Bob Jeffers leaned back in his comfortable desk chair and stretched. His eyes flitted from screen to screen as he reviewed the sixteen oversized monitors arrayed in a semi-circle around his work station. A desk resembling a recording studio mixer took up the space in front of him, with instruments also embedded in a curved structure.
His hand went without looking to find the coffee cup to his right. It was in its normal place, but was light enough that he knew instantly it was empty. He set the cup down as his eyes zeroed in on a blur of green on one monitor. Casually, he reached forward and manipulated a mouse, clicking once on the blob of green that his experience told him might be interesting. Tapping a button and turning two knobs caused the little green blob to swell on the screen, until he could see the serrated leaves of cannabis sativa. His eyes told him the plants were in rows, which meant they were cultivated, rather than wild. Instruments told him the plants were less than a meter tall, and he changed his initial opinion, deciding these plants were of the cannabis indica species. Rather than leaning forward, he twisted a dial and the image grew even larger. Yes, very dense, wide leaves, probably from some variety grown from seeds brought back by veterans of the Afghanistan war.
He punched another button and typed a short message. Clicking the mouse on a small icon in the lower right corner of the screen, he pinned the latitude and longitude of the marijuana growing operation to the message and hit the send button. The screen automatically returned to its former size.
Within sixty seconds, he had noticed the anomaly, identified the issue, and sent it to the appropriate agency, in this case, the DEA. They now had all the information necessary, including close-ups of the plants, which would generate a search and seizure warrant, as well as the identification of every structure within ten miles of the site, and clear views of all the avenues of entry and egress. Including game trails.
Bob worked for one government agency, but his output went to dozens of others. He had an ultra-secret clearance, which sounded more impressive than it was. He had no access to classified materials, unless you included visual information relating to every highly classified "industrial location" in the country. In the entire world, for that matter, though those other countries had no idea Bob could examine their facilities closely enough to read the headlines of the newspaper lying on the hood of a car, while they perused the same words from only a foot away.
Because his work was so secret, almost nobody knew that he did it. He wasn't married, and wasn't dating. Even if he had been, he couldn't tell his spouse or girlfriend anything about his job. He had a cover story as a systems analyst who did trouble shooting for government computer systems, but he'd never had to use it. He worked seventy-two hours on, and forty-eight off, in a rotating shift. Within his seventy-two hour shift, he worked eight hours on and eight hours off. In that way, when his seventy-two hours were finished, he would have peered down from space at every visible spot on the Earth's surface, at all hours of the day and night.
Not that he was in space. He wasn't. But his eyes were.
Bob Jeffers controlled sixteen satellites, half of which were in geosynchronous orbit around the Earth, and the other half of which crisscrossed the globe in orbits that, over time, would cover every square inch of the planet. He was good at his job, which was spotting irregularities made visible by the satellites. In addition, if some federal agency needed intelligence on a particular spot, anywhere in the world, a request to him, with sufficient detail in it as to what was required, almost always generated a report that solved whatever problem existed. He had even tracked a carload of bank robbers/kidnappers for the FBI, watching the getaway vehicle in real time, and pinpointing its location so the feds could raid the compound where the criminals were hiding. Such use of satellite time was rare, because it took a pretty important crime to be worth the expense, but it happened sometimes. In the case of the bank robbery, the hostages were two children taken from their mother in the bank, and the FBI knew how dangerous the robbers were because they had already killed three people during the commission of the crime.
Generally, though, Bob's life on the job was pretty boring. One of the natural assets he brought to the job was a photographic memory, and he could tell you, without looking at the previous day's pictures, how many cars in a particular mall parking lot had not been moved since the day before. As such, his primary responsibility was to simply look at as many of the feeds as possible during his shift, and then look at the same areas of interest the next day. The differences could be valuable.
On this particular day, the marihuana field had been the only thing of interest he'd noticed. The National Hurricane Center had asked for some shots from two of his birds, but that had been routine, taking only a minute or two. In fact, he had programmed the satellite to send the agency a new photograph every fifteen minutes, which exceeded their request. He knew they'd be happy, though. It wasn't the first time they had needed satellites other than those under their own control.
When his shift was over, he retired to the living quarters on site. He would relax for eight hours, and then start all over again, reviewing any particular areas of interest, and processing new requests as they came in, based on their priority.
He fist bumped Jerry Springman, who was relieving him, and opened the fridge, peering inside to see what leftovers there might be. He preferred to heat something up, rather than actually cook. He had a new book to read, and would rather do that than spend time at the stove. In any case, reading usually put him to sleep.
Twenty minutes later, he was dreaming.
The next time Bob happened to be in a position to survey Wyoming was at 1315 the next afternoon. Out of curiosity, he input the latitude and longitude of the marijuana field he had seen the previous day. It popped up on the screen, still verdant and green. Apparently the DEA hadn't given it a high priority.
He zoomed in again, and his sharp eyes caught blobs of color moving off to one side, where there was an old shack of some kind. Toggling the camera, he moved it and zoomed again. There were three people on the screen. Something looked wrong about them. Two were standing side by side, facing the third, but it just didn't look natural. He hit a button that began recording what he was seeing.
He zoomed again, and saw the forearm of the lone person, the one wearing a black hoody, sticking out in front of the body. Experience told him the elbow was against that person's side. He zoomed yet again, and saw the black glint of a handgun in the hand on the end of that forearm.
Just as he identified it was a gun, the business end spat yellow flames ... twice ... and then twice more. He zoomed back out automatically. The two who had been standing side by side were down, lying with arms and legs akimbo.
He had just witnessed a double homicide.
He tagged the black hoody and instructed the computer to follow that signature. Touching his earpiece, he called the switchboard and asked for 911 for Riverton, Wyoming, or the county that serviced that location. He waited fifteen seconds, and heard a double ring that was picked up almost immediately.
"Nine-one-one, what is your emergency?"
"I need to report a shooting. Two people were shot, actually, at a remote pot growing site ten miles southwest of Riverton on state road 137. From there, the location is exactly 1,235 meters south. It's on the upper bend of a logging road west of Arapahoe."
"Who is this?" asked the disembodied voice.
Bob ignored the question, looking at the feed, which was faithfully following black hoody. The computer was smart enough that, when black hoody entered a vehicle, it self tagged the vehicle and followed it. He zoomed, trying to gather data on the vehicle. It was an SUV, but moving like it was, he couldn't tell what brand. It was dark green, though, and it was driving east on the logging road.
"Hello?" came the 911 operator. Bob watched the vehicle as he spoke.
"I can't tell if the victims are dead, but the shooter is in a dark green SUV headed eastbound on that logging road I told you about. By my guess, he'll be in Arapahoe within ten minutes. The driver is wearing a black hoody. I don't know if anybody else is in the vehicle."
"What is your name, sir?" asked the operator.
"I can't tell you that," said Bob. "And don't bother trying to trace the number, because you can't. Just trust me and get law enforcement after that SUV. You should probably get an ambulance out to that pot field too, though I doubt those people are alive."
"Where are you?" asked the 911 operator. "Who are you?"
"You're wasting time," said Bob. "Do you really think finding out who I am is more important than catching a murderer, or saving a couple of lives?" He checked the feed again. "Okay, your perp is driving through Arapahoe now. Not much there, is there? Looks like he's going to keep going over to a road marked 138 on my screen. I can't tell if it's gravel or paved."
"We have someone on the way, Sir. Can I get your name, please?"
"No, you may not," said Bob, patiently. He was used to this. They never were. But he only called if it was life or death, so he tried to be patient. "Look, I can't spend much more time on this. I have other things to do. If you want to hold the line open, I can check my screen and give you updates on where the bad guy is."
He didn't wait to see what they were going to do. He'd already spent almost ten minutes on this, and it wasn't on his list of tasks to complete. He swiveled his head and checked the screens he'd been ignoring. His last assignment had been to check a particular building and document what cars and trucks were parked outside it. He had planned to use RL384, a vehicle in low synchronous orbit. That vehicle, though, was in a non-equatorial and non elliptical synchronous orbit, which meant it would appear to oscillate in a figure 8 pattern to an observer on the planet. It was already moving off the target area. Quickly he cross haired the site from memory and hit the button that would take a high quality photograph. He should be able to blow that up and get the needed data. If not, he'd have to use a different bird. That would put him behind schedule. A quick glance at his job sheet showed he had no more specific tasks for twenty-four minutes. He touched his earpiece again, taking it off hold.
"You still there?" he asked.
"Sir, I really must know who you are, and how you know all this information," said the obviously harried 911 operator.
"No you don't. All you have to know is how to catch the son of a bitch who's shooting people, and find their bodies. Hang on."
Bob put them on hold again and checked the monitor that displayed Wyoming. The computer was still happily pinned on the green SUV, but it wasn't moving any more. It was sitting outside what looked like a farm house, maybe. Bob could still see the haze of dust left by the vehicle's tires as it arrived. Unconsicouly he reflected on how it must not be a windy day, there. He clicked on the house to get the latitude and longitude, and then noticed flashing lights off to the side. He panned over and saw a patrol car turning off of 138 onto Little Wind River Bottom Road, headed for the crime scene. He touched the hold button again.
"I'm here." It was a different voice. They'd probably called for a supervisor. That was the usual drill.
"Can you patch me through to your car that's approaching Arapahoe? After he checks the victims, I can tell him how to get to where the shooter is. He's no longer mobile. He's in a farm house not all that far away."
"Are you in a helicopter, Sir?" asked the operator, trying one more time. "You need to land, Sir. You're a material witness in a felony. If you fail to cooperate you can be arrested and put in jail."
"Patch me through to your man on the ground," said Bob, calmly. "Otherwise, I'm going to hang up, and you can do this on your own."
"One moment, Sir," came the voice. "I don't know how to do that, but someone else here does."
Bob went back to the perp's camera. He saw someone walking around outside. He watched that person go behind what looked like a shed. He zoomed. It was black hoody, who had pushed the hood back, exposing blond hair. He was burying something. When he was done, he scraped his foot over the site and took the shovel he'd been using around the shed. He put it inside, and then returned to the house.
"Hello? This is Sheriff Tom Rogers, Fremont County, Wyoming? Who am I speaking to?"
"Just call me Frank," said Bob. "You want to snag yourself a murderer?"
"I don't know if I have a murderer to snag or not," said the voice.
