Friday, February 22, 2013

Fiction Friday: Terms & Conditions

Part 12 Part 13 Part 14

15. Aftershocks

           Sometimes in stories, when the hero is being trained for some great task or purpose, his teacher will set him a seemingly impossible test. Sometimes it’s a test of strength -- move a mountain, empty a lake with a spoon, lift a house with one hand. These are usually solved more with clever thinking than with straightforward effort.
           Sometimes it’s a test of skill or intelligence -- untie an impossible knot, decipher a famous riddle, figure out which gatekeeper always lies and which always tells the truth. These are usually solved by not being clever.
           Sometimes it’s a test of conscience -- kill the next person who passes a certain crossroads, steal a sacred relic, kidnap a teenage girl and deliver her to who knows what fate. These tests are usually solved when the hero-in-training refuses to complete the task as ordered, proving himself worthy of his high calling. He shows that he has learned to think for himself, and that he won’t fall prey to blind obedience and won’t be corrupted by ruthless devotion to his master or his cause.
           Sometimes the desired result is exactly the opposite of that.
           Sometimes you find out you’ve been working for the villains all along.
           A scrub team was at our location within an hour. They went to work convincing the various first responders that they were needed elsewhere, or just plain weren’t needed at all. Parker arrived on-scene an hour after that. He never even got out of the back of his car, just watched and gave instructions through a crack in the tinted window. We were sequestered in the van like naughty children put in a time out, told to sit quietly and think about what we’d done. We mostly just stared off into space, or passed around a flask that Rosemarie kept in the pocket on the back of the front passenger seat. I didn’t recognize whatever it was she had in there, but it was good stuff. I spilled a little when it came around to me (shaky hands), and it stripped off my nail polish. I tried asking her what it was, but every time I started to speak Michael caught my eye and motioned for me to keep silent.
           Parker kept us waiting for an hour while he did paperwork and made phone calls. Then (via messenger) he instructed Michael to join him. They were sequestered for five minutes, and then (via another messenger) the rest of us were instructed to go back to the head office. We were to travel in separate cars, provided by the company. Short of essential communication, we were not to speak to anyone under pain of termination. He said it was for security reasons. All of us knew that was bullshit. Only two of us knew why.
           Back at the office, we spent the afternoon and evening given our accounts of the incident, including one-on-one interviews in a little room with a metal table and two chairs and a big shiny two-way mirror and two cameras in opposite corners at the top of the walls. After the first round of “and then what happened”, Parker conducted his own interviews in another, smaller room. It also had a metal table and two chairs and a big shiny mirror. It did not have cameras.
           Parker was calm and quiet and worked his way to the center of the issue with the precise, delicate cuts of a neurosurgeon. He started with broad strokes that weren’t even technically questions -- “tell me what happened” -- and moved in slowly, returning to the outer rings every time I held something back. After a while, the phrases “What happened after that?” and “Why do you think that happened?” turned into meaningless sounds that triggered automatic responses, like that aural aptitude test where you raise your hand to show you heard a beep. He never interrupted me, and he never wrote anything down. Eventually I stopped making eye contact and started watching myself in the mirror. I desperately needed a shower -- my light brown hair looked shiny and black under the lights -- and I could have sworn the pupil in my left eye was larger than the right. Parker sat still, facing straight across the table. Even when I watched for it, I could never quite see when he blinked.
           And even though he watched for it, he never quite got to the center of what I knew.
           There was no clock in that little room, but I made a note of the time when I went in and when I left. I was in there longer than Colin and Ben combined -- although Ben’s interview was all of about fifteen minutes, so that didn’t really mean much. True to form, he was the first one in and the first one out -- he gave his statement, wrote up his version of events, had his little chat with Parker and left without saying a word to anyone. Colin was next, and after he walked out the door he fell off the face of the earth. (He returned twenty-seven days later with deep tan lines and a nasty set of spider bites up the back of his right arm. When I asked, he would only say he’d been “elsewhere”.)
           Michael and Rosemarie had a closed-door meeting with their father that started at one in the afternoon and was still going when I crashed on the couch in the break room at two in the morning.
           One month later we were reassigned, every one of us to a different section, only one of us actively in the field. Colin went to a substation run out of a post-war bungalow in Oregon, where he was put in charge of local client intake and screening. He wasn’t very good at it. Rosemarie stayed at the head office, dressed in a skirt and heels, so she could begin her transition from low-level grunt to upper management. I worked on the main floor, dispatching transport teams and making sure the right paperwork went to the right people. Only Michael insisted on going back on the road, making solo runs on low-security assignments and reporting back as little as humanly possible. I envied him. It’s easier to keep a secret from someone who’s six hundred miles away than it is from someone who’s just on the other side of an office door. At least that door was always closed.
           I switched to a consulting position after seven weeks. I was sure Parker suspected I hadn’t been completely forthcoming. I couldn’t stand walking on eggshells all the time, waiting to be called into his office so he could confirm it. I was losing weight. I was losing sleep. So when the thought occurred to me that I could walk away, no questions asked -- this time I listened.

