Fabio’s, like its chef owner, was flamboyant and over the top. The star of the show was the Italian cuisine. The dishes were well constructed with a love of cooking. Coupled with the excellent and friendly service, it was one of those places that turned dining into an experience. Tabatha didn’t eat there often. The experience was too expensive for her to indulge in on a regular basis but the food was worth it. As she looked at the menu and sipped her wine, her mind was more on what to ask her dinner companion.
Sam Cummins sat across from her. The man reminded her of a mouse about to stick its head into a trap for some free cheese. If his claims were true, he had good reason to be nervous. Over the phone, he mentioned that he knew why Kendricks had been killed. The media executive had been murdered just after United Bulow and Darkwater Security were brought down by Tyler.
Tabatha thought there was a connection. Too many things didn’t add up. There was a story waiting for her to find it. When she started asking questions the police failed to ask two years before, their response was to brush off her inquiries. That told her she was onto something. When she approached Tyler about his friend’s murder, he had no comment for her. His expression and silence only made her dig deeper. A short time later, Cummins contacted her.
As she split her attention between the man and the menu, Tabitha wished Cummins would stop looking around. It was his idea to meet someplace public. According to him, the information he had was too important to trust to the phones and email.
“Would you calm down,” she said with a smile. It was one of the weapons in her arsenal. She had used it many times to reassure whoever she happened to be interviewing. “Nothing is going to happen here.”
Cummins didn’t look convinced, though he made an attempt to look relaxed. “I used to work for Chase Corp. I know what they’re capable of.”
Tabatha had checked and double-checked her sources before meeting with Cummins. None of them could find out much about the man. Either he was small potatoes or a major player. She figured it was worth her time and an expensive dinner to find out. The idea of getting dirt on the Chase Corporation had never occurred to her. Her preliminary investigation turned up a possible connection to Kendricks. This was getting interesting.
Tabatha’s thoughts and questions were interrupted by the maître d. The man wore an expression she knew well. She had worn it herself every time the network assigned her to cover a story she felt was beneath her.
“Miss Strong, there is a video call for you,” the man said with a sense of importance that he probably didn’t feel.
As she rose from her chair, she made a quick apology to Cummins. Tabatha left the dining room and approached the darkened glass booth where her caller waited. She was half a dozen steps away from the booth when she remembered something very important. She hadn’t told anyone she would be here.
In that moment, time slowed to a crawl. Everything took on a sharp almost brittle quality. The suspicious part of her, the part that made her a good investigative reporter, wondered if there was actually a call. Once she stepped inside the soundproofed confines of the video booth, anything could happen to her.
Tabatha turned away from the booth just as the shooting started. She knew the sound of gunfire. It was one of those sounds you could always recognize after being exposed to it. The long drawn out bursts of automatic weapons fire clashed with the screams of pain, horror, and death coming from the dining room.
She didn’t throw herself flat or scurry for cover, not because she was brave. Some sixth sense told her it was the wrong thing to do. That same sense told her keeping her back to the booth would also be a mistake. Tabitha spun around as its door cycled open. She saw the man in the expensive suit. In one gloved hand, he held a damp white handkerchief while his other hand reached for her.
This couldn’t be happening. It was like something straight out of a vid. Tabatha’s disbelief didn’t stop her from reacting. Like all broadcasters, the implants that allowed her to transmit her experiences and emotions to the network and viewers at home also heightened her reflexes. She wasn’t inhumanly fast but she was fast enough to use the martial arts training drummed into her.
At first, Tabatha had scoffed at the mandatory self-defense training, she had undergone. She didn’t see the need for it. Usually, the network provided security for its reporters. Early in her career, she learned that the best person to look out for you is yourself. A bodyguard could only do so much. They couldn’t look after you twenty four seven. They couldn’t be everywhere.
