TARA WAS HESITANT to enter the hotel room.
The door was ajar, and her heart pounded in fear at what she might find inside, since Brian never called when he was on a job. Never. And especially when it was at a place like this.
“Tara, sweetie,” he said, when she’d picked up the call, “I don’t want you to worry, but we’ve got an issue on the stakeout. Everything’s under control, so don’t worry about me, whatever happens.”
How could she not worry? He was whispering! Who whispers, if there’s not a problem? The double whammy was when he said don’t worry. Everyone worries when you say don’t worry. Everyone.
Tara had panicked immediately, though she’d stood and stared at her phone’s blank screen for a good ten minutes after he’d disconnected, walking around the apartment in a daze.
Should she call someone? Who, the police? They were both on the Force, but she wasn’t supposed to know he was on a stakeout. Brian always told her so she wouldn’t worry, he always said. It never worked, but she managed to set it aside, usually.
Until he told her stupid things, like, don’t worry.
Brian wouldn’t want her to call the police, to let them know what she knew, and she forced herself to think. Opening his computer, she entered the passcode he didn’t know she had, and she delved into his work-related reports, upcoming assignments, and finally to the Force’s private email server.
His current assignment had to be in one of them.
She scrolled down, with rising desperation, until she thought to perform a search for the date. One email popped up, the only one in the list.
The Savoy on the Park.
She clicked it to reveal how to help her man.
TARA SWUNG THE door wide. She held her gun at arms’ length, ready to confront whoever might be inside. She was taking a chance, and she accepted her responsibility if this went wrong.
The email was why she was here. Time brokers, the latest in identity theft, stole the time you’d already lived, to sell it at a profit to the highest bidder. You never knew until you tried to access your memories, only to find them gone.
If you even noticed.
When the time brokers stole only a few days at a time, it could be chalked up to forgetfulness, but they’d gotten greedy and started slicing years and decades out of people’s lives. The brokers didn’t get just your time, they got everything from you during that period. Your memory from your stolen time, all of it, was at their disposal, to be used or misused, however they saw fit. The ultimate in identity theft.
Recently they’d escalated to stealing clean time, selling it to extend the lives of the decadent old and the morally corrupt. Clean time came from stealing someone’s present, which had no memories to clutter it up.
When she found the room vacated, save empty pizza boxes, soda bottles, and a bulletproof vest, Tara knew immediately. The stakeout had been a setup. Someone in the Force had lost a few days somewhere, and buried in their memories, the time brokers had learned about this room.
Someone was stealing Brian’s present, and that meant they were stealing him from her.
She also knew her husband was still alive. That was the thing about time theft. It only worked if the person remained alive. If they died, their time died with them. To steal from someone’s present, they were maintained in a sterile medical environment, drugged but alive, if the brokers wanted to maximize their investment.
A fly-by-night? That’s what made this risky. They would insert the body in a medical coffin, with IVs and air, but little else, and they’d replace their victims as necessary, to keep their stolen time flowing to their customers. Tara began to tear the room apart, looking for any clues that might connect her to who had done this.
She found it in a scrap of paper next to the trash can, where someone’s fire had tried to destroy the evidence. The paper was scorched on the side, but the undamaged portion revealed half of the Presidential Seal. She knew then that this went all the way to the top.
Could the White House be stealing people’s time? Was the Secret Service involved? Was the entire country compromised?
Tara tried to recall what she knew about the escalating phenomenon of the time brokers. She wasn’t directly involved in any time cases, but others had been. What had Brian told her just last week? They’d been at the game, Fenway? She couldn’t recall. She walked to the window and stared over the city. Suddenly, she didn’t know the name of the teams they’d watched play.
She took a deep breath and slowed down. She remembered the cab, and Brian held out the tickets as they walked into the venue, and he got three hot dogs, one for her, and two for him. The game started off, and Brian said, “I have a stakeout coming up next week.”
Then, nothing. She had no idea what he’d told her, nothing, really, until this morning, when the phone rang.
