Heidi, Geek Girl Detective

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Chapter 8: Ligatures

I never did get to Tracy’s list. After lunch, I was so slammed with meetings that I didn’t even get a potty break. There were days when I wished I had gone with the grad school route.

On the way home from work, I stopped by the supermarket and grabbed a six-pack of Peter’s favorite beer. I couldn’t stand it, but I was flush with extra cash and it was his favorite. I also snagged a bag of fresh cookies from the store bakery for myself. I was in the mood to unwind with Petey and share some mindless television together.

The ride home gave me time to reflect. Alicia was probably working with Alexy to steal people’s account information. The words of her e-mail stuck in my mind: I don’t want any more people finding out about us. Someone must have confronted her. Rubin wouldn’t have given her the chance to get away or cover it up. Someone else then. Maybe that someone threatened her and she panicked. With her husband gone, the depression could have overwhelmed her.

But who? Probably anyone with access to the MYZRE logs and knew where to look, which was the entire IT group. In any case, my answers were at work. I needed to get away from Alexy and those Russians.

Joy of joys, I found a parking spot at our building. As I went through the door, I realized the apartment was dark and empty. Peter wasn’t there. I found a note on the kitchen table. He was practicing at a friend’s house. I put his beer in the fridge. I shelved the cookies as well. I wasn’t in the mood for them anymore. I plopped down at my computer and e-mailed Alexy:

Thank you again. I’m getting rather busy at work right now. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to do any more side jobs for a while.

My dinner was boxed mac-n-cheese. I added a can of tuna and a handful of frozen peas to make it look more like a well-balanced meal. I ate at my computer while aimlessly surfing the web. Alexy never replied.

———

The script I found on Alicia’s disk gave me an idea for Tracy’s report. That’s the hacker ethic: take whatever works, regardless of the source.

I was doing my best to concentrate, but the lack of real walls in our cubicles made it a challenge. I can’t tell you how often I’ve had to endure overhearing a manly anecdote involving something too gross for my gentle ears. On the other side of the cubicles, Mitch and Warren’s conversation kept derailing my train of thought. “You know, Irene from Facilities called me about that memo you wrote regarding the spilled tobacco juice. They’re going to be extra careful in the wiring closets from now on.”

Just great. I’d complained to Facilities several times about their cavalier attitude towards our network gear. Leave it to Mitch to get the points for it.

“Thanks, Chief.”

Chief? Oh brother.

“I got a thank you from the call center director for the fast action in getting her floor up the other morning. She should be thanking you.”

Warren had an interesting take on things.

“I just wanted to make sure the users could get back to serving customers.”

Nice Mitch, I’m sure your sucking-up filled Warren with pride. I hit the run button on my script. It ran for a microsecond and then bleated back a big error message. This was just not my day.

“By the way Mitch, after the Apollo project, there’s going to be big changes.” Hopefully that meant your butt out on the street, Warren.

I reopened my script code and spotted the error. Simple typo. My coding was always full of dumb mistakes. I fixed it while Mitch mumbled a response. Warren explained something in a slightly lower voice. I stopped typing so I could hear what he said.

“—Network commandos… reporting directly to Rusty… recommending you—”

No way. It shouldn’t have been a news flash, but if a junior tech like Mitch got on the team and I didn’t, I may have to strangle someone with my mouse cord.

“Really? And a raise?”

I heard Warren making a soft shushing sound. Their voices lowered and I couldn’t hear them anymore. I really needed to get out of this place. I dialed Fruit Cup Boy’s cell. He answered before the second ring. “Fruit, it’s the Hider. Lunch today?”

Surprisingly he was downtown today, between jobs and available for your pleasure.

After expressing a bit shock that I was lavishing all this attention on him, he told me to meet him at noon at Westlake Mall. I said “bye” and hung up before he uttered the obligatory copulation request.

I clicked the start button and the icon representing the output report showed the file size rapidly expanding. The script terminated with a satisfying Job run complete. I opened the report and scanned through the long columns of terminal-userids followed by cross-referenced account numbers. We had a winner folks. All of the userids were A.Lyons.

