Author Topic: Chapter 14  (Read 8936 times)

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Offline Daen

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Chapter 14
« on: June 10, 2022, 04:58:41 AM »
Chapter 14

The drive out from Manhattan took maybe half an hour. Margo and Beb were restrained the whole way, strapped into their seats and handcuffed to them as well. Armed guards, all masked and helmeted, kept watchful eyes on them during the trip. Margo was mystified as to this whole thing. These people had mercenaries working for them, and ex-military ones from the looks of it, but the mercs weren't calling the shots. The man they'd seen come down the stairs was now on the other side of the van, glaring back at them. He was wearing a suit and tie, unlike the mercs. He seemed to be in charge, but he was on the phone right now and he did not look happy about it.

The van had no windows, and seemed to change direction at random intervals. Based on how much time had passed, Margo estimated they could be maybe twenty miles from the pumping substation. Twenty miles from Tin, if he was even still alive. They hadn't heard any shots, but all these guards had knives too.

Beb looked nervous but resolute, and Margo caught her eye and gave her a reassuring smile. She didn't respond in kind, but nodded anyway.

The van came to a stop, and it didn't feel like they were at a red light. The man across the way nodded to the guards, and they pulled out black hoods and fitted them over Margo and Beb's heads. It was stuffy and itchy, but at least they could breathe all right. The guards opened the van door and herded them out to... wherever they'd gone. Margo could see pavement under her feet, but not for long.

There were a series of sounds she could make out. Footsteps of course, but also electronic beeping up ahead. From a keycard reader, probably. During the trip, Margo had also heard tractor noises, which she remembered from when she'd been a kid in Maine. They were in a rural area, of sorts. It seemed they'd gone more than twenty miles.

Then she heard, unmistakably, a school bell. Were they in a small town? The guards pushed them lightly, fortunately not enough for them to lose their balance and fall, through a door into an airconditioned room. After passing a few more doors, all the lights went out, and the nearest guard removed their hoods. "Thank you so much," Margo said sardonically, shaking her head and trying to get hair out of her eyes despite the cuffs on her wrists. At least Beb was still with her.

They were in a large, darkened room with two exits. Both were closed and probably locked. Strangely, there were tape markers on the ground, indicating about a six-by-eight foot area by the door. They were all standing inside it. This looked like a school cafeteria actually, but with only one table right in the middle. On it, connected with an extension cord to the nearest wall, was an exciter. It looked modified, like the one she'd seen in Eddie's studio, but much larger.

The formally dressed man from the van stepped up and turned it on. Margo twitched, and Beb gasped as the cafeteria suddenly filled up with people. Images of men and women all seated in identical chairs surrounded them. Mr. Suit and Tie came back to the taped off area, and then turned to face the crowd. Images from the exciter were everywhere except for this space. There had to be hundreds of them, all staring at her and Beb!

One of the figures stood up from her chair, and the exciter changed her image. She was moved to the center, as if she was standing above the exciter on the table. "I'm Janice Concord, presider for this Community meeting. For the record, please state your names, professions and city of residence."

Feeling like she was back in court again, Margo looked over at Beb. "It's all right. They just want to confirm what they've already dug up about us." Taking a deep breath, she tried to project. "I'm Margo Patsulas, a private investigator working in Philadelphia."

She nodded at Beb, who looked disgruntled, but stepped forward as well. "Beb Rossi, data analysis and retrieval. Also Philadelphia."

This Janice woman nodded severely down at them. "Yesterday you were in the Jansen Paper plant in Jersey City. What were you doing there?"

Margo shook her head, but Beb spoke first. "Why should we tell you? You're not cops, or FBI or CIA or whatever. There's way too many of you for that. You can't legally force us to cooperate with this. And after you had people point guns at us and kidnap us, did you really think we would?"

Margo leaned forward, putting her hands on Beb's shoulder. "My friend is understandably upset, but she does have a point. You're clearly not US government, and if you wanted us dead, we would be by now. You've given us very little reason to cooperate, so how about we do some give-and-take instead? What exactly is this Community of yours? When you said, 'for the record', whose record did you mean? Who do you represent?" It was likely a massive number of people, spread out over a great area, to have as many representatives as Congress itself!

Janice's eyes flickered over the rest of the group, and Margo held her breath. These were civilians, obviously, but she could sense the undercurrent of fear coming from almost all of them. Anxiety marred face after face in the crowd. Even civilians could decide to kill them both and dispose of their bodies, given enough fear.

