Advancer: Asset 08 (Part 3)
Advancer: Asset 08
by Bek D Corbin
Twelve hours and a ton of shit later, Cornell was reading the Riot Act at me in front of Jill and the assembled ‘Assets’. “As a result of your reckless actions, 08, not only have we disrupted an ongoing project by another office, but there’s a good chance that the Committee will bring US under the control of the Commission! We could lose all our autonomy!”
I gave an unrepentant whistle. “Hold the phone! ‘the Agency’? ‘The Committee’? ‘The Commission’? What IS this, a John LeCarre book? Who ARE these guys?”
“The Commission is a non-governmental private foundation that Committee 1791 - that’s the Senate Oversight Panel we answer to - hired to research Advancer matters in parallel to us. Things like this happen, especially in highly classified matters.”
“Bullshit,” I said defensively, arms folded across my chest. “In something like this, you keep the ‘Need to Know’ list as small as possible.”
“That’s why the Committee didn’t tell us about the Commission.”
“Again, I say ‘bullshit’. Hands-off or no hands-off, the United States government doesn’t hire private parties to kidnap American citizens and perform strange experiments on them.”
“It must be nice to believe that,” Bad Boy muttered, bored.
Cornell sighed and said, “Look, this is NOT about the Commission, it’s about your reckless-”
“NO!” I shouted, overshadowing him. “YOU are allowing some bozo in Brooks Brothers to woof you out of tracking this ‘Commission’ - or whatever they really call themselves - down and putting them in JAIL! These guys are dirtier than Bad Boy’s BVDs! There is NO WAY that those guys were legit! Hell, that asshole ‘Duncan’ alone-”
“The Commission doesn’t use our Operating Procedure,” Control 09 said flatly. “And they use some rather… fractious operatives. I feel for them.”
“Yet again, BULLSHIT,” I kept at it. “Their procedure was clearly criminal and predatory.”
“Aiken says that they follow prescribed procedure on living human subjects,” Hunter said. “He says that they thought that Miss Sorensen was a Predator, and treated her as such.”
“Hey, we weren’t sure ourselves,” C-09 backed him up.
“And what about those five poor assholes that I saw at the Foundry? M-1 and F-1 and all those?”
“He said that they were Advancers that had degenerated to that point. The entire point of those procedures was to find a way of keeping them from deteriorating any further. That’s their term for ‘Degeneration’: Deterioration. The holding procedures that you saw were necessary to keep the researchers safe. You just misunderstood their procedure, which you wouldn’-”
“HOW do you misunderstand ‘We’ll begin with the RGT-primary series, and see if we can prompt some higher functions before her brains come leaking out of her ears’?”
“Are you SURE that you heard that?”
I pulled out my cell phone and played the bit that I recorded where Duncan was giving orders. “See? ‘No intrusive presences’? If I’m reading their terminology correctly, that means that Dr. Duncan is saying that he detects NO spirit or possessor or whatever, and he ordered his men to begin procedures that he KNEW were dangerous. The only reason why Jill’s here is that their bosses made a rule that that asshole Eginhard had to be there to ride herd on him.”
“Yeah,” Jill joined in, giving me my first bit of backup. “And from what I heard when they were trying to get me out of there, neither Duncan or Eginhard wanted to have anything suspicious there when the fire department or the sheriff’s department got there.”
“GEE, I wonder WHY,” Hunter said with exasperation. “LOOK, I agree, that Duncan asshole needs to be slapped down, but that’s the Commission’s business.”
“What does the Committee say about this?” Meg asked, looking like she was getting suspicious.
“We don’t want this to come to the Committee’s attention,” Cornell said sullenly.
“Oh? Why not?” Jill asked.
“Because, if we took this to the Committee, we’d LOSE!” Cornell said, glaring at me as if it was my fault. “The Commission has a ton more clout than we do!”
“How do you know that?” Meg asked.
“Because their guy Aiken, the lawyer I talked to, has classification WAY above ours,” Hunter answered.
“Again, how do you know that?” Meg asked.
“Because he knew all about us,” Hunter replied. “And we knew nothing about them.”
“What kind of credentials did he show you?” Sherlock asked.
“He didn’t. I’m not cleared to see his credentials.”
“Say WHAT?” Enforcer asked, incredulously.
“LOOK…” Hunter started, trying to frame what he wanted to say. “He KNEW things about the Agency, about ME, classified things that nobody knows. Believe me, the man has the very highest clearances.”
Smelling that Sumatran Rat, I asked, “Do you remember what he said, in what order?”
“Exactly,” Hunter said smugly. “I can remember it, verbatim.”
“It’s an Advancer thing,” Sherlock said. “If he puts a tag on something he could remember the exact formula for a toothpaste that he saw on the label of a tube for fifteen seconds.”
I got out a pen and legal pad. “Tell me what he said, from the moment he got you alone, word for word.” Hunter spelled it out, and I wrote it down. I stopped and asked a few questions here and there. Finally, I threw down the pen and said, “Dammit, Hunter, this isn’t a negotiation! It’s a Cold Reading!”
“A cold what?”
“’Cold Reading’ is a technique that ‘mentalists’ and ‘psychics’ and ‘mediums’,” I crooked my fingers to indicate the speciousness of the labels, “use to cozen information out of people without them realizing it. Faith healers, con artists, pick-up artists and, apparently, lawyers also use it. Basically, it works by reading from a ‘script’ of leading statements to the mark, observing their reactions, and guiding them to get them to give you more and more information. I learned how to spot a cold reader - both witting and unwitting – when I was working at the Koestler Unit in Edinburgh.”
“Impossible!” Hunter was downright offended by the notion. “How could he have known all that classified information?”
“Simple. You told him.”
“Hunter, remember, he chose YOU to talk to?” I pointed out. “He chose you because he thought that you would be the easiest to work. He probably has worked with the military before, and had a ‘Military Script’ that he knew well enough to work off the cuff. Most Cold Readers tend to specialize - ‘mediums’ specialize in grief-stricken survivors, pickup artists specialize in attractive girls, and so forth.”
“How would he know that I was in the military?”
Everyone around the table just gave Hunter the ‘don’t be an idiot’ glare. Using the transcript, I pointed out where Hunter had told ‘Aiken’ that he was a colonel, and ticked off each point where he let slip a bit of classified information - or at least the seeming of it.
“Oh… crappp…” Cornell moaned cradling his head in his hands. “I talked with that asshole this morning… I think that he read me like a greeting card!”
“Hold it!” Fulbright cut in, “Just because this Aiken guy used this ‘cold reading’ thing on Hunter doesn’t mean that the Commission isn’t on the up and up! I mean, this just could be the Commission trying to weasel its way out of the fact that they’re using illegal methods. It wouldn’t be the first time that a private subcontractor has used unethical - at best - methods to achieve remarkable results. And some of their results ARE remarkable!”
“No way,” Sherlock said. “These guys are total mavericks. Legit researchers don’t pick up and move on a regular basis. And from the pictures that Shutterbug gave us, they move regularly enough that they’ve got the process down to a science. If they were connected to the system, they’d let the Committee worry about covering up their dirt.”
“And they’d use guys with decent background checks,” Oracle said. “I scanned the IDs that you got off that Eginhard guy and a few of the others for fingerprints. They were bogus, of course, but I was able to track the fingerprints on the FBI database. According to them, this ‘Eginhard’ guy is Lloyd C. Eginhard, age 64, a two-time loser with felony convictions for car theft, assault, smuggling, and other petty racketeering charges in the Colorado Front Range area, with suspected connections in drug dealing and running illegals over the border in New Mexico.”
C-09 looked at Cornell. “A useful guy, especially if he’s an Advancer. BUT, they’re right: there’s no way any legit civilian classified research project would let anyone like that even near them.”
Forrest peered suspiciously at Cornell. “You said that this ‘Aiken’ guy called you? What did he want?”
“I wasn’t sure, at the moment,” Cornell admitted. “At first, he was making noises that the Commission was going to take us over. Then he was all over the place, making all sorts of oddball comments.”
