Vergeron’s headquarters was an obelisk. Imposing. Enticing. It had a gravity beyond the simple material. It was a vortex of decision and choice, vibrating like a harmonious sustained chord in Xavier’s ears.
Xavier’s power had been in a state of flux, unreliable and fickle. Sometimes he could barely reach into the thoughts of those sitting across from him, and then there were fleeting moments like this, when all of Delphi pulsed just behind his eyes. It made it hard to focus, but Xavier was a practiced user of his blessing, maybe more practiced than any other, so he marshaled the buzzing, indecisive mass in front of him and shut it away, compartmentalized it, dulling the roar to that of a murmur before waving the two men behind him to follow and moving through the spacious entryway and up, up, up through Vergeron’s monolith.
As garden after garden blurred passed, Xavier felt a pain of envy. You’d have to be made of stone not to be moved by the grandeur of this place. Xavier knew that in a different life, on some path not traveled, a site like Vergeron would be his kingdom. Xavier wasn’t a resentful man. He was born into the cult and grew up with the understanding that the gifts of the Chosen, and the tithe of blood paid for them, was a clandestine pact, the silence and secrecy of the faithful as much a sacrifice as any altar spilled blood. Xavier had made moves to legitimize his enterprises and, despite his critics, had forged a path of validation outside the shadowed providence of dogma. Still, as the maglev slowed and the doors opened to the executive floor, Xavier wondered if he would ever sit atop an empire this large.
Xavier and his entourage crossed the bridge into the waiting gallery and were greeted by a young assistant who directed them to the large oak doors of Cain Westbrook’s office.
Xavier brought himself back around to the task at hand. His primary goal was a simple one, plant the seed of Lilith’s false formula and see if the bait was taken. Secondly, elucidate the events surrounding Cartwright’s capture, death, and the extent to which Vergeron was involved. Xavier had pulled on his last favor to legitimize him being here. To get the files and paperwork aligned so fast had taken a measure of fineness Xavier took pride in; so, Xavier stepped into Westbrook’s office as one Neil Carlyle, Investigation Coordinator and Liaison to the Department of Justice.
Cain Westbrook stood from his chair at Xavier’s entrance, wreathed in Delphi’s afternoon light. Xavier understood a few things about the aesthetics of power, about the placement and framing of furniture and body to facilitate control without having to speak a word. It was why he’d gladly accepted his own accompaniment of ‘fellow’ agents. It was apparent that Westbrook understood these things too and though Xavier was well aware of the manipulation, it made them only slightly less effective.
Xavier reached out with his gift, wanting a measure of the man. Every consciousness was different, had its own feel and texture. Some were soft and indecisive, pliable and begging for a guiding hand. Many where akin to that of wood, firm but full of knots and fissures that could be opened and exploited with careful words and precise timings. It was disconcerting then that when Xavier touched Cain Westbrook’s psyche it was like running his hand over polished marble.
“Hello, Mr. Westbrook.” Xavier spoke, crossing the distance and extending his hand with a smile as he entered the room. “I’m Neil Carlyle, but please call me Neil.”
Cain grabbed Xavier’s outstretched hand, giving it a powerful shake. “Alright Neil, call me Cain.”
Cain walked around to the side of his office where a few chairs and a small table had been set up for informal gatherings such as this. Motioning for Xavier to follow, the government consultant and his two black suits settled themselves into the plush leather for a luxury conversation.
“So,” Cain said, taking his own seat, “my secretary was a little vague on the purpose of this meeting. She said it was in regard to the joint Vergeron-FBI taskforce that we employed during the Alleyman case, but that was about as much as she could tell me.” Cain’s face pinched in good-natured annoyance, but the implication of ‘are you wasting my time’ was crystal clear.
“My apologies Mr. Westbrook… I mean Cain. The contents of my brief are classified. I know your key staff usually has some level of clearance, but I was a little uncomfortable discussing things over the phone.”
“Glados has near top secret clearance,” Cain said with a flick of his wrist, like he was shooing a fly, “it’s part of the reason I’ve retained her. Feel free to be more specific in the future.”
Cain’s voice was almost as smooth as the leather of the magnificent seat that was elevating his posterior, but Xavier could sense the profound irritation of a busy man who had been forced to set aside an indeterminate period of his day based on a nebulous request from some bureaucratic nobody.
“Yes, well, let’s get to it then. I’m here because we’ve been filtering through the information we collected during the ‘Night of Madness’.” Xavier paused for dramatic effect with mention of the ‘Night of Madness’. “I’m sorry, that was a bit informal. Would you prefer I refer to it by it’s official name, Operation Alleyman?”
It didn’t matter what Cain said. Xavier couldn't possibly care less. He was just testing the waters. If he was going to bend Cain, Xavier would need to catch him in a moment of indecision. There was no guarantee it would be necessary, but it could happen anytime and Xavier had learned to set the groundwork early, force his opponents to confront arbitrary questions to open up opportunities where he could strike.