"You're in no position to bargain here," Janice said stubbornly. "You will answer our questions immediately and truthfully, or you will face the Community's summary justice. Which will be harsher in this case, because of your refusal to cooperate. Now. What were you doing in that factory yesterday?"

Margo felt a surge of indignation, but didn't want to push her luck with any other demands. "I was investigating a case," she said evasively. "Beb was helping me with the technical aspects of that case."

"How exactly did your case lead you there?"

Margo glanced over at Beb. Eddie was her responsibility after all. Beb nodded at her, giving her permission to 'out' him to these people. "We were invited by a man named Eddie Terener. We needed his help to work on some mechanical issues with our exciter. We didn't know there was anything unusual about the plant until after we got there."

Janice kept her expression still, but a ripple of shock emanated through the crowd, coupled with indignation. Janice shifted her gaze to Mr. Suit and Tie. "Is that true, Dylan?"

He nodded, a tightening look in his eyes. "I had a chance to confirm it on the drive over here."

Dylan? Did she mean Dylan Murad, the investor in charge of Jansen Paper? Margo hadn't seen a picture of him, but the age looked about right. She was spared further speculation as Janice went on. "We'll deal with that later. Back to the matter at hand: when you two were apprehended, you were trying to break into a pumping station on the island of Manhattan. Why were you there?"

As if you don't know already, Margo thought sardonically, but tried to keep her face even. "After my conversation with the actress at Jansen Paper, I knew something shady was going on. I traced the power lines you'd dug into the building, and followed the one leading out from it. All the way across the bay and up to that building."

The crowd made noises of disbelief, which Janice mirrored in her own expression. "You expect us to believe that you discovered something illicit, possibly even dangerous, and decided to investigate on your own? Just out of curiosity? Without informing the police or any authorities?"

"There's no profit in just calling the cops," Margo said bluntly. She was peripherally aware of Beb giving her a surprised look, but it was true. "I'm a PI. I'm after money, not public safety. I was looking for a conspiracy that I could sell to a newspaper. And I found one, clearly," she added, gesturing at the room.

"She's lying!" One of the crowd spoke up, and many of them audibly agreed with him. His face vanished from the projected seats, and he appeared on the table, standing next to Janice. "She's gotta be working for AFI. The only reason they haven't hit the plant or the Spyglass yet, is because she never got a chance to report what she'd found!"

AFI? What did Aldwin-Farrow have to do with these people? They were afraid of them for sure, but corporations rarely took military action themselves. Or perhaps it was a few AFI employees that these people feared. What was this Spyglass, too? Was that what they called the pumping station?

"We're not Aldwin-Farrow employees or agents," she said loudly, over the rising voices of the crowd. "We think there might be a murder conspiracy among their higher ranks. That's part of my investigation. I can present evidence, but it's at Beb's house in Philly."

"How convenient," her newest accuser said harshly. "If we let them go, we'll have AFI agents here, at the Spyglass, and at the plant inside an hour!"

"Listen!" Margo again tried to project her voice. "I thought you all might be part of the conspiracy at first, but now I can see I was wrong. We don't work for them, and our investigation might take some of the most powerful AFI people down. If we're still alive to look into it, that is."

"Then how do you explain this?" The man at their side put in, stepping forward out of the taped area. Dylan strode over to the exciter and put a memory chip into it. Several two-dimensional images sprang into view, one after another. "This is security footage from the AFI headquarters in Philadelphia, taken just a few days ago. These two women were walking through the building, with not a care in the world!"

"Yes, we were there," Margo said, suppressing her surprise. How had they gotten that footage, if the servers were all in-house? Did they have someone inside AFI? "We were interviewing Holland Farrow about the case. He had some useful information for us. If you have any more footage like that, you'll find that neither of us had ever been in that building before."

"What about your associate?" Dylan persisted. He pressed a few more controls, and an image sprung up next to the camera footage. It was an exciter recording of Tin's midsection, pared down to just his pants pockets. "He was carrying an AFI security badge, identifying him as Austin Burke, one of their top private security men. You wouldn't have needed to go there yourself, not when you had him to arrange things between you and your murdering bastard employers!"

"That's a fake ID," Margo clarified hurriedly. "And that we can prove right here and now." She turned slightly to Beb and lowered her voice. "You still have the personnel files on your phone, right?"

