“Yessss!” It included a positive recommendation for Barry from his elder. He quickly ordered a duplicate of Franklin’s phone and requested a slightly different AI profile, something matching Barry’s age and background. This time they found an even faster courier service, piggybacking on one used by the senate committee.
Ned wasn’t even dressed yet before he looked at the picture and AI’s collation with other photos already on record. Then AI indicated that something was amiss regarding one figure, because even with full access to facial recognition records, he was still a complete cipher.
Ned felt a chill. AI indicated the records for the supposed big shot came to a dead end just a few years back. His biography was there, but it was missing too many essential indicators, as if the man had a fake ID. He existed, but there simply weren’t enough reference photos during most of his adult life. AI suggested they had been scrubbed. All those normal candid photos at the big events that men like this attended, news clippings, etc. — all missing. The guy was supposed to have gone to school right here in town. Where were the yearbooks? Eventually AI dredged up a copy from the municipal library. Most every book had been scanned and was available online. The pictured showed a younger version of the same handsome guy, but it was iffy.
AI then said the photo of the page had been modified. “That’s what you get when you digitize all your paper records,” Ned muttered. Where was that school?
It had been closed just a year or so after Mister Big had graduated. The buildings still stood on a fenced lot. AI said the city had issued a permit for demolition, but it wasn’t resubmitted by any contractors. Most likely it was down to contract disputes with unions; that stuff could hang up in lawsuits for years, even decades. Maybe Ned could find the building and take a look around.
He found the campus alright. It was overgrown, strewn with trash and the high fence had signs warning about trespassing. There were no guards in sight, and after strolling around the property taking pictures with his phone, AI displayed the message that the surveillance cameras appeared to be unmonitored during daylight hours, but recording nonetheless. Great; with the police patrols gliding by twice while he was in the area, jumping the fence in broad daylight was out of the question. It was solid all the way around. And part of the reason the place was condemned was because the subterranean service lines had collapsed way back when, so he couldn’t even sneak in through the sewers.
AI then informed him the cameras could be hijacked for just a few moments if tried to enter at night. That was it, then. He headed back to his apartment and worked on other projects until dark.
He was pleased to find the skies were overcast, but not too pleased with the light rain when he came back that night. He noticed that the school’s old playground had been divided off long ago as a local park. This allowed him some cover because there were bushes along the fence between the playground and the closest wall of the main building. He waited until AI said the coast was clear, then sprang up and over the top with a quick flip. Landing in a cold puddle wasn’t fun at all.
He held his phone in front of him for a dim display that showed him how to avoid the trash and debris from years of decay and abuse by vagrants. A side door hung open, but the inside doorway was boarded up. He had expected that and pulled out a small nail-pulling bar from inside his coat. It was a little clumsy with gloved hands, but following AI’s guidance, he got just one corner to flex enough to let him slide inside. The best part of this was that his phone worked better than a flashlight, showing him where everything was as if in broad daylight. Where to start?
The old library was down at the other end of the building. He had to dodge some old furniture and other junk to get there. For two long hours he poured over the books still on the shelves and those on the floor. Between his searching hands and AI’s scan, nothing like a yearbook was in there. None of the loose papers offered any help. He sat down for just a few minutes in the one chair still standing and intact. Was this a waste of time?
He steeled himself and rose once more to search the rest of the building. He was just about to crawl back out under the corner of the plywood sheet when he spotted a decent sized supply room. One one shelf up high was an old stack of posters no one had touched. Ned flipped through them, slightly amused at what should have been a nostalgic collection of bulletin board art. About a third of the way down was a larger sheet folded in half. He dutifully set the stack on the floor and unfolded this larger piece of card stock.
At the top was emblazoned “SGA.” Ned muttered the phrase “student government association.” Below this headline was a series of firmly pasted photos of members of various clubs and organizations that year. In the dim light, Ned made out that it was the year Mister Big was supposed to have graduated. He decided he couldn’t wait. Allowing his smartphone just a small dim glow, he perused the pictures. Near the bottom — was that the investment club? This male dominated group posed with props that suggested old-timey trading floor boys, one holding what appeared to be an ancient stock-ticker.
One of the faces made Ned think it was the younger version of the dumpy nerd in that picture Franklin had sent. Ned’s heart raced. Damn the risks; he turned up the light enough to see. That was him! And the name in the caption matched Mister Big.
AI’s alarm went off; there was guard company car outside trying to unlock the gate to the campus. Folding the post on the fly, Ned almost ran to the stairwell, picking his way up the steps as quickly as he could. The landing split and ran back on both sides toward a long hallway matching the one on the first floor. Stuffing his phone inside the pocket under his arm, he hustled back along the hallway in the direction of the playground side. The one room on the front side was solidly boarded up on all the windows. Sprinting across the hall, he found another room with just one window that still had glass in it, and without any plywood. Of course, it was stuck fast even against his nailbar. The downstairs front door was rattling, so he squeezed the nailbar in his fist with just a tiny bit of sharp end poking out. Placing it against bottom window pane, he bumped the fist with his other hand. It took a couple of tries, but the glass spidered out and fell onto the roof below with only a little bit of noise.
Ned shoved the rest of the glass out, backed up and then dove straight through the opening. He somersaulted to a landing and rolled to his feet. The guards were calling out inside the building as he sprinted across the roof toward the fence. He slowed and realized he hadn’t tried such a long jump from that height. The landing would be hard.
He threw the nailbar ahead of him, then vaulted out across the gap. The trick on a vault like this is to tuck and roll just before hitting the ground. It would lessen the impact and give him a chance to roll his body on the ground. He just cleared the fence, but caught the left toe on a fixture atop an upright pole holding the wire. It put his landing just enough out of kilter to spoil the timing. Instead of a clean landing straight ahead, he was tilted to one side. He still managed to roll on impact, but it was cockeyed.
Ned got up and his right leg didn’t want to work. It wasn’t broken, he believed, but it hurt a lot to use it. He realized his right elbow and shoulder also hurt because he had instinctively tucked his arms in when he knew he hadn’t cleared the fence. All he could do was hobble away as quickly as possible. His device had survived and he used it to find the nailbar, which was just a couple of meters away. Hobbling across the unlit park, he cut through some bushes. Still favoring his right leg, he dodged the pool of light from a street lamp and turned up an alleyway that he knew should be open on the other end. It was here that AI notified him via the earplug that his right shin was cracked and would require treatment. Everything else was just bruises.
Limping more carefully now, he crossed the next street he came to. There was some sports bar at the corner, so he hobbled in that direction. Then he had an idea. Something he almost never did; he had AI call him a cab. He found a space outside the bar that seemed just perfectly made for resting his backside against a ledge without actually sitting down. It allowed him to take the weight off his bad leg. When the taxi finally arrived a half-hour later, there was still no sign of any pursuit from the direction of the school. Climbing in, he used his cell phone to transmit payment up front for fare to his own building, then pulled out the big poster he had folded up and gazed at the pictures while the driver headed the car down the street.