by J. David Liss
We were quiet for a long minute.
“Fuck.” I wasn’t sure if I said it or one of the other guys. It could have been me. Maybe we all said it, because Schultz was looking at all of us like we were a sister act in a freak show.
“What’s the problem?”
“Anna Prophet is a homicidal genius that Dr. Goldberg figures will kill the person she perceives as her nemesis. Sort of a Hannibal Lector on steroids and with a gang.”
“Sorta like Wolfy Schwartz.”
“Shit. Worse than Schwartz.”
Goldberg said it: “Worse.”
“Fuck,” said Schultz, becoming the fifth sister in the freak show act.
“All right, let’s get to work.”
“Yes Dr. Goldberg.”
“The only person known to be close to you is your father. He’s now in mortal danger. And Prophet has a 10-minute lead on you.”
“Oh my god. I’ve got to call him.”
Matty: “Your call could be traced. It’ll make it easier for them to find him. I can do something.”
“Do it.” He took my phone, brought it to my desktop, connected it through the USB port and did stuff. Then he handed it back to me. Call him. This can be cracked, but it would take me 24 hours.”
“Will my number come up on the caller ID?”
Shit. Dad rarely picked up the phone if he didn’t recognize the number.
“What will come up on the caller ID?”
“A string of random numbers.”
Would my father pick up the phone if he saw that? I prayed he would. I dialed his cell. It rang twice and he answered it.
“Dad, it’s Frank.”
“Thought it might be, after I heard the Mayor’s announcement. What’s with the funny number? The caller ID doesn’t have your name, just a string of random numbers.”
“Encrypted. Did you see the video?”
“Yes. The Mayor’s office released it to the public. It’s horrible.” Dr. Goldberg cursed softly under his breath.
“You’ve got to get lost. Dr. Goldberg thinks Anna Prophet will be coming for me, which means she’ll be coming for you.”
“Oh Jesus. What should I do?”
“Drive someplace nobody would ever think to look for you.” Matty cut in, “No! His car has more Intel processors than your desktop. It can be associated with your father and tracked.”
“Dad, don’t take the car. Take my old dirt bike and get far from the house. Pay for everything with cash. Don’t use a credit card. I reckon you have about 15 minutes to get out.”
“I don’t know how to drive the dirt bike.”
“It’s pretty straightforward. Don’t call anyone. In fact, turn off your phone. Turn it back on in two hours. I’ll call after I figure out how to reach you without being traced.”
“Yeah. Can you tell me where you’re going to go in a way that no one else will understand?”
“Yes. You haven’t enjoyed that scenic spot since you were 15.”
I thought for a couple of seconds. Then I said, “Good Choice. Take the cash and get out. Don’t pack anything. I’ll buy clothes and find you. Get out.” Dad had a major safe in the house but only kept a little bit of cash in it. It was there to give crooks something to focus on. He kept $50,000 under the couch cushions in the library. “And Dad…”
“Get out fast, but drive slowly. Don’t kill yourself.”
“Let’s hope that neither of us gets me killed.” That hurt. He hung up.
“Matty, is it possible for Anna Prophet to track every call I’ve made from this phone for the last several months?”
“It’s not easy. She’d have to hack the phone company, figure out enough variables to identify you, then find the usage databases. It’s possible, but she couldn’t have done it in the last 15 minutes since it was announced you’re on the case. Of course, if she anticipated that you’d get the assignment, she might have already done that work.”
“I need to make another call. Will the next call be encrypted as well?”
“No. I’ll need to do that thing again.” He did. I took my phone back, left the room, and called Daisy Stein. Daisy is the lead crime reporter at the Daily News and the best crime reporter in the City, maybe the country. We were friends, though I tried to lowball that, and so did she. Fact is, I fed her scoops that led to reporting that made me look good and made her into a superstar. That we occasionally had dinner, occasionally had breakfast, and were with each other in between, was something we kept to ourselves. From my perspective, it kept her out of the line-of-sight of people who would have loved to get back at me, and it suited Daisy because I was one small part of her army of sources, but she would lose credibility if our relationship were commonly known. So we were careful.
