Author Topic: Chapter 5  (Read 6482 times)

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Offline Daen

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Chapter 5
« on: June 10, 2022, 05:00:02 AM »
Chapter 5

A few miles up the road, Margo was still seething as they approached the cabin. There had been no gloating in Tin's voice over the phone, nor smugness that she could detect, but that didn't matter. He'd fooled her, overpowered her, and now outmaneuvered her. She didn't care if he was ex-military, or ex-intelligence, or whatever. She was sick of being outdone.

Underneath all that, a core of curiosity remained. Why had he even called her? He could have come and gone from this place by now, and she never would have known. Did he need her investigative skills again?

There was a car parked out in front of the cabin as they drove up. It was a blue hatchback, and from the stickers on the plates, it was a rental. As she came to a stop next to it, Tin came around from behind the car. He wasn't armed as far as she could see, but was dressed in a suit and tie this time. He smiled slightly as they got out and faced him.

"I'm Tin," he said easily to Margo's right. "You must be Barbara Kane. I've heard good things about you from Philly."

"Hi," Beb said cheerily at his praise. "And thanks."

Margo kept her face even, but her stomach turned sour again. Investigating her was just common sense, but looking into Beb? That was a low blow.

"I was half expecting to see cop cars instead of you," he said to Margo, and his eyes flicked down the road. "Thanks for keeping the whole story to yourself. It's made my job easier."

"Don't thank me. I still haven't decided not to turn you in, or to just take you down myself."

"Understood," he said more gravely. "I guess you're just as curious about Jia's work as I am. Should we see what's inside?" He gestured at the cabin.

"I need some answers first," Margo insisted. "Like who you really are, and why you lied to me earlier. I took your fingerprints from that shack in the woods. There's no record of you anywhere. The exciter recording from my office doesn't show you on any cameras either. It's like you're a ghost."

Tin's expression darkened briefly. "That's closer than I'd like to admit. I exist, just not on any fingerprint databases you have access to. And I'm sure both of you know how easy it is to fool facial recognition these days. As to who I am," he pulled a card from his shirt pocket. "Here."

He tossed it over and Margo grabbed it out of the air. It was a company ID, for Aldwin-Farrow employees. It had his picture, next to the name Austin Burke.

"You're with AFI security?" Margo asked suspiciously, and he nodded. "Why didn't you just tell me that from the start? I would have investigated Harding, just as you wanted me to."

Tin shook his head. "You don't understand. Rank-and-file security are no big deal at Aldwin-Farrow, but the security supervisors like me have to follow strict rules. We protect scientists like Jia, who work on the most sensitive projects the company has. As such, the only ID records on us are held by AFI itself. That's why you couldn't find my fingerprints—they're on AFI servers and nowhere else. We're required to avoid cameras while in public, or to be disguised. That's why most of us only eat in Aldwin-Farrow facilities, and live in on-site housing."

"Jeez," Beb put in sympathetically. "They better pay you a ton to put up with all of that. How many people have to be... invisible like that?"

"Just a dozen or so, worldwide," Tin admitted. "It's for company insurance reasons. A lot of our research lines are dangerous, and ethically questionable. If word about any of those products gets leaked, and if I'm connected to it, the higher-ups will be able to deny any knowledge. It's basically the same thing governments do with black-ops, just on a smaller scale."

Despite the seriousness of his words, Tin didn't seem disturbed by it all. Margo wanted to think that was just because he was used to it after all this time, and not because he was amoral and didn't care. At least she had some proof now, thankfully. She handed the ID back to him. "So you were assigned to Jia because she was working on the particle exciters?"

He nodded. "I didn't even know what she was working on until the exciters became public knowledge. I was used to seeing profitable and powerful things come out of the company, but I didn't expect anything like the exciters. That came totally out of left field."

Margo nodded thoughtfully. She'd heard rumors of mega-corporations behaving more like countries than business start-ups, with their own laws, their own customs, and their own secret projects. This was the first time she'd ever heard it confirmed out loud. Come to think of it, if Austin here was willing to go on the record, she could get a big boost out of the story when it came out.

If he was willing to blow the whistle on his superiors. If he was even telling the truth at all! All they had was an ID card for now.

Tin moved towards the cabin again, but Beb stopped him this time. "Why did you wait for us?" She asked. "You could have been in and out of here long before we arrived, especially if you thought we were bringing the cops here."

He did that little half-smile again. "I'm not sure exactly. After I heard about the other scientists being killed, I wanted to keep my distance. If they really were murdered by the company for knowing too much, we're all in danger just by investigating. But Jia was... important to me. I was on her protection detail for a long time. She trusted me to keep her safe, and I was glad to be protecting someone who wanted to make people's lives better instead of just make profits for the company."