"You will in about sixty seconds. You're coming up on a faint road to your right. Take that and follow it for about a mile. It will lead you to a field of pot. You'll see a shack there. There are two bodies lying on the ground in front of that shack. I suspect they're both dead. They got double tapped."
"Who the hell are you, Frank?"
"Just a friend of law enforcement, Sheriff. I'll hold until you're ready for me to tell you where the shooter is."
At least Sheriff Rogers didn't badger him about laws and jail time. Bob watched him park his car and approach the bodies. He knelt, probably looking for a pulse, and then went back to the car.
"Where do I find this son of a bitch, Frank?"
"Go back to 138 and turn right. About four or five miles down the road, there is what looks like a farmhouse on the right. He ... or she ... was wearing a black hoody when the shooting took place. That person has blond hair. Green SUV parked outside, which was the getaway vehicle by the way. Might be some tire track evidence you can use there. A semi automatic pistol was used, and I suspect it's buried in a fresh grave behind the shed that goes with the farmhouse.”
"You're one of them drone people, aren't you, Frank? You work for the Air Force?"
"Can't tell you, Sheriff. I'll stand by until I'm sure you're not going to be killed yourself, okay?"
"You got any rockets on that drone you're flyin', Frank? Cause if you do, you can just blow that farmhouse all to hell if you want."
"Due process, sheriff," said Bob. "Due process."
Ten minutes later Bob watched as the sheriff parked his car beside the green SUV. If he knocked, it was on the way in. Within a minute he was back outside with black hoody, bending him over the hood of the squad car and putting cuffs on him. He got in the car again and called Bob.
"Hey bird man, can you wait until my deputy gets here? I don't want to leave the suspect in the car alone while I go look for that gun."
Bob panned out, and saw the tiny flashing red blip that represented the lights of the deputy. He had just turned onto 138 and was no more than ten minutes from the sheriff's position. He checked his job sheet again. His next task involved taking photographs of a specific area in Iran. He could program that while the deputy got there.
"He's five or ten away," said Bob. "I have to program something, but I'll get back to you."
Bob rolled to the other side of his desk and tapped keys. He clicked his mouse on a predetermined spot on a map of Iran, typed some more, and then pushed the execute button. He rolled back to check on Sheriff Rogers. The deputy was just arriving.
"You there, Sheriff?"
"The shovel the perp used to bury it is in the shed. No sense getting your hands dirty."
"You're a real hoot, Frank. I'm gonna have to leave the radio to go do this."
"I'll be gone when you get back," said Bob. "Tell you what, though, I'll send you some pictures. Might help with the prosecution, assuming the judge will allow photographs with no known source."
"Push come to shove," said Rogers, "We'll get the state patrol to take the same ones from a chopper. I appreciate it, Frank."
"No problem, Sheriff. Hate to see a bad guy get away with it."
He waited until he saw Rogers dig up the gun, snapped a shot of that, and then hung up the phone. Nobody could trace his call. It had been routed through over a thousand points. He earmarked photos of the marijuana field, the bodies lying on the ground, and the farmhouse, with the two squad cars parked there. He couldn't send them the video of the murders themselves. That could give away too much information. He wasn't really supposed to do this kind of thing. His job was to support national security, not local law enforcement. But his work was so highly classified, that only his immediate supervisor would know what he'd done, and only then if he reviewed every minute of Bob's shift ... which he never did. As long as he got his work done, and people were happy with his video and photographs, nobody ever bothered him.
He made sure all the shots were scrubbed of the electronic signatures that would identify them as having been taken by satellite. It was child's play to find Sheriff Rogers' email address. He emailed the pictures, routing them the same way the phone call had been routed.
Then he checked to make sure the shots of Iran were in the can.
His next shift was one of those days he dreaded. His job sheet had only two things on it, neither of which would take longer than ten minutes apiece, even if he dragged them out. That meant more than seven hours of just looking at the world, trying to find something interesting or dangerous to pay attention to.
It was only natural that he took a look at Riverton, Wyoming. He thought he'd look at the crime scene again, as an exercise in trying to tell what the sheriff had done while processing the scene.
The sheriff, as it turned out, had been a busy man. The marijuana was gone. There were vehicle tracks everywhere. The place looked like a war had been fought there, and everybody got tired of fighting and just went home.
He started panning outward, not really looking for anything in particular, just seeing what kind of terrain Sheriff Rogers and his men had to deal with each day.
Eventually he got bored, and decided to look at Pueblo, Colorado. He had spent a year of his life there, while his parents took care of his grandmother, who had dementia. She required twenty-four hour monitoring, and it took them an entire year to find a facility that could care for her and which they could afford. It happened to be his senior year in high school, and he had lived with his aunt and uncle in Pueblo because "Gran" was living in his room. His parents lived in Iowa, but he thought of the little two bedroom bungalow south of Pueblo on Doyle Road as "where he grew up". Such can be the importance of the things that happen to a boy in a given year of his life.
Over the years he'd seen the changes in Pueblo, not by being there, but by looking down on it, occasionally. The construction was easy to see. Brown scars on the green land always preceded buildings going up.
He found "his" house. Nothing had changed. His aunt had her garden in. He zoomed in, trying to see if he could tell what she'd planted. Only the tomatoes were grown enough to see well, though he thought he could see two rows of sweet corn. He couldn't use the really high resolution cameras without entering his special code. That would set things in motion he didn't want set in motion. Not about something unofficial, like this, anyway.
Bob panned back out and scanned north towards Colorado Springs. He aimed the camera west, to take a look at NORAD. There wasn't much to see. That was good, because that was intentional on the part of DOD. He looked at Pikes Peak. Clouds were rushing up the mountain and across a parking lot full of cars. He followed the road down the mountain, through each twist and turn, all the way to Manitou Springs. It brought back memories of being able to simply look up and be soaked in the majesty of the mountains.
He was trying to think of someplace else to look at when something caught his eye. It was just a spot of white, but it looked out of place. He centered the camera on what was probably a hunting cabin, except it was too close to town. The white was something square, right in the middle of the roof, on one sloped side.
He zoomed in.
He stiffened, and then leaned forward. Zooming again, he stared at the screen.
It couldn't be!
It was almost upside down, but the computer could spin the view if he needed it to. The sat didn't move, but the image could be manipulated. He twisted a dial.
Then he laughed. He took a picture of the white bed sheet that had been affixed to the roof of the cabin, with black letters painted on it that said "HI NSA. CAN YOU SEE ME NOW?" It was written in two lines. Whoever had thought of doing this didn't know much about the NSA's satellites. They didn't need something as big as a bed sheet. That was way bigger than needed. They could have done the same thing on a sheet of poster board. Then again, the sheet had caught his eye, and something as small as a sheet of poster board wouldn't draw any attention unless he was actually looking for it.
He laughed again. Curiously, he started examining the building. It was bigger than a cabin, he decided, maybe a small house. He zoomed back out. The structure was surrounded by trees. There was another building up the road, maybe half a mile. It looked like a house too. Nothing on that roof. He went back to center the sign in the middle of the field of view, in preparation for taking another picture. This would be a hoot at the Christmas party.
As he got it centered saw the spot of color in the back yard. It wasn't a propane tank. He could see one of those, further out from the house. But it was light colored, against the darkness of the green grass around the house. He zoomed in.
It was a woman, lying out in the sun on a chaise lounge in the backyard. It was the white of her skin he had noticed.
He increased the magnification for a closer look.
She had black hair, and was wearing sunglasses. He panned down her body. Nice! She had on a black bikini that complimented her hour glass shape. The sun glinted off her sunglasses and he realized she'd moved her head. He giggled as he reacted to that, his subconscious fearing she could see him spying on her. She might suspect there was a satellite up there, but there was no way she could know he was actively looking at her. Idly, he noticed the chaise lounge she was lying on was one of those old fashioned ones from the fifties and sixties, made of wide, interlocking strands of plastic strips that made the web upon which she was lounging.
He zoomed back out. Other than the sheet, there was nothing about the house that called for attention. There was a sedan parked in the driveway. The grass had been mowed recently. He could see the marks the tires had made, creating signature parallel lines across the dark green of the lawn.
He panned in on the girl again. His imagination created a scenario in which she had read an article about the NSA, or seen something on TV about satellite surveillance, and thought she was clever by making the sign.
She probably didn't think it would be seen, but she had just done it for fun. He zoomed one more step, and ran the view down her body again. She had to be cute, with that shape. Too bad she wasn't tanning topless.
He leaned back, his mind working. He checked his job sheet. Only one job left, and it wasn't for an hour. He looked back at the girl. She was teasing him. She might not know it, but she was.
So ... what could it hurt if he teased her back?
He had to be careful. He, meaning his agency, mailed things all the time. Usually there was no need to maintain secrecy about where those mailings came from. But sometimes, secrecy was demanded. In the old days, couriers had been used in those situations. But with the advent of computers, it was possible to route a message to any number of locations where there were automated services. What that meant was that the computer that received the message would print it, along with the envelope it would be sent in. Both items would be routed to a machine that would fold the message, if needed, insert it in the envelope, and then shoot it into a vacuum tube that would take it to a mail room. It would be run through a postage machine there, and mailed. And the whole thing could be done without the involvement of a single human being.
The original message could be generated in Richmond, Virginia, but to the person who received it, it could be made to look like it had been mailed from Alexandria, Egypt.
Bob used that system now to mail a short message to the address his system had identified for the house with the sheet on the roof and the sunbathing girl in the back yard. It was addressed to "occupant". He'd wanted to address it to "Bikini Girl," but if somebody in the mail room saw it, that might draw attention.
The message said, simply, "I do see you now. It's just my opinion, but you'd look a lot better without the top of that bikini."
He knew he shouldn't do this. If anybody found out, he'd be in trouble. They might even jerk his security clearance while they investigated the girl, and tried to figure out if what he'd written was a code of some kind.
But he couldn't resist.
He took a deep breath ... and punched "send."
He'd intended to show the picture to Jerry, but he decided not to. Better if only he knew about the girl who was trying to thumb her nose at a major, powerful government agency.
He made up a batch of tuna and noodles. The agency supplied a variety of foods to the analysts, and there was a full kitchen. He had eight hours of sleep coming, and then one last eight hour shift in "the office." Then he could go home for two days and do whatever he wanted. He knew he'd be assigned a different bedroom when he got back for his next rotation, because whoever replaced him would still be living in the room he was currently in. But all the bedrooms were the same, so it didn't matter. All the analysts brought a suitcase with them, with clothes for three days. When they left, they took everything from the room except the combination TV, Radio, CD player and alarm clock supplied by the agency. While he was doing his last eight hours of this rotation, some faceless person would change the sheets on the bed, and empty the trash can. His suitcase would be waiting for him just inside the door.
