Down in the Weeds – A Dafydd Owen Story.
Sitting in my hotel room I listened to the wind rattle the window. It had started to get a bit gusty as I drove back here from the Daniels place. When I stopped at a randomly chosen UPS store and rented a mailbox for a month, it was blowing quite strongly, coming out of the hills with an edge to it that made me think a storm was coming. I wasn’t wrong. By the time I had placed myself outside a couple of drinks and eaten a light meal it was a full-bore howling gale, and cold. I hoped it wasn’t this bad where Sarah was. While I waited for her to call me I reached into my pocket for what looked like a USB stick and plugged it into my laptop. There were indeed some files stored on it – a fairly mundane, but totally fictitious set of case notes. The really useful part of it was the encryption hardware that was only active when plugged into my own computer. The laptop recognized its presence, prompted me for a password and established a VPN connection for me. Within seconds I was pulling up my chat client and checking to see if Jason was online. He was.
DO: J, I have some stuff I need you to work on.
JC: Sure, Boss. Any time. What do you need?
DO: Two sections of our security protocols need updating. I’ll send you the drafts. Can you let me know what you think sometime over the next couple of days?
JC: I can handle that.
DO: Ok, I’ll finish the edits tonight and send you the docs tomorrow.
JC: No problem.
***DO has signed out***
Jason and I had worked hard to make sure that our VPN was uncrackable but in this business it paid to be paranoid. Any time I mentioned a number then “security protocols” I was telling Jason how to handle what was about to come his way. In this case “Two” meant that it was to be handled by courier only, no electronic transmission. I was about to follow a very sparse trail of breadcrumbs left by an elusive moose, I didn’t want to be dropping any of my own. There was a nationwide courier company I used, they had offices all over the place and were very discreet and trustworthy. Their main business was hand-delivering corporate or legal documents and I was particularly certain of their integrity in my case because their CEO was a crook and he knew that I knew it. He had a nice little sideline to the business carrying communications that well-heeled but less than honest folks didn’t want made available to any prying eyes. My account was one of those flagged for what they euphemistically called “priority service”. Their nearest office was on the outskirts of Denver and they opened at eight in the morning. I had just finished packing a note to Jason and the hard drives from Mr. Daniels’ computer into a padded envelope when my phone rang. Recognizing the ringtone I smiled and leaned back on the bed as I answered.
“Hey, beautiful. How’s the drive going?”
“So far so good. I’m parked for the night but I should be able to get an early start tomorrow and be with you before noon.”
“Sounds good to me. I’ve a quick errand to run first thing in the morning. I emailed you a list of places you should be able to park and hook up when you get here. Let me know which one you pick and I’ll meet you there.”
“How wary an eye should I pick with?”
“I don’t think we need to fuss that much. Personally I’d just pick on instinct.” There was a short pause on the other end of the phone. Sarah, of course, knew exactly how hair-triggered my instincts were. She was also smart enough to catch the hint that I wasn’t entirely sure somebody wasn’t listening in. I’d found a bug in Mr. Daniels’ office and if it was active somebody could know it had been found. Unfortunately my bug-sweeping gear was on the road with Sarah, so I couldn’t be at all sure that this room was clear.
“Ok, I’ll just pick one I like then.”
“It will be good to be with you again. I’ve been missing you.”
“Dafydd, we’re barely back from two weeks in Paris and you’ve only been down there a few days.”
“So? I miss curling up with my wife after even one.”
“Love you too. Tomorrow.”
“Not soon enough but it will have to do.”
“I know. I’m going to get an early night so I’m fresh tomorrow morning. Dream of me.”
“You know I will. Goodnight, my love.”
Dream of her indeed. My pretty lynx knew darn well what state I was going to wake up in now. I was going to have to exact some revenge tomorrow night. I rather think that’s exactly what she was counting on.
The next morning I checked out of the hotel at 7 and hit the road to Denver. Around 8:30 I was in the parking lot outside a nondescript office in the back of a strip mall. A completely unremarkable sign on the door said “GFE Logistics”. I tucked Jason’s package under my arm and walked in, stepping straight up to the desk. The stocky pit bull seated behind it looked up at me.
“Good morning, Sir. Welcome to GFE Logistics. How can I help you?”
“I’m going to need bidirectional on-demand service between here and my Minneapolis office for an open-ended period. Here’s my account card.” He slid the smart-card into a reader on the desk and glanced at the screen.
