Matthew Williams was a drone. He left work at precisely five o’clock, same as a couple thousand other government workers. I picked his silver shock of hair out of the crowd and hurried after him through the well-lit streets. Buildings weren’t as tall up here, and the resulting excess of light made my head ache. The whiskey had worn off, and my mouth tasted like the kind of dryness that only a stiff drink could remedy.
Williams wasn’t an after work drinker, unfortunately. He broke from the herd of government types early, stopping by a falafel stand for some nutrition and a quick chat with a lovely chef. He was clever and quick, this Williams. Witty. I couldn’t hear his voice from across the street where I watched, but I could see it in the woman’s smile. She liked him. I wondered if there might be something there or if it was only the polite banter of long-time customer and merchant.
I wanted to like this Williams guy. Stuffy pencil-pusher he might be, but his next stop was to pick up kids from the local school. His stocky daughter was dressed for soccer, and his son—tall for a resident of a heavy station—looked like the kind of kid who competed in debate club or chess. Williams shared his falafel with the kids and the three laughed and ate at a public bench along the edge of a tiny public green space.
But sometimes people are more than what they seem. This laughing, charming father must have hid some dark secret, otherwise how does he get mixed up with someone like Saint Jerome? The papers from the crime boss had a purpose, and that purpose revolved directly around Matthew Williams. I needed to know what the original documents said. If I knew that, then I could figure out exactly what the play was. For that, I’d need to find a way to approach Williams that didn’t tip him off. The worst thing would be to let him know I was onto him.
A shadow passed over me, blocking out the steel gray sky. “What are you up to, mister?”
Williams stood over me, arms crossed. The friendly, charming face I’d seen interacting with the falafel dealer and his kids had twisted into a mask of rage.
“I’m enjoying the sunset,” I said. Sunset was a few hours off. “Eventually.”
He jabbed a stubby finger at me. “You’ve been watching me and my kids. I picked you out following me since I got off of work.”
“Paranoia’s treatable, mister.”
“Like hell.” He took several steps back, never taking his eyes off of me. “You stay away from my kids, you hear?” His hand dropped to his pocket. Whether it was a subconscious movement or deliberate, I couldn’t tell, but the message was clear: he had a weapon and he’d use it.
I leaned back on the bench and hooked my elbows on the back rest. I didn’t know what I’d say until I said it. “You’re in too deep, Williams. I’m here to help you dig out.”
That froze him in place. Behind him, his kids laughed about something more hilarious than I could comprehend. It’s good for kids to laugh like that sometimes. It’s healthy.
“I know you’re tangled up in a bad deal,” I said. “And I know about the threats.” I didn’t, but what the hell. There were always threats. “If you want to clear this all up and land on a fresh slate, I’m your man. Otherwise—“ I waved dismissively with one hand “—be on your way.”
That must have broken something in his brain because his mouth opened and closed like a trout in hard vacuum. Finally, he stepped up close to me—talking to this man was like dancing the cha-cha—and whispered, “You want to see your sunset. Well, this is a good spot for it. Lots of sky.”
With that, he left, herding his two protesting kids away through the busy streets.
That left me with two hours to kill and not many options to kill them with. My search for the artwork was at a standstill until Jason got back to me. I decided to look for the cop, Anders, at the Kinderson Creek. The place had a wooden facade lit by old style lanterns, and it was crawling with the blue.
I pushed through the officers, largely ignored by the happy hour rush. When I didn’t see Anders, I asked around.
“He’s on shift until seven,” said a woman in a patrol officer’s uniform. Most of the blue around carried stunsticks, but she packed an actual firearm. “Usually doesn’t get up here till around nine.”
I thanked the officer and moved on. Anders might be willing to chat, but I’d never track him down if he was working. Williams would be back, and he’d talk, so that made anything I did on that case a potential waste of time.
There were answers, and I wasn’t going to sit around not finding them. I walked back to the government buildings. The drab gray slabs squatted in a row like old dogs shitting in a back alley. They were emptier than they had been at five, but several workaholics still trickled out of the buildings. I timed my entrance to coincide with someone leaving, and just like that, I was in. I had to be careful, because the doors here wouldn’t open for me. It would be easy to get stuck.
A cold stillness filled the government center like the pall that covers a fresh corpse. All that bureaucratic potential was wasted when the day’s short life came to an end. No matter, though. Its zombie corpse would rise again the next day like Jesus with a fresh cup of coffee on a Monday morning.
Once again, the potential to finish the job danced enticingly before me. A couple turns down the hall and I saw the records room door slightly ajar. Somebody hadn’t locked everything down, but that probably wasn’t rare. These paper logs only existed to shore up a flaw in Trinity’s databanks. Nothing here was consequential, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred these papers would never be fed back into the system.
Which was why I couldn’t figure why anyone wanted documents planted here.