The knife hand thrust to her attacker’s throat was delivered hard and fast, fueled by a sense of fear Tabatha had never felt before. She had faced danger before. There were people who zealously protected their secrets, but none of them had ever tried to kidnap her before. At most, they wanted to intimidate or discourage her. She had covered stories where people disappeared. Weeks later, their tortured bodies might be found if they were lucky. She made a decision not to be one of them.
It helped that her attacker was lunging out of the booth. The strike caught him. Tabatha didn’t know how badly she had hurt the man but her fingertips were wet and sticky. She didn’t think about that. She thought about what might happen if this man caught her. This is where her training broke down.
Tabitha froze, not knowing what to do next. Defending herself was easy. She had drilled and learned what to do if someone attacked her. It allowed her to react instantly. Now that she was no longer reacting, she was lost. The one thing she knew she shouldn’t do was stick around and try to think of what to do next so she ran.
Her flight took her back into the dining room. It might have been better to avoid it. Bullets had shattered the décor and patrons. Instinctively, she knew the gunfire had come from the street. The broken windows and glass confirmed her suspicions as she approached her table. Cummins was lying there in a widening pool of blood.
Tabatha didn’t know what to do except to get the hell out of there. After wiping the blood from her hand on the table cloth, she grabbed her purse and headed for the door. As she made her escape, she wondered about what Cummins had known that was worth his life and everyone’s in the restaurant. What had she stumbled onto?
As Tabatha made her way out of the restaurant, a man in a tailored gray suit with an unfashionable haircut watched her. The haircut wasn’t so much unfashionable as it was bad. It was the product of someone who cut their own hair who had little skill for the trade. It wasn’t because Mueller couldn’t afford a good haircut. It was a matter of trust. A lot of bad things could happen to a man in a barber’s chair. He had orchestrated a number of them against rivals and enemies. He didn’t trust anyone enough to place himself in a position of weakness for something as trivial as a haircut.
Mueller’s lack of trust extended to his work. He didn’t trust anyone who worked under him. Employees could be too ambitious, greedy, incompetent or lacking in some way. He would be damned if he let an underling cost him everything he had worked for. He also didn’t trust his employers. Many shared the flaws of those who worked for him. Unlike them, they had the power Mueller craved and the ability to make life difficult for him. It’s why he worked for himself. It was so much better being the man at the top but to get there, he employed a two pronged strategy.
By planning and thinking ahead, Mueller managed to avoid a lot of unwelcome surprises. This strategy lent itself to the type of work he did. It allowed him to plan for the little things that tended to trip up the competition. He could anticipate his needs and those of his employers. The other part of his strategy revolved around perception. He made it a point to show those he worked for and with just what kind of person they were dealing with. Once they saw his handiwork, very few were willing to cross him or screw up their jobs.
Mueller wished it had worked in this case. Something had gone wrong inside of the restaurant. “Why couldn’t anything go as planned with this job?” he thought.
From the start, this operation had been one mishap after another. As he radioed the backup team, Mueller knew he shouldn’t complain. If there were never any problems, there would be no need for people like him. Before he got to this plateau, it was his job to fix problems. The methods he employed usually involved things best not brought up during a stockholders meeting or in polite company. Now that he owned his own business, he continued to fix things so his company prospered.
At least Cummins had been eliminated. He probably didn’t have time to tell the caster anything but that was beside the point. Tabitha was very good at her job. He had to know if she uncovered anything. If she did, he could use her leads and information to preempt any further problems that might arise. It was a shame. Tabatha was beautiful enough to be a model. With her long honey blond hair and dark brown eyes, she had graced the cover of several magazines. Her looks and a smile were enough to disarm even the most wary person.
Many of the people Tabatha interviewed made the mistake of underestimating her. They bought into the myth that women couldn’t be beautiful and intelligent. Each of her victims chalked up her interviewing and investigative skills to others. It was usually too late when they learned how sharp Tabatha’s mind was. Mueller had to admit, he was a fan. It was a shame she decided to look into the Kendricks matter. After her interrogation, neither her body nor her mind would be intact.
