The morning after the incident with the grey car, the Mad Dialer got up early and started making phone calls. By the time that Paige dragged herself from the couch, he was already drinking a root beer and fiddling with yet another unidentifiable bit of electronics.
“Morning,” Paige yawned. “Can I use your shower?”
“Sure. Don’t you wanna hear the news first, though?”
“I got the address for Milo Nephedrine and started trying to trace those guys who were following us.”
“Really?” Paige yawned again. “That’s good. I’m going to take a shower.”
“See how Sarah’s doing,” Brian commented, turning back to his work. Paige grabbed her bag and went upstairs. Twenty minutes later, she came back down looking only nominally different than she had the night before. Her hair was damp and she’d swapped her black t-shirt for a faded green one.
“Sarah’s still asleep,” she said. “Do you have any coffee?”
“I guess I could make some,” Brian said. “I usually drink root beer or RC or something. I like cold drinks.”
“Well, I want coffee with my cigarettes,” Paige said. “I’ll find it myself.” She went into the kitchen and rummaged around. “Hey,” she called, “what’s the plan for today?”
“I figured we’d check out Milo Nephedrine’s place,” Brian yelled back. “See if we can find anything that’ll help us figure out what’s wrong with Sarah.” He got up and wandered into the kitchen, where Paige was staring doubtfully at an old-fashioned percolator.
“You don’t know how to use it, do you?”
“No.” She set it down on the stove. “Do you?”
“No. You want an RC?”
“It doesn’t look like I have much choice.” They went out onto the porch, where Paige lit a Camel and sat down. “Are we going to wait until Sarah’s awake to go out?”
“Nah. She sleeps a lot these days.” Brian had brought out a backpack that was more duct tape than fabric. He opened it up and took out a cell phone, which he handed to Paige. “There’s two of these cell phones that I rigged up with secure numbers and shit like that. All you have to do is hit ‘on,’ dial 235, and hit ‘talk,’ and you’ll ring me. Your number’s 523. Don’t ask me how it works, ‘cause I’m not sure myself. It just does. They’re better than walkie-talkies and anyone who gets hold of them for will never figure out why they always get a busy signal if they dial real numbers.” He handed her a map of Houston and a stapled collection of blurry, Xeroxed pages. “These are a bunch of useful phone numbers, just in case.”
“Why are you giving me all of this? Aren’t we going out together?” She snickered at the way the words came out.
“Yeah, but better safe than sorry. I don’t plan on getting caught, but since you’re new to this game, I can’t say the same for you.” He zipped up the backpack and slung it over his shoulder.
“What game? Phone phreaking?”
“And trespassing. It all ties in together. You ready to go?”
“I guess. Let me get my notebook and my camera.”
“I didn’t see you bring a camera. Is it some cool miniaturized spy thing?”
“You’ll see.” Paige went inside and returned a moment later with a couple of pens and her notebook.
“Where is it?”
“You’re looking at it. Smile.” She casually rested her thumb across her belt buckle.
“Holy shit, where’d you get that?” Brian said. “Can I see it?” He knelt down to examine the tiny camera, which was matte black, about the size of a credit card, and thick as two saltine crackers. It dawned on him that he was staring directly at Paige’s crotch. “Shit, sorry.”
“I stole the idea from Spider-Man,” Paige said, ignoring the teenager’s embarrassment. “Let’s go.”
Milo Nephedrine’s address was in the overly wealthy city of Sugar Land, smack-dab at the same coordinates of the time-space continuum as the house that the Tabula Rasa Group had commandeered. Intricately-manicured neighborhoods and $50,000 vehicles made the Mad Dialer’s El Camino look more than a little conspicuous.
“Too bad I don’t have some yard tools and Mexicans,” Brian murmured as he rolled down the street. Paige stared at him.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” she demanded. She knew racism was alive and well in Texas, but she didn’t expect it from this kid.
“It means we’d fit in better if there were some Mexicans in the back. Everyone would think we were here to do landscaping. Don’t get so defensive. It’s a fact of life around here.”
“Oh.” Paige felt stupid for a minute, but as they turned into a cul-de-sac and headed back toward the dubious Nephedrine house, she put her brain to work on other matters.
“What do we do now? It looks like someone’s home.” The silver Ford Expedition was out in the driveway.
“I doubt it,” Brian said. “Let’s find out, though.” He parked along the curb a couple houses down and started going through his backpack, eventually pulling out a crumpled sheet of paper. He scanned it, took out his cell phone, and dialed a long string of digits. After a long silence, he hung up and put his stuff away.
