Paranoia (046 of 170)

—of —
by Joseph Finder
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Macmillan: Paranoia

Paranoia by Joseph Finder. Copyright 2004 by Joseph Finder.
All Rights Reserved. Sharing not permitted.

Part Three:

Plumbing: Tradecraft jargon for various support assets such as safehouses, dead drops, et al. of a clandestine intelligence agency.
—The International Dictionary of Espionage


By the time I got home, I was a wreck, even worse than before. I wasn't cut out for this line of work. I wanted to go out and get smashed again, but I had to get to bed, get some sleep.

My apartment seemed even smaller and more squalid than ever. I was making a six-figure salary, so I should have been able to afford one of those apartments in the new tall buildings on the wharf. There was no reason for me to stay in this hellhole except that it was my hellhole, my reminder of the low-life underachieving bum I really was, not the well-dressed, slick poseur I'd become. Plus I didn't have the time to look for a new place.

I hit the light switch by the door and the room stayed dark. Damn. That meant the bulb in the big ugly lamp by the sofa, the main light source in the room, had burned out. I always kept the lamp switched on so I could turn it on and off at the door. Now I had to stumble through the dark apartment to the little closet where I kept the spare bulbs and stuff. Fortunately I knew every inch of the tiny apartment, literally with my eyes closed. I felt around in the corrugated cardboard box for a new bulb, hoping it was a hundred-watt and not a twenty-five or something, and then navigated through the room to the sofa table, unscrewed the thing that keeps the shade on, unscrewed the bulb, put in the new one. Still no light came on. Shit: a fitting end to a lousy day. I found the little switch on the lamp's base and turned it, and the room lit up.

I was halfway to the bathroom when the thought hit me: How'd the lamp get switched off? I never turned it off there—never. Was I losing my mind?

Had someone been in the apartment?

It was a creepy feeling, some flicker of paranoia. Someone had been here. How else could the lamp have been switched off at its base?

I had no roommates, no girlfriend, and no one else had the key. The sleazy management company that ran the building for the sleazy absentee slumlord never accessed the units. Not even if you begged them to send someone over to fix the radiators. No one was ever in here but me.

Looking over at the phone directly beneath the lamp, this old black Panasonic telephone/answering-machine combo whose answering machine part I never used anymore now that I had voice mail through the phone company, I saw something else was off. The black phone cord lay across the phone's keypad, on top of it, instead of coiled to one side of the phone the way it always was. Granted, these were dumb little details, but you do notice these things when you live alone. I tried to remember when I'd last made a phone call, where I'd been, what I'd been doing. Was I so distracted that I hung up the phone wrong? But I was sure the phone hadn't been like this when I left this morning.

Someone had definitely been in here.

I looked back at the phone/answering-machine thing and realized something else was wrong, and this wasn't even subtle. The answering machine that I never used had one of those dual-tape systems, one microcassette for the outgoing message, another to record incoming messages.

But the cassette that recorded incoming messages was gone. Someone had removed it.

Someone, presumably, who wanted a copy of my phone messages.

Or—the idea suddenly hit me—who wanted to make sure I hadn't used the answering machine to record any phone calls I'd received. That had to be it. I got up, started searching for the only other tape recorder I had, a small microcassette thing I'd bought in college for some reason I no longer remembered. I vaguely remembered seeing it in my bottom desk drawer some weeks ago when I'd been searching for a cigarette lighter. Pulling open the desk drawer, I rummaged through it, but it wasn't there. Nor was it in any of the other desk drawers. The more I looked, the more certain I was that I'd seen the tape recorder in the bottom drawer. When I looked again, I found the AC power adapter that went with it, confirming my suspicion. That recorder was gone too.

Now I was certain: whoever had searched my apartment had been looking for any tape recordings I might have made. The question was, who had searched my apartment? If it was Wyatt and Meacham's people, that was totally infuriating, outrageous.

But what if it wasn't them? What if it was Trion? That was so scary I didn't even want to think about it. I remembered Mordden's blank-faced question: What are you caught up in?

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