Smith looks around the coffee shop and tries to remember, was this place a bookstore or a donut shop back in the day? The detective hates waiting, especially in places like this coffee shop, where she’s the proverbial sore thumb. Cece’s only 10 minutes late. Smith watches people walk past the shop’s large picture window. This stretch of Divisadero sure has perked up, she thinks. Whitened up, too.
Cece appears in the window, her hijab making her easy to spot. I wonder why she picked this place to meet?, Smith thinks. She stands, waves. “Where’s your computer?”, Smith asks as Cece takes a seat.
Cece shakes her head. “Don’t need it,” she replies. “Besides, lotta snoops here.”
Smith resists the urge to look around the cafe. “If it’s a hacker haven,” she asks, “why’d you pick it?”
“I didn’t,” Cece replies. “He did.”
“Who’s he?” Smith asks, still not looking around.
“The guy behind you,” Cece answers. “He told me to be 10 minutes late. You want coffee?”
Smith shakes her head. Cece walks to the counter, pours a cup, and drops $2 in the can. She goes to the table behind Smith and sits down.
“You have four murders to solve,” a voice behind Smith says. “Your bosses have a much bigger problem.”
Smith turns around to face the voice. He’s small, Smith thinks. Smaller than his voice. “Who are you?”, she asks the back of his head.
“Join us, please,” he says without turning. Smith takes a seat between the man and Cece, who sips her coffee without looking up. “Your network has more than one visitor,” the man says.
Smith looks at the side of the man’s face. He’s 40 at least, she thinks, but still plenty boyish. “Let’s get back to the murders,” she says.
“What happens,” the man replies, “when word of the SFPD’s data breach gets out? That might attract the attention of some defense attorneys.”
“Not my problem,” Smith says, trying not to sound ticked. “I’m Detective Smith, but you knew that. Who are you?”
The man looks disappointed. “There are some people who want Charlie dead,” the man says. “There are others who want him very much alive. And walking.”
Smith squints, then leans back in her chair. “Show me,” she says. “I know you don’t expect me to take your word for a cockamamie story like that.”
“The logs,” Cece says to Smith. “They’re doctored.”
“Very well done,” the man adds. “Just rough enough to look genuinely buggy, but faked.”
The man and Cece exchange a glance. “They aren’t looking for what’s not there,” Cece says. “Plus, there may be someone on the inside.”
Smith looks at the man. “Possibly,” he says, “not surely.”
“How is this helping me nab him?”, Smith asks them both.
“It isn’t,” the man answers. “That’s the point. You won’t nab him. He’s covered. There’s someone covering the tracker’s tracks. And likely someone else covering theirs. Only a fool gets noticed. It’s the grand white-hat tradition of breaking the law for the public good. Charlie takes it to an extreme, granted.”
Smith fidgets. “You can’t deny the underlying logic,” the man says. “Illegalities aside.”
“Like the law’s just a formality,” Smith replies. “It’s not so easy for me. You can’t just cafeteria the law. You don’t abide by only the rules you like, when you like.”
“Cops and prosecutors do it all the time,” the man tells Smith. “And judges. That’s their number one job. Enforcement is always selective. Always has been, always will be. You don’t find many millionaires in prison. That’s not because millionaires never break the law.”
Smith leans toward the man. “You’re saying walk away from four murders when I’ve got the guy,” she says.
“You don’t have him,” the man replies. “You don’t have any evidence against him. You don’t even have probable cause for a warrant. Your hunch alone won’t do.”
“If I didn’t have him,” Smith says, “you wouldn’t be here.” She turns to Cece. “Who faked our network logs? Not Charlie, right?”
“Not likely,” Cece replies. “He’s right about your network being owned. The only way to fix it is to shut it down and start over. Maybe. Even then, you gotta figure your data is corrupted, so you’d just be moving bad data from your old network to the new one. And your backups are shot going back to who knows when. You might have to reconstitute your databases--”.
“Stop,” Smith says. “For now, let’s just act like everything’s fine. This can’t be as bad as you make it out. Our guys swear the network is iron-clad.” Smith pauses. “I got a killer to nab,” she says. “That I can do something about. All the other, well, you’re going to have to talk to somebody else about that.” She stands up. “I’m not backing off Charlie, a.k.a. Timothy Rist. Not without a better reason than all this data breach nonsense.”
