It took me a minute to fully accommodate this new happening. This minute was spent with a vacant gaze that slowly slid up and down May’s quite small frame. The half-grin turned into a full grin as she gamely returned my look.
May was dressed poorly for the weather in tiny shorts that barely peeked out below a long Lawrence Tech t-shirt, one leg turned out as she stood in cotton-candy pink sandals that matched the color of her toenails. Her dark hair was loose, buffeted playfully by the chill winds that passed down our street once the sun was down. The pretty coed’s pale skin was starting to turn ruddy in patches from just her short exposure. I came to my senses and ushered her inside.
If I had thought to consider the reaction of my neighbors to my absence earlier, I would not have been surprised that May would come over. She had visited me a few times since I moved to the neighborhood, ostensibly to ask for my help with some of her surprisingly challenging engineering coursework, but more often a chance to unload some emotional stress building up at home or school. There had been some tears shed, and a handful of sessions had evolved into kissing, but we both agreed not to take it any further than that. I value my friendships with my neighbors, and May’s friendship most of all.
As I turned to shut the front door, May floated into the kitchen and unloaded the dishes from the casserole container directly into the sink. I interrupted her before she could start washing them in earnest.
“Thanks, May, but I can take care of my own dishes.” I pulled out both of the bar stools kept under one end of the counter and gestured her to a seat. “Water? Beer?”
“Nothing, thanks.” She sat gingerly, a butterfly only lightly perched upon a branch. “I really just came over to see how you were. You did not look yourself tonight. Not at all.” She cocked her head again, apparently hoping that enough plaintive stares might cause my hidden condition to reveal itself.
“I, ah,” my gaze ran the length of my cabinets, which were overdue for refinishing. “I had leftovers for lunch; something didn’t agree with me. I’m fine now.”
Only once I had finished the excuse did I meet her eyes; they were scornful. As accomplished a liar as I am in the digital world, stripped of my smoke and mirrors, I couldn’t fool a girl scout. “Hector, what’s going on? Really?” Her voice attempted to glove the hard steel in it with velvet concern. “You seemed upset from the moment you saw Kurt and Laila tonight. Did they say or do something… um… problematic?”
I shook my head vigorously. “No, May; they were great! I’m happy to have them as my neighbors.” Again I had moved into an evasive tone, and again May picked up on it. “It’s… well, I recognized them from somewhere, is all. It’s probably nothing – I just thought Laila looked familiar.”
My young friend put one manicured finger up to her chin as she thought about this. “Hm. Laila explained at dinner that she’s a sculptor, and has attended installations of her work at industrial art exhibitions in Detroit and Chicago over the years. Maybe you remember her from one of those.”
I gave a nod and a shrug. “Maybe. I’m not really into that sort of thing, but it’s possible I was helping with a fundraiser or something.”
She smirked. “You and your pet projects.” Switching gears, “The Morrises are good people, Hector. Whatever your problem, pull the bug out of your ass and make nice, okay?” Her brilliant smile took any sting out of her words. “I look forward to seeing you, so I’m not giving you any excuse to stop coming to the dinners.”
I gave a wan smile and a small sigh. “I’ll work it out; don’t worry. How’s school?”
“Well, the coursework is a breeze, but one of my TA’s seems to have it out for me…” she and I allowed our conversation to shift to easier subjects, touching on the gossip I’d missed at the dinner and who was falling out with whom among her little circle at Lawrence. She took a beer, after all, and it was a good hour before she made to leave.
“Careful,” I called after her as she trotted up the street to her parent’s house, “and remember your coat next time!” I closed and locked the front door and took a minute to compose myself.
Talking to May had made me feel much better, as it often did. May could be a little too trusting at times, but mostly she had a good sense for people. If nothing about Kurt and Polarity struck her as phony, then maybe I had nothing to worry about. Regardless, I found it hard to keep up any level of paranoia after having been shown such unvarnished concern and warmth.
