Pay the Piper – Chapter One

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“Of course no one is endorsing the attack, but the shady practices of these companies have been common knowledge for years. They were warned, repeatedly, that they couldn’t take their market influence and wealth and try and wield it against Americans like they were some kind of aristocracy without creating ill will – some of it from me, I will confess. But as bad as their censorship is, I never called for violence, just a change to the unjust policies.”

“Bullshit, Lao. You’ve never liked the treatment you and your friends got-“

“The fact that bad policy affected me doesn’t change the fact that it was bad. The general principles at work-“

The livestream cut out just as things started to get spicy. At first I thought maybe it got taken down by some corporate drone who’d sensed his employers getting badmouthed and had filed some kind of complaint, or perhaps the host’s trust and safety boards had nixed it preemptively as a favor to their fellow Silicon Valley tech venture. But it only took a second or two of trying to load other videos on the topic for me to realize the problem was on my end. I opened my eyes and saw that we’d gone underground. I’d lost my signal.

“You could have said we were here,” I grumbled, straightening up my seat as Eugene pulled us up to one of the local police vans parked along one side of the loading area.

Eugene snorted and put the car in park. “You’re the one who disappears inside your own head instead of paying attention to the world around you. What was it this time? Meme videos? Comedy podcasts?”

“Chasing down the news on the EMP strike. A surprising amount of information has already made it into the wild, considering the attack is less than four hours old,” I said, pulling on my thin cotton gloves before I hit the seatbelt release. “Backtracking it to the first reports might be informative.”

“Yeah, if that was what you were doing,” Eugene said, climbing out of the car, “and not listening to your favorite pundits rip each other apart.”

I paused with my hand on the door latch. “What makes you think I was doing that?”

“You kept smirking. Besides, forensic media analysis is going to be my beat on this case, not yours.”

“Oh?” I climbed out of the car and studied my longtime liaison over the roof. “Sounds like you’re going to be busy on this case.”

“I’m always busy. But I won’t be in charge of handling you this time around. You get to break in a newbie instead.”

I grimaced, not sure how I felt about that. The joy of being an independent contractor is that you get to work with lots of different people in lots of new places. The joy of being me is hating both of those things. Eugene had been my handler for the Southern California FBI offices for the past four years and, while we’re not friends, he’s familiar. I could try and mold a rookie liaison into a person better suited to my own preferences, Eugene had always kept me on a pretty tight leash, but I’m no enough of a people person to trust my relationship shaping skills that way. I may be a mental marvel but my gifts don’t lie in that direction.

Besides, we were dealing with a domestic terrorism incident where a major financial institution had been attacked with the clear intent of crippling it and throwing the economy into chaos. The FBI thought this was important enough to call in a contractor. And not just any contractor, one who specialized in extra sensory perception. I was going to be under a lot of pressure already, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be worrying about a rookie handler exposing me to the public at the same time.

So I reluctantly followed Eugene towards the crime scene and the attendant alphabet soup. In addition to the local cops and the FBI, I saw Homeland Security, the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco and the California State Police all in evidence, which meant I was going to hear the phrase “jurisdictional nightmare” a lot regardless of who my handler was. It did make finding my new handler pretty easy, there were only two other people in FBI jackets in the room and one was Special Agent in Charge Troy Hennesy, who was way too senior to talk to contractors. Until I saw him on the spot I would have said he was way too senior to visit crime scenes, too, so it wasn’t impossible that he could be filling the role of handler – but then, Eugene wouldn’t have said I was “breaking him in,” the process was more likely to go the other way.

Guaranteed to go the other way, really.

Regardless, that made the woman standing with him far more likely to be the new agent I was breaking in and, at first glance, things were looking up. She was a case study in why men have eyes.

Blonde? Check.

Medium build with appreciable curves? Check and check.

Tasteful suit and jewelry choices? Double check.

“Fitzgerald!” Hennesy called when he saw us approach. Eugene had already spotted his boss and we were moving that way but, too impatient to wait for us, Hennesy took his companion by the elbow and led her through the crowd towards us, shouldering people out of the way as he went. A man of his size doesn’t have much problem in crowds unless he’s wandered into a moshpit and he made it over to us much faster than Eugene could have pushed us through the other way.

“Glad you’re here,” Hennesy said, letting go of his companion’s arm and herding us a bit away from the site of the investigation using primarily his own bulk and a meaningful tilt of his head. A moment later we were mostly sequestered away from the crowd, surrounded on three sides by an FBI van, probably how Hennesy had gotten here, the back wall of the garage, and Hennesy himself, who was six feet tall and nearly as wide. His bald head emphasized a heavy brow that made him look like he was scowling regardless of his actual mood – although in his case appearance and fact often lined up – and when you added in his bulk and ham hands that could tie the average spine into two half hitches faster than most people tied their shoes it was enough to convince most people to stay at a distance. We were as private as we were going to get in this room.

