SocialNET IT Lab, Moscone North
11:54 PM Tuesday
“You’re well and truly fucked, Mr. Wainwright.” Mike pops off one of his earbuds and turns down his iPod. “You’ve got two choices: no demo and shut down the hub or…”
“Shut down the bleedin’ hub? Are you insane man? Exposing every last customer during the show would kill SocialNET and you fucking know it, Mr. M. M. Rogers fucking Jonathan Mayfield.”
“All I did was take a look at it like you asked and…”
Bryce stands up from the console and emphatically kicks the chair against the back wall where it upends, casters spin in short plastic death rolls. “So that’s what I have to go tell Heather in five minutes, right mate? I have to tell her as soon as she opens her mouth Thursday eight five million accounts will become vulnerable and that all the king’s horses and all of Adam Covington’s billions will never be able to get SocialNET out of purgatory.”
“Or we can always just tweet out that it’s one big April Fools and see if they’ll buy that,” he hooks his thumbs into belt loops and stamps about. “I thought you’d at least have a god blessed clue as to what the fuck is going on. Or did you get buggered so much at your nick in the country that you shat out all the smart bits and all that’s left is a rotten copy of a Bicycle Built for Two? Or still boo-hooing because your wife went mental and skipped town while you were scratching your days on the jail wall? Bloody hell!”
Mike takes an even breath. “Or…you can go get Raj Srinivasan for me.”
“Who? Some rag head?”
“If you bothered to read a little deeper, like your boss, you’d know that Raj and I worked at the company Adam Covington buggered.”
Bryce stops, un-holsters his thumbs, lifts his hands in a shrug. “I read it all, mate, and I’m truly sorry. I think I just…this whole business is making me a bit mental myself.”
“Plus you work for Heather fucking Bronson.” The other earbud comes out and Mike swivels to his right. “After Stealthscan imploded and before I became a felon Raj and I filed on some new IP which is the backbone of Nex Software. There’s not much legacy code as we mostly rewrote everything to be more elegant, more evasive, and scads meaner. Part of the suite is a hunter-killer that I’m particularly fond of that may be applicable in this case, if for no other reason than to map source and derivation. If you can’t quantify that, you’re shooting blanks and I’ve heard rumors you’re on the clock.
“Anyway,” Mike gets a pen from his Victorinox along with a business card he decides he can part with. “Here’s his mobile. I’ve already tried to connect three times so he’s either turned it off or is not accepting my calls which, given what happened yesterday morning, is probably a wise thing. Little bastard. He’s at the Marriott, room 2240 and he’s going to be pissed off but don’t make fun of a raging Punjabi in flannel pajamas.”
Bryce takes the card and shakes his head. “Not me, mate. I’m already late for this messenger’s funeral. Scot! Get your arse ready for a mission.”
The earbuds go back in place. “Good night and good luck.”
“Good night and bloody, fucking, wanking luck.” Bryce trails a string of very Northern curses to the door of the IT lab, maddeningly contrite with his wayward temper and how it seems to arc ever more into the realm of the pathetic. He can hear himself. He knows he’s not just pushing but annihilating buttons. He knows he’s pulling pants down and thrusting hard. He knows it’s for Heather. And he knows that this kind of dying is no way to make a living; being alive isn’t the same thing as feeling good about it. The curses start again and, lost in his bespoke ration of hell, he runs into Rita but with a dancer’s move he takes her wrist and shifts his weight to keep her upright.
“Why Bryce, dear, I didn’t know you cared. Probably because I know you don’t.” Rita leans back and peers into the IT lab. “Well, well. What fresh meat is this?”
Bryce kicks the lab door shut and drags her a goodly distance into the murk of backstage. He lets go and flares his massive hands in a definitive no-way. “Strictly verboten. He’s not one of ours. He’s a mercenary who’s going to fix this bowl of bollocks.”
“Mercenary,” Rita savors the word while she rubs her wrist. “I do think I like the sound of that. Dangerous. Clandestine. Can be bought.”
“Listen, Mata Hari. I seem to recall you were just a bit adamant that we get the demo to work. Well he is. Will. And if you are going to leave a snail trail all over the lab you’ll have to balance your checkbook next year because you will be fired.”
