Jack dropped all his gear off at his apartment. There were no marks around the lock or anything disturbed inside. Mrs. Hanson sometimes napped in the day, so he didn’t bother her for his mail. The rental agency informed him his refund would come in the mail as a gift card in six to eight weeks. Anything to put it off, and hope he never used it. It didn’t surprise him.
He didn’t have anything to carry so he took the bus back to his neighborhood instead of wasting money on a taxi. Carrying nothing it was pretty safe mid-day. The rental was with one of the cut rate places that didn’t do pick up or drop off, but a bus was cheaper than a ‘free’ ride from a fancier rental. He made sure to sit where the surveillance camera was behind him, so it would show anyone’s face who bothered him. Some people sat where the camera could see them, which the criminals had long ago figured out was useless, just like the cheap store cams installed to look down on robbers that get a great shot of the top of their hat.
He logged on the SF chat group and was pleased to see the new user FANattic had posted a few times. Since some real life extension therapies had become available a wave of new fiction was exploring the ideas of people living hundreds of years or forever, and was being discussed heavily.
The reality was the latest tech was projected to add fifty percent to a person’s life span, if the studies on smaller mammals carried over as well to people. Nobody would know for another fifty or sixty years. It didn’t matter to most folks because the work all involved creation of custom treatments tailored to your specific genome, driving the price into the multi-million dollar range.
It might work, but it wasn’t a sure enough thing that a bank would loan you money for the treatment based on extending your wage earning years to a hundred and forty or so. In particular the treatments might become much less expensive, resulting in a person owing a five million dollar bill for something that could now be bought for a half million.
The reality of a number of economic bubbles in recent years had driven the lesson home that those sort of loans tended to default. There had been a wave of home owners with loans for million dollar two bedroom bungalows who suddenly found themselves working for the new greenbacks at one tenth the Federal Reserve note pay rate. A lot of them became roomers or went directly to cardboard boxes.
He was so far from being able to afford life extending treatments that he didn’t worry about it. You might as well worry and fret because you didn’t own a private jet or a Greek isle.
There was one day remaining of his vacation, and he’d have to return to work. Tomorrow he’d just do shopping and buy some perishables he’d used up or took along with him. Not too many because in about a week he’d get a box of vegetables and fruit from somebody with whom he had an ‘arrangement’. He didn’t want to make it a hectic day, and have to report back to work frazzled.
A tentative little tap at the door told him Mrs. Hanson knew he was home and had his mail. He invited her in and asked if anything interesting happened while he was gone, putting the bundle of mail on the table to sort later. He made tea for them without asking, and sat giving her his full attention. Mrs. Hanson was not a resource to be taken lightly or ignored while he sorted his mail.
The news was all benign as far as he could tell. The Mexican family in number seven sent their daughter back home to take care of an aging relative, and the fellow in apartment 12 had two lovely young women living with him now. The super was going to change the bushes at the front of the building to low water plants and decorative stones. The apartments two doors down had a burglary, and a nearby liquor store had a hold up. That was hardly surprising.
The nearby supermarket had stopped carrying the kind of food her cat liked. She was upset with herself that she found an site online who would ship her a case cheaper than the store had charged, and she wondered now how long she’d been throwing her money away. Mrs. Hanson had a keen nose for a bargain.
“Did anyone coming looking for me, or knocking on my door?”
Mrs. Hanson was relaxed sipping her tea, and her face changed abruptly, painted with concern. “Are you in trouble Jack?”
“I don’t think so. Why the sudden concern?”
“I had two husbands and three sons and not a one of them could lie to me worth a damn. You just tried to keep your face neutral and keep the fear out of your voice. You’re a nice man and a good neighbor, but you better never try to make your living playing high stakes poker.”
“I did have some young fellows follow me, and I was worried how much they know about me. We had a little confrontation, and I don’t think they’ll be eager to come find me again, but their bosses might insist, or they might send someone else.”
“You didn’t make it a permanent solution then?”
Jack sat silent a bit, wondering what to tell her. If he lied she’d probably know it. That might be the end of a useful friendship. “No, I left them restrained. I shot out their tires, and took their papers and burned most of them. These people might have something I want. If I made myself their enemy there might be no way to fix it. They are hiding some things, probably from the government, and even if it is criminal, I might actually approve of what they are doing. If it’s what I think, it’s bigger and more important than me as an individual, and I don’t want to ruin it for others.”
“My first husband was pleasant like you. He didn’t hold a grudge. If you did him wrong he’d shun you but never seek to get even. I often wondered if he died young of a heart attack holding it all in. My second husband was very nice to me, but to people in general he was a son-of-a-bitch. It depends on what these people are like. Some people you can get what you want from them being pleasant. Some view it as weakness and will actually punish you for it. Do you know which sort these folks are?”
