Uninvited Guests: Part Two

Submitted by C B Wright on
Curveball, by Christopher Wright
Forrest Brownstone

It’s almost 3AM when CB finally stumbles through the front door of the Forrest’s brownstone. He still aches from his encounter with Richter. The adrenaline has worn off, leaving him exhausted.

“CB?” Martin is in the living room, sitting in his easy chair, reading a newspaper. He’s still dressed.

“Jesus, Marty…” CB manages a half-rictus grin, then stumbles over to the couch, collapsing into it. “Did you wait up for me?”

Martin shrugs.

CB laughs weakly. “I’m not your kid, you know.”

“I know,” Martin says. “If you were my kid you’d know to call if you were going to be out this late.” CB can hear the relief in his voice. “What the hell happened to you?”

CB shrugs with the shoulder that wasn’t almost ripped out of his body. “Got into a fight. Jumped off a balcony. Fell about forty feet. Jerked my arm pretty bad. Landed on concrete… oh. And I got shot.”

Martin’s eyes widen. “You got shot?”

CB closes his eyes and thinks. “No,” he says. “Sorry. At. I got shot at.”

“You smell terrible,” Martin observes.

“That’d be from all the exertion,” CB says. “And the blood. There was exertion associated with that, too.”

“You’d better hope you’re not bleeding on that couch.” Juliet walks into the living room wearing a thick, white cloth bathrobe, cotton pajamas and fuzzy slippers. “I just had it cleaned.”

CB waves half-heartedly in her direction. “Sorry,” he says. “I’m pretty sure the blood’s dry.”

“You sure know how to put a girl at ease.” Juliet’s voice is much drier than the blood.

“What are you doing up?” CB asks.

“I heard my husband say ‘you got shot,’” she says. “I assumed he was talking to you.”

CB laughs.

“He got shot at,” Martin clarifies. “He’s not communicating very well.”

“I’m tired,” CB says.

Juliet studies CB for a moment. “Go to bed,” she says finally. “We can talk about it in the morning.”

“No…” CB forces himself to stand. “I found something. It’s probably important. Marty, do you have a computer? I need to borrow a computer.”

“What’s going on?” Jenny enters the living room, frowning, wearing an over-sized t-shirt and biking shorts. “Who needs a computer?”

“Pack of light sleepers in this house,” CB grumbles.

“CB needs a computer for something,” Martin says. Everyone looks at CB expectantly.

CB reaches into his trench coat pocket and pulls out the hard drive. “I took this from Alex’s apartment. It was the hard drive to his security system.”

Jenny stares at the drive thoughtfully. Juliet and Martin look surprised.

“I didn’t know he had one,” Martin says.

“I did,” CB says. “He talked about it all the time after he had it installed. He was pretty proud of it. Anyway, I need to hook it up to a computer to see what’s on it.”

“No problem,” Jenny says. “I’ll get my laptop.”

“Jenny is a hacker,” Juliet explains.

Jenny narrows her eyes. “No, mom. I’m not. I’m a security analyst.” The tone in her voice suggests they’ve had this conversation before. “So what’s on the drive?”

CB hesitates.

Jenny frowns. “Well?”

CB looks at the hard drive. “The night he died.”

Nobody says anything.

“Yeah,” CB says. “Maybe you should give this a pass.”

The silence stretches on.

“No,” Juliet says softly. “If that thing has the last moments of my grandfather on this earth… I want to see it.”

“Really?” CB looks at her incredulously. “Because I really don’t.”

Juliet tilts her head back and looks CB straight in the eyes. “Really.”

“… I’ll get my stuff,” Jenny says, and heads back upstairs.

“Bring it into the kitchen,” Marty says. “I think CB needs some coffee.”

“God yes,” CB mutters. He follows Martin and Juliet into the kitchen as Jenny heads back upstairs to get her laptop.

The kitchen is a long room with a ceramic tile floor and an island butcher block table in the center. CB sets the hard drive on the table, shakes off his trench coat, and drapes it over a bar stool. His Black Flag t-shirt is stained with blood. His right arm is completely bruised, with swollen, angry welts around his wrist. He climbs up on the stool and leans over the table, head in his hands.

Juliet notices his arm. “That looks bad,” she says. “I’ll get the first aid kit.”

CB shrugs. He listens to the coffee maker boiling water, listens to the sound of water passing through the filter into the carafe, and feels his eyes close.

