The knock at his door was expected. It was the short, rotund man he found in the hallway outside his apartment when he answered the knock, that surprised Evan. Dark brown eyes, slightly too close together, peered up at him from under an unkempt mop of black hair, and a three-day growth of dark stubble on the round face made Evan think a vagrant had wandered into his building. The inexpensive rumpled sport coat draping the pudgy frame, however, screamed out civil servant or law enforcement. Maybe both.
“Yes?” Evan asked. “May I help you?”
In response the disheveled little man slipped a hand into an inner pocket of his coat and removed a black vinyl wallet. He held it out and let it fall open where Evan could see it. Inside the wallet was a gold badge and an identification card with the man’s picture displayed prominently, stubble and all. Above the picture, the words CALICO DISTRICT PAROLE stood out in black capital letters. Beneath was the name, Agent Dandy Arbuckle.
“I believe we have an appointment, Mr. Fulton,” said Agent Arbuckle, placing the wallet back into his coat pocket.
“Oh, of course. Sure,” said Evan. “I was expecting … someone else. What happened to Tina?”
Agent Arbuckle’s face screwed up as if he smelled something rancid emanating from Evan’s apartment.
“It is precisely that type of unacceptable familiarity that led to Agent Burich’s reassignment to another office. I have been given most of her case files for this area, as if I don’t already have enough work of my own.”
“Tina got transferred?”
“Let me make this simple, Mr. Fulton. We are not friends, and we are not, nor will we ever be, on a first name basis. You will address me as Agent Arbuckle, and I will in turn call you Mr. Fulton or, if I feel it is warranted, ‘parolee.’ Is that clear?”
“Perfectly clear, Agent Arbuckle,” said Evan, mentally adding, Dandy.
“May I come in?” Agent Arbuckle held out a hand, indicating the interior of Evan’s apartment.
The request was merely a formality. Evan understood that regardless of the answer he gave, the parole agent was going to come inside. The only choice Evan had was whether the entry would be courteous or physically violent. He stepped back and held the door open.
“Please come in,” he said.
Agent Arbuckle crossed the threshold into the apartment without a thank-you or any acknowledgment of the invitation. His eyes scanned the common room of the one bedroom apartment, taking in the bare walls, limited furniture, and small kitchenette, before coming back to rest on Evan.
“You have been following the terms of your parole?”
“I have,” agreed Evan. He gestured toward a small, round table beside the kitchenette. Two chairs bracketed the table, one on each side. “Would you care to sit? Can I get you anything? Coffee? A glass of water?”
“No, thank you. I’m fine, and I’ll stand.”
Agent Arbuckle reached into his right pants pocket and pulled out a cylindrical black box, about the size of a golf ball. Trailing from the box was a six-inch cord ending in a copper jack that resembled the head of a retractable pen.
Evan sighed. “Really? Is this absolutely necessary?”
“It is. This is our first meeting, and it is my responsibility to make sure that all requirements for your continued parole status are being met. Please turn around and show me your port.”
Evan sighed again, then did as he was told. He faced away from the parole agent and reached behind his head. Sweeping his hair aside, he revealed a surgically installed, metal opening at the base of his skull. This was his port, his connection to the Wire. Or at least it had been, until the judge had ordered it permanently turned off.
He felt Agent Arbuckle’s hand on top of his head, then a scraping at the port that vibrated along the entire length of his skull. It reminded Evan of a dentist’s drill on his teeth while using a local anesthetic; not painful, just deeply disturbing and unpleasant . The parole agent was less than gentle as he plugged in the port activity monitor, and the experience left Evan feeling slightly violated.
“You don’t need to push it all the way through my head, you know.”
“Shut up and hold still,” growled the agent. “Ah, green light. Zero activity. Very good.”
Evan felt the monitor pull free. The extraction of the foreign presence was no more pleasant than the insertion. With a mental curse at the agent, he removed his hand and let his hair fall back into place.
“I suppose you want to search my apartment next?” suggested Evan, turning to face Arbuckle. “Do you want the tour or shall I just sit and let you tear everything apart?”
“No, not today, thank you. Maybe next time. This was just an initial meet and greet, Mr. Fulton. I wanted to make sure you understood your relationship with the parole office from this point forward is going to be much different. We will continue our monthly scheduled appointments, but I will also be dropping in on you for a few surprise visits as well, just to be sure you are following the rules.”
“Surprise visits? You mean during the day, right? Or are you planning to show up in the middle of the night to make sure I’m sleeping a full eight hours?”
