Chapter 3 – Missing Persons

I let my attention return to the present. In the months since, I’d not worked with or seen Polarity again, but I did check her records every once in a while. I presumed she’d been given some time off and maybe some counseling, and would be back on SoCAST active duty when she was ready. Supers break down, just as any emergency responders do; the job takes its toll.

But now something else was going on, and it was very hard to even process what it might be. If I had recognized Laila randomly in Detroit or elsewhere, I would conclude that she had been relocated, possibly even retired. But it was too much of a coincidence that she would end up here, on my block.

Deciding to boot up after all, I closed my eyes and brought up the interior of the Morris’s new home. Kurt was putting away leftovers in plastic containers while Laila changed her daughter’s clothes and put her to bed.

A quick look around the house implied a genuine move rather than a flimsy front. Every room was furnished, with a handful of cardboard boxes in corners here and there supporting an ongoing unpacking routine. Most rooms included at least one piece of abstract art – metal structures that somehow managed to convey an integral and welcoming part of the decor.

The garage had been converted into a workshop, with benches along two walls, a large lathe, and welding tools as well as several large pieces of metal. Maybe Laila was sculpting as a way to deal with her stress, or maybe this was her day job.

This amount of work convinced me that, whyever Polarity was in town, it was not a short-term assignment. You didn’t move your whole life across the country for a one-off mission. So why was she here?

Since she obviously wasn’t actively looking for me at the moment, I returned to my system. With knowhow and a lot of cash, it’s not hard to both build and conceal a quite high powered rig in any sizable US metropolitan area. I used significantly more power than the power company recorded, but not to any extent that would risk an outage. At the height of summer with full processor use and maximum cooling I might cap 45 kW versus the average home’s 1 to 3. At most I was doubling the usage on my street. Hardly a crisis.

My desk was pretty much uncluttered – three monitors, keyboard, mouse, mic with boom guard, a couple of spare cables and two half-dissected dead ASICs. Also a stack of granola bars and a couple of emergency waters in easy arm’s reach, secondary in their purpose to the well-stocked fridge in the corner of the room.

The peripherals were plugged into a homemade tower just under the desk that ran three optical connections to the three floor-to-ceiling cabinets on the other end of the room. Each one water-cooled, an amalgam of distributed blades and parallel chips. The size of the frames were deceptive, because getting consistent performance required enough heat dissipation that stacking the units any more densely was counterproductive. Within each massive structure was enough space for me to stick my head between any two components and repair either one in situ.

Still, I strongly suspect my system’s optimization and threading is the best on the planet. I’ve cracked two or three problems that I know the major hardware companies are still tackling. The bottleneck in the system is consistently how quickly and accurately I can set it to its tasks – which was the whole point in spending over $2 million in hardware.

While I was considering money, I accessed the private console the FBI had provided Delphic and looked to see what additional files had been provided. Lewis had been busy – ten new entries, each with substantial detail. Bounties ranged from $150 thousand to $700 thousand… except for one of the ten. It had the same info as the others, but under “bounty” it listed “N/A.”

That piqued my interest. A missing person case, likely kidnapping. A seven-year-old girl, Vivi Michaels. Dates, times, locations, detailed description of the girl. Nothing in the file on why the FBI had the case or a motive for the kidnapping.

I brought up an IM window, running through an anonymizer and three Alice&Bob encryption pairs as usual.

“Hi Lewis,” I wrote to my contact at the FBI. “Are you still in? I had a couple of questions about the Michaels case.”

To be honest, I knew he was in, because I’d Viewed his office for a second to check. But I found Delphic tended to be more effective when he stayed polite and kept his unnerving insights more sporadic.

The ellipsis indicating my correspondent was replying popped up less than a minute later. “Hi. I’m here.”

I could see that he was typing more, but I wanted to cut to the chase. “Lewis, how did this case end up in my file? We agreed on live cases with an active bounty of $100k or more. This case seems to be a local case and no bounty.”

By the disappearance of the ellipsis, it seemed that the agent was thinking rather than writing. A resumed ellipsis and another minute later: “There is a reward, it’s just not offered by the FBI. Michaels is offering a personal reward of $250k.”

That immediately raised a dozen other questions. And Lewis was still typing. “Michaels is a Beltway businessman with some contacts in my office and among the Supers. I spoke to him earlier today – he is desperate for you to take this case.” IM is a less than expressive medium, but I could tell that desperate was the operative word there.

“Do you have any sense as to why?” My back itches any time someone targets Delphic for particular attention, and the outstanding situation with Laila/Polarity had put me on edge already.

Another long ellipsis. “Nothing definite, but my gut tells me there is a Super caught up in this somehow. The initial investigation hasn’t turned up any. Michaels may know something he hasn’t said.”

“Time is of the essence?” I tended to prefer files that had “run cold,” because there is less chance the Feds’ normal tools would crack it without me.

“According to Michaels, yes, but I’d expect Dad to say that about a case. A lost kid needs to be everyone’s top priority.”

