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Next of Kin, Chapter Sixteen: 36%


  12:42:00 pm, by Nic Wilson   , 3721 words  
Categories: Next of Kin

Next of Kin, Chapter Sixteen: 36%

Sixteen, 36%

Crimson Heron was set up in a thoroughly modern building, by which I mean every ridiculous accoutrement they could piss money away on, they did. The glass walls inside the lobby were all covered in film screens- the same tech as my lenses, but several stories high- covered with lush custom programming with production values to rival a feature film. The top of the screen was taken up by a black bar that showed the stock value of Crimson Heron, as well as its affiliates and Sontem's other subsidiary's. If profligacy were a religion, I was standing in the middle of its Vatican.
I walked up to the reception desk. ?My brother was here the other day,? I said to the receptionist, sharing John's ID. ?I'm going to need to talk to whoever he met with.?
?I'm sorry, sir, but that's not how we work here.?
?It will be today,? I said. ?My brother's dead, and I'm looking into his death- deputized to that end.?
?One moment,? she said. She placed a call through her interface, and the red telephone symbol appeared over her face. ?I have an advocate here, demanding to speak to one of our executives. His brother was murdered.? She was speaking with legal, or whoever else in their hierarchy was supposed to shield their top people from the outside world. She let out a sigh, then turned back towards me. The phone icon disappeared from her face. ?All right,? she said. ?I'll find out who your brother met with, and call them down. It will take a few minutes, if you'd like to take a seat.?
She gestured to some leather couches facing the film walls, and I sat down. The moment I did I got another message. ?Investigator Tip: Check your chat. Right fucking now.?
As soon as I did, a new user made her first statement. ?SanJeneldeClaws: Just found out something interesting. FartGobbler/ShartGurgler/TurdGargler is in the same building as you right now. I'm sending you GPS coordinates.?
A loading bar appeared at the bottom of my screen, but unlike normal, there wasn't any option to cancel the installation. When it was done, I had a new GPS marker, both on my location map, and physically floating at the position where FG was. He was a couple of floors above mine.
Damnit, Jenel. The chat erupted, demanding blood. Some wanted Jenel's, but the rest wanted the troll's. I wanted both. I called up my input, and typed out a private message. ?Why do that publicly? You've signed my death warrant.? I sent it.
Her reply was almost instantaneous. ?I know. It'll be fun to watch.?
I started another. ?If he sees me coming, he'll just have security throw me out.?
?Not at all. I hid that message from his interface. He saw a spambot hocking a penis enlarging cream.?
A man with curly hair exited the elevators. He was sweating like he'd just finished a six minute mile, but his suit was heavy enough you could only see it in his face.
?Conrad?? he asked, as if he didn't know it was me. ?Parker.?
?You want to talk here?? I asked.
He pondered it. ?No. There's an executive conference room on my floor. More private. More comfortable. And you don't have to go blind from the light show,? he nodded at the film on the wall. ?Follow me.?
We got into the elevator. I glanced at the pad, and a red message flashed across my interface, ?No access.? A small percentage of the population couldn't use lens tech, mostly because of allergies to nano or the specific alloys used in the designs. Pads in elevators weren't legally required, but companies that wanted to appear progressive installed them, anyway.
He selected the tenth floor. ?How did know my brother?? I asked.
?Not here,? he said, and pointed to his eye, then to the upper corner of the elevator. The cameras inside the elevator were too small to see with the human eye, but I was old enough to get the gesture- from when they weren't.
The elevator toned as we reached his floor. He tried not to make eye contact as we walked through the office, not with anybody. He locked eyes with the receptionist, an Asian man in his early twenties, clean shaven, before they both looked abruptly away. Once we were inside the conference room he locked the door. ?Recording off,? he said, and sighed.
?More discreet?? I asked.
?What would it take to make this go away?? he asked. Jesus, this guy was an idiot. Apparently, legal hadn't briefed him, in the slightest. They were leaving him dangling in the wind.
?Me finding my brother's killer,? I said. ?Until then, I'm on this case.?
Another message appeared over my interface. ?Investigator Tip: An advocacy may be terminated in the event that a case can be made that a crime was random, and that the perpetrator had no ties to the victim, and none of the evidence links definitively to any individual. This is a conclusion of exclusion; all other paths must be rigorously investigated, and all other explanations disproven.?