“Can’t say, Mr. Fulton. That would ruin the surprise, wouldn’t it? Besides, I haven’t decided yet. I suppose it depends on how cooperative you are and how much attention I think you need. At the moment, I feel as if you are going to need quite a bit of attention from me. I don’t think I trust you, Mr. Fulton.”
Agent Arbuckle suddenly smiled. “But we shall see, won’t we?”
Before Evan could respond, the parole agent exited his apartment without another word. He did not bother closing the door as he left, and Evan was forced to secure it behind him.
Turning the latch to secure the deadbolt lock, Evan muttered, “I hope you’re not going to be a problem for me, Dandy.”
Putting all thoughts of Agent Dandy Arbuckle aside, Evan decided it was time to get some work done. He strolled to the couch in the middle of the main room—a blue cloth behemoth he had purchased at a yard sale—and pushed the enormous piece of furniture forward several feet. The throw rug he had placed underneath made moving the couch easier and prevented the feet from doing any damage to the cheap laminate covering the apartment floor.
With the couch out of the way, he knelt down and felt for the slender seam in the flooring that marked his favorite hiding spot. He pressed down at opposite ends of the disguised cover until he heard a small click, then lifted it away to reveal a hole, one meter square and twenty centimeters deep. From inside the hole, he removed his laptop computer.
The laptop was a violation of his parole requirements. It was by no means his worst transgression, still, it would be enough to send him back to prison if Agent Dandy were ever to find out about it.
He placed the computer on the table, turned it on, and uncoiled a length of cable running from one of the machine’s connection ports. The opposite end of the cable, he plugged into the port in the back of his head. Next, he reached over his shoulder and searched along his spine until he located the small node between his third and fourth thoracic vertebrae.
This sub-cranial switch was the real violation. He would not just go back to prison if it were discovered, the District would have him lobotomized for tampering with a judge-ordered, deactivated port. They might even have him tortured first, hoping to get the name of the doctor that installed the switch. It would do them little good, however. He didn’t know the guy’s name.
Sub-cranial switches were illegal in all twenty-three districts of the country. Doctors could lose their licenses and face hefty fines for installing one. Fortunately for Evan, there were always medics on the fringe of society willing to overlook the legality of the surgery if you had the right leverage or offered enough financial incentive. It had only taken Evan two weeks after being released to find someone willing to give him a switch.
The surgery was dangerous as well as illegal. Easily half of the attempted procedures failed, and many of those failures resulted in physical paralysis, brain damage, or worse. Evan did not care about the risks. He did not fear death. He had even made the doctor installing the switch promise not to wake him up if the surgery failed. Without a functional port, he could not access the Wire. He needed the Wire, and not just to make an income. Without the Wire, what was the point in living?
Death was preferable to life without the Wire.
Evan depressed the node in his spine and was rewarded with an immediate rush of sights, smells, and sounds. The world of the Wire rushed into his mind with all its welcome cacophony and visual clutter. He let the tidal wave of sensations rush over him for several minutes, simply relishing the feeling of being connected.
When the noise and colors began to settle into more coherent pictures, he typed a few brief commands into his laptop.
“Where are you, Puss? It’s time to get paid. Ah, there you are, baby. Don’t just sit there, come on in.”
Evan saw the metal fire escape on his balcony and smelled the putrid stink of the city on the breeze. The wind ruffled his fur and caused him to squint against the sting of dirt in his eyes. The window beside him was raised and provided enough room for him to enter the apartment. He jumped through the opening.
Evan watched the white Persian cat enter through his window and he saw himself standing in the apartment through the animal’s keen blue eyes. The dual vision was disorienting, and he was forced to temporarily end the link.
When it was only Evan’s own senses operating once again, he snapped his fingers several times, calling the cat to him.
“Hey, Puss. Good to see you. Are you ready to go have some fun?”
He petted the animal’s thick fur and was rewarded with a heavy rumbling purr from the cat.
“This job shouldn’t take too long, then you can go back to lounging outside or chasing birds or whatever you were doing out there on the fire escape. You’re going to need those upgrades for this one, though.”
Evan spent a few seconds typing on his laptop, activating several cybernetic features he himself had implanted into Puss. He was proud of his wet-tech ability, and for good reason. People paid him well for access to his expertise. When the computer indicated all upgrades were functional, he re-established his connection to Puss, closing his eyes this time to prevent the double vision. When he was again seeing the world from the Persian’s peculiar vantage, he sent Puss back through the window.
Evan/Puss slithered down the fire escape to street level and bolted away at speeds no normal cat could ever hope to match. He passed pedestrians and bicyclists like they were statues erected simply as obstacles to his travels. Even the cars in the roadway seemed to crawl along at a pace that allowed him to dart across streets with impunity.
