The Keys Are In It

The Keys Are In It

Herein are several people whose lives at first do not seem connected. Their paths converge unexpectedly.

Parts One and Two are below, with a link to the rest after that. The link called “The End” should signal that it’s finally complete.

The Keys Are In It

It all started out as a simple trip to donate leftover garage sale items to Goodwill. It wasn’t dark, but it was getting stormy.

Alex noticed that the SUV parked in the neighbors’ driveway was empty, but its headlights shone on the garage door. They had SUV’s of the same make and model but two different colors. It was the gray one, the one that the traveling husband drove, that sat drawing attention to itself.

“Hey, their lights are on,” Alex said. “They’ve been on the whole time we’ve been getting ready to leave.”

His wife, Liz, struggling to buckle their son into the child seat, said, “Okay.” She pieced together the two parts of the bottom buckle and loudly snapped it into place. “Got it.”

“I’m going to go tell them they left them on,” Alex said and stepped out of the minivan.

He quickly took the five steps across the side yard to the neighbors’ driveway and peered through the vehicle’s windows. Seeing nobody inside, but the keys in the ignition, he made his way up the front walk and knocked on the door. Above it was a sticker he had seen several times before, bearing what he guessed were Hindi letters. The landlord, the home’s original resident, had Indian parents. It occurred to Alex that he never had asked what it said.

The dog wasn’t barking. Usually when he knocked, the little dog went nuts. To test his suspicions, he rang the doorbell. A moment later, after no answer from within the small house, he turned back toward the SUV.

“There’s nobody home, but the keys are in it.” he called to Liz.

With hopes there was no alarm, he lifted the driver’s door handle. He heard the whir of the climate control system and felt warm air blowing on his face. Was the engine running? Unwilling to commit to sitting in someone else’s vehicle in that situation, he leaned down and used his hand to press the accelerator.

Nothing.

Feeling somewhat criminal, he turned the key to the “off” position and turned off the headlights. He left the keys in the ignition and closed the door, leaving it unlocked, then made his way back across the narrow strip of grass to the minivan.

“That was weird. I hope they’re okay,” he said as he pulled his door shut.

Part Two

Doug wolfed down a couple ham and cheese HotPockets and showered for work. His company’s willingness to let him set his own work shift had saved him a lot of trouble. Before that, telecommuting had been his only option, and he wanted the social atmosphere of the workplace.

Or so he thought.

Polly Renault stood waiting at his cubicle, as she did every day. “Douggie-wuggie! How are you this evening?” she said. Her curly brown hair, cut just above her shoulders, bounced as she spoke.

“I’m fine, Polly.” His standard answer.

“Great! Me too.”

Doug set down his laptop backpack and unzipped it. He glanced at the shelf in his overhead bin as he pulled out his laptop. A sigh pushed through his lips; the cleaning staff again had knocked his miniature Star Trek spacecraft off their stands.

Rafe Steinholm, a short, stocky young man with prematurely gray hair, appeared seemingly from nowhere. Unlike Polly, he always waited until he heard Doug’s voice, then came running.

“Doug lass! What up?” Rafe said.

“It’s all up,” Doug said. He had learned not to vary from their unofficial welcome dialogue. Anything else was sure to elicit responses that required him to fein interest. Insecure co-workers who believed he didn’t care for them made poor project partners.

Taupe liquid sloshed from Rafe’s clear glass coffee mug as he gestured toward the disheveled ships. “The Enterprise has seen better days, yo,” he said. “The new piece I finished today would look good in that spot. Pop over to my cube when you get a chance, homey.”

“Only if you swear to stop talking hip-hop,” Doug said.

Despite his resistance to know these people better, Doug never missed a chance to see one of Rafe’s new pieces. The man had artistic talent. Using Sculpey, he created small sculptures without sharp corners and a little extra material hanging off ledges and rooftops. The “curves-not-corners” style that made each work flow, Rafe said, was inspired by an architect named Gaudi, but Doug had no idea who that was. He only knew that he liked things and people that stood out from the everyday.