This time Tara truly panicked. They’d found the stakeout because Brian never wanted her to be afraid. They’d known if they took her week, it would be in there somewhere.
Tara was the weak link, and she let the tears run down her face.
THE LIGHTS IN the darkened room came up slowly, revealing an opulent medical facility,with a faded-looking man hooked to life-extending devices. A team of doctors began disengaging them.
The man’s eyes opened, and he blinked. “You found volunteers to give me the extra time I need?”
A man in a dark suit stepped up, and the doctors moved out of his way. He cleared his throat.
“Yes, sir, Mr. President.” He nodded with calm assurance. “We found two volunteers, keeping one for a backup, just as you requested.”
“No coercions? I want this to be volunteer, only.” The President’s color had already improved, and he sat up.
“Of course not, Mr. President. Volunteers, only.”
“Good. I’m feeling better, already.”
A Credit to the Company
JOHN HAD NO clue what his boss could want.
If all the drones had truly fallen from the sky—and there was no proof, yet—then that was a disaster, but Ms. Boynton could hardly blame it on him. He was in scheduling and logistics, not programming and anti-virus intrusion alerts.
Besides, he’d been at lunch when the failure warnings had started coming in. According to John’s contract, he was off duty at lunch, and he couldn’t be held responsible for what occurred with the company product or infrastructure when he wasn’t on the floor.
He knocked on the open door, and he identified himself, “It’s John, Alicia.” Their office was a “first name” office, although John sometimes felt awkward about it.
“Come on in,” she called in a bright voice. “Shut the door, if you don’t mind, and pull up a chair.”
John did as she asked, and once seated, he twisted his hands nervously, keeping them low so she couldn’t see.
“You’ve heard about the drones, I suppose?” She leaned back in her chair and smiled warmly.
“Yes, I have.” He waited patiently, though nervously, hoping he wasn’t to be made part of it. He’d been at lunch. It had nothing to do with him.
“The company needs to get them back on line. Are you following me, John?” She shuffled some papers on her desk as she spoke, and she pulled out one, shaking it slightly, as if to dust off the residue from all the others. She scanned it as though it was something important to the conversation.
“I was at lunch, Alicia.”
He offered that small fact as a bargaining chip. What it really said was, May I go back to my station, now? This isn’t my problem, and I don’t wish to make it my problem, because I’m just a logistics engineer. I have nothing to do with drones that fall from the sky.
“Yes,” she said, still looking at the sheet. “I’d like you to look at this, John. See what you think.”
She held out the sheet of schematics to him, and with trepidation he took hold of it. He turned it, locked his eyes onto the images, and scanned them.
He caught the name at the top. All-City Drone Corporation, Model 1176. He suspected this was the model that had taken a hit today. If it was only this one, that was a relief.
“So, John, what do you think?” She held her hands in front of her, with her fingers pressed together in a little steeple. She smiled a quick smile, but it wasn’t as big as the first time. He understood. She had been warming him up. This was business this time. It seemed that he’d accepted this job, whatever it was, by taking the schematic in his hand.
His gut turned over, but even as it did, he was intrigued, and he wanted to know more. Ms. Boynton was good.
“This is the only one?” The only one that was down, but she would understand that. Ms. Boynton might be deceitful and conniving, but she wasn’t slow. She thought as fast as he did, if not faster. Her gestalt ability far outpaced his, in any case, and John was no slacker.
“If by 36,721 of these online, as of the incident, you mean the only model, then yes.” Her fingers tapped, telling him she was calculating his probability of success in solving her problem.
“I see.” He was still scanning the details of the schematic, looking for clues, even as he calculated the total impact on the company’s bottom line. Two hours, he figured, since the cascading failures started. Thirty-six thousand meant the saturation of failed drones wasn’t heavy, but if delivery quotas weren’t met, things would begin to back up down the line. He could see Ms. Boynton’s reasoning in calling him in, scheduling and logistics, remember. Slowdowns on deliveries meant manufacturing needed to be tweaked, and that meant supply lines had to be slowed, and it went on from there.
