The first dark, rich sip of coffee sharpened Stephen’s senses even as it heightened his sense of urgency. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and called his voicemail again. This time, the new message was from Frank.
"Uh, Stephen, I don’t know where the hell you are, but you should be here as soon as physically possible. It’s not entirely clear what’s going on, but no one can find Stu and Richard has ordered everyone to stay in their offices until further notice. A VP who actually has windows in her office said that a bunch of police cars are outside, but no one has come in yet to tell us what the big fuss is about. I can’t think of anything that I might have done lately to set off a manhunt, but this much blue fuzz all over the building is making me tense. That, and Richard’s incessant screaming. Get your ass over here, will you? Or at least call and let us know where you are." In the background, Stephen heard a keening sound that steadily grew in volume. "Ugh, he’s starting again. Bye."
So they knew that something was up, even if they didn’t know about the bomb scare yet. It was only a matter of time before someone thought of going online and checking the news, though, and that’s when the panicking would start. He erased Frank’s message and replayed the other message from the hoarse mystery caller. This time, he recognized Stu’s voice and remembered the hysterical laryngitis attack that had struck him when he was asked to present to CouldBU’s executives. Stu wasn’t going to be talking his way out of this situation, either.
Before leaving the coffee shop, Stephen grabbed a napkin and a pen and wrote down the number Stu had given him. Then he turned and, with Ricky close behind, walked swiftly through the airport while he punched it in.
"Who are you calling now?" Ricky asked.
"Stu, I hope. I think that he’s mixed up in this bomb scare somehow."
Ricky stopped cold, forcing Stephen to do the same. "Wait, that was real? I thought you were just making that up to get us out of there more quickly."
"No, that was real. The office is surrounded by cops, Richard’s roaming the halls yelling, and Stu, as far as I can tell, is hiding somewhere in the building. He gave me a number where I could reach him, though, so he must not be moving around."
"If all that’s going on, why aren’t we running?"
"Because I already had to talk my way past security once. I don’t want to tempt fate by running through the airport followed by an Arabic-looking fellow carrying a big black duffel bag. A fast walk will have to do."
"That’s a rotten way to think," Ricky grumbled.
"I know, but it’s what they pay me for. What do you think risk mitigation is: a grown-up version of spin-the-bottle?" Stephen finished dialing and began walking again while he waited for a connection.
Stu answered the phone on the first ring with a whispered "Hello?" Stephen maximized the volume on his phone, but he could still barely hear him.
"Stu? It’s Stephen. What’s going on?"
"Stephen?" Stu squeaked. "Oh, thank God. I was afraid that they’d gotten to you somehow. Where are you?"
"I’m at the airport."
"You’re leaving? You can’t leave! Do you know what’s going on here?"
"No, no, I’m not leaving. I had to come and get Ricky."
"Couldn’t he have taken a cab or something? I really need you here now."
"No, I’m not just here to give him a ride. He had a little run-in with Homeland Security. It’s a long story."
"Well, I know how he feels, but I don’t think I have time to hear the whole thing right now. How quickly can you get here?"
Well, Stephen thought, he’s still polite. That has to be a good sign, doesn’t it? "I don’t know: twenty minutes, maybe, if the traffic’s not too bad. It was terrible coming out here, though, so maybe longer. I suppose I could try the surface streets. If I caught the lights, then it might be just as fast as the 405…." He shook himself free of his Bostonian obsession with alternate routes. "Never mind, I’ll get there as soon as I can. Stu, what’s going on?"
"I don’t know exactly. I came in early this morning to try and beat the rain, and I took my laptop into our old office -- you know, the one that used to be a janitor’s closet? -- to try to get some peace and quiet. I got into the zone when I was coding, so I don’t know how long it was before I heard Richard shouting in the hallway. He was yelling for me, and I was about to go out when he started saying something about a bomb. I decided not to go out after all and called you instead. I’ve been sitting here ever since."
Stephen wasn’t sure how to phrase the next question, so he decided to stick with what was working: he charged ahead. "Stu, do you have a bomb?"
"What?!?" Stu squawked, sounding as though he had popped a vocal cord. He grunted in pain and quickly lowered his voice back to a fierce whisper. "No! Is… is that what they’re saying?"
