Author Topic: Chapter 9  (Read 5727 times)

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Offline Daen

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Chapter 9
« on: June 10, 2022, 04:59:30 AM »
Chapter 9

Margo called Beb from the parking lot, telling her she'd be back soon. The return trip to Philly seemed to take longer, and it wasn't because of the traffic. Margo was busy deconstructing the mystery, and coming up with theory after theory to explain it.

Clearly Booker Frank knew Tin, and hated him. But why? By all accounts, Mr. Frank hadn't been in contact with Jia for years, and the impression Margo had gotten was that Tin had only known Jia after she'd moved to Philly and started working for AFI.

Frank was a career criminal, and probably had money stashed away. He'd hated Jia as well for leaving him. Could he have enough money to arrange her death from his prison cell? No, that was doubtful. If he was mad enough to kill, he would have done it back then, when she'd first left him.

Maybe Tin had been involved with Frank's criminal activities. The reports said he had a crew of sorts, which had broken up when he'd been locked up. If Tin had been one of Frank's criminal associates, that might have explained his anger. The police file said Frank was arrested based on testimony from one of his crew, but there was no mention of who the informant was. That made sense. Cops didn't keep their CIs alive for long if they put their names into official reports.

What if Tin had betrayed Frank back then, selling him out to save his own skin? It would explain why she couldn't find any record of him. It might also explain his military training. Ex-marines and the like often had a hard time getting work after being discharged, and most had skills which were useful to a criminal lifestyle. If Tin had known Frank back in the day, and then gotten involved with Jia a few years later, it definitely would have been motive for murder. Frank might not have been able to arrange the death of a skilled ex-soldier, but he definitely would have wanted Jia dead too.

This was all just speculation, though. Margo didn't have a shred of proof, and the situation with the exciters was much bigger than one theoretical crime of passion by one ex-husband. And it wasn't like Booker Frank was going anywhere.

By the time she got back to Beb's place, it was already getting dark. The lights were off in her friend's house, but her shed was occupied. Margo knocked on the doorframe. "Tantam."

"Alae," Beb responded distractedly, and Margo could see why. A mesh of wire was now in place, in the center of the workshop. Beb was on her back down there, welding it to a rubber-insulated pad on the floor.

"Durgos?" Tin's voice asked from behind Margo, and both she and Beb jumped in surprise.

Tin was standing there, having apparently arrived just after Margo. He waited politely for a few seconds, and then peered inside. "May I come in?"

Beb just stared at him for a few seconds before nodding. Margo followed him inside and closed the door, somewhat bewildered. "How in... how did you know that greeting? I thought only Beb and I did that."

He just shrugged. "I read. You're not the only people who like fantasy, you know. If you're saying tantam, and she's going with alae, I figured I was a durgos guy."

"That figures. Only mongrelmen say that," Beb said scathingly, even as she was smiling. She stood and stretched to her own limited height.

"What are you doing here?" Margo asked him.

"Beb invited me. She said she could break through the encryption on her exciter, and wanted me here to see Jia's message when she did. I guess you didn't get the invitation," he teased.

"And how did you even get his number?" Margo turned to Beb, ignoring that.

Beb scoffed. "Please. I used the wireless sniffer to download it from your phone before you left. Tin may be lying to us about who he is, but even you have to admit that he's the most interesting person we've met all year."

Tin gave her an abbreviated nod in recognition of the compliment.

Margo tried to hide her surprise. "So you talked with him about the fake ID, then. I would have liked to keep that between us for more than a few minutes at least."

"Don't be too hard on her," Tin said, examining the nascent Faraday cage closely. "Beb isn't naturally suspicious like we are. She's open and honest with herself and with others. As long as she has a cynic like you around to balance her, that's a good thing." He glanced in Beb's direction. "You know, you might have made a good reporter if you hadn't become an engineer first."

Beb shook her head. "I don't think so. I'm no good in front of a camera." She leaned down to the transformer panel for a second, and then nodded. "I think we're good. You both ready?"

It was a bit sooner than Margo was expecting, but she wasn't about to complain. She nodded, and Tin followed suit.

Beb opened the Faraday cage door and slipped inside. She made sure she wasn't touching any surface except for the makeshift table inside. "Ok, turn on the power."

