The car shook as its tires dipped in and out of the ice ruts on the shoulder of the 302 just northwest of Billings, Montana. A dour Mexican with a lazy eye at the airport Hertz had warned her in a mish-mash of Spanish and Midwestern drawl about the roads leading up to the affluent Regal Pines estates, suggesting that perhaps she’d like to hire a male driver to traverse the treacherous ice roads in something more suitable than the Ford Focus she had picked out. Jane — her name for this particular engagement — had simply laughed the offer away, even though every fiber of her femininity had wanted to strangle Lazy Eye with his clip-on tie.
Jane guided the car across the shoulder to a scenic overlook from which the hazy city of Billings could be seen. It was a bright afternoon in December; fresh snow melted on the wooden slats of a retaining fence near the edge of the overlook. The gauge on the dashboard measured 34 degrees outside, so Jane left the car running as she fished a folder from her bag on the passenger seat. Inside were three pieces of paper that would need to be shredded when this was all over.
The first page detailed her identity. Jane Meade, twenty-eight years old, of New York City by way of Santa Fe. Bachelor’s degree from Columbia University in Radio, Television, and Film. Currently works at Mainline Promotions on the eighth floor of World Trade Center 6. Her interests include film, photography, the essence of the human condition, and technology. She loves Chinese food, has a soft spot for four-legged friends, and is as adept at discussing global economics as she is at rattling off the characters on Leopold Spectre: Ghost Detective.
Jane examined her eyes in the rearview mirror.
“Hello, Jane Meade,” she said.
The second page was about the client. Danny Montreal, popularly known as Guns on account of the oversized biceps he sported in virtual reality. In reality, Jane knew he was a man of average build and preferred to be called by his first name. Danny was 35 years old, of mixed descent — Hispanic mother, African-American father — born and raised in San Antonio, TX before heading north to the solitude of Montana. No formal education to speak of. Currently maintains a status as a celebrity hacker for hire. His interests include movies, technology, and sugary snacks.
Like Jane, he loves dogs and abhors Pop music.
The last page held a grid of black and white photos of Montreal, surreptitiously taken the last time he had been out in public. Jane studied the eyes, stared into them until a familiar feeling began to stir in her chest. After several minutes of meditation, she slipped the pages back into the folder and resumed her journey northward.
By the time she reached the gate leading to Montreal’s ranch, clouds had gathered and a light dust fell from the sky. Jane pulled the car close to the call box and entered a nineteen-digit code into the keypad with a gloved finger. As the gate opened, she drove up to the threshold and put the car in park. She pressed the button to open the trunk and then stepped out into the cold.
A mess of fresh tracks led from the main driveway to a storage box a few feet away. From the outside, it appeared to be nothing more than a place for firewood; cloistered slats rimmed the rectangular box while a sheet of plywood acted as a cover. Inside, however, was an insulated locker in which four bags of groceries had been placed. Beside them, a styrofoam cooler held refrigerated and frozen goods. Jane moved the bags one-by-one to the trunk of the Focus and then slammed it shut.
Back in the driver’s seat, she removed her sunglasses and checked her reflection in the visor mirror. Hair still holding in a high ponytail; cheeks red from a mixture of blush and exposure; eye shadow adding just the right amount of mystery to her gaze. She pushed the visor back, checked her clothes. Slipping her hand from her gloves, she undid the top two buttons on her jacket, then her sweater, and finally the thin, red blouse she was wearing underneath.
Jane found the rut in the recently plowed driveway and made her way along the path, winding through tall pines that swayed at the very tips. Courageous birds darted through the snow-covered evergreens; a flash that could have been a deer or a skinny bear moved beyond the trees. Finally, the private forest broke, and Montreal’s modest cabin came into view.
In a clearing no larger than the parking lot at Adelai Associates stood a two-story home with an attached garage and a large, wrap-around, covered porch. There, Montreal stood with a cup of steam in one hand and the other shoved into the front pocket of his jeans. He wore a black, long-sleeve shirt, work boots, but nothing else. There was no hint of shiver in his slim arms.
Jane gave a small wave through the windshield as she pulled past the porch steps. She turned off the car, took a deep breath, and stepped outside.
“Hey, there,” she said, waving again to Montreal as she walked as fast as she dared around the car.
