The cab pulled into the long driveway of the only house in sight. Recoil got out. The side mirror betrayed the driver’s eyes as they snagged one last glimpse of her ass. She turned, letting her black lambskin jacket flair just enough for him to see her gun, then paid the man through the window. The driver backed out and drove down the empty road the way they had come.
The house was large and modern, flecked with little corners and blind spots. Front lawn mostly open, a few bushes and a broad willow at one end, thin forest across the road. Two vehicles parked in the driveway, a luxury SUV and a long, red compensational thing. Two ways in, through the front door or the garage. Recoil walked counterclockwise around the property.
In back was an in-ground pool with a pool house that seemed a bit too big. Landscaping shed further away. Brick barbecue grill, a picnic table. A two-level deck wrapped around the opposite end of the house, sliding doors into the house on each level. Basement bulkhead. Around the other side she found electric and gas meters, communications cables. Nothing anywhere to indicate kids. No cameras, no sounds except rustling leaves and a few birdcalls.
Returning to the front, Recoil inspected the cars. Both were unlocked. She checked below the seats and the steering columns. Interiors done, she slid her jacket off, set it on the hood of the red car, and laid on her back. Nothing underneath either vehicle that shouldn’t be there. She stood, scanned the visible road, still empty. The young woman slipped her jacket back on and walked to the front door. She rang the bell.
The door opened. A man stood inside wearing a bright orange t-shirt and forest green cargo pants. He was at least three hundred pounds, and his face looked like the dusty backup cue ball from a seedy joint where no one bothered to play. Stenciled on his shirt in thick black letters were the words “BLOW ME” with an arrow pointing down. In his left hand he held a toasted bagel, a couple bites removed, with eggs and bacon poking out from between the halves.
“Who the fuck are you?” he said, flecks of breakfast escaping his lips.
He chewed at her. She waited.
“Oh, right, the bodyguard.” He took a long moment to scan her body. “You’re kind of small.”
“You’re kind of big.”
“Damn straight,” he said, grabbing his gut with his empty hand and jiggling it. “What’s with all the—” He raised the same hand and made a circular motion in front of his face.
“I’ve already walked the premises,” Recoil said.
“Not that I mind a piercing or two. The rest of you’s fine. But why so many?”
“I’d like to look around inside,” Recoil continued, “and then I’ll give you a report on how to tighten things up.”
“Yeah, I bet you know how to keep things tight!” the man said. He choked on his laugh as he turned.
Recoil followed her new charge into the house. She noted the security panel in the open foyer. Decent for a residence, but certainly not top of line. She continued into a large ambiguous room. The decor wasn’t what she’d have expected from a man who wore a vulgar orange t-shirt with green cargo pants.
“See that?” he said through a fresh bite, pointing at a painting on one wall. “Original fuckin’ Dalí. Wanna know how I got it?”
“How about I check out the rest of the house while you finish your breakfast. Then we can discuss your itinerary for the next few days.”
“Go do your thing.” He waved her off. Recoil heard him laugh and mumble “Itinerary” as he walked through the room toward the back of the house.
Her exploration of the house took about twenty minutes. The main floor was split into two sections. The open room led into the dining and kitchen area, which included a restroom, with access to the garage. A short hallway led to the a master suite containing a large office with some expensive computer equipment, bedroom and a bathroom with standup shower, jacuzzi bathtub, toilet, bidet and plenty of tile between them all. Upstairs she found a couple guest rooms, a library and another bathroom. Most of the basement was converted into a sort of theatre nouveau, except for a storage and laundry area and a large gas-powered generator. Recoil was not surprised to find no signs of a woman.
“I’ve been thinking about my itinerary,” the man said when she found him sitting in an oversized recliner in the central room. “I’m going into town to pick up some comics, then probably eat some lunch. Maybe get a hooker. So what’s the deal, do you come with me or what?”
“Where will you be going exactly?”
“Didn’t I just tell you? The comic store, a restaurant, Blush — probably, I haven’t been there in awhile.”
Recoil pictured the town as she had driven through it in the cab. One time through wasn’t enough to memorize all the stores, but she recognized the last place he mentioned from a sign she had seen.
“What are the names of the other places?”
“Comicominium. I don’t know where I want to eat yet. Shit, am I going to have to plan that sort of thing out now?”
“When we’re in town, point out the places you like to eat most often. I’ll inspect them and advise you on potential risks.”
“Seems like a lot of work.”
“Security is a tradeoff,” Recoil explained. “If you truly believe your life is in danger, more work is required to keep you safe. But ultimately it’s your call how much time, money and effort you want to put into it.”
“I’ve got plenty of money, but I get bored just sitting and talking about what I’m gonna do.” The man pushed himself to standing. “So if you’re gonna quiz me and give me lectures, you might as well do it while we’re driving into town.”
The man walked toward the door. Recoil quickly stepped ahead of him. She opened the door and scanned the yard before stepping out. The man followed her. She locked the handle and pulled the door shut.
“I’ll need a set of keys,” she said. “Do you have extras?”
“We’ll make copies. Lock the bolt and then give me what you have.”
He stared at her.
“I don’t have a key to that lock,” he said eventually.
“You have thousands of dollars of computer equipment in there,” Recoil said, “and you believe your life is in danger.”
“Oh yeah, plenty of people want to cap my fat ass.”
“And yet you don’t have a key to the front door bolt.”
“I, uh, I lost it.”
“Did you ever think to replace the lock?”
“It’s a pain in the ass.”
