The next morning, the stars were glittering in the sky. Rick marveled at how clear it was, until he flipped on the local news. The screen displayed the temperature in the lower right corner, and he thought it was a mistake. “Twelve below?” he asked the TV. “Sheesh.”
The talking heads continued to prattle while he prepared for the day. While pulling out his heaviest coat, the weather gal was talking about how much it snowed on previous night. She mentioned depths of 19 to 26 inches across town, with more to the north. It was obvious his driving skills would be put to the test today.
Checking his e-mail, there was a message from Ng’s office, demanding to know when he’d be “back at work”. That’s just weird, he thought. I never agreed to do anything for him … and the company doesn’t know anything about him, either.
While he ate breakfast, he watched the wind blowing snow crystals (they seems too small and sparkly to be called flakes), and streams of snow drifted across the sidewalks. There were very few pedestrians in evidence, but those he saw were bundled to the point that he couldn’t see their faces. They walked quickly, occasionally staggering when a gust of wind would catch them at a corner or from a gap between the taller buildings, and all but sprinted indoors when they reached their destinations.
Maybe they’re just trying to get inside, he mused. It looks nasty out there.
The waiter made casual remarks about what a pretty day it would be, once the sun rose. Rick knew that the winter solstice had passed, but sunrise still wouldn’t be until sometime after 10 a.m. Just the same, he made a mental note to remember his sunglasses. Sunlight on fresh snow could be blinding, and “snow blindness” wouldn’t look very good on a company report.
* * * * *
The city’s snowplows had cleared the driving lanes on the highway, although a lot of the side streets still had a great deal of chewed-up snow from passing cars. His SUV seemed to struggle for traction a few times as he pulled away from stop signs, but he was grateful for the studded snow tires.
He grumbled a bit about how late the stores opened, here. Back in St. Louis, most of the major retailers would be open by 9 a.m., but many here didn’t even turn on their lights until 10:30 or 11. Strange, indeed.
Once the 5th Avenue Mall finally opened, he picked up some things that Hatch had requested: a seeming hodge-podge of electrical and electronic components. Rick recognized a couple of the pieces, but most were unfamiliar.
There were a few parts that Radio Shack didn’t carry, but the clerk there directed him to Frigid Northland Electronics.
Rick was noticing a common theme among business names in Anchorage: many of them including the words “far north”, “arctic”, “Denali”, or “aurora”. Comes with the territory, I guess.
Once on the Glenn Highway, he looked at the vast expanse of two-foot-deep snow, sunlight beginning to set up a serious glare, and asked himself again why he was driving to Palmer instead of just using the phone.
The farther he went, the deeper the snowdrifts looked, so he decided to turn around. Exiting at Arctic Valley Road, he noticed a small blue sedan in the mirror. “Aw geez, not her again,” he groaned.
The SUV slid briefly as he brought it to a stop; he saw that the road ahead had tracks through the deep snow, but it hadn’t been plowed. Deciding to turn left on the outer road, he was just reaching for the turn signal when the truck was struck from the rear. It was more a thump than a crash. He looked in the mirror and saw only a blue rooftop. Rick sighed and unlocked his door to get out, but the sedan started revving its engine and fishtailing behind him.
“Hey!” he shouted at the car in his mirror. “What are you doing?”
The little car was backed up a couple of feet, then pulled forward into his bumper again. This time, there was a crash. Probably their headlights and grill, the dopes. Fine. I didn’t want to get out in the snow anyway. Rick turned the drivetrain selection switch to “4WD” and mashed the accelerator. His tires churned briefly, then grabbed and he began to move forward. The blue sedan fish-tailed again as its driver began to follow.
He drove straight ahead as quickly as he could, following what he hoped was the road. Looking again at his pursuer, he realized for the first time that the windows were tinted so darkly that he couldn’t tell who was in the car. But for the time being, it didn’t matter. He saw that the road was beginning to slope upward. “I thought the sign said ‘Arctic Valley’,” he muttered.
The snow was noticeably deeper here, and even his big truck was struggling. Glancing behind, he realized the smaller sedan wasn’t moving. I hope they’re stuck. He quickly considered his options, to either go uphill and away from the car, or try to turn around and go past them on his way back to the highway. Then he had a thought, and began to grin.
Turning around with some difficulty, he headed back down the hill toward the sedan. As he approached it, he picked up his new green laser pointer (Gotta love Radio Shack, he thought) and aimed it toward the driver’s position in the blue car. Driving past the little car, he wiggled the beam around a bit, but kept it pointed toward the top half of the driver’s window. “I hope it gives somebody a headache,” he gritted. “This stuff has got to stop.”
