Author Topic: Chapter 11  (Read 5748 times)

0 Members and 1 Guest are viewing this topic.

Offline Daen

  • Administrator
  • We Don't Care
  • *****
  • Posts: 525
  • Karma: +1/-0
Chapter 11
« on: June 10, 2022, 04:59:11 AM »
Chapter 11

Margo doubted she'd get a straight answer from any of the actors, but that didn't mean she couldn't look the part. There was an equipment locker down the way, with the same limited uniforms the rest of the plant 'workers' wore. It didn't take long to find one in her size and put it on.

Tin had left the building on her instructions, in order to examine the surrounding area. If this place wasn't really pulping bark and making paper, then he might be able to tell its true purpose from the outside. Besides, with his crew cut and military stride, he was clearly not a plant worker. Even fake workers might be able to tell that.

There were a dozen or so workers clustered around the middle of the building, where the source of the hissing noise was coming from. They were probably real, maintaining whatever that machine was, so Margo kept her distance. Instead she headed to the rear of the building, near the loading dock. Surprisingly, the noise lessened substantially as soon as she got outside. Another worker, a middle-aged redheaded woman, was out on the south side staircase. "Hey," she mouthed. There was a partially burned cigarette in her hand, and she took a drag from it.

Removing her earplugs and turning off her exciter, Margo gave a brief wave of greeting. "Wow, these are really uncomfortable."

The other woman chuckled. "New hire, huh? You'll get used to them." She gestured to the loading dock doors. "Those doors are pretty good at soundproofing, so I don't need to wear mine out here. Still, it's pretty cold. I only come out here when I need to stretch my legs or get a smoke."

"How long have you been working here?" Margo made a slight motion with her hands on the word, indicating that she was acting as well.

"Over a year now. I'm Helen," she said, extending a hand.

"Tina," Margo shook it.

"I moved into Jersey City almost two years ago, looking for work in a local theater. After months of no callbacks, I got a call from these guys. They said I had to play a factory worker, real method, with no cameras or anything, and they'd pay me to just keep up the act whenever inspectors came around."

Margo made a shushing noise, looking around at the streets to the south and east. "Should we be talking about that out here?"

Helen shrugged. "Meh, I'm not the only one who says it openly. As long as we follow that confidentiality agreement we signed, we're good."

So they had been sworn to secrecy, of a sort. "Don't you wonder what's really going on here, then? I almost asked about it when I got hired."

"Sure I do, but I don't want to rock the boat. Until I find a genuine acting gig, this is a pretty good holdover. Most of us in there feel the same way." She gave Margo a curious look. "Come to think of it, I didn't see you this morning in the Orientation Room. When were you hired?"

Margo had to think quickly. Most of the actors in here lived in the area. "Last week," she said nonchalantly. "I trained up in Maine, but I'm in the process of moving here. I don't know how they knew, but when they found out, they offered me this gig as well."

"Ah. I guess they're getting better at recruiting. I wish they'd wised up sooner—I might not have had to spend five months unemployed. It pretty much wiped out my savings."

"At least you have a good job now, despite the noise and these," Margo lifted her earplugs reluctantly. "That's something, right?"

"Right." Helen said noncommittally. She took another drag, her eyes panning over the empty loading area. "Hey, have they offered you the power saving plan yet? You said you haven't moved in yet."

This time she didn't have to pretend to be curious. Margo shook her head.

"Well it's good money. When they make the offer, go for it. And don't worry about problems with the utility company or anything. Jansen Paper already knows what they charge."

Margo wasn't sure what to say. "I'm really confused. The same people who hired us also want extra power?"

Helen nodded. "Basically, once you're all moved in, they'll come by your place. Jansen Paper Company, or so they call themselves," she gestured to the lettering above the loading bay doors. "They'll want to dig an underground power line from your place and connect it up to this building. Then they'll drain power from your place, and pay you back for it in our bi-weekly paycheck. They throw in another hundred a week if we agree, so we all went for it."

Ok, this wasn't making much sense. Why would this fake paper company need even more power than they were already drawing from the grid? What was going on in there? "Uh, I'm moving into an apartment," Margo said distractedly.

"Oh. Sorry, then. They only make the offer to people living in houses. I guess it's easier to dig a power line there. Still, the rest of this job is pretty good."