"Well, no one’s saying anything yet…" Stephen slowed as he and Ricky passed another restaurant, all of its TVs tuned to the cable news channel. Under a banner reading, "BREAKING NEWS: HOLLYWOOD.BOMB," the screen was split into two frames. The left frame showed a live helicopter shot of the CouldBU offices, while the left showed a grainy black-and-white photo of a younger Stu in a flannel shirt, a crooked smile just visible through a square, black beard. The picture appeared to have been blown up from a group photo, because Stephen could see the shoulders of two other men on either side of the young Stu.
The same female newscaster said, "The suspect, Stuart Troyer, also known as Stuart the Bear, is a former member of the ironically named Sons of Peace, a suspected eco-terrorist group. He is currently employed by Accelerated Dynamic Development, a Boston software firm, and is in Los Angeles working for a hot young Internet startup called It Might Be You. It’s not clear what precipitated this attack, but our staff psychiatrist, Dr. Dave, suspects a psychotic episode triggered by the ingestion of organic mushrooms. We’ll have more on the mushroom story tonight at 8:00 in a special news center investigative story: ‘Killer Pizza: could your toppings turn you into a psychopath?’"
"Stephen? Are you still there?" Stu sounded panicky.
"OK, now they’re saying something," said Stephen. "Who are the Sons of Peace?"
Stu sighed deeply, and Stephen could almost see him slumping down against the wall in the office/broom closet. "Oh boy," he said, so quietly that Stephen barely caught the words. He was so silent for several moments that Stephen pulled the phone away from his ear to confirm that he hadn’t lost the connection. Finally, he spoke. "That was a long time ago, Stephen. I was young and foolish, and I got mixed up in something that quickly became bigger than I ever thought it would be. We never hurt anyone, though, no matter what the government said, and I left the group when some people started talking about going outside the law."
"I believe you, Stu," Stephen said softly, and meant it. He couldn’t imagine Stu hurting anyone, or going along with anyone who did. Still, a nagging little voice in the back of his head whispered, But isn’t it always the quiet ones that no one suspects? "He never bothered anyone until the day he ate the Clogstons." He ignored the voice as best he could. "What about the bomb, Stu? Why do they think that you have a bomb? This isn’t happening because some federal agent has been hunting you down. Someone called the police and told them there’s a bomb on the premises."
"I don’t have a bomb, Stephen! I don’t have anything that even looks like a-- oh, wait…" Stephen heard him scrabbling to the other side of the room. A loud crash announced that he had gone too far and pulled the phone off of the table, but he didn’t apologize for the noise. He was clearly looking for something. "Oh," he finally said in a puzzled voice, "I see…. Oh, that does look bad, doesn’t it?"
Suddenly, the phone went dead.
"Stu? Stu!" Stephen looked down at his suddenly inert phone in time to see the battery icon give one last feeble flash before disappearing. Three hours of talk time, indeed. He looked wildly around the terminal. All around him, people were yammering on their cell phones, desperately proving their indispensability to themselves by pestering people at the office. God, I hate business travelers, he thought, staring out across the sea of gelled hair and in-ear headsets.
"Stephen? What’s going on?" asked Ricky, breathless from their long walk through the terminal. "Stephen?"
"Hang on," Stephen replied, still scanning the crowd.
Nearby, a nasal voice cut through the hubbub. "I need that meeting tomorrow, Angie! I don’t care if he already has a lunch scheduled! I’ll be in New York today and then I’m back in town for one day before I have to jet back to D.C. for a face-to-face with the Congressman. He needs to know what his position should be, and I have to get that from Bob. You don’t want me to make it up myself, do you?"
Stephen spun around to locate the source of the voice and spotted a short, muscular man in a shiny olive-green suit sitting about thirty feet away. His brushed-steel phone and matching headset not only nicely complemented his suit, cufflinks, and laptop computer, but the headset also avoided mussing his artfully spiked hair. Stephen hated him immediately. There was one thing about the man that he liked, though: he had the same model of phone as the one in Stephen’s hand, encased in an extended-life battery case. He marched purposefully toward the man, who remained wholly absorbed in his quest to get past his personal Cerberus.
