Screaming Candle

The Strange – Episode 2 – The Night Before Part 2

The brownstone refused to give the interlopers a break. Plans for the house showed a first floor sprawled out as one big room with a large kitchen towards the back behind a wall. Since that wall supported the two stories above, it was solid, save a single door. This room should have been open and inviting, but the overwhelming contents and junk turned it into a claustrophobic labyrinth. The only wide passage in the large room went from the front door, past the strangely clear staircase and back to the door that led to the kitchen. A conceit, no doubt, to the necessity of eating.

What at first glance seemed to be a huge block of printouts soon came to resemble more of a stair-step mound. The outer edge was shin high while the center was on top of a table. It towered over all the other stacks and over the heads of the pair infiltrating the house. Certain piles could not immediately be inspected by the pair, since the piles in front of them blocked them from view. They resorted to looking where they could, silently shuffling, following the branching, foot-wide trails that wound through the stacks.

More than just paper clogged the room, though the sheer volume and the newness of the stacks made it stand out. Around the edges were little collections, all neatly arranged on shelves and table tops. Some were of old books, some of glass nick-nacks, some made of cans. One particularly odd collection was of old sneakers, carefully arranged on what looked to be a low serving table. In short, junk was everywhere, but meticulously placed and the two had to inspect everything in the dark. The green glow of their night vision goggles gave them headaches, but there would be no flashlights to aid them. The intricate plan for this op precluded light or anything that would call attention to themselves. The lone occupant, The Collector, must never know who stole back his ill gotten information. At least that was the plan going in.

They started calling him ‘The Collector’ almost from the start. He had an indiscriminate hacking style that was effective because it was erratic, unexpected and unbelievably prescient, almost clairvoyant in its ability to avoid detection. The early theory was that he was just gathering trophies, breaking into places just to say he’d gotten in. After spying on his on-line activities, they wondered if he was compulsive. He copied all the data on the host system, regardless of worth, whenever he got into a system. Less of a collector, they surmised, than a hoarder.

They had no idea how right they were. It seems that this guy had printed out everything and the results were everywhere. After two hours of searching, they had uncovered many documents, all marked with “Alexi Loveless – Criminal Empire” as a header, scattered throughout the printouts. They contained nothing but data embedded in a cypher, a big block of numbers, letters, and symbols representing their prize. No unencrypted pages, however. Nothing actually incriminating by itself and without analysis. Still, this was the data they came for and it was intermingled with everything else The Collector, Professor Bill Nestor, had retrieved and printed.

“This is impossible, we should just go final contingency. Blow this place up and burn it down,” Mr. Aye said as they worked. Cramped spaces made the big man uncomfortable. He got more agitated, the longer they searched. The narrow passages in the piles of junk made him walk sideways just to get around.

Over the earpiece, the voice said, “You will go wet only as a last resort. The final contingency is just that, a last resort. I’m paying you to be as thorough and to be as unobtrusive as possible. I doubt that The Collector even knows what he has, or how … interesting it is.”

Ms. Bee turned on her throat mike. “Interesting or no, and as much as it pains me to say it, Mr. Aye’s got a point. We can not guarantee that the information you wish to have retrieved is completely eliminated from this mess unless we destroy everything.”

“I understand what you are saying, just like you understand my instructions. Keep looking. I would have blown the place up myself if I’d wanted to be so conspicuous.”

Suddenly, the pair were blinded. The room’s overhead track lights snapped on, flooding the dark in bright light. Acting on their training, they whipped off their night vision equipment and scampered to find cover among the junk in the room.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

The night was warm, dark, damp and breezy. In a scene as old as the ages, a young couple danced to the tune of their new relationship in fresh, uncertain steps. Goldberg bundled his wavy blond hair back off his face while Joy Winter used her long dark locks to play hard to get. As they strolled past the odd block of row houses, Goldberg came to the end of a story.

“…so, I said, it’s a little from column A,” he said gesturing with his left hand. She helped him finish the sentence as he made the same gesture with his other hand. “… and a little from column B!”

They both laughed at the end of the story. Joy grabbed his arm and gave it a little squeeze. The squeeze ended but she found his hand and held it. He felt like a school kid again and his hand perspired despite his best efforts.

Joy peered around her locks and said, “Does this make you uncomfortable, Goldberg?”

“Of course.” He stopped walking and faced her, still holding her hand. “But it’s nice.” Her pale face made a wonderful canvas and the lights of a summer night danced across it. Somewhere in the distance, a traffic light turned from red to green and the shade on her right side turned from ruby to emerald. Goldberg was overcome by the coy beauty of this girl’s easy smile and her wide, sparkling eyes. He leaned in and kissed her softly.

His soul poured into her with that tender touch and in return he received hers. Nothing in Goldberg’s years prepared him for a kiss like this one. He never wanted it to end. Their hands and arms traced the new landscape of each others backs, finding the perfect embrace. In the heat and mugginess of the night, they found that their souls matched.

After endless moments, they broke and looked at one another. The smiles they wore had more meaning, but were just as sweet.

“I believe someone owes me some ice cream,” Joy said with a playful grin.

