by Uli Kusterer
Leonard Kilian was sitting, his backpack by his side, on the knee-high ridge of rock that cleaved the dusty plane in half. It wasn’t a desert the party of three were in, but a fairly dusty valley of dry grey soil held in place by yellow grass.
His black skin was still glistening from the day’s heat, even though that had disappeared suddenly only a moment ago. The air was cooling down rapidly, and he wiped his bright palms on his slacks before he began to untie the cord around the top of his pack to dig for his jacket.
“I don’t get it.” He mumbled to nobody in particular. “We have the frequency, the trigger device is charged.” He frustratedly poked his left arm into the sleeve, almost catching his middle finger on a seam. “All other frequencies on the list panned out to get us here.” He realized he had already ran out of variables he could change to find a mistake in what they’d done.
“Yoshiaki?” he called to his colleague with the long hair and the blond highlights as he reached for his thin black neck pouch and pulled it out of his shirt. The Japanese-Canadian turned towards him and watched attentively as he revealed the flat, rock-like greenish-grey device wrapped inside.
There was a thin disc inset into the otherwise featureless top, with markings in a rune-like script that each of them had memorized long before they had embarked on their first mission together.
“What is it set to?” Leonard handed him the device, and Yoshiaki gingerly wrapped his fingers around the precious object. It wasn’t often he got to handle the trigger device. He read the number at the little etching that indicated the current setting, or frequency as most of them had come to calling it for lack of a better word.
This little smooth rock was such advanced technology that it might as well have been magic. None of their colleagues on Earth could even prove that it was anything but rock. Every scan showed it as a disc of rock in some skillful way inlain into another piece of rock so it could still be turned.
“6:37.” Yoshiaki replied in his usual, terse manner. He brushed his thumb across the smooth surface.
“Sorry, boys, that matches the setting in the mission briefing. It just doesn’t work.” Kate Helios, the only non-scientist on the small team cut in. The deceptively small blonde, their security detail, nodded at the little rock. “Mind if I take it for a spin?” She smiled disarmingly.
“No!” Both men looked up in shock and spoke in concert.
“I promise I won’t drop it.” She winked.
“My heart is still pounding from when you swapped it against a broken rock the last time.” Leonard replied with a hurt puppy look as he received the device from Yoshiaki and returned it to its resting place against his chest.
“Come on, that was funny!” Kate sat down next to Leonard on the ridge and brushed a hand through her short bob-cut.
“Must admit, …” Yoshiaki began, biting back a giggle.
“Don’t encourage her.” Leonard cut him off in mock-desperation, leaning back on his elbows and looking at the foreign sky above. “It looks so wrong.” He sighed absent-mindedly, and his colleagues turned their gaze to the sky as well.
“They do, don’t they?” Kate said. “But really, it’s us who are wrong.” She added.
“Deep.” Yoshiaki Yamane conceded, pulling his hair tie off and loosening his pony tail, wincing slightly as a few hairs caught and caused pinpricks on his scalp.
“We have to be fair to this planet.” Kate shrugged. “It’s not nice to say it is wrong.” She dropped her jacket, visibly enjoying the cool air on her bare shoulders.
“It feels wrong, though.” Leonard replied. “I’m not making a value judgement here, that’s just how it feels.” He shook his head at Kate sitting there merrily in the cold, in a sleeveless shirt.
“Judgemental today.” Yoshiaki noted. “What’s bitten you?”
“Nothing…” Leonard turned to face back towards the stars.
“Oh, the pretty thing with the long legs.” Kate translated.
“Don’t call her that.”
“You know I didn’t mean anything by that.” Kate’s voice softened. “I was just trying to keep the connection to things that bite.” She smiled. Dusk was turning into darkness around them, and she tried to make out his face in the waning light. She thought she saw him nod.
“It’s nothing, I’m just tired. We should sleep.” Leonard detached his camping mat from his pack, removed the rubberband and rolled it out on the ground. “We have a whole day of connection attempts and disappointing failures ahead of us.” he added, pulling out his sleeping bag.
“Hey, at least we can always go back home.” Leonard heard Yoshiaki’s voice in the darkness.
“And admit defeat? No way!” Kate countered.
Leonard was warm, comfortably stretched out across the couch, his face towards whatever was flickering on the TV set. His head rested in Addy’s lap. She was watching TV, and absent-mindedly playing with the curls of hair on his scalp.
He let go of a long, content breath, and heard her chuckle, her stomach merrily undulating against the back of his head.
“What’s so funny?” He asked softly. He could hear the grin in her voice before she’d even started speaking:
“If you were a cat, you’d be purring now.” She chuckled in her usual rich voice, pleasantly low for a woman. She twirled one of his curls around her slim, dusky finger and playfully tugged on it.
“Careful, or I’ll scratch you.” He taunted, eliciting another chuckle.
“As long as you don’t bite like when we first met … !” Her fingertips were now pleasantly drumming on the back of his head, like raindrops pelting a lion, secure in the knowledge he couldn’t hurt them.
“I was three. I don’t even remember that far back.” They’d been having this conversation, or ones like it, for decades, again and again. Familiar, comfortable. Home. “But don’t worry, I’ve learned from it: I won’t bite any babysitters anymore.” He spun around his head and playfully snapped at her fingers.
“Ha!” Addy pulled back her hands, jumping up in surprise, and before he knew what was happening, Leonard found himself tumbling off her lap, off the sofa, onto the throw rug in front of the couch that barely softened his landing on the hardwood floor with a rough “thump”. Like a sack of potatoes, he thought.
“Ow.” He said it more from surprise than pain. Addy was immediately next to him, kneeling at his side, reaching for his head and shoulder.
“Oh I’m so sorry! Are you OK?” The fear on her face evaporated when she saw his grin. The tension left her body and she leaned back against the couch, sitting cross-legged on the floor next to him, her bare feet touching his Jeans-clad leg.
Still lying on his back, his face toward the plain white ceiling, he glanced sideways at her:
“So, how was the session today?”
“Perfect!” Addy raved, “Kelly got both Jeff and Irene for this one, so we pretty much nailed it in one go. We did three more, and then Kelly called it quits, because the takes were pretty much identical.” She was gesticulating wildly, broad gestures, ecstatic, brown corkscrew curls bouncing all over the place.
“It always turns out so great when everyone’s prepared. And those two are just so good!” She sounded like a teenager gushing about her newest crush, and Leonard couldn’t help but stare at her and grin. Such a beautiful being when she was happy.
“What?” She’d finally spotted his grin.
“Nothing.” He snapped his mouth shut.
“What.” Her inflection was seriousness itself, but she couldn’t hide her own grin.
“I just like it when you’re happy.” He replied softly, his eyes locking with hers. Addy looked on voicelessly.
The announcer’s voice blared loudly into the silence, indicating the end of the show and announcing the next, the increased volume like a physical punch to the two old friends. Immediately both scrambled for the remote, both reaching it at the same time. For a moment struggling over it, before Addy, quick-witted as always, pinched Leonard’s butt.
Leonard was so shocked that he let go, and Addy quickly pressed the little green “Mute” button. She turned, holding up the remote triumphantly, to see Leonard’s shocked expression. It took her a moment of backtracking to realize why he was surprised. Then she broke down laughing.
He waited for her to calm down and put herself upright again.
“I can tell you’ve had a great day today.” He picked up the conversation as he stood and offered her a hand. The older woman took it and he pulled her up, and they both returned onto the couch, sitting at either end, feet on the middle seat, facing each other.
The only light came from the TV set and moonlight falling in through the big sliding doors leading out onto the deck and to the pool behind Addy.
“Kelly offered me another gig today.” Addy said softly. That in itself was nothing unusual. Most of Addy’s work these days came in through Kelly’s recommendations.
“Isn’t that usually a good thing?” Leonard began to get a feeling where this was going.
“It’s not at the studio.” Addy sighed. “I’d be a back-up singer, for a live tour.” Leonard paused for a moment. That explained it.
Addy had always valued her privacy, the effective anonymity that being a studio musician brought you. The opportunity of living a real life, regular hours, being home in your own bed in the evening. A tour meant she’d be away from home for half a year, maybe longer.
“That’s a great sign of trust from Kelly, to offer you such a big gig.” Leonard tried to manoevre into the conversation. “It’s a great step up in your career. And knowing Kelly, she’ll pay you handsomely for that.” The moonlight prevented him from seeing Addy’s face, but she seemed tense.
“And if you’re worried about me, don’t be. I’ve been away for months for work, too. And after all, I’m the one who knows how to cook here.” He said, only half joking.
“It’s for Penny’s tour of the Americas.” She added.
“Penny who …?” He paused, then answered his own question: “Wait, I’m-so-famous-I-need-no-last-name Penny?” Addy just nodded quietly. “Wow. You must really have made an impression on someone.”
Of course, it also explained the problem Addy had with it. Leonard was the one doing classified work, the one who had been told to lay low, to attract no attention, and to stick to his cover story of the traveling archaeologist sifting through dust all around the world whenever he could.
