"Walking Back To Houston" - by Chelsea PolkAct I | Act II | Act III | Act IV | Act V
"Half Angel Half Eagle" © Jane Siberry & Sheeba Records, used with permission.
Washington, D.C., March 2009
Hafidha Gates comes into work 45 minutes early, every day. She never stops at the coffee station until Chaz gets there, since she buys coffee on the way (Wednesday: free trade, bird friendly, shade grown dark roast from Peru) safely contained in her spill-proof Thermos of the day (Wednesday: a vacuum-insulated quart's worth, lime green, white hibiscus print) and pours precisely doctored and piping hot into her mug of the day (also Wednesday: a plain white mug that simply says I'm blogging this with the handle glued on so well you can't nearly tell) and starts the bureau's computers the mundane way.
This is Hafidha Gates's routine:
She collects email that funnels into sorted and tagged folders from her public emails, covert addresses, and outright sockpuppets trawling web forums, usenet lists, Livejournal, and web data crawlers. While she pulls nice tufts of a handpainted alpaca top to continue from yesterday, her instant messaging service pops up on monitor three, logging into various chatrooms that support some of her sock puppets and anonymous accounts. Firefox asks her which identity to use--she nods for "newshound" and a half dozen windows all preset to various keywords tab in and populate.
But this morning, Hafidha pauses her spinning prep in favor of one email folder, flagged with one message.
Her favorite eBay seller has listed again.
Hafidha refers to that seller as objectsofdesire2112, even though Hafs knows that she is really Helen Danforth, 38, of Brooklyn, New York--a powerseller who gets unbelievable bargains in the garment district. Helen has exuberant taste, an eye for fabrics, and a tendency to write item descriptions with the passion of a true clotheshorse and the painful honesty of a young adult novel protagonist. Hafs has never purchased anything from her that was not exactly as described, down to the minutest flaw in construction.
Today, she's selling designer eyeglass frames, and Hafidha drums her feet in delight. Optometrists sell frames at a 300% markup when they're being modest. Objectsofdesire2112 starts the bidding on her frames at 5.99 each. Hafs is a kid in a candy store, but she especially likes the anodized titanium frames in swirling peacock colours--the blue and green, but also chips of golden bronze.
Hafs sets a modest opening bid on those, so she'll remember to set her automatic bidder when it closes in three days, and then practices wiggling her nose to make the computers dance through windows for her while she drafts alpaca into spiderweb.
The team is out today (Friday: 100% Kona, market price, a 20 ounce travel carafe with a clear lucite shell displaying carefully wound yarn of varying colours and textures, spooled around in an ombré gradation, from undyed ivory to oatmeal to burlap to sable brown.) Hafidha sets some searchbots to trawl for businesses in the area that sell a particular brand of barber scissors while she references records from seven different school boards, looking for disciplinary records involving forced hair cutting in 1991. She's reading about a gang of football players who overpowered a punk and hacked off his acid green liberty spikes. It's not a match for the profile, which indicates that the victim would have been female. But the mohawk story distracts her, because it's probably confirmation of a legend she knows from back in the FIDOnet days.
And that's how her beautiful eyeglass frames get sniped, right from under her nose. She doesn't even remember until the email flag pops up, displaying the first few words from the message.
"Robbed!" she swears under her breath, and clicks the link. She's one minute and three seconds too late to snatch victory from the blackguard's claws; her eyeglass frames sold to divinityjones92 for...
Hafidha whistles at the sum. Not bad from a $5.99 start. She twirls her spindle again and looks up the info on divinityjones92, interested in getting to know a possible nemesis in the acquisition of the cool. She doesn't bother with the feedback, preferring to see what divinityjones is currently buying or bidding. The price column on divinityjones92's bid list confirms that Hafs is dealing with an unrepentant sniper, with a penchant for accessories and an unusual fetish for silk neckties.
"Let's see who else's heart you're breaking today, highwayman Jones," Hafidha murmurs, going after the list of her current bids:
BLUE & SILVER CHOKER UNUSUAL LINKS **UNIQUE**
And she sits straight up, spindle parked by reflex. "The Hell."
The listing is by fishfood993, with under five minutes left. Hafs mouses down to the large photo automatically,
The choker has a pendant of oval lapis cabochons bracketed by silver motifs, fluted like the vanes of a feather split down the middle, or perhaps the nodding heads of swans. The chain links echo that same motif of feathers/swans, interlaced by their curving necks. It's a flapper collar, Hafidha knows. But more than that, she knows this necklace.
She's seen a picture of it in a case file.
Hafidha doesn't remember which case file, though, and it might not be the same piece. Crazy to think that it is the same.
There are four minutes and nine seconds left on the auction, and therefore, not enough time to doubt. She genies the cursor up and left on the screen, clicking into the sniper program she wrote. It's the big machine, and she doesn't use it unless she really covets something. She uses it to log into eBay as Virginiaboheme--a good identity, fairly generic, and unused for 94 days. She sets her top bid in a way that will guarantee acquisition.
Hafs doesn't have to put her spinning down but she parks the spindle as she starts a text to Chaz: what file is this? and wheels back to attach the photo before sending the message.
She can leave the sniper. The piece is hers. She's already running the seller ID and recording every piece of feedback given or received since the account opened--
Her phone vibrates and chirps. Belinda Green. Miss. person rep 2004 Madison WI. Remains found 2006, Wyo. fractures MTRSL and MTCL. Sol desk. L. 3 from bott. Y?
The bidding is at $278.91. Hafidha wiggles her nose. NVM
The response doesn't even take ten seconds. SRSLY
"Chaz, you're busy," Hafs says out loud. but sends: On ebay. Sniping now.
"That's my line, Platypus." SRSLY
A short pause, then: Call Later? When Alone?
The auction ends at $308.44. Hafidha moves to pay automatically, but flicks the spindle again. Wait for the invoice. She wants an email contact from this person. She wants time to think.
She wants time to discuss it with her baby bruddah.
Later, she texts to him. Yes, alone.
Chaz cams her 30 minutes later. He's arranged comfortably at the table in his hotel room, and it's apparently pink shirt day.
"You found yourself a girl genius," Hafs says, already feeling the tension melt off her forehead.
"Hey, Hafidha. I'm supposedly analyzing the history of forced haircutting and ordering room service. Well, I really did order room service. It should be here, ah, soon."
Hafidha waves her plastic container of tom kha gai. "Oh good, we'll make it a dinner meeting. So I found Belinda Green's file, precisely where you said it was--"
"There were two files on his desk when I gave it back to him."
"I'm trying not to think about that. Well, between reading about how Belinda Green had her hands and insteps crushed before she died, I have been spending time examining our seller, fishfood993. There are 72 items of feedback, and I have managed to capture archived listings of the last...seven months."
Chaz's mouth curls up. "I thought the listings disappeared off the website after three?"
"Oh, they do. But the server just drops the links." Hafs sips a little coconut milk soup off her plastic spoon. "I've got it waiting to sneak into server maintenance for the rest. Anyway, fishfood993 tends to sell antique 20th century jewelery, of which I have a passing acquaintance," she says, tapping the Bakelite necklace at her throat.
"All right. So what do you notice about the listings?"
"Well, the reason why I've never bought anything from fishfood is because he doesn't tag his auctions to be of interest to collectors, which on the surface does not make any sense. We've all heard the story of the collector's great bargain from somebody who doesn't know what he has, but fishfood almost appears willfully ignorant. He's selling things that collectors would pull hair for, but he advertises it--look."
Hafidha sends him a file of a captured auction, depicting another necklace of hammered silver plates, hinged at cabochons of Baltic amber and pearl. "There's a level of jewelry collecting that isn't Harry Winston, but isn't pot metal and paste either. and a good piece will go for hundreds of dollars. Fishfood has a lot of that kind of stock--that necklace could fetch in the four hundreds if the right people knew about it, but it sold for--"
"Twenty five ninety nine," Chaz leans forward, peering. "You know, that's really pretty. Not in your colours, though."
"You know me that well, Chaz. And it's not like these pieces are one of a kind, so I could be grasping at nothing. But ORANGE & SILVER COLOR CHOKER/COLLAR **PRETTY**? That's no way to advertise a Trifari."
The knock sounds through the laptop's mic. "Hold on." Chaz gets up, disappears out of frame, comes back with a tray. "You know it is?"
"You can has cheeseburger? Outraged."
"We'll get two when I come back," Chaz promises. "Now, you know it's a Trifari?"
