The woman in white caught Analas’s eye the moment she started walking toward Finn’s bench. Not only did she look out of place, but the bug Analas had placed on Finn ceased to function properly as soon as the woman got near him. Meska’s bug was still working just fine, but from Finn’s came nothing but an eerie silence. No birds, no ambient noise. Even his ever-present heartbeat and breath were absent. “Shit!” Analas fussed with the settings on her receiver for a moment, but quickly realized that it was useless.
Springing out the window with hardly a glance around to make sure no one was watching, she landed three stories below and launched herself toward the park in a less direct route than she would like to have taken. She needed to come up behind Finn instead of where he could see her approaching, and that meant skirting the park. There was still a chance that she was wrong about the woman, and making an unnecessary scene would be a terrible mistake. He’d already stopped letting Meska talk to her, suspicious of Analas’s interest in his daughter.
* * *
Five weeks earlier…
Finn had knocked on her door once, twice, then again, louder each time and with a small touch of panic creeping into his voice. “Ana?” He’d been about to start pounding instead of knocking when she’d opened the door with her short, dark curls a mess and a finger to her lips.
“SHHH,” she’d whispered. “We were asleep on the couch. I couldn’t get to the door any faster without waking her.”
Much to his relief, Finn had found his daughter snuggled under a blanket, fast asleep. “Oh! You don’t have to worry about that,” he said, making no attempt to hush his voice. “This kid sleeps so soundly, I’m not sure even the apocalypse would wake her!” Picking up her limp, ragdoll body he’d carried her to the door without disturbing her in the slightest. “Thanks for watching her for me. Sorry to impose, but – ”
“It wasn’t an imposition, really! I told you, if you ever needed someone to look after her – ”
“Yeah, but I know you’re busy with your…your work…” He’d looked around her sparsely furnished apartment and wondered, not for the first time, what exactly it was that she did for a living. His questions about her job had never elicited in-depth responses, so he’d only gotten a vague idea that she worked for a technology company. But she’d always seemed to be home and her small, one-bedroom apartment showed no signs of having an office space set up. “I mean, you do work at home, right?”
“Yes, I do.” She’d gazed at him in sleepy confusion, not following his line of thinking.
“I know a lot of freelancers and other…well, I guess they’re nontraditional employees…” The feeling that he was somehow crossing a line by asking, once again, about her life had tied him in knots. “I don’t know what hours you keep. For all I know, you work remotely for a company in Asia. I don’t want to assume you work nine to five just because I do.”
“Oh! Don’t worry about that, really! I’m happy to watch Meska any time. She’s such a sweet, smart kid! I enjoy having her around.”
“She is that,” he’d said, more than a bit perplexed by her continued dodging of the subject of her job. “Well, thanks anyway. I owe you! Maybe,” clearing his throat and blushing, he’d stumbled over the segue. “Um…maybe, you could join us for dinner some time? Tomorrow night, if you’re free?”
“Oh! Sure. I guess…” she’d answered, suddenly blushing, too. Listening in on his life for weeks, she’d grown to like him far more than she’d cared to acknowledge.
“Great!” The offer had been a throwaway, final excuse not to leave. He certainly hadn’t expected her to accept, and his shock had helped him maintain some semblance of nonchalance. “I’ll look forward to it!” They’d stood staring at one another for a moment before Finn had scurried across the hall, his blush growing deeper.
She hadn’t meant to encourage his little crush, despite the feelings she’d developed for him. Under different circumstances, she’d mused, …but no. She’d stopped herself there and shut the door before pulling out her equipment to drown those thoughts in her work. She’d had to be friendly with him to stay in proximity to Meska, at least until her questions were answered. Aside from his part in the investigation, she’d known he was irrelevant in the long run. She’d had to tell herself that more and more frequently over the last few weeks, and it was getting harder to convince herself that she would be able to do what would have to be done.
A “eureka” moment had eventually pushed the thought of everything else, even Finn, out of her head. The countertop had been strewn with sleek gadgets and her mind had been nearly a thousand light years away when a tapping at the door pulled her back to Earth. “Hold on,” she’d called as she shoved her equipment hurriedly out of sight. A moment later, she’d opened the door looking just as disheveled as before, but also slightly flushed with excitement. Finn’s shy, worried smile had prompted a blush to replace the flush. Her work hadn’t stood a chance at distracting her from that smile. “Hello again,” she’d said with a questioning lilt.
“Sorry to bother you, but when I was getting Meska ready for bed I found a cut on her arm…?”
“Oh, right! I meant to tell you about it, but I was half asleep. She fell against the table in the kitchen.”
