Masks 19: Part 7

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Masks XIX:

A Disturbance of the Peace

by

Rodford Edmiston

Part Seven

For the next several days Sally and I mainly covered a few loose ends in the case. Nothing we found during this period was incriminating. However, when I decided to focus on Harvek's history we did discover something which might explain why he would have committed such an extreme crime.

Person after person noted that he had been deeply affected by the privations of the war with the Shilmek and its immediate aftermath. His money and political influence meant nothing to the invaders; they likely didn't even know who he was. If they had, Harvek would likely have actually had something to complain about. As it was, the politician had been on vacation when the war started. (He also complained that no-one warned him there was a war coming. I'll leave the problems with that statement as an exercise for the reader.) He'd been left stranded at one of his remote estates with no communication, forced to live in what he saw as emergency conditions. The fact that several of his personal assistants and security people had "deserted" him to tend to their own families had hit him especially hard. He'd even tried to sue the federal government for not protecting him.

"Welcome to the real world," said Sally, sourly.

"Only he didn't take the usual sorts of measures people take to protect himself against disasters," I pointed out. "No storing food, no installation of independent power supplies. Instead, he focussed on increasing his personal wealth and influence. As if that would somehow make him immune to wars and storms."

"Weird," said Sally. "I mean, even President Sievers went into hiding in a trailer, then got captured when she tried to find out what was going on. What makes this guy think he's so special?!"

"Well, he considers her an incompetent woman. Of course she couldn't handle it, regardless of the resources at her command as President."

"I am liking this guy less and less..."

When we checked in with him again, Ernest - with his degree in sociology - had a more detailed reaction.

"This guy has spent his entire adult life focussed on gaining financial and political influence, and obviously considers those among the most important things in life. He is heavily invested in enjoying the benefits of them, only to have several natural disasters, an alien attack, then several more natural disasters shove it in his face that money and power don't necessarily mean he's safe. Or even comfortable. Yeah; that explains a lot of his behavior the past couple of years. Especially with his being called out for sexual harassment several times recently, plus now hopefully being exposed as behind several shoddy construction scams. He's not showing it and probably wouldn't characterize his actions in this way, but he's feeling very insecure on a deep level and getting desperate."

"I bet he started the shoddy construction scams to get more money quickly to make himself safer and more secure, only to see them make him less of both," said Sally, smirking.

"We'll share this insight with Shaw," I said to Ernest. "He might be able to forward it to whoever winds up prosecuting Harvek."

* * *

After this I was ready to head back home. I figured the various alphabet agencies plus Shaw and Ernest could handle things from here on. However, Sally wanted to stay longer - mostly to play tourist, since she'd never been in the area before and so far was liking what she found - and both Shaw and Ernest thought we needed to hang around. I thought we might even take a trip to see Mount Rainier and some of the other nearby natural wonders up close.

Time passed, though as it turned out not much of it. We didn't even get out of Seattle. With the information Sally and I acquired handed off to multiple government agencies, things moved fast for a change. In fact, only a little more than a week after our painter escapade, Ernest called with some important inside information. Though the project wasn't a matter of public record yet, the feds had been quietly working for months on an official inquiry into the problems with construction all over the country. Now they were about to open a formal hearing for activities in Washington state, there in Seattle. Given the recent revelations, they would start with Harvek.

The day the inquiry was supposed to convene Sally and I met in Ernest's office for what I thought would be the last time; at least for a while.

"Well, the federal Grand Jury have their first meeting in just a couple of hours," said Ernest, looking satisfied for a change. "Harvek, himself, is scheduled to testify, despite multiple attempts by his attorneys to avoid that."

I knew that one of the reasons Ernest had been working on this project was to further his own career. I did not in any way begrudge him that, and hoped he got the boost he was looking for.

"I guess that will have to do," said Sally, who was still hoping to get Harvek on something stronger.

"Making solid charges involving the murders would likely not be possible any time soon," said Ernest, dryly, back to his default. "Even with anonymous donations of information to the feds. The only reason we're getting this much action so soon is that people are starting to make a fuss about post-war construction which is having to be redone already."