“Of course, Mr. Owen. Delivery arrangements on this end?”
“Box 247 at this UPS store. Rented under the name of James Donovan. This is the key. Pickups can occur from the same site. I’ll notify you by phone when there is a package ready. I have the first one with me.”
“Yes, Sir. One moment, I’ll bring you some security envelopes.” He disappeared into the back office and emerged a few minutes later with a small stack of them, preprinted with my account number. I took the first one and slid Jason’s package into it, sealing it and signing across the seal before handing it over. “Thank you, Sir. One moment.”
Carrying the envelope into the back, he returned with a small folder. “Here’s the delivery schedules for that run, Sir, and your mailbox key.” They had, of course, in the ten minutes I had been there, duplicated the key so they had access to the mailbox we were using as a dead drop.
I was most of the way back to Prairie Flats when my phone started ringing. I tapped the button on my Bluetooth.
“Found a place, lass?”
“Yup. Third one on the list. I’m getting set up now.”
“I’ll be there in about 20 from here, I think.”
“Ok. See you soon.”
I punched the GPS and headed for the location Sarah had chosen, a campground about a mile outside Winter Creek.
It was actually closer to 25 minutes before I got there. Sarah had chosen beautifully. The fifth wheel had been unhooked and its extensions deployed, then the truck pulled around behind it. The site she’d parked in had clear views for tens of yards in every direction and the concealed motion detectors we’d installed on the outer shell would have no problem picking up anything larger than a raccoon approaching. She knew I was there before I’d even parked the car.
We didn’t make much progress on completing the setup of our remote office for the next fifteen minutes. In fact it was only with an extreme degree of restraint that we stopped short of climbing into bed and ignoring the task at hand for several hours. It was close to noon before everything was arranged to our satisfaction. I picked up my phone and dialed Mrs. Daniels’ mobile. She would be at work so it was no surprise that I got her voice mail.
“Mrs. Daniels, Dafydd Owen. Just calling to let you know that the equipment I talked about when we last met has arrived. If you could let me know when would be a good time to sweep the house I’ll take care of it. Probably better it’s done sooner rather than later.” As I hung up the call, a soft paw landed on my shoulder.
“So, what do we do now?”
“We drive into town and take a walk around. Learn our way around the streets. Catch a bite at the local diner. I hear it’s pretty good.” Sarah’s eyes sparkled at me as she grinned.
“And we both know that if anyone sees everything in a small place like this it’s going to be the folks that run the diner.”
It was a bright but chilly afternoon but pleasant enough to walk in. The town was a little larger than it looked at first glance, but after a few minutes strolling around both of us were starting to get a feeling for the layout. The major landmarks were easy to identify, the principal buildings on the main street, the park, the diner, city hall… Sarah and I were just finishing a circuit of the park when we saw a cop getting out of his car and strolling towards us.
Sarah smiled back at the big German Shepherd. “Good evening officer. Can we help you?”
“Well, it’s a little unusual for folks to be walking around this town armed and you’re not locals… We had a bit of an incident a while ago so I thought it would be a good idea to check in with you and see how you were doing.”
I laughed quietly. “If you mean ‘check on us’ then yeah, that’s not an unreasonable move. Tools of the trade, officer, I’m afraid. Good eye, by the way, my tailor goes to ridiculous lengths and charges me through the muzzle to make sure they don’t easily show. My wife and I are both PIs. I was in the area on other business and Mrs. Daniels asked me to see if I could shed any light on her husband’s disappearance.” I pulled a business card out of the breast pocket of my jacket and passed it over. “I was going to drop in on the local PD anyway because she told me she’d filed a missing persons report. I’d like to have a chat with the investigating officers if possible.”
“I’ll give her a call this evening and if she confirms you’re working for her we can work something out. A lot of us in town feel bad for Raquel. You’ll have to leave the hardware in your vehicle though.”
“Actually I’m driving a rental and it doesn’t have secure storage. Do you have check lockers we could leave ‘em in?”
“Afraid not, sorry.”
Sarah shrugged. “It’s no problem, Dafydd. We just need to make sure we drive the truck in that day. That has secure storage.”
“Bit more awkward to park on the smaller streets though. I guess we’ll manage.”
“How big a truck, Mrs. Owen?”
