Author Topic: Chapter 1  (Read 10584 times)

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Offline Daen

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Chapter 1
« on: June 10, 2022, 05:00:32 AM »
Chapter 1

There—it was finally done.

Margo leaned back in her chair with satisfaction, admiring her latest handiwork. It had taken her the better part of two weeks, but it had been worth it. Let Anhine try and solve that one.

She noticed with some surprise that the light in her office had dimmed substantially. Glancing out the window, Margo could see the reddening rays from a descending sun. With the compulsion to complete her latest puzzle, and the lack of any distraction, she'd lost track of the time. After the hectic revolving door of low-paying cases the past few weeks, this dry spell was a welcome change. It didn't do much for her bank account, though.

She was just getting up to close the office and head downstairs when there was a knock at the door. Margo glanced at the clock. She didn't have time for another police visit, but then they usually announced themselves just after knocking. She had time for a consultation, at least. "Come in."

The man who entered quietly was unknown to her, but the analytical part of Margo's brain immediately started taking notes. He was only a few inches taller than her, but the way the floor creaked slightly under his weight suggested he was mostly muscle. His eyes took in the room right away, lingering on the window and the AC vent above. When she beckoned him inside he stepped to the left, further from the door and window. He was casing threats and exit points. Either he'd spent some time on the run, or he had some kind of law enforcement training.

Margo knew most of the cops down at the local station, but this guy didn't look familiar. He must be an out-of-towner. "Are you Margaret Patsulas?" He started politely.

"Call me Margo, please. What can I do for you?"

He nodded. "I'm Tin Haldar. I need to hire you to look into someone. To find him, really."

She held up a hand to him, belatedly remembering something. She pointed to the white handheld device currently mounted on her desk. "If you don't mind, I need to use this while we talk."

Tin seemed surprised. "Really? I figured it was already running."

Margo grimaced slightly. "That's illegal now. As of last week, no one in the whole state can use an exciter to record anything without express permission from all parties, unless it's in a public space or there's a legal reason like in law enforcement. I used to ask for permission just out of politeness, but now it's required by law."

Her guest just shrugged and gave a dismissive gesture. "Knock yourself out. I assume the range is just this office itself?"

She nodded as she turned it on. "It drains the battery too much if I extend it outside, but one time I did catch a bird at the window. I still have that recording."

Smiling, Tin leaned forward slightly and spoke up a bit. "I, Tin Haldar, hereby consent to being on a recording with you, Margo Patsulas. Maybe that'll be enough for whatever legal issues Pennsylvania throws at you this time."

At least he had a sense of humor, acerbic though it might be. "So, you want me to run a background check on someone for you?"

"Not exactly. My mother Jia died just over a week ago, from a fall near her home in Doylestown. Some hikers found her at the bottom of a slope with her neck broken."

Margo winced, and thought back to seeing her granddad's body in the morgue last year. "My condolences. That's never an easy thing for anyone to bear."

He nodded, his eyes tightening with obvious pain, but he seemed determined to keep it locked down. "The police report says it was an accident, but I don't think that's true. For one thing, my mom was surefooted and went on those walks all the time. She wouldn't have just slipped like that unless something else was wrong."

"I don't remember any rain or snow in the area a week ago. Was she on any kind of medication? Did she have any age-related issues with balance or mobility?" From Tin's age, Margo guessed that his mother had probably been fifty or sixty.

"No to both. She was in excellent shape. I told this to the cops, but they just said they'd make a note of it. Still, there's more to it. She's had a boyfriend for a few years now, Eberhard Goswin. After her body was found, he was called in to ID it. He made his statement to the police, and then he vanished."

Ok, this was starting to get interesting. "You're sure he's not just ignoring you or something?"

"Positive. I went to his place and it had been cleaned out. No forwarding address, no answer on his phone, nothing. I told that to the cops too, but they didn't do anything. That's when I looked you up. You seem to have a knack for tracking down people who don't want to be found."

That was true, if a bit misleading. Margo didn't want to be known for that, but as was said in business circles, 'any attention is good attention'. "Why did they call Goswin in to make the ID? Where were you for all this?"

He grimaced. "I'm a contractor, and it takes me all over the country. I was in New Mexico when she died. By the time I heard about it and got back here, Eberhard was already in the wind." He leaned forward again. "I need you to track him down, and find any evidence he might have killed her. I need to know that if she was murdered, her killer will face justice. I owe her that much, and a lot more."

Margo considered both his words and his stance for a moment.

