Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Grand Romantic Delusions Chapter 10: The Contact

     The late-September sun shone through a break in the trees, nearly blinding Katie as she sat in her car watching a group of young men playing disc golf. They were laughing and drinking beer, which was, she was fairly certain, illegal in the park—the beer, that is, not the laughing. Or the disc golf—though watching the way these men behaved gave her the idea that maybe it should be. Or perhaps that was just the effect the beer was having on them that made the whole lot seem so intolerable.
     A black convertible roadster wound its way slowly down the gravel drive. She flashed her lights just as it crossed her line of sight. The car pulled up next to hers, facing the other way and the driver rolled down the window.
     Katie rolled her own window down and, without looking at the man in the other car, sent a text to the number she's been given by Gavrilo. It read, "That you, Fritz?" She could hear a tone go off from the other car.
     The man sent her back a message reading simply, "Miss Cavell." Katie turned in her seat to face him.
     "Thanks for meeting me here, DuQuesne," she began. "I believe you have something for me from Gavrilo."
     "Yes, Miss Cavell," the man replied. He was a man of very dark complexion and slight build with a close-cropped hair-cut. He was dressed in a dark coat, black shirt and hot pink tie. He turned to Katie and regarded her through his reflective cop shades. "And I believe you have something for us, as well."

     They exchanged envelopes. The one Katie handed over was small and thick. The one she received was larger and flatter. While DuQuesne briefly glanced at the contents of his envelope, Katie pulled a large pocket folder from hers and opened it. It appeared to be the usual, thorough work that she had come to expect from Gavrilo.
     "You happy?" Duquesne was still waiting.
     "I expect I will be," she replied.
     "Good." He rolled up his window and backed away—too quickly, but made a smooth turn—and drove back the way he had come.
     That's a good way to end up in the Scioto, thought Katie. She watched the river flowing by, recalling the time she'd spent here in her childhood feeding ducks on these very banks. There were no more ducks here now—they'd all been pushed out by those damnable Canada Geese.
     Katie skimmed through the files on O'Keefe. It appeared to be the usual stuff—matching up with what Hanlon had shared with her already: school records, job records, even dental records. He'd grown up in the area, just as Hanlon had said, but … what was this? There seemed to be a mismatch in his work history. She pulled the LaBelle HR file out of her bag for comparison. Where LaBelle showed him working maintenance at a small paper company, Gav's file had O'Keefe doing a brief stint in the Navy. That was certainly unexpected.
     Katie threw all the files back in their respective folders. She was going to need room to spread all this out. On her drive back downtown Katie found herself wondering if Hanlon knew more than he had let on. He must have known there would be something out-of-place in O'Keefe's file. If only I had a better idea of what put Hanlon on to him as a suspect to begin with.

