“Was it hard to get into her phone?” Jude asked, perching in the back seat, resting his knees on the back of Sparrow’s chair. The car rumbled through the snow, which fell in quiet little whorls.
“What? No. Just run through the most common vulnerabilities. Didn’t matter, anyway.”
“Why not?” Sparrow asked, leaning back, thumbs on the wheel, taking it slow. “Don’t tell me it was like, a password you know.”
“I know most everyone’s password,” Tally mused, leafing through the phone’s nonexistent history, shaking their head and sighing.
“I mean, passwords, just like, four-to-eight characters, the stuff most folk use, that’s like, a solved problem. It’s rainbow tables stuff.”
“Rainbow tables?” Sparrow asked.
“Doesn’t matter,” Tally said, perking up. “Hey, reception.” They immediately yanked their tablet up, out of their lap, and started typing furiously. “There’s something weird on this phone, it’d be nice to check.”
“… What kind of weird thing?” Eris leant over, peering at the phone now in Tally’s lap, as if that would betray anything.
“What, you can at least try telling me.”
“No, I mean there’s nothing on this phone. No names, no addresses, no history. This phone doesn’t think it existed, two days ago.”
“… What the hell?” Jude asked, leaning forwards, trying to peer at the phone as well, as if he could find something that way. Or maybe he was just guiding the camera that – now – was uploading video to Ms Mycroft’s estate.
“… Dunno. But whatever’s going on in that place, whoever’s trying to blow the dude up? They’re creepy.” Tally said, shaking their head with a sigh.
Sparrow wasn’t big on mysteries. Most mystery stories he’d read as a kid had been the sort solved by a cop jumping a chasm in a car, doing some rad or sick jump. As an adult, most mysteries were about what made that pinging noise while the engine settled. When they arrived back at the estate, and found Ms Mycroft had arranged a little seating in the drawing room, breaking her apparently effortless demeanour to move some chairs.
“Does she, uh.” Sparrow muttered, taking his seat. “Does she always do stuff like this…?” He nudged Jude, who didn’t seat – he just stood, next to the chair.
“Shh,” Jude said, nudging Sparrow with his arm. “She loves doing things like this.”
“Well now.” Ms Mycroft began, sitting back behind her desk, looking at the arrayed semicircle of chairs. As she spoke, she turned pages of her newspaper boredly, examining it as if she was reading from it, but – of course – she wasn’t. Instead, she built her sentences like she was rhetorically flexing. “I assume you’ve all got theories about who kidnapped Persephone, yes?”
“Nope.” Eris grumped. “I figured we just started. I mean, we don’t have any suspects –”
“Ah, we sort of do. It wouldn’t be a hard guess if you could read Marshall, but see,” Ms Mycroft paused in her speech to turn the page. “Despite that everyone in this room is what society considers ‘odd’ we’re all used to looking at the people we meet as if they are ‘normal.’” She shook her head and traced the finger down the page. “So you look at Marshall, and you assume he’s normal, too – that he’s doing what’s best for his wife, of course?
“Marshall is the kind of man who buys multiple cars, and takes the numberplates off them when they’re resting because he hates the government. He’s the kind of man who buys explosives and leaves them in his garage, with plans to construct minefields in case the government come for his property. He’s the kind of man who builds his house as far away from the city as he can, because he wants to hide from The Government, and The Taxes.” She shook her head again, as if appreciating the subtle shimmer of her hair, reflected in the tablet.
“… Yeah, guy’s an asshole.” Eris grunted. “What’d we go to his house for, then…?”
“Marshall is a man so wound up with the notion of ownership that he couldn’t accord the idea that his wife just left him, and so against the idea of government that he wouldn’t approach the police to deal with what he thought was a kidnapping.”
Tally nodded, turning the phone in their hands over. “Yeah…” holding it up, they showed the unlock screen. “I mean, it didn’t take anything to break in, but this thing was scrubbed pretty clean. She’d reset her phone before she left, which… like, seems a pretty typical thing for someone living with a control freak.”
“Did that stop you like, hacking up her old history, through uh…” Sparrow started to ask, then slouched back in his chair. They were good chairs, big and warm. Also, he didn’t want to say something the internet-savvy person in the room would laugh at him for.
“Well, no, but that and I mean… when we talked about it…” Tally gestured between themself and Ms Mycroft.
Ms Mycroft looked down over her glasses. “I advised against it. This isn’t a missing persons case, this is a woman leaving her husband. That, really, isn’t our business.”
“… What!?” Eris asked. “It’s not our business? Then why’d we—”
Finally, Ms Mycroft turned the newspaper over – and showed a handful of numbers, underlined with red pen. They were tiny, squinty numbers, from stock exchange information that nobody sensible even tracked any more, thanks to digital sources. “You went to Marshall’s home on his invitation, and took, while you were there, video evidence of his estate and of his explosives, information that the real police would, I am sure appreciate as they investigate the man for non-payment of taxes.” The newspaper folded again, tucking on to the desk.