"Aw, c’mon sweetheart," he cajoled in what he probably assumed was a cute whine. "You know he’ll want to see me. How about if I bring you a Yankees cap? What? Not a Yankees fan? Who isn’t a Yankees fan? I mean -- ow!"
Deep as the emotional hurt of Angie’s rejection might have been, the more tangible source of his current pain was having his earpiece yanked from its home. Stephen took the phone, too, unplugged the headset, and put the phone to his ear. "Just book the goddamn meeting, Angie," he growled, and hung up.
"Hey!" shouted the man as he attempted to leap to his feet without disturbing his laptop and file folders or stepping on his designer messenger bag. "What the hell, man? I mean, what the hell?"
"I’m taking your battery," Stephen replied calmly as he worked the case loose and popped the phone out. “I need it more than you do.”
"And why the hell should I let you do that?" The man finally untangled himself from his mobile workplace and stood, the spikes of his hair coming nearly to Stephen’s shoulder. His gym-bred muscles twitched spasmodically beneath his shiny suit as he mustered up his most threatening look, a look which had probably sent many a drunken Yankees fan looking for somewhere else to spill his beer.
Stephen failed to notice it. He had his phone in the case now, and was pleased to note that the battery still had a decent charge. "Because," he replied, still not looking up as he powered up his phone, "otherwise you’ll mess up your hair, what with the blood and all." His phone turned on, its battery gauge now satisfyingly full, and Stephen returned the man’s now-naked phone to him. "Oh," he added, "it looks like you need a charge."
The man’s hand clenched around his phone while his display-only muscles sought a level of coordination that was never required of them during a workout. For the moment, he was incapable of speech. Stephen started to hand him the headset, too, but then he remembered the complicated drive ahead.
"I’ll need to keep this, too," he said. "I’d trade you for mine, but I don’t have one." He shrugged and turned to go, already dialing Stu’s number again.
The man grabbed his arm as he turned and yanked on it, expecting that he would spin Stephen back to face him and succeeding only in momentarily stopping his progress. "You can’t be serious," he blustered, “Do you have any idea who you’re messing with?”
Stephen turned back and drew up to his full height. He had, he reflected distractedly, been slouching a lot lately. He looked down at the man and, just for a moment, let all of his South Boston hatred for entitled rich brats like this burn through. "I am," he said quietly, "deadly serious. And right now, I don’t give a damn who you are. You wanna try me, Harvard?"
They stood frozen for a moment before the man dropped his hand. "Whatever," he muttered, "I’ll just send email." He dropped heavily back into his seat, which was unfortunately occupied by his laptop. The laptop protested this treatment with a loud crack and the man groaned.
"Good choice," Stephen observed as he turned again to leave. He gathered up Ricky, who still stood where Stephen had left him in the middle of the terminal walkway, a boulder in the babbling stream of pedestrians. "Let’s go. Stu needs us.”
Stephen called Stu several times while he raced to the office, but no one answered. He tried Mark’s phone again, with no luck. Finally, he got through to Frank.
"Hi Stephen," Frank said numbly, sounding like he had gone straight past uptight and into catatonic. "Things are getting really weird down here. Richard’s locked himself in his office and Mark… well, I don’t know exactly how to describe what’s happened to Mark."
"Oh, no. He’s not hurt, is he?"
"Hurt? No, he seems to be physically, um, OK…. Listen, do you mind if I work from home tomorrow?"
"I think that we’ll probably all get tomorrow off, Frank. Let’s just get through today."
"OK… I’ll get back to work then. I have a lot to do if I’m going to take tomorrow off." Frank set the phone down and walked away, but forgot to hang it up. Stephen heard Kelvin’s voice coming from across the room, asking who was on the phone. When he heard that it was Stephen, he rushed over to pick it up.
"Stephen, are you still there?"
"Yes, I’m here. Ricky and I are on our way there now."
"About time. We’ve been trying to reach you all morning. Did you turn your phone off so you could sleep in?"
"Not exactly. I had some trouble with the battery, but I fixed it," Stephen replied. In the passenger seat, Ricky snorted.
