“I really, really don’t want to be out in public right now.”
“Tough noogies,” said Zane,” you need to be here, they won’t talk to us without you.”
They had dressed Batch as plainly as they possibly could. It didn’t help much.
Mari watched the elevator numbers tick down. “So.. do you write your own songs and stuff?” she asked.
“Oh, of course,” said Batch, smirking. The knit cap and bug-eyed sunglasses he donned obscured a lot of his features, but that rakish smile shone like a spotlight. “The audience for what I do likes songs about pretty uncomplicated subjects, y’know? Love. Adventure. Partying. I can appreciate that. So I just start with that, and do it as well as I can.”
Mari tried to object, and then she thought about her favorite songs, and then went silent. He had a point.
“Good thing you didn’t go into this whole thing for artistic integrity then,” Ash said as the elevator doors opened. “Lead the way.”
Batch visibly tensed up when they stepped out into the public, but thankfully, nobody seemed to take notice. But he still looked edgy. “This hopefully won’t take long,” he said.
Jayna stepped in front of him, blocking him from at least one direction.
“Try to relax–you’re in paradise if you’re a normal tourist,” Mari said, nudging his arm.
“I can’t help it!” he hissed under his breath. “I feel positively naked out here…”
“You look good naked, relax,” Mari said. Batch couldn’t help but laugh at that, his shoulders relaxing a bit.
“The hall of records is a bit of a ways downtown,” said Zane. “We’ll keep our heads as low as we can on the way there, try not to stand out too much.”
The establishment they were looking for was a small one… at least, the part they could get into was small. The bulk of it was a warehouse full of specialized servers, only accessible from within. Records of every legal transaction made within the system were in here somewhere. Somebody, somewhere would need to know these things eventually, and so it was stored at places like this one.
Batch sighed. “This place is like my kryptonite. There’s no lying here,” he said, and quickly rented them a little private room with an access panel.
Well, luckily, there’s nobody here to tell,” said Zane. The room was a bit of a tight fit, even with Jayna waiting outside. Once they tapped through a few disclaimers, a small access panel opened.
“So, somebody wants to inconvenience you,” said Zane. “Can you think of any reason – even a really, really dumb one – why anybody would want to hurt Ben Harris?”
“I’m sure I can think of a number of reasons,” he said and then settled down to lounge haphazardly. “Let’s see… for this persona… let’s say there’s about five people who actually have the means with which to do something like this.”
“Right,” said Zane. “So the next step is, do they have motive, and if so, access. And that’s what we’re here to hopefully find out.”
Batch nodded. “I’ve done a bit of preliminary work. It’s not the first time I’ve had crazy people,” he said, and slipped a small device into the side of the comm station.
Zane smirked. “We’re practically professional crazy people,” he said. “So we do have experience.”
A list of named popped up onto the screen.
“These two couldn’t have done it,” said Batch. “They’re in another sector right now. Not this one either. Recovering from a severe illness last I checked.”
“That leaves three more ‘maybes,” said Mari. “You say that any of them could have done it. Would you say any of them would be likely to?”
“One of them, maybe. The other two I’ve…settled things with.”
“So that begs the question,” said Zane. “What exactly when on between you and Ibrahim Nifton that might make him inclined to do this?”
“I dated him. It didn’t end well,” he said with a shrug. “At first I thought he was going to be okay with it, and then it suddenly wasn’t. I thought I’d bought off some solace, but apparently it wasn’t enough.”
“Define ‘didn’t end well,'” said Mari. “Are we talking ‘I never want to see you again’ or ‘I want to set you on fire and watch you slowly burn to death’?” She shivered a little. “Sorry, getting some relationship flashbacks.”
“Um… a little of both,” said Batch. “It was complicated. Worth looking into.”
“Right then,” said Zane. “When was the last time you heard from him?”
“About six months ago, after the last money cache. I’m not sure though, we seemed to have gotten some… closure.”
“Worth looking into, at least,” said Zane, copying the relevant information down. “Now, if it’s not him, we have another possibility to consider… that it might not be somebody with a grudge against Ben.”
Batch blinked, turning to face Zane. “I want you to explain this to me like I’m five in the hopes I’m mistaking your intentions.”
“I know you’re not going to like to hear this,” said Zane. “But I’ve been thinking about it all day. It might be somebody who’s looking for…” He paused a moment, as if trying to carefully select his next words. “One of your former selves.”
Batch sighed. “There really is no other choice, is there?” he groaned.
“I don’t think there is,” said Zane. “I know how much you hate doing it, but…”
“Okay. Just a second.” He took a deep breath, and closed his eyes. When they opened again, he seemed to have a different posture, he seemed more nervous, his eyes never resting on any one spot.
Mari raised an eyebrow. “What’s…”
“I was trying to be very, very careful,” he said, and his voice was… different. Higher pitched, and tremulous at the same time. “I didn’t leave any paper trails. At least, I don’t think I did. I’m good. I know I’m good. I have to be.”
“I know, I know,” said Zane, putting a hand on his shoulder. “But everything leaves some sort of trace. Not everything can be scrubbed anything completely clean. So I think we have to-“
He gave an exasperated sigh, and started fidgeting subconsciously in a way that he didn’t before. “Okay, okay, just let me think,” he said, drumming his fingers on the table. “I think I can find a short list… I just need to access my file. Look for Bradley Harmon. Should give us a list.” he said.
Ash gaped. “Batch?”
“Who’s Batch?” he asked.
Zane quickly shushed Ash. Batch, or Bradley, had his hands over his eyes, and was rapidly mouthing a stream of words. Zane pulled up the file and stepped aside.
He got up and took the computer, accessing a private backup file.
