Gary Harold was a man of big ideas and small ambitions. He enjoyed figuring out complex systems, whether they were the mechanics of games or the rules by which international trade was conducted. He also enjoyed impressing others with his esoteric knowledge, but he lacked the drive needed to make any practical use of that knowledge. He also really liked smoking weed. These facts were probably related.
He was a tall man with a bushy mop of dark brown hair that was greying at the temples and thinning on top. He consistently wore about two days' worth of facial stubble, which was odd because he never actually seemed to shave, as near as Seth could tell. He had blue eyes, a swarthy complexion and maintained hunched-over posture, leaving the impression that he was shorter than he actually was.
"Hey O'Keefe!" Gary greeted Seth as he entered the custodians' locker room. "'Sup, man?"
"Oh, nothing much," Seth answered. "I played that game you were telling me about. What's it called? Venture?"
"Yeah! Pretty trippy, eh?" Gary grinned broadly. "How'd you like that ending?"
"I didn't finish."
"What? How come?"
"Console broke." Seth opened his locker, took off his t-shirt and stuffed it inside.
"How did that happen?" Gary was already putting on his own uniform.
"I jumped up with the controller in my hand and pulled it off the shelf."
"What the hell? Ain't you using a wireless?"
"Yeah, I am, but the battery was dead and I had it plugged in to charge."
"Man, that sucks! You want me to take a look at it?"
"No thanks. I took it into the shop yesterday. I should have it back this afternoon." Seth threw his jeans and shoes into the locker and began the process of donning his own uniform. It was a dark blue unitard with his name inscribed just above the left breast pocket.
"What the hell!" Gary's tone was offended. "Those places will just rip you off, man. They'll replace a part for a tenth of what it costs them, and it'll probably only take 'em ten minutes to do it. I woulda done it for a beer."
"Yeah, I guess I should have waited."
"Damn straight!" Gary sat on the bench and began tying up his work boots.
"Hey Gary," Seth said as he fastened his belt, "can I ask your advice on something else?"
"Sure, man. Like … whatever."
"You know a lot about electronics—" Seth sat and began pulling on his boots.
"You bet your ass I do!" Gary liked to interrupt. "Something else broken?"
"No, it's …" began Seth. "It's something more complicated." He scooted closer to where Gary sat before tying up his laces.
Gary gave him a look of concern. "OK. You got my attention."
"Can you promise you'll keep this just between you and me?" Seth was whispering now.
"Yeah, sure, man. You know you can count on me."
"All right, then." Seth looked around and saw that no one else was in the locker room with them. "I want to build a tracking device."
"Shit, man—you can buy one of them off The Internets."
"I know," replied Seth. "But they can track that. I don't want anyone to know I have it."
"Whoah! You serious, dude?"
"Who you trying to track?"
Seth related to Gary the story about how he'd met Svetlana twice in two days, and that he was worried she was spying on him. He also explained the mysterious phone call from Gavrilo and the confrontation they'd had afterwards.
"Gavrilo?" Gary narrowed his eyes and scratched at his chin. "Now that's an odd name—though probably not so much for an Eastern European dude. I wonder if he was named after the assassin."
"Yeah. Gavrilo Princip. The guy who assassinated Archduke Francis Ferdinand?"
"Archduke who … what now?" Seth blinked at him.
"You know! The Black Hand? The First World War? The whole thing started with an assassination?"
Seth shook his head. "Sorry, Gary," he said. "I don't know much history."
"Jesus, man! It was only like one of the seminal events of the entire last century!"
After work, Gary accompanied Seth to the electronics store where they bought a cheap cell phone and some other parts to assemble a crude tracking device. The service clerk gave them a strange look when they picked up Seth's console.
"Did you make some mods to this already yourself?"
"No," responded Seth. "Why do you ask?"
"It's just that we found a weird part in it—something definitely non-standard."
"What was it?" Seth was starting to panic.
"We're not sure." The clerk scratched his head. "We thought it was some sort of game-cheat thing, but it didn't look like anything we had seen before. We just left it alone."
"So, it's still in there?"
Gary assured him he would figure out what it was, which calmed Seth—at least for the moment.
After he paid for his purchases the two of them drove to Seth's house, where they cleared out a space on a workbench in the garage. Gary immediately set to work opening the console. It took him only seconds to discover the device about which the clerk had told them.
"What is that?" Seth inquired.
"You're not gonna believe this shit, man," Gary began. "That there's a tracking device."
"Calm down … it's not what you think."
"What is it, then?"
"It's a snooper. It only tracks data that goes through the net connection."
"So … they can't actually listen to me?"
"Not generally, no—except when you use the voice chat on this thing."
"Oh, well I hardly ever do, except when I'm playing with you."
"Shit, man …" Gary trailed off.
"After all that trouble faking those drug tests at work, they'll bust me for talking about weed on-line!"
"You mean at work?"
