Tilly and Kelly are on their way to visit one of Tilly’s college professors.
As we drove onto the university, my eyes never stopped moving. They alighted on potential threats, only moving on after I decided that specific threat was harmless.
I eliminated groups of four or more people almost automatically. Surveillance personnel always avoid gathering in large clusters because they stand out, even more so when those involved must pay attention to everything around them except the people they’re with. Loners are the biggest worry and they’re all over the place.
A man guiding a baby floater caught my attention immediately. He stopped and bent over, supposedly comforting the infant. His attention stayed on the floater, but what if he had monitoring screens inside it? Then he lifted a real child from the floater. Dismissed.
My eyes flicked to a young woman listening to an earnest young man. She was dressed head-to-toe in the latest fashion and, from the almost-pleading expression on the young man’s face, out of his league. She was pretending to listen but not looking at him. Her eyes were just like mine, darting all around and never focusing on the same thing for more than a second or two. RIA agent. The young man probably was, too, or she’d have gotten rid of him with a suitably scathing remark. By the time she focused on our car, I was having an animated — and entirely silent — conversation with Kelly. The woman’s eyes slid to someone else, dismissing us.
Next was a tense man talking on his comm. His tension and the comm made me suspect him immediately. Then his face contorted in anger and he dashed his comm on the sidewalk. Curious behavior, but no longer suspicious. Dismissed.
Never taking her eyes from the road, Kelly says, “We’re entering the campus, Tilly. Keep an eye out for RIA agents. You can spot them by—”
“Do I tell you how to pilot starships?” I asked, never taking my eyes from our surroundings. “Or even how to drive the car?”
“Right. Sorry. I’m not used to working with professionals. So, have you seen anyone suspicious?”
“We just passed a couple of agents.”
Kelly glanced at me in alarm. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Watch the road, Kelly, and wipe that alarmed expression off your face. It looks suspicious,” I admonished. “I didn’t tell you because the agents didn’t notice us.”
“Dammit. Sorry, again.”
“Don’t worry about it. In fact, we should keep a running conversation going for the rest of the drive. It doesn’t matter what you say, just act animated.”
Kelly did just that, keeping a running commentary going until we reached the car park. I spotted two more agents, both wandering the campus by themselves.
As Kelly pulled into a parking spot, I told her, “They’re watching Dr. Kristof pretty closely. Getting in to see him won’t be easy.”
“Should we abort?”
“Not yet, but you should stay near the car in case I need a fast exit.”
“Won’t that look odd?”
“That depends on how well you can act.”
Kelly sighed, “Let me guess — I’m dropping my girlfriend off and waiting while she runs an errand?”
“Exactly.” I showed her a data stick. “I’m dropping off my application for grad school and you’re wishing me luck.”
“Why bring it in person when you can submit it over the net?”
“For some odd reason, the university’s application process isn’t working right now.”
“Ah. Jana’s handiwork, I assume?”
Kelly and I got out and met in front of the car. She kissed me softly, though quickly, on the lips. “I’ll wait for you here.”
I nodded, “Okay. Wish me luck!”
“Good luck, honey.”
With that, I turned and sashayed away. From the way I walked, anyone watching me should assume I had nothing to hide.
An experienced agent wouldn’t fall into that trap, but I’d only seen young, minimally experienced agents so far. They didn’t stand out from the students. Plus, watching Dr. Kristof had to be a long shot from the RIA’s perspective. Sure, I’d been close to him during my student years so they had to keep an eye on him. But I hadn’t visited him since my graduation six years ago and I wouldn’t be visiting him now if it wasn’t for the Star Stone analysis in the Royal report.
Heading straight for the graduate admissions office, which is on the opposite side of campus from the chemistry department, I passed within a few meters of one of the wandering agents. He watched me, all right, but his eyes never left my swinging hips. I still flashed a bright smile at his attention, confident my hat hid the rest of my face from him. Since half-a-dozen other women around me wore similar hats it didn’t arouse his suspicions.
Fashion is your friend, ladies.
As are inexperienced and bored agents.
I found the door to graduate admissions, entered, and spoke to the first person I saw. “I tried submitting my application over—”
“It’s down,” the man interrupted. Pointing to a basket on a nearby desk, he said, “Drop your data stick in there.”
“Uh, thanks,” I said and added mine to the growing pile of data sticks in the basket.
The man nodded, already turning away from me. “We’ll contact you once we’ve processed your application.”
I left the office but turned away from the building exit. I wandered, as if looking for someone or something. When I reached the drop chute to the basement I stepped into it. As I descended, I switched from my fashionable-but-loud heels to comfortable-and-quiet soft-soled shoes.
As a student, I’d snuck in and out of almost every building on campus, including this one. Its basement was usually deserted and today was no different. I found the door to the maintenance tunnels, picked its lock with practiced ease, trotted down an ancient stairway and entered the university’s tunnel system. Minutes later, I entered the chemistry department’s basement and rode the lift chute up to the first floor.
Dr. Kristof had been in the same office for decades but I checked the department directory all the same. He was right where he’d always been, on the third floor. I kept scanning, though, verifying the same professors occupied the offices around his. Nothing had changed since I was here last but something just didn’t feel right.
Repressing a sigh, I entered the restroom and locked the door. Then I climbed onto one of the cabinets and gently removed the grill for the antique ventilation system. I quietly slid my bag into the duct, unlocked the restroom door — nothing is more suspicious than a locked door when no one is in the room to respond to a knock — and pulled myself up and in. Replacing the grill, I set off for the third floor.
The biggest problem with old ductwork isn’t moving from floor to floor. It’s moving quietly. That’s why it took me twenty minutes to reach the grill above Dr. Kristof’s office. I heard him get up and shut his office door. His chair gave that old, familiar squeak as he sat down again. Then he surprised me by speaking.
“Stop skulking in the ducts, my dear. We don’t have much time before the RIA checks on me again.”
Is this a trap for Tilly? Find out in Chapter 53, coming Monday.