Life in the Big City 

(Volume 1 of the Tales of Ann & Robert)

 

Part 1

"The big cat house at Central Park zoo, two o'clock."

Robert McCall had seen his share of devious plans in his day, but this one was way up there. He would have assumed his prospective client had seen too many spy movies except for that unmistakable note of fear in her voice. She had tried to disguise it, as if being afraid was somehow shameful. But Robert had agreed to meet her, and so he stood in front of a bored Bengal tiger, yesterday's New York Times under his arm, being jostled by shrieking children. He checked his watch; she was four minutes late.

To his left, a pair of small children finally gave up trying to get a reaction out of the tiger by shouting at it and ran off. A woman moved in to take their place. "Wretched little creatures," she murmured, and Robert glanced at her. But she was looking at the tiger. "Put them on the other side of those bars, then we'd see if they'd laugh at you, huh, Rajah." The tiger yawned, and the woman laughed.

Years of practice at the art helped Robert recognize her voice, but he let her make the first move. He saw her glance at the paper under his arm, then up at his face. "Mr. McCall?" she asked cautiously.

"Yes, I am." He saw her relax as she recognized his voice in turn. "And you are Ann Marshall."

"Yes." She turned back to look at the tiger.

Robert studied her out of the corner of his eye. A small woman in her late twenties or early thirties, with red wavy hair. Her unringed hands gripped the railing in front of her so tightly the knuckles were white. Her clothes didn't look expensive, but he noticed her watch was a genuine Tiffany. "You said you were being followed," he said, as much to study her reactions as to get information.

"Yes, I am," she said, glancing at him, then away.

"By whom?"

"Two people, at least. They take it in shifts. One watches me at work and the other follows me the rest of the time. They're doing double duty for the weekend."

"Are they here?"

"Yes, they are." She reached into her purse and pulled out a small mirror. Robert thought she was primping nervously until he saw her checking two different directions over her shoulders. "The woman is by the concessions stand right behind me. The man is at about four o'clock off your right shoulder."

Robert let the newspaper slip to the ground and stooped to pick it up. He glanced toward the concession stand. A swarm of children with attendant adults trying to herd them churned around, but he got a quick glimpse of one woman in the center of the group, quietly eating a snow cone and gazing toward the tiger cage. Robert straightened and turned to face the cat. "The blonde in the blue shirt?"

"That's her."

"How do you know she's following you?"

"She started working in my department Tuesday. Since then, everywhere I go she goes. I didn't notice the first day, but Wednesday I did. I had to go all over the building, and she'd be there. She didn't follow me onto the subway, but I was paranoid by then and I studied everybody. That's when I noticed the man sitting a couple of seats over. I changed cars to check, and he followed me. He got out at my stop, followed me home, and got into a car parked across the street from my house. He was there all night. I checked." She took a deep breath. "It's been the same every night, no matter if I take the bus, ride the subway, or take my car. He always follows me." She glanced at the quiet man beside her. "You do believe me, don't you?"

"Oh, yes, I believe you." Robert managed a look at the man in question. He leaned against a light pole, not making any real effort to disguise the fact he was watching the cat house--or Ann Marshall. "They're not trying to hide themselves, are they," he commented. Which meant, to his mind, that they didn't care if they were spotted by their target.

"No," Ann said. "They know I know they're there, and they don't care. Paula Creer back there started making little remarks yesterday. 'Oh, so we meet again,' and all that. If this keeps up I'm going to slug her."

Robert glanced at her and saw she was perfectly serious. "Have you called the police?"

"Sort of. I mentioned it casually to a cop I know that I thought a man was following me. He told me to file a report if I thought it was serious. I didn't push the point, but that night I got a strange phone call. No overt threats and I don't know who it was, but I got the idea that I shouldn't talk to cops any more." She sneaked a look over her shoulder. "They're coming closer. They always do when I start talking to someone."

Robert looked at his watch. "In twenty minutes be in front of the monkey house. Find a place where you can get your back to a wall."

Ann nodded. "Make them watch me from the front, where I can see them. See you then." She casually walked along the row of cages, paused to greet a lion, then strolled off.

Robert forced himself not to stare after her. For a woman as obviously frightened as she, Ann Marshall had a quick grasp of the essentials, and she had a good sense of sneakiness. Unfortunately, this didn't look like a simple case of shadowing. It smacked of careful organization. He made a note to ask his new client what she did for a living.