"Hopefully, once the federal court starts finding things Harvek did wrong in that matter, the local and state courts will be more amenable to looking into his other dealings," I said. "Eventually, his connection to the murders should become public knowledge. Maybe then he can be charged."

"So, good guys win?" said Sally, looking doubtful.

"Eventually," I repeated, nodding and smiling. "It may take a while, but... eventually."

"You're just lazy," said Sally, with a trace of a smile.

"That, too. However, I think you and me continuing to poke our noses into this matter would just complicate things. Let's let the police work without us distracting them."

She nodded, knowing something that Ernest didn't. That we were both operating here under a pretense on behalf of the Bureau of Special Resources, rather than working directly for Shaw.

We chatted with our reporter friend for a few more moments as we gathered our belongings and stood and said our farewells; then we headed for the elevator. According to the indicator the car was just about to our floor when Ernest came hurrying down the hallway towards us.

"The hearing was cancelled due to a bomb threat," he said, scowling.

I said a few choice words. Sally stayed quiet, but I didn't need my empathy to know she was furious. Before any of us could say anything more, however, my phone rang. I recognized the caller ID as an alias of Brade and quickly answered. She was familiar with my Henley Regatta identity and recognized my voice.

"The preliminary hearing for Harvek was canceled due to a bomb threat."

"We just heard. How credible is the threat?"

"They actually found a device. No idea whether it's real, no idea if it was planted on Harvek's orders."

"That's the way to bet, though," I said. I gave a tired sigh. "We were just leaving Ernest Chiodini's office when he brought us the news. I suppose we're back on the job."

"Technically, you were never on it," she said, dryly. "Yet. That'll be handled retroactively in our paperwork. Just be sure to document your hours and expenses."

"All right. Any other news?"

"No. I'll keep you posted."

"Thank you."

* * *

We resaid our goodbyes to Ernest - with a very different tone this time - and entered the elevator. Once out of the building we walked aimlessly around the neighborhood while Sally and I discussed things. Then I got my cell phone back out.

I quickly called Gordo. He revealed that Harvek had obviously never intended to testify. The man had actually left town discreetly the night before. Almost certainly, the bomb scare was just a ploy to both divert attention from him and delay when he would be discovered missing. Pretty much every law enforcement agency in the country was on alert to find him.

"No word on the street," Gordo said; I could almost hear him scowling over the phone. "I definitely want to find this bastard. He's giving my city a bad image. I'll keep looking but don't wait for me."

A call back to Brade a little later revealed that she expected Sally and me to participate in the manhunt. I started to protest that this exceeded our mandate, but she cut me off by offering a substantial bonus if we found him, with a vaguer but probably larger amount on top of that if we helped catch him. After a quick check to confirm that Sally was in, we agreed.

"There's already several federal teams looking for him," she said. "We - the Bureau of Special Resources, I mean - just don't have any other assets in that area besides you two, or who can be sent there quickly. The feeling is that if he isn't already out of the country, he will be soon. There's a strong reason to find him quickly."

We were given contact information for the local FBI team who were after Harvek. I said goodbye to Brade, then called the FBI team leader.

* * *

The two of us got together with the head of the FBI manhunt a bit over an hour later. I wasn't too enthusiastic about this turn of events, but Sally actually seemed excited. We stopped by our suite on the way and reequipped for a manhunt. Then we went to the FBI office and introduced ourselves to Agent Faulhaber, with me still in my Henley Regatta ID.

"What were you told about us?" I asked, as we sat in his office after the introductions.

"That you were acting on behalf of the Bureau of Special Resources and brought, well, special resources to the job."

I nodded.

"Neither of us have arrest powers. However, I'm sneaky and have a lot of experience with... well, everything. Sally is a physical super, and an experienced body guard."

I looked over at her, noted the unusual piece of equipment she had brought, and grinned.

"With a sword."

What I didn't mention was that part of the reason we had taken an hour to get there was that on the way I had placed three very important phone calls to folks I knew who might be able to provide clues to Harvek's whereabouts.

One was to the BSR's own resident psychic, using a phone number which had been provided by Brade. For some reason she didn't want the FBI to know about him. Actually, I could understand exactly why she wouldn't let information about him out casually.

