The Angel of Chicago: Part 13

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One reason I didn't set this in the Masks universe was I wanted to explore a different set of circumstances behind people with powers. Part of that difference is that this world is darker than the Masks world. The villains are savvier, the crooked politicians more successful, the press less fair. The differences have been minor so far. Be warned that the next few segments will be pretty dark.

The Angel of Chicago

Part Thirteen: A Hand Forced

by

Rodford Edmiston

The press of the crowd outside the paper's front entrance was so great that Melody actually had trouble getting out of the car her attorneys had brought her back to work in. There were bystanders, yes, but most of them were hanging back, watching the main body. This was composed almost entirely of men and women of the press. News of Melody's hearing and the dismissal of the charges didn't seem to have reached the attention of the general public, yet, but those who worked in the news obviously had heard. They wanted more.

Melody shoved the door open and pushed her way out. The attorneys were allowed to exit on the other side - watching for traffic, of course - but she had to endure this. A man with a backpack topped by a whip antenna shoved a microphone in her face even before she got the door closed behind her.

"Miss Gundersen!" shouted the reporter. "Mike Harvest with Radio 9 News Live. What do you have to say in regard to this acquittal?"

The attorneys had warned her there would be a gauntlet, and that it was better to get that over with. Not so much to answer the questions as to deliver a statement. They had also briefed her on expected questions and acceptable responses. This particular man - despite the bulky radio relay backpack weighing him down - had managed to shove is way directly into her path. He now used that extra weight to resist being displaced.

"I am very glad that's over," said Melody. She shook her head. "It's astounding that in this day and age there are still people who think they can hobble the press in retaliation for revealing embarrassing facts."

That obviously derailed some of his remaining questions, but he had plenty more.

"Even the fact that you're a known empowered sympathizer didn't influence the jury?"

"First, there was no jury," said Melody, glaring at him. "Get your facts straight. This was a hearing to see if there was enough behind the accusations to proceed to a jury trial. There wasn't. That's why the charges were dropped.

"Second, I'm not pro-empowered. I'm just not anti-empowered. Now, if you don't mind, some of us actually have to work for a living."

He turned red in the face and sputtered. With help from her attorneys and building security, Melody pushed through the mob to the entrance, ignoring the shouted questions from other members of the press. Inside she found a much more sympathetic reception.

"The prodigal returns," Sam declared loudly, grinning.

This time there was a party, with snacks and drinks and much congratulation of Melody for her victory.

"I don't want to sound unappreciative," she told the sixth person who did that, "but it won't be a victory until people in power realize that they can't just order someone arrested for speaking the truth."

There was general, if subdued, agreement with this.

The party faded out after a bit more than half an hour. The crowd dispersed and Melody was invited to her boss' office. She scowled at the robot cleaners and their human supervisor as they moved into the conference room. She wasn't sure why she found the machines irritating. Maybe that was just an indicator of her general mood.

As Melody expected, it wasn't just her with the boss. There were several others gathered around the table he kept in his office for small meetings.

"We got lucky," said Sawyier, the Glory's regular legal advisor. While Melody was at the party he had met with the attorneys. "If they had charged you with sedition or violating national secrets or something else more appropriate they might have made enough of a case to take you to trial. Even with evidence the feds themselves have dismissed as faked."

"So what's our next move?" said Sam.

"We push forward!" said Chief Editor Gadding. "Show them we're not afraid of them! The bolder we are, the more likely they are to back off, or make another stupid mistake!"

Melody thought he was being much too enthusiastic, but agreed in general.

* * *

Melody was glad to get home. It was only Thursday, but that locked cabinet seemed very attractive just now. However, as she opened the door she saw she had a visitor. She stared for just a moment, then quickly ducked inside and closed the door.

"Do you mind?" she said hotly, to Blackpool. "This is my home. I invite people in. If they're welcome."

"I apologize," said Blackpool, actually looking chastened. Well, as best as she could tell through that mask. "I... No, no excuses. I stepped over the line."

He handed her a manilla envelope.

"I think you'll excuse me - at least partially - when you see what's in this."

"All right," said Melody, relenting. "Come on; let's use the kitchen table. Do you want anything to eat or drink?"

"Not immediately, thank you."

Melody stamped firmly on the little twinge of disappointment that brought.

They sat. She opened the envelope and pulled out the documents.

"I made copies, but these are the originals."

She didn't ask where he got them and he didn't volunteer.

With occasional suggestions from him on what to look at, they went through the documents. As she realized what they revealed Melody was astounded.

"At least now I know what their reasoning was for the plans to vent the chemicals," said Melody, nodding. "It was bad reasoning, but at least I know."

"Yes, but since finding this I learned what the current plotters have in mind," said Blackpool, actually sounding frightened. "In fact, finding that information has consumed nearly all my time for several days. Even when I finally found someone who knew, they had no documentation. This was one of the techs who installed the nuclear device in the lowest level of the repository."

"They actually went ahead with that?!"

