Even though I was in my office trying to recuperate from an ill-fated relationship, my digits trailed along the hall, descended the building’s stairwell, and meandered up and down every dark alley in the world. I was non-terminating, non-repeating. In a word, I was everywhere.
I was Pi, the private eye, the rational irrational. And Rachel used to make me feel the world revolved around me.
Looking up as my door opened, I grimaced at Lieutenant Brooks. “What do you want?”
He sauntered over and sat before answering. “I know better than to ask where you’ve been the last two hours, but what have you been doing?”
“Are you sure?”
“Of that, anyway.”
The Lieutenant crossed his legs, brushing paint flakes from the bottom of his shoe. “I remember when you were a halfway decent cop.”
“I remember when you used to try to attain that level.”
The Lieutenant jumped to his feet. “Listen Pi, I came here as a courtesy. I could have sent a uniform to take your statement, but I thought you’d rather hear about Rachel from me.”
“What about Rachel?”
“She’s been snatched. Grabbed as she was leaving her apartment.”
“So what are you doing here?”
He stormed over to the door. “I never understood what she saw in you, and I’m not surprised she came to the same conclusion.”
The slam of the door echoed off the empty walls.
Unlike the Lieutenant, she’d come into my office to make it a brighter place. Someone was shadowing her. She wanted him stopped.
She’d already gone to the police with a name, but they’d told her she was imagining things. I said I’d help.
I came to know her as I followed her from a distance. I saw where she worked, where she shopped, where she ate. I watched her feed squirrels in the park. The more I learned about Rachel, the more I started to love her.
What I never noticed was whom she said was following her, the Square Root of Negative One, although she continued to insist he was there.
Weeks went by. Her retainer was long gone and I was beginning to think the cops might have been right.
Rachel settled up, assured me they weren’t, and asked me to continue.
I suggested we alter our arrangement. If I were with her around the clock, I could better ensure her safety.
She would wake me in the middle of the night, certain that Square Root was right outside. I never once caught sight of him.
I slowly came to conclusion that maybe Rachel was crazy, but I was too crazy about her by this point to care. Her paranoia, if that’s all her suspicions were, kept us together. I couldn’t live without her.
Or so I thought until she threw me out.
Picking up the phone, I called Rachel’s house to hear her voice.
“You’re reached Rachel. At the tone, please leave a message.”
I replaced the receiver, knowing full well I hadn’t reached her at all.
Across town, I parted the stripes of crime scene tape and unlocked Rachel’s front door. Perhaps she hadn’t taken the key back because she knew I’d need it. Or maybe she had hoped I’d use it before now.
Someone had tossed her apartment and the damage was absolute. Square Root? Whoever had snatched her? Lieutenant Brooks, searching for clues?
Rachel stared at me.
I picked up the portrait that I’d last seen sitting framed on her television. Rachel had been about to enter the building where she worked when she stopped, glancing over her shoulder to present me with this pose.
Rachel was a secretary at a surveying company. She answered the phones, managed the appointments, and organized the paperwork. I’d asked about the firm’s clients to see if one of them might have hired Square Root, but none of the names had meant anything to me.
Maybe I shouldn’t have stopped there.
Since there didn’t seem much point in my searching through the rubble, I closed the door behind me.
Perhaps the story would be different at Rachel’s office, which couldn’t be tossed until the close of business.
Her boss wanted to know if there was any news.
“Not that I’m aware. I’d like to go through her things.”
“Help yourself.” He motioned towards her desk. “The police didn’t spend much time here.”
“Their methods are different than mine.”
The top of Rachel’s desk was empty except for computer and telephone. Her middle drawer contained the usual paraphernalia: pads, pens, and paperclips. In the larger section behind I found a picture she’d drawn of me, my digits getting smaller and smaller as they rotated outwards towards the edges.
In the larger side drawers, hanging folders were labeled with names I remembered from our discussion of the firm’s clients. I wrote them down before approaching her boss again.
“The files in her desk. Are those all your clients, or your active clients, or what?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“I’m looking for leads.”
He shook his head. “You can’t contact those people. Rachel’s disappearance has nothing to do with her job, and I won’t have you bothering our clients.”
“You can’t be sure one of them isn’t involved.”
“You want to grasp at straws, you do it at the expense of somebody else’s livelihood. Good day.”
The squirrels didn’t seem to be aware that one of their caregivers was missing, and as I watched them shoot across the park in short bursts, I wished I could so easily put Rachel out of my mind.
“Excuse me, aren’t you Pi?”
He held out his hand. “Rafael. Rachel’s brother. I recognized you from her drawing.”
“Have you heard?”
“What?” Rafael stepped forward. “Is she back?”
“I’m afraid not.” She’d never told me she had a brother, but then our relationship hadn’t reached the point where we needed to negotiate family obligations.
“Oh.” He ran fingers through his hair. “I’ve been out of town for weeks, and I return to this. Why would someone grab my sister?”
“That’s a good question. You don’t have any ideas?”
