Heidi, Geek Girl Detective

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Chapter 2: Past, tense

I did my best to ignore the growling of my pager until the phone ringing made it a duet. I slapped the handset around the nightstand before pulling it under the covers with me. “Yeah?”

“Heidi, it’s Mitch. We need you to come in right away. The sixth floor is down.”

I despised mornings on many levels, especially when they began like this. “Time izzit?”

“Quarter to seven. The first shift is in and the sixth floor is down. Listen, they need to be up by seven-thirty. No one can get onto the system. When can you get here?”

“Ugh. Dunno. Whadya mean by down’?”

“No logins, no servers, no printing. Every terminal is down.”

Rolling over in bed, I reached over and felt nothing. I was alone. Was Peter awake already? I croaked another question, “Sure the server’s up?”

“Yes! We already checked that. And the net management system says all the cables and switches are good. Warren said to call you. He said this is high visibility. We need you here. Now.”

I poked a leg out from the covers and tapped for my slipper. Peter must have gotten up. He was one of those morning people. “Check the switches?”

“I already told you that we checked them. Net management system says they’re fine”

“But did you check them yourself?” I held in a short grunt as I snagged the slipper with my big toe. “Listen, the net management system is a piece of crap.”

I could almost hear the rusty gears cranking in Mitch’s head before he responded, “Uh, okay. Hang on.”

Keys jangling. He was on his cell, wandering around on the sixth floor trying to fix the problem. He wasn’t going to let me go. Now that he had me, I had to either stay on the line until it was fixed or agree to head in.

“Alright, I’m in the...Wait, okay, there’s a ladder in here propped against the chassis. I think maintenance was working on something in the ceiling. Hang on.”

More clunking over the phone as Mitch fumbled inside the wiring closet. I put on my glasses and the room focused a bit. I saw the heap of clothes on the dresser across the room. I had forgotten to clean up before I went to bed last night. Mitch came back to me with, “Okay. I’m looking at the switches. Power lights are green. They’re fine.”

Whatever shreds of patience left in my half-asleep body were long gone at this point. “Pull. The. Switch. Out. And. Look. At. The. Wiring.”

“Alright, alright. I’m pulling it out of the chass—eh? Something slippery on the connectors on the back. All over my hands now...Feels like oil, or water, or something”

Thought so. “Uh huh, maintenance probably spilled something when they were working above—”

“This liquid smells...Like cigarettes?”

I figured that I might as well tell him, since the poor doof still didn’t get it, “Yeah, one of the maintenance guys likes chaw. Sometimes his cup spills and...”

“EWWWYYyaaaaa...”

God, he screamed like a girl. I hung up. He can deal with replacing the switch. If half our people ever double-checked their assumptions, I’d get more sleep.

———

I grabbed Peter’s flannel shirt from the heap and pulled it over the t-shirt that I slept in. As I clomped my way to the kitchen, a rich cloud of coffee washed over me. Cook anything in our kitchen and the smell permeates every room.

It was a little place, but it was ours. When we first moved in, the bare walls and floors seemed hungry for us to get busy making this place our own. Every weekend, Pete and I pooled our dollars and drove to the furniture barns down in South Center. And when we didn’t have dollars, we scraped pennies and hit the Goodwill. We made up for a lack of luxury with the right lamp or throw pillow.

Twenty chilly paces down the hallway sat Peter, reading the paper at our plastic dining table. He looked up from the classifieds and smiled warmly at me. “Morning, Babe. Coffee?”

If he ever landed steady employment, his morning perkiness would serve him well. I grunted a greeting of some sort and slouched into the only other chair. Hey, this as good as it gets for me in the morning. Peter reached over and poured me a mug of steaming black goodness. Picking up the front page, I scanned the headlines: Seattle’s economic woes, another gas tax fight and the usual assortment of car crashes.

A few pages in, there was a story about a woman’s body found in Elliott Bay. Things like that just reinforced Seattle’s reputation as the suicide capital of America. Me, I like the gray and the rain. I’m inside most of the time anyway. I could do without the cold though. Then it hit me. Alicia, was it her body that they found? God. Suicide? That e-mail I came across—-

“Babe? You remember what today is?”