"Yeah, man!" Gary was visibly shaken. "Who else you think would be watching us? I mean, Labelle is up to some shit, man."
"I know," countered Seth. "But why would they watch us? We work there. They can question us any time they want. I mean, what with the spot drug tests, the random interviews they do … why would they bother putting something like this in our homes?"
"Like, who the fuck else would it be?"
"I dunno … I figured it was the government."
Gary ran his hands through his thinning hair. He nervously paced the garage floor between the work bench and a pile of old lawnmower parts and bags of mulch. Seth went to the refrigerator in the corner and pulled out a couple of beers. He opened them and handed one to Gary.
"Calm down, Gary," Seth began. "I'm sure it's jus—"
"Why, man?" Gary interrupted him. "Why would the government be watching you? Or us?"
"It's probably just me. I doubt they're watching you at all."
"Well, like I told you about that girl, Svetlana … I think someone's been watching me for a while now. I figured they're watching me because of where I work. Because of the secret stuff that Labelle is always doing."
"That doesn't make any damn sense, man!" Gary drank half his beer in one swallow. "First of all, we're just janitors. Secondly, if they're watching you, they could be watching me, too."
"Yeah, I guess so," said Seth, thoughtfully. "Do you ever get that feeling, then? Like you're being watched?"
"Well, sure. But I figured that was just from the pot."
"You don't get it when you're straight?"
"I dunno man," Gary grinned wide. "I try not to let that happen too often."
They both burst out laughing, which eased the tension a bit.
"You think you should check your console, too then"
"You can bet I will," answered Gary. "The minute I get home. I'll let you know what I find. I'll call you from a pay phone … and I'll call you on that cell we just bought for your tracker."
"Sounds good," Seth responded. "You mind doing me one more favor?"
"I still want to find the other woman I told you about—Mary."
"The one you were talking about when this Russian chick interrupted?"
"Yeah, that's the one."
"How? You got anything to go on, besides a first name?"
"Well there's this book …" Suddenly it dawned on Seth that he had lost the book. "You know what? Never mind. It would probably be too hard for you too hack into—"
"I doubt it," Gary broke in. "Don't forget, I hacked into the Pentagon once when I was twelve. Ain't nothin' I can't hack, man."
After Gary left, Seth began searching his house. He opened his computer case. He looked behind the plates on the electrical outlets and in all the light fixtures. Finally, he took his own cell apart. Well, there goes that warranty.
After all of that, he had nothing but a mess he now had to clean up. Looking at the clock, he realized that would have to wait. He needed to shower and get ready to meet Svetlana—if that was her real name—for dinner.
----- ----- ----- ----- -----
"I'm sorry to bother you again, but I had to ask. Do you know anything about Strange Animal?"
"Strange … what? Who is this? Is this Labelle again?"
"Yes.," said Katie. "I have more information on your ex-husband. Project TIER was only a part of it. Did anyone ever talk to you about Strange Animal?"
"No." Celia sounded worried. "Should I have?"
"What about WEIRD?"
"Weird? I think this whole thing is a little odd."
"I mean project WEIRD. It was related to TIER."
"Oh, I see. No—I don't recall anything by that name."
"I know this is probably a touchy subject, Doctor Wright, but … would you please tell me about your ex-husband's nervous breakdown?"
After hearing the story of Lewis's traffic-stopping episode in the middle of town, Katie asked, "Was this very sudden? Or were there any warning signs that something was wrong?"
"There were definite warning signs, I suppose, but I didn't realize what we were dealing with until after the fact."
"What sort of warning signs?"
"Well, that's the weird thing," answered Celia. "I started thinking about this again after talking with you last night. There was an inverse correlation of Lewis's symptoms with the objectives of Project TIER."
"How do you mean?"
"If—and this is a big if—Lewis was actually a subject of the TIER experiments, and the goal of TIER was the removal of the effects ego-constructs within the decision-making process, it failed spectacularly. Lewis was terrible at making decisions. That was the whole basis for his breakdown."
"I see. Did he always have this problem?"
"He might have." Celia thought a moment before continuing, "Although, I don't guess I really noticed the problem until we were engaged. After he was trapped in that mall after the Earthquake. I guess I just assumed that that was the event that triggered his issues."
"Doctor Wright, I know this all seems sudden, but it's very important that I get in touch with your ex-husband."
"I'm sorry, but I really don't know …"
Katie interrupted. "I understand you don't know where he is, but maybe you know someone who does? Do the two of you maintain any friends in common? Does h have any other family or professional contacts who might be able to help me locate him?"
"You're starting to worry me, Doctor Parker."
"I don't think there's any need to be worried just yet, Doctor Wright. However, it's important that we do a follow-up—if for no other reason than to determine for certain whether or not Lewis was involved in TIER. His condition is probably unrelated, but if not, we would want to be sure, for the sake of the other subjects."
"Oh, I see. Hmm … well, he did see a therapist for a while after his incident—court-mandated. Let me get you his number."