John paid the taxi driver the marked fair for the trip to Coolage headquarters in the Uppercity. He tossed a little extra in there, even after seeing the exorbitant price to go from the Undercity to the Uppercity. With his CX-7 in impound for the time being, something Captain Richards thought would neuter them, it was the only easy way to get around.
John only wished he cleaned up a bit better. The clothes he requested from the officers consisted of only a gray t-shirt and blue jeans. He masked the sloppy look with a coat, but it was clear how “underdressed” he was. On the other hand, anyone who saw Elle would have thought she planned this all out. With a knee length black, pleated skirt, white blouse, and blazer, she looked perfectly ready to give an interview.
Standing outside the taxi, John was unable to look away from her. Elle asked, “Is there a problem?”
“No… just… why do I have a feeling that you had expected this to happen?”
Elle smiled and winked. “Girls got her secrets.”
“Guess I’ll be scared,” he joked, “I’m also trying to figure out how you slipped out of the hotel too.”
Their escape plan had been loose and rushed. In the morning, John knocked on the door and explained to one of the guards, a changeover from the ones the previous night, that he needed to make a call to a client, but the hotel phones were not connecting properly. It took a bit of acting on his and Elle’s part, but the officer eventually agreed, leading John down to the lobby. That left Elle alone, but she met John in the lobby, cop free. They managed to give the other officer a shake and fled from the hotel in the Undercity night.
Once they were “safe”, John asked what she had done. To no surprise, she simply said, “Don’t ask…”
Knowing that the officers would never let both of them to the lobby at once, Elle devised her own plan to escape their hotel prison. She tossed off the robe and finished getting dressed, well, partially dressed. In only her underwear, Elle psyched herself up from inside the hotel bathroom. With as much force as she could muster, she screamed at the top of her lungs.
It didn’t take more than a second for the officer to throw the door open and barge into the room. Just as she wanted… Elle fled from the bathroom, tossing herself into the now embarrassed officer. He hadn’t expected the sight of a woman, half-naked, charging into him with enough force to nearly barrel him over.
With big, watery eyes, something Elle realized she was getting good at, she looked up at him, “There’s something in the bathroom.”
“Like… what? A bug?” the officer stuttered. What he didn’t realize, as his eyes wandered downward at the space between her breasts, was Elle reaching around and unhooking his pistol from his belt.
“No… not a bug…” His comment was insulting, but Elle trucked on. “Someone’s in there. Like up in the ceiling tiles.” Her shaky delivery, crocodile tears, and state of undress built towards a feeling of helplessness. The officer bought in, stepping into the bathroom.
He looked up at the ceiling. It was straight drywall. “There’s no tiles in here!”
Elle slammed the bathroom door and, as she planned, blocked it with the dresser. The officer was met by the barricade as he tried to open the door. He slammed the door, over and over, into the dresser, but it refused to move. “Come on! What the fuck is this?”
In a way, Elle almost felt bad. Then, she remembered her dealings with the police earlier that day, and it passed. “Take a breather there, you… dooty head!” She taunted, rather poorly, as she dressed and ignored the berating and name calling.
Elle did not share with John anything beyond locking the officer in the bathroom. He became concerned that she “assaulted an officer” and put their escape in an even worse light. John pictured a mad dash fight between the two of them, with Elle trying to outwit and outmaneuver a superiorly equipped officer. In reality, Elle knew fully well that a bit sexual-charged tension and a clever lie paved the way for her escape. John could think what he wanted; she wasn’t going to say.
Uppercity District 24, the centralized location for all the Uppercity and Coolage Group’s headquarters, sat even farther above the Undercity than the other platforms. As if constructed like a cruel god, the massive compound devoured the entire floating island, only accessible by vehicle. In District 24, the air was even thinner, and it was not uncommon to see some older citizens using masks to funnel oxygen to them. The young workforce trucked from one end of the complex to the other with little care for their health and the incredibly thin air. Even John struggled with it.
“Ugh, it hasn’t been long enough,” John said as they stepped through the massive glass doors and into the Coolage Group lobby. Massive glass elevators shot upwards to the higher floors; the lobby served as a true pinnacle of Coolage. To Elle, who was impressed by the District 19 police prescient, this was a completely different world.
John approached an automated terminal and entered their information. Coolage had no need for living employees, and most of their headquarters were automated. It served for full “efficiency” and prevented human or Neko error. After all, if there were no errors, there could be no damage to profits.
“We’re all set. Floor 35,” John said as the terminal accepted their appointment. It had only been two hours since their escape from the hotel, and John had called in every favor he could to get this meeting. Any contact he had ever made with Coolage became the subject of a phone call, and by the end of the hour, they were able to get a meeting under the guise of “helping the police”. If Richards wouldn’t kill them for ducking his officers, he would surely kill him for bringing up his name so much.
The glass elevator shot upwards; Elle and John were packed in with a dozen or more employees. They all wore a uniform of white tops and black slacks or skirts. So sterile... The employees conversed amongst themselves; speaking on issues at the office, employee drama, and the occasional “fun” from the night before. If any were aware that Coolage potentially subsidized a terrorist group, none showed it.
The great speed at which they traveled caused John’s legs to sink inward. The g-force pushed down on them in a way he had forgotten; Coolage Group efficiency was on full display. Finally, after only a few seconds of travel, they arrived at the 35th floor. The doors opened into a hall, and per the signs, they entered a fine, wood lined office designed to invoke feelings of past nostalgia when big business could be openly terrible, not just secretly.