I saved the file and closed the script. I was fishing around for Tracy’s business card when I spotted Gayle walking up to my cubicle. “I just wanted to let you know that as soon as you finish repairing those broken accounts, we can officially close the first milestone.”

I shot Gayle a team-player-smile and I threw in a thumbs-up for good measure. She mimed the thumbs-up back and said, “As a matter of fact, if you can get it done today, we’ll be ahead of schedule. Big win for our group.”

“I’ll get on it right now.”

Gayle cantered off, smiling.

I scanned through the list of accounts. Fixing them meant manually editing the data, a real time-consuming chore. The list wasn’t too long, but it was more work than I could possibly do today. Maybe I could do some PERL script magic on them.

As I reopened my program editor, a thought occurred to me. I burned a few minutes on a new script. It worked the first time and a report icon appeared. I clicked it open and did a quick comparison of the broken account list with Tracy’s list. There were three matches.

The bank had hundreds of thousands of active accounts, making these matches quite a coincidence. I popped open the MYZRE account browser and typed in three of the names.

One account showed a balance of a four hundred dollars and a credit limit of over a hundred thousand dollars. Strange. It was registered to a Serena Powers of SeaTac, with no activity in over six months.

All of the accounts had sizable credit limits. Archangel Enterprises had one on the order of millions of dollars, approved by a Constantine Hartford. I looked at the last name and thought again. Then I realized what the C stood for on his oak door. If my first name was Constantine, I’d go by a burly nickname like Rusty too. It wasn’t too unusual for a veep to help rope-in a big customer.

I noticed the account transaction data and status showed nonsense data. I keyed deeper. All three accounts were recently closed. No wonder they were damaged. The closing must have hosed-up the data-migration procedure. If these were all fraudy accounts, they were probably closed recently. So much for coincidences.

I had one more thing to double-check. I punched up a web-search engine and typed in Glenda.net. As the browser searched, I zipped the rotating hourglass around my screen in my own little pretend trapeze act. The results displayed: Glenda.net was a Canadian Internet service provider that serviced the Upper Puget Sound area. Although the main office was in Victoria, they had points of presence all over the Olympic Peninsula. There were even a few dial-ups in the Seattle area. According to Glenda.net’s rather primitive home page, they offered a few Internet consulting services. I clicked the print button.

As I retrieved my pages from the printer, I saw Warren and Mitch walking together. Warren conspicuously avoided looking in my direction and Mitch raised his eyebrows as he passed.

———

Fruit Cup Boy wanted to meet at the Westlake food court. The bustling atmosphere probably reminded him of our long talks in the student union. Fair enough. I didn’t mind indulging him on the small things. Unfortunately, I had to walk six blocks in the rain to get there.

I trudged in from the wet streets behind a tall blonde woman in a long black leather trench. I slowed my gait abruptly as the woman balked at the swarming afternoon lunch mob. I followed her as she moved carefully along the aisles of tables crammed full with diners. She stopped and made a beeline for the Asian grill. Guess she saw something she liked. With my distraction gone, I finally spotted Fruit, waving at me from a nearby table.

It looked like he saved me a seat, though we were abutted up against a chunky young woman with short curly hair and her mutton-chopped companion. Some people had a strange sense of style. I greeted Fruit, “Thanks for meeting me on such short notice.”

“I am nothing if not magnanimous. Especially to such a special friend.”

A closed Styrofoam box and a liter-sized cup of yellow fluid sat on the table in front of him. Knowing Fruit, it was probably Mountain Dew. Gross. He waved his hand in the direction of the food vendors and said, “Hurry up and grab something. I’ll wait.”

I headed over to Neto-Neto Sushi and ordered a few Ahi rolls. As I waited for my food, my tummy reminded me that I had only a handful of M&M’s for breakfast. My sushi was up, I grabbed it and slid back into the plastic chair to face Fruit Cup Boy.

