“This is just coffee, right?” Kat asked, glancing at the uniformed man standing behind Jasper as they sat down in the small cafe built into the college. “No strings attached?”
From the well-pressed dress shirt and slacks that Jasper wore, to the perfect part of his hair, nothing about him looked casual. His eyes bored into her intensely from behind a top-of-the-line smartpanel, a watch worth more than every item her entire family had owned before she started working for Xander hanging casually from his wrist.
She’d done some research, and so far their meeting was proceeding almost exactly how she’d expected. Every aspect of Jasper Haupt’s persona was purposeful. He was rich and in command of almost every situation he found himself in, and he knew it. Luckily, unlike many scions of wealth, Jasper at least made a show of egalitarianism. Kat was still concerned about coercion, the man was destined to be an executive after all, but he would at least make an effort to not be caught explicitly extorting her.
“Nothing to worry about Katherine,” he pulled a chair out from the beautifully varnished wooden table and sat down. “I do want to know more about my Father and what happened in the Schaumburg Arcology leading up to his death, but I’m also interested in you. It’s not every day that I get an opportunity to talk to an actual rank-and-file employee.”
“What about…?” Kat motioned toward the servant standing behind him, her brow furrowing slightly. The man didn’t react in the slightest.
“Davis doesn’t count,” Jasper waved a hand dismissively, “he’s always there.”
Kat looked at Davis, the frown still on her face as she tried to find a non-offensive way to respond to Jasper’s statement.
“Look,” Jasper swiveled in his seat, turning to the servant. “You didn’t take offense to me saying you don’t count, right Davis?”
“None at all, sir,” the middle-aged man inclined his head slightly to Jasper. Kat couldn’t help but notice the difference in age. That a grown man was forced to respond so carefully and deferentially to the casual dismissal of someone just out of boyhood.
“Great,” Jasper smiled, “Can you get me a Twenty of the Colombian dark roast, nonfat, with two pumps of sweetener, and-”
He turned to her, his motions cheerful and vigorous. “What do you want, Katherine?”
“Just a normal coffee?” She responded, struggling to make sense of the string of jargon. “What the heck is a Twenty anyway?”
“Two Colombian’s then, thank you, Davis,” he nodded to the servant before turning back to Kat. “It’s a large coffee. I thought it was because it was twenty ounces of liquid, but there are only sixteen. Honestly? No one one really knows.”
“I guess?” Kat tried to smile as she shrugged. “Anyway, here we are meeting in public. What do you want to know?”
Jasper leaned forward, both of his elbows on the polished wood of the table as he steepled his hands in front of his face.
“You knew Anna Donnst and Arnold Jacques, right?” His expression was unsettling. He stared at her intently, like a housecat enraptured by the birds flitting about just outside a window.
“After a fashion,” Kat hesitantly picked the words for her response. “I was pretty good friends with Arnold until he decided to date Anna. He pretty much stopped talking to me after that. Apparently, she thought I was some kind of threat, but I barely knew her beyond brushing shoulders with her from time to time at school.”
“But you also moonlighted as a runner for the independent contractor crew that took Donnst down,” Jasper stated rather than asked as he accepted a coffee from Davis, “The Chrome Wolves or something.”
“The ChromeDogs, sir,” Davis handed Kat her coffee. It was warm, with an earthy scent that she didn’t usually associate with the overly chemical brands of instant coffee that she normally consumed. “A mid-sized independent contracting firm with high marks in infiltration and data retrieval. That rating is subject to revision as they’ve recently been associated with a very high profile job, but the quality and value of the information retrieved is still under review.”
Kat stiffened. They only mentioned her history as a runner, but-
“The ChromeDogs!” Jasper snapped his fingers, coffee sitting untouched in front of him. “I don’t know exactly what happened in Schaumburg, but shortly after the ChromeDogs received the bounty from my family, your entire family paid off their debts, so I’m hoping that you’ll be able to fill me in.”
Nervous energy ran through Kat’s body. She could barely feel the heat of the coffee through its paper cup as it singed her hand. Frantically, her eyes searched Jasper’s trying to figure out what he knew. What he suspected, but only turning up blanks.