Cece stands up next to Smith. “Tim, Charlie, whoever,” she says, “he’s a murderer. He shouldn’t get away with it. He belongs behind bars.”
The man starts to speak, then stops. He looks at the wall blankly. Smith walks out of the cafe. Cece says to the man, “You’ve got evidence.” The man keeps staring straight ahead. “You could help put him away,” Cece adds.
“We could stop him,” the man replies. “If we wanted to.”
Cece leans toward the man and says, “There’s no hubris like geek hubris. You and your crusty pals maybe aren’t as invincible as you think.”
Cece exits the cafe and finds Detective Smith waiting on the sidewalk. “Who is that guy?”, Smith asks her.
“I have no idea,” she replies. “Two days ago I’m leaving the library and there he is,” Cece says. “Said he needed to talk to you about Charlie.”
Smith shakes her head. “I don’t need this,” she says.
“It gets worse,” Cece says and motions Smith away from the cafe. They walk south on Divisadero toward Grove.
“What’s worse than the network being hacked?”, Smith asks Cece.
“Yours isn’t the only one,” Cece replies. “Charlie is a threat to them. They’re big. Charlie’s an outsider, a loner among loners. And he’s not playing by their rules, or by any rules, really, except his own.”
Smith and Cece stop walking when they reach Grove. “Who’s they?”, Smith asks.
“I don’t know,” Cece says. “The guy in the cafe is nobody. Just a messenger. Probably paid. But his bosses,” she hesitates. “I think they’re serious. They’re gonna stop Charlie.” Cece looks Smith in the eye. “Before he blows their cover.”
“Too late,” Smith says, “It’s blown now.”
“How do you figure that?”
“You were in that cafe,” Smith says. “You heard him.”
Cece shakes her head. “We couldn’t prove a word of it,” she replies. “They’re ghosts.”
The two women stand on the corner, watching walkers pass in all directions. “I’ll get the bum,” the detective tells the computer scientist.
“Get him?”, Cece asks Smith. “You can’t even get close enough to talk to him.”
Smith half-smiles. “I don’t need to talk to him,” she says.
“You’ll almost have to catch Charlie in the act,” Cece says quietly.
“Even better,” Smith replies with a full smile, “just before the act.”
“That happens all the time, right? Are you sure you shouldn’t be asking for a little more help? Maybe even from these guys?”
“The guys who just told me to walk away from a killer?”, Smith says to Cece. “Ask them for help?”
Cece hesitates, then replies. “Why not?”
Smith looks at Cece. “You said you could get him,” she says. “What happened?”
“They happened,” Cece replies. “They’re sanitizing the logs. They may not have started until they spotted me looking for Charlie. Or Tim, I guess. Whoever. Then the guy shows, asking for you.”
Smith looks back toward the cafe. “I can’t explain all this to Villa Lobos,” she says. “And I can’t pretend like it didn’t just happen.”
“He didn’t say anything about the murders,” Cece tells Smith. “Just a bunch of stuff about your network.”
“What about you?”, Smith asks her.
“You mean does it bother me that the SFPD data is corrupted? No. Considering all the corruption in the world, it’s nothing.” Cece look down Divis toward Geary. “What bothers me is that these guys are doing the same thing to the banks,” she says. “And to Congress.”
“Also not my department,” says Smith. “I’ll tell Villa Lobos we don’t have enough to proceed against our prime suspect. He’ll kick my butt.”
Part 16: Steiner
Part 1: Tim
Part 2: Three's a Problem
Part 3: Ninth Avenue
Part 4: Peru Avenue
Part 5: Toast
Part 6: Mrs. Pellegrini
Part 7: Charlie
Part 8: 2D
Part 9: Smith
Part 10: Cece
Part 11: Quarter Moon
Part 12: Interview
Part 13: Mieke
Part 14: 2D Ex
Part 15: Logs
Part 16: Steiner
Part 17: Number Five
Part 18: Cold
Part 19: Intern
Part 20: Coffee
Part 21: Sloth
Part 22: Tennessee Street
Part 23: Error-correcting Code
Part 24: Villa Lobos
Part 25: Entrance
Part 26: Cloak
Part 27: Meeting
Part 28: Fog
Part 29: Bootle
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