“So… like… were you ever worried about his wife…?” Eris asked, narrowing her eyes.
“If Marshall’s wife had actually been kidnapped, yes, but when you hear hoofbeats, you don’t turn your head and look for centaurs. The woman was going to leave the man eventually.”
“… the broken window, though?” Eris asked. “Glass on the inside.”
“Simple enough. The house was locked at nights – Marshall had that house so she couldn’t use her phone at night, the front doors are definitely going to be locked. Taking a screwdriver from the garage, and using a ladder, she damaged one of the locks on her window so it couldn’t close properly. Then she waited for an opportunity. Marshall left her alone in the house – probably without means of transport – and so she took off out the window. In the wind of the night, the security door, unsecured, swings shut, hard enough to break the glass and send it into the room.”
“… It’s a bit of a hike from his place to the city.” Eris murred, eyebrows furrowing as she tangled with this whole idea.
“A bit of a hike indeed. She’d probably want someone to pick her up. Someone like her fitness instructor?” Ms Mycroft waved her hand, dismissing the whole point.
“You… seriously? You’re not just making it up?”
“Jude?” Ms Mycroft said, gesturing at the man.
“Yes, Ms Mycroft?”
“The pictures in her bedroom. How many pictures did she have of her and her husband?”
“None.” Jude said, clearing his throat.
“And how many of them featuring a young lady with tan lines on her shoulders congruent with regular use of an athletic top, trimmed fingernails, and freckles?”
Eris shot up in her seat. “You can’t tell me freckles mean she’s gay!”
“… No, of course not.” Ms Mycroft gave her a curious look. “I was trying to identify the woman in question, Eris.” Waving her hand again, she tilted her head. “The pieces do fit together with remarkable ease, and are congruent with the man’s history. Did you not think it was strange how controlled his home was?” She asked, tilting her head and resting her chin on her hand. Elbow on the desk, she stroked a finger along the handle of her tea-cup. “I know my own home is quite controlled, but I don’t demand you lock away your smartphones while you’re here.”
“… Why are we here?” Tally asked, looking down at the phone.
“Mmm?” Ms Mycroft asked.
“Like… you offered me payment for work and that’s nice… and I get that like, Sparrow gets paid too, and… yeah?” They said, looking to Eris. “And that’s nice and all… but… like, why? What do we do?”
“You gather information for me.”
“Yeah, we do. Why?” Tally asked, biting their lip.
Sparrow coughed. The atmosphere had shifted subtly, enough that even Jude was looking to Ms Mycroft.
“Does that matter much?”
Tally squirmed a little, then sat forward. “Ms Mycroft, I understand that you’re… that you’re really smart. I get that. And I… I uh, I really appreciate the work opportunity. But I don’t know if I’m doing things for a good reason or not. And,” they drew a long breath, shrinking down into their shoulders, hands wringing quietly. “I’m… I … what I do can be really rough to people. I mean, hacking an airline and a drug cartel and finding out about movements, that was one thing… but I don’t wanna be like, looking into peoples’ personal records… for no good reason, right?”
Eris sat forward in her chair, hands flexing. Even like this, she was looking for a fight.
“I guess what I want to know, Ms Mycroft, is uh…” Tally bit their lip again, agitated, nervous, practically vibrating. “… Are we good people?”
Ms Mycroft sat, her head to the side, regarding those words for a long time. “How do you mean?”
“…A-are we good? Do we do good things? Are we making peoples’ lives better?”
“Well, thanks to your work today, a tax evader isn’t turning his home into a fortress to blow up upon his death like a dozen other houses across Massachusetts.”
“But isn’t that, like, nothing? I thought we were going to rescue someone, but, but, like, we just turned up, took some pictures, handed them over to the police? Shouldn’t… shouldn’t someone as smart as you be like, solving crimes that nobody else can? Like us?”
Ms Mycroft tapped a perfect fingernail against the china of her teacup. “… This is… not a small topic.”
“Yeah, but,” Eris snorted. “It’s got kinda an easy in… do we want to be good people, Ms Mycroft? Because,” she shifted her chair, towards Tally’s. “… I’m not doing anything that makes Tally uncomfortable.”
Ms Mycroft sat back, sighing melodramatically. “… Fine! Fine. Let’s try and do some good in the world. Is that what you’d like?”
“… It’s… it’s a start?” Tally said, nervously smiling. “What, um, what exactly are you offering?”
“… Time. Time and effort. You want to find people who need help, who can be helped by our efforts…? Then you find them. Every week, bring me someone, and we’ll spend an hour fixing whatever it is you think needs fixing. Do you think you can do that?”
Tally grinned. “Th-thank you, miss!” They beamed, sitting up straight. “I… I, I mean, yes.”
That night, Tally sat down, carefully mocking up the image. It was just an idea, at this point, but it was an idea they couldn’t get out of their head.