The lobby clock counted off the fourth hour of the afternoon, its second hand incessantly ticking, pacing in endless circles. Keys clattered from the desk as the lone clerk tended to his duties. Air gurgled in the ventilation ducts above, propelled further into the lobby by a pair of ceiling fans. Opposite the revolving door leading outside, a potted plant sat on a glass table, flanked on both sides by elevators.
Hiroshi looked around apprehensively as he stepped through the door, his shoes falling on the red carpeting which covered every inch of the floor; the walls, a shade of tan. Near the desk, a camera stared long and hard at him, and the clerk merely gave a short nod in his direction.
He felt alien, out of his element. The key was firmly in his sweaty hand, the only evidence that he belonged there. Hiding his anxiety, he pressed forward towards the elevators, feeling security's unseen eyes on his back.
As he pressed the elevator button, Hiroshi found a few things to ponder, not the least of which being how a relatively inexpensive apartment building could afford such protection.
The next question was how said security could not notice one of their own tenants being carried out, unconscious, by a handful of men.
He reached out and pressed the '3' button. The doors slid shut, trapping him in the elevator's narrow confines, not quite the size of a walk-in closet. (Here goes nothing,) he thought as the elevator began to rise. (I wonder if anything will even be there, if they went through the place already?)
The digital counter on the panel blinked to two, then three. The doors parted and Hiro stepped off the elevator, into a hallway he had a hunch was like the one above and below it: long, taupe in color, sturdy-looking doors every so often on both sides of the hall, old blue carpeting running the length and framed with polished wooden trim.
(What if somebody knows I don't belong here? His neighbors, or someone else in the building? What if they're watching his apartment, too?)
He tried in vain to shake the impression of eyes watching his every step. Still clutching the key, Hiroshi headed for room 306. Slick from his sweat, he had to adjust his hold on it, tucking it back into a tight fist.
(It's so quiet here. Did someone really break in? Helba said he's been online for about two days or so...)
He arrived at the door, and raised the key to turn the lock.
Her voice was gentle, but no less of a surprise. He turned with a start, and relaxed a little when he saw the speaker: a slender young woman, perhaps in her mid-twenties, with short black hair, clad in a gray custodian's jumpsuit. She held a hard plastic case in one hand, and a ring of keys in the other.
She nodded her head in courtesy. "Were you going in?"
"Y-yeah... I'm sorry, is something wrong?" he asked, fingers tightening around the key. He tensed his muscles, ready to bolt if any one of the worst-case scenarios he imagined came true.
Smiling, she gestured to the door with the case. "No, it's all right. Mr. Stollis called four days ago about problems with his phone, he said he was getting a lot of background noise. I'm here to have a look. Do you know him?"
Hiroshi nodded, inwardly relieved that the repairwoman wasn't about to call him out. "Yeah, he's, uh, a friend of my dad's. I came over to get something from his apartment."
"Ah. Then do you know where he is? I haven't seen him around the building lately."
(She hasn't seen him... she'd have to know if he was kidnapped from inside the apartment, wouldn't she? This doesn't seem right.) "I think he's out of town," he lied, and then added truth. "I called him a few days ago, but he never called back."
A look of concern appeared on her face. "That's odd. I hope it's nothing serious." Her look became more professional. "Anyway, as long as you're here, I'll check on the phone. Is that all right?"
"Yeah, sure," he replied. Unconsciously, his grip loosened on the key. Its ridges crossed his fingertips, reminding him of its presence. He brought it out and unlocked the door, pushing inwards with a gentle shove.
The first thing visible was the wide-open bedroom door, home to the only window in the apartment, which allowed light to spill into the main room. The white walls helped to carry the light further, illuminating the kitchenette to his right, a desk and computer in one corner, and a TV/stereo combo in the other.
Hiroshi stepped further into the apartment. The lights came on as the repairwoman flipped a nearby wall switch, and he saw additional details: a neon 'Coors' light, unpowered; an anime-themed calendar, awash with chicken scratchings that were illegible from where he stood; a La-Z-Boy in front of the computer desk; a cordless phone and answering machine on a table near the desk.
Spotting the phone, she hefted her box and strode purposefully towards it. "There we are. This won't take long."
"All right." After a minute, he thought of a follow-up. "Do you mind if I look raound? Dad wanted me to pick up a book of his."
"Sure, go right ahead."