"Well, it’s good to see you finally displaying some technical aptitude," Kelvin said. "Now please get in here. I think everyone here except me is losing his or her mind, and they still won’t let anyone leave. I assume that you know about the bomb?"
"Alleged bomb. And why won’t they let you leave? I would think that standard procedure would be to get everyone out of the building as quickly as possible."
"I don’t know. We haven’t spoken to anyone except Richard. He says they’re afraid that the bomber might detonate the device prematurely if he sees people leaving, or that the suspect might slip out in the crowd. He suggested that we keep working to take our minds off of it." An uncharacteristic snort said what Kelvin thought of that suggestion. “Speaking of suspects, is it true what they’re saying about Stu?"
"Which part?" Stephen hedged.
"Well, how about the part about him being a fugitive ex-terrorist, for starters?"
"I don’t know," Stephen replied candidly. "I asked him about it when I talked to him, but all he would say was that they had it all wrong. I don’t think he’s capable of hurting anyone, do you?"
"Technically speaking, we’re all capable of hurting someone," Kelvin replied clinically. "We just need to feel threatened enough to justify it. Which brings me to the other part: does he have a bomb?"
"He says no."
"And how comforted should I be by that declaration?"
"Given your previous response and current proximity to him, I guess not very."
"Thank you, this has been a very comforting conversation."
"Hey, I’m doing my best, OK?"
"No, I mean it. I just needed to get a clear assessment of the situation. I feel better now that I can calculate the statistical likelihood that we’re all going to die in a giant ball of flame and makeshift shrapnel." Behind Kelvin, Stephen heard someone whimper loudly. "The calculations should keep my mind off of things for a while, so thank you."
"Do me a favor?"
"Don’t share your results with anyone until I get there."
"Hmm? Oh, sure. That’s probably best."
"Yeah. We’re almost there, so I’m going to hang up. I need to concentrate on getting through the traffic."
"OK. See you soon."
The streets around the office were so choked with news vans, police cars, and onlookers that Stephen had to stop several blocks away. In the distance, he could see that the police had cordoned off the area to keep the crowds at bay. At least six local news crews had each staked out a spot near the barriers that would provide a suitably dramatic backdrop for their field reporters as they conjectured upon what was happening inside the building. A crowd of people filled the rest of the space, despite the imminent threat of more rain. Three helicopters hovered low overhead, jockeying for the best camera angles and trying not to ram each other.
Stephen parked the car and paused to marvel at the sight. "Do you ever wonder why they would need to hold people back from a building that supposedly contains a bomb?" he asked Ricky in wonder. "Common sense should be telling all of these people to get as far away as possible."
Ricky shrugged. "Maybe they’re hoping that some actors are in there and they’ll catch a glimpse of them running out."
"Yeah, maybe." Stephen shook himself. "I’m going to go see if I can get into the building and find Stu. You stay in the car for now."
"Stay in the car? Why?" Ricky whined. Stephen just looked at him and waited for the light to dawn. Finally, it did. "Oh," Ricky said, looking down at his outfit. "Risk mitigation."
"Right," Stephen nodded firmly, "unless you have some normal, er, Western clothes in your bag."
"No, you made me so mad that I decided I was only going to wear traditional garb for the whole trip. I don’t suppose you have any clothes I could borrow?"
Stephen shook his head. "My bag’s at the hotel."
"OK," Ricky agreed, crestfallen, "I’ll wait in the car."
Stephen opened the door and got out. "And try not to look like you’re lurking," he called over his shoulder.
"All right! Just go!"
"I’m going." Stephen ran toward the office building, cutting quickly through the gawking crowd. He scanned over people’s heads until he saw a tense knot of officers off to one side, inside the barricade. He pushed through the crowd, ignoring the protests of those he forcibly removed from his path, and ducked under the barrier.
One of the officers turned immediately and approached him, hands up to push him back. "I’m sorry, sir, but you need to stay behind that line. Only official personnel are allowed in here right now. We think that there might be a bomb inside that building."
"I know. That’s why I’m here. I’m the supervisor of the team working inside there. I need to get inside and talk to them."
The cop was having none of it. "Well, you’re not much of a supervisor if you’re out here, are you?"