And he’d managed quite well. Even Addy, who’d been sharing this little house with him for years now, day in, day out, hadn’t caught on. And it had been quite a while ago that he’d last had to rely on his cover story. People just assumed that he didn’t like to talk about his work that much. Many found it boring anyway.
Yet here was Addy, the skilled, smart, professional singer who deserved to be successful, offered a great opportunity that some would sell their souls for. Who had nothing to fear, and everything to gain, and she was afraid to even go on stage for live performances, because people would see her.
And here was temptation; the temptation to selfishly encourage her in that fear. Because he had chosen to live in fear of discovery, and his current life afforded him a comfortable safety from attention. Attention like the boyfriend of a famous singer would get.
“So, when will you be leaving?” He heard his voice say. Addy looked up at him.
“I didn’t say ‘yes’ yet.” She sounded embarrassed.
“It’s your decision. I can’t make it for you. But I don’t think you would have asked me if you didn’t want to hear my opinion.” He could barely make out the grin that grew on her face. Caught! “It’s the greatest opportunity of your career. I can’t even imagine how Kelly managed to land this job for you. I mean, it’s not as if she’s Penny’s producer.” He nudged her foot with his when she didn’t answer.
“No, Penny’s with a big label. One of her regular background singers had a skiing accident, and they didn’t have anyone to replace her. Apparently her voice has a mean range.” Addy grabbed a throw pillow and snuggled into it.
“Isn’t that what Kelly said about your voice?” Leonard asked. Addy snorted:
“Perverse. She called my range ‘perverse’.” She grinned.
“That’s a superset of mean.” He stated as if it was a known fact. “So, when’s it all start?”
“Rehearsals start in Montreal the day after tomorrow.” Addy sighed. He gave her another nudge with his foot. “What?” She shot back.
“You know, you need to decide soon. Sure, it’s a bit over an hour on the plane if you fly from City, but you’ll have to call Kelly to get it all arranged. And they probably start early in the morning, so you’d have to fly tomorrow.” He stared expectantly at her.
“You seem so sure that I’ll do it.” She bent forward into the light from the silent TV set, and he could see the trepidation in her eyes.
“I am. You only ask me when you’re trying to avoid doing what’s right. The last time you actually needed someone to tell you not to do something was probably during the French Revolution.” Leonard leaned forward challengingly. Addy paused for a moment, then sighed.
“That sounds about right.” She admitted. Leonard grinned. “You get insufferable when you’re right.” She added. Leonard pouted:
“Mommy, why are you being so mean to me?”
“It’s called tough love. Kids like you need that sometimes.” Addy gave him a casual peck on the forehead as she bent forward to grab her cell phone from the coffee table.
Leonard’s fingers swiftly spun the wheel inset into the top of the device, until it showed the right number, then glanced at the faces of his two colleagues. Just as disappointed as he was. They’d gotten so close, and now they were a mere two jumps away from home. Angrily he pushed down hard on the wheel. There was a clicking inside the device, then a crackling, and then the air was charged with energy, the smell of ozone surrounding him.
Before Leonard had a chance to react, he felt Kate’s hand on his shoulder, pulling him back two paces.
“You’re not supposed to stand on top of it while it opens.” the diminutive but deceptively strong blonde mumbled amusedly beside him. Leonard nodded. It wouldn’t do to have him and the trigger device torn to pieces.
It was as if the open air tore in front of them, a jagged rip through which black ink seemed to billow, not spilling, rather dissolving into the air like writing ink would in water. The tear grew bigger, about a metre now, still black and flowing.
Then it was as if the air, everything surrounding the growing rift, was bent back forcibly, pulled away from the three travelers. The rip grew wider, its edges darkening, almost like paper burning away from the middle, growing to a vaguely oval shape just slightly larger than a person.
Leonard resumed twisting the wheel, spinning it to the second frequency he had memorized, connecting the gateway he had just created to a second one, then repeated the process several more times at roughly the same interval, establishing a safe passage from this odd place through one of the various passages that made up the Interconnect to the Moon, and from there through the only known passage back to Earth.
Slowly the darkness in the middle of the swirling black spot broke, letting through pale light, sunlight reflecting off the moon’s rocky surface as the rear of the half-dozen or so light year-long passage opened. As quickly as the moonscape came into view, it darkened as the second passage opened, swirling, dripping, thinning towards the edges, then also breaking, and then the two holes collapsed into each other as the walls of the transfer station hidden in an unassuming warehouse complex in Miliken took shape.
The three travelers waited as the hole’s centre began to stabilize, and then one after the other stepped through the black circle from scalding hot desert sand onto firm, cold concrete, air rushing past them as the two lightyears-distant systems uselessly tried to balance. Leonard stepped aside to let Yoshiaki behind him pass, then waited for Kate to follow. She always liked to have a last look around. It just happened to also be part of her job as security for the two scientists. He pressed down on the wheel with his thumb and watched the passage swirl closed with incredible force, leaving the three behind in the almost-empty hall.
The heavy, grey gate of the windowless room creaked, sliding sideways as hidden chains and mechanisms began working noisily to open it, and a tall, raven-haired woman confidently strode in, straight towards the three, followed by a group of scientists and security consultants lugging huge backpacks and crates along with them.
“Dr. Kilian,” she reached out a hand towards Leonard.
“Ms. Fawkes.” he acknowledged. “Tell me you’re here because you’ve missed us, and not because of what I have in my pocket.”
Lee Fawkes guffawed merrily. “I’m sorry to rock the foundations of your self-esteem, but these gentlemen need to leave right now for an important astronomical observation.” she impatiently curled and uncurled the fingers of her open hand twice and he pulled the device out of its pouch and handed it to her in exchange for an already-signed form. “But I brought you the transfer form, so you don’t get in trouble for losing our only trigger device. How’s that?”
“Anything you want, as long as I get into the shower and home more quickly.” He growled amicably.
“About that …” Lee smirked apologetically as she handed the device off to a burly man in desert camouflage.
“Another mission?” Leonard asked neutrally.
“I’m afraid so.” Lee confirmed. “But you can shower first. The mission isn’t that time-critical.” She shrugged. “Meeting room in about an hour? You can give me the Reader’s Digest version of this trip, and I’ll give you your new mission.” Leonard nodded:
“I’ll inform the others.”
“That would be great.” Fawkes added, then strode back out again.
Yoshiaki Yamane had just opened his locker when Leonard entered the showers. The two could hear water running over in the women’s showers. Kate Helios had obviously beaten the two men there.
“Hey Yosh!” Leonard smiled at the long-haired Asian with the blond streaks. “Fawkes has another mission for us. We’ll hear more in an hour.”
“Swell.” The Japanese-Canadian replied. “Maybe it’ll make us forget this bust.” He hoped.
“I’m sure I deciphered the tablet correctly.” Leonard dropped his backpack on the ground and began digging out the tiny receptacle for his contact lenses. “But maybe I missed something, or there’s more at the dig.”
“Planning to go back? Let me know.” Yoshiaki watched uncomfortably as Leonard stuck a finger in his left eye and picked out one of the soft lenses. “Yuck. Could never wear those things. Stuff in my eyes always makes me irritable.”
“You get used to it.” Leonard calmly picked out the second lense and dropped it in the little plastic container with its companion. He snapped the little white thing shut, then began digging for his glasses in the desert-camouflaged backpack.
“Least you can find your glasses in there without your glasses.” Yoshiaki smiled. “Nothing’s in focus around an arm’s length around me.” He watched as Leonard bent closer to the backpack, then spotted the grey plastic case and pulled it out.
“Oh yeah, the glorious life of the near-sighted. I’m deliriously happy.” He flipped open the case and took out a pair of fashionable frameless glasses. “Ah. Much better.” He squinted a few times, blinked, enjoying his freedom from the lenses.
There was a knock “Hi guys. You decent?” Kate called through the closed door.
“Come!” Yosh confirmed. Kate peeked her head in, then dared to push the door fully open and take a step forward, but decided to stay leaning against the open door. She was clad in summer attire, slacks, top and jacket.
“Lee wants to debrief us in 50 minutes.” Leonard informed. “Plus we get a new mission right away.”
“Enough time for me to grab a bite to eat.” She brushed a hand through her short blonde hair, bringing the damp asymmetric haircut back to order and taking care not to spray water over her approaching colleagues. “Want me to get you something, too? Salad? TimBits?”
“Sounds like a long day ahead. Maybe something bigger?” Leonard suggested, swinging a large towel over his shoulder.
“Chicken truck for two it is.” Kate nodded, waving good-bye to her two colleagues as the doors closed behind the leaving woman.
“So, uh…” Leonard interrupted tying his shoelaces to adjust the cell phone he was cradling in the crook of his neck. “anyway, it seems you’re busy and can’t get your phone.” He paused, then added apologetically:
“I hope I didn’t make it go off during rehearsal and you have to buy everyone a round or anything…” he finished the knot on the right shoe and, careful not to drop the phone, dropped the foot to the floor, placing the other onto the bench instead. “Anyway, plans have changed, so I’ll be in cell range. Call me if you want.” he waited for a second, then ended the call.
