Sunday, October 28, 2012

Tooth and Claw: Chapter Six, part one

Prologue; Chapter Five, part two.

Monday, June 11th, 2012

                Keira Swain sits in unusually bad traffic behind the wheel of her RAV4.  Her fingers curl in to choke the steering wheel, then unclench.  She’s going to be late.
                She looks around to take stock:  she’s on Las Vegas Boulevard, staring right at the Stratosphere, some two and a half miles from the Paris, where she keeps the books.  Three and a half, after she doubles back along the divided highway at Veer Towers.  If traffic is this bad all the way along the strip, she thinks, I’ll probably be better off jogging East at Sahara and then turning South on Paradise.  The more she thinks it over, the more the plan makes sense.  The light traffic along Sahara, coming into view now, gives her hope.
                Time to be a rock star accountant, she thinks with a grin as she flips her blinker to change lanes.  Edward had called her that – “You must be the rock star of accountants,” he’d said.  Those agents last night had asked an awful lot of questions about him.  She checks her mirror, and a black sedan jumps out at her from the receding traffic.
                Probably just my imagination.
                She looks again.  Still there.  She can’t see the driver, though.
                Probably just a coincidence.
                As she approaches the light at Sahara Avenue, she sees the sedan flip its own blinker and queue up behind her some four cars back.
                We’ve probably just got the same idea.
                Nevertheless, as she stares down the traffic light, she forms a plan.
                The left turn light comes on, green.  The three cars ahead of Keira make their move.  Keira dawdles, starts forward and brakes suddenly, flashes her right blinker once, cancels it, jerks forward, flashes it again.  The car behind her honks.  The green arrow changes to yellow, she gives it one full second and peels through the intersection.  Two cars behind her make it; the sedan does not.  As Keira curves into her new path of travel, she risks a glance back at the black sedan stuck at the light – and she could just swear that she saw two pair of black sunglasses staring back at her.
                It doesn’t matter.  She lost ‘em.
                Keira flips her blinker as she approaches Paradise Road and slips into the turn lane.  Glancing in her rear-view mirror, she sees no cars behind her; she looks left, sees no oncoming traffic.  As she turns right, she glances into her mirror again and sees a black sedan pull out from a parking space and activate its right turn signal.
                You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.
                She looks ahead, tries to analyze the traffic pattern ahead from her higher vantage point, and slams her accelerator pedal.  She slaloms through the first few sparse cars ahead of her, brakes to re-assess, then weaves through a couple more knots a bit more cautiously.  She hits a light, and checks her mirror again.  She sees the black sedan merge a few cars back as the traffic condenses behind her.
                Looking at the light ahead, she wills it to turn green; mercifully, it does.  Keira has only two cars ahead of her, but the one in front of her doesn’t seem to be in all that much of a hurry for the morning rush hour.  And it’s boxing her in with the car to her – the car to her left is another black sedan.
                Son of a bitch!
                The road winds on and on, twisting this way and that.  Keira tries to dodge her pursuers, but they keep coming out of the woodwork.  She’s not quite sure where to turn, she hasn’t come by this way very often.  She knows she’s looking for Harmon Avenue, but other than that, she’s genuinely unfamiliar with this stretch of road, just one major intersection East of the building where she’s put in upwards of forty hours a week for the last decade.
                The black sedans have her boxed in, the men in black fixing her with their foreboding stares.  The sky grows dark.  She feels inexorable doom closing in around her.  Della’s gone, and soon they’ll get Virgil – Virgil!
                Did he even get to school?
                Keira thinks hard for a second – she doesn’t remember seeing Virgil off to school this morning.  He only had a few blocks to walk, and had walked himself since the fourth grade.  And if she hadn’t seen him off this morning – was he sick?  Was she going in early?  Was –
                The world tumbles away from Keira’s RAV4, and soon her vehicle itself fades into blackness.
                Keira Swain awakes in bed with a start.
                The clutch of her fingernails wakes Jerry with a gasp.
                They regard each other for a moment in the pre-dawn gloom.  Keira looks over his shoulder at their alarm clock.  Eight minutes to six.  Eight minutes of blessed slumber, forever lost to her.  She sighs.
                “Are you all right,” Jerry asks after gaining his composure.
                “Yeah, I just had a bad dream.”
                “Mmm.  C’mere.”  He wraps his arms around her, she nuzzles her head into the crook of his neck.  Eight minutes lost of blessed slumber, eight minutes gained of sleepy embrace.

                Eight minutes pass.

                The shrill alarm jolts Keira and Jerry into conditioned alertness.  They go about their morning routines.  Fasts are broken, teeth are brushed, Virgil is seen off to school.  Della is mourned, briefly; a little less than yesterday, a little more than tomorrow.

