The Weight of Darkness
First delay, school obligations...
As Finch had predicted, Gamesoft's recruiters were quick to contact Reese for a job interview. It must be said that his CV had something to fan their interest. The genius had known well how to mix fiction and reality. Who could refuse a former military and current police officer in New York to work part time as a security guard in their company? The interview had been a pure formality and John had started his service the next day.
Wearing a navy blue uniform quite close to those of the security forces for which he worked and a cap fitted on his head, the agent was carefully walking behind the home office of the start-up. Armed with a small caliber pistol and a metal detector, his role could not be simpler: he had to control all the comings and goings in the company. With a kind of jaded professionalism, he checked the badges of the employees and the identities of the visitors while recovering personal electronic objects in order to limit as much as possible the risks of industrial espionage.
"Finch, do you hear me?" he asked, to make sure the link with his boss was operational.
The computer scientist's answer came in a second but his voice seemed distant and distorted by very unusual interference.
"With difficulty, Mr. Reese. I am amazed by all these security measures. Gamesoft is certainly a high tech company, but a rather modest size."
John shared the amazement of his partner. Once hired, the man thought he had done the hard part. A serious mistake! As soon as his position of security guard began, he had been taken to a basement room without windows or ventilation. Before he could go in, he had to put aside his mobile phone and the USB stick Finch had given him to retrieve the computer data from their Number. Slightly nervous because this practice reminded him keenly of what he had done when he was at the CIA, John was invited to sit on the only chair in the room. He had waited patiently for the chief of security, Timothy Gold, to join him and then quietly listened to him explain the security policy of the company.
And he was at least... paranoid. He was well aware that this place was brewing millions, that it was potentially sensitive and particularly competitive. All the same, the list of bans and precautions to enter the premises of Gamesoft was impressive: all devices connected to visitors were confiscated and kept in a locker at the reception, and staff laptops were carefully redacted at the end of each day. It went without saying that no employee could enter or exit with a USB stick or hard drive, and finally, the icing on the cake, the building was a huge Faraday cage!
Although John had picked up his phone after Mr. Gold's briefing, it was unusable between the walls of the company. Fortunately for him, his position at the reception, just in front of the front door, allowed him to keep a tenuous link with his boss. Nevertheless, the communication was so bad that the agent was struggling to understand what his boss was telling him, his voice was so distorted.
"Me too, Finch. I didn't see anything that could justify such measures," murmured John, taking care not to be noticed by his colleagues; just as wary of the man who had just trained him to the politics of the house.
"Have you spotted our Number?" the computer scientist asked impatiently.
Sitting in front of his monitors, the recluse had, thanks to the network of the city's surveillance cameras, a stunning view of the facade of the building that housed Gamesoft. The building did not look good. It was a red brick, three-story town building on Twelfth Avenue across from the Hudson River. The open front door allowed him to see Reese, who was standing behind the front desk. Finch was worried. These security measures seemed to him totally disproportionate, and above all, did not allow him to be in constant contact with his agent. To know that John was alone in this potentially dangerous environment did not tell him anything that was worth it. He had a bad feeling and wanted to expedite this matter as soon as possible, in order to resume their somewhat more tranquil routine.
In the end, their tranquillity was quite relative, because since Samaritan had been put in service, the two men had to put on a front: their new lives of criminal investigator and teacher; but also and always, their missions. Because, despite everything, the Machine continued to send them numbers regularly, to the computer scientist's despair. He would've liked to be able to breathe a little, and especially to allow John to give himself a few moments of rest.
After passing the metal detector over a new visitor, John whispered, "Not yet, I'm waiting for the rotation with the second team to get access to the office floors. And on your side, Finch, did you find any new information about Livia Edwood?"
"Nothing very interesting. Her father died of a heart attack five years ago. Livia financially helps her mother by sending her a portion of her salary each month. She has a subscription card at the municipal library, the loyalty card of her neighborhood cinema. In addition, she takes ballroom dance classes every Tuesday and participates in the distribution of meals to the homeless every Friday."
Reese tried to hide his surprise at hearing the list of all the very honorable actions of their new Number. This young woman must have a fault! He asked at random, "A boyfriend?"