Goldberg was shaken from his reverence and said, “Ah, yes. And remind me to show you the secret knock.”

They walked on in silence, enjoying the nearly moonless sky on this hot summer night. Joy let her long dark hair drape across her face. With a smooth motion, she flipped her locks over her shoulder and asked, “What are you thinking?”

The blond young man looked at her smiling face and was once again amazed that she was smiling for him. “That I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”

“Yes you are,” she teased and smiled. She draped his arm over her shoulder and leaned into him. Her lean body found the perfect contour in his frame and matched his step. “Really, we both have it pretty good, considering,” Joy put in after a long pause. “I mean, we’ve been able to stay at Hogstown State for going on eleven years! Most people only get four, if that. Speaking of which, how’s the thesis?”

“Ah yes. The thesis. Hm.”

“That is not a happy sound, Goldberg. Sorry, did I just crush the mood?”

“No. But… Well, here’s what Rodger had to say about ‘Fractal Encryption – Chaos Protection’.” He made a straight face and threw on a formal voice. “This is not a science fiction convention, Mr. Goldberg.”

“H’Oh shit! He didn’t”

“Oh yeah.” He said, resuming his tone. “You cannot throw impractical spiffy sounding things out at the wall no matter how nifty. It is not enough to publish, you must publish that which is usable either to your colleagues or to the public to have any reputation and for our board to confer to you the honor and title which you seek.”

“Ouch! ‘Spiffy’ and ‘Nifty’? Harsh.”

“Ah, Rodger… I don’t know how much of that is just being upper crusty and British. He told me to continue, though. That’s more praise than most get. I guess the worst that can happen is nothing… continue grading papers, doing the odd bong hit, and teaching the functionally inept.”

She threw a glance from under arched eyebrows. “Yeah. And I’m sure you don’t appreciate the lifestyle.”

“Busted.” He smiled. The orange street lamps turned his teeth tan. “I’ll be glad to avoid the real world for as long as I can manage it. Is that so wrong or selfish? I mean, I do feel like I owe it to… whatever, the world… for providing me with a place to live and a lifestyle that I enjoy most days. So I continue with the thesis even though Roger may be right and it’s just silly. Maybe that alone is not enough? Maybe teaching, passing on the knowledge without ever coming up with anything useful is a waste of potential or something? But then, what else to do?”

“Very philosophical for a Math guy.”

“Well, I guess hearing about Mrs. Riley has me in a bit of a reflective mood. It’s the big things like that and like, say kissing a pretty girl for the first time… makes you think about your life.” He looked at her bright smile and added, “At least I do.”

They continued walking. Joy examined the sidewalk’s even bricks as she walked. “I guess you do what you can, I mean about giving back to the community and all. I think it’s pretty clear when you should poke your head in and do stuff, but until then, leave things alone, and just live life.”

He nodded. “Exactly. I mean, I just like it here. I like being able to hang out with my friends. I like the town. I even like my job, but everything always conspires to push you further along on the ladder and it seems like you’re either climbing or falling. Or you are some kind of layabout. Don’t get me wrong, I spend plenty of time enjoying life. I don’t know where I’m going with this. I guess I just don’t like change all that much. Maybe that’s why I don’t take the thesis terribly seriously. And I’ve just… I don’t know… Today I’ve been feeling sort of… I don’t know how to describe it…” He squeezed her. “Things seem to be pent up to change and while some changes are fantastic, it just seems… well… do things seem just a touch different? Not as much something you can put your finger on, but more something you feel. Like the way your skin prickles just before a lighting storm.”

“Has someone been stepping on your zeitgeist, Goldberg?”

He chuckled. “I suppose it is sort of foolish. Forget I mentioned it. Anyway, the thesis is doing just fine. I’m just not convinced that I care all that much.”

Joy looked at the bricks in the sidewalk. “Your feelings aren’t foolish, Goldberg. Having intuition isn’t silly, at least not to me. Just because it doesn’t adhere to the ‘mathematical model of science and stuff’, doesn’t make it any less important. Uh… oh!” She swooned and Goldberg caught her.

He blanched. “Uh, maybe that last glass of water was one too many. That stuff sneaks up on you, you know,” he joked lamely as Joy regained her equilibrium.

Her composure back in place, Joy swiped at her hair and said, “Yeah, um… I can definitely feel it. The difference you were talking about, I mean.” A flustered look crossed her face. “Let’s go get that ice cream, I’m thinking vanilla! Definitely! Vanilla!”

“You know, I might be out of vanilla.” The change of subject was noted but not pursued. “The all-night store is this way, though. It’s only a bit of a detour.” He pointed back up the street, the way that they had just come.

She raised her face and once again smiled. “Then that’s the way we go. I want to pick up a hair band, anyway.”

As they turned, Goldberg saw something out of the corner of his eye. A light in one of the brownstones had just turned on. “Hey, isn’t that ‘Weird Bill’s’ house? The lights just went on.”

Joy looked at the light through the curtains. “I think it is. Yeah, you know he was looking for you yesterday. Said it was a puzzle and it was important.”

