Job Security

Keira exited the elevator and walked through the lobby to join the line for the security desk. It had been a long day and she dreaded the trip home even though she was glad to be out of that office. It seemed to take forever to deal with all the little things one had to do just to make it home safely, but she had reason to be diligent these days. And the apartment wasn't much more comforting than the busy office, but at least there was family there to talk to.

The line moved fast; it didn't take long for the security lady to check her ID with a bored glance and nod her OK for Keira to walk out the front door. Security was more worried about letting non-authorized people in, and Keira's badge, belonging to one of the Corps renting space in the building, was enough to say it was reasonable for her to be leaving right now. She was a few minutes late today, but not enough for anyone to ask questions.

She pushed through the big glass door and headed out into the safewalk. Safewalks were attached to the fronts of once free-standing structures, creating a covered passage the length of the block with walls at the edge of the street. The tinting on the bullet-proof windows made it look like it was already dark outside, although the lights were bright inside the safewalk. She walked a little faster out of instinct; it wasn't good to be in the Corp Section after dark. There were still a lot of people leaving work and she moved closer to the wall so she could get around them and make better time.

She tripped on something, one of those curious little concrete-filled circles next to the wall. She knew they'd had something to do with cars back when everyone had cars. Her parents sometimes talked about "the old days" and how it had all changed. Pollution, gas prices, and dependence on foreign oil had all combined to force mass public transportation. Safety issues had enclosed the world for security purposes.

As she stepped onto the escalator to ride over the intersection she felt a gust of chilly air blow through the streetdoors as someone opened them. "It's really cold outside today," she thought, glad it would be a short dash outside to the bus. The safewalk was climate controlled as well as limited-access and video monitored.

People in front of her took the steps two-at-a-time to get across faster, but she was tired after her sprint and let the escalator do all the work. She ought to hurry, public transport being what it was; the big armored buses filled up fast at 5:00 pm. If she missed the last rush-hour bus at 5:20 she'd have to wait another half hour for the next – way longer than anyone with any sense wanted to hang around Corp Section.

There were all sorts of horror stories about what happened to those stupid enough to stay in the corporate area after hours. The bad guys were always arrested, but they never seemed to learn from their mistakes. It went with the territory; anyone with half a brain managed to find some kind of legit employment even if it was a boring job. There were lots of jobs available, Corps having finally figured out that it was better to hire people to do mind-numbing tasks instead of using computers. Anyone could find some kind of job, even if it didn't allow them luxuries. Mom had once told her that anyone whose job required them to ask "You want fries with that?" was looked down on, but these days it was considered a fairly good way to make a living. Much better than sweeping floors, carting trash to the recycler, or swabbing out public toilets.

Her job was a step up from food service; she shuffled endless meaningless papers all day long, never quite knowing what they were about, or caring. All she cared about was continuing to get the paystub every week; with that added to the family account they could afford an apartment in a reasonably good area. In her neighborhood there wasn't really much for the gangs to steal as it took bioID to use the credcard function of the AllComm and no one had much jewelry or 'tronics worth taking.

She reached the top of the escalator's arch and looked to the window a block ahead. A bus was just pulling away – it was the 5:20 and she was in for a wait. No point in hurrying now so she sauntered along until she got to the streetdoors. Going home was preferable to staying here, but without Ken the apartment seemed too empty to bear. It had been three months since her brother had been found dead behind the WalMall, but the fact that the murderer was serving five years' Chained Menial Labor didn't bring Ken back. Another low-life off the streets for awhile, but plenty more where he came from.

Keira took a seat at the streetdoors and pulled out her AllComm to set a timer. Thirty minutes went by quickly as she listened to her voice mail and checked the local news. Another dead body found, and at the same WalMall where Ken's body had been found. The alarm beeped and she got up to look for the bus. There were a few other people waiting, which made her feel better, safer not being alone. She and the others dashed out to board the bus, shivering and gasping at the cold air outside. She sat down next to an older woman who nodded a greeting. She tried to smile at the lady, but she was out of practice.

"Boyfriend troubles?" her seatmate asked. Then to her questioning look, "You look like you're about to break into tears, that usually means your true love wasn't so true."

"No." Keira replied, "Just something I heard on the news."

"Now what could be so upsetting about the news? Oh, I know, it's full of murders, muggings, rapes, and let's not forget Corpcrime. But the police would have auto-texted your AllComm if a victim – or criminal - had your name address-booked."

Keira looked at the woman for a minute, decided it just might do her some good to talk to someone about her troubles. "I'm Keira" she said extending her hand.

"And I'm Alice. Pleased to meet you, Keira. Where do you work? I'm on the phones at Johnsco. I've worked at a lot of places, but always phones. Would you believe that when I started they actually paid me while I trained? A lot of things have changed since I was young."

"I'm at the local StoReport Inc. branch " Keira said. "You wouldn't believe all the papers they store. Stuff from half the big Corps in the city, I recognize a bunch of the names. Mostly I just file 'em, but once in awhile I get to pull one back out. It's boring, but it helps pay the bills."

Alice gave her a kind smile and said, "Paying the bills seems to be the last thing on your mind today. What was on the news that upset you so?"

Keira hesitated a second, then said "They reported a body found at the WalMall on 150th, and…well, that was the same place they found my brother's body three months ago. I know that stuff happens all the time, nowhere's safe, but it just bothered me."