I murmured an answer to myself that I didn’t type to Lewis, “Just as long as it’s a white girl from a good neighborhood, yeah.” The majority of missing children were from broken families of color in poor neighborhoods, and usually merited little more than a file shoved in a cabinet and maybe an outdated photo on a website somewhere. News coverage, and significant resources, tended to be spent on pretty white girls sent to good schools, living in big houses. After all, nobody expected these “nice” families to have problems – the cable news audience couldn’t easily tell themselves they were better than these people. So it was news.

As I often did, I thought about how I, at least as Delphic, was reinforcing this double standard by taking cases with substantial rewards. Benjamin Michaels could spend a quarter-million to find his daughter; a seven-year-old girl whose poor single mother discovered her missing on the other side of town would have no such help.

I reminded myself that this is part of why I was working with my sister, Paris, on Detroit homicides. No glamor or high-profile preference here: any case assigned to Paris that was a candidate to be closed unsolved would first be brought to me. I hadn’t failed yet.

My mental tangent lasted just long enough for Lewis to notice. “Can I tell Mr. Michaels that you are on the case? He left me his number when we spoke yesterday, said he’d be happy to speak with you.”

I shrugged to myself. The truth is that this case had too many unusual details to pass up. “His number is in the file. Don’t call him, but if he calls you, let him know I’m analyzing the case.”

Lewis’s next message was quick enough that he had anticipated my answer. “That’s good to hear. I don’t think we would get anywhere on this one, to be honest. We appreciate your help, Delphic. I just wish we knew how you did it, so we could adopt some of your methods.”

This was retreading an old discussion. “Lewis, I have explained before that my methods are a combination of things you legally can’t do, and things you physically can’t do. You can’t jump from a smart phone to an isolated server; you can’t take over a chip at the circuitry level. The FBI doesn’t beat itself up over not moving as fast as Millisec or being able to shotput a car like Aurocs. A super that is literally inside the Internet shouldn’t be a cause for consternation either.” I actually used italics to emphasize my point.

“Your right. I shouldn’t have brought it up. Anything else I can help with?” I ignored his grammatical mistake, as usual, gave my goodbyes, and closed the session.

I knew how important it was for me to explicitly reinforce my grand deception regarding Delphic. Over the past five years, I had established Delphic as a unique super without a physical body – originally a tech-controlling super who was accidentally uploaded into the very systems he once controlled. This false identity provided me a considerable amount of cover against anyone who might go after Delphic.

As long as I continued to do seemingly miraculous feats with technology (through a combination of my Viewing power with world-class hacking skills), my facade was quite solid. But if the Delphic lie was ever exposed, my life was likely over.

I confirmed there was no response from Paris yet, and sat down to review the Michaels file in more detail. Benjamin Michaels, 53, was twice divorced and had weekend visitation rights with his only child, Vivi, by his second marriage. Michaels was listed as the CEO for Effitech, a small business consulting firm focusing on government and military contracts. Effitech’s recent focus seemed to be in providing “specialized personnel services,” which I took to mean they serviced the USST somehow. That’s a good rule of thumb when looking at government departments or contractors: when they start to get vague about what they do, they are probably working with the military or the super teams.

There were two addresses of record given for Benjamin Michaels: a multi-acre rural plot in central Texas, and a small Townhouse inside DC proper. The latter was where Vivi and her father were reported to have stayed the day she was taken. The two had taken an afternoon walk down to one of the many nearby parks, which apparently was habitual for them, and Vivi ran ahead out of sight. He didn’t see her again.

Mr. Michaels looked around frantically for several minutes, presuming that Vivi was likely just around the block or maybe even hiding, before he broke down and called the police. Beat cops were there within five minutes of the call, but the amount of DC foot traffic on a Sunday afternoon was too much to control. Questions to pedestrians and nearby businesses both turned up nothing. A street camera a couple of blocks away showed when father and daughter had passed that way, but none showed Vivi after that.

Seen as a local police matter for most of the evening, its visibility escalated when Michaels started making calls to his contacts in DC. Beltway news ran with the story, and dazzling pictures of young Vivi ornamented every network. Mom and Dad’s tear-streaked faces made for good viewership numbers, too.

The file didn’t say anything specific about Michaels’ talk with FBI Agent Lewis; it just stated that the conversation occurred and mentioned the cash reward.

With a head full of street locations and landmarks, I closed my eyes and moved my View to the Old Post Office in Washington, DC. I kept this location fresh in my memory because it made it easy to rewind to a particular time in the past. Four full rotations of the hour hand around the clock’s face, and another three hours to match the times listed in the file, and I oriented myself above a bright Sunday on the Mall to find the missing girl.

I was still moving along the unnaturally still scene, keeping track of street signs along my path, when the doorbell rang. I thought about ignoring it, but in the wake of the dinner party, that seemed foolish. Cursing inwardly, I released my View, quickly locked down my box, and jumped up to open the door.

May stood on the other side, my casserole warmer under one arm, a dimpled half-grin brightening her clear face. “Hey Hector! Feeling any better?”

The evening just got a bit more interesting.

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