“Whenever two rockclimbers tie on to a rope to form a climbing team, they are doing far more than tying their bodies together. Once they are up high on the rock face, they must act in perfect concert. With a special, intimate attachment they have tied their fortunes together. And at the end of their climb, they are bound to share with one another a highly intimate success. Or a highly intimate fall.”
It was one of those great autumn days when all the golds and reds and browns and the few remaining greens turn the world into a color carnival. In other circumstances, it could have been one of the fourteen thrilling days of Brandon Drake’s life. But the day was not ruled by Nature. Nor was it ruled by Man. It was a day ruled by Machine.
One of the time bombs set by the Industrial Revolution was the Computer. It was a bomb set to go off generations later and destined to engulf every island of clock time which had been freed up by all the other wondrous machines created since that revolution. We make machines so that we have time so that we spend time. And spend it how? In rapturous contemplation of our own individual journeys toward enlightenment? In active pursuit of a successful formula for deriving winning numbers for the lottery? In appraisal of the spiritual evolution of our universe? No. In learning how to use the curious intangible development of wizardry and infuriation called “software”.
It was Upgrade Day. The day when Brandy’s entire mental faculties were focused on the adaptation of his computer usage to a new series of patterns and formats and processes which are just similar enough to the “old” way of doing things as to seem tantalizingly familiar and friendly, but just different enough to confound every decent attempt to shortcut the complete rereading of the new software documentation. And each time there was an upgrade in one of the half-dozen programs which were the basic tools of his trade as an information jockey, the manuals were longer and longer, more and more complex.
On Upgrade Days, wonder and loathing are stirred into the mental pot until confusion bubbles forth, calling for more reading, more wonder, more loathing. Upgrade Days were even worse, in their own sweet way, than the annual personal springtime fest known as “Tax Day”, when Brandy pulled together the envelopes and pockets full of the previous year’s receipts and spent the day cursing and swearing and hunting for lost information and trying to remember why he’d written off only forty percent of the cost of the carpeting in his sunroom-cum-office as a business expense. It didn’t matter that he had been trained as an accountant. Just figuring out and submitting his own taxes each year reminded him why he hadn’t lasted more than six months in the family accounting business. But Upgrade Days made him wonder why he moved into high-tech detective work. Out of the frying pan…
New software was different than upgrade software. At least new software does new tasks with the jaded machines. New software plays new games, presents new challenges. But upgrades? Upgrades are the modern day equivalent of self-flagellation and self-deprivation of the medieval monks. High-tech masochism. And every time he began the painful process, Drake would grit his teeth and stare at the upside-down diploma mounted on the wall above his computer and ask… well, far lesser cosmic questions.
It was in such a mood of high spirits that Drake wrenched himself from his computer to scour the kitchen for an afternoon snack. He was rummaging in the bottom drawer of the fridge, through a pile of recycled cloudy plastic bags and their enclosed remnants of such delicacies as last week’s roast beef (no longer rare), a cardboard palette of side bacon, broccoli in its mostly flowered yellow state, a fold of dried out flour tortillas, all of which had broken in two where they’d been folded, and more things below which he had no heart to examine. PB&J won. On sesame white bread. A nearly virgin loaf.
He was still emerging from his upgrade trance and was slowly becoming aware that, standing at the kitchen counter next to the refrigerator, he’d nearly eaten the two sandwiches he’d made for himself. He was considering how thirsty he was for something cool to drink to wash down the snack, when the doorbell rang. On Upgrade Days his rule was to ignore the phone and door. People would leave messages or call back or come back, but an interruption in the process of learning an upgrade only intensified the agony. Upgrade Day was zombie day. Brandy chomped another mouthful of bread when the bell rang again. He felt the texture of the cottony fresh bread pressed between his tongue and his palate and the inner surfaces of his teeth, and grunted an animal “humpf” to himself. The doorbell rang more insistently, and he dropped the remains of the PB&J on the sandwich plate on the countertop and shook his head in annoyance. “For cryin’ out loud…” he grumbled, lumbering through the living room toward the big front door of his condominium.
“Yes?” he demanded as he jerked the door open. He was usually more careful to look through the peephole before opening his door. In the information business, one had to be reasonably cautious, even when one specialized in low-security, no-risk contracts. Not everyone with whom he dealt was so generous in their appraisals of what constituted innocuous information. In the information business, one man’s refuse can be another man’s gold mine. Or his death certificate. People get real edgy about what other people want to know about them. And sometimes they hold grudges. And sometimes they send gifts to your home. The kind of gift which leaves a few remnants of the door clinging to the hinges and brings ambulance drivers to cluck and raise their eyebrows and carry the remains of the person who answered the door back to their ambulance in a body bag.