"I'm so very sorry to hear about your brother, Keira" Alice replied. "I assume they caught the man who did it? They always seem to anymore, not like in my younger days when crimes went unsolved all the time. Did you know the police even had "cold case" units to deal with crimes that had happened years before? DNA helped to clear up a lot of them of course, but even with everyone's genetic profile on record you wouldn't think there'd always be evidence to compare. The Police Chief's always going on about all the advanced methods they use, but it seems strange that there aren't a few open cases."

Keira said thoughtfully, "Maybe they just don't tell us about 'em. I know I'd rather tell my boss about all the papers I filed today and not mention the ones still in my basket. He doesn't bother to look, so he thinks I'm doing good. Rick's so stupid, he always tells him what's left in his basket and gets chewed out every single day. Think he'd learn, but he hasn't yet."

Alice stared out the window for a minute before she spoke. "If there weren't so many thugs around we wouldn't have any crime because they would catch all the bad guys. The WalMalls are as safe as they can be made to be, and besides, they're the only place to shop. Not like in my younger days, when there were small stores all along every street."

Keira managed to poke a couple of buttons on her AllComm without Alice's noticing. At the resulting beep she looked down at the pad clipped to her belt and flashed a "sorry" look at Alice. "Oh, Barb's linked me the latest dirt on Jerry and I just have to see what he's done now." She couldn't care less what the hot new star might have done, but she was already getting tired of hearing about Alice's younger days. She spent the rest of the trip home staring at her AllComm, randomly scrolling through screens to appear busy, but mostly just thinking.

The bus trip seemed to take forever, and she had to change buses twice, but eventually it pulled into her neighborhood. Something was going on, there were flashing lights everywhere – and as she got closer she realized the police cars were right in front of her apartment building. She got off the bus and joined the crowd standing on the scrap of lawn in front of the complex to hear what the little cop had to say.

"We got some wacko here, thinks he can make his trip worthwhile going for quantity," the cop was saying. "Genius thought he could hit a bunch of folks as they got offa the bus and pawn the loot – none of it's worth much, but it adds up. It never dawned on him that the first vic would hit the AllComm panic and we'd be out here in 2 minutes flat."

Keira's attention was on a knot of activity a couple of buildings down. The mugger was easy to spot, his clothes said he didn't belong here. The idiot was trying to run away from the police, he hadn't stopped to think that transport out was few and far between at this hour. Two big cops had wrestled him to the ground and clipped the stun-collar on his neck; if he gave them any more trouble they'd just zap him and stuff him in the back of the car unconscious.

The cops prided themselves on quick response, it never took more than a few minutes for them to reach the scene and spread out looking for the offender. They always made a big show of doing their job, even if it was just getting a cat down from a tree. They drug the mugger back towards the crowd where he could be interrogated. The man was sullen, but knew better than to give them any real trouble. Said his name was Chuck Wilson, but didn't offer anything else. The little cop was busily filling out the arrest form on his AllComm, while the other cops emptied out Wilson's backpack.

"Mister Wilson, is this your current address?" The cop in charge shoved his AllComm in Wilson's face. "You've got 7 other arrests here, you'd think you'd have figured out by now that we're smarter than you." Wilson glared at the cop, but said nothing.

The other cops began giving him descriptions of the stolen goods, reading off serial numbers so he could enter them on the report. The owners stepped up to claim each item, proving ownership by the RegList in their AllComms, which process automatically filed the police report on their behalf. The police were allowed to use as much computer technology as they wanted; they needed all the help they could get to do their job. The crowd slowly dispersed, Keira along with them, back to the safety of their apartments.

She was in a quiet mood all night, thinking about all the bad things that happened to people. OK, a mugging wasn't even in the same league as murder, but it seemed like there were too many crimes in her life lately. Most everyone knew someone who knew someone who'd been mugged, but how many people did she know who actually had it happen to them? Well, 4 or 5 of her neighbors after tonight, but before that there hadn't been any. And murders were reported all over the city, but of course it's different when it happens to your brother.

The next day at work Keira shuffled papers mindlessly, hardly looking at what they were, reading just enough to fill out the xrefcard. Until all of a sudden she realized she was holding the arrest report of one Chuck Wilson, the same bozo who'd mugged her neighbors the night before. Funny coincidence. Out of curiosity she scanned the xrefcard into her AllComm. She'd look at it later, although she wasn't sure what she thought she'd find.

That evening on the bus ride home (thankfully Alice wasn't there, maybe she always ran late) Keira looked at the scanned report. There were 9 entries - 8 were arrests, but the first code was one she hadn't seen before. "Hah!" she thought to herself, "I have learned something from this job, all these codes are for small-time crimes, the really bad stuff has a different prefix. I wonder what he did?"

Keira would've gotten to work early the next day, except that the bus schedule didn't allow for enthusiasm. She looked forward to pulling police reports, quickly checking the numbers she'd saved to see if they were close to the area she was working in. That way it wouldn't be obvious that she was looking something up. She didn't think she'd get in trouble for it, but one never knew. It took longer than she'd have expected, several days in fact. And she wasn't finding anything really interesting, this Wilson idiot didn't have much imagination. The worst thing he'd done was scratch a little girl's neck pulling off her necklace. Still, it was kind of fun and besides, she hadn't looked up all his arrest reports yet.