My look of annoyed confusion was answered with another happy smile as Peter pushed a single daisy on a paper napkin toward me.

“Happy Anniversary! I love you, my little morning muffin.”

Aw hell, I totally forgot. I took a slug of coffee to power the grin I offered in return for the flower.

“So where do you want to go tonight, Babe? Maybe Bella’s?”

The thought of garlicky sauces and rich cheeses this early made my stomach turn over. “Petey, can we talk later? I need to get going.”

I got his abandoned puppy look. Before it had a chance to work, I quickly added, “Really, Hon, that call was a work thing I gotta deal with now. I’ll try to be home on time.”

“I understand. I know how much you need this job.”

Yeah. We both needed this job. Unless he somehow found something permanent.

———

It was raining. Again. As I made my way along the Viaduct towards downtown, speeding trucks splashed sheets of water against my tiny Jetta. My tires didn’t have much traction in this kind of wet and I had to pay attention to keep from slipping into a different lane. Despite that, I couldn’t help but brood about Trisha.

It’d been just over a decade, but the memory of that first semester of college would never fade from my mind. I was only seventeen and hadn’t yet decided on a major. I was a typical freshman, eager to taste the real world, so I decided to dorm it. This was my first big move away from home, and I was nervous about sharing a room with a stranger. I got lucky on the roommate lottery and ended up with the sweetest girl I’d ever meet, Trisha. She was skinny as a rail with tortoise-shell glasses. My rumpled jeans and oversized sweatshirts were quite a sight compared to her fuzzy sweaters and denim skirts. Luckily, the dorm room had separate closets.

Trisha was one of those people who spoke so quietly that sometimes all I heard was the hiss of her consonants. Most of what I knew about her, I learned by studying her half of the room. For one, Trisha had at least four teddy bears, all with red bows on their collars and goofy happy eyes. She had tucked a number of Danielle Steele novels on a shelf next to her high school yearbook. Her textbooks didn’t reveal much about her major. She was a freshman, so she had the same Everything-101 courses I did. Once I think she told me she wanted to go into Psych. I wonder if she ever did. God knows she’d have plenty to material to work with.

She had a sickeningly sweet boyfriend, Kyle. At least that’s how he came off to me the few times he came around. He seemed kind, adoring, and moderately cute. He tended to wear these pastel-colored long-sleeve polos, but it suited him. Like her, Kyle was also soft-spoken and perpetually smiling. Whenever he’d call, he’d do the may-I/thank-you thing that moms always try to push upon their sons. He seemed like a nice guy. Yeah, right.

The coolest thing about their relationship was that Kyle lived off campus in an apartment, so Trisha spent a lot of time out of the room. Actually, I guess I was hardly ever there either. I split my free hours between the soccer field and the computer lab. Yeah, I was a real girl-nerd back then. I guess I never really got over that. Anyway, after a particularly long night of recreational computing on Talk-net, I came back to our room and found Trisha nursing a black eye. She’d had an accident playing volleyball.

Or so she said.

Don’t look at me like that. I really believed her.

I didn’t think much about it at the time. I mean, accidents happen, right? That night still haunts me. There were other incidents, too. It made me feel so naive when I remembered them. Like the time she sprained her arm. She fell while crossing the quad—or so she said.

Maybe I didn’t want to deal with it, so I just didn’t see it. I wasn’t alone though. Everyone on the floor had to have suspected, but no one ever talked about it. I mean, it looked kinda suspicious. This quiet non-athletic girl was getting hurt every month or so. I think at some point, we just stopped asking questions and she stopped making excuses. No one acknowledged it. The semester came and went.

Since my family was traveling for Christmas and I didn’t feel like caravanning around the Midwest, I stayed around for Winter break. I know, nerdy, but I was more interested in teaching myself Pascal. Plus there was this hacker guy I met in the terminal room who was showing me how to hotwire the hall phone to get free calls. Trisha and I were paying a fortune to have a phone in our room, so I was plenty interested. Trisha, however, did go home for Christmas—and when she got back, she seemed a little less friendly and a little more somber. The picture of Kyle she had kept by her bed was gone. Maybe someone in her family had talked to her while she was home? Maybe she had time to think? I don’t know. We never talked about it. We hardly ever talked about anything personal.

