Masks 19: Part 3

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Masks XIX:

A Disturbance of the Peace

by

Rodford Edmiston

Part Three

The next day the news of this latest problem with the case broke. Politicians of all stripes were making hay out of the evidence being missing. However, one in particular was very outspoken about this development.

"Talk about suspects," said Sally, pointing to the TV as a particular very well dressed middle-aged man came on, "there's one of the usual."

"Yeah, he's a politician," I said, shrugging. Solomon Harvek had run against Sievers in the primary before her first term. He'd given up on running for the office he'd held for several terms in order to make his bid, then lost to her by a large margin. No-one but him and his cronies was surprised; he'd been losing votes for years and probably would have lost his seat, anyway. "Don't tell me he's back on the campaign trail. Last I heard, he'd stopped trying for office and was content running things from behind the scenes."

"He's a major businessman with - get this - one of his most important offices in Seattle."

"None of which connects him to this case in any way," I pointed out.

"Yeah, but he made several fortunes after the war by winning bids on contracts connected with the reconstruction. Only after the boom some of those companies he supplied materials to got into trouble. Nothing major, but..."

"Let me guess," I said, smirking. "The vultures got some of them."

"Yeah."

"Still doesn't mean he did it. He is such a public figure that him being involved doesn't make sense."

"Weren't you the one who told me murder rarely makes sense to someone outside the case?"

"Uhm, yeah," I admitted. "Okay, he's on the list, but not a priority."

* * *

Most of our time the next few days was spent talking with people who knew the victims, as well as security and other personnel at the scene of the crime. They had been told by the cops not to talk about this, but didn't like the way that had been done. That resentment, combined with the natural desire to talk about scandal meant that most could be persuaded. I just had to figure out whether they were more likely to talk to press or private investigators. My empathy was a big help, there. As was my decades of experience. It helped that we could legitimately claim we were working for Doro's attorney. Private security were more likely to speak with someone like that, since they were well aware that they would likely be called on to testify in court. Meanwhile, low-level non-security staff would often open-up to a reporter off the record, while mid-level staff would speak on the record, though they'd say less. Upper management would only talk through their lawyers. However, they often let things slip in announcing they wouldn't say anything. They just could not be concise, but had to elaborate on why they weren't saying anything.

It turned out that pretty much nobody we talked to at the hotel liked Corporate Salvage or the businessmen in charge of it. Those men had earned multiple fortunes buying troubled businesses and selling off their assets to earn large sums in the short term instead of earning more in the long term by helping them recover. (I admit I don't understand all the financial details, which apparently involved tax laws that effectively gave them huge discounts for ruining those businesses.) Despite all of them being multi-millionaires they were poor tippers and skimped on amenities for their meeting. This after spending a large amount of money on the actual meeting facilities! They were all new money, likely originally from the upper middle class or lower upper class, rather than old money people. Those sorts would be more accustomed to displaying a sort of mildly condescending generosity by tipping well, and also to splurging on food and drink catered for the meeting. Neither did the murdered businessmen display the genuine willingness to help those less fortunate often demonstrated by new money folks who had worked their way up from further down. (Yes, I'm generalizing hugely, here.)

One important clue which no-one else seemed to have picked up on before our inquiry was that a rental van had been parked in the hotel garage in the visitor area just before the murders. The same van had left right after the crime. This was a full sized, commercial-style van, and the attendant on duty for the shift right before the murder remembered because the driver had requested a slot near the elevator. No explanation. The attendant didn't remember the license plate, but he did recall the rental company. Also, the only windows in the van were up front and in the rear doors, and the latter had been blacked out. He had the distinct impression there were several people in the van but he only saw the driver. Even more unusually, when the van left the driver gave the attendant a sizable tip. Something not normal for him to get, especially when had hadn't done much more than hand over a ticket, recommend a level where they would have access to the elevator, and take payment less than an hour later.