About ninety percent of a private investigator's job was research and analysis of suspects, clients, and their motives. Another five or so was cultivating the relationships necessary to make her job easier, such as with the press or the police. The last portion was instinct. It was important to get a feel of her clients right from the start, before she even got into business with them.

His hurt and loss were clear from the whole way he was talking. Masked by male bravado as was very common, but also by whatever training he'd also experienced. He was angry too, but it seemed to be about the lack of information.

Usually investigating murders would be stepping on the PPD's toes, and Margo hesitated to do that. Still, they'd already passed this one off as an accident. If she picked it up, they could hardly complain. Eventually Margo nodded at him. "All right, Mr. Haldar. I'll look into this, and try to gather other evidence as well. I charge hourly, and here's my compensation plan," she slid a folder across the desk to him.

He looked over it and gave a wry chuckle. "You know, it's not as bad as I feared." He paused as his eyes passed over her latest little opus. "Is that a DES cipher on your desk?"

Surprised, Margo nodded. "A variation of it, yes. I'm working on it as a sort of hobby. How'd you know that?"

He shrugged, a little uncomfortably, Margo thought. "I had some experience with code-breaking a few years back. You've obviously had a lot more from what I can see there. I thought DES was considered unsecure now."

"I'm trying to resurrect it," she said, more than a little impressed. Maybe he wasn't law enforcement-trained after all. "An online, uh, friend of mine named Anhine trades ciphers with me every few weeks. We've got a pretty impressive list so far. We dipped into CAST, block ciphers, RSA, and a few others. It's been a lot of fun."

He gestured at her latest message. "So what did you encode for your friend to figure out this time?"

"Oh, it's always poetry. We choose lines from obscure poets or songwriters. I don't really know how we got started with that. It's just our thing now."

Tin smiled slightly. "As far as hobbies go, this'll definitely keep your wits sharp."

"That's the plan, anyway." Margo glanced back and saw street lights starting to turn on. "I should get home soon. It was a pleasure to meet you, Tin. I'll get started on this in the morning and hopefully have something for you in a few days." Contacting him wouldn't be a problem—contact information was required on all PI contracts, and he'd filled one out as they'd been talking.

He stood as if to go, but then paused. Margo was about to ask why, but then followed his gaze over at her desk, to where the exciter which was still running. Margo put a hand to her head before shutting it off and putting it her bag. "Thanks."

"No problem."

-.-

A day later Margo was on her way to her friend's place before heading to the office. Beb lived alone, in the house her dad had left her when he passed. She'd converted his old weight room into a workshop for her projects, and was probably there right now.

The house was about twenty minutes away from where Margo lived, in a vibrant part of Philly. There had been a city park here years ago, but it had been carved up and built over before Margo had even moved into town. The portion of it closest to Beb's house had been converted into a skate park, which Beb claimed to love. She said it was because it was much less noisy than it had been here when she was a kid, but Margo suspected a less wholesome reason. She'd seen indications of a drug trade popping up here in the past few years, and it stood to reason Beb made a few purchases from time to time.

Margo pulled up in front of the skate park and across the street from Beb's place. One of the skaters present was Cade Swift, a name Margo had run across as part of her job. Swift was a drug dealer, but she wasn't sure if he was the one selling to Beb or not. Either way, the park made a good cover for his activities. The custom skateboard that Swift was offering conveniently never got sold, but plenty of people dropped by to admire it. It was out in the open with multiple escape routes in case of a police raid, and anyone who was watching from a distance would have a hard time seeing money change hands. Anyone trying to record him with an exciter would have to get close enough to be spotted. He had a pretty good racket going here.

Speaking of exciters, Margo paused just after leaving her car. One of the other skaters had set up her exciter on one end of a half-pipe, and was tinkering with it carefully. She was an amateur from the looks of it, but at least she had the basics down. She was dressed for running, with snug-fitting sneakers and tight shirt and shorts, and her long-ish hair was in a bun on the back of her head to keep it from getting in her eyes.

The unknown woman turned on the exciter, and an image sprang into view in front of it. A pro skater from his form and build, he raced down the far side of the half pipe and then expertly did a one-handed stand on the top of the other side. She paused the image there, and then ran it back a few milliseconds. The pro skater was just transferring his weight from the board to his hands, at about a 130 degree angle to the top of the pipe. His head was suspended there, about a foot off the concrete surface.

