This post contains portrayals of homosexual actions and lifestyles. There may be references to, or explicit descriptions of, sex between consenting adults.
If homosexuality, sexually explicit language, or swearing offends you, or if reading material that contains these violates any law or personal or religious beliefs, you must exit now without proceeding further.
If you’re under 18 years old you may not read it either because it is against the law. I regret this because I was once a randy teenager myself and I feel somewhat two-faced in helping enforce the law. Hopefully, one day, censorship may disappear along with other vestiges of Big Brother and Mother Grundy.
The story is entirely fictional. Kirkhall Island is a fictional Barrier Island off the Georgia Coast. Where I mention real people or companies (for example, the Chief of Police in Statesboro), it is merely for a semblance of verisimilitude and the attitudes and actions I ascribe to them are entirely fictional.
My thanks to Bill and Alastair who edit my work and make suggestions. Any errors that remain are probably because I ignored their advice.
You can’t go any great distance in Savannah without coming upon one of the large squares that the early burghers planned as grazing areas for cattle in case the city was surrounded. Now they — the squares, not the burghers — are gardens with trim, manicured lawns, grand trees and neat shrubberies, giving the city an open, relaxed and somewhat Iberian air. The Wednesday midday traffic had been horrendous so, eschewing the humdrum concrete parking garages, I prowled down Bryan Street hoping to find a parking spot around Johnson Square. My luck held, for as I crossed Drayton, a little blue VW pulled out just ahead of me. A twist of throttle and my Ninja nipped smartly into the vacated spot. I kicked my sidestand down, slipped my helmet off and, unzippering my leather jacket, strolled across to a vacant bench in the shade of the aged trees. I had some five minutes to kill before I was supposed to meet Mike, so I stretched my legs out and enjoyed the tableau of people that passed before me. But old habits die hard, and my eyes settled on a cute guy in khaki jeans and a white T-shirt sitting eating his lunch about thirty feet away. ‘You’ve got your mate,’ the left side of my brain growled after several minutes of this ogling. ‘Yeah, but there’s no harm in window shopping,’ countered the right, who, after all, had instigated the excursion. Grinning at my rationalization I hoisted the PC backpack onto one shoulder and with my helmet dangling from my fingers, turned my back on temptation and headed across the road to Mike’s office.
When the building had been renovated in the mid eighties, the old style of architecture had been skillfully retained and the varnished front door of the law firm of Assmussen and Watkins had all the appearance of having been crafted over a century ago. It was thick and solid, made of oak planks hewn from trees in the area, and opening it was not a task for the weak in arm. Its threshold, however, separated the history and bustle of the city from a modern office where water quietly tumbled over small stones in table-top fountains and large rattan fans, like indolent da Vincian helicopters, nudged air-conditioned breezes through the waiting room. Gladys, the receptionist, looked up from her keyboard as I gently closed the door behind me.
"Hello, Chris. How are you doing?" she asked smiling.
"Hi, Gladys. I’m cool, thanks. How are things with you?" I replied in the well-worn patter.
"Oh, can’t complain. You here to have lunch with your guy? Couldn’t wait until the weekend to see him, could you?"
I laughed. "Pretty much." I liked Gladys. Every six weeks or so, the partners of the law firm would host a dinner for the staff which, unlike similar events in most other companies, were popular and well attended. Mike had taken me to one of these after he’d got Larry’s charges dismissed, and had deftly steered me to the table where Gladys and her husband sat. ‘It’ll be a lot more fun than sitting with some of the other lawyers,’ he’d said sotto voce as we walked across the room and, as he had promised, the evening turned out to be a great deal more convivial than I had anticipated. Gladys had worked with the firm since it had opened in the early 70s: in this part of the country, and in that era, a black woman being employed in a position where her’s would be one of the first faces someone entering the firm would see, was a tribute in equal parts to her character and those of the young Messrs. Assmussen and Watkins. During the course of the evening she regaled us with stories of the early days when the founding partners had come up with some unusual tactics to win the respect of the city’s legal community and, over time, to become one of the more prestigious legal offices in Savannah. Her tidbits of information on the other lawyers were delivered so much more as insights into their characters than as gossip and, when everyone finally arose to leave at the end of the evening, her hug had been warm and sincere. I had felt the pressure of her arms around me long after we left the restaurant and were walking back to Mike’s car, for I fully realized that I’d passed her catechism and had been deemed a suitable consort for the guy who, it was only too patent, held a soft spot in her heart.
"Is he free now, or is he working?" I asked, still a little awed by the environment in which I stood.
"Well, he’s always working, but he hasn’t got a client with him. You can go through."
"Please! He’s a lawyer, he doesn’t do real work," I joked moving to the door.
"At least with his work he can afford better clothes than jeans and a T-shirt," she fired back protectively as she buzzed the lock open.
I laughed and walked through the door and down the passage toward Mike’s office. I peered around the frame and saw him at his desk writing notes on a yellow pad. I watched silently for a few seconds and then knocked gently and asked, "Excuse me, Sir. Am I permitted to enter the sanctum sanctorum?"
"Hey, Chris!" A grin crossed his face and he stood up and came around his desk to put his arms around me as we exchange a welcoming kiss.
"How you doing, Mike?" I said holding him close with my free hand.
"Not bad. Better now that I get to see you mid-week as well."
"I hear you, man," I set letting go and walking behind his desk. I put my helmet down in the corner, slipped my PC backpack off and placed it on the floor alongside. "So what’s going on that I get an invite for lunch — or was it just that your right hand was getting tired?"
"You’re full of it, you know that?" he replied, laughing, as I hung my leather jacket behind his door. I flashed a grin at him and waited until he continued, "I want you to meet someone and hear a story that sounds either harebrained or scary — I’m not sure which. Let’s go, I’ll tell you what little I know about it as we walk."
We left the office together and headed down the street, Mike speaking in bursts as we weaved amongst the other predators out hunting for lunch. "It’s somebody who works for the same company as Matt," he said. "This woman has some idea that something untoward is going on at their company and she wants to find out what she should, or could, do about it." We separated to pass a couple ambling along staring vapidly into the store windows. As Mike’s and my relationship had grown, the days had waned when the mere mention of Matt’s name made my stomach knot. I had met the guy a couple of times and his friendship with Mike was no longer a burr under my saddle. A fairly good-looking, slender young man, he was some kind of CPA and while his work didn’t sound really all that exciting, he was a pleasant person with a good sense of humor that, even in hetero company, gave the almost stereotypical gay aura that surrounded him a rather honest and charming quality.
"Sounds kinda melodramatic to me," I said as we joined up again.
"Yeah, me too, but you know Matt: it’s right up his alley and, would you believe it, he’s paying for lunch so it would seem that he thinks there’s something there."
"Obviously the age of miracles isn’t over," I said dodging two women engaged in animated conversation and heard Mike chuckle. We turned into West Broughton Street and Mike opened the door of the small restaurant that was apparently our destination. I entered and edged past a line of people waiting for carry- out. Even if Matt hadn’t stood up and called out loudly it wouldn’t have been hard to find him: there were less than eight tables in the establishment. I wended my way over to where he had been seated and greeted him, my eyes scanning from his lilac shirt to the more muted dark floral dress of his lunch companion. I have never had much talent in estimating women’s ages, but if pressed I would have guessed she was in her mid to late forties.
"Hello, Chris, Mike," he said giving us each a hug in turn before turning to his colleague. "Maureen, may I introduce you to Mike Jorgensen, he’s the attorney I’ve been telling you about."
How do you do, Maureen," Mike acknowledged taking her proffered hand.