“He was ‘shot-gunning’ you,” I guessed, “Fishing for information, even as he kept you off balance for fear of your position, bouncing around from topic to topic. Did he give any detailed, specific information?”
Cornell nodded. “Yeah, later, after about an hour. And he was coming across with some very detailed information.”
“No, YOU were coming across with some very detailed information,” I corrected him. “This ‘Aiken’ guy is good. Not many people can cold read over the phone. It’s hard, but it can be done.”
“Do you really think that this Aiken guy will try to take over the Agency?” Forrest asked.
“Nah,” Bad Boy drawled knowingly. “He’s just pushin’, tryin’ to see what he can get away with. Right now, they’re playin’ for time to clean up the mess, cover their tracks and get their stories straight. But they’ll wanna know as much as they can about us, what we know about them, who we answer to and all like that. But, number one on their list will be that they’ll wanna know how they can get us off their back. Still, if they think that they can get us over a barrel, they’ll go for it.”
We all paused, flabbergasted, as Bad Boy actually had a point beyond being a jerkass.
“Actually, Aiken has a weapon that he can use against us that can screw us over big time, and he’s sharp enough to know it,” Cornell said. “Secrecy. We NEED secrecy. If the Committee thinks that we’re going to blow the Advancer secret before they’re good and ready, they’ll pull the plug on us, and have the NSA sweep the lot of us under the carpet.”
“Nah-ah,” Sherlock disagreed. “He’ll make threats, of course, but the Commission doesn’t want Advancers being common knowledge any more than we do. If the cover comes off, they have a lot more skeletons in the closet than we do, both in Wallowa and Flint-whatever THAT was.”
“But the Committee isn’t the point,” I said. “We can reason with the Committee, and get them to see that these ‘Commission’ idiots haven’t ruined us. They aren’t the problem.”
“Then what IS?” Sherlock asked, one eyebrow arched.
“The Holding Company.”
“Oh Crap!” Cornell moaned, burying his face in his hand. “She’s RIGHT!”
“The Holding Company?” Jill asked, confused.
“Later,” I said. “Officially the Holding Company doesn’t exist. Like this office, the parking lot, and a whole bunch of other stuff. While the Committee can’t afford to be exposed to the public, the Holding Company can’t even afford to be exposed to the Government! If the Holding Company thinks that we’re going to be blown, let alone that those ‘Commission’ goons might take us over, they’ll cut us loose just like THAT! And, while that might not affect the housing arrangements for you ‘Control’ types, it DOES mean that we could all come in Monday and suddenly discover that somehow we’ve been working out of public storage lockers in Bed-Stuy all this time!”
The ‘Controls’ all reacted to that with suitable horror. Forrest asked, “But what about our samples? What about all our testing equipment?”
“The Holding Company paid for all that, didn’t it? Nine’ll get you Ten that they’ll just ‘repossess’ it.”
Cornell looked sourly around the table. “She’s right again. So, what do we do?”
“What do we DO?” I asked, shocked. “We counter-attack that’s what we do!”
“Shutterbug, we’re NOT COPS, remember?” Control 09 said sharply. “We can’t arrest them!”
“We can’t,” Meg agreed. “But we can research the hell out of them, and give THAT to the Cops!”
“Just a minute,” Hunter objected. “Just because we don’t like them, doesn’t mean that they’re not connected. And, just because Aiken used that ‘cold reading’ trick, doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have real clout.”
“Bullshit,” Meg said, mildly disgusted. “If this Commission knew anyone, anyone at all on the Committee, or even vaguely connected to it any official capacity, they’d have gone over our heads to them, and have them come down on us instead of sending Aiken to Wallowa to bail their guys out. I’ll lay you odds that these ‘Commission’ yoiks don’t really know anyone.”
“AND, even if they ARE connected, it still doesn’t make any difference,” I said firmly. “Think about it: the agencies that are respected - the FBI, the Secret Service, the IRS, like that - all built their reps on the fact that they do their jobs and they don’t ‘play ball’; if you crossed them, you were in a ton of shit, and all the fancy lawyers in Washington couldn’t get you out of it. Those agencies that played ball, like the Customs Service and the SEC, became jokes, and the movers and shakers treat them like publically funded errand boys. If the Agency is ever going to BE anything, we’ve got to bust the Commission’s chops, but GOOD. If nothing else, just to show the Holding Company that we’re a good risk. The Commission’s trying to get away with fucking murder. They know about us, and they know that we know about them. They have to get us over a barrel somehow, or spend the rest of their careers looking over their shoulders. But if we let them walk, then we are screwed. So, it’s them or us, people, simple survival.”
Cornell gave me a wan smile. “Amazing, Merlin. We actually agree on something.” He bucked up and started giving orders. “Okay! The Commission is at this point our top priority! All other projects are temporarily shelved until we’ve got these yahoos under control! Or at least until we’ve sent the message that we’re not going to turn and run with our tail between our legs! Forrest, Fulbright, Sherlock: I want everything, and I DO mean EVERYTHING that Duncan or Aiken handled fingerprinted and a definitive set compiled.” He gingerly handled a business card by the edges and set it on a piece of paper. “That’s the card that ‘Aiken’ gave Hunter. The phone number’s probably to some sort of screening setup, like we have. My SOP trace puts Aiken somewhere in the general Washington DC area, though that could be a chain-pull. Oracle, use Aiken, Duncan, and Eginhard as your primary focuses. Try to find out… oh, what am I doing, telling you your business? Just FIND the bastards! Shutterbug, Hunter, Witch, Bad Boy: you go through the transcripts of both Hunter and my conversations with Aiken - YES, I recorded it, SOP, you got a problem with that? - and figure out what we let drop. If we get a handle on that, then we can try to second-guess what their moves will be. The rest of you, try to think of who and what the ‘Commission’ really is, ‘cause they ain’t just about research.”
“Maybe they’re a front for the Network?” Enforcer offered.
“The Network?” I asked. “We’re fighting Modesty Blaise?”
“Later, Shutterbug,” Cornell said repressively.
“Nah,” Bad Boy said with authority. “One, it’s not their style. R&D? They let OTHER people do that, and when they had anything, the Network’d come in and take it. Two, if it was the Network, they wouldn’t do it out in Hooterville. They’d do it in some Banana Republic or Asian postage stamp, where they’d OWN the local cops. Three, if the Network had been running the show yesterday, it would’a been a LOT slicker, and their soldiers would’a been a LOT tougher. And four, if the Network was behind all that, then we would’a seen those toys they had, or something a lot like them, in the San Diego thing.”
“Good call, Bad Boy,” Cornell said. “Nice to see that you can contribute- when it suits you. But the rest of you, don’t let that slow you down. You just brainstorm as much as you can. And people? Merlin got it right: we are on a WAR footing. If we play nice with these assholes, then we are going to get our asses handed to us.”
“Yeah?” Bad Boy grunted. “So, the Agency gets shut down. Sucks to be YOU guys,” he finished with a nasty chuckle.
“Cornell?” I interjected, “Let me handle this. Bad Boy? If the Agency goes down, the odds are that the Commission will get its hot little hands on OUR FILES. As in, the files that Fulbright’s been compiling on all of us- including YOU. If that happens, the Commission will be sending out capture teams to ‘collect’ each and every one of us. Why?” I pulled out my smart phone and displayed the pictures that I’d taken of M-1 and the others. Bad Boy reeled. He might be an asshole’s idea of an asshole, but there were things that even HE found repugnant. “AND, just in case you’re thinking that you might get Eginhard’s deal, let me point this out to you: they’ll know that you worked for the Agency. They’ll never be sure that you’re not some kind of mole. The only place that they’ll be absolutely sure of you is:” I held up a shot of M-3.
Bad Boy wilted down into his chair. I think that he’s on board.
“Thank you, Merlin; nicely put,” Cornell said. “Now, get to work. Miss Sorensen? Could I have a word with you in my office?” I got up and went with Jill. “Merlin, what are you doing?”