"I had to go deal with -- something," Stephen replied, refusing to be goaded. Was there something about him that just annoyed cops? It must be genetic, he thought, remember his father’s traditionally contentious relationship with law enforcement. "Listen, if you let me in there, I think that I can defuse things."
"Defuse! Ha, that’s a good one! Hey Captain, we got a joker on our hands! Defuse! Next, you’re gonna tell me I got an explosive situation on my hands." The false humor dropped like a mask. "Listen, son, we have this under control. We’re LAPD. We deal with stuff like this all the time. Now step back behind the line and let us take care of it."
Stephen was not ready to be put off. Heartened by his success at the airport, he pressed on, raising his voice so that the police captain could hear him. "Don’t you think you’re being a little overzealous? How do you even know there’s a bomb in there?"
"We have a verified statement from an experienced eyewitness who saw the device, sir. He’s ex-military, so he should know C-4 when he sees it. He also told us that the bomber has at least 30 hostages, so the last thing I need is for you to make it 31."
"Ex-military…. Richard? Your eyewitness is Richard? Now I really have to get in there." Stephen started to walk forward, but was stopped short by the officer’s baton across his chest.
"I’m sorry sir, but I simply can’t allow it. Now, for your own safety, please step behind the barricade and stay there. We’ll call you if we have contact with the bomber."
Disgusted, Stephen turned away and ducked under the barrier. He strode angrily back to the car and threw himself inside, slamming the door behind him.
"Well?" Ricky asked.
"They wouldn’t let me in, obviously. Richard’s the one who called them. He told the police that Stu had a bomb made from C-4 plastic explosives."
"C-4? Where would Stu get that?"
"Exactly. Richard has a better chance of having access to that kind of thing, assuming that the Marines had a remedial demolitions class."
"You have to get in there and stop this. If they think Stu has a powerful bomb like that, they’ll shoot him on sight."
"I’m aware of that. There’s a small problem of a line of cops between me and there, though. I’m open to suggestions."
They sat in glum silence for several minutes, pondering their predicament. Then Ricky snapped his fingers and sat up. "Go around to the back," he said. "The smokers’ entrance, by the dumpster."
"They have that covered, too. I saw them scouting it on the news."
"I know, but they won’t in a few minutes." Ricky reached inside his robes and pulled out his keffiyeh. Setting it firmly on his head, he said, "Go. I’ll give you five minutes."
"Until what? What are you going to do?"
"Give you an opening. Now go."
Stephen stared at Ricky for a moment. "Are you sure? You’ll get arrested, at least."
Ricky nodded. "I’m sure. Just end this."
Stephen opened the door. "I’ll do my best. Do me a favor and try not to get shot, OK?"
"No promises," said Ricky, smiling weakly, “I come from a long line of agitators. You never know what might come out.”
Stephen exited the car and ran back toward the office, this time angling to his left, toward the back. As he neared the barricades again, he slowed, trying to blend in with the crowd even as he slowly worked his way to its front. After four minutes, he was in position just behind the front row of onlookers. He stopped there and surveyed the open parking lot between him and the building. The police hadn’t bothered to remove the cars, so the lot was nearly full. If he ran doubled over, he could get within about thirty feet of the building without being seen by anyone on the other side of the lot. That last thirty feet, though, were completely exposed until he could get behind the dumpster that covered the back entrance. Anyone glancing in his direction would see him and probably put a warning shot in his back. He tensed, ready to start the sprint. Fat raindrops began splattering down again.
Suddenly, an earsplitting ululation began on the other end of the parking lot, drawing the attention of the entire crowd. Looking in that direction, Stephen saw Ricky running across the street toward the police barricade, yelling at the top of his lungs. He had apparently been practicing his desert battle cries at home during vacation. Emitting those ear-piercing wails, his robes flapping in the wind of his passage, he looked like a lone extra from Lawrence of Arabia, charging across the asphalt desert. He wisely kept his arms high above his head as he ran, hands in plain view, as though calling upon Allah to strike from heaven.
