Pay the Piper – Chapter Three

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As fate and the courts would have it, we wound up going to see TsunLao before visiting the drone manufacturer. Almost as soon as I was back at the hotel, Mixer got in touch with me and confirmed that yes, the FBI had asked to put me on retainer and other than the court date I had coming up my schedule was clear so he’d agreed provisionally. I went ahead and told him to finalize the retainer then start looking in to moving that court date as well; given the scope of what we were dealing with I really didn’t want to wander away from things for three days if I didn’t have to.

The next morning I woke up to knock at the door – the Gifted don’t like using phones if we can help it, they create all kinds of interference – which proved to be someone from the front desk telling me Natalie would be coming to pick me up in half an hour. Since a warrant for a psychometric interrogation takes much less time to file for, and receive, than a raid on a small industrial facility we’d gotten the okay on visiting TsunLao and were still waiting to find out if they’d okay the manufacturer raid.

I got downstairs late, still in the process of dragging on my jacket and gloves, to find Natalie standing impatiently near the entrance to the lobby. Most of the people coming in or going out were giving her a discreet but clear bubble of space, confirming my impression that she broadcast quite loudly. It’s not that the Gifted find that unpleasant but we also don’t want to be rude and eavesdrop. She gave me a once over as I presented myself, looking a bit less bright and chipper this morning. I wondered if she hadn’t gotten all the coffee she’d hoped for.

“Didn’t you wear that yesterday?” She asked.

“That was the Navy blue suit. This is the Royal blue.” I tugged my jacket absently. To tell the truth, I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference using just my eyes either. “Same manufacturer, though. You can’t get good quality linen clothes from very many places these days.”

She studied my clothes skeptically for a minute. “If you say so. Does it really have to be linen?”

“It’s the only fabric that can completely shed the impressions left by machine assembly, so if I don’t want to hear industrial sewing machines all the time, yes. I make good money but I can’t have my entire wardrobe hand sewn.”

There’s a lot of little things to get used to, dealing with psychometrics. The lower functioning ones are mistaken for mentally ill or damaged people, hearing voices that haven’t spoken in years or centuries, and even those of us who can make it day to day are usually more than a bit out of sorts. But, aside from a reasonable dose of curiosity, Natalie seemed to be taking to things pretty well. She hadn’t forgotten to open any doors – wasn’t that a bit of a role reversal – and the faint smell of ozone as she opened the car door testified to the fact that she’d remembered to decontaminate the passenger cabin that morning. I’d known her less than twenty four hours and, if not for the really strong mental projection she gave off, I was tempted to give her perfect marks as a handler already.

However, there was still one major aspect of the job that I needed to go over with her and that was an actual interview.

You see, there’s a lot of techniques to a good interview and many of them rely on two people working in tandem to pull off. Trained officers and agents spend a lot of time working out their strategies before they go into an interview or interrogation. The problem is, the whole point of my joining an interview is to pull on whatever threads a line of questioning turns up. My job is reactive, an interrogation is proactive. To help meld those two together, there’s a whole laundry list of hand signals, verbal cues and even props like my gloves that I can use to prompt my handler as to changes we need to make in strategy. It’s as much art as science and learning the flow of it is not something you can do just by memorizing the Psychometric Procedures manual.

But knowing the procedures does help, so I spent most of the trip over there quizzing Natalie on various signals and what they meant. She did pretty well for someone who’d never used them in a practical situation but I still walked up the steps to Lao’s home studio with a sense of trepidation. Not because of anything she’d done, but because I hate doing interviews.

Hackers believe information should be free. Anarchists believe that borders and nations are immoral. The first time you have to try and break into the mind of a total stranger you’ll immediately realize that secrets and walls are a vitally important part of what makes it possible for two humans – any two – to live on the same planet without killing each other. You don’t want to understand or empathize with the person next to you right now. Really, you don’t. You can do it if you build up a strong relationship with them, if you value them beyond the abstract idea of humanity as a valuable thing. But try it with a total stranger and you will fail.

I’ve always liked TsunLao, valued his ideas about culture and government as well thought out positions, argued with conviction, even if they were occasionally utterly worthless. That was about to end because I was about to get a look at what he was like beneath all that.

By the time he answered the door I was already deep into interrogation mode, as it was important to establish a baseline as quickly as possible so I could more easily spot deviations from it. Most of Natalie’s charming her way into the house went right past me – I could tell it was happening but really didn’t catch any of the words. I was more interested in the patterns.

With her overactive emotional projections, Natalie painted a very clear picture of someone trying to do her job professionally and fairly. It took a little work but I managed to tune that out and catch the less distinct but equally clear sense of curiosity and amusement coming from Lao. That was the general attitude he gave off over the screen and it was nice to see it was genuine, but that wasn’t where I was going to stop today. Forensic mode was a measure of intent in the past, interrogation mode was a measure of intent and attitude in the present. Like most people, Lao started off in a fairly scattered state, his conscious and subconscious mind chewing on a lot of different things at once. It’s hard to tell what all the different threads going through a person’s mind are since, like actual threads, they’re quite tangled. But the nice thing about the letters FBI are how wonderfully they clear away distractions.

Like most people would, as soon as he saw Natalie’s ID, Lao became very focused and very suspicious. The tinge of curiosity remained, but for the most part he settled into a healthy skepticism of us. However, unlike with many people, there was no surprise.

Generally that’s suspicious but there are times when it’s totally normal. Like when someone you owe a lot of money dies suspiciously. Or when a company you’ve publicly feuded with suddenly gets attacked. It made judging Lao’s reaction more difficult.