Rita looks up at him with mock surprise. “Brave words, Bryce dear. And where are the infinite monkeys with infinite time that would be able to run your keynote? Oh! Don’t tell me! You stashed them in your kitchen. No, that’s not it. Heather’s ready room! That’s…no, I don’t think she’d like the stench but one never knows with her. Well, I’m sure you can get all you need at Apes R Us. Hope you have enough tractor trailers.”
“Just NO! Scot, where in blazes are you? I’m fucking late!”
As Bryce pounds down the corridor, Rita hums a subversive tune and whispers a few of the lyrics as she makes a beeline to the IT lab, “I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date.”
Waiting several seconds after the key card buzz, she slips inside, closes the door softly and considers Mike under the suffused glow of a single LED desk lamp. Server racks pock the gloom with green and red sequins. A momentary annoyance at Mike’s earbud-induced trance but Rita has any number of workarounds at her disposal so she just stares for half a minute. He’s so intent! Younger: tres magnifique. Tall: always good. Needs a professional shopper in the worst way because it can’t get any worse. Long fingers, graceful on the keyboard…she shivers and walks without haste to stand behind him; his face wrinkles and a sniff or two tell her it’s time to act. She reaches down, plucks the earbuds and lazily pitches them on top of his keyboard.
Mike spins slowly in his chair. “Hello.”
Atypically off guard, Rita double clutches at seeing those star-shard emerald eyes for the first time. “Rita. Rita Fleisher.” Mike dares an unblinking gaze but she recovers artfully because her middle name is Grace Under Pressure. A liquid smile.
“Mike Rogers.” Beat beat beat. “Pleased to meet you and, um, your aura.”
“My…oh. My little forget-me-not. Are you allergic?”
“Not allergic, I just lean toward reasonable. Have a seat?” Mike pulls out an adjacent chair and Rita softens into it, studiously crosses her legs, right hip forward.
“The Stork told me that you are, as he so charmingly put it, a mercenary. Must be terribly interesting work.”
Mike rolls his eyes at the sarcasm and turns back to his laptop; a burst of typing. “Just a friend of the family.”
Rita lifts her dark hair from the back of her neck, draws fingers through it, lets it fall; unlike Heather, all her motions weave at a sultry seventy percent, considered and deliberate. “That family is not the kind you want to spend Thanksgiving with. Or any other day of the year. Their taste in roasted flesh is just as untrustworthy as Grandma Heather’s recipe for mincemeat pie. How—or more to the point, why—did you let them inhale you?”
“Just a lucky break, I guess.”
“Remind me not to play the ponies with you.” Curves shift. “The Stork also said that you are going to resuscitate their little demo and I do have a bit more than a vested interest in its body rising from the slab.”
“Really?” Mike pulls his eyes from the screen to look at Rita. “Doesn’t seem to me you sit at the grown-up table either. You don’t have the right…body language.”
“I’ll take that as a high compliment, dear man. I’m with VisionIng. You’re free to take a mulligan if you’ve never heard of us but we put on this little do for the family every year. Perfection is our stock-in-trade and aside from the lovely SocialNET POs it’s the referrals that keep us in clover. And we do so love our clover. This business that’s all about appearances, you realize.” Rita lowers her chin and unleashes a sweltering invitation.
“No need to use that stroke, Ms. Fleisher.” A download-complete chime captures Mike’s attention. “I know your company.”
“I would be grateful if you’d call me Rita. Ms. Fleisher sounds like a dried up second grade teacher. Worse than bitch, her highness, or even ‘that woman,’ all of which, to my enduring dismay, seem tattooed on my all-access pass. But to survive the family business, we have to stick together, don’t you think?”
“I reckon so. What do you suggest?”
Rita placidly rises, straightens the sleeves of her sweater, and gives Mike’s chair a firm one-eighty. Bending at the waist, she lays a hand on his shoulder and launches invitation torpedo number two; the cashmered cleavage is sheer splendor. “First, call me Rita. Can you say it, Ree-ta?”
