Author Topic: Chapter 8  (Read 9933 times)

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Offline Daen

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Chapter 8
« on: June 10, 2022, 04:59:37 AM »
Chapter 8

"Just a moment, Miss Patsulas," the receptionist intoned, gesturing towards the waiting area. "If you have a seat, Mr. Torren will be down to see you shortly."

It's Margo, like I said, Margo felt the urge to say, but she just smiled. "Thank you."

Beb gave her an encouraging glance as they moved into the waiting area together. "Any luck yet?" Margo asked her surreptitiously. There were cameras watching them right now, but no microphones would be able to pick up their conversation at this distance. Plus, legally taping people was a tricky proposition, even for a company as powerful as AFI.

Beb only shook her head fractionally. "We'll need to get within at least thirty feet of their server banks, and stay there for ten seconds or more." She was apparently checking her phone, but it had been configured to relay information from her wireless sniffer. "This is exciting. I feel like a real-life spy."

"Yeah. Real exciting," Margo responded sarcastically. "Let's hope they don't treat us like spies if they catch us. You're sure they won't pick up your signal?"

"I'm sure. Thanks to what Jia gave us, I know all I need to about how their system works."

That had been a surprise for Margo. They'd watched the remaining recordings Jia had left behind, which included instructions on how to penetrate AFI's security. She hadn't given any more clues as to the 'real' purpose of the exciters, but she had been concerned that the truth might not have gotten out. She probably would have disapproved of Margo's plan to steal an exciter or two, but she wasn't exactly in a position to object.

They'd looped Tin in on their plan, but he'd declined to join them. "There's a reason I didn't tell you about my position at AFI the first time around," he'd said firmly. "If Jia's killers are AFI employees, they can't know that I even suspect them. If I walk in there with you, it'll tip them off in a big way."

It was a reasonable concern, but right now Margo wouldn't have minded having Tin's combat skills along. There were probably a few very well-armed and trained guards between them and the server rooms. She didn't want to fight her way past them, or end up with them chasing her out of the building.

"Miss Patsulas? Miss Rossi?" A low male voice said from a few feet away, and Margo blinked. She'd barely noticed his approach. "I'm James Torren. Would you come with me?"

"Call me Margo, please." She stood quickly, and followed the middle-aged man towards the elevator. Tongue-tied for once, Beb went along with them.

Once inside, Torren pressed the button for the thirtieth floor. "I must say, it was a surprise hearing from Mr. Farrow about you. We don't have a lot of contact with private investigators here."

Margo hid a smile. Either Torren was being intentionally obtuse, or he was just a moron. "I find that hard to believe. Your exciters have revolutionized public security. I understand that most businesses have one mounted outside their doors, and it's cut petty crime down significantly. AFI has been consulting with police precincts all over the country, and with private security like myself as well."

Torren nodded slowly. "Unfortunately, every new advance in surveillance is matched by a rise in inventive new ways around them by criminals. It's the justice equivalent of whack-a-mole, I'm afraid."

"That's one of the things I wanted to talk about with Mr. Farrow. Has he agreed to meet with us?"

"He has, but only for a few minutes." Torren gave her an evaluating glance. "I have to wonder what you said in your message that piqued his interest. It's not every day a multi-billion-dollar CEO meets with a..." he tapered off for a moment. "With just anyone."

Suppressing a grimace, Margo nodded. With a nobody like me, you meant, she thought harshly. "I'm grateful for the opportunity," was all she said.

The elevator opened up, and Torren led them to the left down the hall. About thirty feet in, Beb's phone buzzed at her. "Oh. Sorry. I thought I turned it off." Torren gave her a strained look, and she apologized again. "I gotta take this. It'll just be a second."

Margo tried to engage Torren in small talk for a little bit, as Beb muttered into her phone. "No, I told you. I'm busy. I'll call you back in like an hour. No, I can't talk now. Gah. I'll talk to you later!" She pressed down on the phone with determination, and looked back at them. "Sorry. Turning it off now."

She was pretty good at lying, Margo had to admit. The phone buzzing wasn't a call, but a signal that they were in range. The phone 'conversation', brief as it had been, was hopefully enough to get the information they wanted. Mentally crossing her fingers that Jia's information was still recent enough, Margo followed Torren towards the corner office.

