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Engstrom eyed the detective carefully. “Okay, you win. Five people lost their lives. Some were shot, some were poisoned. Your turn to come up with a connection to China.”
“Your head of research was one of them.” Varriano stated. “Guy by the name of Holbert Gammon. You might know the name.”
“What makes you think he was involved?”
“When I was told my Q-drive came from EFH, I tried to call him.” Varriano revealed. “I figured he’d be the guy to talk to, right? I mean, I’m not just handing the drive over to some chick sitting behind the first desk I come across. Well, as it turns out Dr. Gammon wasn’t taking any calls. I was referred to a company spokesman who had no idea where Dr. Gammon was. That got me curious. This Gammon guy must have appearances and luncheons and whatnot, because he’s a pretty famous guy. Interesting thing that his itinerary has a lot of appointments on it, but they’ve all been canceled.”
“All that tells you is that Gammon is missing.” Engstrom took another bite from his dog.
“Sure, if I stopped there.” Varriano agreed. “But I didn’t stop there. I looked up any news events Dr. Gammon was involved in, and I found a couple of interesting items.”
Engstrom frowned. “You’re going to bring up his arrest at that protest, aren’t you?”
“Bear with me, boss man.” Varriano said. “You and I, let’s entertain a so-called conspiracy theory for a second. Dr. Gammon not only works for EFH, but he also teaches advanced science at U.C.S.B. That is the University of Cali, Santa Barbara. You think they’ll change the name to U.C. Stem City anytime soon?”
“Their college board voted against it twice already. You were saying?”
“About a year ago, the students at the university started up a big protest against China’s sorry record of human rights abuses. About five hundred students were part of it. Now, all of a sudden a counter-protest starts up. You’ve got professors, university staff, and people that have nothing to do with the university coming in off the street, all of them suddenly cheering about how good China is to its people, and how great China is as a country. The counter-protesters were better organized, better funded because they had printed pro-China signs already made when they showed up, and better trained because right off the bat they went after the student leaders of the original protest. One Dr. Gammon threatened to have students expelled if they didn’t shut up and go home.”
“Dr. Gammon did not say that!” Engstrom denied.
“You want to open-link your phone so I can forward the video? What, do you follow the guy around twenty-four-seven to know everything he says and does? The counter-protesters could not shut the protesters up, so they got physical and started pushing the students around. That’s how Dr. Gammon got arrested.”
“The students pushed him.” Engstrom replied. “They hit him with their signs!”
“Because you watched the five-second video clip on Fake News and you believed that was the full story, huh? What if I said I have five minutes of video footage showing Gammon and others instigating the fight with the students? Would you believe me then, or do I need a press pass pinned to my chest to get your ears working? I can do impersonations, you know. I can pretend to be from the most trusted name in news.”
“Send me those links.” Engstrom said.
“Sure, as soon as I finish my hot dog, which you paid for, so thanks again for that. Here is the conspiracy theory. The students started their anti-China protest. Somebody that butt-loves China found out and informed the C.C.U. The C.C.U. called its agents in Stem City, and the agents called their assets to get a counter-protest started. You don’t know this information, but I do because I took the time to check it out. I know where the signs were printed, and those printers dropped everything else they were working on to get them done. I know where the buses came from that took the outside people to the protest site. I also know that two other people who work for EFH were arrested for attacking the students, but EFH hushed that up. What they could not hush up was Dr. Gammon getting the snot kicked out of him because so many people got video of it.”
“You still haven’t tied in China with any of this.”
“Oh, no? How about the Council of Foreign Relations, which Dr. Gammons just happens to be a member of? Did you want to take about half an hour of your day and find out what the goals of the CFR might be? The CFR didn’t used to be pro-China, but they are now. That was the conspiracy theory. Do you want to hear my personal theory about the heist?”
“Why not? You’re living in fantasy land, anyway.”
“What kind of work is done at EFH?”
“Personal memory storage.” Engstrom answered. “You already know that!”
“Does China have the ability to create clones?”
“Well, we’re not sure. We suspect they do. Why?”
“Think about it.”