Moments later Martin places a hot cup of coffee under his nose. CB’s eyes open, and his left hand curls around the mug and he feels the heat seep into his fingers. He leans over and breathes in. It’s strong. He takes a sip and sighs.

“Thanks.”

“So what happened?” Martin asks.

“Someone else had the same idea I did,” CB says. “Luckily I got there first.”

Juliet returns with bandages, a bag of cotton, and a few bottles. CB automatically extends his arm and sits patiently as she cleans his arm and bandages it up. It’s an old routine, and they fall into it naturally.

CB is halfway through his second cup of coffee when Jenny returns with a large laptop bag, followed by a sleepy and confused Andy, dressed in a t-shirt and sweat pants, carrying two more.

“Black Flag?” Jenny asks. “How old is that shirt?”

“Older than you,” CB says. “What’s all this?”

Jenny sets her bag down on the table. “My stuff. Andy, just set the others down by me.”

Andy shrugs, sets the other two bags down on the floor next to her stool, and heads for the coffee.

“This should cover just about any contingency,” Jenny explains. “I didn’t want to have to go back upstairs.”

She picks up the hard drive, studies it briefly, then opens up one of the other laptop bags and rummages around inside it. A few minutes later the hard drive is connected to Jenny’s laptop, which is so large CB thinks it really doesn’t deserve the name.

“It’s good,” Jenny says finally. “Considering the shape CB was in, I was half-afraid the drive would be too knocked up to work, but it’s good.”

They all gather around Jenny to get a better look at the screen.

“OK,” CB says. “Go on.”

There’s no sound, only an image—rather, six images, one from each camera, each showing a different angle. In one frame Alex’s apartment looks completely empty. In another, he can be seen crouching behind his couch, reaching under his computer desk. In another the front door shudders, then splinters. In another, the windows on each side of the French doors shatter and men start to enter the room.

“These angles are terrible,” Jenny says. “He’s got six cameras and he’s still not getting the French doors. Who set this up?”

“Alex did,” CB says. “He was proud of that. In his defense the cameras were hidden really well.”

“He should have called me,” Jenny grumbles.

It’s not easy to figure out which screen to pay attention to at first. There are men coming in to the living room, and men coming in through the door. Alex moves so quickly he’s nothing but a blur to the camera, and seconds later the men in the door are down. Seconds after that, the men in the living room rush back out of the view of the camera, to the balcony, as the muzzle flash of a rifle erupts from the front door. Seconds after that, Alex flies across the living room and disappears from view.

Everyone is silent as they watch. There is no movement from any of the cameras for what feels like an eternity. Then, finally, Alex reappears, soaking wet. He leans over the computer, staring at something on the monitor.

Then he stiffens, straightens, and raises his hands over his head.

Juliet tenses. Martin puts a hand on her shoulder.

Alex turns around. His mouth moves, but there’s no sound. CB grinds his teeth in frustration—none of the cameras show who he’s talking to. Then Alex’s head cocks to one side—very slightly, as if he hears a noise. Seconds later he leaps through the air, then falls to the ground, dead.

Juliet sobs and buries her head in Martin’s chest. Martin, watery-eyed, tries to comfort her. Andy stands by his mother, a mix of emotions running across his face, and while Jenny doesn’t show much emotion at all, her hands are shaking so badly she has to fold them in her lap.

Another man walks into the picture.

“That’s him,” CB snarls. “That son of a bitch.”

Everyone turns their attention back to the monitor. A man dressed in commando gear is staring down at the body, then turns toward the computer.

“Who?’ Juliet asks. “Who killed him?”

“Johann Richter,” CB says.

“Never heard of him,” Jenny says. “Who is he?”

“He was a lot more famous in World War II,” CB says. “He was the reason the US started the Paragon Program.”

Jenny’s eyes widen. “That Richter? I thought he died. That’s what they taught us in history class.”

“I’m not surprised,” CB says. “He likes to keep a very low profile. Why is he looking at Alex’s computer?”

Jenny squints at the screen. “I can’t tell. It looks like he’s reading something on the screen.”

“I don’t suppose you can…” CB waves his hands in the air. “You know, do some kind of Hollywood computer magic to get us a clearer picture?”

“No,” Jenny says tersely. “Hollywood computer magic isn’t real.”

“Don’t get her started on that,” Andy warns. “She’ll go on for hours.”

“Is it important?” Martin asks. “What’s on the computer, I mean.”

CB nods. “Probably.”

“If I could get my hands that computer’s hard drive I bet I could recover it,” Jenny says.

