1. Silver Sky
Everywhere she looked, she saw yellow lights flashing against the gray expanse. In her visor, thirty-five new notifications pinged for her attention, streaking golden holographic check marks and smiley faces. In the distance, with a roar that sounded like the end of the world, massive flood gates rose along the Californian coastline, emerging from the sea like amber skyscrapers to mirror the classic skyline of San Franscisco. Amber lights blinked from the top of those walls, flashing in time with the general alarm. And not a moment too soon. The wind picked up, as several fresh torrents send her retreating for cover behind the nearest barricade, where the other visitors were huddled.
From behind the plastic barrier, Melody Ambrose watched the seas rise.
A second later, Pierce’s voice hissed over the company channel. “Mel, two minute warning. Let’s hurry it up this time, okay?”
Mel reached over to tap a button on the white gauntlet she wore over her right hand. One click for yes, two for no. She clicked once, and waited.
Far ahead, the storm was picking up again. Waves crashed against the massive flood barriers in a severe one-two punch. But lo and behold, the barriers held. Only a spray of saltwater made it over the top of the walls. The amber lights on the walls blinked out their usual rhythm. Melody breathed a sigh of relief and checked her visor again.
She deleted all thirty-five notifications. Most of them were nonsense calls and Net alerts, along with a now-outdated flood warning by the Metropolitan Weather Service. Then she set her outgoing channels on mute, leaving only the two relays that mattered that day. Mel tapped at the buttons on the side of her visor. She waited for two lines of code to appear in the upper-right corner of her screen. Meanwhile, she sank deeper into the crowd of parents, children, and tourists huddled behind the barricades. Mel was glad she’d switched off her auto-translate feature. Last thing she needed was an eyeful of random English phrases obscuring her view every time she passed by two old ladies having a chat in Cantonese.
As she neared the edge of the crowd, Mel received a ping from Pierce and came to a halt. She looked out at the gates to the San Francisco Zoo. The security guard posted near the entrance took one look at Mel’s gauntlets and visor before giving her a quick, respectful nod. Mel nodded back and waited.
Finally, as the itch at the bottom of her feet got worse, Pierce’s voice returned. “Okay, Mel. Showtime. I’m patching you through to the client.”
Mel smiled and adjusted her visor. She clicked once on her gauntlet.
Synchronization was always the tricky part of these jobs. Once the link was established, the rest was a cakewalk. Mel felt a rising buzz in the back of her neck. She fought the urge to reach up and scratch at the implant embedded there. Her cortical node was only doing its job. She rolled her eyes and waited for the transfer to continue. Her nerves flickered on and off. A soft electric current ran through the length of her body, testing out each receptor as the client’s signal came in. Mel went through her breathing techniques, slowing her heart rate and focusing on every tny scratch and bump on the zoo’s main entrance. By the time Pierce came back online, she was ready for the job.
“Hello, and thank you for choosing Real Presence Enterprises,” Pierce read aloud. He was a good monitor in that, whenever he read from the script, he never made it sound artificial. “I’m Pierce, and I’ll be monitoring your virtual tour experience. Please don’t hesitate to let me know if you feel any discomfort at any point during your trip. Today, your tour guide is Melody. Say hello, Melody!”
Melody clicked her gauntlet once. Then, even though it wasn’t in the script, she raised her hand to her visor and gave herself a thumbs-up. With her visor set to record and transmit, she knew the client would see it, too.
“Don’t overdo it,” Pierce hissed on the private channel. Then, switching back to the client, he added, “Now then, Emily. We’re about to go inside. Where would you like to go first?”
A new voice came over the client channel, ringing in Mel’s ears like windchimes. “Ooh, I wanna see the Cat Kingdom! They got leopards there!”
Pierce chuckled. “Okay, Melody. You heard the little lady. Let’s see the Cat Kingdom!”
Mel clicked once on her gauntlet. Then, taking a deep breath, she flashed a smile at the security guard before entering the zoo.
