“I’m not sure if this is a good idea,” Mikhael noted.
“Mik, it’s going to be fine. If you want me to help with this, I’m going to have to meet the other people working on it. What’s the worst that could happen?” Sam reassured him.
Well, he’s already put you in the hospital once, Mikhael desperately wanted to voice his concern, but suppressed it.
Mikhael twitched slightly as the door to James’ office opened. He noticed that the new door was considerably more robust than the old one had been, and he felt a bit of satisfaction over this. His only regret over what he’d done to James was how little hurt he’d caused the weasel. Still, he needed James’ expertise, no matter how much he hated the little man.
“Mikhael, it’s been a while,” James said, rising from his chair with the faintest suggestion of a smirk. Seeing Sam, he briefly raised an eyebrow, feigning surprise. “And who is this?”
“You know who she is, James.”
“I’m Sam. Mik said you were helping with his plan.”
“His plan? Interesting way of putting it, since I’ve done most of the work. I’m James, by the way, although you probably know that by now.”
“James, you asked for a meeting, otherwise I wouldn’t be here,” Mikhael’s open hostility seemed to surprise Sam, but he was beyond caring. “What do you want?”
“Our sponsor wanted to meet you. Well, I say ‘meet,’ but you’ve met before. I believe it was at a conference, but I honestly don’t care enough to try to remember the details.”
A tall, thin man entered the office, face wreathed in a wide smile. A crooked nose marred his face, as if it had been badly broken and hadn’t set properly, and his hands were covered in scars from chemical burns. MIkhael recognized him immediately.
“What the fuck are you doing here?”
“Why, I’m your sponsor, Mik!” Carl Wittinger replied, his tone sounding for all the world like he was genuinely happy. “Please, though, this time if you feel the need to break anything, could you please restrain yourself and not make it the nose? Maybe a few ribs, since I hear you’re good at that.”
“Why are we working with this fucker?” Mikhael growled.
“Because he’s the best sponsor I could find on short notice, and his family’s political connections will be useful,” James was clearly irritated. “If you want to question every decision I make, maybe I’d be better off working on something else instead.”
“Sorry, who is this?” Sam was clearly confused.
“I’m Carl. Carl Wittinger. I run The Tank, or at least corporate.”
Sam’s sudden anger was as palpable as Mikhael’s. “You made that…thing. You’re a monster.”
“I won’t deny it! It was a work of genius, you know.”
“How many fluffies died for your experiment?”
“Two hundred and thirty four. I kept track.”
“Mik should’ve done more than break your nose.”
“Enough!” James was growing more agitated. “Let’s keep this professional. We don’t have much time, and I for one don’t intend on giving this another attempt, so let’s not fuck around.”
“Fine,” Carl couldn’t resist one more jab, however. “Guess how many foals it took us to find out that they couldn’t survive The Tank.”
“Carl…” James’ tone was dangerous.
“Spoilsport. Anyway, I’m here to tell you that my part is done, so when you’re ready we can get this started.”
“And why couldn’t you tell me that over phone or email?”
“Because I wanted to see how riled up I could get Mik before he broke something. The answer, by the way, is zero. We never tested foals in The Tank, we just made that up. Even I have limits.”
“You’re a real stand-up guy,” Mik’s words dripped sarcasm.
“I know I am. Goodbye.”
Carl walked out, pausing for a moment to make an exaggerated bow.
“James, I don’t know how but you found the one person I hate more than you, good job.” Mikhael turned to leave, but he stopped in his tracks.
“We’re not done here. Since you’re here already, let’s try to get at least something productive done.”
“Okay, that’s it.” Sam was getting fed up. “What the FUCK just happened? Why are you working together if you all hate each other?”
“Because we don’t have other options. Do you really think I’d be working with James if I had a better choice?”
“Thank you for that. Look, let’s try to keep this professional. Nothing will get done if we’re at each others’ throats. Now, Sam, there’s something I need you to do.”
“How many times do you need to hear the story?” Sam asked. Telling the story over and over was one of the most unpleasant things she’d ever done, each time bringing back painful memories.
“Until I think you can tell it reliably in front of hundreds of people.”
“You said everyone remembered her case,” Mik butted in. “Why do they need to hear this at all?”
“Everyone’s heard of it, but they don’t know the details. I don’t know if you’ve ever read the reports, Sam, but I do recommend not doing so for your own sake. Mik said you didn’t remember until recently, but there’s a bigger picture that you might not want to know.”
“What does that mean? Why are you and Mik always being so cryptic?”
“Everyone knows the story because of what else the perpetrators did that night. You were both minors, so there wasn’t a way for the media to learn the specifics of what actually happened. Sam, I’m warning you, you DON’T want to look it up, trust me.”
“Why couldn’t Mik just tell the story? He was the one who got hurt.”
“Because our friend Mik here looks like he wrestles bears for a living, and people are shallow. Having him be the face of this would never work.”
“James, I don’t know if it’ll have the effect you’re aiming for, even if Sam’s the one to tell the story.”
“There are two reasons why I think this will work. First, the public reaction is going to be almost entirely artificial. Second, our goal isn’t to change anyone’s mind or even to stir up real outrage in the first place.”
“Then why are we doing this at all? I don’t understand. The plan was the create enough outrage that-”
“Mik, I understand what your plan was. It was just unbelievably naïve and could never work. I’ve made changes. Our goal here is plausible deniability.”
“Plausible deniability for what?”
“I know you two spend time around, well, around hugboxers. You don’t really understand that in the real world, money is what matters, not some vague sense of morality. The people we’re dealing with will gladly throw away thousands of lives for the merest whisper of profits if they think they can get away with it. So while I do adore how cute your original plan was, I’m afraid the more realistic approach is to facilitate a truly appalling amount of white-collar crime.”
“How does Sam’s story help with that?”
“Oh no, I didn’t sell all my stocks in these companies because I knew they’d be worthless soon using insider information, I just couldn’t support these companies after I learned of what really goes on!”
“There’s no way that would fly, James.”
“For you or me? No. But for people who have the entire legal system protecting them from any consequences for what they do? Of course it will.”
“Your plan relies entirely on corruption and greed?” Sam was horrified.
“Of course it does. You expect the political class, the de facto nobility, to care about what their constituents think? It’s all a show to cover up that the only thing they care about is more money.”
“I don’t believe that everyone is corrupt.”
“There are a few, a very few who actually care about principle. Fortunately, we don’t have to convince those either since they’re already on our side. Thank God this isn’t a partisan issue, though, or half of them would oppose it out of spite.”
James laughed at the pair’s look of disgust. “Welcome to politics!”
Part Twenty (End)
Part Twenty (Alternate)