"And this is Chris Lawrence, the Geek sans pareil, whose mind is a bizarre labyrinth of the arcane, sanctuary of the most eccentric thoughts and source of many an offbeat interpretation," he pronounced. I took her hand somewhat bewildered by the introduction which, even for Matt, was overly grandiloquent.
"It’s nice to meet you, Chris," her eyes held mine steadily as she spoke.
"The pleasure is all mine," I replied. I moved around the table and took the seat next to the wall. We engaged in some small talk and then, as Mike and I picked up our menus, began to discuss the merits of various items on the card. A waitress arrived with pitchers of water and iced tea then, having filled our glasses, inquired if we were ready to order.
"So, Chris," Maureen asked once we had made our choices, "do you live in Savannah, too."
"No. I live down on Kirkhall."
"Oh! North or South end of the island?"
"I have a house on the South end," I replied levelly.
"Ooh, I am impressed," she said laughing lightly.
"Oh, Maureen, you should see his house," effused Matt, "it has the best situation on the island. He has the most marvelous, completely unobstructed view over the dunes to the sea. With just the teeniest bit of talented decoration it could easily make the cover of Southern Living."
I ignored the unintended barb: once you get to know Matt you realize it is just his way and he is without malice. "It’s a house that’s been in the family for quite a while and I’ve been able to buy it," I explained. "I do software development and I get to work from home most of the time, so it’s a pleasant environment for me."
The conversation drifted off onto the advantages of not having to commute, which then led to a discussion of the worsening traffic situation around Savannah — a topic which occupied us until our food arrived. Once everyone had started eating, Mike broached the subject which had brought us here. "So, Matt, Maureen, how about telling us about whatever has got your attention now?"
Matt, for once, remained silent and merely held his hand out toward Maureen indicating the floor was hers.
She dabbed her mouth with her napkin and started speaking. "Each time I tell someone, it sounds even more improbable."
"Don’t worry about that," Mike said reassuringly. "If it were probable it wouldn’t arouse your curiosity."
"Well," she replied, "put that way ," she took a sip of her iced tea before speaking again.
"OK. Like Matt, I work at Consolidated Manufacturing. We have the plant and office complex towards Statesboro, but I work at the headquarters building here in town."
Mike nodded, "I know the place. Big building, boring architecture."
Maureen laughed. "That’s the one. I work in data processing, too," she said looking at me. "I’m one of the people who do job scheduling. As well as the normal stuff we do internally, we have both government and military contracts and some of their requirements are stringent, so it’s a fairly technical position. There are about nine of us in the group. Most of the time we are all interchangeable, but each of us has a couple of areas where our knowledge is a bit more specialized.
"The work that is run on our computers is a mixed bag. Some of it controls machines, some of it monitors production and some, associated with that, does the just-in-time ordering that is very critical. Then there is the development and its associated CAD/CAM work and then, finally, there is the business side of the house such as the HR, payroll, building and plant maintenance. It’s a very diverse shop."
"Yeah, it sure sounds like it," I commented in agreement. "So what happened?"
"I need to tell you a little bit about how we’re organized so things will make sense. The different departments each have their own applications programmers: the theory is that they know their own lines of business best and it makes sense for them to program their own code. But to help keep a corporate direction, there is a data processing council whose members are the senior programmers from each department as well as a couple of the technical support group, the TSG, who are the systems programmers and DBAs.
"Out at the complex in Statesboro some of the groups used mainframes to drive their production and they have their programmers there, too. One of these is a guy called Jonathan. Apparently he is some sort of whiz-kid (I say kid, but he’s about thirty) and he does good stuff, I’m told, and he’s also a member of the TSG.
"His er partner," she glanced at Matt, but he kept his eyes on his food and said nothing, "is a guy who works in our building, named Ross. Ross is part of what we call the Resource Utilization Group, or RUG. They watch how things run, make recommendations about performance, do capacity planning for hardware and so on. He’s a very quiet person. If you meet him socially you might say he’s timid, but his work is right on the mark and he’s generally well thought of. And he’s actually got a droll sense of humor, too, once you get to know him.
"I have a good friend who works in the RUG. Daphne," she added the name for Matt’s benefit and he nodded in recognition. "I have lunch with her once or twice a week and Ross has tagged along a few times, so I’ve got to know him a bit. He seems a nice guy." She broke off to take a mouthful of food and we waited until she resumed. "Then, about six weeks ago, one of the guys in Jonathan’s group had an accident. He was up on a ladder at home doing some repair to his roof and something gave way and he fell and broke his neck. Apparently he died before the paramedics reached the house."
"Geez, that sucks!" I commented with a grimace.
"It stunned everyone," Matt said, "He was in the office on the Friday and the next day he was gone."
"And you suspect it wasn’t an accident?" I asked, trying to figure out where this tale was taking us.
"Oh, no!" Maureen exclaimed quickly, "No. Nothing like that at all. Nothing that concrete I’m afraid. I’m not telling this well: everything is so disjointed that I can’t really tell it plainly . and, really, I think that is what has made me a bit anxious."
"Don’t sweat it," I tried to reassure her, "Just spill out all the facts and maybe we can start to see some sort of a pattern."
"Well, the next thing that happened was that about two weeks later Ross called in sick and said he’d be working from home. Nothing too unusual in that: it happens. But that was a month ago and he hasn’t been in the office since then."
Mike and I exchanged a quick glance of understanding. It wasn’t as blighting as it had been in the eighties, but it always lurked unmentioned in the back of a gay guy’s mind.
"Is he doing any work from home?" I asked.
"Apparently, from what Daphne says. I don’t know any details, but she said that he was and there’d been no need to shift any work around to the other people in the group."
"OK. So what’s the next piece in your puzzle? So far we have one guy dead, apparently by accident, a gay couple, one of whom has not been at work for a fair time."
"The next thing that happened was a friend of ours, well, he’s actually a friend of my husband’s but he and his wife come over to our home for dinner sometimes and we go over to them. Anyway, he works out at Statesboro, too. One night at dinner we were chatting about work and the subject of this accident came up. In the course of the conversation he mentioned that Jonathan had picked up most of the work that the man who had died had been doing. When he mentioned Jonathan I asked if he, Jonathan that is, had said anything about how Ross was and Stan replied that he hadn’t known that Ross was sick, but that would explain why Jonathan had been so distant and edgy of late. We talked a bit about this: you know, wondering what was wrong with Ross and at some time Stan commented that Jonathan seemed to be coming into work early and leaving late. Well, that sounded strange — I mean if your partner is sick, why would you be leaving him alone for a longer time?
"Our talk wandered off in other directions and we didn’t discuss the matter any further and, in all truth, I forgot about it." She stopped talking and took a few mouthfuls of food and the rest of us made small talk about how good our respective lunches were. After a minute or two Maureen picked up the tale again. "Then this Monday I got an email from Ross with a file attached. It was a study he’d done on some jobs we run for a customer and how much time they take and some recommendations as to how to change things around so they would take less time to process. It was the normal kind of work he does. But what was strange was that I wasn’t the one who had asked for it: the report was some work he’d done for someone else in our group and had, I found out when I asked around, sent it to them about a week or two before. Actually they’d already implemented his changes. I was really puzzled and was going to send him an email asking if he’d forgotten that he’d already sent the report to Derek — that’s the person who had asked for it — but as I started to type, the whole tone of his email got to me, it seemed strange somehow, and for some reason I deleted my response without sending it. I mean, this report was a lot of work. One wouldn’t do all that work and then forget you’d sent it to the person who had asked for it. And even if you did, then why wouldn’t you resend it to them?