Sarah shrugged again. “Ram 3500. I lugged an oversized fifth wheel down here once Dafydd told me we had a job to do, it’s our mobile office.”
“Yeah, parking that downtown might be awkward without you having a fair old hike to the station. I got an idea. Let me give you my card. Give me a call when you’re planning on coming in. There’s a chance we might be able to store them in the evidence locker, temporarily. You’re playing square with us, so it’s the least we can do to try and make that a little easier. Well, Mr. and Mrs. Owen, I need to be getting along. Thanks for taking the time to chat.”
As he walked back to his car, Sarah slid her arm around me and leaned on me a little. “Mr. and Mrs. Owen. I’m still getting used to that.”
I reached out my own arm, resting my paw on her hip and pulled her closer. “Me too, and enjoying every minute of it.”
We stood there looking at the late afternoon light casting long shadows over the park, Sarah purring softly as we leaned on each other. When my stomach chose that particular point in time to grumble at me it totally broke the mood and Sarah laughed.
“I guess it’s time for us to check out the diner,”
The sign proclaimed the place to be “Mel’s Diner”. My nose was already telling me why the place was so busy. Whoever was running the kitchen here, probably the eponymous “Mel”, was one hell of a cook. The chalk board proclaimed a steak dinner special and that was looking pretty good to me as we waited for a table to free up.
“Hello, Mr. Owen!” I turned to see Holly Lawson, the young puma lady I’d met at the Daniels house a couple days ago. “Dad, this is Mr. Owen, the guy I told you about.”
“Young lady, I distinctly recall insisting that if I were to call you ‘Holly’ and not ‘Miss Lawson’ then you were to call me Dafydd.” I looked over to the older puma standing next to her. “Mr. Lawson. A pleasure to meet you, Sir.” I stuck out a paw and he took it in a firm grip, obviously sizing me up. “May I introduce my wife, Sarah?”
“So you’re the folks trying to help Raquel track Arnold down, huh?”
“We certainly aim to try.”
“Well I wish you good luck. Raquel’s pretty well liked in the community here. It’s crazy, Arnold running off like that. I mean I know Raquel and he had some problems, with the kids and all, but nobody thought he’d leave.”
“Is that what folks are thinking, that he left?”
“In a small town like this, pretty much everybody knows everybody else’s business and there wasn’t anything to suggest that he was going to leave, but there isn’t a reason for anyone else to make him disappear either.”
“Yeah, that’s what I’ve been hearing. Hasn’t been a single fur I’ve talked to had anything really bad to say about him. Worst I’ve heard is that he seemed a bit stressed after getting back from vacation. I got chapter and verse on that from Mrs. Daniels so I’m not really that surprised.”
“My late wife worked at the clinic where he practiced before she passed. I met him several times at office events. A really dedicated doc, real passionate about doing the best by the kids he worked with. At least, that’s how he seemed to me.”
“So I hear. Hey, I think they are calling you to a table… “
“Why, so they are. Take care, Mr. Owen.”
“You too, Mr. Lawson, but it’s Dafydd.”
“Frank. I’ll see you around, no doubt.”
We were seated a few minutes after that. We made smalltalk in the packed diner while the harried wait staff rushed around. Rushed they may have been but it wasn’t long before one was taking our order.
“I’ll take the steak dinner special.”
“Couple of options on that one. We can do you a porterhouse, strip or sirloin and you get a choice of fries or cheesy baked spuds plus two other sides.”
“Porterhouse, rare but not blue, fries… For the two sides grilled mushrooms and snap peas. Sarah?”
“I’ll do the special too, sirloin, medium rare, baked spuds, and just a salad on the side.”
“Anything to drink, or shall I just bring over a pitcher of water?”
“Pot of hot tea?”
“On the way.”
The food was excellent and the rush was starting to die down a bit by the time we finished it off. Still busy though. The plan to get any gossip out of the diner’s staff was clearly going to be a bust tonight. It wouldn’t have been fair to try. They didn’t have time. We made our way back to the car, drove back to the trailer and unfolded a pair of camp chairs to enjoy the evening.
There was remarkably little light pollution here, considering how close we were to a major metro area. I filled my pipe and we each poured ourselves a drink and just sat there looking up at the stars.
“Something stinks here, Dafydd. He was too perfect.”