“Ah! So, it wasn’t like…y’know…a rusty piece of metal or something?”
She’d looked at him, perplexed, until the mischievous twinkle in his eyes had let her know he was joking.
“Ugh! I was too tired to realize you were teasing me!”
“I shouldn’t have…” he’d begun, but a loud crash made both of them jump. Analas had spun around and gasped at the sight of her equipment scattered on the floor, the now empty case leaning drunkenly on the barstool she’d sat on while she worked. Pushing the door open, Finn had stepped inside and whistled. “That all looks expensive. I hope nothing got broken!”
“I was putting things away when you knocked,” she’d explained distractedly, cautiously maneuvering herself between him and the scattered tech before bending to sweep the nearest pieces out of view.
“I’ll help you!”
A wave of panic had swept over her when he reached for one of the objects that had skidded to a stop just out of her reach. “NO!” His hand already on it, her tone had made him pull away in stunned confusion. “No, please! It’s…it’s all kind of…secret.” She’d stammered along, trying to remember the plausible explanation she’d come up with for just this instance. “I mean trade secrets. You know…patents, and all that. I’m not supposed to let people see it!”
“Oh,” he’d said with relief, scooping up the piece to hand it to her. “I play with probability and statistics all day. It’s not like I’m going to have any idea what this stuff is.” But just as he’d finished his thought, an image on the screen of one of the devices had caught his attention. “Is that Meska?”
“Um, yeah,” she’d said, snatching it up and quickly powering it off. “It’s just a new kind of camera. I was testing it out.”
“No.” His smile had disappeared. “It was a file of some sort. There were words or symbols or something all down the side. What language was that?”
“It’s just a camera, Finn! It syncs directly into a database. It’s for…uh, researchers…to use in the field. I was testing how well it communicates with the computer.”
“By taking pictures of my daughter? You said you weren’t allowed to let people see it.”
“I’m not, but…but she’s just a kid, so I figured it would be okay. I was going to delete the pictures, but – ”
“Delete them now.”
“You heard me.”
“Finn, don’t be angry – ”
“Fuck that,” he’d cut her off. “I don’t know anything about what you do for a living or who you work for, and Meska’s got green spots that can’t be explained by modern medicine. And now I find out you have a file on her in your…device…thing? In a language I don’t even recognize! Perhaps I’m just being paranoid, but delete it. NOW.”
“I can’t do that.”
“You just said you would!”
“I lied!” Analas had sprung to the door and slammed it shut. “I can’t delete the file, Finn. It’s too important. Meska is too important!” He’d lunged to grab the device, but before he knew what was happening she’d pinned him, face down, to the floor and sat astride his torso. “Listen to me, Finn! Meska is important. Her spots are proof of that, but I needed to figure out exactly where she came from…who her father was – ”
“I told you!” Finn had bucked frantically in an attempt to unseat her while she’d tapped at the watch on her wrist. “I had tests run! Meska is my daughter!”
“Partially, yes.” A small, metal cylinder had materialized in front of her, dropping into her waiting hand. Then, in one swift motion, she’d rolled him onto his back and shifted her weight to his thighs to better contain his movements. She would rather have avoided such a suggestive position at that particular moment, but it had been necessary to look him in the eye without getting kicked in the back of the head.
“Partially?!? What the hell do you mean by that?”
“I can’t explain right now, Finn. I just…” Seeing the fear and hatred in his eyes, she’d hated herself for what she was going to do to him. “Whatever happens, please know that I’m here to protect Meska.”
“Protect her! From what? Who the hell are you?!”
“I’m…” Her brow had furrowed as she’d studied his terrified, furious face. “I’m sorry.” Giving him an impulsive kiss as she pressed the metal cylinder to his neck, she’d felt him go limp. Knowing the sedative wouldn’t last long, she’d leapt to a bookcase to access the control panel hidden behind it. “I’m so sorry, Finn,” she’d whispered as he disappeared from her living room floor. Flipping on a view screen to activate the camera drone she’d hidden in his apartment weeks before, she directed it to his bedroom door. After checking to make sure his body had reappeared safely on his own bed, she flew the drone in a quick tour around his home to make sure that all was well and that Meska had slept through it all. She’d parked the drone back in its hiding place then slipped across the hall to make sure their apartment door was locked.
With a regretful glance over her shoulder, she’d closed her door and returned to the control panel to activate the force shield that protected her own apartment. With one last searching look at the view screen, she’d flipped it off and swung the bookcase back in place. Assured that Finn and Meska were safe for at least one night more, she’d gone to bed unsure of which hurt more – her head or her heart.