“Rita.” He’s caged by olfactory static and stuck in neutral between flight and fight. First Johanna: the arctic goddess that melts under his touch alone until dread gales trap her in ice forever. Heather: the hometown girl who doesn’t know her strength. Madison: the innocent not-so-innocent. Now Rita, a demonic aggregate of things animalistic, the perfect predatory vessel that plays a sapiosexual raga crawling with deep tones. Another brilliant mind. Sirens swirl in the fog as in some made-for-Syfy giant-insect kitsch.
“Good boy. Hold still for a second. This won’t hurt.” A ruthlessly covetous smile shows just a little too much gum while she pats the side of his face and Mike can feel the heat of her blood. The pat morphs into a gentle grip and she examines his face with an almost clinical frankness, a fascination with his eyes as if they are being catalogued, hashed, and stored in main memory. At length her fingers relax before a cavalier love-smack to the cheek as she straightens.
“Green is my new favorite color,” she remarks offhandedly, smoothing the sides of her sweater. “Don’t get me wrong – Mike, is it? – I love to taste the rainbow but your eyes are without question the most delicious I’ve seen yet. And so complaisant! It’s a match made in my heaven.”
A head tilt. “Not to burst your flavor bubble, but aren’t you a bit presumptuous, Ree-ta?”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake. Don’t pull that BS on me. I live my life, you live yours. I take what I want, which in this moment just happens to be you, lucky boy,” She runs a stropped nail under his chin that raises a bloodless welt. “Make sure you don’t leave without saying au revoir. We’ll both be very, very glad you did.”
“And if not?”
A key-card buzz. The door to the lab swings open and Rita primps fluently. “Dear boy, there are few things in my world more exasperating than defiance. Act wisely.”
Marcy slides into the single halo of light and stops; as one, they exclaim, “What are you doing here?”
Explanations crash into each other until Mike calls time with a sharp whistle; he nods at Marcy, “You first.”
When her shocked expression starts to recede, Marcy begins, “I was trying to find her.”
“I’m with him.”
“And I’m fixing your demo. Now, that wasn’t so hard, was it? I’ll leave you two ladies to renew acquaintances.”
With an exaggerated tumble of shoulders, Marcy turns to Rita. “You are supposed to be in the keynote review meeting. Lose your phone again?”
“I never lose my phone. Perhaps conveniently misplace it but when I need to make a call I can always lay my hands on it.” She smirks at Mike.
“Then I suggest you lay hands on your phone and get over to the St. Regis. Heather is in no good mood. And you, Mike Rogers. Who let you backstage?”
He flashes his lanyard. “Bryce Wainwright.”
Marcy nods uncertainly, mentally rearranging the deck chairs in her conceptual space, then swipes an arm at the darkened lab. “Henhouse, meet fox. Are you going to post a Cosmo quiz about the top ten things that can go wrong with a keynote? What was Bryce even thinking?”
“Hold on children,” Rita interrupts. “I’m trying to follow this and I don’t like where it’s going.”
As if she’d forgotten about Rita, Marcy jolts and turns to her. “What are you still doing here? Scoot! Scoot! The longer you put it off the worse it’ll be.”
After a couple of calculating breaths, Rita makes her way to the door while casting Mike a long, ransacking look that yokes appraisal and warning. Marcy tromps after her and with a final shoo, slams the door shut. “YOU, Mr. Rogers, have been nothing but grief. The show started falling apart at the seams ever since you showed up and put Heather in free-fall.”
Mike sighs. “Speaking as a humble Expo worker and clueless attendee, the show is going fine except your…issue here and we’ll see if we can’t get that fixed. As to Ms. Bronson, all I can say is we didn’t leave on the best of terms.”
Marcy sits heavily in the chair next to Mike and bats a stray curl from her forehead, waves away the opiate residue. “Heather rarely leaves anyone on the best of terms so don’t feel so special. This is…” She animates, reaches into a pocket on her flared black slacks, comes up empty, and reaches into the other pocket. Out comes a disordered sheaf of yellow stickies that she unceremoniously drops in Mike’s lap as if it were hot from the kiln.
“You tell me.”