Holland Farrow was rising from his desk and approaching, even as they entered the room. He had a noticeable resemblance to the pictures of his father that Margo had seen, but was taller and held himself differently. "Margo. Miss Rossi. It's a pleasure to meet you both." He shook their hands warmly, one after the other.

Margo raised her eyebrows. He'd remembered her name preference, and that was just after one email. Surprising. "Thank you for meeting with us, Mr. Farrow. We understand how valuable your time is, and we don't want to waste any of it."

He looked to his right. "This is Sandra Cullins, with Legal. She'll be sitting in on this meeting." Cullins shook their hands more professionally, offering whispered greetings, and then returning to his side.

He gestured to the couch on one wall, and then followed them to go take a seat. Cullins followed mutely. "As for my time, don't worry about it. Any friend of Jia's is a friend of mine. It's the least I can do after everything she did for me and Dad. That'll be all, James," he said dismissively, and Torren nodded and closed the door behind him.

"That's the thing," Margo said hesitantly. She'd been concerned that he might have misread the email she sent. "We're not actually Jia's friends. We're investigating her death as a possible homicide."

That was clearly news to him. "Homicide? I thought she died from a fall outside her home. That's what the police report said, anyway."

"I know. And I hope it really was an accident, but I've been hired to look into it further. That's why I'm here. You knew her fairly well for the last few years. Can you think of any enemies she might have had, or any projects she might have been doing that would have been worth killing someone over?"

Holland gave an uncomfortable chuckle. "I'm sure you understand I can't talk about the work Jia was doing for AFI. It's all proprietary, and under patent law. I can't share any of it."

Margo shared an amused glance with Beb. "You mean the fact that she invented the exciters, and was a key part of their manufacturing and global distribution?"

Again, Holland's eyebrows shot up. He looked over at Cullins, who'd sat next to him, and she seemed just as startled. "How could you possibly know about that? It hasn't been in any of our press releases, and everyone in the company signs NDAs before starting on any of our more sensitive products."

"I have my sources," Margo said modestly. "Don't worry, I'm not going to spill the beans to the press or anything. My only concern is with Jia herself. Her assistant Alice Draper died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism, and her colleague Dr. Alfred Poe was killed in a car crash. All within days of each other. I've heard rumors that other people associated with the development of the exciters died at the same time, in other cities. Were you aware of all that?"

Cullens leaned forward, and whispered something into Holland's ear. He shook his head at her, and turned back to face Margo. "I heard about Alice, of course. I met her several times with Jia. As for Dr. Poe, he retired last year. I only met him once, when I was just getting started here." He sighed. "I understand how this all must look suspicious, especially to an investigator like you, but I can't think of any projects Jia was working on that were especially dangerous or valuable right now. If someone wanted to murder her, they would have done it four years ago, when she first proposed the exciter. At this point, there would be nothing to gain from her death."

Holland's face was puzzled and frustrated, but not angry or defensive. Unlike his father and brother, he'd had no real business experience before being brought here. As such he wasn't very good at lying. Margo gave him a long look, before eventually nodding. He didn't know anything about a secret concerning the exciters. Jia had kept him in the dark, just like she'd done with his father. "Can you tell me a bit about how you met Jia? Did your father introduce you to her?"

He leaned back, smiling with the memories. "More like the other way around. My Dad and I had a... troubled history. Unlike Kent, my brother, I never wanted to be in the family business. I refused to go to the business school Mom and Dad lined up for me."

That fit with what Margo had been able to dig up. "You went to art school, right? To be a sculptor as I understand it."

Holland nodded. "Dad was furious when he found out. He cut me off completely, and didn't speak to me for years. Kent was no better, but at least Mom would still talk with me in secret. When she died, I figured that whole part of my life had died with her. Dad didn't even want me at the funeral—he sent a lawyer to tell me to stay away! At least I could still visit her grave after the fact."

"I'm so sorry," Beb put in sympathetically, and he nodded his thanks.

The younger Mr. Farrow seemed to collect his thoughts. "Years later, Jia contacted me out of the blue. She said that Dad's attitude towards me had changed. I was suspicious of course, but I didn't have much to lose by reaching out. Jia was right. I met with Dad, and eventually we were speaking regularly. He said he wanted me in the company, but that I could run things as I wanted. It wouldn't be like before, with him calling all the shots." He shook his head. "I still can't believe it, even now that he's gone. It was like a miracle to suddenly be part of my family again. Even my cousins started speaking with me. I know I should be resentful they shut me out in the first place, but I'm just grateful to be back, as it were."

