A.I.
Chapter 14

Copyright© 2015 by Colin Barrett

I was in place as planned, but eight o'clock had come and gone Saturday night and I was getting a very bad feeling. I knew from TV news reports that the guy with the fertilizer had been picked up—it was attributed to "solid Homeland Security investigative work," the assholes—but of course I hadn't a clue what was going on behind the scenes up there.

I could cancel Lisa if I had to; we'd set up a code word for that. If I called her "sugar plum" tomorrow morning she'd abort and we'd work on something else, though I had no idea what. And they might pick her up again, too; they had no real justification—her only crime was being my girlfriend—but when did that stop the "authorities?"

Finally at about 8:30 the phone went off. Not wanting to seem overeager I let about three seconds of ring-tone go on before I answered.

"Waiting until the last minute, Richard?" I answered in a mocking tone, mostly to hide my nerves.

"You'll have to give us more time, Jack," he said. "We haven't yet been able to verify all the things you told me."

I'd kind of expected that; stalling was in the very best bureaucratic tradition, not to mention the textbook way to handle unstable criminals. "You have, let's see, three and a half more hours, give or take. Come midnight the Internet turns into a pumpkin for you."

"Jack, be reasonable—"

"No, Richard, you be reasonable," I said, my voice gone hard. "You've had time to check enough, and I saw on the news that you got the fertilizer guy and I was right about that, too. And I take it back about the three and a half hours, you agree right now or I start uploading. And that won't be the end of it, either. There are lots of other ugly little secrets I could start posting."

There was some muffled talk for a minute, I supposed Richard relaying my intransigence. I'd known that in the end it wouldn't be his call to make, but I'd figured he was high enough to work with whoever could make it, and I guessed I'd been right.

I let it go on for a minute or so, but not too long; they'd already taken their decision or Ashley wouldn't have called, they were just hemming and hawing. "Well, Richard?" I asked loudly. "My mouse is getting itchy."

"What exactly is it you want, Jack?" he responded.

"I told you, call off the dogs. The tap comes off Lisa's phone and she gets to go where she wants without company. And you give up the hunt for me."

"How are we supposed to do that?"

"I've been interviewed and cleared," I told him. "I'm no longer a 'person of interest.' You tell that to the media, loud and clear. And you quit sifting through my background, mine and Lisa's, too. It's that simple."

More background muttering. "What do we get other than you won't publish tomorrow morning?" he said.

"I won't publish, period, as long as you leave me alone. And you might get some more tips like that 'solid investigative work' you did Thursday night. But it all goes to hell if you violate it; I don't have to be personally at a keyboard to publish. And I keep up to date, bust me and you'll never know what you might see."

Another round of muttering; this was silly. "Right now, Richard, yes or no. You've already decided, you just don't want to say it out loud."

"All right, yes, Goddammit," he barked. "But don't count on it forever. We're going to find out how you got in and close it tight, and then you're out of ammunition and we'll find you."

"Don't bet the rent on it," I said, breathing a quiet sigh of relief. "And even then you'd best wait a while, I've already got the current stuff and it'll be good for some time to come. And I'll watch the news and read the 'papers, don't let me down."

As soon as I clicked off I let out a loud sigh of relief. We were on. I broke out the scotch I'd brought with me and poured a solid slug, and then pulled Spook up on the laptop and toasted him. Shortly afterwards I went to bed where, despite the whiskey, I had a pretty restless night. Sunday would be a big day.

I had to spend half an hour watching the news Sunday morning—Sundays seem to be the days the talking heads really blow out wind—before I heard what I'd been waiting for. It was very short and almost tossed off, but John Joseph Heyward was no long­er being sought by authorities, he had voluntarily agreed to an interview and been cleared of any wrongdoing. The news thrives on the negative, they'd had a field day with me as an arch-criminal, but anything positive such as being cleared gets short shrift.

The report was gratifying, but I fully intended to remain Jackson Edward Carstairs, of no official interest to anybody. I didn't trust going back to Heyward for a second.

After I talked to Lisa, without calling her "sugar plum," I packed up the real suitcase I'd bought to replace the old tired backpack and headed out. I wanted a good breakfast first, and I wanted to get there well ahead of her, enough that there was no possibility of being spotted. I could sit in the car and wait without attracting much attention.

The rendezvous I'd chosen was a parking garage right by a chain restaurant. You could get to it off I-95, but I'd told Lisa to instead drive the slightly shorter U.S. 1 that roughly parallels the Interstate. If she was followed, on that road she'd know it. And phone me and call me "sugar plum" and go home.

There are more ways than one to follow somebody, though. Just stick a "homer" on her vehicle, for example, a little radio transmitter that gives away location, and tag along at an unseen distance or even from the air. But the garage would cut off any air surveillance.

I'd thought about telling Lisa to rent a car instead of using her own. But it takes only a second to stick a homer on, so that wouldn't be a sure thing either and besides it might arouse suspicion. And in this age of miniaturization the homer could be somewhere else. In her cell, her purse, her shoes, even her clothes. Or multiple homers or GPS locators or God knows what other electronics. So I'd gone with the "lull 'em to sleep" approach.

The garage was within half a mile of her mom's nursing home, and she often visited on Sundays. She had last week, and had first had lunch at the restaurant. To anybody tracking her this would seem like a repeat.

I'd asked Lisa if she wanted to make a last visit to her mother; it would have altered the timetable since she'd have to go to lunch after, and there'd be the getting-out-of-church crowd in the garage, but I could live with it if I had to.

"No, Jackie," she'd said sadly. "You're right, I'm just beating myself up. Mom's end stage; she hasn't known me for months, she doesn't even remember me from one visit to the next. Every time I'm a stranger. If she's even awake, sometimes she sleeps through the whole time. God, Alzheimer's is a vicious disease. I don't want to remember her like that. And I especially don't want to start off our life together that way. Let's just do it."

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