 

 

Ann bought a snowcone at a concession stand and checked the clock behind the counter. Ten more minutes. Time to find a perch. She slurped the ice casually as she walked, hoping she didn't show the nerves that were wracking her.

Only her certainty that the situation could only get worse had made her call that number in the newspaper. She was terrified of the possible repercussions, but what drove her most was her anger at the unfairness of it all. She hadn't even done anything, and they'd sicced watchdogs on her.

But the voice on the other end of the line had been reassuring, and he seemed competent enough. Oh, the joy of being believed. Now if only Robert McCall could do something. She still had so much to tell him that couldn't be said in front of the shadows.

A bench against a wall emptied just as she reached it, and she quickly claimed one end. Now, where were--ah, there they were. The Paula creature was pretending to read a direction board, and Smiley, as Ann called him to herself, was surrounded by kids by the seal pool. How pleasant to be the one doing the watching.

But are we just supposed to sit here staring at each other? What's McCall up to? God, I hate not knowing what's going on.

From her left came one of the zoo's garbage trucks, moving slowly through the crowds. It stopped by one of the concession stands, and the driver got out to grab a bag of garbage by the back door. Ann glanced at the truck as it rolled slowly her way, then glanced again. Good God, Robert McCall was driving.

The truck stopped ten feet away, by another set of garbage cans. Robert got out, went around the back of the truck, and made a show of checking the contents. He looked towards Ann. She tilted her head to drink the last of her snowcone and watched him out of the corner of her eye. He signaled that the truck would be going by her and that she should jump in as it did. She swallowed hard and nodded.

"There's never theme music when you need it," Ann muttered to herself as she forced herself to be casual.

As the truck began moving slowly forward, the swarm of children by the seal pool headed for the monkey house, shrieking at the top of their lungs. They milled around the doors, oblivious to the large truck bearing down on them. A couple even began clambering over Ann's bench and making faces at her. As two adults screamed the children into a semblance of order, the garbage truck slowed to almost a complete halt, right in front of Ann. The door to the cab was closed, but there was a wide step and a grab bar on the frame. Ann tried not to think as she rose, jumped onto the step, and grabbed the handle to hold on.

"Stay as low as you can," Robert told her without looking at her. "Hold on, we're moving."

It went through Ann's mind that Paula and Smiley were going to be very pissed, and she almost said she'd changed her mind and that she'd just be a good girl. But she was tired of being scared, and besides, they were already past Paula's position.

"The woman knows you're gone," Robert reported. "I'm going to turn the corner at the end of the monkey house. Climb in there."

"Sure." Ann rehearsed the moves in her head, the way Sensei demanded. When the truck began the turn, she quickly opened the door and slid inside, slouching in the seat below the windows.

"Gracefully done," Robert said.

"Thank you. Why a garbage truck?"

"It was the first service vehicle that presented itself. Fifty dollars persuaded the driver to take an unscheduled break."

"Add it to my bill. Now what?"

Robert consulted the rearview mirrors. "Excellent. They must have decided to check the building first. I think we've broken the tail. How did you get here?"

"By bus. I wanted witnesses."

"Good. Then they can't set a watch on your car." He downshifted and turned the truck towards the parking lot.

Ann started shaking in reaction. She was finally free of the constant watching, but her problem wasn't solved, not in the least.

Robert glanced over at her. "What's wrong?"

"I have to go home eventually," she whispered.

"True, but now you have backup. First, though, I need to find out more of what's going on." He looked at her again. "And you look like you could use a drink."

"Oh, god, yes."

He pulled the truck to a stop next to the parking lot, and they abandoned ship. Robert checked the area quickly, then led the way into the horde of cars. Ann was grateful for the fabled New York indifference that kept anyone from noticing.

"Here," Robert said, unlocking the passenger side of a big black Jaguar and opening the door for her.

She slid inside quickly and buckled herself in. Robert made one more visual scan for pursuit, then got in behind the wheel. "Do you know what they drive?"

"The Paula creature drives a blue Honda Civic with a dented left rear fender and a Reagan bumper sticker. Smiley drives a Buick, one of the big ones from the '70s, cherried out, metallic forest green. Want the license numbers?" She saw he was staring at her. "What is it?"

"What kind of music do they listen to?" he asked, bemused.