“Nobody home?” Yosh smiled.
“Adair has” Leonard paused unnoticeably, considering how much to say, then decided to err on the side of caution, “an important rehearsal today. All week, actually.” He offered.
“Good thing we got back early?” Yoshiaki offered a silver lining. Leonard smiled.
“Yeah, I guess so. Hadn’t thought about it like that, but you’re right. I’m still not going to give up.” The two rose from the bench and headed out towards Lee Fawkes’s office.
“You think Fawkes will let you?”
“Are you kidding? If I can give her any reason to think the next time will be different than the last, she’ll strand those scientists on their planet for a week if it means we get to this legendary alien city.” They turned a corner into the executive wing. “A discarded cellphone from there could change our knowledge of technology forever.”
“So, drop by the Think Tank the next occasion.” Yosh knocked on Fawkes’s office door and, after a muted ‘Yes.’ pulled open the door for Leonard. As they entered the large, plush office, they left Lee’s large desk aside and headed immediately for the conference table, where Lee and Kate were already sitting. Lee was munching on a doughnut from a six-piece box:
“Doughnut?” She offered.
“Maybe later,” Leonard nodded at the two paper bags on the table, “first there’s half a chicken with my name on it.” The two men sat down and Leonard began to unwrap his chicken as he ran Lee through the previous mission.
“So you did what, a dozen jumps through the Interconnect, world to world, and the last frequency didn’t pan out?” She was obviously disappointed.
“Mmm-hmm.” Leonard nodded through a mouthful of meat. “But,” he swallowed, “I’m sure the source is authentic. We must have missed something on the tablet. There are a few symbols on there we couldn’t make sense of. Numbers of some sort, but the qualifiers are just … I have no idea what they are.”
“You want to go back.” Lee Fawkes rolled her eyes exasperatedly. It wasn’t a question. Leonard just nodded. Lee turned to Kate: “Is that a good idea?” Kate pushed away a styrofoam cup that had held the Chili she’d opted for as lunch and replied diplomatically:
“It’s not a bad idea. The transit planets on the route were safe. Lifeless. A few plants, no predators.” She took a sip from her pop. Lee turned to the two:
“Okay, this one is promising enough to give it another try. Find something new you guys haven’t tried, and you’ll get a second stab at it.” She closed the folder in front of her and reached for a second one.
“Do I have permission to involve the Think Tank?” Leonard asked what he knew would not make Lee happy.
“Is that really necessary? They already know way too much as is.” She gave him an earnest stare.
“I dislike having to inform all the military scientists on there as much as you do, but I’m sure I haven’t missed anything. But I’m just an Archaeologist. This could be a physics or cryptography issue.” He held her stare.
“And Shanna Baxter?” Yosh suggested. Leonard grinned. He hadn’t expected Yosh to be so clever. Lee Fawkes looked at him unconvinced. Yosh looked back innocently: “She’s not military. She’s a physicist.” There was a pregnant pause in the room, then Lee grabbed a sprinkled Doughnut and pointed at Yosh with it:
“I hate you.” Then she turned slightly and pointed at Leonard: “This is on you. You make sure she understands how we do things here. If she publishes anything without going through me first, or talks to any reporter, or otherwise causes trouble … !” Lee tore into the doughnut as if she was biting off Leonard’s head. “I won’t have any of her shit again. Is that clear?” Leonard’s face became serious.
“I’ll be careful.” He assured her. Lee Fawkes opened the folder in front of her:
“So, new assignment.” She changed the topic. “Dr. Yamane and I have been involved in getting one of the simpler technologies discovered on a planet we named ‘Hephaistos’ ready for distribution to the general public through one of our subsidiaries.” Lee spread out a few photos of the small, broken device they’d taken apart. “While the three of you were on assignment, we got wind of a company called ‘Skunkworks’ preparing to announce suspiciously similar technology.” That caught Kate’s attention. Lee handed Yoshiaki a few sheets, clipped together, containing specifications and diagrams. He paged through them:
“Near-exact match.” His eyes widened.
“Now, the big guns in the government think we have a leak, and I’m inclined to agree.” She was visibly uncomfortable. “I’ve asked them to help us out, and they have obtained these specifications and other information for us.” She quickly glanced at Kate, and Kate’s eyebrows raised. Leonard could tell they were both aware that such operations were barely legal, and could be seen as industrial espionage if it turned out they somehow had come up with this tech on their own after all.
“How likely is it that another engineer came up with this idea on his own just now?” Leonard addressed Yamane, tucking the remains of his lunch back into the paper bag it had come from. Yoshiaki shook his head.
“So I want the three of you to head to Skunkworks and talk to their lead engineer who supposedly came up with this. Find out who his contacts are.” Lee let her eyes wander from one face to the next as she said this.
“You want me for this mission?” Leonard asked with a hint of surprise.
“Yes.” Lee confirmed. “Dr. Yamane may be familiar with the technology, and Ms. Helios should be able to keep you out of trouble, but you’re the best man we have to tell a 12th century vase from a 10th century alien device that just looks like one.”
“You’re afraid they might have found something here on Earth and managed to reverse-engineer it.” Leonard followed her train of thought to its conclusion. “Like we did when I found the trigger device in Saqqarah.”
Lee Fawkes nodded. “It would be unfortunate, and inconvenient for us, but our government contacts would want to know.” Leonard nodded. “Well, good luck!” Lee ended the meeting, in lower spirits than they usually saw her, and the three grabbed their leftovers and a Doughnut each and headed out.
“If it wasn’t espionage, we’re done.” Kate said to no one in particular. Leonard had to agree. In the history of the Interconnect operation, they had stepped on their share of feet. Some small, some big and powerful.
Using their government contacts to obtain information about a direct competitor who had done nothing wrong, unintentionally or not, would have severe repercussions and rouse all their critics and give them a reason to unite against them.
Not to mention that, if that competitor was really so good that they had not only found an artefact on Earth that Fawkes’ teams hadn’t yet, but also reverse-engineered it, it would suddenly provide a valuable alternative to Fawkes for the government. The government could use this to slowly dismantle all they had worked for the last years, bring the military back in as a driving force, restrict the civilians to earth-bound lab work.
Still, if they were really that good, it was the right thing to do. To leave them be. Inform the government. Perhaps Lee would make an attempt at buying the company, but would they agree to a take-over if they had technology light-years ahead of everyone else?
It almost made him hope that one of his colleagues here at Fawkes was selling information. But that would bring its own slew of problems with it. Why hadn’t Fawkes caught on earlier, how could a member of a hand-picked team like that have gone undetected? Whichever way it went, Fawkes could only lose. It was merely a matter of degrees now.
Leonard examined the file again. Despite their name, Skunkworks was by no means a small company. They had grown out of a small startup, but already had a few smaller successes under their belt. Where they had no facilities of their own as Fawkes did, they usually had great relations with a big competitor.
All controlled from a single, nimble office in Montreal.
“Yosh, can you do me a favor and pick up our tickets? I have a phone call to make.” He handed Yoshiaki the folder and headed off into his office, cell phone at the ready.
A few hours later, the three arrived in Montreal. Their police contact, Commander Nadeau, picked them up at the airport and drove them to the Skunkworks offices. The Commander partially unzipped the jacket she had worn over her white shirt and vest so the security guards at the entrance could recognize her as a police officer, then gave instructions to put the place under lockdown until further notice, and pointed out a few cops in leather jackets covering the exits outside to keep the rent-a-cops honest. She zipped up again.
Kate smiled. It was a simple but clever disguise. When she was actually talking to you, you quickly noticed the white shirt, the clip-on tie and the dark blue pants of the police uniform as such, but from a distance the black leather jacket covered the bulk of their gun holster and they might as well be delivery persons or people from facility management.
Recognizable enough that nobody resisted their directions, but inconspicuous enough not to alert anyone inside the building who might be trying to avoid the police. It also helped that the tall, slim woman with the long black ponytail was wearing her most disarming smile. A consummate professional, she knew exactly when to put on the usual no-nonsense always-in-control face of a cop on duty, and when to charm her way in.
Nadeau quickly got them to the main lab, where Dr. Serge Castonguay was hard at work with his team. The tall blond man shot an angry stare at the new arrivals, getting ready to chew out the colleague whose key card had let the strangers in, when he realized who the tall woman in front of him was. Not a dark-skinned man by any definition of the word, he grew noticeably paler:
“What is this?” He called out at the new arrivals. Raising himself to his full height, yet still coming up slightly smaller than Commander Nadeau and Leonard.
“Doctor Castonguay?” Nadeau confirmed matter-of-factly.
“Commander Sandrine Nadeau, Service de police de la Ville de Montréal. There have been allegations of industrial espionage levelled at your lab and this company.” Her inflection was polite, respectful, yet also cold and threatening. Kate admired the skill. The police officer knew exactly how to handle this man.
“This is a search warrant, giving me and the consultants access to everything in here. We’ll also need to talk to all your personnel, and would appreciate a list.” At the mention of consultants, Castonguay for the first time fully noticed the three others, evaluating them.