“Jill, he’s gonna try and sell you on signing on with the Agency. Which is, in all honesty, I think, a good idea. It’s a real job with a real paycheck and real benefits, the foremost of which being that you’ll get real training with your Advancer powers. You’ll stop being a non-person who doesn’t have an intro to the system. BUT, the devil’s in the details. Jilly, honey, he is going to try to sink every hook that he knows of, and his knowledge is wide and vast, into you, to keep you under his thumb. It’s how he thinks; it’s how he works. I’ve been through this before.”
Cornell glowered at me. “You’re supposed to work for ME, remember?”
“NO, I’m supposed to work for the United States Government. Part of our charter is to protect civilians and Federal Employees. So, I’m protecting her - from you.” We argued about it for over an hour, and then we started really arguing over the fine print. Three hours later, Cornell and I were glaring at each other, red-faced from yelling over each and every clause. But, we had hammered out a contract that didn’t satisfy either of us, but got the job done (Jimmy Hoffa, where ARE you?).
“Okay, FINE, now that we have that out of the way-” Cornell started.
“By the way, Jill: don’t ever agree to anything with him, let alone shake his hand on it, when Meg’s around. I’ll tell you why later.”
“Then can we get some WORK done here?” he snarled.
“YOU guys can get to work,” I said. “Jill and I are going home and getting some sleep. I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep in three days!”
“Me neither,” Jill said. “But… where am I going to stay? I left my purse back in where was it? Oregon? And I don’t have any ID.”
“We’re working on your new identity packet,” Cornell said. “It’ll take a few days. We had a few days’ leeway with Shutterbug, but you sort of jumped out of nowhere on us. But we did send a team of people into your house, and they collected some of your clothing for you, along with a few personal items. But until we arrange quarters for you-”
“Not to worry,” I said. “She can come and bunk with me. I got a big bed. And if the bed isn’t big enough, there’s a nice comfy couch.”
Cornell gave me a ‘yeah, right’ look, but didn’t raise a stink about it. Jill picked up the suitcase the Controls had fetched for her, and we got into an Agency taxicab that deposited us at my doorstep.
And, to show how tired I really was, I climbed into that big queen-sized bed with the Svenska blonde from many of my adolescent dreams, and went right to sleep.
I woke up with a Playboy centerfold snuggled up next to me. I briefly had one of those ‘do I go for it and risk really screwing up what might be a great friendship, or hold off and risk being a complete wussie?’ moments. Then Jill groped my tit and gave a pleased murmur.
Thank you, God. I really needed that break.
I pulled Jill to me and kissed her. From there, let’s just say that Jill, Delphi and I had more fun than two girls and a large white snake should be allowed to have in bed.
Jill and I were enjoying that wonderful warm cuddle where you’re almost sleeping and digging the hell out of it. Then my phone rang. Reluctantly disentangling myself from Jill, I swatted at the end table until I found my phone. “Yellow?”
“Merlin?” Cornell said brusquely. “Is 454 there with you?”
“Four-? Oh, Jill? Yeah, she’s here. You wanna talk to her?” Maybe to warn her about me?
“Well, if you two have caught up on your sleep, then get your butts down here. We’re at war, remember? The first returns are in, and we’re having a conference. We need you two in attendance.” I gave Jill the bad news. Still, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was almost as much fun watching a beautiful girl get dressed as it was watching her get undressed.
Following our entry instructions, Jill and I walked a couple of blocks to a nearby coffee shop and bought a light breakfast. I was still chowing down on my Egg Mac Muffin knockoff when Sherlock and Meg drove up in an Agency taxi. “Congratulations, Asset Oh-Nine,” Meg said as she handed Jill a packet. “From now on, you’re Jill Sondergaard, a coed at Columbia.”
“COLUMBIA?” Jill almost squealed. “Columbia UNIVERSITY?”
“Yeah,” I told her. “They like us ‘assets’ to have cover jobs. Okay, from here on, just think ‘Get Smart’.” Meg drove us through a dead-end alley with a trick floor, and we went through the whole charade, winding up at The Section. We had the usual complication with Delphi only being allowed through in a special container (something she really dislikes), and then finally we were seated around the table with most of the staff.
“Okay, first things first,” Cornell opened. “I got in touch with my contact on the Committee, and managed to confirm that there are no, I repeat NO, other agencies working for the Committee on Advancer Matters. It’s just us. We were pretty sure of that already, but now it’s official. The Commission, or whatever those yahoos call themselves for real, are criminals, and we will deal with them as such.
“Second, the mysterious Mr. ‘Aiken’ is still very interested in us. He’s made a couple of calls, fishing for more information. We’ve decided to use that interest. We’re going to construct a bogus ‘Agency’, complete with offices, labs, files and all like that, and let Aiken and his buddies come and ‘take over’. Once we get real lines on any of the big fish, we shut it down and bust these yahoos for fraud.”
“We’ll need something more than just Fraud,” I pointed out. “They still have their ‘Get Out Of Jail Free’ card: they can blow the whistle on the whole Advancer thing. They won’t as long they’re at large, but once they’re looking at hard time, at least one of them will start making threats.”
“Not to worry, Shutterbug,” Cornell said. “We’ve got that covered.” And, yet again, I smelled that Sumatran Rat. “But, that’s just Plan A. Plan A is always the one you want to work. But there’s always Plans B, C, D and E. Plan E being usually ‘make it up as you go along’. Let’s try to AVOID Plan E, shall we? Oracle, tell us what we know for sure about the mysterious Mr. Aiken?”
Oracle said, “Well, using the fingerprints, flights in and out of Wallowa County at the last minute, hotel records, and so on with a bunch of other stuff that you don’t really want to hear about, I think that I’ve got him.” She put an image up on one of the screens. The ‘weaned on a pickle’ image of the man that I knew as ‘Mr. Aiken’ glowered disapprovingly out at us. Hunter, C-09 and I all confirmed that that was our smartass. “Okay, his real name is C. Nelson Wingate. He’s an attorney working for the firm of Stanton, Carlisle & Associates on K Street in Washington.”
“K Street is where all the lobbying firms, the guys you always hear about who put the fix in with Congress and the Senate, are located in Washington,” Meg explained to Bad Boy, who was spacing a tad. “They often pass themselves off as Law Firms, but their real business is influence peddling.”
“What do we know about these ‘Stanton, Carlisle & Associates’ people?” Sherlock asked as he fiddled with a rubber band.
“I talked to a few people who make knowing the goings-on in Washington their business,” Cornell said. “They’re new, they just incorporated a few years ago, a bunch of young Turks striking out on their own from careers with other firms and taking clients with them, that sort of thing. But they couldn’t hold on to many of their high-ticket clients, and they’re making do, subcontracting things for other firms that don’t want to be directly connected with them.”
“So, in other words, they’re errand boys,” Bad Boy summed up.
“Close enough for government work.”
“Any chance they’re ‘sub-contracting’ for another, more powerful lobbying firm?” Enforcer asked.
“Nah,” Bad Boy said with a dismissive sneer. “This Wingate creep, he knows about Advancers. That’s a big ticket item. That gets out, things get real sticky, real fast. You don’t tell subcontractors shit like that. Nope, he works directly for the Commission. Hell, I’d lay you odds that Stanton and Carlisle, or whoever runs the place, don’t know what Wingate’s doin’.”
Cornell raised an impressed eyebrow. “Very good. What else do you get from that?”
Bad Boy gave a Robert DeNiro shrug. “The Commission is a bunch of punks. Rich punks, but punks. If they had any real juice, they’d use one of the high-roller lobby places, or they’d put one together on their own. I’d say that the Commission is like this Stanton Carlisle place: young Turks, new, hungry and pushy, real eager to carve out their own piece of the pie.”
Meg nodded. “Yeah, that works. Also, I get a Corporate vibe off of how the Commission works. Very hands-off, only let us know what you’re doing when you’ve got something that we’ll be interested in. But it doesn’t feel like any of the major players; the whole Advancer phenomenon is too new, too weird, too uncertain for Wall Street or the Industrial sector. They’d wait until the dust settled, and move in once things were more manageable.”
I snapped my fingers. “Tech Stocks! Remember the big PC computer boom in the Eighties and then the Internet boom in the Nineties? It was the same thing! Computers were big and shiny and new, but the big players couldn’t make heads or tails of it, so they let all those computer nerd-turned-entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley make those huge fortunes. Then when Wall Street could finally make sense of the new market, they moved in, shoved the pioneers aside, and took over!”
