Author Topic: Chapter 2  (Read 6522 times)

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Offline Daen

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Chapter 2
« on: June 10, 2022, 05:00:25 AM »
Chapter 2

If using Beb's laptop did put her on Homeland Security's radar, they weren't tipping their hand yet. Beb's device had worked perfectly, and Margo finally had a possible address on Goswin. Or whatever his real name was. Her initial check on his past hadn't found any records older than a few years.

Unfortunately, the address was out of town by about an hour. Margo took careful note of how many miles she had before heading out there. Charging clients for gas usage might seem petty to some, but the prices had been rising to outrageous levels recently. Margo just hoped this wasn't a wild goose chase. There were over a hundred people who needed this particular medication in the counties around Philly. For all she knew this was just some innocent woman who'd forgotten to update her address.

No, that was unlikely. The address was a motel, and therefore temporary. Thankfully the trip out there went smoothly enough, with her car not giving most of its usual troubles. There were issues with the brakes, steering, transmission, tires, radio, AC, you name it. It was old, and keeping it running was hard when work was so scarce. Before long, Margo was pulling up in front of the small-town motel.

It looked calm enough, especially this late in the evening. Margo had grown up in a town like this one, where almost everyone knew each other by name. It was a nice way to live, if a bit boring.

The address didn't have a room number, so Margo went into the main office. The guy at the desk was just about ready to close up for the night, and didn't look too happy about a 'customer' coming in asking questions. Wishing she had Beb's effortless charm, Margo tried to seem disarming and naïve as she chatted him up.

He didn't recognize a picture of Goswin, but he did remember the package being delivered yesterday. Any scruples about customer confidentiality were overridden with a discreet bribe, and before long Margo had the room number.

The trouble was, this place had on-site surveillance cameras. Not in the rooms of course, but mounted on the walkways outside the rooms and overlooking the parking lot. If Goswin had any brains at all, he would have either bribed whatever security people were here to keep an eye out, or tapped into their systems directly. Most likely the former. He'd worked as a janitor for the last few years, not a programmer or scientist.

Gritting her teeth, Margo asked for one of the rooms adjacent to her target. She only needed an hour or so to verify it was him, but this was one of those places that rented hourly. Ew.

At least it made for good cover. She was careful to give a fake name—one of many she'd come up with over the years. Then once she was in place, she got to work. A power drill through the wall would make way too much noise, but a smaller hand crank could do the trick. Then she'd just have to fit in some of the fiberoptics Beb had made for her, and she'd be home free.

Well, not really. She'd at least know for sure she was in the right place.

Being careful not to touch the bed, chairs or anything else in this germ factory, Margo selected a point near where the bathroom wall met the corner, where she could reasonably cut a hole. When it was done, she got out her laptop and hooked up the fiberoptic cable. Running the tiny camera through the gap in the wall, she adjusted its settings to pan the room on the other side. She probably could have used the particle exciter to record what was going on in the other room and play it back, but there were still legal hurdles to that. She didn't want to risk giving her quarry a loophole to escape punishment if he was guilty.

Goswin was there all right. He was reclining on the bed on the far wall, looking over at the TV. The volume on it was low, but it didn't matter. This kind of micro-camera didn't have a mic.

It looked like he wasn't alone. There were two men sitting at the table near the door playing cards. They were dressed casually, but the way they moved and spoke to each other suggested more. Whoever they were, they had training. What had she stumbled into here?

One of them put his cards down and started tapping away at his own laptop. The other stretched and stood up. As his coat lifted, Margo saw a gun holster on his hip. Grimacing, she tried to pan the rest of the room to see if there were any more. She had her own gun, but it was in her bag, unloaded. She'd only reluctantly gotten it and trained with it, after a close call last year.

The second man meandered back towards the bathroom, and then in one smooth motion pulled his gun and pointed it right at the wall! Or at her, actually. From his current position, she was right in his line of fire.

"Whoever you are, I know you're there," he called loudly enough to make it through the cheap walls. "My buddy can see you through your webcam."

Goswin looked at him in surprise, and then scrambled out of the bed. The first man held up his free hand in warning. "Don't move, you hear? Both of you."

The other man waved at her miniature camera with a cynical smile on his face, and then stood up. He put his laptop in the first man's arms, and then went to the door. "I'm coming over to your room. If you so much as twitch, he'll put a bullet in your gut. Am I clear?"