“Not yet,” Jack admitted. “They didn’t just send somebody to put a bullet in my head. That speaks well to being moderate. But I heard the young guys talking, and they were willing to rough me up. They were themselves subject to conditioning, so their bosses were pretty ruthless with them. I don’t think I could accept that as a condition of employment.”
“And yet you allow your boss to make you show up every morning by operant conditioning.”
“How so?” Jack asked, visibly upset.
“He rewards you with a paycheck, and you are certain he will punish you by withholding it if you stop coming to work, even though you have not experienced that.”
Jack looked at her like she had started speaking a foreign language he didn’t know.
“You’ve never asked what I did before retiring, dear. I was a psychologist, and had an active practice with all sorts of patients. When you say these young men were conditioned you don’t mean the simple classic conditioning like a cult or an isolated family use, do you? You are talking about the sort of drug induced deep conditioning that intelligence agencies or some armed forces employ.”
“Yes, I don’t know if I mentioned it before, I served briefly in the air force as a young man. I thought I might stay in until I had a retirement, but I found out it wasn’t for me. People strongly hinted that some of the agency people we worked with had that sort of conditioning. We were encouraged not to ask questions that might provoke it. I never really knew the details of what made it work.”
“I won’t try to cram six years of psych instruction in your head over a cup of tea. If you want I have some texts that will start you understanding how it works. Let me know if you want them and I’ll send them to your phone. The point I’d make now though, is that you can’t expect to reason with someone like that. Their normal responses may be impaired. The drugs and the conditioning tend to make them both Obsessive Compulsive and to a lesser extent Manic/Depressive. They will fail to display normal responses to things outside the object of their conditioning. Some start to neglect personal hygiene. Others will lose their sex drive or lose weight because they neglect eating. You may think they are unintelligent when they are not, because complex reasoning suffers.”
“Would a person seem unusually defiant when it wasn’t reasonable, and then when they do see their situation is untenable break entirely and start crying? The one young man was telling me how I was in trouble while tied up and helpless on the ground, but when he saw me retrieve a locating beacon off my truck he suddenly saw I was aware of them long before he’d thought it possible, and he was immediately reduced to tears.”
“Yes, what you are describing is entirely possible.”
“I think I’d like those texts then. I might not have time to know them before I have to deal with these folks again, but it’s something I want to know now.”
“I’ll send them, but for right now I’d like you to go across the hall to my apartment, and behind the front door my shotgun is propped in the corner. I want you to have it here. It has five rounds in it. The shot are hard tungsten pyramids with concave faces and very sharp apices. They’ll go right through body armor except the stoutest plate. If five rounds won’t fix any problem at your door then likely fifty wouldn’t either.”
“I can’t leave you defenseless,” Jack objected.
“Really Jack, do you think that’s the only protection I have?” She smiled wickedly.
* * *
It felt funny to fast forward through the video from his dash cam before going out the door of the super market to get in his little car. It would take a few times to find out the optimum speed to run through it. He had to stop and back up twice the first time when the car next to him left, and when some people walked past the car on their way through the parking lot. Neither had touched his car or stopped or leaned over, but their image had flashed by too quickly the first viewing to be sure.
Nobody paid any attention to him looking at his phone. So many people stopped and stepped out of the way to text or talk with spouses over what to buy in a store that they were invisible. Or didn’t step out of the way, just blocking the aisle totally oblivious in some cases.
Putting the food away, it seemed this normal activity was strange to be doing now, with the action at the campground replaying in his mind frequently. Nothing was going to seem right or important until it was resolved.
The next morning he found everything normal at work. There was new work waiting for him, and even one of the files he’d not finished when he went on vacation. It was hard concentrating on the mundane. The office seemed a little shabbier and the work less important since it wasn’t space related. Who really cared about a new clamshell case for designer eyeglasses? Why was a new design even necessary? Had anything changed about them in the last fifty years?
At lunch a couple people wanted to know how his fishing trip went. He found it easy to smile, because he imagined how they would react if he told them the truth. He refused to lie however, telling them he hadn’t caught anything worth keeping. If one was a six footer that weighed a good hundred and sixty pounds, well, he’d still been a catch and release.
After lunch his boss came by looking serious, and asked him to come talk with him. They didn’t go to his office, but his bosses office. He was looking pretty grim too. Jack reached in his pocket and started the little recorder he always carried at work. His boss took a seat so he did too. He wasn’t invited, but he wasn’t going to stand at attention at the desk either.
“Jack we just had two FBI agents visit and ask about you. They asked if you were a problem worker, and if we had any concerns. We’re very concerned now. If you are involved with anything that is going to embarrass the company we want your resignation.”