The very next day she found something interesting. When she pulled the next report it listed an accomplice, and the name "Jim Mason" fairly leapt off the page at her. That was the man arrested for her brother's murder. Keira was really interested now, and began the game all over again with Mason's IDNum. What she found was interesting, but she wasn't sure what it meant. Mason's xrefcard showed the same weird code at the top, then a bunch of petty-crime codes, and then the arrest for murder. After a few thefts the bastard had suddenly gone crazy and killed her brother. Why would someone do that?

It took Keira another few days to get the chance to pull the report on Ken's murder and scan it into her AllComm. At home that evening she closed the door to her bedroom and, heart pounding, pulled up the report. She'd never read one of these before so she didn't know exactly what she expected to find, but whatever she'd expected it wasn't there. The report was short, basically saying that the body had been found by George Allen, an off-duty rent-a-cop at the 150th Street WalMall. The next entry simply stated that Jim Mason was arrested for the murder later the same night. There was no evidence given, no witnesses listed, no clues noted at the scene. There was nothing to indicate why they'd arrested Mason. Ken hadn't been robbed, so Mason couldn't have had anything belonging to him to tie him to the murder. Maybe there was some other report somewhere that explained everything, although she couldn't see any reference to another report. Keira X'd out of the reports and punched Barb's phone code. Suddenly she wanted to get away from all this.

"Hey Barb, wanna go hang out at WalMall? Maybe there'll be some cute guys there."

Barb's voice betrayed her surprise at the request. "Yeah, sure, are you kidding? I haven't seen you in forever, it's about time you got back in the swing of things. What time is it? Oh, I can just make the 7:30 bus if I hurry. See ya there!"

Keira stood at the front door of the apartment building waiting for the bus, automatically timing its progress, knowing that if she started out when the bus was there she would have just enough time to get to the street and step onboard by the time the driver saw her coming and stopped. She boarded, swiped her AllComm, and pressed her thumb to the sensor to validate the charge. She needed to get out of the house and have some fun, was looking forward to this.

The bus pulled in at the WalMall a few minutes later and she stepped off into the mall and quickly walked to the benches in the waiting area. She looked around but didn't see Barb, she must've gotten there first. As she sat down to wait something occurred to her – the bus came inside the mall to collect and deliver passengers. Why would Ken – why would anyone – go outside the mall?

Barb was on the next bus. She ran up to her and gave her a big hug.

Keira found herself happy to see her friend, excited about looking at all the newest fashions and listening to the current gossip. They wandered around the mall looking in all the windows, trying on clothes, playing with expensive new 'tronics, and listening to the newest tunes.

"Oh, look at those earrings!" Barb exclaimed. She held the card up to her face and looked in the tiny mirror atop the stand. "They'd be just perfect with my yellow dress." Then with a sigh she put it back.

"I thought you wanted them," Keira said, although she knew the answer.

"Well, I bought that lipstick, and downloaded 3 songs to my AllComm, and, ummm, what else did I get tonight?" Barb frowned in thought. "Oh yeah, that blouse I found on the sale rack. Though I'm not sure what I'd wear it with - do you think I could take it back?"

Keira laughed, Barb was always changing her mind. "Tell you what. You can get the earrings next week, let's go get a snack, I'm starved."

They walked to the McFood Court and bought ice cream, then saw Jack and Tim and went over to join them. As they laughed and chatted Keira's mood lightened even more.

Yet as they walked around the mall she found herself looking for exits – and found none. She knew from friends that worked there that the stores all had back entrances where merchandise was delivered and trash hauled off, but why would anyone want to go out that way? Nothing out there but dumpsters and oil puddles from the delivery trucks.

Before they knew it, it was time to catch the bus home so she and Barb headed back toward the boarding area. Barb's bus pulled in just as they walked up, so they said goodbye. Keira's bus wouldn't be there for several more minutes, so she waved to Barb and settled down to wait.

But she found herself thinking about the doors again. Just then the alarm sounded to warn of a bus entering; this time she watched carefully. The doors slid apart to reveal a big rubber seal that the bus rubbed against as it eased through into the building, no way to slip out beside it. The doors closed as the bus stopped in the middle of the boarding area. People got off the bus and others got on. The alarm sounded again and the bus slowly moved forward as the opposite doors opened. As soon as it was through the doors closed again behind it.

She got up and wandered over to the doors, examining them. There were no controls visible, no buttons, no keypad, no sensor, no way for someone to open the doors manually. As far as she could see, there was no way for a person to walk out those doors. And no reason to. Why would Ken have gone outside?

"Miss, please step away from the doors for your own safety." She looked up to see the security guard; the nametag on his uniform said "George". Instead of moving away she asked "How could someone get outside the mall through here?"

"Please step back Miss, we don't want any accidents. There is no way anyone can get outside the mall here, the doors are automatic and only respond to the signal from the buses." George sounded like he was reading a script, and badly at that.

Keira edged away from the doors, put off by George's attitude. But she wasn't willing to give up quite yet and blurted out "My brother was found dead out there four months ago and I want to know how he got outside the mall!"

George looked at her for a minute, finally said "Oh, I remember that, please accept my condolences Miss."

"But how did he get there, and what was he doing outside?" Keira was almost wailing. She took a breath to calm herself; she wanted information and crying wasn't going to help with this guy. "What did…" she began, then suddenly realized she wasn't supposed to know this was the man who'd found Ken's body. "Uh, you said you remember, what happened?"

George thought the question over before replying, "Not much to tell Miss. I patrol the outside perimeter a couple times each shift, and every once in awhile I find a body. I call it in to the station and they take it from there. One of the guys on the dayshift found another one this morning."