He looked down to inspect my food choice. Nodding with approval, he then removed the lid on his Styrofoam box to reveal a hamburger inside. I squeezed the tiny plastic container of soy sauce and it spritzed over the little dollop of wasabi paste in the corner of my sushi tray. Fruit lifted the bun of his burger and set it aside. “So, what did you need to ask me?”

“Dragoon Tech. Ever heard of them?”

Fruit picked off the tomato and lettuce from his burger. “Yeah, they suck. But they make plenty of money.”

He flicked off the onion as if it was a cockroach stuck to the bun.

“Can you be more specific on this suckage?”

I took a bite of the sushi. It tasted like a cold discus of mushy white fish oatmeal. Why did I even attempt food court sushi? Fruit proceeded to squirt three packets of ketchup onto his hamburger patty. This was in addition to the large red stain already on the white bun. “Dragoon likes to place their consultants in permanent positions at their clients. And they also recruit people away from their clients. Highly incestuous and not very sportsmanlike. They’ve been banned from a few places around town because of crap like that.”

I dunked my sushi into the soy/wasabi mix. Fruit continued, “Dragoon’s also known for picking up the slack when execs wanna cut staff.”

I felt my pulse quicken.

“When Dragoon’s done with whatever they’re doing, you can expect a big re-org to come next.”

He fingered quote marks in the air around “reorg” as he said it. I’d been around enough to know re-org meant layoffs. I swallowed my mushy rice-nugget. “Is Dragoon any good technically?”

“Eh, so-so. Got a high turnover because they never hold on to their good people.”

I’d lost interest in my crappy sushi but Fruit continued to nibble at his ketchup-burger. I wondered if they were playing both sides against the middle. “Dragoon ever do any work with the FBI?”

Fruit laughed, spitting a few crumbs in my direction. “Naw, most of the time, we end up working for free because the Bureau paperwork takes them so damned long. Dragoon ain’t into charity work.”

I realized the obvious and blurted, “Hey, do you work with the FBI?”

Fruit opened his mouth in a big smile, bits of chewed white bun and brown burger bounced around on his tongue. “Not so much. I’ve done more with the Secret Service. They’re way cooler.”

“After your history with them? I don’t know what’s more surprising: the fact that they’d take help from you or that you’d be such a good citizen.”

Mercifully, he swallowed before he opened his mouth again. “Eh, it’s good cred. Plus it keeps me close to the action and they’re a fun bunch of guys.”

“So what do you do with them? I thought they just protected the President and stuff.”

Fruit leaned back and shifted into his lecture mode. “They’re Treasury agents. You know, counterfeiting. And not just money, but checks and credit cards too. Lots of computers involved in counterfeiting.”

“Doesn’t the FBI do that too?”

“Yeah, kinda. Used to be turf wars, but since 9-11, the Feebs have mostly focused their cyber efforts on terrorism, foreign intel and money laundering. Most of what they turn up is old-fashioned organized crime.”

“Mafia?”

“They’re more like businesses and not really that organized. Mostly a bunch of independent groups, loosely working together on various scams, stepping on each other’s toes. Kind of like where you work.”

I frowned at the anti-corporate dig. I formed a thought for a snappy comeback about the mob’s involvement with murder and extortion, but I held silent. Maybe he was more right than he thought.

“What you do know about identity theft?”

Fruit popped the last of his burger in his mouth and nodded. “You bucking to get into the security biz? Quite lucrative.”

He raised his hand and rubbed his thumb and fingers together. I’m sure he made plenty of money in security consulting. Funny thing, up until this moment, I never considered seriously such a possibility for myself. “Someday, maybe. So, identity theft?”

He took a big suck from his drink and said, “Hottest crime going. Steal someone’s creds and open up accounts in their name. Drain off the good credit and move on before you’re blown.”

“Secret Service deals with that too?”

“ID theft’s such a big problem that there’s a joint task force up here in the Northwest.” He raised his hand and counted with his fingers. “You got Treasury, some Feebs, the locals, RCMP, Postal Ins—-”

“RC...”

