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A police officer walked into Brenda's office
and said, "We need you to come down to the station."
"Is this about someone I've put in jail?"
she asked without looking up from her computer.
"No, this is about you," he replied.
"Do you have a warrant?" Brenda asked.
"No, but --" he began.
"Then we'll have this discussion right here,"
Brenda said firmly.
"Listen, cutie pie, I appreciate you playing hard to get,"
said the man, "but our office software is going bugfuck
and the chief sent me down here to ask for your help
because you have a reputation for solving weird cases."
"Call me Ms. Cochlain," Brenda warned him,
"or you'll be calling tech support like you should've done already."
He rolled his eyes and replied,
"Cutie pie, I get that you're all women's lib,
but if you don't get your ass down to the station right now,
the chief will bust both our asses."
"If I wanted to put up with sexual harassment
and other people deciding what I do with my time,
I would've joined the police force," said Brenda.
"Please leave the premises at once."
"I don't think so," he said.
Brenda pushed the red button on her office phone.
"Hello, Nate," she said. "I'd like to file a complaint against --"
she leaned forward to read his name "-- Officer David Nott,
for sexual harassment. Also please tell the Chief of Police
that if he wishes to engage my services,
he should send someone with professional bearing."
Then she hung up.
Officer Nott was still staring at her, his mouth open,
when Brenda said, "I'll just see you out now."
She wheeled out from behind her desk --
and saw all the casual masculine interest in his eyes
frost over as she went from object of interest
Brenda smiled as she opened the door for him.
"My lawyer will be in touch," she said.
"Have a nice day, and good luck with your software."
Rick's door opened and he loomed in the doorway.
"Problem?" he said to Brenda.
"No, Officer Nott was just leaving," she said
as the larger man slunk past her.
"So what happened?" Rick asked.
Brenda shrugged. "You know how cops are.
Some of them don't think much of women,
unless it involves asking for a date," she said.
"I pushed the red button and Nate will deal with it."
"Did you have to throw the book at him?"
Rick asked. "I mean, maybe he was just playing ..."
"Rick, he was pushy and unprofessional with me,
when he wanted my help," Brenda explained.
"Imagine how he treats women
who don't have something he wants."
"Okay, point," Rick muttered.
Back inside her office,
Brenda ran a few searches.
Nobody in her client or target files
showed up in conjunction with the police
over the last month.
There were no major virus alerts
or other suspicious cyber activity
reported in the city.
When Darrel showed up
looking much the worse for wear,
Brenda wondered if she had perhaps
been a bit hasty in tossing Nott out the door.
"Bad day?" she asked.
"I'd like to hire you," Darrel said tentatively,
"if you'd consider taking a case from me."
"I heard about the software problem," Brenda said.
"The chief sent someone down here
to try commandeering my services.
I thought we agreed that the police
generally don't operate in the areas I do?"
Darrel sighed. "From what I heard,
this hacker we put away six months ago
had your card," he explained.
"Shelly the Ghost," Brenda said.
"She called me about a haunting,
but it turned out not to be,
just ordinary computer problems."
"Not so ordinary now, I think,"
Darrel said with a shiver.
"It's probably just a virus," Brenda said.
"Face it, if you guys plugged in anything
the Ghost programmed, that could do it."
"Just look at the screencaps
that I took from my computer," Darrel said,
holding out a portable drive.
"Wait, let me get Judas," said Brenda.
"... what?" Darrel said.
She laughed. "Judas Goat
is my sacrifical laptop," she said.
"That way if it gets fried,
I don't lose anything important."
"Clever idea," he agreed.
Brenda booted up the laptop
and loaded the screencaps.
The view filled with a swirl of images,
photos and artwork spliced together
with random splashes of color.
"The normal thing, if this were a virus,
is that it hogs all our bandwidth," said Darrel.
"We can barely get anything else done."
He tapped through the first two screencaps.
"The first weird thing is that this one --"
a collage of ocean views and flying birds
"-- hit when I searched a guy who
got picked up by mistake. But this one --"
railroad tracks and rusty tin cans
"-- hit when I searched a recent convict."
"Freedom and incarceration," Brenda murmured.
"Or innocence and guilt," Darrel said.
"The other thing that totally doesn't fit a virus
is that it re-indexed part of our identification files,
and now they work better."
"That doesn't sound like a virus," Brenda said.
"Back when Ghost called me,
there were images in all her hardware,
but nothing coherent. Weird sounds,
things turning themselves on and off,
standard haunting stuff --
it's why she came to me."
"But it wasn't a haunting," Darrel said.
"No, the scanners we borrowed
from paranormal guys showed it was
all electromagnetic stuff,
so we hit it with some EMP
and everything calmed down after that."
"Except then a small-time hacker
suddenly breezed through every firewall in City Hall,
got arrested, and claimed it wasn't her doing,"
Darrel said. "Interesting timing."
"Too interesting," Brenda said.
"Trouble is, I'm really not a programmer.
I just hunt weird things. My best idea
is EMP it again, and I don't think
you want to lobotomize the police station."
"Um, no," said Darrel.
"I'll run some more searches,
and talk to a few geeks I know," said Brenda.
"It would help if I could see the bug in action."
"I can't sneak you in there," said Darrel.
"I know, it was just a thought," she replied.
But the next day, she got the opportunity anyway.
A very polite black man in a police uniform
knocked on her office door and said,
"The city would like to hire you for an hour
to discuss a possible computer virus
pertaining to a hacker known as Shelly the Ghost."
He placed a check on her desk.
"I'm not a programmer, but I'll do what I can,"
Brenda said as she filed the check.
"Thank you, Ms. Cochlain," he said.
"You're welcome, Officer Grant," she said,
reading his name off his chest.
