Chapter 8 – Meetings

I had to ease into my turn for the fourth time that morning as I sidled onto a paved road mottled with ice, the gleaming spots making traction a poorly-kept promise. I was still more than ten minutes’ slow drive from the house, and I was carefully monitoring nearby traffic as the city started to wake up.

A chime echoed in the dry air from the passenger seat – the shrill tone I had set for notifications from Lion Electric. I allowed myself a quick glance and cursed. Pulling off into a strip mall parking area, I checked the details and address of the new mandatory job that Lion had just assigned me.

The balance of the morning was a slog. As I was in the middle of this second job – resetting a breaker box in an uptown retail area – I was assigned a third. It took me to another suburban neighborhood and, thanks to conflicting accounts as to where the downed line actually was, more time to find the problem than to actually fix it. By the time I stepped through my own doors again I was achingly cold and bone-tired, as much by the strain of careful driving on icy roads as by the repairs.

I started a pan of coconut oil on low heat as I booted up my box downstairs and checked the time. It was almost ten. Two hours was plenty of time to put a few graphics together for the meeting.

I made myself a couple of grilled sandwiches with new potatoes and contemplated the two-hour time block while munching. A request for any sort of post mortem on my FBI cases was unusual – typically I uploaded all the data I had generated and got a text message thanking me, and a bump to the funds in my account. If they wanted to speak to me for this long, either someone up the chain from Agent Lewis was scrutinizing the case, or they wanted an opportunity to talk to me about something else.

I had been mulling over whether to mention the CIA connection, either in the meeting or privately to Agent Lewis, but I came to the conclusion that I’d need to keep that to myself for now. The relationship between the two agencies was an ambiguous tangle, and trying to either explain or cover for my source – officially an expat wanted for treason by a wide swath of the First World – weighed heavier than any assistance I could expect to receive from the Feds.

I finalized my presentation files and brought up my video conference software. With two minutes to spare, I dialed into the number that Agent Lewis had provided and joined a conference that, from the remnants of donuts on the table, had already been in progress for some time.

The teleconference room seated twelve at a long narrow desk, but only five seats were occupied – all by white men in dark suits. I immediately recognized Benjamin Michaels on one side of the table, and Agents Lewis and Daubert on the other. Agent Daubert was Lewis’s immediate superior at the Bureau and, I had been previously told, the one who actually authorized my payouts. While both Lewis and the other (I suspected) FBI Agent on that side of the table appeared to be in their late thirties, Daubert was at least a decade older, as was the cut of his jacket.

Daubert greeted my avatar on the conference screen and made introductions. The other agent was Jeffries, who was liaison to Effitech and officially assigned the kidnapping case. The younger man sitting next to Michaels was an Effitech analyst named Jim Cordon.

Wrapping up pleasantries, Daubert brought the group down to business. “We wanted to coordinate intelligence and next steps on this case. Thanks to Delphic, a young girl is back with her parents again,” appreciative nods all around the table, “but until those responsible are caught and their motives known, the threat has to be considered ongoing.”

Michaels jumped in eagerly here: “Right, yes, that’s the issue. We need more data.” He pushed attention to the screen and Delphic’s avatar. “Mr. Delphic, my analysts tell me that if they had found Vivi themselves, they would have generated a massive data set that would provide a foothold for identifying the kidnappers. I am led to believe you are withholding this data?” Although said with a questioning tone, this last was clearly meant as a challenge.

This was a common theme in my dealings with intelligence agencies, and so I repeated a well-worn response. “My analysis does not comprise a legible data set that I can share. I can extract data from it, but it takes considerable resources to do so and is of marginal value.” The reaction around the table to this was visibly negative from everyone but Lewis. “Considering that I have already identified and located all five of the participating kidnappers, what further data is needed?”

Michaels looked to Cordon. His analyst replied, “If we are to have any chance of tracing these men back to an employer, we need whatever you have. We can’t know ahead of time which information will be relevant.” The younger man took off a pair of glasses that he wiped against the side of his jacket while speaking. He had the air of a college lecturer. “It comes down to what information we expect to have for use so late in the investigation. Having to pick up the analysis piece essentially from scratch will be… inefficient.” His newly polished glasses returned to their perch, and he met Daubert’s eyes above the lenses.

Daubert picked up the thread of discussion. “Delphic, we’re motivated to finger more than just the men on the ground. Can you tell us anything more about who they are or how you found them?”

I wasn’t going to get a better opening than that. My avatar in the conference room was replaced by an irregular grid marked by DC street names. The stylized aerial view zoomed towards one particular cluster of city blocks. “Here is where Vivi Michaels was reported missing.” A single blue dot appeared along one street near the center of the map. “This is the recorded location of Mr. Michaels’ phone at the time he made his first call to the police.” Over a hundred red dots suddenly blanketed the map, mostly bunched up against the streets. “And these are the only mobile devices that recorded a proximate location within the five minutes prior to that call.”

