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Heidi, Geek Girl Detective

By dunsany All Rights Reserved ©

Thriller / Mystery

Blurb

Computer wizard Heidi Hoffman is a virtuoso with technology, but interfacing with humans is another matter. After the dot-com crash, Heidi reboots her career in the stuffy world of banking, where sucking-up is more valued than smarts. While fixing a network problem, Heidi intercepts a chilling e-mail from fellow employee, Alicia. The message: a warning to her conspirator that she'd been exposed. With the techie's sense of discretion, Heidi ignores what she sees. Until Alicia turns up dead. What was Alicia involved in? Embezzling? An illicit affair? Or something much worse? A terrible night in Heidi's past taught her the price of doing nothing. Heidi finds herself caught between the Russian mob and the FBI. Putting herself out as bait, Heidi risks everything to flush out the killer and shatter a conspiracy far larger than she had ever imagined. Soon Heidi will learn the terrifying secret of Lex Talionis, the mortal law of retribution.

Chapter 1: I am the network guy

No, I really do mind my own business. I hate poking around in other people’s private affairs. It just sort of happens sometimes because of my job. A bounced e-mail here, private banking records there. I don’t want to see it, but it all ends up on my plate. You see, I’m a techie—really good with computers, not so good with people. You’d think because I’m female, I’d be more of a people person than your average nerd. Think again. Of course, some people are harder to deal with than others. Case in point: Roger.

Based on his haircut, I figured the guy must bill out at over two hundred dollars an hour. He was in the consultant’s uniform: Bruno Magli’s, Dockers, a polo shirt and a big fancy diver’s watch. Across his lap lay a shiny leather portfolio, pregnant with reports and pre-printed forms. I figured I should get it over with, so I extended my hand to introduce myself: Heidi from Info-Tech. He called himself Roger Vernon, Dragoon Technologies.

From the lobby, I led him to the elevators and to the sixth floor where I’d reserved a meeting room. As we passed through the check processing area, I asked him if he wanted coffee or anything. He answered with a polite, “No, thank you.” His mom must be proud of him. If he didn’t reek with the stench of consultant, I might have even found him handsome.

We moved into a conference room and took opposing seats at the long table. Roger flipped open his big portfolio and asked his first stupid question of the day, “When is he going to get here?”

I shrugged, “I’m it. Let’s get started.”

His confused look confirmed my suspicions. He was one of those. Sure enough, he asked stupid question number two, “I’m sorry, I thought I was going to be meeting with someone technical.”

Why didn’t I call in sick today? “Yes, that’s me. Let’s go.”

He leaned forward a few inches, apparently to get a better look at me. Carefully he enunciated, as if talking to a child. “Well, I need to meet with the network guy.”

I’d been in this business long enough to encounter my share of Rogers. You can’t show a flicker of weakness or it’s all over. “Guy? Network guy? Does it have to be a guy? I guess I am the network guy.”

He rubbed the stubble on his jaw and looked me over again. I guess he wanted to make sure I was a woman. Last time I checked, I was. Then he got personal. “What’s your degree in?”

A shudder of irritation reverberated down my back. Did he somehow forget that I’m the customer? I volleyed back, “What’s yours in?”

His brow flushed. I bet his degree was as non-computer-related as mine. I didn’t have time to play this stupid game. I had work to finish. Before he fired off another a stupid question, I cut him off. “Look, if you’re not going to ask me anything about the bank’s computing infrastructure, then I need to go.”

With a loud exhalation, he snapped his portfolio shut and stood up. What is with this guy? Now he was stomping off? The way things went around here, I was probably going to get in trouble for pissing off a vendor.

As he made for the door, I hustled after him. He’d already gone halfway back to the elevator when I called out, “Roger? Wait up.”

He stopped, paused for a second and then turned to face me. I’m sure he thought I was about to apologize for being rude or something. Again, it was expected from types like him. Not today Buster.

“Roger, this is a secure floor.” With a sly smile of victory, I added, “You can’t wander off alone like that. I need to escort you back to the lobby.”

The look on his face was worth a week’s pay.

———

Back at my cubicle, I jumped back into my mountain of unread e-mail. I had a ton of stuff waiting: memos, status reports and company announcements. Oh, and the usual collection of other people’s private messages.