Margo flipped the switch on the transformer panel, and a low hum started vibrating through the room. The cage didn't look any different, but Beb held up her phone. "It worked. Zero bars from the moment it started!"

"If you say so," Margo said as reasonably as she could manage. She'd never even heard of a Faraday cage until yesterday.

Tin seemed comfortable with it, though he was careful not to get too close. He looked through the wire mesh at what Beb was now doing. She carefully unscrewed the paneling on her exciter, and removed it. Inside was a complicated mess of wiring and chips. Beb only smiled. "Exactly like the schematics on their website. Let's see if our friends at AFI are being honest about that."

As Beb got to work, Margo quietly observed Tin. It was hard to tell how much he understood about the procedure from just looking at him. But then, maybe she didn't have to spy on him at all. Aside from his identity, he'd been perfectly candid so far. "I went to see Booker Frank today," she said casually, and was rewarded by seeing a stiffening of his shoulders and back. "He doesn't like you very much."

"He never did," Tin said darkly, leaning back. "Did he tell you who I really am? He's one of the few who knows the truth."

Margo shook her head. "No, but I'll figure it out eventually. You can only hide behind a false identity so many times."

"True. There are other ways to hide, though. I imagine you feel like you need a long hot bath after meeting him."

"Also true," she admitted. "So do you understand what she's doing, or are you just faking it?"

"I never fake it," he said wryly, glancing in Margo's direction. "Still, most of the exciter's internal circuitry is above my head. She's doing way more than I could in there."

"You seem to know a little about everything that way, don't you? Digital encryption ciphers, interrogation tactics, fantasy greetings. It's not what I'd expect from a standard ex-soldier."

"Oh, I'm anything but standard."

Margo thought it was another challenge to try and analyze him, but Tim apparently didn't mean it that way. "I was part of a unit for over two years. They were family to me, as much as my own. The things we saw and did changed us. Some of us could handle it, and some couldn't. I never blamed anyone for their PTSD. When I was rotated back Stateside, I kept in touch with a few of them."

It was more information than she'd ever learned about him before, and Margo didn't want to interrupt. Unfortunately it was like he'd hit a word quota or something, because he just trailed off there. "Where did you serve? Afghanistan? Iraq?"

"Classified," he responded, "but I can tell you that we should never have been there. We were causing way more harm than good, despite our best intentions."

So he hadn't just been a front-line grunt, but someone higher up on the food chain. Had Tin been in military intelligence perhaps? It would explain his interest in ciphers.

"Almost there," Beb reported, cutting into the conversation. "It's a physical barrier, blocking the transmission. I should be able to play it right about... now."

Beb looked up, at the empty space outside the cage they'd set aside for Jia's message. Nothing appeared in it. She looked down at the exciter in confusion, and then let out a startled yelp. There was smoke coming out of it!

As they watched, the circuitry inside melted and folded in on itself, issuing smoke out of both the lens on the end and the open panel. Beb put her hand close to the panel, and looked out in amazement. "It's barely even hot! This is some kind of self-destruct, built right into the exciter! Jia thought of everything, didn't she?"

"I should have seen this coming," Tin said grimly. "She would have made sure no one could get to her message. She's always ten steps ahead, even after her death!"

"We had to try it," Margo said consolingly. "It's better that we know for sure. Besides, there might be a way around this kind of failsafe."

"So much for my attempt anyway," Beb said, as the smoke began tapering off. Suddenly electricity sparked through the wire and hit the edge of the cage. Beb jumped again, a bit to the side, but it had missed her. The light bulbs overhead glowed much brighter, and then shattered, plunging the room into darkness.

The only light was from the stars outside, and the heating element on the other side of the room near the fuel cells. It must have been turned on by the power surge.

"It's all right," Beb's voice said, a little shakily. "I had to keep the exciter powered on to play the message. When it melted, it must have surged to the Faraday cage and tripped the circuit breaker." Margo could hear the cage opening, followed by a few footsteps. Then light shone from the face of Beb's phone, illuminating their three faces.

In perfect timing, the far end of the table burst into flames.

Beb gave out another startled noise. "My fuel cells! The heating element must have lit up some of the residual gas!"

"Where's your extinguisher?" Tin said calmly, though his eyes were searching the room hurriedly. He reached out to both sides, pushing Margo and Beb back with him.