“This is our physics specialist Dr. Helios, our electronics consultant Dr. Yamane, and–”
“Leonard Kilian!” Castonguay snarled. “You have guts to show up here! I knew this had to be something cooked up by Fawkes, but I didn’t expect them to send such a prominent figurehead.” Leonard didn’t rise to the bait.
“Dr. Castonguay, I’m sorry our first meeting has to be under these circumstances–”
“Oh shut up!” Castonguay interrupted. “This will cost you dearly! Using the police to support you in your little attempt to get at our trade secrets–”
“Talking of which,” Kate calmly but assertively interrupted him. “Who came up with this transmitter technology?”
“I did, of course!” Castonguay proudly proclaimed.
“Nice try.” Kate calmly caught his eye, and you could see him wither under her stare. “You’re a mathematician. This is physics.” Castonguay began looking around himself like a trapped animal:
“Well, of course it was a team effort, but–”
“Certainly you remember which of your colleagues supplied the central idea?” Nadeau joined in, her healthy instincts clearly having picked up that something wasn’t quite on the up-and-up with this doctor. Kate bit back a smile. They knew the Commander had no scientific background, but the doctor didn’t have the foggiest clue that she was just faking her way through.
“You come in here, accusing me of industrial espionage, and then claim that my life’s work must have come from someone else? Just because I am an engineer and not one of those theoretical physicists doesn’t mean I can come up with everything and then let one of my assistants fill in the details!” As he said that, Leonard and Yosh had quietly begun to circle the room, examining the various items laid out on the tables.
Yosh quickly found what they were looking for, a small electronic device whose general layout was practically a twin of the one they had found. Even though there were ideal arrangements of components to minimize interference and reduce the length of connections, this board’s layout was pretty much identical to the one they’d found on Hephaistos in many other ways.
It was a bit larger, because Skunkworks had obviously had to settle for the previous generation of some parts, and Fawkes was currently the only one that owned plants that were already spitting out the smaller components, but whoever had designed this board had obviously seen the Hephaistos design and copied it.
“So then, doctor.” Nadeau said icily. “A list of your co-workers on this project, please?” Kate took the opportunity to circle the lab as well. Most of the lab technicians, scientists, engineers and other doctors had remained at their posts, frozen, but one workplace was empty. There were a few frequency diagrams lying there, interrupted in mid-stroke. So Castonguay knew physics and frequency technology after all?
“Well whaddaya know.” Kate mumbled inaudibly. “I wouldn’t have expected that from the pompous ass.” Not a good sign. If the man had really come up with all this himself, Fawkes would be in a great deal of trouble.
“Doctor Castonguay?” Kate addressed the doctor, holding out the half-finished drawings to Sandrine Nadeau, who bagged them and scribbled a quick note on the bag label.
“What!” He shot back angrily, clearly not happy that Fawkes people were freely walking through his lab, that one of them was going through his things, and he could do nothing about it.
“Do you have a cell phone?” Kate asked. The Commander nodded. God, it’s nice when someone thinks like I do, Kate grinned.
“That is personal property!” He complained.
“Search Warrant.” Kate pointed at Commander Nadeau. Then, noticing the Commander’s amused look and realizing how impolite what she was doing was, she quickly pulled back her hand. Castonguay huffed angrily, but handed his cell phone over to the Commander, who quickly flipped through the menus, then, finding nothing, dialed a number on it:
“Bonjour Jean, ça va. Can you get me the call history of this number? Merci.” She hung up, then returned the phone to Castonguay, who angrily stuffed it back in his pocket.
“Thank you, Commander.” Kate smiled.
“Plush.” Yoshiaki approached the desk of Castonguay’s office upstairs and glanced at the technical papers laid out on the table.
It was a veritable forest of Mahogany, leather and copper, massive bookshelves everywhere, containing every vaguely relevant publication. The man either had never heard of the internet, or this room had been decorated for representation.
“Let’s see what we have.” Leonard dove for the tall file drawer at the left side. It was full of clearly-labeled folders, and thumbed through each. Budget reports. Material requests. Tax return form duplicates. Nothing promising, but they’d have to go through these. Maybe Castonguay had deducted a dinner with the source by name. Fat chance.
He dropped the folders in one of the cardboard boxes one especially curious intern had dropped off hoping to find out what this was all about. He’d left disappointed and promptly ended up under fire from his peers for sucking up to the competition.
Leonard started rummaging through the center drawer of the desk. There wasn’t much in it. Chapstick, nail clippers, combs, restaurant receipts. He closed that drawer, opened one of the two above the file drawer. Boxes of candy, crackers, chocolate bars, two cans of peanuts, a whole bunch of those vacuum-wrapped unperishable smoked salami, and a moldy apple in the back that obviously wasn’t.
The second was mostly filled with little bags of pretzels and potato chips. Leonard couldn’t suppress a smile of sympathy. How often had he gone through family packs of snacks, trying to keep his blood sugar up while digging through data sets and dig photos. He could almost imagine the tall blond man with the stark face bent over his desk, crunching away on chips and digging for that elusive bit of evidence.
He was just about to close the drawer when he noticed a little cardboard box in between the plastic bags. His finger stuck to its side. Double-sided tape, matching a stain at the right inside of the drawer. It had obviously once been taped to the side.
“Jackpot.” He mumbled as he popped open the lid and saw the content. “Phone cards.” He flipped a few of the thumbnail-sized pieces of plastic with their characteristic cut-off corners around in the box. EE, Deutsche Telekom, Telefonica.
“Must really be behind the times if he still uses phone booths.” Yosh called over surprisedly, still patiently pulling book after book out of the bookshelf. He’d found about three holiday postcards that hinted at a fairly close relationship between Castonguay and his secretary, and the July 1996 issue of Playboy. Not what they were here for, whatever fond memories from youth the cute redhead on the cover might resuscitate.
“No, not the phone booth kind.” Leonard said exasperatedly. “The little cell phone cards. International ones. I’ve seen Mexico, Spain, no wait, Brazil, UK, Germany, Greece… the guy sure gets around.” He showed the box to his colleague.
“SIM cards.” Yosh chided him good-naturedly about his lack of proper terminology as the addressed closed the box and dropped it in the one with the files.
“Right. That was the word I was looking for.” Leonard conceded.
“Think Nadeau can get us international phone records?” Yosh found Lee Fawkes’ book, chuckling as he noticed it had been used to smash what amounted to a veritable swarm of fruit flies and tiny mosquitoes over the years, most of them still attached to the back cover.
“No idea, but we might use the numbers to link a suspect to Castonguay.”
“Texts cost the same internationally.” Yosh mused.
“Would be a clever way to keep in contact and make tracing him harder. But he’ll have to refill the cards periodically or they’ll expire.” Leonard had finished with the papers on the desk – more tax returns – and went over to help Yosh with the books.
“Illegal in some countries to expire money for which no service has been given.” They made good headway through the bookshelf, but found nothing of note.
“So much for ‘follow the money’, then.” Leonard sighed. “I hate playing cop. I’m a scientist, I shouldn’t be doing this.”
“Archaeologist.” Yoshiaki jibed. “Not a real job. Don’t tell me you haven’t been doing this on the side.”
“Hey, I’ve flipped my share of burgers. That’s nothing to be ashamed of.” Leonard smiled as the two met from opposite ends in the bottom row of the last bookshelf.
They both rose and turned 360 degrees, looking for anything they’d missed. Leonard squatted down to pick up the file box: “Everything searched, nothing found.”
“Not everything.” Yosh picked up a small computer mouse from the floor in front of the desk. He checked the carpet and the desk. “Mouse. No impressions below the desk or on the desk pad.”
“He doesn’t have one?”
“Laptop.” Yosh corrected.
“Great. Portable. Let’s hunt for it, then.” He repositioned his arms under the file box as the two hurriedly returned to the downstairs lab.
It was 11:30 PM. They’d searched the whole building, Castonguay had even handed over the notebook computer he’d still had in his little suitcase with little resistance. Still, the immediate findings were less than promising. So they’d finally given up. The evidence had been secured, names had been taken, and everyone had been sent home with a stern warning from the police not to leave the city.
And so the four had convened in a near-empty Chinese mom-and-pop restaurant that was open through the night to dig through files. They’d expected the proprietor to throw them out when they arrived with a stack of file boxes and asked if they could move together a few tables, but the clever old lady had quickly smelled a whiff of expense accounts and nearly adopted the team.
It also helped that Commander Nadeau had been a beat cop in the area where the old lady lived long ago. The woman impressed Leonard. This was not her fight, and he wouldn’t have blamed her if she’d let show even in subtle ways that she believed this was just a large company with government connections harrassing a smaller competitor.
And while the commander was, as expected from someone in her position, neutral and objective, and professional, she didn’t have to be here with them. She could have just handed off the evidence to one of her colleagues on the night shift, and let them watch over it while her charges went through them.
Instead, she had happily offered to help, carrying boxes, and was now sitting next to Kate, opposite Yosh and Leonard, happily digging through papers, attentively scanning file after file through reading glasses that completely changed the young woman’s appearance.
