By Cindy and Walt
It finally looked as though I had some options. I could move on without any suspicion falling on me. I could also stay right where I was and enjoy the fruits of my labors. I was making a little money from the art world, but far from enough to cover my expenses. At best it was break even, if I could live on air and live in the woods.
Still I had about half a million dollars spread over accounts in Mossberg and Forest Grove. I also had an empty battery pack worth about $25,000 in cash once it was converted from gold and silver bars.
In theory I could run fast and run far from Mossberg Alabama at the drop of a hat. I just didn’t feel as though I was finished with Mossberg just yet. I had a pretty strong sense that none of my sins were going to find me out. So there was no pressure on me to leave town.
In the two months following Sam’s funeral, I had developed a reputation. My plan to shoot photos and get releases to make drawing had paid off. I gave away about three dozen photographs, but I sold over a dozen drawings at $250 each. The buyers must have seen something in them. Why else would that pay so much for so little. Of course I really was getting good at my trade as well.
It didn’t hurt that the drawing always made the people look younger or more noble than they were in real life. Some of the buyers told me it made their loved ones more real than the photograph. I always appreciated the compliments but I didn’t let them go to my head. I knew I wasn’t as good at Luis with the shading and subtle little touches yet.
I had also made six drawings for my show. They were all original but not limited to one from the same photograph. I usually made three to five and numbered them. It was my plan to hold on till the summer festival season, so I could travel to some of them.
The image I drew of Miss Sadie was a hit with several of her kids and grandkids. I was glad to make the sales, but I almost hated to take their money. I knew I was in business to make a profit, but Miss Sadie had given me a heads up to a lot of things which I needed to know.
I was busy hunting for after Christmas festivals and finding none, when I got an email. One I would not have expected in a million years. It was from Andrew and came in on the dead drop petunia address.
‘Looking forward to our meeting on the Sunday the 21, see you then. silver bear xx.’
I remembered the keys very well. The meeting meant he was coming to me. So I hadn’t hidden from him after all. The xx meant subtract two to the all numbers inside the message. He would be in town on the 19th. That was the next day. He didn’t give me a time, so I just had to stay near the burner phone. The one I had used to call Silvia.
I had a hard time sleeping I was so pissed at myself. I thought for sure I had been careful enough but obviously I had not. I slept until 4 AM when the burner rang two times then stopped. It was not a message with which I was familiar, but I figured it meant come down stairs and let me inside. I did just that.
In the five months I had been gone Andrew had improved. He walked with a cane but wasn’t leaning on it nearly as much. He took a couple of steps without using it at all. When he was off the street, the SUV that dropped him pulled away. I hugged Andrew because I was really glad to see someone I didn’t have to pretend with.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” I asked.
“I could ask you the same thing,” he replied. He looked around before adding. “What is it about the women in this business. None of you live anywhere normal.”
“It fits my new life. These days I’m known as a crazy artist,” I admitted. “So I try to appear to be struggling. It makes the people appreciate what I do for them more.
“Don’t you want to know how I found you?” he asked. He was obviously dying to tell me but I couldn’t resist.
“It’s been almost three months since Wilson send me the dead drop files. I’m guessing he used the same parameters, the ones I set for him, to follow the newspaper reports of missing girls updates,” I said.
“Exactly we did some checking. It was good to see you still can out think anyone I ever met. Did you kill that Sam guy?”
“It was someone else,” I said.
“Good it was sloppy,” Andrew said.
“You do what you can with what you have,” I suggested. “I’m a little surprised it took you this long. I thought one of my customers was an agent of yours. She bought one of my drawings of a stray dog,” I said.
“Really she wasn’t ours. Frankly she may be why I’m here though. We aren’t the only ones looking for you,” he said.
“Homeland Security?” I asked.
“No, it’s a private security force. They are not as familiar with your colorful past. I just wanted to give you a heads up,” Andrew said.
“Come on, you didn’t drive all this way to tell me I have an admirer,” I suggested. “So why are you really here?”
“It is really was one of the reasons. The other is if they contact you, we would like for you to accept the job,” he admitted.
“You want a spy inside?” I asked.
