Castling, Part 2

APRIL 3, 2000
SOMEWHERE IN THE AMERICAN NORTHEAST

Kilroy nervously tapped his index finger against the back of the payphone receiver that was pressed to his ear, intently waiting for someone on the other end to pick up. Outside, Alice was drawing in her steno pad, sitting in the shadow of the phonebooth; just above her head, a large OUT OF ORDER sign hung on the side of the booth. The sky was a languid blue, dashed with cottony streaks of white, and the Spring breeze was gentle and forgiving.

Finally, a voice came over the phone: "Carter here."

"Carter, it's Kilroy."

"Kilroy!" The Englishman was audibly surprised. "It's been nearly a month since we've heard from you. I was certain they'd nabbed you this time. I'm pleased to hear that my assumption was in error."

"Had to lay low for a while," said Kilroy, in a tone which immediately conveyed that that was all the explanation he intended to offer. "Do you have any information for me?"

"Perhaps," replied Carter. "What have you got for me?"

"Nothing today," said Kilroy, "but soon. I've got another piece of technology lined up, something I'm sure you can find a buyer for." He looked down at his daughter, sketching a picture of a field of flowers with petals that had elaborate circuitry patterns on them. He hated using Alice like this; her gift was special, unique, and he felt cheap and exploitative asking her to make machines common to his future out of parts from this backwards time — but what else could he do? The Foundation wasn't going to let up until it took her, and Marshal, Carter and Dark were always in the market for interesting technology, and they were essential in keeping him one step ahead of the vultures…

"Another trinket?" said Carter, sounding depressed. "How predictable. Unfortunately, I'm not certain we'd be interested in any more devices at this time."

"What?" exclaimed Kilroy, incredulous. "How could you refuse me? I've given you stuff light years beyond what any of your other contacts can provide you, and you've made out like bandits on it!"

"I know, Kilroy," said Carter, "and it pains me to have to refuse you, truly it does. The fact of the matter is, our clientèle have become… well, bored with technology. They've seen what it can do and they're past all of that. They want larger thrills, something quite exotic and strange, and I'm sorry to say you just can't provide that with what you've given us up to now."

"Fine," said Kilroy, stalling for time, "what if I told you that technology isn't my only resource? That I could find you something really crazy and amazing, a truly unearthly experience?"

"I'd say I'm intrigued," replied Carter, "if I didn't think you were bluffing."

"I've always been good on my word," pressed Kilroy, "you know that."

"Indeed, you have," said Carter. "I've no disappointments to speak of. Very well. Your line of credit has been extended. However, I expect to have the item in two weeks."

"Two weeks!" yelled Kilroy. "You can't be serious."

"I've got deadlines to meet, just like everyone else," said Carter. "Realize that I'm doing you a favor here, Kilroy. It's incredibly rude to look a gift horse in the mouth."

Kilroy held back the stream of profanity he wanted to vent. "Fine," he said again, "Two weeks. Now, do you have information for me?"

"I do," said Carter. "The Foundation is largely mobilized in a different part of the planet at present. They're involved in some kind of massive capture operation, we're not sure for what. For the moment, you appear to be a low priority, and should remain so for at least another week."

"That's comforting," replied Kilroy.

"I'm sure it is. Now then, if there's nothing else, I have business to attend to. I'll expect to hear from you again before two weeks."

"Two weeks," Kilroy repeated, and hung up the phone.

He opened the door to the booth and looked down at his daughter. "Okay, scout, all done."

Alice looked up at him. "Can I have a candybar now for being good?"

"Yes, indeed you may," answered Kilroy. He grabbed her hand in his, pulling her up, the two heading for the gas station's mini-mart entrance.

As they entered, an elderly man at the counter looked up from his paper, the headline of which read Microsoft Found Liable In Antitrust Suit in bold sans-serif. Behind him, an outdated transistor radio was tuned to an oldies station, playing "Stand By Me" by Ben E. King. He adjusted his glasses, sizing up Kilroy. "Surprised you got that phone working," he said. "That thing's been on the fritz for a week."

"My daughter fixed it," said Kilroy, nonchalantly.

The old man blinked. "Is that so?"

"It was cranky," said Alice.

They walked up the candy aisle; Alice chose a roll of Necco wafers. Kilroy brought it to the counter and paid, then they walked outside again, heading towards the Nissan Maxima they had acquired some days ago.

As Alice chewed on her wafers, she asked, "What are you gonna send Mister Carter?"

"You were spying on my phonecall," accused Kilroy.

"The wires were loud," protested Alice. "He doesn't want any more gadgets, huh?"

"No," said Kilroy in a low, even tone, "he doesn't. Which means I'm going to have to pull a rabbit out of my hat, because I don't see how we'll be able to stay ahead of the paddy wagon without their help."

Alice was quiet for a long moment, munching on a wafer. "I'm sorry I made stupid machines they didn't want," she finally blurted.

Kilroy looked at her. "What are you talking about?" he exclaimed. "Sweetie, this isn't your fault. None of this is your fault."

"But they wouldn't be after you if it wasn't for me, daddy," said Alice.

"Look," said Kilroy, putting his hands on her shoulders and facing her towards him, "stop that right now. None of that talk. Do you know how special you are to me, how important you are? I would do anything for you. You have never been a burden to me, Alice. You're my daughter, and I love you more than anything. Anything."

She fidgeted nervously under his gaze, awkward at the display of emotion. "Daddy," she pleaded, visibly embarrassed.

"Okay," he said, letting her go again, "okay. I know, your crazy old dad is just being weird again. Just know that, okay? Know that it's not you, it's never you."

Alice sighed and nodded. They reached the car; Kilroy leaned on the side of it, and Alice stood next to him. "So what are you gonna get Mister Carter?"

"I'm not sure," said Kilroy, "but I have a few ideas. You know those people that are after us, the bad people?"

"The Foundation," said Alice, "but you always call them the paddy wagon because you don't like to say their name in front of me. But I know their name, daddy."

Kilroy suppressed his reflex of pride at her usual ingenious ability to read him; she was growing up so fast. "Right," he said, "the Foundation. Well, the thing they do the most is look for unusual things that they don't want anyone to know about. That's essentially what Mister Carter is looking for, too, except he wants those sorts of things to sell to very rich people."

"How do they find them?" asked Alice.

"In a variety of ways," said Kilroy, "but we've got a bit of an advantage over them."

Alice blinked. "What's that?"

"I know where some of them are already."

Interlude: Zugzwang
Continued in Part 3

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