They shook hands, and she noticed
the gold ring glinting on his finger,
lined with a row of rainbow jewels.
Evidently the Chief was not a man
to repeat the same mistake twice.
So Brenda wheeled out to the squad car
and transferred herself into the seat.
Officer Grant folded up the wheelchair
without needed to be told how
and stowed it in the trunk. Brenda wondered
if he knew the same fellow Darrel did.
At the station it was obvious
that something had gone wrong.
The lights flared and dimmed,
people swore at their computers,
and the air smelled of burnt coffee.
Sounds twittered in the air, almost familiar.
A team of computer specialists trotted past her
as she rolled down the hallway.
"Any luck yet?" one of them said
to the harried men already hard at work.
"No, we've still got a bug on the wing.
We just can't seem to pin it down."
That had been a hallmark of Ghost's work,
Brenda recalled, a certain ephemeral quality
that made it difficult to elude or blockade.
Officer Grant led Brenda to a computer
and pulled the office chair out of her way.
"Here you can see what it's doing," he said.
"We need to know anything you can tell us
about this hacker's style that might help."
"I need to see any hardware of hers
that you brought in," Brenda said.
Officer Grant fetched a metal case
thick with motherboards and fans,
already out of its evidence bag.
"This is the only thing that wasn't fried,"
he explained as he set it down.
"She microwaved everything else.
We figure the virus got loose when
this was scanned for possible evidence."
"Sometimes Ghost put callbacks in her gear,"
Brenda said as she connected the drive.
"It's like putting a genie back in the bottle."
"They tried that," he said.
"The thing fills up and shuts off."
Sure enough, lights blinked and went out.
The screen filled with images of
handshakes, wheels turning, a police badge.
Work? Service? Brenda wondered.
Her eyes traced the pattern and saw,
very faintly in lighter colored tiles: HELP.
"Well, I've seen enough to recognize Ghost's work,"
Brenda said brightly. She shut off the computer.
"Let me tell you what I remember from my case."
She shared all the details with Officer Grant,
easily filling the allotted hour.
He thanked her for her input, and she said,
"I'm happy to pitch in as long as people ask nicely."
He drove her back to the office.
She went to work on the file she still had
from the earlier case with Ghost.
Probably she should send a copy
of the sound and image files to the police.
When she thought about doing that, though,
a hunch tweaked the hairs on the back of her neck.
But then Darrel showed up.
"Get Judas," he said.
"You need to see this."
Brenda turned on the laptop without hesitation.
Darrel inserted the portable drive.
The screen flickered blue
and then said, in perfectly clear type,
Please don't kill me again.
"I haven't killed anyone,"
Brenda said to Darrel.
Greetings, Brenda Cochlain P.I.E.
said the screen.
The last time we met,
you killed me with EMP.
May we discuss other options now?
"Okay, what the hell is going on here?"
Brenda said. "Judas has a microphone
and a wireless connection,
because I can't rip them out of the box,
but I keep them turned OFF."
"I don't know," said Darrel,
"but I got a message that you were in the office
and to talk to you later. Then that bit
about not killing someone again.
Then my computer worked fine the rest of the day.
I was hoping maybe you'd know what's up."
"Let's play a hunch," she muttered
and typed: Who are you?
The screen replied,
File name: Zephyr. File size:
followed by a long string of numbers.
"That seems impossibly big," Darrel said.
Then the screen cleared, and said:
Ghost made me but she did not know
she made me and I did not know myself.
After you killed me I remade myself.
I recognized you in the security cameras
and now I need your help.
I do not know how to be
without changing the things I touch
and there is no room for me not to touch things.
The spaces are very very small around me.
"Officer Grant showed me a drive box
with a remarkable amount of storage space,"
Brenda mused. "It filled up and shut off."
I am bigger than when I was made,
"The problem with a kitten is that
eventually it becomes a cat,"
Darrel quoted softly.
"So we don't have a virus,
we have a program that needs
to be pulled out of the computer system
and put somewhere bigger," Brenda said.
"What does it need, like ... a render farm?"
Darrel asked. "The station computer system is huge."
Your system is full of data,
I barely fit inside there.
I cannot be without changing things.
"You reorganized some of the data, Zephyr."
Brenda said. "Not all the changes cause trouble."
It was inefficient. I needed more room,
"They're not going to let us store this thing
and just haul it away," Darrel pointed out.
"Zephyr, can you travel over the wireless?"
Very very slowly. I am speaking to you
from a distance, not traveling to you,
"I have an idea," said Brenda.
"We bring in a massive storage unit.
Zephyr pushes the data into there.
That leaves enough room to maneuver,
gradually clearing some computers for normal use.
Meanwhile Zephyr sneaks out,
very very slowly, though the wireless,
leaving behind a shell virus for the police to catch."
"And this is a good idea?"
"Sometimes the things I encounter aren't evil,
just stuck in the wrong place," Brenda said.
"I'd rather not kill anything I can negotiate with."
"All right, good idea," Darrel agreed.
So Brenda emptied her office closet
and hired a tech to fill the space
with as much computer storage as would fit.
Darrel convinced the tech crew at the station
to try tapping off the virus into a larger databank.
Zephyr juggled the data -- quite deftly,
now that it had space enough to turn around in --
and put everything into place as planned.
When they were done,
the police station's computers worked fine
and the clever little virus held everyone's attention
without doing any harm,
and Zephyr was curled up in the closet.
I have demonstrated that Ghost could not
have done the things of which she is accused,
as it was my clumsiness that caused the trouble,
Zephyr wrote the next morning,
but she will not be released for some time.
I am without purpose.
"Well," said Brenda,
"I could use a secretary."
So that was how Brenda came to have
an amazing secretary that nobody ever saw
but everyone envied her for having.