Inside the single-story small dull white dwelling was much neater than anyone could have expected to find, especially in this neighborhood. As always, I found everything in its place and a place for everything. That’s the way Ma said most Orientals lived. Whether Anuk had any such ancestry, I’d never asked.
“What’s up midge,” I said, flopping onto her floral couch. Man, those cushions were so soft. A guy could take a nap on something that comfortable.
I glanced up to discover her glaring at me. “Oh, I always forgot how clever you white guys are.” She wasn’t really pissed; it was just our usual game.
“Well, you are a shrimp,” I replied, giving her a half-smile.
“I’m petite, you asshole,” she rebutted, lacking any sort of disdain in her voice.
“About the size of a 10-year-old girl.” Man, I was on fire. Though she didn’t seem to find me all that funny.
“Where the hell is your burner?” she vented. “I’ve been trying to get ahold of you for the past hour.”
I flipped a hand at her concern. “I think I left it at home this morning. No biggie.”
With tiny steps, she approached me. Standing directly in front of me, albeit eye-to-eye because of her stature, she tried to stare me down.
“You are supposed to have it on you at all times,” she seethed.
Man, was her breath fresh. I wondered if she brushed her teeth every hour or if she had just chewed on a hunk of mint she grew in the window garden in her kitchen.
I grinned, wondering if I could sneak a quick smooch with her standing that close. A palm plant to my forehead, delivered by Anuk no less, gave me a quick answer.
“We got business to attend to,” she said, walking away from me. “And in don’t mean monkey business.”
Anuk was by far the hottest member of my small group of friends. Even though she always acted like I wasn’t worthy of her presence, that never deterred me from making my best moves on her.
There was just something about her size, her perfectly formed body, her short black hair that stirred the demon inside my soul. Someday she’d see there was more to me than just friendship, I figured. When that day came maybe I’d move in with her here and away from my overbearing mother. Someday…maybe.
“What’s up,” I asked.
She spun and faced me from 10 feet away. “Had an email this morning, from him. Trouble’s brewing. We need to be careful he claims.”
I laughed at her seriousness. “The mythical him has spoken and all of his pathetic underlings are expected to jump into action. Great, just great.”
“They know,” she stated.
Snorting my disdain, I pushed off the couch. “They, don’t know shit. They’ve never known shit. We could hand them a bag full of shit and watch the examine it and they still would be clueless.”
“They’re close to breaking the code,” she said, speaking softer as if this was some big deal. “If they break the code, they’ll break the people. If they break the people, we’re all dead. If they find out what we do, Trent, they’ll kill us. They won’t even interrogate us. They won’t have to.”
I’d heard the rhetoric before. False logic I called it. A mythical him against the mythical they. Even if both parties were real, they would never figure it out.
“And Selmo said this? To you? In an email?” Anuk nodded at my questions.
“And I’ve already destroyed the message,” she replied, sounding sad. “I don’t want to die, Trent. And I don’t want anything to happen to you, or Gareth, or anyone else. Maybe we should just lay low for a while. Stay off their radar.”
It had to be misinformation, planted by the ever-meddling government. It just had to be.
“Bad timing, shrimp,” I replied, turning my head to the door. “They pinched my friend this morning. I’ve got to get to Collins and see if I can’t figure something out.”
Her gaze fell to the floor. “Gareth already told me that. He also said they’re going to start interrogating her soon. That could mean trouble he said.”
Her small dark eyes moved upward and found mine. “What does she know, Trent?”
“Nothing,” I answered as if it were reflexive. “She knows less than them, and that means no one knows anything.”
“You can’t glitch on Margo,” Anuk stated, sounding as if she meant to beg me out of something. “If they make a connection between you and Lucy and Margo and Selmo…”
“They won’t. They don’t have the capability to do so.” I began to pace. “Most of those government types only work for a paycheck. They don’t have the heart to turn against their neighbors and friends. They’d just as soon ignore things as understand them. Hell, as far as we know, most in the government have sympathy for the peebs. If the peebs win, maybe they’ll finally be free to live like people are supposed to.”
“Leave it alone, please?” That time she begged.
“Lucy’s my friend, I owe it to her.” I could feel the fire beginning to burn in my soul.
“You’re not supposed to have friends,” she countered. “Not like that. It’s not supposed to work that way. If she doesn’t know anything, they’ll let her go.”
Unable to suppress my anger any longer, I walked over and hovered above Anuk. She was a go-between and nothing more. Selmo sent her messages, and she reported them to their intended target. Her feelings were never to come into play.
“They’ll torture her until she talks,” I spit. “And if she doesn’t talk they’ll torture her until she gives up and dies. Once you’re in their clutches, there’s no leaving. You know that.”
She looked up and I noticed for the first time her eyes filled with tears. “She’s not worth it, Trent. There’s too much risk. Selmo knew she was going to be grabbed today. That’s why he sent me that warning. You need to let it be. Don’t be stupid.”
I grinned broadly and turned for the door. Stupid as one of my specialties. Stupid was my secret weapon. One I was about to deploy on the own personal idiot – Captain Kumquat.
The idiot kept me waiting in a crowded hall just down from his office door. I listened for two hours as he conducted other government business that took priority over my needs.