“I’m not aware of anything that should make the FBI have any interest in me. If you tell me the agents names I’ll ask them directly. They should have come to me directly instead of casting a cloud on my name here. Do you have their cards?”
“They were Heinemann and Jefferies, they didn’t offer a card.”
“Did they leave a number?”
“No they didn’t offer a number. I suppose the local office is listed…”
“Did you at least see their ID? They surely at least offered their shields for you to see?”
The two bosses looked at each other, uncomfortable.
“So two strangers walk in with no ID and bad mouth me. But they offer no way to contact them if there is a problem? Kind of like an old lady gossiping across the back fence? If they’d asked to see the company books would you have walked them down to bookkeeping?”
“I can’t believe somebody would be so bold as to present themselves as FBI with no documents. That would be a serious offense. I’d seem some sort of an anti-government rights nut to demand ID.”
Jack pulled his phone out. “Speaker on. Number look up – Los Angeles office FBI,” he asked the phone. “Dial that please.”
“Uh, Jack, I don’t think…”
“I know you didn’t. I’m trying to fix that now.”
The ring was loud in the quiet office. There was none of the hum and rumble he had to deal with in his cubicle. “FBI, Los Angeles field office, agent Howe speaking. How may I help you?”
“My name is Jack Thompson and I’m calling you from Midwest Molding in San Marino. I’m in conference with my supervisor and the owner. We just had a couple gentleman stop at our business making inquiries about an employee, and they did not show ID or present a shield. Could you tell us if you sent a pair of agents, Heinemann and Jefferies to this business as part of an investigation?”
“There are no agents of that name in our office. We take impersonation of a Federal agent very seriously. Do you by any chance have security video of these men so we can investigate them further?”
Jack lifted an inquiring eyebrow to the owner, holding the phone out toward him.
“No, we don’t have the sort of a high security business to need that. We have some cameras on the loading dock area for theft, but our offices keep no cash or anything to attract trouble.”
“I’m not sure what we can do then. If these men solicited some sort of charity or asked the company to do something it was bogus. Was there anything unusual or distinguishing about them? Were they of unusual size or height or displayed tattoos or scars? Anything odd about their dress or demeanor?”
“Now that you mention it both wore glasses, not sunglasses, but regular glasses. You don’t see that much anymore except older people. Otherwise they were unremarkable white males in average business suits. Perhaps a bit on the young side, but I’m not sure how old you need to be to finish FBI training.
“We have some agents that are qualified before they are thirty, so they can look pretty young, but I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen an agent with glasses either, now that you mention it. Corrective surgery is so cheap now, and they do a marvelous job with it. I’ll make a report on this to my supervisor. I’m not sure if he’ll send someone to try to do a drawing or show you some known impersonators. If he wishes to do that we’ll call ahead, and our agent will display credentials to you. I do thank you for reporting the matter. It’s just as well you didn’t confront them while they were there. They might have become belligerent with you.”
“You’re welcome agent Howe. Thank you for your help.” Jack disconnected.
“Well it’s your call,” Jack concluded. “If you want to let me go I’ll take my coffee mug and not darken your door again.” He forced himself to look merely irritated, not scared. “You had a couple strangers in here. We have no idea what their agenda was. They might have picked me or any other of your employees and used our name just to get into your office. I’d certainly have the place swept by a good company, for bugs left behind, whatever you do.”
The owner looked around like he might see one stuck on the middle of a wall some place. “You don’t know somebody who does that?”
“Nope, when I worked for NASA we had in house guys who made sure everything was kept clean on a regular basis. I never even talked to them. In a town this size there has to be a ton of them.”
The owner looked rattled. His own supervisor spoke up. “Well I hardly think we want to let you go on the say-so of a couple criminals impersonating government agents.” He was talking to Jack but looking at the owner, who nodded agreement. “We’d appreciate it if you kept this to yourself, and don’t give the other employees something to speculate about needlessly.”
“Absolutely,” Jack agreed. “I really doubt anyone has any useful information. Nobody watches the parking lot either, to know what sort of car they came in or get their license plate. They’d just waste time on idle chatter.” It seemed the perfect time to assert himself to make an exit so he rose. “Since my name was involved, I’d appreciate it if you tell me, if you ever do hear anything about who they were.”
“Certainly, though it looks unlikely,” his boss agreed.
Jack just nodded and left unescorted for his work space. A thousand bucks says they were in a Honda Portage, Jack thought. And if it wasn’t my two idiots, I know who employs them… Jack was honestly irritated. How could these people possibly be doing space work if they were this inept investigating one seni-retired designer?