South San Francisco, California
Piper Lawrence eyed the cigarettes in the pocket of the man sitting next to her on the bus. She'd given up smoking a year ago, because she couldn't afford it and community college. Or anything else for that matter. Books cost a fortune. Food wasn't exactly cheap, either. But sometimes people tucked money in their packs—she used to. Besides, pickpocketing kept her skills sharp, and in this case it wasn't really going to harm anyone.
Her stop was coming up, and she waited for the bounce that always occurred as the bus crossed this particular intersection... Then, "Sorry," she said, accidentally bumping into the man as she rose from her seat. She moved toward the front, holding on to the handrail. As the bus slowed, then stopped, she hurried down the steps, and the door swished closed behind her, sending a slight gust of air at her back as the bus took off.
The cigarette pack felt slightly heavier than it should, and she was curious, but figured it wasn't wise to open it there, in case the guy discovered it missing too soon. She quickened her pace, turned the corner, and walked the two blocks to her destination, a small business park filled with warehouses, most subdivided into small shops. It was located in the city of South San Francisco, on the east side of Highway 101. Her friend's shop wasn't in the nicest of areas, but this time of night it was quiet.
About to open the pack, she hesitated when she saw a black sedan parked near the corner. The streetlamp cast just enough light for her to see two men sitting in the front seat, and a third man with gray hair standing at their open window. Apparently the conversation had concluded, and he started to walk away, but the driver called him back, saying, "Hey, Brooks." The man returned to the car.
The vehicle faced the direction she was headed, and she couldn't see the two men he was talking to, or hear what they were saying. For a moment, though, she thought this Brooks guy was the gray-haired man from the bus, waiting with undercover detectives to arrest her for pickpocketing. Then again, she'd been in the back of a few cop cars. Around here they drove those big Fords, she thought as the gray-haired man turned, looked right at her. She realized then that he was not the same person at all, and she chided herself.
How stupid to think they'd send out detectives over a pack of smokes, and she wondered why these men were here at all. This time of night, everything in the area was closed.
Drugs? Probably not. They didn't look the type.
Since none of them seemed interested in her, she ignored them, crossed the street and opened the cigarette pack, thereby discovering it contained a few cigarettes and a lighter, which was probably why it felt heavy.
Waste of talent, she thought, then pushed open the door of her friend Bo Brewer's shop. Bo fixed things for a living. Today it was copy machines. Tomorrow it would be something else, depending on what he bought from the government surplus auctions. In the most recent lot, he'd purchased seven copy machines, all the same model, all in various states of repair. The fact he was able to buy perfectly good office equipment was, in his opinion, why the government was broke. He'd quickly fixed two machines by swapping out parts, estimating that he could sell the pair for what he'd paid for the lot, which meant he'd already recouped his investment.
Bo looked up as she walked in. "Hey," he said, then bent back down over his keyboard, typing something into his computer.
"You realize there's two guys sitting in a car out there? Some guy talking to them. Kind of strange, don't you think?"
"Saw it there earlier. Probably the cops. I think the auto repair shop next door is dealing in stolen car parts."
"Doesn't look like a cop car."
"If they're undercover, it wouldn't."
"I brought you something." She set the cigarettes and lighter on his desk.
"Who'd you steal that from?"
"Some guy on the bus."
He went back to work.
After a long stretch of silence, she said, "Let's go somewhere. A movie."
He didn't answer. It wasn't that Bo was ignoring her. It was more that he was intent on what he was doing. A week ago after he'd finished breaking down the remaining machines, determining which could be used for parts and which would be repaired, he made the unfortunate-for-her discovery that the federal government had left the hard drives in the copy machines. The moment he tapped into a few, he'd become obsessed with reading what was on them. Especially one machine from the San Francisco FBI office because it had something on it besides the usual reports on bank robberies and white-collar crimes. A page filled with nothing but a list of numbers. Bo figured it was a code of some sort. Because he was a semidecent computer geek, it was now his mission in life to learn what it was, and he'd searched every which way on the internet, even running it past one of his geekier friends.
He balked when the guy wanted to see the whole thing. He was paranoid. Nothing was safe on the internet in his opinion, and so he never showed the entire list.
He did, however, give it to her to read, but it meant nothing to her. Numbers just sat in her head, literally and figuratively like dead weights, refusing to go away.
And tonight, he was still at it. Piper watched him for a few minutes, bored to tears, hoping he would have moved on. She liked him, a lot, but he didn't seem to notice the attraction. In fact, the only time he seemed to pay attention was when he needed her to memorize a list. Like the stupid numbers.
Piper had an eidetic memory for anything she read, including long strings of useless numbers, the result of an injury to her left hemisphere at the age of twelve. Unfortunately all it did was turn her into a novelty when anyone found out, especially at parties. Bo was the only one who seemed not to be fazed. Until he'd found this list.
