1 Wake-Up Call
The sound is insistent, irritating and very loud. Rory Murphy opens an eye, just wide enough to catch a blurry glimpse of the offending instrument, bleeping its tuneless rhythm from the living room. The last shreds of his dream vaporize, an image of some classmate from third grade strangely lingering, finally fading as the phone’s symphony of tones shakes him fully awake. “Markus bloody Kemp,” he mutters. Lurches sideways, stands hesitantly beside the bed. Staggers unsteadily out of the room, squints at the winking screen. Four eighteen in the morning. Unknown Caller.
“Jesus!” he says. Snatches the phone from the table, stabs angrily at the answer button. Raises the slender device to his ear. “What in Hell do you want?”
There is an audible click. Dialtone.
“Unknown caller my ass,” he says. Tosses the phone onto the couch in disgust, realizing that it is bright enough in the room to see, in spite of the early hour. “Sun is up, birds are probably singing. Shit.”
A soft ‘thunk’ from behind, then he is thrown forward by the blast, the entire apartment shaking with the force. Strikes the back of the couch, impact softened by the cushioning, rolls over the top and down the other side. The floor hits him across the right cheek, too slow to get his arms up, a bruise that will leave a mark. But he is awake now, fully aware. Edges up to peer over the back of the couch at the remains of what had once been his bedroom. Smoldering rubble. Everything in the room obliterated. No fire. Perfectly erased.
Rory swallows convulsively, his throat dry. Quickly scans the room again. Someone here? But there is no-one, the window closed and locked, the front door carefully triple-bolted as usual. Shakes his head, takes a deep breath. Grabs the phone from the couch, moves quickly to the hall cupboard and dons his workout clothes. Running shoes. Keys and wallet. Out the door, leaving it swinging wide. Striding with purpose, heading for the stairs. Five flights, past security, the guard barely looking up as he scrambles to deal with the calls from frantic residents. Explosion. Hears the approaching sirens on the street as he sprints away into the early dawn.
“It wasn’t like that,” Rory says. “I don’t have anything explosive in the apartment, nothing that would go up the way this did.”
The policewoman is patient, if not sympathetic. Broad-shouldered, tightly muscled, well-toned. “And why did you run?” Just the slightest hint of threat in the words.
Rory takes a moment to compose himself. She is, if nothing else, seriously intimidating. “A room doesn’t just get wiped out of existence,” he says. “Not the way this was. Someone knew what they were doing. Nothing left but the walls.” He looks beseechingly into her eyes. “And I was supposed to be in there,” he whispers.
“That seems a little paranoid I’m afraid Mr. Murphy,” she says. “And of course, if there was a risk of additional damage, the safety of the other residents in that building should have been your first concern. At the very least, you should have stayed and alerted your security desk as to the location and nature of the emergency.”
“I’m sorry,” he says. Rubs a hand across his swollen cheek, gingerly probing the bulge under his eye. Spots another woman, plainclothes, shoulder-length auburn hair, a bemused but understanding expression on a beautiful face. She nods, smiling supportively. Then disappears through a side door. Tugs his gaze reluctantly back to his interviewer. “I came to you as soon as I could. And I really didn’t think there was additional danger to anyone else.”
“We’re checking into it as we speak,” she says. “In the meantime, we need you to complete a full statement.” She passes him a tablet, showing a screen entitled ‘Incident Report.’ “If you need assistance, I’ll be at my desk.” She indicates a cubicle, sandwiched in a row of other similar ones. Hers, he sees, sports a giant poster of some martial arts star. So, probably not a woman to be messed with. Nothing he didn’t already know.
It’s nearly seven before they are satisfied with his statement. The team on-site acknowledges that whatever is responsible for the blast, it was extremely well controlled. Highly unlikely to have been caused by a random household object. But, so far as they can tell, leaving no residue. Further inspection will keep his apartment off-limits for at least the remainder of the day.
The insurance company, he is informed, will conduct their own investigation before deciding on possible replacement of lost items. In his mind, he’s already written them off as gone. But as he leaves the precinct, heading for work in his running gear, clothes and a bed are very far from his thoughts.
Crossing Delaney to the bus stop, and she’s there. Waiting for the bus, or for him. Perhaps both.
“Mr. Murphy,” she says as he approaches.
“Do I – know you?” His heart is suddenly racing, and in spite of the chill in the air he feels flushed.
“In a manner of speaking,” she says. Offers him her hand. “Diane Caluso. We work for the same company.”
His hands are moist, but her grip firm and reassuring. It puts him more at ease, but he can’t get over the feeling…
“You work for Zeus Industries?” he says.
She nods. Gestures past him, at the approaching bus. “Shall we?”
They find seats together, near the back. Sudden flashback to his high school days, ten years ago, necking in the back of the bus on the way to a concert. He shakes his thoughts forward to the present, almost.
“What do you…”
“Do?” she says. “You mean, at Zeus?”
“Yes,” he says. “Yes, of course.”
“Security,” she says. “Of a sort.”
“You mean like antivirus stuff? Spyware cleanup, that sort of thing?”
“I dabble,” she says. “But unlike you, I’m not really a programmer. Or a designer.”