The stickie on top tells Mike all he needs to know: scribbled in dark, unruly block letters: “SORRY.” He peels the note back to reveal her jagged script: “please please please please please” in the ubiquitous navy rollerball, gathered like sheep in one meandering arrow. Almost illegibly small in the next 3” x 3” field “forgiveness.” He skips several until “I thought the best thing about going to sleep together was waking up together” followed by “I’m such a bitch.”
He looks up at Marcy too stunned for sorrow, too chastened for irony. At length he offers the notes back to her and says softly, “You’d better keep these. She can’t know I’m here.”
“I agree,” Marcy says just as quietly and tucks the yellow stack in her pocket. “Can you tell me what happened? I’ve known HMB for five years and I’ve been witness to tantrums, spite, endless recriminations. Vindictive, vain… it’s all true, you have to realize, what everyone says about her. Maybe it’s after all the constant, I don’t know, flogging that when you glimpse the terrified girl inside it’s tragic. She’s been a wreck all night and if there’s anything you can help me with, I need to know so I can just get her through tomorrow.”
Marcy squeaks a laugh. “Please. He’s a Muppet on a string and Heather will equivocate until it’s too late, like a pocket veto. She’ll still be CEO of A-Square because Adam has no leverage. No, Mr. Rogers, this is very, very different.”
The truth is out there but is trust? What is trust anyway, but a promise not to betray in this moment and not the next, maybe not to betray later, maybe not to betray at all. Maybe. Mike leans back on the chair springs and exhales through his mouth. Like with Johanna, he could forgive Heather almost anything if she hadn’t put Claire at risk, something he cannot, and will not, abide because in truth – that word again – she is all he has left to protect. The plaintive stickies bruise his heart but they do not penetrate further regardless of their professed innocence and calls for forgiveness because the deepest hurts, he knows, are unintended: it’s just that damned truth. Something either breaks or mends in him; he cannot tell which. Mike glances sidelong at Marcy.
“Can I confuse you more?”
“Mike Rogers, Millard Mikeerson,” Marcy slaps her knees in consternation. “How much more confusing does it get?”
“Oh.” Marcy brushes away another dangling curl. “Oh.” The busy of the server garden swells to fill a deathly silence. Random clicks, ostensibly silent fans that create their own weather, whirr of disk spin-up and access. Mike patiently watches answers fill the questions on Marcy’s face, lurching step-wise to a conclusion that, he guesses, will be a close approximation of reality. The clues are there, albeit somewhat attenuated, but ultimately a lot simpler for someone like Marcy to solve than a Sunday NYT crossie. Simple to solve: an oxymoron.
“She dug too deep,” Marcy pronounces at last and Mike nods sagaciously. “Heather won’t let the past go. Always trying to prove to everyone that she wasn’t just some small-town girl who should know her place but at what cost? Buying her parents’ approval? Going to that clinic like it was another day at the office? It took me a long time to map it and all I did was listen. If I had said one word, asked one question, I wouldn’t be here. She’s still seventeen inside."
“I saw that girl Monday night and she wasn’t terrified which is why I didn’t…that’s what makes this so hard on her. And me.” Mike looks idly at the laptop screen. “And maybe it was my own fault, letting her get close enough that she got frightened again and had to know me from Alpha to Omega for her own sanity. All these aliases I have, Marcy, are there to wall off the past and I think that’s what drives Heather crazy because as much as she’d like to do the same, she can’t. Her past is an open wound ergo, it must be that way for everyone.”
“And now,” Marcy attempts to complete the thought, “Jonathan Mayfield is back in play. I don’t remember all of it, but insider trading and Adam Covington sure ring a bell. Although it makes complete sense that Heather gave you a Get out of Jail Free card for your work.”
“Droll. Very droll.”
“Seriously,” Marcy snaps, oblivious to her own quip. “You could be anything short of a serial killer and it wouldn’t phase HMB in the slightest. I mean, all you have to do is look at Bryce: burglary, second-degree assault and battery, weapons, drunk in public…whatever they call those charges in England. Those are just the ones I remember. SocialNET is meritocracy in its purest form and that’s all Heather.”
“But Adam Covington is a little too close for comfort. Especially if Heather does the right thing and walks down the aisle into the corner office. Two-fers like that don’t come around very often.”
