On to the next chapter.
I am posting The Pericles Conspiracy for all y’all to read here on the blog. Two chapters per week. Given there are 63 chapters in the book, if you don’t want to bother waiting half a year to read the entire book, you can always go buy it (it’s available in ebook and trade paperback) from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, or iTunes.
Chapter 11 – The Underground
Malcolm had a car waiting near the entrance of the Parque, an older model that would pass unnoticed in just about any corner of the city. Motioning her to remain within the Parque, he looked around carefully as he crossed the street to the car and took a few moments to look beneath it, behind every tire, and under the hood. Then, apparently satisfied, he opened the passenger door and gestured for her to come quickly.
Feeling a bit of a fool, Jo complied, racing across the street and ducking into the car. Malcolm closed the door for her and then hopped in himself. He grinned at her as he closed his own door and started the car.
“Going a little overboard on the cloak and dagger, aren’t you?” Jo quipped, and instantly wished she had not.
“Can’t be too careful, Jo. Friends of mine have found car bombs before. One died because he wasn’t looking.”
The smile she had been wearing disappeared and she felt her heart rate begin to increase. Maybe this was a mistake, after all. Then Malcolm fished into his pocket and held out a bandana.
“What’s this?” Jo asked.
“A blindfold. For my protection, and for yours. You can’t be made to tell something you don’t know.”
“You know what? Never mind.” Jo opened the car door, and Malcolm grasped her arm.
“Please, Jo, trust me. I’m not going to hurt you, nor will any of the people you meet tonight.”
She knew she should get out of the car and walk away, but Malcolm’s expression was so earnest, so full of need, that she couldn’t bring herself to walk away. With a disgusted sigh, she pulled the door shut and took the bandana.
“Thank you,” Malcolm said, and put the car into gear. Jo tied the bandana over her eyes and slid down in the seat to wait out the ride.
* * * * *
The ride was long and bumpy, with many turns. In reality it probably did not last as long as Jo thought, sitting there in her blindfold, but it felt like an eternity. Of course, seeing how careful Malcolm was, how willing to believe he might be followed or car bombed, she figured he probably turned many more times than necessary, to throw off a tail. And, she was forced to admit, he probably did it to confuse her sense of direction, so she could not retrace the drive even if she wanted to.
Finally the car came to a stop, and Malcolm said, “You can take off the blindfold.” She eagerly complied and sat up straight to take a look around.
The car was parked in a small, two-car garage. The parking area next to them was dusty, and filled with clutter: boxes, a work bench, tools, the usual sort of things that people put in garages instead of cars. Looking behind them, she could see that the garage door was closed. The only other way out was through a small door to their left.
“Here we are,” Malcolm said as he turned off the car’s motor. “Are you ready?”
Jo nodded, and they got out. At the door, Malcolm knocked thrice, then once, then four times. Jo shook her head and smirked in amusement. Three, One, Four: the secret knock was the number pi. Cute.
Malcolm noticed her smirk and shrugged. “We’re almost all engineers, here,” he said.
The door cracked open, and a nasally man’s voice said, “Who’s that with you, Malcolm?”
“Josephine Ishikawa,” Jo announced.
The man behind the door grunted, then the door closed again. Jo heard a muffled electronic beep, followed by a series of rattles and thumps. Slowly, the door opened wide, and she was able to make out the man who had greeted them.
He was short, wiry, in his early middle years, maybe sixty at the most. His face was long and scrawny, his nose a little bit too large for the rest of him. He wore loose-fitting overalls and work boots. And he held a plasma rifle, pointed right at her chest.
“What’s she doing here? You were supposed to bring the reporter,” he said, his squeaky voice managing to sound menacing.
Jo blinked in surprise. He didn’t know? Apparently not, as Malcolm replied, “Reynolds is dead. She’s all we’ve got, now.”
“Fuck,” the man said, and lowered the rifle. “All right. Come on, then.”
The little man turned and vanished around a corner, and Malcolm, gesturing for Jo to come along, followed him.
They walked down a short corridor that ended at a narrow staircase leading down. The stairs descended for longer than Jo expected, stopping at one landing and bending right before continuing down again. They finally ended, after what Jo estimated to be a fifty foot descent, at another door, this one more solid looking, with a sliding view hole at chest level and an antique intercom box to the side. Looking up, Jo could see a small camera in the corner, looking down at the area before the door, and wondered at the purpose behind the view hole.
Then the view hole opened and the muzzle of another plasma rifle poked out. That answered that.
After a brief exchange of words, the second rifle withdrew. A moment later, the door opened and the small man gestured for Malcolm and her to enter the room beyond.
* * * * *
Jo stepped through the door and her jaw dropped in amazement.