Such was his life.
Riley Franklin took her hand off the mouse, leaned back in her chair and rubbed her eyes. They felt dry, but she knew that was only a side effect of staring at a computer screen for the last three hours. She should have taken breaks, but she wanted to get this project done. It was the graphics she created on her computer that brought home the bacon. Once she got the current job finished, then she could engage in her real passion.
She cast a practiced eye at the screen one last time. It was a book cover. On it, a snarling dragon held an almost lifeless female form in its toothy jaws, blood dripping down one of her arms. The terrain around the dragon suggested rocky, barren wastes. The stake jutting from the rock, with its hanging manacles, was a clear reference that the girl had been held there against her will. Never mind that, had the dragon actually pulled her from her shackles, her hands would probably have been torn off. But it didn't have to mimic reality. The image communicated a dragon accepting the offered sacrifice, and that was what the customer wanted.
She examined the scales on the curled and twisting tail of the beast. The instructions had said the dragon must be black, in an environment of burned and blasted rock. Delineating dark colors was a lot of work. It involved the judicious use of lighter colors in tiny amounts. Such as the thin rim of sixteen different colors that edged each and every scale on the dragon's body. Without those arcing lines, there would be no scales, only a dark blob in a flat shape that was supposed to be a moving dragon.
She looked at the book cover critically. She should have followed her first instinct and used pen and ink, with paints to fill in the color. It would have taken just as long, but it would have looked better. Computer generated graphics were a little sharper, though.
She sighed. It didn't matter. Most people couldn't draw more than a stick figure, and when they saw her creations, they were almost always awed by the complexity. People see graphic images by the thousands every single day, but most of the time they just think they're photographs. They don't realize someone sat and painstakingly created the image, pixel by pixel until, like the author of the book she was working with, they asked for something in their imagination to be made visible. When she gave that to them, it almost never matched their imagination ... but it always awed them, because it was "their" imagination that had created it.
Riley didn't care that people usually credited themselves with the splendor of her art work. They paid her, and they paid her well. That was what mattered. That was what kept a roof over their heads, and food on the table.
Life hadn't been kind to Riley Franklin, for the most part. Raised in a dusty Texas panhandle town, Riley had lived in a trailer court. Her mother was a waitress, and her father was a drunk, who couldn't keep a job, and rarely looked for one. There was no extra money for an allowance, or new clothes for the first day of school each year. Most of her clothes came from the Goodwill store. She was short for her age, but had developed, as a female, early. By the time she was twelve, if a tape had been put around her chest, it would have read 32 inches. When she walked into the high school building for the first time, though, the only two bras she owned were sized at 36CC. On a five foot three frame, with a waist that measured 24 inches, and hips that swelled to 32 inches, she was like a miniature Barbie Doll. She drew the boys like moths to the flame, and all the popular girls hated her. She had waist-long black hair that was straight, and thick. Her pug nose and bright eyes sat on a rounded face that never seemed to lose a thin layer of baby fat.
In short, Riley Franklin was a babe, and she stiffened the cock of every boy who saw her. And not a few of her male teachers as well.
Based on her "economic circumstances", Riley only had one commodity to barter with, at least in her own opinion. The problem was, you could only lose your virginity once. After that, you were either someone's girlfriend for life ... or a slut.
So she carefully hoarded the one thing she had to trade to get a boy who would love her and take care of her and take her to live in a real house, instead of a rotting, ancient mobile home that shook in even a mild storm.
She cannot be blamed for buying in to the fairy tales about true love. Most of us do that, at least to some degree. There are many princesses, but very few princes. And living happily ever after? It's a myth. Nobody lives happily ever after. She would find that out just like the rest of us ... the hard way.
Because she kept her legs firmly closed, most guys only took her out two or three times, and then moved on to greener pastures. Eventually, the offers stopped altogether. When you have a reputation for being an ice queen, a lot of guys don't even try.
That left Riley with a lot of time on her hands. She used that time, and those hands, to draw things. Pencils were pretty cheap, and if you worked things right you could get paper for free. When you asked a teacher for a piece of paper, they often gave you two or three. And, since there was little in the real world around her of any interest, she drew the things in her imagination.
An art teacher saw some of her work, and encouraged her, eventually providing her with supplies she couldn't otherwise have afforded. When she got her hands on paints, she was happier than she'd ever been. Her talent, and the support of that art teacher, got her to college, still a virgin, but working almost full time to pay her way.
Still, she had no man in her life to demand her time, and she wasn't in a hurry to get a degree. She lived in housing that other students had lived in for decades, but it was still better than her mother's trailer. Another plus was that she had enough to eat, and now it wasn't wrong food orders, hours old, that her mother brought home from the restaurant.
But the most important change in her life was that she now had access to computers.
She was twenty, and probably the best artist in the little community college, when the radar that had served her so faithfully all those years malfunctioned. It was one of her professors who slipped beneath that radar. His name was Chuck Peterson, and the praise he heaped on her, and the extra help he offered, convinced her that his other compliments were genuine, and that he really was helplessly attracted to her. He "resisted" his drives, telling her how hard it was to maintain a professional separation as he touched her shoulder, or arm, or moved her hand on the mouse to show her the next thing to do as beautiful images were created from literally nothing on the screen of the computer.
She was dazzled by the attention that convinced her he was smitten with her, and would love her forever.
When she lay back, opening her legs to a man for the first time, she dismissed the initial pain, sure that she'd found her prince. That he was an accomplished lover helped.
Chuck's behavior after that would have convinced any woman she was the only thing he could think about. He fucked her every opportunity, and in every place he could, including at school, in the janitor's closet, standing up and leaning against the wall. He gave her a key to his apartment, which was a thousand times nicer than hers, and then, every night she stayed with him, rutted in her as if she were the last woman on an earth, and repopulation of the planet was up to them.
He never wore a condom. She was sure his pleadings to have his sons meant she would soon be married. And, when she announced she was, in fact, carrying his child, his elation was unbounded.
Until, one night, after work, she came home, and his apartment was stripped clean, as empty as her hopes that she had somehow entered the wrong apartment. She hoped it was a bad dream. Only a single thing remained in the place where she had become pregnant, and had such high hopes. It was a piece of scrap paper, upon which the words "Sorry. I'm just not the father type," were written.
It wasn't a bad dream. It was a nightmare. He was gone. The administration said he'd resigned to take care of a dying relative. They didn't know who the relative was, or where he had gone. He had left no forwarding address.
She lucked out and got an internship with an advertising agency. It was only six months, but there was a salary and commissions available. That paid for the birth of her child, a little boy she named Curtis, after the grandfather she had met only once before he died. She had been ten at the time, when he had sat her on his lap, told her she was beautiful, and said he loved her.
The ad agency had loved her work. She had a knack for bringing other people's imagination to life in her drawings. They offered to pay her way through two more years of college, so she could get her bachelor's degree, but demanded she give them four years after that. While they loved her work, she didn't love doing it. Providing graphics for the sale of diapers, hair products, cars, and everything else being thrust on American consumers was not her idea of fun. She made a counter offer. She would work for them, and they would send her to the individual classes she wanted to attend. There was some dickering, but in the end, she got the education she wanted, and they got her talent for another year.
She left Texas without a degree, but she did have a place to live. Her grandfather had deeded her a cabin in the mountains of Colorado and, since she was only twelve at the time, her mother had been irate. He'd left it to Riley because he knew that if he gave it to his daughter it would have been sold for whatever they could get, and that money pissed away. So he awarded it to Riley, even though she couldn't take possession for another six years. He had also established a trust which paid the property taxes, but could not be used for any other purpose. The paperwork that went along with his gift had specified the property could not be sold until she was twenty-one. She had owned it since she was twelve, but had never been able to go see it. It was always a sore point with her mother, who refused to take her there, and called it a dump anyway.
The first time she had seen it was when Chuck Peterson drove her there one weekend. It was a trip to remember, because he wanted to "set a record for the most number of times they could have sex in a weekend." He routed them through the Oklahoma panhandle and New Mexico, because he also wanted to set a record for the number of States they could have sex in, in a single day as well. He fucked her before they left, of course, so she had a load in her womb when they left. Then he stopped at a rest stop on highway 325 in Oklahoma, and fucked her in the car. 325 turned into 456 when they got into New Mexico, where it was 75 miles of remote nothingness until they got to a road that went up into Colorado. Because it was so remote, he stopped and, within sight of the highway, spread a blanket and talked her into getting naked with him to do it in the sun, under the open sky. They stopped at a park in Colorado, where he at least took her into the bushes to use the blanket again. He lay on the ground and had her ride him, milking him for another load. By the time they got to the cabin, she was sperm-soaked and needed a shower.
She should have tumbled to the fact that the man was a sex addict, but she was young, and in love for the first time in her life. She convinced herself that this was how all couples in love acted. They were just private enough about it that it wasn't obvious to the "uninitiated."
When they'd gotten to the cabin, she was disappointed, because it had lain empty for most of a decade. She didn't see it as a dump, because in her opinion it beat her mother's trailer, but it also wasn't a home. There were animal nests here and there, and the furniture was falling apart. That didn't matter to Chuck. He fucked her on top of the rotting mattress on the bed - twice. There had been more to that weekend, but she preferred not to think about that, now.
But when she finished her schooling, and left Davidson and Associates Advertising Agency to carve out a life of her own ... the cabin was the only place she had to go to.
After being there for a while, she came to the conclusion that she was very lucky to be on her particular branch of the family tree. She'd never felt that way before, but the gift her grandfather had given her turned out to be incredibly valuable, both literally and figuratively. The cabin wasn't much to look at, but it had great potential. It had been built well, originally, and most of the needed repairs were cosmetic. Further, he'd bought the land long before Colorado Springs exploded into the mountains and the amazing land features had been developed by entrepreneurs, hungry for tourist dollars. Because of that, she now owned forty-five acres of gorgeous mountainside, in a place where most people were lucky to own a quarter acre.
