Chapter 25: QUITE A GUY
Margaret and Mina followed the action on Greenlawn in the Spotlight News production and editing studio in College Park, Maryland. They werent physically present any more than Phil McBain was. To the eight man production crew who saw all three of them together in the full-sized inter-company telewindow opposite the news directors full-sized working window, that was a meaningless distinction.
None of the men stationed at multi-window panels on each side of the studio or the man swiveling around in his command chair in the center to issue orders to them had ever seen the senior vice president in the flesh. Yet each of them had felt his presence in the room by way of the full-sized inter-office T-window on many occasions. This occasion felt no different.
The light and sound from Ricks police car sent Minas eyes scrambling over the console windows until she saw a figure that might have been him. She relaxed a bit, enough to be self-conscious about the fact that she had drenched her panties during the parting of the skies in Margarets Tropical Island VRS and hadnt had time to change.
She looked anxiously from one bank of windows to another until she saw that two of the men doing the instant flashback editing had accessed the interior of the Tyler house. She scanned each of those windows methodically, seeing in one that Lydia was unharmed and in another that Arthur and Nancy were also OK. She relaxed again. Enough to be self-conscious once again about her wet panties. And enough to be grateful for the marvelous technology that let her stand in her office alone while the news team saw her in another office with Margaret St. Clair and Phil McBain.
The condition of Minas panties would have given Margaret a tremendous sexual charge had they been in intimate contact. That was Margarets secret. Hers and her lovers. And Walter Judds. As unsettling as it was for Margaret to learn that he had been watching her for years in her most deviate sexual encounters with men and women, it was transcendently gratifying to know that he was on her side, that he had been on her side all along.
The Phil McBain in the news room window was the creation of Walter Judd.
Walter Judd, of all people, who would have thought it? And here he was now in a virtual reality office manipulating a virtual reality persona of Phil McBain as adroitly as a prize-winning actor in thoroughly convincing makeup giving the performance of his career. Whatever it was he did to turn that persona into an interactive ELF, Margaret knew that the Spotlight News team would swear on their mothers graves that the man in the company communication window was Phil McBain.
That was the idea.
A constant chatter of voices on the newsroom floor added to the sense of chaos in the windows framing the action from a multitude of perspectives. "Lets see some pyrotechnics," said the young news director popping up this time to give orders over the shoulder of a harried-looking older man at one of the consoles to the commando leader . "Yeah, yeah, I know the area is secure, you dumbshit. We can see it better here than you can. Just do it!"
The news director patted the shoulder of the man on his right and said, "Put some of those gang members back in the picture. I want to see them shooting before our guys do...Good. Now! Go! Go! Lawson, I want you to pick it up on a 6, 10, 50 coordinate and patch it trough to Buckner on my mark."
While the news director was coordinating the overall look of the show, one of the White Condors was shooting a stream of red tracers into the empty van as he advanced toward it.
"Mark!" shouted the news direct, pointing to one of his men in the studio and looking into his own big working telewindow at the shifted perspective his viewers would see in their T-windows.
The advancing commando pulled up short, yelled, "Frag out!" and fired an armor-piercing grenade into the side of the van before ducking for cover. The tube-launched projectile hit the vehicle with a splat and a sizzle followed by a thunderous explosion.
"I want you to watch this," said the telewindow McBain, sweeping a proud hand at the flurry of activity on the real world side of the window. "If the network hadnt gotten the call on this first, it would have been up to you to feed them the story. Frankly, its just as well that it turned out this way. Zimmerman there can smell a good story anywhere and pounce on it. Of course, I had to sign off on bringing in the White Condors."
"Lucky we had a Go team in the area," said Margaret.
"Damn lucky," said the ELF who looked and sounded like McBain.
Zimmerman, the young, go-getter news director, hadnt known that the number three man in Condor Industries was so taken with his work. He wasnt about to tell McBain about the anonymous call that put him on to the story. Nor was he inclined to tell the woman flanking him that McBain had done more than sign off on bringing in the company commandos; that McBain had suggested it. Opportunities like this were rare and he was going to make the most of it. If he worked it right, it could put him in the running for an Emmy and the next DM job that opened upif that toasty bitch with McBain didnt steal it from him.
