Thursday, June 16, 2011

Chapter Nine

I spent the next several hours slowly working my way north up the strip, stopping in every casino and making several circuits to make sure I wasn't being followed. Most people are pretty easy to spot when they're trying to tail you -- if you see the same person more than once at several different, random locations, chances are he's after you. Especially if you have reason to suspect someone's following you. All it takes is a little observation.

Of course, it was a little harder when you figure that a whole company is after you. Companies have multiple employees, and if there are enough people on your tail, your chances of picking one of them out are pretty slim. One guy will follow you into, say, the Sahara, then hand you off to another guy as soon as you leave. That guy will follow you along the street, but hand you off to yet another guy the next time you duck inside. It's the same way the cops tail a high-priority suspect.

Still, there are ways you can tell. Catch someone looking away quickly right as you make eye contact? That guy could be tailing you. See someone stop suddenly and become very interested in something patently uninteresting when you look in his direction? He's definitely following you.

It seemed, though, I'd made my escape from the Imperial Palace without a tail. Or at least, without one I could discover. Either no one was after me, or the people after me were so good I wasn't going to lose them anyway, so it didn't really matter. I made it to the Stratosphere just after dark.

I found a place by the sports book to have a seat and keep an eye out. I didn't expect to see Quentin come in -- he was sneaky like that. But I was still worried about someone following me, so I spent the next couple of hours just sitting, watching. Besides, it felt good to sit down for a bit. I'd been on my feet all day. Still, I didn't detect any sort of tail, so I was good to go.

Around 11:15, I got in line for the elevator up to the 107th floor. It wasn't a short line this time of night -- the highest point in Las Vegas was a popular place to hang out around midnight, what with the postcard-worthy view of the strip, the laser light of the Luxor shooting off into space, and the relatively cheap drinks at the bar. No one really gave me much of a second glance, even though I was dressed in leather, a full head taller than anyone else in the line, and looking pretty damned rough by that point.

That's one thing I like about Las Vegas, though. No one really looks odd or out of place here. There's really no normal, no baseline for appearance. Unless you're walking around completely naked, you're probably not going to get stared at. Hell, even then you might not, but I'm not itching to test out that particular theory.

A group of Korean tourists, kids a couple of years younger than me, were in front of me in line. They were tipsy and affable, and had a couple 12-packs of Budweiser with them. Though they didn't speak any real English, at least not any that I recognized, they were making friends with everyone around them in line. When they smiled in my direction and handed me a bottle, I was only too happy to accept it and smile back. If there was ever a time I could use a drink, that was it.

Even with the long line, I made it to the 107th floor about ten minutes before midnight. I didn't bother to look around for Quentin -- he'd find me. I'm easier to pick out of a crowd than he is. Easier to pick out than most people, really.

And find me he did. One second, I was standing next to the Korean kids as they plowed toward the bar, the next he was there in front of me. He wore a big goofy grin and had a crazy-huge drink in his right hand. He was minorly tipsy, but I'd expected that. In addition to being crazy smart, Quentin had a bit of the social anxiety disorder. If he was going out in public, that meant he was two or three drinks up on everyone else in the world.

"You look like pounded shit," Quentin said, his lopsided grin widening. "What are you drinking?"

"Beer," I said.

"Hey, Frank! Get my guy here a Pete's Wicked, yeah?" Quentin yelled over his shoulder at the bartender, who was definitely not named Frank. Not unless her parents had a horrible sense of humor.

She scowled at him, but she produced a bottle of Pete's Wicked Ale anyway and set it on the bar in front of me. Quentin laid a $20 bill on the bar and winked at her, then picked up the beer and ushered me away towards the observation deck.

"Serious about you looking awful, though."

"Yeah. Happens when you spend the day on the run."

"About that. Looked into Umbra Dynamics for you. Man, that is one beautiful system they have running there. I was almost right when I said it was unhackable," he said, his words barely above a whisper as we stepped outside into the warm, windy night. He stood close, so I could just barely hear his words before the desert wind caught them and whipped them away into the night.

"Almost right?" I asked, keeping my voice as low as his.

"Yeah. I got in. For about five minutes, but I got in. First looked for your lady friend, Laura Mills. Her file was locked up tight. But there was a file -- she works there."

I nodded.

"Then I checked out their Security People. This little guy, Russian, you think?"

"Could be."

"Black hair? Scar on the right side of his neck?"