“Em Pee. You know, the Royal Canadian Kilted...”

“Mounties!”

“Yep. Russian mob is big up in Canada. They got a pipeline down the I-5 corridor. Stolen identities go up and B.C. bud comes down.”

Fruit beamed. The man loved to lecture.

———

As the fax machine ground out the short scroll of the confirmation page, I gathered up my printouts from the output tray. I quickly dropped the completed report into a nearby shred bin. The security department had twice as many shred bins as the IT floor. And they conveniently put them right next to the printers and fax machines.

I turned to leave and saw Rubin’s strong figure striding towards his office. He was in a dark blue polo and crisp black slacks, mirroring his old police uniform. I smiled and told him, “Just finishing up”

“You didn’t come up here to see me?” He looked over at the shred bin, and said, “What are you finishing up?”

“The report for Tracy. I just faxed it over to the FBI.”

Rubin’s friendliness dropped as if he’d just been plunged waist deep in cold water. “What report? What did you fax the FBI?”

I felt a twinge of dread scurry up my spine. “That list of accesses. The one you told me to work on. With Tracy. Remember?”

Rubin’s brow settled down over his dark eyes. The cop voice responded, “Would you please step into my office?”

The dread had now burrowed deep into my abdomen. I did as he asked and he shut the door behind us.

Rubin sat with both hands pressed down on his desk. “I didn’t expect you to give her the data directly.” There wasn’t a trace of emotion in his voice, neither anger nor warmth. All business.

I tried my best not to squeak my response, “But you told me to help her. To get that data for her.” I wanted to end my statement there, but nervousness hijacked my tongue. “I don’t understand what I’ve done wrong. I ran the report and got the data she needed for her investigation. I called and she said I could fax it. I even used the security department’s fax machine so the investigation would remain confidential.”

He let me hang there for a few breaths. I suppressed all urges to squirm or speak any more.

Finally, his long lashes folded down and up in a measured blink, “Heidi, I asked you to collect the data. I didn’t want you to turn it over to her directly.”

“But...”

“I’m sorry I didn’t get to explain things more clearly. The scuffle in the lobby distracted me. I expected you to give me the results.”

I returned his comment with a look of utter bewilderment.

“I wanted to go over the data and then decide what the FBI will get.”

I bet he didn’t plan to share the contents of Alicia’s hard drive with the FBI either. “Are you covering something up?”

His jaw dropped open. Now I had him. I stared back. His turn to stew.

“You don’t understand the bank privacy regulations. I needed to make sure we didn’t turn over any data that we shouldn’t have.”

“Don’t give me that. You already told me that all the people on that list were already cleared.”

Rubin’s expression didn’t change when he answered. “Our jobs are on the line when you go off and do things like that.”

Our jobs? Interesting, but I pressed my agenda. “Uh-huh, as you’ve told me before. C’mon, everything in my report pointed to Alicia.”

Rubin leaned forward. “Alicia Lyons?”

“Yes.”

“You’ve been obsessed with her death. What is going on with you?”

“What’s going on with me!?”

He crossed his arms. “I told you before; you need to steer clear of other people’s affairs. I know you don’t subscribe to hacker ethics. Just because you can get away with doing something, doesn’t mean you have the right to.”

I pointed my finger at him. “Look who’s talking.”

He looked hurt and his expression softened. “Heidi, I’m telling you this for your own good. I don’t want you to lose your job. You know how things get around here. Don’t give them an excuse.”

“Who’s them? Who exactly?”

He shifted back to father-mode. “Maybe you should take some time to cool off. I just wanted your help on the data extraction. I didn’t want a lot of attention focused on you.”

“Too late for that.” With that, I got up and left.

———

I went to my two o’clock with Roger. Instead, I found a handsome tall black man sitting in the conference room. I leaned back out and double-checked the sign on the door. Yup, room 501. I was in the right place.