"What do they need all the extra power for? Wouldn't that draw get noticed by the utility company, or maybe even local government? Not to mention all the construction of digging new power lines and running them here. It's got to be expensive, and it's a big risk to their plan."

Helen shrugged. "It's best not to ask, believe me. You went through Orientation, though. You know that this is shady, but not inhumane or bizarre. I don't think I could have worked for them if they had like a torture room under here or anything."

To some people, what's going on down there may be just as bad as torture, Margo reflected, as Helen went on.

"It's probably just some secret research lab that takes a lot of power. Those corporate types always go to a lot of trouble to keep their secrets, especially from each other."

That caught Margo's attention. "So you know who we really work for? Some big corporation?"

"Not exactly. But I did hear two of the 'real' employees talking. They really, really don't like Aldwin-Farrow. You know, the guys who made these," she lifted her exciter briefly. "They talked about AFI like it was the Devil himself. I think they're working with a direct competitor. But like I said, it's best not to ask. If they think you're violating your confidentiality agreement, they could fire you in an instant."

"I'll keep that in mind," Margo said cautiously, and stretched her arms and back briefly. "I should get back inside. It was nice meeting you, and thanks for the tips."

"Anytime," Helen responded. "I'll see you around, I'm sure."

Don't count on it, Margo thought to herself as she put on her earplugs and went back in.

-.-

The same security guard they'd seen on the way in waved at the three of them as they left. From what Eddie had said, he was also an actor, and had been paid to let them through without incident. Margo wasn't sure they weren't being recorded though, so she spoke under her breath as they left. "We should get to the hotel before discussing any of this."

"Agreed," Tin responded grimly. Beb looked a bit surprised at that, but nodded as well.

They convoyed over to the modest hotel a mile or so away, and checked in. Margo had expected two rooms, with Tin having his own, but Beb also insisted on one for herself. She said she'd pay for it, so Margo just shrugged and asked. It was the off-season, so there was likely plenty of room. Once they were upstairs in Margo's room, she paced back and forth in front of them as she told them what she'd learned about the 'Jansen Paper Company'.

"Whatever they're doing in there, they need a lot of excess power," she concluded darkly. "There were at least fifty cars in that parking lot, and that could mean fifty or more homes siphoning power into that plant. Because they're all spread out, it keeps it secret from the power company and from local government, but I have no idea what they need all that power for!"

"I think I do," Tin went on for her. "I saw some of the power lines you were talking about, extending out of the ground and into the transformer substation on the north side of the building. I also got a good look at the machine inside. It's an air compressor: industrial-grade from the looks of it. From the noises it made, I'd say it's working at full capacity, and probably all day and night."

"So they're making a giant vacuum cleaner?" Beb said, clearly mystified.

Tin shook his head. "They're storing power in the form of compressed air. Basically they're using the whole factory like a battery, storing energy. There are probably entire rooms in the basement of that building dedicated to keeping the compressed air locked down."

Margo had heard of large-scale energy storage before, but that was usually in the form of hydroelectric dams. If an energy company had to deal with a sudden rise in demand, they could store up water and then release it on command. "How efficient is that in comparison with other storage methods?"

"Not very," Tin admitted. "The only advantage I can think of is that it's a lot easier to hide. Instead of redirecting a whole river and tapping its power, these Jansen Paper people just have to hire some actors and repurpose one plant. Still, based on what I saw back there, that plant could power most of Jersey city for a few hours right now. More, if they have more time to store energy. That doesn't tell us why, but there may be a way to find out. I saw a set of cables running away from the plant and towards the bay. Whatever they're collecting that energy for, it's being used to power something either in the water, or on the shore."

Margo nodded. "All right. It's too dark to do a proper search right now, especially since they're trying to keep this all secret, but in the morning we can follow that power line and find out what they're up to."

Beb raised a hand. "Uh, I like a good mystery as much as the next adventurer, but why do we care? Sure, this is super weird, but is it any of our business? Eddie will be dropping by tonight to show me how to set up a local signal blocker and get past the exciter's self-destruct. After that, we're going home. Aren't we?"

It was a fair question. Margo looked over at Tin, and could see him percolating the same issues. "You don't have to come with me, either of you. I heard that these people are possibly rivals of AFI, but that's not a good enough reason. I guess I'm playing on a hunch here."

Beb shrugged. "Good enough for me."

"Me too," Tin chipped in, surprisingly.