     Back in her suite, Katie began organizing the constituent parts of the two different sets of files into some kind of coherent order. As she did this, two timelines began to emerge—the LaBelle record diverged from the information Gavrilo had provided starting about ten years ago and re-integrated around the spring of 2010. 
     Where LaBelle put O'Keefe in a series of maintenance and labor jobs—mechanic, delivery driver, school custodian—Gavrilo's file had him in the Navy and then on various overseas trips. His service records had probably been interesting—large portions of them were redacted. Katie supposed even a guy like Gavrilo had his limits in terms of what he could learn, but she had never seen a record with this many black marks in it. What the hell had O'Keefe been up to?
     One thing that caught Katie's eye was the number of times "eyes only" or "secret" had been stamped on various pages. Three of the most heavily redacted of them had the same heading at the top, which read: "OTSSP Dept. 9: Strange Animal" along with numerous stamps and several illegible signatures at the bottom.
     Strange Animal? What the hell was that supposed to mean? Katie knew they did a lot of testing with chimps and other lab animals at LaBelle. Could this have had something to do with that? Of course, these files appeared to have been created (assuming the date stamps were correct and hadn't been doctored) years before O'Keefe had ever come to work at LaBelle.
     In several cases even some of the stamps in the military record had been redacted, though it appeared as though they were all the same one, repeated. That stamp consisted of a large, short word beginning with a … "V" maybe? Or else a "W" … it was difficult to tell. She sifted through a number of those papers until she found one that looked like the same stamp, but in this case the redactor had left the job unfinished. The word "WEIRD" was plainly stamped in the margin.
     She agreed that O'Keefe was an odd sort of man. That didn't seem to be the kind of thing the military would feel the need to keep secret, though. Besides, anyone who talked to him for more than a few minutes would figure that one out on their own. Must be some sort of project acronym, Katie thought. Secret project groups just loved using acronyms—especially ones that made real words.
     The final page of the military record was signed by a Rear Admiral Whitehead and stamped "TIER Approved" next to the signature. More acronyms, thought Katie. She wondered what they meant … she'd never heard of any of these programs—not that it was likely she would have, of course. There were so many secret agencies within secret agencies within the regular government—many of them dealing with other, even more secretive civilian contractors. And then there were the Black-Box programs. She knew they existed from her time in The Agency, but she had few details on any of them.
     Katie picked up her cell and SecTexted Gavrilo. "Follow-up. Need info on USN progs WEIRD, TIER, and Strange Animal. Please Advise." After sending the message, it suddenly occurred to her that Tier was "animal" in German. WIERD TIER … Strange Animal. That might be mere coincidence, but … well, hopefully Gavrilo would have the inside scoop. He was likely to know the people—or, at least know of the people who knew the people—who would.
     Her text tone went off. The message simply read: "On it."
     Knowing that  acquiring such information would probably require a bit of time, Katie decided to take the opportunity to observe her subject. After changing into a tennis skirt and a blue-and-white baby-doll tee (she had to be prepared to slip into her "Svetlana" persona, in case he actually spotted her) she drove over to Cortona Road to do a drive-by of O'Keefe's place. It was about a fifteen-minute trip from her suite downtown. If I'm going to be in town for very long, she thought, I should probably base myself a bit closer to the action. She doubted she'd find as nice a suite out on the West Side, but sacrifices would have to be made.
     Turning on to O'Keefe's street, she immediately took a left. She preferred to drive by his place on the opposite side of the street and facing the exit from the neighborhood—in case she needed to make a quick retreat.
     Katie came around the corner and saw house number 2500 just as O'Keefe was leaving with a cardboard box in his arms. He awkwardly managed to lock his front door without dropping the box or its contents. The house had a garage, but he either kept the car in the driveway, or he'd been out and back already today. She suspected his garage was loaded with useless junk, leaving no room for the piece of crap that was O'Keefe's Camaro.
     O'Keefe was wearing black jeans and a dark grey ringer t-shirt with black trim. The man certainly doesn't concern himself overly much with fashion. She supposed he didn't need to, working as a janitor. She watched in her rear-view mirror as he put the box into the back seat of the car and hopped in. She made a right on the next street and pulled into the first driveway on her left—from here she could see him when he went by. The neighborhood had only one outlet to the main road, so unless he was visiting someone else in the development, he'd have to pass this way. 
     Katie noticed a curtain twitch in the widow of the house in front of which she sat. She wondered if the occupants were expecting guests, or were just diligent in watching their front yard. 
     Once O'Keefe drove by, she pulled out and followed. He went a bit further this time than the last time she'd tailed him. He headed west to I-270 and drove onto the northbound ramp. After passing a couple of exits, he left the freeway and followed the main road until he arrived at a large strip-mall type shopping center, parking in front of (yet some distance away from) a large electronics store with a combination café/bookstore on one side and a Mexican restaurant on the other. Katie parked a row over and a bit closer to the shops to watch where he went.
     After retrieving the box from his back seat and locking up the car, O'Keefe walked into the shop. Katie followed, thinking this might be a good place for Svetlana to "accidentally" bump into him again.
     O'Keefe carried his box to the repair department. It appeared he had a broken video game console. She decided Svetlana liked video games. Katie had played her fair share, so she wouldn't even have to do any research to make that believable. She pulled a game guide with a robotic cowboy on its cover out of a near-by bookrack and pretended to peruse it while keeping an eye on O'Keefe. He was explaining to the clerk about how the console's power button wouldn't stay on.
     After filling out some paperwork, O'Keefe left the counter and headed towards her. She turned her back to him and stepped directly into his path just as she judged he'd pass her. Sure enough, he bumped right into her and nearly tripped, dropping a book he carried with him. Reflexes like a newborn kitten, Katie thought.
     "Oh, please excuse … I did not see you coming here sir," she said as she turned to face him.
     "It was my fault," O'Keefe replied. "Sometimes I'm not very good at watching where—"
     "Hello!" Katie interrupted him. "It is you!"
     "Er, uh … yeah." O'Keefe was nonplussed. "It's me. Um … you were at … yesterday."
     "Yes! At license bureau." Katie smiled at him. "We are talking of the new age of peace? Or end of world. We had not decided which, I think." She laughed.
     "Yeah, that was it." He smiled back at her, then narrowed his eyes. "You're not, like, following me—are you?"
     "You are funny man!" She chuckled as if what he'd said were just the silliest thing she'd ever heard.
     "No," he laughed back this time. "Just paranoid."
     "You are serious?" She titled her head and toyed with a lock of hair. "No! You put on me, yes?"
     "Yeah, of course," O'Keefe replied. "I'm joking. But you know what they say about paranoia?"
     "No, what is this that they say?"
     "Just because you're paranoid, it doesn't mean they aren't out to get you."
     Katie was startled for just a moment before she caught herself and laughed at what she supposed was just a random joke. Surely it was merely an uncanny coincidence.
     "What you are doing here?" She wanted to get him talking and for the awkward moment to pass. She stepped a bit closer to him and smiled again.
     "Oh,"  he responded uncomfortably. "Just, um, trouble with my video game console." He held the book up between them like some sort of protective totem. It was the same book the other woman had left at the BMV!
     "You are gamer, too?" She held up the game guide she had been reading.
     'Uh, wow. Yeah. I like to play games. You?"
     "Oh yes—especially with not many friends here in United States."
     "Yeah, you mentioned that yesterday." O'Keefe lowered his guard a little. "Have you tried Venture yet?"
     "Venture?" She asked. "No. What is this Venture?"
     "It's a game," he said. "I was playing it last night when … you know what? Never mind."
     "No, no," Katie pleaded. "Tell me of this game. Is it a good one?"
     "Yeah, actually it kind of is. Though I didn't get to finish it."
     "I tell you what," Katie said. "Yesterday were you busy. But today you will let me buy coffees and we talk? There is book store next door with coffee shop."
     "Well, I—"
     "Oh, all right. I don't guess I have anything else to do right now." He smiled. "And you need to make friends, so why not?"