“And totally screwed things up with their stupid corporate games,” Oracle muttered.
“Anyway, after the bubble burst and ‘Economy 2.0’ tanked in 2001, millions of people lost money by the tanker-load,” I continued. “BUT, there were a small handful of people, the guys who were actually cutting the real deals, and getting the so-called ‘computer geniuses’ to think that accepting ‘points’ was a good idea, walked away with fucking FORTUNES. Big Money. But, they still weren’t a part of the real ruling class; they were just guys with a lot of money. Some of them put that money into Real Estate, leading to yet another boom-and-bust, the aftermath of which we are still slogging through. BUT, I’ll lay you odds that some of them are looking for something new, some new undeveloped market. The Commission sounds like them. The whole Advancer phenomenon is new, scary, shiny, high-tech, and there’s a chance that it could turn the whole world on its ear. Just like computers and the internet.”
“Yeah,” Sherlock grunted. “And the Commission doesn’t care that they’re turning Advancers and norms into cripples and vegetables with their experiments. As long as they get what they want, and someone else is getting shafted, they don’t care. Sounds like the Silicon Valley bandits.”
Cornell nodded and said, “Yeah, it sounds nice, but that’s all a load of supposition. We don’t have any specifics, any details, any FACTS, let alone names or hard evidence.”
“We have names,” Sherlock objected. “We have Eginhard and Duncan. We have a full background on Eginhard, and we have some stuff on Duncan.”
Oracle took over and said, “Well, short form, we have a bunch of stuff on guys named Duncan, who might be our guy.”
“How many guys named Duncan with the right background have disappeared in the past four or five years?” Hunter asked.
“You’d be amazed,” Oracle said. “The fingerprints were incomplete, and all they really did was narrow down the field a little. It didn’t help that Duncan’s blood type O-Negative, the most common blood type there is. After all the available eliminations, I still have five guys who might be our bunny.” She ran a series of shots of middle aged to elderly white guys, including DMV shots, publicity stills, and Employee IDs.
“STOP!” Jill said on the fourth suspect. “That’s him!”
“Doctor Daniel K. Duncan, MD, PhD, worked for the Muscular Dystrophy Foundation, disappeared three years ago,” Oracle put up a picture of a distinguished man in his late fifties or early sixties, wearing an expensive suit.
“No, not HIM!” Jill corrected her, “The other guy in the party shot!” Oracle went back to one of the publicity stills, the standard happy party standing to have their picture taken shot. “The guy right next to him, on the other side of Dr. Duncan from the woman who looks like his wife.” Oracle blew up the picture and focused in on the slightly more slender, more lean-faced, and far more sour-faced man.
“Are you sure?” Hunter asked. “If he rejuvenated, this guy could look a LOT different. Hey, I don’t look that much like I did when I was young. Well, the first time, anyway.”
“Look at the eyes and the set of the mouth,” Jill said. “Everything else might change, but his body English and the way he sets his mouth and eyes would stay the same. Look at him: he’s a classic peevish malcontent and brooder. If he were one of my students, I’d try to get him into some sort of team sport, something with a lot of physical activity, to get him out of himself.”
I peered at the dyspeptic close-up. “Yeeaa-up!” I drawled, “That’s our boy Duncan. No mistaking that ‘why aren’t you kissing my ass?’ scowl. And he’s got the same nose and chin. Hell, check it out; he’s even wearing the same ‘that style went out in 1982’ type glasses.”
“Are you SURE?” Oracle said. “According to the notes, that’s Dr. Duncan’s older brother, David C. Duncan. No doctorates, of any kind?”
“So what?” I asked. “From what I gathered in the short time that I was listening to him, if his little brother got a doctorate and he didn’t, Duncan’s the kind of guy that it would eat at. His ego would insist on him being called ‘Doctor’, even if it was pure bullshit. Hell, especially if it was pure bullshit.”
“Okaaayy…” Oracle was grinding away at four laptops at once. “According to this, Doctor Duncan got his brother David a job at the Muscular Dystrophy Foundation twelve years ago, and David mysteriously disappeared four years ago. Then, Dr Dan disappeared about fourteen months later, and is still MIA. Accessing MDF personnel files… Okay, David C. Duncan, graduated from high school at age 16, numerous Science Fair awards, topped the Honor Roll, apparently a real whiz kid. Entered MIT on a scholarship. MIT says that they kicked him out after he plagiarized a bunch of work and cheated on tests. Managed to transfer over to Caltech, more blotches on his record, dropped out, implications of a classic Brain Trust burnout. Got a Bachelor’s from Hiram College, but dropped out of the post-grad program. Bopped around a lot, and got a reputation as a hack researcher; basically a lab tech with an attitude problem. This was only made worse by the fact that his little brother, Dan, appears to have been a genuine Golden Boy. Dan decided to wade through high school with the rest of his class, was an officer in a bunch of clubs, topped the honor roll, was valedictorian, and got a scholarship to Caltech, where he did a lot to repair the family’s good name. Grad, post-grad, doctorates, research for Cancer, Emphysema and then the MDF. Married, kids, grandkids, friends, community groups, liked by people at the MDF, and a lot of people are really worried about him since he disappeared.”
“ICK,” Meg said, curling her lip. “What are the odds that brother Dave had something to do with brother Dan’s disappearance?”
“What are the odds that Brother Dan is now ‘M-1’?” I countered.
“Besides his reputation for less-than-stellar work, brother Dave managed to rack up a real reputation as a problem child,” Oracle continued. “He lost a lot of jobs due to interpersonal problems and trying to steal credit for other people’s work. But, get this: most of his former employers all agree that he’s absolutely brilliant. When he knuckles down and does real work, he’s spectacular. It’s just that he’s not very good at handling complications and when he gets stuck, he starts to wig out.”
“He’s afraid of failure,” Jill said, looking carefully at Dave Duncan’s sour picture. “All of his self-esteem is tied up in being a big genius. When he’s on his game, everything’s rosy. But the second that he hits any real problems, he starts to stress in the absolute worst possible way, and sabotages himself. He panics and tries to cover up both his failure and his panic by projecting his fear and anxiety at other. I’ll lay you odds that his brother, Daniel, knows how to fail with grace and learn from failure. Most of the real ‘stars’ that I’ve met know how to do that. But the Duncan that I met fears failure more than death, and he’s brought a lot of failure down on himself.”
Cornell looked at the picture of David Duncan, next to his successful brother Daniel. “This guy is dangerous, people. He’s probably a Savant, so he’s even more of a genius than he was before. If he was under me, I’d have him on a Prozac feed 24/7, and keep him away from any other Advancers. I think that ‘M-1’ and those other poor souls are just the tip of Duncan’s very nasty iceberg. His ego needs a big breakthrough, and Duncan doesn’t care who or what he’s got to screw up to get it.”
“Yes,” Fulbright agreed. “We have GOT to get Duncan, and whatever researchers the Commission’s got working for them! The notes that Merlin got-”
“That never happened,” Cornell said flatly. “The Agency does not condone theft. By the way… good work, Oh-Eight.”
“Whatever,” Fulbright snorted. “The notes that we got are AMAZING! Just from the notes, which obviously are just operating notes, not the sum of their findings, we’ve been able to fill in a whole raft of blanks that have had us stumped! I can only imagine what else they’ve been able to discover!”
“Yeah,” Sherlock grumped, “Vivisection just cuts through all those nasty ethical obstructions, now doesn’t it?”
“I DON’T agree with their methods,” Fulbright huffed, “but the fact that they’re killing people doesn’t mean that they don’t have a material edge on us.”
“Fortunately, reading between the lines, we can tell that their procedure is rather scattershot,” Forrest cut in. “I get the impression that that’s Duncan’s influence there.” She nodded at the displayed picture. “I also get the impression from a few mentions that there’s some sort of rivalry going on.”
“Another Savant?” Cornell asked, brows beetled.
