94: Payton

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As she pulled her car out of the apartment parking lot, she stuck her phone in her ear and tapped the command button. “Call Cipolli.”

Her partner picked up almost instantly. No surprise there; he’d been monitoring the conversation from his car.

“Meeting?”

“See you there,” she responded, and tapped the button again to hang up.Telephones were not for actual information.

The federal government may have officially kicked its big brotherly habit of recording every conversation for AI computers to comb through, but Payton’s associates did not believe that their Alwarzi enemy had truly kicked their addiction to data-mining intelligence from the public.

The fact that a foreign country had hacked into US government AI systems to data-mine the illegally-recorded conversations of the entire country for industrial and business secrets almost from the beginning of the program, gaining a massive advantage for its own rapidly expanding industrial sector, and the fact that a political party had been caught doing similar data-mining to identify individual supporters of the opposition and steal their campaign plans, were both meaningless scandals to an international underground power. They had surely just adjusted their operational methods and continued as before.

So those in Payton and Cipolli’s organization reserved all real information to direct conversations in places where they could use flux techniques to insure privacy from eavesdroppers. They mentioned as little as possible on the phone. Even the location of their next meeting was always agreed upon in person, in advance.

She found Cipolli already at a table when she walked into the family restaurant. He already had coffee waiting for her.

“What do you think?” were his first words to her.

As she ripped open a couple sugar packets, she answered, “I agree with you. He has buried memories and doesn’t know it.”

“What convinced you? It didn’t sound like he remembers any more than he did before.”

“He was certain that our spook was a woman,” she answered. “No hesitation.”

“A lot of Americans would think ‘Middle Eastern Woman’ first, with that getup. They would only hesitate once they saw the sword.”

“No,” she shook her head. “Mendez did combat rotations in Pakistan and Yemen. Most of the people he saw that were dressed like that lady would be men. Her outfit didn’t look even vaguely like Yemeni feminine attire, and although it had slightly more in common with a burka, what it resembled most in the places he went was a Paki tribesman.”

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When the Paki government lost control of the North, young soldiers like Roy, originally sent there to keep Iran from continuing its eastward expansion past Afghanistan, would have seen a lot of those weapons firing at them. Surely a tall figure wearing robes that didn’t allow feminine features to be seen would have reminded Roy first of those tribal warriors, not a woman in a burka.

Cipolli nodded, frowning. “I get it, but what most people would think doesn’t necessarily have to be what Roy thought.”

“True,” she agreed. “But something led him to immediately thing ‘woman’, and I think that his something that was the same as ours: an up-close encounter with her. I know we couldn’t see enough to be absolutely sure of her gender, but her eyes, her hands, her stance, even her voice screamed ‘female’. I’m certain that was a woman that I fought.”

She took a sip, then Cipolli tapped his finger on the table, warning of an approaching server. To Payton’s surprise, the woman placed a slice of apple pie down in front of Cipolli.

“Can I get you anything, ma’am?” she asked in a soft lilt that sounded like Appalachia. Probably West Virginia, Payton guessed.

“No, just the coffee’s fine. Thanks.” she answered.

Cipolli got himself a forkful of pie as she asked him, “Anything from your side?”

As she said it, she dug the paper slip out of her purse that Cipolli had given her before the visit and handed it over to him.

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He took it as he took a sip of coffee and stuffed it into a pocket. In her flux sense, she could see the form turn off as he did it. After a swallow, he said, “Totally clean. He’s spending his sudden leave time wisely, so some of the surveillance data I got was X-rated, but none of it was questionable.”

She frowned. The purpose of the talisman in her pocket had been to retrieve data from a pattern Cipolli had surreptitiously installed on Mendez. If it wasn’t for the high priority of the serial abductions case, she would never have approved it, much less cooperated in retrieving the recording.

“You’re going to erase that stuff, right?”

His mouth quirked. “Of course I am. I’m no voyeur, Payton.”

After another sip from his cup: “So, what now? Do we call in the mind experts?”

Payton scowled down at her cup and thought about it. “My problem is, we’re coming up with nothing on anyone involved. Not Mendez, not Garner, not even Garner’s ex who looks so damn much like an Ilidi. They’re all clean.”

“The only reason you were suspecting Mendez in the first place was the spook who rescued him.”

“That third spook, the old man, looked like an actual Ilidi. Mendez’s rescuer dressed in what might be some kind of off-world fashion. That spook that Mendez spotted during the pursuit didn’t look Ilidi, but she also bore no resemblance to an Alwarzi… I’m ready to believe that the Ilidi or their allies are trying to catch the kidnapper too.”

“So our warrior in robes was there because she was also after the perp, and just rescued Roy because that’s what a good guy would do?”

Payton thought it over carefully, then nodded. “It adds up. Of course, that leaves us back at square one when it comes to figuring out what happened to Sergeant Garner.”

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