Chapter 19

Jesse looked around at the furnished but bare apartment and wondered, as he always did, who else had lived there before him. This was New York, after all. The city of dreams. A troubled artist might have sat by the window with her feet on the radiator, avoiding the first stroke on her break-through painting. A young entrepreneur could have had leaning stacks of books everywhere, empty pizza boxes punctuating the empty space that he hadn't yet filled with a new idea. Whatever it had been before, the drab feel of the apartment made Jesse glad for his imagination.

Setting his suitcase on the floor, he wandered into the living room and sat down on the sofa next to the front window that overlooked North Piata Street. Across the street was a pharmacy, a shop that sold model airplanes, and a sushi restaurant. Jesse pulled out his new smartphone and pushed a few buttons, trying to find the screen to make a call. Nothing was right. His clothes didn't even seem to fit.

Finding the right screen, Jesse dialed the number for the Chinese restaurant across the street and ordered some salmon and rice. He tried Sascha's number next, but his voicemail picked up immediately. Jesse sighed and leaned back into the sofa, closing his eyes.

Agent Felton had been professional but firm about Jesse's choices after he was attacked. The fact that he had been the sole target of two separate incidents was reason enough to take steps to secure his safety. Jesse had tried to argue that the purpose of the attacks was to steal information rather than to harm him. Felton had listened patiently and then shared a story about a recent case that resulted in the violent death of an innocent civilian who had also been the target of spying. Jesse was told that he needed to move house, but it wasn't a simple process. A police escort had to be called whenever Jesse went to his old apartment, and his personal effects could not be taken directly to his new apartment since that would reveal its location. The feds had handled similar scenarios before, and they took care of transporting everything that he needed. Non-essential things were put in storage outside of the city.

The girl who attacked him had taken his laptop. It was the obvious thing to do. Jesse did most of his correspondence on the computer, and the university kept as much paperwork as possible on the computer to reduce waste and keep its processes efficient. If Jesse had worked with something sensitive that was interesting to the people following him, then there's a good chance that it was cached on the laptop. Unfortunately for them, the laptop's hard drive was automatically erased at the start and end of every work day. Jesse pushed a special button on the keyboard when he left for coffee each morning, and again when he left to wash out his cup at 5 o'clock. The computer took care of synchronizing any document changes that he had made that day, erasing the hard drive, and reinstalling the basic system so that the computer could be used again. The system depended on a human to start it, but it was otherwise a brilliant piece of automation. Whatever this girl had hoped to glean from the laptop's hard drive contents, she would soon find out that it was a more effective paperweight.

It was the phone that broke Jesse's courage. His smartphone was protected with a four-digit security code, but that would provide no defense against someone with technical skills. His parents' phone numbers, Sascha's work and mobile numbers, and countless others were on there. He had set up the phone exactly the way he liked it, and it had taken months to get everything right. The model in his hand was almost an exact replica of the stolen phone, but somehow it felt too bulky. It wasn't his phone, and the awkward mismatch felt like a microcosm of every aspect of his life.

Jesse wasn't the type of guy to ask "why me". Sometimes bad things happened, and sometimes they wandered in packs. The good news was that, on the average, there were good things that came around in packs too. You just had to keep your head and not sink into a pit of self-pity. For Jesse, this was far more comforting than the convictions of people who saw intention in everything. The hand of god, if it existed at all, didn't affect things directly. He was content to let the universe do its thing.

The current task was to keep his mind off of things until the sushi arrived. Jesse had waited a bit too long to eat, and that didn't help his mood.

He tried calling Sascha again. This time, the phone rang.

"Greene," Sascha's voice said. He was using his professional voice, which told Jesse knew that he didn't recognize the new number.

"Hi," Jesse said. "I'm interested in buying stock in SpanTel. Do you have any for sale?"

Sascha didn't recognize the number, but Jesse hadn't done anything to conceal his voice. "It wasn't the call that I wanted," he said, "but that's a slick service that they offer."

"Did you really want any call at that hour?" Jesse asked.

"Have you ever tried to turn your alarm clock off and then slowly realized that your phone was ringing?"

"No, but you know that I'm a light sleeper."

"I wouldn't wish it on you. I mumbled a few things that were probably incoherent, but luckily the girl at SpanTel let it ring more than twice. Wish the telemarketers would do that. Anyway, what's going on? You get your new digs?"

"Yeah, I just brought some clothes and books. The rest of the stuff is in storage. I plan on moving again as soon as we're done with the case, and I'm not moving all that furniture twice."

"Good thinking. Hey, I heard from Forth today. He and Felton got together to compare notes after the attack. They're convinced that the two events were related. That much seemed obvious, but it's good that the feds and the NYPD agree on it. They don't want you to tell anyone where you are -- even me."

"All right. Dry gossip so far."

"I'm getting to the good stuff. He mentioned that Ingo is being interviewed tomorrow morning. They want us both to be there. An agent will be calling you to set something up. They had a chat with Ingo after you were attacked, and I guess he shared some interesting stories. Whoever his bosses are have a number of sleeper agents that they call up whenever they need something. Most of them are college kids. People who need money and aren't above getting a little physical as long as no serious harm is done. They offer the kids full deniability. Posters are put up around campuses offering easy work— part time, great hours, flexible schedule, the usual tripe—and when someone calls, it's a recording. They leave the basics on the answering machine, and a few hours later someone calls back from an unlisted number. If the kid gets spooked, then they hang up. No harm, no foul. But plenty of them will stay on the line.

"When a job gets sent out, it's delivered on a sheet of paper by a private messenger who takes cash. No paper trail. Sent with the sheet of paper is a key to a storage locker somewhere obscure. The worker drops off the goods in the locker, leaves the key in the locker, and waits for another messenger to bring an envelope of cash. You got hit by the master the first time, but this second hit was probably some econ major with a bad haircut."

"So Ingo is definitely our point of focus, then. He's been dancing in the same circles for a while, and he'll have some idea who calls the shots. He might know the puppeteer, or maybe he can show us the money trail."

"That's the idea, my friend. Enjoy your evening. I've got to get this top feed sorted out before I go home. I'll catch you tomorrow at headquarters."

"I'm not on the feed, am I?" Jesse asked, half serious.

"Let me see," Sascha said, scanning the list. "Nope. Better luck next time!"