Just like him.

——-
“And here are the objectionable pictures in his browser’s cache folder, ma’am,” Lori said as she switched the view to show thumbnail versions of each picture file. The 20-inch LCD monitor was awash in flesh tones — Caucasian, Asian, African-American, and anything else she could imagine, depicting children doing things she could not.

Mayor Susan Lancaster leaned her tall, stocky frame over Lori’s shoulder to get a better look. “Oh, my God.” She stood up straight and shook her head. “That just makes my heart sick to think of him looking at this stuff. Such a sweet man.” She sighed. “This is going to ruin him.”

Lori felt her rage well up. Ruin him? She tried to change the focus. “So, why are the city cops handling the case if he’s a county employee?” She had worked for the city’s Information Systems division for only a few months; she had spent that time learning the computing infrastructure, not law enforcement.

A week earlier, while she defragmented a hard drive at the police station, one of the detectives had asked if she could provide computer expertise for a sensitive case. She had jumped at the chance, but wished now that they had not asked her in the first place. She had seen enough depravity to last a lifetime.

“His office in the courthouse is within the city limits, so it’s our jurisdiction.” The mayor reached for a nearby chair and pulled it over to sit. She pushed her dark brown hair behind her ears. “Listen, Lori, is there any possibility that someone else used his computer to access these sites?”

“Well, it would have been pretty difficult. Each user has a folder on the computer that stores only his or her own information. Sites they’ve accessed, documents they save. That kind of thing. Someone would have to know his username and password, or have administrator privileges.” She minimized the cache folder window and brought up a page of text. “Here are the county’s web proxy Internet access logs. Getting to the Internet requires a separate login, and the sites that his username accessed are what tipped the county IT guys off in the first place.” She minimized everything to the bare teal desktop.

“That’s not to mention that someone had to get into his locked office in the first place,” Lori finished.

“I used to dial into my computer from home and use it without ever setting foot in my office,” the mayor said.

“Yes, ma’am, but his computer wasn’t set up for any kind of remote access.”

Mayor Lancaster furrowed her brow, thanked her for her time, and headed back to her own office. Lori had stayed a few minutes late to show the mayor the evidence, but she still had time to catch her usual ferry.

She walked through the long shadows of downtown on her way to the dock. With the swirling breeze and the dry air, passing from sunlight to shade meant the difference between being comfortable and feeling chilled. It was a welcome change from Houston’s oppressive heat and humidity.

New restaurants sat vacant inside old brick buildings. The main street revitalization effort had not taken off like local leaders had hoped. The bridge they were counting on to supersede the ferry was six months behind schedule. They had hoped it would bring more people to the island to spend money, but Lori figured it would act as a more convenient way for locals to take theirs elsewhere.

Her bright red knitting bag bounced off her hip with each step. A businessman passing by grumbled when it bumped into him. The ferry ride freed her hands up to work during the commute, but lugging the supplies to and from the dock had become annoying. Appearances be damned, she was determined to carry on the tradition her late grandmother had passed down to her.

Brown pelicans sat atop dock posts, preening and keeping their eyes out for snacks in the water below. The ferry bobbed slightly as a system of cables and pulleys lowered its tailgate ramp onto the dock.

Most of the ferry riders drove aboard in their cars and stayed put. Lori meandered through the throng of vehicles and walked through the door to the enclosed sitting area. Only five of the 25 seats were occupied. Her fellow walkers sat staring out the windows, reading books, listening to music — plenty of choices to avoid human contact.

While they sat waiting for a passing ship, Lori watched dolphins breaking the water in the wake of its bow. Before her move to Ralston, she had seen dolphins only in aquariums and Sea World. She had felt sorry for them, imagined some way to end their captivity. There on the ferry, amid her fellow clock watchers, Lori envied the dolphins’ freedom.

Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten
Part Eleven
Part Twelve
Part Thirteen
Part Fourteen
Part Fifteen
Conclusion

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