Unlike John’s office, there was no Elle to greet them. Everything was formulated to minimize contact, and this appointment went through a series of systems, checks, and finally, some program that would set the schedule. Even with its homey façade, there was something wholly impersonal about the whole experience. Another terminal directed John to enter the fogged, glass doors. Upon pressing the green “Go” button, they shot open.
Robert Barathorn was a mid-thirty something tech bro. He never quite left behind those glory days of college, a time where he expected to be something real big before eventually migrating into the corporate mediocrity of life. Somehow, he had impressed enough corporate big heads or squashed enough hopeful “risers” that he found himself in a coveted VP spot. In reality, it meant he got to wear a well-tailored suit, sit in a fancy high office, and run one specific aspect of the company until some inevitable and unpredictable fallout would lead to his resignation.
John spoke with Robert once before, and though their conversation had been strictly case related, they got along well enough. However, it wasn’t something John had anticipated he would do again. In fact, he needed to craft a few lies before Robert would even agree to the meeting, despite all the favors called it.
Like a machine filling its lone function, Robert rose from a long corporate desk and shook John’s hand. “Mr. Darcy, it’s great to see you again!” That line was probably straight from the “dealing with the customer” manual. Coolage had five.
“Of course! Good to see you too,” John replied. He pushed Elle forward. “This is my assistant, Elle Brockman.”
“Oh! Yes! Your assistant,” Robert’s voice carried with enthusiasm. “She seems very nice. Uh… hi!” He stepped around from his desk and shook her hand. Elle was completely lost, shooting a questioning gaze at John. That didn’t stop Robert. “John had mentioned the case and everything. It’s impressive it’s your first one.”
“She’s sure ready,” John said, “Who knew my secretary would be taking on a case herself. I might finally be able to take a vacation!”
“Well, I will help in any way that I can,” Robert assured, pulling around his executive chair which Elle assumed was for John. He directed her to sit. Again, Elle silently questioned her boss, but she took a seat in Robert’s chair. Not just some random one. His chair!
Robert joined her in the “guest” seat as John stood behind Elle. “I figured we could start the interview here. Then, move it to lunch. How does that sound to you?”
Elle immediately turned to John. “Excuse me?”
He grabbed her shoulders. “What do you think of that, Elle? Sounds good?”
She smiled at Robert. “Excuse me, uh Mr. Barathorn-”
“Oh please, call me Robert!”
“Robert then…” Elle muttered, “Can you give me a few minutes? I just want to check something with Mr. Darcy. First case jitters and all. I want to make sure the interview is, you know, professional!”
“By all means! Just remember, we’re all friends here!”
Elle shot out of her chair before he finished, grabbed John, and dragged him outside the office. Away from the view of the automatic doors, still open and with Robert gazing at them like a kid staring down a new toy, Elle bit her own tongue to prevent yelling and giving away their position.
Once the doors shut, she snapped, “What the hell is going on!”
“Yeah… so Robert’s a really ‘busy’ man,” John explained, “He wasn’t too thrilled with meeting at all unless there was a little something extra.”
John cleared his throat. “Well, I managed to get him on the phone, you know. Calling in those favors. I sorta explained that I had a, uh, Neko secretary who was assisting me on a case, and maybe, possibly, interested in him in a romantic sorta way, you know.”
Elle’s mouth was hanging. “I don’t even know who he is… I didn’t work for you when you talked to him!”
“Thing is, he doesn’t know that. Do you think a guy like that remembers the secretaries that he may or may not have talked to? I told him you couldn’t stop talking about that ‘dreamy voiced’ guy from a bit ago. That got him to agree fast.”
“I see…” Elle’s trailed off before socking John right in the gut. He held back making any noise, knowing that this was both deserved and would completely throw away their plan if Robert became wise to it. Elle packed quite the punch.
“Ok…” he forced out with what little air remained in his lungs. “I’ll take that…”
“When we’re done here, I am going to kill you!” Elle snapped, “What happened to you doing the interview?”
“The only way…” John struggled to recover.
“You could have told me sooner!” Elle reached into her bag to scrounge up a tube of mascara and lipstick. Considering she hadn’t expected to talk to anyone outside some pleasantries, she didn’t bother doing anything extravagant. With a small compact, she quickly tried to apply some as John slowly recovered. With her lips puffed out as she put on the lipstick, Elle berated him further. “Yeah, if you would have told me, I could have done this sooner. Actually look like I gave a SHIT about the guy!”
“Sorry… I wasn’t thinking,” John groaned, “I figured you’d say no.”
Elle snapped the compact closed. She hated how she looked, but John didn’t think it was that bad. “Do you really think I’d do that? I’d protest and be pissed. I’m about to do it now…”
“You’re an ass.” Elle took a breath and shifted her entire personality. The frustration and anger melted away, replaced by girlish bubbliness and that “girl next-door” sort of vibe. She flicked hips to give herself that “walk” and entered the office with a certifiably charm. John followed, feeling the bruise growing on his stomach.
“Sorry about that,” Elle said, returning to the chair, “Just wanted to touch up my makeup. Now, then, do you care if we get started?”
“For sure!” Robert said, “I was thinking too, for lunch, have you ever been to Mortin’s Gastro-Steaks?”
“Oh, I haven’t, but why don’t we talk about that in a bit.” Elle grinned through all the hate she felt. John did not join her. As Robert was distracted, he made his way back to the elevator and set it for floor 40. It jolted upwards, and his sight of Elle was replaced by a concrete wall.
The ploy was set.
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