“I’m trying to keep an open mind, but yeah – I’ve already found a few things that suggest there was another side to the good Dr. Daniels. Interesting stuff like a .45 round in his desk drawer when supposedly he’s never owned a handgun. His office was bugged and when Mrs. D. gets back to me I’m betting I’ll find that their house is wired like a fucking pinball machine because generally when you’re planting bugs you don’t just plant one. There’s one piece of evidence that he was doing something experimental alongside his clinical work but not a shred of evidence what, other than it involved at least two subjects. I’m hoping Jason can turn up something from his computer drives.”
“All that and everyone says he was such a model citizen, devoted husband, father, dedicated doc… You know what this sounds like? The kind of way I wore my character when I was working undercover. You become so good at living the lie that nobody sees anything else, ever.”
My pipe was just about burned out and Sarah and I were staring up at shooting stars when my phone started buzzing. It was Raquel.
“Mrs. Daniels - thank you for returning my call.”
“Mr. Owen, I understand it you need to set up a day to stop by again?”
“Yes. You remember I found a listening device in Arnold’s office. For your safety I think I should sweep the entire house for them. My equipment to do so has now arrived in town, and I think we should get to it sooner rather than later.”
“Oh, I see.”
“I’d prefer to do it in your presence, of course… I wouldn’t like to be poking through private stuff without you there. When would work for you?”
“Between work and taking care of another situation with my youngest son most days are quite hectic. I believe… yes the first day that would be open would be tomorrow. Otherwise I wouldn’t really be available again for nearly a week.”
“Damn. My wife and I are committed tomorrow. It’s the other business that brought us to town. I promised that little girl’s parents I’d attend her memorial. I truly can’t miss that. Will Holly be at the house the day after? I’m not comfortable leaving it a whole week, because having found one whoever placed it probably knows we’re onto them.”
“Yes, she will be there. Ever since Arnold disappeared I’ve felt far too uncomfortable leaving the house completely empty for any length of time.”
“Then we’ll be there that morning. After we’re done I’ll make sure to stick around until I can let you know the results in person. That will be around 6 like last time? Just don’t want to mess up Holly’s schedule by asking her to stick around too late.”
“That will be fine Mr. Owen, I will be sure to leave work early enough to meet you by six.”
“Sounds good to me. My wife is curious to meet you - we work together, you see.”
The wind was whipping out of the hills and the peaks combed the clouds into streamers that flowed across the sky like prayer flags raised from some mountain temple. The sky had a leaden and oppressive look, it loomed over the small cemetary where Janet’s family had gathered. Sarah and I towered over the diminutive family of prairie dogs, she was a good head taller than the biggest of the males and I hulked over them like a giant, even though I felt so small in this company. The priest stood by the open grave, somehow the naturally somber features of the Basset Hound seeming quite appropriate to the occasion.
“Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.
In the midst of life we are in death….”
The somber liturgy continued, but it passed over me like a cold wind. All I could see was how heart-crushingly small was the coffin being lowered into the earth. Before it completely disappeared Sarah stepped up and placed a single white lily on the casket. She stood there, her pale fur stark in contrast to the simple black dress she wore, and spoke softly but every ear in the place heard her.
“I’m sorry, Janet. We didn’t even know it was happening when they took you. We weren’t fast enough to save the others either. I’m sorry we failed you. Look after Anne and the others. Tell them that we’ll bring them all home. We promise.”
The fur under her eyes was damp. Hell, so was mine as she articulated the promise we’d both made to all of that sick fuck’s victims. Janice, Janet’s mom, turned into her husband’s arms, her slender body wracked with sobbing as the service continued.
“Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear sister here departed: we therefore commit her body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust….”
The service moved mercifully quickly to its conclusion. At its end, Janet’s family milled around a bit, hugging each other and giving what physical comfort they could to each other. I held Sarah and she murmured in my ear.
“We’re going to keep this promise to all of them, Dafydd. Every last one. We’re going to bring them home.”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Janet’s father square his shoulders and move purposefully in our direction. Both Sarah and I lowered ourselves to his level.
“Mrs. Owen… Thank you for those beautiful words. You didn’t fail my daughter. You kept your promise and you brought her home… I wonder, do you think Anne’s mom would mind if Janice and I were to get in touch with her?” Sarah choked up and couldn’t reply. I handled it.