Emily Parcher, age seven, was Mel’s best-paying client to date. The file that Real Presence had compiled on her read like something out of a children’s hospital advertisement. Emily had been born with hip dyplasia. Her parents were art patrons and curators, with more than enough money between them to pay for several osteotomies and other treatments. But it was local disability associates like Margo Rodham who’d gotten the spotlight on Emily, helping her find new ways to interact with the world through holographic interfaces and virtual tours. And through it all, Emily had the smile of a cherub.
Because of that, Mel didn’t have any complaints about the endless chatter in her ear as Emily took in the sight of snow leopard cubs chasing each other. The stone wall provided enough height to keep Mel safe, and even she had to admit the little critters were adorable. Provided she didn’t think too hard about how fast they could take her down if they wanted.
“And they can run and leap up to, like, thirty feet!” Emily continued to rattle off one fact after another. Being stuck at her parents’ townhouse in Hayes Valley, she probably couldn’t much apart from surf the Net all day. Mel was patient. She made sure to offer a positive click on her gauntlet whenever Emily took a pause for air.
As they detoured from the leopard exhibit, Mel kept her pace slow and cautious. Her boots came equipped with feedback sensors that patched through her cortical node. It wasn’t much of a rush, but on Emily’s end, the girl could at least experience the brief joy of walking without crutches. Mel could picture her sitting in her bed, with a visor over her eyes and ECG electrodes secured to her forehead, wrists, and ankles. Each electrode had its own silver cable, looping back into the feedback array that the girl—the client, as Pierce insisted—wore on her belt. No doubt the girl’s mother was there, too, holding onto her child as she experienced a day at the zoo from the comfort of home.
Speak of the devil, Mel thought when another voice came over the client’s channel. She came to a halt and listened.
“Sorry to interrupt, Pierce, but it’s time for her lunch.” Nadine Parcher sounded old and regal, almost like she was a grandmother. “Can we pick this up later?”
“Not to worry, ma’am.” Pierce switched back to the private channel. “Mel, sign off?” Then, as she clicked her gauntlet, Mel heard him say to Nadine, “And, of course, if you have any issues with the feedback resolution, I’d be happy to dial it back for you. We don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all approach here at Real Presence.”
“Thank you, I’ll keep that in mind.” There was a pause. “Say goodbye, Emily.”
“Bye, Melody!” Emily giggled. “You’re the best!”
Mel grinned and clicked once on her gauntlet. She added a short wave to her visor before the channel went silent.
Then all she could hear was Pierce sighing. “Again with the flourishes?”
Mel said nothing. Then she went over to her left gauntlet and typed out a quick message on the built-in keypad. Her response flashed across her visor for both her and Pierce’s benefit.
Hey, she wrote, we’re charging premium rates for this trip. I want the Parchers to be repeat clients. Don’t you?
“I want a lot of things, Mel. Like you following the rules for tour guide behavior.”
Another rapid burst of typing followed that remark. I get results. How about you, Pierce?
Pierce chuckled. “Keep it up, and I’ll get a new partner. Remember that you came to us, Mel. And we can terminate that relationship anytime we like.”
Her hand hesitated over the keypad. Mel stared out at the crowds pushing through the zoo, at the parents chasing their children from one exhibit to the next. She couldn’t feel more alone if she tried.
Even if she wasn’t the only one wearing gauntlets and feedback boots, giving virtual tours to other kids that day, Mel knew she didn’t have the same grace as the others. She watched one woman, barely out of her teens, go jogging in slow motion across the park grounds. Her orange visor let out a jaunty tune, some variation on a Bach concerto, as her pink hair bounced across her shoulders while she ran. Mel saw the girl’s hand dart over her gauntlet, clicking twice, and she came to a halt near Penguin Island. While the birds squawked in the background, the other tour guide pointed her visor at the island, leaning farther over the railing than anyone else dared. No security guards came rushing for her, and no one made a comment about her job. Pink Hair was having the time of her life, and Mel didn’t doubt her client was, too.
“Well?” Pierce cleared his throat. “We’ve got time for a lunch break if you want it.”