"Thanks," he said as he walked towards the bedroom. He heard the locks on her case snap open as he passed through the doorway and started his search.
The first thing he noticed was that the room was quite clean: the bed was made, and the lack of wrinkles in the dark blue sheets or pillows suggested it hadn't been touched in a while; books were neatly stacked on a low bookshelf, which lay beneath a copy of Hopper's "Nighthawks" on the wall. A single dresser sat to the left of the bed, the former of which held up a lamp, two framed pictures, and an alarm clock. Opposite the bed sat the closet, which was open and equally unused, and to the right of the closet was the bathroom door.
Hiro scanned the room carefully, looking for anything even remotely helpful. The books were a handful of nonfiction titles – some politically oriented, others biographical – mixed with adventure and mystery novels. The pictures were no more important: one was of several police officers, standing before a squad car, one of them kneeling down and petting a friendly-looking Germand Shepherd; the other seemed more recent, a picture of Dean with his parents. The closet contained nothing of interest; shirts of varying color and sleeve length, a black suit jacket and some ties, an empty duffel bag and suitcase on the floor, folded-up towels, but little else.
(Come on, there has to be something here.) He knelt down before the bookshelf and ran his fingers carefully over each and every title, hoping that Dean had hidden something between books, or left some other clue. He ran through all the movie gimmicks he could think of – false bottoms in desk drawers, little notes left in out-of-place books, unlabeled discs or tapes, leftover notes on a pad of paper, or impressions on said pad of paper that could be brought out with pencil rubbings. Nothing worked as far as the bedroom was concerned.
(I can't just start poking around while she's out there. I'll have to wait a little.)
He gingerly sat down on the bed, planting his hands behind him as he leaned back, taking another look around. Again he noted how everything was in pristine condition, how it was obvious that no one else had been in the room since Dean left, and how there were no signs of any kind of struggle, which ran contrary to what his online counterpart had told him.
(So, these guys got through security, broke in here, kidnapped Dean, and left? They would've had to get by security without being seen, while carrying Dean, and make sure the place was clean before they left.) The corner of his lips crooked back, the start of a small frown. (This doesn't seem right.)
Hiroshi stood up and joined the repairwoman back in the front room. She held the receiver in her hand, and gave a satisfied "mm-hmm!" to herself before hanging up.
"Did you find out what the problem was?" he asked.
She started to pick up her tools, which had been lying around the phone, and put them back in her case. "Yeah, it was just a faulty wire. Sounds okay now." As she finished packing up, she looked over at him. "Did you get... oh, that's right, you have a key. In that case, you can lock up after I leave, right?"
Hiro nodded with a smile. "Yeah, go ahead, I can lock up here."
"Great," she said cheerfully. "See ya!"
The raven-haired boy waited for her to leave; no sooner had the door closed behind her than he sprang for the computer. To his surprise, he noticed that the lights were still on. A quick shake of the mouse caused the monitor to spring to life, and the computer to wake from its idle state.
The desktop layout was similar to his own, icons aligned on the left side of the screen by default. He'd opted for a custom wallpaper, featuring a man – a videogame character, as evidenced by his polygonal body – in a dark trenchcoat, sunglasses and body armor, brandishing a pistol in one hand. The background a field of black, covered by faint crisscrossing lines of gray. On the bottom were the words "Deus Ex", and to the side of the character, "Question Everything".
Hiro licked the back of his lips as he started to search around the desk, and instantly found a plethora of potential clues: sheets of paper were stacked in a loose pile to the left of the keyboard, some of it the output of the printer that sat next to the monitor; the pile itself was held down by a battered tape recorder, which looked nonetheless functional.
As he took his hand off the mouse, the side of his palm brushed against the edge of a small card, which he picked up for a closer look.
'Reminder: Call Masamoto -119'
(That's the emergency number. Is Dean working with the police?) He shrugged the thought aside for a moment, putting down the card and taking the recorder with his left hand. He noted that a good portion of the tape had been used, and hit the 'rewind' button as his other hand settled back on the mouse.
Hiroshi took another look at the screen, reclining into the comfy chair. He recognized the icons for 'The World', Altimit's proprietary mail client, system and computer folders, and shortcuts for various offline games. Curious, he opened the computer folder and began exploring.
It wasn't long before he hit a block. The C: drive was rife with folders, largely nondescript ones at that; none that seemed to jump right out at him and say "over here." He gave the documents folder a double-click, half-wondering if it would really be that simple.