I reentered and took a careful look at him. He wasn’t anyone I recognized from PRB staff but he had a visitor badge on. “I think this is the Apollo technical meeting.”

He showed me both rows of bright white teeth with a huge grin. “Yes, you must be Heidi,” he paused for a deep throaty chuckle, “The Network Guy.”

“Huh? Network guy? I’m not a—- oh, I get it. You’re Dragoon.”

He opened a broad hand in the air, “Christopher, here for Roger.” He had a melodic French-Caribbean accent. His name came out like Kreestofa.

“And yes, I am Heidi, the network guy.” I dipped my head and smiled. His genuinely gregarious mood was contagious.

“You are just as Roger described. I’m glad to finally meet you.”

Oh great, I was probably fodder for Roger’s bitchy client stories. At least Christopher seemed nice enough. I guess it’d been a while since I’d seen an honest-to-goodness human smile around here. Or at least a reasonable facsimile. “Yeah, Roger did seem a bit fixated on me.”

“He mentioned that you would be a good person for us.”

I plopped into one of the conference room chairs and rested my hands on the table. “Yes, uh...what?”

“That Roger. He makes a lot of money on those referrals.”

“Referrals?”

“Yes, Dragoon pays a three thousand dollar bonus for every recruit.”

“So that’s why he asked me to lunch. Wait, three thousand dollars?”

Christopher laughed some more. Once again, I felt like I was a lap behind everyone else.

He flipped over the thin folder in front of him and read aloud, “We just need to go over the last of the broken accounts. Roger thought you might be having trouble with them.”

That musical accent made what he said sound almost flattering. Nonetheless, I couldn’t let Roger badger me by proxy. “As a matter of fact, I’m almost done fixing them with a script I’m writing.”

Christopher’s dimples cracked open as he answered, “That’s fantastic. I thought you might be busy with other things. I brought you something that should help.” He handed a couple of stapled pages of program script to me.

“Thanks but I’m almost done.” I glanced down at the source code. The details were different but the general structure was the same as the script I’d just written. In fact, Christopher did this exactly the way I did, as a scraper deep into the MYZRE database. “When did you write this?”

“Oh no, I didn’t write it. Roger did. It’s on file with our PRB files.”

“Roger wrote this and had it lying around? He knew we’d have broken files and only now he gives me help fixing them?”

Christopher swallowed and paused a second. “No, no. You are very excitable. Just as Roger said.” He chortled a bit more. “Roger wrote this back when he was doing the MYZRE security analysis.”

“Roger did the security analysis? Wasn’t that done weeks ago? I thought he just came on-site recently.”

“He led the project team who did the analysis. All work was done back at Dragoon. You guys provided us with the breakdowns for the system. It was a big rush job.”

“So you did a full analysis on MYZRE from just source code and documentation?”

Christopher looked confused for a second, and then he looked up at the buzzing fluorescents, his brow wrinkling as his internal processor calculated away. I almost heard the ding when the answer came. “They also set up a remote connection. Roger and his team had full access to your system from our office. Many of the tests and reports, he ran against the live system.”

All of this going on and hardly anyone knew? Remote vendor connections were pretty common here. And MYZRE’s got a dozen tentacles into systems all around the country. One more wouldn’t really have been noticed. I bet Wes wasn’t pleased about another hole in his precious firewall. “I didn’t provide any MYZRE data. I don’t even deal directly with that system. Hey, how come the same people who audit the system are also the ones who are contracted to fix it?”

Christopher shrugged. “I guess someone here figured it would be faster and cheaper that way.”

Right. And the less outsiders that knew about the hole, the better. I glanced down at the footer on the page of the script. The filename was listed: embezrep.pl. What was Roger really using this program for? The same thing I wrote mine for? This was getting entirely too coincidental.

“Thanks for the script, but I won’t need it. You can tell Roger that I’ll have those accounts fixed by tomorrow morning.”

Christopher raised his eyebrow. “That’s good. But I don’t know if Roger will be back anytime soon.”