The first hour was okay, it gave me time to touch base with Gareth and have him send me another name in place of Margo’s on my glitch list. Though I’d never heard of Wyatt Chelsey, Gar assured me he was on the government watch list. His infraction? Buying liquor on an unqualified day. The nerve of that bastard.
By the end of the second hour I’d used the bathroom three times and stared into Collins’ office several other times. He wasn’t even busy with another glitch like I had assumed. No, he was on the phone, and it sounded like a personal conversation with his wife to my ears.
When the fat man finally came to get me, I gave him the earful he deserved.
“It got things to get done today,” I quipped. “Waiting while you and the missus go over your grocery list ain’t one of them.”
For the most part he ignored me as he reached into a desk drawer and pulled a folder out. A quick glance at the name on the red dog-eared folder revealed my own name.
“Putz’s like you deserve to wait, Trent,” he replied with a chuckle. “I should have made you wait another hour. Would have served your sorry ass right.”
I glanced at him, sneering as I did. “What did I ever do to get treated like this by some government hack like you?”
He typed a series of passcodes into his ancient desktop unit. Closing the folder, he pointed at the screen.
“The last three peebs you turned over weren’t even peebs,” he ranted. “We had to let one guy go when his old man – some level three – showed up, screaming for his release.”
“I got my names,” I replied, trying to sound as insulted as I could. “They were all peebs, even the level three’s kid. You’re all just too stupid to figure anything out.”
Folding his hands together, he glared at me. “I need a name, Trent. And a decent name this time.” He leaned nearer. “Otherwise you and your poor old mother may be hungry before the end of next month.”
I considered jumping out of the chair and storming from his small cluttered office. This guy had the same tidiness as Gareth. Add to that he weighed three times what I did and I was sure I could outrun him easily.
“Bronson Pickerel,” I replied. I had lowered my voice so it sounded as if I was ashamed to give up a fellow citizen. That couldn’t have been any further from the truth though.
Collins’ sausage fingers typed the name into his computer. When he struck the enter key, he leaned closer to the screen.
“Hummm,” he droned. “He’s got several infractions against him. Looks like the boys over at two have had their eyes on him for a while. You’re the first to glitch on him though.”
“I saw him last month,” I replied, “meeting with known peeb sympathizers. People I assumed you’ve either let go or just haven’t been proven to be working against this great government of ours yet.”
He tapped a pen on his desk for several long quiet seconds. “You sure about this one, Trent? We’re not going to waste our time any more on some misguided non-peeb just so you and your mother can eat for another month. Tell me I’m not wasting my time here.”
Staring at my hands folded in my lap, I nodded. “He’s the real deal.”
“Look at me when you say that, you worthless glitch.”
Slowly, I raised my eyes and focused on his fat face. “He’s legit. I swear it.”
Rocking forward, I tried to stand. However, one of Collins’ massive paws halted my rise.
“I got some names for you too,” he said, taking another folder from his desk drawer. “People I need checked out.” He slapped the manila folder into my chest. “You know any of these people?”
I quickly scanned the names; I knew them all. The one that really jumped out at me caused an uneasy feeling in my stomach. Gareth Hightower.
“I don’t see any names I recognize.” I lied, not that he would know.
His maniacal laughter caught me off-guard. “Oh come on, boy. Hightower is your best friend…maybe your only friend.”
He withdrew the folder from my shaky hands and replaced it in its spot. “The boys upstairs said he tried to hack into our system a couple months ago. He didn’t get anywhere. Not that you’d expect a flunky like him to able to get through our security.”
“So he likes computers, big whoop.”
Collins’s face reddened. “Listen to me, Trent. I need you to find out if that ass wipe has any plans to try and breach our security. Are you getting me?”
I guffawed at the suggestion. “I ain’t gonna glitch on a friend. You know that.”
Sitting straighter in his chair, he scowled at me. “You’ll do what I tell you to do. Got it?”
I held off any acknowledgement as long as I could but eventually caved with a shrug. He got what he wanted, sort of. Now it was my turn.
Anuk’s voice rang in my head, just leave it alone, Trent. However, my feelings for Lucy won out.
“Can you tell me something?” I asked humbly. “If I ask real nice?”
Collins remained stone-faced. “I don’t do favors for glitches. Not my style.”
“Come on, man,” I begged. “I might have another name for you.”
I watched his lips pucker as he considered the deal. Rarely did a glitch give two names in a single setting. You didn’t get double rations, so why give two names was most likely his reasoning.
I took his continued silence as approval. “What can you tell me about Lucy Tringle? Punch something in your computer there and tell me what she did wrong.”
“Who the hell is Lucy Tringle?” Collins replied, giving me a sharp look.
“A friend. Just see what you got.”
Rotating slowly on his chair, the wasn’t fit enough to do anything fast, he banged on his keyboard. After striking the enter key, a hand rose to his chin.
“Lucy Anne Tringle, age 25. Works at the Information Repository, has for three years now. Clean record until a month ago when she was found to be passing classified information to a known subversive.” His eyes opened wide.
“What?” I asked after a lengthy pause.
“Might have been the man himself,” Collins replied, typing away again. “The name we don’t speak around here.”
He glanced at me tight lipped and shook his head. “What part of not saying it was so hard for you to understand?”
I raised my hands trying to show no offense had been intended. His gaze went back to the flickering monitor. So, they thought Lucy had met the mythical leader of the peebs. Now that was news.
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