Author Topic: Chapter 15  (Read 7182 times)

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Offline Daen

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Chapter 15
« on: June 10, 2022, 04:58:33 AM »
Chapter 15

Benny seemed like a far cry from Dylan, or any of the armed guards who still followed the two of them around like shadows. He was likable, and personable, right from the start. "Wow. So you two are kinda famous. The first people ever to find out about our Community, but you're not working with AFI. Or at least I hope you're not. No one saw that coming. This should be fun," he added with a smile.

"I hope so," Margo responded with a knowing look at Beb. "So where do we begin?"

"Right here," Benny said easily, pushing open the double doors to this building.

It really was a school after all. As Margo and Beb made their way down the front steps, Margo looked back and could see the words 'Community High' carved into the stone up above. The stonework looked old but functional, and the rest of the street looked just like any other American suburb.

"Where are we, anyway?"

"Officially it's called Masontown, New Jersey, but we just call it the Community. Hence the name up there," Benny gestured back to the school. "Our origins are a little unusual, so I have to give you a bit of a history lesson."

"Yeah, I kind of figured that," Beb said from off to the side. Her anger and fear had subsided now that they were outside again, apparently. Or maybe it was just that she wasn't facing punishment or death at the hands of unknown kidnappers anymore.

"Basically, it all started with Dylan, about thirty years ago," Benny began, walking slowly down the nearby street. The guards kept pace with them, but a few feet back. "What do you know about him anyway? You're a PI, so I bet you did some research."

Margo nodded. "He's a military brat, right? American citizen born and raised in Indonesia. He came back to the States and started an Auto Repair business in Wisconsin. That folded, so he went with a machine shop next, over in Iowa. Then a steel smelting plant, a hydroelectric plant, and most recently, Jansen Paper. They were all failures, or so I read. Now I'm beginning to think they were all covers for something else."

"No, they were all real until the last one," Benny assured her. "He fancied himself a businessman right from the start, but he was no good at it. Every time, he hired people, paid them, tried to make a profit, and failed. Eventually he had to let them go and sell the materials. My wife and I joined him in Iowa, at the machine shop. We both worked for him for two years, and he was a wonderful boss, I can tell you."

"For a while, anyway. It's hard to be a wonderful boss if you have to fire everyone and sell the company."

"True, true," he agreed. "But he collected friends along the way. Hundreds of us. We all saw him try so hard to give us the jobs and lives we deserved. He would spend twenty hours a day most days, at the plants and factories, working like a mule. He never had a hard word for anyone, even those he had to let go for incompetence or theft. He was a role model for all of us, right from the start."

He seemed lost in recollection and admiration. "But then?" Margo prompted, and Benny seemed to wake up a bit.

"Right. Well, eventually we all got fed up with the constant uncertainty. We talked about it as a group, and decided we were done with the status quo. The only reason those businesses failed was because Dylan insisted on paying us what we were worth. So we decided to cut out the middle man. We pooled all our money and came here. Masontown was practically a ghost town at that point. There was a copper mine near town a few decades ago, and the miners built the town because of it, but it went dry much sooner than they expected. There were only a few people left here when we arrived, and they were happy to sell to us. We're basically the only people in town now, other than a few retired folks in some houses on the south end. And now you two, I guess."

"Ok," Margo said suspiciously. This was sounding perilously close to a cult-like situation here. "So if there's no mine, how do you all pay for things? How do you make a living?"

"How does anyone? We all work for the things we need." He gestured at the pharmacy down the street. "We have an economy of sorts here, but they're all businesses in name only. Everyone in the Community does what we need to, to benefit everyone else in the Community."

"By force, I assume," Margo's suspicions seemed to be confirmed. Cults had a long history of compelling their members to operate collectively.

"Not at all!" Benny said, sounding scandalized. "Everyone here is free to come and go as they please. In fact my wife and I encouraged our son to go and experience the world. He's living in Tennessee now, with his own family."

Margo scratched at her head for a moment. "A true collective town? I don't know, Benny. This is sounding like a fairy tale to me."

