Commissioner Painter walked through a plain gray door that simply said “Office.” His pale, naked legs looked cold in his jogging shorts.
The room was windowless and reminded the Commissioner of a hospital room for all its cleanliness and bright, indirect light. He scoffed at the irony. In fact, this room lay at the center of a web of corruption, criminality and greed that was dirty, dark and ugly.
Aside from a boxy leather couch and a coffee table, it contained a blackboard sized screen behind a modern, metal desk with a thick glass top that doubled as a huge touch screen. There was not a hint of any paper of any kind, except a copy of yesterday’s Hogstown Star sitting on the couch. Behind the desk, Alexi Loveless coolly poured over new information spilling across the desktop. He was flanked by the dark Ms. Bee, freshly showered and dressed in a tan and cream pant suit.
Alexi lifted his head and shook his bangs to either side of his face. “Ah Harold!” He said as the Commissioner walked in. “You like this nice picture? I’m thinking of having it framed.” He punched a key on his console and the picture appeared on the large screen behind the desk.
The image on the screen showed him, in the car giving the camera the finger as he scratched his ear. Harold smiled as Loveless continued. “Of course, to frame someone they would need to be innocent. Right, Harold?”
The man’s gray head whipped around and looked at the young man. “I’ve expedited the processing of the superb job you and your boys have done here so that the questions will be few. There isn’t much more you can ask than that, Alexi. I mean, really.”
“Actually, I could ask that you not flip off my surveillance team, and by extension, me. I can’t say I’m terribly pleased about that. I pay you and half your men quite a bit, I should remind you, and the least you can do is be civil.”
“Civil? Let’s see the other pictures your ‘surveillance’ captured.” He reached across the desk and tapped a small icon. “Like this one, showing unbelievable destruction. Well? Aren’t you proud of your handiwork?”
Alexi tapped his finger on a bowl of twenty-sided dice that lay on his desk. The only thing in the room that even hinted of decoration.
“You don’t pay me for THAT kind of destruction. You could have killed some undergrads in that building collapse. KIDS! I don’t get paid to cover up for you when you kill KIDS!”
“And how are your kids Harold?” Alexi said, leaning back and lacing his fingers. “They still think Dad is a big hero police man?”
“You screwed up big this time, Alexi!” Harold said, fuming. “You know you did, so don’t throw that crap at me, you amoral bastard! I keep people safe, even if it means putting up with you. The moment you let civilians get hurt by your ‘business’ is the moment you become a liability I can’t afford. Do you understand me?”
“I believe I understand you just fine, Harold.” Loveless’s voice was low and overly still, like a dam under great stress and ready to burst.
Both men faced off, Loveless’s cold anger fighting with the Commissioner’s heat. Neither man was even considering backing down or showing any kind of weakness.
The door popped open and the huge armed man danced in with a happy grin and a box full of mid-morning goodies. Oblivious, he announced, “Here you go. Skim white Mocha and a pumpkin scone for the Commish. Caramel Macchiato and a doughnut for Mr. Loveless, and the extra huge black morning roast for Ms. Bee.” He began to set the coffees down on the desk but then took a look around.
Everyone looked at him, furious and tense. The thug’s boyish and puffy face fell flat. “I’ll just put this here.” He put the box down on the desk and backed out the door, attempting to shrink inside his mammoth frame.
Alexi, with growing amusement said, “Thank you Edwin.” He turned from watching his man retreat to once again face Harold. The older man still looked angry, but Alexi threw up his hands and shrugged. The smile that crossed his face spoke of well-practiced control.
He reached into the box and grabbed his coffee. “Blunderbuss Coffee, the only store in this whole mall that actually makes any money and isn’t a cash laundry. You believe that? I spend all this time, money and effort running drugs, prostitutes, fencing stolen goods, growing my syndicate with the odd assassination or two, and my highest profit margin is on coffee and pastries.” He took a sip of coffee. “It’s a crime I tell you.”
The Commissioner, now less incensed, grabbed his coffee from the box. “You shouldn’t tell me shit like that. What the hell could be so important that you blow up a neighborhood? Is this about that hacker?” Alexi averted his eyes and said nothing. “Jesus Loveless, you said it was no big deal. How much did they take?”
The younger man leaned back in his chair, flipped his hair back and brought his coffee to his lips. He looked up at the ceiling, sipped slowly then said from behind the cup, “Everything. He took it all. Everything that matters.”
As Dan opened the door, Billie charged out and bopped into his calf. Bouncing off, she scrambled to her feet and dashed into the back yard.
“Crazy, god damned cat!” he mumbled. He looked up at Billie bounding through the back yard. “You’re lucky I even feed you, you little ingrate! Maybe I won’t be so charitable, now! Fired. And even the cat doesn’t want to hang with me.” He shook his head as if to dislodge his inner asshole. “Meh. Not her fault, the little weirdo. Jealous she’s got something to do, I guess.”
