The last thing that Kevin Kirishima expected to find when he answered his door the day after the Stillwater Sound robbery was a set of leggy blonde twins. Certainly not blondes in featureless black suits flashing IDs that said they were a part of the Secret Service.
Sure, when your place of work has been robbed you expect to be interviewed by the police a couple of times, more if you were the inside man, but one doesn’t really expect the Secret Service to show up when a small technology company in the Midwest gets robbed. To say that Kevin hadn’t been expecting the visit would have been an exercise in understatement.
The blonde on the left cleared her throat. “Mr. Kirishima?”
So apparently this wasn’t a case of showing up at the wrong door. “That’s me.”
“Eyes up here, please,” said her twin.
Kevin did as asked, not that he had been looking at anything inappropriate. “There’s no name on your ID,” he said to her before taking a quick glance at her sister’s. “Either of yours, actually. I don’t suppose you’d care to tell me who I’m talking to?”
“Not just yet.” That came from a man standing behind them. Where the twins were blonde and blue-eyed enough they could have stared in Alfred Hitchcock films, he looked more like he should be the wise old janitor in a workplace drama. His hair was still fairly thick, but it was pure white. Lines of gray ran through a beard that looked like a goatee might if you suddenly stopped shaving and let it grow wild for a month or two. He leaned heavily on a metal cane and all in all looked decidedly unlike a Secret Service agent. “Mr. Kirishima, we need to come in and ask you a few questions.”
Kevin removed his glasses and polished them thoughtfully. “Maybe I don’t feel like letting people who won’t tell me their names into my apartment. And if I’ve got my U.S. Constitution worked out right, you can’t force your way in without a warrant.”
The janitor reached into his suit pocket and pulled out a sheet of paper, which he handed to Kevin wordlessly. It was a warrant, of course. What else would it be? Kevin adjusted his glasses once to hide his annoyance and handed the paper back. “Fine. Looks legit. Might as well come in.”
Without waiting for further invitation the twins barged through the door and into the apartment, crossing over each other’s paths as they did so. They took such care to do it while he was watching that it was an obvious ploy to confuse him about who was who. Kevin glared at their backs for just a moment before starting to close the door behind their older companion. He didn’t even get it halfway shut before stopping short.
There was a fourth member of their little group, a tall, thin man with a mournful expression, who looked like he was either Polynesian or perhaps Native American. He gave no indication that he realized he’d almost had the door slammed in his face, made no acknowledgement of Kevin at all, just squeezed his narrow frame through the door and started a long, slow circuit around the apartment, not seeming to pay any attention to what he saw. Kevin snorted and closed the door after making sure there weren’t any other weirdos waiting in the wings. Then he followed his visitors into the apartment’s living room.
Since he wasn’t in any mood to be hospitable there was no point in apologizing for the mess. Besides, on a normal day he was quite proud of his living room. It hadn’t been easy to find and collect all that video recording gear, and some of the older stuff was quite valuable. But with six different video cameras, three TVs, a wall of playback equipment and a nest of wires to connect it all, there wasn’t as much room for living as most people might expect to find in a “living” room.
But Kevin wasn’t most people and he had a feeling his guests weren’t either. The janitor had settled into the only chair, which just left the sofa. The twins had taken up flanking positions behind their boss, the old man, who was clearly in charge, and the quiet man was still blankly staring at the junk in the room, so Kevin took the seat on the sofa where he’d been sitting before company arrived, grabbed the remote and switched off the TVs.
“I’m sorry if we interrupted you,” the old man said in a pleasant tone. “But you understand we wanted to talk to you right away.”
“I guess that makes sense,” Kevin replied. “If I knew what you wanted to talk to me about.”
“A breaking and entering at the place you work,” one of the twins said. “Stillwater Sound.”
“Really.” He leaned back and settled into the sofa. For once he wished the battered furniture gave a little more support. Normally it was comfortable but now he was sinking so far he felt small. With an irate grunt he shoved himself forward to the edge of the couch and said, “I thought the police had that pretty well in hand last night. Why the sudden interest from the Secret Service?”
“We’ll get to that, depending on how things go,” the old man said. “How long have you worked for Stillwater Sound?”
“About three years,” Kevin said. “I started as an intern after college and I’ve been there part time ever since. I just made full time last summer.”
“What brought you to a sound studio?” That one of the twins. She casually waved her hand at his collection of video equipment. “This doesn’t look like recording gear.”
“It’s not. I studied communications but my real interest was production for TV and film. I did an internship with one of the local TV stations. When I graduated,” Kevin waved a hand in the general direction of his diploma, which sat on a shelf beside an old Super 8 video camera, “I went to a job fair where I met the Chief – that’s Mr. Griswald, the owner of Stillwater Sound.”