"She's got country western tapes, he's classic rock. Why?"

Robert remembered to start the engine. "What did you do, take notes?" he asked as he pulled out.

"Well, yes. What's so amusing?"

"Would that all of my clients were so well organized." As they left the parking lot, he checked the mirrors for pursuit. "It looks like we've done it. Now for someplace we can talk." He looked over at his passenger. "You have a little time to relax in."

"Would that I could." Ann leaned her head back against the seat. "The stress is the only thing that's keeping me from having screaming hysterics."

Robert privately doubted that this self-possessed, sharp-witted young lady ever had screaming hysterics. But everyone dealt with their terror in their own ways. He glanced at Ann out of the corner of his eye. She stared at the top of the windshield, fingers pressed against her lips to still their trembling. He saw tears in her eyes, but didn't comment.

By the time Robert pulled to a stop in front of O'Phelan's, Ann had herself somewhat under control. As Robert held the car door for her, she glanced around at the designer couples and their status-display children.

"Yuppies," she muttered.

Robert tried to hide his chuckle. "And what are you if not a young urban professional?"

"Well, I may be young and urban and professional, but, by God, I've got taste."

Robert did laugh and opened the door to the bar. Inside, Jeremy gave the bartop a last polish. "Oh, hello, Mr. McCall."

"Good afternoon, Jeremy. Slow day?"

"Always is, Sunday afternoon in the summer. It'll pick up this evening. Your usual table?"

"Certainly." He conducted Ann to a secluded side table and held the chair for her.

"Thank you." She glanced around. "Nice place."

"I like it." Jeremy came over to take their order. "Just brandy for me, Jeremy. Miss Marshall, what would you like?"

"Peace of mind, an end to world hunger, and a glass of red wine." Ann put a hand to her head. "I'm sorry, I'm getting strange."

"I think we can swing the red wine," Jeremy grinned, and left to fill their orders.

Ann rubbed her temples. "Do you ever wish you could just have a stroke and get it over with instead of letting your brain go to jelly a little at a time?"

"Yes, I do," Robert said in complete understanding. "But nature is never so accommodating."

"No, she isn't."

Robert paused while Jeremy delivered their drinks and Ann took a bracing swallow. "Now, then, tell me everything you think is relevant to what is going on."

Ann sighed and studied the candle in the middle of the table. "I work for a company called Prodigal Systems. I'm a sysad in IS, and--"

"Excuse me, a what in where?"

"Oh, a system administrator in Information Services. It's my job to make sure we've got room for everything and there's not a lot of junk cluttering up the net. I mean, last month I found where someone had cobbled together a LAN out of beta test protocols to run a soap opera daily update."

Robert shook his head slowly. "You've lost me."

"I work with computers."

"Oh. Well, all I know of computers is I stick my card in them and get money back with slightly better odds than Atlantic City."

"That's not good."

"I don't think so. But go on."

"OK. Part of my job is to make a regular check of all the drives and directories in the complex. What with everything else I have to do, it can take me six months to check the whole tree--technical term, don't worry about it. Anyway, a week ago Friday I'm going through a couple of drives that belong to the executive suite, and I run into a real big section that's got a security password on it. Now, there's nothing wrong with having a password on a section of the system, everyone has personal files and such that needs restricted access, but it's all got to be registered with me. This section wasn't registered, and besides, it was awfully big. Now, standard procedure is that I get hold of the department head for the section where the problem is, and if I don't get a good answer in one working day, I crack the password and check out what's in there."

Robert held up a hand. "Doesn't it take a while to crack a password?"

"Oh, no, most people have very simple passwords, and others can be cracked with the right randomization software or by knowing the computer code."

Realization dawned on Robert's face. "You're a hacker." He was surprised to see slight hostility in Ann's face.

"Reformed," she said curtly. "Besides, who best to find sneaks than one who's been there?"

"Indeed," he agreed, knowing the concept very well. "But go on."

She got her thoughts back in order. "So I sent a message to the director of ops over in the president's office, making sure to mention that I'd crack the thing if they didn't get back to me, then I got on with my work. I wasn't expecting any problem, there were lots of ways they could deal with it. The weekend comes and I forget about it.