She had peace and quiet, privacy, and space to stretch her arms. She could hike her own land for hours and never see another human being. It wasn't like taking an evening walk, especially since she had to carry Curtis if they were going more than half a mile. At four years of age, he loved to "go to the woods," but he was still just a little boy. She had rigged a sort of back pack that he could sit on, piggy back style, and carrying him had made a simple hike into a workout. She was always panting and sweaty when she returned, but it was good for her. And it was good for Curtis to get all that fresh, mountain air, and as much exercise as he could take too. She never had a hard time getting him to take a nap, or go to bed if they'd been on a good hike.
So they had great privacy. At the same time, all the amenities were within ten miles, and the scenery was to die for. After Texas, she felt like she'd found The Garden of Eden. She didn't know what she was going to do when it snowed. The road wasn't steep, but it wasn't flat either, and based on its condition, she doubted the snow plow would come up that far.
She would deal with that when it happened. At the present, she was just happy to be someplace she loved, for once. It was an unusual feeling for her. She'd never been anyplace she didn't want to leave. There was no man in her life, but that was just fine. She had her Rabbit, and plenty of batteries. Men were a pain in the ass anyway. True, the sex with Chuck had been amazing, and sometimes she missed that. But knowing he was only using her gave the memories a bitter aftertaste in her mind. She rarely thought of him anymore. Nowadays, the face of the man in her mind as her vibrator got her to a peak, was just an oval fuzzy shape. She simply didn't know a man she wanted to lie under, or even be that intimate with.
She had to take a waitressing job to get by at first. She was lucky. Her neighbor was a crotchety old woman named Bessie Turner, who was retired and lived on Social Security. Bessie lived half a mile up the mountain from her. The road they lived on, called Ruxton Avenue, went past the Pikes Peak cog railway terminal, and then dead ended a couple of miles later. The property her grandfather had bought was a mile and a half above the cog railway terminal, and Bessie's house was at the dead end. Tourists rarely came up that far because the city, or county, or whoever, hadn't paved it past the railway terminal. The road wasn't steep, but it was bumpy and filled with pot holes.
One reason Bessie was so irascible, initially, was because she was lonely. Like most people, though, she was taken with Curtis, and she offered to watch him, should Riley need to "run into town or whatever." That evolved into her becoming Curtis' regular babysitter. On top of that, she didn't charge much. Another boon was that it was late spring when they moved in, so she and Curtis were comfortable in the cabin. She had a decent car, one purchased from a fellow employee at Davidson and Associates. Colorado Springs had a really good Salvation Army thrift store, and since she bought everything there for the whole house, they even delivered it. The structure was weather-beaten, and needed paint, but it was basically sound. There was a wood stove in it, which was good, because she couldn't afford to fill the propane tank with more than was needed to cook with. Using the propane heater would come in time. She just moved forward in baby steps.
And, once again, she drew what she wanted to draw.
The tips were good where she worked, but she wasn't making enough to fix up the cabin, and winter was coming. Another waitress suggested she deliver pizzas instead. Colorado Springs was filled with well off people. When Riley asked her friend why she wasn't delivering pizza's herself, she said, "I don't have a car. My boyfriend brings me to work."
She tried it, and was stunned. She could make three hundred a day in tips. It was crazy. It was also hard work, and within a month she knew it would eat up her car. The pace was furious, but it paid so well she was able to get the cabin ready for winter and fill the propane tank. She wouldn't be able to paint until next year, but at least they'd be warm that winter. She cut back to four days a week, and still made enough to get by. Her free time she used to draw and go on hikes, with Curtis in his 'papoose board'. Her calves became hard as steel.
The idea to write a novel came to her one day as she sifted through the stories posted at a site most people would have called a "porn site." It wasn't really that at all, other than the fact that most of the books and stories posted there were about sex. A few of them were illustrated, and those pictures were more along the lines of "porn," but other than that, the site was just a place to read stories by amateur authors.
There were some good authors there, but there were a lot more that didn't fit that classification. At least not in her opinion. In fact, she thought she could do a better job than them.
What she wrote was a story that she wished she had lived. It was just that simple. In it, the man cared about the woman. He wanted her to be happy, and fulfilled, because that made him happy and fulfilled. It was just a simple love story, the story she had hoped to live some day, but had not. She drew original illustrations for the story, making them less than pornographic, but quite titillating. Then she posted it, just to see if there would be any reaction.
She was stunned. People loved it. She got emails of praise.
So she wrote another one. She got two emails from authors who wanted to know where she got her graphics. When she told them she drew them herself, they asked how much she'd charge per drawing to supply them. Neither bought anything. Both said it was too expensive, since they were giving their stories away for free. One of them said she should try publishing her books, because they were good enough to charge for.
She sent her book to a publishing house that specialized in romance novels.
They didn't want her writing, but they did want her art.
By the next summer, she had sold thirty drawings, and commissions began trickling in for more. On her twenty-fourth birthday, she was an established illustrator. She specialized in pen and ink drawings, exquisitely detailed, of men and women in erotic situations. Two authors with good sales dominated her time for those illustrations. Most others couldn't afford those drawings. But many were willing to pay for a good book cover, and that's where most of her income came from.
Meanwhile, she wrote her own books, and illustrated them as well. She gave up on the publishing houses, and went the E-book route. At the time Bob Jeffers discovered her, she had five books published, and had sold enough copies of each to make her grin. She'd never get rich off her books, but they were fun to write, and she was proud of them.
What had precipitated the message to the NSA, written on a sheet, was an email from her best customer. She was a woman who turned out romance novels at a prodigious rate, and was a household name among those who enjoyed that genre. What she did was simply send snippets of her novels to Riley, in which there was a worded description of what was going on. Riley provided an illustration to match.
In the latest case, the description had involved a cheerleader and the coach of the football team. The snippet received described the girl giving the coach a blow job in the shower of the locker room at school. Riley had drawn it from the side, showing two or three inches of the man's penis protruding from the girl's mouth. The girl's hair was wet because she was on her knees in the shower room. The email she got back after she sent the project to the author was warm, but terse.
"Riley, I'm sorry. I owe you an apology. You did exactly what I asked you to do, but my publisher says this would get us all arrested. My lawyer says it's perfectly legal for me to write about a seventeen-year-old having sex with an adult, but it's considered child porn to illustrate it. I didn't know that when I sent you the job. I asked if she could be shown from the back, but he says I can't put any picture in the book that shows her if it illustrates any kind of sex act. From the way he freaked out, I'm surprised some federal agency hasn't already knocked on my door. He says they watch emails specifically for images like this. Can you believe it? Our government spies on us! Anyway, what do we do now?"
Riley had written back a long note, the thrust of which was to suggest that the drawing be saved for another book that it could be used in, such as a book about a college cheerleader. She said she wouldn't expect payment until that happened.
Then she went surfing for information on Government surveillance programs.
She wasn't happy with what she learned.
And that was what led to the sheet she stapled to her roof. It wasn't much, but it was all she could do to express her feelings toward a government that she was sure would never respect her privacy.
Her "protest" was intended to be left on the roof permanently. A storm would probably remove it, but until then, she'd leave it there. She had, in fact, completely forgotten about it when Bob Jeffers's eyes were attracted to it as a little white anomaly on an otherwise green and brown surface.
It is easy to imagine her astonishment, when she received an envelope, bearing no return address, and a barely legible postmark, in which the message on her sheet had been responded to.
Riley stared at the slip of paper. She knew exactly to what this message referred. At first, she thought someone must have been able to see her protest sheet from a road somewhere, and had thought it would be cute to send her this. She thought about the idea that someone from the NSA had actually seen her sunbathing in the back yard from a satellite, but dismissed that idea immediately. She just couldn't believe that would actually happen.
She went out into the back yard and did a sweep with her eyes across the deep green that went up the mountain. She didn't see any roads, and the trees close to her house were too tall to see anything nearby. She looked up. Fate put an airplane overhead at that moment, merely a silver glint in the sky, but she decided that was it. Someone in an airplane had seen her sign, and was teasing her.
But how would they have known about her bikini? Surely someone in a plane couldn't see a person on the ground well enough to know if they were wearing a bikini or not. She had never flown, but all one had to do was look at people at the other end of the mall, a few hundred yards away and it was clear no one in a plane could tell a woman in her back yard was wearing a bikini.
Helicopter? No ... she'd have heard and seen that, especially if it was close enough to see what she was wearing.
She was back to the local person, who somehow saw her sign, and could also see into her back yard. Someone like that might know she laid out in a bikini. She scanned the woods again. Her grandfather's property extended into the growth of trees. She'd hiked that land dozens of times with her son strapped to her back. She'd never seen one bit of evidence that any other human had ever been there. She had gone to parks and hiked where the trails were wide and smooth. But the trails on her grandfather's land ... her land now ... were narrow and twisting. She had always assumed they were made by deer or some other animal.
It was a little creepy, thinking that somebody might be out there in the woods, looking at her while she tanned. She didn't own a gun, had never even thought about getting one before.
She did now.
She snorted. She'd probably shoot her own foot.
She decided that, whoever it was, she wasn't going to let him spook her. She'd show him. She'd keep living her life exactly like she had been. If he wanted to see her boobs, he'd have to talk to her face to face, the little pervert.
And if she caught him sneaking around, spying on her, she'd clean his clock and then stick her vibrator up his ass and turn it on high.
She had, in fact, forgotten about the missive when, a week later, she laid out again, soaking up the rays on a cool day.
Bob checked his new Colorado interest every time he was on the 0800 - 1600 shift. He knew it was silly, but the night after he'd seen the girl, he'd dreamed about her. In his dream she was standing behind her house, looking up and waving at him with a smile on her face. The angle was wrong, so he couldn't see if she'd taken her top off or not and in the dream, of course, his controls didn't work. The last part of that dream he could remember was him, screaming for someone to come fix his console so he could see all of her.
The first four times he checked, there was nothing at all to see. The car was there three of those times, and missing once. He had already decided that whoever worked in the family did so at night, because the car was there in daylight hours too often. He worked at night, but his job sheet when the United States was in darkness was always longer and more involved. People watched for danger in the daytime, but his birds were the only things that could see large areas at night.
Then, as if by magic, she was there again, lying out in exactly the same place, on the same chaise lounge, wearing the same bikini. He panned in close. Man! She was good looking. He felt perverted for staring at her like this. His view was as if he were standing on a ladder ten or fifteen feet above her. He thought about going closer, but the protocols for using really high magnifications were different. When he went closer than ten feet, the computer automatically recorded what was on the screen. And those recordings automatically went to his supervisor for a determination of whether or not an analyst needed to study them further.