The lady at the door was stunning. Intense, wild-haired, and striking, she had deep brown insistent eyes. They wouldn’t let go. The more Brandon focused his attention on her, the more striking she became. “Are you Mr. Brandon Drake?” she demanded.
“Yes. Yes. May I help you?”
“I hope so. May I come in?” She marched past him with her eyes lowered before he could respond.
As he watched her stride across his small living room and lower herself onto his grey-mauve couch, still keeping her back to him, he murmured aloud to himself in a deadpan, “Sure thing. Make yourself at home.” He clicked the door and locked it. Wondered whether the enchantment was with the demeanor or the hair. It was medium length and curly-frizzed like a science experiment in static electricity. He sat attentively at the edge of the cushioned straight chair directly across from her and faced her, waiting for eye contact or words. Miz Brazen was suddenly very humble. She searched the rug for lint and chewed at her lower lip and wrung her hands. Brandon waited.
Eventually her eyes travelled up to his. The sclera were red, as if she’d been taking drugs or was in a deep trance. Or both. But her words were distinct and clear when at last she finally spoke. “I need to talk,” she said.
She was unwavering and silent. The sheer force of the woman’s eyes and her intensity shook the last fog of Upgrade Day from Brandon’s mind. This was a woman to be committed to. Or to be committed. Or a woman to make love with. Or all of those things. “Well?” Brandy prodded.
“I need to find someone. Someone special. And I want you to tell me how to do it.”
“I’m not a missing persons bureau.”
“I know. But I’ve heard about you. And I… Will you help me? Please?” Her eyes were more supplicant than her voice, and both oozed real sincerity. Brandon was so startled by the effect that he wondered if he were slipping back to foggy land.
Drake gauged her carefully. It wasn’t that anything didn’t fit, yet. It just seemed like too much to fit. “Mind if I ask a personal question?”
“Anything. Whatever you need to know…”
“What’s your name? Who are you?”
She flushed crimson. Stumbled for words. “Oh. Of course. I’m so sorry. It’s just that I was so determined to have you say ‘yes’ that… Julia Hobbs.” She leaned forward off the couch and extended her arm straight out toward him, a downward angle to the heel of her flat hand. Brandon took it, responded with a firm ritual shake, and held it an extra moment to enjoy her textures. A thoroughly sensuous woman. Charged and set and live-wire.
“Glad to meet you. You obviously know who I am.”
“Of course. Will you help me?”
He released her grasp. “Probably not.”
“What? Why not? Why do you say that?”
“To slow the train. Before I’m hit by it.”
She bit her lip and cast her eyes down again. “Oh. A little strong, huh?”
“I like to be swept off my feet, Miss Hobbs, but…”
“Okay. But I don’t like to be railroaded. Who do you want to find?”
“How long has he been missing?”
“Since he was killed.”
“I don’t understand.”
“He was rockclimbing in Yosemite Valley. He didn’t return from a day’s climb. But they haven’t found his body. And that was nearly three months ago.”
“And you want me to find him?”
“Exactly!” She leaned forward into his eyes with a tight, pursed, triumphant grin.
Brandon frowned. “Then I’m definitely not the man to help you. I’ve never done anything like wilderness searches.”
“No, no. You don’t understand. I don’t want you to find his body. I want you to find him. I don’t think he’s dead. But if he is, I want you to help me find people who can find him, because I want to be absolutely sure one way or the other.”
“But you don’t think he’s dead? Why not?”
“Because it’s not his style.”
“Dying isn’t most people’s style. Except once per.”
“No. I mean, everything they said about what happened… it just doesn’t fit Farmer at all. Farmer might climb the most gruesome cliff in the Valley, but he never climbed alone, and never would he change plans without telling the climbing control people at the Park Information Center. Never. That’s why I think he’s not dead.”
“But you said it’s been three months. And you haven’t heard anything from him?”
She halted in mid-flight. Eyes back to the carpet.
“If he were alive,” Brandy persisted, “don’t you think he would have contacted you by now?”
“I know. But, you see, we had an argument the week before he left.”
“Must have been pretty severe argument if you think he’d disappear like that and not get in touch with you. Not that it’s my business, but…”
“We’ve been separated for nearly two years, Mr. Drake.”
There was a long silence.
“Forgive me for being the cynical man that I am, but does your reason for wanting to locate either your husband or his remains have anything to do with insurance?”
She shook her head and frowned incredulously. “No! Why, heavens no! I come from a very wealthy family, Mr. Drake. I’ve never needed Farmer’s money. And I certainly don’t need his insurance. And the people at Minnesota Mutual have already told me I’ll get the insurance if he hasn’t reappeared in seven years anyway.”