"I'm pretty sure. Costume would be shiny plated brass and plastic. The necklace I bought--if Belinda Green's insurance file is reliable--the blue and silver necklace I bought is Art Deco, from the Egyptian Revival style, with real lapis lazuli and solid sterling silver. Probably made in the 1920's. She had it valued at three hundred dollars. But fishfood acquires this stuff, probably from estate sales--he's not selling out of a single estate collection. The tastes don't match. So why not maximize on return by pointing it at the people who will pay the most?"
Chaz sits back with a home-cut french fry. "All right, so what's happened so far? You can see it's a gamma, but does it connect?"
Hafs takes a long, slow breath. "I got my invoice for the auction already. Came in less than a minute after the auction closed. The IP has been bounced to Russia and back. The paypal address I have leads to a mail drop in Cleveland, but fishfood993's location is given as Lexington, Kentucky, and the name on the PayPal address AND the mail drop doesn't pop up on my search to make a match to a real, moving around person. Fishfood's a fake. And..."
Hafs tries to swallow, can't, wets her mouth with iced green tea. "Belinda Green had an eBay account."
The last thing Hafidha Gates does before she leaves the office that evening is pay for her auction win, plus priority shipping, plus insurance.
The first thing that she reads when she returns to the office (Monday: free trade, organic Kenya coffee with proceeds going to orphaned girls, a stainless steel and black rubber thermos, and her caffeine molecule coffee mug) is an email to virginiaboheme's email address.
Subject: My Regrets
"Oh, really?" Hafidha murmurs to herself, and opens it.
I am sorry to inform you that I cannot ship the auction you won on Friday. I had a most unfortunate accident here over the weekend and the necklace has been terribly damaged.
I have refunded your purchase, shipping, and insurance. My deepest regrets, and I hope that you will not think ill of my future listings.
Hafs holds her coffee mug in one hand and twirls her pen with the other, glaring hard at the message header's automatic result--the IP resolves to a Russian remailer. He's covering his tracks like mad. And John Victor doesn't have an electric bill or a cell phone account or a parking ticket in Lexington, KY. Or Cleveland.
And now the necklace is broken.
Hafs clicks back to the listing, checks the bidding history, and cheers under her breath. The Big Machine did its job by out-sniping another sniper--but divinityjones92 wasn't the only highwayman with her crosshairs on that necklace. The Big Machine also beat Metalliclove1, who had set a maximum bid of $306.91, four seconds before the auction's closing.
Hafidha runs Metalliclove1's feedback and bidding history through her database crawler and finds that Metalliclove1 is a fan of fishfood993's listings. Which isn't suspicious. Hafs buys from many of the same sellers; that's just what people do.
But Metalliclove1 never won an auction from fishfood993 that doesn't have the odd dollar values of the last second auction. Most of the other purchases were low value items, with serious bidding wars on three items from another seller--classicallure25. Hafs sets to looking at that seller's store, sipping her coffee.
The first listing reads:
LIME GREEN & GOLDTONE BROOCH PIN **STUNNING**
"Goldtone, my ass," Hafs snarls. "That's a Miriam Haskell."
She's on the phone to Chaz before the page finishes loading.
The team is back. Hafs greets Brady with a smile and outrageously flattering compliments, mutually exchanged, gets in line behind Sol and Daphne for some of Chaz's coffee, and hovers once those two leave.
Chaz leans against the counters. "Okay, so what do you have?"
"Suspicion and conjecture," Hafs replies, pouring too much milk into her mug. "But I can't leave it alone. I set the sniper on the Miriam Haskell brooch using virginiaboheme again, and guess what? the listing got cancelled."
"All of them from classicallure25 and fishfood993. They are all gone. The good stuff and the junk. Now why would he do that?" Hafs waits, staring up at Chaz.
Who looks back, a little frown knitting his brows. "Somebody might think that the presence of that necklace on eBay is simple coincidence--"
"Oh, that C word we don't believe in--"
"--and you would have ended up paying too much for a piece of costume jewelry-"
"Antique costume jewelry-"
Chaz's eyes flicker from her face to over her shoulder.
"What's the conference in here?" Brady moves over to the coffee machine, pouring himself a cup.
"We were just--"
"Hafidha may have discovered a gamma operating on eBay," Chaz says, sipping coffee. Perfectly bland. An everyday thing to say.
Well, around here...
"I saw the fnords, Brady Beautiful, on this listing for this necklace. and then I clicked and saw the picture, and I knew that I'd seen it somewhere, and so I texted Chaz and he told me where, but there was only a few minutes left so I sniped it. Hard. You still with me?"
"Right." Brady leans back on the counter and drinks a quarter of his coffee at a go, raises it to signal 'go on.'
"I won, I paid, and then the seller sends me an e-mail, oh no, it's broken. So I go digging around and find links to other accounts--another selling account and another buying account that seem designed to snipe certain items out from under buyers, and that sniper was on the necklace too, so I see where else he's sniping and that leads me to a listing with a designer mid-century brooch, so I put up a bid on that--same eBay identity, but on a different seller and poof." Hafs stars her fingers apart, like a puff of smoke or a bloom of fireworks.
"Poof. The listing got cancelled?" Brady asks.
"They all got cancelled. Both the accounts, all the listings. There could have been more than that, but that's the two that I found. He pulled up the listing on Belinda Green's necklace--"
"You can't be sure it's the same necklace."
"It may not be the same necklace but there is something definitely up with this fishfood person. And I checked Belinda Green's probate--the credit card statements indicate activity on eBay. She had an account. She had a necklace listed on her insurance that matches the description of the necklace she was likely wearing when she disappeared--a necklace that was not recovered."
"It likely disappeared because her killer kept it as a trophy." It's the obvious objection, the simple solution. "And what kind of killer would let that trophy out of his hands?"
"Gary Ridgeway would take jewelry from his victims and leave them as anonymous gifts for his female co-workers," Chaz moves to the coffee machine, spoons two heaping sugars into his mug. "We can suppose that seeing the jewelry on his unsuspecting co-workers gave him a chance to re-live the experience of the victim as a secondary outlet."
"And just how would that work on the Internet?" Brady demands. "Put it up on eBay and it can go anywhere. How does he continue to maintain control?"
"Well that's just it," Chaz says. "Hafs used an incredibly powerful auction sniper to ensure acquisition of the piece. The seller fishfood then wrote to her over the weekend to give her a refund, claiming that it had been accidentally damaged."
Brady rinses his coffee cup, leaves it in the sink. "Because Hafidha--or virginiaboheme, more properly-doesn't match what fishfood wants. Right? But--"
"Hafs. The second listing you found," Chaz says. "You never said. Did it have fnords?"
"No. No fnords. Wait. What does that mean?"
"At a guess?" Chaz asks. "That was more camouflage. Not like the necklace that did have significance."
Oh. "I know how he does it."
Chaz and Brady halt in mid-debate. "What?"
"Well, I know how he could do it." Hafidha shrugs.
Daniel Brady sticks his head in the fridge, comes out with a water. "Hafidha, I agree that something is going on but what if it's not what you believe it to be?"
"Then I'm wrong, and I'm out a few hours work."
"And if she's right, she will have exposed the murderer of Belinda Green and even more women."
Hafidha and Chaz turn to Esther Falkner's voice and the door.
"The person who murdered Belinda Green doesn't do that just once and then walk away. Hafidha, could you bring everything you have into the conference room," Esther nods to her. "About fifteen minutes?"
Esther gets a bottle of water for herself, and heads out of the kitchen.
"I have to get an email out," Brady says. "See you in fifteen."
Hafidha lets her shoulders fall, and rolls them. "I said I think I know how he does it, but I'm just guessing. What am I going to tell everyone?" She puts the first donut box in the trash, snags a custard-filled donut with chocolate icing.
"Hafs, it's okay. All you have to relate is what happened--what you did, and the whole chain. Point out where you're speculating, but play on the pattern."
"You have fifteen minutes to find other missing women or found bodies that were missing this specific type of jewelery, and evidence of an eBay account. And all you have to find is one, right now. In fifteen minutes."
"Fifteen minutes." Hafidha says, already moving for the door. "Easy. Watch this. Already doing it."
She watches Chaz the most. He follows with few fidgety gestures, even though he's heard most of it. Sol leans back in his seat, eyes narrow, but not in disbelief. More...considering. Daphne clasps her hands together, elbows on the table, sits forward in her chair. Brady tilts his chair back, but only a little. Falkner listens, jots occasional notes, looks back and makes tiny nods at all the right moments.
Stephen Reyes writes on his clipboard, glances at her over the edge of it by rote, doesn't actually look at her.