Leonard glanced to the side and found Yosh mouthing the words that had been on his mind since the Commander had pulled out the thin plywood tube that held her glasses and put them on her nose: Sexy school teacher
Yosh’s eyes widened and he clamped his mouth shut, and when Leonard followed his look to Kate, he saw her give him her best accusing “Seriously?”-look, out from under her eyebrows.
Leonard quickly returned to the old cell phone he’d bought at a nearby store and continued popping in SIM card after SIM card, noting down the various phone numbers and thumbing through the address books for any incriminating addresses.
“The Skunkworks people today were very interested in what we were doing.” Kate addressed nobody in particular, just hoping to distract the two clowns at the table before Nadeau noticed. Then again, she had probably already noticed, and had just decided to ignore their antics.
“We’re accusing them of theft, and threatening and uprooting their workplace. What did you expect?” Leonard popped another card into the phone.
“No, I get that,” Kate quickly replied. “But I’d thought they’d be a little stealthier about it. I’ve had two guys pull the same ‘let’s hit on the chick and casually try to get some info out of her’ number on me.”
“They’re civilians.” Nadeau reminded Kate.
Kate looked up at her: “So am I.”
Nadeau smiled: “Maybe now. But you were military, you still walk the walk. They trained you to spot bystanders who are too interested. Unfair advantage.” Kate nodded, acquiescing.
“She’s good.” Yosh smirked as Nadeau took out a little note pad:
“We should check them anyway. Did you get their names?”
“Lee Maytag and Franc Chretien.” Kate shot out. Nadeau looked up. “I don’t forget anything I see.” Kate offered. “I saw their badges.”
“Chretien,” Yosh pulled a crumpled receipt from his pocket and checked the writing on its back. “Came to me, too. And an Indian woman.”
Leonard started digging around in his backpack, pulling out a few folders and an iPad, dumping them unceremoniously on the table, until he finally got to his note pad:
“Riti Ikkuzhan?” he offered.
“Yes.” Yoshiaki Yamane’s eyes widened as he recognized the name. “Pleasant company.”
“I also had a Celine Young and of course Dr. Castonguay kept pestering me.” Leonard ignored Yosh’s comment. Sandrine Nadeau raised a hand as if to take attendance at school:
“Celine Young. I might have frightened her away a bit.” Nadeau added sardonically.
Leonard flipped the last card out of the phone. Nothing. The address of a brothel in Amsterdam was about the most exciting thing these cards held. And that looked like it had been on the card when it had been bought, together with the usual slew of flower delivery services, taxi agencies and the operator number.
“You found anything?” He turned frustratedly to Yosh, who had seized the lull in conversation to stop messing with the professor’s computer and grab his fork to attack the big bowl of fried noodles in the center of the table.
“Nothing.” Yosh said with emphasis. “Just the designs we already saw today.”
“Another dead end, then.” Leonard rubbed his tired eyes, pushing away his half-eaten spring rolls. He hoped Addy had had a better day. With all the bad luck they’d had so far, he hoped the good stuff had ended up with someone who deserved it, at least. That was what Karma was for, after all, right?
“Wait, only what we saw today?” Nadeau rejoined the conversation with her lilting French melody, not looking up from her papers. The woman could multi-task. “That only covers the last eight weeks.” The muddyness of her ‘th’es was the only sign that she, too, was getting tired.
“So where’s the rest before that?” Leonard furrowed his brow. “We have no paper files, they weren’t in the mirrors of the servers the RCMP cyber squad pulled for us, and they weren’t on the notebook. Surely they must have kept a development log somewhere.
Kate started digging around in her pile, fingers impatiently dancing over the edges, then pulled out a few thin sheets: “The only thing I have is a bunch of parts offers for the first small mass production test run. Dated … six weeks ago.”
“Tech doesn’t just jump from the mind like Aphrodite.” Yosh mumbled, “Has to be something earlier.”
“Athena.” Leonard grumbled.
“Castonguay doesn’t strike me as a spy.” Nadeau dug into the plate of duck before her, pausing her chopsticks right before her mouth. “He is too cautious. Risk-averse.” She chewed, swallowed, then realizing she had everyone’s attention at her seeming non-sequitur, added: “My gut says something is fishy with him. You say the tech came from nothing. Could be stolen.” She reached for her small cup of jasmin tea and sipped carefully. “But that is not enough in court.”
“You think we’re on the right track?” Kate smiled sideways at the Commander, blowing over her bowl to cool off her squid soup.
“No.” Nadeau said with the brutal honesty every good cop had to apply to their own investigations. “But I think you are on to something.”
They returned to Skunkworks’ office the next day, spending it much like the first, this time soliciting the cooperation of several of Castonguay’s scientists. The interviews were inconclusive. Everyone remembered differently, but nobody had details. Everyone was sure it had been developed in-house, but nobody really knew who had participated in the early phases of development, or how much they’d contributed. It had all the signs of a cover-up. Or just a highly compartmentalized development team.
Leonard threw his hands in the air. “Screw it.” He headed over to the escalators, taking advantage of the fact that nobody wanted to be too close to the competitors that were freely roaming these hallowed halls to wind his way past various employees leaving from their shifts, and headed towards the front desk. The receptionist on duty made no attempt to hide her reluctance.
“Please, could you tell me where I can find Dr. Castonguay?” Leonard used the most matter-of-fact, polite tone he could muster. It sounded surprisingly sincere. The receptionist winced, expecting all the horrible stories about their arrival that were making the rounds to be true, then realized what he had said and how, and then smiled relievedly.
She took a deep breath, punched a short number on her desk phone, held Leonard’s gaze, politely smiling, as she waited for the other side to pick up, exchanged a few words in a neutral tone in French, then put the phone back in the cradle.
“He’s waiting for you in his office.” She grabbed a little note pad to draw him directions, and Leonard held up his hand:
“Thank you, I’ve been there already.” The woman was perplexed for a moment, then obviously recalled what the grapevine had reported he and Yosh had done there yesterday, her mouth gaping open for nearly 5 seconds before she regained her composure.
“Have a nice day, sir.” She covered her discomfort. A consummate professional.
Leonard headed back to the escalators, turning around and enjoying the view of the bright foyer of the Skunkworks offices as the stairs raised him to the first floor. It was a nice building, he had to admit.
As he changed escalators to the second floor, his phone chirped. Without cheking the display he picked up:
“Hi Addy. Are the paparazzi hounding you yet?” He cheerily greeted.
“How can you pick up within the first ring, yet already know it’s me?” Adair’s voice sounded amused. He could hear muffled voices and even more muffled instrument noises behind her. A back lot where people went for a smoke, he guessed.
“Caller-specific ringtone. Yosh set it up as a prank, but it’s actually useful.” He answered dryly. It gained him her melodic laugh.
“This crazy new-fangled technology. I’m too old to understand that.” He could practically taste the irony. She might be ten years his elder, but it was he who had no idea how to program the VCR and needed explanations of text speak abbreviations.
“So, how is it going?” He eased back into the actual conversation, sitting down on a bench at the top of the escalator.
“It’s great. Stressful, but great.” He couldn’t help but smile as he heard that kid-in-the-candy-store-enthusiasm creep into her voice despite her best efforts at sounding professional to the colleagues or whoever it was whose voices he heard. “My voice is getting quite a workout, with all these songs I have to learn and practice in one week.”
“But you’re kicking ass?” he asked quietly. Addy chuckled.
“Language, Lenny!” she automatically shot back.
“Yes mommy.” he pitched his voice a bit higher than usual. There was a louder voice behind Addy, and then the other voices rose slightly.
“Listen, I have to get back to rehearsal.” Addy said apologetically.
“You free for dinner tonight?” Leonard asked.
“Not until nine.” Addy sighed.
“That’s OK. We’re busy enough I probably won’t get out of here before then.” He replied quietly. “Any ideas for a place?”
“There’s a nice Persian place on Peel Street?”
“Ah, back to your roots? Yeah, I could use some saffron rice with greasy sauce, sounds great. Text me the address, and I’ll make a reservation for 9?”
“Sounds good!” He heard a door slam, the clicking of high heels, she was heading back inside.
“I’ll give your last name, I don’t want to scare the francophones with the ‘K’ in my name. Oh, and rock the house!”
“It’s Soul.” She chuckled.
“Yeah, but you can’t soul a house. Sell, maybe?” He scratched with his nail over one board of the painted bench, stopping in surprise when the dark blue paint came off easily to expose red underneath.
“That would help, but I think that’s Penny’s manager’s job – OK, gotta hang up, I’m at the auditorium!” Her smiling voice dropped to a whisper.
“Till 9.” Leonard signed off, dropped into his phone’s menu and navigated to the text message screen. “Castonguay’s office svp.” he typed, then sent off the text message.
He slid the phone back in the pocket of his dark slacks, looked around to check that nobody had noticed his accidental act of vandalism, and leisurely headed towards the aforementioned place. He knocked, and after a moment, the door opened and a young, red-haired woman in lab coat left left Castonguay’s office. Leonard recognized Celine Young from the day before. She obviously recognized him, but he just greeted her politely and entered the office, closing the door behind himself.