"I thought about it all that night and mentioned it to my husband, but he is so matter of fact he told me just to ignore it — which didn’t help me much. Yesterday, when I got to work, Matt happened to be in the coffee room when I came in, so I spoke to him about the email. And, when I gave it to him to read, he thought it was very extraordinary, too. That’s when he brought your name up, Chris, and said he thought you might like to see it."
"Have you got the email here?" I asked, my curiosity piqued.
She bent down and picked up her purse and withdrew a sheet of paper which she gave to me. "That’s it! It was so unusual; unusual in itself and so very unusual for Ross that I started to wonder if he were on strong medication or something worse."
I pushed the sheet so Mike could read it at the same time.
Here is the report for the new scheduling. Same thing one sees, or knew about, from before. I know you’re keen on angry phrases so I figured I should get it to you as soon as possible. I know you’ll get things done correctly, so I’d suggest doing this yourself.
I should be well soon and back in the office and can go through the details of the changes then, but I am under the impression this really can’t wait.
The name at the bottom was his standard sig addendum with his name and phone numbers.
"Kinda unusual!" I remarked.
"It sure is," Mike agreed. "What do you think about it?" he asked turning to Matt.
"You know, Mike, it was so unlike Ross. He is a much more deliberate guy than to forget that he’d done something important. At first I thought it was just some kind of spoof. But then, the more I mulled it over in my mind, I began to think, if it was a spoof, then why pick that particular report to send? It would be too easily checked. Also, what was the possible object or who was the spoofee? Couldn’t have been Maureen: what was she going to do? Try and redo the schedule changes? There would have been absolutely no way that would have been possible — or vaguely humorous. Every-which-way I looked at it, nothing made sense to me. That’s when I thought about Chris and his enigmatic mind process."
"Well, this sure is enigmatic," I remarked and then asked Maureen, "Has anything happened since you got that email? Any more emails?"
"Well, as I said, my first thought was to email him back and ask him what on earth he was taking, but, as I said just now, while I was writing the email, I began to think that it just seemed, like, too deliberate, you know: as though he’d really meant to send it to me as it was. I mean, we knew each other and had worked together some, but we weren’t close enough that this kind of humor was normal. So I decided to talk with him directly. I called his home number — you see it there at the bottom of the email — but got no reply. I tried several times until, just before I was leaving, Jonathan picked up the phone. When I asked to speak to Ross he was very brusque — almost rude — and said that Ross was not well at all and was resting and I should leave him alone.
"He was so abrupt with me that I never got to mentioning why I was calling."
"Strange," observed Mike, "Why would Jonathan brush you off like that? He didn’t ask why you were calling Ross?"
"No. Just told me to leave him alone."
"Not necessarily," I retorted, playing Devil’s advocate. "Say this Ross guy was really sick. He is in a kinda hazy state of mind, so sends out the report again. He’s actually quite sick — maybe throwing up all over the place — or worse. Jonathan comes home and is faced with cleaning up this mess, getting his partner cleaned up, fixing something to eat. And then this phone call comes and it’s just one more thing, and he snaps."
"I s’pose," Maureen said reluctantly. "But," she added after a pause, "but if that were the case, why would Jonathan spend more time at work?"
"Yeah " I agreed, "You're right." Returning to the email I asked, smiling to take the edge off the question, "Why did he think you’d be angry? Are you a hard taskmaster?"
"No. I’m probably the most laid-back in our group. That was one of the things that made me think his writing was deliberate — it was so far from the facts."
I studied the message chewing idly on a celery stalk while Mike and Matt continued to discuss what Ross could have been thinking.
"What about the report he sent," I asked Maureen.
"Nothing that I could see. Derek said it appeared to be word for word the same report Ross had sent out before. I copied it to a CD if you want to see it," she said getting her purse again and fishing a gold-colored CD out in a clear plastic envelope.
"Dang, the one time I don’t bring my PC with me I need it," I grumbled taking it from her, "It’ll have to wait until we get back to Mike’s office."
"Can we come, too?" asked Matt.
"Sure, why not?" Mike answered. "Looks like we’re all done here. That OK with you?" he asked Maureen.
"It’s going to have to be: there’s no way I could go back to the office now," she answered placing her napkin on her plate, "I’m not sure whether I’m going whacko or not, but I’m going to stick with this until I find out for sure."
We got up while Matt strolled over to the register and settled the bill. Walking back to the office I trailed the others, my hands dug into the pockets of my jeans as I pondered the emailed report and what it could mean. Foremost in my mind was the fear that we were overreacting. Was this guy really trying to tell someone something, or had we chained a couple of trivial and unrelated events together and, excited by the prospect of being in a dime novel, led ourselves down some fanciful path? On the other hand, if Maureen and Matt were right, what was going on that forced a guy to communicate in some arcane way? Was his partner planning on doing something to him? Steal his stuff? Maybe kill him? I bandied ideas around in my brain until I reached Mike’s office without coming any closer to a conclusion.
I was still tarrying behind as we walked through the reception area. "So, was your lunch good, Chris?" Gladys asked.
"Yeah," I responded, startled out of my pensiveness, "pretty good, thanks. They make their Cajun chicken nice and spicy."
"Well just because there are good places to eat around here doesn’t mean that you can come moseying around every week and distracting Mike from his work," she said half smiling at her protégé who was holding the inner door open for me.
"I’ll make sure he keeps his nose to the grindstone," I promised as I walked through. Once in Mike’s office I pulled my PC and power supply out of my backpack and began booting it while the others drew their chairs up behind mine so they could see the screen. I slid the CD Maureen had given me into the drive and clicked on Explorer while it spooled up. The disk held an Excel workbook and a text file. "That’s the file he sent you?" I asked.
"Yes. Like it always happens, Derek had deleted his copy — the original one Ross had sent — just the day before. The text file is just a copy of the email I showed you at lunch."
"OK," I acknowledged while I double-clicked on the name and the file opened. The worksheet that came up was named ‘README’ and that was followed by four sheets containing the report: large colored text boxes of writing which were flanked by charts. I scanned through this for a minute or two reading how, by altering the number of steps in certain jobs, adding a job to make duplicate files at the beginning and another to delete the duplicates at the end of the run, the overall run time could be shortened by as much as two hours — a not insignificant saving of the night batch-window for a busy DP shop.
After these sheets was the appendix he referred to in his email: seven worksheets named ‘Mon’, ‘Tue’, ‘Wed’, and so on, each containing the data to support his report. I browsed the sheet marked ‘Mon’, noting the 288 rows of data taken at 5-minute intervals of the day, each row containing columns of numbers representing computer time, file allocation duration, times spent waiting for data that were in use by other jobs and so on. In the very top rows of the sheet were summary statistics of each column — the minimum, average and maximum values that provided the summary data for the charts I had seen on the first sheet.
For the best part of an hour, while the Matt and Maureen lounged around trying to come up with ever more improbable situations that would result in this email, I tried everything I could think of to uncover any concealed message. I looked for patterns in the numbers, in the length of the numbers, in the first or the last digits, but nothing panned out. Eventually Mike said, "Well, folks, I don’t want to appear inhospitable, but I have to be in Atlanta for a Bar Association dinner tonight so I need to be hitting the road."
"Yes," agreed Maureen reluctantly, "I’d better be getting back to work, too." As she got up she handed me her business card. "Call me as soon as you find anything, or if you have any questions. Day or night, it doesn’t matter. My cell phone number is on there."
I copied the two files off the CD onto my hard drive and returned the disk to Maureen as my PC shut down. "Keep this somewhere safe," I cautioned.
