Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Smoke Gets in your Eyes

“I’ll take point,” said Victor, “and you can ‘lead from the rear.’” Bryce let it pass because this was no time for petty posturing, however much Victor thought it was. At least the hindmost position let him discreetly admire the two young women between Victor and him as their horses climbed the wooded hillside.

“Take the trail to the left!” called out Bryce.

Victor pulled hard on his left rein. Beneath his bravado, Victor was a novice rider who barely could control his animal. A part of Bryce regretted having provided him with a good-natured roan tolerant of neophytes. Bryce knew one mare that liked to scrape riders off against trees. It was a pleasant mental image.

All his adult life people had laughed at Bryce for being a prepper, but he was right and they were wrong. Despite his years of preparation however, the ascent up Black Birch Mountain wasn’t going at all as he had planned. His longstanding evacuation scheme had been simple: stop for no one, hightail it up to his shelter, hunker down, and wait it out – whatever “it” might happen to be. But, no, when the crunch finally crunched he failed to think with his head. Instead, like some hormone-fueled teenager, he delayed his escape to stop at Ella’s house and urge her to come. He barely knew the sandy-haired grad student, but she had caught his fancy the few times they had spent time hanging out at clubs in the company of mutual friends. She had been sociable, but he had no reason to assume she felt any attraction to him. Nonetheless, he had convinced to flee with him. The pungent odor in the air did most of the persuading for him. Then it got complicated. First Ella brought her sister Zoey, who was two years younger. Bryce hadn’t been aware “Zoey” existed. Then Ella insisted on stopping for her boyfriend Victor. Bryce knew Victor existed, but he didn’t know he was Ella’s boyfriend. This must have been a recent development. Victor was a well-muscled good-looking fellow with an annoyingly degree of self-confidence. Bryce knew he should have refused to include him, but his distaste for seeming churlish to Ella delayed his response for so long that a refusal became too socially awkward for him to manage.

As he had expected no one was at the stables. The manager and employees had heeded the civil defense warnings to get inside and stay inside. The horses had been left out in the pastures. The four Bryce chose – his own horse and three others with which he was familiar – didn’t avoid being caught as they commonly did. They smelled something wrong in the air and were ready for human assistance. Victor volunteered to stand watch as Bryce tacked up the horses. The air noticeably worsened in the time this took. It already was burning his lungs when they finally mounted and left for the mountain trails. The delay very nearly had been fatal.

 “Keep to the left,” Bryce called out referring to a large rock outcrop ahead.

“I think we’re better to the right. The trail is better. The left will take us along the cliff,” said Victor.

“Yes, I know! That’s the idea. We want to avoid other people. If there are any, they’ll go right. I’ve been up this way a hundred times. I know the best way to go. Stay left.”

Victor went right. Bryce wasn’t sure it was deliberate defiance. It was possible the horse had chosen for Victor and he didn’t want to appear not to be in command.

“I’m only doing this at all because I’m not letting Ella run off with alone you,” said Victor.

“I thought I brought you,” said Ella.

“I’m here because I don’t trust him,” responded Victor. “The radio stations told us to stay put.”

“While the authorities who delivered that message get out of town or hole up in fortified bunkers with air exchangers,” said Bryce.

“Why do you think you know anything about it?” Victor challenged.

“Because I read.”

“You mean your crazy conspiracy websites.”

“The conspiracy has arrived, hasn’t it?”

“It’s some stinky fumes, that’s all. The radio said they were mildly toxic but survivable if we just stay inside or dampen some cloth to put over our mouths.”

“That won’t help!” insisted Bryce. “They just didn’t want us clogging the roads and choking to death in a big traffic jam. It’s poison gas. It’s not a nerve gas or we’d already be writhing on the ground in our death throes. But it will burn out your lungs and blind you if you stay in it too long. Didn’t you hear what happened in Japan?”

“Won’t it just dissipate?” asked Zoey. “I’m mean, how big a gas bomb could it have been?”

“It’s not a gas bomb,” said Bryce. “I’ve been reading rumors about this stuff on those ‘crazy conspiracy websites’ that explain what that crazy cult set off in Okayama and Okinawa.”

“You mean ‘wildly speculate,’ not ‘explain,’” said Victor.

“I mean ‘explain.’  It’s a catalyst bomb. Some maniac chemists found a way to spread airborne nanoparticles that catalyze atmospheric nitrogen and other atmosphere components to form a poisonous black smog that destroys organic materials. The fairly simple method of manufacturing the nanoparticles was published on the internet, so now the stuff is in the hands of rogue states, terrorists, and apocalyptic cults. Striking back is pretty impossible. Strike back at whom and where? The gas will linger until the catalysts themselves break down.”