I didn’t need to worry if Daisy would answer her phone when the caller ID only showed a string of random numbers. That kind of mystery would be irresistible to her. She’d be more likely to answer her phone if she saw a string of random numbers than if she saw my name. She had a strong dose of monkey curiosity in her that made her a great reporter — the kind that advanced the knowledge base of the species, but was awfully unhealthy for the individual.
“Daisy, it’s Frank.”
“Why is a string of random numbers coming up on my caller ID instead of your name?”
“The call is encrypted. I’m sure you’ve seen the Anna Prophet video. I’m sure you saw the Mayor announce I’m on the case. This one is a special kind of crazy. According to Dr. Goldberg, anyone associated with me is in danger. You’re going to need to get out of town.”
“Get out of town when the most high-profile crime story of the decade is unfolding in the City? You need to get out of town, Frank, if you think that’s going to happen. Anyway, I’m checking my Facebook page as we’re talking and Anna Prophet has already accepted my invitation.”
“After I saw the video, I wrote an invitation on Facebook for Prophet to be interviewed for the News. She wouldn’t be making videos if she didn’t want to go public, so I thought I’d give her a chance and get the scoop. I figured someone that tech savvy would have a way of finding my invitation. Wait until Tommy hears.” Tommy was her editor.
“You won’t survive that interview. She’ll do to you what she did to the doctor. Once she’s used you up she’ll kill you.”
“I have a plan. I posted that I want to do an interview for a straight news story, but that I would return to work and write an editorial about her personally — her significance as the first super criminal who understands the power of technology and social media, what drives her, why she matters. I’m playing to her ego, Frank. A woman who makes a spectacle of herself like that will find the attention irresistible. She’ll let me go in order to get the editorial.”
“This is fucking harebrained and suicidal.”
“Relax Frank. I covered the Wolfy Schwartz case, remember?”
“Goldberg says Anna Prophet is worse than Schwartz.”
“Shit. Worse than Wolfy Schwartz?”
“I’m going to talk to Goldberg. Are you okay if I tell him about us?”
“Is that a yes?”
“I guess so. Yes.”
“Don’t go anywhere. I’ll call you back.”
I hung up and went back to my office. Moran said, “I’d better get back to my desk.” He left. Matty and Goldberg got up to leave.
“Michael, would you stay a bit longer? Matty, before you go, would you do that thing one more time to my phone.”
“Sure. I’ll come back with a phone for you that will be totally encrypted.”
Matty left. Now came the acid test for how good I’ve been at keeping my relationship with Daisy a secret. Goldberg paid attention. If he didn’t know about it, probably nobody did.
“Michael, I just made another call on the Anna Prophet case.”
“I figured you were calling someone you want to protect. But I have no idea who it was. I didn’t think anyone was close to you except your Dad.”
“It was Daisy Stein.”
“At the News?”
“Why’d you call the newspapers…oh. No kidding? You and Daisy. I can see it. Wouldn’t have guessed it, though.”
“She’s put her foot in it. After the Mayor’s announcement, she went on Facebook and invited Prophet to meet with her for an interview. Prophet accepted.”
“Daisy can’t do that. Prophet’ll kill her as a finish to the interview.”
“She says she has a plan. She’ll tell Prophet that she wants to write an editorial on her significance as the first super criminal to understand the power of social media.”
“That might work.”
“Not taking the chance.”
“What if you could trace Daisy to Prophet?”
“She’ll check Daisy for bugs.”
“Maybe Matty has a trick up his sleeve.”
I picked up the phone. “Matty, can you come back.” Here it comes, I thought, a wise ass comment that illustrates what a senile detective I am because I couldn’t remember what I needed while he was there. But Matty just said, “Okay.”
He seemed really effected by the video. Anna Prophet is scary. I’m 6’2” and trained to fight. I wasn’t raised in the streets; I was a rich kid who just liked being a detective and was able to get connected in the world’s most high profile police force. But like every cop, I’d faced down a lot of hoods. And like every detective, I go where the trail leads, even when it’s scary at the end.