By the time I had my PC securely stowed and my backpack on my shoulders, Mike had packed his briefcase and picked up the garment bag that held his tuxedo and we were ready to leave. "When you getting back?" I asked him.
"Tomorrow night late," he grimaced. "Some of us have a meeting about this indigent defense problem tomorrow and I’m more-or-less heading the committee so I need to be there."
He pulled me close and I gave him a kiss. As we parted I warned him, "OK. Easy on the bar and definitely no association."
He grinned and slapped my butt. "See you on the weekend. I’ll call to you tonight. Ride safely."
If Maureen had been surprised at Mike’s and my kiss, she had concealed it well and her farewell was cordial. As the heavy wooden door thudded softly closed behind us, she and Matt turned left back toward Consolidated and I turned toward the square where my bike was parked. During the ride home on I-95, the need to concentrate on trucks and cars, hell bent on getting to Florida, pushed the riddle to the back of my mind, but once in my house I booted up my PC and opened his email again. I spent about another hour on the problem without success and then, in the manner which I had found to be best for solving conundrums, I left it to my subconscious while I picked up work for my real job.
My subconscious, however, did little better than its real-time counterpart and I was still perplexed by it when I finished clearing away my dinner plates. As I wandered back up to my office, a glass of Chianti in my hand, my phone rang and the caller ID read ‘Mike’s Cell’.
"What’s up, bud?" I asked as I pulled the headset over my ear.
The unmistakable timbres of his voice came through the background noises of people conversing, "I just wanted to know if you’d come up with anything on that email of Matt’s."
"Not yet. Gonna work on it some now."
"OK. Have fun."
"How’s the dinner?"
"We’re going in now. Just had cocktails and the welcoming speech." We chatted briefly, then said good night and I sat down at my computer with no real plan in mind.
While preparing my dinner I had thought that perhaps a hidden worksheet would be found in the file, but when I clicked on ‘format’ and looked for one, my euphoria dropped as fast as it had risen: the ‘unhide’ selection was grayed out — there were no hidden sheets. I sipped the wine distractedly while I activated each sheet in turn and searched for the last occupied cell, yet this, too, proved equally fruitless and after I had done it on the final sheet I sat back in my chair, the glass hovering before my lips as though the aromas rising to my nostrils could provide inspiration. My mind was bouncing ideas back and forth: Could the numbers themselves be a code? No, Maureen said the reports were apparently identical. I moved all the text boxes and charts aside on the report page looking for a something else hidden behind them, but that notion did not pan out either.
Giving my subconscious something more useful to do than its usual contemplation of how little my real life resembled the stories I read on Nifty, I pushed the Excel problem onto its stack and pondered the email. I printed the message out and sat staring at it.
‘Angry phrases ’ Why had Ross said something that was apparently blatantly inaccurate? ‘Keen on angry phrases,’ what a curious turn of language. It was while I was mulling this conundrum over that a couple of synapses, deep in my brain and, finding the the task in hand not to their liking, gamboling around with endeavors they found more entertaining, now paused and impertinently interrupted the deliberate cogitation of their more resolute colleagues. "Crosswords!" they yelled.
"Huh?" asked the thinking brain, hurriedly dumping its current contemplations onto the swap file.
"Angry phrases. Synonyms for cross words. Crosswords."
YES! I pulled Maureen’s card out of my wallet. . "Maureen, what do you do during breaks or lunch at work?" I asked her when she picked up the phone.
"I don’t know most times I go get coffee and drink it at my work station. Lunchtimes I try and meet my friends and then sit outside in the sun if it’s nice. That’s how I got to know Ross."
"And when you’re outside or when it’s not sunny? You do crossword puzzles, perhaps?"
"Yes. How did you know?"
I smiled at her, "‘Angry phrases’? ‘Cross words’, perhaps?"
"You’re kidding!" She paused and when she continued her voice was pensive. "You know, I couldn’t figure out what he was getting at. I didn’t remember ever having spoken angrily to him at all — I’m not really an angry person.
"So what on God’s earth do crosswords have to do with things?" she asked.
"I don’t know. I was hoping you could think of something."
"Let me get my paper with the email on it." I heard her footsteps walk away and then the soft tones of a distant conversation. "OK, I’ve got the email," she said when she picked up the phone again.
We discussed the email and what the crossword clue might be. "Did Ross ever help you with a crossword?" I asked.
"Yes. Once or twice, I think, when I had one open at the lunch table. He caught on fast — I told you he was sharp."
"OK. So I guess he knew how you approached things, then, so he could expect that using the term ‘angry phrases’ might cause your mind to go into that mode of logic."
"And I missed it!" she said.
"It was kinda obscure," I consoled her. "The only thing I can see that looks crosswordish is the word ‘about’. That normally indicates an anagram."
"Yes. I was looking at that, too. But I can’t twist ‘or knew’ into any meaningful word. In a puzzle you at least know how many letters."
"Right. OK, I’m going to play with this anagram idea for a while. Call me, any time, if you come up with an answer."
"OK, Chris. I’ll work at it now."
I put the phone down and opened up a new Excel worksheet. Having narrowed the columns, I typed one character into each. O,N,E,S,E,E,S,O,R,K,N,E,W, and began to rearrange them. A few minutes later, thinking that maybe ‘worksheet’ was one of the words in the anagram, I added the letters of ‘thing’ to my scrabble. That gave me ‘engines on worksheet’, which wasn’t much help. I added the word ‘same’ and that’s when I got it. I was just opening up the Excel report when the phone rang making me jump.
"I’ve got it," yelled Maureen as I answered.
"Me too. ‘Message on worksheet nine’?"
"Yes. Have you found it?"
"I’m just going in now. Hang on a sec."
Sheet nine contained the data for Thursday. But scanning through the columns of numbers revealed nothing obvious. I tried using the ‘Find’ command for obvious words like ‘the’, ‘am’, ‘me’, ‘Jonathan’, but the ‘cannot find the data you’re searching for’ message derided each attempt and once more I sat back, racking my brain thinking of ways I could hide text if I wanted to.
"Nothing’s jumping out," I told Maureen. "Let me work on this some more. One thing is for sure: your hunch was right!"
"Yes. I’m not a crazy as people think! Chris, call me as soon as you find anything. Promise?"
I got up and stretched, wandered downstairs to the kitchen and poured another glass of wine then, more from a feeling of being up the creek and frustrated than because I was undaunted, I noted down the cell references of the start and end rows and columns on a sheet of paper and then, moving over to the right where there were clear cells I typed in the formula =IF(ISNUMBER(D9),1,0). A one appeared in the cell signifying that cell D9 contained a number. Copying the formula I pasted it over more blank cells until every cell on the sheet that contained data had been queried. Finally, across the top, I summed each column. For column D: 288, for column E: 288, for column F: 288 . for column I: 287.
287! Holy shit!
Wary of yet again getting my hopes dashed, I tried to stay calm, set my glass beside the keyboard and began scanning down the column, cell by cell in turn, until finally, in row 191 where the value was ostensibly 1.29, I found it.
The formula box at the top of the screen, which the whole way down the column had been manifesting number after number, now expanded to occupy almost half my screen and displayed chains of characters arranged in rows. I gaped: ‘1.29 . s3ht 2t s4ss4nt3w t4g t2nn5c 3 sn2s54r s123vb2 r2F’. About twenty lines followed of a similar appearance
"Shit-hot!" I muttered, pleased with my find even if it was gibberish. With the period at the beginning of the text as a clue, I copied the contents of the cell to a vacant location away from the rest of the data, then using the REVERSE function, flipped the characters around. The formula box now showed: ’T2 wh2m4v4r g4ts th3s: m0 n5m4 ’
‘Oh, man!’ I thought as I created a fresh worksheet and copied the reversed message to it, ‘our boy surely is a cautious one.’ The guy had replaced the number in the cell with his message. Realizing that this could be discovered with a ‘find’, as, indeed, I had tried, he had ciphered all the vowels to numbers. Still wary, he had reversed the whole string, and finally, he had taken the text part and changed the font color to be identical to the background so no-one could see it when scanning with the naked eye. Finally, he had added the original number to the beginning of this, so that, to the eye, the digits were all that was visible in the cell.