“And he hired you?” She asked. “Why does a sound studio need a TV technician?”
“Because film is an audiovisual medium,” Kevin said. “Adding a soundtrack, voice-overs, remastering sound, removing background noise, all that stuff is a part of film and TV. And when you’re working with a small budget or amateur stuff video and sound work tends to get done with one piece of software, instead of doing video editing with one program and audio editing with another. The Chief thought it would be nice if we could get a piece of that pie and help out amateur movie makers at the same time, so about six years ago he started recruiting people that knew that end of the business.” He shrugged. “It’s not Hollywood, but it’s a place to start.”
“According to the police report, the break-in at Stillwater was just after seven at night.” The old man flipped open a folder he’d brought with him, turning pages until he found the one he wanted. “Are you usually in the buildings that late at night?”
“Only the last couple of days.” Kevin let himself relax fractionally. The questions so far seemed fairly mundane. The whole set up was really weird, what with the Secret Service agents and the badges with no names, but even if these were just really ambitious reporters he couldn’t see any harm in answering their questions. “If you work for Stillwater you get a major discount on using the studio. A friend, Susan, and her husband have a little New Ageish kind of a band. They do recordings, I help out.”
The janitor made a quick note. “Tell me what you saw when you came out of the studio.”
“You been out to the studio yet?” The old man shook his head. Kevin held his hands up, his palms at a right angle to one another. “It’s like this. The parking lot is a square and the old building is down here.” Kevin wiggled the fingers of one hand. “The new building is over here.” He sketched a large rectangle by the opposite corner of the parking lot. Then he indicated the edges of the lot between the two buildings. “All this is some sort of high tech graywater treatment ponds. Four or five of ’em, to be exact. It’s all very eco-friendly stuff, Federally subsidized, we have it to help pay for the new building. And the Chief’s son is a big believer.”
“Sounds smelly,” one of the twins said.
“There’s something to deal with that, too, so you don’t really notice it except on really warm days.” Kevin dismissed the issue with a wave of his hand. “Anyways, I definitely wasn’t smelling anything, just looking around, you know? And I see someone walking through them.”
The white haired man scribbled a note. “That’s not normal?”
“No, it’s not. The only people I’ve ever seen out there are the people who make sure the whole mess isn’t about to wash away or something. They come out about once every three months, poke around the banks for an hour or so and leave. They’re always in teams, and they never come at night.”
“So this person was alone?”
“Yeah.” Kevin tapped his fingers on his chin for a minute. “Nice looking lady. African-American, about five foot six, dressed in gray coveralls. Also, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a woman in the group before now that I think about it. That’s kind of strange.”
“And you were sure she wasn’t an employee?”
“Stillwater’s big for a sound studio in Indiana, but it’s still a small company. I know everyone working there now and most of the time we hear about new hires before they do.” Kevin shook his head. “She had no business being there after dark and we both knew it. And when you’ve got a stranger with a backpack prowling around buildings with hundreds of thousands of dollars of sound equipment in them you get suspicious fast.”
“According to the preliminary police report you were the one who called security,” the blonde on the left said. “What prompted that if she was just standing around outside the building?”
“Maybe she caught you staring at her chest and started to get mad?” Her sister asked, with a quirk of the eyebrow and the hint of a smile.
Kevin wavered a minute. A hard look confirmed that the one who was asking wasn’t the same one who’d called him out at the door. It was another mind game, not legit banter. Absently he pushed his glasses up his nose and shrugged. “She was a bit far away for that. Anyway, I have the security station at the gatehouse on speed dial and I let them know.”
“How many employees have the Stillwater security stations on speed dial?” The old man asked.
“How many Secret Service agents have no name on their IDs?” Kevin countered, folding his arms across his chest. “Look, I’ve answered your questions with pretty much the same answers I gave the cops-”
“You called security at 7:43 PM,” the old man said, ignoring him. “The initial break-in was at 7:09 PM, and the suspect left the building at 7:35 PM. There’s an eight minute window there that’s unaccounted for.”
“-and I think that’s who you need to talk to.” Two could play the ignorance is bliss card. Kevin went to reach for his wallet and jumped when the thin man materialized beside the couch and grabbed his arm. Kevin jerked away instinctively, startled by his sudden appearance. He’d been so quiet Kevin had almost forgotten there was a fifth person in the room. Best to try and calm things down. “I’m just going to give your boss the name of the detective I talked too after the robbery. I think you’d best come back with them if you want any more questions answered. This whole thing smells fishy and I don’t want to say anything I shouldn’t.”
The old man motioned for his gaunt friend to step back and he did. “Mr. Kirishima, do you know why the owner of Stillwater Sound is called Chief?”
“Well…” That was a matter of public record, so he didn’t see how answering could hurt. “He was in the Navy. Served in the Battle of the Atlantic and later Korea, I think.”