Part 16

Friday, February 15, 2013

Fiction Friday: Terms & Conditions

Part 11 Part 12 Part 13

14. Priorities

           This time Michael had to run to catch up with me. I stalked all the way around to the storefront side of the strip mall before I felt like talking, and almost all the way back to the van before I could think of anything to say. “You could’ve told me before now,” I said, stuffing my hands into my back pockets and glaring as he followed me around the corner. “This is one of those things it would have been nice to know yesterday.”
           “You know what I was doing yesterday?” Michael countered, leaning against one of the concrete pillars and crossing his arms across his chest. “And the day before that, and the day before that? Do you really think I had access to a reliable phone?”
           had me there. “Okay, probably not,” I muttered. “But you could’ve warned me back at my apartment. My go bag is still under my bed, and there’s no way I can go back and get it now -- wait.” I clutched at my hair as this sunk in, gripping the base of my ponytail like it was my last tether to a sane life. The sudden withdrawal of my hands from my pockets sent the envelope flying. “Michael, what if I can’t go back?
           Michael shrugged. “I didn’t think it would matter that much to you. I mean, you said all that back at the restaurant, but you also said you didn’t care that much about your job -- ”
           “I don’t care about my job!.” I paced around in a tight figure eight, stepping up and down from the curb and twisting my hair tight around my hand. The envelope caught and dragged under my shoe. I didn’t really notice and didn’t really care. “I really don’t. What I care about is, who’s gonna take care of my cat?”
           “That’s what you’re worried about?!” For a second he looked like he wanted to slap me. Instead he grabbed my shoulder right as I spun on my heel for another go-round, throwing me off-balance and forcing me to pay attention. “We have bigger problems right now!”
           “You said you’d send somebody if we weren’t back in two days, but what if I don’t come back at all?” I wobbled and grabbed at his arm, his grip on my jacket the only thing keeping me upright for the moment. “None of my neighbors are gonna miss me, and nobody at work knows I have a cat. I’m responsible -- I’m not gonna let him -- ” I couldn’t catch my balance. “I can’t let --
           Michael blinked at me behind his glasses. “What, can’t let him starve?”
           I couldn’t catch my breath, either. “I’m -- ” The word filled up my throat. “I’m responsible.”
           Michael shook his head, matching the motion to a little shake of my shoulders as I got my feet planted under me. “Rachel, it’s just a cat.”
           “He is not ‘just a cat’,” I scowled, pushing back and holding him at arm’s length. My face was hot and tight, and my eyes burned. “He’s a living thing, and I won’t -- I c-can’t --” I pressed my steepled hands hard against my face and closed my eyes tight. The words didn’t want to come out, so I forced them. “I’m not going to let anyone else die on my watch,” I said in a rush. “Even if it is just a cat. I won’t do it.” I took a short breath, sharp and shuddering. “I can’t.”
           Michael made a short, low sound in his top of his throat, like he’d been punched in the stomach, and the pressure of his hands on my shoulders went away. With my eyes still closed, it was like he’d disappeared.
           And then, after a moment, he was back, just hesitant pressure of fingertips in the hollow of my cheek. “I don’t -- I don’t get a lot of sleep, these past few months,” he said quietly, the tip of his thumb tracing the dark half-circles below my eyes. “Bad dreams, that kind of thing.”
           I nodded without looking up. “Wakeful,” I murmured. “I bet you’re a really light sleeper now.”
           “Pretty much.” The fingertips moved up and over my ear, pushing back some stray hair, then returned to my shoulder for a reassuring squeeze. “Rachel, I give you my word, I will not rest until I find a way to take care of your cat.” I could hear his smile, only a little bit ironic. The squeeze turned into a lighthearted pat. “Worst comes to worst, we can always bribe somebody to go break in and stuff him in a box and mail him to us. It’s not like we don’t have experience in that kind of thing.”
           “Ha. Yeah.” I sniffed and wiped my face on the end of my sleeve like a fourth-grader. Eyeliner came away in black smears on the corduroy. “That would work. CatForShort loves boxes.” I sniffled again and laughed. “He’d be all, ‘awesome, a box!’ and jump right in, and then you’d just have to tape it up and punch some air holes in the top and stick a label on it and boom, done.”
           “Done.”
           “Overnight, of course.”
           “Naturally.” A brief, chilly breeze lifted the battered envelope and flipped it up against Michael’s leg. He picked it up and held it out to me. “Here.”
           “Oh, yeuch.” I took it between two fingers and let it hang like a wet dishrag. “This thing.”
           The gravel on the roof rattled again -- it sounded like something was digging around up there. Michael looked up at the underside of the overhang. “What is that, a raccoon?”
           “Probably.”
           “At this time of day?”
           “That’s what you’re worried about?” It amazed me how something as simple as a folded and glued sheet of manila paper could focus my thoughts. “So what exactly is it that Parker has in store for me?”
           “In there?” He indicated the envelope. “Could be anything.”
           “I meant the other thing.”
           Michael pinched the bridge of his nose and looked out across the parking lot. The main road could have been miles away. “Shoot, I dunno -- probably the same thing he did with Colin. Just straight-up blackmailed him to make sure he’d be quiet and well-behaved for the foreseeable future.”
           What, that’s it? “Seriously?”
           “Seriously. Threatened to disavow his actions and send a copy of his file to the FBI. There was quite a bit of material to work with.”
           “Wow. Sucks to be him,” I said, somewhat relieved (and more than a little surprised) that Parker was so uncreative. “Guess my mom was right about that whole ‘clean living’ thing.”
           Michael punched me gently in the shoulder. “You’re not so innocent.”
           “Am so,” I countered, punctuating my brilliant counter-argument with the corner of the envelope. “More than you guys, anyway. I never committed any felonies.”
           “Arson’s a felony,” Michael pointed out. “Besides, you’re one hell of an accessory to the rest of us.”
           “You know what? If that’s all Parker has on me, I think I can deal with that.” I gestured with the envelope again, then stopped and took a closer look at it. “Huh -- weird.”
           “What’s weird?”
           I held up the envelope. “Look at this,” I said, pointing to where one corner had been ripped open. “Either they put the dossier in here upside down, or this top sheet is blank.” I worked a finger into the tear to widen it and peered inside. “It is blank.”
           We were nowhere near the given coordinates. I glanced up at Michael, saw that he was looking deliberately in the other direction, flicked out my knife and slit open the envelope. The papers slid into my hand in a neat stack, fifteen sheets of standard-size, standard-weight copy/print paper.
           Every last one of them was blank.
           The hell... ?
           A slight change in the background noise snapped me back to the present. A single car had split from the distant pack, left the main road and headed up the access lane toward the overgrown parking lot.
           Four doors.
           Green paint.
           Houston, we have a problem.