     The two of them went next door, ordered coffees and sat at one of the four available tables near a short, dark-haired woman who appeared to be in her early- to mid-thirties. She must have been studying or perhaps writing a paper or a book or something. She had a large bag and several books and papers scattered on the table around the laptop on which she was frantically typing.
     "I am Svetlana," Katie began the conversation, reaching across the table to shake O'Keefe's hand. "Now that we have drink together, we should know our names, yes?"
     "Seth," said O'Keefe as he took her hand. "Yeah, I guess we should know each others' names, huh?" He chuckled.
     "Seth," she said, but pronounced it like Set. "I like this name."
     "You have a very nice name, too, err … Svetlana. Although, it's a bit of a mouthful for us Americans."
     "You are being silly again!" She laughed.
     "Tell me, Svetlana," asked O'Keefe, "where are you from?"
     "I come from little town called Vyborg. In Russia"
     "Where in Russia is that?"
     "Is on Baltic Sea. Not far north of Peter, err ... St. Petersburg."
     "And what brings you all the way to America," Seth asked. "If you don't mind my asking, that is," he added, grinning. He had suddenly realized he was sitting in a café with a rather charming woman. She wasn't Mary, but she was company, and she was pretty easy on the eyes. And for some reason she was interested in him. May as well enjoy the situation while it lasts, he thought.
     "I am here for the university," she said. "I have exchange scholarship to study foreign relations and English language."
     "Oh yeah. I remember you saying something about being a student." He looked to be having a difficult thought for a moment, before adding, "But aren't you ... how do I put this delicately. Not that you're old, or even look old, I mean I'm sure you're younger than I am, but aren't you a bit older than the average college student?"
     "Yes," she replied. "I am older from normal American student, but I take time off from studies to work job. I also wait some time for transfer opportunity." In point of fact, Katie was actually two years older than Seth, but she wasn't going to argue the point. He was probably just bad at judging ages. "You and I are not such different age, I think."
    "No? Well, I'm 28, and you don't look a day over 24."
     She realized he was trying to flatter her. Good, she thought. I have him now.
     They spent some more time talking about this and that—television, movies and video games. He described to her the game he had been playing the night before, and how he'd jumped up and pulled his console off the shelf and that this was the reason for his visit to the store today. All Katie had to do was laugh and smile and nod and look pretty. He barely even needed any prompting.
     And then, suddenly, Seth became very quiet. He looked around the room suspiciously—especially at the woman seated behind Katie. He leaned in closer to her.
     "You're from Russia," he said, as if the fact were some sort of secret he had just sussed out on his own, rather than something she'd told him just a half an hour before. "Tell me ... what do you know about secret government surveillance methods?"

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