It took me a minute or two to undo most of those steps and now all I had to do was to decode the vowels. It looked as though 2 was o, 4 was e and 3 was i. I selected control-h and rapidly did change after change, the decoding being simple as more and more words became plain. There were a couple of instances where my decoding altered characters that should have remained numbers and I manually reversed each of these. At last I had a complete message and with a sip of the Casina di Cornia trickling over my tongue I started at the beginning and read through.
To whomever gets this: my name is Ross Mills and I am being held captive in some unknown place in the general area of Savannah or Charleston. I expect that I will be killed at the end of this captivity since I know and can identify several of the perpetrators. I believe my captivity is to coerce the silence or co-operation of my partner Jonathan Patterson who uncovered some form of wrong-doing at Consolidated Manufacturing where he and I both work. I also presume it is likely that Jonathon will be killed for what he must know. I was brought here by James Reid, head of CM’s security department and am being guarded by a man who is called Floyd and a man called Jarod Creegan, who also works at CM. Floyd is Caucasian, about 6 ft tall, with brown hair, brown eyes and a receding hair line. He weighs around 190 lb (I guess). I suspect they have some accomplice within the law enforcement because I have heard Reid try to convince Floyd not to worry because they would have plenty of warning if any suspicion of their actions were to arise. He also said any investigation would be slowed down. I do not know where I am being held. We drove about 90 minutes getting here from CM. I think this place is a house since I hear no other movement other than Floyd’s and Jarod’s and I don’t hear anyone climbing stairs. I am confined to one room that has a bathroom. There is a duffle-bag outside my door that Floyd says contains a bomb which he will explode if I try to escape-whether that’s true or not I do not know. I have my PC and am told to continue doing my work otherwise things "will be bad" for Jon. Jarod does spot checks on my work and checks all my emails before I send them and reads all the ones I get before I can see them. He brings a phone cable into my room whenever I need to send or receive emails and he won’t let me go to the Web. I think the house is close to an airport as I hear small airplanes often. At about 5 or 6 most evenings a noisy airplane that looks like a boomerang with whiskers flies over the house going towards the east. Floyd has screwed the window closed from the outside so I cannot open it to see or hear better —- or to escape. The window faces sort of south. Use the long side of a sheet of 8.5 X 11 paper as a unit. The cross-piece of one of the frames is a tad over 5.75 from the floor. At noon on the 15th the shadow of that cross was just under 1.5 long and 1.25 from the wall and about .75 to the left. The shortest the shadow got was about 2/3 inch shorter at about 12:15 to 12:20. If I am dead when you read this, please tell Jon (if he is alive) that I loved him to the end and will always be with him. Everything that I own I bequeath to him. For obvious reasons I cannot get witnesses to this. Above all, hunt down these bastards and revenge me.
"Ho-ly shit," I whispered under my breath taking a healthy swallow of wine and as I was reading the words for the third time I hit the redial button on my phone.
"That Ross guy is pretty sharp," I said when she answered. "I found the message."
"You did?" She squealed. "What does it say? Is he OK?"
"Can I send it to you at the email on your card or do you have a home account?" I asked, "It’ll be easier for you to read it for yourself." I opened up my Hotmail account and cut and pasted the translated message to the blank window. "Better keep this to yourself for a while. I’ll send it to Matt, too, and give him a call.
"OK. I’ll call you back when I’ve read it. Is the number on my caller-id good for you?" she asked and when I had assured her it was, we hung up and I dialed Matt’s number.
After I’d spoken with him I pulled a notebook out of my backpack and began to draw diagrams from the numbers Ross had entered. I played with the geometry for a while, occasionally turning to Excel to do calculations on trig functions before turning to the web to hunt down a set of sun tables which I finally tracked to the Naval Observatory’s site. I was getting closer to Ross’s measurements matching the tables’ when my phone rang.
"Hi, Chris," I heard Maureen say, "hang on a minute." There were clicks and then "Hi, Chris, you still there?"
"Matt? You there?"
"Yes. Hi, Chris. Wow, that was some message."
"I think I’m going to cry," said Maureen, "that last bit about Jonathan is so poignant."
"What’s all that shadow business?" Matt asked.
"He’s trying to give us a hint as to where he’s at," I explained. "I think I have an idea of the vicinity I’m searching around on the web now trying to narrow it down. His numbers aren’t exactly precise and the longitude variations cover almost all Georgia. The latitude is a better guide so I’m working that angle now."
"We have to tell the police, Chris," Matt declared.
"I think so, too," Maureen agreed, but added cautiously, "We’ve just got to be sure to get to the right person because of that inside guy Ross warns us about. What do you think, Chris?"
From when I had first read the message, this had been the primary question in my mind. I knew we had to get them involved, but telling the wrong policeman could unleash a calamity. Twice I'd started to dial Mike's cell phone number to ask advice, and each time I’d clicked the end button before the call connected. What would I want someone to do if it were Mike being held hostage? I didn’t like to take the gamble, but could see no other way around it. "Yeah," I sighed eventually, "It’s the only way to go, I’m afraid. Who do you reckon we go to? My inclination is the State Troopers. From my limited experience with cops they seem the most organized. But I think you’re going to have to come with me, Maureen, since you got the message."
"Yes, I’d thought as much. When do you want to go? Now?"
"Naah. I need to get all my ducks in a row with whereabouts I think this guy is being held before I get quizzed by some cop. How ’bout we meet up at the Internet Café on Bay Street in the morning — about seven, if that’s not too early. The coffee’s good there, and then head over to the State Police together. They will have all their folk on day shift then so they can get right onto it."
Getting right onto it was optimistic. It took almost twenty-four hours for everyone to get organized and put a plan in place and thus, it was about 8:30 pm the following evening when the black-clad two-man team emerged cautiously from the trees where the scrub ended about fifty yards from the rural house. It was dark: the moon, approaching its last quarter, provided almost no light from the cloudless sky. On the horizon to their right the reflected lights of Charleston were apparent in the sea haze while closer by, a beam of light patiently swept the sky above the tree tops: white, green . white, green . white, green — which any pilot would have recognized as the beacon of a civil airport.
The two stopped at the edge of the brush and studied the ranch-style house through binoculars. On the right they could see through wide glass doors into a brightly lit room where two men sat watching baseball on the TV. The evening air was still too cool for them to have the doors open and no sound from the house reached the undergrowth. Traversing the glasses to the left revealed other windows, either dark or showing only the dim light that filtered in from some interior passage. However, when the very last window filled the lenses it gave a striated view through blinds into what appeared to be a bedroom. The light was on inside, but over the five minutes they scrutinized it there was nary a sign of movement. The lack of activity made the older man restive. That changed within seconds as, punching the other on the shoulder, he pointed: one of the sports fans had stood up and was stretching. He turned to his companion, evidently said something, and then moved out of sight. The team waited. Nothing changed for over a minute, the man who remained in the TV room stared idly at the screen occasionally picking a snack out of a bowl on a table near him, tossing the morsel into the air and attempting to catch it in his mouth. "Must have gone to the head," whispered the older man and got a grunt in reply. A difference in the light from the other window registered in the peripheral vision of the younger guy and he swiveled his gaze back to the bedroom where a door had opened. Fine-adjusting the focus of the binoculars he recognized the person who had left the TV room. He fitted the description he’d read: A white male, tall, brown hair and a receding hair line. The man looked into the bedroom but remained in the doorway glancing about him for about fifteen seconds before turning on his heel and departing, closing the door behind him. In less than a minute he reappeared in the TV room, passed what looked like a beer bottle to his companion, settled back down in his chair, swung his feet onto a coffee table and raised a similar bottle to his lips.