Engstrom stared at the detective for a long moment. “You think Gammon and his assistants set the whole thing up. They put their memories into Q-drives ahead of time. I’m not admitting that Gammon and his assistants were killed during the robbery, but theoretically speaking, they let themselves get killed, or poisoned. Their personal Q-drives, that no one knows about except them, were carried out during the robbery, in the hopes that that they would be cloned into new bodies once the drives are smuggled out of the States and into China. Holy crap, that makes so much sense! We couldn’t figure out what Gammon was doing in the server area. He should have been in R & D that day!”
“And you didn’t suspect him because he was killed during the caper.” Varriano replied. “When he wanted to get killed because that’s his ticket out of here. Would it trouble you to tell me how many drives were taken?”
“A lot. The figure is in the thousands. Are you going to the press with this?”
“I’m not particularly interested in doing that. At the same time, I never signed any Non-Disclosure paper with EFH.”
“Stem Corp. I’m with Stem Corp as the parent company of EFH. You mentioned a reward for the drive you returned. How much do you want for your service?”
“That’s up to you. I have worked on this case for about five hours. Normally I charge two to three hundred creds per hour.”
“Plus the price of the drive, I’m sure. So you want fifty thousand for the drive and fifteen hundred for the work?”
“I did not say that.” Varriano pointed out. “This was a free case for me, since I don’t have anything else going on at the mo. I will be happy with any amount you feel is fair.”
“How about one credit?” Engstrom joked.
“I’ll open-link my phone and you can transfer one credit direct to my bank account.”
“You are a strange man, Rickard. I need to make sure you don’t talk to the press about this. What’s that going to take? How much?”
“I am not on your payroll, so you cannot expect…”
“Fine! You’re hired! You’re fucking hired!”
Engstrom looked around for somewhere to set his hot dog napkin down. He ended up wadding it into a ball and tossing it into a large planter sitting a few feet away. Seeing this, Varriano shook his head and retrieved the trash, walking it back to the vendor and placing it into a waste bin.
Engstrom followed the detective. “You are a very strange man.”
“I just don’t like people leaving trash behind.” Varriano shrugged. “I was raised that way. What’s this about me getting hired? Do I have a choice in this?”
“We open-link phones and I’ll send you my holo-card. I want you in my office tomorrow morning at nine so you can sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement stating you will not under any circumstances talk about the missing Q-drives.”
“How much is my silence worth to you?”
“I don’t know yet.” Engstrom said. “We’ll negotiate in the morning. I’ll give you twenty-five large right now for returning the drive. That includes the work you’ve already done. I think that’s fair, don’t you?”
“Yes, I do.” Varriano agreed.
“Good, we’re on the same page now.” Engstrom said. Once a video contract was agreed to by both men, and after the money was transferred over, he peered very closely at the detective’s face, before smiling a great, big smile that showed all of his teeth. “See that? That is a million cred smile! What you’ve got is a ten cred smile. Use some of that money to get your teeth cleaned, will you? You have to keep up a great smile because if you’re working for me, your face is going to end up on the news sooner rather than later. See you in the morning, buddy!”
Engstrom slapped at Varriano’s shoulder before he returned to his limo. His four security goons filed off right after he left. They actually filed off in formation, one after the other, like synchronized swimmers or something.
Varriano watched them go, before he turned to the hot dog vendor and gave him his best smile. “He called that a ten cred smile. Do you think that’s a ten cred smile?”
“I call it a five cred smile.” The vendor replied.
“Oh, yeah? You can forget about your tip, guy. Next time I want a hot dog, I’m going to your competition.”
“All right, all right. You have a six cred smile.”
“Yeah, you’re a real fucking comedian.” Varriano started off. “You and your hot dot cart. You don’t have to say a thing and I’m laughing.”
The day was still young, the detective observed, as he strode through wide open parkland with the occasional gentle palm to sweeten it up. After his walk he still had time to go catch a flick if he wanted to, and certainly he could afford to do that now that he had money in the bank. In a day or two, he’d get in touch with Fingers and give him the bulk of it.
In the meantime, he wondered what working for Stem Corp would be like.
This concludes Detective Varriano’s character intro and opening story. I’m working on a second Varriano story arc at present. Jot down a comment or constructive criticism, or better yet, take some of the story elements found in the Write This! book and get cracking on a cyberpunk story only you can create. And of course, submit it and let’s get it posted!