Chapter 103

                Smitt’s security was good, better than his tailing work by far. Had Eliza been enrolled in Professor Pendleton’s course, he’d have complimented the patience she showed in doing her research before busting in. Many would have gauged the man by a single aspect of his skill set, mistakenly forgetting that people are oddly-designed creatures who may show more talent in some facets of life than others. She had done no such thing.

                The initial alarms hadn’t been difficult to circumvent, nor had the various cameras that were set up along the apartment’s hallways. To a girl who’d spent the last five years in Vegas, avoiding a set of only two cameras was child’s play. It was equally easy for her to pick the deadbolts barring Smitt’s door from opening. The tricky part was the electronic lock which had no keyhole; instead it responded to a clicker on Smitt’s keychain, only unlocking when it received the appropriate electronic signal. Eliza gave a mental tip of her hat to him for coming up with such an effective countermeasure; however, it was far from the sort of thing that would stop her.

                One of the reasons no one in Vegas employed such means was because that sort of tech could easily be monitored. Grabbing a scanner from their equipment stash had been easy; the tough part was waiting in the bushes until Smitt came home and used his clicker.

                As she twirled opened the deadbolts and deactivated the electronic lock with her pirated signal, Eliza wondered for the umpteenth time who really had the better tech: Heroes or criminals. Sure, the Heroes had the ostentatious stuff, but in her time working under Ms. Pips’ organization she’d yet to see a technological hurdle that they couldn’t clear. Perhaps it was all a matter of controlling people’s perception. Heroes flaunted the gadgets and gear their tech-geniuses provided, but the smart criminals hid theirs away like a murderer in the family. No one wanted to advertise having a tech-Super on the payroll; all it did was put you on the wrong people’s radar.

                Eliza moved carefully into the foyer, eyes sweeping a familiar scene. She’d watched Smitt for days, observing everything he did when walking in. From what she could tell, there was only one trap that required immediate deactivation. Moving at a brisk stroll, she stepped into the living room and flipped up the head of a stuffed crow that sat on Smitt’s mantle. It moved easily, the hidden hinge letting the bird’s skull swing upward to reveal a keypad. With nimble fingers she punched in the code Smitt used every night, deactivating whatever alarm or trap would spring without it. It had taken her days to find the right angle of observation through his window to see the code, but like most things it just boiled down to patience and determination.

                Now safe, Eliza turned her attention to the real task at hand: finding out who Smitt was, and what he wanted. To some, the latter might seem the more important task, but Eliza had been trained in Ms. Pips’ organization. She knew the value of understanding a person; of learning what they wanted, what they feared. What they loved. These were strings a skilled player could strum, leading to any outcome they might desire. Those tasks she left to people like Nicholas; they required an amount of ruthlessness that she hadn’t yet achieved. That she, in her deepest heart, hoped she never would achieve.

                Smitt’s computer was the easiest part; Eliza merely popped a jump-drive into his desktop and let the programs installed do their work. These would first install key-logging software as well put any camera or microphone hardware under their control. After that, they would begin gathering up all of the files stored in the hard drive. There would almost certainly be nothing of value on it, only a fool kept things in such an easily breached location, but it never hurt to roll the dice that he might be stupid.

                While the computer was being scanned, Eliza did a sweep over the rest of the apartment. She found no pictures, notes, or even mementos that seemed personal. Smitt was either truly dedicated to the lonely life his job necessitated, or he was a master of keeping things buried. Eliza kept digging, going through all of the standard hiding spots she knew to check, hoping to find something useful. Along the way she slipped in the occasional listening device. They wouldn’t go undiscovered for long, Smitt kept his home too bare and easy to sweep, but hopefully they’d get what they needed quickly.

                It was in one of the last spots that she finally came up aces. Smitt had an older model television, the type that wasn’t compressed into a perfectly flat screen. Eliza might have overlooked it, had the screws on the back not shown signs of their paint being stripped away. With great care she removed the rear portion, pulling it off to reveal a set of files and a portable hard drive taped to an out-of-the-way section.

                “Hello there.” Eliza’s voice was practically a purr as she delicately touched the two objects. The air around her other hand shimmered for a moment, then a duplicate set of items appeared clutched in her fingers. Eliza set those down and went about re-attaching the television’s rear. The last thing she needed was to tip off Smitt that she’d found his hidey-hole.

                The objects she’d created would last three days, or until she dismissed them. Unlike many duplicators, Eliza’s copies were perfect. They could be altered, tested, even broken into pieces, yet each would still refuse to dissolve. Even the data on the hard drive would be identical to its originator. This talent, along with the fact that her copies didn’t need to stay in proximity to her, were what made Eliza such a valued asset in Ms. Pips’ organization. No one could create a forgery like Eliza Tracey, because hers were effectively the real deal.

                When the television was whole, Eliza checked her watch. She still had plenty of time before Smitt would come back, but the sooner she got out of there, the better. A quick glance told her the jump drive had finished its work, since it was now flashing green. Still, despite the inclination to go while time was on her side, Eliza couldn’t resist opening one of the files she’d duplicated. Perhaps she was hoping to gain some perspective on this man called Smitt; perhaps it was sheer curiosity.

                As soon as she flipped to the first page, Eliza’s heart began to pound. Vince’s face stared back at her, a picture of him taken as he walked between classes. Her fingers danced through the file’s contents, unveiling notes tracking his daily activities. Observations, schedules, pictures; all of it centered around one silver-haired student. Nicholas had been right, Smitt didn’t care about them. He was after Vince.

                Eliza slammed the file shut, stuffing it and the hard drive into her backpack. She hurried over and grabbed the jump drive, all the while desperately working against the sudden desire to torch everything this man owned. That was not the way they worked. That was not the way she’d been trained. Bouts of impulse and anger were fleeting, they led to temporary solutions. He wasn’t going to get off with something as simple as an apartment fire. When they took down Smitt, it would be in a way that he could never come back from.

                And when that day came, Eliza no longer had any inclination to let Nicholas be the one turning the screws.