I extended my break from Viewing a few minutes longer by washing the day’s dishes, including the prodigal lasagna pan and container. I’d not gotten around to adding a dishwasher to the place; overall the kitchen was the most out-of-date room in the entire house. Well-equipped, lovingly used, but perfectly at home behind Julia Child.
A well-used dish towel went into the laundry hamper as I headed back downstairs and decided what to tackle next. Logging into my box, I saw I finally had a response from Paris… and, gratifyingly, also a message from the Doc.
My sister’s response was grateful if subdued: “Wow, wasn’t expecting that. Okay, I’ll run that address and we’ll discuss at breakfast. My place?” I agreed and wished her a good night.
The Doc’s message was similarly brief. Doc’s correspondence was with Delphic rather than Hector, and tended to stick pretty closely to common interests. Despite the unsavory timbre of our dealings, he was always a delightful and polite conversationalist who provided two things I strongly craved – knowledge about super powers, and access to restricted technology. Any time he had something to say, it was in my interest to listen. But in this case, the message was ominously vague. I’d need to follow up with him soon.
I closed my eyes, and soon found my View once more moving quickly through the uptown streets of DC two days past. The warm weather really did make the streets surprisingly crowded, so that even when I had found the appropriate avenue, it took nearly an hour for me to spot my particular targets.
I finally found the two of them, happily enjoying a walk down the busy way and properly dressed for the sunny but chill day. Benjamin had a light jacket on over shirtsleeves with an open collar, tucked into a pair of slacks, with colorful walking shoes. Vivi, as the file had indicated, was wearing a floral-patterned lilac dress with several layers of white ruffles propping up the long skirt. The dress stuck out from what appeared to be a full winter coat, its hood thrown back and bobbing wildly, half full of locks of wavy blonde hair. Vivi also wore practical walking shoes, although in a purple and pink.
Something that wasn’t mentioned in the file was that daddy and daughter had a dog with them. A half-sized Jack Russell terrier stayed close to Vivi’s heels even though it was Benjamin who held his leash, towering over his young human and canine charges. As the sidewalks became more crowded, Benjamin kept a shorter leash on the puppy, but Vivi was not so constrained. She weaved between two groups heading in opposite directions, negotiating a canyon in foot traffic formed by a tree grill and a city trash can, and swung around the corner completely out of sight of her father and dog.
The straining dog and indulgent man turned the corner, Benjamin’s eyes alert as he tried to recapture the sight of Vivi. The girl was nowhere in sight.
I froze the scene and looked at the last spot where I had marked her position, adjusting the vantage and angle, but the throng of people did not include a little girl. I let the scene run forward a bit, and confirmed that, yes, this was the point in which Benjamin began looking for Vivi in earnest and soon called for the police.
I rewound to the point where Vivi turned the corner and tracked her closely, advancing the scene forward at a crawling pace. Vivi’s hair and clothing, like those of the other DC pedestrians, looked strangely weightless in the slowed bluster. As the girl adroitly dodged through a small clog of fast-moving travelers coming the other way, she brushed past a group of five businessmen, presumably from out of town considering their sizable rolling luggage – and here, it seems, was the abduction of Vivi Michaels.
The gentlemen in question gave the air of experienced New York travellers, checking smartphones and exchanging savvy witticisms with each other, although their sizable luggage marred this image slightly. Three of the men trailed large wheeled bags behind them – the kind that can only be checked on a flight. They walked in a loose “V” formation with the large bag of the lead man abreast with the other two men whose bags were further behind. The other two men walked directly behind the leader’s bag on either side, closer than the two other bag-carriers, and this provided significant visual cover from most angles for the leader’s piece of oversized luggage.
The men never broke stride. As Vivi threaded her way between the point traveller and the man on his left, the empty-handed one on that side scooped her with one hand directly into the luggage, whose lid he held open with his other hand and then closed and latched securely. Vivi out of sight in a matter of seconds, and the men continued their chatting and phone use as though nothing had happened.