Mel paused. Then she raised her hand and furiously scratched at the back of her neck. With her cortical node finally gone quiet, she could finally get at the skin surrounding it. A sigh escaped her lips, and she went back to her keypad on her left.
Ten minutes, she typed back. Promise I won’t be long.
“Good to hear. Signing off for now.”
Sunlight broke through the cloud layer, illuminating the path ahead. Mel took her time passing through the gates of the zoo. She noticed Pink Hair, the other guide, already standing outside, with one finger pressed to her visor. Mel followed her gaze out to the yellow flood barriers in the distance, which had begun to lower themselves back into place. The day was drawing to a close, and there was a quiet fatigue permeating the air. Like breathing underwater. Mel closed her eyes for a moment and allowed herself a chance to enjoy the peace of a job coming to a close.
She could hear how tired Emily was, too. The little girl sighed and scratched at her ear. A soft scritch-scritch echoed out from her end of the channel.
“Thank you again, Pierce,” Nadine was saying. She made a noise like she was hugging Emily and added, “Say thank you, sweetie.”
“Thank you,” the girl mumbled. Melody smiled and clicked her gauntlet once.
She didn’t bother with the thumbs-up this time.
“Have a good evening, both of you,” Pierce replied over the open channel.
Then, with a click and a fading pop, the channel went dead. Mel let out a breath and slumped against the nearest barricade. She felt ready to collapse onto the grass, maybe even kick off her boots and enjoy the cool breeze for a while.
Instead, she heard Pierce say, “You did better halfway through. I won’t mention your flourishes in my report.”
Mel stuck out her tongue. Then, when she realized Pierce couldn’t see it on her visor, she went to her keypad and typed up the appropriate emote. In old-school text codes, it was a colon followed by a capital P.
“Classy,” Pierce replied. He paused, and then sniffed. “Okay. I’ll compile the data for tomorrow’s performance review. In the meantime, see if you can find us a clear footpath near the water at the Embarcadero. Hannity wants scenic footage for his next commercial.”
Got it, Mel typed back. Talk to you tomorrow.
A second or two passed before Pierce signed off. With the last Real Presence channel muted, Mel was finally free.
She leaned back and sat on top of the barricade, earning a disapproving look from the nearby security guard. Mel flashed him a quick smile and pushed her visor away from her eyes. Her fingers dug into the skin around her temples, easing out the stress from a long day’s work. Breathing in, Mel let herself get lost in the crowd that streamed out of the zoo and toward the illuminated paths that led to Lake Merced. No more time spent trying to keep her head perfectly still. Her neck ached, and her calves burned. Even as hard as the plastic was, the barricade was a perfect spot to rest up.
A flick of the wrist and a turn of the dial brought up her visor’s reception zone. Those thirty-five notifications had now become forty-seven. Mel automatically picked and deleted thirty-one of them. Just email alerts, job site adverts, and an alarming amount of spam offering easy money for porn shoots. As to the rest, she skimmed over messages from Dad up in Seattle, and offers to play August Rising—in multiplayer—from her Net buddy RenZegal. Nothing out of the ordinary there.
She smiled, however, when she saw the note from Mark. Mel blinked at the link and watched a text bubble appear on her visor.
Thanks for the heads-up. I already told our guys that Project VESTA was going to be a long shot, but it’s nice to get confirmation. We know we can’t compete with Real Presence on that front. But now I’m on Project HERA, and let me tell you, we’re closer than ever to a breakthrough. Look for Rhea Labs in the news by the end of next week. We’ll celebrate at the Fairmont. My treat!
Hearing his voice as she read over the message, Mel couldn’t help but smile. Mark Hanover had been many things to her before, from a one-night stand in Richmond to a shoulder to cry on after her savings took a hit in the Great Crash. Mel would’ve been glad to leave all this behind and go work with him, but Real Presence had her under contract for at least ten years. No easy way out, not even with all the juicy intel she kept dropping for Mark on the down-low.
If anyone was going to get Mel out of her debts, it’d be Mel herself.
Reaching for her keypad, Mel typed up a fast response. Congrats on the new job. If you ever need a brain to map for your new project, you know where to find me. After a moment, she grinned and added, And how much it’ll cost you, beany.