After a bit, Tin sighed. "I have a hunch that you're like me, Margo. You care more for the truth than for personal gain. I'm betting you'll help me instead of turning me in. At least until we find out who did kill Jia. After that, I'm guessing all bets are off."

"You're right about that," Margo promised, and turned towards the door.

It was locked, but she had long experience with this. As she pulled out her lockpicks and got to work, Beb spoke from behind. "How long did you work with Jia?"

"Almost four years, for the whole development and distribution of the exciters. She was really looking forward to the global distribution. She put so much of herself into them. It's a real shame she can't see the culmination of her work."

"You said she was important to you. Were you two... close?"

"Not in the way you think," he said softly, and there was no mistaking his wry tone. "Remember, she had a boyfriend through all that time. Still, we trusted each other implicitly. That's a rare thing, these days."

There. Margo opened the door quietly, half expecting an alarm to go off or a dog to start barking. A pretty emaciated dog though, if it had been left here since the last summer.

The furniture was under plastic coverings, but the place looked pretty livable. There was a fireplace on the far side, and a balcony running the length of the cabin to the left. The blinds were all lowered and locked, so Margo went over there to let some light in.

"Fancy," Beb commented, running her hand over the inside walls. She flipped the light switch, but nothing happened. "Jia must have cut the power. The circuit panel should be outside. I'll go and get it running again."

"We shouldn't stay long," Margo reminded both of them as Beb went outside. " Harding was here, and probably told his WitPro watchdogs about this place. How did you find this place anyway, Burke?"

"Please, just call me Tin," he insisted. "Through my job I have access to Jia's property records. She bought this place over five years ago, and vacationed here several times. What really caught my interest was that according to the records, she hired an independent security firm to come out here."

It caught Margo's attention, too. "That probably raised a few red flags for you."

"It would have, if I'd known about it at the time," Tin admitted. "She did a good job of keeping it secret. Whatever that firm did, it was expensive, too. She spent over 20k on whatever's in this place."

As he spoke, the lights flickered on, and Beb's voice filtered in from the outside. "Got it." A few seconds later she appeared again at the door. "Fancier now."

There were pictures above the fireplace, and mounted on the walls. All seemed to feature just Jia, or her and a younger woman. Beb focused on them. "Who's this?"

"That's her daughter Christy," Margo said distractedly, focusing on the center of the room. The furniture looked out of place, somehow. It took her a moment to notice Tin was fixated on one wall.

She moved up next to him, and the photos he was staring at. "I had no idea she kept these," he said in an undertone.

Something in his voice seemed off. As if he was being faced by Jia's ghost, just by looking at pictures of her. "Did you know Jia's daughter well?"

Tin shook his head. "Not really. But then I doubt Christy even knew herself that well. Jia talked about her all the time, though." He turned away suddenly, almost angrily. Margo was about to ask him what was wrong, but then remembered they were on the clock here.

"They look pretty happy." Beb's voice was extra soft, and Margo could tell she was jealous. Beb hadn't had a very good relationship with her mom for years, and then they'd cut off all communication. Margo had considered looking in on the older Rossi woman, but decided against it. Friends didn't poke at open wounds on other friends.

"Don't be sure, Beb," Margo answered, returning to the center of the room and examining the floor again. "From what I was able to dig up, Christy Haldar went missing over five years ago, on a trip to Spain. Jia never opened up any investigation, or contacted any authorities here or overseas. It's like she was ok with her daughter just vanishing."

"Ok that is kinda suss," Beb admitted. "What about her father? Didn't you say Booker Frank liked to beat both Jia and their daughter?"

"I looked into Frank when I was first assigned to Jia's detail," Tin cut in. "He couldn't have been responsible. He was in jail then, and again when Jia was killed, on charges ranging from armed robbery to aggravated assault. What did you find?" He asked Margo.

In answer, Margo moved one of the couches aside. "When I circled these, the floorboards creaked a bit. As if they're not evenly distributing the weight. There's something under here."

Tin was obviously uncomfortable being here, but Margo couldn't pin down why. Perhaps it was because of the ex-husband's treatment of Jia. She made a mental note to look closer into Booker Frank at a later time.

Sure enough, where the couch had once sat, an even row of floorboards lined up perfectly. It didn't take much effort to pull them away, revealing a circular hatch underneath. Now that the power was on, Margo could see a blinking light next to what looked like a screen. The hatch had a handle: it was a lock of some kind.

Beb was there instantly. "Whoa, that is so cool. It's a biometric security system. Looks like it's keyed to iris recognition. There's a scanner." She pointed just above a small screen on the circular hatch.

"I guess this is where all that money went," Tin said wryly. "Can you bypass it?"