As the crowd moved toward Ricky, hungry for new entertainment after an hour of watching a motionless and rather undistinguished building, Stephen sidled closer to the barricade. He scanned the parking lot for police. Officers were starting to move toward the disturbance, wary of this new potential threat. Two poked their heads around the back of the building and followed their fellows. Stephen ducked under the barricade and began to move, slowly at first, watching to see if any more officers were stationed along his path.
Ricky had stopped just short of the barrier, and now was climbing onto the roof of a car. He began to yell at the crowd. "Come, infidels, and meet your doom! You have angered Allah for the last time, and now you will face his wrath! Why do you continue to oppress the poor of the world with your wicked consumerism? Why do children go hungry in the streets while the rich and powerful stuff themselves with the bread of iniquity? Seek justice or burn! Show mercy or you will be shown none! Ah, yes, come to me!" This last comment was addressed to the police officers who began to surround his perch. All of the news cameras were now trained on him, so the police were careful to show restraint even as they called for him to come down. Some had their guns out and pointed at him, just in case he showed any signs of having a weapon.
Stephen checked his path one more time and saw no one between him and the back entrance., the two officers who had been there having joined their brethren in trying to contain this new threat. Bent double, Stephen ran. In moments, he had reached the end of the aisle of cars. Ricky was still yelling, but Stephen didn’t dare to look back to see whether he was still on the car. Taking several quick breaths, he dashed across the open space toward the dumpster, sneaking one quick glance over his shoulder just as he rounded the corner. Ricky was still on top of the car, yelling at the top of his voice about vengeance and injustice, surrounded by more than a dozen police officers. The last glimpse that Stephen had of him, he was dancing on top of the roof, pulling his robes up so that the cops couldn’t grab them and pull him down and cursing them in some pseudo-Arabic language.
Then Stephen was safe in the shadow of the dumpster. He reached out to open the door, praying that it wouldn’t be locked. It wasn’t. Breathing another prayer of thanks, with a request for protection thrown in for good measure, he slipped inside and quickly pulled the door shut behind him.
It was deathly quiet inside the building. The incessant murmur of the crowd outside was replaced by the quiet hiss of the ventilation system, a sound that Stephen had never noticed before today. He slipped stealthily down the first few corridors, but quickly traded stealth for speed when he realized that the place was empty. Apparently, the non-evacuation order hadn’t been relayed to the building’s other tenants. He moved quickly, head swiveling from side to side to scan each darkened room he passed. No one.
As he approached CouldBU’s section of the building, though, things changed. The lights were still on, and every third office or so was occupied by a cluster of worried employees who jumped when they saw him.
"Is it safe to come out?" one woman called out from a huddle of other women whom Stephen vaguely recalled as being part of the HR department. "Have you come in to tell us that it was a hoax?"
"That’s what I’m here to find out," he called without stopping. "Just wait here for a few more minutes." He was nearly past their office when a thought occurred to him. He stopped and backtracked to stick his head in through her doorway. "Who told you to stay here?"
"Richard Jolley, the CIO. He said that he was in communication with the police and that they wanted us to stay in the building until they could apprehend the suspect. He suggested that we might find work a soothing distraction."
Stephen glanced around the room at the five women gathered there. "I take it that you didn’t find his advice very helpful?"
"No, this is what we would have been doing if we were working, too. We’re getting hungry though. Do you think that it’s safe to go to the kitchen for our yogurts?"
Stephen nodded. "I think so, but be quiet. You don’t want to startle anyone." He moved on, thinking furiously. It was clear to him that CouldBU’s staff were the only people left in the building, and that Richard was the common thread. Why, with all of his vaunted military training, would he keep civilians in a danger zone? Stephen could picture him sending all of the women and children out of the building and leading the remaining men in a daring if clumsy lightning raid to apprehend a suspect himself, but this behavior made no sense at all. Richard had effectively made hostages out of everyone in his office.
Stephen picked up his pace further, trotting through the maze of hallways toward the center of the labyrinth where his team was located. He briefly considered going to Richard’s office first, but decided that he needed more information before bearding the lion in his den. He slowed just before the last corner, heeding his own warning about not startling anyone. There was always the chance that he was wrong about Stu, or Richard.