We returned to our suite that Thursday afternoon after a very productive, if very tiring, day.

"I am exhausted," said Sally, dropping onto one of the lounges in our business suite and removing her shoes. "I am also impressed. Just watching you work those people..."

"Partly powers," I said, a bit modestly, "partly skills learned from experts over decades."

"Well, we learned a lot about what was going on," she said, wincing as she alternately massaged her feet. I'd have offered but I learned early in our relationship I just didn't have the hand strength necessary. Of course, that also begged the question of why someone physically superhuman would have such problems from just standing and walking. "It seems like the more we learn about those guys who were killed the more people we find who would have liked to have done that to 'em."

"We need to hit that rental company tomorrow," I said. "Not only was that whole van operation suspicious, but the fact that the driver tipped the attendant might mean he's from out of town."

We settled into our already established evening routines; both of us handling personal matters online as well as checking various potential sources of information about the case. I also sent Shaw an e-mail with what we had uncovered about the van.

"Hah!" said Sally, a bit later, startling me as she pulled off her headphones and gave a triumphant grin.

"What?"

"They caught Carl Donner."

"Do tell," I said, rising and moving to where she was watching the news on the big TV. She turned up the volume.

Turned out the disgraced former Vice-President had left the country using a false passport, on his way to Jersey. That's the island of Jersey, in the English Channel. A popular place for people to send funds they don't want traced. There he got a rude surprise; he'd secreted a large amount of money there and made arrangements to rent a villa, all the while thinking it was a privately-owned island near Bermuda. I could understand the money part - I had some of my own funds stashed there - but to not know where it was geographically...

"I've been there," I said, baffled. "About the only thing it has it common with Bermuda is that it's an island in the Northern hemisphere. It's been part of Britain since 1066. It's still a British Crown Dependency, a Bailiwick. It's climate is definitely not subtropical. Didn't the idiot even notice the flight was taking too long?!"

"Hush!"

Donner had made a go of it for a while, living under his fake ID. He'd finally been caught when an American tourist saw the man and recognized him. The tourist had the sense to not confront Donner but instead reported the sighting to the nearest American Embassy. When they didn't act on his tip - to be fair, they were getting a lot of them, with the others apparently all false - he contacted both Interpol and the local police. Since Donner had an international warrant out for him, once a single law enforcement agency took the report seriously enough to check his ID, the jig was up. He was currently on his way back to the US. In shackles on a US government plane.

"He'll likely be held in a Club Fed somewhere in the southeastern US, tried, convicted and sentenced to a short term in the same facility plus a huge fine he can easily afford," I said, with a tired sigh.

"Cynical, much?" said Sally, raising an eyebrow.

"Just experienced."

* * *

We had made more progress than I expected before the end of the week. Therefore, the next day day we made a visit to the rental agency where the van had come from. That evening we would be back at the law office to meet with Shaw for a mutual update.

Our visit to the rental agency that Friday proved both fruitful and frustrating. It was fruitful in that the clerk told us only one van of that type had been rented the day of the murder. He also remembered the guy who rented it, giving a description which matched the driver at the hotel garage. They'd used a prepaid debit card. He was reluctant to tell us the name used or even show us the papers.

My empathy told me he was getting suspicious about our cover of being reporters checking on a political scandal and I knew our IDs wouldn't stand up to close scrutiny. I thanked him and we left.

"What next?" said Sally. "Break in tonight?"

"No need. We just talk to Shaw, tell him what we uncovered about the rental company and have him get a warrant. We already have an appointment to brief him on what we've learned and what we need to continue pursuing. With luck he can get the warrant tonight for use tomorrow. The rental agency is open on the weekend, remember."

* * *

We got off the bus over a block from the law office and walked. I was already back in my "Henley Regatta" ID, and Sally had again redone her outfit, including removing the wig she had worn to the rental agency. It wasn't impossible to connect the current us to the pair who had gone there and asked questions, but I'd made sure that was very difficult.

