Chapter 22 (Sarah)

I rode back to my building in a daze.  Devlin’s notepad – the one with names and organizations haphazardly connected by sloppy lines – sat on the seat, where he’d forgotten it.  I’d noticed the pad just before the driver closed my door, and I’d wanted to call out to Devlin, but some emotion got stuck in my throat and kept me silent.  My voice returned a few minutes after we’d pulled away from the Victorian but, by then, it was too late.  I let my fingers play across the paper as I thought.

Seeing him again had been difficult.  I’d expected residual emotions, maybe even a little of that old attraction.  What I hadn’t anticipated was the magnitude of the tidal wave of memories.  They’d hit me with explosive force, the instant my eyes fell on him.   For the first five minutes, I’d barely been able to speak or move.  Devlin looked the same as he ever had: a little untamed, lit from within by some unnameable vitality, and roguishly charming in his casual wear.  Even his outbursts reminded me of his passion and his spirit.  I’d pushed him hard, hitting where I knew it hurt, and he’d pushed back.

Despite the surging feelings that lingered in dark, unexplored corners of my heart, I couldn’t forget our last job together, when he’d betrayed my trust on a fundamental level.  No matter what I said, Devlin’s sin had been worse – had cut deeper – than any insult I could hurl.  He’d known that, too.  I saw that much in his caution, how he’d avoided my eyes during the car ride.  His apology for that crime, spoken just before the town car’s opaque window blocked him from my vision had been like a balm to my injuries.

“You’re better than this,” I told myself.  Hearing my voice aloud gave my words a legitimacy that thoughts alone lacked.  “You’re past this.  You’ve got a life now, and it’s one he could never give you.”

But I wasn’t sure that I was past it all.  My emotions churned within me, shifting from one moment to the next and I realized that they were too complicated to sort out on the short ride back home.  I placed my face in my palms and tried instead, with limited success, to think about nothing at all.  I didn’t look up again until I felt the car ease to a stop.

The partition slid down.  “Miss Parker?  We’ve arrived.”

Distracted as I was, I almost didn’t respond.  The name was a pseudonym, of course; the matched identity to Devlin’s “Barrow” persona.  The very moment he’d booked a flight using that name, an automated program that I’d forgotten about automatically reactivated my own “Bonnie Parker,” creating four years’ worth of digital history in an instant for both names.  I’d been asleep at the time but, during my morning routine, I’d discovered that he was heading back to the States.  According to my research, Devlin’s prison sentence wasn’t supposed to be over for another six months.  I’d set up a clock on every one of my connected systems, with the express purpose of keeping me informed of that date and time.   My program, however, didn’t lie; someone using the Barrow passport was active and headed my way.  A quick search told me that he was en route from Athens, by the time I’d seen the notification.  I’d needed less than an hour to arrange for the town car, dress myself, and head for the door.

“Miss Parker?”  The driver sounded politely concerned, but distant.  Professional courtesy, without anything personal attached to it.  “Would you like to go somewhere else?”

“No, I…I’d just like to sit for a moment, if that’s okay.”

“Of course, ma’am.  Take as much time as you need.”

I wasn’t sure if limousine drivers were paid hourly or by assignment, but I resolved to leave this driver an inordinately large tip.  Part of that desire came from appreciation for his civility; the vast majority, however, was motivated by a personal desire for his continued discretion.  Bonnie and Clyde weren’t exactly rare names in America.  If this driver hadn’t figured out that I was using a fake name yet, he would undoubtedly do so in the near future.  It was better to purchase his silence before people started to ask him questions and he realized exactly how much that information was worth.

“Thanks,” I said.  I sat in the car for ten more minutes, tamping down my stray thoughts and wayward emotions at every turn until I felt calm and rational again.  Then, I reached into my clutch and found a hundred dollar bill.  “The company is being paid via company card, but this is for you.”

He turned so that he could see the bill in my mind.  His eyes widened.  “That isn’t necessary, Miss Parker.”

“I know.  I still want to do it, though.  Unless you don’t want it?”  I made to return the hundred to my clutch.

“No!”  He seemed shocked at his own outburst.  He stopped, smoothed his jacket of an invisible wrinkle, and plastered the vacant customer-service smile on his face again.  “I mean, if that’s what you would like to do, then that will be fine.”

“I’d hate to not reward such effective service, after all.”  He took the bill from my fingers.  I hesitated before I continued.  “Mind if I ask you a question?”

“Not at all, Miss Parker.  What would you like to know?”

“It’s kind of a personal one.”

He looked at me patiently in the rear view mirror.

“What do you think about love?”  I asked.

The driver blinked.  “What…exactly do you mean, ma’am?”

“I mean…” I struggled with the wording, suddenly unsure exactly what it was that I did mean.  “Have you ever been in love?”

He was silent for so long that I thought he wasn’t going to answer.  I’d just begun to move toward the door when he finally cleared his throat.  “I think so, ma’am.”

“Tell me about her?”  A beat passed, before I realized my mistake.  “Or him, whatever.”