Part 15

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Sometimes I hate people.

Tuesday I took my bike out for a quick jaunt to the grocery store, because I've been jonesing for lasagna and I needed supplies. (It will be baked for Friday's dinner. It will be delicious.) Also the weather was brisk and sunny and beautiful, and I really wanted to get back on the bike. I made it to the store with no problems, got my supplies, loaded up the bike and my backpack and headed home. On the last stretch of road before my little dead-end street, I was tootling along in the right lane, saw a gap in the traffic behind me and decided to go for my left turn. So checked over my shoulder, held me left hand straight out to the side to signal my intent, and began to head for the center line.

Unfortunately, the girl in the car behind me apparently thought "left hand straight out to the side" means "please, speed up and drive around me". I glanced back again, saw her shiny black bumper bearing down on me, did that swear/pray thing and zipped across to my street.

And then she honked at me because obviously I was the idiot. Obviously. Does it just not register that if a driver hits a biker, there's a real chance the biker could be maimed or killed? Do they not think past "Oh, it might scratch my paint"?

As someone once reminded me, "There's a lot of tired ninnies out there." Be careful on the road, folks.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Collected Works of Neal Stephenson (Abridged)

Male Lead: I am a somewhat handsome man who is active and capable and also a computer genius. Sometimes these qualities are split between two people. I will do some programming near the climax. It will help to save the day.

Female Lead: I am a somewhat attractive woman who is not a programmer, but is very intelligent and street-smart. I will have a sex scene. It may or may not be with the Male Lead. It will probably make you uncomfortable.

