I’m a Retrieval Specialist Officer. You can call me Seeker. It’s not my real name, but for a lot of reasons most of us don’t use our real name. Names leave you… vulnerable. They lead to connections. The smart ones know it’s better if you, the real you, just doesn’t exist.
I used my first paycheck on this job to pay a hacker to ‘kill’ as much of my official ‘real’ self as he could ten years ago. Not sure how much is left. Maybe a few dusty yearbooks from high school in a storage locker and painted over pencil marks on a home in Michigan.
Retrieval Specialist Officer is corporate speak for bounty hunter. We get hired when someone gets lost. We’re independent contractors so we’re expendable. We do something stupid that gets us killed or arrested, they don’t know us. In exchange, they pay us off the books. If you’re good, the pay is good and tax free. It’s as fair an exchange as you’ll find these days.
RSO’s generally don’t kill people. The larger companies have their own in-house assassins. Real cold-blooded, scary sons of bitches. They’re a special breed. Usually raised in-house from birth for the job. I’ve seen a few of the newer RSOs try to break into that gig and dabble in wet work. It’s usually the petty shit that the real assassins wouldn’t touch: punishing data pirates, repossessing tech or organs from junkies, assassinating low level whistleblowers, or working for some loser wanting to knock off his boss so he can get that promotion. That kind of thing.
But you go down that path, pretty soon, you’ve got a stack of bodies piling up on you, then the piece of shit middle manager who’s been hiring you starts to worry about you getting caught, spilling the beans, and suddenly the next hungry RSO hoping to land a corporate assassin’s gig is knocking at your door.
I prefer to stay clean. Companies post a message on the dark web, I discreetly bring back someone or something that they’ve lost, and they make a deposit to my Hong Kong or Zurich account. I try every time to complete the contract without any blood and I’m proud that I’ve built up a reputation as someone who can get the job done without unnecessary violence. Gets me more work that way. More work means more money and I like more money.
It was three in the morning when I noticed the post on a defunct hang room that was devoted to the classical music of Elvis Presley and done up to look like a cheap Vegas lounge from the 1960’s. It was taped over a velvet painting of Presley hanging behind the baby grand piano. I pulled it away from the painting.
“Discreet RSO required. Respond to this message for further details. Rating 5/5 required.”
A blue box appeared beneath the message and I pressed my right thumb on top of it. The box flashed white.
“Shit, I missed another one?” a voice behind me said. It was Gunner. He was new to the game.
“’Fraid so,” I said. “Try the Jerry Lee Lewis room. Aviatrix Corp. has been posting there lately.”
“Thanks, Seeker,” he said.
“No problem, Kid.”
Gunner’s avatar disappeared as the message in my hands turned into a phone. It rang. I let it go three times before answering.
“Seeker! Glad to see you’re the one who found the message.”
“Carter,” I said.
I had known Carter for about five years now. I didn’t know if that was his first name or last name. Didn’t care. He was a senior executive with Western Capital Dynamics and he paid well. And he hadn’t tried to backstab me yet. The rest was unimportant.
I didn’t even know what he looked like. His avatar was tall, thin, with dark brown hair, and a neatly trimmed beard wearing an expensive suit and a gold watch, but no one used their real image as an avatar. We could stand next to each other in an elevator or at the urinal and not know it.
One more wall of separation.
“Okay, Carter. What’s the situation?”
“Let’s talk somewhere more… private,” he said.
“Alright, lets,” I said.
The ancient Vegas lounge disappeared and with an audible popping sound I was standing in an office with a view of New Hong Kong Harbor. A wave of vertigo slammed into my head like a cement truck and I put a hand on the mahogany desk that was now in front of me.
“That’s better. Nice. Secure.”
“Jesus, Carter, give a guy a warning next time, would you?”
“Sorry,” Carter said. “Virtual cigarette? Tox-E? Inhibitor?”
I shook my head. “You don’t pay me to fuck up my mind like that.”
“No, we don’t. Okay, I’m going to level with you Seeker.”