?You should take a seat,? he said, and pointed at a chair across the thin part of the conference table. I did, and he sat down opposite me.
?Why was my brother here yesterday?? I asked.
?Why do you think??
?Evasiveness only makes me want to dig deeper into you. Don't make yourself a suspect if you're only a witness.?
He closed his eyes. I think he understood on some level I wasn't his enemy, or even trying to antagonize him. ?You know what he did, right? Professionally? Well, he was here, doing that.?
?In your office??
?We were celebrating,? he said, a little indignantly. They really did live differently up here.
?When did you meet John?? I asked.
?I didn't even know his name was John. But I met him back in school- I got my MBA at the local satellite school. I was always the worst combination of anxious and ambitious. I'd get worked up over a test and just flatten the moment I sat down to take it. Stuff I knew, just,? he blew out a breath of air. ?And it got to a point where I couldn't relax. Because I was getting so bad that I was convinced I was going to get kicked out of school. Then that got so bad that I could barely sleep, like maybe an hour a night. So my roommate at the time introduces me to your brother. At least around me, he always used an alias- always the name of the star of the most recent best picture. So one year he was Leo, the next Harvey. You know, always different. And he'd act offended if you didn't know his new name. It was a, almost a game,? he smiled.
?I'm sorry,? he said. ?They told me you were here because he's dead. He was an acquaintance who made me smile, but you, you're family. I lost my great aunt last year. I can't imagine having to put off grieving to go charging into an investigation like this.?
?I appreciate your condolences.? I felt like I was lying saying that; I wasn't mourning because the parts of my brother worth mourning I'd lost years ago.
?But for the first time I could really, truly fricking relax. And then when I needed to focus I could take a hit of the right stuff, and there was no test or anxiety I couldn't blow through. And then when I needed to party...? he swallowed. ?Partying's the only part I still do. I don't really get anxious anymore. But sometimes, when you've closed a big deal, and a little rum in the Coke at the pizza party just isn't enough to get that cute receptionist to come back to your office... that might be the only kind of shyness I've got left.?
?How did your interaction with my brother go?? I asked.
?Like these things go, man,? he said, and frowned. ?You really are nothing like him.?
I'd been hearing that my entire life- but usually the person meant it in a, ?You're not a low-life scumbag? way. ?Walk me through it,? I said.
?Okay. He kept a burner phone, like, an old-school cell. He changes it up every year, or if somebody he knows gets busted- whichever happens first. When he does, he get in touch with all of his clients to give them the new number. So I called him. We've been dealing with each other long enough to know the routine. So long as there hasn't been too big of a price hike the difference don't mean shit to me; all we really need to square things is how much I need, and of what.?
?And what was it this time??
?Cocaine. It's pretty much always cocaine, anymore. I don't need to take the edge off, or the extra focus. I just need to have fun, and, you know, once you've had a coke-fueled office orgy, it's kind of hard to go back to just egg nog.?
?And when he came by to deliver? How was he??
?Everything seemed fine.?
?He wasn't tense?? I asked.
?Not that I noticed. I think that could be a professional courtesy; people buying drugs are already on edge, so giving them more reason to be paranoid is likely to freak people out worse.?
?But he wasn't distracted, wasn't concerned, agitated, anything?? Because I sure as hell would be, if I was being squeezed from either side by different drug cartels.
?He did have an appointment,? he said. ?I don't know why, but I'd been feeling nostalgic, started waxing on about the olden days, when he'd used to bring stuff right to my dorm. He cut me off, because he had places to be.?
?Is there anything else you can tell me?? I asked.
?Nothing that springs to mind.?
I shared my contact information. ?You might want to do the same,? I said. ?In case I have a follow-up. It would be easier- and I imagine less disruptive, if I could just give you a call.? An instant later a message arrived with his information.
?I really am sorry about your brother. He was a decent guy, all things considered.?
?What things are you considering?? I asked.
?Well, for starters that his job description was essentially, 'Not a decent guy'. But he was always nice to me. And not just in the paying customer way; a lot of people kiss my ass, but not as many as you'd think are actually kind. I mean, I'll take that over the alternative, but it was nice, is what I'm saying, a positive kind of change of pace. And I'll miss him. Do you, um,? he frowned, and licked his lips, ?sorry about this, but I don't really know the protocol, but do you know how to get in touch with his partner??