“Mr. Brooman, Ms. Willis didn’t take the loss of her daughter very well. She has fallen back into addiction and our friends are trying to help her but its like she’s almost racing towards an OD.”
“I nearly drank myself to death after Janet was taken. Do you think I could talk to her, maybe even meet her? She probably feels alone, like the world abandoned her and her daughter. Maybe I can show her that’s not the case.”
I handed him my business card. “Call my secretary on the office number here. She’ll see about putting you in touch. Beyond that, I’m not even remotely qualified to assist.”
“You two have no children then?” That reminded me of my ex and the daughters I haven’t seen for years. Thankfully Sarah stepped up and answered that one.
“I was hit by shrapnel in Afghanistan. Shredded me pretty good. I can’t carry kits. We’re planning to adopt.”
“Well, thank you for your service. And thank you both for the service you did for my little girl in bringing her home.”
He reached out and clasped both of our paws in his, then turned and went back to his wife. Sarah and I looked at each other. We both felt like we’d just been thanked for failing, but we knew what he meant. It was time to leave and get back to the case of the missing moose.
Holly was as charming and welcoming as the last time I had visited the house. Too sweet a girl to mixed up in my kind of business. She handed me a bunch of keys as soon as I was inside the door.
“Mrs. Daniels said to give you these. She said she doesn’t know about a lock in the house that they can’t open.”
“Thank you, Holly. What would you normally be doing about now?”
“Frankly, sitting in the kitchen drinking coffee. I’m done with the cleaning - some days it just goes quickly but Mrs. Daniels prefers me to wait until she gets home.”
“This one time I think you might make an exception.” I set the case I was carrying down on the floor and opened it, taking out three of the devices it contained. “These are exquisitely sensitive and your presence might interfere.”
“What are they?”
“This one is a clicker, like a metronome, but more precise in its timing. This one detects its clicks in a silent room, measures the echos. This one detects any electromagnetic radiation and analyses it to spot a pattern that matches the clicks. If it finds one there is something listening and transmitting.” I took off my jacket and hung it over a chair in the hall. Holly’s eyes went wide as she saw the weaponry hung underneath it. “Go drink coffee in the kitchen, Holly. Either that or take an early afternoon. Either way let me do my job, because you really don’t want to be mixed up in it.”
Sarah giggled from the doorway. “Honey, don’t mind him. He gets all bristled up like this every time he works a case. He’s right though, when he’s hunting like this you leave him alone.”
“I guess…” Holly fled to the kitchen. I set to work.
“Sarah, can you run a quick sweep of any neighbors that are home? This is going to take me a while.”
There were at least two bugs in every room. The attic held a recording hub. I knew the model. It could hold several weeks worth of recordings, downloading them to whatever pinged it with the right codes. This was a good thing, because it was possible that whoever was monitoring the thing hadn’t discovered that I’d disabled the bug in Arnold’s office yet. The bad news was that this was seriously high-end gear. You didn’t buy kit like this on the open market. One of the players in this little game has some serious juice. The guys that made this gear were involved in one of my more dubious “security” contracts back in the day and this shit was never intended to be in civilian hands outside of various three-letter agencies and their equivalent in allied nations. I checked my watch and flipped through the contacts on my phone.
“Simon! It’s Dafydd. Yeah, it’s been a while since I was out there, maybe we’ll have to remedy that sometime soon… I’m afraid this isn’t strictly a social call. Are you still working at Comsec Consultants?”
“Still there, yes. Should I be worried about what you’re going to ask next?”
“Where should a model 6 remote surveillance hub with serial number 43691 be? I’m damn sure it shouldn’t be where I found it.”
“That one was one of a batch went missing in Israel. Three of them, no idea who snatched ‘em. Mossad went mildly apeshit because that wasn’t the only kind of gear in that shipment. If you can get it back to us there’s a lot of folks will owe you another favor.”
“I need to hang onto it for a little while, but I’ll courier it to you once this little caper shakes out.”
“Just be careful with it - don’t open the case or anything like that, you know why.”
“I’m more interested in any prints on the outside, but yeah, I know the score.”
As I hung up the phone, Sarah walked back in looking like she had smelled something foul. I slanted an ear towards her and raised an eyebrow. She took a deep breath.
“My God, Dafydd, I seriously hope we never end up with a neighbor like that poisonous old biddy two doors down. She’s like something out of Arsenic and Old Lace.. into everything that’s anyfurs business but hers.”