I lost the View and allowed myself to flop fully back into my chair. This was no opportunistic grabbing or amateur job; this was fully professional. A pickup this smooth could thwart most conventional surveillance; even if a camera had happened to pick up Vivi on that block, the chances were still good that the culprits wouldn’t have been fingered.
I drained a warm water bottle before resuming my View. Fortunately I still had the “feel” of the place from the moment I let up; I quickly inserted myself at the same point, then followed the men in real time.
The five kidnappers walked bruskly around Benjamin as he turned the corner, the father already starting to look anxious when young Vivi did not immediately appear. Two more blocks took them to a taxi stand where the five men split two vehicles that had, by all appearances, been called through a rideshare app well before Vivi was grabbed.
The men helped each other lift their three large suitcases into the trunks of the two vehicles. The noise level of the city, particularly so near downtown traffic, was undoubtedly sufficient to drown out any muffled protests that little Vivi might be making as her bag was dumped roughly in the trunk compartment of a small crossover utility vehicle. I took a moment to commit both license plates to memory.
The two vehicles lost each other quickly in the stop-and-go traffic of the Capitol, and I followed the one with Vivi. I accelerated the View to about quadruple speed, making myself a third passenger. The pale skin and dirty blonde hair of the two travelers contrasted with the dark hair and skin of the driver, who I took for Middle Eastern. The perennial weakness of my Viewing powers was always particularly pronounced during these times – I had sight but no sound. Whatever conversation was bouncing between the three men in the car, I had no way of eavesdropping.
As the ride progressed, I noticed that the driver had not taken any of the obvious routes to Robby, which was the destination listed on the app. Robert F. Kennedy International Airport, named after the second President of the illustrious Kennedy dynasty that had so slickly dominated politics since the 60s, was nestled along the D.C. Beltway and a short if clogged ride from downtown. Perhaps there had been a miscommunication as to the correct airport – they had turned onto a route heading west, towards Teddy (both airports being named after Kennedys providing all the evidence as to who owned this town). It would take nearly an hour at this time of day, even on a Sunday, to get into the northern Virginia countryside where much of the domestic traffic was relegated.
But, less than 20 minutes later according to the clock on the automobile dash and around 5 in real time for me, I watched the driver pull off onto a smaller secondary road and immediately turn south. This area was one of the least developed so close to D.C., a rarified stretch of older farmhouses interspersed with newer prefabricated mansions. The road quality plummeted.
The SUV turned down a dirt road with a rusty mailbox in front of it, the address numbers askew and barely hanging to the post. Almost a mile down the road, the small farmhouse looked no better maintained than the rest of the property. The fields lay fallow, unplanted this year or possibly this decade. Two of the front windows were cracked with the dark spikes of missing pieces.
As the driver pulled up to the house, the two passengers quickly and efficiently got out from either side and lifted the suitcase out of the back. They carried it between them through the front door, which was closed but not locked. One stepped in front of the other to ease the suitcase down a flight of stairs into a basement area.
The basement appeared to be finished, and clean. A flip of a light switch spilled harsh white rays from bare fluorescent bulbs, revealing a makeshift cell – cot with bare mattress, sink, bucket, and half a dozen boxes of cereal. Pale linoleum floors ran between painted cinderblock walls.
The luggage was gingerly sat in the middle of the space and unlatched, opened to find an unconscious girl in a tangle of hair and cloth. Her adrenaline had likely run out some time ago. The men exchanged a nod and exited the basement, securing the basement door from the outside with a padlock.
I let the men leave in the SUV and returned to Vivi. She slept for more than an hour. When she finally roused herself, it took only a cursory exploration of the space before she broke down and cried.
I didn’t want to watch this, so I moved my View to outside the house and fast-forwarded at high speed. By the time I reached the present, I had noticed no additional visitors at all.
