A.I.
Chapter 39

When I told Spook about it he asked me the same question I'd been asking myself ever since.

Are you certain that what this man shouted was your former name? I understand that a common means of attracting attention is for one to call "hey." Could it be that this is what you heard with perhaps some additional word after, and because it was your name before your mind linked the sounds?

"I don't think so," I typed back; I'd wanted to do this via the laptop because it was a pretty emotional issue with me, and also because I didn't want anyone walking in on a verbal conversation about it—for "anyone," read Lee. "I've thought about it a lot, and I still think it was 'Heyward' that I heard."

Only Richard and Lisa and I know of you by that name. I am certain of myself, and I have no reason to doubt Lisa. Have you spoken of this to Richard?

"No," I said. "Do you think I should?"

Yes. If you are correct in your memory of what this man called then I can determine no other possible source for the knowledge.

So I called him. But this one would have to be kept completely private with no possibility of a tap on his end. I used the same ploy I'd worked with Lisa now so many years back.

"Richard, don't say my name or anything else; this is a dead line to anybody listening," I told him. "Take this cell to a place where nobody can see or hear you and call me back, we'll suppress the whole call." And I clicked off.

I wasn't entirely happy doing it this way, for the same reason we hadn't set it up like this to start. If Richard were still trying to expose me he could bring others in to listen and it would tell them a lot more than I cared for anyone else to know about Spook's total control of the phone system.

But I'd come to feel a lot more comfortable about trusting Richard in the two-plus years since I'd told him about Spook. And if worse came to worst Spook and I could survive that much being known, though it would make things tougher.

What drove me to take the risk was the concern I had about Jack Heyward's existence being known, and the fact that somebody might have put him together with Jack Carstairs. Add that to the fact that this person had tried to snatch me off the street by force and I didn't like my situation at all.

Richard's return call came only about an hour later. Spook had been monitoring the phone as he'd done with Lisa; no listener would even know it was active.

"Jack, it's Richard, as you asked."

"Nobody can see or hear you?"

"As you asked," he repeated.

"Thanks," I said. "I have to trust you some because something's happened." And I told him the story, though at first I left out the name of the city; it would be too easy to trace Jack Carstairs there.

He was silent for a minute after I'd finished. "Did you see the man, the one who called you?" he asked. "I mean get a good look?"

"Yes," I said. It had been pretty brief, but it was a face that had stayed in my mind because of what I'd heard. In fact I'd almost stopped in my tracks when he'd called, only the rush of adrenalin had kept me running. I gave him a brief description.

"Where did this happen?" he asked. "Jack, it's important," he said when I hesitated.

"Rome," I finally said reluctantly.

"Italy?"

"Yes."

Another pause. Did Richard know something?

"I'll get back to you," was all he said. And, dammit, he clicked off his own phone. How the hell was he going to "get back to me" if Spook didn't know to block the call? We couldn't block every call he made.

The whole episode was extremely unsatisfactory. I'd spoken to Richard in the morning; by that evening, when he still hadn't "got back to me," I was so restless that Lee noticed something was wrong. When she asked all I could come up with was a fairly lame story about still being edgy about Rome. Spook hadn't picked anything up on either the phone or the 'Net about possible Federal action against us, but Richard's behavior had been so strange that I wondered if they were planning another bust.

We finally went to bed, but I was still uneasy. I tossed and turned a bit, and even when I finally got off to sleep it wasn't very deep. As a result the sound of the doorbell had me up and moving almost immediately.

It was a ring, though, not the official knock and call of the last time. Puzzled, I went to the door and looked through the peephole to see a very rumpled-looking Richard holding up a piece of paper in front of him.

"Don't say my name, just let me in," it read.

What the hell? But I couldn't find any reason not to do it—if this was an official visit they'd just break in if I didn't anyway—so I turned off the alarm and threw the latches.

He seemed to be alone. He walked in without a word, shut the door behind himself and gestured emphatically toward the study. Shaking my head in puzzlement I re-bolted, set the alarm again and took him in, closing the door behind me as I had that last time two years ago.

"Jesus," he said. "That is one long damn drive. You got any coffee? I could use it. Strong."

I looked toward the speaker. Since Richard's last visit I'd set the room up for video as well, Spook could see me.

"He has nothing," came Spook's voice. No recording or transmitting gadgets, he meant. Whatever Richard was up to, he wasn't setting me up.

"My God, of course I have nothing," he said tiredly. "You think I'd show up on your doorstep at two ay-em to play footsie with recordings? Coffee, how about it?"

"Coffee's in the kitchen," I told him. "You come with me, but we won't speak until we're back here, OK?"

"Sure, OK," he said in the same tone. "Lead me to some caffeine."

I had no idea at all what Richard was doing, but the whole thing was bothering me a great deal. Fortunately Lee had slept right through everything, she was still shaking off the effects of the time change coupled with Johnnie's post-Europe erratic schedule.

We took the whole pot back with us, along with cream, sugar and two big mugs; whatever had brought Richard here so unexpectedly was likely to want my wakefulness, too.

He took a deep draught out of his, making me cringe a little; even with the cream he'd added it had to be hot. Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out a folded-up photo and handed it to me.

"This the guy?" he asked abruptly. I looked and nodded; it was the man who'd stayed in the limo.

"Shit," he grunted. "When you said Rome I was afraid of it, and your description matched. Jack, you have to come in. This is a very bad man. Spook, pull up Carlos Estrada, show him."

I went around the desk to the laptop and read for a while. "A very bad man" apparently didn't say it. The history, I'm sure from top secret files, was appalling—assassinations, bombings, kidnappings, any kind of mayhem you could think of, he'd done it all. He seemed to have no political affiliation of his own, he was strictly a gun for hire, but he was as lethal on behalf of his employers as you could ask to meet.

When I looked up at Richard again it was with a pretty dour feeling. "What the hell, Richard?" I said. "How does this asshole know I'm Jack Heyward?"

"I don't think he does, not for sure," he replied. "He's guessing, and your not reacting when he shouted at you means he's still guessing. But— Spook, take a look at Joseph Harding and summarize for Jack."

"Joseph Harding was a former Federal agent, now deceased," came Spook's disembodied voice. "His body was found in Switzerland three months ago. He had been shot twice in the head at close range. After his demise it was discovered that his bank records showed unexplained wealth of recent origin. The funds appeared to have been received from an account that was associated with Carlos Estrada. Is this what you wished, Richard?"

"That's it," he confirmed. "Jack, I'm afraid in a way this goes back to me. Harding was a co-worker and, I guess, even a friend. He was in with me on the Heyward hunt, he was part of the team when we took you in a couple years back. He was the only one who even half-believed me when I kept insisting that you were Heyward long after all the evidence you'd seeded proved otherwise."

I was nodding slowly as he talked on.

"Once or twice afterwards he asked me if I still thought the same. I was still in the middle about you and Spook, and I guess I wasn't real convincing when I said I supposed not. And of course you, as Carstairs, were still in our records. I know he pulled them at least once."

"So he sold the information to this Estrada?" I asked.

He nodded. "I think so. Estrada knows about Jack Heyward being this master hacker who can dig the government's files really deep. He'd love to get his hands on Heyward. And then Harding gives him the tip that just maybe Heyward is Jack Carstairs, who's conveniently planning a trip to Europe in the next couple of months. Hell, you're even going to be in Rome, which is Estrada's back yard these days."

"Then he just took a flyer? The off-chance that Harding might be right, because it was convenient?"

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Story tagged with:
Ma/Fa / Consensual / Heterosexual / Science Fiction / Slow /