“It’s not the right thing to do, Mike. Jonathon. Whatever. But it’s the only thing that makes sense. Heather wants to rule the world forever but she’s going to have to finally grow up and she could do a lot worse than Adam Covington as a mentor. If you knew he was around why did you even come back?”
“My daughter was here and I had to get her well. Millard Mikeerson worked out for a long time and I thought that by reverse-engineering Covington’s frame-up I had a shaved knuckle in the hole. Three days ago, I hadn’t a clue in the world that anyone – much less Heather Bronson – would peel back the onion so far and the fact that she didn’t mean to is no excuse. The damage is done and now people can only get hurt. It’s way too late to take Covington down so now I’m playing defense pure and simple. But there’s options B, C, and D and any of them are easy enough to activate. After tonight, I’ll be gone.”
Mike loosens a painful laugh. “If I told you that, they wouldn’t be options now, would they?”
“Yep.” She slaps her knees and gets up. “Heather’s off her game and I have to get her through this. She can deal with the fallout later. Still…You’re a very, very, very lucky man to really see her just as I think she sees you. I’ve never, ever seen Heather so smitten. Climbing out of this isn’t going to be easy for her. Take that with you to your next fox hole.”
“You don’t think I’m smitten, as you say? Hurt is a matter of perspective.” Mike cracks his knuckles. “Question. I get the H and B, but what does M stand for?”
A full-body shrug. “You’ll have to ask her.”
“I did. She wouldn’t answer.”
Shouts break the unhappy silence like tapped glass. A Doppler of what Mike assumes is Punjabi invective sweeps toward the lab and the door slams open as two VisionIng drones wrestle Raj inside like hospital orderlies returning an unruly patient to the padded cell. The contrast of moods is so stark Mike bursts out laughing. “Raja mon, I told them to beware of grumpy Indians.”
“Michael! Who in hell do these people think they are?” Raj shakes himself loose from his tormentors. And the tormentors have been ruthlessly efficient: they left him no time to even comb his hair, he’s wearing a dark blue suit over an untucked white shirt that he wore yesterday, no tie, yellow slippers. Marcy folds her arms; without a word, one of the drones takes his all-access lanyard and inelegantly drapes it around Raj’s neck.
“There’s a reason why we have credentials, gentlemen,” Marcy says with only a suggestion of irony. “It seems that this high security IT lab is a lot less secure than we thought.”
“It’s OK,” Mike placates. “He’s with me.”
An eyebrow arches halfway up her forehead. “I’m supposed to feel reassured how?”
“Marcy Streetman, Raj Srinivasan. Raj is CEO of Nex Software and a…former colleague. Marcy is Heather Bronson’s EA.”
A million-watt smile spreads across Raj’s unshaven face and his black eyes dance. “Please to make your acquaintance, Ms. Streetman. SocialNET and Nex should be the best of business partners and I would appreciate if you would forward my kindest regard to Ms. Bronson.”
Raj flounders in a coat pocket, produces a business card and presents it to Marcy. She doesn’t move a muscle until Mike sends an unequivocal “do it” look punctuated by a thin nod. She snaps up the card with all the ill humor she can muster and waves at VisionIng drones. “Let’s all get out of here and leave these two to save the world. Or blow up Moscone. At this point it wouldn’t be the worst that could happen.”
When they are alone, Raj drops into the chair next to Mike, leans back stiffly. “What really is the hell going on here?”
“You want the long form or short form?”
“Short, if you please. I just need some context, Michael. My sleep debt is very high.”
“Yeah. You look as wrecked as I feel. By the way. It’s Jonathon tonight.”
Raj’s eyes betray little and only a sharp intake of breath informs his astonishment. “Well, it’s like old times, then.”
“For tonight. Just tonight.”
“I am so sorry for you and Claire.” Raj looks away, abashed. “What are your plans?”
“Vegas,” Mike replies, swirling the mouse to arouse his slumbering laptop. “A security hacker like me can make good jing working for the house. I figure I can get Claire into a private school and she’s known all along we’d might have to move in the night. I actually think she’ll be excited but I can’t really say the same for myself.”