Tap the gauntlet once, and off went her reply. Stretching her legs and arms, Mel groaned and got off the barricade. As the crowds thinned, she took a leisurely walk down the lighted path toward the bus terminal. Her hand slid into her pocket, fingering the red holographic card that was her Bay Area Transit pass. Touching the plastic soothed her nerves as she followed the lights down the walkway.
In the void, a silver disc spun round and round.
Mel watched the disc vanish, and a soft warmth spread through her skin. She touched the back of her neck, feeling her cortical node buzz as the program activated. Her head tilted forward. She took one last glance around the bus, at the tired faces of park visitors and office workers sitting or standing around her on the cruise down Fulton Street. Then, with a slow exhale, Mel reached up and tapped her visor.
Her visor’s polymethyl screen went black. A warning to anyone watching. Do Not Disturb.
Meanwhile, Mel watched new images float into existence on the other end of her visor. A private screening of a little place she liked to call home.
The silver disc reappeared for only a second. Mel focused her retinas on it and blinked twice. Without a sound, the disc vanished.
She entered her dream channel.
Poll ten thousand people at random. It doesn’t matter from where. You’ll get the same answer whether you pose the question to a teenager in Oklahoma, a salesman in Japan, or a film star in Croatia.
Ask them what’s the best thing about virtual reality going into the twenty-second century.
They’ll tell you it’s the dream channel.
In the Net, everyone who’s logged onto a virtual service gets one to two terabytes of usable, rewritable space. Their own private playground. In the Virtual Revolution, physical office space is a thing of the past. Everyone can more or less code their own workspace using a dedicated server, a cortical node linkup, and a dream channel. It’s the dream channel that creates a sense of space for every user. Instead of sitting in traffic for an hour to go sit in an office, your average worker can do the same job with half the stress because they’re crunching numbers or running customer service from the cafe or from a bench in the park.
Everyone’s dream channel looks different on the inside. When you can create your own private space, the only limit is your imagination, or so the commercials say. Some kids love doing their homework or hanging out on the surface of the Moon. A senior citizen might recreate their childhood home and explore it while they’re in the doctor’s waiting room. No rules, and no limits, because it’s your space, amigo.
Mel’s dream channel loaded into existence around her. She’d chosen to model it after a house she’d once saw on a trip to Los Angeles. It had been a gorgeous display of Spanish Colonial architecture. White stucco walls, clay roof tiles, and wrought iron gates. She passed through an arched doorway and took in the artificial sunlight coming through her bay window. It cast a glare over the patterned floor tiles. Mel couldn’t feel those tiles, but she could only imagine how warm they’d feel after getting toasted by the sun for hours. She smiled to herself and continued to guide her avatar around the living room.
“Music,” said Mel.
In the air above her head, a question buzzed from the DC program. “Choose playlist?”
“Saturn Mix,” she added.
Two seconds later, she leaned into the couch. The program made the appropriate sound for leather creaking under her weight, registering each motion Mel made in the real world. She let her eyes fall half-shut and listened to a piano remix piece by Cee Mandalay. She hadn’t touched half of Mandalay’s music since her teens. It was nice to rediscover these little pleasures. Made the end of the day a little less grueling.
Mel glanced at the jet-black screen mounted on the wall across the room. With a shrug, she willed it to activate. Her avatar’s hand lifted inside the dream house, moving past news stories about a storm in Catalina Island and a war of words between President Adams and Sheik Al Maktoum. A quick lookover on her entertainment channel showed six unwatched episodes of Aether Dawn, followed by the latest Hiro Takagawa film. Mel briefly considered putting on the movie, but she’d be back at her apartment before she knew it. Better to save it for after dinner.
She was only nine minutes into an episode of Aether Dawn when a red light flashed overhead. Mel scowled and looked away for a moment.
When she looked back, her living room’s wallscreen now showed a blue envelope.
One new message, the program announced.