“It’d be a first,” I said.
Carter laughed and took a sip from his glass of Tox-E. “Nature of the beast, I’m afraid.”
He handed me a file.
“Dr. Karen Aydin, 35,” I said. “Bioscience. Los Angeles division. No travelling then? Too bad, I was hoping for another African vacation.”
“Not this time.”
Father American, mother Persian. Emigrated to the U.S. thirteen years ago. Dark hair that fell to mid-shoulder blade and blue eyes. Very pretty. If she was slumming it in a bar I frequented, I might send her a drink.
I pushed those thoughts away. You don’t let your mind wander to thoughts like that on a job. It complicates things. But I made a note to call a couple of friends and go drinking after this job was over. It had clearly been too long since I enjoyed the company of a woman.
“Everything okay?” Carter asked.
“Peachy,” I said. “Who is she to you?”
“She is one of our top biologists,” Carter said. “She failed to report into work today. She didn’t call in sick or with an emergency either. Given the nature of Dr. Aydin’s work-“
“Which I don’t want to know about,” I said.
He tapped the file and it briefly glowed red.
Carter smiled, “Redacted. Good. One less loose end to clean up then.”
One of the things about Carter, I couldn’t tell if he was serious about being the Evil Corporate Executive or just had a warped sense of humor. I decided a long time ago that I didn’t want to find out.
“Any intel on poachers?”
“I’ve had security do a search and nothing so far, but it’s a wide web, Seeker.”
“Declassified email, traffic, social media accounts, and texts?”
“Included,” Carter said. “We should be past this by now, Seeker.”
“Never hurts to be thorough. Anything from her work missing?”
“We’ve done an inventory and everything appears to be in place, but we’ve called in her co-workers to double check everything. There’s a copy of the security report in your file.”
“She owe you?”
“No. Paid off her student debt three years ago.”
“So she’s a freeman?”
“You know freeman have rights. If she’s one of them, I can’t legally bring her back to you if she doesn’t want to come.”
“She’s violated the required exit ‘interview’ clause of our standard R&D employment contract. That should give you legal grounds.”
“Meaning she’s got a head full of secret data that needs wiping.”
“Or transferring,” Carter said. “I know this one is… borderline, Seeker, which is why I’m offering twice your normal fee and a reasonable expense account to cover any ‘donations’ that might be required to The Locals.”
I sighed. “I don’t know, Carter. This is dicier than a craps game.”
“How about I agree to forward half the fee to your account if you get arrested while transporting Dr. Aydin to us? You get enough for a decent lawyer, and you keep our names out of it.”
“Alright, you’ve got a deal. “
Carter tapped something on his desk and threw the window over to me. “Done. Find out what happened to her, Seeker. Her work was… important to the company.”
I read over the contract carefully and tapped my agreement, then threw the window back to Carter. “She’s as good as yours,” I said. “Now how the hell do I get out of here?”
“I got it,” Carter said. He tapped his avatar’s fat fingers on his desk and I was back in the Elvis hang room feeling dizzy with a migraine.
“God damn it, Carter.”
The first thing I do in these situations is check with local police and hospitals. Accidents? Addictions? Shit? It all happens. At least a third of the time, you’ll find your mark sitting in a Detox tank or in a hospital bed. The unluckier ones you’ll find in the morgue. Those are the easy cases. Get a copy of the death certificate and a snapshot of the mark and you’re done.
So I checked the intakes of all of the hospitals and police stations within 25 miles of her apartment, but there were no matching corpses, patients, or inmates that matched Dr. Aydin’s DNA or description. Expanding it out to 250 miles took longer to search, a lot longer, but also turned up nothing.
So it wouldn’t be that easy. There were other tricks I knew.
Most people aren’t that difficult to track. Your average idiot these days don’t ever think about how much information they post on their social media accounts. So if you want to get a good lead or ten, you can scan their account feeds and see if they’ve posted any travel plans or scans from restaurants, hotels, airports, trains. Yes, sometimes people are stupid enough to tell everyone on the Net exactly where they are and how long they’ll be gone from their house or apartment. It makes things much easier for me and for any thieves or junkies that want to ransack their homes.
