Her laughter tinkled. “Don’t sound so surprised!”
“You gotta be kidding. A standup comic? Tell me a joke.”
“Uh…okay. Why did the frog move out of the pond and into the local landfill?”
Uh-oh. He’d asked for it. No need for the punch line. “Never mind.”
“Okay, then. Maybe later. You can always catch my act at the Railway Comedy Club. I do fifteen minutes there, three nights a week.”
“You do?” He was surprised all over again. “That’s where I’ve been eating lately.”
“No kidding? Well…guess we’d better get down to cases here.” She rose and began to pace, her skirt swishing and her boots sounding like boots as they rapped back and forth across the aging cheapwood floor. “Recently, one of my contacts called to say she could put me in touch with actual A.S.P. personnel. That was the word, personnel. As you know, I’d written a couple of earlier articles hypothesizing that the Anti Seeder Project was probably real and that if it was real, it was probably telling the truth, and if was telling the truth, then the Guild deserved to be dismantled and all of their infernal machines destroyed. They were worms in the gut of civilization, they were–”
“Yes.” Homer suddenly craved a cigarette, for a moment forgetting he’d quit three years ago. “I remember. Strong stuff, good for making strong enemies.”
“Or friends.” She stopped pacing and stood facing him squarely. “Taking that position turned out to be enough to inspire A.S.P. to make contact.”
“For real?” Despite himself, Arbogast was intrigued. Until now, he’d been of a mind with the vast majority who assumed the Anti Seeder Project was probably two college dropouts with an attitude holed up in a cabin somewhere in Alaska. Big noise, small boys, exaggeration by the media.
“I think for real. And I definitely have to find out for sure for sure or go totally nuts. My contact set up a series of three meetings, all with a man who said his name was John. the first was over coffee at the Mean Green Java Machine.”
“Over on Carlson?”
“That’s the one. Neutral territory. I know I was not followed. John seemed like he knew what he was doing, and I didn’t think he’d been followed, either. Of course he could have been feeding me a line. We liked each other on sight, I believe, and I’m usually a good judge of that. In some ways he reminded me of you. You don’t look anything alike, but the easy rapport between us was similar. I don’t get that with too many people, so I notice it when I do.
“Anyway, we got past first base. At the end of our coffee break, he said yes, he was a member of A.S.P., yes, it was a real organization, and though it would take time for trust to build between the two of us, he’d be willing to give me more particulars at our second meeting.”
“And did he?” Homer’s pulse was pounding, and not from sexual arousal. The story had its own grip on him now.
“He did. Second meet was longer, dinner right over at the Railway. John told me several things of significance. One, he’d been a Seeder himself, a Senior Seeder in fact, and a good one. Two, everything A.S.P. had to say about the Guild was not only true but understated, the tip of an iceberg that could sink the Guild completely. Three, A.S.P. membership is handled in militia type cell structure for security reasons, but there are dozens if not hundreds of total members. Four, every A.S.P. member known to the Guild is on a priority hit list, with John himself high on that list. And five, A.S.P. does have at least some Guild technology in its possession.”
Unable to contain himself, Arbogast interrupted. “Did he give you any details on the technology? I mean, just what Guild stuff A.S.P. does have and what they are doing with it? Or intend to do with it?”
“No, dammit. That was going to be covered in our third meet. It was supposed to take place right here, this address, where John told me he’d been living for some time. It could have been a setup, but I was ready to take the chance.”
“Except. I got a phone call from our original go-between. I was advised not to show up the next morning as originally scheduled because John had called in to report the house had been raided.”
“Guild. Or not.”
They were silent for a time while Homer digested this information. Was John real or an elaborate con? For that matter, was the sniffer used by Nails real? Head over heels or not, he still had that possibility to consider: The girl herself might be the real con…except he couldn’t for the life of him see a motivation. He was a good cop, maybe an exceptional cop, but that was about it. No hidden billions for a gold digger to snag. No heavy political connections or famous relatives to exploit. Nothing.
If everything he was hearing was spot on, though, there was more than enough to ponder. Anyone could have raided the place. Guild, local bangers looking for loot or unprotected girls, half a dozen other possibilities he could think of without trying…no way to pin that down at first blush. The raid could mean anything or nothing. One thing was sure, however: If he didn’t get more deeply involved, he’d never see this girl again. She made him feel alive, really alive, for the first time since…. Whether the excitement of hanging out with a hot young woman or the excitement of a hot new mystery was the most invigorating factor, who knew? Besides, there was something else.
“I’m in,” he said at last.
She laughed in delight, a different quality in that sound, almost a screech, a hint at just how she’d gotten her nickname. Home winced visibly.
“Fingernails on a blackboard?” She grinned at him.
“Sort of,” he said dryly. “I take it there’s a whole lot more where that came from?”
“Want a larger sample?” Her eyes were full of mischief now that he’d been firmly hooked.
She laughed again, this time pure music with no blackboard. “So what decided you? My eyes of limpid blue? The mystery of what even I’m not sure is straight scoop or convoluted con?”
“Neither. Mostly, it’s that I have this psychological defect. When I see a beautiful woman in pain, I’m drawn to get all protective. White knight complex, I’ve heard it called–shallow, too, because if doesn’t work if the damsel in distress happens to be a hundred pounds overweight. Fortunately, you’re anything but that…and I just figured out how desperately you need me.”
“Yup. I can tell you one thing for sure. John may or may not be his real name, but he’s a real person. And he loves what he does. And it’s not about running cons.”
“How do you–please explain.”
“Elementary, my dear Corolla. The person who rented this house takes great care in his work. Every moving part of this place is in tiptop working condition. I don’t think your basic con has hobbies like oiling door hinges and lubricating locks and planing down rough edges on file drawers. What could possibly be the point?”
“I don’t think that proves anything.” She shook her head in frustration. “He could just be an obsessive compulsive with a lubrication disorder.”
“Let it go, you joke-aholic. I’m dumb enough to jump into a frog pond that may very well be chock full of alligators. Don’t mess with my self confidence.”
She looked at him carefully. And shut up.