Like I said, I’m not a snoop or anything—it’s a side effect of my job. I fix problems with the mail server, those big computerized things that send your e-mail around the Internet. When things go wrong with e-mail, I’m where it ends up. In the process, I come across all kinds of personal tidbits. I wasn’t thrilled about it either. Those fancy machines have to rely on some human to un-jam them. For Puget Regional Bank, that honor was mine.

At the bank, all users must surrender their privacy on our computer systems. It’s pretty much the same thing at most places anyway. Seems to me most normal humans subscribe to a delusion about e-mail being sacrosanct or something. Techies know better.

E-mail in large companies is supposed to be all about work. You know: meeting-this, project-that. From what I’ve read of other people’s mail, it’s mostly jokes and personal drama stuff. In fact, very little of corporate e-mail is business related.

Once we had a VP carrying on an affair with his secretary. She sent him a particularly puerile love-note using the corporate e-mail system. She misaddressed it and it bounced back to tech support. It looked like she was going away for the weekend to take some dictation with him. Naturally, we kept quiet about it. You just don’t piss off a vice president.

This was the first of today’s batch of broken e-mail:

User unknown MESSAGE-IDd: < AL334@TECHER.RU >

MESSAGE FROM :A.LYONS@PUGETREGIONBANK.COM

TRANSCRIPT OF SESSION FOLLOWS:

Subject: Worried.

Data: Just this last time. Then we’re through. I don’t want any more people finding out about us, and what we’re doing. I need to move on and get <<<

All I see is just the first hundred characters, not the whole e-mail. I’m supposed to decipher the preamble so I can fix the problem and send the mail along to where it’s supposed to go.

This e-mail looked like a message from one of the people here at Puget Regional Bank. PRB for short. Don’t say something that could sound snippy like PR Bank. If our managers heard you, they’d think you were being disrespectful. Then you’d get a look—and it wouldn’t be a good look. You’d better appear to love the bank or else you won’t be around much longer. I’d seen it happen, it really isn’t pretty.

So what was the deal with this e-mail error? It looked like user A.Lyons sent e-mail to someone named “AL334” at Techer.ru. But Techer.ru bounced it back to PRB, making it my problem. Yeah, the text of the message was more than just a little odd. Not to mention that the suffix “ru” stood for Russia. But with the techie’s good sense of discretion, I ignored what I saw. It was never a good idea to raise a fuss over something that wasn’t your responsibility. It just led to unemployment, which was something I couldn’t deal with right now.

The Russian e-mail wasn’t the most interesting error from user A.Lyons. I also found about a dozen other e-mails, all gibberish, apparently sent every four hours over the past week. All were rejected with a “User unknown” error message, but these e-mails were all going to a “YR” at some place called Glenda.net. From the dot net domain name, I figured Glenda.net must be an Internet service provider.

“Heidi, staff meeting in 503 is starting. Will you be joining us?”

It was Warren, asserting his authority. Or least trying to. He was really nothing but a smear of management wannabe. Between the network problems this morning and that craptacular discussion with Roger, I totally spaced the staff meeting.

He stood there, hands on his hips like some bratty child. Warren tried his best to look imposing but his appearance betrayed his nervousness. For one, he kept fiddling with his atrocious purple tie, futilely realigning it against his taut white dress shirt. He clipped his dark hair short. But then for added control, he shellacked it into what appeared to be a little black plastic helmet. There wasn’t much he could do to dress up his voice, which seemed to belong to a miniature poodle. Right now it was yipping, “It’s a short meeting today. Everyone’s waiting for you.”

As usual, I paused my useful work to go deal with some meeting.

———

“Everyone is failing at their most basic job.” Warren was trying to sound tough, but the line sounded rehearsed, plucked from one of those management books he always took to the bathroom with him. “User issues aren’t being resolved in a timely manner, complaints are mounting and MYZRE is down way too often.”

I shot a sidewise smile at Mitch who responded with rolled eyes. MYZRE came out as “miser” because it was our crotchety old mainframe that watched the money. Geek humor.

“Frankly, it’s all our fault. We need to get on the ball, people.”

Was it going to be a pep talk or more threats? Warren usually chose threats. It’s sort of the cultural favorite around here.

“And you know how we do that, people?” For extra-bonus drama points, he looked around the room, rhetorically trying to solicit a response. “Do you realize that if you don’t do your jobs, there are a hundred other people out there waiting to fill your shoes?”

Threats. That didn’t come from management toilet reading.

“You may have noticed,” he said turning to the doorway, “that we have a special guest at our meeting.”

