Another installment in the TIME short story collection. This is story five of six and I have to say that makeing them all tie together within the one-day timeframe was a bit of a challenge. One story left to write staring our friend Dr. Dayo from the third novel Scarcity, I’ll try to have it out soon.
18 Hours with Sydney
The pleasant ringtone did little to lower the annoyance factor of her cell phone announcing it was time to start the day. Sydney pawed at it, determined to silence it without opening her eyes. Eventually she gave up and cracked one open long enough to locate the screen. The phone agreed to a ten minute wait. She rolled over and reached across the bed only to find it empty. Her mind filled in the answer her hand was asking. One more day. She sighed and let herself fall back asleep. The cat rearranged itself on her stomach without her noticing.
While she was back asleep the phone stayed awake. A few minutes after she had silenced it, it rang again. She groaned.
“What do you want from me?” she asked it before rolling over to silence it again.
She wasn’t in time and the call went to voicemail. She let it happen while she stroked the cat, who had now climbed onto her chest. Giving up on her extra ten minutes she picked up the offensive device and thumbed open her message folder.
Twenty-two messages. She swiped her way through them until one caught her eye. She smiled, tapped the screen and listened. It was short as usual but still long enough to bring a smile to her face. She did the time-zone math in her head and realized she would not have to leave work early. She was almost disappointed, but the upside cancelled that out.
Smiling down at the cat she broke the news.
The cat nuzzled her hand for more strokes and Sydney obliged for another minute before picking him up and setting him down in her warm spot. The cat rolled over and put all four paws in the air, purring with satisfaction.
“Rub it in,” Sydney commented on her way to the bathroom.
She quickly scrubbed her face and gathered her long black hair into a pony tail before searching for a set of sweats that passed the smell test. Sydney was not what anyone would refer to as a neat-freak and her condo certainly testified to that. She used her lack of free time to justify the mess but she knew the real reason was that she always arrived home too tired, and at that point she just didn’t care. She told herself she’d give her place some attention this weekend, if she had a day off.
She snugged her new running shoes on her feet and did a few stretches on the way down the hall. Fishing her iPod and sunglasses out of the clutter on the kitchen counter she was soon out the door and down the stairs. As usual, she was not alone on the streets and quickly joined her fellow runners for their mutual morning miles. She waved to the few she knew on her warm-up mile before putting on her game face, thumbing up the volume, and picking up the pace.
A half hour later she was under a hot stream of water while the cat watched from the bed and the phone rang continuously. She ignored it as none of the ringtones were her emergency ones and enjoyed the shower. She was soon in make-up and business attire and out the door once again to find her Mustang waiting patiently in its designated spot. Unlike her condo the car was spotless and gleamed in the morning sun. She had a few more days to tease Jack about her superior car before his new one arrived. Ever since his Corvette had been shot full of holes he had been debating on what to replace it with. Sydney didn’t have Jacks money so she knew it was a losing battle, but she would enjoy it while she could. Jack had evidently made a decision but was keeping it to himself, no doubt just to make its debut all the better.
Firing up the engine she let it warm up while she reluctantly donned her blue-tooth earpiece. She answered some messages and skipped others while she navigated her way to Starbucks. The rumble of the engine and the arrival time told the barista who it was before she had the window down.
“Morning Sydney! Your usual?”
“Hey Kelly, yeah, but let’s add a shot today,” she told the faceless speaker.
“Triple Carmel Macchiato on its way. See you at the window.”
Pulling the car around the building she saw she was third in line. She checked her make-up in the mirror while she waited. Just as she pulled up the phone chose to ring. It was Jacks ringtone. She thumbed it on after the second ring.
“Hey Syd, it’s Jack. I’m going to be a little late.”
“Okay, everything all right?”
There was a slight pause and Sydney knew she was about to be lied to. She let it happen. It was no longer her place.
“Okay, I’ll see you at the office.”
Jack hung up without answering. Sydney guessed what had happened. Another nightmare. She wondered how Debra was handling it. She shrugged it off as she turned to find Kelly smiling at her with a hot coffee in her hand.
“Sorry, had to take that one,” she apologized.
“No problem, nobody behind you, got a busy one today?” Kelly was a law enforcement student and had told Sydney her hope of someday joining the FBI. Sydney had become a mentor.
“Nothing exciting. Office duty, then a lecture down at the academy. Wish I could invite you.”
“Two more years, then I’ll remind you.”
“Did you call that friend of mine?”
“Yes, he’s taking me shooting next week! Thank you.”
“He can be a bit of a drill sergeant, wear your thick skin.”
