Just over 26,800 words. A healthy bit over ‘par’.
Chapter Fifteen — Fragile Alliances
Three hours later, the others huddled around his phone, watching the evidence in cold silence. Of course, everyone knew the truth of the video by now, but the fact it sat in the hands of someone else made it incredibly unnerving.
Matt and Jay spent the last few hours looking for inflicted people, but the commotion had died down and an air of dissent took its place. The people of New Orleans had actually suspected the Macro Corp. as the cause of the current crisis.
Sam and Kirin didn’t have much to report. The forests were fine now, the animals untouched. Russ had the sinking sensation it had only been a field test to a bigger goal. The initial wave of violent crimes felt the same.
“This is getting out of hand and fast,” Russ said. “Negator has laid two traps for us and both times we stumbled into it like rabbits. We need to anticipate his next move and crush him before he gets the chance to lay a third.”
“Easier said than done,” Sam said. “We don’t even know what he’s doing to the people– if he did anything. This may just be dissent.”
Russ couldn’t deny that. The citizens rallying against the Macro Corp. weren’t the incoherent slathering beasts Russ had seen before. More than ever the battle here was one of public relations. This was right up his ally. He tapped the center of his forehead fishing for an answer. Then, something came to him. “Sam, the day before the fundraiser Kari said she had a special surprise for Negator. Any ideas what it was?”
Samantha shook her head. “Kari was probably just being cocky.”
“Maybe, but the way I see it, she’s pretty suspect.”
Uncomfortable silence choked the air. Samantha’s face fell blank and the implications of his words hit her all once. She lashed out, enough to trigger his heightened perception. She reached to him in slow motion. He stayed calm, assessing the act with a level head.
She’s just mad because I’m accusing her sister. I won’t fight back. He relaxed his focus and time returned to normal. Sam snatched up the front of his shirt and gave it a shake.
“You watch your mouth, traitor,” Sam said. “She only had to make that call cuz you didn’t make it in time.”
Russ held his ground. “Why couldn’t she just shoot it out of his hand? Why expect me to snatch it from him if–”
He caught her hand on pure instinct. Only after he did it, did he realize she was primed for a slap across his face.
“I’m not accusing Kari. I’m just saying we need to consider it. For all we know he could have influenced Kari against her will. Please Sam, be reasonable.”
“I’m with Sam on this one,” Matt said. “Kari would know if Negator was messing with her head. She’s our only line of defense with stuff like that. Joyce can help too, but she’s not a natural.”
“Right,” Sam said, smirking. “Who’s to say Joyce isn’t the one who was influenced. Or are you only considering things convenient to you.”
“I considered it all right,” Russ said. He let go of Samatha’s hand and squirmed free of her grip. “She even has a motive. Everyone knows JJ hates Kari, but do you think she’d undermine the Macro Corp. like this to get at her? If Kari went down, no one would trust us.”
Kirin raised her hand. All eyes turned to her. “Um. Maybe it wasn’t either of them. Maybe it was someone else trying to get them in trouble?”
Russ considered this. It was Phinneas’ claim. Someone with powers like Kari helped him. “That would be handy, but we would know if someone had powers like that. The feds would have tracked them down the same way they tracked us down.”
“Well, whatever idea you come up with,” Sam said. “It better not have anything to do with accusing Kari.”
“Well I DO have a plan, but… it’s sort of crazy.”
Matt shrugged. “We’re all ears bro.”
“I’m gonna release this information to the public.”
“What?” Matt and Sam said in unison.
“If I don’t Phinneas will,” Russ said. “He’s got me trapped. No matter what, Russell Berken would release this information to the public. If he didn’t it wouldn’t make sense.”
“So you’re just worried about yourself?” Matt shoved him, not enough to trigger alarm.
“I’m thinking of us. If I get exposed we’re all boned. Think about it.”
“Well, maybe the people will appreciate the truth,” Kirin said.
“Are you stupid?” Sam rounded on her. “Russ is the enemy. That only works if the Macro Corp. releases the information ourselves. If we did that, it blows Russ’ cover anyway.”
“I was just trying to help. You don’t need to be mean.”
“Try thinking before you open your damn mouth.”
Russ stepped between them. “Sam, chill. We can’t turn on each other like this. There’s too much at stake.”
“Funny,” Sam said, narrowing her eyes. “Sure sounds like you did the first turn, Micro Kid.”
Matt shook his head, wearing a scowl. “Meetings over and count us out.”