“It’s a jurisdictional-“

I perked up.

“-trainwreck-“

And slumped in disappointment.

“-out here, the locals want to clear the crime scene and let their CSIs process it, the other agencies don’t understand why we’re dragging our feet and the company is already leaning on us about clearing the dock. Normally I’d take more time to bring you up to speed-” which was never how Hennesy had dealt with Eugene or I before, “-but we need to get our asset cracking before someone somewhere leans on someone else with enough pull to get us kicked out. So. Special Agent Natalie Chase,” the blonde offered a sparkling smile when Hennesy gestured to her, “meet Special Agent Eugene Fitzgerald and PRG weakArmor. Eugene, Armor, this is Natalie.”

She held out a hand to Eugene, who shook it in a fairly perfunctory way, then extended that hand to me. I studied it a moment, confirming she was wearing the prescribed pair of thin linen gloves and noting that her hands had long, thin, elegant fingers, gloves or no, before taking her hand and shaking it.

Even with two layers of clean linen between us I picked up stray facts. She used a cocoa butter based lotion. She put vanilla in her coffee and she’d finished a double espresso twenty minutes ago and was worried her breath might smell. She’d expected me to be shorter. That last one seemed a bit out of left field, which meant it must have really been bothering her right that moment.

“Natalie has been read in on the Psychometrics Protocols,” Hennesy was saying, “and provided with all the necessary equipment including a static neutralizer. Your people,” he gave me a look, “have evaluated her psychological profile and case history and think she’s suitable for a Psychometric Resource Handler and offered you as a test case. I trust you were prepped ahead of time?”

“I wasn’t,” I assured him. “But that’s fairly typical in these cases.”

Natalie raised one eyebrow and asked, “It’s typical for PRGs to get assigned a case with no briefing?”

“No, Armor’s people just tell him to go somewhere and do whatever he’s told to,” Eugene answered. “He’s lazy so if a job sounds hard he sends it back and tells them he doesn’t want to do it.”

“I’m just selective in my work,” I replied, giving him a sideways look. “And I don’t like teaching.”

“Or running. Or climbing stairs. Or cooking. Or kitchens in general-“

“You wanted me to try and get a reading on a fry machine in the greasiest diner in L.A. There was nothing to read that the bacon grease hadn’t already obliterated.”

“They cook using vegetable oil, Armor-“

Hennesy cleared his throat and we stopped. “As I said, Natalie has the Protocols down. We just need you to take her through the paces once and give us some feedback on how she does. We’d like to get her certified to liaison with Psychometric Resources and you were offered as the person to do it. I know you’ve done it before and both the agents who certified with you in the past have gone on to fill that role admirably. So we hope you’ll be willing to do it again.”

I sighed. “Fine. But fair warning to you, Agent Chase, I’ll be submitting a report to my handlers on the other side as well, and how I evaluate you will directly impact how willing we are to assign resources to cases you head up.”

“I’ll do my best to meet your expectations,” she said, her smile not wavering an inch. “Shall we get started?”

I glanced at Hennesy. “Am I cleared on site?”

With a grunt Hennesy handed me a contractor’s badge and waved me towards the scene. Natalie immediately moved in front of me, gently moving people out of the way so I could approach the area under scrutiny without brushing against anyone. As we started moving past bits of metal, glass and plastic noted by numbered markers, waiting for the CSI team to come and carefully process, I could finally get a good look at what we were dealing with.

It was an SUV that had gotten overly friendly with the back of a delivery truck. “Which one delivered the EMP?” I asked. “The box truck?”

“No, the locals confirmed that was a normal delivery truck before we even got here,” Chase said. “We’re pretty sure it was delivered by the SUV. The owner reported it stolen two weeks ago and there’s a large pile of car batteries and wire in the back seat.”

That was interesting. I pulled my gloves off and Natalie matched the action, although she replaced her linens with a pair of latex gloves she got from somewhere. “What happened to the driver? Was he hurt?”

“No driver. No brick on the accelerator, either, we think it was a self-driving car.”

I shot her a look. “Who steals a self-driving car?”

“It wasn’t one when it was stolen.”

And didn’t that raise all sorts of interesting questions. I pushed them aside, the FBI had people to ask those questions on payroll, that wasn’t why Hennesy called me in. He called me in because he was in the middle of a fiasco, and it was big enough he was willing to gamble on a little ESP making his life easier. Your tax dollars at work.

“Open the door, please? I want a look at the inside.”

Natalie raised an eyebrow. “You don’t want to look over the chassis first?”