"Evidently not," Finch sighed, as frustrated as his agent at finding no noticeable feature in Miss Edwood's life.
"This woman is a saint," John concluded as he looked impatiently at his watch, eager to approach this model of virtue.
"I might sooner find a job-related danger," Finch continued, studying the new information he had just discovered about the start-up.
"Meaning?" Reese asked, glancing at his colleague who was watching the elevators.
"Well, according to their tax return this year, Gamesoft made a million dollars in profit."
Reese's eyes widened as he heard such a colossal figure for a company of this size. According to Finch, the company had only about twenty employees. "How can they generate so much money?"
Finch studied the details of the accounts before answering. "In fact, Gamesoft is not just a video game design company; it also creates educational software for schools. It's the contracts with the government that provide it with most of its income."
"This would explain why it needs so many guards and such draconian security measures," commented the agent.
"It is certain that working for the government can be risky," Finch couldn't help but add as he thought back to their respective woes when they themselves worked, one for the CIA and the other, indirectly, for the government.
Reese smiled at the hint but did not take it. He considered the affair with Mark Snow and Kara Stanton as ancient history. When Finch was in contact, the agent had learned not to look back, but rather towards the future. Focusing on his mission, he asked, "But who can threaten a programmer of educational software like Livia Edwood to life without history?"
"It's up to you to find out, Mr. Reese," the computer scientist sighed again, exasperated at being once again relegated to the rank of a mere spectator.
"I'm counting on it," replied the agent with conviction, absolutely confident in his skills.
"How do you plan to do that?" asked Finch, surprised by the assurance of his agent.
"In the old way Finch, as in the good old days: Establish contact and win the trust of the target to extract information."
"Very well," the computer scientist concluded flatly, aware that everything now depended on the approach technique that Reese held.
"For your part, try to find out more about this mysterious company," suggested John, who, despite the poor quality of the line, perceived the tension in his partner.
"I already started digging on that side. I gathered some digital information on Howard Dukes, Livia's boss. He founded Gamesoft in 2009 after leaving Berkeley. He seems rather liked by his employees. I didn't find anything that could confirm that he is the origin or the target of any danger."
John was not surprised by his boss's response but he didn't have the opportunity to tell him of his admiration via a remark halfway between irony and couched flirtation, because his colleague interrupted by putting a hand on his shoulder.
"Hey John, are you coming?" he asked, pointing to the elevators behind them.
"I'm coming," Reese told him. But before following the other man, he turned to whisper quietly to his boss, "Finch, I have to go upstairs. I will not be reachable for a while."
"Understood, be careful," the computer scientist answered spontaneously. But this time, this phrase had nothing to do with the purely formal warnings he was used to giving. He was really worried about leaving his partner in this ultra-secure bunker that made him think more of a mousetrap than a computer company.
John couldn't hold back a smile as he recognized his boss' habitual phrase. He answered without thinking, to end the communication: "Always." With that, he went to his colleague who was already waiting in the elevator. When the car doors opened on the second floor, Reese discovered a gigantic sterile room where a dozen computer scientists worked. The agent swept the place with his expert eye, absorbing its very particular atmosphere.
The thing that shocked Reese the most was the calm. Only the sound of the keyboards broke the silence. No telephones ringing, no chatting between colleagues, no printer or photocopier noise was disturbing the tranquility of the place. All the employees seemed absorbed in their work, and stared at the screens of their computers as if hypnotized.
What a strange atmosphere, thought John, so stunned by the scene that he stayed for a clandestine moment in front of the now-closed door of the elevator, it's almost like a monastery whose monks have made a vow of silence.
Like all start-ups, Gamesoft had organized its offices into open-space areas. They were a privilege, supposedly to facilitate exchanges between collaborators, but in reality it was a rather convenient and cheap way to monitor employees. As a result, Reese easily spotted their Number. He walked down the aisle after his colleague and glanced at Livia Edwood. She was sitting in front of three monitors. With headphoned on her ears, she typed with impressive dexterity lines of code that were incomprehensible to the layman. She looked much younger than her twenty-eight years. Round glasses on her nose, hair pulled together in a ponytail, she wore worn jeans, a fashionable T-shirt and sneakers that made her look like a student just out of adolescence. Reese could not help but notice a certain resemblance to Finch. He smiled, thinking he might have found his female alter-ego.