“Night of Madness is fine. We’ve been calling it NoM internally, just for convenience.”
Cain wavered not a micron. No wobble. No flex. Xavier wasn’t expecting much given the simplicity of the probe, but the absolute lack of hesitation wasn’t something Xavier usually saw, and it didn’t bode well for the remainder of the exchange.
“Good then, NoM. Anyway, I’m sure you know that after an operation of this size a lot of information comes rolling into the bureau: evidence collected in the field, calls from citizens who want to report suspicious activity, most of it’s garbage, but we do our best to parse it just to be certain. Turns out we got lucky and came up with a lead. A strong one.”
“Really.” Cain replied, his mood softening at the revelation. “What exactly do you have, Neil? What did you come up with?”
“This is very preliminary.” Xavier said, seeming to shrink a little at Cain’s intimidating enthusiasm. “We debated if it was too early to bring you in, but Vergeron was so instrumental in the op we wondered if you’d be interested in further cooperation?”
“You’ve already got my attention.” Cain reiterated. “Let’s get to the good part.”
Xavier held out his hand and the man to his right handed him a tablet. Xavier scanned through information he was well acquainted with, letting the silence build before continuing.
“According to our latest information, the Alleyman was brewing his toxin right here in the city. This helps explain why nothing was ever tagged coming in through perimeter screening. It doesn’t explain why his weapon wasn’t ever recovered, which is a shame. However, it carries with it the exciting possibility that his equipment and research may still be here in Delphi.”
At the comment Cain’s face noticeably softened, probably to downplay the value of the information, but Xavier could sense his growing hunger. Cain wanted that formula, he wanted it bad. Xavier had come with the right bait, now to fish a little.
“Well, I’d certainly be open to additional joint collaboration.” Cain spoke with noteworthy composure. “How best can we assist?”
“Wonderful,” Xavier replied, lifting his tablet in front of his eyes and poking at the glowing screen. “Unfortunately there are a few particulars to sort out. The last NoM op came together rather hastily, so a lot of things slipped by the first taskforce that I feel need to be reviewed. First and foremost, the background checks for some of the Vergeron employees appear to be incomplete. Would it be alright if we went through a few of them?”
“Be my guest.” No fear. No delay. Westbrook was a god damned statue.
“Great. First let’s talk about Officer Maxwell. I realize he’s not strictly speaking a Vergeron employee, but our men have seen him repeatedly assisting Vergeron in the past few weeks. Do you mind if we keep your men under surveillance?” Xavier asked rhetorically.
“No.” Cain replied. “I suppose it’s in our best interest if it builds confidence for future endeavors.”
Unshakable! Xavier new the man couldn’t have known about the surveillance, but there was no surprise, no twitch in his mental composure. Had he anticipated this?
“Were you aware that Officer Maxwell is on suspension and not technically allowed to participate in official inquiries?”
“Not specifically, but I understand he’s in good company. How many officers were suspended that night? At least a dozen, I think.” There was no uncertainty in Westbrook. He knew the exact number and was just playing coy.
“So it doesn’t bother you that his current activity might be inappropriate considering the detective's employment status?
“Officer Maxwell is a big boy. I’m sure he can take care of himself. In any case, Vergeron wouldn’t be liable for any of his activities.”
Xavier didn’t know if Cain had practiced this in a mirror, but the answers came so freely it was like he didn’t even have to think. It was simply a reflex. Xavier was beginning to wonder if Cain even realized he was speaking, or if he was just as amazed by the elegant words that rolled so easily off his tongue.
“Here, I’m afraid, is a more complicated case, A Mister Richard Black.”
“I wondered when we were getting to that one.” Cain said with a wry smile.
“You don’t seem particularly surprised?”
“No, that one always tends to attract attention.” Westbrook said it in such a way that Xavier wasn’t sure if he meant the curious circumstance of Mr. Black’s engagement at Vergeron, or the man himself.
“Are you aware that Mr. Black is on parole for a charge of domestic terrorism?”
Cain didn’t blink.
“Yes, I recruited him myself. If it was a problem I wish you would have said something sooner. He’s already been fully debriefed. He probably knows more about the Alleyman than anyone.” Cain said, staring into Xavier’s eyes.
“Would you be willing to remove him from the ongoing investigation?”
Westbrook gave a shrug. “Sure, but I think it’s a mistake. I doubt we’d have captured the Alleyman without him.”
“You really think he was that instrumental?” There was not a ripple in Westbrook’s mind. Xavier could guess the response.
“He’s personally vested. If you review the DPD files you’ll see that he was a victim. Or did you overlook that part?”
Aggressive. Argumentative...perhaps protective?
“Not to dive too far off topic, but the Alleyman was somehow killed while in police custody. You wouldn’t suppose your Vergeron crew had anything to do with that?”