After studying the frozen image for a short time, and running it back and forth once again, the woman turned off the exciter and grabbed her own skateboard. Margo held her breath as she watched the younger woman gaining momentum from one side of the half pipe to the other. This could get ugly.

The skater mimicked her so-called tutor adequately as she swung her board up and around several times. She lost a little momentum each time, but gained it back on the return trip. Then the moment of truth came, and she sped up for the handstand. The board was strapped to her feet so there was no danger of it flying off, but that was the least of her worries. As she transferred her momentum into the handstand, the skater's hand slipped and she toppled down. Barely missing cracking her back and head on the edge of the half pipe, the skater slid down the incline, coming to a stop about twelve feet away

A few other skaters laughed, but one of the more sympathetic ones shushed them. He ran over to her, but Margo knew she would be fine. Margo had seen back and head injuries before, and she knew what to look for when it came to breaks and strains. Sure enough the skater stood up with help from her new friend, and then waved him off. She insisted on trying again.

Margo shook her head in wonder. The exciters had many uses, but this skater was utilizing them in the most efficient way: as a guide and teacher. With the 3D recording and playback, people could demonstrate how to do something, thousands or millions of times over, without ever even being present to do it! That pro skater in the image had probably been at a show, and the woman had either bought or copied a recording of his moves. It was so much more effective than just seeing it on TV or a phone, since she could pause and watch his positioning from a close, all-around perspective.

The exciters were starting to be used in advertisements too, especially for sports like this one. They were a bit of a power hog, and had been regulated by the government because of it, but some businesses had started displaying tennis players, or hikers, or joggers, in motion outside their entryways. Margo smiled and crossed the lazy street. Back to business.

She typed in the code to get through the backyard gate, and looked through the old shed's stained windows. Beb was inside all right, welding in some adjustments to one of her genius-level devices. There was a tugging at Margo's pantleg, and she looked down. "Not now, Dynamo," she chided the creature below. It was a robot dog, similar in function to the ones people bought in stores, but designed and assembled entirely by Beb herself.

It was impressive, especially given that robotics was more of a hobby to Beb than a real passion. She'd graduated from MIT, and been offered a place at Boston Dynamics but had turned them down. The dog's name was a joking reference to that. Gently nudging the metal pup aside, Margo knocked on the door of the workshop before sticking her head inside. "Tantam," she greeted in their old way.

"Alae," Beb responded in kind, not looking up from her welding. "Come on in. I'm almost done here."

Margo did so tentatively. Beb's latest kick was in alternative fuel cells for cars. She'd hoped to sell some of her designs to a major car dealer, but there was very little profit in making cars less dependent on gas. Still, Beb had a natural dislike of leaving a job unfinished, and Margo knew she'd just keep tinkering until she'd come up with the 'perfect' fuel cell. Even if it never made her a dime.

Beb took off her visor, apparently satisfied, and wiped sweaty hair out of her eyes. Though a full head shorter than Margo and a little heavier, Beb was able to make it look cute anyway. She smiled over at Margo. "So you said you had a new case?"

"A murder, maybe. I'm still figuring it out." She looked over at the door as Dynamo tumbled in and wandered over to Beb's side. "The guy who brought it to me was pretty interesting, too. At least he can pay well. I checked out the bank info he sent me and it's pretty reliable."

"Good. I'd hate to see you go back to chasing bail-jumpers."

Margo gave her a flat look. "You're never going to let that go, are you?"

Beb shook her head, smiling again, and lifted Dynamo up onto an unoccupied portion of the table. Margo grimaced. A while back she'd done some work as a bounty hunter, and her friend had recently found out. And mocked her relentlessly for it.

After making a minor adjustment to one of Dynamo's paws, she put him back down again. "All right, let's see him," she gestured to Margo's pack.

Margo sighed. Beb did this with all of Margo's male clients. Either she wanted to ogle them herself, or she was trying to fix them up with Margo. Still, there was nothing wrong with taking a look. "Remember, I can't share any specifics about the case without the client's permission, which he didn't give. So I have to leave the sound off."

"I know, I know," Beb said impatiently. "Turn it on already."

Fumbling with the exciter's controls, Margo put it on the table and turned it towards the door. She cropped out the part with her desk so that none of the files on it would be visible, and then activated it. Starting with the moment she'd begun recording, a full-sized image of Tin appeared, sitting in a chair in front of the real-life table.

"Oooh, muscley," Beb complimented, walking around the image.

"I had the same thought. I'm thinking he's got a police background maybe, or possibly security. He was casing the room when he first arrived."