Half a dozen bored heads swiveled to acknowledge the man in the dark suit. Rusty was the Big Cheese and had the part down cold—handsome, athletic build, smart haircut and Executive Tall. Too bad he was such a dill hole.

Warren continued, “Rusty came down from the executive floor and speak to us today.”

That’s when I realized who was going to give us the pep talk. The old one-two. Warren knocked us down, the big boss lifted us up. A little sophisticated for our management team but not unheard of. I’d seen all the tricks over the past couple of years.

Rusty adjusted his lapels and dipped his head to acknowledge us. “Good morning. It’s always a pleasure to meet with the technical staff.”

A pleasure, yeah right. This is the first time I’d seen him on this floor. Senior VPs don’t bother talking to their geeks.

“I wanted to speak to the senior computer staff about happenings throughout the Finance division.”

Computer staff? We hadn’t been called that in years. We’re the I.T. department. You know, Information Technology. That’s the fancy new word for computers. Rusty should keep up with the times.

“Computers are just a small cog in our division, yet a very important one. When your systems don’t work, no one in this bank can do their job. I know you want what’s best for our organization.”

Another tedious lecture. I snuck a glance at Warren, who was listening with a straight back and rapt adoration. If he was faking it, he’d definitely got the part down pat.

“...and so far it looks like this dog can’t hunt...”

It looked like everyone else could have used some acting lessons. Mitch was almost asleep and Gayle fidgeted in her chair.

“...and the Apollo project will commence immediately...”

What? Something about a new project? Daydreaming again, I missed something important.

“…which will be spearheaded by Gayle.” Rusty was looking at her, “She will interface with Dragoon Tech, who’ll be doing all the heavy lifting.”

They said no more projects this year. We’d been working sixty-hour weeks and they hand us another project? Even Gayle wasn’t returning Rusty’s gaze. And Dragoon? Roger was the last person I wanted to see again. No doubt, he’d feel some kind of need to one-up me for our last encounter.

“Your group will assist in the testing and installation on the MYZRE system. It’s important that we all have clarity of vision on this process. Puget Regional Bank is counting on you.”

He paused, probably for the dramatic effect, and added, “And more importantly, I am counting on you.”

Rusty scanned across the room, slowly lasering us with a sincere-but-firm expression. “Let’s get this done so we can move on to bigger fish.”

We got a subdued smile before he turned and left the conference room. Everyone exhaled and twisted in their chairs to leave. Finally, I was anxious to get back that strange e-mail.

Warren spoiled it, “Wait a minute, folks. We’re not done here.”

We slumped back into our chairs.

“Two things.” He raised two fingers in a V. “It has come to my attention that we have a serious rumor problem. I believe in an open door policy. When you come talk to me, I will give you a straight answer. I am a much better information resource than what you hear through the grapevine.”

He said things like this every couple of months. Ironically, Warren was the biggest blabbermouth on the floor. And to think people accuse women of being gossips.

“Two, we need to clear out the logjam of user problems. I have escalated all outstanding tickets from the help-desk to the senior techs for immediate resolution. I promised Rusty that they’ll be closed by the end of the week.”

This we did not need, not with our current workload. No one else was bothering to speak up so I guess I had to do it. “C’mon! We’ve all got full plates, plus this new project? And now you want us to do the help-desk’s job for them?”

He turned to respond, but I was on a roll. “Most of the help-desk issues are things that they should know how to solve already. I didn’t sign on to wipe their...”

A wrinkle appeared above on Warren’s eyebrows. He did not like having his authority challenged. I looked down at the rest of the team for backup but they buried their gazes into the tabletop. Thanks, guys. I snorted and sank back into my chair.

“Ms. Hoffman, I need you to do what’s asked of you. If being a team-player doesn’t suit you, then you shouldn’t be a part of our team.”

I gaped, more from shock than anger. Warren had threatened others in public, but never me. I didn’t take it as a positive sign for career advancement.

———

Only VPs and senior managers were granted real offices and doors. Everyone else of lesser value got dumped into the cubicle refugee camp. My desk was in the northeast corner of the hives set aside for the network engineering staff. Above my cube, a brass-painted plastic plate proclaimed “Senior Technical Specialist.” This title was what I got instead of decent pay.

I needed to get through the remaining problems before Warren smooshed more work down my throat. And besides, those e-mail errors from A.Lyons didn’t look like normal bounces. I wasn’t sure what they were, but I smelled something fishy about them.

