Uninvited Guests: Part Four

Submitted by C B Wright on
Curveball, by Christopher Wright
Aftermath

It all goes down pretty much the way CB expects, with one exception: the police arrive before the press. This is a positive development. Still, the arrival of the fire department, followed by the local police, followed by the press, followed by the EMTs, followed by CSI, followed by the FBI, followed by the Army, and then, finally, followed by the Federal Bureau of Metahuman Affairs makes the scene a mess. The police cordon off the block, forcing the press to either retreat or make hasty business agreements with some of Martin and Juliet’s neighbors, but other than that nothing is getting done: everyone is too busy arguing over what to do.

The FBMA insists on taking charge, since metahumans were involved in the fight. The FBI insists on taking charge, since the attackers look like foreign nationals, and terrorism is a concern. The Brooklyn PD points out that this took place in their jurisdiction, the fire department insists on making sure the house won’t explode or burn to the ground, and the EMTs just want to look for survivors and make sure they get medical treatment. Things are just about to get interesting when Pete Travers shows up.

Travers is one of the only people CB has ever met who can get different government agencies to work together willingly. It’s an impressive skill to have, and even if Travers had been an idiot it would have made him indispensable to his superiors. At it happens, Travers isn’t an idiot. As soon as he shows up everyone who was fighting the moment before falls silent, and waits: most have worked with him before, those who haven’t know him by reputation, and every one of them trusts that whatever decision he makes will be the right call.

CB wonders if Travers might be a metahuman after all.

In short order Travers has all the groups working together: as soon as he’s convinced there’s no longer a human threat in the area, he sends in the Army to dispose of the unexploded ordinance, then the Fire Department to make sure the house isn’t about to spontaneously combust and burn to the ground. Finally CSI goes in to collect evidence, tag the bodies, and move them to the morgue. Meanwhile, the FBMA questions the survivors.

CB doesn’t get much of a chance to talk to Martin, Juliet, Jenny or Andrew. He gets a tight smile and a nod from Martin, and Juliet says “well, it could have been worse” before they’re intercepted by the FBMA. Jenny and Andrew don’t say anything. They’re in shock at the state of their house. And there’s something else with Jenny—CB isn’t sure what, exactly, but she looks fierce.

FBMA standard procedure is to question everyone separately, but there’s not a lot of free space. Martin’s next door neighbors volunteer their living room, so he sees everyone being called in to the house next door one at a time, only to come out a little later looking vaguely chastened. When it’s his turn, he finds himself sitting on a comfortable overstuffed chair, facing four FBMA agents in dark suits, one working recording equipment while another is typing something into a field laptop. There’s hot tea sitting on the coffee table. If you ignore the recording equipment it’s unusually comfortable for an interrogation room.

The agent in charge, a tall, thin bearded man named Hollin, asks CB what happened. CB gives him the edited version: they were talking in the kitchen, he heard vehicles idling outside, it didn’t feel right, he told the family to get into the panic room.

Agent Hollin doesn’t react to anything. He has a good poker face—CB suspects his interrogations usually go pretty well. When CB leaves the neighbor’s house, he looks suitably chastened.

He’s greeted by Roger at the front step.

“They get you yet?” CB asks.

Roger nods. “I didn’t have much to tell them. Hell, I didn’t even do much when I got here, other than take a bullet for you. You made most of this mess yourself.”

“Did you get the helicopter?” CB asks.

Roger shakes his head. “I passed it on the way in, but it was gone when I did my perimeter search. Which means it’s pretty fast.”

“Too bad,” CB says. “Still, I appreciate your priorities.”

Roger chuckles. “Well, look. They’re releasing me, so I’m turning in. I have a spare room if you need it.”

“Thanks, Roger,” CB says, “but I think I’m going to have to lay low.”

Roger nods and extends his hand. CB shakes it. “You let me know what you need,” Roger says.

“You bet.”

Roger shoots into the sky like a rocket and disappears into the night. CB hears a faint thoom in the distance.

Technically CB isn’t allowed back in the house—it’s a crime scene now, and no one has quite decided if CB is a witness or a suspect. That said, everyone in the house is very busy, and nobody looks up when he makes his way through the living room, climbs up the remnants of the stairs, and makes his way to the guest bedroom on the second floor. The second floor is in much better shape than the first. If it wasn’t for the lingering smell of smoke and tear gas he wouldn’t have known anything had happened at all.

His duffel bag, already packed, sits at the foot of his bed. He picks up the bag, turns around, and sees Jenny standing in the doorway, looking at him.

“What’s up?” CB asks.

Jenny doesn’t answer. She looks at the duffel bag.

“Yeah,” CB says. “This isn’t exactly the way I planned it, but it looks like I—”

“I’m coming with you,” she says.

CB frowns. “No, you’re not.”