“That’s right. He was a Chief Sonarman when he retired.” The old man leaned back in his chair. “That doesn’t mean the Chief didn’t work for the U.S. Government anymore, though. There’s some jobs you don’t give up that easily. Chief Stillwater just changed job description. He doesn’t wear a uniform anymore and his assignments have more to do with research and development than intelligence gathering, but it’s important work and his talents make him a valuable asset. You might say he’s really made waves.”
Kevin frowned and absently started polishing his glasses again, giving the old man an appraising look. “Are you trying to tell me that Mr. Griswald is using Stillwater Sound as some kind of secret government testing site buried under one of the buildings?”
“Of course not,” the left twin said.
“It’s in the water pits,” her sister added. “He was a sonarman, not a nuclear physicist. He tests sonar equipment under something resembling real world conditions.”
“He what?” Kevin shook his head in bewilderment. “Why would anyone bother bringing sonar equipment this far inland when they could do those kinds of tests just as easily from a fishing trawler or something?” But even as he said it, his mind flashed back to the work crews he’d seen around the ponds every month. Not only were they all men as far as he could recall, but they came with buzz cuts and very good posture. Not typical for a company with a big focus on green technology.
“What’s more important,” the lead agent added, “is that, instead of just being a place to store wastewater, the ponds are actually a national security asset and are monitored as such. I want you to take a look at something.” He fished a set of papers out of one pocket and unfolded them. On the top was a grainy still taken from a security camera feed showing a woman approaching one of the wastewater ponds. From the angle Kevin decided it was probably mounted on one of the light poles in the parking lot. The quality wasn’t good and it had clearly been taken at night. Kevin felt his gut sink. “Is this the woman you saw last night?”
Kevin licked his lips and shrugged. “Hard to tell, as dark as it is.”
“Well, I suppose that’s entirely understandable. How about this one?” In the next photo the woman looked to be running towards the camera, the perspective suggesting it was mounted on the building. A bright beam of light illuminated her from the direction of the parking lot, which looked oddly dark.
Kevin grimaced. “Yeah, that’s her.”
“I see. And this one?” Now the woman scrambled frantically up the side of the new Stillwater building, somehow clinging to the rough concrete with her bare hands and feet.
“Now that looks a lot like someone’s idea of a bad joke.” Kevin shrugged. “I’m not an expert on Photoshop, but I’d guess it’s probably some kind of splice with a movie?”
The janitor raised an eyebrow. “You deny seeing anything like this last night?”
“Of course not. I like to shoot movies, not live in them.”
“I see. What about this?” The next picture wasn’t of a woman at all. It was Kevin, or rather Kevin as he might appear if he was looking at himself in a fun house mirror. His legs seemed to twist, his waist curved at an impossible angle and from the shoulders up he seemed to narrow until his head was half it’s normal size. It looked like he held some kind of portable floodlight in one hand, or at least a beam of light washed out most of the rest of the picture. Like the first, it was probably taken from a camera in the parking lot, although it was likely a different one.
Kevin tried to hide a wince, but the subtle change in expression on the faces of the agents facing him told him he hadn’t been successful. “I don’t suppose you’ll believe that’s another prank?”
“No, Mr. Kirishima, I’m afraid I won’t.” The old man shuffled away his photos and folded his hands in his lap. “Truth be told, I don’t blame you for hoping to convince me that you’ve been the victim of some sort of prank. But the photographic evidence,” he patted the folder, “along with the unusual way Stillwater Sound was robbed and the testimony and unique nature of your employer all point to one conclusion: That it is far more likely that your are an individual of unique talent. And if that is the case, then we have more to discuss than just your involvement in the robbery of a small recording studio and sound equipment dealer in the Midwest. But the fact is, there is more here than just a simple robbery. Even the Secret Service has it’s hands tied by competing jurisdictions, and there’s only so much we can do in this case. Aren’t you the least bit curious about why someone with the peculiar abilities like the Grappler would bother to rob Stillwater Sound?”
Kevin frowned. “Wait. It wasn’t for the sonar gear in the pond?”
“That may have just been a bonus.” The mighty janitor spread his hands. “Of course, a mere civilian couldn’t be briefed on any of the issues involved at all. But under the rules laid out by Project Sumter, people with talents like, say, Chief Stillwater, are entitled to know certain things before they plunge down the rabbit hole. Other agencies, like the Secret Service, aren’t allowed to go prowling around looking for new talents on their own, but oddly enough the Project’s rules don’t forbid us from briefing newly discovered talents we discover when the Project isn’t around. So you have a choice, Mr. Kirishima. Are you a person with unusual gifts, who’s interested in hearing what exactly happened last night, and why, or are you just a normal person who’s content to go back to work tomorrow and never know what happened? Which is it going to be?”