"Monday comes, and five minutes after I get into my office, the vice president of special projects comes in. Now, he's a strange guy to begin with, because I don't think he knows a blessed thing about computers. Then again, a lot of the management types don't. He tells me the secured section is for a product they're developing and that they'd prefer I'd leave it alone. I say sure, but they should have told me they were putting it in and did they really need almost three gig--gigabytes, that much memory. He said yes, so I left it at that. But he tried to tell me that they needed all that room because the engineering section was using some of it, and I know that it would take a good bit of reconfiguration to link engineering into the executive network."

"He was lying?" Robert asked, trying to follow the technicalese. When had the world gotten so complicated?

"Well, at the very least he was feeding me a line of BS. It made me wonder, but if they had a good use for all that space, they could have it. I did tell him if things started getting tight in that network they might have to give up some space. He didn't like that and told me not to worry about it. Well, management and IS have never been bosom buddies. They think we're nerds, and we think they're ignoramuses who probably can't even work their microwaves. So, bottom line, I let him keep the space and figured that was that. But the Paula creature showed up the next day."

"What made you link the two?"

"I saw her talking with Brewster, the v.p. for special projects, on Thursday in her cubicle. He doesn't normally come over to our side, so it was odd to see him around. Anyway, I was paranoid by that time and seeing bogeymen everywhere."

"What does she do there?"

Ann finished the wine, nursing its warmth against the chill in her soul. "Nothing that I can tell. She's supposed to be a temp working on a special project, but while she's been watching me, I've been watching her. I can see her computer from my desk, and she writes letters and plays computer games--when she's not following me. I committed a small indiscretion and went looking for her in the personnel files. She's not there."

"Interesting," Robert commented. "The obvious conclusion being that she was brought in to keep an eye on you."

"And the other obvious conclusion is there's something in that system they don't want me to see. What's really galling is that they set a watchdog on me and I hadn't even looked at the damned stuff."

"Yet," Robert added.

Ann met his eyes, and an unwilling smile escaped. "I went in yesterday, after Brewster went home."

"What's in there?" He liked the way this woman thought.

"I'm not sure. I went through the code and just looked at the configuration. I didn't want to set off any booby traps. Whoever set this up has only the most basic idea of how the system works. There's a lot of files and a lot of activity, but the weirdest thing is they've got a modem--" she glanced at Robert, and he nodded to show he understood "-- on an unregistered line geared for international calls. There's no link to engineering, and anyway, it's mostly text files with pictures, not program code." She fidgeted with her empty glass. "So that's it. What do you make of it?"

Robert finished the last of his brandy, then signaled Jeremy. "Would the kitchen be willing to open early to make me a pot of tea?"

"For you, probably," Jeremy grinned.

"You must come here a lot," Ann said as Jeremy left.

"It seems so. Anyway, let's see if I understand this. They think you've seen something you shouldn't, and, as of yesterday, they're half right. If the contents of that section were something company-related, they could deal with this through channels, unless, of course, they suspect corporate espionage."

"Those procedures haven't been activated."

"You checked that too?" he asked with a raised eyebrow.

"Look, I called you because I can't deal with this, and I hate saying that," she snapped. "Yes, I looked in places I'm not supposed to because I want to know what the hell is going on. I'm tired of being afraid. If I thought it would work, I'd corner Paula and say I don't know anything and I promise never to look in that entire network ever again. I just want it to stop."

Robert put a hand on hers. "Miss Marshall, I understand. What they're doing to you is part surveillance and part psychological warfare. They're trying to impress you with their omniscience. Well, it's been my experience that omniscience is an illusion."

Ann took a shaky breath. "I hope so. I still have to go home, and I expect several mysterious phone calls."

"Can you record them?"

"I think so. God, if it weren't for my cats I wouldn't even go home, just leave town for a week or so." She glanced at Robert ruefully. "I suppose you think worrying about my cats at a time like this is silly."

"Not in the least," he smiled. "Though if you want to take your cats with you out of town, it is an option."

Ann thought about it as the tea arrived. They were silent over the first cup. Robert studied his new client. She didn't seem prone to hysterical exaggerations, and he had seen the watchers. He wondered if her company's security people should deal with this, but if mere suspicion of unauthorized knowledge had caused a well-organized shadowing campaign, Robert didn't like to think what could happen if Ann reported it.

"You say Smiley is the only one who watches your house. Have there been any attempted break-ins?"

Ann shook her head wearily. "Not yet. But I wouldn't put it past them."

"How secure are you there?"