“My dad already warned me. I’ll keep my mouth shut and my ears open like he said.”
Sydney laughed at that as a car pulled up behind her. “You’ll do fine, see you tomorrow.”
Sydney paused after a car length to pull the top off her coffee and sip the espresso off the top. It was her favorite part. She secured the lid before punching the throttle and joining the DC traffic. After the usual fight around Dupont Circle she made it to the office without delay. She was almost to her door when Deacon came around the corner and ambushed her.
“Sydney, glad I ran into you. I got a call yesterday from the oversight committee, they said the Embassy file was still missing a few things?”
“I wrote them a letter last week explaining that. The only thing left is the toxicology results from the embassy staff. It takes awhile to run them and I didn’t make it a priority.”
“You know they rarely read if they can make a phone call instead. How long are we talking?”
“I’ll have to ask the lab but when I put them in there were maybe fifty cases ahead of them.”
“Yes. But those are priority cases, sir. Cases that need those results to move forward. The tox results from the embassy staff will do nothing but complete the file. It won’t change the outcome of anything. I just couldn’t justify bumping other cases down the list for no real gain.”
“I understand. Tell you what; if you get another message from them just forward it to me. I’ll handle the damn oversight committee. Can you give me a ballpark?”
Sydney shrugged. “A few weeks?”
“Okay, I’ll let them know. Thanks. Oh, did you hear that we may have caught a forty-year fugitive? May even have him in the country by tonight.”
Sydney feigned surprise. “Really? That’s great.”
Deacons phone rang and he snatched it off his belt. He waved a goodbye to her as he quickly stalked away. She turned and unlocked her office door, scanning the room before entering and finding her chair. The directors comment was still in her head. Congressional oversight was an oxymoron in her opinion. People who knew next to nothing about her job and wanted everything yesterday.
“I’m so sick of congress I could vomit,” she said out loud. Fortunately her door was closed and nobody heard her.
She frowned at her inbox after unlocking all of her drawers. It was going to be a long day.
Two hours later she had finished the outline for her lecture and was going over a budget issue. The bean-counters were trying to cut the funding to her lab again. It was a never ending battle with people who really didn’t understand the value of what they were trying to do away with. One of them had actually made a reference to CSI on TV. She had almost laughed out loud but instead had patiently explained that what the FBI lab did had little resemblance to the make-believe world of television. But this year there was a new bean-counter to deal with, so the battle would have to be fought once again. More time wasted, but if that’s what she had to do to keep the lab operating, it would get done.
A knock on her door pulled her out of the paperwork.
Two of her best lab technicians entered the room and started talking, ignoring the chairs in front of her desk. Clearly they were upset about something.
“Sydney, we have to do something about the equipment shortage, I can’t get anything done if I’m constantly being interrupted!”
“Interrupted? You weren’t even using the damn thing!”
“That’s not the point! Every time I go to use it you’ve got it tied up for hours! You never even check to see if I need it first!”
“Since when do I need your permission? Its lab equipment, not your personal car!”
“You’ve got over forty samples to run and I’ve got six!”
The two men fell silent and stewed while Sydney held up a hand. She had heard enough.
“This is the third time this year you’ve been in here with the same complaint. I’ve already told you there isn’t another SEM/EDS in the budget. Hell, I’m trying right now to keep them from cutting our funds!” She held up the paperwork and shook it at them. “Sit down.”
They both looked at the chairs in front of them as if they had just appeared. Neither wanted to sit but they could hear the tone in their bosses voice. She crossed her arms and waited. It obviously wasn’t a request. They sat like kids about to be scolded.
“This is what you’re both going to do and there will be no argument. I’m done talking about this. You’re both grown men. I’m sending you both back to the lab right now. After lunch, at two o’clock sharp, I want you both back in here with a solution that works for both of you. If you can’t come up with one I will make one for you and it will be final whether you like it or not. If you need more time to come up with one I’ll make sure you have it. Understand?”
Both of the lab techs nodded like children. Obviously their boss was not in the mood today. The more time phrase meant time off, and they were both too dedicated to let that happen.
Sydney paused to let her statement sink in. It was the last thing she wanted to do but they had to know she was willing to do it if need be. She offered the carrot next.
“You guys are both the best at what you do or you wouldn’t be here at all. I shouldn’t have to referee you like this. Come up with a good answer and lets all get back to work. Okay?”
She got repeated nods for an answer.
“Alright, now go away,” she smiled.
Her techs shared a look as they left and a calmer conversation started just outside her door. They would have a solution by two. Sydney just shook her head with a sigh and buried herself back into her pile of paperwork.