Neal Stephenson: Shut up so I can talk about my latest hobby for 40 pages.

THE END

Monday, February 11, 2013

Happy Song Monday For Excellence Flavor

Here's an adorable song that makes me smile. And since I couldn't find an official video on YouTube, here's a link to buy the album.

Friday, February 08, 2013

Fiction Friday: Terms & Conditions

Part 10 Part 11 Part 12

13. April, Part Two

           Ben’s code name was “Polar”, which fit him: He was cold, silent and usually loaded for bear, and about as expressive as his wardrobe (jeans, tee, untucked flannel shirt with rolled sleeves, every single day). He so rarely spoke outside of curt “yes/no” answers that I had started to think of him more as a highly advanced robot than a human being. So when he placidly suggested we contact Margaret and get her side of the story before proceeding, our jaws dropped. Only a fraction of an inch, mind you, but they still dropped.
           They dropped a little further when we realized he was right.
           We’d wasted most of a day just getting our bearings, and by the time we hammered out a plan it was six in the morning and we were already twenty-one hours in the hole. We agreed by mutual unspoken accord that sleep was for the weak, so we parked across the street from the girl’s school, played speed metal as loud as we dared and took turns fetching cups of truly heinous coffee from the convenience store at the end of the block. And as soon as Margaret appeared, walking from the student housing in the next building, Rosemarie and Steph got out and discreetly asked if they could have a moment of her time. I put the audio feed on speaker and the boys crowded close behind me, sipping their horrible coffee and trying not to spill on the console while we listened in.
           Margaret guessed why we were there within a few sentences of Rosemarie’s introduction. Apparently she’d been expecting her mother to do something like this for the last several weeks, and our appearance just confirmed what she’d already guessed. She already had a bag packed and some emergency cash, ready to leave at a moment’s notice. But -- and she was very clear on this point -- she had her own destination in mind. If we wanted her to go with us, she wouldn’t fight us, but she wouldn’t cooperate either. She stood by while Rosemarie and Steph put their heads together and I patched the rest of us in. It wasn’t a long discussion.
           We’d committed our share of crimes and misdemeanors in the course of our work, but kidnapping a minor was far outside our comfort zone. We agreed to meet Margaret behind the school at four o’clock that afternoon, half an hour after her last class, and then we’d take her wherever to the airport and see her safely on whatever flight she chose. In the meantime, she’d go to school as per usual, to avoid raising alarms. That settled, we split up. Ben went to set up a high-ground surveillance post in a nearby building, complete with a scoped rifle that he produced from somewhere. He claimed binoculars gave him a headache. I had aspirin in the van, and offered him some. He thanked me, and refused it.
           Steph and Rosemarie stayed in the area, bouncing back and forth from a coffee shop to a bookstore to just walking around the block until it was time to get serious. Colin suggested they pretend to be a sightseeing couple, and that they should make out to help sell their cover. He offered to watch them practice and give them pointers. Rosemarie offered to have him fired. Stephanie smacked him in the nuts.
           Michael told him he’d earned it, but he let him get some ice before I dropped the two of them off at the airport. Colin’s task for the day was to walk through the terminal and outlots with Michael and work out the choreography for the evening. It needed to look like we got confused and went to the wrong place; that when we stopped to ask for directions to the hangar, Margaret made a break for it and got away from us; and that she lost herself in the crowd and made it past security before we could catch up with her. Turns out a screw-up of that magnitude takes a lot of advance planning if you want to get it right.
           With the boys gone, I found myself in the very rare position of having nothing to do for several hours. I drove around for a little while (one of only four times Michael actually allowed me behind the wheel), but when I saw how much gas the heavy engine used I decided that was a waste of time. Besides, I wanted to be fresh for the coming fun. I found a place to park where I wouldn’t be ticketed for aggravated loitering and general skeeviness, set an alarm for a quarter to three, made sure the doors were locked and went to sleep, the coffee in my system outvoted by the needs of my tired brain.