“What do you mean? I thought he was just busy?”

“Yes, he is busy. He just took a new assignment.”

“For Dragoon?”

“Yes, a sweet one. A six-month contract with a new client in Bonn.”

Bonn as in Europe? That little weasel. His ass had better stay out of the country. My composure slipped even further and I found myself squawking aloud, “How can he just walk out in the middle of a project?”

“That’s why I am here today. To come up to speed so I can take his place. Besides, it sounds like the worst parts are already over.”

“When did this all happen?”

“Oh, just in the past few days. It kind of made a few people jealous since it’s such a high paying job. And to get to work in Europe.”

“Who’s the client?”

“A bank. I think that’s why they wanted him. He has a lot of experience working in banks.”

I felt the urgent need for baked goods, preferably of the chocolate variety. “Oh yeah, experience he got working for us.”

“That’s how it goes in consulting. You take what you learn and use it on the next job. Maybe you’d like it. Maybe you want to go to lunch sometime?”

“Three thousand, eh?”

Christopher’s response was to blind me with his smile.

———

Back at my desk, I finished my account repair script and clicked run. The computer purred along until a new window unfolded. I paged through the accounts. They seemed to have converted correctly this time. Good job, Heidi. I flipped e-mail off to Gayle telling her to mark this task as done.

I checked the clock. It was twenty after four. I could start my next to-do item, an inventory of all our network printers. Heck, it’d take me an hour just to set up the scanner to begin to get started. And that meant I’d be getting home late. Again.

Or I could bail a little early.

Yeah, I was rationalizing, but I really needed to not be at the bank today. Also, if I left early, I could check up on one nagging thing on the way home. Maybe Rubin was right. I couldn’t leave it alone.

My digging into Alicia’s account gave me her next of kin, Katherina Oleg with an address in Renton, just south of the city. I just hoped Alexy wasn’t around when I dropped by.

I quietly turned off my computer and packed the laptop bag that I used for a purse. I took the stairs and no one noticed me leave.

———

The downtown traffic rush hadn’t started yet so I whipped down the Viaduct with little delay. I headed past the train-yards and Boeing field, turning over onto 405 and deep into Renton.

Since Renton is so close to the industrial chunks of Boeing, it had a rep for being ugly and blue-collar. But these blue-collar workers got paid pretty well. I passed a fair share of town houses with shiny trucks parked out front. And quite a few of those trucks sported boats on trailers.

I spotted the faux granite sign denoting Momma Oleg’s apartment complex. The place was huge and looked like the same development company as Alicia’s. I parked in the large guest lot.

Treading through the cedar chips, I took a shortcut towards her building. There was a front door intercom and faded listing of names and numbers. I hunted for her name but who ever wrote out the listings had illegible handwriting. Then the door opened and two teenaged kids toting skateboards burst past me. I caught the closing door with my foot and headed inside.

The lighting was economically dim, so everything appeared dark and gloomy. Even the carpeting was dark, perhaps to cover-up the stains and mud tracks. The corridor had a dryer smell so I suspected one of the doors led to the laundry room. Halfway down the hall, I saw a dented metal sliding door. I hit the button and rode a clunky elevator to the third floor. Only two of the three fluorescent lights in the elevator were working properly. The third just flickered like a sputtering flame.

Her apartment was only a few yards from the elevator door. I found myself hesitating. Did I really want to go through with this? I knocked, my knuckles only faintly scraping against the door instead of rapping down into it.

I paused a few seconds and decided whether to knock again, or just leave. Suddenly I heard the grind of gears as a lock was turned, then a snick as the door seal parted. The door swung open and there was Alicia’s mom, looking apprehensive but tired.

She looked at me for two full breaths before recognition lit her face. Still, I didn’t speak. She gave me a courteous smile and said, “You are Alicia’s friend from bank?”