“Not as much as someone ‘capping’ it.”
“There’s a security system,” the man defended.
Recoil took a deep breath. She tried not to think of her clients as idiots. Most of them were very smart, successful people, and their knowledge and experience simply lay in a field other than security. But what moron leaves his door unlocked?
“Good security has layers,” she said, releasing her breath. “Alarms can be defeated, locks can be picked, guards can be outwitted. But having all of those checks in place makes a breach exponentially more difficult.” She thought for a moment. “Alright, we’ll leave it for now, since you don’t seem too concerned about it. Is there a locksmith in town?”
“I don’t know.”
“I know a guy. It’ll cost a bit to get him out here, but you said money isn’t a problem.”
“I have more than you’d know what to do with.”
The way he said it made Recoil cringe.
“Is your money in the house?”
“No,” the man said quickly.
“Is it on the premises?”
He stayed silent.
“How much?” Recoil pressed.
He waffled his head back and forth.
“Most of it.”
She closed her eyes and held them shut. “It’s in the pool house, isn’t it?” she said opening them again.
The man stared at her, apparently unable to speak.
“At least you have a padlock on the pool house,” she said. As she walked toward the driveway, Recoil made a mental checklist of things to add to her unwritten report. The man followed her silently. She climbed into the driver’s side of the SUV and adjusted the seat forward. She spotted the car’s keys in a cup holder and sighed.
“Hey, what are you doing?”
The man stood at the open driver-side door glowering at her.
“You’re going to hire a security chauffeur,” she told him as she started the car, “but until you do, I drive.”
The man clearly wanted to argue, but Recoil ignored him and adjusted the steering wheel’s height. He walked to the passenger side and climbed in. She shut the driver’s door.
“I probably have some emails to look at anyway,” he sulked, pulling a smartphone from one of his many pockets.
Recoil drove toward town reversing the course of the cab that brought her to her client’s house. It didn’t occur to the man beside her to ask if she knew where she was going until five minutes down the road.
“I’m good,” she said.
“I just realized I never told you my name,” the man said. “How do you know I’m the guy that hired you.”
“Yeah but how.”
She glanced at his shirt.
“You don’t keep a very low profile.”
“Okay, then,” he said defiantly. “What do you know about me?”
“Your handle is ‘Chip Krispy.’ You’re a broker for zero-day exploits, tiny flaws in computer programs that haven’t been detected by security firms yet. You buy and sell indiscriminately, offending almost everyone from script kiddies to white hats, security firms to government spooks, but they tolerate you because you’re useful. You’ve given dozens of talks at hacker conventions, which mostly degrade into rants about freedom and fighting the system, thinly veiled as justifications for your chosen profession. I even found a few newspaper and national magazine articles about you back when the big federal email scandal broke a few years ago. There are literally thousands of pictures of you online, so I didn’t have any problems recognizing you when you opened the door.”
“Meh, everyone knows that shit.”
“What else would you like me to tell you about yourself?”
“What’s my real name?”
The road on which they drove suddenly shot along the side of a hill without any trees. To the north, Recoil saw forests stretching away like carpet laid over uneven floor. She thought hard to recall everything she knew about the man sitting next to her.
“I don’t know.”
“That’s why I’m not worried about locking my door,” Chip said with a smirk. “My real name is virtually unknown, as are a dozen or more other aliases I use. You think I don’t keep a very low profile, but that’s because you see my caricature, Chip Krispy, an outrageously clothed fat kid who likes to brag about how much money he has and how awesome he is.” Chip pointed at her. “You schooled me about layers of security earlier, forgetting that security is my whole fucking career. I’ve dedicated my life to sliding beneath layers of security. The reason you don’t know my real name is because I don’t want you to know it. It’s hidden beneath so many layers of security you wouldn’t even know where to begin.”
They pulled into the edge of town. From this direction, the Plot didn’t have any signs, no checkpoints. One second they were driving along a forested road, the next it was Market Street, lined with homes and other buildings.
“You didn’t really think I kept all my money in a pool house, did you?”
“The cab driver knows where you live,” Recoil said.
“He never saw me,” Chip said. “He has no idea who lives there.”
“He only has to see us together once, which is likely since I’m your bodyguard. Someone asks a question, flashes him a picture, he tells them where he took me. Suddenly there’s an assassin at your door.”
“If that happened, do you know what that would make you?”
“Worst. Bodyguard. Ever.”
Chip broke out into a laugh that sounded like something between a wheeze and a squeal.
“Your face!” he gasped. “Your face just now when I said that was priceless! You just had a crisis of competence in that little stud-specked head of yours, didn’t you?”
Recoil saw a sign in front of a plaza with the word “Comicominium” below the names of other stores. She pulled into the parking lot and stopped the car. Chip slapped a wide hand on her thigh and squeezed.
“Don’t worry,” he said, his laugh subsiding. “No harm, no foul. And there’s no way any harm can come of your stupid mistake. You know why?”
Recoil lifted his hand off her leg.
“Because that wasn’t my house.”
Chip renewed his obnoxious laugh as he opened the door and exited the SUV. Recoil stayed longer than she should have, letting Chip gain some distance before she cooled her irritation. That she had wasted time and mental energy to inspect the house and assess its security needs didn’t bother her so much; that he had tricked her into doing it did. Her present crisis was not one of competence but one of code. Killing a client was almost never the right thing to do. Almost.
She dropped the car keys back into the cup holder. By the time she entered the shop, Chip was riffling happily through a long box of old comics.