30. Ridiculous on the Face of It

He told Mike and Sally everything. Everything, that is, except Miranda's identity. He called her at first an "acquaintance," then, overcome with guilt, a "friend."

He told them the facts. That she had come from out of town to talk to him about something important. She had been acting a little oddly; she had missed one meeting. Then she had showed up at the paper with a young man, and they had started to tell him their theory. Crazy shit about spiking the water, chemtrails. And they had been acting strange. He'd sent them away.

A few days later she was arrested for what she said was talking to people, and what the police said was sleeping in public. She had been sent for a minimum one-month observation at the Sunstone mental hospital—

"Bullshit," Mike muttered.

—but ten days later, she was out. The doctors said she'd been discharged "at her own request." The next day, she checked in to a hotel room under a fake name. The day after that—Monday—she was found dead.

Despite the violence of her death, and the fact that she was ostensibly still unidentified, and the fact that there was some sort of message scrawled on the wall, within twenty-four hours the police were calling it suicide.

Mike had been listening intently, hands on his knees, as if poised to spring up. Now he began rubbing his thighs. "She didn't contact you when she got out?"

"No. I didn't know she was out until after she was dead. And then I didn't know she was dead, that it was her who was dead, till I went to the morgue today."

"You think," said Sally, "someone killed your friend."

Drew shrugged; wasn't it obvious? "I can't believe she would kill herself."

"You forgot to mention," Mike said, "the fact that someone tried to run you off the highway, and the fact that your apartment has been ransacked. When did that happen, by the way? Tonight?"

"Could have been any time in the last few days. I've been at Denise's. Shit—I just remembered. The note."

"What note?"

"The downstairs neighbor left a note on my door, complaining about the noise ..."

Mike stood and began pivoting thoughtfully back and forth. "She knew something they didn't want her to know. So she came to you with it—Drew Dunkel, famous reporter, the man who blew open the Holroyd scandal. Of course she did. But they were on to her. They were following her, watching her. They framed her, tried to get her locked up as schizoid. But she got out. Most likely she managed to escape—and the hospital covered it up."

"That's more or less what I figured," Drew said. It was gratifying to hear someone else confirm what he had been thinking. At the same time, it discomfited him to hear his ideas quoted like this, and put on the record—in print, as it were. He could deny nothing now. His fingerprints were on everything ...

"But obviously they know she contacted you." Mike smiled dismally. "They're trying to scare you off, or find out how much you know, or both. Was there anything missing from you place?"

"I don't know. There was nothing there. I didn't know anything. I don't know anything."

"You know enough," Mike said. "She didn't give you any files, any documents, anything like that?"

"No. She left some drawings and some stuff in the spare bedroom. When she went to the hospital."

"Well? Were they missing?"

Drew shook his head. "No. I got them."

"Five to one that's what they were after. Ten to one."

Then why didn't they take them?

Because they wanted you to have them.

"I don't know," he said. "They're just drawings. Artsy stuff. She was an artist. I mean, she was in art school. But here," he said, rifling through his pockets for the pictures he'd taken of her file and printed at the morgue. "She typed some pages of this stuff on a typewriter while she was in the hospital. What do you think?"

"Code," Mike said.

"I wondered," Drew said. "Think we could crack it?"

"Oh, sure. See all these spaces? And the length of the chunks of text? Looks just like words, doesn't it. That means we're dealing most likely with a one-to-one algorithm. You just have to brute-force it, try every possible combination. Nothing to it."

Mike's confidence made Drew suspicious. "How long would that take?"

Mike started doing some calculations, tapping his fingers on an imaginary keyboard. "First character any one of twenty-six," Mike muttered, "second any of the remaining twenty-five, and so on ... Looking at a factorial of twenty-six, give or take ... HDR could probably do it in a matter of minutes, but I'd have to write the program first. Might take me a couple of days. Have to find a dictionary to compare against ... But yeah, it can be done. Definitely. Child's play. Not that you can blame her, working on a typewriter in the nuthatch ..."