“What do you want now, Kilian.” Castonguay growled curtly. Leonard paused. He hadn’t really thought about that. He wanted Castonguay to admit he had stolen from Fawkes. But Commander Nadeau’s words rang in his ears. She was right. Castonguay was an arrogant ass, but industrial espionage wasn’t his style.
“Where is the rest of the records? Or are you telling me this technology just sprang from your head, fully formed?”
“I’m not Athena.” Castonguay sneered. Leonard saw him weigh his options. He went for a weak excuse, but Leonard couldn’t blame him. It fit Occam’s Razor, was a simple explanation. It was sufficient.
“I thought you’d taken them all yesterday?” Castonguay smiled innocently.
“Obviously we must have missed something. We have the result, but none of your progress. Or is that because you based it off of somebody else’s progress?” That jab wiped out Castonguay’s smile.
“I want a neutral party present.” Castonguay immediately shuttered.
“Fine with me.” Leonard smiled. “Commander Nadeau should be here any minute.” He sat down on a stiffly upholstered leather sofa against one wood-paneled wall of the room. About five minutes later, the police officer knocked at the door.
“Yes!” Castonguay called. Nadeau entered.
“Thank you for coming on such short notice, Commander, but it appears that the kind doctor here has knowledge of additional files that we didn’t find yesterday, and he insists on neutral presence while they are collected.” Leonard had risen from the couch politely and then half-turned towards the lead engineer. “Doctor, is this to your satisfaction?”
It was. Barely. The doctor quietly rose, and headed over to the large, wooden globe. Nadeau and Kilian exchanged a glance. Of course! Castonguay lifted the top half off the globe, revealing its inside with a well-stocked mini bar. Well-aged single-malts. However, in one of the bottle holders, about two thick folders were rolled up.
Castonguay pulled them out, and pointedly handed them past Leonard to Nadeau. “This is company confidential information, Miss.” he added. “I am sure you will only disclose it to whoever really needs to see it.” All he got back from the Commander was an icy look. He hadn’t even realized he’d not only just stripped her of her rank, but also insulted her competency. Nice going there.
Nadeau wordlessly handed the files to Leonard as they left his office. She was too much of a professional to let herself be riled by people like this arrogant blond scientist.
“Thank you, Commander.” Leonard replied. “If this really is what was missing,” he stared ahead down the corridor as the two of them shuffled towards the elevators, “we’ll be out of your hair soon.”
Leonard could see in her quiet nod that Nadeau was aware of the precarious situation he and Fawkes would be in if it turned out Castonguay hadn’t stolen the technology. Or maybe she was just reading his body language.
Leonard didn’t notice she was standing next to him until a shadow fell over the sheet he was reading. His hand twitched, sending the contents of the folder flying across and off the table.
“Crap!” he called out, scrambling to collect the ones that hadn’t yet fallen.
“I’d expected a warmer welcome.” Adair smiled at him, squatting as much as her short skirt and high heels allowed, handing a handful of files up onto the table.
“Thanks.” He mumbled.
“I think you want to redo that seating chart.” She mused, casually glancing at the last sheet before handing it over.
She slid into the small alcove with the table surrounded on three sides by benches so she was opposite him, facing him:
“You don’t have to eat with me if you’re too busy or if you, you know, want to go find someone to do … things with.” She offered warmly once he’d finished packing his files away.
“No I’m not too–” he paused, blinking at her. “Wait, did you just tell me to get laid?”
“It does help take people’s minds off stressful occurrences.” she stated matter-of-factly, nodding her thanks to the waiter just handing her the menu.
“Are you offering?” he teased.
“I walked right into that one, didn’t I?” Adair hid her face behind her menu, coming back out smiling.
“Seriously,” Leonard sighed, dithering between the various Khoreshts on offer, “I’d rather eat. I’m starving.”
“I’m just looking out for my little boy. You’re working too much.” she dropped the menu on the crimson tablecloth with the ochre bordures and signed to the waiter for two Dugh in that way only Persians did on their home turf.
“If this week keeps going like that, you won’t have to worry about that anymore.” Leonard mumbled dejectedly.
When he looked up, she was quiet, but staring at him patiently, attentively. He wanted to tell her, but he couldn’t. It was classified, it was– It was an earthbound mission.
He tilted his head sideways a few times, as if trying to find an angle from which to view the situation mentally laid out before his eyes:
“You know we don’t just do the stuff I do, right? Lots of departments, scientists from all sorts of disciplines, engineers, inter-disciplinary collaboration.” He knew he didn’t need to remind her of all this, she was smart and had impeccable memory, but it bought him time to come up with a way to avoid telling her what he couldn’t tell her without leaving any important gaps in the situation.
The waiter arrived with their two drinks, little bits of green herbs floating on the white yoghurty surface. They took the opportunity to order their meals and clink their glasses, then Leonard resumed:
“One of our departments came up with new technology. Based on … well, it’s like a natural phenomenon. Our guys saw something, and came up with a way to use it. Completely new, never before seen.” The lights in the restaurant dimmed a little as some waiter adjusted them, probably thinking of all the couples that usually arrived around this time. For the first time Leonard noticed the small tea candle on the table and its flickering, warm light splashing over their hands and Addy’s face like waves lapping the shore.
“Then we heard another company was releasing the same technology. Which is impossible.” He said.
“No way they could have seen the same phenomenon?” Addy wondered, sipping from her drink, obviously relishing the slightly sour taste. Leonard fished around for words for a moment, before replying:
“It is very localized. They can’t have seen it anywhere else than where we saw it, and we own that … land.” he flailed, taking a sip from his drink to cover. “So we talked to our government contacts. They want this exclusively, so they weren’t happy about someone else having it in the first place.” Addy’s eyebrows rose with understanding:
“Security relevant. I get it.” She curtailed further explanation. “So they sent the police to that other company, and they found nothing?”
“No.” Leonard corrected. “They sent me and a few colleagues. This is high tech, the police wouldn’t know what to look for.”
“You’re an archaeologist. Why you?” Adair frowned.
“I’m an executive. I already knew this technology was coming.” Leonard offered. Adair didn’t quite seem to believe this explanation, but apparently trusted him enough to not dig. He went on:
“They don’t have a complete history of development. By today, we have about three months of their development history, but that’s not enough. And they’ve not even tried making excuses for where the stuff might have gone.” He took another gulp from his Dugh, savoring the salty taste. “But of course the absence of documentation isn’t proof they didn’t develop it by themselves. We can’t go to court with this.”
“You think you know, but you can’t prove it.” Addy summarized. Leonard looked up at her from examining his fingers:
“You don’t believe we’re right?” He realized it had stung, that she had said think you know.
“It doesn’t matter what I think. I’m a singer, not a detective.” She smiled.
“You certainly were a good detective when I ate your chocolate as a kid or went and watched TV late at night.” He said softly. She made the most curious noise, almost like a giggle. He’d never heard her sound so … young.
“Leonard, I practically watched you figure out how your body worked right from the start. I had a front row seat to the development and refinement of each of your tells.” She made a casual hand motion as if to point them all out, but stopped herself abruptly. A smart move, if Leonard knew himself. He’d worked hard at removing every tell he’d discovered in himself. “Of course I’m a good detective when it comes to you.” She finished.
“Oh, you still are? After all this time?” He challenged.
“I just don’t point each one out to you anymore when I spot it.” She was still smiling indulgently at him.
“But you think I am missing something.” He paused, then corrected himself. “You see something in me that makes you know I am missing something.” Her smile softened, then widened.
“I don’t have all the facts, I don’t even have all the facts that you know.” She raised a dark, slender finger to halt his objection. “That is not an accusation.” She lowered her hand and wrapped it around her drink. “But you tend to go into things with expectations. Sometimes, you even make assumptions. You went into this with the expectation that they stole from you.”
“Well, what else could they have done? We didn’t find documentation they’d seen a similar phenomenon. There is no hint that the seed of this idea has ever been at this company.”
“I don’t know. I’m just a singer, remember? I know you. I can tell you that’s what you did. I can’t tell you what they did.” They were interrupted by the server bringing their orders. Leonard’s Khoresht, a vegetable sauce with lentils, a baked tomato, and the usual side-serving of lemons whose juice he happily squeezed onto the rice. Adair’s huge serving of Kababs, three huge minced meat skewers.
You couldn’t tell from her appearance, but the woman could eat like a football team. And he could watch her doing that for hours. She ate a lot, and she wasn’t a slow eater by any means, but she didn’t wolf her food down mindlessly. You could tell she savored every bite, acutely aware of minute details of the preparation.
“How is the Kubideh?” He asked a while later, using his fork to gingerly maneuver a few thin slices of butter from a small plate onto his rice, watching them melt and relieve the dryness of eating it now the sauce was used up. She looked up, still chewing, noticed the amused look on his face and blushed.
“I’m sorry.” She mumbled through lamb, chicken and tomato, impishly smiling as much as she could without opening her mouth.