Just when you thought racial preferences were a thing of the past, something like that always came along to show how close the country was to slipping backward. Zimmerman figured that everybody knew he was better qualified, that Mina Foski had gotten as far as she had on her color or gender or bothand perhaps a little "charm." They also knew that she had done so over McBains protest and it was yet to be seen if she could handle the intellectual and psychological demands of a grade 5 supervisor, let alone a grade 4 district manager.
"Watch how he handles this, Ms. Foski," said the McBain ELF. "You might learn a few things."
"Youll notice," said Margaret, "that the editing process makes the story more viewable, but none of the essential facts have been altered for the sake of a good story."
"Exactly," said Walter Judds McBain, "Accuracy always comes first but you have to know how to trim the fat and bone and add the condiments that will make it palatable to the people before you serve it to them. Thats professionalism."
Thats bullshit, thought Margaret as she nodded her agreement.
Mina nodded, too, thinking the same thing and more. She understood what her role was and why it was so important to play it straight as she watched Zimmermans big broadcast window, aghast at what was going on and why.
The commandos moved through the Tyler house methodically, crashing through doors and brandishing their weapons. From time to time they would stop on Zimmermans command and fire red tracers into empty rooms while the helicopter loud speaker blared its "Condor Rescue," message over and over. It was a chaotic and dramatic scene, rendered less chaotic and more dramatic by Zimmermans deft direction.
The White Condors looked so right in their role as heroes that it took longer than it should have for Mina to see that the bodies on the backyard lawn had been there before they arrived. Even so, it was the team leader, now conversing with the Tylers, who was clearing that up. He had assumed the role of field reporter with practiced ease and obvious relish, ignoring the ambitious program directors orders, which insisted on making him the star. Instead, he zeroed in on the story of Arthur, Lydia, Nancy and a white uniformed police officer named Rick who rushed in after the Condors and embraced his black and white family.
Minas relief at seeing all of the Tylers alive and well was evident. But when she saw Rick well enough to know it was him, she yelped, clasped her hands over her mouth and shimmied like a paint mixer going full tilt. Walter Judds McBain showed no sign that he noticed. Margaret made no attempt to hide the fact that she did.
The Spotlight News team members were too busy to notice anything but their monitors. Zimmerman, in particular, was so busy shouting obscenities at the commando team leader that he momentarily lost track of everything else. Then, feeling his power slipping away, he composed himself and switched to the scene outside where Condor medics were tending the wounds of fallen gang members. Their leader, Demetrious, was nowhere in sight.
The excited voice of an associate producer, an overweight man in his late-forties with hair too yellow to be real, said, "Rich, copy P-7-1!"
Zimmerman entered the coordinates and saw in his main window an overhead view of a well dressed white man laying dead on the sidewalk. A trail of blood five times the length of his body led back to an assault rifle in the high grass of the Tylers front lawn. The producer asked Zimmerman if they should use it. He gave his consent on condition that they "fuzz out" his face until they found out who he was and informed his next of kin.
Mina brissled over the consideration given to the loved ones of the dead white man by not showing his face when there was no hesitancy in showing the faces of the dead black kids. Moreover, the producer and director were portraying him as an innocent victim of a stray bullet with no evidence of what his involvement might have been.
"And take that assault rifle out of the shot," said Zimmerman, "Some muckraking liberal might try to claim it was his. We dont want to turn this into a political thing. Lets just stick to the news."
Mina knew from experience that she could say nothing about the gun or the blanked out white face and exposed black ones without being angrily accused of making a racial incident out of something that wasnt. The indirect insult to Mina didnt stop there. The more the Spotlight News team got into the story, shaping it for their viewers along lines established at the outset, the less sensitive they became to her presence. Soon they were talking to each other with total disregard for her presence, spicing their lively conversation with liberal sprinklings of "toasties" and then "niggers."