Most of the red dots sprouted lines, and the map zoomed out to cover more territory as at least some of the lines left the original area. “These are the identified mobile devices’ listed locations over the next half hour.”

The center of the map was smeared in red, but the few lines that had made it furthest now stood out prominently. “Among the identified devices, most were registered to people whose locations could be easily correlated with verifiable work and residential addresses, or whose routes only stopped at public places.” At this, most of the lines on the screen faded to a dull orange, leaving only a handful in bright red. “Of the remainder, the farmhouse stop was the most out-of-the-ordinary, and so the first one I checked.” The map zoomed in on the Northern Virginia area where the farmhouse was, marked with a spike of two red lines where they had turned off the road. “And Vivi was there.”

It was Michaels who spoke again. “How did you determine that?”

I left the display up on its final frame as I responded. “You are asking how I determined that Vivi Michaels was actually in the farmhouse?” He nodded. “I had help for that part. I would prefer not to get into specifics.”

Daubert cleared his throat; the FBI supervisor was visibly unhappy with this answer. “Delphic, are you saying you had a civilian scout out the farmhouse? That’s… really not appropriate procedure in these sorts of situations.” The other agent, Jeffries, nodded emphatically. Lewis looked a bit concerned.

At home, I sighed. Fortunately my exasperation could not creep into my synthesized response. “No, I scouted the area myself using a remote video drone. The assistance was in local handling and deployment of the drone – and I really must insist on not disclosing any more.” Especially since this was the extent of the details that I had fabricated as an excuse for being able to confirm Vivi’s location. There was of course no assistant or drone, but secrecy should be a sufficient cover for my tale.

The Effitech analyst spoke next, his eyes still trained on the rapidly-scrawled page of notes on a pad in front of him. It looked as though he was trying to make some rough calculations based on my presentation. “So, wait, this involved sorting through… the DC towers have a load of… hm…” he looked up. “How were you able to access those records? NSA?” Both Michaels and the Feds gave him sharp looks in response to that last conjecture; I allowed myself a grin.

“I’m not going to be explaining how I accessed individual GPS logs from four software providers and over a dozen cellular carriers,” the synthetic voice insisted with, it sounded to me, a slightly sardonic tone, “other than to note, as I have explained many times, it is a procedure that you are neither legally nor logistically able to replicate.” I gave a moment for this to sink in before adding, “You may certainly presume NSA involvement if you prefer.” A little neither-confirm-nor-deny to muddy the waters.

Michaels again: “Agent Daubert, you can see why the stonewalling here puts us in a precarious position moving forward….” With occasional additions from his analyst, the Effitech CEO elaborated once again on his need for further information. Although he made little in the way of new points, he managed to hit the same themes repeatedly for the better part of ten minutes. Overall quite an impassioned plea.

As the contractor made his push, I considered that this must be a difficult position that he found himself in with frustrating frequency. Intelligence agencies were, by their nature, tight-lipped with information. Their need-to-know reflexes often resulted in those who actually do need to know having to fight hard to get access to relevant data. Any intelligence company with experience working for the government undoubtedly had a long history of wheedling scraps of information out of agents, of getting departments to give up the morsels needed for a successful operation. Michaels was clearly a veteran at this process, and he was certainly hammering hard at this wall that, from his perspective, needed to come down.

Unfortunately, the wall he was pounding on didn’t hide relevant information – the vault, in this case, was empty. He couldn’t earn access to data that didn’t actually exist. But since I was unlikely to convince him of that, I had to simply hold my ground.

I noticed that as Michaels continued to outline his reasons, Daubert’s demeanor was shifting. His forward posture pulled back, his aggressive look softened, and he seemed increasingly worn out. He gave off the distinct impression of someone who was tired of a meeting that had gone on for too long.

As Michaels wound down, Daubert let himself lean back in his seat and spoke. “Ben,” he started, “how long have you and I been doing this?”

The change in subject seemed to take the exec by surprise. “Fifteen years, I think, Terry,” he allowed, “give or take?” His expression was wary, and his answer came out more as a question.

The older agent nodded, and a grin started at the corners of his mouth. “During that time,” he let his lips pull back a bit into a weak smile, “what have I always said about supers?” There was a sparkle in his eye.

Michaels had keyed in on what Daubert was saying, as, it appeared, had both of the other FBI agents. Cordon still looked confused. “Let them do it their own way,” he replied, clearly a rote recitation rather than his own view.

Daubert nodded. “It’s a policy that’s served me well, and I think it applies well here, too.” He turned to the screen, “Delphic, can you make yourself available to Effitech and the Bureau if we have specific questions we could use your help answering?” His tone made it clear this was only formally a request.

“Yes,” I typed and sent, simply.

Daubert shrugged and nodded. “Okay?” he shot to Michaels.

The CEO frowned. “I guess it has to be.” He added a belated, “Thank you, Mr. Delphic.”

Daubert collected himself and moved forward again, resuming a more active posture. “I’m anxious to move on to the more pressing matter.” He checked his watch. “Perhaps a quick run down for Delphic while we wait for everyone else?”