?John's partner?? I asked.
?Yeah. I knew he had one; mentioned him a couple of times.?
?In what context??
?Literally just that he had one. I think once in a strength in numbers, wolves running in a pack sort of way. But that's it, the sum totality of it.?
?I'll probably see him around,? I said noncommittally. But I realized as soon as I'd said it that there was no such thing as being noncommittal when it came to introducing someone to their new drug dealer. My rating dropped. ?I think I know the way out,? I said.
I took a step toward the door, then spun back around. ?Can you think of any reason to hurt John??
?Kill somebody to cover up drugs? That's like wetting the bed, and killing your parents so they don't find out. It's insane.?
?Yeah,? I said. I walked out of the conference room. The receptionist looked sheepish at me. I tried to give him a reassuring smile as I walked back, because I had no intention to get him into trouble.
As soon as the elevator doors closed around me, I called Martens with IA. He picked up on the second tone.
?Martens?? I asked. ?Did my brother have an appointment with you??
He was silent for a moment. ?I don't know how that's pertinent to your investigation.?
?Well, my interview at CHT indicates he had an appointment to get to once he left here. You helpfully erased parts of his back-up, and those parts would have included the appointment in question. So it would be useful to know if that was the appointment, or if I need to keep looking.?
?He might have called in, to see if anyone in IA was available to talk to him. But that's as much as I can say.?
?Fine,? I said, and disconnected. I didn't feel like wishing him a good bye.
He called them. That seemed like important information. Did it mean he was going to inform to them. Did it mean he already was? I buried the thought, because I'd had it a hundred times. As a family member of someone as lost as John, you scoured his behavior, picked apart his word choices, looking for any possible indication he was going straight. Which inevitably led to anguish and recrimination, because even the times when John truly attempted cleaning up his life, it was a tough road to travel. He'd been out of the job market long enough that employers asked questions, and even if he hadn't, whatever skills he once had were degraded to a point where he was basically a freshly minted high schooler- only without the recent practice with math. So I refused to do that again, to get my hopes up only to have them dashed, one final time.
I was in a noticeably sour mood when Jenel's GPS locater appeared below me as the elevator descended. I wanted to stop on FG's floor, and kick the hell out of the little troll. There was no excuse for screwing with somebody's life like that, and knowing they were close enough to hit with a thrown stone made my blood boil all the hotter. But I didn't have access to the elevator panel; it was automatically taking me to the ground floor.
The elevator stopped at the third floor. Then the doors opened. A message from Jenel popped on my interface. ?You're welcome,? she said. I hesitated. Was I going to get tackled by security ten steps in? Worse, was I going to get in far enough to beat the hell out of a stranger? Being enraged was one thing, but confronting someone with that anger was stupid. For an instant I hoped that I could pause long enough for the elevator to close back up, and continue on its way. Perhaps someone had simply called it then changed their mind.
I noticed the chat rallying. They had forgotten Jenel's initial transgression, and were now baying for a troll's blood. And by not giving it to them I could watch as my rating counted down like a timer. Goddamnit.
I stopped off the elevator, and it closed behind me. I glanced at the receptionist for this floor. He was uninterested. He was dressed much better than me; I realized I stood out for that fact.
So I needed to hurry, because it really was only a matter of time before someone called security. The red arrow got bigger as I walked through the cubicles. Cubes were mostly a relic of a bygone era, because they were deliriously expensive. Working from home saw a slight decline in productivity, but unless your company was ridiculously profitable, you didn't furnish this kind of building then fill it with employees.
Which meant the cycle was usually that a growing company would build up like this, then slowly sell off its assets as it went, cutting employees and shrinking, year over year, until it faded away. CHT was on that upward trend, now, but no company could sustain that kind of growth indefinitely, and stockholders have always been vampires; they demand blood, and they'll drink as readily from a company's slit throat as from its spoils.
