- The Widower's Two-Step
Then I caught Allison SaintPierre watching me from the bar, smiling dryly like she knew exactly what I was thinking. Like she knew that every guy there was thinking the exact same thing.
Driving to Garrett's apartment was like driving through a different world. The rainstorm had swept through and the temperature had dropped suddenly into the low seventies.
The streets were shiny and wet and the air was clean. It was enough to put anybody in a good mood, except maybe the parrot.
Dickhead was calling me every name in the book, flapping around and telling me just how he felt about being imprisoned in the VW most of the evening.
"Five more minutes," I told him. "Then we get you a new home."
"Noisy bastard," he squawked.
I followed Garrett's safari van down Twentysixth toward Lamar. It was about eleven o'clock, and there were still plenty of people hanging out at Les Amis drinking wine by the Franklin stove, talking outside the Stop 'N' Go, smoking in the parking lot of Tula, everybody enjoying the cooler air. Once in a while somebody would recognize the Carmen Miranda and wave. Garrett would honk back to the tune of "Coconut Telegraph." The mound of plastic fruit hotglued to the roof shuddered every time he changed gears. My brother, the local celebrity.
Garrett's apartment building on Twentyfourth has all the charm of a Motel 6. The redwood box stands five units wide and three high, all the front doors facing south and painted lichen green. You get to Garrett's door by climbing up three flights of metal stairs and across a concrete walkway. No elevator. Garrett, of course, had chosen to live on the top floor so he could sue for access. Last I heard the case was going well.
The landlord loved him.
Garrett pulled the Carmen Miranda in between a Harley and a broken washing machine. I parked by the frat house across the street.
"This is what I get," Garrett complained as he eased himself out of the van and into his wheelchair. "Home before midnight. Thanks for the wonderful evening."
Then he saw the parrot and his face brightened considerably.
"Holy shit," said Garrett.
"Dickhead," said the bird, and flew off my shoulder onto Garrett's armrest.
It was love at first sight.
"Where the hell did you get him?" Garrett was stroking the bird's beak. The bird was eyeing Garrett's beard like it might make a fine nest. I told Garrett that Dickhead was orphaned. I didn't tell him the last owner had died violently. Since Jimmy Buffett fans styled themselves "parrot heads" I figured the match was made in heaven. Or Key West, anyway.
"You approve?" I asked.
The bird was cawing some sweet obscenities in Garrett's ear. Garrett grinned and invited me up for a beer.
Tres Navarre, etiquette master. You bust a few heads, you'd better come prepared with a thoughtful "I'm sorry" gift.
We got upstairs, Garrett taking them on his hands, pulling the chair after him. When he opened his front door the smell of patchouli nearly knocked me over. Even the parrot shook his head.
"Get yourself a Shiner," Garrett said. "I've got to play a couple of tunes."
Garrett's apartment is a long hallway—living room in front separated from the kitchen by a bar, one tiny bedroom in back. The only thing that keeps the place from feeling claustrophobic is the ceiling, which vaults up from the kitchen toward the front of the building at a fortyfivedegree angle. Skylights at the top.
I headed toward the refrigerator and Garrett wheeled himself over to the wall of electronic equipment that doubled as his computer and entertainment system. He turned on the main power switch and the lights of North Austin dimmed. He picked a CD to play.
While I could still hear myself talk I said, "Who's winning?"
You could hear the stereo from the downstairs neighbours just fine. They were playing Metallica. Playing isn't really the right verb for Metallica, I guess. Grinding, maybe.
Garrett sighed. "The bastards got new woofers last week. That was pretty bad. Then I got this friend of mine in here—used to do the Sensurround systems for Dolby. You know—the shaking effects they had with those seventies earthquake movies? He cut me a good deal."
"Great," I said. "Earthquakes. After ten years in California, I get to come to Austin for earthquakes."
I looked around the kitchen for something to strap myself to.
When Garrett turned up the volume the bookshelves on the wall started to shake, spilling copies of The Electric KoolAid Acid Test and The Anarchist's Cookbook. The Armadillo World Headquarters posters on the wall vibrated. The parrot started performing acrobatics.
In the moments when there were pauses and my brain fluids started flowing correctly again, I recognized the song as "Bodhisattva" by Steely Dan. We weren't so much listening to it as experiencing it by Braille.
I somehow managed to open a beer and drink it while the building shook. When the song was over it was quiet except for the parrot, who was still trying to punch his way out through the Plexiglas skylight. The downstairs neighbours’ stereo had stopped.
Garrett grinned like a madman. "Gotcha."
"Does anybody—" I stopped to readjust the volume of my voice. "Does anybody ever call the cops?"
Fred the cop. Firstname basis. "I guess that answers my question."