“Son of a...” Mel growled to herself. She reached her avatar’s hand forward and selected the envelope. Pulling it free from the screen was her signal to run the message. As it turned out, the message was from Pierce, audio only.
“Mel,” the message ran, “find a safe spot to chat tonight. We got a priority client request. I attached all your details in the packet below.”
That could only be good news, and yet, Mel’s stomach clenched. She didn’t mind the priority requests; they’d pay as well as Emily Parcher’s parents, at least. And yet, every time she took one of these jobs, Pierce’s attitude got ten times worse. He’d have her walk a tightrope on the entire session, with even a single misstep as grounds for docking her pay for that month. And it wasn’t like Mel could challenge him on it. Pierce had senior status within the ranks of Real Presence. His star had risen along with that of their current CEO, Morgan Mayweather.
Mel shook her head. She waved her hands in the appropriate fashion, revealing the rest of the message’s contents.
Then she froze.
She almost didn’t feel the bus around her grind to a halt at the next stop.
Inside her DC, Mel could only stare at the insignia emblazoned on the client request form. She recognized at least two of the agencies represented there. One of them had to be FBI. And the other was maybe the US Marshals Service. But a wave of her hand dispelled those images. She scrolled down to the add-on at the bottom of the client request form.
We hereby submit a request for an individual inside the Witness Protection Program to receive private access to Real Presence Enterprises...
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Mel whispered to herself. She didn’t care who heard her on the bus. Slowly, she slumped back into her seat. Her hand reached up to her visor, logging out of her dream channel and closing out the privacy feature. The bus interior returned with a flash, revealing a host of new tired faces sitting around her.
Outside, it began to rain.
2. One New Message
Silver drops splattered the small window in Mel’s apartment that overlooked Turk Street. She couldn’t see the pedestrians moving outside, the ones resigned to trudging through the downpour. Between the wind and the rain, everything outside her home was a drab, wet blur.
Mel gave the view another few seconds before turning back to her half-finished dinner. Once-warm ravioli and broccoli, fresh from the hydroponic farms in Monterey. But given her nerves, she didn’t see herself finishing her meal, and she fought past her guilt as she scraped the rest into the trash.
When she shut the door to her bedroom behind her, Mel took a deep breath. She counted backwards from ten, ticking off the numbers like the hands on an antique clock. That thought soothed her a little. Back to days spent at her grandmother’s house, back when her mother needed an entire day for her treatments.
Grandmama had been the kindly distributor of cookies and milk. She’d taught Mel all the rituals that her parents had forgotten, like the symbols behind each Kwanzaa celebration and how to wear a set of Ghana braids. Even now, standing in her off-white room, Mel had decorated with the precious few mementos that she’d inherited. On the wall above her bed was a painting, semi-abstract, depicting the events of Juneteenth. On her nightstand sat the old wooden cross that Grandmama used to touch before bed. Mel’s parents hadn’t been churchgoers for decades. Even so, she kept touching the cross because there were some things you just didn’t give up.
Sitting cross-legged on her bed, Mel took another deep breath. Held it. Let it out slowly. Imagined she could see the air leaving her body in a long, unwinding fog.
Then she reached for her visor.
No sooner had she put it on than she got pinged with another channel request. It was Pierce, naturally. Mel fumbled for her left gauntlet and activated the voice reader.
“I’m here,” she said aloud.
“Good.” Pierce fell silent. Mel heard something like papers shuffling in the background, which she wondered at. Weren’t the feds entirely digital now? But then Pierce came back on with a slight cough. “All right. I’m setting up the call now. Whenever you’re ready.”
Mel’s stomach tightened.
“Take us in,” she answered.
In the void, a silver disc spun round and round.
Mel watched the disc vanish, and a soft warmth spread through her skin. This time, she didn’t touch the back of her neck. Just like before, her visor’s outer display went black. All privacy functions running normal. One less thing to worry about, at least.
When her virtual display lit up again, Mel shivered. She’d put on a heavier sweater to keep out the chill. For all the good that seemed to do her now.
Blue light flickered, and where the disc had once been, an envelope icon appeared. Mel reached out with her avatar’s hand and touched the icon. The envelope winked out of existence, and she felt a new world load into view around her.