“Don’t be. It’s endearing.” He shoveled a spoonful of rice and tomato into his mouth, waiting for the scolding look to hit him. There it was. Like clockwork, right on schedule. He forced down his chuckle until he’d had time to chew. That word always got her. Because it was true.
“Nice dress, by the way,” he changed the topic, “love the pumps.” he added. She glanced down at herself, as if to check if he was being ironic. “You’re just usually a much more practical dresser.” He explained diplomatically.
“We had the dress rehearsal today.” Her eyes were suddenly very interested in the décor of the plates. “I just thought I’d practice a bit before I fall off the stage trying to tap my foot in rhythm to the music.” Leonard nodded. He didn’t need to say what he was thinking. Addy gave a mix of a released breath and a chuckle, exasperatedly but good-naturedly adding:
“You think I’m full of bullshit.”
“Of course. I’ve never seen you once having to practice anything. You just go out, try something for a day, and you can do it.” He shot a short look towards the tabletop to emphasize what he was talking about. “When you arrived here, you already managed to pick something up off the floor without flashing everyone your panties. You’ll be the most skilled woman to have walked that stage in high heels tomorrow. Stop worrying.” Adair blushed.
“I’m not talking about my underware with you.” She said sternly.
Leonard broke out laughing so loudly that the other patrons turned to their table to see what the matter was. It took him a moment to catch himself, and his stomach hurt a bit from laughing now, but he didn’t care.
“Not my intention.” He croaked, as laughter threatened to break out again.
“And you haven’t seen me try to swim yet.” She added quietly, stuffing another bit of meat into her mouth. Leonard took a moment to register what she’d said.
“Wait, you don’t know how to swim … ?”
The next morning found Leonard, Yoshiaki and Kate in a small coffee shop with a breathtaking view of Mt. Royal park. Most of the evidence they had gathered had been transferred to their iPads, and they were discussing it, page by page, photo by photo, hoping that one presenting the evidence might jog loose a recollection about a fact in another.
It was exhausting, and so far entirely unsuccessful. None of the information they possessed tied Castonguay’s work more closely to Fawkes’ than it could have been independent.
They all interrupted their work when Kate spotted Commander Nadeau entering the cafe and waved her over. Nadeau held up a folder with the police seal on the front.
“Are those Castonguay’s phone logs?” Leonard asked as she reached the table.
“Yes. We’ve managed to match up most of the numbers to names, there are only a few where we couldn’t, and those are mostly drug stores and the like.” She flagged down the waitress and, while hanging her jacket over the chair back behind herself ordered an espresso.
Kate took the grey paper folder with a nod and began studying the individual items:
“The unmatched numbers would be pretty useless anyway. Single calls, very short. Not enough for negotiations to have happened.” She paused to butter the corner of her croissant and bit off its end. “The called people aren’t that unusual either. The secretary, the wife, and his assistants. An exterminator and his physician.”
“Oui.” Sandrine Nadeau added. She had obviously already studied the data beforehand and come to a similar conclusion. “He is a workaholic. He called his wife much less often than his assistants.”
Leonard stretched out his long legs under the small, shaky table with the iron lions’ feet and leaned back. “Who are his top assistants?”
“Seems to be most popular with the ladies.” Yosh peeked over Kate’s shoulder. “Ms. Ikkuzhan and Ms. Young have a substantial lead over their male counterparts. Why?”
“Just curious.” Leonard mused. He flipped through the notes they had made on their first day. Attendance list, separated by rooms. Seating charts, as provided by Skunkworks.
“You know what bothers me?” Kate put down the folder with the cell phone call history and began kicking the table softly but quickly.
“No.” Yosh answered drily.
“This is Castonguay’s baby, right?” She was still kicking the table leg impatiently.
“Yes.” Yosh continued monotonously.
“He’s an electrical engineer, with a side specialty in chemical processes.”
“Yes.” Yosh held up the file on Castonguay they had.
“So, essentially he’s me.” Kate said. “He can plug in an electric chainsaw, and he knows enough chemistry to make stuff go boom.”
“Yes?” Kate now had Yosh’s undivided attention.
“So how the hell does he know how to do frequency diagrams, and all the other physics needed to come up with this thing? Did he take evening classes in particle physics?”
“No.” Yosh had consulted their data again.
“Oh fuck.” Leonard began flicking frantically through the notes again.
“What is it?” Nadeau’s interest was peaked.
“What if we went about this wrong?” Leonard pushed aside a few plates.
“Oh no. Leonard thinking deep thoughts again.” Yosh grumbled in mock desperation. Leonard rolled his eyes:
“We came here, assuming that Castonguay is the thief.” Leonard tapped at something on a map that was showing on his iPad. “What if he has no idea?”
“Well, he certainly has no idea of physics.” Kate offered snarkily. Leonard jumped up from his seat and shoved the pad at Yosh:
“Castonguay had no desk. We found notes – obviously from a physics genius – at an empty desk in the lab.”
“Fuck.” Yosh pointed out the spot on the seating chart.
“Fuck.” Kate echoed.
Nadeau raised an eyebrow.
“Castonguay has an office upstairs. He is the boss. He delegates everything. He doesn’t have a workspace in the lab.” Kate summarized.
“Celine Young and Riti Ikkuzhan, however, share one.” Yosh smirked.
“He did say it was a team effort.” Nadeau offered.
“Just failed to say that he’s a director not a writer.” Yosh handed Leonard his iPad back.
The drive across town was uneventful. Their return to the surprisingly tasteful glass and steel building that housed Skunkworks’ main headquarters, however, promised to be the opposite.
The four got their first inkling of trouble when their key cards refused to provide them access. When they could see nobody at the awning of the front entrance, Leonard marched along the side of the tall building, until they finally found a side entrance with a doorbell. He pushed the shiny silver button. Three times in quick succession.
“Yes.” Leonard recognized the voice of the only man staffing the front desk.
“Leonard Kilian and crew.” He answered. For a moment, the line was quiet. Not even background noise. The microphone on the other end had been muted. He glanced at Kate.
“Can’t be good.” Yosh rasped gloomily.
Nadeau barely nodded, the unflappable stoicism not leaving her features for a moment. Leonard didn’t have any doubt she’d been in this exact situation before. He also had no illusions that this would not spell trouble for them. The question was simply: How much trouble were they in?
A noise at the door announced that they would soon have the answer. Two burly security men, wearing their dark pseudo-police garb like a peacock his feathers, began pushing their wide frames through the opening doors and … stopped. Each of them found themselves facing a woman.
The one facing Commander Nadeau immediately realized he could only lose a confrontation with la Ville de Montréal. And if Leonard had to wager a guess at her facial expression, he’d have put half a month’s pay on it that she hated bullies.
The security guard facing Kate Helios attempted a step towards the tiny woman. She merely slightly shifted her stance to the side and minutely raised her arms. Classic Judo opening stance. The guard stopped in his tracks. He was obviously not used to resistance, not to mention not paid well enough to risk confronting people who weren’t just rabble-rousers and drunk hobos, but real professionals.
The four remained immobile for a moment. The women sternly but neutrally staring at the men, until the two guards began exchanging helpless glances. Then Castonguay’s familiar voice could be heard behind the tall, wide men:
“Nico, Viggo, that won’t be necessary.” His words were dripping with false magnanimity. The two large men turned sideways and awkwardly slid past Castonguay and the two men in expensive suits behind him.
“Bye Viggo.” Kate lilted, winking at ‘her’ guard, standing there so casually, nobody who hadn’t been in front of the huge guard and seen her would think she had stood in a fighting stance just seconds ago. The addressed man grumbled something unintellegible.
“Dr. Castonguay.” Leonard greeted his opposite number, holding up the Skunkworks-Logo-decorated key card, carefully suppressing the anger he could feel boiling in his veins. “It seems there is a problem with our government-guaranteed access to the evidence in your building.”
One of the suits, a reed-thin, sandy-haired man with wrinkly cheeks in an otherwise incredibly young-looking face stepped forward next to Castonguay and calmly answered:
“Mr. Kilian, after thorough examination of the paperwork Ms. Fawkes and her legal staff have submitted, we have not only grave doubts in the veracity of the claims leveled against our client,” he indicated Castonguay with a well-manicured hand, who made no effort to suppress the toothy smile that was spreading across his face like an inappropriate cancer, “but also about the process that was involved in the court order that gave you access to this facility.”
Leonard could feel the heat rising in his face and fought to keep it neutral. Luckily, his dark complexion hid his anger quite well. He casually slipped his arm out of the strap of his backpack and set it on the ground, to buy himself some time to think of a strategy:
“That may be so,” Leonard said, surprised at the deceptive calmness in his voice, “but the court order stands–” The other lawyer, a squat, dark-skinned man, handed him a folded slip of paper:
“Seeing as you have had three days of full access, yet were unable to provide even a trace of proof for what you assured him was an airtight case, it was easy to convince Judge Lagrange to sign a temporary stay of your court order.” He watched calmly as Leonard studied the paper, then handed it off to Kate behind him without as much as turning around.