           My stupid, tired, stupid, malfunctioning, stupid brain.
           Because when I woke up, the alarm had long since spent itself. Michael was pounding on the window and yelling at me. Colin was trying to pick the lock on the back doors. It was half past four.
           By the time we got to the rendezvous, the girls and Margaret were gone. We followed the shouting and found them backed up in a dead-end alley, facing a group of burly men with bulletproof vests on their backs, non-lethal weapons in their hands and pistols on their hips. They didn’t seem interested in a long stand-off. The only thing holding them back was Rosemarie’s taser and Stephanie’s colorful language.
           The only thing to do was to pull up and pile out, denim and canvas sneakers facing off against Kevlar and leather boots. The men wore no insignia or markings, just neutral-toned t-shirts and olive drab cargo pants and a metric crap-ton of seriously aggro gear. They hesitated when we came screeching in, and the girls tried to take advantage of the distraction. Rosemarie made it past the line and joined us, but Stephanie and Margaret remained pinned, hemmed in against the concrete wall. Margaret looked more angry than scared. I remember how much that impressed me.
           There was maybe twenty yards of open space between us and them. Michael walked out into the center of it and demanded the other team identify themselves and state their purpose. One of them, with the white band on his sleeve, just laughed, and said that obviously they’d been sent for the same job we were. Who they worked for didn’t make any difference as long as the job got done.
           Michael thought that was bullshit, and said so. There were rules for this sort of thing, not to mention professional courtesy. Double-booked or not, we had the job first. They were clearly poaching. He didn’t know who he was dealing with. There would be repercussions. White Band laughed again, clearly amused, and approached so he could talk to Michael without shouting. Unfortunately, that meant nobody else could hear what they were saying. Our little earbug radios set themselves to random frequencies after twelve hours, so until you synced up again you couldn’t hear a thing.
           Except that they still transmitted to the master console in the van (as a safety feature), which worked its digital voodoo and let the controller -- me -- stay tapped into everything. I fished my bug out of my pocket, feigned horror and distress to get my hands close to my face, and palmed it into my ear.
           White Band spoke softly and I missed about every third or fourth word, but it was more than enough. They weren’t our competition, they were the back-up plan. They were going to take Margaret, and not even Ben (who had just arrived, his observation post now useless) could do anything about it. If we weren’t going to deliver the girl, they were. End of discussion. Michael began to object, but White Band cut him off with a single sentence that I desperately hoped I misheard. He couldn’t possibly have said what I thought he said. But Michael went pale and backed away, eyes averted. I’d heard right the first time. We were screwed.
           White Band signaled to his men, and three of them drew their pistols and backed us up against the van, our hands behind our heads. Colin looked ready to fight, and Rosemarie was still clutching her taser. Michael motioned for them (all of us) to stand down. Still close to center stage, he told us over his shoulder that he didn’t want anybody getting hurt. White Band said (loud enough to include everyone) that Michael had made a very wise decision. Another signal, and the remaining two men began to advance on their target.
           Margaret pressed herself to the wall, her backpack in her hands, ready to do anything but give up. Stephanie put herself in front of her, picked up a scrap of two-by-four from a nearby trash pile and took a batter’s stance. The men hesitated, and we held our collective breath.
           Michael shouted for Stephanie to stand down.
           Stephanie shouted back (with more compound expletives than I feel comfortable repeating) that they’d have to step over her dead body to get to Margaret.
           The man with the white band on his sleeve said he didn’t have a problem with that.
           So that’s exactly what they did.