John wandered discreetly among the work islands, glancing cautiously at the screens to spot any clue. But he had to admit that the lines of code looked like Chinese to him. He then turned his attention to their Number. Very diligent, she rarely lifted her eyes from her screens, taking only one break during the morning to prepare a cup of tea. John was beginning to despair of being able to approach her today as the young woman paid no attention either to others or to her surroundings.
At noon, Livia finally broke away from her computer. She put on her denim jacket, took her purse, and left her post to head for the elevator. John took the opportunity to inspect her cubicle. No longer having a USB key, the agent simply searched her desk, flipping through the files that were left around there and looking in the drawers for information that could identify a possible threat. But he came up with nothing. He took some papers, however, out of conscience. If he had no idea of the significance of these lines, Finch would know how to decipher them.
Taking care not to be spotted by the various security cameras that criss-crossed the huge room, Reese slipped the papers into the inside pocket of his uniform. Then he also decided to take a break for lunch. The premises closed between noon and two so the security guards had no reason to stay at their posts.
Once outside, the agent looked for where Livia could go to eat. Rapidly, he spotted several employees, including the young woman, queuing in front of a food truck located nearby. John stood just behind her, took out his cell phone from the pocket of his pants and after a few manipulations, paired it with that of the girl.
"It's good, Finch, I'm connected to her cell phone. I will now try a direct approach," the agent informed as discreetly possible while waiting for his turn.
"Understood," said the computer scientist, relieved to hear his partner's voice again.
"Have you found something new about our Number's employers?"
"Not having access to the company's internal servers, I tried to establish the list of employees through my facial recognition software, but that of its customers is more difficult to obtain."
"And how do you plan to do it?" Reese asked, curious to know his genius boss' ploy to know who Gamesoft was doing business with.
"As I can't access the names of the company's customers, I will reverse-engineer the problem. Thanks to government tenders, I found the list of all the companies that the Ministry of Education deals with. So I can find out which Gamesoft software sold to the state and who led the negotiations."
"Judicious," answered Reese, impressed.
"But tedious," Finch sighed as he described the impressive government listing.
Reese did not have time to answer because Livia was about to order. She pointed to a sandwich with raw vegetables but hesitated a long time on the choice of her dessert. In the end, she chose a pastry and then ordered a glass of tea. The agent smiled. He had just spotted what was for the moment the only defect in their Number: gluttony. Although one of the seven deadly sins, he doubted that was sufficient motive to kill her.
Once served, the young woman turned around, holding her paper bag in one hand and her steaming cup in the other. But while she was preparing to return to the start-up's offices, John voluntarily placed himself on her path. With her head down to put her wallet in her purse, she struck him violently, releasing her clutch in shock and spilling her hot drink on Reese's jacket and shirt.
"Oh, sorry, I'm so clumsy!" she exclaimed, red with confusion, contemplating and shocked by the damage.
John gave a tense smile as the hot liquid ran through his clothes to lick his skin. Even though the accident was deliberate, he had absolutely not expected to scald himself. But in the end, the agent was satisfied because his ruse seemed more realistic. He tried to reassure her. "It's nothing," he said, a tense smile on his lips, as the young woman started to blot his soaked clothes with paper towels to prevent the stain from spreading.
"I'm really sorry, if I can do anything to fix the damage," Livia politely suggested, obviously upset by the incident.
The agent's eyes started to sparkle. His trap had worked as expected: approach - make contact - connect with the target... As in the old days. But he had to admit that he preferred his new boss to his old ones by far.
"How about inviting me to have a drink? Yours is upset and I can't order one for myself since I have to go back to the locker room to change," the man replied, displaying his most charming smile.
"Oh..." murmured the young lady, surprised but also flattered by his proposal, judging by the pretty pink hue of her cheeks. After a few seconds of reflection, Livia returned his smile. "Okay, after all, I owe you a drink."
