I replaced the knife in the drawer, ran the potato remains down the sink, and hung the skillet on the wall. A quick flick switched off the fan over the range; I retired from the kitchen and returned to packing. The briefcase contained the last of my possessions. Across town in a parking garage sat my blue '85 Chevy, and there it would remain until I was ready to leave town. Looking at the circular clock on the wall I reflected on my approaching departure.
A note on the bed thanked Niassa for her hospitality. I told her that a family emergency required me to go out west. That wasn't a complete lie.
I heard a knock at the door.
My heart raced, but a peek through the peephole reduced my fear. I drew back the deadbolt and opened the door. ``Come in. Close the door behind you.''
``What brings you here, Ana?'' I asked once she had followed me to the living room and set down her jacket. Auburn hair flowed over her tanned shoulders. ``Dressed pretty fancy. Off to a party?''
``A little bird told me you were skipping town.'' She sat down on the couch and fiddled with something in her purse. ``Well, are you?''
``Are you still Captain's?'' The look on her face told me nothing.
``I never was.''
``And I was never yours.'' I popped open the briefcase and slid the laptop underneath a few stacks of papers. ``I'm not staying in town. I need some room. Some time. Then I can deal with Captain Zornchugger.''
``He's not your enemy and you know it.''
``Who, then? Anne Marie? Blade? Shoeboy? Those trolls are all the same.''
``Things won't cool down if you leave. It's all reaching a boiling point now, and if you're not with them ....''
``Then I'm against them. Listen, Ana, I'm no counter-revolutionary. But I can't go forward with this until I take care of some things that have already happened.''
``You're playing both sides!''
``Milton has Perdida. Can't you understand?''
``She's family ....''
``She's like family to me. If I give the Cabal the codes, Milton won't forgive me.'' Milton feared the Cabal; I knew that much. And perhaps that explained Perdida's abduction. I shut the briefcase and took my blazer from the bed.
``What is it? Money, arms, information?''
``You don't really want to know. I wish I didn't.'' I took the briefcase in hand and headed for the door. ``Lock the door when you leave.''
My footsteps clicked on the pavement as I approached the ATM. Step one. ``Enough for the road'', I mumbled to myself. Further withdrawals could be traced as I crossed the country. This part of town was empty tonight. The bars had already closed and since this branch was off the main drag not even occasional brass patrolled here. Down the street under a flickering street lamp I could see a coin operated pay phone. After stashing some bills in my wallet and others in my shoe, I headed towards the phone.
As instructed I let it ring four times. Then seven. On the third call I heard a pause before being connected. After exchanging formalities and pleasantries the voice on the other end stated, ``I expect you'll want to chat up the little lost one. Wait while I get her.''
While waiting I inserted a few more coins. Finally I heard breathing on the other end. ``Perdida?'' I asked.
``Don't talk,'' came the reply. It was she. ``You have what Milton wants. Needs. If you bring it to him, he'll let me leave.''
``Wait. Wait. What thing? What does he want?''
``The box. The one you have deposited. I don't know what's in it. He said that you do, and that you'd be willing to exchange.''
``I can't! I'm trying to leave town tonight. If I stay until tomorrow to retrieve it, the Cabal will find me.''
``Send someone else to get it once you leave.''
``Impossible. The deposit box is secured by a biometric scanner tuned to the print of my right middle finger. No one else can activate it.''
``Listen, Milton wants me off of here. However you do it, get that box.''
``How will I reach you again?'' I felt panic again. This code had been good only for this call, for this arranged meeting.
``Grandma's book. First and last letters, pages twelve, forty, seventy-one, one hundred five, and two hundred eleven. My birthday at midnight.'' There was another pause, and then the phone went dead. I shook my head, picked up the briefcase and started towards my car, several blocks away. The book was in the same deposit box. The one containing Milton's treasure.
I heard clicks. Perhaps shoes or boots. But how far away I could not tell. Then a scrape or shuffle. Halting and listening, I turned my head to look behind me. The sounds stopped, but I thought I saw a shape disappear into the shadows several blocks away. Either I was being followed or I wasn't, but given my probable tail, I knew I should act as if that were more than a random shadow.
My walk continued. If they really wanted me, there was no way I could get to my car before they caught up; it was a straight shot down the street. To my left a narrow alley littered with crates, dumpsters, and old furniture shot off for a block or two. At the other end stood an entrance to a park. A very dimly lit park. At the corner of the building I paused, leaned against the wall as if I were tying my shoes, and slipped into the shadows.
Then I ran.
The other end of the alley opened upon a wide street. I took a quick look around the corner and noticed nothing moving. From my left two yellow lights sped down the street. The car passed me by and I bolted across the asphalt. Only moonlight lit the park. Maples and oaks surrounded by bushes, flowers, and hedges of all sorts created a maze of foliage through which I sprinted like a hunted buck. Then I remembered that the park was fenced; a brick wall surrounded the area and there were fewer than a dozen entrances. If I had more than one follower, staying in the park was risky.
Still, with streets this empty the pounding of feet upon asphalt would lead any predator to its prey. I needed a place to hide until morning. If I could hop a bus I could get a car; mine was off limits. I ducked behind a tree and tried to control my breath. I heard whispers approaching; I picked out the voices and they were familiar. But I couldn't place them. Then the voices hovered in one location as if searching. I knew a handful of bodies were on the other side of my tree, but I dared not risk moving.
Something beside me shuffled and the bushes shook with action. The voices approached; then an exclamation of surprise. A light flashed here and there.
``Damn cat,'' a deep male voice intoned. The light went off.
``Come on Captain,'' said a woman, ``we'll have better luck on the streets.'' The voices retreated. I closed my eyes and exhaled.