He raised his cup to her in greeting.
Jane smiled at the gesture, let her eyes reacquaint herself with the man she hadn’t seen in months. He had a face like a caricature of a skull: round at the top and angular almost to point from his cheeks down. It made his eyes appear darker than they were, gave his mouth a wide fullness that wouldn’t be so noticeable were he fifty pounds heavier. His hair was cut close to the scalp, and he wore blue-tinted glasses.
He reached his free hand towards her as she climbed the steps.
Jane pulled herself up and into his embrace. With her arms still wrapped around him, she leaned back and planted a kiss on his lips.
“Hey, sweetie,” he said, holding the cup out so as not to spill on her.
“I’ve missed you,” she said, kissing him on the cheek. “It’s been too long, Danny. Much too long.”
He shrugged in response. “Work.”
“For Benny Coker, right? That thing about his wife’s nudes?” She pulled the conversation from memory and the dossier notes equally. “Did you help her out?”
“It was nothin’. Just money in the bank.” His eyes drifted to the car. “How was the drive?”
“Treacherous. I’m lucky I made it here alive.” Jane put her ear against his chest. His heart beat faster, and for the first time, she felt him shiver a little. “Let’s go inside where it’s warm.”
Danny nodded and handed her a cup of what turned out to be hot chocolate. “For you,” he said. “I’ll grab your bags.”
Jane sipped as she pressed the trunk release on her keyfob. Despite the hot drink, she was starting to feel the elements, and decided to head inside.
The cabin was warm and welcoming, decorated with modern furniture under a pastiche of throw blankets and knitted thermals. To the right of the entrance, a sunken living room nestled against a roaring fire. To the left, a small but functional kitchen hid behind a high bar on which a bottle of champagne sat chilling. Ahead, a circular staircase bisected the room, with a work area on the left and Danny’s bedroom on the right. There, an elevated bed sat unmade.
On the far wall, floor to ceiling glass connected to an outdoor shower. Jane smiled, remembering the many times she had pressed her face against that glass, staring into the serene woodland pastoral, as Danny took her from behind.
Jane stepped to the side as Danny walked past with her suitcase. The plastic wheels spun along the wood floors, screeching to a halt next to a free-standing dresser that separated the bedroom from the living room. He lifted the suitcase and laid it horizontal on the dresser.
“Gonna grab the groceries,” he said, touching her lightly on the stomach as he passed her. “Make yourself comfortable,” he suggested.
After another sip, Jane put her hot chocolate down on the bar and slipped out of her overcoat. She hung it on a hook by the door. Crossing the room, she removed her sweater, folded it neatly, and placed it in one of the several empty drawers in the dresser. Nimble fingers unbuttoned her blouse halfway before she pulled it over her head along with a white camisole. She unhooked her bra and discarded it in another drawer.
“That’s kinda exactly what I had in mind,” said Danny. He kicked the door closed with his foot and took the grocery bags to the kitchen.
Jane smiled at the joke, unzipped her suitcase, and dug for a faded San Antonio Spurs shirt. She pulled it on, letting the persona of Jane Meade envelope her completely.
“Want me to make us some dinner?” she asked, kicking off her shoes and replacing them with warm slippers.
“No,” said Danny, his head buried in the fridge. “I’ll make it. You relax. You’ve had a long day.”
Jane crossed to the bar and sat down on a padded stool. She told Danny invented stories about New York City nightlife as he prepared a pasta dish. He let her taste the sauce; she poured him a glass of wine. The alcohol hit her fast, and soon the long drive was forgotten, as was the past life in which she was nothing more than a glorified call girl, a meretricious companion for which well-to-do but lonely men paid three thousand dollars a night. Besides the paycheck, the job had its perks, especially with clients like Montreal.
He was a fair lover, not too skilled but nothing to complain about. He was respectful almost to the point of awkward, but sincere in his mannerisms. To him, Jane Meade was a long lost lover, a necessary part of his life that he just couldn’t keep around at all times. The movies liked to paint hackers as gregarious party monsters who spent all their time in synth dens or jumping up and down to some techno slop under a matrix of multi-colored lasers.
The reality was more like Danny Guns Montreal: alone, but burning for that ancient heavenly connection.