"I'll probably sound like the advocate of the devil," Sally said, hugging her knees, "but, if she was out of hospital since ... Saturday? And you are away from home for several nights ... Is it possible ... Maybe she made the mess in your apartment?"

"Why would she do that!" cried Mike.

"I only want to speculate all the possibilities. Maybe she is mad at you for some reason? For not listening to her ideas?"

"Or maybe she really was crazy." Mike dropped back into his chair with a huff. "I see where this is going. And the maniac on the highway wasn't trying to kill or frighten Drew; it was just an innocent fender-bender and he panicked and took off."

"It's possible," Drew said, with a reasonableness made effortless by his conviction that she was wrong.

"Look," said Mike, "speculation isn't going to get us anywhere. What we need are facts. We know they were on to something. What? What was it? What did she and this guy tell you?"

"I don't know. It sounded like nonsense at the time. The usual sort of hodgepodge: the water supply had been spiked, or the rain had been, or something, with some kind of drug that had all kinds of side-effects ... Ridiculous on the face of it."

"Yeah, yeah," said Mike impatiently, "go on. What else?"

"Something about scientists working on virtual reality ..."

"You gotta be joking. Sorry, go on."

"That's all there is. I sort of cut them off."

"Do you remember anything definite? The name of the drug, maybe, or the names of any of the scientists? The name of their organization? Something we can do a search on."

"You think they'd just put this shit online?"

"Why not? They want people to know the truth, don't they? Shitchrist, Drew, there's no secret societies any more, no underground resistance movements. Everybody's out in the street yelling into the same wind. If somebody in the world believes it, it's on the fucking internet. The truth's there for everyone to see. It's just the signal's swamped by all the noise."

"The drug, I don't know ... lysic-something?"

Mike looked crestfallen. "Not lysergic acid diethylamide."

"Not as long as that. Something like it, though."

"Well, forget it. There's probably always going to be some bullshit mixed up with the truth."

"Why, what's lysergic acid whatever?"

"Acid. LSD." He looked at Sally, who rolled her eyes. "What else," Mike said.

"Some guy's name maybe," Drew said. "Frank Bolton, Oldham, Olson ..."

"Familiar. Vaguely familiar. Is that all? Not much to go on. Christmeat: virtual reality ... Well, what you need to do is track down this guy."

"How? I don't know his name or anything."

"I don't know how. You're the reporter. Don't you track people down for a living?"

"You're thinking of Joe Funk."

Sally laughed. Mike scowled. "I'll go make tea," she said.

"What about phone records?"

"She didn't have a phone. Wait—no."


"Fuck. I had the number of the place she was staying."

"On your PDR."


"Forget it. It's gone. What else? How'd she contact you?"

"By letter. Then email."

"She emailed you, so she probably emailed this guy."


"So we hack into her email address."

"Really?" Drew followed him to the HDR. "We can do that?"

"Apple cake. What's her address?"

"T dot reason one seven five at mailpost."

Mike typed it in. He clicked on the password box. "Alright," he said. He cracked his knuckles. "Now," he said.

Drew sighed and sat back down.

"What do we know about her?"

"Fuck out of it, Mike. We're not going to just guess her password."

"Come on. Most people choose very insecure, very obvious passwords. Date of birth, favorite movie, middle name, mother's maiden name ... A favorite word? A catchphrase?"

Miranda said, Don't look at me.

"What about this one seven five? What's the significance of that?"

What am I doing here?

"Start with what you know," said Mike. "'Virtual reality.'" He typed that in. "Or 'Frank Bolton.' Damn. If only we knew how long it was ..."

"Because that would really narrow it down to only several million possibilities. Look, I'm leaving."

"Or what about—hey! No. Shit."


"If we only knew what she wrote on that wall of her hotel room."

Drew closed his eyes. "We do."