"As secure as a five-figure security system with twenty-four-hour monitoring can make me."

"Good. For a change, I think, the watchers will be watched. Where do you live?"

"437 West 23rd."

"Chelsea. A nice section. What apartment?"

"Um, well, none. The whole building's mine."

Robert paused in taking notes. "Computers pay very well."

"Not that well, at least not for me. The house was a guilt present from my grandmothers. But let's just say you don't have to worry about if I can pay your bill."

"I'll remember that. Phone number?"

"555-9411." Ann watched him take notes for a moment. "What do I do now?" she asked, displeased by the plaintive note in her voice.

"First of all, you go home, lock yourself and your cats inside, and be careful whom you open the door to. I'd drive you home myself, but I don't want them connecting us yet. If you'll give me their license numbers, I'll see what I can find out about Paula and Smiley. I'm also going to find out if your phone is tapped. I'll call you later tonight." He tapped his pen absently on the table as he studied her.

"What is it?" Ann asked, not liking the look in his eye.

"I don't like sending you home alone. They must be watching the place, waiting for you. Be very careful. And forgive me if I'm frightening you."

She shrugged. "It takes more than the truth to frighten me. Oddly enough, I feel better knowing something's being done about this. Where can I call a cab from?"

"Jeremy can do that." Robert signaled to Jeremy and relayed the request. "Do you have those license numbers?"

"Oh, yeah." She dug in her purse for her notebook, flipped through it and pulled out a page. "There, everything I could scrounge on them. I'd have checked DMV myself, but I try to ration myself to two felonies a week."

Robert blinked. "You know how to get into the DMV computers?"

"Oh, sure. In my evil youth I used to do it all the time. I watched a couple of city councilmen get rid of their kids' speeding tickets." She shook her head reminiscently. "Many is the Saturday night I spent watching scandals unfold." She blinked and came to herself. "I don't suppose I should be telling this stuff to you."

"Don't worry, client confidentiality forbids me telling anyone else."

"Thank heaven. Statutes of limitations are damnably long these days."

Robert would have chuckled but for the note of sincere relief in her voice. Was his new client wanted for something unpleasant? She'd mentioned her evil youth.

His thoughts were interrupted by the entrance of a man into the bar. "Somebody call a cab?"

Ann felt a start of terror go through her. To go home, by herself, vulnerable. She had begun to feel safe.

"It's all right," Robert said softly. "I won't be far."

The fiercely independent part of her soul wasn't pleased at how much comfort she took from that reassurance. But independence wasn't dealing with this problem.

"Well, then," she said with a shaky breath, "I guess I'll talk to you later." She stood and went to the cabby.

Robert watched her go, turning her problem over in his mind. "Jeremy," he called, "would you be so kind as to bring me the phone?"

"Sure, Mr. McCall.

 

 

Mickey tapped on the passenger window of the Jaguar where it sat across from Ann Marshall's house in Chelsea. The click of the doorlock signaled his welcome.

"Good evening, Mickey," Robert said, gazing down the row of parked cars ahead of him to one which held the man who had watched Ms. Marshall at the zoo. On the dashboard was a small pile of manila folders.

"Evening, McCall. I brought coffee."

"Is it real coffee or something that's been sitting on a burner for two hours in a 7-11?"

"Uh..."

"I'd be content with Starbuck's."

"Starbuck's is closed."

Robert accepted the cup reluctantly. "At least it's caffeine. Did you get the DMV information on the license plates?"

"Eventually. It being Sunday made it a little more difficult."

"I'll be impressed with your ingenuity later. What do you have?"

Mickey handed over his file and gazed out the windshield at the brownstone across the street. "So she's rich, young, and single. What's wrong with her?"

"I beg your pardon?" Robert asked, pausing in reading.

"This Ann Marshall of yours. Somebody should have nabbed her a long time ago. I was only wondering what was wrong that she was still wandering around loose."

"Maybe she's picky."

"She certainly can afford a lot of real estate. And your client has it all to herself and two cats. That's a hell of a lot of room for one person." The thought crossed his mind that the lady might be lonely. "What's our target doing?"

"Just sitting there, doing what we're doing. This would be a good time to call her."

Mickey watched the house as Robert dialed. The middle two floors of the narrow, four-story brownstone were lit up. Flower boxes hung in front of the stained-glass second-floor windows. The house didn't show the obsessive neatness of its fashionable neighbors; it looked like it could relax if it wanted to.