Mueller had toyed with the idea of recruiting her. The company could always use someone like her in its employ. He discounted the idea. She was too dangerous. She was the sort who would dig for the truth. He wasn’t sure if it was fame, fortune, or some misguided sense of right and wrong that motivated her. In the end it didn’t matter, she was already working for him. She just didn’t know it.
Tabatha had been in the public eye long enough to know when she was being watched. It was the one thing about being famous that made her uncomfortable. Even though she liked the fame of being a caster, sometimes she wanted time to do things others might take for granted like going to the supermarket without someone pointing at her or asking for an autograph.
Whoever was watching her was probably involved with what happened at Fabio’s. They would try to grab her again. She couldn’t let them but this was outside her area of expertise. She was a reporter, not some action hero. She was used to following leads, not avoiding people looking to kill or kidnap her. The thought sent her heart and thoughts racing. She needed to lose anyone who might be following her. Luckily, Grand Central Station was less than a block away.
Day or night, the historic terminal was always crowded. The security was always heavy. Soldiers and policeman stood guard ready to deal with any kind of trouble. No one would try anything there, she thought. More importantly, it would be harder to follow her within the station. There were multiple exits she could leave by and trains that could whisk her to safety.
Safety was something she craved. The massacre at Fabio’s was fresh in her mind. What kind of people would gun down a restaurant full of people to kill one man and kidnap her? Not very smart ones was her first thought. As she flowed through the crowds at Grand Central Station, another thought occurred to her. She didn’t know what provoked such a response. The more at stake, the more extreme a response. Was the story she was working on that big?
Two years ago, Tyler brought down United Bulow and Darkwater. Tabatha found the case interesting. There were a lot of players and very few of them were talking. Then there was that girl, Tyler and his wife adopted. There was more to this story here, her instincts told her that much. She wished her instincts had told her how big and possibly dangerous that story might be.
No, that wasn’t true. Looking for trouble was part of her job. Tabatha knew there would be some blowback the moment she started looking into Kendricks’ death. The media executive had been killed just after United Bulow and Darkwater went down. He was somehow connected to everything that happened but she had no proof. It caused her to dig and ask the hard questions no one else had asked. She hadn’t gotten any answers but now she needed them. She also needed to get away from whoever was following her.
Tabitha was confident that she could lose her pursuers in the confusion of Grand Central Station. Where to go after that was an issue. It had to be someplace they wouldn’t expect. That meant her home and workplace were out of the question. She was already heading downstairs to the number 7 train when an idea occurred to her. There was one place she could go. In less than hour, she would be in Queens and at the house of someone who might be able to help her.
“We lost her, sir,” said the voice over his ear piece.
Mueller had expected that when his men informed him Tabatha had entered Grand Central Station. He wasn’t angry, just annoyed. He had put this operation together on the fly. There was no way to cover every possible contingency on such short notice. He had allowed for the possibility Tabatha might escape Fabio’s.
“Join the team at her office.”
There was already a team in place at her apartment. The team stationed at the network was a little light. The office building had a lot of ways in and out of it but they had the advantage on that front. Still, a few extra men to secure the perimeter wouldn’t hurt. The rest of his staff was keeping tabs on Tabatha’s friends and relatives. Mueller wasn’t worried. It was only a matter of time before he had her.
In retrospect, it would have been smarter to avoid such a public display but Mueller had to do it this way. Cummins had betrayed him. He had to make an example of the man, a very public messy example. He had to show people what it meant to cross him. He showed that it didn’t matter who you were or where you chose to hide, you weren’t safe from him. It was a lesson he demonstrated many times. He reasoned that if he didn’t keep proving himself and showing his mettle, people would lose respect for him. Weakness was an invitation to those who thought they could get the better of him. He would be damned if he let that happen. Better to maim and kill a thousand men than suffer that fate.
Things were still going according to plan. He and the company were in no real danger. Everything would be resolved to his satisfaction soon enough.