The phone brought her head up. Jack again. She thumbed the button with her pen.
“Hey Syd, I’ve got to run up to Fort Mead again today. Most likely head home from there. I won’t be reachable so just leave me a message and I’ll catch up to you later.”
Fort Mead was headquarters of the National Security Agency. Someone Jack had been spending more and more time with since he had been appointed the FBI liaison to Homeland Security. Sydney knew not to ask what he was doing.
“Okay, I’ll see you Monday. Try to be on time.”
It was a jab at the rental car he was currently driving. Jack chose not to take the bait.
“Funny girl, thanks Syd.”
The phone immediately rang again and she tossed down the pen in frustration. She eyeballed the caller ID only to see that it was her mother. No matter how many times Sydney told her not to call during the week she still did. Sydney debated answering it and quickly chose not to. As much as she wanted to talk she just didn’t have the time right now. She knew the call would be pleasant until her mother found a way to remind her that she wasn’t married yet. From there it would go downhill until she found a reason to hang up. She spent the next thirty seconds listening to the phone ring and feeling guilty.
Picking up the pen she attempted to return to her paperwork but her mind was no longer engaged. She wandered for a bit from subject to subject, finally giving up when her stomach complained. A time check told her she was late for lunch. She thought for a second before reaching for the phone.
“Please tell me you haven’t eaten lunch yet?” Sydney replied.
“Actually no, what time is…wow, our favorite in five?”
“Sounds good. Meet you in the lobby.”
Sydney sighed and smiled at her knee-jerk lunch date. Christine was a friend and she needed a little girl-time. She quickly logged-off her computer and locked all of her drawers before grabbing her purse and running out.
Her friend exited the elevator across from her at the same time as she and they both headed for the exit without slowing down.
“I don’t care,” Sydney answered. “Just get me out of here.”
Christine smiled and led the way. Her boots clicking on the tile. Soon they were out on the street and weaving through the throng of government workers and tourist. Turning the corner they ducked down a stairwell and entered the tiny space below. As usual the place was full but Sydney spotted two stools on the corner of the bar being vacated. She waved frantically at the bartender and pointed, he smiled and set two glasses down to reserve the spots until they could get through the crowd.
“Thanks Tony,” Christine smiled. Tony was a handsome boy.
“Anytime. Beginning to think you girls had been transferred away from me.”
“Been busy. A little more than usual lately.”
“I saw you on the TV. Good for you. Need a menu?”
“Not for lunch. Palo’s been experimenting with the dinner menu though. You should come back tonight, he’s got a couple of new sauces.”
“Working late tonight Tony, maybe this weekend,” Sydney replied.
“I might.” Christine had her smile on again. Tony returned it as he backed away to get their drinks. He seemed to know what everyone in DC preferred without them asking for it.
“He’s a little young.”
“So, girls gotta eat.”
Sydney snorted and shook her head. Despite her age, Christine was not shy when it came to men.
“What about you? Anything new in that department?”
“My mother already called about that today. I’ve been fully reminded of my single status.”
“You could at least shop around. What about that Secret Service guy at the range you told me about? That was one good-looking man.”
“We had one date and he got transferred to the first ladies detail. He won’t have a day off for a few years.”
“Damn. At least tell me you took a test drive.”
“No, I did not sleep with him on our one date, sorry to disappoint you.”
“Too bad. He could have been nice to keep around for fun.”
Sydney just smiled and shook her head. “You could at least pretend to have a little shame, so as not to corrupt me?”
“Yeah, I’ll work on that for ya.” she replied while taking in the view of Tony’s backside as he leaned over the bar.
Sydney managed to change the subject and they chatted about anything but work and men over a quick lunch. Sydney got to see some pictures of Christine’s new niece and Sydney bored her with stories of her cats first unplanned adventure outside. Gossip about work never came up as they knew better to do so in a public place. Soon they were out of time. Sydney paid the check while Christine flirted with Tony. She eventually dragged her away.
She arrived back at her office refreshed and charged into the pile on her desk with fervor. She made good progress despite the phone ringing until she got another knock on her door. She looked up to see her two techs standing in the doorway.
“Well come in,” she waved them forward. “What did you come up with?”
“We’ve made up a timesheet for the machine. If we have work we log it in and place the case priority on it. If one of us wants to deviate from it we have to call the other first.” He handed her a copy and she scanned it.
“Looks fine. Where’s my time?”
Confusion filled their faces.
“Your time? I didn’t think to…”
“So you two get all the time and I get nothing? That’s your solution?”
