Homunculus: Chapter 21: Homecoming

Douglas awoke to the sounds of birds chirping outside. He look around and saw he was alone in the tent. He got dressed and poked his head outside.

“It’s about time you got up,” Liz said. “Your breakfast is getting cold.” She pointed to a bowl of cereal sitting on the picnic table between the tent and the car.

Douglas nodded and walked over. An empty bowl sat next to his on the table. As he sat down, Liz went into the tent and soon emerged, holding a rolled-up sleeping bag.

“Isn’t it a little early to be packing up already?” he asked.

“For someone who wanted to stay up all night, you sure did sleep in late,” Liz replied. “Besides, we need to hit the road no later than noon, and I’d to go check out that lake that’s supposed to be around here. The guide says it’s about an hour’s hike each way.”

“Yeah, um, about that. Last night, when I was–”

“Hey now, there’ll be plenty of time to talk when we’re on the trail. You need to finish eating so you can help me take down the tent.”

Douglas nodded. Once he had finished breakfast, he started packing up the rest of their gear and putting it into the car. Working together, after half an hour the only signs they had been there was Liz’s car sitting in the grass and the small pile of ashes where the campfire had once been. That done, they set up down the trail leading to the lake.

“You were going to tell me something?” Liz asked.

“Right. About last night. I want to apologize for the way I was acting when you were going to bed.”

“Oh, that? Don’t worry about it.”

“You’re not mad or anything?”

Liz shook her head. “We were both pretty tired. Forget about it. Come on, we’re burning daylight.”

Something in the car chimed.

“What’s that?” Liz asked, keeping her eyes on the highway in front of them.

“That would be my phone,” Douglas said, pulling it out of his pocket. “Sounds like we’re back in coverage area.”

“Lucky you.”

“Yeah,” Douglas replied unenthusiastically. He started scrolling through the backlog of alerts and missed messages that had accumulated while he was off the grid.

“Miss anything good?”

“Doesn’t look like it. A bunch of junk, a few messages from the office, and…” He trailed off, looking at a text message that scrolled into view once he had reached the top of the list. It was a Twitter posting about the roast beef sandwich that someone with an unpronounceable user name had eaten for lunch late Saturday evening.

“And?” Liz asked.

“Nothing else important,” Douglas said, hoping he was right. There was nothing he could do about it at the moment anyway, so he might as well enjoy the rest of the drive.

“So are you going to check in with the office? See what you missed?”

“It’s probably nothing that can’t wait until Monday morning,” he replied.

“Wow, I’m impressed. You’re actually choosing me over that thing. See, there’s hope for you yet,” she smiled, putting her hand on his knee.

“Hey now, ten and two. I would like to survive until Monday morning, if it’s all the same to you.”

“There’s the old Douglas,” she teased, returning her hand to the steering wheel.

“We’ve started taking shifts with each other, I think. Who do you want to go out with next week, old or new?”

“Can’t it be both?”

“Are you sure you could handle that?”

“Name the time and place. Though if you don’t mind, I’d prefer somewhere that isn’t going to cost me an entire tank of gas getting there and back.”

Douglas set his duffel bag down next to him as he fumbled for the keys to his condo in his pocket. He turned and waved with his other hand to Liz as she pulled away from the curb. Once she was gone, he looked more closely at the front door. No signs of forced entry. That was good, at least. He unlocked the door and slowly pushed it open.

As he expected, his phone chimed as he picked up his duffel bag and cautiously took a step inside. Nothing looked amiss, in so far that there wasn’t a conspicuous absence of any furniture or major appliances that he could see from the doorway. He set his duffel bag down inside and let the door close behind him. He walked through the rooms of the condo, doing a quick visual survey while being careful not to touch anything he didn’t have to.