"But why would anyone go outside the mall?" Keira asked.

George shrugged, "I don't know Miss. I don't try to explain 'em, I just report 'em."

Keira thought this seemed odd; most cops were only too happy to talk about doing their job, almost bragged about it. This guy seemed determined not to tell her anything, maybe he thought he was protecting her by not giving any details. "Ken wasn't robbed, at least he had all his stuff, and his credcard function didn't have any current charges so nothing was missing. The police told us he was stabbed, did you find a knife?"

"I really don't remember, Miss." George replied.

"How did you find the killer? What evidence led you to him? How do you know they got the right guy?" Keira was getting desperate to get some kind of answer.

George sighed, "Miss, that happened months ago and I cannot recall the details. The officer on duty would have investigated and made a full report, and any evidence would've been used to find the man responsible."

Just then the alarm sounded again, prompting both to hurry away from the doors. George kept going, clearly not willing to say any more. Keira realized this was her bus and ran to get aboard. On the trip home she thought about the conversation. George hadn't wanted to talk about the murder, and that wasn't like a cop - even an off-duty cop. Something didn't add up here.

Keira knew she should drop the whole thing; she should be glad Ken's murderer had been caught and get back to living her life. Ken wouldn't want her moping around like this, he'd want her to get on with her life and enjoy herself. She told herself she was just playing a game, looking into old records, trying to find a pattern that probably wasn't there. After awhile she'd admit it was a lost cause and give up. But for now she was far too intrigued to give up, and if nothing else it made her boring job more interesting.

Now, each day at work she pulled records whenever she could, scanning them into her AllComm. She started with a listed accomplice of Mason's and branched out from there. Pete Barstow had been a little more active than Jim, his xrefcard had more entries. There was that unknown code at the top, several small-time crimes, a murder-code, and another unknown code. The last one (it started with an "X" like the first one) was dated just yesterday. She wondered if the guy'd caused trouble on the CML gang and this was some kind of punishment code. But if that was the case, why had his xrefcard started with the code?

Sometimes she hit a dead-end, the creep apparently worked alone. But once in awhile she ran across a gang member and got several more names. If she hadn't been determined (and organized, thankfully she could use the computer as much as she wanted for personal projects) she'd have gotten lost in all the IDNums, but she treated it like a reverse jigsaw puzzle. Each name was another piece that came from here, but none of them ever seemed to fit together to make another picture. And all the pieces looked pretty much the same. After a couple of weeks she realized that the one similarity was that strange code. It always headed the list. Well, almost always. Once she'd found a card for a young man that didn't start with the X-code, and there was one xrefcard that only had one at the bottom. If it appeared twice the second time was the last entry on the xrefcard. She needed to find out what the X-code meant, but how?

In the meantime, she began checking out the murder-codes as she ran across them. Those reports all looked pretty much the same, too. Not much information – discovery, cause of death, arrest. Under discovery they listed the time and date, location, and the name of the person that found the body. Cause of death was just what it sounded like, a short description of how the poor person had died, and a likely weapon. The arrest section listed a name and IDNum of the person arrested, as well as time and place of arrest. Period. It still seemed to Keira that there ought to be more information about how the cops figured out who the murderer was, a reference to yet another report with those details, but she'd seen nothing that remotely fit the bill.

Outwardly her life seemed to return to some sense of normalcy. She went to work, came home and spent time with her family, and went to the WalMall with Barb and their friends. They shopped, went to the movies, flirted with some of the boys and talked about their hopes, dreams, and futures. She enjoyed herself, but being at the WalMall always reminded her of Ken's death and she never told any of her friends about her ongoing search. They were glad she'd seemed to get over it and she didn't think they'd understand. But she'd go home and pull out her AllComm and sit on her bed trying to make sense out of all the data she'd accumulated over the past months.

One morning when she got to work Keira found a note on her desk from her boss, asking her to go to his office. She just knew someone had seen her pulling all those records and he was going to fire her for it. Heart pounding, hands shaking, she walked into his office and barely squeaked out, "You wanted to see me?"

Bob looked up from his work and smiled at her, waved his arm in the general direction of the extra chair and said "Have a seat, Keira, be with you in just a sec." She was glad to be able to sit down, as she thought she might just pass out standing there waiting for the axe to fall. But Bob continued to smile as he looked over the paper in front of him, finally looked up at her and said "Your numbers have been up the last few months, you've been doing a really good job here."

Keira couldn't quite comprehend the meaning of his words – she'd been so sure she was in trouble that for a moment she was having trouble shifting gears. That had sounded like a compliment! She stammered something along the lines of, "Well, uh, the time passes quicker if I keep myself busy."

Bob fairly beamed at that, said "We really appreciate your dedication, and we'd like to show it. As of this morning you've been promoted to Senior Clerk, with a raise in pay. I can't really say that the work will be more interesting, but you must understand that we don't trust just anyone with this job, the reports you'll be dealing with have a much higher security clearance. I'm sure we can trust you to do a fine job."

Keira's jaw dropped, her eyes got wide, and she suddenly realized she probably looked like a total idiot staring at Bob. She swallowed, found her voice and said "Oh wow, thank you, thank you. I don't know what to say! I really appreciate this, and I promise I'll do a good job."

Bob smiled again, then he looked at the piles of paperwork on his desk and already seemed to be thinking of what needed to be done next. "OK. Well, go talk to Shirae, she'll get you started. And thanks for your hard work, keep it up." He picked up a pen and she knew he'd already forgotten she was there, so she left.