He knew what would happen if his supervisor saw that kind of tape, and it wouldn't be a happy reaction.
He wondered for an instant if she'd received his message. He panned out. The sheet was still there, unchanged. He counted in his mind. She'd gotten it. Maybe she was simply a lady. Or married, and her husband would freak out if she went outside topless. There could be a hundred reasons why she would ignore a crass note like that. He suddenly felt guilty. He'd probably creeped her out.
An hour later, he sent her another note. This one said:
"I saw you sunbathing again today. I apologize for making that crass suggestion. It was all in fun, I promise. I just saw your sign and, because you were teasing me, I thought it might be fun to tease you back. I won't bother you any more. I hope I didn't creep you out too badly. I promise you have nothing to fear from me."
It wasn't until he was in bed, after his shift, that he realized he'd actually signed his message at the bottom with the word "Bob." He sat bolt upright. What if she made a complaint? What if she took the notes to the police, and they gave it to the FBI and they recognized it for what it was? He'd just given them a confession!
Riley held Curtis up so he could pull down the door on the mail box and reach in for whatever was there. When she saw the envelope, she somehow knew instantly who it was from. She never got mail that lacked a return address. Except for this guy. She wondered how that worked. She peered at the cancellation stamp. It was from Skowhegan, Maine. The first one had been from somewhere in Nebraska.
She went inside. Curtis followed, asking if any of the mail was for him. They had been to get pizza and he was full of energy.
"Maybe," she said, thinking of giving him the strange mail. He'd never know the difference, and since he couldn't read, she could say anything when she read it to him. She went to the big, scuffed up sideboard she'd gotten at the Salvation Army Thrift Store. At just ten dollars, it had been cheaper than a bookcase. She opened the drawer she'd tossed the original letter into. On impulse, she had kept it. Who knew? It might make a good story someday, maybe at a party. If she ever got invited to one. Or hosted one.
She looked at the postmark on that one. Broken Bow, Nebraska. Who came up with these names? Skowhegan? Broken Bow? Then again, she had left her mother in Borger, Texas, and that was a strange name too.
She tore open the new mail, and read the message with eyes that widened. It was no fluke. The guy really could see her. And apparently on a regular basis. This was no helicopter pilot.
Again she went out back, and stood to stare up at the mountains behind her house. There was nobody living there. She knew that. There were four named mountains behind her, and they might have hiking trails through them, but there were few roads that went into them. Maybe there was a fire watch tower or something like that, where some lonely forest ranger with powerful binoculars had nothing better to do than look for women sunbathing.
She laughed. The image of the forest ranger from the Red Green Show, on PBS popped into her head. What was his name? She couldn't remember now. The reason she laughed was because she thought of the cartoon version of him, rather than the actual actor.
Forest rangers were good guys ... right?
And they'd never meet anyway.
Why not give the poor guy a little treat?
She gave the envelope to Curtis, with the letter tucked inside, and told him it was from Santa, reminding him to keep a Christmas list all year, and send it in when the time came. Curtis was thrilled.
Then they went for a hike in the woods. She made Curtis walk for as long as he could, and then carried him back to the house. She put him down for a nap, and had a glass of orange juice.
Then she went out to lay out in the sun ... topless.
Riley Franklin learned something very interesting the first day she lay out in the sun with her breasts bared to the world at large and to a stranger named "Bob" in particular.
It was wonderful!
She had been nervous about it at first. She had misgivings as soon as she stepped out of the house. She had left her top on the bed, and walking out of her house topless was very strange. But she knew there was no one near, so she steeled her mind and set up the chaise lounge.
She had waited to put lotion on, thinking she might be so uncomfortable that she'd go back in and get her top. But within ten minutes, she was amazed at how good the sun felt on her breasts, and she reached for the lotion that would protect her from burning.
When she rubbed it over her breasts, she got horny.
That was normal, in the sense that she loved to have her nipples played with. They were very sensitive, and spiked all the time, seemingly on their own. They got erect the instant she decided to use her vibrator, for instance, before she even got the thing out of her nightstand drawer. All she had to do was think about masturbating, and her nipples stood up and said, "Don't forget us!" As a result, they got pinched a lot.
They ended up getting pinched now too. As she rubbed the oil all over her belly, shoulders and arms, her hands kept going back to her breasts, molding them and teasing her nipples. She sat up to do her legs, and thought about taking her bottoms off too. That shocked her, though. Letting some forest ranger see her boobs was one thing. She didn't want to give him the entirely wrong idea by doing too much. If he could see her through binoculars, he could probably figure out how to find her house, and she didn't want to motivate him to do that. Her imagination provided the cartoon character with just enough motive to keep looking at her back yard, in anticipation of seeing her like she was now ... not to seek her out for more. That could be a problem.
Then again, she did miss having a nice stiff one deep inside her, stretching her delightfully and rubbing all those spots with warm flesh, instead of cold plastic.
Ten minutes later the urge to slide her hand into her bottoms was too hard to resist. He probably wasn't watching right now anyway. What were the odds that, at the exact moment she decided to lay out, he was looking her way? Astronomically low ... right?
Five minutes and one soothing orgasm later, she lay limp, and dozed off.
There was no forest ranger, of course. And the odds that anyone might be looking her way from a satellite at that specific moment were, in fact, astronomically low.
In fact, nobody watched as Riley Franklin found out how much fun it was to sunbathe naked.
Or at least almost naked.
And part of her mind knew that the odds were in her favor, so to speak. Whoever was peeking at her couldn't be doing it very often. So that part of her brain told her how low the odds were that Ranger Bob would actually see her on a given day.
Which is why she continued to sunbathe that way ... and the odds got a heck of a lot higher.
Though neither of them knew it, when Bob did let his cursor wander over to Colorado, just to look at the cabin again, Riley was laying out topless for the fifth time. It was late July by then, and the weather was glorious. The first time she'd bared her breasts to "her forest ranger," had been two weeks earlier. She hadn't received anything in the mail, and what astonished her was that she was a little disappointed. Something in her wanted her secret admirer to react to what she'd begun doing. Another part of her, however, was glad he hadn't. She really liked sunbathing that way now, and she didn't want to have to stop because she got another letter and got shy because of it.
To illustrate this war within herself, the second time she'd laid out she remembered her sign on the roof, and had climbed up to get it. She'd used the other side and written "Hey NSA! Is this better, Bob?" But she hadn't tacked it to the roof. She'd had a wave of ... something ... that had, in fact, made her shy. And yet, she'd gone outside and laid out half nude that day, anyway.
The third time she laid out, she did put the sign back on her roof. Her shyness had abated. Laying out this way felt normal, now.
Both times Bob had seen the sunbathing woman, it had been around noon. Depending on the time his seventy-two hour shift started, he was on duty at that time of day a maximum of two times, and sometimes it was only once. Whenever he got the chance, though, he clicked on that part of Colorado only to see if she might be in sight. He didn't expect anything, really. It was more like he was just hopeful he'd be able to see her, and how she was dressed didn't matter. Like Riley had fantasies about Ranger Gord (she had finally looked it up online), Bob had his own fantasy about the bikini clad beauty who he'd seen twice. He knew he'd never meet her, and she'd rebuffed his "suggestion" but that didn't keep him from dreaming a little. She lived in a beautiful place, and he could easily fantasize about her being his girlfriend.
It was hard to have a romance when you worked the kind of hours he did, and couldn't tell your girlfriend what you did during those hours. Most of the analysts who weren't married lacked the regular company of a girl. Some of them patronized hookers, but that was dangerous, because if you went to a hooker and anyone found out, it would affect your security clearance. For some reason, everybody in Washington believed that if you fucked a prostitute, you also told her everything there was to know about your life, including the secrets. He didn't know how many times that had actually happened, as some person in an important and sensitive position, tried to impress a call girl he might never see again. And he didn't know that, to those call girls, personal information was easily traded for money or favors.
But Bob didn't go to hookers. He didn't understand people who were willing to get naked with a stranger and then pay them to have sex. There was no romance in that. Besides, he wasn't that hard up. His hand worked just fine, and it was right there whenever he needed it, night or day.
It was the change in the sign that caught his attention first. He could tell it had changed long before he had zoomed in enough to read it. Again, it was canted strangely, but he could read his name even in that position.
His heart seized, and then pounded. She'd put his fucking name on her roof! He pushed the button to reorient the image, and stared, unbelieving at the new message. He looked immediately to the back yard, and almost fell out of his chair when he saw only one black stripe across her otherwise white body.
He zoomed, and his jaw dropped as his eyes took in the twin dark spots of her nipples. The urge to go reportably close was almost too much to resist. But he did resist, pulling back, in fact, to see her whole body. Her head was turned, and her arms lay, palms up, suggesting they were limp. She might be sleeping.
He couldn't believe it. She'd actually done it!
He was conflicted. Elation filled him, naturally. A woman had taken off her top for him. A guy just couldn't help but feel great about that. But putting his name on her roof could be disastrous if another analyst saw it. Technically, he didn't work for NSA per se, but it would be child's play for any analyst who used the same satellites to figure out what Bob she was referring to. He was the only "Bob" he knew who worked at the agency, and even if there were others who worked for different agencies, the records of what he'd accessed would make it clear he was the Bob she was "talking" to. And that would open a great big fucking can of worms. How innocent it was wouldn't matter. He'd already broken a dozen rules, and that was all they'd think about.
He couldn't afford to wait for the mail. That would take days. And, in any case, somebody might start asking questions about why multiple blind mail messages were being sent to a private address in Colorado.
He'd have to risk it and use email.
Assuming she had an email account.
He shook his head. Everybody had email. And in any case, finding out was as simple as falling out of his chair.
He already had her name and address, but for the program he wanted to use, that wasn't enough. He centered the cursor on the cabin and hit a button on his console. The latitude and longitude came up in a box in the lower right corner of his screen. 38° 51' 7.1064'' North, and 104° 57' 4.2336'' West. He punched another button that converted that GPS setting to the kind of digital address used by phone companies and internet providers. He had to enter his password, but then all kinds of information about Riley Franklin popped up on his screen. The IP address assigned to her computer was there, along with the most frequently used IP addresses of other computers she accessed. Such as her bank, and her internet provider.