The younger team member patted his colleague’s arm, handed him his binoculars and moved away through the weeds for a good fifty feet then began to run toward the house in a curved path that took him well away from the area that could be seen from the TV room. Reaching the lit bedroom window he crouched in the shadows to one side and let his hand run lightly over the frame until his fingers felt the head of a slightly protruding screw. He let out a breath that seemed to have been in his lungs for hours.
Quickly his hands ran around the remainder of the frame but the soft tips discovered no other screw. Gently he tapped on the glass and waited.
Nothing stirred within and he tapped again. This time the blinds moved aside and a face appeared on the other side of the glass and peered out, dark hair and black-rimmed glasses contrasting with a crumpled white T-shirt. The right cheek showed a discolored bruise and a scab. The man in the shadows pulled a piece of paper from his pocket, pressed it to the glass and watched the person in the room read it and then nod vigorously. The one outside held a finger to his lips emphasizing silence and the face once again nodded in understanding. As it disappeared from the pane, the man in black took a small powered screwdriver from his pocket and, with a thin flashlight clamped between his teeth, quickly withdrew the screw from the frame. As the silver metal fell noiselessly into his hand the blinds on the other side of the glass were drawn aside and the window slid upwards.
"Who are you? Is Jonathan OK?" He queried as he clambered out of the window helped by the man in black.
"Don’t talk. Let’s get outta here," the team member hissed, the adrenaline in his system making his ears ultra-sensitive to noise. Holding the other man’s hand firmly he retraced the long arc at a lope until they were in the scrub again and then guided him behind the bushes to his comrade who had stood guard. "Take him to the car; I’ll be there right now."
"Come on," said the other man grabbing the newcomer’s hand as they moved away from the house without speaking, concentrating on not falling as they pushed through the tangled vegetation. The black-clothed shape of the younger man made its way to the gate at the end of the driveway and, with his body shielding any glimmer from the house, he shone the flashlight on the fastening hasp. He reached into one of the pockets of his pants and quickly he emptied the contents of a small plastic vial over the latch. Dropping the capsule to the ground he pulled out two tubes and squeezed their entire contents over the link then used one of the empty containers to mix the sticky mess together. Satisfied at last he threw the tubes to the ground, doused his penlight and started up the road at a jog.
"What the fuck have you been doing?" asked the driver of the car his voice high from tension as the jogger slid into the passenger seat next to him and closed the door.
"Just get us the hell outta here, man," was all he said but once the car moved off he turned to his teammate in the back seat and gave him a high five. Turning to the man in the T-shirt he asked, "Are you Ross Mills?"
"Yes, I am. What’s going on? Is Jonathan safe?"
"We’re going to make sure now," the man in the front seat responded as he pulled the peak of his black baseball cap round to the front of his face and tapped a number into his cell phone. He clipped the earpiece into his ear and pushed the microphone in front of his lips. "We’ve got him. Everyone’s OK and we’re headed to the headquarters building as planned." He listened for a few seconds and then said, "OK. Take care. No need for heroics, understood?" He listened and, for the first time since he’d met him, the T-shirted man saw his rescuer grin.
Miles to the south, on the outskirts of Savannah, a woman pulled into a town-house complex. Apparently lost, she drove slowly down the row of houses scanning the number on each door and occasionally referring to a sheet of paper in her hand. Not finding what she wanted, she turned her car around and pulled up. Switching on the dome-light, she fumbled between the seats and opened up a map book as she put her cell phone to her ear. She flipped the pages, looking back to her sheet of paper on the dash from time to time and evidently did not notice the pick-up truck with a pizza-store light on its cab roof turn in and pull up behind her. A young man in baggy jeans that seemed to be in grave danger of sliding off his skinny butt jumped out holding two pizza boxes, walked up to one of the doors to her left and rang the bell.
"Your pizzas," he said to the two men who opened the door. "That’ll be $19.25."
"We didn’t order any pizza," the older man said impatiently.
"Your name Kudrick?" asked the youth.
"No. I don’t think there’s anyone by that name living in this block," the younger man replied not unsympathetically.
"Oh, for Christ’s sake," muttered the older man turning around to catch the game on the TV he’d been watching.
"Shoot," said the youth, "they always get the address wrong. Is this the address here?" he asked almost uncertainly raising the box and lifting the printed price tag to reveal the small printed sheet underneath."
The younger man studied the box and then looked over the delivery boy’s shoulder. He paused for a second and the boy heard him take a deep breath, then with a sudden movement he made a bolt for the car where the woman was sitting, his bare feet making hardly any noise on the asphalt. As he dove through the door she dropped the map and hit the accelerator while her right hand snapped off the dome light. The car shot up the road between the townhouses while the young man slammed his door closed.
"What the fuck ," the older man jerked around and ran back out, shoving past the pizza boy and knocking the boxes to the ground, but he was just in time to see brake lights swing around the corner at the last building. He backed into the doorway, grabbed keys from a hook and sprinted to a white BMW parked next to the little porch. "Get your truck out the way!" he yelled.
"Who’s going to pay for these pizzas," the youth wailed pointing at the congealing mess on the step.
"Geez-us," yelled the man pulling two twenty dollar bills from a clip and throwing them onto the ground, "just get your truck out of the way."
The boy grabbed the money and started to pick up the fallen pizza. "Move your goddamn truck!" screamed the frustrated driver. "Oh, yeah. Duh!" the teenager smiled at him as he climbed into his truck, fastened his seat belt and only then put his keys in the ignition and moved the vehicle forward and swung it around so he could leave. The man was now clear to drive out the parking space, but found his route to the exit blocked by the turning pickup. He leaned on the horn which scared the youth into taking his foot off the clutch as he hit the brake and the engine stalled. By the time the pickup had moved enough so the BMW could squeeze past and make it to the main road, the car and the woman had long disappeared. In the entrance to the townhouse complex the man slumped back in the driver’s seat and pulled out his cell phone.
About a minute later, in a house amidst the fields of rural South Carolina, a man dropped his phone with a yell and ran down the passage. Unlocking a door at the end he flung it open but the room was deserted and the blinds rattled gently in the breeze from the open window as his colleague looked uncomprehendingly over his shoulder. Turning as one they sprinted for the front door and ran around the house, stopping by the open window and looking around them. There was no sound and nothing moved except the incessant beam that swept the sky overhead: white, green . white, green . white, green.
"Apparently when the police arrived at the house the guys were trying to take the gates off their hinges because they couldn’t get them to open. They had their car all packed up ready to go."
"That was your buddy’s doing," responded Malcolm waving a barbecue fork in my direction. It was the following Saturday and we’d all gathered on Maureen and Malcolm’s deck to celebrate the success of our recent venture and to give some of us a chance to meet the all the other participants for the first time.
"If I’d known what a stupid, harebrained scheme he was going to dream up I’d have dragged him up to Atlanta with me," Mike replied kicking my ankle as we stood together leaning against the rail sipping beers.