CB looks at her and raises an eyebrow. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Jenny says. “Dad, maybe you could make a few calls? I really want to know what he thought was so important.”

“Hold on a moment,” CB says. “I just had a notion. Does this thing have Internet?” He gestures to Jenny’s laptop.

“Wireless,” Jenny says.

“Is it on now?”

“Yes…” Jenny looks at CB curiously. “It is ‘on’ now.”

“Scoot over and let me drive a minute.”

Jenny hesitates, then climbs off the stool and stands aside. CB hunches over the table and starts typing.

“None of you are watching me do this,” he says. “If asked, you don’t know what the hell anyone is talking about.”

“So what are you doing?” Jenny asks.

“Checking my email,” CB says.

“Wait… you have an email address?” Andy sounds incredulous. “All this time? And you never contacted anyone?”

“It’s not for social calls.”

“No kidding,” Jenny says. “Andy, it’s a TTI domain.”

Andy’s eyes widen. “You have a Thorpe account?”

“Of course I have a Thorpe account,” CB says. “I worked with the guy for years! We’re friends. Mostly.”

Jenny frowns. “What do you mean by that? Either you’re friends or you aren’t.”

“No,” CB says, “'mostly’ friends is pretty standard for me.”

“Yeah,” Martin agrees. “That’s about right.”

Juliet makes a disapproving noise in the back of her throat.

“OK, so…” CB’s voice trails off as he looks at his in box for the first time in weeks. There’s only one message.

“Holy shit,” Andy breathes.

“Open it,” Jenny urges.

CB clicks the title.

I know you’re going to get this, no matter what they try, because it’s you…

CB reads the email in silence.

“There’s an attachment,” Jenny says. “Open it.”

CB clicks the attachment and is completely unsurprised when it fails to open.

“Looks like Alex was being careful,” he says. “Encrypted.”

“Do you have the key?” Jenny asks.

CB shrugs.

“No,” Jenny says impatiently, “that isn’t something you answer with a shrug. Encrypted files require a key. If he sent you an encrypted file, that means you have to have a key.”

“Then I guess I have a key,” CB says. “Damned if I know what it is, though. I won’t be able to open it here, at any rate. I need something to save it to…” He rummages through his pockets and pulls out a USB thumb drive. “This should do it.”

“What’s that for?” Jenny asks.

“I don’t actually have a computer,” CB says. “I use the ones at the public library, mostly. If I want to make backups I put ‘em on this.”

“You don’t have a computer?” Jenny shakes her head in disbelief.

“Why should I? The ones at the library work fine.”

“Never mind that,” Martin says. “CB, do you know what’s on the file?”

“Not a clue,” CB says, “but I bet whatever’s in it has something to do with why Alex died. Richter sure seemed interested in what Alex was doing on his…”

CB’s voice trails off. Then he frowns. “Oh, fuck.”

Everyone looks at him curiously, except for Juliet, who looks at him in alarm.

“Martin.” CB keeps his voice deliberately casual. “I can’t help but notice how well you’ve kept up the house. It doesn’t really look like much has changed since I was here last.”

Martin frowns. “Not much has. We refinished a few surfaces and had the floors polished. That’s about it.”

“Yeah…” CB pushes away from the table, walks around to the other side, and picks up his trench coat. “I was wondering if you still had that panic room.”

There’s a slight pause. “We still have it.”

CB puts on his trench coat. “Good. Go there. Right now. All four of you.”

“Right…” Martin exchanges a knowing glance with Juliet. “How bad?”

“I apologize in advance.”

Martin looks around his kitchen and sighs. “Damn it. You’re sure?”

“I’m tired,” CB says. “It’s going to get messy.”

“I suppose that can't be helped,” Juliet says in a businesslike voice. “Well, you heard the man. Everyone into the panic room, double-time.”

Jenny starts packing up her laptop. Andrew hesitates. “Can I help?”

“No,” CB says. “Sorry. I’ll get you when it’s over.”

“Come on, son,” Martin says. “He knows what he’s talking about.”

Jenny finishes packing up her laptop and they all file out of the kitchen. Jenny stops at the door and turns back. “Be careful,” she says.

CB grins. “The hell I will.”

Jenny shudders.

“Oh, Juliet,” CB calls down the hall after them. “I have to apologize for something else.”

“What’s that?” Juliet’s voice is stronger now. She was always good about bouncing back.

“I’m going to smoke in your house.”

Sharp laughter echoes down the hall.

“I guess you might as well.”