"Perfect! I will wait for you after my shift, in front of the building's entrance," suggested the agent, satisfied to have reached his goal so easily.
Livia nodded knowingly and went back to the building with a light, nervous, and feverish step at the thought of spending the evening with such an attractive man. John, meanwhile, returned to the security agents' locker room to change. Taking off his jacket, his tie, and then unbuttoning his soaked shirt, he took advantage of these minutes of solitude to inform his boss:
"It's all good, Finch. I managed to get an appointment with our Number. I'll be able to get closer to her and question her."
The agent was surprised by his partner's very concise and dry answer. Putting on a clean shirt, he asked, suddenly anxious, "Is there a problem, Finch?"
The computer scientist bit his lip, aware of having spoken a little too harshly to his agent. But he couldn't mask the sourness in his voice, as he was uncomfortable that John had used his charm to seduce Livia. He had bad enough memories of his former agent Dillinger, who tended to complete all his missions in bed with the female Numbers he was supposed to protect, and he didn't at all appreciate that method.
But in reality, more than the disapproval of his partner's method of approach, what Finch felt was indeed jealousy. He would have given everything to be the object of so much attention, the target of this embered gaze, the subject of his compliments...
Reese's worried voice brought him brutally back down to earth. Harold adjusted his chair, reflexively pushed his glasses over his nose and cleared his throat before answering, "No, I still haven't found anything."
"Tell me as soon as you get something."
"Understood," the computer scientist answered mechanically before ending the conversation, his attention suddenly grabbed by disturbing information found on the government listing he had been studying for several hours already.
The rest of the day was very, if not too quiet for John. The latter spent the longest six hours of his life, roaming like a lost soul among the offices of programmers, designers, and other computer scientists; or verifying the identities of the only two appointments of Howard Dukes that afternoon.
At six o'clock sharp, Reese was in the dressing room taking off his uniform to put on his civilian clothes, relieved at the end of his seemingly endless day's work. After hiding his SIG-Sauer P226R on his belt, John felt immediately better. He eagerly stepped out of the building and leaned against the brick facade to wait for his rendez-vous. He took the opportunity to contact his partner. "Anything new, Finch?"
"Perhaps. I noticed that Gamesoft had narrowly avoided filing for bankruptcy last year thanks to contracts with the government."
"What's the link with our case?"
"I don't know yet, but for lack of better, I will trace this angle."
"Understood," John replied before turning off his earwig as Livia exited the building and walked over to meet him.
Reese watched her approach in silence, a smile on his lips. She stood in front of him and hesitated a moment before murmuring, embarrassed, "I don't even know your name."
"John. What about you?"
"Delighted, Livia," said the agent in his soft, seductive voice. "Are we going?"
"Okay, I know a nice bar not far from here," said the young woman as she pointed to the end of the street.
"I trust you."
Livia smiled at him before turning around and starting to walk, Reese following in her footsteps. The journey took place in an awkward silence. The young woman seemed to be a very gentle and shy person. Head down, she carefully avoided looking at him, but her red cheeks reflected her excitement. She seemed to be under his spell and the agent was willing to enjoy it. After a five-minute walk through the busy streets of Manhattan, the two young people arrived at a trendy café.
It was a lively pub where dozens of white-collar workers were trying to unwind after a hard day's work. The music was loud and the atmosphere smoky. Reese found that this place didn't really fit with the calm and clear personality of their Number. A waiter led them to an isolated table in the back of the bar. The agent sat down facing of the entrance, to monitor the comings and goings of the customers, and close to an emergency exit, to be able to escape quickly in case of danger. Perfect, he thought as he took off his jacket and put it on the bench next to him.
Once they were settled, the same server returned, his notebook in hand, to take their orders.
"A beer," said John before inviting the young woman to do the same.
"Lemonade," she said in her thin voice. Livia watched as the boy moved away, then said, blushing, as if to justify herself, "I don't like alcohol."
She really is perfect, the agent thought as he responded with a tender smile, "It's to your honour."
Livia blushed again and asked, "You're new to Gamesoft?
"Yes, it's my first day."
"I said to myself..."
The girl's sentence was suspended while the waiter put their drinks on the table.