Margo looked back and forth between them, smiling. "Thanks. Now, we may only be here for tonight, so I'm going to enjoy myself. There's an indoor pool downstairs, and it's been a long time. Either of you want to join me?"

Tin hesitated, and then nodded. "I haven't had a good soak in a while. Sure."

Beb shook her head. "Maybe later. I want to take care of this exciter thing first. At least the food will be better here than the stuff I make at home, though."

-.-

Despite the antiseptic nature of the server room, and its pallid, unchanging lights, Dylan loved it in here. Not for the servers themselves, but for all the fascinating information that was available to him every twenty days or so. The last information dump had been twelve days, and he was still going over the nonessential portion of what they'd been able to recover.

Ever since 9/11, security in this part of Manhattan had been beefed up around the rather arrogantly-named World Trade Center. But the images they downloaded included much more than the now one building that served as the nerve center of American economics.

Dylan had gotten invested in these people. Every three weeks, he got a snapshot of their lives, and each time he tried to put himself in their shoes, and understand their problems. All he had was fragments of information on them—cross-sections of who they really were. And yet he felt connected to each. He felt he knew them, if only from a distance.

There was a soft knock on the server room door. "Sir?"

Dylan sighed. "Come in, Larry."

His assistant did so, keeping a respectful distance from the exciter terminal Dylan was using. It had been heavily adapted from its original design, and remade to his specifications, but it was still a mystery. Alfred's work was still inscrutable, even after four years. "What is it?" He asked distractedly.

"An anomalous report from the Jansen facility, sir. One of the actors reported meeting someone suspicious. The local exciter recorded the whole conversation, and here's the transcript," he handed a manila folder over.

That was annoying. Not just because he needed such hidden security to keep an eye on the facilities, but because that security was so effective. Holding back a grimace, Dylan perused the conversation. Concern became alarm, quickly.

"She said her name was Lisa," he said quickly, looking up at Larry. "Is she one of ours?"

"No, sir. I checked the personnel records, and we hired no one by that name in the last two weeks. Also, she didn't come alone. Cameras picked up another woman, shorter, and a man entering the building with her. They went down to the basement level, presumably to speak to Terener."

That wasn't good. The exciter didn't reach down there, so the transcript wouldn't record anything said by Eddie or his guests. "It's possible they were just there for Terener's business," he said hopefully, but didn't really believe it himself. "Still, we can't take any chances. I want IDs and background checks on all three of them. If they're reporters, I want last known addresses and contact information as well."

Larry nodded and went off to get it started, but Dylan stayed to examine the file a bit more. He didn't recognize either of the women, but the man's face seemed familiar. Somehow.

Shaking his head, he checked the clock, and then began packing up to go home. It would be a few hours before Larry had anything, and he had some sleep to get. The morning would bring new answers.

-.-

Tin was delayed upstairs, but Margo didn't wait. She was paying a lot for just one night in this hotel, and wanted to get her money's worth. Kicking off her shoes in one corner, she stripped down to her bathing suit and dove right in. Surprisingly, the pool was empty for now. Probably because it was still dinnertime for most of the people staying here.

Reveling in the cool water, Margo stayed afloat for a few seconds, and then sank to the bottom. She was one of those rare people with a natural body mass that allowed them to sink without trying. Short and awkward while walking weren't exactly attractive back in Philly, but they were an asset for swimming.

So swim she did. After holding her breath at the bottom for about a minute and a half, Margo pushed her way to the surface. There were no lines for swimming laps, but she had a pretty good notion of where to go. Kicking off from one side, she fell into the traditional forward-stroke-then-breathe motion from back in school.

It was great to be back in the water! She'd loved pools as a kid, and then had a brief stint in her high school swim team. Margo wasn't graceful in the air while diving, but in the water, she might as well have had scales. Back and forth she went, at least four times, before Margo realized she wasn't alone. Tin was keeping pace next to her.

He seemed to know what he was doing, so Margo increased the pace. She'd never been the fastest, but she knew how to race. Feeling her heart thudding faster in her chest, Margo pushed endurance that she hadn't tested in years now.

All the while Tin kept up. He lagged behind initially, but then matched her stroke for stroke, lap for lap for several more minutes. When she finally came to a stop back at the east end of the pool, Margo gave him a surprised look, as she caught her breath.

He also seemed to be laboring a bit at least. "So much for all my swimming experience. I was sure I could beat you," she finally said.