Jenny’s jaw tightens. “Yes I am.”

“No,” CB repeats. “You really aren’t.”

“Look,” Jenny says, “You’re going to need someone to figure out how to crack that encryption. Unless you already have the key. Do you have the key? No? I didn’t think so. But I can do it. Hell, CB, I’m really good at doing that sort of thing. I can help you, and it’s my great-grandfather we’re talking about here.”

CB stares at Jenny. She meets his gaze, unflinching.

“Seen your house lately?” CB asks.

Jenny narrows her eyes.

“The guys who did this? They were good. They were very well trained, very well armed, and very well organized. They’re also not the ones who killed Alex. The one who killed Alex was significantly better than them. And I expect there are others like him involved.”

Jenny looks at the floor.

CB sighs. “Look. I might be able to protect you if we run into more of these mercenaries. But… it’s hard to say. The higher the stakes, the harder it is for me to guarantee anything, other than your insurance company jacking up their fees. Downstairs is mostly my doing, and that was against normal, well-trained men.”

You did this?” Jenny’s voice sharpens. “Why the hell would you…?”

“I didn’t do it on purpose,” CB snaps. “It’s the way… it’s the way my... thing... works. It scales and escalates. A lot of people think it scales disproportionately to the situation, favoring overkill.”

“I don’t care,” Jenny says. “Besides, you’re going to need a ride out of here.”

“Well,” CB says, “I was thinking maybe I’d just steal a car…”

“You will not!” Jenny says, scandalized. “First of all, don’t you dare do that to Mom and Dad right now. Second… steal a car?”

“Fine!” CB throws up his hands in exasperation. “You can drive me around, and you can help with the encryption. But if I tell you to stay behind at some point, it’s because I’m pretty damn sure that if you don’t you’re either going to wind up getting killed, or I’m going to get killed trying to keep you from getting killed. At which point, you’ll probably get killed anyway. Understood?”

“Fine,” Jenny says. “But you’re still not smoking in my car.”

“Christ,” CB mutters. “All right, let’s go.”

They agree to meet two blocks down, leaving separately to attract less attention. Jenny ducks into the alley to get her car, and CB walks up to Martin and Juliet, both sitting beside an ambulance, wrapped in blankets, drinking coffee out of a thermos.

“I keep forgetting how expensive your visits can be,” Martin says dryly.

“And you were always such a cheap date,” Juliet adds.

CB grins apologetically. “Sorry. I should have done all this somewhere else. I didn’t want to drag you guys into it.”

Martin shakes his head. “We were already in it. We know what it means to be part of this world.”

“And we stick around anyway,” Juliet says, smiling slightly.

“Of course,” Martin adds, “it helps that I’m rich.”

CB laughs out loud. “I guess it would at that.”

Martin nods to the duffel bag slung over CB’s shoulder. “Moving on?”

CB nods. “I’m going to have to poke around a little, and staying here… well. Bad idea. Especially since it looks like things are going to scale up.”

Martin frowns. “I see.”

Juliet looks around, suddenly worried. “Where’s Jenny? I see Andy, but I don’t see Jenny anywhere.”

CB looks at her steadily.

Juliet’s eyes widen. “No!”

“It wasn’t my idea,” CB says. “She takes after her mother.”

Martin closes his eyes, sighs heavily, then places a reassuring hand on Juliet’s shoulder. “She’s an adult,” he says. “She can make her own decisions.”

“No she can’t,” Juliet mutters.

“I’ll keep her out of the thick of it,” CB promises. “I’m half-tempted to give her the slip and leave her behind, but she has that look. You know the one, Juliet, don’t even try to pretend you have no idea what I’m talking about. If I ditched her, she’d just find a way to follow me, attracting all sorts of attention along the way. At least I got her to agree to stay put when I tell her.”

“Did you really?” Martin looks surprised.

“That’s what I’m telling myself. Try to keep Andy out of this, will you? I can’t handle both.”

“He’s not going to go AWOL,” Martin says. “He’ll be tempted, but he won’t actually do it.”

“Well,” CB says, “that’s something, anyway.”

“Oh,” Juliet adds, “Pete’s looking for you. He wanted me to let you know.”

“Ah,” CB says. “Well… I might have forgotten to pack something. I’m going to head back upstairs for a few minutes.”

“Good luck,” Martin says. “Keep my little girl safe.”

“Please,” Juliet adds. CB sees pain and fear on her face.

“I’ll do what I can,” CB says.

There’s not much else to say after that. He heads back upstairs into the guest room and waits. A few minutes later Travers walks in.

“We don’t have a lot of time,” Travers says.

CB raises an eyebrow.

“Fortunately my reputation for promoting cooperation has prevented any single agency from getting control of the situation,” Travers says. “Which means nobody is listening in just yet.”

“Why do you think that’s a concern?” CB asks.