“Not sure, but whoever it is, they must be a screaming genius to get up Duncan’s nose that way. I’ve managed to pick out two names that seem to be very pointed targets of Duncan’s jealousy: Alanbrooke and Goremykin. They could be Savants. Or Hunters. Or something else. Or, they could just be regular geniuses who I’ve just never heard of before.” Forrest smiled ironically. “Still, there are places here and there where we’ve managed to make material success that the Commission ghouls still seem to be stymied. Score one for Ethical Procedures.”
“Still, we think that either Alanbrooke or Goremykin may specialize in areas that differ from Duncan’s,” Fulbright said. “One of them is at least an engineer, and possibly a trained Physicist, maybe even a High Energy specialist.” He shot a withering glare in Cornell’s direction. “The three artifacts that, ah, were *ahem!* ‘left lying around’, show very different design philosophies. Each is remarkable, but they show very distinct biases. For instance, this-” he gestured and one of the lab assistants brought Duncan’s sensor gizmo to the table, “-is basically a Vis detector and analyzer.”
“What?” went around the table.
“Yes, somehow, this detects the presence of Vis in the body and is sensitive enough to make comparative analysis,” Fulbright said. “The QPI scan detects secondary and tertiary effects in the body; this is direct. It detects and analyzes Vis. And, here’s the weird part: from what we’ve figured out by taking this thing apart, we could build a smaller, lighter device that could detect and analyze Vis in an open environment.”
“I got the distinct impression that that was Duncan’s personal baby,” I said. “He probably built it for himself and hasn’t allowed his employers to examine it or let Alanbrooke or Goremykin examine or refine it. And my take is that Duncan’s a Bio Geek; all of his efforts focus on the body or brain or at least the living form. It probably just never occurred to him that his gizmo could be put to other applications.”
“That makes sense,” Fulbright agreed. “Aside from the basic sensor, the design is very clunky and idiosyncratic; the readouts are difficult to understand. Duncan probably never considered that someone else might need to read the data.”
“Or, he deliberately made sure that nobody else could use the damned thing,” Sherlock drawled.
“Quite likely,” Fulbright nodded. “The same can’t be said about our next item.” He had the goblin can brought to the table. Delphi let out a hiss at the sight of it, but I calmed her down and Fulbright continued. “This is, as Merlin can confirm, a goblin trap. It is one-eighth the size of our goblin traps, weighs ten pounds, and is designed to be rugged and easily used. It has an internal battery with what we estimate to be a nine-hour operating life. It is a marvelously elegant design, years ahead of what we’re using. I heartily suggest that we steal the design and start using these in field operations.”
“Well, it’s not like it’s been patented,” I snarked.
“Whoever designed it was an excellent engineer,” Fulbright said, gesturing for another exhibit. “But this? I’m at a loss what to say about the person who designed this.” The assistant brought the dog wrangler’s amulet to the table. “Merlin? Your report said that a guy held one of these to his forehead and a goblin came out?”
“Yeah, two of them,” I confirmed. “A big, ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’ dog, and a big raptor-type bird with a wingspan of at least six feet. I captured the dog in my camera, and Delphi ate the bird.” Delphi nodded vigorously in agreement.
Fulbright held up the amulet. “I admit it. I have NO IDEA how this thing is supposed to work. We’ve scanned it with everything we’ve got, and I can’t even find moving parts. However this thing works, it’s some sort of solid-state principle. And the materials scans are confused at best. But I’m afraid to take this thing apart and examine it. We’re going to need to get our hands on more of these. Diagrams and construction notes would be even better.”
“We’ll put in an order for more, just as soon as the Commission sends us their catalogue,” Cornell said snidely. “So, what about the, ah,” he paused and considered. “What are we gonna call ‘M-1’ and the rest of those? ‘Degenerates’ doesn’t really seem to be the issue, and to be honest, the real degenerates are the scumbags who implanted them…”
“How about ‘Victims’?” Oracle said.
“Geeks,” Bad Boy said in a sour tone that implied that he wasn’t comfortable about the topic.
“Whatever,” Cornell said, dismissing that sideline. “The Implantees. What information about the Implantees. M-1 and the rest of those were deformed, but Shutterbug’s pictures,” he gestured to Oracle who put the shots that I took of the studs on the heads of the two guys who came after Jill up on the screens, “suggest that they have developed a method of creating artificial Advancers. Any input on that, Fulbright?”
“Yes,” Fulbright said firmly. “It’s a crock.”
“They looked pretty Advanced to me,” I said.
“Well, they DO demonstrate some of the more basic traits of Advancers, and according to the notes, they have a limited ability to tap into their Vis. BUT, each of these ‘augmented employees’ has a checkup record - they probably tell the poor saps that it’s to check the implants - and checkup forms all include spaces for ‘Projected Viability’ and ‘Demonstrated Continued Viability’, which we think are euphemisms for ‘Estimated Lifespan’ and ‘How long we think he’s still got now’, with boxes for neural condition, mental stability, and a few other conditions, which indicates to us that Duncan-”
“You’re sure it’s Duncan?” Hunter asked.
“It’s Duncan,” I said with conviction. “It just smells of him.”
“That Duncan expects these yutzes to degenerate, and he’s keeping tabs on how they do it,” Meg finished for Fulbright.
“Ah, Doc,” Bad Boy cut in, uncharacteristically interested in such technical matters, “that Lawyer creep, Aiken, or Nelson or Wingate, or whatever… He said that they had ways of keeping the geeks from degenerating?”
Forrest shook her head. “Pure Washington-grade Flapdoodle. Duncan’s notes suggest that he IS very interested in preventing or reversing degeneration - they call it ‘deterioration’ - and he’s been doing some experiments with the implantees in that direction. And, he seems to have had a little success in slowing down the physical signs of degeneration, but they’ve been very scattershot - it seems to be a hallmark of Duncan’s work - and they had serious effects on the subject’s brain.” Forrest put some pictures of the ‘implantees’ in various stages of degeneration, with the settings of the implants changed in various arrangements, up on a screen. “I look at these, and suddenly, I understand completely why people had such problems with using the medical data from the experiments that the Nazi doctors performed on the death camp inmates; on one hand, you want to see if you can make something good come from all of it. But on the other hand, you feel contaminated by being involved in it at all!”
“That’s nice, Doc,” Bad Boy grumbled. “Now wouldja just turn off the pictures? They creep me out, big time.”
“Try taking the pictures,” I said, making a ‘yuck!’ face.
“There are two more reasons why we need the Commission’s research findings,” Fulbright said firmly. “First, we think that they know about Possessor entities.”
“Sure,” I cut in. “Duncan seemed to think that he could use that Vis detector thing to spot the presence of, and I quote, ‘intrusive presences’,” I paused for a beat. “Do we have anything for detecting ‘intrusive presences’?”
“Not yet,” Hunter said sharply. “And Nelson knew enough about them to use them in his mind-game with me, one of the reasons why I thought he was on the up-and-up.”
“Yes, yes,” Fulbright waved us off, “but what I mean is that, again, I think they’ve found things that we haven’t. There are an entire raft of mentions and connections that suggest that they’re factoring some body of information that we don’t know about into their calculations. Our original brief was to research goblins and other such entities; we NEED to get that information, and I resoundingly doubt that the Commission is going to even sell it to us, let alone give it to us.”
I was interested, but then I am the Advancer on this crew who actually got into ‘ghost-busting’ willingly; the rest were mildly interested, at best. Forrest took their disinterest with her trademark restrained annoyance. “People, remember, despite all the cloak and dagger, this is a research organization. And, finally, there’s a biggie. We’re still going over it, but we found a few reports to Duncan and Eginhard that suggest that the Commission’s using extremely different Search and Identification methods than we are.”
“Which mean that they know ways of tracking down Advancers that we don’t,” Hunter said, musing over the possibilities.
“Yes, AND the data that we’re looking at suggests that the Advancer phenomenon is both more widespread than we have been thinking-”
“HOW?” Sherlock asked, “If it was that widespread, there’d be mentions of ER chrysalis events all over the tabloids!”
“-AND,” Forrest completed, annoyed at being interrupted, “a big part of that is NOT in the 45+ age groups that would experience a chrysalis event.”
