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Authors: Eliot Peper

Cumulus (9 page)

BOOK: Cumulus
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The woman stopped midway through lining up the next shot. She threw a look over her shoulder at Lilly.

“Well?” she said. “Are you just going to stand there?”

Lilly hadn’t considered any other options.

“Come shoot around.”

“Oh.” Lilly felt her face flush. “I’m not a basketball player. I’m not really into sports, actually.”

“Basketball is a verb, not a noun,” said the woman. “It’s not about being or not being something. It’s just about doing something. It doesn’t matter if you’re good. Just try it and see what happens.” She turned and lobbed the ball at Lilly.

Lilly overreacted but managed not to fumble it.

“I’ll help you,” said the woman. “Start by trying to get a feel for how far away the basket is. Then just throw up a shot. You’ll miss, but you’ll start to get a feel for judging the distance. It’s just physics.”

Lilly’s first shot made it only halfway to the basket. Her second attempt slammed off the backboard and ricocheted into a bench like a Ping-Pong ball. The woman adjusted Lilly’s stance and showed her how to hold the ball and the way to follow through. This close, she could smell the woman’s sweat and see that her palms were red and raw. Lilly felt awkward. She was a marionette too self-conscious of her own movements. Try. Fail. Try again. Fail again. Slowly her shots started landing closer to the basket. Not accurate by any stretch but at least more consistent.

“I had a shitty day too.” The woman stood a few meters away, staring down at the basketball in her hands.

Just as Lilly was adjusting to the surreality of the whole situation, she was thrown off again. Life had turned into a series of hairpin turns, a pulp noir with too many plot twists. She turned to face her, but the woman didn’t look up.

“Too much going wrong.” Lines etched the woman’s face. She paused for a moment. “This.” She slapped the ball in her hands. “This is where I come when things fall apart. This is what I do.”

“I take pictures,” said Lilly. “Sometimes I eat ramen at this smoky little hole-in-the-wall near where I live. Mostly I take pictures though.”

The woman nodded, still intent on the ball.

Lilly wasn’t sure how hard to press, how much to push her luck. “How do you know my name?”

“Oh, that’s easy. The system threw up a red flag when you turned up my street. Between all your profiles, phone, online activities, Lancer profile, and everything else, all your information was easily accessible. Lilly Miyamoto. Freelance photographer who was returning home from shooting a wedding up in wine country in a manually operated vintage Land Rover. Grew up in Encinitas. Parents died in a car crash.” The woman’s shoulders tightened suddenly. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have brought that up.”

“It’s okay,” said Lilly. But it wasn’t okay at all. That information was private. A random stranger shouldn’t be able to pull it up. “But I never had a guest pass. The Security guy said that it had been issued earlier in the afternoon.”

The woman shook her head, eyes never leaving the ball. “When you have root access, the digital world is malleable.”

Lilly had no idea what that was supposed to mean. “But why? You don’t know me. I was trespassing on your property, after all. Why rescue me? Why bring me here?”

“I don’t know, really.” Creases lined her forehead as the woman frowned. “Someone told me I needed to be more spontaneous.”

“But who
are
you?”

The woman looked up from the ball, genuinely surprised.

“You don’t know?”

“Would I be asking if I did?”

A shadow of a smile flitted across the woman’s face.

“I’m Huian,” she said. She extended a hand. “Pleased to meet you.”

 

 

 

16

 

 

 

GRAHAM SLICED THE BANANA
into the bowl with practiced precision, the blade of the knife pressing into the pad of his thumb with every stroke. Then he popped open the cardboard box, tore open the bag inside, and piled Cinnamon Toast Crunch on top of the fruit. Finally, he poured in the milk, enjoying how the individual pieces of cereal bobbed up on the bubbling cascade of liquid.

Graham chewed on the first spoonful with a satisfying crunch. CTC was his favorite of the small luxuries he could partake in daily now that he lived in California. It had been impossible to get his hands on in most of his assigned countries. Mexico had Zucaritas, but he had never been able to find CTC at any of the local grocery stores. He would always pack a few boxes when he was shipping out to whatever backwater the Agency had decided to send him to.

But fuck the Agency—now he could have CTC for breakfast every day.

Swallowing another mouthful of cereal, he relished the memory of telling Francis Jackman, his former boss, just exactly where he should shove his desk jockey bullshit. That was the problem with working for the government. The people on the ground were the only ones who knew what the fuck was going on. But they had no say over policy. The people who made the real decisions had no context, no insight. They spent their days socializing inside the Beltway. How could they expect to understand a back channel conflict over natural resource allocations in Sumatra?

Time to get ready. He picked up the bowl and walked into the bedroom, shoveling the last of the cereal into his mouth. Setting the empty bowl on the nightstand, he kneeled and reached under the bed to pull out a hard-shelled, gray trunk. The lock was mechanical, and he began spinning the numbers to the right combination. You simply couldn’t trust electronic locks in this day and age.

The real answer was that Washington fucked themselves and their agents over constantly. It was the nature of the game. Governments were such large and unwieldy human organizations that even their most sophisticated attempts at subtlety usually ended up as embarrassing messes. Buzzwords for seven-second campaign spots didn’t translate well into day-to-day foreign policy. The same was more or less true for every intelligence agency of every government on earth. It was just a matter of degree.

That had been the central problem of life as an intelligence agent for generations. Even spy novels got that right. Governments were terrible employers because they barely understood themselves, but governments were also the only organizations with the power to play geopolitics. So agents just sucked it up until they got so frustrated they got out of the game entirely, and spent their time bitching with any surviving colleagues.

But like with so many other things, the internet had redefined the fundamental assumptions.

