<== ==>


They needed a place to talk where they were sure nobody would listen in. Jonquil suggested a restaurant with booths. Aliza instead took her to a titty bar.

It was unreasonably hot in here, and they were the only customers in the late morning on a work day. The waitress was obviously high and the golden-haired “dancer” on stage was mostly just groping herself. “This place sucks,” Jonquil grumbled.

“Look, it’s way better at night.” Aliza stared at the dancer intently with the air of a art connoisseur appraising a painting. “The dancing is way better, the music is thumping, everyone has a great time. They even have male dancers, y’know.” She grinned at Jonquil. “Did you know Cordovan danced when he was studying at The Pound?”

An image of the chiseled DI in tight undies and little else danced through Jonquil’s mind. She shook her head to get it out. “You’re remarkably calm,” she said as the waitress arrived with their drinks. Ordinarily Jonquil would never partake with the sun up, but after talking to Polly she had ordered her Manhattan without hesitation.

Aliza accepted her own drink, a Sex on the Beach, and took an inquisitive sip. “Ugh, they even water it down during the day,” she moaned. “Why wouldn’t I be calm?”

Jonquil glanced to make sure the waitress was gone, then leaned in. “Because we’ve become embroiled in a conspiracy? Because UMBRA may have blown up SPRING_ToMind and are trying to frame neo_SMOKE for it?”

“Hold on Jonny. There’s zero evidence of that.” Aliza sat back in her chair and kept watching the dancer. “All we know is that UMBRA had some involvement with SPRING_ToMind. Why would they bomb the place? There’s no motive.”

“I… do not know. But this is incredibly suspicious, you must admit.”

“It is,” Aliza agreed. “We need hard evidence, though. Polly’s suspicion isn’t enough.”

Jonquil took hold of her chin. “If UMBRA was involved, there has to be a paper trail. From what Polly said about SPRING_ToMind’s accounting they were probably playing a financial game… if we can get our hands on their account sheets, I’ll bet we can find a link somewhere.”

“The accounting department was destroyed in the explosion,” Aliza replied. “The data still exists, of course, in the cloud- but SPRING is blocking access to it. There’s already an OPTICA request to see it but you know how they are, they’ll take as much time as possible to give away organizational secrets to us.”

“Stupid bitches. We’re trying to figure out who killed their girls and they’re whining about financial security?” That was it, though. UMBRA would be far too careful to leave any direct trail leading back to them elsewhere. The financial records were their only hope. “And if SPRING does release the files to OPTICA, UMBRA will make sure to erase whatever’s incriminating. Damn it.”

The two of them sipped their drinks in uneasy silence for several minutes. Aliza was right: the Manhattan had been diluted with fruit juice and too much ice. Today was not going her way at all.

Eventually Aliza spoke up. “I have an idea. But you’re not going to like it.”

“Let’s hear it.”

“No, I’m serious, you’re going to hate it. You are probably going to get angry the second it comes from my mouth.” Aliza grimaced. “I don’t love it either. But I don’t see any other options.”

“Sapiens, just say it.” Jonquil was in no mood.

“First you have to promise me you won’t get mad, and you won’t say ‘I hate this plan’ or similar.”

“Fine, whatever. What’s the idea?”

<== ==>

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