“How long will that be?” asked Zoey.

“I don’t know. But the at least the gas is heavy and will cling to the lowlands. My cabin is plenty high enough and it is only accessible by horseback or on foot. Not even an ATV can get there. I brought the construction materials up there piece by piece over the past 10 years. We should have gone to the left.”

“My nose is running,” said Ella.

“It’s the gas. We barely made it out in time.”

“I think this is a mistake,” said Victor

“So, you’ve said repeatedly, said Bryce. “If you insist on going back I won’t stop you.”

“Don’t, Victor,” said Ella. “I’m not going back down there. What if he’s right?”

“Then I’m definitely going with you,” said Victor, immediately re-establishing himself as alpha male. “How long is this foolishness going to take?”

“If by that you mean ‘Are we there yet?’ it will be sunset because we delayed our start,” said Bryce. “If you mean ‘How long will we have to stay on the mountain?’ I don’t know. Weeks at least. Maybe months.

“You expect us to camp out for months?” Victor asked.

“It is not ‘camping out.’ I’ve told you it’s a cabin. It’s not big but it is sturdy and defensible with solar electric panels and water from a mountain spring.”

“What about food?” Ella asked.

“I have supplies for six months… well, a month or two with the four of us. After that there is game and edible plants on the mountain.”

“You are going to hunt game? With what?” asked Victor derisively.

“I have firearms there. They are hidden under floorboards so if any hiker stumble on the place they won’t steal them. But as far as I know no one but me has visited the cabin.”

“Doesn’t sound like you have many friends.”

A bullet sprayed splinters from a tree next to Victor. Victor disappeared from view as his horse had run away with him. Whatever value he might have brought to the group as a bodyguard went with him.

A man in hunter’s camouflage emerged from the woods. He was not armed, which indicated at least one companion remained hidden. “So we’re not the only ones with the brains to head for high ground after all,” he said. “Hello ladies.”

“What do you want?” asked Ella. Bryce could see Zoey eyeing possible escape routes. Bryce scanned the shadows for the sniper.

“To get out of the stink, of course. The mountain is too thickly wooded to drive up, but I hadn’t thought of horses.”

“Sorry we can’t help,” said Bryce.

“I think you mean you won’t help. Now that’s very inhospitable. Bad karma. Charlie, show him what happens to the inhospitable.”

The bullet felt like a sledge hammer to the chest as Bryce dropped to the ground.

“So where are you ladies going?” the fellow asked.

“To his cabin up the mountain,” said Ella pointing back to Bryce.

Bryce’ efforts to inhale were meeting with little success. His vision was oddly fuzzy.

“Really? How convenient. Charlie search him for keys and keep your eye out for the other one.”

“Oh, he is long gone,” said Charlie as he emerged from the woods with a Remington 700.

As his vision faded, Bryce could feel someone rummage through his pockets.

**** ****

The brush of a leafy twig against his face brought Bryce out of his reverie. The gelding surefootedly followed the narrow path to the left of the outcrop as he had done so many every Saturday for the past year in sun, rain or snow. The Big Crunch could arrive in any weather, so Bryce had practiced the ascent in every type. This was an endless source of amusement to the few people who knew of his prepper ways. He had trusted none of them with the precise location of his hideaway, and none had ever pressed him about it. Today was warm and cloudless. Bryce caught a seasonal whiff of honeysuckle. Bryce shook his head at his own sour imagination.

“Damn,” he spoke to himself. “Even in my daydreams I don’t catch a break.” Bryce did not Ella from casual meetings with friends. He had no idea if Ella had a sister, but the fantasy of including one at first had been pleasant. His natural pessimism couldn’t leave it at that, of course. He had to put Victor in the mix and then a couple of random psychopaths until the trail led to the sort of dark place his fantasies usually went. On the other hand, Bryce reminded himself, his pessimism was what had prompted him to build a prep shelter in the first place. It is also what stopped him ever from having invited Ella to join him for real.