However, despite our precautions all was not well at the law office. As soon as we entered the reception area I went on alert. This was late on a Friday afternoon and most of the staff had already gone home, but I'd called Shaw to make sure he was there and someone would be available to let us in. Only, while the doors were unlocked, there was no receptionist. The lights were off, too. I knew we were there past usual closing time, but Shaw was supposed to be waiting for us. However, this scene didn't add up. Sally had also noticed something was wrong. There was no need to raise the alarm yet; the receptionist might just have gone to the restroom, the lights might be on timers... Still...

I motioned for Sally to go right, to the door which led to the offices. I cut left and went behind the desk. It was pretty large, actually an elevated reception station. A quick glance showed the phone was off the hook. There was no other sign of disturbance, but that was plenty. Especially since the switchboard was as dead as the overhead lights.

"Trouble," I said, in a low voice.

I quickly opened the cupboard doors under the station but found no sign of the receptionist. While Sally kept watch through the door where she stood, I took a quick look in the restrooms. I found the receptionist - out cold and badly injured - laying on the floor of the men's room.

After a quick check to make sure she was alive, I called 911, reporting an assault with injuries at the office. I made sure the operator knew to tell the police there were two friendlies on the premises checking things out.

I was interrupted by a sudden sound of violence. I hurried back out into the reception area to discover Sally fully engaged with half a dozen men in black clothes and ski masks, complete with bulky gloves. I scooted my cell phone into a corner and moved in to help. I jumped one of the men from behind and had an immediate success in disabling him, simply through taking him by surprise. Unfortunately, these guys were professionals. I was quickly set upon by two others and quickly beaten into submission. Fortunately, their distraction with me allowed Sally to finish the others then come to my rescue. In seconds all the attackers were reduced to moaning lumps of pain.

"How are you?" she asked, panting.

She'd taken a couple of hits hard enough that bruises were already forming, and that was just what I could see on the parts of her skin currently showing. Sap gloves are not something to take lightly, even for a low level physical super. Her clothing was also the worse for wear. With my regeneration I'd likely be back to fully healed before she was, though that was only because she'd stopped them quickly. Still, neither of us had serious injuries.

"Feeling both inadequate and rather aroused," I admitted, as she helped me to my feet. "I am very, very, very glad you're with me on this."

"Are they low-level supers?" she asked, wincing as she rubbed her left upper arm.

"They're wearing sap gloves," I said, as I retrieved my phone, talking as much to the 911 operator as to Sally.

I had immediately recognized the feel of those from painful past experience. Then confirmed them once I had a good look at the gloves.

She started to ask me something, but was interrupted by a moan from down the hall. Which reminded us that we were there to see someone. Sally and I quickly zeroed in on the sound and found Mr. Shaw. Fortunately, while he was stunned that was more emotional than physical.

"I've already called 911," I said, noting how dazed he was. "There's cops and an ambulance on the way. You might need to call others, though. Like your partners, or security agency."

"Oh. Yes. Of course."

He picked up a desk phone, only to find that it was out of service. He had to pull his cell out of his pocket to make his calls. We later learned the attackers had cut all the wires to the building, including power and Internet. Which explained why I the phone at the receptionist's station was dead.

"By the way," he said, briefly covering the mouthpiece of his cell phone, "thank you."

While he spoke with his contact I briefed Sally on what to say and how to act with the police. Then I had her go restrain the attackers while I made sure Shaw was as uninjured as he seemed. The whole time I was talking to the 911 operator, letting her know what we were doing. I told her we would wait outside for the cops.

I helped Shaw up and together we made our way to the foyer. Sally had just finished her knot work, and looked satisfied. She quickly moved to take Shaw's other arm and we went outside.

Sally and I got Shaw seated on a bench shortly before the police arrived, sirens shutting down as a pair of marked cars careened into the guest lot. The drivers skidded their cars into position, exited with guns out and squatted down to put the engines between themselves and us. Then began yelling orders.

