I found the photograph at the bottom of my uncle's sock drawer. It was fairly old; I knew because my uncle looked to be in his late teens and he had yet to lose the majority of his hair or wear glasses. He also appeared quite a bit thinner. He didn't look happy, as if pausing to let the photographer shoot was a complete waste of his time. I examined my uncle's face. It was thin, but smooth-skinned, with blond hair accenting its pale complexion. His dark eyes were the only spots of shadow. I lingered on these details and smiled, but my uncle was not what really kindled my curiosity.

Next to him stood another boy — much younger and nearly the opposite in appearance. Where my uncle was thin and blond, the smaller boy was comparatively broad with longish brown hair. My uncle was brown-eyed; the boy's eyes were gray-green. My uncle scowled at the camera, and the younger boy grinned. Yet the two seemed oddly similar. I couldn't place how. It bothered me, for I felt a strange compulsion to learn more about the dark-haired child.

Then my uncle entered the room and I hastily stowed the picture back beneath the socks.

"Done yet?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Almost," I said, turning back to the bed to scoop up the rest of the laundry. It was already folded, so I just had to put it away in the right drawers — piece of cake.

"Good." My uncle stepped into the room. "I'm expecting a call in about ten minutes, so —"

"I'll be done and down," I assured him with a smile, secretly disappointed that I wouldn't have time to look at the photo again.

"Good," he repeated in his low, gruff voice. "I expect you to do your job as well as always — better, actually; this is a very important call."

"Who's the client?"

"Supplier," he corrected.

"Oh?" I closed the shirt drawer and moved on to the pants. "That's why it's special then."

"Yes. The situation's touchy — renegotiation of the contract and all that."

I nodded. "Sounds messy."

"Not if you and I play it right," he smiled grimly. "Come down when you're ready, Ben." With that, he turned and left.

I finished up quickly and went downstairs, positioning myself in the chair by the telephone. I put my feet up on the desk and opened the desk drawer, pulling out some chips to eat while I waited. Soon, the phone rang. I let it beep out its little tone twice before answering.

"Hello," I said, high and sweet. "This is Carton and Lemont's. What can I do for you?"

"I want to speak with Gregory Furview." The voice was deep and scratchy.

"Certainly, sir. I'll put you right through."

I pressed the hold button. Then I cleared my throat and whistled a short tune, experimenting with different voices before pressing the button again.

"Mr. Furview's office, how can I help you?" My voice was lower and rougher than before. I drew out the vowels and swallowed the R's to give myself a slight accent.

"Can I talk to Jean Whitley?"

"Of course. Just a second."

Again I pressed the hold button, waiting slightly longer this time before reopening the line.

"Jean Whitley speaking. Do you require assistance?" I spoke with a higher voice than normal, but not too high. It would sound like a middle-aged woman's to the man who had called.

"I'd like to set up a meeting to discuss my account."

"Great. When would be a good time?"

"July twenty-second."

I pressed hold again. Somewhere else in the house, my uncle picked up the phone.

"Go," he called.

I pressed the button and popped a chip into my mouth. From here on out, it was my uncle's responsibility to smooth over any bumps between him and our supplier that might result in the negation of our negotiations. I smiled. I'd done my job well, making sure the supplier believed we were connected to a larger organization and had set up an adequate security system. He'd swallowed it.

Another ringing phone interrupted my thoughts. It was my uncle's cell. I dumped the rest of the chips into my mouth, swung my legs off the desk, and went to hunt it down. Not his office, not the study, not the kitchen — definitely not upstairs. I tapped my fingers against the door frame as I tried to work out where it could be. The living room? No. The entry hall? Possible. I walked over, and sure enough, the ringing got louder. Eventually I dug it out of a coat pocket, flipping it open and pressing it to my ear.

"Hello?"

"Is Jim Turnathy there?"

"No. May I ask who this is?"

"The police."

"Has he done something?" I didn't even pause. Lying was second nature to me; acting was first.

"You don't seem surprise… or worried."

