Author Topic: Chapter 16  (Read 5760 times)

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Offline Daen

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Chapter 16
« on: June 10, 2022, 04:58:25 AM »
Chapter 16

Dylan was indeed scowling when they got back into the cafeteria meeting room. Margo didn't know quite how to feel about him. She had admiration for how much he'd cared for his people—enough to break the law, even. But he had also kidnapped her and Beb. Whatever; it wasn't her business either way.

Janice's image swiveled away from the crowd to face her and Beb again. "We've held up our end, Miss Rossi." She nodded to Dylan, who pulled out Beb's phone and handed it to her. "It's your turn."

Margo stepped forward. "Before she does that, I want to make something clear to everyone here. If I may."

Janice gave her a curious look, but no one in the crowd objected, so she eventually nodded.

"During the tour, we figured out what the Spyglass is, and who helped you all design and build it. Don't blame Benny—he didn't tell us anything he wasn't supposed to. We know about Dr. Poe's death, and that you believe it was a murder, committed by AFI. Or at least someone working for them. I was hired to look into the death of Dr. Jia Haldar, an associate of Dr. Poe's. Her death also looked like an accident, but I'm convinced now that she was murdered. We're on the same side. We were also attacked by someone we assume was working for AFI. I think it's very likely that your culprit and mine are the same person, or at least working together. That's why I have no intention of telling anyone about the Spyglass or the paper factory. You have nothing to fear from me, or from Beb." She looked over at her friend. "Right?"

Beb hesitated, still looking disgruntled. "I'd be a lot happier if you'd just invited us first, instead of kidnapping us. You know the saying about honey and vinegar, I'm sure. Still, she's right. I won't tell anyone either."

The crowd seemed skeptical, at least some of the ones Margo could see, but Janice nodded solemnly. "Our Community is based on trust. In that spirit, I'm prepared to let you go. Provided you cooperate and share information as we have, of course."

It wasn't the resounding apology Margo had been hoping for, and Beb still had that resentment in her expression, but it was good enough for now. Margo nodded over at her.

Under the close watch of both Dylan and the guard nearest her, Beb unlocked her phone and scrolled through some of the data she'd collected. "Here. Internal AFI personnel files, including the real Austin Burke's photo. He's been working there for years. Tin just borrowed his identity."

Dylan took the phone up to the exciter and plugged it in. A moment later the photo ID and historical information on Mr. Burke popped up for everyone to see, and Dylan carried the phone back to the taped-off area. The crowd relaxed a bit at that, as people all over the room examined the images. Margo took a moment to admire their understanding of the exciter's technology.

The exciters hadn't been built for communication, initially. Eddie's alterations to it had allowed for two-way... conversation, if you could call it that. But this group chat, with hundreds of different people all at once, was an impressive feat of programming. Even with Margo's limited computer skills, she could recognize that.

"Very well," Janice said eventually. "You said you were hired to look into Jia Haldar's death. We've heard of her, of course. Do you have any suspects?"

Margo shook her head. "At first I thought it was a lover's quarrel, but when I found out she practically invented the exciters, I began to focus on her work. We found a sort of sanctum she used, filled with recordings describing her initial discovery, and then the development process." Margo hesitated there, wondering how much to tell them.

I might as well go all the way, she decided. Beb and I know about their large criminal conspiracy, and they're still treating us with respect. They deserve the same treatment. "Jia apparently recorded a message, hardwired into every commercial model exciter, and programmed it to play at a specific time of year. We thought the message was from Theo Farrow, the deceased CEO of AFI, but it was from her instead. We're still trying to access it."

She paused, looking at the faces in the crowd. Some were whispering to each other, but there was no surprise evident. "But you already knew about the message, didn't you? Have you heard it?" Margo held her breath for a moment with hope, but let it out when Janice shook her head.

"We've also been trying to break through the encryption on the exciters, but mostly out of curiosity. We suspected that Dr. Haldar was murdered too, but your confirmation makes her message even more important."

So much for that idea. "All right, how about you tell me who your suspect is, then? Maybe I can look into him instead."

Janice again waited for the crowd's response before nodding. "Very well. We found traffic camera footage of the car that ran Alfred over, including the driver's face. He has several aliases, but we finally found his real name: Eberhard Goswin."

Beb looked at Margo sharply, and Margo felt a dull sense of shock. Off to her left, she heard a slight hiss from one of the crowd inhaling sharply. Apparently it was news to at least one of them as well.

"No, that's not right," she objected automatically. "I looked into Goswin first, as did the man who hired me. His real name is Cole Harding, and he's a small-time drug dealer, part of a gang in Baltimore. He's currently in Witness Protection, hiding from his former gang members."

Janice shook her head. "No, he's not." She pressed a key, and an image popped up of the man in question. "This image was recorded yesterday, by cameras inside the AFI headquarters in Philadelphia. He was there."

None of this made any sense. "I don't understand. Are you saying he really is Goswin, and that he fooled the US Marshal's Service into thinking he was someone else? How? And for that matter, why?"