The second had been to Dr. Fenrisa Freysdottir, my Bluegrass Elf mentor. If she couldn't find Harvek, she'd know someone who could. However, that would likely take time, either way.

The third was to Gazer, whom I hadn't spoken to since our shared effort against the Shilmek attack.

All had been asked - politely - to try and find Harvek. I'd given them what information I could on the man and his habits and known associates. Hoping that would allow them to make a psychic connection.

However, when the call came - while Faulhaber was still introducing us to his team - it was from Gordo. Though it was actually a text...

"You didn't get this from me, but the word is that Harvek is on an island off the coast of Seattle, waiting for a yacht owned by the same woman who owns much of the island to arrive."

That was it. Not even the name of the island or the woman. However, when I relayed this to the FBI team they identified island, yacht and woman in short order.

"That's part of Washington state," said Faulhaber, nodding. "We can get a warrant pretty easily."

"That's not a lot of cause," I said, doubtfully.

He just smiled.

The woman was Margaret Combs. She was old money, from a family in Boston. A quick check online showed no connection between her and Harvek. However, one of the FBI people told me that she was already under investigation for many of the same crimes as Harvek. In fact, they thought the two of them might be part of a group of wealthy people who were taking advantage of the post-war confusion to increase their fortunes.

We were soon on a Coast Guard boat, on our way out into that large, complicated bay, along with most of the FBI team. A smaller group would arrive by helicopter after the boat made landfall. Everyone was heavily armed but me, though Sally "only" had her sword.

Besides not being armed, I was separated from the other members of this expedition by something else. They were all confident, eager to be getting some action. I was having doubts.

Sally found me standing at the port railing, staring out at the waves.

"You're not seasick, are you?"

"What? Oh, no. I'm just... bothered by something. Something no-one else seems to be thinking much about."

"Which is?"

"What has Harvek been spending all that money on?"

"Making himself safer?"

"How? He - along with the others in that group, if the FBI analysis is right - hasn't been buying property, or upgrading what they already own. There's been no frantic construction or purchase of bomb shelters or hydroponic gardens. While he has been depositing some money in foreign banks that amount is only a fraction of what he made selling substandard construction and doing who knows what else. Where's it all going?"

"Maybe he cashed it in and piled it all in a giant bin," said Sally, laughing. "He goes swimming in it every day, to make himself feel more secure."

I laughed, then grinned at her.

"I didn't think kids today were even familiar with those comics."

"Comics?" said Sally, puzzled. "It's in the cartoons."

I started to say something. I'm not sure what. It was probably something inane, a lame joke. However, I was interrupted by a flare of impossibly bright light, coming from inside our ride.

Sally's superhuman reflexes took over. She grabbed me and jumped overboard, as the ship exploded behind us.

* * *

I was dazed but not knocked unconscious by the sudden turn of events. Even as Sally tried to carry us toward the surface, I saw the glow of fire from above the water and fought to keep us under. She got the idea after a moment and took us deeper. We stayed down until the glow faded, then surfaced, taking grateful breaths.

We were in trouble. The seas hadn't seemed all that rough before, but now that we were in them I was very glad for our flotation gear. I tried looking for other survivors, or some significant part of the boat we had been riding in, but there was no sign of the former and of the latter the largest pieces weren't worth holding on to.

Even as we surveyed our situation there was a distant boom from our east. A glance in that direction showed a fireball, high in the sky not far from the island.

"I bet that was the helicopter," said Sally, with a mixture of anger and sadness.

We were both shocked by the sudden, horrific events. However, my survival training kicked in. I surged up momentarily in the water and spun for a quick look around.

"The nearest land by a good margin is the island we were heading for," I said, loudly to be heard over the wind and waves. "Can you swim that far?"

"I don't know," she said, already sounding worried.

"Okay. I'm going to change into a dolphin with a harness. You hold on."

"Right!"

I didn't make a particularly large dolphin, but even towing Sally I could swim much faster that way than either of us could as humans. I hadn't taken this form for years, and remembering how to use sonar took a while, but I soon had the basics. I beached myself, and as Sally crawled out of the surf changed back and followed. It was only then that I realized the clothes on her back were burned, including the life jacket. Her sword was tucked diagonally across her back, under the flotation gear, the grip sticking just above her left shoulder. Even the plastic on that looked a bit scorched.