I remember deciding that I would bring it up somehow…if she was willing to say something. I figured as her roommate, it was my duty to look out for her. However, it was a new semester. I got caught up adapting to a new class schedule and figuring out the oddities of my new professors. I never got a chance to ask.

I didn’t know any of this for sure. It’s just how I pieced it all together in my head afterwards. But, that first weekend after starting school must have been when Trisha dropped the bomb on Kyle.

That Monday morning, I woke up late, as usual. As I hurriedly wriggled into my clothes for class, I noticed Trisha hadn’t left her bed since coming home late last night. When I leaned in to ask her if she was going to class, I saw her split lip and swollen cheek. I said nothing and left.

I made it a point to come back around lunch and check on her. I found her still in bed, head under the pillow. Again, I said nothing and left. I still didn’t know what to say.

She was still there later that evening. I tried asking her if she wanted to go to dinner with me. We hadn’t eaten together since we’d first become roommates many months ago. She just shook her head no and didn’t say a word.

That’s when I noticed our room phone had been unplugged. Without a thought, I plugged it back in. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Before I could turn back to her, the phone suddenly rang. I picked up and it was Kyle. He wanted to speak to her.

With tearful eyes, she peeked out and shook her head before covering it again with the pillow. The next thing I heard was: “Get her on the phone now!”

The sudden violence in his voice stunned me. I didn’t realize such volume or temper could be inside of a mousy little nice guy like Kyle. I was so taken aback that I didn’t think, didn’t consciously put everything together. I guess I was as scared as she must have been.

His bark must have been so loud that she heard it from her bed. Silently, she got up and dutifully took the phone. I heard more yelling and she whispered an acknowledgment. Then she gently put down the phone, got silently dressed and left. I did nothing, said nothing to stop her.

Whatever he did to her that night...it put her in the hospital for a week. After that, she dropped out of school. I dropped out too.

———

Puget Regional Bank sat deep in Belltown, a quirky little ventricle of the heart of downtown Seattle. Belltown square-footage was a little cheaper than the downtown core, so PRB could afford to lease a semi-decent building with free staff parking. I thanked PRB for the occasional perk and parked in a decent spot near the bottom. As I grabbed the laptop-case that served as my briefcase/purse, I remembered that I needed breakfast. I snagged a packet of Mega-Vs from the open box in the back seat and made a beeline for the espresso cart.

Coffeeguy greeted me with a big sweet smile and an energetic “Hey Heidi, how ya doin’?” He’s one of those kinds of guys who seem perpetually happy to be alive. It must be a professional requirement for baristas to be morning glories.

“M’Good. The usual, please.” I managed to return his smile with one of my own, but it took effort. I excavated two wadded up bills from my pocket as Coffeeguy poured the two-percent into a steel cup. He disappeared behind the espresso machine. All I saw was the top of his balding head and his bushy gray eyebrows. The eyebrows danced as he spoke, “I heard earlier that the nice lady from loans just died.”

“Collections, actually.” I said as I tore open the package of Mega-Vs. I palmed the handful of brown horse pills and Coffeeguy grunted a confused response. I explained, “Well, the morning paper said someone was found in the bay but they didn’t give a name.”

The response was a sharp hiss that changed into a slurpy gurgle as the steam hit the milk. I barely heard him over the noise but he said, “Yeah, that was her that they found. I heard a couple of people talking about it earlier. No whip, right?”

“Blech, no. Who was talking about it?” A callused hand reached up and snagged a bottle of chocolate syrup. I heard two long wet spurts and the snap of a lid. His grizzled but jocular face reappeared holding my drink, steaming in the cold morning air. I thanked him and gripped the cup with both hands, savoring the warmth. He fingered the register keypad as I repeated my last question, “Who said?”

He took my bills and handed me some coins. “I dunno their names. I think one them was one of the computer guys from your group.”