"We're not sure. Somehow, Goswin knows things—things he couldn't possibly know. How else could a janitor working the night shift at an abandoned hydroelectric dam get a position of power inside AFI so quickly? We suspect it has something to do with Dr. Haldar's secret message."

"What exactly is his position?" Margo asked grudgingly. Goswin had played her for a fool, pretending to be innocent like that. The fact that he'd fooled Tin, the Marshals guarding him, and apparently Jia as well, didn't make it any easier.

"He's their head of security," Janice clarified, her voice noticeably flatter than before. "With a company like AFI, that means he has at least fifty trained, armed guards under his command. Like our own, mostly ex-military. From what we can tell, he blackmailed his way into that post, just like he knew secrets about the real Cole Harding's life. Enough to convince the Marshals he was Harding."

This was starting to ring a bell for Margo. "You know, Jia knew things, too. She knew that Kent Farrow was planning on taking over the company from his father, forcibly. She used that knowledge to stop him, and to convince Theo to bring his other son in instead. She also had a position of power inside AFI, advising Theo, and then Holland when he became CEO." She paused. "What do you think Jia's message says? Is it about the exciters in general? We found evidence in her sanctum that there's some other use for the exciters. She never explained what it was in her recordings, but I got the feeling it was a big enough secret to kill for."

Janice sighed. "At this point all we have is questions and more questions. Thank you for your cooperation, both of you. If you'll wait outside, we'll discuss the situation further. We're on the same side, like you said. Benny, could you arrange a ride for them?"

It was clearly a dismissal, but Margo wasn't quite done yet. "What about Tin? The man who hired me, I mean."

"Our people are still looking for him," Janice said understandingly. Apparently some of Margo's concern had leaked into her voice. "When he's found, he'll be brought here, and you can explain things to him."

Ok, so she'd misunderstood Margo's concern. "I don't think you'll be able to catch him," she said carefully. "The only reason I've been able to stay in contact with him is because he allowed it. He needed both of us to help with his search for Jia's killer. As far as he knows right now, we've been kidnapped by unknown and possibly murderous people. If he's smart, he's long gone from where we were grabbed. But if he chooses to try to rescue us, there will be trouble."

Janice shook her head. "Don't worry, our people will bring him in safely. I'm not concerned."

"You should be. I've seen him in action, and I don't want any of your people killed. I also don't want any of you to kill him! Just let me call him, all right? I can explain that we're fine, and that we'll see him soon. That way we can avoid any... unpleasantness."

Still looking dismissive, Janice waved a hand. "Very well. Return her phone, please."

"That won't be necessary," a voice from the crowd spoke up, and an image moved forward onto the table next to Janice. It was Tin!

Gasps erupted from the assemblage, and Janice's jaw dropped a bit. The other guard pointed his gun over at Tin's image, uncertainty all over his stance. Dylan's mouth was shut tight, but his face had gone white. In the sudden silence which had fallen, Beb burst out laughing.

Margo couldn't help but chuckle along with her. She remembered one of the crowd reacting to hearing Goswin's name, earlier. She should have known better than to think he would leave them behind. Or have any real trouble following them. She mentally backtracked, trying to figure out when he'd joined this crowd. People were constantly connecting and disconnecting, so it was possible he'd heard the whole thing. Except for her chat with Benny outside, anyway.

Janice looked offended now too, possibly because of Beb's reaction. "What is this? Explain yourself!"

"I'm Tin. I'm in one of your houses here in Masontown, and I hijacked the exciter feed so I could see what was going on," he said bluntly. "My compliments on your security, by the way. I wasn't able to get close enough to help my friends."

After checking something out of her exciter's line of sight, Janice turned back to him. "You're using Angie's feed. Where is she?"

"Oh, she's here. She's fine, but a bit angry at me, I think. I had to convince her to let me listen in. Don't worry, I didn't come here to hurt anyone."

Despite the offense still evident in both Janice and Dylan, the crowd seemed quite impressed. Loud voices emanated from some of them, insisting that their security be expanded to include all the homes as well as just the Spyglass and the factory. Most of them clearly didn't recognize Tin's actions for what they were: a threat.

He was holding this Angie woman hostage, along with anyone else in her home. If Janice and Dylan didn't release his friends unharmed, he might hurt his hostages. He was probably holding a gun on Angie at this very moment, but the exciter feed didn't cover his hands.

Tin nodded at her, and Margo got the message. It was time to go. She reached out to Beb and turned to leave. The other guard looked like he was about to stop them, but Dylan held out an arm and pushed his weapon down. "Hold on," Margo urged him as something suddenly occurred to her. "We won't go far, presider. We'll just be outside while you discuss this among yourselves."

Tin gave her an exasperated look, but then nodded both to her and to Janice before stepping out of range of whichever exciter was recording him. The voices on the other side rose in intensity as they closed the door. Benny and a few others were outside in the hall, each carrying an exciter and staring at them while whispering to each other.

-.-

Tin was reunited with them in person a few minutes later. There was no sign of his hostages, or his weapons, so Margo assumed he'd left them behind. It was a pretty big gesture of trust on his part, which was a little out of character for him. He must really think this 'community' cult here meant what they said.