“An EMP isn’t exactly the same as a static neutralizer but it will still scrub metal of any impressions left on it,” I said. “Plastic, vinyl, leather or wood on the interior is another story. If there’s anything to learn, I’m going to get it from the interior.” With a shrug, Natalie went ahead and opened the SUV’s door. I took a moment to breath and sank into forensics mode.

To most people the world is what they see and hear, touch, taste or smell. They process it through the facts they learn through their senses. To some people the world is what they feel, what frightens them, brings them joy, makes them sad. They experience the world entirely through the promptings of their instincts and subconscious. Unfortunately, most people act as if one of these two – the things we see and the things we feel – must be accepted over the other. Very few ever recognize the truth, that both exist in a constant state of dialog with one another in a fashion that is more spiritual than religion, more causal than science. Perhaps one in one thousand ever gets that far, so I understand that you may not understand what I’m trying to say. It will sound arrogant when I say it, I’m sure, but you have to understand that the Gift shows us things that other people cannot see, and so explaining what we learn from it is almost impossible.

So rather than try, I’m just going to ask you to accept this simple truth. The world in our heads, the world of feelings, thoughts and compulsions, is woven into the world of our senses. A lucky – or unlucky – few go further than just knowing that, we experience it through the full range of our senses, physical and emotional.

Like flipping on one of those UV lights CSIs use, the mental discipline I call forensics mode brought the world of thoughts and feelings into sharper focus with a strong emphasis on intent. I could see Natalie’s subconscious mind running through the process of opening the SUV door, her intentions playing out to the mind’s eye a split second before they took place in the physical sense. Once she was done, a glimmer of the thought remained about the door handle, the only impression there after the EMP scrubbed the rest. She moved out of the way and I carefully crouched down and looked around the vehicle’s interior.

Intent sat layers deep inside the SUV, kids intent on going to swimming classes, parents intent on running kids to school, a woman intent on getting to work on time no matter how late she was. Most of these impressions had a kind of buzz to them, a flavor taken from the people who had left them. Natalie’s touch on the door was bright and golden, like her hair, most of what I found in the car was rich and brown, like chocolate. Probably impressions left by whoever had owned it before it was stolen. But there was a thin thread of minty white running through the front of the car.

“Find something?” Natalie asked.

“Maybe. Probably just traces left by whoever turned this into a self-driving car.” When someone does that kind of intensive, hands on work it usually leaves a pretty big mental afterimage behind. Natalie just opening a door had left behind an impression that would still be noticeable in an hour or so, I’d hoped that the equipment overhaul that involved and recent would have left a much bigger mark. “Whoever did this was working almost entirely with the onboard computer here.” I tapped a part of the car console just under the dashboard. “Lots of electronics work involved. I can get a brief impression of a detail oriented mind, disgruntled from working quickly. But the EMP wiped the rest.”

Natalie made a few notes in a notebook I hadn’t noticed her pulling out, then nodded. “Okay, more than that would have been nice but that’s a start. One more thing to take a look at.”

She closed up the SUV and let me over to a tarp that was spread on the ground. One of those goofy camera drones with four helicopter motors had been smashed up and the pieces were now resting on top of the tarp. It looked like about two thirds of the actual machine was there, including a large chunk of the main body. “They found this when they were doing their first pass. It was under the delivery truck, so we’re operating on the assumption it’s connected to this somehow. What can you tell us about it?”

Back in forensics mode I reached out towards the drone, doing a careful examination of it. “Interesting. Is it okay if I touch it?”

“It hasn’t been processed yet,” Natalie pointed out.

“There’s no conventional trace evidence on it,” I said. “Trust me, I’ve been doing this long enough to know.”

There was a long pause, presumable Natalie was thinking it over and signaling Hennesy for advice. But I could almost certainly guess what the outcome would be. “Okay, go for it.”

I picked up the largest of the drone pieces and carefully turned it over in my hands. I’d hoped it was a custom job, or at least built from a kit. Then whoever put it together would have spent a long time with it, leaving a great deal of psychic impressions on it. No such luck. “It’s manufactured,” I said. “Maybe even 3D printed.”

“Oh?” Natalie looked interested at that. “There can’t be that many places in the nation yet where they mass produce drones.”

“You might be surprised,” I murmured, carefully turning the piece over in my hands. “Still, it’s a place to start.”

I faltered for a moment when I picked up a clear sense of someone filing something down. Someone had held this drone for minutes, maybe even an hour, as they worked to sand off something. A serial number? That would be useful. All of a sudden I smiled. “Well what do you know about that.”

“What?”

I put the drone piece down with satisfaction. “The company that built this put their name on it. Whoever decided to use it in their stunt today filed the name off after they bought it.”

Natalie was smiling as well. “Can you tell what the name was?”

“Of course. Why do you think they pay my fee?”

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