"Scheme? Hey, it was a well planned operation executed flawlessly," I remonstrated jostling his shoulder with mine. "You’re just envious. ’And gentlemen in England, now abed, shall think themselves accursed they were not here; And hold their manhoods cheap while any speaks That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.’"
"Hey, I know that," said Ben as he unloaded a tray of hamburger buns onto the table, "we did that at school last semester. It’s Shakespeare."
"See, if you’d paid more attention to your school work you could have quoted that to that newspaper woman you were trying to impress," said Malcolm slyly.
"D-a-d!" protested the young man with a slightly embarrassed grin at his father. While the rest of us had taken a fairly low profile in the aftermath of the arrests, the reporters had found an only too willing interviewee in Ben and his story splashed across the local paper and repeatedly on TV had undoubtedly raised his status at his school considerably. Attempting to route the conversation away from that particular topic the boy asked me, "What did you do to the gate?"
"Put some super glue all over the latch that held them closed and covered the whole lot with five-minute epoxy. I didn’t fancy them after us," I told him.
At that moment Maureen appeared with bowls of salads and Malcolm declared the hamburgers and bratwursts ready so we turned all our attention to the food. But once everyone was happily munching away Malcolm turned to Jonathan and asked him, "So, Jon, how was it that you actually found out about all this embezzlement and fraud?"
Jonathan shook his head as he finished his mouthful, "It was our Logistics department who actually found it — they just didn’t realize it. We had a whole lot of stuff coming in for this contract we’ve got for building those new rail cars for Amtrak. One of the bosses had told Logistics to put it in one of our warehouses, but when they tried to tell the computer to schedule it, the program wouldn’t do it. So they figured it was a bug in the code and opened up a case which ended up in my queue. I started to look into it and saw they were trying to move the stuff into a warehouse that was already full, but when I told them that, the manager said that he’d been to the warehouse and it was completely empty — floor to ceiling. So I began to dig in deeper, trying to figure out where the error had crept in — it was all work that Dominic had been doing before he died — and the more I looked, I saw it was one big scam to make it look like we had more inventory on hand than we did. I began asking a couple of discrete questions around the place, not making any waves, and gradually I began to come to the conclusion that someone might be trying to cover a big financial shortage on the books. Up to then I’d been pretty smart: then I turned stupid. Thinking to keep the incriminating stuff to a minimum to spare any bad publicity for the company, I didn’t say anything to anyone but went straight to Jim Reid who heads our security group. What I didn’t know was that he was in the game up to his neck. He pretended to be surprised and kept me busy in his office asking me what I’d found and how I’d found it until late that evening. Then, after everyone else had gone home, he told me I’d uncovered more stuff than I needed to know. He warned me that it had to be kept quiet until the books closed for the quarter or something, but they needed me to work on the computer side of the operation to stop stuff happening like this program not working. He said that Dominic had helped them and they’d made it worth his while and he hoped I’d see it the same way. I balked at first, but then they told me that they had got Ross, so I didn’t have much choice but to go along with their machinations. And, just to make doubly sure I behaved, Reid moved into our house with me."
"So how did they get you?" I asked Ross.
"This guy, Jarod, whom I vaguely knew from work, came by with one of the company limos as I was leaving work and said Jonathan had been in an accident in the car park and I should go with him to the hospital. Once I was in the limo, he stopped and picked up that Floyd guy who had been waiting a few yards away. I guess they thought I might not have got into the car if he was in it — truth is I was so worried about Jonathan I would have got in even if Jeb Bush had been driving. Anyway, Floyd had a gun and told me Jonathan would be alright if I played along for a day or so. Floyd pulled all the window shades down so I had only the vaguest idea where I was."
"Did they tell you what was behind what they were doing?" Mike inquired.
"No, just that if Jonathan co-operated with them and did what he was told I’d be OK. It didn’t take much imagination to know that everything wasn’t on the level, though. Floyd scared me a lot: after I’d been there about ten days he had said to Jarod that they should get rid of me because it was too risky to keep me locked up. That was when Reid came up and calmed him down by telling him that they had a contact in some police department that would tip them off if any investigation started."
"Do they know who the cop was? The one that would warn them," asked Ben cleaning his plate as only a teenager can.
"Yes," Mike said. "Turns out it was the police chief in Statesboro. Reid had been in the police force at some time and he and this cop were close buddies from their academy days. They figured whichever branch of law enforcement got involved, State Police or FBI, the local chief of police would be at least informed about the investigation and could slow it down enough or muddy the waters until everyone else had cleared out."
"Was that when you began that coded message plan?" questioned Matt.
"Yeah. I had first tried something more straightforward in an email," Ross continued, "but Jarod caught that one and Floyd hit me with his gun for my bad behavior," he smiled wanly and touched his cheek. "That was when he said that they should get rid of me. But I lucked out because Reid thought it would allay any suspicions at work if I kept on doing some of my job from there — pretending to be sick. Each time I needed to send or receive anything I had to tell Jarod what to do and he examined everything before it went out or before I saw what had come in."
"It was a really sharp plan you came up with," Matt said with awe, "No wonder Jarod didn’t find it." He was about to take another bite of his burger, but paused to add, "It was a miracle that we did."
Ross chuckled, "Naah. I know Maureen. I reckoned that anything unusual would set a trigger in her mind and then it would be just like six degrees of separation — she would somehow get to the bottom of it."
"Geez," I expostulated, "That was one big gamble: it took three of us to figure it out."
Ross grinned. "Yeah, but remember I had to keep it obscure because Jarod isn’t all that dumb as far as computers go." He turned serious, "I had no doubt that Maureen would either figure it out or drive people crazy until something was found: I just wasn’t sure how long it would take — and how much time I had."
"That sun-shadow stuff was brilliant. I still don’t know how Chris figured it all out," Maureen remarked passing the salad bowl around again.
"Finding the latitude, how far north or south of a given point you are, has been around since Eratosthenes. Ross’s measurements were somewhat coarse, given what he had to use, but from those and the sun tables from the Naval Observatory I came pretty close to where he was. I called Nate, the guy from NASA who oversees most of my work, and he looked up all the airports in the bands of latitude and longitude I gave him. The knowledge that it had to be within ninety minutes drive from Savannah helped narrow it down a lot. We got it down to two airports and a couple of airstrips. Ross had mentioned a plane that passed the place he was at fairly regularly. He said it looked like a boomerang with whiskers and made an unusual noise. To Nate and me that was a dead hit for Rutan’s Beechcraft Starship. So Nate got hold of a buddy of his at the FAA who got the tower log info from Charleston International and Charleston Executive. We found out that some company has their Starship based at Mercury Air Center at Charleston Executive and it flies out most mornings to Atlanta or DC and returns in the evenings. He told me that the prevailing winds mean that most evenings they use runway 9, which meant that planes would be landing to the east.
"So when Maureen, Matt and I were in the Internet Café," I continued for the others’ information, "we pulled up the satellite images of the airport and followed the approach paths to the west-to-east runway. We came to the conclusion there were only two possible places that fitted Ross’s description and they were fairly close together.
"Looking at the data Ross had given us, we worked out a rough idea of the direction of the wall on which his window was. The first place we drove to had no wall with a window that lay in that direction, but the next place had a south-facing wall angled just right. The final check was when I got to the window and found the screw holding the window closed. That was the clincher."
"See, why math and science is so important?" Malcolm pointed out to Ben, "Look at all these guys could learn just from some numbers."
"Yeah, but that’s not how they teach it at school," his son rejoined as he added a slice of tomato to an improbably high hamburger. "They make it so boring you just sleep through it all."