“Can they be brought back on line without a manual reboot?” She sighed. “I’m sorry, John. You’ve reminded me you were at lunch, but this impacts all of us. I can give you double compensation for your time resolving this hiccup, if that helps.”
It did. He noted a homing beacon had been added to the units since their original manufacture. He recognized the part number, Comptrol X-3zy, and he closed his eyes, pulling up the latest recall notices. Yes, it was there, a faulty override code that could fail during high traffic volume. Replacement parts for the Model 1176 had become backed up, caught up in a shipping strike in China.
If he’d been told, he could have rescheduled a substantial proportion of the deliveries and prevented the overload, but as usual, the company preferred to pick up the pieces, rather than be proactive.
“It will need a manual reboot on the homing beacon. There’s no other solution. I’m sorry, Ms. Boynton.”
She cleared her throat and looked at him hard under furrowed brows.
“Alicia. I apologize.” He set the schematic on her desk and remained very still, dreading this next part.
“You can do this?” She cleared her throat as though she expected him to hesitate.
“Yes.” He left it at that.
“And your companion units?”
“I’ll see.” He closed his eyes, and after a few moments, he opened them. “Yes, except for Rio and Sao Paulo. They are offline, but two units from Brasilia can absorb the slack.”
“Good.” Ms. Boynton slipped the schematic back into her stack of papers. “JohnXL3575, your model is a credit to the company. By the way, you have a little oil by your neck feeding port. You might want to clear that away before you head out. I’ll see you in two weeks.”
Two weeks, he thought, as he uploaded the repair code to his internal memory banks. His meeting with Ms. Boynton wasn’t as bad as he’d expected. He hoped all the John models across the world had bosses as good as his.
Reading of the Will
ELENA DREADED THE reading of the will.
It wouldn’t tell her anything she didn’t already know. She’d been living with the residual fallout of her Uncle Vlad’s legacy since his untimely death. It had haunted her nights and stolen away her days. What would happen was that other people would find out what they didn’t already know.
She turned up her velvet and leather collar against the rising chill of the evening, and she stepped from her carriage. She ducked into the shadows as the final rays of the sun darkened the pink skies into a simmering crimson, as a murky twilight tumbled over the city, like the red flood of a rising tide.
“Countess, pardon,” a hooded face murmured, as a man moved aside, nodding respectfully at the crest on Elena’s finely crafted cloak.
And another and another, each giving Elena a wide berth, as she moved down the darkening street. She held her head high, ignoring them all, with the disdain of her superior station in life.
It was more, though. She’d been on friendly terms with them once. Not friends, no, never friends, but congenial, the working relationship that comes from trusted servants and tolerant masters, a financial and social arrangement that allowed their lives to continue uninterrupted, and for both to prosper, if possible, and survive, when necessary.
There, the butcher, Nicolae, who’d carved the flanks of a deer for her New Year’s Eve gathering just two years past. In the next shop, Ioana had sewn the very cloak Elena wore, stitching the family crest on the breast in golden thread. And on down, the baker, Gheorghe, who no longer wished for her business, and Vasile, who once stabled her horses when she was in the village.
Only now, Vasile ducked his head and said, “Pardon,” each time he crossed her path, and never talked with her of horseflesh or fine saddles.
Across the street, merchants had begun lighting candles and placing them in the glass lampstands atop their tall poles. The flames were blazing torches in Elena’s eyes, and she held a hand just to the side of her face, shielding her vision from the brightest of the lot. Later, when the candles had burned down, she could roam the streets with impunity. Now was too early. She was too early. This meeting at the lawyer’s establishment was too early.
Too early for Elena, though most of the city’s business was done for the day. She had no days, now that her Uncle Vlad was gone. His death had stolen her life, and now she had only the darkness for comfort.
If her nights of despair could be called comfort.
On a distant hillside, the castle turrets with their dark red clay roofing tiles thrust into the building gloom, just visible against the jet sky. Lights flickered in a tower, disappeared from one window, then reappeared in another. Not all Elena’s entourage had abandoned her, just most. They were afraid, and Elena understood, though she wished it otherwise.