Most people think that when they send e-mail from their workstation, it goes directly from their computer to the recipient’s computer. Wrong. When you send mail, it goes from your computer to your company’s mail server, a big computer that acts as the post office. The mail server reads the address and shoots it over the Internet to the recipient’s mail server. And so on.

When e-mail gets messed up along the way, it bounces back at the sender, and to all the administrators of the mail servers involved. This is how people like me end up having to sort through your precious personal messages.

As you’ve no doubt heard, e-mail is considered a critical business tool. It must flow unimpeded, around the clock. Dealing with e-mail problems is routine in a company this size. Ninety-nine percent of the errors are just misaddressed e-mail or a mailbox crammed full of Spam. The other one percent of the time, something’s wrong at the mail servers, which is why we need to check the non-obvious problems. A.Lyons had a non-obvious problem.

I pulled up the network tracking records for that user. It looked like A was for Alicia.

User: Alicia K. Lyons

Dept: Loans/Collections

Account Status: Active

Hard-Inventory: #90278AB73F, PII-333, HD: 40Gb

Soft-inventory: WXP, Moff, MYZRE

Network: E100, 192.168.30.95

PW: $1$wID9POJu$zK22bgpfSuqdMOe7Z2TbD0

Office: 3-732

Helpdesk tickets currently open: 1

Total tickets opened: 3

There were a few notes in our help-desk tracking system about Alicia’s previous technical issues. PRB liked to refer to computer problems as “technical issues.” Whatever. Anyway, I figured they could shed some light on the current weirdness. I displayed them.

Ticket 55752, Input by Gayle Lavone:

“User called and said that her daily reports were printing in ‘gibberish’ and this has never happened before. Went to desk and updated her printer driver software. Closing ticket.”

Ticket 55752-supplement, Input by Warren Snyder:

“Received a thank-you e-mail from user Alicia Lyons. She was quite happy with service received by Gayle in the quick resolution of the problem.”

Cool. Alicia respected her computer people, which was quite rare. Funny how many people in the customer service business treat techies with disdain. It’s not our fault that things occasionally break down. Or are just plain confusing to operate.

The system reported her last login over a week ago. Did she go on vacation or was she out sick? I dialed her extension and immediately dumped into her voice-mail. Her message was the PRB standard away-from-the-desk greeting. I left a short message, “Alicia, this is Heidi Hoffman in Tech Support. I’m trying to untangle some e-mail problems with your account. Can you give me a call at 4318 when you get this? Thanks.”

Printing the detailed inventory of Alicia’s workstation killed a few trees. I stuffed the thick wad of papers into the laptop case that passed for my purse. Good bedtime reading.

The system noted that her anti-virus signature updated only a couple of days ago. The AV update launched automatically when you turned on your computer. So if she didn’t login to her PC, how did it get updated? Someone else must have turned it on. Could that have been what activated the last batch of bounced e-mails?

Alicia’s first e-mail looked like it was just a plain bounce: return to sender. Whoever she sent it to at Techer.ru had cancelled their account. The other mails were the ones that were odd. The fact that they were still being sent even though she hadn’t been on the system was really bothering me. There could be an automated process on her machine, secretly e-mailing Glenda.net. I’d seen this before and it was never a good thing. A normal user’s computer shouldn’t be sending e-mail on its own. That was the behavior of computer viruses and worms.

Worms and viruses are software programs that crawl into computers and start issuing their own evil commands. They’re created by snot-nosed brats with nothing better to do than vandalize other people’s computers. The media calls these jerks “hackers.” They aren’t. I know real hackers and these techno-vandals are just annoyances.

If there was a new virus running around the bank, I couldn’t take any chances it might spread. I activated an auto-trap for “Glenda.net” on our mail system. The next time any e-mail traversed PRB to or from the Glenda.net domain, it would be recorded in detail.

Since I needed a little leg stretch before my next meeting, I decided to check on her machine in person.

———

The third floor was a customer floor—dress codes and badge rules enforced. Even for Seattle, PRB got downright stuffy about customer floors. I suddenly felt awkward in my dark jeans and chunky knit sweater. At least I wore my Mary Jane’s and not my trail runners. I pulled the red haystack on my head back and tightened the ponytail. For good measure, I gave my glasses a quick wipe down as well. I’m not corporate but I could get a few steps above your average slovenly nerd.

