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Somewhere about halfway through her cup of coffee it occurred to Fia that she was approaching the problem from entirely the wrong end. Now that she had been given the identity of the customer by ESCHER, there was all manner of reasonableness to her poking around to find out what she could about him - and it was becoming increasingly clear that something about him was out of the ordinary. ESCHER was interested, but not in the actual intrusion into financial records. Blue Sox hadn't shown up, but there was a full team of Virtuales making her entire office's life hell.

Who the hell are you? Fia asked the datahedron with the customer's personal identity key in it, still silently rotating in her search tools. She sipped her coffee, debating.

The hell with it. Her fingers stabbed down, and the search tools flung themselves out into the Revenet. Fia dropped out of the net entirely to go to the bathroom and drink some water. She tended to dehydrate during runs if she wasn't careful.

Returning, she sat carefully in her modchair and linked. One level in, her dataplane was winking at her, telling her that a precis was waiting, assembled by her custom research tools. Fia tabbed it open.

Oh, this is not good. She could feel her lips tightening back outside as the dossier unspooled. Not, not, not, not. When am I going to learn to do the research first, damn it...

"Ah, you've found him." Fia jerked her head up. Another ESCHER avatar was sitting in the chair against her wall where Lt. Fandling had been sitting some time before. He was older, quieter looking, and scared the hell out of her.

"Colonel. Um, how can I...that is..."

"Please, don't let me interrupt your reading." Arkadios was in a mechanically perfect pose. Fia didn't think it was his software. She looked back at the datapane, flustered.

"This is just..."

"That is a precis on Mr. Stanford Alexsov Zhivko, unless I'm mistaken."

"It..." Fia was getting annoyed at herself, but couldn't regain control of the conversation, or even her end of it. "Yes. It is. I'm sorry, I probably shouldn't, I know, but Mr. Fandling wouldn't tell me what I was supposed to be looking for-"

"Lieutenant Fandling was obeying orders." Arkadios favored her with a tight smile. "Mr. Zhivko is not, in fact, a suspect in the intrusion in your bank's records. Quite the reverse. He finds himself in some difficulty as a result of said intrusion. Are you familiar with Mr. Zhivko?"

"No, Colonel. Well, not other than what I've just read."

"Allow me to offer you a quick summary. Mr. Stanford Zhivko is the current Chief Counsel of 4LC, more formally known as Liquid Light, LLC. If your precis is as detailed as I suspect it to be, given the complexity of your software, it will tell you that he is currently indisposed, having just missed a major stockholder's conference call for 4LC. This has ramifications beyond his admittedly large and wealthy firm; in addition to serving as their chief counsel, he is also the head of policy for the Data Transport Industry Association."

Arkadios spoke with measured tones, offering facts uncolored with personal affect. His hands were, according to his avatar, folded in his lap. Near his left temple, a fuzz of lightcode indicated an active comstruct. None of the message traffic it was concerned with had been important enuogh, so far, to warrant more than an occasional flicker of his eyes.

"In fact, Mr. Zhivko is somewhat more than indisposed. He is in fact engaged in very complex and somewhat desperate negotiations, involving a large portion of a very expensive law firm and several high-ranking U.S. Attorney's staffers, involving his surrender of himself to answer to charges of child molestation and predation amongst other charges which involve his use of corporate resources in pursuit of said, er," here Arkadios coughed in distaste, a sound rendered purely editorial as opposed to expectorial, "obsession." He paused and looked calmly at her.

"Why are you telling me all this, Colonel?"

"That should be fairly clear, I would have thought. You are a search professional. We have been and will be engaged in activities which require your assistance involving this case. It seemed simpler to tell you straightaway what the situation was rather than force you to waste time and energy finding out for yourself from less reliable sources." Arkadios recrossed his legs, looked at his comstruct for a moment, then flicked his gaze back to hers. "Should I not be telling you this, Ms. dos Santos?"

"Well...I assumed this would be closely held information. For, for...prosecution. Or investigation."

"But Ms. Dos Santos," Arkadios said, allowing himself a slightly puzzled mien, "you are part of this investigation now. I thought I had made that clear."

Fia firmly schooled her heart and traitor adrenal glands to stop attempting to kill her, perhaps via a stroke, and cocked her head. "How so?"

"Ah. My apologies. Perhaps it hasn't come through yet." Arkadios watched her for a moment. She stared back, trusting her filters to keep her avatar impassive. "Your supervisor has seconded you to our team for the duration of this investigation."

* * *

Fia left the building for lunch, not her usual habit. With each step away from the overbuilt waterfront financial district she could feel herself calming down. By the time she turned into a nondescript deli, selected at random from the smattering of luncheon storefronts that populated the downtown Lockzone at street level, she could almost accept that there wasn't an ESCHER agent standing next to her.

When she'd come all the way Out after Arkadios had left her, standing and leaving her virtual cube with his usual cool courtesy, she had been startled half out of her wits to find him in her guest chair against the wall, watching her from where he'd apparently been sitting the entire time they'd been conversing. More fool you for assuming he was linking in, girl.

She bought a salad and a juice without paying much attention.

He had to have been watching when he told you you were part of the investigation. You know that, right? Do you know what your face told him? Was it normal fear of ESCHER, or something else? Idiot.

Walking back to the office her heart rate settled to a steady pace. Not her normal relaxed rate, but at least a steady one. You're scared. She shook her head angrily at the voice, hating it for being there and hating it for being right. You're scared because you did wrong, and you think he knows it.

Shut UP!

It sounded so much like her aunt, that voice.

Fia went back to her desk and ate her salad, and thought about the joyless climes of childhood and the reflections of their winds that she could see in Arkadios' eyes.

Damn you, Mikare.

* * *

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