As she turned a corner onto a side lane, the steps to the lawyer’s establishment rose from the paving stones, gleaming in the candlelight shimmering in the small lamps set at either side. These weren’t on tall poles, as business was rarely conducted here after dusk. Rather, these were portable lamps set outside just for her visit tonight.
The double windows were yet to be fitted with their shutter boards, and inside, yellow light flickered and created mullioned shadows that jumped and leaped across the street. Elena had asked for the lights to be dimmed, and she sighed. She supposed they were, for she saw better than most, now that her uncle had passed his legacy down the family line, which meant the lawyers would be walking in near darkness, despite the light that already burned her eyes. Her cape had a hood, and she would wear it at the reading of the will, even if doing so suggested a breach of decorum and breeding.
Elena paused at a metallic odor, a sharp tang of copper, as though old pots were being polished in the night. It was a heady smell, and she closed her eyes as the aroma drew her involuntarily. She didn’t need to search. Her instincts, new to her since her uncle’s demise, were sharp, and she opened her eyes and glanced at two girls walking the far side of the lane. One of them, but which she couldn’t tell. She narrowed her eyes and thought, on the right. The girl with the red hair and the fur hand warmers at her waist, the copper smell came from her.
Elena ran her tongue across her teeth, quieting the hunger she felt in her belly. She touched the sharp canines with the tip of her tongue, sensing the holes in her teeth. Just those two, no others. They had grown so much, so quickly. The girl with the red hair laughed, and Elena didn’t look. Now wasn’t the time, and besides, these people weren’t for her. She must maintain a sense of trust and decorum. She must be discreet; otherwise, she would endure her uncle’s fate.
She moved her feet forward, pushing the alluring smell of copper from her thoughts, and gathered her hood in her hands. She pulled it forward and draped it over her coal-dark hair, and with a twist of her fingers, looped a small chain from one side to the other to hold it firmly at her neck. At the steps, she pulled her hood forward to shield her eyes from the lights, and pausing at the door, she rapped three times very firmly.
She heard footsteps, and then a voice whispered from the inside, “It’s her, the witch?”
“Hush, Marcu. She will hear you, even through the walls.”
Elena smiled. She wouldn’t reveal she had, but her hearing was that good. Her uncle’s lawyer must know more than he let on. Good. It would ease the transition of power.
The door opened, and a tall man in a dark suit bowed before her. Behind him, a smaller man in a cream-colored vest and striped trousers worked his hands nervously.
“Ah, Countess Dracula. Come in.” The tall man nodded respectfully and gave a shallow bow from the waist. “I have your uncle’s will prepared and ready to read.”
“Thank you.” Elena stepped inside, holding her hood close to her face, to shield her eyes from the light.
The Caretaker’s Ghost
THE CEMETERY WAS very quiet.
I looked out the broad expanse of glass across the wall of my office into the golden light of a morning sun. Wisps of fog hovered at ground level, giving a surreal beauty to the manicured space. Trees bordered the cemetery, blocking it from the tall buildings of the city. The rows of headstones marched orderly to the top of the hill and, I knew, for another mile down the other side. We might soon be forced to absorb another city block. Imminent domain was a wonderful tool to keep our constituents completely satisfied.
Nearly seven, the clock chimed, in a one-minute-til-the-hour warning mode. I looked at it hard, aware of a building headache. I’d cautioned Neery about taking such liberties, but as it was a single chime, I wouldn’t make the caution official. Good employee relations kept the office running smoothly, even if I had to tolerate the occasional minor insubordination.
The headache told me something was amiss.
“Neery,” I held down the lever on the intercom, and I called to my assistant, “I don’t see any activity in the cemetery. Have any problems been reported?”