Clearly, he knew a bit about her situation, but just as obviously he was leaving what he knew open-ended in an effort to get her to overplay her hand. It was a bluff, but without any way of knowing the extent of the bluff she was acting blind.
“I was on a run, pulling data out of the arcology,” Kat answered, taking a sip of the coffee to buy herself time. “Things got dicey a couple of times and I apparently went above and beyond the call of duty enough to get a bonus.”
Half-truths are better than whole lies. Xander repeated the phrase to the point that it might as well be a motto, but he was the one at home in situations like this. Sometimes she would swear that he preferred the adrenaline and intrigue of negotiating with a high-end corporate client more than the actual operation itself.
“Holy shit this is good!” Kat exclaimed, looking at the understated paper cup in her hand. “I don’t know what a Colombian Roast is, but this is better than anything Java Bounty serves.”
“Java Bounty is trash,” Jasper smirked. “Unfortunately, GroCorp has struggled to develop a cold-resistant strain of coffee beans that’s worth a damn. For all of our technical prowess, Great Lakes Coffee tastes like dirty dishwater. We have to trade with JB Holdings out of South America if we want anything worth drinking.”
“Wait,” Kat frowned slightly as she blew across the top of the cup to cool it. “Doesn’t Java Bounty advertise Great Lakes Coffee as ‘local and delicious, keeping jobs in our communities’ or something like that?”
“Cafe-Chan,” Jasper laughed, “one of Dad’s greatest inventions. Great Lakes Coffee is cheap and it has great profit margins. It’s just hard to sell to anyone that has actually had real coffee. Fools think the point of business is to create a better product. The real purpose is to convince consumers there is no better product than what you’ve created.”
“I can see why you wouldn’t want people knowing about this,” Kat took another sip. “It’s phenomenal.”
“Well,” he winked, “let’s just keep it our little secret then.”
She took another drink, savoring the rich earthiness of the coffee. Fighting Jasper would only raise his suspicion, and so far the corporate scion had only been friendly with her. Better to cooperate as much as possible. Jasper Haupt might never consider himself a ‘friend’ to someone with Kat’s background, but it was imperative that he not decide she was an enemy.
“So,” she set the cup down. “What do you want to know about Arnold and Anna? I was Arnold’s tutor for school and we were sort of close, but honestly I don’t know how much he had to do with everything. I doubt he was even fully in control of his own life, let alone capable of serving as some sort of criminal mastermind.”
“They were both idiots,” Jasper waved a hand dismissively. “I had them investigated before the execution, and neither of them knew what they were doing. Arnold was completely lost, and Anna was barely competent enough to pay someone to perform the hit.”
“Honestly?” Jasper frowned for the first time, pensive furrows lining his face. “All of the evidence was too neat. No offense, but we shouldn’t have needed to hire mercenaries if the people who killed my father were foolish enough to keep such specific and in-depth logs of their sensitive dealings. The more I look at it, the entire affair smells funny. My father was too great of a man to be brought down by this circus of incompetents. There must be another actor.”
Kat’s stomach dropped. She focused on regulating her breathing, trying not to think about the final raid on the Steel and Blood headquarters. How Belle Donnst had not quite revealed her role in the entire affair while explaining that the evidence they were retrieving pointed squarely at her daughter. It did, and Jasper was right. The entire case was far too neat.
“It sure as hell wasn’t Gregory Daniels,” Jasper slumped in the hardwood chair. “I looked into him. The guy is a schmuck. As dumb as Anna Donnst is, she legitimately led him around by the nose. I believe the evidence was doctored, but that man wasn’t the brains behind it.”
“You tell me, Katherine,” he glanced up at her frustration in his voice. “My Dad is dead. Did Arnold and Anna kill him alone, or did they have help?”
She chewed on her lip, weighing her options. She didn’t know anything for sure, and getting entangled with Jasper wasn’t a decision for her to make, but at the same time, stonewalling him was a good way to court trouble. More than anything, Kat needed some breathing room to work things out.
“First of all,” she smiled at him, trying to put the brooding young man at ease, “call me Kat. Everyone does.”