Beb nodded, apparently more nervous than angry again.

"The real Austin Burke is in Philadelphia right now, working for AFI. Tin borrowed his identity to look into their affairs. I didn't believe his name either, so we dug up their files during our visit. All the proof is on Beb's phone."

Janice looked receptive to the idea, and Margo's accuser returned to his 'seat' among the crowd, but Dylan shook his head. "We turned off their phones and removed the batteries as soon as we took them into custody. If we turn either back on, it could bring AFI right to us!"

"There are steps we could take to limit the risk," Janice said slowly, looking out over the crowd again. For a digital gathering, it seemed pretty smoothly run. Obviously they did this often. "Dylan, please get one of your tech people in to examine Miss Rossi's phone. If they're confident it can be done without signaling anyone else, I recommend we do so."

Dylan growled under his breath, but nodded and left. The two guards on either side didn't leave with him, keeping Margo and Beb under a close watch. Their masks and goggles made reading their expressions impossible, but their stance suggested that they were both trained killers.

"Good luck with my phone," Beb said suddenly, her voice full of pride and scorn. "I encrypted the hell out of it. You'll need months just to figure out how many contacts I have!"

Margo winced, but Janice just smiled in response. "Then perhaps you could unlock it yourself. As a gesture of trust, if you really are telling the truth about not working for our enemies."

"We've already—" Beb began, but Margo put a hand on her shoulder. Reluctantly, she backed down.

"With respect, presider, we've been nothing but candid with you. Despite having no idea who you all are or what you plan to do with us," Margo said as diplomatically as she could manage. "If you want more information, you'll have to respond in kind. Obviously, you want to keep this organization of yours a secret, and I understand that desire. We're not your enemies, and we don't want to be. I already have more than enough of those back home. We're fast approaching a stalemate here, where we're not willing to give you any more, and you can't force it out of us. How about we try the give-and-take method instead?"

She wasn't exactly a public speaker, but Margo could see the crowd thinking about it. Janice, too. The older woman hesitated, and then nodded. "I'll put the vote forward, then. Option one, we give our 'guests' the basic tour and history lesson. Option two, we don't. Most likely we lock them up and try to figure out their motives on our own. Depending on what we find, we might need to discuss more permanent solutions," she added darkly, and Margo shivered.

Margo had seen paranoia before, and these people weren't quite at that level yet, but they were close. It seemed that they were just afraid of AFI and no one else, though. That was unusual. Janice pressed a control on her exciter, wherever she was in real life, and a timer started. It was counting down from two minutes. "Cast your votes now, please."

Faces all over the cafeteria looked down, probably at their own exciter controls. Beb looked amazed and disturbed at the same time. "Are they serious about this?" She asked in an undertone.

"Apparently," Margo responded, knowing how she felt. "They're not representatives for a huge number of people. This is a direct democracy here. I think they can all speak, and all vote equally. Let's hope most of them agree with us."

One by one, faces blinked from blue to green, indicating that they'd cast their vote. By the time the countdown ended, Margo estimated that over nine in ten had made up their minds. Janice pressed a few keys of her own, and her eyebrows lifted slightly. "Two hundred and eighty votes for option one, and one hundred and four votes for option two. Seventy-six abstained. Congratulations to both of you," she said smoothly. "Remove their cuffs, please. You'll have to remain under guard, of course, for security reasons. I'm sure you understand."

"No I don't," Margo said in the same tone, looking around at the crowd. "But apparently I'm going to get the chance to, and that's good enough for now."

Janice gave her a wry look, and then turned to another face in the crowd. "Benny, you're at the school right now, aren't you? Would you mind giving them the tour, while we discuss what to do with Dylan's security mishaps? If you don't mind letting Sheila cast your vote for you."

"Sure thing," the man spoke from his seat, and the crowd rustled with appreciation. "I'll take care of it."

"Thank you. Miss Patsulas, Miss Rossi, please go with him when he gets to the cafeteria. I trust that after you've seen what we are, you'll be willing to prove what you are."

"And I trust that after you've seen what we are, we'll be free to go," Margo responded, and Janice gave her a nod. It was tinged with respect, she thought. They were still prisoners, but it was looking less and less likely that they'd need to escape.
« Last Edit: June 10, 2022, 05:11:30 AM by Daen »