They exchanged a look of horror before returning to meet her gaze. Sydney kept a straight face for a long as she could. She flopped back in her chair with a giggle.
“Relax guys, I’m fucking with you. This sounds like a good solution so let’s roll with it. I’ve got to get out of here and teach a class so let me know how it works out.”
The two rose to leave without a word. She let them get as far as the door before calling out.
“Hey guys? Maybe try this approach next time you have a disagreement too?”
She got a pair of sheepish smiles in return before they left. Sydney smiled too, her kids were playing nice again.
She was giving her lessen-plan a quick review when another knock interrupted her. She raised her head this time to see Eric standing in the door and dancing like he had to pee.
She waved him in.
“Sorry to bug you, but I just got a page. I need to leave early.”
“Well, right now actually.”
“Oh, one of those pages?”
“Go, I’ll see you Monday.” She waved him out.
She watched him turn and bolt down the hallway before he was quickly out of sight. She shook her head before returning to the pile of paper with a heavy sigh.
“Should have gone with him Sydney,” she told herself.
The phone was mercifully silent long enough for her to finish a few tasks before gathering up her paperwork and locking up her office. She took the stairs down in an effort to avoid any conversation in the halls or elevator and was soon once again seated in her car. The rumble of the engine drained some of the stress away and she opted to leave the Bluetooth off in favor of Dave Mathews on her iPod. The traffic was agreeably light and she made it to Quantico without delay, arriving only five minutes late. The class of new recruits fell silent as she walked into the room and waited. It was their second day and they were getting a good hard look at the career they had chosen. She nodded to the instructor to tell him she was ready and without hesitation he turned to the class and introduced her.
“Listen up people! This is Agent Sydney Lewis. She heads up one of our field forensic teams. No doubt some of you have heard of her. She’ll be talking to you about evidence and how you should gather it. Many of the cases you’ll be involved with will be won or lost in the lab. You would be wise to listen to every word she has to offer you today.”
Sydney took his place at the podium and gazed out over the class. Every eye was on her and for a brief second she remembered her first day in their seats. Things had changed a bit since then, yet many were the same. Her job today was to give them a dose of reality.
“Who remembers a TV show called Columbo?”
One hand came up.
“How about Hill Street Blues?”
A few more joined the first.
Two more for a total of six.
Everyone’s hands were now in the air. She waved them down.
“Before CSI, did you ever see the detective on the other shows visit the lab?”
She got smiles and a few head shakes.
“Your right. The writers of those shows didn’t care to use the lab. The lab was boring. It was better to write about the cop and his sex life, or whether or not his drinking interfered with his job. The lab was just a means to an end. If you did see a lab tech it was for as short a time as necessary and never outside the building he was in. Because of these shows and others like them that was the publics perception of what the FBI lab was like.”
She left the podium in favor of walking around the room.
“Why am I talking about TV shows? Because public perception of what we do is important to understanding what a jury will be looking for. You’ll need to keep that in mind when you gather your evidence.”
“Two things happened to change this perception. CSI is one. Can anyone tell me what the other one was?”
A hand slowly rose in the third row. A small woman with a bruise on her face, most likely from the obstacle course that morning, met Sydney’s gaze. Sydney gave her an encouraging nod.
“The OJ Simpson trial?”
“That’s correct. The judge in that case did us no favor when he allowed cameras into the courtroom. Everyone watching that trial got a firsthand look at real forensics and their role in such a case. Now everyone with a TV thinks they’re an expert on DNA, fingerprints, bodily fluids and pubic hair.”
She got a few nervous smiles at that, but she saw that they were hanging on her every word. Sydney knew how tired they all were. Their morning had started much earlier than hers and the run was twice as long.
“The reality is very different. You’ll be seeing a real forensics lab soon and its nothing like what you see on TV. We don’t have any blue mood lighting or endless rows of flat-screen monitors hanging from the ceiling. If you’ve come here expecting to hop from the lab to the street and back again you’ve come to the wrong place. Lab techs don’t carry guns, they don’t work the street, they don’t arrest people and they certainly don’t question them in any interrogation rooms. Lab results do not return in a matter of minutes. Ballistics tests can take days to complete. DNA and fingerprints even longer. I don’t have a magic flashlight that I can shine around the room to tell me what happened. You won’t see me wearing a tight Armani suit to a crime scene and interviewing witnesses. It just doesn’t work that way. Although I wouldn’t mind driving a Bureau Hummer.”
Some more nervous laughter gave her a chance to sip some water.
