Today’s errand had become routine for the woman who was currently calling herself Chris Taylor. She’d gotten up much earlier than she liked, then dismantled and stowed her usual nighttime precautions. It was a real pain to set everything up in the evening only to take it down first thing in the morning, but it wasn’t worth her life to indulge in a moment of laziness.
After this daily chore, Chris had gotten into her unremarkable sedan – more than a few years old, but lacking any large-scale damage to make it memorable – and driven for hours and hours. She’d crossed three major borders and countless minor map lines and even after reaching approximately the right distance rejected several towns as she passed. That one was too small, that one had only two roads in and out, that one looked as though it saw so few visitors that there would be no way for her not to stand out, despite all of the ordinariness she worked to camouflage herself with. She took note of a few places she might want to return to another day – a welding-supply shop, an army surplus store, and a farmers’ market. Peaches were coming back in season; she should stock up.
Finally, late in the afternoon, she arrived in a bustling place she’d never been before. Even the public library was doing a fairly brisk business.
She liked to use a library when it was possible. Free was harder to trace.
She parked on the west side of the building, out of sight of the one camera located over the entrance. Inside, the computers were all taken and several interested parties were hanging around waiting for a station, so she did some browsing, looking through the biography section for anything pertinent. She found that she’d already read everything that might be of use. Next, she hunted up the latest from her favorite espionage writer, a former Navy SEAL, and then grabbed a few of the adjacent titles. As she went to find a good seat to wait in, she felt a twinge of guilt; it was just so tawdry, somehow, stealing from a library. But getting a library card here was out of the question for a number of reasons, and there was the off chance that something she read in these books would make her safer. Safety always trumped guilt.
It wasn’t that she was unaware that this was 99 percent pointless – it was extremely unlikely that anything fictional would be of real, concrete use to her – but she’d long ago worked her way through the more fact-based kind of research available. In the absence of A-list sources to mine, she’d settled for the Z-list. It made her more panicky than usual when she didn’t have something to study. And she’d actually found a tip that seemed practical in her last haul. She’d already begun incorporating it into her routine.
She settled into a faded armchair in an out-of-the-way corner that had a decent view of the computer cubicles and pretended to read the top book in her pile. She could tell from the way several of the computer users had their belongings sprawled across the desk – one had even removed his shoes – that they would be in place for a long while. The most promising station was being used by a teenage girl with a stack of reference books and a harried expression. The girl didn’t seem to be checking social media – she was actually writing down titles and authors generated by the search engine. While she waited, Chris kept her head bent over her book, which she had nestled in the crook of her left arm. With the razor blade hidden in her right hand, she neatly sliced off the magnetic sensor taped to the spine and stuffed it into the crevice between the cushion and the arm of the chair. Feigning a lack of interest, she moved on to the next book in the pile.
Chris was ready, her denuded novels already stowed away in her backpack, when the teenage girl left to go find another source. Without jumping up or looking like she’d rushed, Chris was in the chair before any of the other lingering hopefuls even realized their chance had passed.
Actually checking her e-mail usually took about three minutes.
After that, she would have another four hours – if she wasn’t driving evasively – to get back to her temporary home. Then of course the reassembly of her safeguards before she could finally sleep. E-mail day was always a long one.
Though there was no connection between her present life and this e-mail account – no repeat IP address, no discussion of places or names – as soon as she was done reading and, if the occasion called for it, answering her mail, she would be out the door and speeding out of town, putting as many miles between herself and this location as possible. Just in case.
Just in case had become Chris’s unintentional mantra. She lived a life of overpreparation, but, as she often reminded herself, without that preparation she wouldn’t be living a life at all.
It would be nice not to have to take these risks, but the money wasn’t going to last forever. Usually she would find a menial job at some mom-and-pop place, preferably one with handwritten records, but that kind of job generated only enough money for the basics – food and rent. Never the more expensive things in her life, like fake IDs, laboratory apparatus, and the various chemical components she hoarded. So she maintained a light presence on the Internet, found her rare paying client here and there, and did everything she could to keep this work from bringing her to the attention of those who wanted her to stop existing.
The last two e-mail days had been fruitless, so she was pleased to see a message waiting for her – pleased for the approximately two-tenths of a second it took her to process the return address.
Just out there – his real e-mail address, easily traceable directly to her former employers. As the hair rose on the back of her neck and the adrenaline surged through her body – Run, run, run it seemed to be shouting inside her veins – part of her was still able to gape in disbelief at the arrogance. She always underestimated how astonishingly careless they could be.