay a price one way or another, and that price will be my freedom.”
“Odera will nowt run away with you,” she said reading my mind.
“I can be persuasive.”
“If you take ma granddaughter from me, I’ll hunt you doon myself!”
“When she’s out of grave danger, I’ll cross that bridge.”
“Never say grave to a lady ma age! Bloody rude,” she mocked with the same laughing eyes that Odera owned.
“Do you want to hear the plot I’ve hatched to get her back?”
“Ohh, you are a right cocky bastard. There must be a wee bit of Highland in you. Bring her home safe and sound, son.”
“I’ll do my best, Mrs. Fraser.”
“Stop being so God-awful polite and call me Grams. By the way, red hair suits you.”
“I ken very well where Odera gets her spirit.”
“A charmer too,” she smiled, squeezing my arm. “You be careful now. I’d nowt see one of ma lads come to harm. Tell the other fellow helping you I’m beholden to him as well. Now give an old bird a wee peck.”Claire tilted her cheek as if to adopt me into her clan, and I pledged fealty by that simple bit of noble affection. It was a strangely satisfying experience as if I glimpsed Odera some fifty years into the future. I departed Claire’s feeling I had chosen wisely to trust, which was a rare experience. I had painted an astonishing story for the old gal tonight and did not want to press my luck by explaining the other fellow was actually a beautiful female kendoist trained by her Samurai father. Some truths reside too far beyond reality to be plausible. Fact is stranger than fiction by a whole football field.