Bracing myself, I re-entered the basement in the present. The light was on, and Vivi was again asleep, this time on the cot. She looked pale and extremely grubby, although there were no obvious injuries. Two of the cereal boxes were open.
I look a couple more minutes to make sure I had the precise location of the farmhouse, and dropped my View. The cold-blooded practicality of this operation was impressive, presuming this was a hostage kidnapping (and what else could it be?). A healthy elementary-age child can survive by herself, unsupervised, with negligible chance of escaping or being discovered, for enough days to sort out a ransom. The perps can flee the country and sell her location at a safe distance.
I called up a browser map and confirmed the exact address. I found and made a VoIP call to the county 911 line.
An older woman’s voice answered. “911. What’s your address?”
“418 County Road 7,” replied my synth.
“What’s the emergency?”
“A young girl is locked up in an abandoned basement.”
A slight pause. “Who am I speaking to?”
“This is Delphic.” The synthesized nature of the voice must be obvious by now.
The woman’s voice stayed even and professional. “It’s against the law to call this line under false pretenses.”
“Please send police and an ambulance to 418 County Road 7. Vivi Michaels has been locked in the basement for two days.”
Another pause. “The missing girl?” The woman’s speech was faster now, less controlled.
“Correct. She was kidnapped and locked in the basement at 418 County Road 7.” Repetition can help a lot on these calls. “The kidnappers have not returned. She is alone, and likely terrified. Please send help.”
“Hold please.” A longer pause. “I have dispatched an emergency team and police to the scene. Will you be there to give a statement?”
This time the delay was mine, although the question was certainly reasonable under normal circumstances. “I am an electronic entity without a physical body. I will not be at the location.”
“When can you give a statement?”
“I will email the police department and set up time for an interview.”
“Sir, I need to take down contact info for -” I hung up at this point. She was just doing her job, but opening up her line for other calls was a better use of both my time and hers.
I checked the file again and dialed another number. It picked up almost immediately.
“This is Michaels.” The voice was half-hoarse and borne down with palpable concern.
“Benjamin Michaels, this is Delphic.” My synth had no trouble with the two common names, although the -s at the end of ‘Michael’ was unnaturally lengthened.
“Mr. Delphic, thank God! Agent Lewis said you were going to try to find Vivi. Is that right, you’ll look for her?” His voice was higher, nakedly pleading.
“I found her already.”
A beat of less than a second, then a shout, “You what?! When, where is she? Is she safe?”
In the background I heard a female voice asking what was going on. The mother maybe? Michaels said a muffled “He found her,” there was a shushed squeal. I waited a moment before replying.
“She is in northern Virginia, an out-of-the way corner of Fairfax County. I already notified the authorities who are on their way to get her.” I typed and sent over their urgent chatter, “If you call the Fairfax County Sheriff, they will have more details on the rescue than I do.”
Michaels (and, I concluded, his ex wife) were yelling over each other in gratitude. I waited patiently until they had settled down.
“I’m glad I could help, and I’m glad that Vivi is okay. Once you’ve had a chance to see to her, contact Agent Lewis about forwarding my payment.”
“I don’t think that will be necessary, Mr. Delphic. Just give me an account number and I’ll have the funds transferred right now!”
“It can wait a few days. Take care of your little girl now. Leave business until later.” I had little doubt the money would come in time, but right now Vivi surely needed her parents’ immediate attention.
“Of course! Of course. Thank you!” Michaels hung up, and I sat back.
I thought about the fallout from this case. A young girl had been taken from her family and locked away, completely alone, for days. Any physical damage will likely be remedied with a bath and a warm meal, but the trauma would likely never completely fade. That a group of men could so callously derail the health and life of a young girl made me furious.
And, after all, there was no reason I had to close the case now.
I drained a bottle of water and ate a granola bar, then sat back and closed my eyes. Within a few minutes, I watched the farmhouse retreating in the distance from inside the SUV.
It was going to be a long night.