This was the dangerous part. The fact that he accessed such information with his password was noted on some spreadsheet somewhere. Unless he actually mined data from this screen, that was all that was recorded. If he actually clicked on any field of data, and retrieved personal information, that was noted somewhere too. He knew that because, in his routine duties, he had accessed the personal data of a banker, and three days later his supervisor had asked him about it. He had the record of what he'd done, and who he'd sent the information to, and that was all legit, so his supervisor had said, "Okay," and left. If anybody came and asked him why he'd done what he was doing, he'd have to have some kind of answer.
He was about to hit the button that would retrieve all the information her internet provider had on her, when he paused.
Maybe she had a Facebook account. He couldn't believe he hadn't thought of that.
He moused to a different monitor and went online like anybody else would. He had a Facebook account that went with his job, but that was all fake. And people might look at that one. They might look at his real one too, for that matter, but unless there was a problem, nobody would care if he "friended" Riley Franklin. Assuming she wasn't some thorn in the Government's paw.
This was too complicated. He was paid to be suspicious, but it didn't work if you became paranoid. And he had to get that sheet off the roof of her cabin. That was for sure.
He signed into his Facebook account and did a friend search for "Riley Franklin." He was astonished when only one popped up. He clicked on that, and was elated when her location was listed as Colorado. It had to be her.
He clicked on the message tab and typed.
Riley, I know I said I wouldn't bother you again, but you have to get that sheet off of your roof. If any of the other analysts see it, and my supervisor finds out I contacted you, I'll get fired. I'm really knocked out that you did what you did. You look fantastic, by the way, but please take the sheet down. Please? I'll do anything if you just take that sheet down.
He went ahead and signed it Bob and hit the send button.
Then he worried for hours that he'd given her too much information. Like the fact that he was an "analyst", not to mention his full, real name, which was tagged to his account. Even worse, he had said he'd "do anything" which, if his superiors read, would immediately get his security clearance pulled.
But it didn't matter. If anybody saw the sheet, he was screwed. It was better to throw himself on her mercy than risk that. He knew there were protocols to search for text with a satellite. They were used to track shipments of nuclear materials. The vehicles used had numbers and letters painted on the tops. If they went off route, they could be located with a nation-wide search. And since the paint used on the numbers was, itself, radioactive, even if it was covered by a tarp, there were satellites that could still see it. If somebody input the letters "NSA" into that system, it would zero in on her rooftop within an hour. Of course there was no reason anybody would perform that search.
But he couldn't take the chance.
He set his account to give him an audible alert if someone sent him a message, and went back to work.
Riley checked her email frequently, because she used it in her business. She only checked her Facebook account once a day. She had thought about getting rid of it altogether. She didn't have many friends, and she didn't talk to the ones she did have all that often. It wasn't that they weren't actually "friends." It was more like they had nothing to talk about after they caught up with each other's activities. But she kept it because you never knew when somebody from your past who you would want to talk to might show up on Facebook. She wasn't worried about Chuck finding her. She didn't expect to ever hear from him again. And if she did, he'd disappear plenty quick when she started talking about all that child support he'd never paid her.
So she was surprised when she logged on and found a new message from someone she didn't know. The name "Robert" on the message hit her and she knew, instinctively that this was "Bob."
Her first impression was "How the hell did he find me?" The answer to that was obvious immediately. He had sent her snail mail. He knew her name. Searching that name was easy.
She clicked on the message and read it. It was an odd experience to laugh, while she was frowning.
She sat there, staring at the message for a long time. She read it several times, trying to imagine the man who had typed it. There were so many aspects to reflect on. Her gut instinct took it at face value. He was a guy who thought he was in trouble. That had been foremost in his mind. But he'd still complimented her. He hadn't been vulgar about it, and he hadn't dwelled on it. He also hadn't asked for more. But that was probably because he was worried about losing his job.
That job was still nebulous in her mind. He obviously wasn't Ranger Gord. She was a little saddened by that, for some reason. Ranger Gord had been a nice fantasy. And he wasn't a helicopter pilot or anything like that. He was an analyst, whatever that meant. She knew what a systems analyst was, but that didn't make sense. He could see her. That much was clear.
It was then that she thought seriously about satellite surveillance for the first time. She thought that was funny, since her sheet had been addressed to the NSA. But she hadn't believed a government agency would actually see it. She had been convinced someone else had seen it and used it as an excuse to contact her.
Now, she wondered, amazed, if what she'd thought was hyperbole about satellite surveillance wasn't so farfetched after all.
Her emotions, at the moment, were a strange mix of anger, curiosity, and appreciation. This guy ... this Bob ... had intruded on her privacy, apparently from a satellite ... a satellite that was either over her house all the time, or could see it regularly. That was creepy. At the same time, he seemed like he wasn't a terrible human being. He'd apologized to her, and offered to leave her alone. Of course he'd still looked. That much was clear. And he'd seen not only her new sign ... but her too! A man had watched her sunbathe half nude! In some unfathomable, strange way, that made her feel a little tingly. She wondered what he looked like? If he had a picture on his Facebook page, she could find out.
She went back to the message and clicked on his name. His page popped up. There was a picture. He looked like a normal guy. He wore glasses and had a full beard. He had a nice smile. Of course that didn't mean anything. It looked like there might be more pictures, but she'd have to friend him to see those. Did she want to do that?
It occurred to her that he hadn't asked to be friended.
She sat and stared at his picture for a minute or more.
Then she went outside, got her ladder, and took the sheet off the roof.
The only thing she wrote back was, "I took it down. It's not nice to peek at women sunbathing."
Bob was exactly two minutes from going off the desk for his sleep cycle when the alert sounded. He had wrapped things up. George, who was supposed to relieve him, had checked in and asked if he could hit the can before coming on shift. Bob had said, "Sure," and gone on cleaning up the console.
He looked over his shoulder and then clicked things with the mouse.
She had written back!
He didn't have time to verify that the sheet was gone, but he took her word for it. He felt a wave of relief wash over him. Her castigation of his morals didn't bother him. She hadn't made any threats or anything. He wanted to send her a thank you note, but George might be back any second. Besides, he wanted to check and make sure the sheet was gone before he wrote to her again.
He slept well, and was eager to get to work. It was five in the morning, Colorado time, but he had the filters to see well in poor light. The sheet was, in fact, gone. Her cabin looked no different than anything else in the area. There was nothing to draw the eye of another analyst. Again, he sighed with relief.
He wrote her a quick note. His job sheet was pretty full, and he didn't know if he'd get a chance to send her anything for a few hours. He wanted his thanks to be right there, the next time she logged on. He tried to make it polite, but warm at the same time.
Riley. Thank you so much. I'm really sorry I intruded into your life. It was a fluke that I saw your original message. You don't have to worry about peeping Toms. There is really nothing in your area of the world that is of interest to other people like me. It's just that sometimes we get a little bored, and then we look around, trying to find something to keep us awake. You sure did that. Your sign caught my interest, and then I saw you. I'll be polite and just say you're very easy on the eyes, even eyes that are a thousand miles away. And the third time? Wow! Thank you for that. I know I shouldn't have done it, and I'm sorry if I annoyed you or made you nervous. I'm really quite harmless. Though, to be honest, you've been a really bright spot in my day, and you should probably put your top back on, because I doubt if I'll be able to resist looking in on you from time to time, just to make sure you're okay. Thanks again for helping me out, and for having patience with me being naughty.
He signed it Bob. He didn't tell her about all those times he'd looked at the cabin when she wasn't outside. He just hoped she'd take his apology and forget it. She had the power. All she had to do was put up another sheet with "NSA BOB HAS BEEN SPYING ON ME!" and sooner or later somebody would see it. He'd be toast, and she'd have her revenge.
He hoped she didn't think of that.
He sent the message, hoping for the best. Then he started in on his job sheet.
It turned out his day was full enough that he didn't think about her for six hours.
Riley got up and fixed breakfast for Curtis and herself. He had toys to play with, and his own used desktop computer that was loaded with learning games. Normally, she could work off and on most of the day. She had recently begun experimenting with doing her drawings on paper or canvas, and then photographing them. That gave them a whole different "feeling" than something that was built completely from digital pixels. She could then manipulate the image if she needed to, enhancing this or that, or subduing something that was distracting. She'd only sold two of those images so far, but she thought the market was there. Digital constructions were sometimes too clear and perfect. Sometimes you wanted some blur in a picture.
Part of the day she took a break from painting or graphics work, and wrote.
Her stories had gotten longer and longer, and had now progressed to the point she thought of them as books, rather than short stories. Her plots had become more complicated, and her characters more complex. This allowed her illustrations to become more detailed, pertaining to a particular paragraph, perhaps, rather than a whole page of definition. She was almost finished with her longest book yet, and couldn't wait to get it published on Amazon, to see how it would do.
But before she did anything else, she checked her Facebook account, to see if Bob had written anything back to her. She read his message and was strangely delighted that he'd sent it. She had worried that her curt reply to his first one might scare him off. That she didn't want to scare him off confused her. This was new territory for her. She'd never engaged in an "internet friendship" because she'd heard such horror stories about them. Stories about sixty year old perverts abounded. But she also knew two girls personally who had met someone online, and then met them in person and it had worked out just fine. They had told her it was actually easier to get to know someone if you wrote to each other a long time before meeting. Assuming what you wrote was the truth, of course.
And Riley wasn't actually looking to meet any men, on line or otherwise. Still, she was curious about Bob. There was this tug to find out more about him. After all, he'd seen her bare breasts. Wasn't it fair that she got to know something about him too? Like was he married? If he was, she was going to be disgusted. She'd stop all attempts at talking to him if that was the case.
But maybe he wasn't married. He'd said he was a thousand miles away. It wasn't like he was going to show up on her doorstep. She believed his apologies were honest, because he'd been honest about the fact that he'd probably "look" at her again. He could have easily promised he wouldn't do that anymore. She'd never have known if he kept that promise or not. Assuming her picture, sunbathing half naked, didn't show up on the internet somewhere.
But she wasn't worried about that. She didn't know him, but she knew enough about him to make a complaint. His Facebook account could be traced. And she knew some things about him that she couldn't know if her story wasn't true. Plus she had those two letters. Well the original one anyway. Curtis had taken "his letter from Santa" and squirreled it away somewhere. He had, in fact, started a wish list for Christmas. He had her add to it every time they went somewhere. He was eclectic in his desires. He wanted, among other things, an airplane, a police car, everything in Toys R Us, even though he'd never been inside the place, his own ice cream store, and a hat like he'd seen another kid wearing in a car they passed. He couldn't describe it, except to say it was red.