Robert started getting concerned on the third ring. He was wondering how to bypass the security system when the phone was picked up on the other end.

"Hello?" Ann said uncertainly.

"Robert McCall, Miss Marshall."

"Oh, thank god."

"I take it they've called you."

"Three times. At least, I assume it's them. All I hear is breathing. I don't know if that's good or not."

"It sounds to me as if they want you to know they're keeping an eye on you without being overt. When was the last call?"

"Half an hour ago."

"Then it's not been Smiley making the calls. He's just sitting in his car watching your house."

"You're outside right now?"

"Yes, we are. Two cars behind Smiley."

The lights on the third floor went out. "Who's we?"

"A colleague and myself. Did you just turn off some lights?"

"Yes. I learned in college that it's much easier to spy on your neighbors if you do it from a dark room. Yes, there you are. Don't you find that driving a distinctive car is a liability? And there's the little bastard. The cops around here are quite cooperative. Would it do any good, you think, if I reported a loiterer?"

"I doubt it. Has anyone come to the door?"

"Only the neighbor kid hustling for a school fund drive. Did you find out anything?"

"Yes, and some of it good. First, no one has tapped your phone."

"Oh, good. Do I want to know how you're so sure?"

"Probably not." Robert glanced through the files. "Secondly, Smiley's name is Harvey Giberto, and he's a rather low-class crook who's probably been hired by the hour."

"They do that?"

"I wouldn't be at all surprised. Next, Paula Creer. Apparently, that's her real name, but I couldn't find out anything significant about her. Also, did you know your company is in financial trouble?"

"It is? Time to move my pension funds."

"My source says your company president is fairly new. Tell me about him."

"Adam Dushenko, pretty boy All-American success story son of hard-working immigrants made good."

"You don't like him."

"However did you guess?"

"Why not?"

"He's all flash and paper profit. He brags about how little he knows about computers. He came over to IS and asked us, 'Do you people make money for us or do you just think you do?' He's one of those annoying rah-rah, eternal pep rally types who think product is irrelevant to proper marketing."

"All form, no function."

"Precisely. Scratch the surface and the vacuum underneath will pour out. But since when are we in trouble? The last annual report was solid."

"I don't have specifics, but my source says there have been suspicious transfers of money into corporate accounts controlled solely by Dushenko. When was that section of the computer put in?"

"About eight months ago."

"Just after those accounts started appearing. What kind of product do you make?"

"Database software, mostly, and management tools. We're not huge, but we've got a decent reputation."

"But it's not a product fraught with the need for secrecy."

"Beyond normal corporate secrets, no."

"I'm tempted to take this to the police, what with Giberto's involvement. Upstanding businessmen don't hire his sort."

"They told me not to go to the cops." Faint fear shook her voice.

"I know. That's the only reason I haven't done it. I think their threats are serious."

A pause at the other end of the line. "I know they're serious. The cops were here when I got home. Someone tried to get in and set off the alarm."

"Damn," he muttered. "They're upping the stakes. Do you have anyone you can stay with?"

"I'd rather not drag my family into this. My mother left a message on my machine this afternoon saying someone from work called to see where I was." She hesitated. "If they go after my family ..."

"They won't."

"How do you know?" she demanded.

"I won't let them." Robert saw Mickey glance up at him from the files.

"How?" She had a note of desperation in her voice. Her resolve was slipping. "I have a big family."

"I may not be able to keep an eye on your family, but I can keep an eye on your enemies." There was silence on the other end. "Miss Marshall?"

"I'm so scared," she whispered, shame warring with the tears in her voice.

Robert's anger stirred at the sound of barely restrained weeping. Any woman crying roused his protective instincts, but this gutsy young woman had been so proud of her courage...

"I will do everything I can, Miss Marshall," he finally said. "You're not alone in this."

"I know." Her voice was firmer. "I think that's the most reassuring thing of all, knowing there's someone on my side." She took several deep, calming breaths. "What about tomorrow? Should I go into work?"

"To tell you the truth, Miss Marshall, I'm torn. I don't like putting you that close to them, but their plans are contingent on your not changing your behavior. If you begin acting differently, they might want to know why. You could always claim you got food poisoning from a zoo hot dog, though."

She hesitated. "I'll go in. I can think of better ways to spend the day than hiding in here and wondering who's outside watching the house."