“Second,” Kat ran a hand through her hair, trying to pick her words carefully. “ChromeDogs would only report information to you that they were sure of. With the exception of Arnold, Gregory Daniels and Anna Donnst were both guilty as hell. As for crews? Steel and Blood were almost certainly the group that handled that hit. They were getting a lot of money from Anna Donnst and specialized in assassinations. Christopher Haupt wasn’t the only person they killed to fuel Gregory Daniels’ ambitions.”
“But,” she let the word drag out before continuing, “that doesn’t mean that everything got reported to you. Hypothetically, if there were other people we thought were involved, but we couldn’t prove it? That wouldn’t make it into a report to a client. Loose ends like that aren’t productive, they just make the person highlighting them a target.”
“What do you mean?” Jasper perked up, leaning forward and almost knocking his cooling coffee over.
“Look,” Kat took another sip of her drink. “I don’t have authorization to talk about this, but like you I walked away with suspicions. I just don’t feel safe-”
“I’ll protect you,” Jasper hissed, his eyes flashing. “Whatever it is you need, I’ll make sure you’re safe. That your family is safe. My Dad is rotting in a grave, half-avenged. I need this information.”
“Jasper,” Kat shook her head. “All I have are suspicions, but if they’re right, we’re talking about the person who successfully killed Christopher Haupt and escaped all consequences. Do you really think I can trust you to keep me safe from them?”
“I,” he deflated, slumping back into his chair. “I understand Katherine. If there are any hints you can provide, I’d be happy to hear them. I know it isn’t just about credits, but I am prepared to offer a subscription to The Tower of Somnus, free and clear, if you can provide me with information that I can act on.”
“I can talk to my handler with the ChromeDogs the next time I visit the Arcology,” Kat replied, trying to hide her distress. The last thing she needed was Jasper to realize that she didn’t need a subscription. Still, it wasn’t something that anyone in her position would turn down without serious thought. At a minimum, she needed a plausible excuse.
“That sounds great,” Jasper perked up slightly. “Hell, tomorrow is Saturday and none of us have any homework. It’s the perfect time for you to go home for a visit already.
“What-” Kat blinked, feeling the conversation suddenly slipping out of her control.
“Davis can get you maglev tickets to the Arcology for tonight,” Jasper smiled at her, standing up and leaving his cold and untouched coffee behind. “First class, my treat.”
Before she could respond, Jasper was already making his way toward the exit of the coffeeshop. Kat simply blinked as the door closed behind him, abandoning her to the wood paneling and soft music of the cafe.
“Madame,” Davis coughed, drawing her attention. He removed himself from the nearby wall and approached her, tapping his smartpanel. A moment later a dialogue box popped into her vision asking Kat if she wanted to accept a contact request from Davis Stoller.
“Hello,” she accepted the request, standing up and offering her hand to the uniformed man. “I’m sorry that Jasper and I just talked over you like that.”
“It is not a problem,” he replied stuffily, “is the eight o’clock maglev acceptable?”
Kat accessed her personal planner, paging through her schedule for the afternoon before nodding to Davis. “That should be fine, thank you.”
A moment later, her inbox lit up as Davis transferred a purchased ticket to her.
“Thank you again, Mr. Stoller,” she smiled at the older man. “Will there be anything else?”
“Yes, Miss Debs,” Davis shifted nervously. “Do you mind if I call you Kat?”
She nodded slowly, picking up her coffee as she stood up so that she could look at the slightly taller man more or less eye to eye.
“Kat,” worry crinkled the corner of his eyes. “Jasper is a good boy. He respected and looked up to his Father, but the man wasn’t in his life as much as either of us would have liked. I’ve been with him for a long time, and I’ve tried to instill a sense of honor in him.”
She clutched the coffee to her chest, unsure where Davis was going.
“What I’m trying to say,” Davis closed his eyes, sighing, “is that you should try not to think too badly of him. Jasper is a romantic. He wants to find out what happened to his Father in a world where most children would simply delight in an early inheritance. You don’t seem like the type to take advantage of him. In fact, you seem like you want to be anywhere but here. A sensible response.”
“You seem like a reasonable girl, Kat,” he looked at her once more, his grey eyes as sharp as steel. “Simply deal fairly with him. Don’t string Jasper along with empty promises and we won’t have a problem.”