"And when yours truly managed to snipe the best price with only two seconds to spare, fishfood993--who likes to call himself John Victor, and can't decide if he lives in Ohio, where his PO box is, or Kentucky, as his eBay profile claims, sent an automated invoice with an anonymized email path--and then less than 48 hours later, another anonymized email with a refund and an apology, stating that the necklace had been damaged just that weekend."
"Do you have any information leading to the real identity of the UNSUB?"
Now Reyes looks at her, and Hafs almost wishes he wasn't. "No, my captain. What I have is a pattern. This is how it started, with this listing."
Hafs clicks the remote in her hand, and the slide shows a capture of the "BLUE & SILVER CHOKER UNUSUAL LINKS **UNIQUE**" auction results. "I can't show you what I saw here. On the slide, it's just black letters. When I saw the listing, it came up with the glorious Technicolor that I see as gamma activity on the Internet."
Hafs clicks the remote again, and the next slide shows the picture included with the eBay listing. She counts three and clicks to the photograph in Belinda Green's case file. "There's more than a wee bitty resemblance here. I have also discovered that Belinda Green had an eBay account, though I haven't found proof that she bought the necklace on eBay."
Hafs raises her hand and the screen now shows a woman's face. She's smiling, a pretty woman in her mid-30's, dressed in a pale green twinset with a pink enameled chrysanthemum pin on her left breast. "Jacqueline Kincaid, cellist, Seattle. Disappeared December 2005. Remains discovered in Hell's Canyon National Park, Oregon, February, 2006. The brooch she is wearing is a Trifari, probably designed by Alfred Phillipe, and apparently one of her favorite pieces. It was listed in her physical description on the original missing persons report. All of her clothing, purse, identification was found at the dump site. The brooch was not recovered."
Chaz shifts. His feet slide from atop the caster bars to the floor, one elbow landing smoothly on the table as he leans forward. Hafs clicks the remote again, silently counting to three before clicking the crime scene photo away. The scratches on Jaqueline Kincaid's face--her eyeless face--shutter and fade.
Blink, and now a woman with masses of dark curly hair, dressed severely in black, herself a backdrop for a collar encrusted with topaz, amber, and ruby colored cabochons. "Theresa Lee Strong, ethnic crafts importer. Disappeared from Mesa, Arizona December 2002. Identified through dental records when her remains were discovered in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument near Yuma in 2004. That necklace is art glass, meant to simulate fancy and semi-precious stones. She was often photographed with it, and her will specifically named it to go to a niece. The piece was never recovered."
Hafs clicks the remote again, and the next slide is a reconstruction of the small bones--or rather, an arrangement of the recoverable fragments of the bones of her left hand.
"This is a MasterCard statement from Jacqueline Kincaid," Hafs says, and magnifies the whole scan, and highlights purchases from eBay, Inc. "And here's a Visa statement from Theresa Lee Strong. The--relevant portions are highlighted."
"I realize that the connections between these women are somewhat tenuous," Hafs says. "But with a little more time--"
"You'll find more," Reyes answers. "What have you noticed about the victims?"
"Well, they were all divorced women of reasonably comfortable means, working for themselves or in the arts. They come from different parts of the country, but all of them had eBay accounts and vintage jewelry that they were fond of that was not recovered when their bodies were discovered."
"You said in the kitchen that you know how he did it," Brady says.
"I know a way he could have done it," Hafs corrects.
"Hold on," Sol says. "We don't want that interfering with the victimology."
They use printouts from Hafs's findings on the board for everything but Belinda Green's necklace, to start. As they move on, facsimiles get replaced with file material.
They have Jacqueline Kincaid already. They have a photograph of her crushed hands, and an extensive report from the medical examiner who performed her autopsy, giving the opinion that her hands had been restrained with the fingers splayed out, and then smashed with a blunt object, like a sledgehammer.
Her feet, however, were probably crushed using a vise.
Hafs doesn't care that sitting cross-legged in her swivel chair is both unprofessional and unladylike. Daphne has to bring her hands out from the protective clasp at her breast, too.
Further physical examination indicated that Jacqueline had been raped, her eyes torn out, and she'd been manually strangled.
"The UNSUB is strong," Chaz notes. "Manual strangulation isn't as controllable as a ligature method."
"This UNSUB is angry, filled with rage," Brady says. "'I'll strangle you with my bare hands.'"
"But it's not a power and control urge from a sexual sadist. He doesn't manually strangle them to watch them die, because he puts their eyes out first," Daphne comments.
"His crimes are personal," Sol says. "What he does to these women is ritualistic and meaningful. And it stands to reason that he is doing to these women what he cannot do to the person he wishes."
"And that he can't, ever," Chaz says. "For some reason, the person who is the trigger for this rage is out of his reach, possibly already dead."
"Dead in a way that the UNSUB sees as unfair or inappropriate," Daphne agrees.
Hafs stops just to watch and wonder if they realize how they mesh when they do this. "So he's going around making sure that these women get what they deserve?"
Everyone turns to look at her.
"Exactly," Reyes says. "These women are like the woman who wronged him. What did you say that you found in common, again?"
Hafs answers. "These three women were all divorced. His mother? Abandoning him after the breakup of her marriage? His wife?"
Esther nods once, slowly. "Mothers tend to get custody of their children. The UNSUB's mother probably had him in her late twenties, and the divorce probably went through in her early to mid thirties―the approximate age of the victims."
"Because there were things she valued more. Her hands, her feet, her eyes," Daphne murmurs.
"Show business?" Chaz asks. "Dancing, singing, acting? Art? Music? It's hard to make a career in those. Harder for a woman with a child. Harder for that woman as she gets older. And the victims--a professional musician, a folk art importer, and Belinda Green taught dance. All aligned with the arts and creative industries."
"Victims from all over America. He travels. His work necessitates travel. He could be a salesman, or--"
"Computer programmer. IT specialist. A hired gun--takes on a contract in a certain place, works there for a few months, finds somewhere else to go. He's got a good resume, and he gets out and moves on before his co-workers drive him out with pitchforks," Hafidha says. "He probably says that he works contracts because it's a way for him to travel around the country, that he likes the variety."
All eyes on her, again. But Hafidha is on a roll, now. She knows this person. She knows the type.
"He's reasonably well off, takes pride in his appearance, and he is undeniably handsome. He probably has a very nice car, an impressive apartment, and displays culture and sophistication. He is well read, an interesting conversationalist, and probably touch types at upwards of 80 words per minute. Because I'm telling you, I know how he does it."
"How does he do it, Hafs?" Chaz asks.
"I think that he can do something like what I can do," Hafs says. "I think that he uses the Internet to find the women who represent what he wants in a victim because he can tell what they're like. But where I just see gamma activity, he can do what in-person abductors do--he can profile the right victim across the Internet."
Daphne looks up. "That's scary."
"Yeah," Hafs agrees. "He might research them, but I think he can discern faster than that. He can read a buying history like a child abductor can read the body language that tells him that this child will help him look for his lost dog, or that this child will run away and find an adult."
Everyone looking at her now. Sol nods very slowly at Hafs, but doesn't say anything.
"He's a Lothario and a cyber-stalker. Think the eBay identity, fishfood--somebody bids on his bait. He checks them out. If they come up aces, he sells them the necklace. If they don't, he uses another identity, snipes it, and re-lists it later to try again. But if they do, then he stalks them, finds out where they hang out, and then gets to the real work. He seduces them online. They arrange a meet, and then he kills them."
"And once you buy one of the right pieces, you're marked for death. He's going to get that piece back," Chaz says. "He could take months to get to you, maybe even years. Many people contentedly carry on long distance relationships conducted almost entirely on the Internet, punctuated only by occasional meetings and nebulous plans for a future together."
Chaz shrugs, and examines his mechanical pencil, turning it in his fingers. Oh, Chaz. "And so he's probably got a collection of women on his line," Hafs says. "And none of these women have any idea that their Internet boyfriend is actually a killer.
"And if I'm right about what he can do...I need to back up a bit to explain. If my virginiaboheme identity had been the right type, he would have let the necklace go. But viginiaboheme has some trading rep on Make-Up Alley and is characterized as one of a legion of low-powered Washington office pool drones. Not an artist, dancer, craftsman. Just a regular person who shops too much. Also, if you look at Virginaboheme's OKCupid profile, she's listed as single-never married. Not the right type.
"But then I used that same identity to bid on a brooch that was under-listed that didn't sparkle and fnord, from an entirely different seller. Now we go into the land of If. If that brooch wasn't one of his key pieces, then why not sell it to virginiaboheme? And If the virginiaboheme identity wasn't suspect, why did classicallure and fishfood cancel every single listing on both accounts?"
