Follow Directions, 2014

Hananiah turned on his heel. The whole situation had started out strange and grown straight to preposterous, even before he’d followed the phone in his hand to the warehouse district. Now he was sure it was just dangerous.

What sort of woman had their home address set to a rundown warehouse a good mile from the main road through town?

He should have insisted she come back to the bar to pick up her purse. She’d set off at least ten alarm bells when he’d talked to her before she’d left her bag behind, and then twenty more when her phone had buzzed to life long after she was gone and she’d asked, oh so sweetly, for him to bring it by. She had refused to give him an address, instead telling him to just follow the GPS directions to “Home”. A sense of duty and the prodding of his friend (hey, this is clearly a booty call, and did you see her hips?) had led him this far.

His intelligence was going to take him safely out of here.

The phone buzzed.

Home was calling.

He looked around, helplessly, then hit the green button that had appeared on the screen. “Hi, yeah?”

“Are you close yet?” Caroline answered. “I’ll need to get the garage doors open if you are.”

She sounded so normal. Normal, and not at all drunk, come to think of it. Alarm number thirty-one - there was no way this girl was drunk enough to forget her purse or not be able to give directions.

He turned, slowly, chewing on his lip. He could apologize and say his friend had needed him to stay at the bar after all, that the second shift bouncer had called off.

Or he could drop off her purse like a gentleman, then run very fast in the other direction. The latter didn’t risk pissing her off, and both had him leaving soon. His fingers curled tighter around the strap of her bag. “Uh, yeah,” he said. “I’m in the- warehouse district.”

“Yep,” she said, her voice altered somewhat, like she had something in her mouth. A pen, or something. “How close are you? My building’s the one with the white north wall. Garage door is black and dinged all to hell, on the east wall. No broken windows.”

He squinted at the buildings around him. They all looked the same in the 1 am light. And like hell he knew what direction north was this time of day.

“Here, I’ll turn the light on for you,” she said.

A floodlight clicked on.

No excuse now. He took a deep breath. “Okay, I see it.”

“Yeah, you’ll come in through the garage. Door should be opening right now.” There was a rattle, and the loud sound of machinery, and the garage on the flood-lit wall began to winch up. “There’s a light switch just inside on your left. Then a little further to your left there’s a door. Go through that, down the hall, and it should open up onto another room. I’m in there.”

“Mind telling me what you’re doing in the industrial section?” he asked, eyeing the dark yawning mouth of the warehouse.

“Surprisingly cheap rent for the square footage,” she said, “and room for my hobbies. Thanks again for bringing my purse.”

Which you left right by me so I’d be the one to bring it to you, he thought, grimacing. He rubbed at his furrowed brow. “Right. I’ll be right in.”

“Thanks a million,” she said, voice bright and cheerful like it had been at the bar. Then the line went dead.

He was going to get mugged. Or worse. He eyed the dark interior, then rolled his shoulders and wriggled his fingers. He focused on the mental image of his body separating, a thin ghostly layer leaving his skin and settling into another version of him a few feet to his left.

An apparition rippled to life. It was his double in every particular, except for a faint purple shimmer around its sclera. It preceded him, with no mind of its own, into the warehouse, and turned on the light. Runners of fluorescent bulbs sparked on, flooding the truck bay with their glow, and he let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.

There was a normal car there, parked just like a car should be.

Wait-

There was a very nice car there.

With the lapse in his concentration, the illusion shattered. He felt his breath catch slightly as it did. Slowly, eyes still on the Porsche, he moved towards the door Caroline had mentioned. Surprisingly cheap rent for the square footage, she’d said. The square footage was- huge. And she could afford a super car, plus, there, behind it, a much more regular car for when she didn’t want to drive around with a huge flashing sign that said Hello, I am loaded and forget my purse in bars.

He opened the door as he glanced down at her purse again. It was- normal. Not fancy. Not expensive. And the clothing she’d been wearing had been cute, but middle of the road. His own suit had probably cost a hell of a lot more. Glancing down the empty hallway, he checked a few of the inner pockets of the purse. An eyeshadow compact, a small perfume roller- very normal. No wallet- not normal, but a confirmation that she'd always intended to leave the bag and phone with him.

A small knife- vaguely normal, for certain outdoorsy types (which she did not strike him as), anxiously alert women (ditto), and muggers.

There was also a small black case, much like a woman might take to a fancy party, but he didn't pry inside. He was feeling guilty enough already. He shut the purse, with Caroline's phone inside, and made his way down the rest of the hallway. It did, as she'd said, open up onto another room. It had the same concrete floor as the garage had, and was filled with various long and short tables, some pristine and some covered in tools and materials. There were wires and hammers and pliers and containers marked with chemical formulae.