Garrett waved his hand dismissively. "You call Fred, that's cheating. Sometimes somebody new moves into a side apartment, they try that for a while. It never lasts long. Now where's that hard drive you want squeezed?"
I gave him the card I'd pulled from Julie Kearnes' computer.
Garrett wheeled himself over to his computer. He pecked at the keyboard. The screen glowed orange, then came alive with a short mandolin riff. Garrett whistled Steely Dan and started mixing and matching SCSI cables from his spare parts drawer.
I sat down next to him in a battered black recliner that had been our father's. After twelve years, the leather still smelled faintly of his Cuban cigars and spilt bourbon. The left armrest was gouged out where I'd used a penknife to dig a foxhole for my plastic army soldiers when I was seven. It was a comfortable place to sit.
"Damn," said Garrett.
Garrett started to say something, then looked at me, probably realizing the effort it would take to filter what he was thinking from computerese to plain English. "Nothing."
I drank my beer and listened to Garrett tinkering with hardware. Finally he got the hard drive connected with a loose collection of multicoloured spaghetti and clacked a few commands on his keyboard.
"Okay, yeah," he said. "Give it a few minutes."
He toggled to one of his other processors—Garrett has eight, just in case he wants to have a dinner party someday. The screen dimmed, then came up with gray World Wide Web page. The lights of his ISDN router flickered on. He clacked a few more commands.
"What are you working on these days?" I asked.
"Bastards running RNI," Garrett complained.
Every time Garrett talks about the company, he starts with that comment, even though he's been there so long and accumulated so many stock options he is one of the bastards running RNI.
"They've got me doing the GUI on an account management program. I make this piece of shit program look really slick, except it still crashes when it merges field data."
"So that's what they're paying you for," I said. "What are you really working on?"
Garrett smiled, not taking his eyes off the screen. "Bring the tequila from the kitchen and I'll show you. It requires tequila."
I'm not one to refuse a direct order. I got the bottle from the kitchen and poured some for both of us. My brother and I share an understanding about tequila—it should be Herradura Anejo and it should be drunk straight, no lime or salt, preferably in large quantities.
The parrot was perched on the edge of a bar stool, looking at the shot glasses enviously, his head cocked to one side.
"Sorry, no," I told him.
When I got back to the recliner Garrett had a new program up and ready to demonstrate.
"Okay," he said. "Say you've got some material that's too sensitive to store on your computer. What do you do?"
I shrugged. "Hide it on a disk somewhere. Use a read/write protect program on it."
"Yeah, but disks can be found, and if somebody's good they can break into them with a logic diagram of the disk drive. Or a password tumbler. Disks can also get destroyed."
"So you boomerang it."
He selected a file called Garrett.jpg.
"Here's my sensitive data—my picture I want to keep but I don't want anybody to see.
So I don't keep it myself—I let the net keep it for me. I upload that sucker, encrypt it so it's invisible and innocuous, then program it to bounce around randomly, transferring itself from server to server so it's never in the same place for more than five minutes. It bounces around the net, impossible to find, until I send the retrieval code out for it.
Then it comes home."
He clicked on the file and we watched it disappear into the net, erasing itself from the hard drive as it uploaded. Then Garrett punched in a series of numbers. Two minutes later the file downloaded itself back into existence.
"See that?" he said. "The sucker was in Norway. By the time anybody noticed it was there, it'd be on its way to somewhere else."
The picture opened. It showed Garrett sitting in a bar somewhere with a woman on his lap. She had jeans and a motorcycle helmet and a HarleyDavidson Tshirt that she had pulled up to reveal some very ample breasts. Garrett was toasting the camera with a bottle of Budweiser.
"Family photos," I said.
"Biker women," he said fondly. "They understand there are some things only a man with no legs can do."
I tried not to use my imagination. Another shot of tequila helped.
A red light flickered in the corner of the computer and Garrett said, "It's soup."
He toggled back to the processor that had been giving Julie Kearnes' hard drive the Spanish Inquisition. On the screen now was a text document, mostly intact. Only a few nonsense characters attested to its trip through the cyber trash can.
"Names and social security numbers," Garrett announced. He scrolled down to the bottom. "Seven pages. Dates of hiring. Dates of—DOD, what's that, date of death?
Looks like several different companies, big Austin firms. This make any sense to you?"
"Company personnel archives—lists of people who died while employed or retired and then died and had their pensions closed out. Looks like about a decade worth of names for almost all the businesses where Julie Kearnes did temp work. She stole this information."
Garrett waved his fingers, unimpressed. "Amateur. Anybody could download these—no company is going to guard discontinued personnel records very seriously.
But why bother? And then why trash them?"
I thought about that. An uncomfortable idea started to form somewhere underneath the pleasant buzz of the Herradura. "Can I get a hard copy?"
Two minutes later I was back in the easy chair with a refill of tequila and seven pages of deceased employee names from all over Austin.