“You tell me. You did say they were under investigation.”
“Alright,” Xavier spoke, jabbing again on his tablet. “I would like to come back to Mr. Black, but first there’s one more glaring omission that I’d like to touch on before we leave. There’s one background check that was never relayed. To be frank, I almost missed it myself. I don’t have any information on you’re operative Alice. Could you give me a quick overview of her background and position at Vergeron?”
Westbrook stalled. It was hardly a crack, more of a wrinkle. Xavier hadn’t expected him to even flinch at the mention of Alice. He’d only asked because Lilith’s observations at the diner made it feel like the type of inquiry that needed to be made for completeness, but now that he’d finally found an inclusion in Westbrook's impenetrable defense, his curiosity was peaked. Xavier gave a push…
Yes, you would love to tell me all about her!
Cain stood with a ponderous expression on his face, adjusting his glasses. Xavier wondered for a moment if he'd mistimed his attack.
“Okay.” Cain spoke with obvious reservation. “Follow me.”
Xavier didn't say a word. The situation was still fragile. If anything was said that made Westbrook reconsider his decision it might be a nonstarter. Xavier simply motioned the other men to stand and they quietly took leave of Cain's office.
Westbrook lead them back to the maglev and they quickly descended to a central floor in the Vergeron complex. The flora of this level was that of a conifer grove: cedar, fir, juniper, and pine all mingled with each other here, their sharp fragrance lively and invigorating.
“Alice isn’t a person, Neil.” Cain spoke over his shoulder, finally breaking his silence as they walked a path through the trees. “It’s a system. Py… Mr. Black has been using her to help analyze some of the Alleyman data. Black's normal job is to analyze product placement in cinema. Actually, you might have seen his contributions to Spider Cyclone 8. His work on the Alleyman case is something we’ve indulged because of his personal investment, and of course his unique background.”
The group passed through the perimeter of the grove and into a maze of office space. Chasing a few people out of a conference room, Cain sat in a black swivel chair and slid a keyboard under his hands.
“Alice, are you there?” Cain spoke, waiting for a reply. When none came, Cain gave a short frustrated sigh and began typing on the keyboard. “It looks like the client isn’t running, just a second.”
A few keystrokes, and a crude loading screen later, whatever ‘Alice’ was appeared to be online.
“Yes Cain, how can I be of assistance?”
“What does the box office look like today?”
“The recent influx of foreign cinema has increased repeated attendance of select moviegoers, but has reduced attendance overall, resulting in a 5% decrease in revenue from this same period last year.”
“Great, thank you Alice. How are revenue projections for the remake of Dr. Strangelove?” Cain
leaned over to Xavier and whispered, “we’re making a remastered version with some cool new rendering technology to artificially enhance the scenery for ultra high def, and injecting a few ads while we’re at it. You wouldn't believe how hard it was to get the rights^”
“Please repeat.” Alice spoke.
“Dr. Strangelove.” Cain reiterated.
“How is it doing, what are revenue projections?”
“God,” Cain moaned, reaching again for the keyboard. “Sometimes the voice recognition isn’t great. In this day and age it’s completely ridiculous.”
After typing his query into the keyboard, Alice finally presented an answer to Cain’s question.
“Rendering of the new project is approximately 60% complete. The film will contain roughly 4,000 new art assets and about 150 embedded ads. Near-subliminal, and deeply-subliminal ads fall within the 1% run-time metric allowed by government regulations, the remainder are visible or highly visible. Marketing projections estimate a 40% return based on prepaid marketing assets and residual compensation. Gauging the critical reaction of similar movies and cross referencing release dates, cultural relevance of the piece, online chatter, and a combination of 47 other indexes, I estimate a return of only 15%. If profits rise above 20%, I would strongly consider a rapid release of the more seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey.”
“Interesting.” Xavier replied. “Is it right?”
“We’ll see. It’s not always right, but the estimates are on par with my best analysts and getting better all the time.”
“And you used this to apprehend the Alleyman?” Xavier couldn’t believe it. Cartwright was captured by a machine that calculated box office revenue.
“Mr. Black has discovered the system can break down crime statistics with about the same accuracy as marketing analysis. Not always perfect, but intriguing. Given the large financial upside of apprehending the Alleyman we took a chance, and you’ve seen the results. Here” Cain said, passing the keyboard to Xavier. “Ask her anything.”
Xavier took control of the keyboard and time stopped. A wave of enlightenment, of revelation pulsed through him. His vision expanded beyond the room, the city, the planet. Xavier was floating weightless above the Earth. He looked down on a world that was his, frozen in space, hearing the call as billions of voices played in his head, and encompassing him was a blue, gossamer energy.
As fast as the vision had come, it ended, and Xavier sat staring at the blinking cursor of the computer screen.
Xavier entered his query.
“Who are you?”