My name is Tina Adler, and I am an addict.
My addiction is not defined as such by the experts, although I could write an entire chapter on it and then some. There is no twelve-step program, no church basements with pots of coffee and fellow addicts with whom to share stories. No coins to mark sobriety, no common prayer.
The only thing I have is time. One day, one hour, one minute that I count without using.
I’m not naïve enough to think that I won’t relapse. I did once before, and I will again.
Maybe even today.
I am escorted into a cold, concrete room, a metal table and two chairs in the middle. A big mirror adorns one wall, but I’m not stupid. They’re watching me. The door slams shut behind me. I circle the table, running my fingers along its edges, sidestepping the chairs.
The laptop sits in the center of the table. It’s open, the screen dark. I wiggle my fingers before making two fists. I will not touch it.
It’s been thirty-four days since I handed over my laptop. Since I’ve been online. Thirty-four days, ten hours, and thirteen minutes, according to my watch. Yes, I’ve been keeping track. It keeps my mind occupied. I count seconds, minutes, my head spinning with the distraction.
I continue to walk in circles around the table, my eyes glued to the laptop, as though it’s a mirage in the desert and if I look away, it will disappear. I want to feel the keys underneath my fingers, the power surging through me.
The door swings open, startling me, and my heart beats faster.
He comes in, closing the door behind him.
‘I’m Agent Tilman. Please sit.’ He holds a folder with papers in it. How old-fashioned – just like my old-fashioned wristwatch. He indicates the chair next to me and, without waiting, he plops down in the other one across from me. His rumpled suit makes me wonder if he’s slept in it, if he’s been here all night.
He waves his hand again, silently telling me that I should sit, but I keep standing. If I sit, it means I’m here for the long haul. If they’re going to put me away, they might as well just do it. It’s not as though I haven’t been preparing mentally for this for a long time.
I don’t ask if I need a lawyer. Maybe I do, but I don’t have one, and I don’t know where I would find one. If I tell them this, they’ll probably send me a young, overworked, underpaid public defender.
‘I’m sorry for the inconvenience,’ he says, as though he does not hear my heart pounding inside my chest. ‘We felt it would be better to do this here, rather than at your place of business. Less public.’
They were waiting at the bike shop when I rode up this morning, anxious to make a pot of coffee and start my day. It’s slow this time of year – there aren’t as many tourists – but we do repairs, and I have three bikes that need tune-ups. They showed me their badges and said that the shop owners – Beth and Roger Connors – were already at the station. ‘Just routine,’ they said casually, as though having FBI show up at the door was an everyday thing. ‘Just a few questions.’
Agent Tilman frowns. ‘Please sit, Ms White. This shouldn’t take long.’
For a second, I forget my alias, forget that he believes I’m Helen White, and then I mentally shake myself. I am so tense that I’m afraid I’ll break in half if I sit, but I don’t want to disobey, so I do as I’m told. The chair squeaks against the floor as I slide it out, and I settle into it, my arms folded across my chest.
‘Do you recognize this laptop?’ he asks, and again my eyes are drawn to it.
There’s nothing special about it. ‘Not really. Should I?’
‘It was in the office at the bike shop where you work.’
I’m not sure where he’s going with this. ‘And?’
‘Do you use this laptop?’
My heart quickens even more. ‘No.’ I’ve been clean for thirty-four days. I should get a coin for that.
‘You’ve never used this laptop?’ His voice is a low timbre, and his eyes meet mine.
We stare at each other like this for a few moments, and finally I give in. ‘No. I don’t know what you’re looking for here.’ I will myself to stay calm, to keep my voice steady. Agent Tilman clearly thinks I’m connected somehow to this laptop.
I begin to wonder if I should find myself a lawyer.
‘Do you know who does use this laptop?’
I shrug, trying to appear nonchalant. ‘Beth and Roger. It’s their shop. Their laptop.’
‘You’ve seen them use it?’
I am trying not to stare at the laptop, wondering what is going on.
‘Sure. It’s usually in the back office, but I am normally in the shop. I don’t have anything to do with running the business. I do tours sometimes, but mostly I fix the bikes.’ I realize I’m talking too fast, protesting too much, giving him answers to questions he hasn’t asked.
‘So you have seen them use it, Ms White?’
Without thinking, I ask, ‘Did someone use this laptop for something illegal?’ Immediately, I regret my question, but he doesn’t seem fazed by it.
‘That’s what we’re trying to determine.’
I can’t help myself. I start picking apart the possibilities that would lead the FBI to it: child pornography, illegal drugs or weapons, human trafficking. I wonder about Beth and Roger. I can’t see them involved in anything like that. They seem too normal. But then again, I seem normal, too.
If the FBI were investigating something, they must have traced the IP address. If I were the culprit, I’d make sure that no one would be able to trace me, so I would reroute the IP address through a VPN. I wonder if this is what’s happened. If someone has done just that, and Beth and Roger are innocent in whatever crime is connected to this laptop. I open my mouth to tell Agent Tilman this, but then shut it again. I don’t want to show my cards. He can’t know what I know. He can’t know that I know anything about rerouting IP addresses. That I have skills that go beyond repairing bicycles.
‘Besides Beth and Roger Connors, have you seen anyone else using this laptop?’ he asks, pulling me out of my thoughts.
‘I really can’t say for sure who has used it and who hasn’t. I know I haven’t.’
‘Do you have your own laptop, Ms White?’
‘No.’ I say it quickly, definitively, because it’s true.
One of his eyebrows rises above the other. ‘No? You don’t own a laptop? What about a desktop computer? A tablet?’ Agent Tilman’s tone has gotten frosty. He doesn’t believe me.
‘I don’t even have a smartphone, Agent Tilman.’
‘That’s unusual in this day and age.’
Maybe I should have lied. Because it is unusual. I quickly say, ‘I don’t want the distraction in my life. I lead a very simple life.’ I pause. ‘What exactly did you find on that laptop?’
He narrows his eyes and purses his lips, and for a second I don’t think he’s going to tell me. But when he finally does, a chill runs through me because I may not be able to escape this time.
©2016 Karen E. Olson