“WHAT?” was the general reaction to that tidbit.
“We think that it’s possible for a person to advance without going through the chrysalis,” Forrest continued. “We think that the reason why all the Advancers we’ve found have been 45 or older, is because that’s the point where people’s bodies normally start that long, slow degeneration into senility that we all know and are terrified of. The body reacts to the input of Vis by trying to make the body better, but if the body’s in downgrade mode, it has to just start all over again. The chrysalis event is the body’s way of hitting the ‘reset button’, scrapping the old heap and priming for a new body. But, if the body isn’t in downgrade mode, then the chrysalis event isn’t triggered; the Advancer simply improves - or degrades, if he’s not careful - his body.
“We’ve been able to find Advancers by looking for various signs of chrysalis events. But if there are Advancers who were under the age of 45 when they Advanced, then we’d have no way of knowing, unless they did something really extraordinary.”
“Why do I see myself checking out a lot of Extreme Sports venues in the near future?” Hunter said dryly.
“What this really means is that there’s a lot going on that we know absolutely bupkiss about,” Cornell said, beetling his brow. “But I want it perfectly understood from the get-go: Our top priority is shutting the Commission down. Period! If we can get their files or learn their search procedures, FINE, wonderful! But getting those files or those procedures is at best a tertiary priority. We BAG those bastards, before anything else!”
I gave him a wan smile. “Amazing, Cornell. We actually agree on something.”
We knew that Wingate would remember me from our short meeting (curse these fatal charms of mine! CURSE THEM!), so I had to be in uniform at the ‘Sting’ setup in Fort Dix when he and a few of people showed up for the ‘negotiations’. We were all wearing Air Force undress uniforms with snazzy patches and emblems and pins, none of which actually meant anything. I was made a Second Lieutenant, while Meg was a sergeant, something that she was a bit miffed about, until Oracle pointed out that I’d be taking the hard shots, since Wingate knew my face, while Meg would blend into the background, and be able to ‘get the drop’ on them more easily. What she meant by ‘get the drop on them’, I wasn’t clear on.
And, sure enough, after Hunter gave them the fifty-cent tour, Cornell (in uniform as a two-star general) brought them in to ‘regularize cooperation between the two units’ (translation: kiss ass and hope they don’t screw with our operation too badly) and gave Wingate and his buddies a ‘gee, look at how efficient our operation is’ show. Mind you, it was all complete and utter bull-hockey, designed to give the Commission all sorts of misinformation. Unfortunately, a part of the show was me being ‘chastised’ by Cornell and Wingate over my ‘overzealousness’. I went through my paces like a good soldier, though I didn’t have to pretend to be chewing glass as I made my apologies. I sort of got the impression that Wingate gets his jollies off humiliating beautiful women.
After I was put through the hoops, they ‘got down to business’ and discussed areas of responsibility, making operating procedures compatible, communications protocols, and like all that jive. All of it was bull, with Wingate and his buddies trying to suss out as much about us as they could about the Agency, while we were trying to figure out what they wanted to know. It was all very 1960’s Spy Comedy ‘we-know-that-you-know’. After they blew smoke at each other for a few hours, Wingate and his buddies left in their limos, and we carefully searched the entire place for bugs. When the sweepers were done, Meg let out a shrill whistle. “Guess what, Boss? All that was for nothing! Those guys that Wingate brought weren’t with the Commission!”
“They knew nothing about Advancers, or the Agency, or even the Commission!”
“How do you know that?” I asked. Meg just tapped her forehead. “You can read minds?”
Meg let out a nasal ‘enh!’ and waggled her hand. “I pick things up, nothing really deep, just bits and flashes.”
“Why would the Commission send four men who didn’t know anything about Advancers to this meeting?” Hunter asked, baffled.
“They didn’t,” Cornell growled. “Wingate did. He’s cutting himself in for a bigger slice of the Advancer action, but he’s leaving the Commission out of it. He’s setting up his own operation, a whole new second Commission.” He smashed a fist against a counter. “We were supposed to shut down the Commission, but it turns out that we helped created a SECOND one!”
“Chill out, Boss Man,” I said calmly, looking around at the elaborate set. “If anything, this works in our favor.”
Cornell gave me the gorgon’s eye. “And how do you figure that?”
“Well, we need to get at the Commission, right? And Wingate’s our best and surest link to them, right? So, we use Wingate’s Second Commission to flush out the First Commission.”
“HOW?” Sherlock asked, folding his arms across his chest.
“’Let’s you and him fight; I’ll hold your coat’,” I said facetiously. “We give them a bone to fight over and watch what they do, who they have working for them, and where they go and like all that. Our problem is that we know absolutely NOTHING about the First Commission. When we know enough about the bastards, we shut them down.”
“And what about the Second Commission?” Cornell asked. “We need to close the Security Breach that that putz Wingate created!”
“Cornell, what’s the surest way to convince someone that they didn’t see what they know they saw?” Cornell just gave me the gorgon’s eye again. “You do a *ahem!* ‘bad job’ of suckering them into believing it.”
“Look, we have a wonderful little Big Store setup here, right?” I gestured around the ‘set’. “And we’re gonna have to knock it down again, ‘cause none of this actually exists, right? SO, let’s run with that! WE are a pack of cunning con artists, who are playing Mr. C. Nelson Wingate for a pigeon, using him to sell a bunch of whoever-those-ratsasses-were on a big spiel, complete with mystic powers, strange occurrences, secret organizations, Top Secret government plots, hidden military bases, and plans to gain incredible amounts of money and power - just fork over some cash, Sucker.”
Cornell wasn’t convinced. “But it’ll look staged, if we make it look like the Con is unraveling on some fluke.”
“So? Who says the Con tanks?” Bad Boy asked. “If anything, they’ll be that much more pissed off if we take ‘em for a nice big chunk of cash. Hit ‘em in the pride AND the wallet. These Second Crew guys will never forgive that Wingate weenie for screwin’ ‘em.”
“Why is Wingate taking the risk of creating this ‘Second Commission’?” Jill asked. “I mean, he’s a pretty important guy to the Commission already, why is he risking that by bringing in all these other guys?”
“He’s an Errand Boy,” Bad Boy sneered. “You ever heard of an errand boy who LIKED being an errand boy?”
“Control Oh-Nine, did you get decent shots of Mr. Wingate’s friends and their cars?”
“Pictures, fingerprints, DNA samples, voiceprint samples, license plates, the works,” C-09 answered. “We even lifted a few of their wallets and photo’d their IDs and credit cards. This time tomorrow, you’ll know more about the Second Commission than their mothers do.”
“I’m betting that they’re second-or-third tier Washington insiders, Federal government, K-Street, maybe some Wall Street types,” Cornell guessed. “The people that Wingate knows slightly and wants to get tighter with, just powerful enough to have real clout, but hungry enough to listen to a nobody like him. If Oh-Eight is right, and the First Commission is a bunch of young Turks, then Wingate probably figures that he’ll be in the driver’s seat by creating this Second Commission and simply moving in on the First with their better money and connections - oh, and the Agency backing them up. Wingate learns who, what and where the First Commission’s assets are, and in comes the Second and sweeps up the pot.”
“In other words, Silicon Valley all over again, on fast-forward,” Oracle said sourly. “The pioneers do all the real work, and the moneybags come in after all the hard part is over, and sweep up all the profits.”
“Oracle, honey?” Meg said gently, “We don’t LIKE these people, remember?”
“Okay, so our best bet is to back the Second Commission, let them knock down the First Commission-” Hunter started.
Cornell cut him off. “No. Too complicated. Too many chances that the Second Commission will learn that Advancers are real, probably when the First Commission sics some of their Advancers or Implantees on them. We do not want that; we may know who they are, but those chumps who left here have real connections. And you can't use any Advancer tricks on them. Everything HAS to be something that can be explained by trickery or gadgets or something NOT Advanced. We sucker them into thinking that Wingate was being gamed. Then, once we’ve got that nailed down and taken care of, we take out the First Commission.”