The room she walked into could have been transported to McCallister headquarters without missing a beat. In fact, the controllers in the ECC or Flight Control would probably look with envy at some of the equipment they had here. Satellite tracking stations, communication downlinks, interactive star charts, and command summary displays dominated the wall to her right. Off to the left, through a set of plastiglass sliding doors, it looked like there was a lab of sorts. Or at least, several men in lab coats were working around work benches in there. Further back, past the working men, was another set of doors marked with containment seals like were used for a clean room. In the center of the room, a command station similar to hers in the ECC was set up, facing the display screens. Past that, the wall opposite her was plain, with two standard sliding doors leading to more rooms.
A solid thunk from behind them drew Jo’s eye as a tall, powerfully built man, dressed similarly to the first but much more effective in the role of imposing security guard, closed the door behind them, leaving the smaller man to his post outside. Seeing her gazing at him, he grinned at her, a broad smile that suddenly made his severe features warm, handsome, and inviting.
Jo felt a sudden heat rush to her face as she realized she had let her gaze linger on his impressive figure longer than she intended, and she quickly looked away.
Jo caught Malcolm looking sidelong at her with an amused expression on his face. “Lars has that affect on a lot of women.”
“Shut up,” Jo replied. She had to force herself not to grind her teeth in annoyance, both at him and at herself.
A soft chuckle drew her attention back to the command station, where a plump woman in jeans and a green blouse was just getting up from a chair. A bit taller than Jo, she wore her extra pounds in a manner that only accentuated her natural curves. Add to that a pleasant face with an inviting smile, and Jo supposed she probably did not have much difficulty attracting men, if she wished to.
The woman stepped up to them and extended a hand toward Jo. “Captain Ishikawa, I’ve heard a lot about you from Malcolm. I’m Becky.” She had a bit of the Land Down Under in her accent, unless Jo missed her guess.
Jo shook hands, and was impressed at Becky’s firm, confident grip. “The pleasure is mine,” she replied. “Are you in charge here?”
Becky shrugged her shoulders. “More or less.” She and Malcolm shared a quick look. A moment of awkward silence followed. Finally, Malcolm cleared his throat.
“Anyway, Jo, you probably want to get down to it.”
“That would be nice.”
Becky blinked, then nodded and led them over to the command station.
“This is a pretty impressive setup,” Jo remarked.
And it was. The displays on the far wall showed a complete readout of every satellite in Earth orbit, from the smallest weather bird to the five large spacedocks in their geosynchronous positions. But beyond that, Jo saw starliners on departure vectors, shuttles running to and from the various orbital stations and Luna, pleasure craft of every kind…everything she would need to manage an orbital traffic control station. How did they get all this?
“It ought to be,” Becky replied. “We paid enough for it.”
“Surely this isn’t a licensed traffic control station.”
Behind her, Malcolm half-snorted, half-chuckled, and Jo found herself flushing slightly. Becky glanced at him and frowned slightly, then shook her head.
“No. Everything here is strictly passive: receive only. The Feds would shut us down in an instant if they knew we were online.”
“Passive only? That doesn’t make sense. How do you…”
Becky interrupted, “Every vessel and satellite transmits its location and velocity every several seconds via special coded sequences in its Stellar Navigation Transponder.” She looked at Jo with incredulous eyes. “You didn’t know that?”
Jo blinked, embarrassment flooding through her like a tsunami. She felt her cheeks flushing, and she nodded quickly. “Yes…of course. I just…” She managed a half-smile and shrugged. “I wasn’t thinking about that.” Clearing her throat, Jo changed the subject. “Where did you get the funding for all this?”
Becky and Malcolm exchanged glances, and were silent for a long moment.
Finally, Malcolm ran his hand through his hair and replied, “We provide…services…to people who would rather not have their comings and goings monitored by the government. Some of them pay quite nicely.”
He almost sounded embarrassed. For that matter, Becky avoided looking her in the eye.
“So…narcotics dealers,” Jo said. “Looks like the news broadcast was right about Reynolds’ death, after all.”
Becky perked up, her nostrils flaring and her lips compressing into a snarl as she drew breath to retort. Then Malcolm placed a calming hand on her shoulder, giving it a slight squeeze. At Malcom’s touch, Becky’s ire seemed to leave almost as suddenly as it flared up. He spoke in an earnest tone.
“That’s not how it is, Jo. Yes, we sometimes assist gangsters. But we mostly help honest people who have fallen afoul of the law through no fault of their own, or legitimate businesses who find themselves unable to do business effectively with all the regulatory and bureaucratic hoops they’re forced to jump through.”
As he finished, Becky reached up, taking Malcolm’s hand into her own as it lay on her shoulder, and exhaled slowly, her shoulders losing their tension. Jo found her curiosity piqued, seeing the strangely intimate physical exchange. Were they involved as more than just compatriots?
“So, what does this have to do with me?”
* * * * *
I hope you enjoyed this chapter of The Pericles Conspiracy. Stay tuned in a few days for the next chapter, or, if you don’t want to bother waiting half a year to read the entire book, you can always go buy it (it’s available in ebook and trade paperback) from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, or iTunes.