It was my nature to be a fighter; I got that from dad. You couldn’t ask for a courtlier gentleman than my father, who was rich and well mannered. But you don’t get to be governor of New York if you can’t be a backroom, bare-knuckled fighter. His six months in prison were at Club Fed and he didn’t need to brake heads, but he was too tough to define himself as an ex-con and emerged from jail as the ex-governor. He was tough enough to make that image stick.
Same was true for me. I wasn’t on the Force because I needed a job. I liked solving crimes. I liked getting into it with bad guys. It was my nature. I was social and well mannered, well-read and generally appropriate. But I liked a fight.
Matty was a geek, a computer scientist who had become supreme in a very exclusive specialty. He wasn’t used to dealing directly with the criminal. For him, Anna Prophet was something out of a nightmare. He liked dealing with things from a distance. For him, the job was more like playing a video game. Suddenly, the bad guy had stepped out of the computer and was in his face. I hoped he could hold it together.
“What’s up, Frank?”
“If someone were to meet with Anna Prophet, is it possible for you to rig up a trace that she wouldn’t find?”
“No. There’s only a handful of technologies that provide a signal you can trace. Prophet will know how to find them and block them.”
Damn, we weren’t going to be able to out-tech her.
“Let’s try a different direction. If I was as smart as Anna Prophet, what would I do about Daisy?”
Me: Daisy Stein, of the News. Anna Prophet is going to give her an interview.”
Matty: “Is she fucking crazy!”
Me: “Michael, what is Anna Prophet thinking about Daisy at this moment?”
Goldberg: “She’s thinking that Daisy is useful. But she wouldn’t stop there. If she perceives that Daisy’s useful to her, she’d feel proprietary, a sense of ownership.”
Me: “I’m thinking she’s having Daisy tailed. She figures that Daisy won’t involve the police for fear of losing her scoop. But Prophet won’t take a chance that she’ll lose the interview for any reason.”
Goldberg: “It’s more than that. In Prophet’s mind, Daisy is her tool now. The only reason she hasn’t kidnapped her is because she wants her to be in good psychological shape for the interview. I think you’re right and she’s having her tailed.”
I called Schultz. “Arnie, come back.” He was back in my office in a couple of minutes.
“Dr. Goldberg and I believe that Prophet sent someone to tail Daisy Stein of the Daily News.”
“I like Daisy. She’s fair to the cops. Always makes you look good, but other than that, she’s fair. Why is Prophet tailing her?”
“You’re not a Facebook user. Stein offered to interview her and she accepted.”
“Is she fucking crazy!”
“A question for Dr. Goldberg, not me. You’re as likely as anyone to recognize whoever is on her tail and follow him.”
“Is Prophet going to kidnap Daisy?”
“We don’t think so. But don’t collar the tail. Wait for his relief. Follow him as far as it is safe.”
“I get the drill.”
“Who’s your back up?”
“I’ll get Dunne.”
“Good. How about a third?”
“She’ll be good. Chances are, if you’re spotted you’re dead, they’re dead, Daisy’s dead, and I’m dead. Maybe Matty too.”
Schultz looked at Matty for a few seconds, then shrugged. “Did you say that Matty would be dead, or just maybe would be dead?”
I called Daisy and told her the plan.
“What did Goldberg say?”
“He said he wouldn’t have guessed we’d be in a relationship, but he could see it.”
“I don’t mean what did he say about us. What did he say about my plan?”
“It might work. I can’t stress heavily enough the danger you’re in. Anna Prophet now thinks you’re her property and we think she’s having you tailed. You know Arnie Schultz. He’ll be tailing the tail. Do not acknowledge him in any way.”
“Duh. Hang up and turn on your TV, Frank. I just got a text from Tommy that the Mayor is going live on the hour.”
I went back to my office and turned on the TV. Matty, Goldberg and I watched the Mayor deliver Goldberg’s words. Mickey had gotten to Infantino on time. We were coordinating.
On my way out, I stopped at the Chief’s office. Jack Mulberry is the Chief of Department, the highest ranking uniformed cop. He’s the City’s second black chief, and the first in 20 years. He’s probably the smartest guy in the NYPD.
“Quite a case, Frank.”
“I need some help.”