"Don't feel bad. Swimming was part of my basic training."

Swimming wasn't required for most military branches. Given his skills, that probably meant he'd been a Navy Seal. She was about to say as much, when she caught a glimpse of his right shoulder and back. "Good God!"

The skin back there was pitted and scarred all over. Part of it looked like burns, too, and they weren't just from the mishap in Beb's workshop. The burns on the right were old from the looks of it—at least a year. Following her gaze, Tin nodded. "Ah. This is one of the reasons why I usually don't take off my shirt in public. It scares kids, too."

"What happened?" She managed, trying not to stare at it anymore.

"An IED. Laced with thermite, actually," he said nonchalantly. "I was in surgery for more than eighteen hours. Forget the risk to my arm; I was lucky to get out alive. I'm fine, though. It wasn't my first invasive surgery, and it probably won't be my last."

"No kidding," Margo said faintly. No wonder he'd been able to handle those burns back at Beb's place without any complaint. It wasn't his first flaming rodeo. "Wait, I thought you were in the Navy. I didn't know they did any operations on foreign soil. At least where people were building IEDs, anyway."

He smiled a bit. "Still poking around at my identity? You are persistent; I'll give you that."

"Can you blame me? You've lied twice about who you are, and I am a PI."

"Remember, I never actually said I was Austin Burke. I just gave you the fake ID," Tin reminded her briefly. "And the fact that I was in the service won't mean anything. Even if you can get hold of my file, it'll be redacted." He didn't seem smug at that. Tin's expression was one of expectation, and polite challenge.

Well, she was better at figuring things out than swimming. If this was his game, she was all for it. "Well, your accent is definitely Californian. As is your stride, I noticed earlier."

"Bravo; there's only forty million of us. You've really narrowed the field."

Giving him a snide glance, Margo went on. "There is a catch in your voice. I didn't know what it was earlier, but now I assume it's a result from one of your surgeries?"

"Partially."

That was progress, if a small bit of it. "Remember how I told you I spoke to Booker Frank? He doesn't like you very much."

Tin paused at that, and his expression darkened. "Yes, I wondered about that. Let me guess: he left the room as soon as you mentioned my name."

Margo nodded hesitantly. "Pretty much."

"That's kind of his signature move," Tin said bitterly. "If it's in the way, knock it down. If you don't like it, yell at it until it leaves. If it's a problem, walk away from it. I'm not surprised he hasn't changed. We didn't part on the best of terms."

It was clear he had personal experience with the man. And had no interest in talking about it any more than he already had. Margo hastened to change the subject. "Regardless, you were close with Jia. You weren't part of her security detail, but she did trust you enough to give you access to that cabin's underground room."

"How do you know that for sure? I was at the cabin before you, remember. I might have hacked the system myself and then made it look like I was waiting for you."

Margo shook her head. "If you could have gotten in without Beb, you would have. Associating with either of us is a risk for you, given your fugitive status in Pennsylvania. No, you needed her, which means you didn't know about the room. That much I'm sure of."

Tin gave a small shake of his head. "Again, an assumption on your part. Maybe I was just curious about you. It's only fair, given how you're digging into my past."

There was something strange about how he was submerged. He was staying lower in the water than her. Sure he was more heavily muscled and therefore heavier, but somehow Margo knew that wasn't the reason. Then she remembered what he said about not taking off his shirt in public. "Are you... shy?"

He looked away briefly, and then his eyes flicked back up. "Don't make a big deal out of it."

"You are! That's about the last thing I'd expect from a skilled soldier like you. Is it the burns? I'm sure there are cosmetic treatments that can smooth the skin out." She tried to look for other scars, but he was mostly underwater. If there were any, the rippling water obscured them.

Tin shook his head again. "Believe me, I know. And it's not just that. I keep the scars and burns as a memorial to the friends I lost in that blast."

"Well if you served anywhere in the Middle East, you probably took your shirt off many times with your unit. Your squad—whatever. When it got hot, I assume."

"It was different then," he protested. "It was just me the guys. Civilian life is different."

"Hm. You are just a pile of mysteries, aren't you?" Feeling she'd pushed far enough for one day, Margo gestured to the other side of the pool. "Care to go again? I'm warmed up now, so you don't stand a chance."

"Three laps, and no holding back," he clarified, smiling, and braced himself against the side wall.
« Last Edit: June 10, 2022, 05:10:18 AM by Daen »