"Ok, props for a super sneaky move," Margo complimented him once he was away from the crowd gathering in the school, and Beb nodded along with her. "Well done."

"Thank you, thank you," Tin gave a pair of mock bows.

"After we were captured, I take it you stowed away in one of the trucks headed here. But I don't remember you having any weapons. How did you get one of them to help you?"

Tin grimaced slightly. "I had to knock one of them out and take his gun. I made sure it wasn't loaded when I broke into Angie's house, but I'm still not happy about taking her prisoner like that. She didn't deserve to be afraid, and neither did her daughter."

"You did what you had to," Margo assured him, "and I doubt there was any permanent harm done. On a selfish note, I'm glad you chased after us. You're a useful guy to have around in a pinch."

Tin acknowledged the compliment with a shrug. "I was concerned at first, but pretty soon I realized neither of you were in any real danger. I was surprised you went along with it, actually. Especially after trying to stop me back in that shack in the forest."

Ah, so he wasn't wasting any time getting to that, was he? Well, better they talk about it sooner rather than later. Margo turned to Beb. "Hey, could you give us a minute? We have a sort of fan club back there; how about you go meet a few of them? You've never been famous before as far as I know."

Beb nodded understandingly. "I'll give out a few autographs if they ask."

Once she was gone, Margo focused back on Tin. "If this is about Goswin, his escape isn't your fault, you know."

"How could it not be?" He asked raggedly, scowling, but not at her in particular. "I had him, dead to rights in that shack, and I let him go!"

Margo was tempted to point out that they still didn't know for sure that Goswin had killed Jia, but the evidence was starting to look overwhelming at this point. "How did he beat the drugs, though?" She went on, trying to distract him a little. "You had him doped up pretty heavily. How was he able to lie to us?"

Tin shook his head. "Through my mistake, or sheer dumb luck, maybe. I asked him about the last time he spoke to Jia, not the last time he saw her. He answered me truthfully, but I never asked him what happened afterwards! He must have followed her on her morning run and killed her then. This is my fault, Margo. I could have continued the interrogation, and I would have gotten the truth, but I failed."

"Hey," she grabbed his head in both hands, forcing him to look up at her. "I was right there with you, remember? I was the one insisting you let him go. And it was the right call at the time. We know who he is now, and what he's done. We can stop him." She let him go, hoping he would stay out of his downward spiral this time.

"We don't even know what he's trying to do! Besides, those AFI ex-military guys of his are stone cold killers. Remember that guy who attacked you? I only took him down so quickly because he wasn't expecting me to be there. They're the real deal. Even I would have a hard time getting past so many of them. Goswin knows we're onto him now, so he won't be taking risks like he did before."

"Then we'll find some way to lure him out," Margo said with determination. "Or we'll find enough proof that the cops will have to get involved. The FBI or CIA too, maybe. I don't know."

His eyes tightened slightly. "You were right, earlier. Whatever the secret about the exciters is, both Jia and Goswin knew it. Goswin wants to keep it a secret too, or he wouldn't keep on delaying the message from going out. Maybe we can force him to show himself if we can trigger the message."

He seemed to be out of trouble for now, and Margo nodded, a little relieved. Sometimes the best cure for guilt and self-reproach was to have another problem to solve. "Sounds like a plan. Should we rid ourselves of the peanut gallery, get Beb, and get to work?"

Tin didn't seem to have any objections, so Margo beckoned Beb over from the group. Benny came with her, as did a few others. That could be beneficial, actually. "Benny, I don't suppose you've got that ride back to Jersey City read for us yet, do you?"

He paused. "Actually, I was hoping the three of you would be willing to stay for dinner. Sheila really wants to meet you all in person, I bet my daughter Toni will feel the same, and I make a mean casserole. It's so rare we get to meet people who aren't part of the Community, but know all about us all the same. The last one was Al himself, and that was years ago." He looked at them with an expression half expectant and half hopeful.

Margo exchanged looks with Beb and Tin, hesitantly. She still wasn't convinced this 'Community' of theirs was safe and not some kind of well-disguised cult. Besides, they were still booked in rooms in a hotel in Jersey City, and those rooms were burning holes in their wallets right now.

"I think it's a good idea," Tin said, before Margo could find a way to politely refuse. "I actually met Al Poe myself a few years ago, and it would be great to talk with people who knew him better than I did. My—uh, well, I heard that he told the most hilarious stories, but I never actually heard one myself."

That hesitation in speech wasn't like him, and Margo noted it for the future. Unfortunately, it looked like Beb was enjoying her newfound minor celebrity status, and wanted to stay as well. Margo might have been willing to leave if it was just Tin, but she wasn't leaving Beb with these people. Cults had a way of indoctrinating newcomers with only a few hours of exposure, and Beb was by her nature a very open person. "All right, but I need to make a few phone calls first."

That was a lie. She didn't really have anyone to call, but if this Community thought she was in contact with other people, they'd be less likely to just poison the three of them, dispose of the bodies, and call it a day.

Benny took her restriction in stride nonetheless, and nodded easily. "Of course. This will be great! I can't wait to tell Sheila and Toni."
« Last Edit: June 10, 2022, 05:12:07 AM by Daen »