"You were saying?" asked John, curious to know the end of her comment.
The young woman played with her straw for a long time before answering in a very small voice, "I was telling myself... that I would have noticed you already otherwise."
John was amused by the spontaneity of this confession and raised his glass to toast her. "So, to a long collaboration," he proclaimed with feigned solemnity in order to relax the atmosphere.
Livia imitated him while answering, "I hope so with all my heart."
They sipped their drinks in silence, John gazing at his neighbor who modestly lowered her eyes. Not only did she appear charming, refreshing with naivety, innocence, and spontaneity, but up close, he noticed that she was also very pretty with her cheekbones and nose dotted with freckles, her full lips and her shy smile. He therefore was very surprised that the young woman had no man in her life. He had to dig on that side. Never had he had a Number so smooth to watch. But he knew from experience that one must always be wary of appearances.
After setting down his mug of beer, John decided to learn more about the young woman by asking seemingly innocent questions that would allow him to learn more about her... at least he hoped. "You've been working for Gamesoft for a long time?"
"Yes, it's been three years now."
"The atmosphere is extremely studious; I would rather have found happy geeks," continued John, thinking back to the crazy and eccentric atmosphere of 'Fetch and Retrieve' where one of their previous Numbers, Anna Mueller, worked.
"Yes, I definitely prefer this atmosphere to that of last year."
"Oh? Why this?" Reese asked, taking another sip of his beer.
"Well, a year ago, the company was moribund because our sales weren't taking off. But fortunately, unexpected contracts with the state miraculously saved us," explained the young woman, eyes sparkling with joy, visibly very relieved of the government's rescue of the start-up.
"You seem quite attached to your business," Reese said, replacing his glass.
"Very. I would do anything for it," murmured the young woman gently, calmly, almost coldly.
This subtle change of attitude did not escape the former operative who frowned, questioning this last comment dropped in mid-word. "That is to say?" he asked, examining the speaker with more acuity.
Livia was watching him with her big blue eyes, now no longer innocent. On the contrary, the young woman suddenly seemed very sure of herself, sitting very straight in her chair, her smile widening as the agent's discomfort grew. Reese had a bad feeling. He felt bad, both physically and psychologically. His confusion did not escape the girl, who asked in a soft voice:
"Do you feel all right, Mr. Riley?"
An icy chill ran through John's body as he heard his name. He did not remember telling it to her. How did she learn it? Had he made a lapse? Had his cover been blown?
"How do you know... my... name?" he stammered with difficulty, his mouth suddenly becoming pasty, and a very unpleasant metallic taste filling his palate.
Livia's smile widened. She leaned over the table to whisper, "I know a lot about you. I know you aren't the person you pretend to be."
John's eyes widened. His suspicions were confirmed. He had been taken for a ride! "You... drugged... me..." he said painfully as he glanced around for an escape route.
But they were in a secluded corner of the bar and no one was paying attention to them. Miss Edwood took another sip of her lemonade before answering cynically, "That's right. It was so easy. You've so disappointed me. Knowing your skills, I expected a little more fighting on your part."
"I... I..." Reese stammered, more and more disoriented. His mind, paralyzed by the drugs, was struggling to analyze the situation. His body, suddenly very heavy, no longer obeyed him. His vision blurred, his gestures lacked coordination and he had trouble swallowing because of his thick tongue. He groped awkwardly to try to grab the weapon at his belt, but this simple movement provoked a violent headache and vertigo. Suddenly, everything started to whirl around him. Trying not to panic, John tried to get up to leave the bar by the emergency door just behind him, but his legs sagged under his weight and he collapsed.
Livia stood up and turned to nod to the waiter who approached, accompanied by a man in a suit. She knelt down and gazed at Reese, who, prone on the floor, gradually sank into unconsciousness. His blue eyes were glassy and expressionless, drops of sweat beaded on his forehead and she could see his pulse beat in his neck just above the open collar of his shirt. She ran a hand through his damp salt-and-pepper hair in a falsely soothing gesture before bending to whisper in his ear.
"Come on, come on, Detective; it would be unfortunate if you hurt yourself. We still need you."