October 8, Early Afternoon
OMH Counselor Sarisa Bassa stood beside Jeb as the doors of Corporate One’s silver elevator closed them in. “So, how many favors do you owe me now? Two? Three?” She wore formal dress for their visit, gray pants, a white shirt, and a collared blazer.
The elevator started upward, toward the top of Corporate One, toward the nerve center of the Office of Mental Health. Toward a confrontation with Deputy Director Kathleen Warren, who just might be a serial killer. Jeb was nervous. Anyone would be nervous.
Jeb had left his armored duster in his apartment — if he got into a fight with Warren’s private army, it wouldn’t be of much use — and wore a dress shirt, black slacks, and a heavy suit jacket. Heavy, because it held things. Hopefully, Warren wouldn’t notice.
“It’s not my fault you haven’t hit any cases requiring assistance from the CID.” Jeb forced a grin he didn’t feel. “If anything, you should blame your own competence.”
The elevator’s back wall was a mirror. Jeb wondered how many people were watching them from the glass. The elevator rose so smoothly it was easy to forget it was moving.
Sarisa checked her hair in the mirror. “You have no idea how difficult it was for me to schedule a consultation on short notice. It’s been hellish here since Director Reed died.”
“Actually,” Jeb said, “I do. And I really do appreciate it. I’ll make it up to you.”
“Just tell me why you really wanted to speak to Warren, later. After you close your case.”
Jeb winced, inside. Sarisa knew he wasn’t being straight with her, but she trusted him enough not to press him. That was how Jeb knew he could trust her.
Eventually, the elevator opened to the penthouse used by the Office of Mental Health’s director, set inside one of several skyscraping towers overlooking San Diego bay. Milsynths stood inside the office, armed with automatic rifles, as did potted plants with fragile looking leaves. Recessed lighting tastefully lit the walls.
Deputy Director Warren’s office was big enough to accommodate all the cubes at the CID. That was the type of office you got when you were elected by corporate fiat as the Director of the Office of Mental Health, except Warren hadn’t been elected. She was here because Matthew Reed was dead, and he had to discover if she’d planned that.
A massive oak desk sat before a huge window overlooking San Diego bay. It was reinforced, bulletproof glass protected by a roof-mounted Trophy system that could shoot down everything from full size RPGs to individual bullets.
Sarisa led Jeb past statues exuding a Greek vibe, busts of famous people Jeb could probably identify with a cursory simsearch, and a pristine cavalry sword atop a raised platform. Matthew Reed’s former office was as much museum as workspace, so what did these decorations say about him? It felt strange to think about, now that Reed was dead.
Reed’s desk was abandoned, but a ceiling panel slid open to reveal a holo-projector. It hummed to life as a virtual projection of Deputy Director Kathleen Warren appeared, life-sized, behind her desk. Had he not seen her appear, Jeb would swear she was really here. She wore a gray pantsuit over a dark shirt, and could be anywhere right now.
“Detective Forrester,” Warren said. “Tell me what you need.”
Warren didn’t waste time with pleasantries. This was a woman who had a busy day, every day. She might also have forced a father to murder his whole family.
“I need your help with an open case,” Jeb said, and that wasn’t a lie. “Your deceased director, Matthew Reed.”
“We were all saddened by that tragedy.” Warren didn’t sound saddened. “How can I assist the CID?”
“I was hoping you might have some idea why it happened.”
“Do you have any reason to believe it was anything other than a routine jailbreak?”
“Not yet.” Jeb needed to be careful how much he revealed. “We’ve simply taken our investigation as far as we can take it without more data. At this point, our biggest open question is Matthew Reed’s state of mind before the killings.”
“His state of mind?”
“It’s my understanding that the OMH conducts regular psych evals on all officers in the corporate hierarchy, to ensure they’re handling the unusual stress of their jobs.”
Warren’s eyes narrowed. “I’m afraid those evaluations are classified, detective.”
“In most cases, I’d agree, but Reed is now deceased, as is his family. As such, I hoped you’d allow the CID to review those archives. In strict confidence, of course.”
“How will that help you?”
“I’m looking for signs Reed was under enough stress to kill his family.”
Warren frowned. “Do you have evidence suggesting Reed was not?”