He saw that the car was high-centered in the snow, so he pulled back onto the main road and headed toward the next exit. Pushing the speed as fast as he dared on the snow-covered pavement, he turned right as soon as he could, and headed south again. He kept watch on the road behind him, but didn’t see the blue car again that day.
Next stop, he thought, is the rental agency. It’s time to get a different truck; maybe that will keep them from following me. But I'm not gonna hold my breath.
* * * * *
While he was exchanging his truck for another of a different color, he received a text message from Lt. Christakos. Apparently APD was finished with Bob Corbett’s office, and he was free to use it if he wished. Not a bad idea, he mused. I was getting tired of doing everything in the hotel room.
When he pulled up next to the drab little building, Ng’s son and daughter were waiting for him. Getting out of his new vehicle, he glanced at them and said, “I guess you two have sources inside APD.”
“Of course. It’s our job to know everything that affects the family,” Chester Ng said, straight-faced. “Are you going in?”
Nodding, Rick opened the door and held it while they entered. It gave him a chance to observe the Ngs a bit more closely. He couldn’t remember seeing Chester display any emotion beyond minor annoyance, while Esther Ng seemed to have inherited her father’s irritability. Apple didn’t fall from that tree, he thought. “So what can I do for you folks?” he asked.
Without any preamble, Esther said, “We want you to finish what Bob Corbett promised.”
“Ms. Ng, I must tell you that no one in my company has any idea what Bob was doing for you, nor why. Would you mind explaining what he was supposed to do?”
“We hired Mr. Corbett to provide access to the city’s new wi-fi network. It is imperative that we know what’s going on. We must remain up-to-date if we are to be competitive in this market.”
Rick thought for a moment. “So … you wanted us to give you a listening post on official city communications. An undetectable listening post, I take it?”
“Don’t take us for simpletons, Mr. Maxwell. Of course it must be undetectable.”
“I understand. Now tell me why you gave Bob all those incendiary devices.”
The Ngs looked at each other, and Esther gave an almost imperceptible nod. Chester said, “We need to discourage our competition.”
“So you want to know what the City is planning, and want to be able to torch your competition if their purchases or developments get too ambitious?”
Esther replied, “Yes. It’s good to see you’re not as dense as your associate.”
Rick looked at his visitors. “Did you know you could do the same job with a Styrofoam cup, a chlorine pool tablet, and a half-cup of motor oil? Why the military munitions?”
“Time is of the essence.”
Wow. “Okay, I understand. You want an undetectable link to the city’s private network, and someone to plant … for lack of a better work … incendiary devices at locations to be specified later.”
The Ngs nodded and stood up. Esther turned to Rick and said, “I don’t have to tell you to keep your mouth shut, do I?”
He looked her in the eyes and said, “Bob hadn’t mentioned this to anyone at all, which is why no one knew what he was doing, and he got blown up anyway. What assurance do I have that the same thing won’t happen to me?”
She stated flatly, “None, Mr. Maxwell. I didn’t give you any assurances at all.”
Jolly. “Okay, just so I understand clearly. This is not what I expected.”
Chester Ng held the door for his sister, then turned to Rick and said, “I don’t care what you expected. The only thing that’s important is what our father wants.”
The door closed behind them, leaving Rick alone in the room.
“Wow,” he said out loud. “They’re not going to be happy when Hatch gets here.” That’s assuming they know anything about it, he thought. I didn’t offer to tell them about our next move, either.
He turned on the small TV in the office, in time for the early evening news. The lead story was about a woman who’d escaped from the back of a vehicle in northwest Anchorage, and had run into a local business with duct tape on her mouth and wrists.
His phone rang. “Rick, it’s Christakos. Have you seen the news?”
“Yeah, watching it now. Is that ..?”
“Yes, it’s her. She’s okay, Rick; just dehydrated. We’re taking her to Regional Hospital, if you want to meet us over there. I’ll be the emergency admitting area.”
“On my way,” he said, as he ran down the stairs.
* * * * *
After wading through the inevitable ring of bored reporters trying to sniff out a story, Rick made it inside to the relative quiet of the emergency room where the Lieutenant was waiting.
“She’s a gutsy lady, Rick. She’d been riding around in the back of a minivan … well, she thinks it was a minivan, anyway … and managed to get free at a stoplight. She jumped out and ran through the stopped cars and into a coffee shop. They cut her hands free and called us. You know the rest.”
“Can I see her?”
“Maybe in another five minutes or so. The detectives you met are interviewing her now, but they can take a break, so you two can have some time alone, if you want.”
“Thanks … by the way, L.T., what’s your first name?”
“Thanks, Alex. I appreciate it, a lot.”
To be continued ...
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