"Bo, you promised we'd do something tonight," she said.
"We will. Soon."
She sat on the edge of his file cabinet, eyeing the computer monitor. "Why are you still working on those things?"
"I think it's some sort of program code. Why would they have copied it, unless it was something important?"
"At least take a break." He started typing, and she wondered if he even knew she was there. Hell. Did he even know she was a woman? "You want to have sex?"
He stared at the computer, not hearing a word.
"We could do it right here. On the desk."
"Wait a sec," he said, typing fast.
"Isn't that stuff supposed to be classified or something? It's from the freaking FBI. What if they catch you?"
"This from the girl with the sticky fingers? They shouldn't be leaving this stuff on hard drives if they don't want someone reading it. Lucky for them it's only me and not some terrorist, right? Besides, I erased the hard drive so I could reinstall it in the copy machine after I fix it."
She hopped off the file cabinet and moved to the window, peering out the slats of the vinyl blinds. The car was still there, the two men sitting in it, but the third man was gone. "Maybe those guys waiting outside are the FBI. Coming to arrest you."
"Yeah. Right. Besides, one touch of the button, this thing's erased. They'll have a hard time proving their case."
"Can you play with this later? I'm hungry."
"I called in for pizza right before you got here." He held up his car keys. "I'll share if you go pick it up...?"
She took the keys, gave an exaggerated sigh of discontent—not that he paid the least bit of attention—then said, "Money?"
"Upstairs. And don't take all of it!"
"Have a little faith, Bo. I don't steal from my friends."
She walked through the dark shop, then on up the stairs. Bo lived in the loft above the warehouse shop, even though the area wasn't zoned for residential. Maybe not the nicest view out the second story window, unless you liked to watch cars on the freeway, but the neighborhood was quiet. And since the commercial warehouses closed at night, Bo had considerable privacy, something Piper cherished, since her own apartment complex had paper-thin walls and nosy neighbors to the extreme. She turned on the light, found his wallet on a mirrored tray at the kitchen counter, took out enough money for the pizza, then stopped. The strangest feeling swept over her, and she looked around, not sure what was wrong. And then it occurred to her that the window was open.
Strange, since Bo wasn't the fresh-air sort, especially in winter, when he was paying for the heat. And it definitely was cold in here.
Shrugging it off, she turned out the light, and was just starting down the stairs when she heard the swish of the shop door opening.
She stopped in her tracks. Looked down the stairs, and though from up here she could see only their legs as they both headed straight for Bo's office, she knew without a doubt they were the two men from the car. It didn't take a rocket scientist to realize they weren't there for a late night sale of used copier parts.
"Bo Brewer?" one said.
"You got something of ours. We traced it to your computer."
"Are you the police?"
"We're much bigger."
Piper's heart started a slow thud, and she stepped back in the shadows. Please don't let him get in trouble...
"The numbers you were running? Where'd you get them? And what are you trying to do with them?"
"I—I found them. I don't even know what they are."
"That right? From where?"
"A hard drive. I wasn't doing anything with them. I just wanted to know what they were."
"Where is it? The hard drive?"
She imagined him pointing to the bin on his desk, as he said, "But it's erased."
"Listen real careful. I need to know every copy you made."
"Just there. On the computer. But it's erased. I swear."
They were going to arrest him. Would they arrest her, too? She stuffed Bo's keys in her pocket so they wouldn't rattle, then backed up the stairs.
"Does anyone else know about this?"
"No. I swear."
"What about the girl we saw? What does she know?"
"She's, uh, upstairs. She looked at them, but that's all," Bo said.
Piper's heart constricted. Why had Bo implicated her in this? She had at least two stolen credit cards in her apartment, and she wondered if they'd go there and search it.
"Get the computer."
"Hey— Look. I'm erasing it. See? You don't need to take that."
"What the— Get that computer. Shut it off."
Suddenly a hand clamped down on Piper's mouth. Someone pulled back, hard. She waited for her neck to snap, wondered if she'd feel it. Her pulse thundered in her ears as he clamped tighter.
A gunshot echoed through the warehouse.
And before she could even grasp that Bo had been shot, that she was next, her captor put his mouth next to her ear, whispering, "I'd like for us to get out alive. So don't make a sound." He lowered his hand.
She was almost afraid to turn, but her would-be rescuer took her by the hand, pulled her to the kitchen area. She caught a glimpse of someone tall, and broad-shouldered, in black clothing. "On the counter," he whispered.
This didn't make sense. She eyed him, and he pointed up. She looked, realized he was going to lift her into the rafters. Her gaze swung to the open window, and suddenly things started to make sense. And here she thought she was the cool thief. He'd climbed in the window, had hidden in the rafters, and had probably watched her when she'd walked upstairs to get the money.
He took her by the waist, lifted her onto the counter, followed, then hoisted her so that she could grasp onto the lower crossbeam in the rafters.