She read his message again. Then she replied to it.
Apology accepted. I've been told I'm irresistible, so I guess I can understand your weakness. Since you're obviously going to ogle me again, we may as well be friends on Facebook. At least for a while. I won't see you, but you might see me around noon, if you have time and are on duty or whatever. Riley
She stared at the words for a long time before she finally decided to push "send." Was she encouraging him? She tried to make the answer "No" in her mind, but common sense laughed at that. Then again, it was harmless.
What she really had trouble justifying in her own mind was that, at noon, while Curtis was taking his after lunch nap, she went out and laid half naked in the sun, looking up at the sky through her sunglasses. The whole situation was so bizarre she had trouble understanding it. She'd been nervous about doing it. Once there, she got excited and couldn't help but rub oil on her breasts over and over. She resisted masturbating, blushing hotly at the thought of him seeing that.
But she couldn't keep her hands off her breasts.
He wouldn't have known she sent her message, except for the fact that he'd forgotten to disable the chime. When it went off, he was in the middle of searching for a white pickup in a remote part of an unpronounceable province in Afghanistan. The pickup was loaded with terrorists who had killed a number of civilians in a revenge attack, and then mortared a U.S. patrol sent out to find them, before fleeing. The weather prevented helicopters from looking for them, but infra red didn't care if it was cloudy, so he was called on.
He had set the bird to alert him to any movement above ten miles per hour. It had given him five things to investigate, and he had found what he believed to be the suspect vehicle just as the chime sounded. He filed the chime away in the back of his mind and sent the coordinates of the pickup to Delta 578. He didn't know who Delta 578 was, but he suspected it was a CIA asset. If helicopters couldn't fly in the area, then the only thing they could use against this truck was a drone, which could operate above most weather. He sent along a still photo of the men in the back of the truck. It was clear they had weapons in their hands.
He left his console as it was, and within ten minutes the suspect vehicle he'd notified Delta 578 of had tripled its speed. He zoomed in on the truck, which was still bucking its way along a mountain road. Zooming further, he could see the six men were still in the back of the truck. He punched the button for thermal imaging and saw two more bodies through the roof of the cab. He jerked backward when the whole screen blanked out in a white haze, and realized he'd just seen the drone strike take out the truck. It had overwhelmed the filters in his camera, zoomed in like he was.
He looked at the screen, worried that he might have broken something. It wouldn't get him in trouble. It was official business, after all. But he hated to have to call in a repair tech over doing something stupid like that. He relaxed when the scene normalized into a cloud of dust. Switching back to infra red didn't help. Even infra red can't see through dust.
He logged that job out, noting the time of the strike in his notes, just in case there was some damage to the camera that didn't show up yet.
Then he went on to his next job. It was 1149 hours, Colorado time, when he remembered the chime and looked at his Facebook page.
He was astonished, to say the least. He was also excited. The first thing he did was make a friend request. She hadn't, but she'd suggested it, so he didn't feel like it would be poorly received. Unless she was teasing him. His curiosity became intense as he moved things around. He had two more jobs to do, but he had half an hour before the next one had to be finished, and it would only take five or ten minutes to complete. If he worked it right, he could use one screen to monitor Colorado, while he used another to work on that job.
That would have worked out better if he hadn't gotten the Colorado camera centered and zoomed just as she walked out of the house. He held his breath, waiting, and then let it out in a rush as she lay down ... topless. Five minutes later he was hard as a rock in his pants, as he watched her rub her naked breasts. At one point she waved at the sky, rocking her hand back and forth on her wrist. It was incredible.
He remembered the other job with ten minutes to spare. Steeling himself, he got it done and then went back to her screen. She was still there, and still rubbing. It occurred to him that he'd been a fool to leave her screen active while he processed the other job. What if someone had come in? There she'd be, rubbing the shit out of her gorgeous little boobs, big as life on an official monitor.
He grinned. It would have been worth the ass chewing. There wasn't a guy in the building who wouldn't understand why he'd zoomed in on that. Everybody knew that the various Playboy mansions were the best surveilled spots on the planet, even if it was a violation of policy for that to happen.
He zoomed as close as he dared, and took a picture. He printed it and then took ten more pictures of Cheyenne Mountain. The computer only tracked the last ten photographs taken. It tracked much farther back if the photos were sent somewhere, but as long as all he did was print them at his terminal, it was assumed he was examining them with a magnifying glass or whatnot.
He tucked the picture in the book he'd brought to read, assuming there was time to read. There had not been, but having a book was normal.
It wasn't until he went to his sleep cycle that he pulled it out and, stroking himself slowly, peered at her oily breasts.
Dear Riley. I know most people don't start messages like that anymore, but I guess I'm old fashioned. I can't tell you how happy I am that you've forgiven me. I don't know what else to say. Thank you. I saw you wave. Wow. Just Wow. Thank you for that too. I feel like the luckiest guy on earth. I know that sounds schmaltzy, but in my job you don't have time to date. Actually, the hours are such that most girls can't adjust to dating a guy who works that way. I work 72 hours on and 48 off. We don't get holidays off either. We just work like that until we go on vacation. Luckily, because our hours are so screwy, we get eight weeks of vacation a year. They probably think we'd go stir crazy otherwise. So it's kind of nice to have somebody to talk to. If you don't mind, I mean. I know I pushed myself into your life, and I'll understand if you think I'm a jerk and don't want to talk to me. And for sure I don't want to cause any trouble between you and your husband, if you're married. If you are, he's a really lucky guy. Don't tell him I said that. He'd try to find me and that wouldn't work out well at all. Anyway, thanks again ... for everything. I mean it. You really made my day. Bob
His nervousness about writing to her hadn't prevented him from giving her some information. Probably too much information. Then again, it wasn't against the rules for him to have relationships, on line or otherwise. As long as he didn't compromise himself, or reveal exactly what he did, or who he worked for. He was sure that email would pass muster, if anybody ever looked at it. Plus, there were no real references as to what, exactly, he was thanking her for. So it didn't compromise her either. Admittedly, he had told her he wasn't involved with anyone on purpose, and he had tried to phrase things so he might find out if she was involved. But while she would read a lot between the lines, nobody else would.
He pushed the send button and relaxed. Her next message ... if there was one ... would tell him a lot more.
No matter what it said.
Riley didn't check her Facebook page until almost ten that night. She wouldn't have checked it at all, except she remembered Bob and her message to him.
When she saw the message her heart beat sped up. She could tell it had, and that made her laugh. She was acting like a high-schooler, getting all excited about a guy she didn't even know. She tried to read slowly, but it didn't work.
She was fascinated. He was old fashioned. He was polite. He had obviously seen her ... and seen what she was doing. That meant he'd looked, based on her message to him. They'd had a rendezvous of sorts. She felt her face getting hot at the thought of him peering at her while she teased her breasts. Was she an exhibitionist? No. She didn't want just anybody to see her. Only Ranger Gord ... and Bob.
She laughed, wondering if she should tell him that. What would he think about a woman who fantasized about a cartoon character watching her like Bob watched her?
He liked what he saw. His terseness didn't put her off at all. There was a lot that could be read into a couple of "wows." And the fact that he didn't actually spell out what he liked was good too. He didn't go all explicit on her. The man had manners. He also asked politely, and gave her multiple chances to opt out of things.
He was fishing. That was obvious when she read the part about the husband issue. He was also telling her he was not involved with anybody. That was obvious too. But he did it in a charming way.
If anything, she was even more curious about him now. But Facebook wasn't the best venue to explore this on. She accepted his friend request, but the first message she sent her new friend was her private email address ... the one she checked a dozen times a day. She also told him she didn't look at her Face Book page all that often. The only other thing she said in that message was, "I'm not married. My last boyfriend was a jerk, and he kind of soured me on men in general. But I like a man with manners, even if he's a little naughty now and then. Noon is good for me most days, but that's not a promise."
When Bob came on duty his job sheet was packed for the first part of his shift, so he didn't have any chance to check and see if she'd sent him a message. His first chance to do that was at 2300 hours. He had just finished one assignment, and was ready to begin another, but had twenty minutes free. He read it now, feeling excitement burst inside him. This was crazy. He knew that. She was just some woman he'd happened to zoom in on while she was in her back yard. Not only was it unauthorized, it was silly to think that anything could actually come from it.
Then again ... people met other people all the time on the internet. That wasn't all that much different. Sure, the images they saw were pictures, being displayed by people who wanted to be seen. They weren't spying on each other. But they were thousands of miles away, usually. And sometimes they formed real relationships, that went far beyond being only electronic.
He shook it off. He had work to do. His next job was time sensitive. It probably came from the CIA, or maybe DOD. It involved surveilling a particular spot in the former USSR, beginning at 2330 hours his time, and staying on site for two hours or longer, depending on circumstances. He set the coordinates, and waited for the satellite to turn and focus the camera. When it zoomed in, he saw a single building, set at the front of what must be the Russian equivalent of an automotive salvage yard. There were five acres of cars parked haphazardly all over the place. Some of them were missing significant amounts of their bodies. The target must be the office of this place, based on the flat, metallic looking roof.
He was supposed to follow anyone who came out of that building after 1030 local time, and determine where they went, and how long they stayed. If they went to multiple places, he was to continue surveillance. For some reason a firm termination time of 1430 local had been included, meaning surveillance of the target after that time was not expected to produce anything of value.
He assumed there were no assets on the ground who could do this, and that a drone might be noticed. Whatever the reason they wanted satellite surveillance, it didn't matter. It was his job. It was going to cost someone a real bundle, because sat time didn't come cheap, and that much time was probably upwards of half a million. Whoever the son of a bitch was they wanted followed, they must want him bad.
Jobs like this showed up on his assignment sheet with nothing to interfere. In other words, for the next four hours, his only job was to take care of this assignment. When he first pulled up the target, there was no activity at all. There were no cars in the dirt parking lot, and no movement nearby. He panned back to see what was around the target. Down the dirt road that serviced the salvage lot, there were some decrepit looking houses and a few buildings that had an industrial look to them. The term "Bumfuck Egypt" came to mind. This place was in the middle of nowhere.