Was she trying to warn him off, or was this just standard corporate Cover Your Ass? “We’re just trying to be thorough, ma’am.” Not a lie, exactly. Lies were dangerous.
“I appreciate you being thorough. Though I cannot reveal specifics, I can confirm Matthew Reed was under a great deal of stress. You may be aware that rumors of paralysis and puppetings have been spreading among people across the Sim. The board of OneWorld was not happy about that. There was talk of ousting Reed as CEO.”
Jeb knew reports of cybercrimes were increasing — they’d been increasing since Galileo started selling his damning wares on the darkSim — but that seemed a flimsy reason for Matthew Reed to off his family. “What about his personal relationships, ma’am?”
“Apparently, the stress of dealing with the recent increase in cybercrime also caused significant marital problems with his wife, though both Reeds refused our offers of counseling. Divorce was mentioned. It seems that tension was thicker than we believed.”
“I see,” Jeb said, as a chill ran up his spine. If Cowan was right about the archives he’d watched, about the last night Matthew and Linda Reed spent together, happy and loving and content … Director Kathleen Warren had just lied to his face.
So Warren was either working with Galileo, and had been since she ran Corporate Security years ago, or she was being blackmailed by him. Either way, she was another obstacle between him and Gerhard Bayer. One who could rewrite him.
“With your approval,” Jeb said, “I’d like to resolve Reed’s case as a murder-suicide and close it out.” Hopefully, that was what she wanted. Hopefully she would just let go.
“Then it seems you have all you need,” Warren said. “Anything else?”
Her projection vanished, but Jeb doubted she was gone. She was watching him right now, deciding how much he knew about her. Deciding whether or not she needed to arrest him. Jeb had just met Galileo’s second-in-command. She was a loose circuit.
“What’s this really about?” Sarisa frowned at him. “You didn’t honestly believe the deputy director would release psych evals for a corporate CEO.”
“Just covering our bases,” Jeb said.
Sarisa’s eyes flicked almost imperceptibly to Warren’s desk. “I’ll escort you out.”
“I appreciate the assist.”
“Mmm hmm.” Sarisa walked for the elevator.
Jeb kept his eyes forward as they walked past the milsynths by the Greek statues. Neither moved. If Warren was going to make a move, it didn’t involve bullets, yet. Jeb watched the milsynths in the mirror at the back of the elevator. He turned to face them as the doors closed and the elevator started down. His heart thumped in his chest.
Jeb’s amplifiers caught the slightest intake of breath from Sarisa. Something had surprised her, no, worse. Shocked her. Some order she’d received over her wireless. Perhaps Director Warren had just told her he was going to be arrested.
The elevator slid to a stop. The doors opened. Two men stood outside, big men in crisp gray suits thick enough to hide the bulges under their jackets.
“Hello,” one man said. The other man didn’t say anything.
Jeb stepped back, with Sarisa, as both men stepped into the elevator and turned their backs. They put their backs to Jeb as the doors closed, so Jeb couldn’t see their eyes. Probably because their eyes were glowing red right now. HARM switches.
“You know,” Jeb said, without looking at Sarisa, “I still want to buy you that drink.”
Sarisa stared straight ahead. “What’s stopping you?”
One man shifted. Jeb’s amplifiers detected the hiss of a hand sliding into a suit jacket, the sound of metal against leather. Jeb pulled his stunner as both men pulled theirs.
A snap-hiss echoed as Jeb fired into Hello man’s back, but the man didn’t go down. The armor beneath his shirt was stun-resistant. As both men spun to stun him, eyes glowing red, Jeb slammed his Helping Hand into Hello man’s face.
His metal palm cracked Hello man’s nose like an anvil. He slammed into the elevator doors and went down, knocked out and bleeding. The glowing red eyes of the second man went wide — Jeb shouldn’t be able to punch anyone — but he barreled forward.
The two of them grappled and punched, smashing walls, shattering mirrors, and thumping doors. Jeb was bigger than this man, HARM switch or not, so his only real worry was not crushing Sarisa. He didn’t have a lot of room to work.
Jeb allowed a blow to his side — he was wearing body armor, too, under his jacket — and popped the shocker mount on his Helping Hand. He jammed it against the man’s temple. His victim twitched, drool spurting from his mouth.