"In the house, next to the back door."

"I'll get it," Margo said. "I have the door code." She hurried back to the kitchen entrance, laboriously typed in Beb's twelve-digit access code, and reached into the darkened room. A hand reached out of the darkness and grabbed her wrist.

Margo's mind froze in shock, but her self-defense classes took over. Using the pull on her arm as balance, she slid the door open the rest of the way and swung a kick through it, at where she guessed her assailant's head would be. Another arm arced up to stop the kick, and then the first hand released her. Margo swayed for a moment, barely keeping her balance. "Help! Someone's in the house!" She backed away, thinking of the gun still in her car. It wasn't loaded anyway.

The man stepped out of the house and left towards her. He was wearing black clothing, bulky enough to cover some body armor. The eyes behind his mask were intent and menacing. He'd apparently been trying to take her by surprise, probably to keep it quiet, but her training had prevented that. Growling, he pulled a sidearm and aimed it at her.

A blur of motion smashed into him, thudding them both into the wall. It was Tin, wrestling the gun hand out of the way. The assailant was skilled, but clearly outmatched. Once the gun had dropped to the ground, Tin took a step back, giving a predatory smile. A brief exchange of blows left her assailant knocked out on the ground.

Tin reached down and pulled off the mask. The man was young, maybe twenty-five or thirty, but Margo didn't recognize him. Tin shook his head and ran into the house. He came out a second later with the extinguisher.

Margo had been attacked before, mostly by people she'd been investigating, but never by anyone with actual training and the willingness to kill! She tore her eyes away from the downed assailant, and back to the shed. The fire was greater now, visible even through the windows. Clearly experienced at this, Tin pulled out the nozzle and sprayed the white mixture at the base of the nearest fires. He started to move inward, but Beb called out. "Don't! The middle fuel cell is a DAFC. It's filled with pure alcohol! If the fire reaches it and burns through the outer lining—"

"—the whole place goes up," Tin responded grimly, nodding. He raised an arm to shield his eyes from the heat, and looked thoughtful for a moment. "Here." He shoved the extinguisher into Beb's hands, and then pulled his jacket sleeves up over his hands. Taking a deep breath, he plunged into the smoke-filled room.

Margo moved as close as she dared to the flames, and Beb stared into them with fear and fascination. There was a grunt of pain, and then Tin charged past them into the back yard, clutching something close to his chest. Smoke billowed out from behind him, and flames seemed to follow him into the yard. His jacket was on fire!

Beb aimed the extinguisher at him, but Margo stopped her. "Focus on the shed," she said quickly, taking off her own coat. Spraying chemical retardants at burn victims was a quick way to put out a fire, but it could cause even more harm. The best way was to smother the flame.

By now, Tin was on the ground trying to roll the flames out. Margo threw her coat onto him and used her hands to press down and starve the fire of oxygen. He groaned as the pressure increased on his burns, but then nodded to her. "Thanks."

He uncurled a little, and Margo could see Beb's fuel cell fall onto the grass. So much danger from something so small. She'd have to have words with Beb about proper safety when this was over. She was too smart to be this careless. At least Margo could hear the extinguisher stop, from behind her. Apparently Beb had succeeded in putting the rest of the fire out.

Carefully, Margo removed her coat and winced at what she saw. Tin was still coughing from smoke inhalation, but there were also burns over his shoulders and arms. Most looked minor: first degree, probably, but the white tissue exposed on his left shoulder was a bad sign. The skin in that area had burned off, leaving the dermis exposed. It must have been incredibly painful, but he wasn't showing it.

Margo reached out to try and remove his own jacket, but he shied away from her. "Don't touch me!"

His voice and stance were more like a snake ready to strike, than a hurt dog. Margo spread her hands carefully, but then he relaxed a little. "Sorry. Force of habit. Go ahead."

He tensed as she got close again, but didn't speak again. She peeled off the jacket slowly, avoiding the worst areas. It looked like the shoulder burn was the worst of it, but that was bad enough. "Beb has a first aid kit in the house, but there might be more of... whoever that guy is, in there."

Tin shook his head. "There aren't. They would have attacked with him, or while I was on fire. It should be safe."