And there, across the room, sitting cross-legged on one of the tables and hunched over a work in progress, was Caroline.

At the bar, she'd been cute, vivacious, and mostly normal. She had russet hair which she'd had back in a braid of sorts, glittering grey eyes, and smooth, clear skin. She still had all of that now, but she'd ditched her oversized brown sweater for a tank top, and her black leggings from before seemed far more functional than they had when she was wearing heels. Her arms were covered in faint blemishes, and as he approached, he realized that some of them were scars.

His heart hammered in his chest. "So, uh," he said, when she didn't look up despite his footsteps echoing around the hangar-like space. "I'll just leave this here, then. Glad to get it back to you."

"Hold on a moment," she said, not looking up. "I'm just about finished. There was something I wanted to talk about."

He did his best not to frown too intensely, in case she looked up, and considered conjuring another illusion that could stand in his place while he escaped. The only hard part would be muffling the sounds of his retreat. He was just tugging at the edges of his form when Caroline spoke again.

"Take a look in my purse. The black case is for you."

His frown turned to a scowl. He set her purse aside. "I don't need anything," he said.

"Go ahead, take a look. It won't bite." She looked up then, quickly, with a brief smile.

He returned her smile with a look of utter confusion- and defeat. He shook his head and turned back to the purse, pulling out the black case. Carefully, he worked the latch loose.

Inside was- quite a lot of money in various bills, and a small container of his favorite cologne.

The one that he wasn't wearing.

"I-"

"Consider it reward money," she said, before he could get off any more words of protest. "It doesn't lock you into anything."

"Lock me into anything," he repeated, weakly. "You know, I think I'm just- going to head out now. You can keep this."

"You're behind on your rent this month," she said, reaching for another tool. "Because you lent your cousin money again this month, still believing that one day he'll pay you back. He won't. And if you don't pay rent on time this month, you'll probably get evicted. This will have been the fifth apartment you've had to leave because of rent or family-related issues. Keep the money."

Hananiah's skin crawled. He backed away a few steps. "I don't know how you know all of that, but if- if you're following me or spying on me or whatever, you should- you should stop."

She laughed. It didn't sound like an evil or malicious laugh, but he couldn't help but bristle in indignation.

"I'm leaving," he announced.

Caroline set her project aside and unfolded herself from the table. She hopped down, lightly, and slipped her bare feet into a pair of simple slippers. "I said I had something to tell you. It will only take a few minutes for the basics." She smiled up at him. She wasn't the tiniest girl he'd ever met, but she still only came up to his collarbone. "If you want a more comfortable place to sit, we could go upstairs."

More comfortable would be on the other side of the planet. He took a step back.

She didn't follow. Instead, she stretched, her joints popping in ways a young woman's shouldn't have. "Okay. Well, here's the deal - I know about your little ability, and your penchant for helping those close to you. You're a good, special man, Hananiah Octavian, and I could use some of your particular talents on a job of mine."

"I don't help- whatever you are. Drug smugglers. Gun runners." He looked around the room again, and then fixated on the project she'd set aside.

"Explosives specialist," she said.

Fuck.

"And you know," she said, "that's amusing coming from you because I happen to know you helped a friend exchange a not terribly small amount of heroin for-"

"I didn't know that's what we were exchanging," he said, running a hand through his hair. "I had no clue until after it was all done."

"And getting those guns to your aunt?"

"She needed them for self defense," he said, crossing his arms over his chest.

"Yes, well. There's quite a lot in your past - some of it even still inside the statute of limitations for prosecution - that could get you in trouble." She shrugged. "And yes, that is a threat, depending."

"Depending on what?" he hissed through his clenched teeth.

"Depending on if you help with my job." Caroline rocked back on her heels, hands clasped behind her back. "I don't like blackmail, and we can forget all about it if you like, but I really do need your expertise on this one."

As if he could forget about that threat hanging above his head. He swallowed, looking around for another exit. Maybe if he just disappeared-

But he had too many people relying on him here.

"I'm not eager," he said, slowly, as he looked back at Caroline, "to add any more strikes on my record."

"There won't be any," she said. "What we're doing will, technically, be completely legal."

"Technically?"

She shrugged, then headed for the hallway. She waved for him to follow, and he did, warily. "We have the full support of several governments. Any activities we engage in for the job which may not be strictly legal will be covered up or pardoned. In fact, at the end, depending on outcome, they might even black box some of your suspected crimes, so they'll never threaten you in the future."

Caroline opened the door and looked back over her shoulder. "So, like I said, we can forget all about the blackmail. If you come upstairs and have a drink."

He stared.

The full support of several governments. She wasn't a crime boss. She was either completely delusional, or-

Or-

Or she was a spy.