“What happens if we have a problem?” Kat didn’t move an inch, her gaze hardening to match the older man’s.
Davis looked her up and down before responding. “You don’t move like someone who is just a runner, Kat. I saw you register a weapon during intake. You’re a predator.”
“I don’t mean that as an insult,” Davis shook his head. “Far from it, I respect who you are, what you represent and what you’ve obviously done to get where you are. I just want you to know that even if Jasper may resemble prey to someone like you, there will be repercussions. I don’t think I need to spell this out. You got into this institution without parental help. You’re a smart girl.”
“I’m not a fan of being threatened,” Kat frowned at him, her feet almost unconsciously spreading into a combat stance.
“Oh, don’t worry,” he chuckled, the dangerous look fading from his eyes. “I don’t intend to back you into a corner. I can respect another professional. I just want to make sure you know where my line is drawn in the sand.”
“The maglev will arrive at eight o’clock, Kat,” Davis inclined his head slightly before he turned to leave. “Hopefully your trip back home will help jog your memory.”
Thirty seconds later she was alone in the coffee shop, Jasper’s untouched and now cold coffee her only companion. Kat finished her own drink and sighed, the quiet music already beginning to grate on her nerves.
Disposing of both of the cups, Kat returned to her room, shooting an e-mail to both her Mother and Xander letting them know that she’d be visiting home for the weekend. A couple changes of clothes and some snacks in a duffle bag later, she was ready to head to the maglev station.
This time, rather than a cab, Kat decided to walk. She had a couple of hours to kill, and she wasn’t terribly keen to relive the string of near death experiences that could charitably be called her ride to college.
Chiwaukee itself was fairly pleasant in the early afternoon light. Corporate security patrolled the streets beneath towering edifices of steel and glass, nodding at the GroCorp logo on her jacket even as they kept their eye on clusters of more mundane employees.
The people all reminded her of her time in the Schaumburg Arcology, albeit wearing slightly different color schemes. Company workers either hurrying to work second shift or lounging around local bodegas drinking overpriced neon fizzy drinks.
Not one of them looked like a samurai. There weren’t any visible physical augmentations, and none of the people carried themselves with the swagger and menace she’d come to associate with the professional freelance soldiers that lived their life on the edge.
It was safe, but the entire ward felt… boring. There was no vibrancy here, the streets didn’t carry any of the life she’d come to associate with the abject poverty of the Shell, the garish neon of St. Louis, and the seedy hustle of the neighborhood where Xander had rented the flophouse.
She felt like she was in a tiny room on a hot summer day. The air was stale and felt flat in her lungs. Even when she made it to the maglev station and presented her ticket via smartpanel, she still just felt lethargic.
There were other people in the station, waiting to take the nightly commuter train to Schaumburg, but Kat didn’t bother to approach any of them. Most were managers or corporate security, neither a group she had a natural rapport with. Luckily, no one cared that she just stood in the corner letting the entertainment streams melt her brain rather than socializing.
The train was on time, and the actual trip out to Schaumburg was comfortable and only took a couple of minutes. Really, the maglevs were a modern miracle, one that allegedly had its origins in material science advances that could be traced back to The Tower of Somnus.
Kat wasn’t entirely sure how the Tower had influenced the magnetically hovering high speed trains. As far as she could tell, their technology predated humanity’s introduction to the Tower, but it sounded like studies of the abilities humans had brought out of the Tower had allowed scientists to optimize the advancement.
The train slowed to a halt, magnets grabbing the vessel and arresting its momentum soundlessly, and minutes later, Kat was walking out onto the tenth floor station of the Arcology.
She smiled to herself as she stood in line at the security kiosk, waiting for her turn to present her credentials to the overworked company employee inside. Kat couldn’t help but find it funny that boarding and disembarking the maglev probably took more time than the actual trip.
Finally, she was in front of the harried clerk, and with a tap of her smartpanel she sent the poor woman a copy of her ticket, employment status, and trip itinerary. A glance to the side transformed her quiet amusement into pensive brooding.