                Keira Swain sits in unusually bad traffic behind the wheel of her RAV4.  Her fingers curl in to choke the steering wheel, then unclench.  She’s going to be late.
                Déjà vu overpowers her – she’s seen this before.  She looks to her right:  the Stratosphere.  She checks her mirrors:  no black sedans in sight.  Keira breathes a sigh of relief.
                Traffic lightens.  No black sedans in sight.  She slips a few spots ahead to try and make up for lost time.  Not ten minutes early, like normal, but perhaps only five.  Maybe right on time.  No matter.
                She arrives at the Paris, heads to the accounting floors, and fires up the workstation in her office to begin her day.  Before getting her morning coffee, she fishes her headset out of her purse, plugs it into her smartphone, and looks up the directory number for the Department of Homeland Security.  She had been spooked by the suits on Friday, but they eventually put her at her ease.  After considering the matter over the weekend, she decided that following up wasn’t an unreasonable thing to do, and this morning’s dream clinched it for her.
                “Homeland Security, this is Shirley, how can I help you?”
                “Umm, hi,” Keira stammers.  She expected at least a ring, maybe a voice system, definitely not the perky young live voice she heard in her ear almost without pause.  “My name is Keira Swain.”  She gets to her feet – time to multitask.  “I was contacted Friday night by two men claiming to be from your agency.”  She heads to her coffee maker to brew herself a cup.  “I just wanted to make sure everything’s on the up-and-up.”
                “All right,” Shirley says, “Do you have the case number they gave you?”
                “I’m sorry, they didn’t give us a case number.”
                “Oh, no.”  Shirley’s voice is imperturbably cheerful.  “I can understand your frustration.  What state are you located in?”
                “Nevada.  We live in North Las Vegas,” Keira says, sliding her mug into place.
                “Thank you,” Shirley replies.  Keira punches the single-serving coffee packet into the machine and sets her cup a-brewing.  “And what did you say your name was?”
                “My name is Keira Swain, umm, née Darwall.  My husband’s name is Jerry Swain.  You might have it under his birth certificate name, Jericho Swain.”
                “Thank you for your information, Mrs. Swain.  Just one moment, please.”
                Keira’s coffeemaker bubbles away.
                “Thank you for waiting, Mrs. Swain.  I have your information pulled up.  How may I direct your call?”
                “Umm,” Keira winces at the thought that the DHS could pull up “her information” on a whim, but not track the conversation they were having at the moment.  “I just wanted to make sure that the two guys I talked to on Friday night were actually DHS agents, and not, I don’t know, anyone else.”
                “I understand your concern, Mrs. Swain.  Let me check your files here.  May I put you on hold?”
                “Sure.”  Like I have a choice, she thinks.
                The line goes silent.  Keira’s mug fills.  She moves it to her desk, logs into her workstation, and puts her feet up as she waits for her various multitaskings to catch up to her.  On a whim, she opens her bottom-left drawer and pulls out a bon-bon – her teachers had, absurdly, all used the same figure of speech while she was growing up:  “Now, I know you all think we sit at our desks all day, feet propped up, eating bon-bons.”  It gave her an ironic thrill to eat a bon-bon, feet up on her desk, during the odd moment of genuine downtime.  She chews, swallows, takes a sip of coffee.  Her workstation is now ready to rock:  she starts up her regular applications and listens to the fan wind up.
                “Mrs. Swain,” came Shirley’s timid answer.
                “Yes, I’m still here,” Keira replies.
                “Now, you said you were contacted by two persons on Friday?”
                “Yes.  They claimed to be DHS agents.  They showed me badges and IDs.”
                “I see.  And what was this regarding?”
                “Shouldn’t…” Keira trails off.  A cold tendril of horror reaches up her spine.  “Shouldn’t you know that?”
                “I’m sorry for your frustration, ma’am.  Please hold while I transfer you to my supervisor.”
                Keira holds her coffee mug firmly in her hand.  No need to become a cliché, now.
                A bit of silence, a barely-there scratch of static, and another voice comes on:
                “Um, yes, my name is Keira Swain.”
                “Mrs. Swain, yes, I see.  I’m pulling up your file now.”  The man’s voice is detached, almost bored.  “And what can we help you with today?”
                “Well,” Keira takes a breath as she defuses her temper and organizes her thoughts.  “Friday night, two men came to my house claiming to be DHS agents.  Your secretary seems to think we should have been given a case number, but we were not.  I have badge numbers, which she never asked for.  I just want to make sure that we were actually contacted by some government spooks, and not some creeps pretending to be government spooks.  Can you answer that question for me, Mister Billings?”
                “I can,” Billings replies without pause, “But I’ll need a moment to review your file.”
                “Ugh, you’re not putting me on hold again, are you?”
                “No,” Billings says with inscrutable calm.  “Why would I need to do that?”  Keira is taken aback.  “All right,” he says, before Keira has had time to recompose herself.  “You say that two agents contacted you on Friday?”
                “Yes,” Keira says.
                “And you have their badge numbers?”
                “Please give them to me.”
                Keira pulls up her call log and delivers the two four-digit badge numbers she had stored there the night before.
                “One moment, please,” Billings says, and then he proceeds to type up quite a storm.  Keira has three or four guesses as to what he might be doing, but precisely zero of them involve typing in a mere eight keystrokes.  “Mrs. Swain,” he asks at last.
                “I’m afraid I don’t have any investigation on record matching those badge numbers to your name, or your husband’s name.”
                “OK, so that means,” Keira trails off.
                “It means you’ll want to contact the local police.  Give them this case number.”  Keira takes it down on her notepad, then exchanges pleasantries with Agent Billings and immediately phones the Las Vegas Police Department non-emergency number.

                Down in the parking lot, two men in a silver Dodge Caliber exchange meaningful glances after listening to an audio stream from their laptop.
                “Well,” the white man says, “I guess the gig is up.”
                “Yep,” the black man says, after clicking his teeth.  “So.  What’s our next move?”  He unplugs the laptop from the car’s DC socket and disconnects the smartphone and another device.  “I mean, we can’t exactly use the same cover, if we expect to recruit them.”
                The white man starts up the Caliber and backs out of their parking space.  He waits until they’re in traffic before speaking.
                “I guess we’ll just have to play it straight,” he says after some thinking.  “Let the heat die down, then slip in.  Just like we did last time.”
                The black man nods.  They drive on through the streets.

Part two was moved to Chapter Seven.

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