Some time later I opened my eyes, looked around, and stood up. The streets were a trap, but I couldn't stay caged in the park. I stripped off my once-blue but now muddy and torn blazer, and hid it under some bushes. Carrying the briefcase like a football, I made my way to an exit. Across the street was a wall of buildings. An alley parted the wall. I dashed across the roadway and slipped into the shadows. Looking behind me I found nothing out of the ordinary.
If avoiding the Cabal worked out, I could make a run for the bank in the morning. Perhaps I could put away what Zornchugger and the rest wanted until I found Perdida. If I helped out the Cabal, Milton's vengeance would find me. He considered my loyalty to him paramount---my loyalty to my former conspirators ranked lower, and hence loyalty was relative.
But loyalty to relatives was even more important. If the Cabal did finally succeed, my redemption might be enough to fend off Milton and company.
The Cabal I could deal with, but I didn't want to. Not now. I wanted to get on the road, out of town, and on my way to finding Perdida. The Cabal knew I was too valuable. Even if they got what they wanted, it was useless until I gave them the decryption code. True power was no longer gold, but information; information locked up was useless, and I held the only key. They needed me alive. And they knew that if they hurt me, I would leave them for Milton.
The chances of being caught were high, reason told me. Hence, the briefcase had to be given up, and I stashed it in a mostly-empty dumpster. I could pick it up later. Across the far end of the alley, on the other side of the street, an escape ladder led to the roof of a building; the rooftop seemed to be my safest hiding spot. I could wait out the Cabal until early morning, when the traffic would pick up and the crowd would provide a level of safety.
Panting heavily I made my way to the other end of the alley. The moon high above confirmed that the sun would not rise for several more hours. At least I could get some sleep. My first weary step towards the ladder was met with a snort.
``Look, it's Dr. Pepper. Going somewhere, pop-top?''
``Horseshoes and hand-grenades,'' I muttered. As I turned, the shiny happy faces of the K5 Cabal greeted me almost sadistically.
``Where you going, pops?'' Anne Marie questioned, her freckled face and red locks highlighted against the black leather of her jacket and slacks. Behind her I saw Captain Zornchugger, his sunglasses ever present, even at night. To his side stood Kiss the Blade in his typical all-denim dress. Anne Marie's party was never complete without these two. Shoeboy's ratty visage peered out from between his bulkier partners. Behind him I thought I saw an auburn-haired form in a gown.
``Let's leave this for later, Anne Marie.''
``I don't think so, Pepper. You've got something we want. Once we get it, you're family again.''
``I don't have the computer. I don't have the disk. I don't have the data. I can retrieve it later, though. So let's do this later.''
``No need. We have the laptop.'' She looked to her stooges and Blade handed her my briefcase. ``Thanks for keeping it safe.''
``The code, please,'' demanded Zornchugger in his stentorian monotone. ``We need the pass-phrase to access the data you encrypted.''
``I can't do that.'' He scowled at me through his glasses. He wanted an explanation. ``Milton has Perdida. If I give you the code, I'm not the only one against whom he'll direct his anger.''
``We know,'' stated Blade. ``We know what Milton wants. And we know how you can get Perdida released. Public phones don't mean anonymity, you know.''
``I can't remember it,'' I lied. ``It's a long phrase. Give me some time.''
Anne Marie pushed herself up against me and I stepped back until I felt the wall behind me. Her kitten eyes promised to forget this ever happened if only I'd agree to their demands. She took my right hand in hers and, looking up at me with innocent menace, massaged the palm as if it were her lover. ``This pouting and resisting is boring me. Play along,'' she said, ``and you and I can get back to civilized business.'' She turned my hand over, examining it. ``You hurt yourself. In the park?'' She kissed one of the scratches; then playfully she slipped her lips over my thumb as if it were a lollipop.
``So sexy, almost evil.'' I shook my head. ``Why don't you go back to that street lawyer of yours, Anne Marie? Perhaps he can give you an attitude adjustment.''
She gave each finger one more kiss and then, nodding to Blade and the Captain, stepped away from me. Those two stepped forward and pressed me against the wall while Shoeboy handed Anne Marie something resembling a meat cleaver. I closed my eyes in anticipation, and only Blade's hand over my mouth stifled my scream as polished steel sliced through skin and bone.
``Thanks for the tip,'' Anne Marie spat as she picked up the last joint of my right middle finger from the leaf-ridden alley. My legs felt weak and I fell to my knees. Someone wrapped my maimed hand in cloth and tissues. Footsteps retreated into echoes.
``Enjoy your trip to the coast. When you remember that pass-phrase we'll remember this finger belongs to you. Don't call us; we'll find you.''
Notes: In June of 2001 I sliced off the tip of my right middle finger one evening while cutting potatoes. I had to take a trip to the ER at the local hospital and get several stitches. I related this to a colleague at the university---Karen Cloud, who studied microbiology and is from Idaho---and she replied, ``With the literature background, I was expecting a more colorful story---some mob loyalty rite gone wrong'' (in an email from June 6, 2001). Furthermore, a person who goes by the username ``shoeboy'' had proposed writing ``K5 the Musical'' (with K5 referring to kuro5hin.org). Several users at K5 had formed the ``K5 Cabal'' (the proper answer to ``What is the K5 Cabal?'' is ``There is no cabal.'') as a joke, and so I incorporated these elements into a story, which I then sent to Karen as an explanation as to how I had cut my finger. While all the characters---except the narrator---are named after users at K5, none are actually modelled after these people. The title of the story is an obvious pun on ``digital'' and ``digit''; at the same time I had to do a little research to determine how similar fingerprints from different fingers---as well as between left and right hands---are. In short, there was no good information available online.