Alone, as in every past climb, Bryce prompted his horse through the last row of bushes before his cabin. There were no solar panels, though Bryce often had contemplated installing them. It was a bleak room log cabin with a rudimentary fireplace. There was an intermittent fresh water spring and an outhouse. The cabin overlooked the valley and the town below. The black smoke was thinning but he expected it would linger. No one below the smoke line would survive. That included Ella and Victor. It would be a long six months on the mountain alone.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Gladys All Over

The frosted glass on the door read R. Farkas Investigations. Few people beyond the business owner’s immediate family knew the R stood for Rebecca. Her second-floor space looked as much like a film noir director’s notion of a detective’s office as she had been able to make it. The furniture was vintage 1940s except for her desk, and the desk was custom built to appear a comparable age even as it hid basic 21st century tech. The desk blotter was hinged to swing open thereby revealing a monitor and recessed keyboard. Atop the desk was an intercom disguised as a wooden cased radio.

Farkas had chosen the building in part for its hundred year age. On the second floor, at least, it exuded the right aura – also the right aroma, which was suitably musty. The pine floors had never seen a coat of polyurethane and wouldn’t for as long as she rented the space. The ancient plumbing was a minor inconvenience she was willing to tolerate. The noir similitude wasn’t perfect. Muffled pop music filtered up from below. She could feel the percussion beat with her feet. The music came from a strip club of a very non-upscale variety. Yet, the presence of the club was far from a negative. It gave her clients plausible deniability should they be spotted in the parking lot. Most of them would rather explain being at a strip club than employing a detective – even (perhaps especially) to their spouses. Another advantage to the building was a location that was effectively isolated despite fronting on a highway. The lot, surrounded by used car lots and industrial sites, was far away from residences and the eyes of their inhabitants. She had no sign announcing her agency’s presence either freestanding or on the outside of the building. Except for the name of the municipality, her address was not even listed on her website. Anyone who came to her office did so by appointment made online or by phone. Her office was accessed by a staircase leading up from a solid locked outer door around the corner from the strip club entrance. The door contained no markings other than “2A.”

The radio/intercom bleated.

“Yes?” she said into the speaker.

“It’s Muller. I’m here for our appointment.”

She opened the desk blotter on its hinges and checked the security camera image on the monitor.

“So you are,” she answered. She buzzed the outer door to unlock.

As Muller climbed the stairs, Farkas pulled an attaché case from under her desk and thumbed the six small wheels of its combination lock. The latch snapped open. She removed a sealed oversized envelope large enough to contain a legal-size folder. She dropped the hefty envelope on her desk on her desk, replaced the case beneath her desk, closed the blotter/monitor, and waited. She always preferred to deliver hard copy to clients for security reasons. If clients later scanned them into digital format, that was their decision and, in her opinion, their mistake. Muller knocked on the office door and entered. He was a pudgy middle-age man wearing a fedora hat. Farkas assumed the hat was to disguise his baldness. Her father, not otherwise a vain man, had hidden his glabrous scalp in the same way; when he removed his headgear, her father sometimes would say in false deprecation, “You don’t need a roof on an empty barn.” She never passed this wisdom along to hatted customers.

Muller sat in the wooden chair across from Farkas and shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

He smiled weakly and said, “Something about this is backwards.”

“How so?”

“In the movies isn’t it a gruff middle-aged detective who sits behind the desk when the slinky customer walks in?” he asked.

“I don’t think of myself as gruff, Mr. Muller, and I’d take it as a favor if you didn’t slink.”

“Uh, right. You know, this is a strange location with that club and all. It’s a good thing I’m not married.”

“Yes you are, though I’m aware your divorce will be finalized soon. Even after the property settlement you still will be a wealthy man who can pay my fee – thanks to your inheritance rather than your own business prowess, which might explain a certain lack of hardheadedness. Don’t frown, Mr. Muller. I always investigate my clients. But do you really want to talk to me about this? Because it’s a separate job from the one you hired me for, and I’ll have to start charging you.”

“No, no. What do you have for me on the other matter?”

“By the ‘other matter,’ you mean Gladys. Before we proceed, I want you to recall what I said when you first walked into the office and told me what you wanted,” said Farkas. “This is not 50 years ago when searching for a person typically required real legwork. Today, it is hard not to be visible to simple online searches. The usual search engines and social media were the first things you tried, weren’t they? You came to me only when you failed. Most often, when a client fails, I can succeed without ever leaving my desk. I and other professionals have the tools to sniff out even the most obscure digital footprints. Old-fashioned in-person investigation comes into play only when online traces vanish. But if someone’s digital footprint vanishes completely after a particular date, there are only three possibilities. One, the person is dead but the body is as yet unidentified. Two, records have been systematically scrubbed by one of the handful of organizations with the ability to do it. Three, the person has assumed a completely new identity, often by taking over someone else’s. You should consider the implications of each.