My handful of quarters and pennies went into the tip jar and Coffeeguy thanked me with a wink. I popped the vitamins into my mouth and chased them down with a deep drink of the hot chocolate. Ahh, breakfast was served.

———

I pushed through our front doors, having just been unlocked for the business day. I waved at the lobby lady at the main reception desk and walked past the carpeted second floor stairs. Our lobby was pretty small compared to some of the big national banks. We still had a decent-sized teller line, a plush waiting area with the latest issue of the WSJ and even free coffee for customers. What more could you ask for?

I stepped into the elevator and thought a second. Instead of heading directly to my desk, I pressed the button for the third floor. This whole Alicia thing ached like an unexplained bruise. And it wasn’t just the supreme weirdness of meeting someone who then just dies. Okay, I hadn’t exactly met Alicia, but after seeing a peep of her desperation in that e-mail, it was hard to let go.

I wondered if Alicia was fooling around on her husband before he was diagnosed with cancer? Or did it happen when he was in the hospital? What I really wanted to know was if the person on the other end of that mail had something to do with her suicide. If that’s really what it was. I’d be damned if I ignored something like this again.

The Collections area was abandoned, so I couldn’t ask the dozen frustrating questions that squirmed around my brain. I’d have to settle for poking around her desk. While there is no proper way to rummage through someone’s personal effects, techs can get away with it by pretending to be working on the computer. As I typed my name and password on screen, I realized something. The keyboard and screen were functioning. I glanced under the desk. Her computer was back.

After the automatic “Welcome to the PRB network” message flew across the screen, I watched the system automatic inventory start. Since this machine hadn’t logged onto the network for a while, it should take some time for the network scanner to thoroughly analyze every piece of hardware and software onboard. I used those moments to carefully examine her desk. I saw piles of customer folders and memo’s spread around. There were a few call log sheets and sympathy cards tacked up to her cubicle wall but nothing really out of the ordinary.

Off in the distance, I heard the murmurs of approaching conversations. Just in time, the inventory finished and the main display came to life. I didn’t have time for the graphical interface so I shoved it aside and brought up a command prompt. I thwacked out a series of commands to analyze the contents of the computer. My version of network inventory. Only faster, more precise. My vaunted hacker skills revealed nothing beyond the basic configuration. Yeah, there was her word processor, her web browser, and her e-mailbox. E-mailbox. That could prove useful.

There could have been copies of messages saved on the drive so I did a listing to show all new data. Again, nothing. Actually, there wasn’t anything beyond the basic corporate suite of programs. No data of any kind. This drive was cleaner than Warren’s teeth.

I was so deep into the screen that I jumped when I realized that Alicia’s bald office-mate was staring at me. I smiled and said, “Sorry to bother you guys. I’m here to clean up this machine.”

A voice from the far side of the cubicles interjected, “Hey, that’s what they sent me down here to do!”

I turned to face a petite Vietnamese woman pushing a heavy plastic cart with the words “PRB Tech Svcs” written in black Sharpie on the side.

“Oh, Lee. I was just closing up a ticket I had for her e-mail. I’m almost done”

I swiveled back to the monitor and began to enter the commands to shut down the computer. That’s when I noticed the final set of numbers from my file listing: 79 Gigabytes of unused disk space. That’s funny. I didn’t realize she had such a big drive. I slid my hand into my laptop bag and fingered the papers inside.

“Are you done yet?”

I completed the system shutdown and offered the desk to Lee. “All yours!” I realized that I was wasting my time here anyway. I set off for my floor.

———

I shouldn’t complain so much about PRB. Despite a long love affair with computers, this is the first solid job I’ve had in the field. My previous stint was at E‑telligentsia, another dot-com ice-cube in the hot frying pan. I spent a decade doing the retail/clerking thing while going to college off-and-on. I finally got out with a Bachelor’s in history with a minor in Asian studies. I know, lame, but I loved research and analysis. And no, I wasn’t thinking ahead to my career. I thought college was about an education, not vocation prep. Many of my fellow historians either stayed on for grad school or went into the public education system. Neither appealed to me in the slightest.