“You found the neighborhood’s malicious gossip, I take it?”
“Oh yeah, in spades. Weasel in her 60’s, spinster, bitter at her life and at the world in general. According to her, the one moose boy is a rake who’s now shacked up with the slut he knocked up and they’ll both come to a bad end, the other one is finally in the funny farm where he’s always belonged and I’m not going to repeat half of what she said about the eldest kid. She’s one of those that believe that if you can’t burn herms then at least they should be locked up and have the key thrown away. Apparently she took personal offence that the Daniels girl was out and proud about her physical gender, although it was never any of her business.”
“Anything on Arnold?”
“Plenty. He was always a bad sort, according to her. He’s where the kids learned their loose morals from and she’s sure the reality is worse than the rumors going around town, which she was only too happy to relate anyway. Reading between the lines I’d say that after the family got back from that cruise he was melting down pretty bad. His business was suffering because of the rumors and because folks were asking themselves should they trust their kids, with their psychological issues, to a man who’d fucked up his own kids so badly.”
“Nosy neighbors and vicious minds. Typical small-town bullshit. Grab your kit and join me in the guys office. Picked up an odd signal under the desk and it turns out there’s a concealed floor safe there. We need to lift a good enough print to fake out a biometric lock, so we’re dusting the room top to bottom.
We set about dusting the entire place for prints. I was most hopeful about the left mouse button but that was a lost cause. Multiple pad-prints overlaying each other. I lifted what was there anyway. It looked to me like there were two different prints here, smudged into each other. Somebody had been in here using that besides me and the moose guy. The tradecraft I’d spotted on my previous visit, the multiple paw prints.. I wasn’t the first to search this room. Arnold Daniels was looking more and more like a fucking spook. It took us nearly an hour before we found a good enough print - on the blinds at the window.
It was the work of a few minutes to enhance the print well enough to cast it, hard resin first then acetone to wash every trace of acrylate out of the resin cast. A swipe of liquid silicone, a few minutes for it to cure and I had a thin silicone film that would adhere to my glove pretty well.
I pressed my artificial fingerprint to the lock and got another surprise. Instead of the “door” popping open, a couple of rods sprang up on either side of it. Gripping them, I tried to turn it. A quarter turn and it clicked, a column rising smoothly out of the floor. I was looking at row after row of empty SD-card slots. Whatever had been here was long gone. I pushed the storage rack back into the floor, but it stuck before going all the way. There, wedged in the track, was a single SD card. I grabbed a pair of long nosed pliers from my kit and was just able to reach it. As I dropped it into a bag I looked over at Sarah.
“This is giving me a rather bad feeling. I think we should not mention finding the data vault to Mrs. Daniels until Jason has had a chance to look at this.”
Sarah checked her watch. “Then let’s close it up and hide it again, Dafydd. She should be here in about 15 minutes.”
“Mrs. Daniels.. Raquel.. We found a lot. Every single room in the house. Somebody - and I have no idea who - has been listening in to everything in this house. I’m confident they are all now gone, but…” I displayed the bag holding all the bugs. “There wasn’t a single room without at least two.”
“Good Lord,” the moose matron replied wide eyed at what he told her. “Is there… do you have any idea how long they have been where you found them?”
“When was your dining room redecorated? They were there before that, because one of them was painted over.”
“That… that was over five years ago.”
“Ah. So whatever this is all about it was something long term. Something important I need to ask you. This is looking a lot deeper than either you or I suspected - Raquel, this isn’t just a vanished guy. Do you want me to keep digging? Or would you rather not know? If you tell me to, I’ll drop this and walk away, but if I keep on you might find out stuff you’d rather not know.”
“If this had happened before everything for my children fell apart around them… I would say I didn’t want you to continue. But considering that what ever my husband was , or is involved in may have played some part in bringing all of it down on my family, I need to know what he was doing and why he disappeared.”
“Fair enough.” A few moments of silence followed as I thought about how to say what I had to… “Then you’ll know or I’ll die trying to find out. Whatever it brings, whatever it takes. You might have a lot to deal with. I’ve seen stuff like this before and it never works out the way you expect at the start. You sure you’re ok with that? Generally the folks on the other side of shit like this will drop it if you do. If you don’t they sometimes get a little extreme about covering their tracks.”