I unclenched my body and nodded. “Yes. Heidi.” I reached out to shake her hand but she leaned in and gave me a hug instead. I bent down and hesitantly put my shoulders into her embrace. “I’m so sorry to track you down at home like this, Ms. Oleg. I just—”

She waved me into her apartment and I noticed that she was dressed in a blue cotton jumpsuit with large pockets. She looked like one of the cleaning people who came around when I stayed late at work.

I followed her inside and noticed the apartment was really quite spacious. Essentially, the living room and kitchen made up a giant twenty-by-twenty room. There were two doorways on the north wall, one to a bathroom and one to a bedroom. Pushed up against the border between the kitchen and the living space was a plastic dining table and four plastic chairs. A zipped up canvas bag lay on the dining table, probably her workbag. I wondered if she was about to leave, since janitorial people usually began work at the end of the normal workday.

The entire back wall was a giant glass window covered with vinyl blinds hanging vertically. Near the window sat a brand new color television and a leather easy chair. Both looked out of place in the bare apartment. Momma Oleg noticed my curious stare. “Alicia buy for me.”

The front door clicked gently shut. I figured that I might as well display some of the old Heidi tact and get right down to business. “Yes, that’s what I wanted to ask about: Alicia’s side-work.”

She turned away from me to face the kitchen appliances.” Yes. Her cousin, Alexy.”

“She was working for him?”

She moved her gaze to the floor. I couldn’t see her expression, but I could guess. Her answer was whispery: “She only did for him, you know.”

“Tommy?”

“When he got sick, he couldn’t work no more. Soon he lost job.” She punctuated her dissatisfaction with a hiss between her teeth. “Nothing doctors could do. He just get sicker every month.”

I didn’t know what to say but she just kept going. “They no much money. But she want make him happy. Alexy offered. Finally she say yes.”

She left it at that.

I just nodded and she continued, “So she work with them. And could buy many things for Tommy. Trying to make good for him.”

She trailed off, still studying the floor.

Finally, I asked with a dry croak, “After Tommy was gone, did she stop? Stop working for Alexy, I mean.”

“She never really told me about any of it. But I know Alexy. I know about his...” She paused for a second, “…his friends.”

I tried my best to give her a commiserating look. She recognized the attempt and smiled. “They are not so bad people. Not like some others. But I was afraid anyway. I don’t want a part of that. I not want Alicia part of that.”

“So, she told you?”

She shook her head and whispered, “Just before she...before she went away, Alicia came to me. She crying. My little baby.”

I mouthed “When?” but no sound came out of my lips.

“She just cry. Said she only trying to help Tommy. Now he gone, she didn’t need side-work. But then she said she found out.”

“Found out?”

Mom looked up at me with reddened eyes. “She so upset. She said she deserved to be catching. She want make things right.”

I rasped out, “That’s when she went to the bay and—-”

Mom’s brow hardened and her eyes squinted. “My daughter not do that. She brave. She want to help people. She want to make things right.”

“So...”

“Yes, she taking pills from the doctors to help her with losing Tommy. Maybe she take too many? But how she go in water—-”

I took a step towards her. “Do you know who found out about her?”

“No, she said they found out. I guess would be someone from...” Her stare chewed into me like a drill bit. “You? Was it you?”

What? I shook my head at the absurdity of it and my response came as a bewildered stammer. “Uh...no.”

Her mouth twisted into a snarl. “Is that why you coming around? You try to get money from her? To keep you quiet? Now you want to see what can get from me?”

I backed up, hands waving in front of me. No, no, no! This was not what was supposed to happen.

She closed the distance, her accusations bursting forth. “You feel bad because what you did to my baby? Come here to make feel better?”

She was losing it. I edged towards the front door, trying my best to explain but my mind raced for the proper words. “No...it wasn’t me...look, I better...”

Mom took a deep breath and continued to advance. I didn’t know what to do but turn the doorknob and leave. My excuses called back as a farewell, an apology, an alibi. “You’re upset. I’m sorry for disturbing you. I’m truly sorry.”

I ran down the stairs. I needed to find out what really happened. Guilt about Trisha or not, I needed to finish this.

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