Alicia’s desk was in Collections, back in the maze of cubicles. Obviously, we kept the leg-breakers from Collections as far as possible from the impulsive boat buyers and the newlyweds seeking their first mortgage. Actually, most of the loans people on the three were overflow personnel from the second floor. We’ve had such insane growth in the past year that we didn’t know where to put all the people.

“Heidi! Are you here to look at my printer problem?”

I turned and saw Aggie, one of the sweet middle-aged women who once made up the backbone of PRB. This was before the expansion and before all the yuppie creeps fouled the pool with corporate power plays. Technically, I was part of that new growth and the new breed of bank-employee.

Aggie was in the unofficial uniform for our customer service reps, a silver-gray PRB-logoed polo shirt, full-length skirt and penny loafers. She wore a “How can I help you?” button tacked to her shirt. “Hey there. I’m sorry, I don’t fix printers since I got promoted up to the network group.”

She seemed disappointed and that made me feel a little guilty. I thought a little reassurance might help. “I’m sure someone from the help-desk will be along shortly. I’m on my way to see Alicia Lyons.”

I followed Aggie’s gaze over to a big white plastic cube on a nearby desk. A half a dozen of its indicator lights flickered blood red in distress. Aggie signed. “Paper jam. I’d clear it myself, but we get in trouble for touching the equipment.”

Not only did users get in trouble for attempting to fix their own computers, but I could get in trouble as well. Funny that Warren could assign work from the help-desk to us, but heaven forbid I show initiative and touch things that I’m not responsible for maintaining.

Aggie smiled, “Well, you run along to see Alicia.”

I checked the area. No one from tech services around. What the hell. I walked over to the printer and ran my fingers along the bottom of the chassis. Aggie stepped back to give me room and asked, “Are you sure? I don’t want to keep you from seeing Alicia. Such a sweet lady.”

The catch popped and the white case swung open to reveal the complex machinery of rollers and fuser assemblies. I studied the rollers and mumbled, “S’okay, I got time.”

A little triangle of white paper poked out from under the toner cartridge. I maneuvered my hands to slide the cartridge free. Aggie studied my progress. “Alright, as long as I don’t hold her up. Alicia’s been through a lot lately.”

The cartridge popped out with a little cloud of fine black dust. I flinched and stepped back, knowing what would happen to my clothes if any of the toner particles got on them. “What do you mean? She been out sick?”

“Well, her husband died recently, but she didn’t take more than a single day off. Refused bereavement leave. Said she wanted to keep working.”

Poor Alicia, that couldn’t have been good for her mental health. Inside the toner slot, I saw the jammed paper neatly crushed down like an accordion. I carefully extracted it from the rollers. “That’s too bad. Accident?”

“No, I think he had cancer. They’d known for a while, so I guess it wasn’t too much of a shock. So sad.”

I snapped the cartridge back in place and swung the cover back down. The printer immediately whined as its motors awoke. The red lights cooled to green. “There you go.”

“Thank you so much. I see my reports are coming out right now.”

“No problem, but when the help-desk finally does come down, forget what I did here. Okay?”

Aggie gave me a conspiratorial wink and I waved goodbye.

———

I twisted through the maze of acrylic-fabric-tacked cubicle walls of Collections. As I moved deeper, I caught the strong scent of ramen. Must be close to lunchtime. To keep up with their work, a lot of PRB staff ate at their desks. Half the time, my lunch consisted of grazing at other people’s candy dishes.

It was sad to hear about Alicia’s husband. I wondered if that was why she wasn’t around today. Maybe the weight of it all finally caught up with her.

It didn’t take me long to locate Alicia’s cubicle. Her desk was quite organized except for a few folders scattered about. I looked for her computer but it wasn’t there. There was a monitor, keyboard and mouse but their wires hung down to an empty cradle below the desk. The metal box of the computer had been removed.

From the pictures, it looked like both Alicia and her husband were in their mid-forties. She had a couple of “team player” certificates as well. Once a quarter they give out these awards, along with a coupon for a few free lattes downstairs. I won a few of these when I worked at the help-desk. That was before PRB milled my sparkling can-do attitude down to a fine paste, suitable for light masonry work and household spackling.

Next to me, I heard a murmured goodbye. I looked and watched the balding man at the adjoining cubicle hang up his phone. He acknowledged my presence with a nod. I showed him my blue Info-Tech department badge as I asked him about Alicia.

“Lyons? She’s been gone for the past few days.”

“Is she out sick?”