"Because you think he made you," Sol says. "Cop or Jammer?"
"I don't know and I can't set up a test to find out," Hafs says. "But I'm not sure. I'm going to assume both. Which might make it hard for me to find his real identity."
"So if he is so good at hiding his real identity, how can we find him?"
"We don't find him--well, we find his personas. But we find his victims. They're not good at hiding, probably don't have the first clue how. People regularly post personal information about themselves, photographs of themselves, their full name, where they live, where they work. They socialize, they congregate, they make friends."
"We could develop a linguistic model of the UNSUB's language from these eBay profiles and search for distinctive markers, finding more auctions and their subsequent bidders," Chaz says.
"I'll keep looking for his victims. He could have more than one on the line, there could be more women in national parks. I need to stay away from looking for the UNSUB directly until I figure out how to get him."
Tuesday. Bird-and-Butterfly friendly organic Sumatra, from a coffee plantation owned by a woman who refused to go industrial or sell out to Starbucks. Hafidha sips from a sprightly hand painted yellow mug, searching eBay listings.
She's got classicallure, Metalliclove, and fishfood so heavily watchdogged he can't even edit an auction without her knowing about it. Not a whisper; she's doing what he expects.
Hafidha is hunting down John Victor's buyers, cross-referencing eBay usernames with social networking sites and interest forums. She's looking into women's lives as she pores through their forum posts and their internet journals--so many of them, so open and unassuming. She's found real names, photographs, even flimsy attempts at alter identities.
She knows that most of these buyers are not possibles. Many of them bought the pot-metal and junk that Victor salts his listings with, cover for his true bait. But she checks them anyway, searching out their lives, finding them so easily.
Maintenance data didn't give her much more than the seven months she already had. Icerocket dutifully searches names, coming up with very little--
bemusedamusedthe-- "Muse," Hafidha finishes, already clicking the link.
She holds the coffee mug in her hands as the photograph emerges. It's a tiny painting, postcard sized, a Monarch butterfly on a milkweed. It is exquisite, and it had been for sale for one hundred and fifty dollars, marked as sold.
There are one hundred and twenty-five comments on the entry. Hafs mouses down to the next entry: A pair of shoes, dropped haphazardly on a tiny, glittery purse. The attention to light gives an air of harshness to the scuffed stiletto heels and loose sequins; there's something chilling about it.
Price, one hundred and fifty dollars. Also sold.
Hafidha scrolls up, looking at dates: the shoes were posted June 2nd. The butterfly painting, June 3rd.
There are no postings after that.
Hafidha still doesn't click to read the comments on the last entry. instead she continues back in time, looking at each daily offering of a painting, weekends off, priced at the same one hundred and fifty dollars, some marked as sold, some not.
Then and only then does she start poring over comments.
"Your daily paintings were a glimpse of beauty I watched for every day..."
"So disappointed not to see any more..."
"Did you get a gallery showing, working with bigger media?"
"I love your work. I wish I'd bought one myself but I never made up my mind in time..."
"Does *anyone* know where bemusedamusedthe is? What she's doing? Why she disappeared like this?"
"Please come back!"
Hafidha blinks away the blur at that comment. She's already capturing the pages, the comments, the images hosted at Flickr. The computer can do it for her while she hugs a mug of cooling Sumatra in her hands and just breathes.
Please come back.
"Chaz," Hafidha whispers. "Chaz..."
His hand on her shoulder, then stroking across her back to the other. "Hey hey now. What is this?"
"I think I found another one. I think... She used a Livejournal, she was a painter, and she'd post a picture of a new bitty painting every day, like postcard sized? She'd post them every weekday and sell them for a hundred and fifty dollars and then she just...stopped..."
Hafs reaches for her mug, drinks cold Sumatra, goes on. "This comment thread is from people who friended her journal asking where she is," Hafidha says, and clicks the back button. "This is her work."
Hafidha wheels down the page slowly, looking at each little painting. Some are landscapes, others still life or object studies. Every one is meticulous in detail and luminous in mood, capturing a scene or an object and imbuing a response in oils.
When Hafs reaches the bottom of the page, she clicks for the next, and gasps.
It's a slice of an old-fashioned dressing table--cut crystal cream jar matching a boar bristled brush and comb, Irish crochet lace runner, an open jewelery box...
And in that box, a pink enamel pin shaped like a chrysanthemum.
amusedbemusedthe has a bulletin board all to herself--covered in printouts of her paintings. The dressing table piece is scarcely a month old, but Hafidha can't find a listing for the chrysanthemum pin from either of the three eBay identities "John Victor" has, and SixApart has her on hold.
Hafidha Gates leaves that canned music on speaker while she dives through all of amusedbemusedthe's account, noting with satisfaction that she, like many Livejournal users, has a first entry dated from before her journal's creation, locked to private.
Hafs knows what is in that post. Personal information and an emergency contact, that SixApart can get to in case of some kind of emergency. She'd like to get permission, since she can. Because there isn't enough--yet--for a warrant or court order.
Meanwhile, she's searching through this little corner of LJ for clues, contacts, connections...
Finally, a voice instead of muzak.
"This is Hafidha Gates of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I would like to retrieve some first post information on a Livejournal account," Hafs says.
An inquiry about the reason for wanting the information.
"The account in question was discovered in connection with a case the Behavioral Analysis Unit is currently investigating--"
A shocked interjection. "No, no, the FBI does not spend budget on making sure ordinary citizens are bad or good. Forgive my jargonization--the Behavioral Analysis Unit is an investigative unit of the FBI that uses psychology to catch certain kinds of criminals. Serious crimes, ma'am. The LJ in question...I fear that the owner is actually a missing person, and if I can get the owner's name and contact information, I can cross check with our records."
Reassured, but still questioning. "Oh no, ma'am. I only ask for the contact information this user provided as part of the First Post program. If I require any more, it will be because she is indeed missing and there is already a case in existence, and then I will be calling you back with a very official warrant to investigate the rest. I only want to make sure she is okay, and to get her help as swiftly as possible. Of course. The account name is amusedbemusedthe, no spaces of course because that's the character maximum--you've got it? Let me write this down."
Hafidha grabs a fluffy-headed acid green pen, and then drops it, paging instead to the NCIC database. Christina Fleming, nee Nemechek, thirty-six, of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, reported missing June 9th. Five-four, one-twelve, hair black, eyes brown, race black--Nemechek? Huh. Sex female...
She was listed as "unemployed" but that entry was later revised to "self-employed." No car, no driver's license, circumstances of disappearance flagged with "Mental illness," Name of reportee David Fleming, Christina's ex-husband of Philadelphia.
She's on the phone with Harrisburg PD. No hold this time; she's transferred directly to the detective. "Santiago."
A woman's voice. "This is Special Agent Hafidha Gates of the Behavioral Analysis Unit of the FBI. I'm calling to ask about your investigation of Christina Fleming, maiden name Nemechek. She was reported missing June fifth?"
"I'm glad you caught me here," Detective Santiago says. "One moment, I'd like to have the case in front of me. I'm surprised to hear from you--Ms. Nemechek doesn't qualify for Missing White Woman Syndrome."
"Lucky for us the Behavioral Analysis Unit is not the media," Hafidha says.
"Lucky thing. Here it is. Reported by her ex-husband, who if you don't mind me saying is one arrogant sonofabitch."
"Arrogant enough to--"
"Kill his ex-wife and then report her missing? I'd like to say yes, but his alibi is utterly solid. He was at a company ocean fishing excursion from before she went missing until the day he made the report--says that he went to meet her to give her her living allowance since--according to him--she didn't have a job, and she never showed up."
"The ex-husband's a creep?"
"I saw his type all the time on domestics. He's calm and collected, she's a hysterical wreck, he's believed, she's too cowed to say anything and the police believe she's a madwoman anyway." Hafidha can hear the snarl.
"And were there calls like that in their relationship?"
"One. Christina filed for divorce three months later. Seems David banks on his reputation, and wife-beating would spoil that. He let her go, but set conditions that he would only pay her alimony when they met in person, in a public and neutral place. Unusual."
"Yes, well. That type doesn't like to let go," Hafidha says.
"No they don't. You got anything help me nail this guy? I went over him with a fine-tooth comb. He wasn't there when she vanished..."
"You're thinking he hired someone to kill her?"
"It's a possibility, but I'll admit to you, I don't like the guy."
"He doesn't sound charming. You said, 'according to him, she didn't have a job.' What's up there?"
"She was an artist. A painter. She had a cool little business going on the Internet--"
"The postcard paintings. That's what led me to her."