"I'm not. You guys are always calling us. Usually it's just a wrong number, but I always ask, just in case."

"Oh…" The policeman seemed confused. "Well this isn't a wrong number. Or, at least, I don't think so. Jim Turnathy does live with you, doesn't he?"

"I don't recall saying that."

"But you asked what he'd done."

"I told you I always asked, just in case."

"In case what?"

"Damned if I know!"

"Oh." He paused. He was even more confused than before — I could hear the uncertainty in his voice. "So this is a wrong number?"

"Are you asking me or telling me?"

"Umm…" he trailed off. "I — I'm telling you… I think. I'm sorry to have wasted your time."

"So am I."

"What? Oh… never mind." He hung up. I shook my head sadly. At this rate, the police would never catch my uncle — or Jim Turnathy as they called him.

I poked my head around the doorframe to ascertain that my uncle would be sequestered on his business call for quite some time, then scampered upstairs. As quietly as possible, I entered his room, pulled open the sock drawer, and extracted the photograph. It had been developed badly, I realized now; the colors were ever so slightly off, shifted too far towards red, so that the two boys appeared pink and sunburned. They were standing on grass before a chain-link fence, the grinning boy holding a white blur that might have been a ball in his hand. Through the gaps in the chain-link fence a dim but familiar skyline was visible — I recognized the ludicrously thin spires of the Temple of True Believers in Saint Jermane. The photograph had been taken in this city, then, but not recently — the section of high-rise apartments and office buildings was much smaller than today. I flipped it over and read the back, where the words "James and Horace, 1978" were scrawled in faded ink. I glanced over the front of the photo again, still curious about the dark-haired young man — Horace, I supposed. Who could he be, this guy my uncle had known 30 years ago? I wanted to know, but I didn't want to ask my uncle. So, with only a slight hesitation, I slipped the photo into my pocket.

A sudden noise made me tense. But I realized it was just my uncle's cell again, which I'd pocketed after my little chat with the cops. I let myself relax, smiling at my own jumpiness. I took a last glance at the picture and then swapped it for the phone.

"Hello?"

"Jim?"

"I'm afraid not."

"I need to speak with Jim. Urgent business."

"He's not here. May I ask who this is?"

"The police."

"Funny. How many guys do you have working the telephones down there?"

"What? Just one. Me."

"So if I told him to call the station in ten minutes you could talk to him then." I knew he was lying. He was in a rush and it was making him very sloppy.

"Yes — no… it's urgent!"

"Five minutes, then."

"My shift will be over!"

"How often do you switch?"

"Why the hell do you care — every five hours."

"Lovely."

"Please… just let me talk to Jim."

"Not until you tell me who you are."

"I told you, I'm a police telephone operator. What more do you want?"

"Well I'd like to know why you didn't answer the call I placed to you guys just ten, maybe fifteen, minutes ago. Why it was some other guy named Bill."

"Bill? Oh, Bill covered for me while I got coffee. He does favors for me like that 'cause we're friends. Happy?"

"Not particularly. Maybe I would be if the guy's name had actually been Bill — but it was Larry."

"That's right! Bill told me he'd gotten Larry to take a call or two. He actually mentioned your call. I apologize for my memory lapse; now how about you let me talk to Jim."

"But the guy's name wasn't Larry either… in fact, I didn't make any call, so how about you tell me your name."

"Fine… you win! Damned annoying you are, too. But I swear Jim knows me. He'll be dying to talk as soon as you tell him who I am."

"Sure thing… what's the name?"

"Benjamin Hunter."

It was only due to years of practice that I was able to keep my composure.

"Where'd you find that one?" I asked in the same indifferent tone.

"What d'you mean? That's my name, that is!"

"Liar, liar, pants on fire… do you want me to sing the rest?"

"Who the hell are you?"

"Benjamin Hunter," I said, and then I hung up.

The guy immediately called back. I examined the phone for a minute without answering, letting it get to the last ring before pressing talk.