“We would meet here every few days, chat while she fed the squirrels, but she never mentioned anything that indicated she might be in danger. Maybe it was a case of mistaken identity.”
“That’s possible. If unlikely.”
He straightened. “You have any better ideas? She told me about you, the private investigator who couldn’t help her.”
I swallowed my first response. “Did she tell you she terminated my contract?”
“Yes. And I find it very interesting that shortly thereafter, she went missing. How about that for coincidence?”
“It’s right up there with you coming back from some place you won’t mention, and suddenly your sister becomes a target.”
“Are you suggesting this is my fault?”
“Maybe you’re glad she’s gone.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
I shrugged. “You don’t seem very motivated to keep the investigation moving forward.”
Rafael poked me with his index finger. “You got her into this mess. I’m leaving it to the police to get her out.”
“Fine by me.”
The desk sergeant told me that Lieutenant Brooks was in. He was.
“What do you want?”
“Any updates on Rachel?”
“Zilch. No word from the kidnappers, if that’s what they were.” The Lieutenant grunted. “Nobody’s tripped over any dead bodies, either.”
“Maybe she’s being held as a bargaining chip.”
“Somebody want you to do something?”
“I was thinking of her brother, actually.”
“That so?” The Lieutenant tipped back in his chair. “Which brother would that be?”
“Rafael. She have more than one?”
“Nope. Doesn’t even have that many. Just the twin sister, and she’s out in Iowa.”
“A guy came up to me in the park and introduced himself as her brother.”
“Must be true then.” The Lieutenant shifted, spit into his trashcan. “Too bad Rachel’s parents are dead. I’m sure they would have been thrilled to hear the news. Why don’t you run along and do something numerical.”
Following his suggestion, I called each of the clients listed in Rachel’s folders. In each case, I reached voicemail. In each case, the same accented voice told me to leave a message.
Standing in the middle of the park, I slowly turned, studying the buildings that surrounded this patch of green, trisected by forked paths. Earlier, Rafael had probably seen me from one of those windows. Might be watching me even now.
The stone wall blocked most first floor windows, and tree cover the two floors above that. Only three building rose high enough for me to clearly see the facing windows.
The foreign embassy at 1752 was the most intriguing.
Approaching from the rear, I found myself facing a biometric security panel. Since the data was stored digitally, I ran my digits through the override slot, knowing that somewhere along my length I’d hit a matching pattern.
The LED flashed green.
A back stairwell wound me up to the top floor where Rafael tested a door before turning to face me.
“You. How did you get in here?”
“Pi is a standard that knows no borders. Is that where you’re holding Rachel?”
“My government doesn’t want you here.”
“As soon as I get Rachel, I’m gone.”
Rafael held up a hand. “Perhaps you should listen to this first. That company she works for? It’s a front. They’re actually conducting top secret research for the government.”
“My government, I presume.”
“That depends. This country spends more than a hundred billion dollars a year on road construction and repair. Rachel’s company is investigating the possibility of reducing that amount.”
“So?” I moved towards the locked door.
“If they discover a way to tighten the length of the arcs, they’ll revolutionize roadwork. We’re talking curves, ramps, and changes in elevation. There’s only one way to do that across the board, however, and that’s to alter the formula.”
“The formula for road materials?”
“For the circumference of a circle.” He paused. “Your government wants to truncate pi to two decimal places, which would eliminate your power, reducing you to little more than a curiosity. A freak.”
“What do you care?”
“We don’t want to see that happen.”
“So why grab Rachel? Why not one of the top people?”
“If we send a message we know what they’re doing, they may just stop on their own. That would be the best-cast scenario.” Rafael paused. “This research has military applications and we’re not interested in starting an international incident. Yet.”
“Rachel is coming with me.” I snaked my digits past him to defeat the biometric panel.
“Didn’t you hear me? They’re going to truncate you!”
Rachel continued staring out the window until I called her name.
Her smile was slow to emerge, but then she bounded across the room and wrapped her arms around me, turning me to distance herself from Rafael. “I knew I could count on you.”
“Are you ready to go?” We’d come full circle, Rachel and I, her knight-errant.
“Not so fast.” To my surprise, Rafael hadn’t drawn a gun, hadn’t even positioned himself to block our escape. “The Square Root of Negative One will see to it that you don’t go anywhere.”
I pulled Rachel towards the stairs. “Only if I believe in you, and I don’t.”
“But she does.”
Rachel dug in her heels, and Rafael’s grin made me realize how it was. I stepped towards Rachel and threw a right cross without warning. She was unconscious before I caught her and over my shoulder in a second. “Not any more.”
Rafael raised his voice. “By allowing them to continue their research, you’re as good as signing your own death warrant.”
I let the stairwell door close behind me, cutting him off.
Rachel was still unconscious when I brought her to Lieutenant Brooks, and I left before she had a chance to throw me out a second time.
Over five hundred of Stephen’s stories and poems have been selected to appear in more than a hundred publications. His website, www.stephendrogers.com, includes a list of new and upcoming titles as well as other timely information.