"And she was making three times the amount her ex-husband was giving her just from those. She freelanced commercial art on the side, illustrating manuals and textbooks, even digital art--but he just looked down his nose at all of it."
"Did you find anything of interest on her computer?"
"Funny thing there. It was blank."
"I suppose that would be too much to hope for. Did you find any evidence that she was seeing somebody?"
"One thing. A month before she went missing, she got a prescription for the Pill. Other than that, no evidence of who she might have been seeing."
"Detective Santiago, you have been great," Hafidha says. "And while we have been talking, I've been requesting case information. You wouldn't happen to have anything that didn't make it to the computers?"
"I'll fax the whole thing, just in case. You coming up to Harrisburg? I'll put coffee on..."
"We're probably coming, and I will take you up on that."
"But that doesn't make sense. All the victims we have so far are white," Daphne says. "The crimes have a sexual component to them--"
"Considering these women are theorized to be substitutes for the UNSUB's rage against his mother, I find that pretty creepy--"
"But the point is that cross-racial sexual crimes are rare. Not impossible," Daphne forstalls the question even before Hafidha can correct her. "But if Christina Nemechek is one of fishfood's victims we have to look at the race as a break in the pattern."
"Well, believe in the impossible, because the marvelously forthcoming and making-coffee-as-we-speak Detective Santiago gave me another factor in the pattern--the personal computers of Belinda Green, Christina Nemechek, Jacqueline Kincaid, and Teresa Lee Strong were all wiped clean. John Victor is obliterating his tracks, and while we are finding more charges to hang on this creep, we aren't that much closer to finding the creep."
"She had two creeps too many, it seems," Daphne agrees. "Do you think that telling the detective that we were coming was a bit--"
"Presumptuous? I'll drive up there myself, take the weekend."
"I'll go with you," Daphne says.
"And me," from Chaz, walking into the conversation as if he'd been there all along. Daphne and Hafs both swivel--one in her chair, one on her heels--to face him.
"I've been in contact with her mother, Mahalia Nemechek. They locked up Christina's home and kept it like a shrine. If there's anything to learn there we can find it."
Daphne nods, and tugs on the hem of her shirt. "Right. Where she lived, how she lived, interview with friends and family--"
"I need to be in the same room as that computer," Hafidha sighs.
"Harrisburg is close enough that we can just drive. And Daphne," he said, handing her a file, "Race may not be a break in the pattern."
Daphne opens the file to a snapshot of Christina Nemechek. Hazel-green eyes stare back in amusement, narrow, up-tilted nose, high cheekbones, honey and buckwheat hair styled in big curls around skin the color of aged ivory.
Daphne blinks. Hafs peers over her shoulder, and says, "Oho. Christina Nemechek, I presume."
Hafidha glances up from a lapful of kid mohair yarn and a crochet hook to watch a motorist stare pop-eyed at Chaz's notion of a lane change, with enough time to smile apologetically. They'd made it in good time, even with the stop for second breakfast, and now Chaz follows the map he'd looked at earlier this morning to the police station, while Daphne looks over the too-thin report on Christina Nemechek.
"Didn't anyone realize that the NCIC report was completely inaccurate in giving her description? Everything on the sheet is completely wrong if you look at a picture of her," Daphne says, tossing the file down in disgust.
Hafidha winds Kidsilk Haze around her fingers, already chaining her way across the row and counting double-chain increases. "The One-Drop rule strikes again. The problem is that the barest content of the report is true, if not accurate. Though the hair? That gives me something to ask about."
"Like why her ex-husband said it was black?"
"She might have had it colored," Chaz says. "The man didn't know anything about her life beyond the meeting he forced every month. She could have had it lightened after the last time he saw her, and that could be another insight for victimology."
"Hair lightened, birth control pills, erased computer. Put it all together and I see an Internet romance. Still," Hafidha says. "If I can get anything off that computer...How did he do it, that's my question. Did anyone see him at her house?"
"That will depend on her neighbors," Daphne says. "Let's hope so. Parking spot," but Chaz was already sliding into it. "Heh, what am I thinking."
"You're getting better at not scaring people to death with your driving, baby bruddah."
"Actually, it's just that you guys trust me."
"Are you able to tell me that your interest in Christina Nemechek is not connected to any other missing women?"
Detective Santiago asks the question with a couple of matchsticks worth of hope in her tone, while looking up at Chaz. Over six feet tall herself, it may be an uncommon event. Chaz, for his part, shakes his head as he fumbles for something in a file, avoiding the handshake.
"I'm afraid not," Daphne answers, and when Detective Santiago turns warm brown eyes to her, offers her own hand in compensation. "I'm Special Agent Daphne Worth."
"Detective Carmela Santiago," she responds automatically. "I have a meeting room we can use, it'll fit the four of us, and I've got coffee."
"Is there someplace like a bakery nearby?" Hafidha asks. "We spoke on the phone. Please call me Hafidha."
"If you'll call me Carmela," the tall detective answers. "There is. Across the street, half block west."
"Be Right Back," Chaz says, and he's out the door in moments.
Detective Santiago watches the exit but doesn't comment. "So you're looking into a serial murderer?"
Daphne answers. "Yes. And for the moment, we'd like to work on this quietly. Media attention may have an undesirable consequence."
"You don't think Christina Nemechek is still alive."
"We can't give up on the possibility that she is still alive. Or that our UNSUB hasn't chosen another victim," Hafidha answers. "I'm very curious about Ms. Nemechek's computer. Is it here, or at her home?"
"It's at her home," Detective Santiago replies, and waves Daphne and Hafidha to follow. "We were allowed to do a very careful search, with Christina's mother and sister supervising to make sure everything was put exactly back where it was. We did it with their permission rather than get a warrant, and their knowledge of the house and its contents were helpful."
The room where Christina Nemechek's file and evidence wait for Hafidha has a lot in common with a schoolroom--the walls a minty green, the windowsills blessedly untouched by paint a soft red-brown, the lighting fluorescent tubes interspersed with twirling ceiling fans painted the same green.
Hafidha half expects a black-painted chalkboard and striped felt erasers, but a whiteboard perches in its place, blank and clean even of the caught dry-erase marks on the edges, but the table is all the heavy, scarred real wood Hafs could ask for. The wooden chairs roll on casters and swivel, and Hafs kicks hers away from the table and lifts her feet to let it spin higher.
"First, I have two guesses. You didn't find any data on the computer."
"We did have a tech look at it but he said it was wiped," Santiago says, from the long end of the room. A kettle whistles, and Hafs glances up just as the scent of dark roasted coffee hits her nose--
"Oh saints and stars. That's a French press."
"Cop shop coffee is a tradition, but why suffer?" Carmela sets the glass jug down where Hafs can keep a hungry eye on it. "You said you had two guesses."
"You know that there was a piece of jewelery missing," Hafs says. "A brooch, made of gold and pink enamel. In the shape of a chrysanthemum."
Carmela pushes the plunger down on the glass jug, pours a cup with an inch of clearance from the rim. "That's a very precise guess. With room?"
Daphne gets up to fetch a glass from the drink station. "I'll just have some water. Detective Santiago, do you know if Christina had told anyone that she had met a new man, or were the birth control pills a surprise to her relatives?"
"Do you even need to read my case file?" Carmela looks between Hafs and Daphne, then her gaze goes to the door, where Chaz holds two white boxes from the bakery.
"Well, thank you, baby bruddah, but what did you get for Daphne and Carmela?" Hafidha asks.
"They're stacked two deep in these boxes," Chaz says, offering the first. "Pain au chocolat."
"Give us," Hafs says, and opens the box. "Ohhh. These smell real. Daphne?"
"You'd better take two if you want two," Daphne says to Carmela. "They'll be gone before you know it."
"There's a dozen in that box."
"Not for long."
"I saw a barbecue place back there," Hafs says as she gets out of the feebmobile. "What would you recommend for lunch, Detective Santiago?"
"You--are thinking about lunch now?"
"Oh no," Hafs answers. "After we've had a look around. This is a very nice block."
It was. The residences of the North Sixth Street district were often crumbling, many homes boarded up, but this short block of five attached townhouses had the touch of care--fresh paint, repaired front porches, flower boxes.
"Christina, apparently. That one's hers," Carmela replies, pointing to the red-brick and gothic arched unit second from the left. "She bought it, got to know her neighbors, got them talking to each other, looking out for each other, and had her family doing a lot of the renovations. She had them do repairs for her neighbors. She made them allies."