His target today was four miles further into the heart of the city, but at Puss’ enhanced speed, he reached the area in under five minutes.
The building he wanted was another apartment complex. It too had an external emergency ladder system along one side of the structure facing an alley. Puss darted into the alley, disappearing into the shadows of a Dumpster . Evan allowed the cat to sit unmoving for several minutes, letting its organic muscles and circulatory system settle back to normal after the tech-assisted race across the city. He used the time to examine the building.
Evan scanned the alley side of the apartments, visually locating the fourth floor and counting seven windows from right to left. The window in question was open, allowing the breeze to gently shift a set of white cotton curtains in and out. Perfect. The resident of that apartment had made some dangerous enemies in the past month. Those enemies had hired Evan.
For the past week, Evan/Puss spent hours each day in this alleyway, learning the habits of the occupant in apartment 412. This particular tenant also owned a cat, just like Evan, although the yellow tabby in this building was pure housecat with none of the technological assistance built into Puss. Also, like Evan, the tenant left his back window open during specific times of the day to allow his cat to go outside and prowl the neighborhood. That habit was going to be Puss’ way in.
When Puss was fully rested, Evan sent her up. With a running start, Puss reached the first-floor landing of the fire escape in one majestic leap. She padded silently up the metal stairs to the fourth floor, found the open window, and darted inside.
Inside the apartment, Evan smelled the other cat. The odor caused his hackles to rise and he found himself wanting to hiss in challenge. Fortunately, the tabby did not appear to be in the apartment at the moment.
“Easy, Puss,” he said out loud to calm both himself and the outraged Persian. “We’re not here to start a catfight. Stick to the plan.”
Puss did calm down as a new scent reached her. Evan felt the change in the cat’s demeanor immediately. His blood pressure climbed slightly, and an odd sense of euphoria filled his mind. His gaze darted around the main room of the apartment searching for the source of the smell, then he pounced, claws extended for a small grey ball lying beside a wicker cat bed.
Triumphantly, Evan held up the prize in his mouth.
“Catnip!” Evan grunted with frustration. “Puss, drop it. Focus. Come on, baby, let’s get this job done.”
Puss dropped the catnip ball obediently, albeit reluctantly. She resumed her hunt through the apartment until she heard sounds of movement coming from the bathroom. She prowled along the short hallway and settled herself beside the partially closed bathroom door, letting Evan peruse the situation. The occupant was seated on the toilet reading something on his personal handlink, unaware that company had joined him.
“Do we wait until he’s finished, or should we go in now and take care of business, so to speak?” Evan chuckled at his weak attempt at humor. “What do you think, Puss?”
Puss said nothing; merely waited patiently for directions.
“Yeah, I think we should get this over with.”
Evan pulled his focus from Puss’ mind long enough to type new commands into his computer. Puss extended her claws. They were sharp, metallic, and each of the curved weapons was over three centimeters long.
Evan/Puss marched into the bathroom.
The victim on the toilet barely had enough time to register that the cat sauntering in was not his own, before Puss leapt onto him, hissing and scratching. Deep cuts opened in his exposed flesh under Puss’ enhanced claws; painful wounds that drew bright red gouts of blood.
Evan struck carefully and precisely, ensuring the injuries were grave, but not fatal. This man’s enemies did not want him dead, at least not yet. This was only supposed to be a warning.
When Evan’s victim could no longer fight back and had curled himself into a sobbing ball of blood and misery in the corner of the bathroom floor, Evan backed away. He hopped up onto the counter and faced the mirror. Using the blood on Puss’ paws, he drew a heart on the mirror with three dots beside it. Three paw prints actually, as Puss’ artistic talents were limited by her feline anatomy.
The heart was supposed to be a message from the people who hired Evan. They did not tell him what the symbol meant, only explained that the job was not finished until he had delivered it.
The man on the floor went deathly still when he saw the drawing. His eyes grew wide. Apparently, he understood the message.
Evan jumped down from the bathroom counter. His victim curled himself tighter into the corner, perhaps anticipating further violence, but Evan had already earned his payment and saw no reason to prolong the conflict.
A bell chimed.
Evan glanced around, startled. Was his victim expecting guests? No, that ringing wasn’t in the man’s apartment. It was in Evan’s.
Evan withdrew his consciousness from Puss’ mind and checked his computer screen. In the upper right corner of the screen, an image from his apartment’s hallway security monitor had popped up. It showed Agent Arbuckle exiting the elevator onto Evan’s floor.