"Are you all right?" I said, moving behind her as she sat on the sand. I indicated the damaged clothing and life jacket.

"Huh?" she said, looking around. "Oh. Yeah; I think so. I felt the heat but I'm not in pain."

Fortunately, her quick reflexes had spared her from taking more damage than her resilience could protect her from.

"Looks like Brade was right," I muttered, as I looked around the beach.

"What?" said Sally.

"To be concerned that someone was monitoring government communications. We went over three weeks with no interference in our investigation; well, except the attack on the law office, and that likely didn't have anything to do with the two of us. As soon as we take part in a formally organized exercise, BOOM! Several people are dead and we are in serious trouble."

I was angry. Of course I was angry. Though I had barely known them, the agents and the crew of the boat were people. People who had been snuffed out in a heartbeat. I had no doubt as to who had given the order, either. I was starting to doubt the wisdom of coming to the island, but we had both already been shivering before I took dolphin form, and were both still chilled. I didn't know how much longer Sally could have lasted in those cold waters.

I pulled out my cell phone; it was dead. Sally's was, as well. So much for calling in the cavalry. I was wondering if we should just stay where we were until someone noticed the FBI team was missing. Of course, that could take hours, then more hours would be needed to muster a rescue force, which would most likely also be blown up. A day or more might pass before someone - probably volunteers from the nearest super team - actually got on the island. Also, as chilled as we were we needed to at least fins shelter from the wind.

"We have to get off this beach," said Sally, echoing my own thoughts.

"Not so fast," I said, catching her arm before she could stand. "Right now, if they're detecting us at all they're probably reading us as washed up debris."

I looked carefully up and down the beach and towards the nearest actual cover.

"I'm afraid we'll have to crawl - slowly - for the first part."

We needed about twenty minutes to reach the plants. Whoever had set up the security on this island had done a good job; there was almost nothing to hide behind or in from the water until well off the beach. Once there we stayed low and kept to cover as much as possible until we reached a place I considered safe for resting a while. We were both wearing good clothing, and once out of the wind were almost comfortable. Though we had picked up quite a bit of sand on our wet clothes.

"All right," I said, as we sat as best we could, me still shivering a bit but slowly improving. Sally already seemed warm. "The fact that they haven't come after us yet means they don't know we're here. That's a big advantage."

Sally nodded. She seemed a bit overwhelmed, which wasn't surprising. This was well out of her range of experience. Hell, it was just barely in mine.

"If possible, we need to discover what they used against the boat and helicopter. It could have been something as simple as a mine and a SAM, but I wouldn't bet on it."

"A death ray?" said Sally, wanting to joke but afraid to.

I nodded.

"Call it whatever you want. That sudden, very bright glow is typical. I suspect that's what Harvek - and likely his allies in that group the FBI found - have been spending their money on. Well, at least part of it."

Sally nodded again.

"So, if you can imitate Harvek..."

"I wouldn't try that with anyone who actually knows him, except in desperation," I said, frowning. "However, if they have fingerprint or biometric security I should be able to get us through it."

"You're very handy, you know that?" said Sally, smiling and taking my hands. "Whoah, you're cold."

"Nothing major," I said. "Now that I'm drying it's getting better."

Still, she put my hands under her shirt for a while, then raised them to her lips and blew on them. I shivered from more than the cold, both times.

Suddenly, there was a blare of horns, startling us both.

Peering out as best we could, I saw an enormous boat - actually a true ship - moving towards the dock further along the beach.

"There comes Margaret Combs," said Sally, sword now in her hand.

I frowned. That yacht wasn't just huge; beneath the frippery and frillery there was a hull which seemed... wrong for that purpose. Something designed for speed cutting through the water, rather than comfort riding on top of it.

"I think that's not a yacht. Or not just a yacht."

"They're getting ready for something," said Sally, suddenly certain. "That may be why the blew up the FBI, instead of stalling."

"Yeah," I said, nodding slowly. "Harvek wasn't just trying to flee the country. They have some plot going on."