It was hard not to trust someone who'd just saved her life. Nodding, Margo ran into the house to get it. She had zero experience with CPR, and only a little with treating or dressing wounds, but he didn't need her, it seemed. He opened the box with practiced ease, and pulled out a salve for the worst of it. Reaching back awkwardly, he tried to apply it.

"Let me," Margo insisted. "You'll just get it all over the place."

Beb's voice called out from the shed. "It's all right, Mr. Khatri. It's nothing—just a welding mishap that got out of hand. See? The fire's all out now."

Her neighbor's voice came back faintly, but it sounded reassured. "I'm sure. No need to call anyone. It's all taken care of now. Thank you, though."

Margo let out a sigh of relief, as she helped Tin bandage the back of his shoulder. A single pressure pad would have been easier to keep in place, but his burn was big enough to need two. He held one end as she affixed the other. The last thing they needed was the fire department showing up, especially with what's-his-name passed out on the lawn.

It was a good thing it was so dark already. Margo and Beb carried Mr. Unconscious inside, while Tin followed.

-.-

"Who is he?"

Beb's question was simple, but loaded. She was still rattled after the fire, and had barely even noticed the intruder was here at the time. Her workshop represented years of work—all nearly wiped out in an instant! Tin was still shivering from the aftereffects of being burned, and Beb felt the same way for the moment.

Tin shook his head. "I have no idea. If I had to guess, I'd say he's a private military contractor working for AFI. He won't have any ID, and I doubt his fingerprints or DNA will lead back to any public records."

"Like you," Margo said wryly, and he gave a slight smile before nodding.

She looked back at him. "How long will he be out?"

"Another few minutes, probably. You have handcuffs in the car, for your job, right? You should restrain him, and then call the cops."

"And tell them what, exactly? The truth?"

He laughed. "Most of the truth. There was an accident in the workshop, and a fire broke out. Beb put it out with the extinguisher, which is true. A strange man attacked you during the confusion, and you fought back: also true. You knocked him out, and then called the authorities. Partially true. I'll be gone before they get here. Remember to wipe my fingerprints off the extinguisher. They probably won't check it, but better safe than sorry."

Margo nodded, felt uncomfortable, but went to get the cuffs anyway. Beb glanced over at Tin, and saw him wincing as he moved his shoulders. "Shouldn't you be in the hospital? I saw those burns before Margo covered them up. You might go into shock at any moment."

He smiled. "Thanks, but I'm fine. I've got a high tolerance for pain, and I've dealt with burns before. Those were chemical, but it feels about the same. Besides, I doubt any doctor or nurse will treat me if they can't ID me. I know a guy. He'll check my dressing and give me whatever antibiotics I need, etc."

"You make it sound so simple. Why did you do it, Tin? Why risk your life stopping a fire that wasn't your fault? Or was even a risk to us? Margo and I were far enough away that we would have been safe even if my fuel cell had gone up."

Tin paused, giving her an evaluative look. "I saw your face when the fire started up. That workshop is important to you. It's part of who you are. I remember how that felt, and how bad it was losing it. I didn't want you to suffer like that."

Beb gave him a curious look. "You're an engineer like me? Another hidden talent coming to the surface?"

"Actually no. For me it was plants. Growing up, I wanted to be a botanist. I had a small, well, greenhouse I guess you could call it. I had all sorts of weird plants in there, ranging from fungi to cacti to lichen collections. I used to spend hours in there."

That was a bit out of Beb's wheelhouse, but she could see the appeal to a kid. "What happened to it?"

He growled. "Dad trashed it. He threw it all away, right into a dumpster. He turned the greenhouse into a damn storeroom."

"Why would he do that?"

Tin seemed to barely hear her, lost as he was in his own past. "I tried so hard to please that man, but it was never enough. I even signed up for the armed forces to make him happy. Or maybe it was just to get away from him. I can't even tell anymore."

"I'm sorry," was all Beb could manage. She knew a thing or two about fraught parent-child relationships.

He stood abruptly, as Margo came in with the cuffs. She dragged the black-clad man out onto the porch and then affixed him to the metal handrail. "Let's see him get out of that."

With their attacker unconscious, and the fire under control, the three of them just sat there for a few moments. Beb kept on thinking about the exciter, and the fire. "Whatever Jia knew about the exciters, she went to a lot of effort to keep it a secret. Enough to put a self-destruct in the damn things! Anyone care to guess what she might have been trying to hide? What can they do that no one knows about yet?"