“So why am I telling you this?”
The small woman raised her hand again.
“Perception,” she ventured.
“Exactly. Because of these shows and the OJ trial every jury expects us to have undeniable DNA evidence and a video of the crime as it happened for them to see in order for them to convict someone. Many are shocked and disappointed when we don’t. Their perception is that of the TV shows they watch. In order to get a conviction you, and whatever prosecutor you work with, will have to re-educate the jury as to the reality of what a crime lab is capable of. For a juror, the priority of the information available has changed. The who, what, where, and when has all become secondary to the how. If you can’t explain the how, you may just lose your case. Jury’s these days expect to see a person from the lab on the stand, without it they will have doubts, and those doubts may be enough to let a criminal go free.”
She paused to let that sink in and many chose to scribbled her words down. Good.
“So let’s talk about Forensics…in the real world.”
For the next hour Sydney covered everything she could. The class was attentive and due to her casual teaching domineer asked a variety of questions. Before she knew it she had gone past her allotted time. Their regular instructor finally broke in and she was forced to wrap it up. She waved her way out the door only to meet the head of the academy out in the hall.
“How did it go?”
“Good I think, for my first time anyway.”
“I was watching Sydney, I think you did very well. I’d like you to teach more often if you could?”
Sydney was taken aback by the offer. She thought she was filling in for an instructor who was on medical leave. Maybe things had changed?
“I…I don’t know. I’ll have to see what my schedule looks like.”
He smiled. “I don’t need an answer right away, but I’d like you to think about it.”
“Thanks for filling in today.”
“You’re welcome, I enjoyed it.”
The afternoon clouds had departed by the time she arrived back at her car so she chose to put the top down for the ride back to the office. She left the radio off and let the white noise uncloak her thoughts. It was her first time teaching at the Academy and she had to admit that she had enjoyed it. She gave the directors offer some serious thought while she navigated through the a highway traffic and decided that if she could find a way to free up her schedule she might just do it. She’d have to discuss it with Jack. She moved to pick up the phone and call him until she remembered where he was. Maybe on Monday.
Since the majority of the traffic was now headed in the opposite direction she made good time and was soon back in her office. She pecked away on her computer, fielded phone calls and ate a dinner at her desk, checking the time often. An email arrived that she was waiting for. She read it eagerly before falling back into her chair with a sigh of relief. The new bean counter had finally caved and approved her budget with only two minor changes. Her lab was safe for another year.
She looked around the empty office for someone to share the good news with but as usual there was nobody.
“Good job Sydney, way to go.” she told herself with a laugh.
She decided to call it a day. She hummed an appropriate song as she closed up her office, locking her files and setting her tell. The sky had long since been dark and she realized she had just put in over twelve hours on a Friday. She shrugged it off, preferring to sing along with the song in her head instead.
“…but if you try sometimes… you just might find… you get what you need.”
The ride around the mall and past the Capitol building served to relax her and the day caught up to her as she made her way to Andrews. She yawned and stretched at the red lights and cranked the radio louder to keep herself alert. Passing through security she found her way to the terminal. She parked to wait in what was becoming a familiar spot. She closed her eyes for what seemed like a brief moment before the passenger door opened.
Lenny threw his bag inside before shoehorning himself into the little Mustang.
“You can say that again.” He leaned over for a kiss which she returned without hesitation.
“My place or yours?”
“Whichever one is closer.” Lenny leaned back and closed his eyes. Flying always drained him.
Sydney watched him settle in with a smile before putting the car in gear and pulling away. He was snoring before she crossed the bridge into Georgetown but woke when she parked at her condo.
“Wake-up sleepyhead. Let’s get upstairs before you pass out on me again.”
“Sorry. Long-ass day. How about you?”
She shook her head with a smile. “Got the whole weekend off.”
He smiled at that and let her lead him up the stairs. The cat ran off when he discovered she had brought company home.
“He’ll hide for awhile.”
“Long as he didn’t run and hide in the shower, I need one bad.”
“I’ll fix us a drink and meet you on the couch.”
She got another kiss before he headed off to the bedroom. She watched him go until he was out of sight. With a smile she found her kitchen and made a half-hearted attempt to straighten it up before succumbing to exhaustion. She at least got rid of the dishes before opening a bottle of wine and pouring two glasses. She carried them both to the couch and stretched out. The cat emerged from hiding and found her lap.
Ten minutes later Lenny found them both sound asleep. Her took the glass from her hand and tucked a blanket around her before returning to the bedroom with a smile.
18 Hours with Sydney, Copyright Randall Wood 2013