We - very carefully - moved to a position where we had a better view of the dock and ship. Vera Cruz was the name on the bow. As soon as the ship was secured large hatches in the side opened and a ramp was extended to the pier. Movement on our right showed large doors opening in the side of what looked like a huge garage.

"What do you want to bet that's the secret weapon?" I said, as several small tractors began maneuvering a bulky piece of equipment out.

"No bet. Do we smash it?"

"No. I think this would be a great time to sneak inside and find a way to call for help."

"Yeah."

One of the odder bits of information in the FBI files on Harvek, Combs and others they were investigating was that almost uniformly they had fired most of their human staff. Pretty much everyone married or who otherwise had close kin. Sally and I found out what had replaced them when we got closer to the house. There, guarding a sliding glass door with what looked like an entertainment room on the other side, was a security robot.

"I think I actually recognize that model," I said, frowning.

It was rather shorter than me, with a domed head mounted directly onto its heavy shoulders, a squat torso and two short legs which ended in treaded feet. The arms were blatantly equipped with weapons - light machine guns, from the look -rather than manipulators. The torso probably had heavier weapons under the hatches I could see.

"I'm not sure I could take that," said Sally, concerned. "Even with the sword."

"Even if you could, at the first sign of an intruder it would send an alert," I said. "Even if you could destroy it silently and instantly, the control center would flag an alert the next time that unit missed a communications check. Those are probably every few seconds, automatically. Time for me to try for Harvek."

This was not going to be easy. I had never met Solomon Harvek. I had seen still photos and videos and read much about him, but could I make the connection necessary to take his form?

I needed several minutes, but finally I made the connection. I sighed, and smiled at Sally.

"You're the cavalry," I said, in Harvek's voice. "I think I see a phone in there. I'll call Brade and let her know what's going on. If I can fool that robot. If I can't or something else goes wrong, you need to save me if you can, but otherwise get in there and make the call as quickly as you can."

"Right," she said. Sally didn't like that plan, but didn't have anything better to offer. Unfortunately, neither did I.

I walked calmly towards the door, not paying the robot any attention. I knew the psychology of such people. They didn't want to be bothered with trivial interactions. The help - in this case the robot - was supposed to know who their masters were, as well as to mind their own place.

Sure enough, the robot simply ignored me. I walked to the glass door, took the handle, and froze. I saw myself as Harvek for the first time, and it was startling. I looked... older than even the most recent photos and videos of the man. Worn. Worried. This was Harvek without the makeup and hair styling. I shook myself, and slid the door open. Naturally, it wasn't locked. Security was what the robot was there for. However, I made sure to surreptitiously lock the door behind me. I didn't want interruptions.

Once inside I went straight to the phone. It was an older digital model landline, probably working through a submarine cable to the mainland. At the dial tone I punched the remembered sequence. As the phone rang I changed my head and throat into my base form, while leaving my hair alone. I was facing away from the robot, and figured - hoped, actually - that it wouldn't notice the change.

"Speak."

"This is Lawrence. I'm on the island and don't know how much time I'll have to talk. They have some sort of mad science weapon which was used to destroy the FBI boat and helicopter. The weapon is currently being moved from the island to the Vera Cruz."

"On it," said Brade.

There was a pause of several nerve-wracking seconds. However, the line was still open and the director of the Bureau of Special Resources eventually came back.

"Anything else?"

"Lots of stuff I don't want to say on an unsecured line," I said. "I'm using one of the phones in the mansion, here. They have robot security guards. A bit like the old Silver Warrior series, but significantly updated. Don't know how the big weapon works, but it destroyed both the Coast Guard boat and the helicopter in just a couple of seconds each. The..."

I was interrupted by a crash as the robot opened the locked sliding door. I dropped the handset and dove to the floor, then shoved over the table the phone was on. Before bullets could start flying, though, I heard a very different sort of sound.

"Come on!" shouted Sally.

A glance around the end of the table showed that she had sliced the robot from armored dome to more than halfway down the torso. Smoke was pouring out of it.

"Inside!" I shouted back, dropping my Harvek disguise as she shoved past the robot and joined me in hurrying through a doorway into the hall beyond.



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