Walter Judds McBain shook his head and gestured for Margaret and Mina to blink out. All three of them blinked out; Mina first. Margaret went last, with pure contempt blazing in her eyes....
So much uncertainty surrounded The Circle in the next few days that Dean Piper was forced to call an emergency meeting. They gathered again in the space station VRS and, for once, Piper was on time. Only now, there were five empty seats: Sandersons, Eastons, McBains, Peters and Justice Ashbes. Piper waited for Peters and Ashbe. Most of the others waited for Easton and McBain as well.
Finally, Sam Jinks spoke up. "Ive never known Jeff and Phil to be this late."
"Theyre not coming," said Attorney General Cobb. Jeff was killed four days ago in the line of duty. Phil McBain was executed."
"Executed!" exclaimed Jinks and Forrest in unison.
"Yes," said Piper. "We knew that somebody big was working against us at CBI. We caught McBain dead to rights."
"Did you do a time trace?" asked Stewart Lynch, unable to believe that Phil McBain had betrayed them.
"Didnt have to," said Cobb. A man cant be in three places at the same time, not even in virtual reality. That fiasco in Detroit where the White Condors just happened to be parked around the corner, so to speak, had to have been arranged by him. By the way, thats where Jeff Easton got it. Our old buddy Phil tried to cover his T-window visit to the news room with a church choir VRS but he didnt do anything there for a crucial nine minutes that couldnt have been preprogrammed. He even beamed in late so he didnt have to interact with anybody before the session started."
Corey Becket frowned, "Are you telling us that he sent one VRP set to automatic pilot into a church choir VRS and another into the College Park studio to oversee the Go team in Detroit?"
"Thats right," said Cobb. "Looks like he tried to slip into the alibi VRP before the session ended so he could interact with other choir members. But he couldnt account for the other persona. Thats where we had him. A VRP has to fit the body scan signature of the user; skeletal structure, hand and foot prints, retinal blood vessel patterns, etc. You cant make one out of another mans body and transfer the image in real time to a T-window. It just cant be done. The McBain the College Park crew saw in their T-window must have been the work of the real one. In the days before flashbacks that kind of evidence would have been enough to hang a man twenty times over."
The stunned looks on the faces of the other men around the table turned to cold, hard hatred.
"That son of a bitch," breathed Corey Becket with tightly clenched fists. "He had us all fooled."
"Yeah," said Jinks, "Maybe we should reconsider our open arms policy to former Negroes. Once a nigger always a"
"Dont be an idiot," said Piper sternly. Phil was a bad apple." He held up one finger. "One man... We cant let that turn us into mindless bigots. We cant turn our backs on the tens of thousands of real Americans who happen to have been born with the wrong colored skins. The percentages are what we have to stay focused on. Some Negroes are always going to have more in common with us than the 85 or 90 percent we were concerned about when the Party was born. The percentage of bad ones is going down every day so the percentage of good ones is getting higher every day. If theyre not already in the majority in the Negro population, they will be soon. Remember that. There is still a place in America for people born in all colors. There has to be, and I will defend that with my dying breath!"
For Gods sake, thought Piper, who detested bigots as much as he detested niggers, when were these fools going to learn that a percentage of all people were niggers, regardless of their skin color. The color of their eyes most often told the tale. Monkey eyes, monkey tail. Phil McBain, the one man he thought was in tune with him on that vital score had betrayed his trust, but he was hardly a nigger.
Piper paused, realizing that the mere thought of the n-word had gotten him off track.
"As for former Negroes," he continued, "some of the finest Americans this country has ever seen were born black. Without Clarence Leighton there would have been no American Party. And where would we be without Chief Justice Thomas?"
Piper looked at Ashbes empty chair as if seeing it for the first time. "Speaking of justices, what happened to Ashbe?"
No one could answer but everyone suspected that he had lost his stomach for doing what had to be done. Piper nodded to Cobb. Cobb nodded back. Congressman Bates and Senator Forrest nodded their concurrence. Jinks grunted. Griffin Hays snorted. Senator Cooper licked his lips and Stewart Lynch shook his head.
"Were coming apart," said Lynch.