I was deep enough in my musing that I didn't realize that I was staring at FG, or rather, at three people where the arrow was located. The tallest was a man with dirty blonde hair, handsome in the romance book cover sense of the word. I assumed from his look, and from the way he carried himself, the way he laughed and looked at his workmate for confirmation, that he was one of the last fratboys. Frats survived brick and mortar schools by about a decade, before a series of incidents led to schools nationwide disavowing them.
The workmate was a little more nuanced. He was a follower, the kind of man who had the kind of personality that saw him clinging to someone more socially mobile. Either one of these three-piece douches would have made sense as FG, and they both had punchable goddamned faces.
As I approached I turned my attention to the last member of their group- or really not of their group. She was a short, portly woman with frazzled hair and frumpy clothes. She was carrying a stack of folders piled precariously high, and it was clear from her body language that she was put out. She just wanted by, but the other two blocked her way.
As I approached I heard conversation that sounded like an alien language. They were encrypting their speech, so that only she heard what they were saying. Just as I realized I was thankful I couldn't understand- I got more than enough from their expressions and tone- Jenel helpfully hacked their encryption, and I heard, ?as I know your fucking aching for it, that I can see your knees quivering, and can smell your quim moistening, I just couldn't live with myself if I fucked a pig like you. So it hurts me, really, not to be able to give you the pity lay that might fucking save your life. Because I'd have to kill myself. And gun to your head, I think we'd all be better off with you out of your misery.? My fists clenched. I was going to break the douche's jaw, then stomp his balls to a paste to feed to his little scrotal parasite, and then feed the whole parasite into his ass so the world could know by looking at them they there were two symbiotic parts of a douchey whole.
Only I noticed that the arrow wasn't stopping on him. It was on the woman, whose name clearly showed as Liana Thompson. The dirty blonde turned towards his friend, and exaggerated a swing of his arm, knocking it into Liana's folders. I watched it in slow motion, as they tumbled, while she was powerless to try and hold on. And they cascaded, each one pulling the next in succession until she was left holding a stack not a tenth as high.
I was back to wanting to punch the douche. I used their broken encryption to send my own speech their way, just so they knew I heard everything they'd said. ?Move along, fratboy,? I started, and he was startled. It took him a moment to put together that I'd heard them, and that I was intervening. A glance at me would have brought up my credentials, but he was balling up his fists all the same. ?I'm a deputized citizen advocate, and I don't think I'd even have to stretch to call what you just did assault. I've had a lousy day, and I could really use an excuse to break your justice obstructing face over the edge of this cube wall.? I patted the barrier for emphasis.
He glared, but it lasted all of a fraction of a second before they walked off. Liana was already kneeling, and putting her folders back into a stack she could carry. I dropped to my knee to help, and we did our work in silence.
When we had stacked them back in her arms, we both stood.
She recognized me. She had to. I wanted her to say something. But I realized there wasn't anything she could say, anything she could do. There was no apology big enough for it, no expression of shame that would make me feel better. I'd become a football team she rallied behind or, maybe in her case, a rival team she despised with every fiber of her being. We'd both been dehumanized to a point where I didn't think there was a thing to do, other than be shaken to our cores at how easy it really was to make a person into a thing. She nodded to me, and scurried back and away.
I wanted it all to make sense. That she was bullied at work seemed more karmic than explanatory. The whole damn thing was about as unsatisfactory as it could have been. Worse, I had the violent equivalent to blue balls; blue fists? My blood was pumping, and I needed some kind of conflict.
I kept my irritation bottled up until I was back in the elevator. Then I called Jenel.
?You said it was a he,? I said through clenched teeth.
?Should that matter? Also, you said it was a he, and I played along.?
?It matters, and you know it, and you understand why.?
?Enlighten me. I'm bigger, and in better shape. And for all that I'd liked to have taken a swing at TurdGargler- that woman wasn't it. Maybe some sliver of her was.?
?So for her humanity, you couldn't strike her down- when it was her online lack of humanity that led you to confront her in the first place.?
?I'm not sure what you're getting at.?
?I don't know that I'm getting at anything,? she said. ?I find the entire exercise intriguing, but sometimes learning about people is the only motive I have.?
?And what did you learn??
?That you aren't a bad guy. No matter how hard you get pushed.?
?What if it's going to take a bad guy to survive this investigation??
She paused. ?Well I'll hope it doesn't come down to that.?

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