The trunk clicked open to reveal his kit. He pulled the soft leather gloves onto his hands, wiggling his fingers to help them find their fit. With practiced ease, he unfolded the various compartments of the trunk.
Espionage accoutrements
. That’s what Granddad had called them. Graham couldn’t suppress a smile. The old man would be proud of the obsessive attention to detail that Graham applied to the endless maintenance the equipment required. Requisite tools in hand, he locked and replaced the trunk under the bed.

While Francis had been spouting a stream of red tape nonsense, Graham had realized that he and the entire Agency were totally out of touch. Like most organizations beginning the long slide into obsolescence, they didn’t even realize it yet. They didn’t see how dependent they had become on the tools that supposedly empowered them. They didn’t see how those tools centralized information and intelligence in a way that fundamentally changed the calculus of espionage. They were living in the information age, but pretending it was the Cold War.

Well, he wasn’t going to keep pretending. So, instead of activating the files of dirt he had on Francis, Graham told his boss to go fuck himself and bought a one-way ticket to San Francisco.

He rummaged through his closet and pulled on a grungy flannel sweatshirt and torn jeans. Then he packed freshly pressed slacks and a crisp button-up shirt into a worn backpack. He walked into the bathroom and looked at himself in the mirror. Placid brown eyes stared back over an unassuming, unshaven face. He mussed up his hair and adjusted the sweatshirt so that it rested more awkwardly on his shoulders.

Dressing down was just as important as dressing up. Despite the assurances of the self-help industry, appearances did indeed matter. Appearances could make you stand out or blend in. They shaped people’s subconscious assumptions about you, and how they reacted to you. Appearances were deceiving precisely because you were unaware of the deception before it was too late.

Graham scooped up the backpack, put the empty cereal bowl in the sink, and headed for the door.

Of course, Graham had figured out something even more powerful than appearance. He had his sights set on disappearance. Not quite an invisibility cloak, but not too far off. He had performed a number of field tests. Everything had gone swimmingly. It was as close to a superpower as you could come outside of comic books. But he had yet to experiment with it here in the Bay Area, the capital of the technological world.

People liked to throw around the phrase “the internet revolution.” The only problem was that they didn’t take it literally. But, to be fair, he couldn’t entirely blame them. Unlike Graham, most lacked an intimate understanding of the fundamental currency of power. Unfortunately for them, ignorance was no exemption.

The sweet aftertaste of CTC still lingered on his tongue. Today was going to be a very interesting day.

 

 

 

17

 

 

 

YESTERDAY HAD BEEN SERIOUSLY WEIRD.
Lilly ran a hand through her hair as she pulled the Land Rover into the driveway in front of a lovingly restored, early-twentieth-century craftsman house that looked somewhat out of place amid the post-apocalyptic Slums of West Oakland.

Thankfully, Sara had offered to let her use the car overnight after working the wedding. Now it was time to return it, but how would Lilly even begin to tell her the whole story? No tip and a bad Lancer rating. Wandering up into the Green Zone and trespassing to chase a sunset shot. Snatched up by Security and whisked away in the nick of time by an enigmatic plutocrat with a basketball obsession. Sara would think she’d started popping pills, but Frederick would confirm she hadn’t been supplied any.

The roar of the engine died as she turned the key and slid the camera over her shoulder. Then she reached over to grab the two cups of coffee in the holder between the seats. Steam trailed behind them, infusing the inside of the
SUV
with a rich caramel aroma. Billy’s home-roasted coffee would grease the wheels of conversation—Sara was obsessed with his brew.

Lilly opened the door and stepped out into the crisp morning air. The sound of birds chirping was an unusual counterpoint to the cranes at the Port of Oakland that loomed on the western horizon. She awkwardly pushed the door shut with her hip. Gunshots echoed a few blocks away. Despite that, right here she felt as safe as anyone could be in the Slums. Frederick ran the Slums, and his enforcers ran the streets. The justice they meted out might be vigilante, but at least someone was filling the void left by the bankrupt city government. Sara was a close friend of Frederick despite the various legally dubious activities of his “organization.”

Sara was a tenacious attorney always seeking to take on a new corporate Goliath, and dedicated to social justice activism. Few enough people who could afford to get out still lived in the Slums. She was the one whom Frederick called whenever a political problem came up—managing his organization involved a surprising amount of politics. Lilly suspected they also might be sleeping together. As a friend of Sara, Lilly was under her wing, and therefore had a street version of diplomatic immunity while in their territory. She’d just nod to the enforcers on the corners, and they’d give her a wave. They all recognized the Land Rover anyway.

The house was periwinkle blue with white trim. A gate led along the side to the backyard. She walked through the jungle of succulents that flourished in the front garden, and climbed the front steps. She couldn’t wait for the sunset photos to emerge from the chemical baths of the darkroom. They were going to be incredible.

Screw Matt Tobin and his stinginess. She’d develop the sunset shots before the wedding shots. Don’t tell the waiter you’re not going to tip him before you’ve eaten. They had decades of marital bliss ahead of them. Their wedding photos could wait.

Lilly tried to use her elbow to knock on the front door without spilling the coffees. But the door moved at her touch. It must have been left slightly ajar.

“Sara?” Lilly nudged the door fully open with her shoulder and stepped through into the living room.

Both coffee cups fell from her hands and exploded when they hit the floor, steaming liquid pouring out over polished hardwood.

Sara lay over the arm of the couch. A gory crater oozed blood from where her right eye used to be. Another bullet had burrowed through her left breast, making a scarlet mess of her white cashmere sweater. Limbs hung at awkward angles. Curly brown hair fanned out across the cushion. Her mouth hung slightly open, jaw slack. Blood had seeped into the leather and splattered onto the piles of paperwork on the coffee table.

BOOK: Cumulus
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