“How is it you know – well, about me? And I’ve never seen you before today.”
There it is, that feeling. A little shiver down his spine, like someone has just stepped on his grave. This woman, the gentle and caring face, sparkling smile, blue eyes. She is not that person, at least not always. There is threat beneath the surface, and he can sense it. Dangerous. Only perhaps not to him.
“I’m not sure,” he says. “Something tells me I’ve seen you more often than I remember. But I can’t put my finger on it.”
“That’s good,” she says. “I wouldn’t want it to be said I was losing my touch.”
A sudden thought occurs to him. “You were at the police station this morning. Unescorted.”
“Very observant,” she says. The smile is bright, touching her eyes. “So what does that tell you about me?”
“You have something to do with the police?”
“Let’s just say, I work with them if I have to,” she says. “But only when absolutely necessary. Because you see, generally speaking they’re pretty clumsy and incompetent.”
“I wouldn’t disagree,” he says. “So they know you. They let you work from their offices, without supervision. That makes you…”
“Security,” she says.
He lowers his voice. Not that he notices anyone around them eavesdropping, but the morning’s events are suddenly beginning to make a weird sort of sense. And he doesn’t like it.
“Diane. Why are you here? With me, now.”
“You’re getting closer, Rory,” she says. Reaches up and tousles his orange mop of hair, her eyes locked on his. “Anyone ever call you Red? It would really suit you.” Her gaze flicks sideways, back to him. “And now would be the perfect time for us to get up.” She hauls him, gently but firmly, towards the rear doors. “Hold on.” Pulls what looks like a small mobile phone from her pocket. Punches a code into it. There is a sudden lurch as the bus stops, dead, in the middle of the intersection. Screeching brakes, screaming horns, shrieking passengers. She stabs the door controls, drags him out onto the street. “Keep up,” she says. Then sprints away, along the cross-street, not looking back.
Rory does not hesitate. Whatever is going on, it all comes back to the bedroom at four eighteen this morning, the phone call. And he knows, instinctively, that whoever Diane is, she is helping him. He is grateful for his daily running routine. His fitness just barely adequate to stay with her.
The sidewalks are not yet crowded, but it’s an obstacle course nonetheless, pedestrians and cars, threading their way along until Diane dodges abruptly into a hotel, the Grand Ascot. He’s never heard of the place, but it looks posh and exclusive. Not a spot that would welcome visitors in worn-out shorts and threadbare sweat-top, red runners, a jogger’s pouch. Then he’s through the revolving doors and inside, the lobby lofty and elegant, only the desk clerk eyeing the two of them with suspicion. Diane moves with purpose, down a hallway and through some double doors. They are in the kitchen, fried eggs and toast, fruit cups, bagels, pitchers of milk, pots of very exclusive tea. Here, they are completely ignored. But Rory has no time to ponder, as they run on through a back door into a small warehouse, storage for incoming kitchen supplies. There is an exit at the rear, a loading area, an alarm warning and control panel prominent beside it. Ahead of him Diane is already entering a code, opening the door wide for him. They pass through into a back alley, spacious enough for large vehicles to maneuver. Parked at the side of the alley is a Nissan Sentra, dark blue, with heavily-tinted windows. Diane waves him towards the passenger side, and they both climb in.
“So much for lesson number one,” she says. “Well done. Now buckle up, and sit back. We have places to go and you need to be invisible.” The words are barely out of her mouth and they’re already moving, the throb of the engine belying the car’s appearance. Power under the hood, and a much more sophisticated dash than he would ever expect for a Sentra. She taps the glove compartment, gestures for him to pull out the sunglasses from inside. They each don a pair. She flips a dark cap from the door pouch and puts it on, covering her head. Indicates a similar one on his side. As the car exits the alley onto the street, merging smoothly with traffic, he catches the grin of satisfaction on her face.
“Are we – safe?” he says.
“For now,” she says. “One step ahead. But to stay that way…”
“I need you,” he says.
“You got it, Red,” she says.
“What exactly is this all about, Diane?”
“A little project you were working on,” she says. “Something to do with distributed AI. Turned a few heads. Not the kind of heads you really want turning, at least not in your direction. Maybe you can fill in a few more details.”
“That’s the one.”
“But it hasn’t even been fully tested. I’ve only just got so far as demonstrating that individual smart systems can link with each other. Integrated intelligent networks localized within a building. A self-aware control network. My idea is to take it global. Zeus corporate are really excited about what that can do for the company. And the world.”
“Yeah. Unfortunately, not everyone likes your little idea. Or the possibility a single company might control that kind of power.”
“It wouldn’t be that way,” Rory says. “Everyone would benefit. Our president has already agreed that as long as the company name goes on the patent, on the product marketing, it’ll be universally distributed.”
“After what happened in your bedroom this morning, you really believe that?” she says.
He looks at her, the intensity of her focus, the confidence in her every move. “That was you on the phone this morning,” he says softly.
“How did you know?”
“It’s my job,” she says.
She nods. “And just one more thing you need to know before we tackle lesson two, Red. Where the shit really hits the fan.”
“What is that?” he says softly.
“Your smart networked building,” she says. “The localized one that you tested yesterday. It’s not so local anymore.”