“What the hell is he doing back here?” Evan muttered, but there was no time to ponder the answer to that question.
Evan ordered Puss to clean herself up and return home as soon as possible, then he snapped his computer closed. With no time to be gentle, he tore the jack from his skull port, scooped up the hardware from his table and deposited it in its hiding place in the floor. Evan snapped the cover in place and had just managed to push the couch back over the false flooring when he heard the agent knocking on his door.
The knock was loud and forceful, and perhaps a bit longer than absolutely necessary.
With a last glance around the apartment to be sure nothing was out of place, Evan opened the door.
“Agent Arbuckle, what are you…?”
The parole agent did not wait to be invited in this time. He pushed Evan aside and strode into the apartment as if it were his name on the lease.
“Mr. Fulton. I warned you I would come by for a surprise visit, and here I am.”
“You were here less than an hour ago,” said Evan, confused.
“And I’m sure you are surprised to see me. Aren’t you?”
Agent Arbuckle slipped his hand into his right front pants pocket. Evan’s heart kicked into overdrive. He realized in his haste to hide the computer he had forgotten to deactivate his spinal switch. His port was fully functional at the moment, and if Dandy decided he wanted to do another activity check as part of his surprise inspection, Evan would be standing in front of another District judge by the end of the day.
He breathed a silent sigh of relief when Arbuckle’s hand came out of his pocket empty.
“What’s the matter, Mr. Fulton? You seem a bit pale. Did I catch you at a bad time?”
“No,” Evan said quickly. “You didn’t catch me doing anything, but I am a bit bothered by the suddenness of this second visit. There is such a thing as harassment, you know. If you don’t have any grounds to be back here, I could report you to your superiors.”
“But I do have grounds,” Arbuckle assured him, a smarmy grin on his face. “I realized that when you offered to let me search your apartment, I should have done it. I’m back to correct that oversight.”
Evan did not respond. What could he say? He swept his arm out to the side, inviting the agent to go ahead. When Arbuckle did not move, Evan walked over to the couch and sat down.
“Just let me know when you’re done. And try not to break anything while you’re digging through my stuff.”
Arbuckle smiled again. “I’m not stupid, Mr. Fulton.”
The agent walked over to stand in front of Evan.
“Get up. Go sit at the table. I’m going to search this couch first.”
Evan rose slowly, then moved over to the table, sitting in the same chair he had been in seconds ago when Arbuckle showed up.
Arbuckle shook a finger in Evan’s direction. “You would be surprised how many criminals try to hide things from me by sitting on them. I guess they figure I won’t look somewhere if they put their ass on top of it. But I’m smarter than that. I let them show me exactly where they don’t want me to look.”
The agent removed each of the couch cushions, one at a time, unzipping the coverings and running his hands through the insides. Next, he checked the arms and backing for signs of tears or tampering. He even got onto his knees and swept a hand underneath the couch, looking for anything that may have been hurriedly tucked away when he turned up so unexpectedly.
Fortunately for Evan, although Arbuckle’s search was thorough, the agent never pushed the couch aside to find out what might be under the throw rug.
Arbuckle stood up holding a stale French fry he had discovered hiding under the couch.
“Oh, damn. You caught me,” said Evan, wryly. “I know junk food is bad for me, but sometimes I just can’t help myself.”
Arbuckle dropped the fry on top of one of the discarded couch cushions. He clapped his hands together, dusting them off. His amused grin was gone. “Everything seems in order. This time. For your sake, I hope it remains that way.”
“Mm-hmm,” replied Evan.
Arbuckle repeated his earlier exit, storming silently out the door and leaving it open in his wake. Evan closed and locked it.
“See you in another hour, asshole,” he said, hoping the statement wasn’t true.
After pulling the couch back together, he sat down and waited. It was only a few minutes later that he heard a soft thump on the floor behind him and a muffled meow. He turned to see Puss sitting on the ground with a grey ball in her mouth.
“You couldn’t leave the catnip behind, could you?” he asked the purring Persian. “I get it. Sometimes you just have to take what you want, circumstances be damned. I almost got caught today, too.”
He got up and moved over to kneel next to Puss. He stroked her long white fur, enjoying the warm feel of her, but also searching for any stray blood spatters. She was clean.
“Speaking of getting caught, I think Agent Dandy is going to become a problem. After I get you something to eat, how would you feel about another little outing this evening?”
Puss dropped the catnip ball, pinning it to the ground with one paw. She looked at Evan and meowed.
“That’s my girl,” said Evan, scratching under Puss’ chin. He rose and walked into the kitchenette. “So, what’ll it be? Do you feel like tuna or beef?”