I thought back -- there was a hint of a scar coming out from just under the little guy's collar. Old one, looked like.

"Yeah. That's probably him."

"Aleksandr Meskhiyev. Up until seven years ago, he worked for the KGB. Mean motherfucker. Please tell me he's all sorts of dead now."

"A concealed carry license doesn't mean I just get to shoot anyone I want, Quentin," I said with a sigh. I'd explained that to him before. "I can only legally shoot someone when my life or someone else's is in danger."

"Yeah, but wasn't this guy shooting at you?"

"Not him. A buddy of his in a building across the street. Hard to make a case to a judge that Meskhiyev was controlling that guy, or that shooting him would make the other guy stop shooting."

"A sniper?"

"I think so."

"Think I might know who that is, too. Name's Brendan White. Marine Scout Sniper in the Gulf War. These are some hardcore guys you're messing with, Jake."

I nodded. I'd already figured that much out -- so far, Quentin's hacking wasn't really helping at all.

"So what else did you find out?"

"Not much. Like I said, they have your lady locked down in the system. But someone got a little sloppy. I caught a reference to her name in a project file -- she was listed as a senior engineer on some project having to do with nuclear... something."

"Like what? Power plants?"

"The impression that I got was it was more about weapons. It was lumped in with all of their defense stuff -- same project group -- but there's no contract from the government for it. As near as I can tell, it's something the company is doing on its own."

I thought about that for a moment as I sipped from my nice, cold beer. Why would a private company be doing something with nuclear weapons if not for the government? And what research was there possibly left to do there? Hadn't we figured everything out in, like, the 50s? I'm not a student of history past whatever PBS documentaries I catch, so I couldn't be sure.

"And I found one more thing. Just like Laura Mills' credit card records, there was evidence that someone else had already hacked into Umbra Dynamics. This was a memo to their Security team, letting them know that someone in Compton had made an attempt to access their system."

Something clicked in my head. Compton. That's where Laura Mills' brother had gone. To see the hacker? To try and find his sister, like I was doing?

"Thanks, Quentin. I think you might have helped quite a bit there," I told him, draining the last of the Pete's Wicked. "You heading back to Los Angeles in the morning?"

"Oh, hell no. No way I'm going back to the house until you sort this thing out. That hacker in Compton? Probably the same guy whose house was firebombed with him in it this morning."

"I hadn't heard about it."

"Yeah, it was on the evening news. I put the pieces together shortly after I made it into Umbra's system. I'm in the wind for a while."

"You going to stay in Vegas, then?"

"Probably for a while. I'll be around if you need any help. What about you? You get another room yet?"

"Yeah, there's a problem with that..."

"Left your cash back in the Firebombing of Dresden?"

I was going to tell Quentin the truth -- that I was pretty much broke -- but me leaving most of my money back in the hotel room I'd had to abandon was much less embarassing. I nodded.

"Most of it," I said.

"You still got some on you?"

"Like, $25."

"Give it," he said, sighing and opening his hand.

I dug into my wallet and pulled out the two tens and one five dollar bill. He shoved them into his front left pocket, then checked his watch.

"Two hours. Meet me down at the Monte Carlo. Ask the desk clerk to ring Ken Adams."

"Who the hell is Ken Adams?"

"That's me. At least, it is until the heat dies down. Now, get gone. You're bad luck."

* * *

So I was back on the Strip again, but at least it wasn't brutally hot out anymore. And I was two beers up, which is always better than being no beers into the evening. I still had my eye out for anyone following me, but talking to Quentin had made me feel better. Even if he did have all of my money, as small an amount as that was.

Still, the cooler weather and the time since the morning's firestorm had me in a much better mood as I slowly walked south down the Strip. I had a destination -- the Monte Carlo -- but I had more than enough time to get there. People who have never been to Las Vegas don't realize that the Strip itself is only about five miles long, so it doesn't take too long to walk from one end to the other. I wasn't even going that far -- maybe three miles or so -- and I had two hours in which to do it.

So I stopped often, checking for tails of course, but also just to people-watch. Vegas is great for people-watching, especially after midnight. All of the crazies are out, and mingling with all of the normals. At about 1:00 in the morning, I'd made it down to the Stardust, and was stopping to cool my heels for a few minutes before continuing on.

And then I saw something I didn't expect: Laura Mills. And she wasn't alone -- two men in black suits were ushering her out of a black Town Car and shuffling her into the hotel.

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