“She was beautiful,” he said.  “Not like anyone else I’d ever met before or anyone I’ve met since.  She was so alive.”

“What happened?”

“She…I…we weren’t compatible, I think.”  He’d revised the sentence twice.  Worse for him, it had been obvious enough that the driver had to know I’d caught his mistake.  After a few seconds, he sighed.  “She cheated on me,” he said.  “I wasn’t quite enough for her.”

I chewed on that.  “I’m sorry to hear that.  What would you do, if you saw her again?”

“I still love her,” he said immediately.  “I don’t think that will ever change.  Two years of my life were defined by her.  Those two years will never go away, no matter how much I hate her or how much I claim to hate her.  But…”

“But what?”

“If I saw her again,” the driver said, “I think I’d want to make sure that she was doing okay, first of all.  After that?”  He shrugged.  I couldn’t see his expression, except for small glances when the light struck his rearview mirror at just the right angle.  “After that, I’d probably want to get back with her.  I actually did, once, maybe six months after we’d broken up.  It didn’t work out.  There were reasons we’d broken up, after all, and nostalgia hadn’t taken those away.  She didn’t want to change, and I needed her to.  But, I’d like to think I’d be smart enough to just walk away.”

I nodded and spoke without thinking.  “I don’t know that I am smart enough to just walk away.”

“That gentleman, ma’am?”

I blinked and cursed furiously at myself for the slip-up.  “What?  Him?  No, of course not.”

The driver turned fully in his seat so that I could see his eyes.  Nothing in them led me to believe that he’d bought my hasty backpedal.  I resolved, for the millionth time, to work on my poker face.  “Of course not, ma’am.  But if, hypothetically, that gentleman is the person you’re referring to?  I think you should try to remember exactly why you broke up in the first place.”

I considered lying again, but decided against it.  I knew my strengths and lying wasn’t one of them.  Moreover, there wasn’t any real reason to deceive this particular limo driver.  Either he believed me, or he didn’t.  Whether he did or didn’t wasn’t likely to influence my life in any meaningful way.  He didn’t even know my real name.  “Oh, I remember.  I’m just sure that it’s…I don’t know, it’s complicated.  I know a lot of people say that, but with him?  It is seriously complicated.”

“Would you like to talk about it, ma’am?”

I shook my head.  “No, but thank you for asking.”  I took another hundred dollar bill from my clutch and offered it to him.

The driver shook his head.  “Advice is free, ma’am.  One of the services your average limousine driver is happy to provide.”  He smiled at me and I smiled back.

“Well, thank you, then.  I don’t know that I have a better idea of what to do – or what not to do – but it’s still good to hear someone else’s thoughts on the matter.”  I opened the door and stepped outside.  The Madrone rose from the ground in front of me, the glass and steel monolith reaching up to the clouds from where I stood.

The driver rolled down the front passenger window, so that I could hear him speak.  “Miss Parker?”

“Yes?”

“There was also a reason that you two ended up together.  I think you should take both into account before you make a decision.”

Any fitting response eluded me in the moment, so I turned and went into my building.  The driver’s words, innocent and unknowing, stayed with me as I rode the elevator up to my floor and entered my condo.

Familiar surroundings gave me a sense of comfort, if not emotional stability.  I threw my clutch onto a nearby empty chair and went into the kitchen for a Diet Coke.  It was barely seven-thirty AM.  I’d read all of the literature on the effects aspartame had on the average person, and I’d told myself that morning – like every other morning for the past year – that I’d cut down in the future.  Today, however, I needed the caffeine.  The first chilled sip was like manna from the heavens.  I savored it for several seconds before I eventually swallowed the mouthful of soda.  I considered removing a second can, to save myself the hassle of another trip later on, but decided against that option.

An aborted attempt at an omelet sat, ignored and abandoned, in a small pan on the stove.  Next to that, an abandoned tablet’s screen was frozen on a YouTube video: “Cooking for Dummies.”  I wasn’t sure, but tendrils of smoke seemed to have lingered over the burnt eggs, stretching up to the ceiling.

“Score one for Sarah the chef,” I muttered.  During our marriage, Devlin had prepared the meals.  According to him, his kitchen skills were the result of years when his mother wasn’t emotionally capable of caring for him or even for herself.  Before him, I’d typically dined out or relied on the family chef to take care of breakfast, lunch, and inner.

I could easily afford to hire a chef of my own, even if my family chose not to provide the money.  Several qualified individuals, likely pointed in my direction by an overly involved relative, had offered their services for the position.  I was resolved, however, to better myself.  Just not this morning.  I removed a prepackaged sandwich from the fridge.  Then, I upended the skillet over the trash can with a silent promise to at least keep the eggs from burning on my next attempt.

I kicked off my shoes on the way to the second of my two bedrooms.  I’d finished a third of the soda by the time I reached the door.  “Of course,” I said. “Because it’s just that type of day.”  I sipped delicately from the soda and pushed the door open.