"Give my girl time, she would have run this whole neighborhood," a new voice says, and a stout woman stands before Christina Nemechek's front door. "With pride, and unity. She always made things more beautiful. It was her gift." Carefully rollerset curls sway around her ears as she pushes the screen door wider, still standing in the threshold. She looks Hafidha over frankly, and nods. "You have it too. You know colour, and comfort. Never saw a lady from the FBI dresses like you."
Hafidha holds her laptop bag in the left hand to offer her right. "I'm Special Agent Hafidha Gates. I'm their computer expert. You must be Christina's mother."
"I'm Mahalia Nemechek. Never saw a computer expert dress like you. You make that crochet?" The woman nods to Hafidha's lacy, wide skirted overdress, deep green over an undyed jersey dress, high necked and long-sleeved.
"I did," Hafs agrees.
"Chrissy has some of my doilies," she says. "Come you all inside. I made lemonade--ooh, aren't you tall, young man. Come in, the parlor's cool."
Hafidha follows, moves to the parlor at the left, stops to get a real look. A dim room, but it smells of furniture wax and lemons; a ceiling fan stirs the air. An octagon-shaped rug borders space for six chairs to sit and have tea--a table shared by two seats. No two chairs share the same shape, their covers identical teal canvas.
"She did this herself," Daphne says. "That's a neat idea."
"Creative, resourceful, determined," Chaz agrees. "Determined to put her identity on every square inch of this room. There isn't anything in here that wasn't made or repaired or converted by her."
"Or her family. Sit you down, all of you. Young man, take the big chair, that's right."
"I'm Special Agent Charles Villette, Mrs. Nemechek. And this is Special Agent Daphne Worth."
"You're all looking for Chrissy. What do you think you can find here, after the police looked? They searched everything." Mrs. Nemechek pours lemonade into tall collins glasses, hands out one to each. Hafidha sips, expecting the sweetness of powdered mix, but the tart flavor comes from a lemon and only enough sugar to smooth it out.
"We look at different things than the police do, to enhance the information they gleaned from their search," Chaz says. "We look at behaviors, personality, and search for the character."
"You're profilers," Mrs. Nemechek says with a nod. "That's what you were doing. Looking at this room, making a profile of my daughter." She sits back, looks at Chaz, Daphne, Hafidha, waits for a demur or deflection. When they all nod, she lightly slaps one knee and nods again, and looks pointedly around the room. "My girl put her heart into this house. That no-good ex-husband, David-- he hired decorators, had that place all done up like a museum, looking like nobody lived there. What you see here--it's her. It's all here, and if it will help you find my Chrissy, then you're welcome to look."
"Thank you, Ma'am. Your daughter is a skilled artist," Hafidha says. "It was her miniature daily paintings that led her to us. Mrs. Nemechek, one of the paintings had a brooch in it, a pink chrysanthemum."
"She bought that on the E-Bay," Mrs. Nemechek answers, curls bobbing again. "She bought a lot of things there, for the house. Fabric for the chairs in the dining room, her teacup collection, oh, all kinds of things. She crawled all up in the attic here, at my house, she sanded and re-finished and had a hand in everything. Now I suppose you want to see it all. You're wanting to look at her computer, Miss Agent Gates?"
Hafidha nods. "Yes, Ma'am, I would."
"That would be in her office. It's upstairs. Leave the glasses, I'll get those," Mrs. Nemechek says, and Hafs follows her up the long stair to a small room at the back of the house.
"She had the back wall's re-wiring done up. This house was built before there was much electricity. The lights were gas." Mrs. Nemechek points to long pipes along the moulding on the walls. "Wires go through there, it's all grounded, and she had this room done up special for the computer. Are you needing anything?"
"This is perfect just like this, Mrs. Nemechek, thank you." Hafidha says, and lays her laptop bag on the desk.
"That's a funny bag," Mrs. Nemechek says, and leans forward to look more closely at it. "Those eyes. It's like those puppets on Sesame Street."
"I watched that show every day as a kid," Hafs says, and slides out her laptop, reminding herself to use the keyboard and the mouse.
"Chrissy did too. And all her brothers and her sister. I swear they learned to read, watching that show. And a little Spanish. They could sing all the songs."
"That's how they get you," Hafidha agrees, rolling a wooden chair out of the way. "The songs."
When Hafs drops to her knees with a penlight, Mahalia makes a noise of dismay. "Your pretty dress!"
"Machine washable," Hafs answers, and plugs her laptop into a surge protection bar. "And there's no dust down here, Ma'am." She's back on her feet and in the chair, smiling at the woman hovering nearby. "It's all very tidy."
She pulls herself back to the table, slips on nitrile gloves, and examines the tower before her. Footsteps up the stairs, not taken two at a time--Daphne. A quick glance over her shoulder confirms it, with a little wave.
"Hello there, now let's see what you've got," she says softly, and pulls a pocket driver set from her handbag. She's got the sides off the case and a light shining on the boards in a minute. "Checked for fingerprints, I see.."
"This isn't a bad machine at all. AMD chipset, nVidia graphics card, tons of RAM, Seagate Hard drive...she researched. or she knew someone who knew hardware well enough. Now let's juuuuust...there."
Hafidha slides the hard drive loose of its connections and nests it gently inside an IDE drive enclosure. "I'm going to look at this hard drive with some data analysis stuff on my laptop."
"Hafidha is our unit's technical analyst," Daphne explains. "If there's anything to find on the hard drive, she will find it."
"I don't even know how my television works," Mahalia says with a rich chuckle. "I press the button and pay the bill and everything between is magic. You must really love them."
"I do," Hafs says, her hands on the keyboard. "Okay, now I'm scanning. The hard drive isn't blank. there's still data here. It's just corrupted, degraded...but I think my program can handle it," Hafidha says, and stands up. "We'll just let that run. Now, sometimes artists will keep journals, idea books, but your daughter didn't write in hers, the report says."
"She drew every day, never took a day off. She did her paintings, those little ones. Not every day. She'd go out every day, walking somewhere, and take pictures, and then she'd take them home and draw from them or paint from them." Mahalia answers. "Even when she went on vacation--she would do that, go away for three days, and she'd come back with sketches and paintings and work--she drew pictures for medical books, she designed quarterly reports--she made a lot on those, so she could draw."
"Did she have a camera?" Daphne asks.
"A digital camera her brothers gave her for Christmas. She took it with her. Miss Hafidha, Miss Daphne...please. Please tell me what you know about my baby girl. Is she dead?"
Hafs glances at Daphne, and then to Chaz, standing in the doorway, Detective Santiago behind. "Mrs. Nemechek, we have a lot of information that forms a picture for us. A pattern that helps us fill in the missing pieces, shows us where to ask the questions, but they are mostly very good guesses."
"We can tell you what we guess, but we might be wrong. We could give you false hope," Daphne says, and nods at Carmela's opening her mouth to interject. "Our best guess at the moment is that she went to meet someone. Now you said in the initial report that she didn't have a boyfriend. Would it be normal for her to tell you about anyone she was dating?"
"We didn't talk about that," Mrs. Nemechek says. "I didn't want to ask her if she was seeing anyone interesting. I didn't want to remind her that she wasn't married. Chrissy's husband was a nightmare, you understand. He assumed she was white. Light eyes and freckles and she wore her hair straight--She cooked for him, he saw her neat little college apartment--poor but proud, and you know what I think?"
Four nods for her to go on.
"I think he thought a poor girl would be better for his needs. Someone to keep grateful. Someone to keep down, you see? He didn't even know her three months before they eloped, the deal done before she'd graduated--and that was their first fight. He said she didn't need a degree, she was his wife. She insisted, and wouldn't give in, and she graduated. She was the first," Mahalia says. "The first of her family to graduate college. We came. We all came. From miles around. Her aunt Odette and her uncle Jack and all her cousins, all come to kiss and cry, and he hid it well. But I wish I'd known, I wish I'd seen... I wish I could have done something.
"She made a mistake. An honest mistake. And I think he pushed it down, because to suddenly divorce his wife because she was black--that man cared a lot about appearances. He thought a lot of himself. He probably thought it made him better in the eyes of others. Colour-blind."
"I've heard that phrase before," Hafidha replies.
"Bet you have, beautiful tall girl like you," A fast smile for Hafs, and she goes on. "He controlled everything. But I didn't raise my girl to knuckle under. After it was over, I didn't want her to think that I was nagging her to get married again and start giving me grandchildren, so I never asked her if she'd met anyone nice. I wished that she would meet a nice man--or a nice woman, someone to be there for her. But that man--you know about the alimony."
"That he insisted that they meet in person for the payment," Chaz says with a nod.