She fairly floated to Shirae's desk, happily accepted a pile of reports and listened carefully as the older woman explained how to deal with them. As the morning wore on she realized that her new job wasn't much different, she just filed different kinds of reports. All of a sudden she paused, it had just occurred to her that she probably wouldn't be able to keep up her search through the police reports. The thought panicked her for a moment, but she fought the feeling down. Maybe it was time to give up on that game anyway, she certainly hadn't found anything to answer her questions; nor was she really sure what her questions were. She still had all those xrefcards in her AllComm, she could puzzle over them whenever she wanted. Maybe it was time to quit collecting data and concentrate on figuring out whatever she could. This promotion was exciting, and a raise would certainly help. Maybe it was an omen that her life was headed in a better direction and she needed to let go of her silly search.

But that was easier to say than to do. On the bus trip home she occupied her time by paging through the reports yet again. All the numbers seemed to run together, and yet somehow an idea was tickling the back of her mind. After dinner she went to her room and started looking at them again. There were a lot of murders at the various WalMalls, but bodies were found in Corp Section too. Was any particular place more dangerous than others?

Keira pulled up a blank spreadsheet, keyed in "150th" in the first box, then put a "1" in the next box. She swapped over to her notes and began going through them in order, adding locations and counts. It didn't take her long to realize that just adding to the count wouldn't tell the whole story, and she started over. This time she keyed in the date and time of each discovery and scrolled way to the right to add code summing up the non-blank boxes. It was late by the time she'd finished, but she felt pleased with her work. No one WalMall had more murders, they were all about the same. She was willing to bet that if she looked up "WalMall" in PubReg all of them would be on her list. Corp Section was a little harder to figure out as the addresses given were pretty vague, just a block number. She stared at the spreadsheet, willing it to tell her something more. But, stubbornly, it remained silent. She dropped the AllComm in the charger and went to bed.

Two days later at work Shirae showed her how to file Classified Reports. The first stack of these were from some financial Corp, column after column of boring numbers. However, after lunch she picked up a new stack to file - police reports. And right there on the top piece was an X-code! Quickly she scanned it into her AllComm, feeling guilty for breaking Bob's trust in her so soon, knowing she'd be walked out the door if she was caught. Her heart thumped in her chest for a full ten minutes afterwards but nothing happened and she eventually calmed down.

All the way home that night she was acutely conscious of her AllComm clipped to her waistband, but she was afraid to look at that document on the bus where someone could see. Barb called to say a group was meeting at the WalMall later in the evening, but she said she was tired from the new job and begged off. She bolted her dinner and gave her Mom the same excuse and went straight to her room.

At last, alone in her tiny bedroom with the door shut, she felt safe reading the file. Her hands shook as she scrolled through her copious documents to find it. It wasn't hard to understand. Some guy from another city had moved here, and this seemed to be a transfer of his police report to the local authorities, complete with his IDNum, name, and arrest record.

But this new information certainly gave her something to think about. Was the X-code on the scanned xrefcards some kind of transfer code? She fired off a new spreadsheet and began going through her information again. It took a few false starts and changes before she came up with a format that she felt would be useful, and a long time to populate all the boxes.

It was late and she knew she'd be tired tomorrow at work, but Keira kept on working. Now that she had this data, what did it tell her? She wondered if the X-codes identified cities. She looked at the codes a little closer and realized that what she'd thought were zero and one in the second position were almost undoubtedly an alphabetic "O" and "I". The "XI" codes were always the ones found at the top of the xrefcards, while the "XO" codes were at the bottom. That made sense, transferring in and out. What, did these guys just move all over the country to find fresh pickings in a different city? She massaged the data a little more and found a few cases where the rest of the code appeared in both "in" and "out" boxes of different people.

"Well, that was interesting," Keira thought to herself. She'd have to do some more checking at work now that she could access these classified reports. She wondered if there were a way to find the city codes, but decided it probably wasn't really all that important. "I wonder what else I can figure out?" She was excited now, felt like she was on the right path at last.

"Hmmm, let's see. The place doesn't seem to be significant, what about date or time of the murder?" She spent awhile playing with the dates, but could see no pattern. Of course she didn't have all the crimes committed in the last few months, which would skew the data. So she switched to looking at times and saw a pattern quickly. All the discoveries happened shortly after 8, 12, and 4, both a.m. and p.m. That was four hours between each time, six times during a day. That sounded like a regular schedule of some sort, and reminded her of something.

Wait, hadn't George the security guard said he checked outside the WalMall a couple of times during each shift? Well, that made sense. All the other guards probably made their rounds at the same time, part of their routine. She laughed softly, and said aloud "So do you think George is a murderer? He just has a job that includes occasionally finding dead people. He probably finds other weird stuff, but that's gotta be the worst part." She continued thinking about the situation. Just because he finds bodies on his rounds doesn't mean he's the one who killed them. Other guards at the same WalMall had found bodies, and many different guards at other stores too. It certainly wouldn't be good for WalMall's image to kill off the odd customer, so they couldn't be behind it. No, the pattern had to be related to the guards' rounds. Her excitement at the discovery faded as she succumbed to the late hour, and she decided it was time to get to sleep.

For the next few days Keira stuck to doing her job, and relaxing with her family or friends after work. She'd been so nervous scanning that classified report that it took her a few days before her curiosity got the better of her. But eventually she knew she wouldn't be able to rest without trying to pull at least some of the classified reports listed on her spreadsheet.

