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“Show me again,” I said.
He held out his reader to me. A grainy, tone-flattened picture of a much neater version of the office flickered to life. This was night vision surveillance, courtesy of Trinity, our all-seeing presence. On the desk sat a single bottle of pills. He advanced the feed one frame, then another.
“Each frame is ten seconds?” I asked.
“Yeah.” He advanced another frame. The pills disappeared.
Disappeared.
They didn’t fall. The desk couldn’t have shaken them loose to be buried in the clutter. Any disturbance would have dislodged the precarious book tower.
But where did they go?
No, that wasn’t the important part. It didn’t matter where they went or how. It didn’t even matter who took them. “Why these pills?” I muttered under my breath. To McCay, I said, “I thought this room was off Trinity’s grid.”
“Only when it needs to be.” McCay cleared his throat. “And only audio.”
“So, right now?”
“I’m in here.” He sounded annoyed.
“Bring up the video of this room. Most recent capture.”
He pressed some buttons on his console, and scratchy video of a dark room came up.
Something bothered me about the image, but I couldn’t quite place it. The video continued, its timestamp showing roughly the moment that I knocked on McCay’s door. Then, it continued. The room stayed empty. “This is right now,” he said.
The video continued, but didn’t show us in the room. “Why aren’t we there?”
“The logic override edits us out.” Then he corrected himself. “It edits me out.”
His local hack of the surveillance system didn’t need to edit me out. Trinity did that all on its own.
I picked up a stack of papers and moved them to the other side of the desk. McCay tensed. “Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll put everything back.” If he hadn’t wanted me touching his things, he shouldn’t have asked for my help.
“This isn’t the kind of help I was looking for,” he said.
Right. “Leave the room,” I said, “and hand me your screen.”
“It won’t work,” he said. “If what you’re thinking is true, then the pills would have been stolen while I was in the room.”
“You ever sleep in here? Work a late night and maybe doze off reading the latest medical reports?”
His chins wobbled at the affront. “Never.”
I took the screen from him and ushered him out the door. “Humor me. I want to see what it does.”
It wasn’t often I had a live feed of Trinity’s video stream. As far as I knew, Trinity didn’t see me, but I rarely got a glimpse of how it worked. As soon as the door closed, I was plunged into darkness. Several seconds later, the stack of papers I’d moved disappeared from one place on his desk and reappeared in the other. Just like the pills had done.
I was not in the video at all. Trinity’s system edited me out on the fly. It was a fancy bit of computing that I didn’t exactly understand. It might as well have been the smoke and mirrors of a cheap stage magician.
McCay’s hack had hijacked the video feed through to loop in recent footage of the empty room. It wasn’t as fancy as editing a person out of a video, but it got the job done. Just for kicks, I picked up the stack of papers and watched for the movement on the screen. Sure enough, the papers levitated, then dropped down where I put them.
The image on the screen felt uncanny, like one of those animations of actors that almost but doesn’t quite mimic the real thing. What was it?
I set the screen on the desk face down and waited for my eyes to adjust to the dark. In the pitch black, the room felt like a vast cavern, as if it stretched on forever into the void of space. I spread my arms and closed my eyes, imagining what it might be like to drift in the nothing.
When I opened my eyes, I saw the light under the desk.
Why would anyone take McCay’s meds? They were for an exceedingly rare genetic disorder, but it would have been clear that he had it since childhood. His parents had opted not to legally acquire medication for him. There were even gene therapies available for a more permanent fix. For what? He would never find acceptance in the Hallows. Not in a way he wanted. So, why would anyone bother to steal a med that was available for free?
Tentatively, I crouched down and felt my way over to the soft glow. I felt past the scattered papers, most of which were not present in McCay’s disappearing pill video.
Or, not scattered, anyway. The floor had been clear. McCay must have torn the place apart looking for his pills. Given the pain that sickle cell patients experience, I had no doubt he was desperate.
So, maybe he took painkillers, too. Meds to help with pain mixed with the meds to help normalize his blood cells. A more extensive DNA adjustment might have been a more stable fix, but he couldn’t get that without Trinity recording the preexisting genetic flaw.