As Caretaker, that’s what I was for. If Grandma didn’t get out of bed in the morning, my duty (among others) was to run diagnostics on her grave plot and ensure that she was there for lunch. On a morning like this, I should be able to see our residents’ ghosts already up and at their daily business. It was the fog that made it possible. It shifted around the astral apparition of each person buried just beneath the soil, just enough that their mimicry motions could be viewed without the customary gaussmeter apparatus. On foggy mornings (such as this one), it wasn’t unusual to have small groups of visitors—live blood-and-bone ones—show up to enjoy the show. It was Cemetery policy not to broadcast viewings of the spectral figures to other than family members, but during a fog event, you could effectively become a peeping tom into the lives of people across the globe.
“Ah, there’s Mrs. Ritchie. It looks like she’s playing a game of bridge this morning.”
“Is that Jerry? Yes, and he’s walking his dog.”
“Elsa always did like to play her piano every morning. There she is, as usual.”
Of course, the bridge game, the dog, or the piano couldn’t be seen, as they were real, physical things, but the astral apparition was perfectly visible, moving in the fog, a ghost of a figure, plainly recognizable to anyone who had known them.
The few visitors I’d seen arrive this morning had left disappointed. The fog would soon be gone, and local viewing for the rest of the day would be by special request only through the gaussmeter mechanism. I wasn’t sure why people bothered, but they did. I mean, that was the whole point in the Cemetery, to have your loved ones broadcast into your home with you for the pleasure of daily interaction, not in a distant location where you only saw them once a month, or less, in most cases.
My intercom crackled.
“Yes, Neery?” I lifted the lever to the receive position. Neery had worked for me since I took over the Caretaker’s position, and I was used to her, but I wished sometimes . . . I released that thought and waited on her response.
“It’s a, um, a backlog, no, um . . .” She cleared her throat, and paper rustled in the background.
“Just say it, please.” I felt my patience thinning.
“Here,” she said, and it sounded as though she was shaking out a sheet of paper. “I believe this says we have a congested pipeline.”
“Congested pipeline?” Outside my window, a family of four got out of a car, and they were setting up a breakfast picnic, with a folding table and chairs. I hoped they weren’t disappointed.
“Yes, sir.” The box crackled, but she didn’t say anything more.
“And . . . is there anything else on your sheet of paper, Neery?” Sometimes, she had to be prompted.
“Oh, yes, I see it here. Logistics said all the ghosts—”
“Astral apparitions, Neery, never ghosts, not where our cliental might overhear.”
“Of course, Mr. Jameson.” It sounded like she cleared her throat, which was a sign Neery was irritated. “Anyway, all the astral apparitions woke up at once and tried to exit the Cemetery. It tripped the central breakers. They’re working to get it online now. Some of the ghosts are getting through via side channels, so we’re not completely down. That’s something, I guess.”
“Yes, I suppose it is. Thank you, Neery.”
I rose from my desk and pushed my heavy, leather chair to the side. I crossed the thick Persian carpet to look over the Cemetery. The family was still at their breakfast, and it seemed a ghostly presence had taken one of the chairs and was enjoying a ghostly meal. Naturally, the breakfast foods at that place didn’t move. A ghost couldn’t eat, for heaven’s sake. Only its material aspect could do that, and that was only if the central breakers were reset promptly and the pipeline was cleared.
I walked quickly to my desk and pressed the lever on my intercom. “Neery?” I waited impatiently, as this was important.
“Yes, Mr. Jameson?”
“Am I on a side channel?” I had a busy day, today. I couldn’t waste my time trapped in the pipeline. Side channel transmissions were slower, but they did work.
“Yes, Mr. Jameson. You were switched over as soon as the breaker tripped. You’ll be rerouted into the main pipeline once the repairs are completed. It’s all automatic.”
“Well done, Neery.” I released the lever.
I caught my reflection in the vast window. How real I looked! My image flickered, my headache cleared, and I knew the breaker had reset. Outside, in the wisps of fog still hovering over the Cemetery, the ghosts appeared, a few at first, then all over the cemetery. I searched for one that looked like me, and there it was, a white form built of magnetic energy and bits of fog searching for something no one else could see. I turned away, satisfied the Cemetery was up and running normally again, and out of the corner of my eye, I caught my ghost doing the same.
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