"Not quickly," Beb admitted. "If I cut the power again, it'll go into a lockdown and I'll have to use a blowtorch to get through the lock. And if there's anything Jia felt was too valuable to let anyone grab, she could have put in booby traps to destroy it. I could try to tap into the hardware itself and fool the biometrics into thinking Jia's here, but that probably won't work. Safes like these were designed with that kind of intrusion in mind."

Margo felt a sinking feeling in her gut. She was curious—intensely so in fact—about why Jia had been killed and what she could have possibly been working on to motivate it. This seemed like a pretty solid brick wall in the way. She reached for her phone. "I'll contact the security company who installed it. They might be able to override the lock if I can give them proof that Jia's dead."

"I've got a better idea," Tin said abruptly. He leaned down towards the scanner.

As he put his eye in front of it, Beb gave a start. "Don't! If it reads the wrong eye, it might lock down!"

But he was already being scanned, and stayed still for the whole process. Margo stopped dialing, staring down at him. After a few more seconds the red light flicked to green, and they could all hear the locks inside the hatch disengaging. Tin leaned back, stretching his shoulders a bit.

When he caught them staring, he merely shrugged. "She trusted me, and had my biometric data on file. It was a safe assumption."

"It was a foolish risk," Margo admonished him. "If Beb had been right, and the system thought you were an intruder and locked itself down, we never would have gotten in! You should have waited for me to get ahold of the security people."

Despite her disapproval, Margo was still surprised. Jia had gone to great lengths to secure whatever was down there, but had deliberately added Tin to the list of people who had access. The most likely possibility was that he was lying about how close they'd been, and this was some kind of corporate espionage honeypot situation. Obviously, Tin had been very important to Jia when she'd set this place up.

Tin only gave her a reproving look. "You're the one who said we don't have a lot of time. If Jia really was killed by people working for AFI, and the authorities handle the investigation, do you really think her murderer will face any justice?"

"Of course they will," Beb said reasonably, and Margo resisted the urge to facepalm. "You can't just go around killing people, even if you do work for some big company. That's why the cops and Marshal's Service even exist."

"It's cute that you think that," Tin said dismissively, and reached for the hatch's handle. "I don't have time to explain how the world really works to you, but I'm sure you'll get that education soon enough." He heaved upwards on the hatch. His muscles tensed briefly, and then it groaned open, creaking in the process. The hatch clearly hadn't been opened in years, judging by the rust on its edges.

Beb looked scandalized at the idea of a less-than-perfect justice system, but Margo had to admit to herself that Tin was more right than wrong. Individuals were held to account for crimes some of the time. Corporations were held accountable even less often. Individuals within corporations though, almost never faced any consequences for their actions. If Margo and Tin wanted justice for Jia, they'd have to find the proof themselves.

The stairs under the hatch went down only about ten feet, ending at a much-less-secure door. Tin insisted on going first. Margo tried to get Beb to stay up here, but she refused.

It didn't look like there were any more security measures inside, and Tin opened the inside door after just a minute of checking. The basement room beyond it was unmistakably a workshop, like the one Beb had set up in her backyard shed. Unlike hers, this room seemed totally devoted to exciters and the recordings they could make. Margo could see at least ten of the handheld devices littering the room, in various states of disrepair. The far wall had what looked like shelves upon shelves of exciter recordings.

"If we needed proof that Jia was working on the exciters, I'd say we just got it," Tin said softly, and even he sounded awed by what they were seeing.

Margo was no engineer, but Beb explained some of the workbenches for her. "These are production models that Jia took apart for some reason. I'm guessing she was trying to make the 3D pictures clearer for people. It looks like she was messing with the imaging system." Beb gave a sigh. "She's probably the only person in the world who didn't have to sign some ridiculous waiver to get an exciter. Why didn't I sign up for AFI after hearing about the exciters?"

"If you had, you might be dead right along with her," Margo reminded her. Her eyes swept over another table, this one with a simple post-it note held down by a disassembled exciter. "Hey, look over here."

Tin and Beb moved to flank her, and could see the note saying, 'watch me first.' Margo ran her fingers across some of the recording chips. "Something tells me this message isn't for her co-workers at AFI."

Tin shared a glance with the other two, and shrugged. "Let's find out." He took the recording chip on the far left and slipped it into one of the intact exciters, before checking to see if it was plugged in and activating it.

An image sprang into view, partially inside Margo's body. She stepped away, and saw Jia standing there. She was shorter than Margo, with sandy-blond hair and piercing brown eyes. Margo looked around, but it seemed the recording was only centered on Jia's body and nothing else.

"I don't know who you are," the recording said sadly, "but if you're seeing this, I'm probably dead. I hope it's Tin watching, but in the grand scheme of things anyone will do. It's important that you understand why I've done this. That way if you hate me, at least you'll have the right reasons."
« Last Edit: June 10, 2022, 05:04:01 AM by Daen »