Computers were like extensions of my limbs.  I’d grown up around them, taught myself to speak their language, and devised countless ways of manipulating the flow of information in ways that benefited me.  Of all the systems I’d assembled, the one in front me was by far the most advanced and sophisticated.  Even using my illicit connections, the cost to import and smuggle the components all the way to San Francisco had been staggering.  Three monitors, each covered in various forms of data, looked back at me.   I approached them like an eager child.  There were more alerts scattered across the center monitor than I could count.  I took my seat, cleared away the nonessential notifications, and set the rest to reappear when I rebooted the system.

The right monitor showed, at that exact moment, a slowly rotating 3D model of the Earth.  For detailed locations, the program was useless, but it worked wonders when it came to general locations.  A tab showed my real name – Sarah Ford – over the San Francisco area; next to that, there was another small tab that showed Devlin’s full name.  The system wouldn’t be able to tell me if he left the Victorian.  It wouldn’t update me to his whereabouts at all, unless he used one of the identities I’d programmed in as pseudonyms to book a flight or buy a ticket.  There were other ways to leave the city – in fact, there were several ways that came immediately to mind that would let someone slip my net and even leave the country – but any use of a connected account would update the program with a new location.  I reminded myself that Devlin had chosen to use a name I was familiar with, specifically for the purpose of getting my attention.  Leaving now wouldn’t make any sense.

The left monitor was devoted entirely to the international market.  Stocks rose and fell, almost at random.  I paid them the same attention I typically did: virtually none at all.  The algorithms I’d “borrowed” from various Wall Street firms worked perfectly without any input from me.  I’d spent a week customizing the investment parameters to fit a certain threshold, and to alert me if any of the stocks I owned fluctuated beyond the norm.  Beyond that, I had no desire to deal with the minutiae of the trading.  Money meant little to me, except for the adventures it could make available.  I’d spent most of my life with an excess of one and now found myself with a distinct lack of the other.

I typed in a short command, relegating the right monitor’s globe to a side-mounted widget bar.  From there, I opened two tabs.  The first was an email server, designed to collect messages sent to any of my dummy accounts and organize them based on importance.  Certain words elevated the emails higher in the ranking.  “Job,” for instance.  “Security,” “electronics,” “computer,” and “services” worked in much the same way.  Since the divorce, I hadn’t worked a single job.  The offers had poured in like a sundered dam in that first year, mixed in with offers for partnership and more than a few vulgar passes.  The romantic overtures dried up quickly and, as time passed, the job offers withered away as well.  Now, the account served as more of a museum piece.

I checked the server each morning anyway, out of habit.  I expected to find the same screen, populated with the same unread emails.  So, I was surprised to find that the server was entirely blank, with the exception of a single unread email, marked as important by the automated custodian.  My heartbeat dropped away for a moment; when it returned, I felt its beat accelerating with each passing second.  The message had been written, as though from my own account.  That had a certain elegance to it that I could admire; there was no email address to trace, since the system treated it as a draft of something I’d written myself.  It also meant that someone had worked their way past my security programs and taken control of the account, for at least as long as it took to the write the message. I found myself guiding the cursor over to the email without even really thinking about it; even after I realized what I was doing, I opened the message anyway.

To Miss Parker:

Your services are required.  Examine attached documents, before accepting offer.  Manner and size of payment, open to discussion.

There was no farewell at the bottom of the email; there was, however, an attached document.  It looked like a Zip file, named, unhelpfully, “information.zip.”  The attachment was a fairly large Zip file, as those things went, which meant that the unzipped contents were likely massive.

“I don’t think I’ll be falling for that today,” I said, and clicked the trashcan icon in the top right of the screen.  The email was sucked away from the main window and vanished.

I swiveled the chair over to face the financial monitor.  The numbers scrolled by and I made no effort to make sense of them.  It was just comforting to not think for a moment.  I took a drink from my Diet Coke and was disappointed when a quick sip was all that remained.  Sighing, I stood and went back into the kitchen.  This time, I removed the entire twelve pack and carried it back to the computer room.  I put the sodas on the floor, next to the right monitor.  My eyes caught something and, without considering it, I looked up.  My jaw dropped.

The email had returned.  I clicked it open, and saw that its contents and its attached file were exactly the same.  “What are you all about?”  I deleted it a second time but, instead of turning away to remain lost in thought, I stared intently at the right monitor.  Thirty seconds passed before the email returned a third time.  I leaned back in the chair and whistled.

If my system was compromised, the smart thing to do was to cut all outside connections and thoroughly scrub the entire registry.  There wasn’t anything I needed on the actual hard drives, after all; almost all of my truly sensitive information was either memorized or stored on a series of cloud servers.  Something tickled at the edges of my thoughts, though – something that told me Devlin’s mystery might be more connected to my life than I’d first thought.

“You’re past this,” I said out loud.  “You don’t need this anymore.  You’ve got a life, and you don’t have to steal things anymore.”

I repeated that to myself two more times, with increasing hesitance.  Finally, I sighed, opened another Diet Coke, and clicked open the attachments.

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