"Yes. And she'd be so angry, the day before, the day after. He couldn't bear not controlling her. But I don't think he was responsible for my Chrissy disappearing. She'd never go anywhere with him, or on his say-so. If she saw him walking down the street she'd cross it to get away from him."
"So who would she go with, Mrs. Nemechek?"
"She would have had to believe that he was safe," Mahalia Nemechek answers. "She would have thought that she knew him. She would have thought that he cared about the things she cared about. She would have talked to him for a while, but she doesn't go out to meet people--you think she talked to him on that computer," Mahalia says. "Like eHarmony or one of them dating services."
Hafidha is too good at what she does to glance at Daphne or Chaz. "Your children didn't get away with anything, did they, Mrs. Nemechek."
Mahalia smiles, waves one hand. "I read Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers when I was young," she says. "These days Grace Edwards, Sara Paretsky, Barbara Hambly... I love mystery stories. Doesn't matter if I work out who did it before the end."
"That happens a lot?"
"These days," Mahalia nods. "I don't mind not being surprised. So when you fix up that drive, you can find where Chrissy went on the computer? Find her e-mail and see who she talked to?"
"Yes, ma'am, that's exactly what we'll do," Hafidha agrees. "From her computer, we can ask for more information from the companies she dealt with if we need it, but her drive will tell us who we need to ask."
"He did that," Mahalia says. "The man you're looking for, the one who took her. He put one of those viruses on her computer, so he could destroy her hard drive any time he wanted to. Can you fix it?"
"I will fix it. In fact, I should check to see how it's doing...excuse me a minute, Mrs. Nemechek."
Chaz starts asking Mrs. Nemechek about whether Christina went to jumble sales or thrift shops for her decorating, and Hafidha bends over her laptop, purposefully placing her hands on the keyboard. Many of the files are reconstructed, but some are too corrupted to repair. It would have to be enough.
Hafs mouses through the directory tree, noting that Christina's history and bookmarks were among those too corrupt to reconstruct completely. Targeted, possibly. It's what she would have done. She listens to Mahalia talk about Christina's teacup collection and clicks manually to open up Thunderbird.
It happens while the load splash is up. A buzzing, twanging instant that sours her mouth with the taste of metal, a bit of code sending a ping she didn't send--
Hafs pinches off her internet access with an annoyed flare of her nostrils...and then lets it loose, watching the little distortion speed away.
"Guys," she says, straightening up, "I found a Trojan."
"You set it loose," Daphne says, and lets her head fall back on the headrest with a thump. Harrisburg is behind them, Christina Nemechek's hard drive carefully wrapped in an antistatic envelope tucked inside a bubble mailer, sealed in a ziploc bag with an Evidence sticker on it, relevant paperwork stacked beneath.
"I set it loose," Hafidha agrees. "Impulse, but I think it's fine. I want the guy to freak out a little bit."
"He'll go to ground," Chaz says. "Or else he'll want to prove his wits."
"But you don't know which," Daphne says.
"He'll want to see who restored his hard drive. He'll want to know who is after him. He won't be able to resist. And while he's watching, he's going to see a technical analyst who plays World of Warcraft. Chaz, you feel like taking Unguilded out for a spin and driving the twinks of Emberstorm insane?"
"Me and Daphne?"
"You and Daphne. I'll bake you a pie."
"But what will you eat, Wabbit?"
"I'll manage. Wish we could have tried that barbecue, though," Hafs says. "Speaking of, I'm starved, and I don't want to eat the other Powerbar."
"No one on defense," Daphne calls. "Again."
"Going back," Chaz responds, and the green-haired troll lopes across the field, returning to Warsong Hold. "Oh hi, mage headed for tunnel--"
"Box him in?"
"Daphne, you have a goat on the roof, hold by the flag," Hafidha cuts in.
"You saw that while you were making us pie?"
"That's a 51 inch LCD, honey. I can see his nose hairs."
Daphne keeps her gaze locked on the screen of the guest laptop she's using. "It's too big, I don't see how you can play like that."
"You get used to it," Hafidha says. "There he is again."
"Saw him," Daphne answers, and hits the draenei with a scatter shot, lays down an explosive trap, and jumps violently backwards, firing mid-flight. "How you doing, Platypus?"
"Coming," Chaz responds, and arrives just in time to click on the dropped Horde flag. "Ninja return!"
"Typical, I do all the work, you swoop in for the glory," Daphne says. "Wanna try and break that turtle?"
Chaz stretches his legs and raises the laptop, settling it back on his thighs. "We can if we get a healer."
"I have to be Hafs right now." Daphne practices running Hafidha's troll hunter, jumping, and twitching the mouse so her character faces the way she came.
"I'm apologizing for the inconvenience with pie. Two ovens' worth. Two!" Hafs holds one aloft like a trophy, and slides it into the oven and sets the timer.
"But what will Chaz eat?"
"Fried chicken," he says. "That I will make, while you are me. How's the UNSUB snare?"
Hafs doesn't need to look up from washing the mixing bowls. There's no disturbance in her hived off network, no dissonance of an intruder. Holding that small piece in her mind is easy. "He hasn't found it. Maybe he ran."
"You think he would?"
"If he's smart, he did. But curiosity kills the cat. Nearly done?"
"Alliance is holed up in their base. I'm ready to throw the match just to get out of here," Daphne answers.
"Yeah, do it. The pies are in. I'll shake the bait a little more."
Hafidha puts her good rolling pin back in its place, gives the counters a once-over with a rag, and tags Chaz's high five as she flumps down on the couch. "Switch."
Daphne hands her one laptop, Chaz hands his over to Daphne, and Hafidha manually alt-tabs out of idling in Orgrimmar to mimic a baseline tech looking over a task in the background. She opens Thunderbird on Christina Nemechek's hard drive again, and sets the little packet free--
It's bigger, this time. Only 16 bytes bigger. As small a Trojan as she could manage ...and she watches it ping and bounce and leap across continents, until it stalls on a server in Cambodia. "Oh hell. He's got his data stopping offshore."
"Basically the program that he was using to tell him whenever Christina Nemechek used her computer doesn't go directly to where he is. It's stopped in Cambodia. Probably an account with one of their ISPs."
"Can you even get a warrant for that?" Daphne asks.
Hafs shakes her head and calls up the trace. "Camnet. Hmm, what the heck is--oh, ha! They're old, all right, their website brags about offering TelNet. So how did he get an account--oh you didn't," Hafidha cackles, and leans back. "Hired gun. He went over there to work. He got an account, and he kept it."
"So you can trace him by looking up all the American programmers who ever got a permission to work in Cambodia in the last fifteen years?"
"Only if he was really dumb and I break international laws."
"Are you going to?"
"No. I'm going to sit right here and wait for that packet to come out. I've got evidence sitting in my server closet right now pretending to be in Washington, which is so not Justice Department SOP. Let's not push it."
"I done caught me a wabbit," Hafidha says, and her indigo-haired troll jumps into the air, spins one-eighty, and flies "backward" at top speed--straight to Daphne on her troll shaman, and away from the crowd of pursuers trying to take the Alliance flag back.
"Did you No-Hands that Disengage?"
"Nope! All manual," Hafidha says as they run up the tunnel--Hafs dropping an Ice Trap partway up--straight into the battle at the Horde flag. Hafs checks the mental map of her network snare and watches that one dot, tiny and as irritating as a dead pixel, touching one port after another alongside her connection to World of Warcraft servers in Washington State. "He's quietly creeping up my network. Or at least wondering how he can creep up what he thinks is my network."
"So he caught your addition to his Trojan?" Chaz asks over sizzles and pops. He's standing in the kitchen, carefully lowering chicken pieces coated in spices and flour into a pot half-full of hot oil. Hafs is already yearning for a piece.
"As planned. Oh no no, kitty, you don't get our flag today--" Hafs's pink scorpion pet scampers across the room in pursuit, as Hafs scatter-shots the feral druid into losing player control for the few seconds her team needs to focus attack and get their flag back.
Daphne clicks the flag for return, and Hafs, standing on the return point, wins the last cap of the match.
"What can I say? I know my triage, Miss Top Damage."
"Hafs," Chaz suddenly says, and something in his voice makes her stop and turn to look.
"You can see him," he says. "What if he can see you?"
"You mean, can he figure out that WoW isn't all I'm doing."
"Yes. Hold on," Chaz says, and turns all the burners to low. Then he's standing behind Hafs, hands on her shoulders. "I don't know if this will work, but you've got one shot at this, so--"
"What are you doing?"