"Are you really Benjamin Hunter?" the guy asked. All traces of impatience had vanished; he sounded — eager, almost.

"No."

"So who are you?"

"Horace."

"Horace who?"

"What's it to you?"

"I used to know a guy named Horace."

"And you want to know if I'm him."

"Right. I want to know if I know you."

"You don't."

"You're a real piece of work!" The impatience was back.

"So I've been told. But this isn't about who and what I am; this is about you. Are you going to tell me your name, or should I just hang up again?"

"Don't hang up!"

"Then tell me."

"It won't mean anything to you."

"Then why won't you tell me?"

"Because — I — I just shouldn't."

"Fine, tell me about this Horace you used to know."

"Why do you care?"

"Oh… just a whim. But seeing as I'm your only link to Jim you should probably play along. Was he broad? Dark hair? Green eyes?"

There was a pause, then, "You already know who I am, don't you? You know who I am and you think you know what I'm getting at, but you don't. You're wrong."

"I'm willing to be convinced. Why am I wrong?"

"'Cause this isn't about bailing him out of jail or any of that. He doesn't want Jim to do anything for him. Tell Jim that. Tell Jim that he doesn't want help this time."

"Then what does he want? Why are you calling if he doesn't want anything from Jim?"

"Well… he does want something… just nothing that will get Jim directly involved."

"And I repeat: what does he want?"

"He wants him to track down Benjamin Hunter."

"Why?"

"That's for Jim's ears only. I'm not telling you."

"Alright then — goodbye…"

"I'll just keep calling back, you know," the guy said loudly. He was stalling — anything to keep me from hanging up on him. "I'll keep calling until Jim answers! He'll listen to me!"

"No he won't."

"How do you know?"

"He's dead."

"He's — what?"

"Dead. Been dead for about two months now."

"Dead…" He repeated it slowly, disbelieving. "Then how come you told me he'd call me back in five minutes earlier when I was pretending to be the police?"

"I'm glad you have a good memory, but I think we can agree that that whole section of our conversation was a lie, anyway, so any timeframe I gave you holds no actual meaning."

"So how do I know this isn't just another lie?"

"You don't, but it doesn't matter. Either way, you won't get to speak to Jim, unless, of course, I am lying, in which case you might get to talk with him if you present me with a good enough reason. Otherwise, I'll be tempted to say 'to hell with it' and smash this phone, which — I believe — is your only connection to the much-spoken-of Jim. In that case you would be stranded, with no way to reach the elusive Benjamin Hunter, which we both know would be a most undesirable occurrence, so I really think it's best that you just tell me what I want to know. It's your only hope of getting through to Jim."

"You drive a hard bargain."

"So I've been told."

"But I can't refuse… as you pointed out, it's my only hope of reaching Jim. So, what do you want to know?"

"Why do you want Jim to find Benjamin Hunter?"

"To send him a message."

"What message?"

"I don't know."

"Lovely — you're sending him a message but you don't even know what it is."

"It's in code."

"I see. Hunter will be able to decipher it?"

"No, Jim will."

"And then he'll give it to Hunter."

"Yes."

"What does it say?"

"I told you, I don't know!"

"The code, what's the code?"

"You're pushing it?"

"Where to?"

"What?"

"Where am I pushing it?"

"I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Exactly. There's nowhere for me to push it because I'm holding all the cards. You tell me the code, I'll tell Jim."

"I don't think so."

"What you think doesn't matter. You don't have a choice."

"I could hang up."

"Go ahead."

There was a pause.

"Fine. The code, but swear you'll tell Jim."

"Sure thing. As you've said, it won't mean anything to me anyway."

"I suppose that's true. Okay, the message is: I-H-E-D-O-T-E-T-L-L-N-K-W-O-B-S-N-E-N-K-W-O-H-T-Y-E-O-T-D-L-O-T-T-R-R-U-D-E." I wrote the letters down on a sticky note.

"That's it?"

"That's it."

"I'll tell him." With that, I hung up.