"Would you stop analyzing peoples' bodies and just enjoy the view with me for once?" Beb said playfully, nudging Margo.

Margo only gave her another look, and Beb sighed. "I give up. For now."

As she fast-forwarded the recording, Margo shook her head. "You know, I've had this thing for over two years now, and I'm still blown away by what it can do. Even five years ago, 3D projection like this would have seemed impossible!"

"Oh, I'm right with you," her friend agreed. "I really, really wish the AFI people hadn't made us sign waivers to get one. I'd love to take mine apart and start tinkering."

"Well you won't have to wait long," Margo reminded her. "In a few weeks the deadline might be up and then you can rip that thing apart to your heart's content. Just don't touch mine, ok? It's useful for my work."

Beb raised a hand with crossed fingers, but then looked at the exciter itself again. "Did I tell you I found footage of the early exciter tests? The first images were all orange and grainy. I wish I could see the refining process they did to make it the realistic image they have today. I mean if I didn't know better, I'd say this guy was actually here in the room with us! They could have charged an arm and a leg for this technology. I've always wondered why they just gave one away to every household in America. After they made everyone sign the waiver, I mean."

Margo shrugged. "It's not just America. They've been distributing them worldwide. And it's not much of a mystery, either. Aldwin-Farrow is branching out from tech into entertainment. They distributed these to everyone so that they could have a monopoly. In this case, on the very first 3D television and movie franchises ever. It's investing a lot, sure, but it promises to return billions at least. It's pretty smart when you think about it."

"Whatever. I'm just looking forward to seeing all those hunky actors actually here in the room with me, looking all hot like they do." She paused, as Margo gave her a concerned look. "What? A healthy fantasy life is a good thing, remember?"

"You're pushing the bounds of healthy here, Beb." Margo meant her words, but in reality her friend's interest was mild compared to some of the reaches of the internet. A sex scene in a 2D movie could be exploited for pornographic use, but the implications with 3D exciter models were a bit more intense. Already the exciters were being used by lonely, horny people to imagine themselves actually in bed with some of those actors. Fortunately exciter projections were light only, and therefore not solid, so there was no risk of injury with any of those recordings. Beb's issues were not that bad in comparison.

She chuckled. "Point taken." The recording of Tin reached its end, with him standing up and leaving. "Ooh, hate to see him go but love to watch him leave."

Margo couldn't help but smile. Beb's attitude was objectifying and a little demeaning, but at least she didn't behave that way around real people. Aside from Margo, anyway. She liked what she liked, and wasn't afraid to show it. "Anyway, I need to borrow your souped-up laptop."

That took Beb away from her fantasies. "What do you need it for?" She asked, not-quite-suspiciously.

"Someone in my case has disappeared, completely. I went to his place yesterday and checked it out. There's no trace of where he might have gone. I talked to his neighbors, and found out he has a chronic medical condition. If he's still alive, he'll need regular medication to stay that way. I couldn't get access to the shipping database for the pharma company that makes it. I need a better computer than mine to get that." Margo's hacking skills weren't top-notch, but she knew her way around most inaccessible systems. Pharma companies had recently been targeted for all their unethical behavior though, and had beefed up security a lot.

"Ah. Well my skeleton key is your skeleton key," Beb said easily. She pulled out a keyring, and went over to one of her safe-deposit boxes on the wall. After a moment she unlocked it and removed the laptop. "Remember, it's mostly just plug-and-play. Don't leave it connected to the internet for more than five minutes every hour or so. It's a real power hog, and it could shut down completely. Oh, and it might attract the attention of the NSA."

Margo gave her a concerned look, and Beb smiled. "Joking. Probably. It's best not to think about it."

They'd both had a laissez-faire attitude towards legality for a long time now. Margo from necessity, as her work sometimes required her to bend the rules in some places, and Beb more from habit. Margo thanked her and carefully placed the device in her bag.

There was an electronic rasping noise, and Beb looked outside. "Sounds like Dynamo's getting impatient for his walk. Now I wish I'd programmed him to be more of a teacup dog." She grabbed a leash from the wall and moved to the door. As she passed, Beb paused. "Look, I know you'll do this anyway, but be careful, ok? If this guy vanished so completely that even you can't find him, he must have had help. Or he got disappeared by someone else. Either way, whoever did it might not take kindly to you snooping around. Stay safe, you hear?"

"I will," Margo promised, and hugged her briefly.

After closing both the door and gate, Margo went on to work. She was careful not to jostle the illegal but essential loan in her bag.