They don’t realize that it doesn’t take much to learn everything about their lives, especially if they willingly provided access to their social media accounts to their employers which Karen Aydin had done.
Logging in as her gave me access to everything. I browsed through her posts, images, and texts. There was no indication that she was planning a trip. No clues on where she might have gone. No mention of family emergencies. No meetings listed with rival corporations. This meant an unplanned trip or she was at least intelligent enough not to blab her plans on the Net.
I copied her list of friends and tagged the first ten that she had had the most contact with in the last 12 months. I sent them all messages acting like a concerned coworker who was worried about her. Then I went through all of Dr. Aydin’s posts for the last 12 months. I searched her email accounts and hacked into her listed phone records. Nothing out of the ordinary and nothing at all within the last 72 hours.
This was going to take actual leg work.
I logged off the Net and opened my eyes in my flat. It was completely dark. Had I really been online that long?
Time loss is a sign of synaptic corruption, you know.
“Genevieve, schedule an appointment with The Cutter. I might need a Net-face upgrade sooner than expected,” I said.
“He warned you about using recycled bio-tech.”
“Just shut up and make the appointment.”
“Cutter is free on Tuesday at nine-thirty.”
“Book it and turn on the damn lights, would you?”
The flat lights came on. It wasn’t a glamourous apartment. It was small, with peeling gray paint, overhead lights that flickered whenever the trains passed, and a “great” view of the alley where tech addicts lay oblivious to the world in the trash and junkie prostitutes whored themselves out for their next hit. But it suited my needs and it was cheap.
Guys in my line of work tend to think that the good times will never end. They spend their paycheck almost as fast as they can get it. And these guys kept pushing gigs out into their forties and fifties until some kid in debt to the Company got the drop on them. But I knew better. I was on the backside of 35 pushing towards 40 with greater speed than I liked, and when time caught up with the meat and wires in me, I wanted a retirement plan that didn’t end with a bullet in my head.
“Genevieve, I’ll need a car.”
“You got it, Boss.”
I threw on a clean white shirt and black slacks. I found and fastened a small Arc-knife with a holster on my left forearm and a Needler in a shoulder holster. I wasn’t expecting trouble, but it’s better to be prepared. I covered both weapons with a dark overcoat and headed toward the door.
“How long do you expect to be out?”
“Not sure. Depends on the quarry.”
“There is a 60% chance of rain tonight. I suggest you remember your hat this time.”
“Thanks. What would I do without you, Genevieve?”
“Probably log into the Net and forget to eat until you starved.”
“Smartass house,” I said.
“Stupid meatbag,” she replied.
“I’m fifteen percent machine, you old bot,” I said.
“Whatever,” she said.
Is it weird that the most stable and meaningful relationship I have right now is with my smart house AI? I need to get out more. Meet new people outside of the business.
The Autocab was waiting for me when I exited my building. It was one of those models with an overly perky AI that was programmed for small talk, so it was an incredibly long 30 minute drive over to Dr. Aydin’s residence. I think I deserve a medal for not shooting the damn thing.
Dr. Aydin lived in an old brick condo building near the ruins of the old 101 about 15 more minutes from USC in a nice neighborhood owned by her employer, California Biotech Labs, or CBL. It was a recent acquisition of Western Capital Dynamics. A pair of ex-military goons stuffed into big and tall black suits (that weren’t big or tall enough) greeted me at the door.
“Gentlemen,” I said.
“This is private property. Fuck off.”
“You greet everyone that way or just the private help? Someone from home office should have let you boys know I’d be by,” I said. I flashed my credentials.
“The private dick,” he said.
“RSO. Like a duller Boba Fett.”
“No appreciation for the classics,” I said. “You boys going to let me through?”
He nodded, “Go right in. The property manager is expecting you upstairs. Good luck.”
“That cheery, huh?”
“You don’t know the half of it, pal.”
