Anyway, the photo prompt is certainly… interesting.
Granted, I don’t mean “interesting” in the same way as (ahem) some other photo prompts (if you scroll through the previous posts you’ll see what I mean). But it’s definitely an odd one, huh? It got me thinking about the character we met in the last installment, who was also kind of odd. Without further ado…
A Room with a View
“I’ll confess, I thought we were going to meet in a restaurant.”
“I invited you to lunch. The location was not stipulated.”
Bradford Anders settled his napkin across his lap and smiled across the table at Andrews. It was, as far as Andrews could tell, a genuine smile, the lines crinkling around the man’s eyes. It was at odds, then, with their surreal surroundings: an intimate table for four set in a glass-walled dining room at the bottom of what used to be—well…
“So, what was this place before you turned it into your house?”
“Water treatment plant.”
“You like off-the-beaten-path.”
“I like lots of offbeat things.”
Bradford picked up his fork and let the comment hang there. When Andrews arrived, salads had already been set out on the table. At first he hadn’t been sure he was in the right place—a long driveway off a barely visible access road ten miles outside of town led to what looked at first like an empty gravel lot with a wedge-shaped shed, but then the garage-type door had rolled open and Andrews drove down into a brightly lit tunnel that led to an underground garage, where Bradford had been waiting to lead him… here.
Andrews hoped the signal from his car and his phone’s GPS were both accessible from here. He didn’t think Bradford was out to kill him, but it only took being wrong one time.
He should have made Bradford come to the station for this interview. Doyle would have made him, but Andrews didn’t think Bradford would have offered Doyle a lunch… he almost thought the word “date,” but quickly shifted gears to “meeting.”
Andrews pulled a notebook from his jacket pocket, which made Bradford grin.
“Now that’s quaint.”
“Tech runs out of charge.”
“Pens run out of ink.”
“Tech can be hacked.”
“Paper can be stolen. Or burned.”
Andrews tried not to let the irritation show on his face. “As much as I enjoy a verbal tennis match—“
Bradford cut him off. “I enjoy oral sports, too.”
The blush flaming across his face was one thing Andrews knew he couldn’t conceal. Damn his overactive capillaries. He set down his pen.
“Look, as much as I’m flattered, I have two murders to solve. And I’m on duty.”
Bradford paused a moment. A brief sigh, and his demeanor changed. “Right. Of course. I’ll be honest, I don’t often get to meet eligible people outside of my field who aren’t just interested in the fact that I’m a billionaire.”
“No, I’m interested in the fact that—what makes you think I’m eligible?”
Bradford lifted an eyebrow. “No ring.”
Andrews followed Bradford’s gaze to the ring finger on his left hand. “It’s good to know you’re observant and that you pick up on clues. So what clues might Gamal have left to indicate what his association with Miss Grayson?”
“Not much, I’m afraid.” Bradford pushed back his chair and walked over to the windows. Pressing a hand against the glass, the windows darkened slightly and several holoscreens popped up. Suddenly all business, he began flipping through the displays.
“We’ve reviewed all his session logs for the past two weeks and found no instances where he was in contact with Miss Grayson. We found no unexplained contacts with anyone else either, clients or otherwise.” He swept the displays aside. “Which would indicate that whatever he was doing was off company time and off official records. I’m making all of this accessible to the SLPD, of course.”
Andrews leaned back in his chair. “Too bad it’s a dead end, but I appreciate it.”
Bradford grinned before tapping the glass again. Another set of holoscreens appeared. He nudged one in Andrews’ direction. “Which is why I decided to have a look in all of his private logons and nonbusiness-related accounts.” He dragged the rest of them toward Andrews before moving toward the kitchen on the opposite side of the room from the windows.
“Um, I probably shouldn’t ask how you managed to access this information, should I?” Andrews asked.
“Probably not. Let’s just say he logged in using company equipment and forgot to clear his caches. That sounds plausible.”
The room fell silent as Andrews read through a chat log between Gamal and Alexa, then a readout of his bank account. “I’m assuming you weren’t paying him as much as his savings balance would indicate.”
“No.” Andrews looked up. Bradford’s voice was closer than he’d expected. As he was reading, Bradford had returned to his seat and there were now plates of grilled salmon and asparagus in front of them. “And that resort simulation? Not one of ours. He did that for her custom, and it wasn’t loaded in an officially registered directory.”
“So he was doing that under the table?”
“It would seem so. All our work in the Upload is custom, but it’s not invisible. We get more customers by letting them see our work. What Gamal did here, he tried to hide it away.”
Andrews stared at the holo for a long time, trying to find some way to connect the dots that tied Gamal to Grayson and them to… someone else. “Did it look like he’d done any other custom work?”
Bradford, mid-chew, nodded. After he swallowed, he said, “Four other clients, none of them related, as far as I could tell. If I had to guess, he wanted to go solo and set up his own sim shop. He would have made more money that way, as you can tell, and he wouldn’t have been constrained by our corporate responsibility clauses.”
Maybe he was approaching this from the wrong angle. Killing Gamal might have been cleanup work for whoever had killed Grayson. Just another loose end to tie up.
Or cut off.
“Any logs of who entered the sim with Miss Grayson?” Andrews asked.
“Apart from you and Gamal himself, any other access records have been scrubbed. And pretty thoroughly, too. Anyone else might not even have noticed that they’d been overwritten.”
“But not you.”
Another smile from Bradford. “Like I said, I notice things. Such as the fact that you haven’t touched any of your food.”
Andrews looked down at his plate. “You’ll probably be even less pleased that I’m going to dine and dash.”
“More like just dash, since you haven’t even eaten.” Bradford’s smile widened, and if Andrews wasn’t mistaken, a little bit of that wickedness returned to it. “In that case, you owe me a dinner.”