"You're not the first person to say that, not by a long shot," he agreed. "We got some press in the early days—both good and bad—but I'm not surprised you hadn't heard of us. Everyone assumed the town would fold and we'd all go our separate ways, but we never did. Still, there's no profit in promoting a collective town, so no one did after that." He gave her a mild look, but there was some accusation in there. He must be remembering her own mercenary comments about why she hadn't called the cops.

She probably should let it go, but Margo couldn't resist. "Look, there's nothing wrong with making money for yourself, or promoting your business. Nothing you say can change that."

"Maybe not, but when does it become wrong? Once you have enough money for yourself? Or for your family or friends? Or for your fellow business owners? Is it wrong when you have billions or trillions of dollars while your employees are struggling just to survive? We decided to not take the risk at all. Every 'business' here is owned by every person here. All 'bills' are paid by everyone. I trust not just my wife, but every adult living here. That's why we all had a say in whether or not to tell you."

"Ok, now I'm sure this is fake, or some kind of cult," Margo objected. "People are greedy. It's in our nature. What you're talking about just isn't possible, because some people will always take more than they need from everyone else."

"And that did happen here at first; you're right. Then we put a stop to it. The majority of people just want to live normal, happy lives. We don't want to always be in some kind of money-chasing rat race all the time. Do you?" He glanced over at Beb, who actually seemed receptive to all this. "How about you?"

Margo wasn't sure quite how to respond to that, so he continued. "Look, I don't want to step on any toes here. I explained where you are, and how we got here. Ask almost anyone in town and you'll get the same story."

"All right, then why are you so afraid of AFI? They're a multinational, multibillion dollar corporation. They may not like what you've created here, if it's even as real as you say, but you're nothing to them. Not even a blip on the radar. And yet I could tell how many of those people in that exciter conference were terrified of them. What have they done to you?"

Benny looked pained. "It's not the whole company, exactly. We're concerned about a few powerful individuals working inside it. Not Holland Farrow—he's too new at the job to be in on it."

"In on what, exactly?"

"Ah, see, here's where I have to step carefully. A few years back, we got a kind of windfall here in the Community. Dylan arranged to use that money to reach out to other people. He went after the most desperate first: homeless, friendless, family-less people in big cities. People without any hope at all. Then he started bringing them here, if they were willing. They've become part of our group. Maybe one in three of us is a recruit instead of a founder, by now. AFI is after us, or actually one powerful person inside the company is, because of how we got that income. And how we're still getting it."

"Let me guess: the new source of income is that Spyglass thing you were talking about," Beb said from the side, and Margo nodded with her.

Benny's eyebrows lifted fractionally. "Not bad. Of course I can't tell you what it is, but I bet a pair of brainy people like you can figure it out."

Margo gave him a wolfish smile. "I'm always up for a challenge. Beb, how about you?"

"I'm not sure," she said after a moment. "Whatever it is, it's profitable. Enough to maintain the lifestyle of several hundred people here. It's also a secret, but I don't know why. Unless it's something you don't want the government to start taxing, but I doubt that. You've been above board with everything in this town for a long time. Is it something illegal, then?"

"Getting warmer," he responded teasingly.

Suddenly, Margo had it. "It's an exciter, isn't it? The Spyglass. That's why you needed so much power, and why you have to keep it a secret. Anything bigger than the standard-issue exciter is heavily regulated by the government."

"Very good," he applauded quietly for a few moments. "I knew you could puzzle it out."

"I don't get it," Beb put in. "I knew the bigger exciters were regulated, but I never found out why."

Margo had a leg up in this conversation, partially because of her side jobs and experience with the exciters. "That's because you don't follow legislative news. Because the exciters take 3D images, they could be used for all sorts of espionage. That's one of the reasons I have to inform my clients that I'm turning on an exciter, during every meeting. The states, and the federal government, quickly realized that anyone with an exciter could steal all sorts of information by using it in the right places. Fortunately they're real power hogs, so all the legislators had to do to control the exciters was to control the energy grid. That's why the people in this 'community' had to keep their power storing a secret. It's the only way they could use their giant exciter to steal information."