Travers sighs. “I think Alex’s death was an inside job.”

CB feels his jaw drop. “The hell you say.”

“Not completely inside, but a few things happened in the last few weeks that make me think someone inside was involved in his death… and that they used me to help make it happen.”

Travers looks as calm and mildly polite as he ever has, but his voice is thick with anger. “A few weeks ago Alex called me out of the blue. He wanted to know if I knew anything about the old Paragon Project archives—if they still existed, and if he could get a look at them. I told him I’d look into it. I made a few calls. The people I called wanted to know who wanted to know… and I told them Liberty wanted to know, because… well, hell, CB, because it was Liberty. I didn’t think anything about it.”

CB nods.

“Every call came back with an apology and a statement that Project Paragon files were still classified. One or two said they’d be happy to research specific questions, if Liberty had any. That’s what I told Alex, and he said he wasn’t surprised by the answer, thanked me, and that was that. Except that a few weeks later I got a call from a man following up on my inquiry with a bunch of questions about what Liberty had been looking for. Did he tell me anything further? Did I know if he’d been in contact with any of his old teammates? I thought it was odd, and when I asked the guy to identify himself he gave me a name that was flagged as an active alias for someone used in a covert operation. A few days later Alex was murdered. And now… suddenly I’m getting a lot of calls about you. A lot of calls.”

“I see,” CB says.

“Yeah,” Travers says. “Calls from people I don’t know, but who apparently have enough pull to get my bosses on my case. My bosses want ‘full cooperation.’ And you know what? It’s all starting to feel very familiar to me.”

CB nods again.

“Did you know we put a watch on this house?” Travers continues. “Yeah, we’ve had people watching this house nonstop, 24/7, ever since Alex’s death was reported on the news. Only tonight, for some mysterious reason, the watch rotation gets screwed up, and the agents on watch were relieved a full hour before their replacements showed up. Someone arranged that lapse on our end, CB, and that was the window these guys used to attack the house. There’s no getting around it, we’ve been compromised.”

Travers pulls out a USB thumb drive and a cell phone, and hands them to CB. “The drive has everything I know. I don’t know how useful that’ll be, but maybe we’ll get lucky. The phone will contact me directly. Don’t use it until you have something important to tell me: you get one call, then it’s in the system. I recommend ditching it after that.”

“OK,” CB says. “Thanks.”

Travers nods. “Good luck.” They shake hands, then Travers heads back down the stairs.

CB looks at the thumb drive and the cell phone, puts them in his trench coat pocket, then heads outside.

The fire engines have moved closer to the house to make it easier for the firemen to unload equipment. It very conveniently blocks all the good camera shots the news team holed up in the house across the street was hoping to get. CB gets to the police tape without attracting a single flash, ducks under, and keeps walking.

Two blocks down he opens the passenger side of Jenny’s car, throws his army bag in the back, and climbs in.

“You stink.” Jenny wrinkles her nose. “I didn’t notice outside.”

“Fighting will do that,” CB says.

“I’d almost decided you’d ditched me.”

CB shakes his head. “Just had to talk to your parents. And Travers.”

“Am I in trouble?” She tries to make it sound like a joke, but she sounds a little worried.

“Oh hell yes,” CB says, “but not from your parents. Though your mom isn’t happy you’ve decided to follow in her footsteps.”

“So… what, I’m in trouble with Travers?” Jenny frowns. “That doesn’t make sense.”

“No,” CB says, “you’re not in trouble with Travers. He just wanted to talk to me. You’re in trouble because you decided to put yourself in the middle of something incredibly dangerous—which, for the record, is stupid—and putting yourself in the middle of something incredibly dangerous puts you in trouble pretty much by definition.”

“So why did Travers want to talk to you?” Jenny ignores everything CB says that she finds inconvenient. Just like her mother. He respects that.

“He gave me some information he thought I might find useful,” CB says. “Start driving.”

Jenny turns on the ignition. “Where are we going?”

“For the moment we want to put as much distance between us and your house as possible. Other than that, I don’t know yet.”

“OK,” Jenny says, “I’ll take us uptown. So what exactly did I get myself into?”

“Hell if I know,” CB says. “I hate conspiracies. I really, really, hate conspiracies.”

“Conspiracy?” Jenny turns the car down a side street, where fewer people are milling curiously about, and they set off. “What kind of conspiracy are we talking about?”

“I don’t know yet.” CB reaches into his trench coat pocket for a cigarette, looks sideways at Jenny, sighs, and gives up on the idea. “That’s the problem with a conspiracy. The one time out of ten that you actually figure it out, you have to let the bad guys chase you relentlessly across the country first.

Jenny glances at CB. “One time out of ten? What about the other nine times?”

“Hm. Well.” CB looks out the passenger side window. “Nine times out of ten you don’t actually figure anything out. They just kill you instead.”