Dr. Aydin lived on the fourth floor in unit 402. I was met there by the property manager, a small, thin woman with white hair pulled back into a tight bun that seemed to make the skin on her face taut, though it was probably just plastic surgery. Two steel gray eyes glared out of pair of old fashioned glasses that hung low on her nose. She wore a light blue nightgown and a disapproving scowl.
“I hardly see why this is necessary,” she said.
“Your tenant is missing. Your mutual employer is concerned,” I said. “Aren’t you?”
“I’m sure she’s fine wherever she is.”
“Do you know where she is?”
“Of course not,” she said.
“Then how do you know?”
“I just meant that Karen has a good head on her shoulders.”
“Did you know her well?”
“No more than any of my other tenants.”
“Helpful. Are you going to open the door or do I need to phone this in?”
“Of course, I’ll open the door,” she said. “It’s just that Karen is a good person. An exemplary tenant. No overnight guests. No pets. No loud noises or complaints. And no unauthorized curfew violations.”
“So she’s got a good brain and now she’s a good person, but you didn’t know her well at all?”
“I just meant that I’m certain she has a perfectly legitimate reason for her absence,” she said. “And I do not wish to see her privacy repeatedly violated.”
I motioned to the cameras on either side of the hallway. “Privacy left the building a long time ago, I suspect, Mrs.-?”
“Chambers. Ms. Chambers. And those are just standard. For our tenants’ protection.”
“Good. Then you won’t mind giving me access to the security logs for this unit, this floor, and the exterior.”
“I certainly do mind,” Chambers sneered.
“Too bad. Your boss will give me access. You can either call it in yourself or I will. In the meantime, I’m going to search her apartment, so open the door.”
Landlady Chambers keyed open the door, her eyes trying their damnedest to bore a hole into my skull. I smiled pleasantly, “Thank you.”
“Fuck off,” she said. “And I am calling it in.”
“Of course,” I said.
The apartment had already been tossed by Carter’s goons and I immediately wished he had let me have the first crack at it. They had been careless, tossing shit on the floor, dirtying up the scene with wrinkled clothes and broken glass. It was a fucking mess. Still, maybe the goon squad missed something that wasn’t blindingly obvious. I mentally divided the rooms into sections and started with the closest nearest the door. Methodically, I searched every inch of the living room, making note of an earring found by the living room table (and taking images with my ocular implant for Dr. Aydin’s case file) I could compare the images to the security footage of the apartment later that would point out if anything obvious was missing.
It’s weird to pour over the collected things of someone’s life, but it’s also fascinating. Every item that might be nothing or a crucial piece in understanding the person you’re trying to find. Take, for instance, pug memorabilia. There were a few pug collectables. Did she like dogs? Were they gifts? Did she have a pet? I didn’t find a food dish or any obvious signs of a contraband pet. Maybe an obsession from a childhood pet then? I would find out eventually. Hell, by the time I’m done I’ll know Dr. Aydin better than most of her family and friends.
Her kitchen was clean. Trash was full though. Lots of take-out containers. That would be useful. I could track her purchases, find potential leads, see if they’ve been delivering to her at a new address.
All of the locations were on the Net. All of them were easy to hack and pull customer data from. Nothing financial. That was hidden behind the good ice, had to be by law. But names, delivery addresses, call logs? Those were usually hidden behind cheap security apps if they were hidden at all.
Dr. Aydin rarely cooked. But there were no new orders for her at any of her favorite restaurants. She was definitely out of the neighborhood. I launched a bot that would expand the search to the surrounding neighborhoods. It had pretty limited AI, but shouldn’t have a problem getting the data I wanted. Unfortunately, it would take time to get the results.
Fortunately for the case, if not for me, Mrs. Chambers messaged me just then. Her gaunt face appeared in a small box in the corner of my vision. Her lips were frozen in a scowl that probably intimidated complaining tenants, but did nothing for me.
“I take it the bigwigs told you to cooperate,” I said.