A quiet sobbing was the first sound that he heard from behind the closed door to Thomas’ office. Stephen pressed his ear to the door before he opened it. Surprisingly, the sobbing sounded more like Connie than Thomas. Listening closely, he also caught the sound of at least one person typing, along with the quiet murmur of conversation.
Slowly and gently, he eased the door open. Not gently enough, apparently, as the movement was greeted by a quickly stifled shriek from Connie’s assistant. Connie herself was slumped down on her desk, weeping, though carefully positioned to keep an eye on Frank as she did so. Connie’s assistant and another woman sat next to her, rubbing her back and making soothing noises. She looked up when Stephen entered and cried, "Our hero has arrived at last!"
"Well, I don’t know about that. I’m just here to see if I can stop this before it escalates any further."
Connie shook her head firmly, rubbing her hand across her tearstained face. "No, you’ll do more than that. I can see it in your aura. You’re all… red and powerful, but with a soothing blue tinge around the edges. It suits you. You had been getting all green and brown, like a wilted leaf of romaine. I like this better." Her assistant nodded agreement, staring just over Stephen’s shoulder where she imagined an aura might be.
"Well… thanks for the vote of confidence," Stephen replied. "How’s everyone here?"
"Oh, fine, just fine," cried Thomas, "for people with a -- what?" He looked at Kelvin. "45% chance of dying in a blazing fireball!"
"47%," Kelvin corrected. He glanced at Stephen apologetically. "I tried not to tell them, but they pried it out of me. Now that you’re here, though, I would say that our odds have improved significantly."
"Really?" asked Stephen wryly. "By how much?"
Kelvin tapped at his keyboard for a few moments and replied, "2.75%. We’re almost at break-even."
"Again, thank you for the vote of confidence." Stephen looked over at Frank, who sat facing the wall, headphones on, typing furiously. "What’s he doing: generating an alternate algorithm to rival yours?"
Kelvin huffed. "As if. He’s just sitting there coding. Hasn’t spoken to anyone since he got off the phone with you."
"Really?" Stephen walked over and put his hand on Frank’s shoulder. He lifted one earphone and said, "Frank? You in there? How’s it going?"
"Can’t talk. Working. Richard said we should work," Frank replied woodenly. He reached up to brush Stephen’s hand away as though he were a fly, his other hand still typing rapidly.
"What are you working on?" Stephen asked. He leaned forward to read the laptop screen and saw two lines of code repeated over and over again:
10 PRINT "All work and no play makes Stu a homicidal maniac."
20 GOTO 10
"Oh, no. He’s gone BASIC," Stephen moaned.
Kelvin shouldered his way in and looked at the screen. "Well, that’s not good. Clearly, the stress finally got to him. I’ll take care of this. It might take a while, but I think I can get him back to Java, or at least C++. You find Stu so we can all get out of here."
"That’s my plan. That reminds me, though. What did Richard tell you, exactly?"
"I already told you: that we weren’t to leave the building because the police were afraid that the bomber would see us leaving and detonate the bomb, or that the bomber would blend in with the crowd and escape." Kelvin paused and thought. "Only, that doesn’t make much sense, does it, if they already knew that it was Stu? It’s not like he’s hard to pick out of a crowd."
"That thought occurred to me," Stephen agreed. "And what else did he say?"
"Frank just said it: keep working. He suggested that it might take our minds off of things, but the way he said it, it sounded more like an order than a suggestion. Plus, he was looking a little like a madman himself by that point, so we weren’t inclined to argue with him."
Stephen nodded and looked around the office. "OK. Anything else?"
"No," said Thomas. "He just kept asking if any of us had seen Stu. At least, he kept walking up and down the hallway yelling, ‘Where is he?’ At first, we assumed that he meant you, but once we saw the news reports online we figured out that he meant Stu. Do you think that Stu’s even here any more? I mean, I would have expected Richard to have found him by now, with all that yelling and running around."
"I don’t think Richard played much hide-and-seek as a kid," Stephen said. "I’ll take a turn at being It and see if I can do better."
Back out in the hallway, Stephen stood for a moment, undecided. Finally, he turned toward Richard’s office. After a few steps, though, he reversed course and returned to Thomas’ office. He quickly opened the door -- eliciting another shriek from Connie’s assistant -- stepped inside, and shut it firmly behind him again.