His stomach growled and he reached for a snack. He'd put several things within reach because he knew that on missions like this, his internal body clock sometimes reset itself, as if he was actually on the ground he was surveilling. Other analysts had claimed the same happened to them on long assignments. While it was coming up on midnight in the U.S., Bob's eyes were on brightly lit land where it would soon be lunch time, and his body reacted by wanting to eat. To him ... it was almost lunchtime.
There was no activity until 1143, when two cars trailing a cloud of dust pulled up at the front of the building. Two men got out of the lead vehicle. He zoomed and took a picture of the men. He tagged the car in the computer, which would now record the exact geographical location of that vehicle every thirty seconds until he told it to stop. He did the same with the other car. Four men emerged from that one, carrying weapons. Zooming, he photographed them. There were three AKs and what looked like an Uzi visible. The four men took up positions on all four corners of the building. Once they were in place, the two in the lead car went inside the building.
Nothing happened for thirteen more minutes. Then a third car approached. This one was going more slowly, raising less dust. Bob zoomed in tight. It was a Mercedes, and it was white. Based on his experience, that meant it was somebody important in the government. The bigwigs in Russian politics liked white Mercedes for some reason. He tagged that vehicle while it was still moving.
The Mercedes pulled up to the target and the driver, who was wearing a hat, got out. He went around to the passenger side and opened the rear door. One man got out. He went to the building. The driver stayed with the car, leaning against the front right bumper.
Again, nothing happened until almost noon. Then white Mercedes came out and got in his car and left. The computer automatically followed his car, since it was tagged. The four guards outside stayed right where they were. Ten minutes later, one armed man left the building and got into the chase car with two of the guards. They took off in a second direction, the computer also logging their GPS position every thirty seconds. He had to zoom out, because the cars were going in opposite directions.
Eventually, the white Mercedes got to a paved road, which led it rapidly to the city of Novosibirsk. Bob recognized it because he'd seen it before. He'd known the site was in central Russia by the coordinates, but he hadn't been sure (or cared, really) exactly where it was. Now he perked up. Novosibirsk was near a "secret" nuclear weapons storage area that had been "decommissioned" after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
He went back to the black car, which wound its way to the same paved road the Mercedes had been on. It was M53, Bob now knew, and in the direction the car was going, it led to that storage site the Russians still thought was a secret.
Bob zoomed back in and started the video recorder. The job hadn't called for that, but he used instincts honed by years of prying secrets out of various nations by simply watching them.
The site was already flagged in the computer, meaning that any activity in or around the flagged area was to be recorded and reported. He wasn't surprised when the car turned off the paved road and crossed a formerly invisible line that only the computer could see, causing a yellow line that surrounded the facility to glow on the screen.
If an uninitiated observer had been with Bob, all he would have seen was something unusual. The car drove along a dirt road for about a mile, to an area that looked like a turnaround. The road ended, and there was a circle of dirt where it looked like one could park, perhaps, or turn around and return to the paved road.
The black car did not turn around. It simply drove to the end of the circle ... and disappeared. The computer beeped, complaining that the target's GPS location could no longer be determined.
What the uninitiated wouldn't have known, but which Bob did, was that there was a mound of dirt beside the turnaround that had a door of some sort in it. That door would accommodate large trucks. The door itself wasn't visible from the sky, at least not from the angle the satellite had. And while it also wasn't visible from the sky, the approach to that door was well guarded. Over the years people like Bob had documented many men, usually riding motorcycles, who came and went from dozens of places along the road that made no sense to the casual observer. Either that area was a favorite place for hundreds of men to stop for a piss, or there were guard positions concealed all along the road. Nobody was stopped, in terms of their papers being examined. That had never been observed.
But on two occasions, analysts had seen cars on that road suddenly bloom into a yellow ball of flame. The wreckage was cleared away immediately, and not by anyone driving a vehicle with flashing lights on top of it.
Whoever these guys were, that white Mercedes had met with, they were important, because they had access to an area the US Department of Defense was intensely interested in.
Half an hour later, the car suddenly reappeared. The computer alerted him with a tone when the tagged vehicle appeared again. GPS location was reacquired. It was a sedan, so Bob couldn't see inside it. All he could do was watch as it returned the way it had come, to the original targeted building.
When they got out and went into the building again, the remaining two outside guards joined them. Bob looked at his watch. It was 0125. He marveled at whoever had planned and authorized this job. Evidently, they had expected everything that had happened to happen, and his efforts had simply confirmed it.
A lot of his work was like that. People gathered bits and pieces of information together. These seemingly unconnected snippets of data were like puzzle pieces, and the right people, with the right instincts and talents, could put those pieces where they might go before the big picture could be seen. He knew he provided pieces of the puzzle to them, but in many cases, the pieces he sent them were duplicates of what they already knew.
Then again, it is one thing to know there is a bird in the forest. It is entirely another to have a picture of that bird sitting on the branch of a specific tree in that forest.
He logged the job out. He didn't have anything else scheduled for the rest of his shift. He let his fingers drift to activate the bird over the central U.S. Most people would have called it "night" and, technically, it was, but the spray of light across the United States made the darkness look alive with activity. His fingers punched buttons and he looked at Riley's house. The filters were already in place and he was able to see the chaise lounge in the back yard. Of course she wasn't on it. She was inside, in bed, asleep, most likely.
He wondered what it would be like to be there with her.
Dear Riley. I feel so silly starting that way, but I can't help it. I hope you don't think I'm a dork. I am sad to say that, if you lay out today, I will miss it, because my schedule won't allow me to look your way. You might think all I have to do is watch beautiful women sunning themselves, but that's not the case at all. In fact, you're the only beautiful woman I've ever zeroed in on. I could tell you stories about some of the guys who got in trouble by watching certain mansions owned by some guy named Hefner, but doing that will get you in big trouble. Actually, I suppose I would get yelled at for looking at you. What I mean is that we don't normally invade anyone's privacy unless we really have to. I really do try to have manners. Anyway, I'm really sad I missed you. Really sad. You're a very bright spot in what can otherwise be a very dull day. Here's hoping I get to see more of you. Bob
He looked at the message critically. He was still worried he was giving away too much. He sat and thought. Why did he even care about this woman? Was it because she was, in fact, the first woman he'd spied at? He knew his gonads were involved. She had taken her top off for him, after all. But she wasn't a spy. Unless spies now laid out, hoping some stupid analyst would do exactly what he had done. Could the game be that sophisticated? He thought back to the job he had worked the night before. Somebody, somewhere, had known that a high level Russian politician was going to meet with some unsavory characters, at a specific location, at a specific time, and that after that, the unsavory characters would go to a secret nuclear storage site (which should be in the control of the Russian government but might not be) and do something there for about half an hour. And whoever that was probably wasn't a Russian, or even in Russia.
Anything could happen.
With that in mind, he put monitor seven on Colorado, his fingers mousing over her house and enlarging it automatically. He watched as the magnification brought the now familiar roof into focus. He jerked as there was movement at the front of the house. He recognized the top of her head instantly. She was leaving the house, and someone was with her.
He leaned forward and his fingers flashed across the console. He zoomed.
It was a little boy. He was small enough that she opened the door for him, but he climbed into the car by himself. She leaned in, probably to fasten a seat belt. Then she got in and drove away. He wanted to follow her, to see where she went, and what she did.
For some reason, that made him feel dirty. He thought about that. Finally, he arrived at the conclusion that it was fine for him to see her half naked in her back yard. She allowed him that. But he couldn't spy on her as she went about her normal business.
She wasn't a spy. She was just a mom, who lived in a cabin outside Colorado Springs. She was taking her little boy somewhere. He wasn't going to be paranoid.
He pushed the button to send the email.
Then he clicked his mouse to turn that monitor to use in his next job.
"Awww," sighed Riley, as she read his email.
"What, Mommy?" asked Curtis. He knew that sound. It meant she was happy.
"Oh, nothing, really," she said. "I was just reading an email."
"He's sort of a new friend," said Riley.
"Is he coming over to play?"
She laughed, imagining what kind of play that might be. Her nipples crinkled and she was shocked. It had been a long time since she'd had a man, but this was ridiculous. Getting horny over a man she'd never seen, and only "talked" to on line a couple of times?
She read the email again. He was trying to be cagey about his job. That was obvious. He wasn't very good at it. She'd already figured out that her sign on the roof had bagged her exactly the kind of thing she'd been protesting. Somebody who spied on people using satellites had, in fact, seen her sign. It had been creepy at first. Now it was only spooky, or a little bizarre. That was because he seemed like a nice guy. Granted, she knew practically nothing about him. But he could have spied on her for years and she'd never have known it. And he had a sense of humor. His first message to her had proved that.
She couldn't help wondering if he was up there, right now, looking down at her house. She suppressed the urge to go outside and wave at the sky.
She realized Curtis was actually waiting for her to answer his last question.
"Are you lonely, Baby?" she asked, turning her chair to face him. "Do you need someone to play with?"
"I'm not lonely," said her little boy. "You're here."
"Awwww," she said again, and held out her arms.
He rushed into them, burrowing into her chest and hugging her tightly.
"I love you so much," she murmured into his hair.
"I know," he said, pushing away. That had been enough for him.
He went and picked up the car he'd been playing with, and started in again, making motor noises as he drove it along the floor, and over furniture, and even up onto the wall.
She smiled, and turned back to the computer. She had work to do.
But first, she'd write a quick note to Bob.
Dear Bob. Now you have me doing that! First off, I don't care if you're a dork or not. If I like a man, I like him, regardless of "what he is." Second, I'm not beautiful. I certainly couldn't compete with any Bunnies. I'm quite ordinary. Other than the fact that I let a man I've never met look at me topless. I suppose most women wouldn't do that. In any case, I'm sorry you missed me. I did lay out, and I did wave, just in case you were watching. And I'm not mad at you, even if you've been naughty. I should thank you, actually. I haven't had a chance to be a little naughty myself for a long time. It's a delicious feeling to think you're watching me. The jury is still out on whether I'm a closet exhibitionist or not. Now there's an oxymoron. A closet exhibitionist? Don't get in trouble. I don't want you to get fired. Who would watch me then? Noon is still good for me.
She sent the message and opened one of the images she was working on for a book cover. This one was for her own book. She was experimenting with having multiple scenes on the cover, each depicting something from the plot line. She liked it so far, but where the images met, it was a lot of work to meld them.
An hour later she stopped to read Curtis a book, and then made supper for them.
After he was in bed, she worked four more hours and finished two projects.