Robert nodded to himself in approval. "As you will."

"Would a confrontation do any good?"

"Absolutely not. Cornered rats bite. If all they're doing is manipulating the stock price or embezzling the accounts, there's no reason for you to get in their way. Call me immediately, though, if something happens. How will you get to work tomorrow?"

"Bus, I think. I want witnesses, but I don't have the fortitude to face the subway just now."

"Very good. If nothing happens tomorrow, call me when you get home. I'll go see what I can find out about what's going on. Mr. Giberto just may be their weak link. Do you want us to stay out here tonight?"

Ann hesitated, and Robert expected her to say yes. "I'll be all right. I'm safe in here. Go ahead and go."

Robert's respect for her courage went up another notch. "All right. Call me if anything happens to change your mind."

"I will. Then I guess that's it for now."

"Sleep as well as you can."

"I'll try. Good night."

"Good night."

Robert hung up his phone and looked out at the brownstone, wondering if Ann stood at one of those darkened windows. He also wondered if that fragility he heard in her voice was just transient nerves or the upwelling of a deeper flaw. Which way would she go if truly hard pressed?

"I hope I'm not making a mistake leaving her here," he said thoughtfully.

"You like her," Mickey commented, a knowing smirk on his face.

Robert looked at him in surprise. "There's nothing not to like. Besides, I rarely help people I dislike."

"No, you like her."

"Mickey," he sighed, "you have all the potential to be an admirable grown up if you'd just do it."

 

 

The morning had gone so smoothly that Ann was beginning to wonder if she'd imagined everything. Paula Creer was nowhere to be seen. Not a peep had come from the executive offices. It was either very good or very bad.

At 2 in the afternoon, her phone rang. "Ann Marshall, may I help you?"

"Ann, this is Adam Dushenko. How are you this afternoon?"

"Uh, fine, Mr. Dushenko."

"Adam, please. Ann, I have some free time this afternoon, and I was wondering if you could come up and discuss some things with me."

"Right now?"

"If that's not a problem."

Ann stared at the pile of routine computer space requests on her desk and wished something world-shattering was there. "No, it's not a problem. How about twenty minutes, so I can wrap up a couple of things?"

"I'd really appreciate it if you could make it sooner."

She glanced out her office door and saw Paula Creer filing her nails and smiling back. "All right, Adam. I'll be right up."

"See you soon."

Ann glared at Paula, who had the temerity to wave. So they were being blatant, were they? Ann stood and drank the rest of her tea slowly, wondering if she could duck into somebody's office and call Robert McCall. Marty in Engineering would let her, but he'd want a date, and besides, he was in the wrong direction.

She reminded herself that they couldn't just make her disappear from work, but that didn't help much.

Paula casually got up from her chair as Ann left her office and fell in behind. Ann waited till they were in a side hallway before she stopped short and turned around. Paula bumped into her, and Ann solicitously grabbed her to keep her from falling.

"Oh, I'm so sorry," she said sweetly, digging her thumbs into the nerve bundles in the elbows. "I didn't see you back there." She let Paula go and turned to continue on her way, keeping an ear tuned back in case of revenge. Paula kept her distance, even if she did sulk.

The executive suite was in its usual state of pandering to Dushenko's ego, with everyone trying to be casual and cutthroat at the same time, in imitation of the great man. Dushenko himself was wandering around, his thousand-dollar-suit jacket hanging open, assistants trailing and absorbing his instant business wisdom. He spotted Ann and broke off his five-way conversation.

"Find me later, folks, I've got a meeting. Ann, good to see you. Come on in my office." He draped an arm around her shoulders and led her into his spacious office.

Before Dushenko closed the door Ann noticed that Paula plopped into a chair near the secretary. She was rubbing her elbows.

"Have a seat," Dushenko said, going behind his desk. He pushed an intercom button. "Sam? Come on over, she's here."

Ann sat down cautiously in the seat nearest the door. Maybe it was nothing. Maybe.

A quick knock on the door, then it opened and Brewster, the special v-p for ops, came in.

"Sam, sit down anywhere," Dushenko said.

"Thanks, I'll stand." Brewster took up position by the door. Ann glanced at him and tried not to fidget.

Dushenko clasped his hands on his desk and smiled winningly. "Sam tells me you were showing an interest in our special project."