Once that was done, he turned his attention back towards the front door. It was protected by a do-it-yourself security alarm. Hidden behind the bookcase on one side of the door was a laser pointer, modified to run off a wall socket instead of a battery. Behind the sofa on the other side of the door, directly in the laser’s path, was hidden a sensor connected to a wireless antenna. The sensor was rigged such that it could send a message whenever it was either turned on or it lost sight of the laser aimed at it, as would happen when the front door was opened. In particular, it would send the most banal possible tweet Douglas could think of, posted under a dummy account no one but he would be paying attention to.

Douglas checked his phone again. As expected, there was an alert corresponding to the time he had entered a few minutes ago. Scrolling through the messages more carefully, there were two other instances where the sensor had been tripped since after he had armed the sensor and left yesterday morning: the one from last night afternoon he had noticed on the drive back, and another early this morning.

Douglas had rigged the whole setup together at pretty much the last minute. True, he had been tinkering with it in his free time for a while, but he had only put it into actual use the week before he left, wanting to have something in place while he was gone for the weekend. Unfortunately, now that he actually had a hit on it, it was clear to him that it was still a bit too half-baked to be reliable.

For starters, although it reacted to both the beam being blocked and it losing power, it sent the same message in either event. Douglas hadn’t tested whether a fleeting dip in the power supply would be enough to set it off. None of the clocks in the condo were blinking 12:00, but he had seen cases where they could ride out a power interruption for a few seconds with no harm done, so that didn’t really mean anything.

Plus, there was the issue of how carefully the laser pointer needed to be positioned for it to hit the target. Douglas had had a rough time calibrating it just right when he set it up, and he couldn’t be sure whether a sudden vibration, such as someone nearby slamming their door loudly, might knock it off track long enough to trigger.

But the fact that it had detected his own entry showed that it would also detect actual instances of the door opening. It was possible that someone had picked the lock under cover of darkness and gotten inside. But to do what? As far as Douglas could tell, there wasn’t anything missing. Not that he had anything terribly valuable in the first place, except of course for….

Douglas hurried into his bedroom and opened the closet door. Sitting on the floor beneath a row of hanging shirts was his safe. He checked the number on the dial of the combination lock. 37. The same number he always put it on after closing it. 37 looked like the kind of number that might show up if you spun the dial randomly. Not like 0, where the average person would immediately assume it had been deliberately set there to hide what the last number of the combination was. Which meant either that no one had touched the safe, or someone had but was careful to restore the dial to its original place.

To put his mind at ease, Douglas entered the combination and opened the safe door. There wasn’t anything missing inside, which was a relief. He closed and locked the safe back up, returning the dial to 37 as usual.

There was one last thing to check. He grabbed a small flashlight and looked behind the computer under the desk in the second bedroom which he used as a study. Seeing no key loggers or anything else suspicious plugged in to it, he turned it on and typed in the necessary passwords to decrypt the hard drive and log in. Once it had finished booting, he immediately checked the event log to see if anyone had recently tried to unlock the hard drive with the wrong password. He kept a sticky note with a bogus password under his keyboard, which would be the first place someone trying to find the password would look. The idea was that they’d find it, try to log in using it, and fail, with that attempt getting logged. But the event log showed nothing unusual.

Douglas saw three possibilities. One: someone had broken into his condo to rob the place, saw he didn’t have anything worth stealing, and left. Possible, but one would think the computer would at the very least be worth something on the black market. Two: someone had broken into his condo and done… something… but were clever enough to avoid leaving any evidence whatsoever behind except for tripping his makeshift alarm. Three: the whole thing was a false alarm, and he needed to do a lot more testing before he could rely on anything it reported.

Douglas sighed and shook his head. Occam’s Razor clearly pointed to option three. Some careful testing of his home-brew security alarm would probably confirm it wasn’t very reliable in its present state, but Douglas had other things he needed to do, the most important of which was getting to bed early. He was looking forward to sleeping on a mattress once again.

Chapter word count: 1,712 (+45)
Total word count: 37,131 / 50,000 (74.262%)

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