“That’s what they want, I think,” Andrew said. “Anyway if you are inside we can have some idea whether they are the good guys or the bad guys.”
“Hell Andrew you know you can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys without a program,” I said.
“True, but will you do it?” he asked.
“I will talk to them, if they show. I’ll try to figure out what it’s all about. That is all I will promise,” I said.
“That’s fair enough,” he said. He grew quiet then asked, “So how you doing?”
“I’m fine and thanks for asking. The wolves didn’t get me, even after you threw me out on the tundra,” I said.
“Either you have been watching Eskimo shows on TV, or you are losing your mind,” he said.
“Both,” I replied. “And a flair for the dramatic as well.”
“That is for sure. You never do anything in a small way. So are you really doing alright?” he asked.
“I’m fine I get bored some, but I manage,” I said.
“We would love to have you come back but I’m afraid we are staked out by somebody looking for you. They have a description but nothing else,” he said.
“Yes they would look around the Camps. One day I would be there,” I agreed.
I couldn’t go back to sleep after he left, so I made coffee and waited for the sun.
Christmas came and went that year almost unnoticed by me. I still worried about getting caught up in Sam’s murder investigation. It was three more months before it was accepted by everyone that Sam had killed himself. True to his nature, he had wanted the last laugh. At least that is what the people who knew him said.
The people who knew him personally also gave a great sigh of relief. The parents of three of the girls also got some closure. It was a horrible way to think of your daughters last hours but they no longer were tormented by the phone which never rang.
March came in like a wounded Lion. Temperatures were mild to me but it rained a bunch. The rain even in the mild temperature made the weather pretty miserable. I still hadn’t set any summer festivals. They were either too far away for the trike, or on dates to which I was reluctant to commit. Summer was for play, I decided.
So I continued to work on my portfolio. I also worked on the display. Just in case I ever found a show. Actually I had begun to enjoy the slow pace of my life. I have forgotten all about Andrew and his warning by the middle of March. I should have known better. No sin goes unpunished, I later thought.
“Hello,” the middle aged man with the shaved bald head said. His voice boomed in the small gallery space.
“Hello, what can I do for you?” I asked. I was pretty sure I knew since strangers hardly ever came to the shop.
“My girl friend bought this print from you several months ago. I was wondering if you had any more?” he asked showing me the drawing.
You guessed it was the stray dog and road kill. “I have a few but you really should look around some. She bought the best one of the series,” I said. I had a pretty good idea who he was, but I was playing at artist/sales agent.
“Well then maybe a companion piece,” he said.
“Feel free to browse through the books as well as the gallery,” I said.
“My name is John and to be honest I’m more interested in you, than the drawings,” he said.
“John, I don’t date customers.” I said it to make him work his magic, If he had any.
“I’m afraid my girlfriend wouldn’t like me dating you, or anyone else for that matter,” he said with a smile.
“Then I have no idea what you are talking about,” I said.
“I’m in the business,” he said handing me the card. It read John Smith Executive Protection Service.
“Interesting, but I know nothing about protecting executives,” I said.
“Then it’s a good thing I do,” he said. “So would you like to learn?”
“Why me?” I asked. I knew why but I wanted him to explain it, if he could.
“Shall we stop dancing around and put our cards on the table?” John Smith asked?
“With a name like John Smith, you think I’m going to believe anything you have to say. Come on get real,” I commented.
“It’s as much my name as Iris is yours,” he said. “So Miss Seabold do you want to talk real or shall I go away.”
“I have no idea what you are talking about. Sorry you have me confused with someone else,” I said firmly.
“Okay, I’ll go, but you really should hear me out before I do,” he suggested.
“Why should I?” I asked. “You have nothing I want.”
“Come on, you have been in the movies so do you really like sitting in the audience now?” he asked.
“It makes going home from the movie, a lot more certain,” I suggested.
“Well we pay good,” he said. “$500 a day and all you find laying around is yours to keep.” I looked at him with a ‘huh’ look on my face. “I told you that I knew all about you.”
“Oh really,” I asked.
“Yes, I also know whether you agree or not, you will likely call Sylvia just as soon as I leave,” he said.
“You are okay with that?” I asked.
