Marco awoke on a mat of dark, fragrant vines. He didn’t have to turn his head to know that Priyanka had transferred him to her pillow so that he could spend the night in her hair. He woke her with several kisses on her cheek, just below her eye.
“Stayed for breakfast, did you?” she asked.
“I’m betting you know how to scramble an egg,” he replied.
Priyanka had never cooked in the nude before, but she enjoyed the effect it had on Marco. After they had eaten, she got to watch him shower in the sink.
“Are you up for another expedition?” she asked once they were dressed.
“What did you have in mind?”
“I want you to wear an omni-surveillance rig and sneak into Chadwell’s office.”
Priyanka deferred filing her report by noting that background checks on every last person tangentially known to be associated with Orlov were not yet complete. Kobick would reject the extension, but it would take a few hours to get through the Cohort bureaucracy.
She hacked into Marco’s WA transponder so that he could toggle the signal off and on. Mohi looked up all the recent work orders to WA for jaked plumbers, located an unused AV telemetry kit and requisitioned it.
“Chadwell’s office is undoubtedly his clean room,” Priyanka explained. “During our interview by law he had to deactivate everything except passive audio and video recording, and my rig would have noticed anything else. That’s why your WA transponder didn’t give you away. He certainly swept after we left, and now he’ll pick anything up, so you’ll have to be cache and carry.”
“I can still call you, right?” Marco asked.
“Anywhere but inside his clean room, which is almost certainly shielded. You’ll be broadcasting AV in realtime, as well as caching locally. When you get near his clean room, shut down your transponder and realtime uplink.”
Priyanka wore plainclothes with a stylish hat and sunglasses for the approach to Chadwell’s office. She had Mohi run interference on all calls other than from Marco. He rode in her purse as she strolled through Pacific Heights.
“It’s gonna take me a while to get in and out,” he said. “How long should I loiter?”
“Three hours?” she mused. “I’ve been on stakeouts twenty times as long.”
“Yeah, but I bet you didn’t need carabiners to climb a flight of stairs.”
“Tribune Kobick said you were resourceful. After the past two days, I would have to agree.”
After she dropped him by the main entrance it took him an hour to hitch a ride with a courier to the mailroom and wait for a trolley headed to the top floor.
“I’m on the floor with the clean room,” Marco informed Priyanka over the phone. “No sign of Orlov. Going off the air soon.”
“Be careful, Marco.”
“Don’t worry about me; I’m gonna get this guy.”
No one was in Chadwell’s office when Marco squeezed under the door. The plumber’s sampler wasn’t designed to collect DNA, but Marco ran it along the floor near all the chairs in case Orlov had shed any skin flakes while getting his marching orders. He crept under the desk and studied the cables while wondering if Chadwell might have left anything incriminating (and accessible) on his desk. Then someone entered the office.
Marco scurried to the hiding spot he had previously selected, and all he saw for a while was a pair of expensive shoes. He recognized Chadwell’s voice when he addressed his personal assistant. Chadwell accessed an encrypted file that required an additional biometric identification. The file was named “Silling House,” and he called up subfiles for Personnel, Signal Traffic, and Balance of Payments. Of course, Marco couldn’t see the display.
After about 15 minutes, Chadwell addressed his receptionist or chamberlain or whatever. “Send in Ms. Zhou, please.”
Marco couldn’t see her enter, but as the middle-aged woman approached Chadwell’s desk Marco saw that she was dressed tastefully but economically.
“Veronica,” said Chadwell, rounding the desk to peck her on the cheek. “Always a delight.” Her posture was deferential while buttressed by a timeworn pride.
“Thank you for seeing me,” she said.
“Not at all,” he said, returning to his seat. “Please sit down.”
She sat, placing a large valise next to her chair.
“So how is it going down there?” he asked.
“As I predicted, it’s been a total success.”
“As I predicted.”
“Of course. But we need fresh stock.”
“Ah, I’m afraid there’s been a hiccup in the supply chain.”
“That’s unfortunate. Our clients have developed a taste.”
“Perhaps a little scarcity will whet their appetites.”
“It will drive them to other sources. What kind of hiccup?”
“That’s none of your concern. How long will our current stock last?”
“I had that, uh, consultant you sent me perform an inspection and prepare a spoilage analysis.” She opened her valise and withdrew a sheaf of paper, which she handed to Chadwell.
Marco had a thought. He needed to decide now. While Zhou was waiting for Chadwell’s reaction, Marco ran behind her chair and vaulted into her open valise.
Marco’s new hiding place muffled the others’ voices, and he hoped his mike rendered them audible.
“Go ahead and adopt the, uh, report’s recommendations regarding conservation of the stock,” Chadwell said finally. “I’ll expedite renewal of our supply.”
Marco was jostled as Zhou dropped the report next to him and closed the valise. Shortly thereafter he discovered just how careful Priyanka had been when carrying him in her bags as someone, presumably Zhou, lifted the valise and swung it without concern for any tiny passengers.
The valise’s motion stopped and started. Marco couldn’t be certain that he was no longer in the clean room. Was that the elevator door? A momentary drop in gravity confirmed that it was. When his ride resumed walking, he called Priyanka.
“I’ve hitched a ride that I think will take me to my missing people,” he said into the phone. “Uploading AV now. I think I’m riding with Veronica Zhou. Her encounter with Chadwell starts at 1h28m. I got her face and her voice. I’m sure I can collect her DNA from this valise I’m in.”
“Any sign of Orlov?” asked Priyanka.
“I sampled the floor in Chadwell’s office, but I didn’t see or hear him.”
“I’ve got your signal, I’m following from a distance. I’ll look at the AV in a minute, but why did you hitch a ride with this person?”
“A hunch. Just before her appointment, Chadwell was looking at files for something called ‘Silling House.’ The way they talked about it gave me the shivers.”
“I hope you’re right. Tying Orlov to Chadwell was our best—only—hope of getting Kobick to let me bust him and go through his files.”
The contents of the valise slammed into Marco as his ride carelessly set it down. Then he heard the unmistakable sound of a car door shutting and the engine starting.
“I’m in a car now,” he reported.
“Way ahead of you,” replied Priyanka. “It looks like you are indeed riding with the person you identified as Veronica Zhou. I’m heading back to my car.”
Priyanka didn’t catch the plate on Zhou’s car, but she had Mohi add the make and model to his global search. As soon as she rounded the corner she started sprinting for her car. Mohi already had Marco’s signal displayed on her onboard nav system.
She safely pulled out into traffic and followed the signal north through the Presidio and across the Golden Gate. Her following distance varied between 200 and 500 meters. They got off 101 in Mill Valley and headed northwest.
Then she lost the signal.