"Toughen up, kid!" snapped Bates.
Forrest turned to Lynch like an old college professor about to deliver a word of wisdom to a promising student on the brink of dropping out. "Every great movement faces a time of crisis," he said, softly. "Thats the time great men rise to the challenge and lesser men fade into obscurity."
The Southern senators words seemed to have the desired effect. Every man at the table lifted his chin and sat a little straighter.
"OK," said Piper, "That leaves Peters unaccounted for. I expected as much. In any event, we need somebody we can trust to replace him and we need to do it quickly."
"It seems to me," said Griff, "that CBI has to replace many key people quickly."
"Youre right," said Piper, "Our X channel man can fill in for Sanderson and Peters temporarily. But he obviously has moral deficiencies that make him unacceptable for membership in The Circle at any level. We have outstanding prospects in the pipeline but they wont have the technical proficiency to do the jobor even learn the job for another five or six months."
"Christ," said Griff, "That points up an organizational flaw. Ive thought about this before. Now its to the point that we have to fix it. Within all five levels of The Circle we have clear lines of succession. Jeff is gone so Ron is the acting second counsel. Phil is gone so I step in for him. But there are no automatic lines of succession from one level to the next. If something happened to all of us here at once, there would be no one to vote in a new leadership team. The Circle would effectively cease to exist."
"I know," said Piper, "We need to keep new blood circulating to the top."
"Its more than that," said Griff, "If telewindows and time track engineering didnt exist, we wouldnt exist. We control the technologies of the age which have given us the economic and political platforms we need to launch and sustain almost any social policy we want.
"As long as the images that everybody uses to think with are filtered through us, we can get some of the brightest people in the land to see things our way without them ever questioning it. Its always been that way with the media. It will always be that way because people want to think that they are smart enough to look at anything we show them and make up their own minds. The smarter they think they are the easier we can manipulate them."
"Yeah, yeah," said Lynch impatiently, "Whats your point."
"The point is," said Piper, before Griff could answer, "there is nobody at the controls of CBI with the technical knowledge, the managerial skills and the commitment to our principles to make those controls work for us. Last week we had fourat least we thought we had four. Now we have none. And decisions are being made left and right that militate against us. Some bright-boy even got the idea to add Ben Foskis telewindow station to the CBI network and you know what that means."
A scan of the faces at the table showed that they didnt, not even Griffin Hays or the two media pundits who should have recognized the name.
"WQST?" prompted Piper, "Vivian Foski?" Hector Clay?"
The light of understanding dawned on everyones faces at once.
"Good Lord!" said Jinks, "How the hell could something like that have happened?"
Piper resisted the impulse to remind Jinks of his own recognition failure. "It wouldnt have happened," he said, "If Jeff and PhiIf Jeff was still with usor Sanderson or even Peters."
"We need to set up a system that assures at least one fully qualified, top level member of The Circle in every key position of every private and governmental entity of vital interest to the country no matter what. If we dont do it with our people, the Japanese will do it with theirs."
"If they havent started already," said Corey Becket with the glimmer of a radical idea forming in his eyes.
Ron Cobb caught it from him. Sam Jinks caught it from Ron Cobb. Alan Bates caught it from Sam Jinks. Congressman Bates said the words. "I know that all of us have seen the before-and-after pictures of Phil and his wife, Tammy. But did anybody here know either of them before they had the race reassignment?"
Pipers eyes widened. "Dear Lord! Ill get somebody on this right away."
Senator Forrest gnashed his teeth and hissed, "Japs. They really are devious bastards."
...For Mina, things were going too well for comfort. Rick had taken her to her sisters house where Vivian greeted her with hugs and kisses and a wild story about Shag Man and an inspired promise by Hector to kill him if he didnt kill her. Hector was there, too. Mina even hugged him.
With money pouring in from sympathetic viewers across the country the Tylers were able to take a Caribbean cruise while their house was being put back together. Mina was able to move back into her house with no fear of Shag Man. Best of all was the chance to work with the production crew of God through a state of the art communication link between Auburn Hills and Detroit.