“What if they just left the country for someplace less wired?”

“Then there would be a digital record of hem having done that.”

“It sounds like you turned up nothing. Couldn’t you have told me that over the phone?”

“I have said no such thing.”

“Then you have turned up something.” His eyes focused on the envelope.

“I haven’t said that either. I simply want you carefully to consider consequences before we proceed any further. Believe me when I say I understand your motives and on some level respect them.”

“On some level?”

“Yes. We live in pseudo-cynical times. Mr. Muller. I know it is chic to dismiss romantic love as a fantasy. It isn’t. Of course it exists. People ruin their lives over it. It generates at least fifty percent of my business, for well or ill – usually the latter. So, I don’t doubt that your desire to find your lost Gladys seems ever so romantic to you, especially in light your recently failed marriage. She is the one who got away. She is the star of your youth. The ‘if only.’ Your true love, even if you didn’t treat her that way at the time. You thought of her even as you married your soon-to-be ex-wife, didn’t you? Of course you did. Don’t look so offended. You know what I say is true. I’m not being derisive or mocking. I believe you to be sincere. But this personal myth you’ve created for yourself about the lost Gladys has given your life a bittersweet quality that you enjoy. Can it survive an actual meeting? Are you sure you want to give it up?”

“Thanks for the insight, but you’re a detective, not my therapist.”

“Perhaps you should have consulted one before hiring me. Look Muller, it’s been more than 20 years since you last saw this person. Where is the upside to finding her now? Can she possibly live up to your fantasy? And how do you think she might react to you? Would she be flattered by your interest or consider it a threat? Sometimes ‘tis better to have loved and lost than loved and found.”

“Catchy. You should put that on a bumper sticker.”

“Mr. Muller, I never have made this offer before to any of my clients but I’ll make it now. I’ve put a lot of time, investment, and effort in this case, but I’m willing to forgo taking your final payment if you promise to give up this search now and forever. Just promise, get up, turn around, and walk out the door.”

“Do you always try to talk your clients out of paying you?”

“No. You aren’t listening. I already told you this is a first. Remember what I said about a person who doesn’t want to be found. Think real hard about what sort of reasons she might have: creditors, police, a stalker… I’m sure you can think of others more extreme.”

“Why all the drama? I’m simply looking up an old flame. People do it all the time. Did you find her or not?”

Farkas shook her head and sighed. “I did,” she said.

“Are you refusing to tell me?”

“No, Mr. Muller. I have a personal and professional code that I take very seriously. I do my job and fulfill my contracts. I’m simply urging you to release me from this one.”

“Ms. Farkas…”

“Just ‘Farkas.’”

“OK, Farkas. Are you concerned for your safety for some strange reason?”

“No, I know how to protect myself. I’m concerned for yours, and I’m stretching the limits of confidentiality by saying so. If you walk away and don’t pursue the matter further, this matter ends here – and keep in mind that a renewed search by you or another professional will be visible to those who wish to look for it.

“Then I want to see what you have.”

“I require the remainder of my fee in cash, money order, or cashier’s check,” said Farkas.

Muller removed a bulging letter-size envelope from his pocket held it out to her across the desk.  She took and dropped it into a desk drawer.

“You’re not going to count it?” he asked.

“I’m sure that’s not necessary.” She slid the sealed envelope containing the folder across her desk to within his reach. “Everything you want to know about Gladys – which is not her current name as you might have guessed – is in there including all contact information. Please don’t open it until you have left the property. This concludes our business.”

 “You want me simply to trust you about the contents?” he said.

“Don’t you?”

“Yes, I suppose I do.”

“In that case, best of luck, Mr. Muller.”

“Thank you for your help.”

“No need for thanks.”

Muller tucked the oversized envelope under his arm, walked out of the office and closed the office door behind him.

As he descended the stairs, Farkas reached to the window-treatment strings and blinked the Venetian blinds. Almost instantly her desk phone rang. The caller ID blocked the number. She picked up.

“I’m sorry,” said Farkas, “but he was persistent, and is now in possession of the information…‘Why?’ Because he paid for it. I fulfill my contracts as I’ve already explained. He is on his way downstairs at this moment and will be the next person exiting the outer door. Yes, your bitcoin transfer satisfies everything. This concludes our business.” She hung up the phone.

 “Goodbye, Mr. Muller,” she said to herself.

She felt sad for Muller but business was business. She always fulfilled her contracts.