Part 14

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

I swear, it's like he's peeking in our windows.

My kitty likes to headbutt my hand right as I'm about to dump the kibble into her bowl. This results in scattered kibble. Which she does not pick up and eat on her own. And the part where the cat climbs his owner like a tree, claws and all? Ho yeah.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Success...

This weekend I had someone tell me they didn't love me anymore because they couldn't read the rest of my story yet. Based on that one encounter, even if nothing else ever, ever comes of my work, I will count myself a successful writer.

/victory dance

Friday, February 01, 2013

Fiction Friday: Terms & Conditions

Part 9 Part 10 Part 11

12. Office Politics

           Michael’s explanation was somewhat vague, but it was specific enough to catch me seriously off-guard. “What exactly does that mean, ‘cleaning house’?” I asked, making air quotes for emphasis. “Like a financial audit? Or what?”
           Michael shook his head. “‘Or what’. Kind of. It’s -- God, how do I put it -- ” He put his glasses back on and drummed his hand against his leg, making a crescent with his hand and bouncing his thumb and middle finger back and forth against his knee. “Parker’s looked through everything, all the records, every person the company’s ever hired or fired, every dollar AGATE’s ever earned, every client the company’s ever had -- he’s been over all of it. That is literally all he’s done since, I think, late June? July at the latest.” Explaining gave him something to focus on, and he was considerably calmer than he’d been five minutes before. “That’s why this whole mess was such a surprise. He doesn’t do any assigning these days, let alone actually leave the office. White handles everything. Which -- hm.” He frowned and lapsed into silence.
           For a moment I thought of my own personnel file. For a moment I thought about Parker reading it. For a moment I thought I might be sick. “So... what’s he looking for?”
           Michael drummed harder and his frown deepened, and then he unbuckled his seat belt and threw the door open. “I am going to go crazy if I spend one more second in here,” he muttered, and jumped down. “We can talk while we walk. Be sure the door’s locked. I am going to go crazy.”
           I followed him out, folding my envelope in half lengthwise and stuffing it in my back pocket while I climbed across the seats. By the time my feet hit the ground and I closed the door, he was halfway across the parking lot, headed for the near end of the building. I jogged after him, the cold breeze scrubbing my face, and caught up just as he rounded the corner. He shortened his stride a little to fall in sync with mine, and we walked in step along the length of the cinderblock wall.
           Michael kicked a rock as we went, hitting it with the toe of his shoe so that it skittered and bounced ahead of us across the pavement. “Rachel, I, I wasn’t yelling at you back there,” he said quietly, both hands balled into loose fists and tucked under his arms. “I mean, I was yelling -- ”
           “No kidding.”
           “ -- and you were there, but ... I wasn’t yelling at you.”
           “Yeah, I know.” The rock had traveled over to my side, and I swung my foot on my next step and sent it flying. I stuffed my hands in my jacket pockets, curling my fingers in on themselves to keep them warm. I wished I’d thought to bring gloves. “If I couldn’t deal with angry people shouting in my ear, I would have quit this gig way before I actually, you know, quit this gig.” We reached the rock and I kicked it again. My aim was off, and we watched it careen away, hop the curb and disappear into the overgrown hedge opposite the row of service doors. “And it’s not like I never yelled at you -- or around you -- either.”
           We reached the back of the building and turned, slowing a little as we started to encounter potholes. “Yeah, we all got pretty noisy from time to time,” Michael admitted. “Adrenaline, I guess.”
           “That’ll do it.”
           “Yeah.”
           Michael stopped and tipped his head back, searching for the patches of pale spring blue that kept peeking through the overcast. The sun was a bright fuzzy spot of yellowish-white among the whitish-grey, a bare bulb set behind a pane of textured glass. “My mom used to say that for my dad, the family was the company, and vice versa,” he said, and lowered his head to look at me. “I never really understood what she meant by that until this past year.” He took off walking again.
           I tried to parse that, failed, and trotted to catch up. “Is Parker actually doing anything with the AGATE records,” I asked, slightly out of breath, “or is he just reading them for fun?”
           Michael ‘smiled’, baring his teeth all the way back to the molars. “Oh, he’s doing something, all right,” he said. “The whole reason my dad hired him was to take the company Into The Future!” He said the words grandly, with a sweeping behold-my-name-in-lights gesture for emphasis. “He’s got: Plans! And: Trajectories! That will: Make Us A Leader In Our Field!”
           I raised an eyebrow. “Do we even have a field?”
           “I’m serious.” He paused in the shadow of an empty, rusted dumpster and looked around carefully before he continued. “Parker is the fixer to end all fixers,” he said, all trace of the showman gone. “He’s got his own ideas about where the company needs to go, and you and I both know there isn’t anything he wouldn’t do, or have done, to make sure it gets there. And there may not be any hard proof -- ”
           “There never is,” I said, bitter and sharp.
           “But the circumstantial evidence and scuttlebutt make a downright damning case for what he’s been up to. I’ve been pretty well locked out of the main loop for months -- I haven’t even had access to the van until a week ago -- but -- ”
           Something rattled on the roof not far from us, making us jump. We listened, but the sound did not repeat itself, and Michael rubbed the back of his neck and continued. “Put bluntly, Parker’s looking for loose threads -- anything that might come back to hurt the company. Old clients, paper trails that could lead us into legal trouble, anything financial that’s remotely fishy, if it could damage AGATE’s reputation in the future, he’s got it noted and he’s going to be sure it gets fixed.”
           I started to feel sick again, a heavy, turning knot in the middle of my gut. “And I’m guessing that includes... ”
           “Employees who disobeyed protocol and spectacularly botched the most critical assignment of their careers to date?” Michael finished for me, and savagely kicked the side of the dumpster. “Yes.”
           That’s putting it mildly. “So when you say he’s cleaning house... ”
           “I mean exactly that.” He kicked the dumpster again and looked away. “Chickens. Roost. Some assembly required. We’re boned.”

Part 13