“Sure, if you worked for me I would expect you to be loyal, even after we part company. For the record you got a crappy deal from the Swamp people.”
“I still have no idea what you are talking about?” I said.
“Okay forget who you are for now. I really want you on the team no matter what you call yourself,” he said.
“Then you can call yourself John Smith,” I said with a smile. “But I don’t see why you want me. You obviously are doing fine without me.”
“You have good instincts and you hide in plain sight. You can be part of a rap stars groupie fan club or a Goth chick. A lady executive or a stripper it just doesn’t matter to you. Above all else, as a last resort, you don’t mind getting your hands dirty. Also you know how to clean up after yourself. So you are worth ten other operatives. That’s why I’m offering you the freedom I am.”
“All that is fine and good, but I like what I do,” I said.
“Then how about we do what the dog did, and offered you one job at a time,” he suggested.
“Find me something and we will talk,” I agreed.
“Read it and see what you think. Iris you gotta understand if you do this you are completely on your own. Just like with that Sam thing. You can’t call up a cleaning crew. You will have to bull your way through,” he said.
“If you aren’t going to be my back up, I’m not doing it for $500 a day,” I said handing him the file unopened.
“One K a day when you work alone. $500 if you are part of the team. I pay expenses. If you find anything laying around, help yourself, but don’t get caught.” He held out the file to me.
I took the envelope. It was a structure diagram and operations manual. It was sloppy as hell for undercover ops. “This is terrible,” I said. “It’s okay for a team of people with guns and armored cars but it won’t work for a naked undercover operative. The UC operative has no one watching her back. The only shot she has is to be able to stand a background check which most anybody can do these days. Deal over,” I said handing the file back to him.
“That is precisely why I want you. You know this shit. You have already been there. Tell me what I need,” he said opening his laptop.
“For one thing we need an absolutely unbreakable way to contact each other. Then we need someone who can hack a computer system and plant shit as well as steal it,” I said. “Without that I am going to be outed the first time they check me out. The guy making the cover has to listen to me. The cover has to be a good one or I’m useless to you. If you want to operate 100% legal this kind of operation is not for you,” I said it and meant the last part completely.
“I know you walk a thin line, but it has been all your way so far,” he said.
“Now you listen to me good. I took my fucking lumps and I paid my dues. If you think taking a beating to get close enough to find out a man’s secrets is a walk in the park, you go do it just once,” I said. “Come back and see me when you get a fucking clue.”
I didn’t give a shit what Andrew and Sylvia wanted, I wasn’t about to work for such a dickhead, I thought.
“Take it easy. I will find a computer consultant, then we will work out the rest of it,” he said.
“Good luck on the computer nerd. If you find one willing to do this for you, he could make ten times the money stealing from Bank America or the Affordable Care Act and would be no more likely to get caught. Just like an UC operative they are hung out to dry,” I said.
“So why do you do it?” he asked.
“I’m nuts,” I admitted. “I got hooked on doing some good for a change. It looks to me like you are keeping the same kind of guys alive.”
“We are not particular who we defend as long as they pay,” John Smith said.
“I don’t like the idea of keeping thugs alive at the expense of the good guys,” I said.
“There are not any more good guys in white hats,” he said.
“There never were, but there are some good individuals. Some of them bend the rules, but for the most part they are harmless guys just doing their jobs,” I said.
“How about this we send you a job if you want it fine, if not, no hard feelings.” That one had to be his last offer.
“All right, I will give it a try. I promise to look then give you a list of thing I need. So let me tell you first of all we need a dead drop. I will send the location to you. We need a book code. You do know how a book code works?” I asked.
“Of course I do.” he said.
“The variation is we use the TV guide news stand copy. The current one on the supermarket shelf at the date of the code. You transmit the message to a dead letter email. I will dead drop you a list of emails. I need to be sure if your security is breached I don’t get rolled up in it. Put nothing with my name or location on you office or home computer. Keep it on a flash drive and take that drive out of your computer when you are not using it,” I said.
“What if your computer gets hacked?” he asked.
“They will find nothing that leads back to you. Dead drop a coded file containing the background and everything encoded in the book code. I’ll get it,” I said.
“That’s pretty old school,” he said.