"I'm checking him with the mirror. I want to know what he's assuming. You're a tech. You had the drive passed off, you took another look because if you can scrape up more data, your boss will be impressed. So you're cheating a bit, checking the drive mounted remotely with authorization to the Washington servers, checking in on it with remote desktop in between Warsong Gulch matches. Proving you can hold your own with the boys."
Hafidha nods and leaves Zaiyia the hunter dancing in Orgrimmar while she blinks the big screen tv into showing a graphical representation of her virtual network.
"That's him right there," she says, making one dot bright orange--then the flight tower of the Horde capital flashes back into sight, as Zaiyia jumps on a windrider taxi for an unnecessary flight to Thunder Bluff. "And I have no clue, right? the great Girl Geek is getting hacked."
"Making it all the sweeter when he pokes his way around your security. He found your addition to his Trojan, he knows the buck stopped in Cambodia...he's going to find out what you know and why the feds looked at Christina Nemechek's computer, all without you noticing. Because you aren't noticing."
"Just going to see if I can play the auction house in peace," Hafidha says. "Too bad I left those ports open, hey?"
"Yeah, who'd think of that?" Daphne agrees. "I'm going to keep playing my Death knight."
"DKs are so OP."
"Says the Hunter!"
"He's requesting directory information..." a tiny packet trips up the line, and Hafs watches it fly across the world and back, across the dense points of light that mark the servers attached to the Internet, tracing through his path until it lands in a bright smear of computers and servers in the Midwest. "Oh got you, you punk. Minnesota," she says. "Minneapolis has a field office, close by, that's good. Who's holding down the desks here at home--" Hafs looks up to the huge LCD; it obliges by changing the display to a list. "Sol? No. Pauley. Daphne?"
"Phoning. What should I tell him?"
"Tell him to check his email, and that we've got a person of interest in the murders of Theresa Lee Strong, Jacqueline Kinkaid, Belinda Green and Christina Nemechek sitting in Minneapolis, and we need to send some field feebs over there to pick him up."
"Right," Daphne says. "And how are you doing with your bait?"
Chaz answers "He still thinks she's not noticing him."
"Because I'm trolling Trade Channel right now with Thunderfury, Blessed Blade of the Windseeker," Hafs chuckles.
"He's getting the drop on the FBI, because he's just that smart. Also talented," Chaz murmurs.
"Oh right, silly me. Meanwhile, our UNSUB has tracerouted back to me, and I have his neighborhood. Though there's a lot of apartment buildings with highspeed...got a cross street. Fourth Avenue and First Street. On screen..." Hafs makes her big LCD pop up Google Maps, zooming down and down and down until she's looking at photos of the intersection.
"Okay. That's a nice neighborhood, I'd buy an apartment there...now." The view pops back to a map, but then a film pops over it, blacking out spots that represent buildings. "Eliminating every address where the person who owns it also lives there. This guy hasn't put down roots. He's renting, subletting, maybe from a management company. Now separating every address that doesn't have a monthly internet bill."
"You think he's hacking someone's router?"
"It's risky, but he might be that arrogant. A lot of people don't monitor access to their router, they just put up a password and leave it at that. All right. Now let's see, are any of these people named John Victor? Of course not! that would be too easy. Are any of those people first name J and last name V?"
"You think he aliases with the same initials?"
"Monograms are expensive. Annnd we have a bingo. James Vlasak rents a stylish psuedo-loft. He's in his fifth month of a six month lease at this address... and he's a Master of Computer Science from Caltech. Never works anywhere for more than a year, and oh, look. He just moved from Philadelphia last autumn."
"You are generating paperwork for this."
"Such a buzzkill. Tell Pauley to check his email again. And--hey Pete! We just need you to hold this guy down until we can come and get him."
"He says is he dangerous."
"Don't assume he isn't," Hafs says. "Definitely don't assume he isn't. Actually. Tell the field agents to take the stairs, and cut the power to the unit. The whole building if they have to. Or he'll format the evidence." In a lower voice, she appends, "With his brain."
"You think he can do that?"
"It's what I would do," Hafs says. "Now let's keep him busy."
Hafs logs out of World of Warcraft and starts laboriously typing an email report about how tricky it will be to restore any more data from Christina Nemechek's hard drive. She's halfway through a request to attempt to determine how such a sophisticated program could wreak havoc with erasing computer evidence when Fishfood abruptly blips out of her network.
Chaz stands up straight, and the warm pressure of his hands leaves Hafs's shoulders. Hafidha twists around to look up at him, then holds up a gentle fist.
Chaz touches her knuckles with his own, and murmurs, "Wonder-Twin powers, de-activate."
In the silence, Daphne's phone buzzes.
Chaz and Hafs turn to look at her, and she raises her chin. "He's dead. And he shot an officer, she's going to be okay, but Pauley says he only talked to them to lull them all in before he went suicide by cop."
"Can they identify him?"
"They're going to...yes, call us back," Daphne says. "Pauley says he needs to talk to the agents on site. And that he got your emails. And can you meet him on Monday."
"Yes, yes I can," Hafs agrees.
Daphne ends the call.
"If it were me, I would have taken monitoring control of the security camera network. Cutting the power was the right thing to do," Hafs says. "And may I say that I'm kind of creeped that I beat this guy by working out what would beat me."
"You may," Daphne says. "How could they have arrested him? How could they even get him in a squad car? I mean, if he can do what you can do...everything's computerized now. Everything." She sighs. "Dad's not gonna be happy."
"We couldn't have taken him alive," Chaz says. "He didn't need anyone to understand what he was doing."
"Hungrier than a gang of hobbits. Are they a gang?" Hafidha asks, and takes another bite out of a Ding Dong to keep her steady. Fried chicken rests on paper, blotting away the oil. It smells so good Hafs is ready to eat standing before her grill pan.
"Naw, it's a buffet of hobbits," Chaz says, putting dirty dishes in the dishwasher.
"Are you sure?"
"Of course I'm sure, I just made it up this instant."
"Now that's the authority we need around here," Hafs says, and pulses gently sauteed mushrooms and onions into a puree with her right hand while flipping three-cheese grilled sandwiches with her left. Fast food--as fast as scratch gets, at least, and easily divisible between jammers and baselines, with pie to follow.
"Maybe we should order in. I'm gonna be hungry again in an hour, and there might not be any pie."
Daphne snorts and starts to set the table. Her phone rings again, and she answers. Then she looks up.
"Pete says they found a room full of photographs and display cases with jewelry. The computer has movies. Photographs were printed on photo paper, from digital sources. Christina Nemechek--there's photographs of her. It's--it's reasonable to assume that she is dead."
"I figured she had to be," Hafs says. "But I wish...oh, damn it."
"She helped us find him, Wabbit. If it wasn't for her, we'd still be looking. He might have gotten whoever was next."
"Nothing's going to taste good now," she says, but she slides sandwiches to the cutting board.
"Are you still dizzy, Hafs?"
"I'll live, I'm pretty sure."
Daphne picks up a fistful of flatware. "Okay. What did you do? With the…the Wonder Twins bit. You did something. The both of you."
"You remember the jellybean thing?" Chaz asks, between stirring cream into the saucepan full of cream of mushroom soup.
"The jellybean thing. You mean the day you got that picture of your mom?"
"That's it. I was explaining to Hafs about how I won all those guess-the-jellybeans-in-the-jar things, and she got the idea to model it on a computer so she could see how I see it--and so I could see how other people see it. So I explained, and she put it on the screen."
"We started out wondering if we could do it together, but Chaz said it wouldn't work that way. This time, though..." Hafs says, slicing sandwiches in half. "Chaz…got in front of me, used the mirror so Fishfood--James Vlasak--would believe what he most wanted to believe. That he was a better hacker than any girl wonder who could slog her way through the soul-killing bureaucracy of the feds, so he never took a moment to wonder if it wasn't too easy."
Daphne freezes in place, her fingers still on the handle of the soup spoon she just set down on a teal blue placemat.
"You can influence people's thoughts," Daphne says. "From hundreds of miles away."
"No. I only used the mirror. And the distance was only possible with Hafs in the link. I can't connect across computer networks. She can."
"Are you going to tell anyone?"
Hafidha looks at Chaz just as his mismatched eyes drift and catch hers.
"What do you think they'll do if we tell them?"
"You think they'll get scared."
"I think they'll get the guy with all the keys who was going to kidnap E.T. Celentano would have a cat," Chaz says.
"Reyes would--" Hafidha goes silent, looks at Chaz, at Daphne. "I don't know what he'd do. And I don't want to speculate. And I don't want to know, right now."
"We'll decide together," Chaz promises.
Chaz holds his right hand up. Hafs links it.
After a moment, Daphne does, too.