“Considering everything that has happened up to this point… yes I am sure Mr. Owen, I have to know if Arnold was in any way responsible for what has fallen on my children.”
“That’s the problem. People who go to these lengths.. if he wasn’t in it by choice if they start to feel my breath on the back of their necks, they might decide to… get rid of him. They might do that even if he was part of it and I might not be able to stop it. This is crazy shit, I know, but you need to understand the stakes we’re rolling the dice on here.”
“Mr. Owen, there is a very real possibility that my youngest son may be needlessly in the care of people that have done next to nothing to give me any confidence in their abilities to help him. If his father was in any way a part of it… I have to know. Even if it costs me more than I may be willing to lose.”
I nodded quietly. Sarah softly padded out of the room behind us and put her arm around my waist. “Dafydd, we’re in this too deep now. Stop trying to scare her off. You can’t do that to a mom. She’s in for the long haul, same as we are.”
“I know, my love… I owed it to her to try though.”
Back at the mobile office, I slipped the SD card into one of my security envelopes for Jason. I was about to head out to leave it in the drop when Sarah stopped me.
“An additional wrinkle, Dafydd. This was on the car seat when I walked back from talking to the old lady. It had been left there sometime while I was walking the neighborhood.”
A plain manila envelope, with my name on it. I took a closer look. Laser print, untraceable. I pulled on a set of gloves and carefully cut it open. Another few lines of the same untraceable laser print. It was an address, which a quick computer search revealed to be an abandoned warehouse. Following the address were two more lines. “Come alone. Check the desk.”
“Now why does this feel like an invitation to stick my muzzle in a trap?”
“Dafydd, it’s not as if you’ve needed invitation to do that in the past. I’ll get some rest since I’m betting I’ll be spending a chunk of the night in front of the monitors.”
I parked the car about a block away from the warehouse, pulled my duffel off the back seat and quietly made my way to a point where I could watch the warehouse without being watched myself. The first thing out of the duffel was a digital radio relay. I fitted the sections of the whip antenna together and jammed the spike at its base into a patch of soft ground. Hooking it up, I fitted my own commo gear onto my ear.
“Clear. All channels show linked.”
“Ok, I’ll have you some eyes in a minute.”
Setting up a small IR camera I positioned it for a wide view of the warehouse and plugged it directly into the relay.
“I have the image.”
Whether this was a trap or not, I was going to treat it as if it was. The best way to walk into a trap was invisible and silent - never let anyone know you’d been there sniffing at the bait. The other useful thing was to have enough firepower to make anyone regret catching you. While I was safely in concealment here, I emptied my duffel and started pulling on my full tactical rig. I was using the holsters that accepted my sidearms with the suppressors in place. I was serious about staying silent as much as possible. I ran a quick mental inventory. Two reloads for all three guns - for a total of 180 rounds including the mags in the weapons. Five grenades, two flashbang, two CS and one frag. NVGs clipped to my respirator and plugged into the comms to feed everything I saw back to Sarah at the trailer. Tac-light on the rail of my MP5 in IR mode but switched off.
The one way I wasn’t going to walk in there was by the door. I’d noticed a big enough window, mostly broken with a couple of boards nailed crudely across it, about half way between the door and the loading dock. There were cameras at both entries, but the window looked to be in a blind spot. There was my way in. If I was really lucky the cameras would be inactive anyway, but I wasn’t going to take a chance on that.
The boards came off real easy. They were half rotted through anyway, as were the few remaining glazing bars in the window. I went through it low and fast and froze, crouched to the floor. Sweeping my view around the huge open space I keyed my comms.
“Main area looks clear.”
“No heat sources, no sign of IR emitters. Watch for wires.”
“Got it. Going active.” I flipped on my tac-light and the IR illuminators on the sides of my NVGs.
“Looks like an office in the far corner.”
“Yep. If there’s a desk anywhere that’s where it will be. Going in.” There were no wires or telltales on the office door. I froze in the doorway, sweeping the room with my lights and optics, my gun tracking with my eyes. Two rusted filing cabinets, a busted office chair in the corner, looking like the upholstery was housing a colony of rodents, all of which were likely huddled as deep in there as they could manage, pissing themselves at the smell of a cat my size. Against the wall, almost built into it, an ancient crumbling desk.