Margo had been lucky in the family department. Her parents and grandparents loved each other and mostly got along. Holland's frustration and dissatisfaction seemed familiar, though. After a moment, Margo got it. She'd seen similar indications in Tin himself. Did he have a troubled family as well? Shaking her head, Margo tried to focus. "Do you know why he changed his mind? What prompted this reconciliation?"

"It was Kent, actually," Holland responded. Cullens leaned in right away to whisper something, but he raised a hand. "No, it's all right, Sandra. They've already kept one really big secret about Jia and the company. They can be trusted to keep this as well."

Again, Margo was surprised. Holland really was no businessman. Trusting people was one of the fastest ways to go out of business. He didn't seem to notice, though. "It turns out my brother was plotting with some of the board members. They were trying to get my Dad declared mentally incompetent, so they could force him out and Kent could take over. I have no idea how Jia found out, but she told Dad."

He gave them a pained look. "He didn't believe her, naturally. Who would trust the word of some stranger just like that? But he spoke to Kent, and my brother slipped up. Dad figured out Jia was telling the truth, and... well, his anger popped up again. He fired Kent on the spot, and forced him to sell his shares of the company. Then he went on a purge of the board, rooting out any of Kent's buddies. They all had to go."

Beb leaned forward. "He could just do that? Get rid of them without any restrictions—even his own son?"

Holland laughed bitterly. "Oh, companies are a lot more like monarchies than most people know. The CEO is a king. He has the power to do all that and more. Personally, I think Kent and the others are lucky not to be in jail right now. I've heard of other business leaders coming up with false charges just out of spite."

"But if you knew all that, why did you agree to come back here?" Beb insisted. "Come to think of it, why did you want to stay away from the business in the first place?" Margo wanted to call Beb off for being too confrontational, but Holland didn't seem to mind. And Margo was curious about the answer too.

"It's not like I knew all of this back then," Holland said a little defensively. "It was more like instinct in those days. I saw how my brother and father treated people: everyone was a potential threat, and every agreement was a contract. They only did things for other people if there was something they could get in return. Mom saw it too, but she never spoke out against it. As for me, all I really wanted was to sculpt. To bring beautiful figures out of wood or stone. Or ice eventually, if I can manage it. I never wanted any of the pressure of being in charge, or always second-guessing people. Of making decisions that affect hundreds or thousands of other people I've never even met."

He glanced over at the far wall, and Margo followed his gaze. There was a family portrait up there, of all four of them. From the looks of it, it had been taken when Holland was about twelve. "I keep that as a reminder of what we used to be. As for coming back, I really didn't have any choice. If I'd refused, Dad would have had to leave it up to the board to pick the next CEO, and they're almost as bad as Kent! This way I can at least keep some civility in the company."

"With some good advice from people like Jia," Margo reminded him, and he nodded.

"She was a consultant for those first few years Dad and I were working together. At first she advised us on the technical aspects of the exciters, and then on their distribution. The last few years, she was less active. Probably to give me a chance to step up and run things on my own."

Or to work on her side project with the exciters, whatever that was. "Was the global message broadcast in the exciters Jia's idea as well?"

He stared at her, and then smiled incredulously. Sharing another glance with Cullins, he laughed lightly. "You're very well informed, Margo. Yes, it was her idea, but Dad was the one who came up with the timing. Now that he's gone, it's more of a memorial message than an announcement."

Margo let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. It had been a bluff and a gamble, telling him that. She didn't know how much he knew about the message, or if he knew anything about at all. If he objected, the meeting would be over. She might even face prosecution for corporate espionage. But none of that had happened—it had worked. "Has the message changed since your father's death?" She asked, trying to pump sympathy into her voice.

Holland shook his head. "It can't change. It's hardwired into each of the base-model exciters. We could come up with a new product brand with an updated message, but it would play differently in different places. Dad wouldn't want that, and I don't think Jia would either."

Especially since she'd tampered with the message from day one. Whatever those exciters were programmed to broadcast, it wasn't what Holland was expecting. "When exactly is the message programmed to play for the world? My source was less than specific on that."

"It was set to go out on Dad's birthday, two years ago. He and Jia weren't sure they could get all the exciters distributed by then though, so she designed the exciters with a delay switch of sorts. They sent out a satellite signal that told every exciter in the world to wait a year. We still weren't ready by then, so we just sent the signal out again. We are ready this year, thankfully. The last exciters were delivered a month ago. The whole world will get an uplifting message from my Dad in just over a week now."