Samantha and mat left the greenhouse, Jay stood, from his spot on the wall and walked out wordlessly.
Kirin put a hand on Russ’ arm. “I trust you, Russ. Do what you think is right.”
He left Kirin to do her daily gardening and weighed his options. Joyce couldn’t help him. Dave and Jeb sided with Ray. He only had one course of action. He needed to convince Ray this was the best choice of action.
He made his way to the main study, finding Ray sitting with his hands on his temples. Whenever things stressed him out, he lost himself in numbers. “Knock Knock.”
“Come on in,” Ray said. He sat up, revealing bloodshot eyes lined with dark rings.
“So I need to talk to you about my meeting with Phinneas.”
“I’m all ears.”
Russ approached, slipped the phone onto the desk and sat down. “Try not to throw it. Without Kringle I can’t replace it.”
Ray watched the video in silence, sighed and pushed it back to Russ. “Phinneas had this?”
“So what’s the plan, idea man?”
“Well.” Russ paused to swallow. “I’ve taken a few things into consideration and the evidence–”
“Kari isn’t guilty.” Ray clenched his fists, betraying a measured calm on his face.
“Well I have no proof against her. The thing is, Phinneas tells me whoever gave him this data has the same powers as her. Before you think I’m blaming Joyce… I want you to know I find that utterly ridiculous.”
“So you come in here to point fingers?”
“No Ray, I’m here to find answers. I need you to trust me on this.”
“What if I can’t?” Ray narrowed his eyes. “You’ve taken this website thing awful seriously, maybe you’re not on our side anymore.”
“What? That’s ridiculous. You and I are practically brothers. We started your company together, what the hell would I gain to screw you over Ray?”
“Everything,” Ray said, slamming a hand on his desk. It snapped in two and clattered to the ground. “The way I see it, you are only showing your true colors, a sneaky yes-man out to snatch up the pieces when it falls apart.”
Russ’ heart sank. He couldn’t find it in himself to get angry. It stung too much.
“Get out,” Ray said.
“W-wait!” Russ stood. “I need to tell you my plan. I have to release this information or everything will get worse.”
“It’s already pretty bad from where I’m standing. You release that video and it’ll be the lastnail in the coffin.”
“N-no. People will understand. We just need to put out some PR in response.”
“Sorry, Russ,” Ray said. He stood, adjusting his collar. “They won’t listen. Go on, release that video, but we’ll need to have some drastic changes in management, starting with a new second in command. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”
“What? You’re firing me?”
“I am,” Ray said.
“You can’t. I’m a business partner with–”
“I’ll drum up the paper work and run it by the board. They won’t argue. They put up with you because I demanded it of them. You can peddle your left-wing nonsense to someone else.”
“Ray, don’t do this. You need me,” Russ flinched. I need you.
“I’ll have your stuff sent to your downtown penthouse. I have things to prepare for.”
Russ stood in a vacant daze, but nodded. He left the room to find Joyce standing at the door. She glanced away, shaking her head.
“I tried to warn you, Russ,” she said. “I’ll try to talk him out of it. For now, do what you need to do.”
Russ found a shard of hope in those words, but not much. He packed some clothes, rolled up his favorite Batman poster and slogged to the garage. Samantha, Matt and Jay waited there digging proverbial knives in the wound with coy smiles.
“See you around, Russ,” Jay said.
Russ nodded and threw his bag into his Cooper. Kirin burst through the door, wearing a look of shock. “Russ! You have to tell them. You can’t just leave.”
He clapped a hand on her shoulder. “I don’t really have a choice.”
“I’m coming with you then.”
Russ shook his head. “I need you to stay here. You’re the only one with any sense on this. Just try and talk Ray out of it.”
“I will,” Kirin said. She nodded and hurried away, likely to go straight to Ray’s study.
He didn’t wait for her, he already knew the answer. Russ pulled away from the Plantation and held back the tears as best he could. It didn’t last long.
The tears stung his eyes, making the single lane road blur and swim before him. He never had problems focusing on the task ahead, that was a part of his creed, but it didn’t make the pain any easier to endure. He pulled over to the side of the road, slipped his phone from his pocket and sent out a test message.
I’ve decided the best course of action is to release the information in full. Let’s coordinate a meeting, I’d like to give you public credit for it.
Russ waited for a response and a moment later a message came.
If you think that’s best, I am in your corner– partner.
He wiped away his tears, shifted his car back into gear and sped towards the city. I can still make this right, whether Ray realizes I’m trying to help or not.