Three of the desk drawers were unlocked, contained nothing but old crumbling papers - a mix of invoices and shipping manifests. If I didn’t find anything more interesting I’d take those and see how much of their contents my scanner could reveal. I wouldn’t bet on them being my goal though. The fourth drawer was locked, so I pulled the knife from my boot to use as a pry-bar. I was working on the lock when I felt the desk shift. This was more like it. I leaned on the desk and it smoothly slid aside on rails, revealing a stairway into a concealed basement.
“You getting all this?”
“I could lose you down there, no telling how well the place is shielded. Let’s set up some insurance.” I stepped out of the office again, found a convenient pile of debris and buried a small incendiary device in it. “If I’m out of contact for more than twenty, trigger it remotely and attract the fire department.”
“Twenty minute clock starts on loss of contact.”
Walking down into the hidden basement I could smell it even through my respirator. Thermite. I immediately suspected equipment destruction charges and I wasn’t disappointed. What looked like it was once a high end commo rig was so many piles of melted slag and papers had been piled on top of them, now burned beyond legibility.
Except for one.
On top of the melted equipment and burned paper was a single sheet that looked pristine. In the IR lighting it looked similar to the printing on the envelope and note that had brought me here. I quickly read it and tucked it in my pocket.
What you’re looking for is no longer in this room or it would have been destroyed too. Check the back of the loading dock camera. Tracks are being covered. Be careful.
Time to leave. I headed up the stairs, checked in with Sarah and disarmed the ‘incendiary insurance.’
The loading dock camera was easy to approach without stepping into its view. That was probably why it was chosen and gave me a pretty decent hint that although they looked old and busted they were probably active. There was a strip of duct tape across the back and my fingertips told me there was something small and flat underneath it. Carefully peeling the tape back it took whatever it was hiding with it. One quick look showed me another SD card.
“Great. Fucking scavenger hunt. Do the fuckers who set up trails like this have any fucking idea how dangerous they are to follow? Egress through the same window I came in by, Sarah.”
“Got it. No sign of movement, no indications of compromise on the exterior view.”
The return to where I’d started was thankfully uneventful but I was wound up like a spring. Every single breadcrumb I picked up on this trail spoke to me about some serious players involved and potentially somebody with some training but way out of his depth.
The following morning it was time to visit the Winter Creek PD. We were out of luck. The investigating detective was, by this stage, pretty much convinced that Arnold Daniels had left of his own accord. As far as the police were concerned the investigation was winding down.
“As you can see, Mr. Owen, it is starting to look as if Dr. Daniels chose to vanish. There’s been no trace of him, his vehicle, no use of any accounts we know of. All the signs point to a preplanned departure and one that was intended to make a clean break from his former life.”
“Or a very skillful removal.”
“We really don’t see much of that out here, Sir.”
“Probably not, but I’m being paid to consider every option.” Privately I was thinking how perfect a place this would be to pull something like that off, if the cops thought along those lines.
My thoughts were interrupted by a beep from my phone. Checking the message it informed me that a package was waiting in my dead-drop mailbox. Sarah and I quickly concluded our business and I dropped her at the trailer before heading out to retrieve the package.
Boss, the disks and the data card had the same encryption key. Both were at least partially wiped beyond redemption but I have been able to retrieve some of it. Hard copy enclosed.
‘---Conditioning appears to have bee---------------ccessful on Subject Bravo. Subject had no awarenes---------------------s conditioning. A visual trigger was present----------------------n the label of a commer------------------- a family cruise. On viewing the trigger, Subject perfo-------e preprogrammed actions, ent------contrary to his normal natur---------t any awarenes-------they derived from--------- but his own will. Howev---------------- with Subject Brav-----------nly complet--------------his phase of the proj------f the other subjects, one prov----- be resistant to conditioning complete------------ther was partially co-------------------conditioning broke under intense emotional stimuli --------- not accounted for in the experimental protocol.-----------’
‘----The secon---------trigger is -------------hin a Rorscharc----------e not usually used in the standard ----------resented to the subj-----------------er an apparent seizure, fr-----ich he will emerge without memory of --------he conditionin---------triggers involve--------ubconscious cues will be inactivate------------------er activate preprogramm-------vior. It is essential t-----------ues that associa---------------pressed memories are not presen----------------he only pote----l compromis-----the project----’
“Fuck. He was experimenting on his own kids.”
to be continued...