Carol Paris opened the door. “Hi dad,” she smiled. “Come in.” Her countenance changed when she smelt the alcohol on his breath. “Are you okay?”
Her father stepped over the threshold without replying. He looked dishevelled. A three thousand dollar suit, and he looked dishevelled. She closed and locked the door behind him softly, and waited for him to speak.
“I can't tell you everything,” the man began, then hesitated, trying to find the words. “It's a mess.”
“What do you mean? Are you in trouble?”
Her father shook his head. “You know we've never talked about our respective jobs. Our employers. Loose talk, and all that.”
They walked into the living room; Carol put the TV on mute. “I don't know what you do,” her father said. “I don't want to know. But…”
“I don't know. I don't l know. Maybe it's nothing.”
“Dad, you're not making much sense.”
Calvin Paris massaged his forehead as if to push the migraine out. “I need a favour,” he admitted. “A big one.”
Carol studied him for a long moment. He looked washed out, a shadow of his former self. “If I were to say to you, I need information - any information - on a certain individual, could you get me that information? Without compromising yourself?”
“I know you're asking me a hypothetical question - “
“ - But I can't use company resources for personal reasons. I'm sorry. You should go home. I think your favourite show’s just starting.”
Calvin nodded slowly, and turned to the door. “Yeah. Okay. Stupid question.”
“Say hello to mom for me.”
“Will do,” her father said. And he opened the door and left.
° ° ° ° °
Exactly sixty minutes later, Carol Paris called her father from a new cellphone that she had never used before and she would never use again. She sat in a rental car in a parking lot in a part of town she had never been to before, and would never go to again. She had not been followed.
Her father took the call on a cellphone that he too would never use again. She did not speak; there were no niceties. He played the recording (Monotone Male Voice Number 7) so that his own voice would not be recognised: “Harold Maine. M-A-I-N-E. Lives somewhere in the Beacon Hill area. He knows you work for some “secret organisation” - mentioned the CIA. I don't know how he got this information. Be careful.”
The call was disconnected. Carol took the sim card and battery out of the phone and smashed the screen.
Christ, she thought. Harold Maine. All roads led to Harold Maine. She got out of the car and dumped the phone into the nearest litter bin, scanning the empty parking lot for witnesses. There were none. She climbed back into the rental car and switched on the ignition. The rhythmic hum soothed her a little, like a cat purring, and she felt the gathered, knotted muscles at the nape of her neck loosen.
Within twenty minutes she had driven back to her own car and swapped over. Forty nine minutes after that, she was walking through Harry’s Famous Laundromat, an altogether unremarkable and nondescript building in one of San Antonio's less salubrious areas. She walked down the steps that the migrant workers could not see and would not remember, and into the basement. A door shut behind her as another opened in front, and she stepped into the suite of rooms that was not shown on any building blueprints, but was known to her and a handful of others as the permanent office location of Early Warning Unit Wormwood-33.
She sat down at a desk and sighed. Every minute there were indications of the impossible, hints of the fantastical, promises of the magical and unreal; anything deviating from any one of eight million, five hundred and ninety seven thousand, nine hundred and forty five accepted normality patterns were flagged up here, in this little claustrophobic suite. Sightings, rumours, murders, deaths, accidents, freak weather, earthquakes, atmospheric disturbances, geological activity, religious fervour, celebrity ratings, economic well-being, political machinations and deviations from twelve hundred points along the moral compass were all logged, sorted, and monitored from here.
Each one of those eight million plus normality patterns had their own suite of Anomalous Signature Recognition algorithms; if X deviates from Y by Z for N hours, initiate Protocol A. If X is more than 0.007% of Y in Z% of the male hispanic population during televised broadcasts of N, initiate Protocol Q. If Protocol Q has been active for X minutes and ASR algorithm suite G-G790-AVE has seen more than X alerts collectively, initiate Escalation Procedure 697-AntiStar-001. And so on and so on, etcetera etcetera.
In the last four months there had been seventy separate escalations, some of them so apparent that their manifestations had made any form of covert monitoring immediately and permanently redundant.
In a jewelry store, a thirteen year old girl had swallowed three diamond rings, five gold and platinum eternity rings, one ruby and sapphire bracelet and a reproduction Fabergé egg. The girl died eight days later of malnutrition; she said she needed to eat shiny, pretty things and food was no longer any good for her. The jewelry was never recovered from her body.
In a local cemetery, a vagrant who no longer knew his own name was found crying at every grave as if he knew the deceased personally. Those that had died during the wars, old folks who had finally succumbed to cancer, tiny little children who had died as they drew their first breath. Deaths spanning two centuries. The police had come for him, with a view to maybe admit him into psychiatric care; a Sunday afternoon annoyance towards the end of their shift. But he knew all their names, and how they died, and a lot more besides; so much so that when Officer Rooney asked the vagrant where his parents were buried, he was able to lead them there without error. And he was able to tell the officer that John Rooney had died of pneumonia on a rainy day, and that he was a keen golfer, and that Marsha Rooney had never got over it and died three months later of a broken heart. And although Officer Rooney did not recollect ever seeing the man before, the vagrant was adamant that he had attended the funeral, and could recall it in great detail. He had been to every funeral there ever was; he had known, personally, every person who had ever died - or so he maintained. And he cried, and he cried, and his loss was infinite and unendurable.
In another incident, a school bus had crashed without warning into a fire truck. Nobody was injured, but the driver tumbled out of the cab and collapsed onto the highway. He was vomiting fire; and the tarmac was bright and shiny and bubbly and melting where he'd put his hands. The schoolchildren gathered at the windows, watching as his clothes combusted and charred and turned to ash, and the highway liquified beneath him, and all the while he brought up fire. The heat denuded him; he was thrown an asbestos suit, but no one could get near him. The school bus blew up six seconds after the last child was plucked to safety. The man wasn't found.
There were other, more subtle occurrences. Rumours of orthodox Jews becoming militant Islamists overnight. Deaf men regaining their hearing, only to lose their sight. Previously healthy women suddenly developing birth defects.
And in most - not all - most of these cases, one name kept cropping up. The jewelry girl had delivered papers to his door; the fire-man had been a close friend; the vagrant was an ex-business associate and one-time informer. And who had he informed on? Harold Maine.
All roads led to Harold Maine. And now, at the exact same time that the Escalations demanded immediate action, Carol Paris had to hold back.
She switched the monitor and base unit on and stared at the screen as it powered up. The “Gemini Corporation” logo flashed up briefly, and her face was basked in soft green light. She took out her cellphone - her own, this time - and dialled her father’s number.
“Hey daddy, it's me,” she said. “Just ringing to let you know I'll be coming for dinner tonight. Yeah I'll bring something.”
She disconnected and put the phone away. She typed in a false username and entered the number generated on her security dongle, and got to work.