Cameras covered every square inch of the government buildings. Corners, ceilings, ducts. Everything bristled with surveillance, none of which could see me. How it worked, nobody alive could really say. Either at the point of recording, in transit, or in the quantum tangle of Trinity’s vast mechanical brain, any image of me was scrubbed clean. Every sound of my voice. Every shadow I cast. Gone. Excommunicated.
That made a job like this easy.
I placed a box of paper down on the floor to block the door from closing. There was a whole pile of information a person could learn by being locked in the records vault for a whole night, but I wasn’t in any mood to be learning it.
The records vault was a low-ceilinged room that stretched far enough to show the curved arc of the station interior. This high up in Nicodemia, circles grew tight and buildings curved along their outer walls, giving the impression of a place that went on forever. Brown cardboard boxes filled the fibersteel shelves, each labeled with an arcane series of letters, numbers, and symbols.
All this waste made my spine twitch. Who knows what bureaucratic nightmare happened a thousand years ago to start up this tradition. Someone no doubt lost some information they thought was important and the paper backup protocol was born. Reams of data were printed and stored every day, and on the other end, the same amount was destroyed. Recycled into fresh pulp. How old those papers were, I didn’t know. Maybe nobody did.
I found the symbol for the correct aisle and followed it until I found the right box. Pulling it free, I found it wasn’t as stuffed full as I’d expected. Inside sat a single manila folder, just like the one I carried. Inside that was—
The same thing.
Side by side, page after page, the documents looked exactly the same. But why?
Hinges creaked in the distance, and the door closed with a resounding boom. With the door closed and nobody officially around, the room went dark.
I sat on the floor in black silence for the span of a hundred slow breaths. Nothing stirred. Darkness wrapped around me like an oversized cardigan.
Then, as I was about to flip on my tiny lighter, I heard the single scuff of a footstep. It echoed in from the distance, its location hidden by the rows of shelves. Someone was there, but they weren’t triggering the lights. That left a few options.
It could be the cleaning drones. They didn’t require light and they’d work at night like this. That didn’t seem likely. Cleaning drones didn’t sound like a purposeful cadence of footsteps. They whirred more, and they smelled of lubrication and electricity. No, this had to be a person.
Someone might have manually disabled the lights, but why? Why wander around in the dark?
The only answer that made sense sent a chill down my spine.
This was another excommunicated soul like myself in the records room. A comrade doing bitter work against the all-powerful machine. The more I thought about it the more it made sense. This was another person walking in the dark.
But what did they want?
I carefully, quietly, got my feet under me and stood. The darkness was so complete, so overwhelming, that my eyes refused to adjust, even a little. Keeping my head low, I worked my way forward. One finger running along the boxes kept me moving straight. How many boxes had I been from the corner? Fifteen? Sixteen? I counted them out, not wanting to hear another footstep.
I didn’t hear the scuff of a step when I reached the corner, but a prickle at the base of my neck told me the intruder was close. I froze. The air moved, as if from breath. The shadow of a hint of the idea of cologne touched my nostrils. A man, then, or someone who wanted to smell like one.
Maybe he smelled me, too, because I heard him swallow with a nervous click.
“Someone there?” he rasped.
I let him hang there for a long pause before I replied, “Seems a bit late for a man to be checking records in the dark.”
There was a crash of noise and the thumping of steps. I flipped on my lighter, but the man was gone.
My papers still sat on the floor, along with the papers they were meant to replace.
The light caught a shadow of movement as he rounded a corner. He was headed straight for the door. If I ran, I could catch him in the hall before he left the building.
But the papers.
I ran back to my spot where I had been checking out papers and stuffed the originals back in the box. Or was that the duplicates? No time to check. When I turned, the lights in the room blazed back to life, blinding me.
The door was open, but swinging shut fast. Once it closed, I’d be trapped in the dark for the rest of the night. I ran hard, slamming into the shelf as I took the corner too tight. Pain blossomed up my elbow, but I’d have to deal with that later. The door was halfway shut already.
I sprinted and dove through, just before it snapped shut, landing in a heap on the opposite side of the empty hallway.
Breaths came in deep gulps, but once they slowed I caught another whiff of his cologne. It had a hint of cedar and lemon, but the man was nowhere to be seen. I looked down at the papers in my hand. Were they the originals or the copy? I stuffed them in my pocket and made my way out of the government center.
Sunset approached, and there was one more thing I needed to do before meeting with Williams. Maybe it was paranoia. Maybe it was wisdom brought on by my years living in the underbelly of the system’s worst city. Likely it was a little of both, but I knew I needed to walk the perimeter before meeting with Williams. It was extra work, but coming up empty on a sweep would give me the confidence I needed to deal with the bureaucrat.
Unfortunately, that’s not how it worked out.
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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