“Dunno. She’s been freaky since she lost her husband. Last I saw her, she came in for the morning, made a call and then nearly broke down crying. Then she left. Haven’t seen her since.”

I motioned towards her desk, indicating the missing machine.

“Someone came by the other day and took her computer.”

“I was supposed to fix her e-mail problem.”

He shrugged, “Maybe Joe knows? He’s our manager.”

He pointed with his shiny forehead in the direction of a manager-sized cubicle. I smiled a thank-you and headed in that direction. Then I noticed her. An athletic woman with short-cropped blond hair and a dark suit sat in Joe’s guest chair. She looked like one of those lawyer-barracudas from the east coast. She leaned over, taking notes with a tightly gripped pen. Although I couldn’t see Joe, I sensed he was hunched over as well. Their tones were the deep hush of important matters. Her eyes flicked to me and I shook my head and left. I had a meeting anyway.

———

Rubin’s office was on an upper floor, just below the Executive level. Most techs preferred the stairs instead of dealing with users in the elevator. The elevator-imposed wait prompted people to bug us with all kinds of questions. It was even worse if you worked on the help-desk because the users knew your face and name.

“My son’s going to college, what kind of computer should I buy him?”

" I heard about this fifteen-year-old kid who’s a dot-com millionaire...”

“How do I get into computers like you and make the big bucks?”

“I read in PC magazine last week that...”

I favored using the stairs despite the ache it brought up in my bad knee. I was supposed to exercise it every now and then, so it wouldn’t tighten up. I still remember the day back during intramurals when a vindictive kick ended my soccer career. Oh well, I enjoyed playing with computers even more.

I keyed open the steel stairwell door with my badge and the smell of burnt coffee stung my nose. The stairwells are adjacent to the coffee pots, which mercilessly boil away from dawn until closing. I don’t even want to describe how bad the coffee tastes. It’s why I liked to escape downstairs to the coffee stand for a mocha once or twice a week.

I limped past the brown-stenciled hall signs: Facilities, Personnel, Legal and of course, Accounting. Accounting takes up the bulk of the floor. Just past the controller’s office was my destination, Bank Security: R. Jimenez.

Through the door window, I saw Rubin sitting at his desk signing paperwork. He spotted me and gave me a happy wave hello. I poked my head in and said, “Hey, am I early?”

“No ma’am, come on in and sit yourself down.”

Rubin was a senior manager, so he got four walls and a door. On top of that, he had four guest chairs and a round meeting table. Very nice. He also had plenty of space for personal effects. On his wall, he’d proudly mounted a full-sized Marine Corps flag. On the shelves below it, there was an 8x10 of his wife and another of his twin teenage boys. In the far corner of the office, he had a poster-sized picture of a younger version of himself astride some kind of complicated bicycle. Cute, but I prefer my vehicles to be motorized.

On his desk sat an acrylic award that he got upon retirement from the Seattle Police Department. He’d left after the Pioneer Square Mardi Gras riots. Luckily, he got out without the shame that his bosses were stained with.

He even had one of those weird green old-fashioned accountant lamps and some other personal knickknacks scattered about. One in particular, a large wooden dagger with a Latin inscription. It always struck me as out of place. One day, I needed to ask him about it. Rubin always had such interesting stories.

Rubin was an adorable charmer, in an older guy kinda way. He still had the polite policeman way of talking which was both sweet and commanding. I imagined being pulled over by him on deserted country road. The broad dark face on top of that uniform, and that deep voice. Rowr. I shook off the fantasy and asked, “So, time to go over the IDS logs?”

He waved a muscled hand over the papers on his desk. “Sorry ma’am, not yet. We can skip that part of the meeting. But we’ve got that other thing we need to work on, if you’ve got the time.”

I didn’t see enough of Rubin anyway. He leaned over a large metal cabinet in the corner of the room. Using key from the chain on his hip, he unlocked the cabinet and said, “Rusty has asked me to participate in the Apollo project.”

So he was on the project too. His heavy cabinet door clunked opened to reveal several large binders fat with papers. He moved the metal-brick of a hard-drive from a shelf of envelopes and removed a manila folder beneath it. He closed and relocked the cabinet before settling into one of his guest chairs. “I have this list of the bugs that could be MYZRE audit issues.”

I took a seat next to him at the table and asked, “Who compiled the list? It wasn’t anyone in my group, was it?”