“That’s probably true. So, once again forgiving my skepticism, why are you so anxious to find out what happened to your estranged husband?”
“Don’t you think my curiosity is justified? I mean, he was my husband for five years. And I loved him deeply. And…” She noticed Brandon’s dubious brow. “he loved me, too. We just couldn’t live together. That’s all. He was a workaholic, and I just got tired of trying to be fitted into his schedule. Unsuccessfully, at that. Farmer and I got along beautifully when we were only together once a week or so. The last two years were the best of our lives together.”
“It took you three months to start searching for him?”
“I thought the police would find him. Or that he’d turn up on his own. I should have known he wouldn’t, though.”
“Because he never went overtime on a project in his life, and the one he was working on when he went to Yosemite for the rest was due three weeks later. It went so totally against his grain to be late on a project, I knew then that something was wrong. Maybe he fell and had amnesia, or he was kidnapped…”
“Off the side of a mountain?” Brandon asked.
“I don’t know.”
Julia glared at Brandon for the first time. She sucked in a deep breath and eased it out, the fierceness melting from her expression as she sighed. “Okay. Okay. I’ll tell you. I guess it doesn’t make any sense otherwise. Because I’m pregnant with Farmer’s baby. And I wasn’t sure until two weeks ago. I kept thinking it couldn’t be. It was the night before we had the argument. Just before he left. And for the past three weeks, all I can think about is ‘what am I going to tell our baby?’ That his daddy just disappeared? And then I thought I should get rid of the baby, but I… even though Farmer never wanted to have a child, I did. Well, it wasn’t so much that he didn’t want to have the child. It was more that he knew he’d never have the time to give a child the father-care it deserved. So we’d decided not to.” She looked steel solid into Brandy’s eyes. “Satisfied?”
“No. That still doesn’t explain why you picked me, Julia. I was serious when I said that missing persons is not my line.”
“Remember Jerry Hambleton? He’s my brother. He told me you were graduate school buddies. He said you were good at what you do. Weird, but good. And when I found out you were here in Vancouver, it was like a special message from the cosmos that said ‘Go see this man, Julia!'”
“There’s nothing more unreliable than recorded messages from the cosmos. I’m glad you came to see me, Julia, but I am not a private detective. I used to be, but now I’m an information agent. I help people find information that isn’t in the Yellow Pages. Information about industrial research, information from databases, information about corporate affairs.”
“Meaning I’ll be happy to refer you to someone who can search for your husband. But that someone is not me.”
“But I don’t want someone else. I want you. I… I have a strong feeling about you. That you can help me find Farmer. And… and those feelings are never wrong. Never.”
“Julia, there are better people out there who are in the business of locating missing persons and checking police files and that sort of thing…”
“Not according to Jerry.”
“Jerry is an incurable romantic. A lot of my university buds thought that I gave up a career in drab old accounting to set the world on fire as a buccaneer adventurer of the James Bond genre. But it’s not that way. It never was that way.”
“He says you’ve done some of the most impressive detective work ever done in the private eye business in North America. He says you’ve located all sorts of people in all sorts of bizarre circumstances and…”
“All that was years ago. And all blown as fully out of proportion as the size of the trout that fishermen used to catch in the mountain streams. Among other things, I’m completely out of touch with the right kinds of contacts in that business. Especially in California. And you have to keep current to be good at P.I. work. I can send you to a man named Don Beeley, in San Francisco. He could get background on your husband and on the police investigation, and the information would cost half of what I’d have to charge. Not because I’m any better, but because right now, without connections, it would take me twice as long to get the same things.”
“I want you. And that’s final.” Brandon was surprised at her suddenly renewed assertiveness. Her eyes confirmed what her tone of voice commanded. Drake had the sensation that if he refused to consent, he should resign himself to having a pregnant Julia henceforth camped on his living room couch. “I don’t care how much it costs.” She heard the echo of her own voice within her and realized how hackneyed, if not downright ridiculous, her statement sounded, so in the next breath she quickly appended, “Within limits, of course.”
She leaned forward on the edge of the couch again, sliding her hands down her calves to her ankles, which she clamped onto so firmly that her fingers blanched. Her complexion paled two or three shades, like a faded Botticelli, and she said in a frail and plaintive voice which was barely more than a whisper, “Before you tell me how much you charge — or anything else for that matter — can I have a cup of tea or a glass of milk or something? Anything? I’m feeling a little nauseated.”
© copyright 2001 by Lance M. Rucker. All rights reserved.
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