The half in doubt disappeared when he spotted a folder marked 'Casework'. Another double-click, and Hiro was presented with over two dozen documents, some marked with dates, others with people's names, still others with titles he couldn't immediately place. Just then the tape stopped rewinding, clicking in his hand. His index finger found and pressed the 'play' button, and he was greeted with a familiar male voice through its tiny speaker.
"February 2nd, 2:15 AM," said Dean. "Someone was tailing me on the way back from the mall. Silver Range Rover, didn't get the license. I took a roundabout way home just to make sure, and he followed me every step of the way. He broke off about three blocks from the apartment... I don't know, maybe it was a coincidence, but I went pretty far out of the way."
Hiro set the recorder down on the desk, standing it on the flat edge so he could hear. Both hands free, he set to opening up the documents, one by one. The very first one popped up before him, but before any text appeared a small window prompted him to input a password. (Damn. I guess it wouldn't make much sense to let just anyone see this stuff... maybe he wrote it down somewhere, or one of the other documents is unlocked.)
"Ryo mailed me back, said his kid An might be able to fill me in on what they're after. If he's right, then maybe I can find out why they want Morganna so badly, and – from what Hiro's told me – how they intend to get her since she's gone. There's a very real possibility that fax was left for me to find. I'm not sure what to think now. I'll have to see what she says."
Hiroshi recalled the conversation in question: a brief interlude between Kite and Stolls, following the destruction of the Wave, well over a month ago. He tried more documents, each of them asking for a password, much to his chagrin.
(Come on, Dean... help me out here.) Exhausting the text files, Hiro turned to the mail client, opening it up and glancing through the digital filing cabinet.
"February 3rd, midnight." Dean's voice sounded lighter than usual, almost excited. "I think I caught a break. Finally managed to tail Felix back to where these guys are organizing. It's somewhere inside the Shikima office complex, probably one of the vacant floors. I couldn't get inside the building, but I can tell they're well funded. Ten to one Rosenberg's been paying out of his own pocket, or siphoning money from Asara. Anyway, I spotted the Range Rover in the lot, a couple guys were unloading the back. I nicked a disc from the passenger seat when they weren't looking. Maybe this'll tell me more about what they hope to gain from Morganna."
Hiro scanned the saved mail, and was quick to come upon the one Max had mentioned.
Subj: Re: Your Boss
I understand. I'll hang onto your key just in case. I'll do what I can, but we're all gonna be busy with that conference coming up in a couple weeks. This is dangerous stuff we're talking about, here. Be careful.
Original message follows:
I'm sorry it took so long to write you, but something's happening. I'm not sure what, but there's this guy I know – Felix Croker – who's been meeting with some very unsavory characters, some of whom have ties to Asara Corporation. At least one of them has met with Rosenberg personally. Color me jumpy, but I think he might be planning another heist. God only knows of what.
Keep your eyes open, and let me know if you see anything suspicious. I might need your help later on. You still have my key, right?
There may be a situation in which this address will become compromised; some of the felons are hackers. Towards that end, with the key I'll be giving you a copy of my home address, and the code words for each email. If for some reason I can't reach you, don't answer any mail that doesn't have them.
Through the text, Hiroshi could still hear Dean talking from the tape recorder. "February 4th, 7:38 PM. I finally got a good luck at what's on the disk." His voice was shaky, unsettled. "Most of it's just programming junk that I couldn't figure out, but... but when I looked at the source, some of the strings..." He sighed, then started over. "I ran the program on the disc, and it booted up... s-some kind of offline version of 'The World'. There were a couple specific field addresses that had been, uh, altered. And... and..."
Another sigh, this one shorter and tighter. "Oh, god. These figures... the characters. They're me. How do I... how do I fit into this?"
Hiroshi held his breath, staring fixedly at the tape recorder. A few of the pieces began to slide together, and were promptly torn asunder when the detective spoke again.
"I was wrong. Morganna... me... it's not about either of us." He gulped, hard and audibly. "It's all about Aura. It's only been about her. They don't know where I am, but they know I'm onto them. That's how I fit in. Damn it all... that's it. They just wanted a goddamned decoy."
There was a quiet double-click through the recorder, sounding an awful lot like a handgun bolt being pulled back. "I've got to stop them."