Mina learned that Gail Parker was a woman after her own heart, only smarter, and Mayhew had been someone she wished she had met. It would be months until she discovered through the disk left with Hector by Brandon Krouse that she had met the old man, and that the Jimmy Cain Nexus had actually started with that meeting.
Margaret, Mina and Walter were now working closely together with the husky, square-jawed district manager at the Alpine VRS who had said nothing and voted last to approve Minas promotion. His name was Leo Frost. He was stationed in Dallas. With McBains departure, he was next in line to Jeff Easton who had officially succumbed to a rare blood disease. Margaret was next in line to Phil McBain and Phil McBain was no longer working for CBI. Nobody bothered to explain why.
Mina and Margaret found out why when Frost called them into a virtual reality office that would put all of them together in Zimmermans inter-office window. Zimmerman had apparently called Frost in Dallas and Frost had apparently waited until they were with him around the office conference table to upbraid him for bypassing his superiors in the chain of command. With that revelation, the womens apprehension about their part in Walter Judds impersonation of McBain abated. It didnt explain why Frost had summoned Mina to the scene of the crime but his tone made it clear that if anyone had cause to worry, it wasnt her.
The ambitious young news director could have gotten away with ignoring his district managerthe man who Margaret had silenced with her "charm" in the Alpine VRS. It was no secret that Margaret despised the man and he was on his way out. But Zimmerman could think of no plausible excuse for having bypassed Margaret St. Clair, CBIs acting vice president in charge of programming.
"Okay kid," said Frost to the crestfallen news director, "Tell them what you told me."
Zimmerman tripped over his tongue trying to answer. When he had first seen the two women with Frost, he had assumed as they had, that it involved their previous visit with McBain. Now he new that Margarets appearance, at least, had more to do with himself and his future at CBI. But the toasties reason for being there was now an unsettling question mark.
"I ah... The L A police filed a report last night of a murder/suicide. A man shot his wife and daughter then turned the gun on himself."
"Thats tragic," said Margaret, more irritated than distressed, "but its hardly news that the whole country needs to know about."
"Theres more," said Frost, in the kind of somber tone reserved for exceedingly bad news. It sent a deathly cold chill through Margaret and Mina.
"It was Mr. McBain. Our McBain. What should I do?"
The female co-conspirators of the former Negros downfall gasped. Mina covered her mouth. Margaret covered her heart. They both looked ill. They knew they were at war. But even in war, it was one thing to kill the enemy and another to take his innocent wife and child with him... Or might it have been someones idea of poetic justice? From what Mina knew of Phil McBain, it didnt sound like one of his ideas. She turned to Margaret.
"It doesnt sound right to me," she said
"Me either," said Margaret, firmly.
Mina turned back to Zimmerman, "I think you should do some digging."
The young program directors face glowed red with anger, "Since when do you give me orders?"
"Since now," said Frost, "Shes your new DM. Get used to it, kid, or get the fuck out." Turning back to Mina, whose jaw had dropped as far as Zimmermans, he said, "Im sorry for having to put you in a situation like this, but I had to see how youd deal with it. I wont apologize for my language, though. Thats the way I talk and you are going to have to get used to that."
Frost blinked out the Collage Park window, leaving the personas of the three high ranking executives alone in his virtual reality office. He sighed heavily, strumming the arm rests of his chair with his finger tips. "That whole Tyler thing stinks. How come those peoples property was treated like a DZ dope denas if DZs made any sense. And why cant we get an ID on that so-called innocent bystander. Were pretty sure the assault rifle you saw in the grass was his but it disappeared. So did the body. Whats really strange is, we cant track him. We cant even get a good look at his face. Every time we try we get a fuzz-out that we cant fix. I dont know about you but I think that ring he was wearing had something to do it."
Margaret and Mina looked at each other then back at Frost. "You have to talk to Walter Judd," said Margaret.
"Shes right," said Mina. "You cant judge him by his looks. "
Margaret felt more than a twinge of guilt. She felt shame and remorse. "Yes," she said, "Hes really quite a guy."Back to top
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Contact the author: Jasper Garrison