As she expected, it took her a couple of weeks to get most of them. She'd grown steadily more confident that she wouldn't get caught, but then Shirae had walked by just as she was putting one back and it frightened her. Was Shirae checking up on her? She'd not said anything by the end of the day and Keira decided she had enough to see if they'd really help answer her questions.

So that night after dinner she went to her bedroom and began looking at the reports. It struck her that it looked like the clerks had simply cut and pasted their local xrefcard onto the report. And those xrefcards looked exactly like all the ones she'd scanned. Well, no big surprise there, that was probably standard procedure.

These xrefcards all showed an "XO" code at the bottom, which made perfect sense. But they also had an "XI" code at the top! So every one of these criminals had moved from yet another city, and presumably they'd had an arrest record there too, or the cops wouldn't have opened a report on them. Of course people moved all the time, and even the bad guys might want a change of scenery. But there was something strange going on here.

She began scrolling through various of the xrefcards in her AllComm. What was she looking for? She was close to an idea, but not quite seeing it yet. She started a third spreadsheet listing IDNums, codes, and dates. By the time she entered data for the third guy with an "XO" code she noticed that it landed in the same column as the other two. That seemed weird, an "XI", 12 codes for petty crimes, a murder code, and then the "XO". Must be some kind of coincidence.

But as the night wore on Keira realized that the pattern held. A lot of the cards listed fewer than 12 petty crimes codes, but nothing more. And there was one xrefcard that showed only an arrest for murder. But almost all of those with 12 arrests also had a murder, and many of those had the transfer code last. And the "XO" code was always six months after the arrest for murder. That couldn't be possible! The law was clear, anyone convicted of murder was sentenced to five years on the Chained Menial Labor gangs, how could they move somewhere else in six months? It was almost like the cops had thrown them out of the city.

"That's it!" Keira exclaimed. "No, not quite. I could see them being thrown out after they'd served their sentence, sort of a 'we don't want your kind here' thing. And I could see that the cops might want to get rid of a guy after he'd committed a certain number of petty crimes too, say twelve. But it seems odd that so many thiefs would suddenly graduate to murder and then be forced to move."

Keira knew she was tired, her brain probably wasn't working well, but the pattern was too clear to mistake. She sat on her bed and rubbed her eyes, trying to make sense out of it all. "What if they didn't kill anyone?" she asked herself. "What if the cops couldn't find the killer and just arrested the next guy on the list of those with twelve arrests? But why send them out of town six months later?" She stared at the wall, willing the answer to come.

"What was it Alice had said that first day on the bus? Something about not being able to catch all the criminals because there were so many of them. What if there weren't so many, and the police just moved them around so no one would know how few there were?"

Suddenly she looked up and said "No!" She'd just realized that it'd been over six months since Ken's death. She found Mason's entry, no "XO" code at the bottom. She knew what she had to do tomorrow at work.

Keira had memorized the IDNums in question. It was a couple of hours before she got access to the xrefcard files, but this time she made little effort to blend her search in with her work. She carried her stack of papers to the file cabinets and boldly pulled the first xrefcard as though it were the one listed on the top page of her stack.

There was no change to this one, still just 12 petty crimes. But she did notice that the last one had only been a couple weeks ago. She moved to the next bank of cabinets and pulled the second card. "Aha!" She realized she'd said it out loud, quickly looked around to see if anyone had noticed. But she was alone, so she scanned it into her AllComm and then stood there a minute thinking. This guy's xrefcard now showed a murder code. But no "XO" yet, it hadn't been six months. The xrefcard for the guy with only a murder charge had no "XO" code either - and since it had been one of the first she'd scanned he was past his time limit. "Maybe he really killed someone," she whispered as she scanned it in. "Since they're sure of this one they'll actually make him serve his full CML sentence."

She'd saved Mason's card for last, almost afraid to see what it said. Taking a deep breath she pulled it out of the file and looked at it. There at the bottom was the "XO" code she'd expected to see. Her brother's murderer was supposed to be serving his sentence, but had moved out of town just a few weeks ago, his police record transferred with him. Her eyes blurred with tears as she scanned the xrefcard and she had trouble understanding the duplicate error message her AllComm was showing. Her finger moved to touch the "replace" button, but at the last second she realized she needed both copies. She renamed the new scan, put the xrefcard back and ran to the bathroom, sheaf of papers still in hand.

She saw Tina washing her hands as she came rushing in, but she just ran into a stall and shut the door.

"Keira, are you OK?" Tina asked. "Are you sick?"

Keira dropped her papers on the floor and sat down, burying her head in her hands. "My stomach doesn't feel very good, I think I'll be all right if I just sit here for a few minutes." Privately she thought "Oh please go away before I really start crying."

Tina dried her hands and said "Well, OK, hope you get to feeling better."

The door hadn't quite closed before Keira began sobbing. This wasn't fair! She'd felt a sense of relief when Mason was convicted, and now he seemed to be free again. Ken was gone, but it had helped to think that his killer would be punished. What was going on here? If Mason hadn't killed Ken then who had?

Keira cried herself out in a few minutes. Slowly she picked her papers up from the floor and walked to the sink to splash water on her face. She felt like she was in a fog, couldn't seem to make sense of anything. She seemed to have stumbled onto something sinister, but wasn't sure what it meant, much less what to do about it. She felt a vague sense of danger for knowing what she did, but she didn't know enough to know what to watch out for. One thing was for sure, she couldn't go to the cops with this!