“Hey, look at the bright side, Cornell,” I said. “There’s a shot that when we stick it to the Second Crew, the First Crew might think that the whole thing was an elaborate con aimed at them. At the very least, it’ll cause them some confusion, which we need right now.”
Cornell nodded sourly. “Okay, we need a scam, something nice and fast and nasty, that will cost the Second Commission a lot of money, and make them feel like chumps.”
Wingate looked over the reports that General Huffman had provided and was completely out of his league. He had no context for at least seventy percent of what they were talking about. Not that he let that slow him down in the slightest. From his general demeanor, he might as well be saying that he held a doctorate in whatever these things were talking about. Huffman was trying to snow them, to overwhelm them with technical detail, as to secure his personal control over his command. Which suited Wingate right down to the ground. With this tactic, Huffman was selling Friedell, English and the rest on the Agency better than Wingate ever could, and at the same time, assured Wingate that Huffman hadn’t checked further up his chain of command. By the time that Huffman actually talked to anyone who could naysay them, Wingate and his new ‘Commission’ would know enough to hold the whip hand over both Huffman and his superiors. “So far, I’m not seeing anything that suggests that the redundancies in our operations-”
Wingate was in the middle of putting the squeeze on Huffman, when that snotty little brunette lieutenant Saarsfield stuck her head in the door and cut him off. “General!”
“Excuse me, but we’re in the middle of an important meeting here!” Wingate snapped. “Wait-”
“General,” Saarfield continued, impudently overrunning Wingate, “we have a Class-7 X-event in northern New Jersey. Regional sensors are going off the charts, and proximity scans suggest a A-237 level manifestation. Computer analysis of the property records suggests a primo location for a Nexus lab. We think that Roark finally decided to try again!”
“Roark?” Huffman bleated. Then his face set and he stated, “Gentlemen, I’m afraid that this meeting will have to be postponed until later. Something’s come up and requires my immediate personal attention.”
“General,” Wingate stood, trying to keep control of the situation, “if Roark is involved,” he had absolutely NO idea as to who this ‘Roark’ was, “then we have to be there, so that we can report to our superiors that the situation was properly handled.”
“This is NOT a situation for civilians,” Huffman said with finality as he exited the room.
“An A-337 manifestation is a ‘Nexus’, a place where stable energies collect and pool,” Lockwood said in the car as they drove after the Agency vehicles.
“How the hell do you know that?” McMann sneered.
“It’s here in one of the reports they gave us.” Of course; Lockwood was a notorious OCD case. He would read every last bit of the reports.
“So, are ‘Nexuses’ really that important?” Colclough asked.
“If I’m reading their terminology correctly, it’s VERY important,” Wingate stated authoritatively. “It sounds like what the Commission calls a ‘Tap Point’, and they’ve been trying to secure one for a while now. If Roark has a lab where he’s managed to actually create one deliberately, that could change everything in the Advancer setup. Whoever controls that lab holds the high ground.”
“WHERE is Colonel Hunter?” Wingate demanded. The Hispanic-looking grunt in the urban black battledress with meaningless patches and ID tags just gave him the cold fish eye, and stood there, holding his assault carbine significantly. Wingate blustered at him for a bit, and then the door opened.
“What are you doing here?” Saarsfield demanded. “This site is strictly for Agency personnel. Period! Now get out of here, we haven’t finished securing the premises!”
“I thought that we’ve already HAD this conversation, Saarsfield,” Wingate snarled, giving her his best icy glare of supreme disdain. “Are we going to have to repeat our LAST little ‘review session’?”
Saarsfield’s eyes flashed, she tensed, and for a moment Wingate thought that he’d provoked her into saying something that he could use. But she caught herself and said in a maddeningly calm and neutral voice, “My orders are clear. This is a restricted area, with a very short access list. And you’re not on it. Now leave.” Her voice was cold, but her eyes danced with glee.
“Does General Huffman know about this?”
“General Huffman cut the list personally.” Saarsfield turned to the grunt and said, “Give them five minutes to leave the property. Then remove them yourself.” Then there was a crash, and she rushed back inside.
Wingate and Momsen tried to talk reason to the grunt, but he never said a word. Instead, his eyes told a story of looking forward to opening a can of whoop-ass on them. They talked at him for a bit, and then he started pointedly looking at his watch, as though counting off to when he was authorized to bodily remove them.
Freidell pulled Wingate from out of the grunt’s face and they made their way back to the car. But Wingate stopped when he spotted the guard at the door around the corner. He immediately made this guy as a thug. He had to be an Advancer; it was the only way that an obvious goon like him would be in uniform with this crowd. “Hold on, I have a card I can play.” Wingate approached the goon. A few words (and many large bills) later, Wingate and the others were inside. The building was large and open, and had most likely been a factory of some sort. As they were on the outskirts of Elizabeth, New Jersey, a place famous for its refineries (and stench), it was all too likely. There were lights here and there, but it was mostly dark. As they picked their way through the machinery, there were flashes of light and various noises, many of which sounded violent, and they caught occasional glimpses of human forms moving around at speeds and in directions that humans simply shouldn’t be able to do unassisted. Then English spotted a steady light towards the center of the factory space.
Wingate and his backers cautiously headed toward the light, making sure that they weren’t seen. Colclough made a remark wondering why they hadn’t killed that light, since darkness seemed to be so important to both sides. Then they rounded the corner of a bank of panels, and they discovered why. The light wasn’t electrical. It wasn’t artificial. Or natural, for that matter.
It was a tree. It was a tree, made of light, soft lambent white light, that reached out and seized the eye and stirred the heart. Inside the tree were several ‘apples’, as it were, of flickering golden flames. It was like seeing the Tree of Wisdom from the Garden of Eden. And there was a serpent in this tree as well, a huge white snake with glittering blue eyes that looked about into the darkness and hissed savage fury. The tree was surrounded by a ring of pylons studded with electronics, and there were three men in lab coats who were furiously working on something. Then figures in covert ops blacks burst out from cover with a yell and covered them with assault rifles. But the serpent reached out and grabbed one of the Agency goons with its mouth and threw him like a rag doll. The three men in lab coats hastily finished up and they ran off into the darkness, one of them carrying a case
Then more Agency goons came, only these were armed with strange telescoping electrified prods with bidents at the tips. They harassed the serpent. A woman that Wingate recognized as Lt. Saarsfield came and touched the place where the serpent was coiled around the tree with another telescoping prod. The serpent uncoiled, and the Agency goons managed to stuff it into a large technological containment unit of some sort. Saarsfield called out that the snake had been contained, and a harassed looking woman in a lab coat stalked out of the darkness. She typed at the workstation intently and announced that Roark had erased all the operating files. Then she declared that he’d been rushed, and hadn’t remembered to set off the hard drive destruct mechanism, so they could reconstruct. Then, as more Agency types gathered around, she stated that moving the hard drives would be a very bad idea, as they’d need weeks to figure out the protocols for the support pylons. She was nattering away in particularly dense technobabble when Momsen silently indicated that it was more than time that they got out of there before someone put up the main lights and they were spotted.
On the way out, Winfield handed the thug who’d let them in an otherwise blank card with a web address on it. “Do yourself a favor, and get in touch with me,” Wingate told him.
The group was silent as they got to the limousine, but the second that the limo was a block away from the factory, Lockwood said, “Freidell, find a context to get a court order blocking either the sale or the removal of any and all contents from that property. English, Colclough, start scaring up as much liquid capital as you can as fast as you can; the rest of us will do the same, but we need time to do it quietly. We just need you to get the ‘foot in the door’ cash. McCann, find out as much as you can about this ‘Committee’ as you can. Wingate, give McCann everything that you have on the Committee. It’s obvious that their oversight of the Agency is sadly negligent. Clearly, a sensitive matter such as Advancer phenomena needs to be handled by a more responsible party.”
Wingate stiffened slightly. This was what he’d been waiting for; men like these wouldn’t just keep him in this new ‘Commission’ out of gratitude. “I’m afraid that while I agree with you about the Agency needing more responsible supervision, I can’t just hand over the files. Those are the property of The Commission, who are my clients, after all.” From there, Wingate calmly used that leverage to arrange considerations and commitments from the group that were more enforceable than a smile and a handshake.