“If they crack our system, you might get your wrist slapped. I could get dead. Let me tell you something, if somebody gets me because of something you did, or failed to do, and if I live, expect one of these in your carotid artery,” I dropped a number two pencil with a very sharp end onto the table. “You still want to play?”
“I’m not going to screw you, like the Swampers did,” he said.
“I know you are not, because if it is hinky, I’m not going to do it,” I replied.
John Smith left me after a few more arrangements were made. Rather than a dead mail drop we arranged the first dead drop for the next Monday at noon in Williamston. Mossberg would never do. There were far too few people for a stranger to go unnoticed. We made it for a McDonald’s just outside the downtown.
At exactly noon as I agreed I walked into the dining room. I saw the man seated alone holding a yellow plastic dollar store bag. I waited until he stood then I went to sit at the table he had vacated. As I passed the man I slipped a napkin onto his tray. He left his coffee cup on the table for me. His empty coffee cup contained a flash drive with the encoded files. The napkin I slipped on his tray held the files I wanted to send to JS.
Lots people no doubt saw him pass, no one would have notice the napkin I slipped onto his tray or the coffee cup I carried out with me. It was probably the only time I would be sending JS information in a dead drop, but not the last time he would be sending it to me.
Since I had used the book code to send the email addresses and passwords on the flash drive, I didn’t have to buy a copy of the TV Guide to decode his message to me. Encoding the messages was just in case the drive fell into the wrong hands. It also gave him a chance to practice. I could hear him now coding the file. He would most likely call me paranoid. To code the first one was overkill but you really just never knew, I would have told him.
He had a case file for me as I expected. It was obvious he had plans for me. I based my opinion on how hard he tried to recruit me. So I wasn’t at all surprised when the file arrived with the first dead drop. At home I used a computer like those you could get in any discount store. One that was way more powerful than I needed to communicate with Executive Protection Service.
When I had the flash drive in my jeans pocket and lunch on the table I began thinking about a throw away computer. I decided to purchase a used computer from a pawn shop. It would be cheaper than going out to buy a computer with nothing on it.
I bought an old IBM computer at Martha’s Pawn Shop. It was also nice to know she bought gold and silver. I might need to dump some of my metals someday.
The old IBM laptop was running Windows XP which meant it was really old. We plugged it up and it ran fine. I didn’t expect the battery was any good, so I wasn’t upset that it was dead. I paid Martha’s son $75 for it after I was sure the USB port and the keyboard worked. It actually looked like someone stored it after buying a new one. Everything except the battery appeared to be working.
After I got home I spent the evening installing the Linux program I used. Then I was ready to decode the files. The file told me only the date and time to meet a representative of Exec Protection. I would have to make the decision with little or no information.
“I went to the email address and wrote an email to JS and left it as a draft. It was never sent to him. He would have to check the email with the password I provided to get the email.
We exchange Five emails before I had enough information to make the decision. On Friday, as I agreed on one of the Emails, I was ready to go. An airport taxi van pulled into the storage warehouse in Williamston where I had arranged a space large enough to leave the trike with the spare 40ah battery. I would be more than enough power to get me home even if the battery on the trike was completely dead which it shouldn’t be. I also had the battery charger there in case I needed to find a place to charge one of them to get back to Mossberg.
Later that day I was on the plane bound for Miami Florida. There I would meet the rest of the team and get my first briefing on the plan. I still didn’t know it all, I did know that I could bail at anytime.
The plane landed at 10 PM that same night. I thought that 10 PM on a Friday night was a ridiculous time for a commercial flight to terminate. The card which the young couple held up read simply, ‘Daisy.”
That must be someone’s idea of a joke, I thought. “Okay which one of your clowns is the driver?” I asked.
“I am,” the man said.
“Before we do anything else I am starved,” I said.
“Do you have any luggage,” he asked.
I reached into my wallet, pulled out the Visa card, and said, “Yeah.”
“Oh I see,” the woman said with a smile.
“Good let’s get out of here but first make sure there are no tails,” I said.
“Paranoid aren’t we?” the younger woman asked.
“Paranoid people live on the average ten years longer than so called sane people,” I said. I had no idea if it was true but it sounded good.