After another year of retail-hell, a college buddy told me to check out E‑telligentsia. Before they evaporated, E‑telligentsia was the third largest provider of Internet-based classroom instruction. They were paying a ghastly amount of money to various subject-matter experts to create web-based teaching material. My background in tech was deep, although most of it was personal, not job-specific. My resume didn’t say so, but put me in front of a keyboard and I rocked. Lucky me, I got a three-month contract fact-checking their premier product, an interactive online environment simulating 18th century Japan.

It was both awesome and terrible. Awesome because it didn’t seem like work and more like writing a video game; terrible because the system was so full of bugs that I worked eighty-plus hour weeks, debugging a lot of it myself. When my contract ended, I was able to pay off my credit card (a huge accomplishment!). They offered perm status with their tech group. It turned out my troubleshooting skills were more valued than my historical research talents. Not so shocking. With the money angels threatening to pull the bucks until we cleaned up the programming code, I was needed. Badly.

The calendar told me that nearly a year passed, but it felt like ten. I worked all the time and did everything. Without the landlord’s permission, I ran network cables over roofs in midnight commando raids. I learned to pick locks with a paper clip to get to software locked away in the cabinets. With my arm in a sling with severe muscle strain, I joined the entire company in a mass load-test session of the website. I even got a bruised ear from being on the line with database support for three hours straight. Oh, and I met Peter there, too.

Peter was a handsome multimedia cartoon programmer who did some amazing animation on the primary interface. He also played a modified Gibson for a small band with a few other E‑telligentsia regulars every other weekend. How could I not totally crush on him?

It was such a strange time in my life—a honeymoon for both my career and my relationship with Peter. He burned these great mix CDs for me, which kept me going during the perpetual all-nighters. Since we worked in different parts of the company, we kept a constant chat window open on our computers. Even when we didn’t have anything to say, we still pinged I’m-still-here messages back and forth every half an hour or so. One weekend, we schemed with the rest of the staff and threw the first annual E-telligentsia winter prom, complete with disco ball and rented pink tuxes. I still have the pictures.

Then the Internet market melted like butter in a microwave. E‑telligentsia died the same brutal dot-com death that was all too common back then. We showed up to work and found our doors locked, the lights out. That was it, our last day of work. We gathered outside quietly and just stood there. Suddenly, there was nothing to do and nowhere to go. All we had left was each other. As the realization seeped in, the parking lot filled with somber huddles of dispossessed techies. We vowed to stay in touch—no matter where we ended up. In the end, most of us scattered to the wind in search of jobs, or in some case, entire new careers. A handful of lucky individuals like me found decent jobs while others, to this day, still quested for steady employment. Like Peter.

My finding a job wasn’t really so much luck as it was a willingness to do any job, as long as I could stay in tech. So, I ended up at the help-desk at Puget Regional Bank. After a year of listening to “my printer is jammed” and “where’s the ‘any’ key?” I got promoted to network engineering. Another six months and voila, I’m a Senior Technical Specialist.

———

Back at my desk, I clicked open the system inventory records for user A.Lyons. They’d already frozen her network account but hadn’t deleted it yet. I unlocked the account and was deep into her records when my phone rang. Typical. The gray LCD panel on the phone told me it was an outside call. “Puget Regional Bank. This is Heidi. How may I help you?”

A strong confident voice spoke back, “Hey, it’s Roger from Dragoon.”

Was he calling to apologize? That would have been nice. “Oh yes, what can I do for you?”

“I just wanted to let you know that Mitch provided me with the infrastructure data that I needed for my assessment. I’ll be making my recommendation for the project shortly.”

“And you’re calling me because…?”

“I thought I’d let you know that I wasn’t going to mention to your superiors that I didn’t get the info from you.”

Roger really put the ass in class. I just answered with a haughty, “Oh?”

“Yes, I didn’t want to get you in any trouble.”

He was a real keeper, all right. I tried sarcasm, “I’m just thrilled to death to hear that. No wonder you get paid the big bucks.”

“Hey, no problem. Just buy me a coffee or something and we’ll call it even. Talk to you later.”

Figured. The boob was too dim to catch the hint. How do people like that end up in better jobs than me?