"Have you watched it? I assume it's in 3D, like the exciters do."

He nodded. "It's really touching, especially now that he's gone. That's one of the reasons I decided to stay and run this company. It's a part of my Dad I thought was gone a long time ago."

So that was it: the final piece of the puzzle, at least as far as Holland Farrow was concerned. The waiver people had signed would expire when the message went out, and everyone would be legally allowed to start tinkering with their exciters at that point. Some people like Beb definitely would.

A faint chime issued from the desk near the window, and Holland looked a little guilty. "I'm sorry. I have to handle this."

"Not at all," Margo assured him. "Thank you for taking as much time with us as you have. Since Jia was so important to you, I'll be sure to keep you updated on the investigation."

He smiled broadly as he shook their hands. "I'd appreciate that."

Their trek out of the building was uneventful. Beb gave her a questioning look, but Margo shook her head minutely. There was no point in stealing one of the unconfigured exciters now. If Theo Farrow hadn't programmed the message himself, then it had to have been configured in the circuitry itself. These exciters were no more useful than the ones they both had at home.

Once they were out on the street and headed to Margo's car, she looked towards Beb. "Did you get it?"

Beb nodded, looking down at her phone. "I'm going through it now. Do you believe pretty-boy up there? Who names their kids Kent and Holland, anyway? Their dad was a total head case."

"Yeah, no one would name their kid after a place. Just don't tell our friend 'Austin' that, remember." Margo said sarcastically. She gave the first question some thought for a moment. "I don't think he knows what Jia did, but someone at the company does. Farrow's got daddy issues for sure, but he's in way over his head. He's not Jia's killer, and he doesn't know who is."

"Ah!" Beb said, her voice excited again. "There it is. Personnel records for AFI's security division." She scrolled down through them for a bit, and then handed her phone over as they reached the car.

Margo could see an image of the same photo ID Tin had shown her earlier. It gave his whole bio, including family info. He had a wife and two kids, and had been working at AFI for almost twenty years now. He must have been hired right out of high school.

No, that didn't track. Tin had military training: the kind that took years to master. There was no record of that here. "Can you verify these? Is there some kind of authentication test or something?"

Beb paused, and reached for the phone. "Maybe. Give me a minute."

It took her a few minutes actually, while Margo thought back over what Holland had told them. If he had only seen Jia as a sort of surrogate mother, and inventor/scientist, he would never have seen her as a threat. Hopefully those personnel records Beb had downloaded would give them some clue as to who else might have figured out Jia's big secret. Because they were running pretty low on suspects again.

"You were right," Beb said grimly. "The file's been altered. Just over a week ago now. Isn't that about when you first met Tin?"

Margo took a look at the files on Beb's phone. The original had been restored, complete with a different, and older-looking, man's face. He must have been the only person with a name close enough to Tin's. That was probably another reason why Tin had stayed away from the AFI headquarters building. His fake ID could pass a visual inspection, but it wouldn't open any doors without setting off alarms. "He lied again. I shouldn't be surprised, I guess."

Beb just seemed amused. "So do we keep working with him, or turn him in? Assuming we even can; he's slippery."

"Neither just yet," Margo said after a moment. Beb might be willing to just take this all in stride, but she couldn't say the same for herself. "There's one other person who might have known him I can still talk to. It's not gonna be pleasant, but I don't think I have a choice." She started the car. "I'll drop you off at your place. If you get started on the Faraday cage, I'll see what I can dig up on Tin in the meantime."

Beb gave her a curious look for a moment, and then her eyes widened. "You're going to see Jia's ex? Didn't you say he was in jail?"

Margo was mildly impressed. Beb had decent deductive skills herself. If she wasn't so obsessed with engineering and programming, she might have made a good cop or PI. And she wasn't wrong about Booker Frank. "Hence the unpleasantness," she said grimly, and got the car moving.


The next day she was at Mahanoy Correctional, in the waiting room. For her work, Margo had visited this place and other SCIs before, but it never got any easier. Prisons were by definition, hopeless places. People were sent here to disappear, just as had been done for thousands of years now. Margo could practically feel the desperation and despair from the prisoners she could see through the glass. The few minutes the inmates had with their families did little to distract them from this place.