There was a sadness to it that Jane tried to ignore as he served her a dish of shrimp carbonara. He had made salads and bread, and he’d plated everything with care. They ate and laughed as the sun set beyond the curtained windows. Occasionally, Danny touched his sliver to dim the lights in the ceiling.
After dinner, they retired to the long couch where they opened another bottle of wine. Jane listened with practiced intensity as Danny laid out the Eileen Coker nude photo affair. Had he kept some of the pictures for himself? Most likely. Would he let her see them if she asked him nicely? Probably not. Though he appeared to love her, Jane often felt his awareness of the gulf between them, the hooker-john relationship on which everything had been built.
When the wine was gone, they retired to the bedroom. Jane suggested a shower, and as the stars began to twinkle above the glass roof, she scrubbed Danny from head to toe. He stood there like a statue, his eyes closed, a crinkle of a smile on his face. Like so many of her clients, he loved to be bathed. Something primitive from childhood, Jane guessed. She pulled a razor from the wall and ran it gingerly over his stubble as she stroked his erection.
His hands moved from her hips to the small of her back.
“Are you here with me?” she asked.
She ran her fingers along his earlobes, feeling for a whisperer. Sometimes he had trouble disconnecting, a fact made plain by his engagement rider.Someone to bring me back to center was the way he described it. Jane had brought no technology with her, didn’t even have a sliver installed. Of the many things she was tasked to do, keeping him away from the network and the feeds and the neverending stream of data was often the most difficult. He seemed to connect out of habit, not really wanting anything from the world but unable to stop himself from reaching.
Sex wasn’t the only thing that got his undivided attention, but it was the most effective.
“Take me to the bed,” she told him.
He obliged, drawing her from the shower to a tiled anteroom where warm air blew over them as he patted her down with a soft, blue towel. When she was dry, he picked her up and carried her to the bed, laying her gently among the crumpled sheets.
Jane crawled backwards on her elbows until she could rest her head on a pillow. She reached out for him, stared into his eyes the way she had stared at his photos earlier in the car. In real life, his brown irises glinted, and it only took a few seconds to stimulate a simulacrum of love. She watched him climb onto the bed, stopping to kiss her feet, shins, and thighs.
Finally, he settled over her, and Jane reached down to guide him into her. Danny gave a few tentative thrusts, then came down to his elbows, wrapping his hands around her head, as he reached a steady tempo.
Jane stared at the wooden slats in the ceiling, at the crisscrossing wires and metal casing. As the discomfort lessened, she closed her eyes, rubbed her cheek against his. She wrapped her arms around his back and pulled him tighter.
Not the worst job in the world. It paid well. And there were perks. At least Danny made an attempt to be tender.
“Do you love me?” she asked.
“More than anything,” he replied, breathless, in her ear.
His rhythm increased. He extended his arms, lifting his weight from her chest.
Jane took a deep breath and dug her nails into his shoulders. She threw her head back, moaning and mewling in time with his movement. In the deepest core of her being, a tingle alighted, threatened to grow and explode, but Jane knew it would be over long before that moment could be reached.
Suddenly, Danny cried out.
Jane opened her eyes, expecting to see his face contorted in stolen ecstasy. Instead, he was grabbing the back of his neck, as if someone had stabbed him and he was trying to stem the bleeding. He slipped out of her and tumbled backwards off the bed. Jane chased him, saw him convulsing on the floor, flopping around like a fish on the deck of a boat. His muscles went rigid and the screams turned to coughing.
Jane rushed to his side, grabbing him by the neck. Something hot stung her fingers; she had to move her hand to his hairline.
“Danny, what is it?”
He gasped for air, his eyes circling wildly.
She slapped him gently on the cheeks. “Look at me, sweetie. Look at me.”
His eyes focused on her, went wide and misty.
“Tell me, Danny!”
“Johnny,” he sputtered. “Johnny San Vito.”
A fellow celebrity hacker for hire, and one of Danny’s few good friends.
“What about him?”
“Dead,” said Danny. “He’s dead.”
His breath slowed, he turned his head away, and Jane listened as one of the most feared hackers on the planet began to cry.
This is just one of several Future Projects I’m working on. Let me know if like. Do not let me know if you don’t like.