Alongside the usual Ike Holdings corporate security officers stood a pair of samurai. They were wearing well-fit and expensive clothing, but that was like putting a bowtie on a tiger. Chrome limbs and the steel glint of cybereyes were only the most obvious of clues. Everything about the men, from the custom weapons at their sides to their posture, and the way they surveyed the maglev station like they owned the place rang alarm bells in Kat’s head.
Whoever they were, corporate security didn’t carry themselves with the casual arrogance that practically dripped off of the samurai. That was something earned through struggle and blood in forgotten gutters and alleys. A couple months of firearm and crowd control training at a security academy just couldn’t
“Thank you, ma’am,” Kat blinked looking back at the frazzled clerk. The twenty-something woman smiled at her wearily. “Your paperwork all checks out. Thank you for coming back to visit the Schaumburg Arcology.”
Kat smiled at her and began walking toward the elevator, doing her best to keep her breathing and posture natural as she passed the two samurai, heart pounding. Even if she didn’t know who they were, Kat knew better than to believe in coincidences. The samurai might not be there for her, but their presence was almost certainly an ill omen.
If they noticed anything amiss about her, neither commented on it, and there was no way Kat could turn to observe them without giving up the charade. Only when the elevator closed behind her with a ding did she finally exhale, slumping up against the wall. A low-level manager glanced at her in confusion, but Kat just ignored her, content on riding the lift down to her mother’s apartment.
A brief check-in with her younger sister to ensure that the girl was actually studying and not watching Chrome Cowboys, and Kat was on her way to the ground floor. She made her way through the giant open-air market that was the first floor of the Arcology and out onto the streets of the Shell.
Her steps faltered slightly as she took in the half-deserted streets of the shantytown that surrounded the Arcology. Scavengers in human form peered out at her from busted windows before going on their way, recognizing someone that was worth more trouble than they were worth.
It was a hellscape strewn with decades old garbage and burned out cars, but at least in the Shell, you knew your place. If you weren’t careful, you’d die. No one even bothered with the fake smiles and niceties of corporate life, they were either in your crew and family, or they were a rival.
She set out toward the ChromeDog’s headquarters, hand on the hilt of the knife in her jacket. Although Kat felt eyes in between her shoulder blades, keeping tabs on her movements and sizing her up, no one bothered Kat and she arrived at the warehouse that Xander and the ChromeDogs used without much trouble only for a frown to blossom on her face.
The formerly nondescript building had been updated since their raid on Steel and Blood. Machine gun nests dotted each corner of the warehouse, and defenses, both manned and automated, occupied many of the allegedly abandoned buildings dotting the street running up to the headquarters.
New however, were the trio of armored transports parked just outside the half-disabled armored fighting vehicle that the ChromeDogs had salvaged from their war with Steel and Blood and pressed into service as a fortified road block.
All three of the heavy cars were brand new, painted in GroCorp colors and guarded by a quartet of corporate security officers that actually looked like they knew how to shoot their heavy rifles at something other than rioting factory workers. All four of them wore heavy exosuits covered in armor, and their visored helmets snapped up as soon as Kat stepped into view.
A ChromeDog samurai she vaguely recognized hurried over to talk to the four soldiers as Kat approached, and other than the gooseflesh on the back of her neck, she was able to enter the warehouse unmolested. Quietly, the samurai that let her in directed Kat to the first floor conference room rather than the second story office suite usually used for the organizations meeting and planning.
She frowned as she approached the door. Honestly? She hadn’t even been in the conference room since her time as a runner. As soon as she joined up with Xander, every meeting had taken place deeper in the building. Really, the conference room was only used for clients and trusted outsiders.
Kat pushed the door open and stepped inside, her pensive expression immediately dissolving into one of shock. Xander sat at the large cheap table that filled most of the room, a worried look on his face. Next to him bristled Nina Cromwell, his wife and the actual head of the ChromeDogs military operations.
“It’s good to meet you in person, Katherine.”” Belle Donnst stood at the other end of the room, her suit immaculate and probably worth enough to feed a large family for a month. She smiled at Kat, a cheerless display of perfectly straight and white teeth. “Why don’t you take a seat. We have a lot to discuss.”
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Bio: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the streets at dawn looking for an angry fix of machine translated light novels, burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of the night