He opened the door some more, having to push past the broken skate board. “Fuck, man! Why the hell do we keep stuff like this?” Grabbing it by the one axle, he hauled it up the stairs and continued to rant. “It’s like we just take anything we find, bring it home, and throw it out on the porch somewhere!”
“Hello.” The voice drifted through the air without any energy.
The scruffy young man snapped his head around to see a chubby freshman-looking girl sitting on the bench. He dropped the skateboard, sending it crashing back down by the door. “Hey. Hi. Can I help you with something?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I came home with Goldberg. You must be his roommate. I’m Molly.” She waved with a far off look, like her thoughts were elsewhere; perhaps under tons of rubble.
“Dan. Hi.” He waved back. “So where is he?”
“He’s inside. I think he’s talking to his girlfriend or at least he was.” She stared off into space and sipped at her coffee. “He said he’d only be a couple of minutes, but that was a while ago.” Looking off the high porch she said, “Nice day, though, I guess.”
Dan frowned. “Girlfriend? Megan is here? Ah crap.”
“He said something about her being the new girlfriend.”
“New girlfriend? Praise be to the funk.” He grinned, then turned to Molly. “What brings you to the house?”
“Well, Goldberg saved me from being smushed when my apartment building collapsed, so he invited me over. … Kinda.”
“Kinda?” Dan’s eyes shot open wide. The girl seemed to be in a bit of a daze so he just shook his head.
He knocked softly then got out his keys. “Goldberg? Everyone indecent in there?”
“You wish.” He heard Joy shout.
A smile crept across Dan’s face. “Joy Winter,” he mumbled. “Goldberg you lucky dog.” He twisted the knob and brought Molly inside.
“What do you mean they got everything!?” Police Commissioner Painter pushed his gray flanged head out like an accusing finger in Loveless’s face.
The windowless office absorbed the tirade. The hum of surveillance monitors filled the silence.
“Look. It was all encrypted, and it would take a miracle to decipher, but they got everything. And we wanted to get it back.”
Harold picked up one of the fresh pictures of a demolished building. “So you blew up half a block? Seems a little extreme.”
Alexi’s eyes went wide and his voice went up an octave, finally breaking his reserve of calm. “The guy was crazy! You should see this shit.” A picture of the most cluttered house in the world flew from the top of the desk to the projection screen. “He had it all printed out! We were just going to go in there and doctor his computers, but the guy made my infiltration team. We had no choice.”
He swung his finger at Harold. “And it’s not like you want those files out there ether. Every pay off I’ve given you is in there as well as every special job you have ever been a part of. Hell, most of your police force gets paid, not through the largess of the taxpayers but by me! You want me to just let that lay out there and have someone prove to me that my encryption isn’t as cool as I think it is?”
Harold’s face screwed up as he took it in. “Fine,” he spat in terse resignation. “I just don’t want this town turned into a war zone.” He scooped up the last of his scone and popped it into his mouth.
Loveless smiled. “A war zone would be bad for business, and you know I’m all about business, Harold. We will try to be more careful next time.”
“More careful? Christ! Want to tell me how you could be less careful? Just take care of it!” he said around the scone. He swallowed and added, “don’t let there be a next time. Next time I come for your ass.” Harold swallowed and looked from Loveless to Ms. Bee. Acting casual from her perch in the corner, the tan mercenary absorbed every nuance in the conversation. “And who the hell are you?”
“She’s the hired help.”
“So this is …”
“My operation, Harold. She’s runs the contract sorting the computer’s security perimeter and breech. You deal with me. I’ll deal with them.”
Harold sighed and rose to his feet. “You really are a dumb fuck, you know that? Dead cops bring the Fed in whether you like it or not. Your ‘contractors’ got lucky this time. Don’t test our arrangement, Alexi. I need plausible deniability to look the other way. Keep your business away from the public and fix your little problem.”
Alexi said, “I’ll work on that. Oh, and Harold,” He tilted his head to the commissioner and his lack of pants, “Nice legs.”
“Fix your shit!” The older man shouted and stormed out.
Ms. Bee walked to the side of the desk. “The man’s got a point.”
“Yeah. And he’s really close to stabbing us with it. May as well make it worth the risk. Have your wiz kids found anything interesting on the computers?”
“Actually, no, which is in itself interesting. There wasn’t a trace of any software that would facilitate hacking into our system on any of the computers. This was no run of the mill cyber attack. The techs say he just figured out how to get into the system and did it. The way he just wandered around in the system, not tripping anything suspicious and copying things fairly casually, like it was almost an afterthought.”
“Great. So the guy didn’t hack in as much as he just walked right through the most sophisticated security I can find like it wasn’t even there. Do I have that right?”
“I’m only reporting what my people tell me, and that’s what they tell me. Maybe there are other computers?”
“No. I really don’t think so.” Loveless radiated unwarranted confidence even as he pondered.