White walls shimmered into existence, coated with the sheen of a freshly polished pearl. Lines drew themselves in front of and around Mel’s avatar, filling in with the smooth wooden textures of a triangular conference table. She couldn’t even blink before the American flag draped itself into a spot near the corner furthest from her, unobstrusive as any she’d seen in a classroom. But the flag didn’t distract her as much as the silhouettes of the other guests on the call. Mel’s avatar sat on one side of the virtual conference table, while the adjacent side glittered with new avatars arriving in sync. Black suits and ties over white dress shirts. Nothing unusual there for the feds.
Meanwhile, to her opposite side, another avatar appeared on the last edge of the table. This one came in clearer and faster. The blank slate morphed into the well-defined features of an older man, with gray hair along the temples and deep-set eyes. He brushed off imaginary lint from the front of his lavender polo shirt and turned to Mel with a polite nod.
“You dressed well for the occasion,” Pierce Thornton commented.
Mel glanced down at her saffron blouse and high-waisted pants. Nothing that she actually owned in real life, but she found the outfit worked best for top-paying clients. Emily’s mother had certainly appreciated it at their first interview.
“And you look like you’re ready to get back to the golf course,” Mel replied. “Seriously, how many polo shirts do you own?”
“Plenty!” Pierce said with a laugh. He leaned forward in his chair. A moment later, the light faded from his eyes. His face twisted into a granite slate. “I know this is unorthodox. We usually like to give our guides a dossier on the clients already of schedule, but...” He glanced across the table, toward the still-loading avatars of their guests. “Well, security’s an issue here.”
“Pierce.” In real life, Mel licked at her lips. Her avatar did likewise. “What’s going on here?”
“You read the request form, didn’t you?”
“Yeah. It explains next to nothing.”
“Just be patient.” Pierce leaned back in his chair and turned back to regard the two other avatars loading into the virtual space. “They’ll tell you everything you need for the job.”
Mel wanted to ask if even he was being kept out of the loop. But before she could, the avatars snapped into full detail at last. A pair of faces appeared over those black ties and dress shirts, along with hands that rested on the tabletop. One of them belonged to an older gentleman, well into his fifties with obvious black hair dye. His large brown eyes settled onto Mel for a long time before turning to regard Pierce with similar interest. And as for his partner—
No. No, it couldn’t be her.
Her hair hadn’t changed. She still wore it pink, with only a hint of her natural chestnut brown. There were more lines in her face, that not even a little foundation and mascara could erase. That black suit and tie didn’t suit her at all. But when she saw those full lips and those green eyes, Mel’s breath caught in her throat. Those green eyes remained fixed on Mel the whole time, wide with hope. Those full lips parted in a smile.
“Melody.” Lauren Nowak grinned. “Oh, it’s so good to see you again.”
“I...” Mel blinked. She struggled to speak, to remember her training. To do anything professional before she lost the job altogether.
All she could say was, “I’m sorry.”
Lauren’s eyes softened. “You don’t have to apologize—”
“I do.” Mel clasped her hands together on the table. “I really, really do.”
She wanted to say so much more, but slowly, she became aware of the fact that they weren’t alone. Mel let out a sigh in real life, willing that her avatar wouldn’t do the same. Pierce’s watchful gaze burned in her peripheral vision. She leaned back in her chair as the federal agent cleared his throat.
“If I may,” said the agent, “I’d like to thank you for setting up this call. My name is Special Agent Jeff Bennett, and I am here on behalf of both the FBI and the Federal Witness Protection Program. As your approved liaison, I’m authorized to negotiate whatever would be the best arrangement for Miss Nowak here, along with whatever help Real Presence Enterprises requires. I recognize, Mr. Thornton, that your experience with the company was a key factor in making this selection.” He smiled thinly. “I’m also aware that your partner has a personal connection with Miss Nowak.”
“It was Lauren’s suggestion,” Pierce explained. He shot Mel a knowing smile. “Yes. I knew. Try not to look shocked.”