She walked back to the file room and continued working, trying to concentrate on her job to keep from thinking. It helped when she finished her current stack and grabbed a bunch of Corp reports. But every so often her thoughts strayed to the conundrum. Was she really in danger? All the data was in her AllComm, she'd told no one else about her searches. Should she tell Barb? Not her Mom and Dad, they'd be too upset because of Ken. She couldn't just erase it all and forget about it, but she thought she'd be OK if she kept it to herself until she figured out what to do.

When she got on the bus that evening she walked to the farthest back seat even though she was a little late and there were empty seats closer to the front. She didn't want anyone glancing over her shoulder to see what she was doing. She spent the ride working on her AllComm, organizing all the scans and making a few notes. If she decided to tell anyone else she'd at least have it all together. Concentrating on the technical details helped distance her mind from the problem and she felt better by the time she got home.

She'd just walked in the door when her AllComm beeped with a call. "Hey, Keira, have you eaten yet?" Barb sounded excited. "The whole gang's meeting at the WalMall, it's Tim's birthday and we all thought we'd take him to dinner. It'll be fun, maybe we'll go see that new movie of Jerry's after we eat. It's Friday, let's make a night of it."

Keira's unease flared at the thought of going there, but it did sound like fun and it would help her forget about her worries. And if she was with a big group surely she'd be safe. "Just lemme check with Mom, you know, if she's made something special and expects me to eat with the family I wouldn't want to disappoint her." Keira poked her head in the kitchen, and knew instantly from the smell that the stuff bubbling in the big pot on the stove was potato soup.

Her mother looked up and smiled at her, said "I heard. You go out with your friends and have fun. You've spent so much time in your room lately that you need to get out for awhile."

Keira put the AllComm back to her ear and told Barb she'd catch the next bus and be there shortly. "Don't eat all the fried mushrooms before I get there!" she said in parting. She glanced at the chrono in the corner of the screen, saw that she had time to change clothes before the bus would get there. Good, this would be the perfect opportunity to wear that new outfit, there were a couple of guys in the group that she'd like to impress.

She found she really was looking forward to the evening's festivities, and before she knew it she was stepping off the bus at the WalMall. She knew they'd all meet at the McFood court so she went straight there. Not everyone was there yet, but true to form they'd already started eating. She spent the next hour eating, talking, and laughing with her friends, and felt more relaxed than she had in weeks. They had a minor dispute over which movie to see and finally decided to stroll down to the Cineplex to see what was on.

They weren't in a hurry, and paused to check out some of the window displays. Barb stood in rapt attention in front of one of the clothing stores, so absorbed that she didn't realize the rest of the group had moved on. Keira looked back to see Barb talking to some man, he looked like he was apologizing to her. When Barb caught up she asked, "Who was that man?"

"Oh, he bumped into me, didn't see me standing there. No big deal, it's not like I fell down or anything. I really wish I could afford that silver skirt though, it's gorgeous." Barb's eyes strayed back towards the store window.

They continued on to the Cineplex without further mishap. None of the guys wanted to see Jerry's new flick, but that was about the only thing they could agree on. Their discussion was getting pretty animated when Barb suddenly yelled, "Oh my God, it's gone!"

"What's gone?" Keira asked. But she could see Barb frantically patting down her pockets and knew what had happened.

"My AllComm!" Barb was almost in tears. "I thought I'd check the time to see if that would eliminate a choice, and it's gone. That man, do you think he could've bumped into me on purpose so he could grab my AllComm?"

Jack spoke up, "Sure could've, that's one of the oldest tricks in the book. Do you remember what he looked like?"

Barb thought for a minute before admitting she'd been too busy drooling over the silver skirt to pay attention. "Oh, what am I going to do now?" she wailed.

Jack said "There was a security guard here a minute ago, over there by the movie posters. Go find him and report it and we'll stay here."

Everyone looked around, but there was no guard to be seen. Barb looked uncertain, but Keira said "I'll buy your ticket, you can pay me back later. And trust me, we all know what movie gets your vote! Go on, I'll bet we'll still be here arguing when you get back."

Barb walked off in the direction of the posters and they returned to discussing the merits of the various movies. A few minutes later Keira saw Barb walking with George the guard towards one of the short side corridors. "Must be going to his office, bet she'll have to fill out a bunch of paperwork," Keira thought. But they were no closer to making a decision, and she concentrated on trying to point out that Tim ought to get to choose the film since it was his birthday.

Several minutes later they were down to only three choices when Gina suddenly held out an Allcomm. "It's Barb's!" she cried. "I remember now, she dropped it in my pocket so she could use both hands to carry that big plate of fried mushrooms."

Tim looked irritated, told the group "Well, someone needs to go get her and tell her we've found her AllComm but she's lost out on seeing Jerry tonight. I don't know if she'll think that's a fair trade." Tim thought Barb was silly, but that's part of what Keira liked about her.

Jack and Keira spoke in unison, "I'll go tell her." Keira continued, "I saw her going off that way, the office must be down that hall. Come on Jack, you can go with me if you want."

"Sure, you'll probably need protection when you tell her we're not watching that dork." Jack smirked. He liked to think of himself as macho as well as funny, but in this case he just might be right.

They walked off down the way and turned down the hallway where Keira had last seen Barb. Jack paused and scanned the signs on the doors. "Here's the door" he said, "'Guard Office' has to be the right place. That door over there's the janitor's closet." Jack knocked on the door but no one answered.