The phone rang again. Another outside call. Roger again? Maybe he forgot to needle me on something else. In violation of company phone-courtesy policy, I clipped my greeting to just a “Heidi speaking.”

“Babe, how’s your day goin’?”

Jeeze, it was Peter. It’s been like two hours since I last saw him. “Okay, so far. I’m kinda busy, y’know.”

“Yeah, how’s it look for tonight? Workin?”

“How should I know yet? I’ve barely started my day. You know how my—-”

“Babe, we need to make reservations soon if we plan to get into Bella’s. It gets jammed up pretty fast. Tell you what, I’ll just make them for seven.”

Hrrrggh. He knew that by setting a commitment, I’d feel compelled to stick to it. “I don’t know if I can—-”

“If you can’t make it, just call me. ’Kay?” He hung up and left me alone with Alicia’s records.

Since computers are really good at saving things and storage was dirt cheap, PRB just recorded everything we thought might be useful and saved it forever. The help-desk tracking system kept detailed notes: all the repairs made and every upgrade installed. We needed to track every minute and dollar spent so when it came time for budgets, we’d get noticed. As I suspected, the system records reported that today was the first day in months that her machine had been touched by Technical Services.

Of course, there were other things that PRB Technical Services tracked. As you may have heard, the Internet’s full of bad people anxious to break into your computer and steal your credit card number or whatever. And believe me, it’s a lot worse for banks. You think we have a problem with bank robbery? You should see all the little creeps trying to rip us off. So between the bad people and our innocent users, we need a special barrier: a firewall. The firewall acts like those spike-strips you see in pay parking lots. Do not back up—Severe tire damage. Our users can go out but the bad people aren’t allowed in.

Our firewall not only kept the crooks out, but it also recorded every single web page a user visits. Unfortunately, those records are not easy to obtain, even for a Senior Technical Specialist. I clicked open my mailbox and dashed off a note to Wes, our firewall admin. I explained that I needed to check the web surfing logs for a user. He owed me a favor so I expected at least a smidgen of help.

My mailbox also showed a couple of new messages, mostly corporate propaganda. There was also a message from my sister, Linden. Why did she send me mail at my work address? I’d warned her about what happens to personal messages here. Well, not like we ever had anything personal to share.

I opened it and saw that she had sent me a congratulation note for my first date anniversary with Peter. How sweet. I remember telling her about it once and she musta locked it into her scheduler. She’s really quite anal about these kinds of personal things. Not me. I didn’t even remember the anniversary. And it was my anniversary.

The fact is that Linden is everything I’m not. She turned heads with her pert butt, flat tummy and delicate face. Her red hair was always coiffed by the best Bay Area salons. Worst of all, she always knew what she wanted. Three years for her undergrad, two more for her MBA. Now she was a hotshot executive director for one of the biggest philanthropic groups on the left coast. Three years younger than me yet she’s the woman that mom felt I should have became.

At least she was always jealous of how good I was at soccer and softball. And I could always drink her under the table. I volleyed back with a quick thank-you and asked her how much longer did I have to wait for a niece. Give her something to work on. She’d like that. I owed her something for not asking if Peter and I are planning to tie the knot soon.

My desk didn’t have a lot of space, but I did have one cubicle shelf and a corkboard to decorate. I’d filled it with personal memorabilia like a Seattle Sounders cap, an old photo of Wisp curled up in my backpack and a cute anime-style caricature that Peter made of me. Above my monitor, I strategically placed a Wahine Volleyball Club beer stein to act as a partial mirror to cover my back. At that moment, I noted a moving reflection in it: a short masculine figure striding directly towards my cubicle. Warren. I casually turned around in my chair and greeted him with a weak smile. From his impassive expression, I assumed he was angry about something or he had to use the potty really badly. Probably both.

“Have you met with Jimenez in Security?”

I resisted the reflexive shrug. “Not yet. Been busy with that switch problem on six.”

“Heidi, I’d like you to meet with him right away.”

I started one of the glib assurances I reserved for our whiny users but he cut me off, “I would like to show Rusty that our group is behind his initiative one hundred percent.”

His stern look drilled down into my face, “Do you understand?”

I nodded my concession.

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