“Well, I’m glad he didn’t find me. Whenever he wants me to look at something it is invariably harebrained. Still, strange coincidence to see him get up in the middle of the night.”

As the two lovers walked past a nondescript, white van he said, “What are the odds?”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Quiet, even footsteps echoed from the top of the stairs. From their hiding places, the two ignored the voice in their ears. “What’s going on there? Bee? Aye?”

They each reached to their throats and turned off their radios, silencing the voice. Eyes interrogated the shadow on the stairs for tactical advantage. Two knives slid silently from hidden sheaths. Muscles tightened as the two prepared to kill.

Oblivious, The Collector plodded down the stairs in a rumpled nightshirt. His arms dangled at his sides and his mouth was open. Unseeing eyes were open but blank. The two who had invaded his home spied him from the cover of paper stacks. They watched as he shuffled from the bottom of the stairs, around a corner, through the canyon between two paper piles and through the swinging kitchen door. He pushed the door an extra time, getting it stuck open.

He turned on the kitchen lights without looking for the switch, revealing a waist-high maze made of piles of cans, stacks of dishes, and stacks of magazines. The two operatives looked at each other then back at the man, as he made his way through the overstuffed kitchen. Suddenly, the man in the nightshirt stopped. The operatives watched in frozen silence, thinking they were caught. The collector merely stepped a half step to the left to avoid a box of books that would have stubbed his toe. Without looking back, he continued to shamble.

“Son of a … He’s sleepwalking,” Ms. Bee whispered as they looked on. Putting her hand to her throat, she turned the radio back on. “Had to go quiet,” she whispered. “Collector is a sleepwalker.”

The voice over the radio said, “So, what is happening? The driver says he sees lights.”

“Yes, lights. He’s turning on lights in his sleep. It’s like he’s got the place memorized.” Ms. Bee looked in amazement as The Collector got a glass from his cupboard. “He’s getting a drink from the kitchen sink.”

The voice paused. “Interesting, but only a minor wrinkle. Just stay out of his way. Maybe he’ll leave the lights on. That will make your search a little less ‘impossible.'”

The thick man flipped on his radio and said, “It certainly doesn’t hurt.”

“I’m going to check upstairs while it’s clear. Give me a squawk if he starts to move.” The lithe dark woman silently walked up the stairs, a knife poised slightly in front in the unlikely case that the Collector had a guest.

Mr. Aye continued to look through the pages, keeping an eye on the sleepwalking man. There were all different types of printouts in the stack, but frequently he would come across one of the ones he was looking for, the ones marked “Alexi Loveless – Criminal Network”.

“Even with the lights on, this is going to take well into the morning… more time than we have.” Mr. Aye said in a whisper. “Do you have a contingency for just loading all this crap into a semi?”

“No. I had not planned for hard copy on that sort of scale.  It did not seem likely or even possible. Everything is incriminating?”

“Not everything. There doesn’t seem to be any reason to it, but the things we need are
all mushed in with other stuff. We’ll either have to check everything or take everything. He’ll know he was taken either way.”

“The Collector himself knowing is not a concern. I just don’t want him to be able to prove anything, especially if he sounds like a nut to begin with. You are saying that you need to take everything to do that?”

He bent over and randomly cut a large stack and looked at the page on top. Again it read “Alexi Loveless – Criminal Network”

“You’ve got encrypted stuff with your name on it, calling you a criminal. That will shine a spotlight on you that you won’t like so, yeah. Every single page needs to go to ensure a full retrieval.”

Over the intercom Mr. Bee said “Level two is a royal mess, but doesn’t have anything for us. Haven’t found the computers yet. Checking the next level.”

After a few minutes the sleepwalking man shambled away from the sink. “Collector starting to move.” Mr. Aye said, pushing himself shoulder first into one of the narrow paths, letting the sleepwalker go back the way he had come.

The even voice said into the intercom, “OK. Prioritize the search on the soft copy. If we get the computers, all this guy would have left is a crazy nest of paper with some gibberish on slanderous letterhead and my network address. It’d be interesting, but useless as real evidence. We won’t take any of it. Not an ideal outcome and we’ll have to dial down our activities while I re-evaluate. This is going to be expensive.”

The zombie-like man came out of the kitchen. Mr. Aye watched the man slowly advance on his position, expecting him to retrace his steps through the wide passageway and back to the stairs. But instead of going left he went right, toward the thin passage through the paper stacks where the thick man stood. Slow yet unstoppable, the shambling sleepwalker inadvertently pursued Mr. Aye, driving him further into the paper labyrinth.

Mr. Aye quickly realized how confining and unforgiving the narrow path through the paper was. He looked back to find the Collector mercilessly shambling towards him, slowly, but still faster than he could get his big frame pushed through the path. He had nowhere to go. He had to get through, just steps ahead of the drooling, eyes half open and snoring man; capture, a fate worse than death.

As his panic rose, he heard Ms. Bee respond to Loveless’s comment, “Yeah, it will be expensive and hard to manage, but it is nothing we can’t handle as long as we get the computers and ourselves out of this house unnoticed.”