Tin didn't respond at first, but Margo spoke up. "I've been thinking about that. I'd say the exciters can record in the dark, and she found out. Right now, every exciter playback is done at the exact same light level as the original recording. So if something important happens in the dark, the exciter is useless. Infrared is useless too, because the exciters don't record heat energy... or so we think. I think that Jia found out the exciters can do night-vision. It was meant to be a surprise, which is why she wanted the exciters to be global before revealing it."

"I'm for that theory," Tin put in.

Beb had a different idea. "What if the exciters can actually function like x-rays? What if instead of just seeing the surface of objects we record, we can also look inside? I mean, if I need a medical x-ray, it takes hours and hundreds of dollars. Or I could just point an exciter at myself and take a picture, and then give that recording to a doctor to analyze."

Margo looked thoughtful. "You may be right. Or we could both be right. Want to bet on what it really is? If we ever find out for sure, I mean."

Beb shook her head. "Not really."

Looking a little satisfied, Margo pulled out her phone but then paused, glancing out the window at the back yard. "I know this feels like a dead end, with your exciter melted and your workshop burned, Beb, but it's not. You're not the only one who has ignored the waiver AFI made us all sign, and I know a guy who might be able to help. Tin, I'll call you tomorrow, if he agrees to meet. Be careful... wherever you get your burns treated, ok?"

Tin nodded, and left into the night.

While Margo called the cops, Beb shuffled over to the rear door of her house. The blackened surfaces of her shed were barely visible in the darkness, but they seemed to mock her anyway.

Beb felt like such a fool. She'd put multiple surge protectors in place near her house and shed, in case of a problem with the city's electricity. Mostly for lightning strikes. But she'd never planned for a surge coming from inside the workshop itself. She could have lost everything. She would have, if Tin hadn't been so reckless and selfless.

Her gaze lowered to the unconscious man on the deck. That creep had been inside her house! Waiting to attack her! To kill her, if what Margo had said about the attack was true. Despite the security system on her home, and the significantly improved stun gun in her bag, he'd come very close to doing it. Why?

Margo and Tin seemed to think this guy was working for Aldwin-Farrow. Beb had gone into their offices, shoulder to shoulder with Margo. Maybe it was that lawyer lady who Farrow had kept around, or James, or Farrow himself. Someone had decided they were a threat. That psycho down there had probably been hired to shoot or stab them, make it look like a robbery, and then just disappear.

No one had ever wanted her dead before.

Sure, Beb's mom had said some truly devastating things in the past, but this was the first time one person had set their mind on killing Beb herself! That realization was almost as stunning as the trembling that was now running through her body.

"Are you all right?"

Margo's voice was like the spark from a static-laden carpet, jumping her out of her morbid thoughts. Guiltily, Beb nodded. "We're in it deep now, aren't we?" She gestured out to the intruder.

"I get it if you want to call it quits, Beb," her friend said softly. "I know a few places even AFI people couldn't find you. You could hole up there for a few days until the announcement goes out, or I find the killers. You'll be safe until it's over."

It was tempting. Beb had been enticed by the excitement of this whole thing, right from the start. She'd invited Tin here despite his opaque identity because of that, but then the fire and this attack had happened, underscoring the seriousness and danger of investigating AFI.

She shook her head anyway. "No, I'm with you the whole way. You don't know this will stop after the announcement, or that you can even find the killers. I won't live my life always looking over my shoulder, Margo. I can't do it. Besides, this asshole broke into my home! I want to hit back, and hard."

Margo smiled faintly. "I wish I could say things would get less dangerous now, but something tells me it'll be the opposite. I'm glad you're sticking around, though. And Tin, I suppose. I still don't know a thing about his past, and that irritates the hell out of me, but I do trust him."

Beb thought back to Tin's little tirade about his father. Margo was pretty smart: if she knew that, she might be able to track him down. No, Tin had said that in confidence, or at least Beb could tell herself that. She just gripped Margo's hand tightly for a few seconds. "I'm glad you're here too."

Flashing police lights started flickering in through the windows.
« Last Edit: June 10, 2022, 05:05:42 AM by Daen »