A bad day for words. Some days they flow, some days it’s like passing a kidney stone. (Been there, done that, never ever wanna do it again.) Today has been more like a “molasses in January” day.
One foot (i.e. key stroke) in front of each other.
While I normally put in a lot of internal links to previous, related posts here, I won’t be doing that for what I hope will be this year’s thirty NaNoWriMo posts. If you have jumped into or stumbled onto this story in mid-adventure, there are plenty of other ways to navigate around the site to find previous installments. Actually doing so is left as an exercise to the student.
“Relax, we’re on a date. Or at least that’s what this is supposed to look like. You have been on a date before, right? You can at least fake it?”
Pete looked across the table at Crystal.
“Is there a reason that your team chose you to meet with me? Any ulterior motives that I need to be suspicious of?”
“Why, Pete, you’ve become a real stick in the mud!” Crystal said, grinning. “Are you trying to win the Curmudgeon of the Day award? C’mon, loosen up, have a little bit of fun. There will be plenty of time for skullduggery later.”
“How often do you use the word ‘skullduggery’?”
“As often as I can. It helps to be in this line of business.”
“I’m just finding it odd to see you here, in person, out in the real world, embedded in our electronic world, after all of the warnings and paranoia last weekend. I would have thought you had strict rules against this.”
“I am here in person, and if you play your cards right and say the secret word,” she said, picking up her knife and using it as a cigar for her best Groucho impersonation, “I could be here in the flesh as well, if you know what I mean.”
“You have got to be kidding me.”
Crystal looked hurt, her grin turning to a pout.
“Now there’s a romantic turn of phrase that a woman likes to hear when she’s trying to be friendly. Don’t you like girls? Don’t you like me?”
“I like girls just fine, thank you. The jury’s still out on you. But I’m still nervous about that whole end of the world, uber, ultra, mega, maximum top security thing you all harped on. Remember? So can you tell me why you’re here and what’s going on? Preferably without being forced to kill me after telling me?”
Crystal put the butter knife down, straightened her place setting, sat up straight, and tried to look serious.
“Fine, but from now on I dub thee Sir Buzzkill. I am here, as you know, because I’m visiting my friend Lee, who is also your friend Lee. Lee has set us up on a date and we are going to initiate an ongoing relationship. For tonight, we’ll have a nice dinner, then go to your place for some ‘privacy.’ Tomorrow you’ll take me to the Homolacrum headquarters to show me around, give me a demonstration of your latest Sherman software, and generally do your best to impress me with your wit and intellect, desperately hoping that I’ll return to your place tomorrow night for more ‘privacy,’ which of course, I will. Any questions?”
Pete put his menu down on the table and folded his hands, trying to look calmer than he felt.
“Why?” he asked.
“Why visit my office? Why go to my place? Why you? Why this particular cover story? And one more time, why is this safe given the song and dance in the desert?”
“We’re going to your office so that I can install some very nifty software onto your system. It’s much easier and faster if I have direct, physical access. Duh, Pete! We’re going to your place because you have a dedicated and secure line from there, so I can get other work done remotely that would be more difficult from a generic line out in the real world. I’m here because I’m the team’s expert on hacking and monitoring software, I’m female, you’re not, you live alone, we’re both consenting adults, and it makes an excellent and believable cover story should anyone be paying any attention to us. And because I thought you were cute and might be fun to be with, but you’re only batting .500 at the moment.”
“Safety? You’ve dodged that one again.”
“Pete, we’ve been doing this for over twenty years. We may not be the absolute best of the best of the best, but we’re on the short list. We know what we’re doing and we’re doing okay so far. In the design of security and monitoring systems, the incredible volume of the ocean of data collected means that only automated systems ever sift through it. They’re programmed to look for abnormalities, patterns that don’t quite fit or match other aspects of the picture drawn by the data. Us getting together as friends of friends, hitting it off, and proceeding to kanoodle periodically is about as normal of a pattern as there is.”
“So you’ve done this before?”
Now it was Crystal’s turn to lean back and give Pete a long and thoughtful look. She leaned forward, reached across the table, took his hands in hers, and smiled her best smile.
“Pete, the more you talk, the more likely it is that you will never, ever have to worry about how to act if I actually do come on to you when we’re alone. Have you ever seen a campy old science fiction move from the 1970’s called ‘Colossus: The Forbin Project’?”
“No, I can’t say that I have.”
“Okay, then that’s one of the things we can watch at your place tonight. It will be informative, if a bit schlocky. For now, trust me and follow my lead, we’re perfectly safe. Let’s order something nice, take a stroll, look at the stars, then go back to your place like normal people would.”
“You expect to see the stars from downtown Dallas?” asked Pete.
“Jesus, you’re pedantic. I’m from Los Angeles, you pikers out here in Texas have no idea what light pollution is. Just get ready to order, the chicken alfredo looks nice. Now we can chat about other things like normal people would. For example, what do you think of the Cowboys’ chances this year?”
“Is that a sports team?”
“They don’t pay me enough for this,” muttered Crystal.
(Chapter Nine to be continued)