Mrs. Basinski could not at all say she found her second floor tenants peculiar. The Clarks were the most dreadfully ordinary people she had ever rented to, and this was a sting and fact of her life from which she had never fully recovered. She poured coffee into three of her good china cups, placed them on a silver tray, and served the two suited gentlemen in her living room.
“Mr. Florence,” she said. “Mr. Jetworth.”
“Thank you,” said Mr. Jetworth.
“Wonderful,” said Mr. Florence.
Mr. Florence took one, two, three scoops of sugar, stirred, and licked his spoon. Mrs. Basinski winced.
“Do you mind telling us a little more about their son?” asked Mr. Jetworth.
“Johnny? I can’t think of anything out of the ordinary. He lives on the internet, same as ever. It’s a waste if you ask me, a young man spending so much time inside, but I doubt it’s all that strange in general. Not anymore.”
She shook her head and sipped her coffee.
Ten years a widow, Mrs. Basinski craved excitement, and her opinion of those who did not ranged from mild skepticism to overt contempt. It was years since she discovered Mr. Clark was a musician and promptly rented to his family, that long hair of his whispering of a lazy, bohemian lifestyle. She imagined get-togethers with his friends — jobless, eccentric people in and out of her house with wild clothing, loud music, drinking and smoking and who knows what else? She was giddy at the thought of all the drama she was meant to have, forever chastising her tenants for their many infractions on her peace and quiet, coldly threatening them with eviction, recounting their atrocities one by terrible one to her perfectly scandalized friends and loving every awful second of it. What she received instead was regular help with her trash and cheerful morning salutations.
“But of course he’s always home,” said Mrs. Basinski. “He’s learned from his parents. His mother babysits, and his father gives guitar lessons. They don’t even leave for work.”
“This upsets you?”
“I thought they were in a band.”
The bitter taste of it was too much. She closed her eyes and sunk into the warmth of her cup on the palms of her hands. The gentlemen stirred.
“You haven’t noticed any family interests in mathematics, have you? Engineering, design, programming?”
“You said the boy spends quite a bit of time on the internet?” asked Mr. Florence. “Doing what, exactly?”
“Something filthy and perverted, I’m sure,” said Mrs. Basinksi. “But exactly? I don’t know, what was it he called it the other afternoon, giggling like a lunatic? Monster maybe? No, that isn’t it. Troll — trolling? He was trolling something, or someone, whatever that means. He likes to troll. Is that a drug thing? Oh, my… is it some kind of new sex thing?”
The gentlemen smiled absently and waited.
“Well I doubt it has anything to do with math,” she finally said. “He’s failing out of school.”
“His parents told you that?” asked Mr. Jetworth.
“No, he just has that look. Filthy little pervert dropout. Why? Is he in some sort of trouble?” Mrs. Basinski licked her lips. “I knew it. His parents are upstairs,” she said. “I can get them for you.”
“Yes, you told us,” said Mr. Jetworth. “And thank you. But that won’t be necessary. An associate of ours is already speaking with them.”
“That’s right,” said Mrs. Basinski. “She came in with you.”
It was more than a lapse in memory. She thought back those ten or fifteen minutes and recalled, though just barely, and as if from a dream, the presence of a woman with the men — another… what were they, anyway? Officers? Agents? Who was she speaking to, and why? She served them coffee? In her good china? The details of the strangers all escaped her as she grasped for them. More than having forgotten, it felt as if she had never retained the information of her visitors to begin with. Even then — what had she been saying?
“We were hoping you could help us with something else,” said Mr. Florence. “We’re looking for a device that we have reason to believe one of your tenants is in possession of. It’s likely small, perhaps the size of a television remote, and very modern looking. Almost futuristic.”
“Made to seem that way, of course,” snapped Mr. Jetworth.
His partner’s carelessness was a recurring thorn in their relationship, though Mr. Florence himself would hardly call the behavior careless. He purposefully pushed out of boredom, and this was a game he often played, delighting in the misery of his old friend. He yawned, and shrugged, and determined not to take it too much farther.
“Have you seen anything that fits this description?” he asked.
Mrs. Basinski wished she had.
But, “No,” she said, “I haven’t.”
The thin, funny whistle of Mr. Jetworth’s cell phone interrupted them. He stood and answered. Mr. Florence smiled, patted his knees, and stood to join his partner. There was nothing more that they could learn from the landlady.
“Thank you for your time, ma’am, and thank you for the coffee. We’ll head upstairs for a look, now, if you don’t mind.”
“Incredible,” said Mr. Jetworth.
He tucked his phone back into his pocket and fixed his eyes on Mrs. Basinski with a creeping smile at the corners of his mouth.
“What did they say?” asked Mr. Florence.
“Benjamin ran a spot scan. This one’s interfacing with the Cradle.”
“You’re kidding. The device?”
“Not hers. She’s just a tourist. But it looks like there were two in the same house. What are the odds?”
“In this chapter? About one in six million.”
Mrs. Basinski squinted, shifted her weight, and tried very hard to follow the conversation’s turn.
“Tourist?” she asked. “What’s this?”
“Oh, nothing,” said Mr. Jetworth. “It’s just, you’re real. We didn’t expect that.”
“It almost never happens,” said Mr. Florence.
Mr. Jetworth laughed. Truly, the odds were slim. He shook his head, as if to say, I’ll be damned. Then he withdrew his pistol and shot her in the head.