"Where’s Mark," he turned to the other woman sitting next to Connie, "and who are you?"
The heavily made up woman in a short-sleeved purple turtleneck and short black skirt stared at him in silence for a moment before moistening her lips and saying in a low, throaty voice, "If you think for a moment, I’ll bet that you can figure out the answer to both of those questions." She swiped a lock of blonde hair from her eyes and sat back to wait.
Something about the movement tugged at Stephen’s memory, but he was too busy struggling to recall the voice for it to register. That voice: he had heard it just today. When? At the hotel? No, after that… in the car. This was the woman who had answered Mark’s phone! OK, so he was halfway there. This was obviously Mark’s new girlfriend. But why was she here when he wasn’t? And how did she know Connie? Were they friends?
Now that his mind was off of the voice, the motion of brushing her hair out of her eyes came back to him. Who did that remind him of? Then he had it: he had seen Mark take that impatient swipe at his hair many times when he was coding. It was a motion that said that the physical world was merely an obstacle to the clean flow of ideas from mind to machine; that if he could, he would have just leaned into the computer and breathed life directly into the circuits rather than wasting time with this slow clay. It said that Mark was truly in the flow, that there was nowhere else he would choose to be at that moment. So why was this woman doing it? The whole room was silent, waiting for epiphany to strike.
Then he had it. "You’re Mark’s…" the woman brightened and sat up straighter, "…sister!" She slumped down again in disappointment. Clearly, he had missed it. Maybe she was his girlfriend. Then lightning struck. "Oh no. Wait… you’re… Mark! You’re Mark!" The woman sat up again, beaming. Stephen bounced up and down on the balls of his feet, unsure what to do with the energy of this revelation. "You’re… Mark?"
"I prefer Mary now, thank you," she replied demurely. From Frank’s corner, there came a small whimper, followed by more furious typing.
Stephen squeezed his eyes shut, pressed his palms against them, and opened them again. No change. "So, you, um, look a little different since I last saw you…"
"Yesterday?" she completed the sentence for him. "That’s why I decided to complete the change last night." She lifted some of her newly bleached hair before swiping it back into place. "I thought you had figured me out when you kept asking about the bandage on my neck, and I wanted to make sure you didn’t spoil the surprise for everyone else." She pouted slightly. "I guess you’re not as perceptive as I thought."
Stephen forced himself to stop rocking back and forth, folded his arms, and studied Mark -- Mary -- more carefully. "There are some things that no one sees coming, I guess," he replied absently. "You make a pretty good woman. You had me fooled."
"It’s not a trick, Stephen. I really am a woman, or I will be soon. I’m not quite done with the procedures, but, as you can see, the hormones have begun to work." She leaned back, proudly displaying the beginnings of a real set of breasts. "I may even have them enhanced at some point. Tammy used to date a good plastic surgeon, so she gave me some recommendations." She gestured to Connie’s assistant, who blushed and giggled.
"Well, um, take your time with that decision," Stephen replied carefully, finding himself in truly uncharted social territory. "You don’t want to rush it, and it looks like, um," he looked away and waved his hand in Mary’s general direction, "everything’s developing just fine, so far."
"Do you really think so? Oh thank you!" Mary jumped up and, for a moment, Stephen was terrified that he/she would hug him. He really was not ready for that yet. "I so wanted my coming out to be special for everyone, and I was afraid that it might be strange because I had rushed everything." Her expression turned stormy again. "Of course, who knew that Stu would decide to have a coming out party of his own today?" The new and improved Mark was certainly mercurial, Stephen observed. Probably the hormones.
A low rumbling sounded from outside the room, and Stephen was more than a little relieved to have the urgency of the greater situation impinge upon the weirdness of the current one. "I’d better get going. We still don’t know where Stu is, and I don’t want to wait to find out the hard way if he really does have a bomb." He made for the door again.
"But I have so much to tell you about my journey to the sacred feminine!" Mary called as Stephen slipped into the hallway. She turned back to Connie and Tammy. "You see? We -- I mean they -- never want to talk things through. They’re so task-oriented!"