"Right!" Beb said, apparently catching on now. "And the reason it's in Manhattan is so that they can get a good look at what's going on in the World Trade Center! That's... pretty cool actually. You know, for thieves at least." She turned to Benny. "Just how far can you push the exciter's field? And for how long?"

"We only need it for a millisecond," he said with a smile. "Just a snapshot: enough time to see what's on broadcast boards and computer screens. But as for range, we've pushed it up to about eight hundred feet. That's more than half of the new World Trade Center building."

"Impressive."

"But totally illegal," Margo reminded her. "This is insider trading, nothing more. You find out what stuff is selling best, and profit from it. So much for your high-minded ideals."

"Hey," Benny responded with a new sharpness in his tone. "Everyone here has worked for a living before. Our bosses all stole as much as they possibly could from us, for as long as they possibly could. The only reason we weren't actual, literal slaves to them was because it's illegal! I have no problem stealing what we need to survive from them. Not as long as we can still keep each other from being greedy, like we always have. We never take more than what we need, and never from anyone in need. Everything we get is spread evenly among the whole Community."

"And everyone here is ok with that? Knowing that the SEC will totally shut you down if they find out? How many people in this little paradise of yours will end up in jail then?"

"There was some concern at first," he admitted. "Not everyone believed it was worth the risk, but we quickly realized we could do a lot of good for a lot of people with that money. We've been doing this for several years now, and our new family members are much better off because of it."

Margo turned away for a few seconds. She was used to dealing with criminals—usually by taking photos and then presenting them later on. But this? A whole town, with hundreds of people, all working together to steal money from the bankers and stock exchangers in New York? All fully aware of the risk, and apparently willing to take it? This was something exceptional.

Did this actually qualify as a terrorist group?

No, that would be an extreme reaction. They were criminals, but they hadn't hurt anyone so far. If Benny was on the level, they'd actually used their ill-gotten gains to help people instead. Besides, this was way out of her jurisdiction. She had herself and Beb to think of right now. They could wrestle with the ethical stuff later. "You never answered my question, Benny. Why are you afraid of AFI? Do they know about your Spyglass or something?"

Benny hesitated, and then went on. "Years ago, we had a visitor in town named Alfred Poe. He was a physicist, just here to take in the sights with his wife. When he found out what we really were, he was fascinated. Said he loved the idea, and that he wanted to help. He made a few donations, within his means at the time, but eventually he went home."

Ah, there was the connection. "Dr. Poe was one of the people who invented the exciters," Margo said with a nod. "Did he help you set up the Spyglass?"

"Yes and no. It seems both Dylan and Alfred came up with the same plan, at about the same time just after the exciters started being delivered across the country. They worked together at first, but then Alfred was called back to work. He told Dylan all he needed to know to set the Spyglass up." Benny sighed. "We were like kids playing with a blowtorch at first. If it wasn't for him, we would have failed spectacularly. And probably have gotten into a ton of trouble."

"I guess it's comforting to know that something good came out of all the secrecy in Dr. Poe's life. At least until he died."

"Until he was murdered, you mean," Benny said, that same edge returning to his voice. "Janice witnessed it herself. It was a hit and run, just like the police report said, but it was intentional. The driver was stone cold sober. It took us a few months, but we were able to get camera footage and figure out who it was. He's one of the big players in AFI, but behind the scenes. He's more of a puppet master than a businessman."

Margo exchanged excited looks with Beb. This was promising. The same man had probably killed Jia. What with the whole 'discovering a massive criminal conspiracy' thing, she'd almost lost track of the original case and the original mystery. "Who is he?"

Benny shook his head. "I've already said more than I was supposed to on the tour. Which is over now." He looked down the road and chuckled. They'd traveled barely two blocks. "Such as it was, anyway. We should get back to CH. They're probably done with Dylan by now. Letting Eddie blackmail him into staying inside the paper factory was a pretty bad screw-up on his part, but he's done right by us for a long time. I doubt they punished him too badly."
« Last Edit: June 10, 2022, 05:11:48 AM by Daen »