"Yes," she managed, her throat suddenly dry. Who were these people?

Her door was locked, but that didn't seem to bother the other one much. A few seconds with a lockpick and he slipped inside, closing the door behind him. He also had his own gun drawn. Keeping her covered, he slipped past her and examined the bathroom briefly. "She's alone in here," he finally called through the wall, and the other man lowered his gun. On the camera, he put the other laptop down and watched it intently. He was obviously looking for other threats, related to her or otherwise.

The one in her room locked the door and put his back to it. "Who are you?" He asked casually. "Motel records say you're Cynthia Watros, but there's no one by that name living anywhere in the whole county. And isn't that an actress' name?"

Margo resisted the urge to gulp. "My name is Margo Patsulas. I'm a PI working out of Philadelphia. I was hired to find your... friend in there."

"Who hired you?"

Margo shook her head. "I don't discuss my clients. And how about a little reciprocation here? If you were going to kill me, you would have done it already. Why don't you tell me who you are and why you're here with him?"

Her captor was silent for a long moment, and then the other one called from his room. "Her photo matches up. So far, she is who she says she is."

Almost looking reluctant, her guy holstered his weapon. "Deputy Marshal Telfer. I understand why you don't want to reveal your client's identity, but they might be working for the LNL gang from Baltimore. If so, our guy is in danger. I need to know why you were sent after him, right now."

Margo licked her lips. "You're a US Marshal? That means you're here on a WitPro assignment." She glanced over at her laptop. "That was quick work, hacking my webcam like that. I didn't think I made enough noise to be noticed."

"You didn't. Now stop stalling. Why are you here?"

She sighed. So much for a light verbal interrogation. "Your 'guy' has a girlfriend who died last week. The cops thought it was an accident, but my client thinks otherwise. My client found out your guy vanished, and hired me to track him down. If I'd known he was in Witness Protection, I would have told my client to get lost."

Telfer's eyebrows furrowed briefly. He looked out the window for a second, and then back to her. "Come with me, please."

He opened the door and stepped outside, but his hand was still close to his gun. It had been phrased as an invitation, but it was clearly an order. Shrugging, Margo followed him into the other room. Once inside, he closed and locked it as well.

He turned immediately to Goswin. "Tell me about your girlfriend."

Goswin's eyes widened even further. "Her name was Jia Haldar. She fell during one of her walks last week, and died. I didn't even find out until she was already in the morgue."

"Why didn't you mention any of this during your debrief?" Telfer's voice was perfectly normal despite the implied threat. He might as well have been talking about the weather.

"I didn't want it to affect our deal! Everything else I said is still true—still useful to you! Isn't it?" He glanced at the other one pleadingly. "You said you'd check out my story. Didn't you?"

Telfer ignored that. "Is that why you contacted us, Cole? Four years in the cold, and suddenly you call us out of the blue, asking for protection? Because you killed your girlfriend and needed an out?"

"It's not! I swear! The last thing I wanted was to see Jia dead... but when I went to our place in Doylestown, the cops were there. They were snapping photos everywhere just in case, and one of them got a shot of me!" He spread his hands desperately. "You know how far the LNL crew will go to shut me up. They've got people everywhere, even in the PPD! If one of them saw that photo and found out I'm here, I'd be a dead man!"

He looked down, his shoulders slumping in defeat. "I panicked, ok? I don't know if Jia was murdered or not, but I didn't want to be next. That's why I called you guys."

Both of the US Marshals seemed disappointed, but not that surprised. They were probably used to dealing with scumbags and their twitchy informants all the time. "So your real name is Cole?" Margo prompted the man, as the two others stepped aside and began talking quietly.

He nodded. "Cole Harding. I used to live in Baltimore, with the LNL gang. I got away when things got too hot, and hid in Minnesota, getting a job as a janitor. I met Jia when I was cleaning the floors at one of her labs. Eventually when she moved out here to Pennsylvania, I transferred with her." He shook his head. "I should have known it wouldn't last. It never does."