“Yes, Mr. Seeker. I’m sending you the link to the building’s security server. I do hope you find Dr. Aydin. She’s quite the model tenant.”
“So you’ve said,” I said. “I’ll get her back. I haven’t failed yet. How far back does the footage go before it loops?”
“Thirty days,” she said.
“I told you it was probably a waste of time. Your predecessors didn’t even seem interested in it.”
“My predecessors were a pair of heavy handed goons who wouldn’t know good investigative techniques if it bashed their skulls in with a sledgehammer,” I said.
“Do you need anything else?” she sneered.
“When was the last time you saw Dr. Aydin?”
“About two weeks ago. She reported a problem with her HVAC unit, said the air wasn’t working properly. But I checked and it was keeping the entire floor at the same 78 degree temperature.”
“She ever mention any family, friends, anyone who would come around to see her?”
“No. No guests. Ever. Guests are required to sign in. I make sure of that. No one has logged in to visit her.”
“She close to any of the other tenants?”
“Not that I’m aware of. Pretty much kept to herself.”
“Okay. Thank you, Ms. Chambers for your time.”
“If I have any more questions, I’ll let you know.”
I sighed. Friendless introvert who kept to herself and had no support system. Not exactly the profile of a woman who would voluntarily leave her job and apartment. It was possible Dr. Aydin was the victim of a random crime. People died or disappeared into dark alleys in this city all the time. Their bodies would turn up eventually, usually stuffed with bullet wounds or mediocre tech and a fatal infection from a chop shop. Sometimes with organs gone or pieces of their flesh gnawed at. Sometimes by animals and sometimes by desperate humans.
Hunger could make a man do strange things.
But I had a feeling there was more to it than a random crime. Usually corporate types with high positions like Aydin don’t frequent the sort of places where random bodies turn up on the regular.
As much as I hated doing it, I was left with watching the surveillance tapes.
I won’t bore you with the process of sorting through 30 days of video in a few minutes. It’s easy enough to write a small script in your head to bypass irrelevant chunks, like cutting out any frames where no one was in view of the camera. That little gem removed almost 80% of the data I was sifting through.
After the filtering, I was still left with almost 300 hours of footage.
I focused on her final day in her apartment first.
She woke up at 6:45.
I watched Dr. Aydin walk to the master bathroom. I lose the video feed there. I don’t mind. My job requires me to be a voyeur sometimes, but I try not to violate people’s privacy that much unless I have to. It does amuse me though that with all of the cameras everywhere, the bathroom appears to be the last bastion of privacy in the world. I bet some drone in HR talked them into it. Give people a little privacy and they’ll tolerate even more invasive behavior.
The bedroom audio picks up the toilet flushing and the shower being turned on. Fifteen minutes later, Dr. Aydin exits the bathroom and gets dressed. I skipped over that footage. I’m a bounty hunter, not a pervert.
Admittedly, the thought was tempting. Maybe I should make a note to skip the bar and go to a brothel instead. I wonder if Kayla was still working at The Rusty Nail.
Surprisingly, I watch her cook and eat two eggs and a piece of buttered toast. She washes her plate and heads for the door at 7:20. I watch her put on a red long coat, open the door and step out into the hallway. The hallway camera catches her walking towards the corridor with the elevators.
But she never arrives. The camera in the elevator corner doesn’t show her.
I rewind the hallway footage. She walks to the end of the hall, turns right, and I lose sight of her behind one of the plants in the hallway.
And then nothing. She never emerges into the field of view of the elevator camera.
I switched to a live feed. And I left her apartment and followed her movements. It took some trial and error on my part, but eventually, I figured it out.
There were blind spots.
I watched back footage where her face appeared in any of the frames. It was obvious at first. Then it got more subtle. She would glance up as she walked and her eyes would be fixed just briefly on the cameras.
She had figured it out.
And she had had help.