“That doesn’t surprise me in the slightest.” Mel turned back to Bennett. “How can I help, sir?”
Instead of answering, the agent turned away from the table and waved his hand at the wall behind him. A monitor appeared there, twice as large as the television set that Mel kept in her own dream channel. The screen flashed to life, displaying real-time footage of auto traffic outside a small townhouse. Mel didn’t recognize the street, but the Edwardian architecture suggested someplace in San Francisco, or at least in the vicinity. All the windows were empty and black. All but one on the second floor, with the curtains drawn.
If she squinted, Mel thought she could see movement behind those curtains.
“I’m not at liberty to disclose this location,” Bennett explained, “but this is our current safehouse for Miss Nowak. She’s cooperating with our investigation into a major narcotics conspiracy here in the State of California. As our material witness, we need her testimony about the ringleader involved. And we need to protect her from any attempts at silencing her.”
Mel shot a worried look at Lauren. But the other woman avoided her gaze. Her eyes bore into the smooth wood of the tabletop.
Bennett waved his hand again. The image on the screen changed. A video began to play, offering grainy surveillance footage of a man leaving a car near a pier. Mel thought she recognized the marina, but she couldn’t be sure. At the very least, she didn’t know the man. The footage paused as the man’s face turned unwittingly toward the camera. She saw stubble and light-colored hair that fell in a wave over one ear. His eyes were large and blue, but there was nothing pleasant about them. Even his designer jacket didn’t suit him. The man more or less walked in a constant hunch, ruining the fabric as he turned to leave his car.
“This,” said Bennett, “is Ryan Vale. Until last June, he was a suspect in our investigation into the activities of a Venezuelan cartel in the Bay Area. This is the last footage we have of Mr. Vale in the States. In June, the body of his business partner, Fernando Marquez, was discovered in the trunk of this same car. Mr. Vale has since fled the country, and we’ve obtained a warrant for his extradition and arrest.”
“What about Miss Nowak?” Pierce asked. He flashed Lauren a quick smile. “How can we help with the investigation?”
“Indirectly.” Clearing his throat again, Bennett waved his hand. Now the screen reverted to an image of rolling green hills, with the distant blue streak of a coastline beyond it. “Miss Nowak has been cooperating with the investigation, and while we can’t permit her to leave the safehouse, our program director has agreed to certain...” He rolled his mouth around for a second. “Certain liberties. Under strict supervision, of course.”
“Meaning a virtual tour,” Mel replied. A glance at Lauren’s hopeful face confirmed her suspicion. “And you’d like me to handle it?”
Bennett smiled. “If it’s not too much trouble.”
“No trouble at all,” Pierce interjected. He flashed a grin, turning between Bennett and Mel as he spoke. “Real Presence is always ready to cooperate with the authorities.”
“Indeed.” Bennett nodded. “Ever since the Glen Sutton incident, we’ve been grateful for the help that your VR guides can provide. However, this wouldn’t be anywhere near as dangerous. All we’re asking...” He glanced at Lauren before amending, “All that Miss Nowak is asking for is a chance to explore the outdoors while she’s still in federal custody. And given the information she’s provided us, we’re happy to oblige.”
Pierce leaned back in his chair, his smile satisfied. “As are we.”
While they chatted, Mel stared at the image behind Bennett’s head. Green hills were nothing new to her, but it was the angle of the coast in the background that she thought she knew. There were other markings, too. A stone bench in the foreground here, a cobblestone path there, and trees swaying in the breeze. Any random park in the Bay would’ve qualified. Still, she’d been to this place before. A long time ago.
“Something on your mind?” When Mel turned away, she found Lauren staring at her with quiet interest. Her avatar had jumped two chairs over, so now she and Mel were right next to each other. As it happened, Pierce and Bennett were still negotiating details, utterly oblivious to what the two women were doing.
“We’ve been here before, haven’t we?” Mel nodded to the screen. “This place you want to visit?”
“I’m surprised you don’t remember.” After a pause, Lauren tilted her head. “The Marin Headlands? Dad used to take us there with Eliot to go hiking.”