Leonard opened a fist he hadn’t noticed he’d clenched in the first place, slowly, to avoid attracting attention:
“As you wish.” He smiled coldly. “We have the information we need. We just wanted to do our due diligence.” Castonguay and the lawyers exchanged surprised glances. “I assume you will will cooperate and ensure none of your employees leave until we return in three days with the complete files?”
“Of course.” Castonguay said, too quickly for any of the lawyers to stop him. Leonard could practically hear the two lawyers mentally slap their foreheads. “Wonderful! I look forward to meeting you and Mister Castonguay again.” Leonard added.
Leaving out the title had the desired effect of irking Castonguay. It was petty, Leonard was aware of that, but he hadn’t been able to resist after the title-hungry engineer had intentionally slighted not just Leonard but also Lee Fawkes repeatedly, ignoring their titles.
Castonguay huffed, then angrily turned and left, the two suits hurrying after them. The door clicked closed softly, and for a moment all was quiet. When she was reasonably certain nobody was coming back, Kate asked:
“‘We have the information we need?’” Leonard turned around towards Kate and the other two, a sheepish look on his face:
“A little white lie that will hopefully become true in a few days.” he picked his backpack off the grey cobblestone and shrugged back into it. “Hopefully I’ve put enough pressure on Castonguay and whoever actually stole the design that they’ll make a mistake.”
“What now?” Yosh asked, following Leonard across the street.
“Now,” Leonard explained, “we set up shop in this nice coffee shop and watch for Ms. Ikkuzhan and Ms. Young.”
“I’ll call the rental agency for a second car.” Kate offered. “Just in case the two leave at the same time.”
“Make it two.” Yosh said.
“Castonguay.” Kate understood. “You’re right, we’ll have to watch for all three of them.”
“You have an odd way of going about this investigation.” Nadeau said coolly.
“I presume this means you would like to return to your precinct?” Leonard offered.
“No.” Nadeau grinned. “I’ve had a talk with Ms. Helios when she picked me up this morning, and given how sure you are that no two inventions would be this close in time as well as design, not to mention such a sudden leap in understanding of physics, I’m willing to help you out a little longer.” She stopped, and the whole group paused with her. “Besides, you need someone with a car to watch the back entrance for you.” she said drily.
The three exchanged sheepish glances. There was a back entrance and they had completely overlooked it. Without dwelling on their mistake, she added:
“Besides, my boss is really interested in getting in good graces with the people who asked her to provide assistance to you in this matter. She’s much more pleasant to be around when she is happy,” she smirked. “I’ll call you when anything happens back there.” The four waved casual goodbyes and then departed in their separate directions.
While Nadeau and Leonard kept an eye on the building, Yosh and Kate took two trips to the car rental service to pick up the two cars. Fortunately, not much happened. Every hour, one of the guards – Viggo, Leonard identified him – would make a round around the building to see if everything was in order.
Nadeau would call when she saw him exit via the side entrance where they had first met the potbellied guard and his slimmer, more presentable colleague with the needle-thin mustache. He’d make the tour, and was obviously more interested in the cleanliness of the building, than in the safety of the perimeter.
“He’s looking bored. Maybe we should throw an egg against the glass façade so he has something to do?” Nadeau offered humorously. Leonard chuckled. He could imagine the stocky man whipping out a bunch of Kleenex and having a go at a stain on the building.
“No, I’m sure he can afford to pay for his own entertainment, I’m not buying and wasting food for him.” Leonard grinned into the phone. “Wait, something’s happening at the front entrance now.” He casually leaned back in his chair so he was out of view of the street but hidden behind the thin curtains decorating the windowed front of the small coffee shop.
A burly man, not potbellied, exited the building and headed right for Leonard. “It’s our other friend, Nico. He’s headed right for me.” Leonard grumbled.
“If you think you’re in trouble–” Nadeau offered.
“No, I didn’t mean to imply that. And anyway, I’m just sitting alone having a coffee. There are other patrons and the owners here. I’ll be fine, and if not at least there’ll be witnesses.” Leonard spread out a few random papers from his bag on the table, pulled his pen out of his pocket and tore a page out of his notebook and wrote some random words on it. Atahualpha. Tefnet. Saqqarah. Cholula. Yug-Shoggoth. Dropped the pen on the table.
Nico had meanwhile reached the doors to the little shop, the back of his grass-stain-brown mullet twitching in the wind like a dying squid. He pushed open the well-oiled door that quietly swung on its hinges and headed towards the counter, engaging the young, pretty barista in conversation as he ordered the plainest, most boring coffee she must have seen in her life. No wait, he asked for sweetener instead of sugar.
The woman smiled a well-exercised 10 000 Watt smile, and had a polite answer to all of his jokes and questions. Leonard rolled his eyes.
“Oh my, I think Squid-Hair has a crush on the barista.” He chuckled into the phone, trying to look busy with his papers as Nico made efforts to turn away from the sales lady. It didnt help. The mountain of a man spotted him, and headed towards his table at the extensive window front.
He stopped in front of Leonard, who ignored him as long as he could, pretending to have a telephone conversation. Finally he had to turn and found Nico staring back at him, the sunlight falling through the glass panes projecting an ‘x’ on his forehead from the stick-on-letters that spelled out the place’s name.
Leonard lifted his phone away from his mouth and politely asked:
“Is something wrong?” When Nico didn’t immediately answer, he pretended to return to his phone call. Hoping Nadeau would understand what he meant, Leonard casually voiced back into the receiver:
“No, I completely understand, your observations are much more important than dinner. Don’t worry.” Just then, Nico’s huge hand reached out and snapped Leonard’s phone closed.
“Hey!” Leonard shot back. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“You’re still here. The Doctor told you to get lost.” He rumbled.
“The Doctor’s Lawyers instructed me to stay off the premises,” Leonard replied, keeping some calculated agitation in his voice. “Cut me some slack, I’m just finishing my paperwork at this nice table until I’m picked up here!” Nico seemed to accept that. His eyes squinted like a bad Schwarzenegger action movie character, and in going he added, over his shoulder:
“I’ll be watching you.”
Leonard took a moment to roll his eyes at the platitude before he flipped open his phone again and called Nadeau back:
“Nico’s heading back–” He paused when Nadeau interrupted him:
“Get to the car!” She hissed. Leonard swiped the papers off the table into his bag in one hectic motion, and ran, still stuffing them into the compartment, as he exited the shop. He saw Nadeau, impatiently waving at him from next to the car. He fished the car keys from the front pocket of his bag and squeezed. The front lights blinked, and the door locks popped.
“Drive!” He threw Nadeau the keys, hurrying for the passenger door while she rounded the hood and slipped into the driver’s seat. She revved the engine as Leonard plonked down on the seat next to her and yanked the seatbelt across his chest. “What happened?” He pressed through gritted teeth as the car shot out of its parking spot backwards and did a 180 degree spin, then sped off down the street.
“While you were leisurely drinking coffee, our three birds flew.” Nadeau explained. Signing quickly to overtake car after car down Rue Sherbrooke, her eyes searching the road with practiced speed, spotting a gap in the traffic where a car must have just turned down Avenue de Lorimier. A red brick building with a particularly interesting green jutty whooshed past Leonard in a blur.
“There he is!” Nadeau pointed at a bright green Ferrari weaving its way through traffic about four cars ahead of them. Leonard shook his head at the atrocious choice of color on such a beautiful car as he watched it zip across another intersection.
“What about the other two?” Leonard turned towards the cop.
“Kate and Yoshiaki arrived while you were in the coffee shop.” Nadeau glanced into the left mirror, then overtook two old Bugs that obviously belonged together. Castonguay’s Ferrari was now five cars ahead of them. Leonard’s phone chirped just as they crossed another intersection.
“Kilian.” He flipped it open.
“I’m at Ikkuzhan’s.” Leonard put Yoshiaki on speakerphone. “Just reached her home. Preparing dinner, a lot of it. Expecting guests?”
“Good. Keep us posted if anything changes. But stay out of sight.” Leonard admonished, then hung up with a quick “Bye.” He pushed the speed dial button for Kate. She picked up quickly:
“Hiya Leonard.” She chirped. “I’m outside Young’s apartment building. Nice neighborhood, lots of restaurants, upscale too. I wonder how she can afford such sweet digs. How’re you guys doing?” The Ferrari ahead of them just passed another intersection.
“Still chasing Castonguay.” Leonard watched with horror as the light ahead of them changed.
“Merde.” Nadeau hit the brake. Had they been at the front, she could have easily made it across the latest intersection, but the driver of the impeccably maintained Yugo in front of them wasn’t in such a hurry, and had brought his car to a stop.
“Make that past tense.” Leonard sighed into the tiny speaker at the bottom of his phone, then flipped it closed.
They both stared out the front of the car quietly, willing the red light to change. When it finally did, Nadeau quickly overtook the pristine but slow vehicle and sped forward in the direction they had last seen the Ferrari go. Three intersections later, and still nothing.
Leonard fished for a little slip of paper in his bag. “Rue Aylwin.” He read from one of the lines. That’s close enough. Let’s try if he went home. Maybe we’re lucky.
Nadeau nodded and signaled for a right turn.