Margo couldn't be sure if he was lying, but this whole WitPro thing sure complicated matters. She'd heard of the LNL people, and they were vicious. Drug smuggling was the least of their enterprises: which included weapon sales, hired muscle, human smuggling, and prostitution. If she'd been mixed up with them, she would have wanted out too. More to the point, Jia Haldar had been a physicist, according to a cursory search of her profession. It was unlikely she'd have anything to do with this gang. For someone in Harding's position, the last thing that he would want, would be to draw attention to himself. He wasn't married to Haldar, so he had no stake in whatever money or property she might have held. The list of motives was shrinking fast.

"All right, Miss Patsulas—"

"Margo," she insisted.

Telfer looked a little amused, and continued. "Miss Patsulas. Your story seems to check out for now. You can keep investigating Haldar's death if you want, but whether Cole did it or not, he's here under US Government protection. This particular lead is a dead end. Understood?"

Margo nodded respectfully. "I get it. Ten-foot-pole order acknowledged. I'll just get my stuff and go."

After she left, Margo watched them from a distance with binoculars. She was careful to shut her laptop off completely, and remove the battery. Telfer was no slouch with cybersecurity. Somehow he'd seen her laptop joining the local network, and hacked it in just a few minutes so that he could spy on her.

The Marshals made a good show of securing the place, including motel rooms on both sides and behind, but then returned to their holding pattern. They were probably waiting for a new identity for their 'guy', before shipping him off to wherever he went next.

So much for that. Hopefully Tin would take the news well. Reluctantly, Margo got in her car and drove home.

-.-

"Did you find him?" Tin asked expectantly, the next day in the office.

The particle exciter was running again, recording all 3D actions in this room. Margo tried to hide a sour look, both for its sake and for Tin's, and nodded. "I did."

"Great. Where is he?"

"I can't tell you that. The situation is more complicated than either of us thought."

Tin's expression darkened, and he leaned forward. "In what way?"

Margo let out a breath. Tin might not be a hulking brute like some of her clients, but his menace came through quite clearly. "His real name is Cole Harding. He was once part of a real piece-of-work gang, operating in Baltimore. He got away and hid up in Minnesota, where he met your mother. Now he's afraid his old gang is going to catch up with him, so he disappeared."

"You spoke with him in person?" Tin asked unexpectedly.

"Briefly, yes. The thing is, Mr. Harding is in Witness Protection now. In a day, two at the most, he'll have a whole new identity in some other state. Or even out of the country, maybe. The US Marshals take their job very seriously."

Tin let out a noise of exasperation, and stood up suddenly. He began pacing behind the chair. "That doesn't mean he didn't do it, right? He could just be using them to get away with it!"

"It's possible, but I doubt it. He has very little motive at this point. As far as I can tell, your mother didn't even know about his past in Baltimore, and she certainly had nothing to do with his old gang. He couldn't have gotten any money by killing her. Even if it was some kind of lover's spat gone wrong, there's nothing in Harding's history that suggests he's capable of killing someone." She scrolled through the police report on her computer. A helpful clerk in the BPD had emailed her the file this morning. "Unless... you know more about him than you've said."

Tin shook his head, still growling under his breath. "My contract work keeps me busy, so I barely know the man. We've spoken maybe three times in the last year. All I know is Mom seemed happy with him, and that's what mattered."

Margo held her breath for a second. "If you want to discuss how this WitPro thing will affect your payment, I'm open to that." Not too open, but at least a little.

"No. I hired you to do a job and you did it. Just because I don't like what you found doesn't mean I can shortchange you." He straightened up, as if clearing his head, and extended a hand. "Thank you, Margo. If any of my local friends need your services, I'll tell them about you."

Margo shook it, her opinion of him jumping up another notch. Handling bad news wasn't something most men were good at, in her experience. Tin authorized his payment before taking off. It seemed like he was in a bit of a hurry, actually.

That was fine with her. Margo had another appointment anyway. Because work had been scarce recently, she'd finagled a position with a plastics manufacturing company. It was temp work, but it paid well. Basically she would sit in on new employee interviews, performance reviews, and disciplinary hearings. She wasn't allowed to ask any questions during the meetings, but afterwards the company people would ask her for her impressions.

She had a hard time focusing today, for some reason. Something about that meeting with Tin didn't sit right. As soon as she had her lunch hour, Margo found a secluded room and replayed the events on her exciter.