Agent Jeffries nodded and opened his laptop; soon a presentation slide with text over an FBI background was added to the teleconference channel. It read “Lamarck Investigation – CLASSIFIED” and had today’s date.

I presumed this had something to do with the super that went by the name Lamarck. He was a common fixture in photographs of the USST, although I had never worked with him directly. Lamarck was widely popular because he was known to be a licensed MD and a visible spokesman for medical causes – children’s hospitals, affordable health care, and the like. His powers had something to do with healing, too, but I couldn’t remember exactly what.

As Jeffries advanced to the next slide – an event timeline that apparently started yesterday morning – I opened a browser window and did a quick search on Lamarck. The first results were not profile pages, however, but news articles, all within the last day: “American Super Dead in Canadian Capitol;” and “5 Things You Need to Know about the Lamarck Shooting.”

Apparently this was national news, and with the poor weather and my own issues I had managed to miss it. I quickly skimmed the articles, learning that the American super had been shot in broad daylight and rushed to the hospital within seconds, but was quickly pronounced dead. No terrorist or subversive group, super or otherwise, had claimed responsibility.

Jeffries moved quickly through his presentation. Lamarck had flown in the previous day for a visit to Ottawa Civic Hospital’s expanded oncology wing. The visit included a meet and greet with city officials, some time spent with excited child patients, and a press junket with two local supers, Velo and Carcajou.

“The three men left the hospital by a side entrance on Elsevier Street heading east,” the agent said while bringing up a street view of downtown Ottawa. They looked like generic navigation photos rather than recent surveillance footage, likely taken months earlier on a clear day. The buildings and trees sprung up from neat pavement like a well-kept orchard. Everything was painted in rich, warm colors, a deliberate visual rebuke to the often harsh weather.

“As you’ll see later from the video clips we recovered, the fans were out in force. All three of the assets engaged lightly with civilians while attempting to maintain a walking pace towards their destination.” Jeffries moved to the next slide. “The food truck was two blocks east and one block north of the hospital. It’s visible there, on the left side of the photograph in green.”

Another slide, with a photo centered on a corner with a crosswalk. “The crossing signal changed as everyone arrived at this intersection. Lamarck was talking to a pair of fans when the attack happened. We’ve recovered three videos so far that clearly show Lamarck during the attack.”

The presentation shifted to show a four-way split screen; three videos were queued up while a small playback control panel with a slider bar occupied the fourth area. Jeffries presumably hit play. The different angles of the videos were slightly disorienting.

The most close-in view seemed to only be two or three people behind the front of the crowd. It was fixed tightly on Lamarck, who conveyed a friendly and casual air with his speech and posture, as though he would be happy to stay and chat all day. Lamarck wore a single piece of spandex that stretched from his head to his toes in a complex pattern of white and rich green. A kind mouth and strong jaw were the only flesh visible – his eyes were covered by green lenses, the rest of the head concealed within his bold costume. The suit showed off his bodybuilder physique, hugging prominent muscles framed by broad, square shoulders.

A second video showed a wide-angle shot of the three supers and the crowd from across the street; the third was apparently taken by someone running to join the crowd, as it was shaky and moved in as the three videos continued to play in sync. Velo wore a black t-shirt with his stylized biking logo under an open red jacket with matching red workout pants and black runners. He normally wore a distinctive helmet over his red and black domino mask, but he had apparently donned the mask alone. Carcajou, by far the shortest of the three men, was squarely bedecked in layers of furs and leathers, like a particularly militant version of a colonial frontier trapper. The furs varied in color from red to light brown, matching his own shaggy hair and beard with disconcerting continuity. Both Canadian supers seemed as much at ease with the crowd as Lamarck.

When the gunshot rang out, there was a bare second of almost-silence before bedlam. Lamarck was no longer in the close-up frame but could still be seen in the other two views as Velo scooped him up and ran back in the direction they had come. Within another three seconds the speedster was halfway back to the the hospital and out of frame.

Carcajou yelled for people to take cover as he moved into the intersection, his eyes fixed on something out of frame. The video froze. “Lamarck was pronounced dead at Ottowa Civic at 12:14 pm. OST deployed three more heavies to the area, and local police support arrived within minutes to disperse the crowd….”

A loud knock sounded on the door to the conference room. Two more white men entered the room. The first to appear was dressed in the dark suit that was ubiquitous for the place, making the contrast with the second man’s colorful clothing even more evident.

The black and grey feather patterns on the cowl flaring out into a wide-train cloak should have looked ridiculous, but the awesome sight of Peregrine flying through the air at astonishing speeds gave him an aura of majesty even when standing in a doorway. His booming voice was too loud for the room: “What’s this I hear about using Delphic to look for Lamarck’s killer?”

Daubert put up a hand, and gestured to the seats. “Introductions, first, everyone. Then down to business.” While the new agent and super choose seats, I took a moment to stand and stretch.

I hate meetings.

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