“So… there’s maybe two people who could’ve maybe had the resources to follow me after I went away…Sarah Tanaka, and Jeffrey Williams.”
“Back up a little,” said Zane. “What do you do for a living… Bradley?”
“I worked as a code debugger,” he said, speaking rapidly. “It was solid work. But… I also had kind of a… side job. I was good with people. I could get into places. High-level places. And once I was in there, I could crack the systems. Just enough to retrieve a cache of data and sell it to the highest bidder.”
“Sounds interesting,” said Zane, watching him. Right before their eyes, he was… different. His features didn’t change, of course, but everything else… every little mannerism, every little movement, every physical tic, the way he held himself, the way he spoke… there not the faintest trace of Ben Harris in this man.
“Sarah was another member of the team at the company I was at. I may have, uh, overstepped my boundaries a bit with her. But she taught me a lot, and she really knows her stuff.”
He started to pace as he spoke, folding his hands stiffly behind his back.
“And what about Jeffrey?” asked Ash. He and Mari both looked a bit uncomfortable.
“Jeffrey was just an outside friend,” he said, pausing mid-stride and folding his hands behind his back. “We lived in the same building were in… similar industries, if you know what I mean.” He stopped, leaning against the wall. “He was pretty good. Not as good as me, but pretty good. He’d give me… tips sometimes, locations of good data caches, and I’d give him a bit of a finder’s fee. We had a nice thing going. And when I left, I made extra-certain to leave him nothing to follow.”
“Something to look into, then,” said Zane. “I think we’ve got enough to make a start on. We may need to look further back later if this doesn’t work out. You can relax now.”
Bradley nodded. “If anyone’s after me, it’s one of those two,” he murmured. “But there’s no way they’d be doing anything messy or violent. If something like that comes up, then they’ll have paid someone to help.”
He sat back down, and his eyes closed. His breathing relaxed, and after a moment his shoulders straightened. When he opened them, he was himself – whatever that meant – once again. “Mmnh, give me a minute, it always takes me a second to… realign.”
“Take your time,” said Zane. “Right, let’s head back to the hotel and come up with a plan. The less time we spend in public, the better.”
“… What the fuck was that?” Mari asked calmly.
Zane waited a moment while Batch stepped outside for some air.
“When he assumes a new identity,” said Zane, “He really, really assumes it. He walked me through his process once. He completely and utterly deconstructs his identity and builds a new one from scratch.”
“But that just seems improbable, right? How many identities has he had?” Ash said.
“Dozens, I’m assuming,” said Zane. “I can’t keep up with all of them anymore. Normally ‘Batch’ isn’t even around, really, the past few times I’ve spent a lot of time with him. It must be because he was in the process of coming up with his next identity when everything started happening.” Zane asked.
“There’s no way that doesn’t leave long term psychological scarring,” said Mari.
Zane smiled a bit. “Remember who you’re talking about,” he said.
Mari sighed. “From what I know so far–and if I wasn’t sure that one of you would slit my throat for sharing it–I could write like… 50,000 articles about the levels of fuckery you guys must suffer with,” she said, and shook her head. “Let’s get back to the hotel then.”
“Let’s,” said Zane. They stepped out of the room, where Batch was waiting with Jayna. “Ready to go?” she asked.
Batch nodded. “Yeah. I’ve got a meeting with my manager later tonight about my farewell bash–I need to keep up appearances.”
“Of course,” said Zane. “Let’s hurry around.”
Outside, there was a bit of a crowd. It was just about lunchtime, and there was a bagel shop across the street that was, it seemed, doing very good business.
Zane had been considering stopping for a bagel when the first shot rang out.
Jayna and Zane moved into action first, Jayna turned, pushing Ben into a tight alleyway, squeezing him in between herself and a dumpster.
Zane had his weapon out and turned to where he heard the bullet from before Mari and Ash could react.
There was another shot. Zane saw it impact the wall. “Up there!” he said. “Office building, fourth floor!”
“I’ll go with you, Mari, Jay, get Batch back to the hotel!” Ash said, and then motioned for Zane to lead the way.
A third shot rang out, flying over Batch’s head, and the crowd started to scatter. Somebody cried out.
“Hey! Is that Ben Harris? Is somebody trying to kill him?”
Zane paid the crowds no heed as he pushed past them and into the office building.
Ash followed after him, shutting the door and heading for the stairs. “Man, I need more cardio in my life,” he said, and started hurrying for the fourth floor.
The fourth floor was closed for renovations. In other words, the perfect place to take a pot shot. It was empty by the time they got there.
Ash sighed. “This must be the dumbest assassination attempt ever.” Ash said, looking around the fourth floor. “It’s way too obvious.”
Zane looked down at the open window, where a rifle was lying. It wasn’t a particularly good rifle. And whoever took the shot wasn’t a particularly good shot.
He looked down to the ground below. There was a crowd forming.
“What are you thinking, Zane?”
“If I’m any judge,” said Zane, “the gunman had Batch dead to rights. From this distance, Mari could have hit him.” Down below, more and more people were gathering around.
“…what if he wasn’t trying to kill Batch?”
Zane rolled his eyes. “That doesn’t make any sense. What would be the point of that?”
Ash smiled. “This is a different world than yours, Zane. Here, it’s all about image. What is the one thing Batch trades in, most of all?”
Zane blinked. Then he gasped. “…His identity,” he said. “If everybody’s paying attention to him, then…”
Ash nodded. “That means Pokers, that means media spotlight. That means faces. Not good for Batch if he’s trying to disappear. This was intentionally bad.”
“So I was right,” said Zane. “This isn’t somebody who’s after Ben Harris. Somebody wants to hurt Batch.”
Ash nodded. “Let’s meet back up with them before the pokers get here. Neither of us want to answer any questions.”