"You spoke with him in person?" Past-Tin said interestedly, from his chair. Margo paused it there. That was the part which had been bugging her. In retrospect it was out of place. Why would he care if she met Harding face to face, as long as she knew where he was?

His posture was all wrong, too. He should have been feeling frustration at being held back from knowing the full truth, but his expression showed excitement. There was something in his pocket, too. His right hand had lingered on it briefly, before he'd stood up and began pacing. Margo zoomed in on it, but the exciter couldn't increase the quality of the picture. Whatever it was, it was small and square-ish. Maybe two inches on a side?

She started up the playback again, but slowed it to half speed and turned off the audio. As Tin moved, his expression seemed too uniform. It didn't change when he got news, whether it was useful or irrelevant.

It was like a performance. He said the right words, but just like a smile that didn't make it into your eyes, it meant nothing. Somehow, Margo knew that Tin didn't care about most of what she'd found. All he'd really cared about was that she'd met Harding in person.

Margo spoke to the plastics company reps, and told them she wouldn't be staying the rest of the day. It ruffled a few feathers, but this situation would just dig at her mind until she worked it out, and she'd be useless to them anyway. Margo pulled up any public records on a 'Tin' Haldar. She assumed it was short for Justin, but searched for both anyway.

Nothing came up.

"I should have known," she muttered to herself, and did a similar search on Jia Haldar. The last time she'd only done a cursory examination of Jia's work, because she'd been so focused on finding the boyfriend.

Born September 3, 1968 in Little Rock, to a Sam and Aera Haldar. Schooled there in Arkansas—her dad was a moderately successful insurance salesman. Went to Berkeley to study physics and electrical engineering. She must have had an impressive grant to afford that. Married a man named Booker Frank, just out of college. Gave birth to a daughter named Christy two years later. Started working at—Margo paused there. Jia had worked at Aldwin-Farrow Industries? The same people who'd invented the exciters?

AFI wasn't known for paying its entry-level workers much, but Jia had been a highly skilled physicist. There wasn't any information on exactly what she did for Aldwin-Farrow, but it was likely she was well paid. Maybe this Tin, whoever he was, was after Jia's money. It was a wild guess, but all she had to go on for now.

The rest of the file was pretty straightforward, except for the police reports that started showing up in 2010 and 11. There were multiple reports of spousal abuse and drunk-and-disorderly conduct, on the part of Jia's husband Booker. Then a year later, there were divorce records. Jia had left her abusive psycho husband, who'd apparently beaten their daughter at least once as well. There was a note of child abuse, but no other records concerning Christy's childhood.

Then Jia had moved to Minnesota, to one of the AFI affiliate offices to start working for them. She'd probably gotten a promotion a year or two later, because she'd eventually bought that home Margo had seen in the photos the other day. Then finally, there came death records.

There was no mention of a Tin anywhere. No indication of who he might be, or why he cared at all about Jia's death. It was possible he worked with her at AFI. If so, Margo might be able to find out. Like most corporations, AFI kept a pretty tight grip on employee records, though.

Margo leaned back in her chair, frustrated. Whenever she hit a dead end, she needed someone to bounce ideas off of. That person was usually Beb, who seemed to like helping a so-called 'warrior of righteousness and truth' like Margo. That's what she liked to call her anyway. Margo looked out the window at her car. Just yesterday, Tin's own gray Ford had been parked next to it. Maybe she could get its license plate from the nearby bank cameras, and ID him that way.

There was something about her car that was bugging her, though. It was that same insistent, mostly-inaudible voice in her head that represented her subconscious. That, and the square device Tin had been holding in his pocket.

Then it hit her. Tin hadn't been concerned that Harding was in WitPro, and he hadn't pressed her to continue the investigation, because he didn't care! He already knew where Harding was, because he'd been tracking Margo's car! That square was just about the right size and shape for a GPS tracker. She'd been parked outside that motel for over an hour the other day—more than long enough for its location to be updated. When she'd returned, he must have retrieved the tracker and downloaded the information. He could already be at the motel!

Halfway out the door, Margo paused. Was this really any concern of hers? She'd already been paid. Whatever Tin did would be on him, not her, and those Marshals would attest to that. No, it wasn't enough. There was one, overriding reason why she'd become an investigator in the first place.

She had to know.
« Last Edit: June 10, 2022, 05:02:06 AM by Daen »