“No. Rusty brought in outside consulting to do the vulnerability analysis.” He raised the folder. “I need you to make sure the technicals are handled.”

“Uh, I think you’re supposed to be dealing with Gayle. I’m not on this project.”

“Warren told me that he was assigning you to help me. Didn’t he tell you?”

“Nooo...and we just had a staff meeting on it. It’s Gayle’s. Not mine.”

“Well, here’s the...”

No way. No fricken way. This was too much. I snarled, “Look, I’m really sorry, but I absolutely cannot take on another project.”

“Heidi.” He put the folder down and slipped into that cop-authority thing he does, “This is an important project and you’re the best troubleshooter here. I’m sure that’s why Warren assigned you.”

I opened my mouth to squawk, but I realized that ranting at Rubin wouldn’t help. Ranting at Warren wouldn’t help either, but it would make me feel better. “Can we deal with this later? I need to sort this out first. Okay?”

Before Rubin could answer, I was out of my chair and reaching for the doorknob.

———

I marched straight into Warren’s manager-sized cubicle, pushing aside his two visitor chairs and stood several inches from his desk. He was heads-down at his laptop and didn’t even acknowledge my presence. My attempt at emasculating the little turd’s authority went unnoticed. I considered sitting on the edge of his desk, but decided against it. I could escalate later, if I had to. Instead, I just glared down at him, studying his desk as I waited to see who flinched first.

Warren’s a technical manager, not a True Leader of Men. He had only a peck of authority above those he must herd. I had to hand one thing to him though—he’d made the most out of his little cubbyhole. A motivational poster hung on the far wall opposite the desk so everyone could see it. I believe the message was teamwork and it showed some guys rowing or crewing or whatever the hell it was called. The picture of his Filipina wife had been casually turned so everyone could get a good eyeful of her cuteness. I wasn’t impressed. Everything else in his Spartan cubicle was PRB issue and neatly arranged. Even his laptop cables were precisely braided and tied with white Velcro strips.

He finished pecking at the keys of his laptop and then looked up at me. “Heidi, I wanted to go over the timeline for the Apollo project with each member of my team.”

My patience was wearing quite thin. I continued my silent glare.

“We all realize how important it is that we assist the Dev team on this.”

Help the programmers fix the holes that they never should have let happen in the first place. And now it was my burning problem.

“This project has high visibility. Rusty has set down tight commitments for all departments. We cannot be the slow dog of the pack.”

Where did he get these lame expressions? Of course, this was high visibility—it was MYZRE. When it crashed, the bank came to a screeching halt, from ATM deposits to Internet banking all the way to the lowly teller line. And the whole time it was down, managers like Warren were whipped bloody. So yeah, it was a big deal to him. Me, not so much. We peons got whipped for everything anyway.

Warren continued, “Some of the changes on MYZRE will require downtime for the entire system. This will have to be carefully coordinated with all departments.”

“Gosh, this sounds serious. Tell me no more, lest I swoon.”

He’d finally become annoyed with me. Good. Maybe now he wouldn’t blow me off so easily.

“Heidi, you are a vital—-”

“Look,” I sat on the arm of his visitor chair. I could do drama as well. “You said we wouldn’t be getting any more projects. And we’re supposed to pick up all the slack from the help-desk. I don’t have the bandwidth to deal with this. I’m busy untangling a mess with Alicia Lyons’ e-mail.”

“I guess you haven’t heard.” He inhaled a long breath through his nose. It made a slight whistling noise. He held it for a second and then dropped a bomb. “Alicia Lyons has passed on.”

Passed on? As in dead? Did that mean Alicia was dead? I was too confused to say anything more than, “What?”

“I’m sorry, it’s a real shame. Word is that it was suicide.”

Her husband’s death—could that have been why? Did she really kill herself? But how would Warren know? This was so sudden, so strange...

“Anyway, close that ticket and get started on Apollo.”

Apollo? What about that e-mail she sent? Her message warned that they’d been found out. Did that other person have something to do with her death? Maybe she was having an affair. No, wait, her husband was dead. How could she have an affair if she was already a widow? I said nothing. I just stared at his receding hairline and listened to the white noise of the air vents.

I think Warren gabbled on, but all I was thinking about was how I wasn’t going to get any sleep that night.

———

I was wrong. I did get some sleep. A couple of restless hours here and there, punctured by guilty nightmares of things I thought I’d finally forgotten. And Trisha. That night in my dreams, I saw Trisha’s swollen face.

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