What she couldn't do was pull herself up beyond hanging there with the beam beneath her armpits, and then she heard that voice from the office. "Look for the girl upstairs. I'll look down here."
Her rescuer was unfazed. He gave a hop, grasped the lower beam, pulled himself up, swung one leg over so that he was straddling it, reached down and pulled her up the rest of the way. And then, as if he did this all the time, he stood, held on to the rafter, and reached out to help her to her feet.
She looked down, her heart racing as she heard the heavy footfalls of someone on the stairs. A moment later, the gunman was there in the loft, a flashlight beam bouncing around as he searched the walls. She kept waiting for it to aim upward, reveal them, and she glanced at her rescuer, surprised to see a gun in his hand. Was he a cop? The two men who shot Bo obviously weren't. Or if they were, they sure as hell weren't on the side of the law.
What had Bo gotten into?
The gunman's flashlight swung up and she gripped the wood tighter, certain he was going to shoot them, but then heard a soft click as he turned on the light in the main living area.
He shoved the flashlight in his pocket, and gun in one hand, he walked toward the kitchen. She glanced down, saw her reflection in the mirrored tray right beneath her where Bo's wallet sat, and she prayed the intruder wouldn't notice.
"Find anything?" the other called from below.
"You see any computers up there?"
The man stopped, looked around. "Not a one. The window's open. She musta gotten out that way."
"Let's go. We've spent enough time here."
He moved to the window, looked out, then returned the way he came, shutting off the light before heading downstairs. She didn't dare move, barely dared to breathe, until she heard the swoosh of the warehouse door as the intruders left.
Suddenly she felt sick, the adrenaline starting to flush from her system, and she barely had the strength to hang on to the rafter. She looked at the man standing in the shadows across from her, his gun still pointed toward the stairwell.
"Who are you?" she asked softly.
He held up a finger, waited several seconds before answering, as though listening for something. "Let's get down from here."
She wasn't sure if she could, her knees were starting to shake.
"Sit on the crossbeam, then turn," he instructed her. She did, and he holstered his gun, hopped down first, his agility confirming in her mind that he was used to this. She was not, and her effort would have been comical, if not for the circumstances. Once they were on the floor, he held out his hand, saying, "Griffin. Department of Justice."
"Why didn't you shoot them, Griffin, Department of Justice? And how do I know you're really who you say you are?"
"First, I'm here by myself, and I don't know if there were only two. I didn't like the odds. Second, you're going to have to trust me on this, since I'm all that stands between you and probable death."
"But they're gone."
"For now. What's your name?"
He motioned her to follow him to the stairs, and as they descended, he asked, "Do you know anything about this list of numbers those men were asking about?"
She stopped, crossed her arms. "Maybe trust is too big a first step. Do you have ID?"
He gave her a slightly annoyed look over his shoulder, dug a billfold out of his back pocket, then handed it to her as he continued down the stairs.
She opened it, could just make out the seal of the United States Department of Justice, and then his photo and name, Zachary Griffin. It seemed legit—and unfortunately devoid of money and credit cards. "Your wallet."
He took it from her, and returned it to his pocket. "About those numbers?"
"He found them on a hard drive."
"Where'd he get the computer?"
"Not a computer. A copy machine."
She pointed into the depths of the darkened warehouse, where just visible in the light spilling out of the office sat the copy machines Bo was in the process of rebuilding. "He bought them at a government auction. The one with the numbers came from the San Francisco FBI office."
He stopped suddenly, turned toward her. "You're sure?"
"Very. There were other reports on it. But he didn't look at those. I swear."
He glanced toward the machines, then started toward the exit once more. But as they approached the office, he said, "Wait here."
He walked into the open door, was gone no longer than thirty seconds, before stepping out and walking back to her. "Was he a friend of yours?"
People didn't say "was" unless the outcome was death, and she nodded. Tears clouded her vision.
He took her hand, saying, "When we walk past, try not to look in. Maybe even close your eyes. You don't want that to be the way you remember him."
"Okay." It came out more of a croak, her throat having closed up, and she was grateful when he didn't let go. As they approached the office, she caught a glimpse of black and white on the floor before she looked away. Bo's Converse tennis shoes, she realized, then squeezed her eyes shut, not opening them again until he led her outside and the cold misty air hit her face. Only then did she say, "Shouldn't we call the police?"
"The last thing you want is your name in that report. The men who killed your friend? They won't think twice about coming back for you. They have his computer, which means if your friend communicated with you through it, you're at risk anyway."
"What am I supposed to do?"
He looked toward the end of the drive, saw a vehicle slowly cruising toward them. Headlights suddenly turned on, blinded them, and the vehicle sped up. "Right now?" he said, grasping her hand tight and pulling her in the opposite direction. "We run."
© Robin Burcell
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