Natalie had gained access to Lao’s home by the time I had finished my preliminary assessment and we were walking down a hallway into what I recognized as his primary recording studio when I came back up enough to follow the conversation. By which point Lao had wisely stopped talking so I got to take a look around the studio without having to split my concentration. It looked pretty much like what you saw on camera, a simple but comfortable chair next to a small end table with a tablet on it, a sofa at a 90 degree angle to the chair, the seating arranged around a coffee table, a shelf of small artifacts and art pieces with a Chinese theme to them along the wall behind. Outside the part of the room the camera would normally see things were much the same. Comfortable carpet, a few more display pieces, including a large plate with bamboo painted on it, and a messy but contained pile of camera, mics, wire and sundry electronics that doubtlessly all tied into the tablet for recording.

As Lao looked around the room I caught his attention resting on his collection of art and antiques. He was proud of them and… there was a pattern. I narrowed my eyes, assessing the stuff and trying to determine what tied it together. But I’m not as knowledgeable of Chinese history as my grandfather might have liked, so I couldn’t parse it.

Then Lao was settling into his chair and his attitude shifted, becoming more confident and assured. This was where he did business, he was confident and in control. Or so he thought.

It was a good impression to cultivate for this kind of interview, it made him more likely to be careless. Lao motioned us to the sofa and we seated ourselves, Natalie putting her phone on the coffee table as she did so. “We’ll be recording this conversation for our records.”

“Of course,” Lao said, then waved a hand towards his own equipment. “Would you like me to do it? You’d get better sound quality, though I don’t know as that matters to you.”

Cheeky.

“It doesn’t,” Natalie said. “Would you mind stating your full name, for the record?”

“Charles Henry Wu.”

“Your profession, Mr. Wu?”

“People pay me money to make a spectacle of myself, arguing politics. So a journalist, I suppose.”

Natalie switched her tactics, trying to establish a more casual relationship with Lao. “You go by the handle TsunLao in your professional circles?”

He actually laughed at that. “If you want to call them that.”

Matching his amusement, Natalie leaned forward a bit and dropped the professional tone she’d been using in favor of something more warm and inviting. “You must place high value on your Chinese roots.”

“I’m ethnically Kekistani.”

You just can’t go anywhere with a shitposter who gets into his rhythm and Natalie clearly had no idea what he was talking about so it was time for me to try and redirect the conversation. And we needed to do something, anything, to put Lao on the back foot. We wanted him to talk about the things he’d rather not and that meant keeping him slightly uncomfortable. Fortunately, there’s a very simple way for me to do that.

“Mr. Wu – do you go by Mr. Wu or Lao?”

“Whichever you prefer,” Lao replied, settling a bit and wondering where I was headed.

“Lao, before we go any further I’m required by law to inform you that I’m a psychometer of the third rank, working with the FBI as a consultant, with the ability to read a great deal about a person’s mental state just by being in the room with them.” Lao had started off amused at my declaration but was sliding quickly towards horrified disbelief. Probably thought a complete nutjob had somehow tagged along with the FBI this morning. “For example, I will know if you’re lying to us.”

He blinked and suddenly his amused watchfulness was back. “Bullshit. Is this some kind of new interrogation technique? Lie transparently and see how someone reacts?”

That was a typical response, and also a genuine one. Lao hadn’t met a psychometer before and he didn’t think he’d met one now. There was an easy way around that. “I can actually glean a greater deal of information by touch. Perhaps you’d like a demonstration?”

“What? Are you going to take my hand and tell me about my mood?” Lao shook his head. “Palm reading is a mix of mind games and pulse reading. You really expect it to work in the age of the Internet? Anyone can watch a how to video and be an expert on it in a few hours.”

I just got up from the couch and walked over to his recording equipment. “Nice set up here. You store your files in this rig or offsite?”

“I keep them there, and back up offsite once a month…”

That was actually a pretty strong data storage program for someone in his line of work. Most of them counted on the cloud to keep their files safe. I looked through the gear for a minute until I found the main tower and then touched it. “Hm. Two terabyte solid state drive. Decent amount of storage there, probably cost you a fortune. Less than a hundred gigabytes of free space remaining. Must be close to time for a backup.”

Lao had gone quiet and the amusement was gone, replaced with a surface watchfulness under girded with a frantic grinding of gears. The wheels were turning indeed. He reached out and picked up his tablet, working the touchscreen for a moment or two. “That’s very interesting. Did you guess based on industry standards and a general knowledge of my publishing schedule?”

“No, although I’ve wondered why your videos on the second Tuesday of every month went up an hour later than the rest.” I pushed a little deeper into the drive. “Search for files created on the twenty eighth of last month, then sort by file size. The first file in the list will be, “A Live Stream with RickySez (RAW)”. You’ve been slumming, Lao.”

He looked at the tablet a moment longer before setting it aside. “Yes, that’s why I ultimately didn’t do anything with the footage. Why are you telling me this? Aren’t people with paranormal abilities supposed to try and keep them secret from the government or something?”

“That would be tricky, considering that two FBI directors, a head of the CIA and President Grover Cleveland were all psychometrics of varying degrees.” I walked back over to the couch and sat down. “And I know you’re too savvy to ever mention it in public. You’d be relegated to conspiracy theorist and paranormal nutjob in a heartbeat. A.J. Jackson does good work from that corner of the Internet but he’s also got a pretty effective monopoly on it.”

“True enough.” Lao leaned back in his chair, the gears still spinning. “Well, you have my attention. What’s brought a third rank psychometric all the way out here to interview me.”

That was my cue to punt.

Natalie received and ran it back for the next question, clearing her throat and asking, “Where were you yesterday, between the hours of eight and ten AM?”

Lao snorted once, then looked from Natalie to me and back again. “Well that’s simple. I was here, recording the first half of my next video. You can check the files yourself, if you want. Was that all?”

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