“You seem to be taking this well.” Ms. Bee tilted her head. “If you know something about this case…”
“Just…Just a hunch. If it gets more sold, I’ll let you know. For now we focus on what we can investigate and try to be proactive.”
Ms. Bee looked sideways. “The cop that wound up not to be dead?”
“Precisely. I’m glad you caught that.” He raised an eye at the petite woman. “I want you to go find that guy and find out what he saw, why he went in. Once you are sure you have everything make sure he isn’t going to be talking to anyone else any time soon.”
“I’ll make sure he’s kissing the sky for a while, but it’ll be temporary.”
Alexi Loveless pulled his doughnut from the Blunderbuss Coffee Box. Discarded at the bottom sat the morning paper. Goldberg’s staff picture smiled, clueless from the front page. Loveless put his coffee down and said. “Whatever. It’s not like it’s going to matter after a day or two. I’ll get his radio traffic off of my system and send it to you, but you should get moving. We’ve got to follow the trail and make sure nothing came out of that house that can be traced back to us. I don’t want to overlook anything especially something that’s right in front of us.”
Loveless picked up his coffee cup, leaving behind a ring on the newspaper’s front page. Goldberg’s face smiled dumbly from the center of a bullseye.
Dan took a pinch of pulped ganja from a tray where he had taken it from the bag and pruned it free of seeds and stems. He rolled the pinch into a small ball and stuffed it into the small brass bowl sticking out of the bong. Fire shot from the lighter as he readied the large pipe and sucked from his diaphragm. To Molly, sitting next to him on the couch, it looked like the cherry-red, plastic bong was eating him, beginning at his lips.
Outside, summer’s oppressive heat and humidity were gearing up for another day. With no air conditioning in the apartment, four dazed people sought relief through two box fans and the shade of the house. Ryan Goldberg sat in a chair in the tiled portion of the L shaped room while Joy Winter stood behind him, examining what was left of his hair.
Joy looked up from her work at the spectacle of Dan’s big bong hit. “Is he going to hurt himself like that?”
Lost in a fog of his thoughts and the hot, humid weather, Goldberg didn’t register the words until the silence prodded his brain into action. “What? Oh, that? Nah, Dan’s a pro. I think he’s working off getting canned from his job.”
“Well he keeps that up and he’ll suck his brains out.”
A stray snip came a little too close to Goldberg’s head for his comfort. “Hey. What’s going on back there?”
“I’m fixing your head. Really, you are lucky I worked summers cutting hair or we would be doing this with shaving cream and razors. The burnt stuff goes pretty deep here.”
Molly put her fleshy hand into the bag and fished out bagel. “I can’t believe it. These bagels, cream cheese, and a coffee pot are literally my sole possessions.”
“Well then next hit’s to you… if you smoke, that is.”
“Whatever. Hit me.” She rested her head on the relatively cool wall. “My life has gotten terminally crappy but I’ve heard good things about pot.”
“Speaking of which … the crappy not the pot… what had you blasting through that wall, Nerd Boy?” Dan packed the bong from the small pile of loose pot in the tray. “When I went to see the rubble someone said it was a gas leak that exploded.”
The fat freshman’s head twisted around as quick as she could in the sweltering heat. “You gawked at my house? My destroyed house?”
Dan responded, “It looked cool. Never seen a big explosion like that before.”
“Jerk,” she said. “All my stuff was there. Everything from home… my childhood…” Her voice became tiny. “Mr. Bunny.”
“Well, look at it this way, you just left home, which is a huge shift. All that stuff… you wouldn’t a wanted it here anyway. Trust me, I’ve seen it a zillion times. It just doesn’t fit in with the college experience, you know?”
Molly pursed her lips. “I stand by my previous assessment. JERK!”
“Whatever,” Dan waved. “Here. Bud’s to you.”
Joy looked at the two of them on the couch and said in his ear, “Yeah Goldberg, why don’t you tell them what you told me.”
Goldberg’s head bobbed forward and he looked over his shoulder. “What? You sure?”
“Yeah.” She grabbed his head in her strong slender hands and moved him back into position. “By the way, move again and it’s liable to be painful. Look, this isn’t just anyone here, he’s your best friend. Regardless of what I think of him, Dan’s a survivor. You trust me, and I’m flattered, but you wanted advice for what to do and the more close people you have advising you the better. And it was Molly’s house, she deserves the whole story.”
Across the room, Molly erupted in a smoky cough after taking a toke. A huge cloud of thick white smoke billowed through the air until it was caught in the cross draft of the big box fans. Dan chuckled and took the big pipe away. “Just relax and breathe.”
Goldberg wondered to himself about his choice of counsel, but the few times Dan had ever steered him wrong, well, at least they were fun times. “Ok,” he said to Joy, then spoke up. “Hey, Guys? I’ve got something to tell you all.”