Mike came to Ben’s rescue, "Tell me, did it never occur to any of you to make some kind of police aware of what you thought you knew?" he asked the three of us. "I know you believed — and correctly, I’ll concede — that some cop was in cahoots with the bad guys, but we do have an FBI office down here, you know."
"Initially we had planned to go to the State Police, but Chris nixed it in the morning," Maureen explained then hurried on when she saw Mike fix his lawyer-glare on me and realized she might have made a gaffe. "You see, we had no way of knowing what part of law enforcement was involved. I mean it seems obvious now that we know it was that policeman, but we didn’t know that then. What if it had been one of those radio dispatcher people that hears all the calls from everywhere?"
"And being in the FBI isn’t a guarantee that a guy is above board — or even intelligent," I defended myself.
"Well, you could have called me. I know some of these guys personally: there are back door ways of getting everything," Mike reasoned.
"Look, Mike," I explained, "Matt and I discussed it. The way we figured it was, what we thought we were going to do was probably either illegal or, at best, only just inside the limits. You’re some ‘officer of the court’ or something, and if things turned out badly for us we didn’t want to drag you down with us, even by association."
Mike merely shook his head as though frustrated at our puerile thought process, but he didn’t meet my gaze and I felt I’d found a chink in the lawyer-boy armor.
"Also," I went on to steer clear of this maudlin talk, "we were kinda fired up and we thought there’d be a good chance of you telling us not to do it!" My remark had the desired affect: I received a healthy, back-hand punch on my arm from my guy while he shot me a look of exasperation.
"So," I went on when the general laughter had died down, "once we’d decided what we needed to do, we had to set up a plan to spring both Jon and Ross pretty much at the same time. We started off thinking that Matt and I could handle the South Carolina end and Maureen could handle Jonathan. As we talked through it, though, it seemed we were spreading ourselves pretty thin if anything went awry. So Maureen called Malcolm up and, surprisingly, he very willingly agreed to join Matt and me."
"It wouldn’t have been so willing if my loving wife had laid the details out more plainly at the start," Malcolm retorted. "I thought it was just a drive up to Charleston to bring some guy back. It was only when you folk all arrived here that I got the true lie of the land "
"And by then you had told Ben about it and you didn’t want to back down in front of your son," laughed Maureen.
"No, that wasn’t it at all," he protested unconvincingly, "I saw that Matt and Chris had this plan all drawn up and it looked as though it could work."
"Well we really wanted you just as the driver," Matt explained, "I was going to go to the house with Chris."
"Look, Matt. No offense, but you don’t look like a guy that could take a punch. I must admit neither does Chris, but he at least has a bit more breadth to his shoulders. It was kinda obvious that you guys needed someone with you who had some military training."
"If my dad hadn’t gone with you, I would have for sure," Ben boasted.
"You did a great job getting to me without Reid getting suspicious," Jonathan said, raising his beer glass to the lad in salute.
"Yes," Maureen agreed proudly, "that was all Ben’s idea. I had thought that I’d go get you and that Ben would be there just in case. But he pointed out that Jon or Reid might recognize me from work and that could blow things."
"Nobody notices a pizza delivery guy," Ben explained, "you see us every day. We just don’t exist for most people. One of my buddies rang the door bell once and this totally naked woman answered."
"Whoa! You never told me any of this," Malcolm said with his eyes widening.
"It was Carey," explained his son. "He got so confused he just gave her the pizzas and left without getting the money. She had to call him back. Since then everyone fights to take pizza to that address, but it’s always some guy who comes to the door. And he’s got clothes on!"
"How did Jon know Maureen was in the car," Matt said looking at Ben.
"Oh, that part was easy. I stuck a piece of paper on the pizza box, under the price label, that said that Ross was safe and that Mom was ready in the car if he wanted to go. When that older guy moved away I could just lift the price tag and Jon could read it."
"I was outta there like a rat off the Titanic," Jonathan affirmed. "I just kept yelling at Maureen to go, because I knew that Reid guy would be after us. But then Ben did the most awesome job of running interference for us."
"Not to mention I made a twenty dollar tip," boasted the youth.
"That’s funny," Matt laughed. "Seems like you know how to keep your head in a crisis, Ben!"
The convivial evening continued and it was long past midnight when I was nestled snugly into the soft leather seats of Mike’s Audi headed across Savannah back to his place. I shouldn’t have got so comfortable — I wasn’t home and dry by a long way. "So, let’s cut to the chase," he said without taking his eyes off the road, "what exactly was your thought process about not getting the police involved in something that I would have thought was patently their bailiwick? You could have got a bullet through your thick skull!"
"I don’t really remember now," I hedged, sensing that I was getting into dangerous waters.
"You would never forget something like that."
I pondered for almost a minute on what I should say until Mike prompted me, "So?"
"Mike, I dunno ," He said nothing, knowing that I’d interpret his silence correctly that he was not going to back down, and I shifted uncomfortably in the seat. "Well . when Maureen, Matt and I discussed it that night, we had pretty much decided to go to the State Troopers. But then, I was working on trying to fix Ross’s position from those sun sights he did, and I got to thinking about him doing all that stuff — like all the effort, all the patience he had in taking the measurements and then in getting the message out. Kinda putting all his hopes on that one chance. There was just so much desperation in what he was doing." I stopped talking, looking in vain for the words I needed to portray exactly the panic that had seeped into my chest on that night. "You see . that cop was too big a risk. I began to realize that I was gambling with someone’s life. I was scared shitless of going it alone, but then I got to thinking what I would want people to do if you were the one being held hostage." I wasn’t making sense and I swallowed hard as I remembered a restless night debating with myself between what I knew to be the sane decision and what I believed to be the one I would have to take. Then, as I recalled the internal conflict, my confidence returned. I sat back and relaxed. "I decided. When I weighed all the info we had, there was no other choice. It was my call. When I got to the Internet Café in the morning I told the others that going to the cops was a no-go." Yeah, that’s how it had been: I didn’t need to apologize. "And to their credit," I added to lighten the tone, "they didn’t give me a big push back."
Mike ran his right hand up and down my thigh without saying anything. I looked across at him. It was difficult in the changing light from passing street lamps but I was pretty sure his lips were clamped tight and his Adam’s apple moved as he swallowed hard. "What’s the matter?" I jibed digging my hand to his side and laughing. "You surprised a techie can make an emotional decision?"
"You’re a piece of work, you know," he laughed and brushed his face with the sleeve of his sweatshirt. I just laughed and settled back into the seat and watched the road go past while the phrase ‘I can see Paradise by the dashboard light’ floated through my mind.
But much later, as our exhausted hormones relaxed, he rolled over onto his elbow in bed and looked at me. "OK, let’s make a pact. No more secrets between us. No holding stuff back because of my job or your job, or my feelings or your feelings."
"C’mon, Mike. You would never have gone along with the plan. You would’ve wanted to go to the cops."
"Hey, I can be macho, too, you know," he protested then, his voice changing, added, "but that is not the point. We have no secrets. It’s not always easy: if it were it wouldn’t be such a big deal."
"OK," I conceded after I’d thought through all the implications of what he was saying, "you win. No more secrets." I ran my fingers up his arm to his face. Even when it was too dark to see them, his eyes could mesmerize me.
He lay back down on his back and let his hand trace patterns on my chest, gently brushing over my nips. After a time he added, "Of course if you’re going to buy me a Corvette for my birthday you can keep that a secret until the actual day."
I rolled over on top of him and pinned his arms down as he gave into his laughter and struggled to throw me off. "Yeah?" I told him, my face inches from his, "Well don’t hold your breath, buddy!"
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