Jeb caught the man and lowered him to the floor, wincing at the way the man’s eyes rolled back in his head. He hoped he hadn’t done any permanent damage. These men were just following orders, after all, and he didn’t want them dead.
The elevator accelerated, straight down. Warren had seen what he’d done, and now she was rushing him to the ground floor where Corporate One’s milsynths could take him out. Jeb retracted his stunner and popped out an invasive hardlink.
He forced it into the elevator’s auxiliary port and up’d Cowan’s override algorithm. The elevator stopped, then lurched back into motion. It was under his control now, and any listening devices in its walls had been deactivated.
Sarisa hadn’t drawn her stunner, even though she could have. “You’re a loose circuit.” There was genuine hurt in her voice. “All this time?”
“No, just recently.” He and Cowan had agreed Jeb couldn’t enter the Office of Mental Health handicapped by clear circuit algorithms. Jeb ran Cowan’s unique firmware now.
“Is someone blackmailing you? Are you under duress?” Sarisa actually looked visibly upset, which revealed just how freaked out she must be.
“I’m still me, Sarisa. I’m doing the job we’ve always done, together, and for the next minute, we can talk without anyone hearing us.”
“Or you’ll hurt me like you hurt these men?”
“I’d never hurt you, but here’s the situation. Director Warren is an accessory to Matthew Reed’s murder. Your boss is either behind it, or she’s working with the man who is.”
Sarisa frowned as the elevator descended. “That’s ridiculous.” This was a tall building.
“Kathleen Warner is working with Galileo, real name Gerhard Bayer, and they’re blackmailing the board of OneWorld by threatening to murder their families. She must suspect I’m onto them, which is why she ordered me arrested.”
“You’re certain of Warren’s involvement? You have evidence?” The fact that Sarisa didn’t dismiss his claim outright was the trust they’d earned over fifteen years.
“I do, and I’ll have more soon. If you join us, you’ll help stop a mass murderer. You’ll remove corruption at the highest levels of OneWorld corporation. But if we fail, you’ll be a fugitive. You might even end up rewritten.”
This had to be Sarisa’s decision. That was what he, Cowan, and Kate had decided last night. They needed help — they needed all the help they could get — but they couldn’t force anyone to join them and risk Galileo’s wrath.
“Warren’s a traitor,” Sarisa said. She was testing it out, seeing how it felt to say it aloud.
“I’m afraid so.”
“Then I’ll do you more good here, inside the OMH.” Sarisa believed him with nothing but his word to go on, and Jeb wanted to hug her. “How do you plan to get out of here?”
Jeb glanced at the floor display. 10. 9. 8. He imagined milsynths marching toward the doors on the ground floor. He imagined the front line taking knees as those behind them raised rifles, the synthetic equivalent of an old-fashioned musket line.
They floor display read “G”. They passed it and kept going down. The doors eventually opened on the lowest subbasement of the Office of Mental Health. It was abandoned.
“I’ve got a plan,” Jeb said, “but I won’t share it, since you’ll redact the last few minutes.”
“I’ve already set my PBA to redact everything after we entered the elevator. However, that means I won’t remember Warren is a traitor. How much longer can we talk?”
Jeb checked his headdesk. “Twenty seconds.”
“Leave an archive of this conversation in our dead drop on the darkSim. I won’t check that for another two days, which should give you plenty of time to get somewhere safe. Once I know what’s going on again, I’ll update the dead drop for you before I leave.”
Sarisa was good at this, but she had always been good at this. The only problem, now, was ensuring the OMH didn’t figure out they were working together.
“Once they have your surveillance back,” Sarisa said, “hit me as hard you can.” She saw the problem too. “If you don’t convince them I was trying to stop you, I won’t be leaving this building either.” She drew her stunner and pointed it at his chest.
Regret roiled in Jeb’s gut, but he knew she was right. The moment the OMH got their viewstream back, he punched Sarisa in the stomach hard enough to throw her into the glass back of the elevator. She dropped on impact and slumped, gasping.
Jeb sprinted into the ancient sub-basement. He looked for the ductwork he’d memorized and imagined the drainage tunnel beneath it. He pulled the brick-sized charge from inside his suit jacket, stuck it to the floor, and ran away as fast he could.
* * *
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