“Sergeant Rizzo, our inside man with the Agency, has come through for us again,” Wingate told the members of ‘The Board’, as the group had decided to term itself. “He tells me that the Agency has identified the group that’s been giving us so much grief in acquiring the New Jersey property. It’s the ‘Ring of Fire Investment Group’, a known front for a group known to the Agency as ‘The Network’, with connections in the Far East and South America.”
“’The Network’,” Lockwood sighed. But he let it go. “So, did Rizzo give you any idea as to how dangerous this ‘Network’ might be to us?”
“Very dangerous. Normally. BUT, Rizzo also says that the Network’s SOP is to walk away from money, rather than face exposure or capture. They can always get more money, but once the cat’s out of the bag, it’s a whole new game. I’ve sounded one or two of my Commission contacts, and they know about the Network, and they’re backing off from this. My experience with the Commission suggests that this is standard with all groups that deal with goblins and Advancer issues; nobody wants to blow the big secret. They’ll get nasty as all hell, but only if they can keep the lid on.”
“And what does Rizzo say the Agency’s going to do about this ‘Network’?” Momsen asked.
“Standard Organized Crime Investigation procedures. They’ll stand off and observe, and try to identify as many of the opposition’s players, and nail down as many of their assets and procedures as they can, before they actually do anything.”
“Excellent,” Freidell purred. “Ring of Fire has tied up the Elizabeth Property with a convoluted escrow arrangement. But they arranged it in a way that seemed rather odd before, but makes much more sense now. They’ve left the exact terms of ownership of the Escrow-holding entity unclear in the way that a second year Law student might. BUT, that allows them to transfer the title between entities more easily, once they’ve got full possession. Which would make it very hard to track, once all you’ve got to follow it is paperwork.”
“But an arrangement like that would make it very easy for a third party to just come in and push Ring of Fire aside, provided they had enough money,” English pointed out.
“Yes,” Friedell purred like an overfed cat, “it does, doesn’t it?”
“Give it the works,” Colclough insisted. “Pull out all the stops.”
“But do it a little at a time,” Momsen insisted, “over a period of about a month or so.”
“Build up a big chunk of real money, on both sides,” McCann agreed. “And then, when we can’t raise any more capital-”
“We drop in the right ears that the Agency is watching, and these Network cockroaches scuttle back into the woodwork,” Lockwood finished. And the men around the table nodded with satisfaction. This way, the Network would be put in the position of paying for the Board’s acquisition of the Elizabeth property. And the more money the Network pushed into the escrow account, the more would be left over for the Board after the acquisition, once they’d repaid their loans and such. And massive profits were God’s way of telling you that you’d done a good job.
“Thank GOD it’s finally over,” Colclough groaned. “Another week of this, and I’d have been ready for the nuthouse.”
“What are you griping about?” Lockwood snapped, looking through the window of the limousine at the scenery (if you could call it that) of northern New Jersey as they approached their new acquisition. “None of you actually SAW anything, did you?”
“It was THERE,” Friedell insisted mulishly, and the others agreed with sleep-deprived grunts.
“Then why didn’t they try anything with ME?” Lockwood asked.
“Look, so the Network decided to get a little rough,” Wingate said consolingly. “I didn’t see that coming. But, they didn’t actually get violent, now did they? No, it was all just mind-games, ‘gee, the little man who isn’t there must have done it’ crap, trying to rattle our cages, and send the message that they could get nasty. But they backed off, once I sicced the Agency on them, just like I said.”
“Agency?” English grumped, “What Agency? I never saw anything…”
“The Point IS,” Wingate continued, “we WON. They threw the worst they could afford to at us, and we toughed it out. Now, we hold the whip hand.”
“You’re sure that the Agency hasn’t figured out that you’re not connected to this ‘Committee’ yet?”
“Not a clue. That yutz Huffman, or ‘Control 02’ or whatever, didn’t even want me talking to his superior ‘Control 01’, let alone the Committee. Once I figured that out, handling him was a piece of cake, especially when I twigged that they were military.”
“I just want to see that Tree again,” McCann sighed. “It was like the Christmas tree that you always wanted as a kid, that never came real.”
“Well, you wanted a fucking Christmas tree…” Lockwood growled.
The ‘tree’ was a structure of Lucite with empty light sockets where the ‘fruit’ had been, and more sockets that suggested an under-lighting array. While there was still most of the equipment there that they’d seen that night a month ago, it was woefully prosaic in the direct light, and there were gaps that suggested that the more exotic gear had been removed.
“But…” Wingate gawped, looking around, “but what about the Serpent?”
“Oh, you mean THIS?” Lockwood strode over to a cardboard box and pulled out a plastic and gauze snake ‘puppet’ the size of an anaconda. “Look at it! They even left the control stuff attached! And why not? They don’t need it anymore! It’s just a stupid PUPPET!”
“Yeah,” Colclough said, looking up. “I can see the control rails over the ‘tree’ now that the lights are up. And there are a bunch of other rails here and there.”
“Which would explain the ‘Advancer’ stunts,” English said, his face in his hand. “Wire-fu stunts, like in a kung fu movie.”
“But… what about all the things that the Network threw at us?” Momsen blithered.
“I TOLD you that nothing really happened!” Lockwood thundered. “They just yanked your chain, to make you think that Advancers were messing with you. But NOTHING REALLY HAPPENED! That’s why they didn’t pull anything with ME, ‘cause I’m too level-headed to take that kind of thing seriously.” He leveled a fulminating glare at Wingate. “Or, at least I am, unless I have some credible shill selling me on it.”
“NO!” Wingate blurted out, “This is Huffman’s doing! I don’t know what that puppet is about, but the rest is explained quite simply - Huffman ordered all the gear removed illegally. But once I call him on it, he’ll fold like a house of cards! Let me get in contact with Rizzo, or barring that, if I can get my hands on that lox Col. Hunter, and I’ll know exactly what happened. All that we have to do now is go to the Agency headquarters, and everything will be right back on track.”
“So, this is on track?” Lockwood said dryly. The ‘warehouse’ that had housed ‘the 151st Special Operations Wing’ was, if anything, even more bare than the Elizabeth property had been. As a matter of fact, it was remarkably clean.
“I… I don’t… I don’t understand,” Wingate whined for possibly the hundredth time.
“Maybe you don’t, but I do!” Lockwood thundered, “You set us up, you button-pushing buffoon!”
“If he was in on it, he wouldn’t BE here,” Friedell droned as he furiously worked his smartphone.
“So, he’s a dupe! That makes it ALL BETTER!”
“Look, I’m sure that there’s-” then McCann and Momsen marched in. “So? Did you find anything?”
“Yeah,” McCann said sourly. “We found the caretaker. He said that this isn’t even really a part of Fort Dix.”
“He said that he gets people in here who make that mistake all the time,” Momsen added lamely.
“According to him,” McCann took over again, “for the last three months, this place was being used by a motion picture company using assistance from Fort Dix to shoot a movie. One about a secret military operation. Nineteen-Seventies paranoid conspiracy stuff.”
The six men glowered at Wingate. “I. Cannot. Believe. That. I. Bought. A Story. About. Fucking superhuman mutants!” Friedell grated out.
“Advancers EXIST!” Wingate shouted. “I’ve SEEN them! I’ve seen what they can do! This! This is Huffman’s doing! He’s trying to game us!”
“I thought that you had Huffman buffaloed!”
“I DO! He’s just… he’s just trying to…”
“Swindle us out of thirty million dollars?” Lockwood grabbed Wingate by the lapels and snarled into his face, “The only reason, and I do mean the ONLY reason, that I don’t go to the police and have you thrown in jail for this, is that I can’t afford the time or the attention! And I’ve got to focus all my attention on somehow finding the money to replace all the cash that YOU said would be returned to us already!”
“AAAANNNNDDD… the award for Best Actor goes to…” Oracle announced as we listened to the tap on the warehouse, “BAD BOY! For his stirring performance as the sleazy informant!”
Bad Boy got up and bowed. Before he could begin his acceptance speech, I jeered, “Boooo! Type casting, type casting!”
to be continued