"I'm..." Shaw tried.

I pulled him and Sally down onto the ground and made sure they put their hands on their heads.

"But I'm..." Shaw protested.

"Submit now and don't get shot," I hissed. "Identify yourself later."

This shouldn't have been happening; I'd told the 911 operator that the good guys were out front, waiting. As we went onto the ground I made sure the phone - with the 911 operator still on the line - was on the bench.

The cops moved in quickly and zip-tied us. They left us face down on the pavement and went inside.

"This is bogus," said Sally, who could have broken the plastic zip-tie easily but knew not to. "They didn't even leave one of them on guard!"

I could hear the 911 operator saying something loudly, but the speaker on the phone wasn't up to whatever message she was trying to deliver. Partly because of ambient noise. Some of which was very interesting.

"I hear more sirens approaching," I said. "Cops and - further off - ambulances."

"What...?" said Shaw, the most confused.

Three more marked police cars arrived, and an unmarked car with a couple of detectives in it. They piled out, guns drawn.

"There's the cavalry," I said, smirking. A glance inside showed the first two cops running out of the foyer, towards the rear of the building, along with a couple of the assailants. The others were left yelling in protest after them. Good luck with escaping out the back. I hear more sirens around there.

There was some confusion, but we quickly identified ourselves and the real cops just as quickly got our IDs out to verify that. I was very glad mine was real. They cut the zip-ties and helped us up.

"So who were those first cops?" said Shaw, once we were back inside, out of the weather.

"Fake cops to rescue the assailants if something went wrong," I said, nodding.

"Yeah, their cars are old models," said the Lieutenant in charge of the real cops. "Probably bought at auction and recommissioned. Their uniforms and gear aren't quite regulation, either."

"Somebody was being thorough," said Sally, nodding. She grinned. "Just not thorough enough."

"Anyway, here come the ambulances. Once you're cleared by the EMTs we need to get you down to the station and take your statements."

* * *

Hours were needed before we were allowed to leave the police station. They knew we weren't telling them the whole truth, but given the circumstances they decided to focus on the hired hands for now. Well, as soon as those worthies recovered enough to question. Sally had really done a number on them.

We were taken back to the law office. We'd been at the station long enough that the crime scene crew had finished and allowed the repair crew to get to work. Some of the other partners in the firm were there, talking with Shaw. However, when he learned we were back he excused himself to speak with us.

"I don't understand," said Shaw, once we were in a conference room left untouched by the attackers. "Why do this?! Why risk additional attacks? Every piece of information I have on the case is digital or printouts of digital files, and those all have offsite backups!"

"Sometimes your best break comes from someone deciding to stop your investigation," I said. I shrugged and winced. Despite my regeneration my injuries still had a ways to go. "Of course, sometimes the way they decide to stop the investigation is to stop you, so be extra careful. By the way, be sure to ask if the wounds on those murdered Corporate Salvage executives could have been made with sap gloves."

"Which are?" said Shaw, puzzled.

"Tough gloves - leather, vinyl or something similar - with lead or steel weights or powder sewn into pockets on the backs of the knuckles. They hit like an old-fashioned blackjack, except they're not illegal most places in the US."

Turns out he didn't know what a blackjack was, either. Kids, these days. Don't they even read the classic detective novels, or watch film noir? I took pity and explained. After hearing about the kind of damage sap gloves could do to a normal, Shaw looked speculatively at Sally. He then visibly decided not to ask too many questions.

"You think whoever is behind this is getting nervous about us?" said Sally, to bring things back to my point and away from Shaw possibly realizing she was a super.

"Or what someone else is doing. Or both." I said.

"I'm just glad you two arrived before they did any more damage to our equipment," said Shaw. "They had just started roughing me up and hadn't even gotten to my computer, yet."

"Though maybe you should check those offsite backups," I said, thoughtfully, "just in case."



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