"That was just three years ago," said Blackpool. "Not due to the plans mentioned in these documents. He was told going in that it was intended to destroy the chemicals in case of a massive leak. He learned otherwise by accidentally overhearing some of those in charge of the installation. They've replaced Grand Slam with Project Flit. Which would use a small nuclear device in the lowest level to deliberately and quickly spread the chemicals over a huge area of North America. The idea being to create a horrific incident and blame it on the empowered. Thus justifying both a crackdown on empowered and a potential coup in the government if the current administration doesn't act promptly in the way the conspirators want."

In spite of everything she had learned, all she had been through, Melody needed a moment to parse this. Shock spread slowly through her.

"That's... God, I can't even..."

"I had a similar reaction. That was two days ago. I have sent copies of these documents along with the undocumented material I just revealed to several people. I felt you deserved a personal presentation."

"Right," said Melody. She gave her head a brisk shake, as if resetting her brain. "You're forgiven, by the way."

"Thank you," said Blackpool.

"I don't know what your plans are, but I'm going to grab a shower and a quick meal and head back to the office. This material has to be put before the public as soon as possible. Have you told Aaron?"

"No."

"Go. Right now. I trust his judgement. If he can't think of the right thing to do he will know people whose judgement he trusts."

"I agree."

Blackpool stood. He took a moment to smile at Melody through his mask. Then he stepped into the shadows in the short hallway between the kitchen and bathroom, and vanished.

* * *

She decided to take an aircab. She used a work credit card to order the cab and then pay for the ride at the office. She signed in at the night watchman's desk. She saw a few other people around, but he was the only one she actually spoke to.

Once back at her office, her first step was to go through these new documents more carefully, to make sure they actually said what they had appeared to say. Then she began writing. Most of what she did was modify columns already in progress, adding details and changing the tone. Before she had been careful to be moderate and objective, in the hope of having more people accept her words. Now she was much harsher, and far more direct. The part which required the most thought and the greatest care was how to present the oral-only evidence. Melody was deliberately vague and repeatedly noted that it was hearsay, but she got the gist into the columns.

Occasionally Melody took a break. During some of those she used personal contacts to spread the word, tailoring what she told someone to what she felt they'd believe.

Once her columns were updated, reviewed and proofed, Melody sent them electronically to the printer. She gave a silent prayer of thanks that typesetting was done automatically these days. Her copy would be checked for formatting by those preparing the early edition the first column would appear in, but they rarely read the material. Melody wasn't wanting any argument just now.

Melody didn't speak with the night editor. She knew Sol had that job because he tended to dither. Instead, she left a note for her boss paperclipped to office-printed copies of the columns.

She then took the new documents down to the rather odiferous copy shop in the basement. She left instructions on where to send the copies they would make. Melody then hurried out; the ammonia fumes there always made her feel a little sick.

All that done, she finally headed home. Again taking an aircab and paying with an expense account card.

* * *

"I am repeatedly confused by those who propose technical solutions to social problems," said Aaron, scowling. "These maniacs think that causing a disaster and blaming it on the empowered will allow them to fix all they see as wrong in the world."

"There's one more thing," said Blackpool, seeming unusually flustered. He had barely touched his coffee. "Something I didn't tell the reporter. Not... deliberately. I... just forgot."

"You're tired," said Aaron, leaning forward across the kitchen table and briefly placing a comforting hand on the black-clad figure's shoulder. "What is this other thing?"

"One of the measures they plan to institute after the disaster is registration for all empowered and potential empowered."

"Most empowered are already registered," said Aaron, frowning. Blackpool wasn't the only one who was tired.

"No! They plan to run genetic tests and register - and place legal restrictions, including a prohibition against voting or owning firearms and free speech..."

"Wait. This would apply to anyone with the potential for empowerment. Even though most of those will never be empowered, even if exposed to a stimulating agent?!"

Blackpool nodded mutely.

* * *

Aaron was not surprised the next morning to see several syndicated columns covering the chemical repository matter in the morning paper. He read through these. The local paper rarely carried Melody's columns - they were part of a different syndicate - but she was quoted extensively by others.

Blackpool was still asleep. Aaron was not surprised. He had seemed even more exhausted the night before than during his first visit.

Aaron was visiting with Mayor Brinkley in her office when her phone rang. She answered, listened for a moment, then handed the receiver to Aaron.

"We've got trouble," said Cashier, one of his old Chicago buddies. "Those articles have caused a bunch of empowered - most of them entertainers, like Crunch - to head out in search of that chemical repository."

"Those fools!" said Aaron, actually snarling. The expression was so different from his usual, calm demeanor as to frighten the Mayor. "They're playing into the hands of the conspirators! Whether or not they succeed in stopping the explosion, the media will see a group of empowered attacking a government facility to release chemicals which will cause more empowered!"

"Yeah, well, why don't you go tell them that," said Cashier, sounding angry and not a little frightened. "I don't know how much time we have before they locate the facility. Somebody needs to head them off before that."

"Roger," said Aaron, nodding unseen to his friend. "I'm on the way."



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