Even people like Booker Frank, who by all accounts definitely qualified as a hardened criminal, didn't deserve to just be locked up and forgotten. Some of her informants lived in prisons like this one, and Margo knew from them that there was no rehabilitation going on. If there had been counseling and vocational training once upon a time, there definitely wasn't anymore. Why bother training the prisoners how to work in the outside world, if no employer would even look twice at them?

So instead they just stayed here until their time was up. If that happened before they died, they lived in squalor and desperation outside, and most likely did something else just so they'd get locked up again. At least in jail, they could get regular meals.

Margo tried to focus on why she was here today. She'd looked at Booker Frank's record yesterday, and it read like a horror story. In addition to the charges he'd faced while married to Jia, there was also assault (aggravated and otherwise), larceny (armed and otherwise), possession of both drugs and unregistered guns, public drunkenness, arson, vandalism, and identity theft. That last one was ironic, given her own use of fake IDs for her work, and the continued mystery that was Tin.

About the only good thing she could find with regards to Mr. Frank was that he hadn't killed anyone as far as the law could tell. His social media posts were basically a concentrated ball of racist, misogynist, transphobic hatred. Many of his convictions were related to hate crimes, though he hadn't been charged with them himself. Like Beb had implied, he was a real peach of a man.

She'd need more than a grain of salt to take this guy's statements. More like a boulder, or one of those big blocks that cows licked.

Margo recognized him right away when he stepped into the prison noncontact visiting area. He was a mass of scars and tattoos, most of which weren't on the mug shot she'd seen. He'd gotten some work done over the past years it seemed. Booker's gaze panned the people at the various booths, his eyes skipping right over her as if she weren't there. Then, slowly, he focused on her. Giving her an insolent look, he sat down across from her and took the phone handle. "What do you want?"

Not an ideal start, but not surprising either. "Mr. Frank, I'm Margo Patsulas. I'm a private investigator, hired to look into the death of Jia Haldar."

His eyes narrowed briefly. "Jia's dead?"

For a moment, Margo was at a loss. She'd been so invested in Jia's final years that it had somehow skipped her mind she wasn't that well-known. Even her ex-husband might have missed it. "Yes, she died ten days ago, near her home in Philly. I'm sorry; I thought you knew."

"Then you're stupid," he said snidely, gesturing to the room. "Does it look like we get a lot of news in here?"

Margo bit back a harsh response, forcing a smile. Beb would probably have jumped down his throat at that. It was another reason Margo had wanted her to stay behind. "I'm interviewing her friends and family, trying to narrow down the suspects. Obviously you're not one of them. A suspect, I mean."

That had come out chatty, even nervous, but he didn't seem to care. "How did it happen?"

"She fell from a fair distance, and broke her neck. The police think it was an accident, but I was hired to make sure of that."

He grunted. "Whoever hired you was right. She was always steady on her feet—couldn't get enough of those damn walks of hers. At least she could cook."

Margo again had to work to keep her face smooth. "Can you think of any enemies she might have had, from work or otherwise? Maybe from back in California when she lived over there?"

Booker nodded slowly. "It's a long list—she could be a real bitch sometimes. Maybe it was one of her egghead friends from Berkeley. I caught some of them hitting on her back in the day."

Better than actually hitting her like you did, Margo thought sourly.

He went on before she could say anything. "Jia was always more trouble than she was worth, right from the start. I got rid of her years ago, and I've been better for it. Why do you care so much, anyway? Who hired you?"

"That was going to be my next question. My client is something of a mystery. He calls himself Tin."

Margo had seen people get visibly angry before, flushing red or trembling with rage. This was next-level. Booker shot to his feet: his whole body suddenly tense. His eyes had widened and his fists were clenched shut. His mouth worked wordlessly for a moment before he spoke. "We're done here." At that, Booker turned away, back towards the door.

"Mr. Frank. Mr. Frank!" Margo called after him, abandoning the phone handle. "Who is he? What do you know about him?"

"More than I ever wanted to!" He said viciously back at her, pausing for a moment. "You want to know who killed Jia? You should ask your damn client."

Another few seconds and he was gone, with the entire room staring at her from both sides of the glass. Wordlessly, Margo stood and went back to the waiting room. As one of her childhood heroes might say, curiouser and curiouser.
« Last Edit: June 10, 2022, 05:05:17 AM by Daen »