"Not really," Ann said calmly. "I just asked if that hunk of memory was being used for a valid purpose. Mr. Brewster said it was, so that's good enough for me. What you do with that space is your business."

"It's good to know I have conscientious employees. And I believe in rewarding good work." His smile broadened.

"Excuse me?"

"Not everyone would care enough about their responsibilities to go into my personal drives and see what's there."

"It's my job," she said cautiously. "I'm supposed to look at everybody's directories. Besides, I didn't go into those sections, you've got them locked off."

"But you know how to get past that," Brewster said softly.

"I have to know. It's my job," she repeated, hoping the mantra would work.

"She's right, Sam," Dushenko said. "It is her job to audit the system, and not even the president of the company should be sacrosanct."

Ann saw more bite in his smile than she liked. "If you'd like me to leave the executive suite stuff alone--"

"No, no, that's all right. We need someone to make sure we don't get swamped in old game prototypes. But we were discussing your reward."

Mr. Dushenko--Adam, I don't need a reward for doing my job."

"On the contrary. I like to see people who aren't intimidated by authority. It just remains to see what kind of reward I should give you."

Ann tried to smile. "Oh, there's no hurry." She glanced at her watch. "Look, I've got a lot of work to do. I'm willing to leave the nature of my reward in your hands." She smiled brightly at Dushenko and stood up.

But Brewster was in no hurry to leave his place in front of the door. "By the way, what do you think of the new project?" he asked.

"What do I think of it?" Ann repeated. "I haven't seen it. What's there to think?" Brewster stared at her, and she knew he didn't believe her.

"Sam, we can let her in on that later," Dushenko said genially. "She has work to do and so do we."

"You're right, Adam." Brewster stood aside to let Ann out. "See you later, Ann."

She smiled at him, not trusting herself to speak, and opened the door. Paula Creer put down her magazine and stood up. She glared at Ann and followed, but at a respectful distance.

Ann closed her office door behind her, sat down at her desk, and shook. They weren't going to leave her alone. Somehow, whatever was in that system was worth threatening over.

She reached for the phone, then stopped. In an intricate phone system, it wouldn't be hard to monitor her line. And calling someone immediately would look suspicious.

Breathing slowly and trying to think calm thoughts, Ann sorted the space allotment requests and spent the next half hour doing her job.

At three o'clock, she wandered out into the mid-afternoon mingle. She attached herself to a group headed for the company cafeteria. Paula trailed behind.

Ann made sure Paula was close as they waited for the elevator, then she struck up a conversation with a new mother about her baby, supplying appropriate noises.

The elevator doors slid open. Ann stepped in, with Paula behind her, then she made way for the still chattering new mother. More people came in, and Ann made sure to be near the doors.

She'd timed the doors on this elevator many a time. Just before they slid shut, Ann said, "I think I'll take the stairs," and slipped out. Paula's squeak from the back of the car was cut off by the closing doors.

Ann ran for the stairs to take her to the office of Marty in Engineering. If she had to, she'd go out with him, so long as he let her use his phone in private.

 

 

Robert McCall swore under his breath as he unlocked his front door. Why did telephones always choose to ring when one was indisposed? If it turned out to be an aluminum siding salesman again.... He cleared the door and reached for the phone just as the answering machine clicked. "McCall."

"Oh, thank god, you're finally home," came Ann Marshall's terrified voice.

"Miss Marshall? What's happened?"

"They think I've seen what's in the computer and they don't believe me when I say I haven't."

"Slow down. Tell me what happened."

Ann took two deep breaths and gave him a blow-by-blow report of her meeting.

"Don't go home," Robert said quickly. "They'll be waiting for you."

"Oh, god..."

"Calm down. Panic won't do anyone any good, least of all you. Are you still being watched?"

"Not right now. I left Paula in the elevator and ran to use the phone of somebody in another part of the building. I didn't think discretion will do any good any more."

"Probably not. When do you normally leave work?"

"In about an hour and a half."

"That should be long enough."

"For what?"

"Bear with me. You did take the bus?"

"Yeah."

"Good. Which route do you normally take home?"

"Blue 14."

"I want you to take that bus and trust me. Someone on our side will be watching you. Do what he tells you."

"How will I know him?"

"His name's Mickey. You can trust him."

"I hope so."

"I understand how you're feeling, but I promise you I will get you out of this."

 

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