“No answer,” he said. “They’re probably out. Did you notice any cars parked on the street?”
“Me neither. I guess nobody’s home.” He parked the car several houses down, and they walked to the house.
“You think there’s any cameras?” Paige asked, looking around. She’d done a few semi-legal things as a journalist, but breaking and entering hadn’t been one of them.
“I doubt it. If there are any, we won’t get reported to the law, ‘cause that would mean the cops would have to come out. They probably don’t want that.”
The front door was nothing spectacular, fitted as it was with a small leaded glass window and a surprisingly cheap-looking brass lock above the handle. The Mad Dialer took a Lockaid gun from his pocket, poked it into the lock, and with a few squeezes had the door open.
“That’s some shitty security,” Paige said.
“I know,” the Mad Dialer shrugged, and stepped inside. “You’d think they’d have four or five deadbolts at least.”
The living room was as banal and contrived as one would expect from an upper-middle-class homeowner. Furniture straight from one of Houston’s multitude of home-furnishing stores was expertly arranged, and glossy prints of famous photographs and paintings dotted the walls. The smell of habitation was minimal as the phone phreak and the pseudo-journalist crept around the ground floor, eyeballing the equally prefab kitchen and closets.
“What the hell is this?” Paige asked. “It’s just some house.”
“Yeah, but some house connected to the dudes that were following us,” the Mad Dialer countered. “You go upstairs and I’ll check out the den.”
As the Mad Dialer disappeared into a side room, Paige ascended the stairs. A quick look into two of the three upstairs rooms was all she needed to prove this was not the lair of a typical well-fed commuter. File cabinets lined the walls, and several computers in power-save mode waited for someone to come along and resuscitate them.
“Hey,” she called down the stairs, “I think I’ve found what we’re looking for.”
“So did I,” the Mad Dialer called back. “Give me a few minutes. I’m writing down a lot of this shit.”
Paige wondered exactly what shit he was referring to as she settled down in front of one of the computers. She turned the monitor on and was presented with an old-school command line requesting a password.
“Shit,” she said. Guessing a password on a stranger’s computer smacked of futility.
“Paige,” the Mad Dialer yelled from below. “What did you find?”
“A bunch of computers and file cabinets,” she shouted back. “Bring that lockpick gun up here.”
The Mad Dialer came in a moment later, carrying a stack of freshly-printed sheets under one arm and a manila folder under the other.
“What’d you find?” Paige asked, taking the Lockaid gun from him and going to work on a file cabinet.
“Pure fuckin’ gold,” he said. “All this stuff I printed looks like notes for experiments that sound kinda like what happened to Sarah. And then there’s the pictures.” He slid a glossy eight-by-ten out of the manila envelope and handed it to Paige.
“Jesus,” she whispered.
It was Sarah, strapped to an operating table and bristling with IV needles, electrodes, and enough wires to line the walls of a small house. Her eyes were rolled back in her head, her head had been shaved, and her jaw was slack. On the flipside of the picture someone had written “test subject 2/day 5/memory trigger tests” in permanent ink. The rest of the photographs in the folder were of Sarah and an equally-drugged man referred to only as “test subject 1”.
“Well,” she said, “there’s no doubts about it now.”
“I told you,” the Mad Dialer said. “This is fucked-up beyond all belief. I wanna know who’s doing this and why.”
“Who should we tell?” Paige asked. “The cops? The press?”
“We’ve gotta have evidence,” the Mad Dialer said, “and I don’t think stolen files will cut it. But I’m taking some anyway.”
“That’s not a good idea. They already know you’re onto them, and they’ll come after you even harder than they have been. We’ve got to get onto the computers and see what we can find.”
The Mad Dialer snorted. “I doubt that’ll happen until we have time to get someone to fuck with them.”
“Well, we’ve got to figure out something.” They stood there, doing nothing, for a good while.
“Oh shit,” Paige gasped suddenly. “I’ve got my camera. I can’t believe I forgot it.” She removed the camera from its place of ostentatious obfuscation. “You said you copied down some of this stuff, right?”
“Yeah, but I don’t know if I got any good stuff or not.”
“Well, it’s a start. I’m going to get some of those photos.” Paige started snapping away, pleased that she finally had the chance to use the camera. Whether or not it would prove useful, she didn’t know, but as she clicked the shutter she mentally ran through the possible channels through which she could disclose all this information.
It was just then that inevitability reared its ugly head and they heard the front door open.