“She’ll go after every one she thinks I care about.” I didn’t have to explain who “She” was.
“That would be your dad, as far as I know.”
“She’ll go levels below that. Daisy Stein at the News didn’t do anyone any favors when she wrote that feature on me that lists my favorite bars and restaurants. I figure by tonight Prophet’ll have gunmen there to make a point.”
“Shit, you’re right. I’ll have SWAT teams there before the dinner trade.” He refrained from saying that Daisy did me a favor with that feature.
“You need to get them there now. If Matty is right, I expect around dinner time there will be all sorts of alarms and emergencies going off across the City that will require SWAT teams. They will be bullshit and will prevent your teams from getting where they’re really needed.”
“How am I supposed to know what is real?”
“Anything to do with Anna Prophet coming after me or the Mayor is real. For anything else, send a patrolman. We probably will need SWAT at every place Daisy wrote about. But let me ask you something. What kind of power can we deploy undercover?”
“Not what I can do in uniform.”
“A uniformed team will scare them away from their targets, which is good. But we need to get rid of her army. Are you tracking me?”
“Dangerous, Frank. You want them to come, and us to kill them. That puts too many people at risk. I won’t do it. We’ll deploy SWAT and keep them away.”
“You’re right, Jack.”
“I don’t blame you for being scared, Frank, but don’t let it cloud your thinking.”
“Where are you going to go? If she’s going after your favorite bars, she’ll be waiting at your house.”
“Yes she will.”
“Seems like now would be a good time to deploy plainclothesmen at your place, maybe a half hour before you get there. People that look like your laundry service, your cleaners, a neighbor who keeps searching her pocketbook for the keys she can’t find, right before you get to your door. I can coordinate that with Dolan.” Dolan was Chief of Detectives. “Or you can go into hiding for the day.”
“I like your Plan A, Jack.”
“The neighbor has to be white, like you. It’s a fancy building. I’ll send Jackie Neal. Everyone else has to look like me. Suarez will lead that team. They’ll be eight inside. We’ll have the place surrounded.”
It’s amazing how fast Mulberry had put it together.
“She may have already had people break into my apartment.”
“Good point. I’ll have twelve on the floor, 50 on site. The team will be dispatched now and will go to your floor.”
“Wait a minute and I’ll give you a list of everyone. Don’t shoot any of them.”
“Thank you, Jack.”
“Frank, I think this one’s worse than Wolfy Schwartz.”
I left Mulberry’s office and called my father from the phone Matty had given me. Dad picked it up right away.
“How are you?”
“Fine Frank. How’s the case?”
“Playing defense so far.”
“I’m told this phone is encrypted but not to stay on too long. What can I bring you?”
“I’m okay for now. But how can I reach you if I need to?”
“If you are where I think you are, tell the second one what you need to say to me and tell her to call the other number.” He digested that for a second, then said, “Got it. I am where you think I am.”
We hung up. Dad had driven the dirt bike to the bus depot, bought a ticket with cash, gone to the Overlook Motel, which was the place I used to go when I wanted to run away from home. Overlook was owned by two sisters. The elder was miserable, the younger delightful. I used to call the younger sister Number Two, like the old Avis Rent-a-Car commercial: We’re number two; we try harder.
That woman, Claire, would take in the bedraggled kid I used to be and calm me down before renting me a room. She was an angel to a 14-year-old. And she had an obsolete cellphone number of mine that I had gotten as a runaway with a made-up name. I haven’t stopped paying the bill since I was a kid, so the phone company never turned off the service. It has been very handy for me to have a phone that isn’t associated with my real name. It’s actually listed in the name of Dante Alighieri. I was a dramatic kid.
Claire had that number because I trusted her. While Anna Prophet may be able to trace calls, there could be no connection to me with calls from a Duchess County motel to someone named Dante Alighieri.
Dad was safe. Now some action. It was 2:00 pm — time to head home.
In 1984 J. David Liss received an MFA from Brooklyn College. Trained in writing, inclined to politics, he worked as a speechwriter and lobbyist for causes that allow him to earn a living but are worthwhile. Liss published poetry and fiction in a number of places, including a recent anthology from Between the Lines Press.