Painkillers were worth stealing. That might be the “why.” If McCay’s handyman mixed several drugs in the same pill, it might make for a tiny addictive cocktail. If that was the case, then McCay had something with some street value. Plenty of thugs would take questionably sourced pills if they were in enough pain.
I took off my hat and ran my fingers through my hair. Pain pills. A ten-second disappearance job. A cluttered office in the middle of a decent neighborhood. Something still didn’t fit.
Pushing papers aside, I pressed my face close to the crack in the floor. An access tunnel? A vent? I couldn’t tell. The line ran along a square the size of a large pizza. My fingernails couldn’t pry it open, so I slid a penknife along the edge.
It popped open, and I saw that it was an access panel to a maintenance shaft. Trinity’s repair bots would work their way through this tunnel to fix broken wiring when needed. It wasn’t big enough for a person, at least not a giant like me.
The light came from farther down the shaft. I reached in, extending my hand into the darkness as far as it would go. My hand closed on something small, and I worked it loose from where it had snagged on a wiring bracket. A spot on the object glowed from some kind of iridescent paint. I knew what it was from the heft, the shape, the slurry of memories it drudged up. Still, I needed a better look at it.
I pulled my lighter from my pocket and clicked it on. My eyes quickly adjusted to the faint glow.
A cross necklace glinted in the flame’s flickering light. It held a screaming Jesus, but I couldn’t tell if he was supposed to be angry or terrified. I stuffed it in a coat pocket and picked up the floor panel. Wires ran along its length, with contact plates installed along one side. So that’s why there had been a gap in the floor. But who could have installed this?
Poking my head down into the hole again, I took a close look a the hardware. If it tied into the room’s surveillance, maybe removing the floor panel would shut off the camera. Maybe this is how McCay’s previous handyman had overridden Trinity’s systems.
No, that wasn’t right. This was something else. I shook my head. It would be impossible to tell without an expert hacker and a full disassembly of the tampered goods.
That left quite a few questions. I placed the panel back where I found it and scattered some papers over it. McCay didn’t need to know about this just yet. There were still too many questions and too many people I needed to speak with.
I tapped lightly on the door and McCay opened it.
“Well?”
I pushed past him. “I’ll take the job,” I said.
“You will?”
“I need to talk to some people, starting with anyone who’s ever been in this apartment.”
He followed me to his door. “Now, hold on. Nobody I’ve had in here would have done it. You saw the video, and that happened in the middle of the night. I didn’t have anyone over.”
Something in his expression told me he was telling the truth, but it didn’t matter. “Someone knows you’re on those meds, and someone thought you’d be an easy target. Now listen, I’ve got no reason to think you’re into something bad here, but if I’m going to help you, you’ve got to play it straight with me. Who’s your handyman?”
The man held my gaze for a frozen minute before relenting. “My handyman is a guy that I only know as Richard, but he’s split. You won’t find him around.“
“Any girlfriends who might have been in here?”
He blinked rapidly, like I’d slapped him. “No, not like that.”
“Like what, then?”
“They don’t come here. My reputation, you understand.”
For a man who cared so much about reputation, he sure seemed willing to stuff more skeletons in his closet. “I’m not making any promises.”
I left, and a minute later I was out in the streets, flanked by the towering structures, boxed in by the unrelenting sky. The air had cooled considerably in the time I’d been inside, but nothing held back the heat burning on the back of my neck. A heat I knew all too well.
Someone was following me.

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About the author

AWEichenlaub

Bio: Anthony W. Eichenlaub's short fiction has appeared in numerous publications, including Little Blue Marble, On Spec Magazine, and the anthology A Punk Rock Future. His novels range from pulse-pounding technothrillers to the adventures of irresponsible scientists on a colony planet. In his spare time he enjoys woodworking, video games, and working in his garden. Support him at: https://www.patreon.com/AWEichenlaub

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