I was about to go downstairs to have another face to face with Ms. Chambers, but she saved me the trouble. She was good. I’ll give her that. If I hadn’t been watching the live security cam feeds, I would never have noticed she was creeping up behind me with a needle. I waited nervously until she was close enough, then spun quickly to face her. My left hand secured her right hand with a vice grip while my right hand grabbed her by the throat. Letting my momentum carry us forward, I slammed her into the wall. I squeezed her right hand until she released the needle and it clattered to the floor.
“Let me guess, something that would short out my tech in a fatal way?”
She didn’t answer.
“It’s over, Chambers. Time to sing like a bird. Maybe the bigwigs will go easy on you.”
She smiled. “No, Mr. Seeker… they won’t. Which is why I took out some insurance.”
Before I could stop her, she bit down hard and choked. The seizures started almost immediately.
I set her on the floor gently and called for emergency services, but Chambers was already cooling to room temperature by the time they arrived.
“Cyanide. A real classic.” Carter said.
“The DOX84 she tried to kill me with not so much.”
“Yeah. Sorry about that. We don’t know where she got that from. All of our supply is accounted for.”
“I’m guessing there’s a lot about Karen Aydin we don’t know.”
“We don’t know when Chambers was compromised. The security techs are going back over her apartment footage and interviewing the neighbors.”
“You won’t find anything. They were smart. No phones. No emails. No texts. And Chambers knew how often the security footage was overwritten. My guess is that any conspiracy meetings between her and Aydin happened over 30 days ago.”
“You’re probably right. I’ll have a forensics team assigned then to see if they can recover any of that data off of the drives. There’s something else you should know.”
“We’ve found a discrepancy in Dr. Aydin’s work at the lab. She switched one of the, uh… samples, she was working on with a different sample from our zoology research department.”
“Still working on glow in the dark monkeys?”
“Dogs, actually. Pink, blue, purple, any color you want and they’ll look like a puppy forever well, until they die or the upgrade comes out in a year. They’re quite cute. Should be ready for Christmas.”
“Great. I know it’s probably hush hush, but can you at least tell me she’s not walking around with a zombie virus or some shit like that?”
“Nothing hazardous, just valuable. We’re bringing in the police.”
“So I’m fired?”
“Not fired. Your part of the operation is just done. The pay should already be in your account. You did good, Seeker. You discovered Chambers collusion, but we’re moving out of private contractors on this one. We need all eyes we can get searching for Karen Aydin. Take some time off. Get yourself a whore. Let the cops work and we’ll bring you back in when we’ve picked up an idea of where she went.”
“You know I could find her, right?”
“I know. And you probably will. But upper management wants us to pursue official means at the moment.”
“So they’re working on a deal with city hall and they don’t need a private RSO hacking through police traffic cams and airline databases?”
Carter winked. “Something like that, boss. Keep your lines open though. Smart or not, there aren’t many places left on Earth to hide.”
“You’re still a bastard, Carter.”
I hated being sidelined on a case. Even if it was only for a few days. But Carter did pay me what he promised. Maybe he felt bad about one of his fellow employees trying to murder me. Maybe he wanted to stay on my good side. Maybe he had just gotten a blowjob from a $5,000 a night Hong Kong hooker. I didn’t care.
And he was right. I did need to get out more. A few days off to let loose.
I caught an Auto-Cab, called a couple friends and headed to the bar for drinks before I went alone to The Rusty Nail. Kayla remembered me and she made sure as hell once again that I would never forget her. We had more whiskey before I left and she planted one more kiss on me before she playfully shoved me into the back of the Auto-Cab.
“See you soon, I hope,” she said.
“Not soon enough, Kay,” I managed to slur before the Auto-Cab took me back to my flat.
It was about 2 in the morning when I stumbled into my front door.
“Genevieve. Lights,” I said.
The apartment stayed dark.
“Shit. Genevieve. Turn on the damn lights.”
I headed for the nearest lamp and tripped over a coffee table. I spilled onto the floor and cursed. The corner lamp turned on. There was a woman with dark brown shoulder length hair sitting on my leather couch with a gun pointed right at me. I raised my hands slowly.
“I need your help, Seeker,” she said.
“Karen Aydin,” I said.
Fuck my life.