"That's odd" Keira remarked. "Barb would've come straight back to the Cineplex if she was finished. There has to be someone in there."

Jack shrugged and said "There's just one way to find out!" He opened the door and they walked into the room. At first she thought the man standing at the back door was George, but when he looked up at the disturbance Keira saw that it was someone else. The uniform was similar but she realized that this was an on-duty cop. And he had his arm around Barb's throat, his hand over her mouth. Keira could see Barb's eyes over his hand, big and round and scared.

Jack shouted "Hey! Let her go!" But the cop twisted Barb around to the door while he opened it with his free hand. Jack yelled again, "Where are you taking her? She's my friend, I can vouch for her identity. I have her AllComm here."

Keira stood rooted to the spot, but her hand moved of its own volition and grabbed her AllComm. Her finger pressed the camera button repeatedly as everything else seemed to happen in slow motion. The cop pushed Barb ahead of him through the door, and Jack began running towards them. The door slammed in Jack's face and he wrenched it open again, charged through it still yelling for the cop to stop. Keira watched the door swing shut again, trying to make sense out of what had happened.

A minute later Keira opened the door, looked around and saw the others standing several feet away. The cop still had his arm around Barb's throat and Jack was facing them. There was a dumpster just behind them and Keira crept up and peeked around its side. The cop was saying "Just go back inside dude, this isn't any of your business."

Jack had a stubborn look on his face, replied "Yes it is my business, that's my friend and I can explain everything."

The cop suddenly lashed out and kicked Jack with his foot. Jack crumpled and fell to the ground. Barb squealed and tried to squirm free, but the cop squeezed her throat harder and she stood still. The cop muttered softly, "Looks like I get a two-fer tonight." He pulled his gun and aimed it at Jack.

Before she could help herself Keira screamed "NO!" The cop turned around and saw her hiding behind the dumpster. He dropped his head a little to speak to Barb. "That another friend of yours?" he asked her. "If I'd known you weren't alone I wouldn't have taken you. Well, this just makes it more complicated, but I can figure a way to explain three bodies. Two girls couldn't put up much of a fight against an attacker, maybe I'll drag you down to the corner of the building like you'd tried to run away."

He looked up, straight at Keira. "You can die right where you are, cowering behind the trash bin, like you were afraid to try to help your friends." He pointed his gun at her.

Keira stood up and faced him. There was nothing else to do, the door to the guard's office had no handle on the outside. Besides, she was no longer afraid. She'd finally figured out the answer to the puzzle, but really wanted to hear the details. "Did you kill my brother?" she asked the cop.

He sneered at her and said "Probably. This is my beat, but it could've been one of the guys on the dayshift. Doesn't matter which one of us it was, we pinned it on some idiot anyway."

Keira remained calm. "I know what's going on. You pick some guy with an arrest record, charge him with murder and then six months later move him to some other city. It makes it look like there's an endless supply of bad guys."

The cop looked a little surprised at that. "Oh, it's real easy to lose track of a prisoner, nobody much cares what happens to 'em. And we really don't want 'em in our town after they've committed a murder, now do we?"

Keira stomped her foot in frustration. "Why not just punish them and let them learn their lesson?" she asked.

The cop just grinned, and when she didn't respond he explained. "You don't get it, do you? There's not enough criminals to go around these days. Back in your folks' day the lawmakers and shrinks did their jobs too well, figured out how to keep people honest, or made crime too hard for these bozos to get right. There's not too many who're willing to try anymore."

Keira was stunned at the import of this revelation, but she wasn't quite through yet. "And murder is the reason you use to move them around? All these guys are just thugs and thieves, none of them actually kill anyone?"

"Oh, every now and then we get a real killing, someone gets mad or jealous or wants a spouse out of the picture. They get to serve their full CML sentence and get their head shrunk so they don't do it again. But other than that we got nothing much to do, and that looks bad on the Captain's report. So we find something."

Keira stared at him. She thought she had it figured out, but wanted to make sure. She asked, "So you commit a murder and then pretend to solve it yourself? Why?"

The cop was losing interest at her apparent lack of understanding, he just shook his head and said "Then they wouldn't need very many cops, now would they?"

He gestured with the gun, told her "Get back down behind that overgrown trash can, I'm tired of talking. You've got all the answers you're going to get, much good they'll do you. I don't know how you found out about moving the guys around, but you won't live long enough to tell anyone else."

But Keira stood her ground. "I found some reports at work and pieced most of it together. Before I followed you out here I sent the whole file from my AllComm to the news agencies. But I didn't know who was really doing the killing until you told me."

The cop looked worried, raised his gun a little and snapped "Get down, or I'll shoot you and move your body for George to find later."

Keira just smiled and held out her hand with the AllComm in it. "You've been on speaker the whole time. Every reporter in the city has probably heard this call, and you can bet several of them recorded it. They'll use GPS to pinpoint me, so even if you kill me and destroy my AllComm they'll know who did it."

For a second Keira thought he'd kill her anyway. But while the cop was thinking over his options a newsvan drove around the corner of the building and stopped with them centered in its glaring headlights. Barb jerked away from his hold and ran to her side. A cameraman jumped out of the van and ran towards them just in time to capture video of a now-revived Jack hitting the cop over the head with his shoe and grabbing the gun out of his hand as he fell.

So Jack got to look like the hero on the newscast, but it was Keira the reporters wanted to interview.