"So here you are."
Ingrid glanced up from her desk, setting down her pen as she gauged the solemn expression on her employer's face. Despite herself, a look of consternation flitted into her dark blue eyes and she rested her chin in her hands.
"Where else would I be?" She asked evenly. "This is my office."
"We'll see about that, after we've had a little chat." Rory dropped down into the seat opposite, holding her gaze as he did so. "Minx, I have always trusted you to speak plainly to me in the past, even if you do not speak plainly to other people. I have trusted in you and I brought you into my project when Rebel Records was created. I did not have to do that, but you were an old ally and I felt that I would be better served around friends than strangers. Was I wrong?"
"What are you talking about, Riot?" Ingrid raised an eyebrow. "Me taking contracts from other people instead of yours?"
"No." Rory shook his head. "And enough games. "This week, someone tried to kill me. And, though I have done my best to find evidence to the contrary, that person appears to have got into Rebel Records with some help. She mentioned your name before - thankfully - we were interrupted and she was forced to flee. Oddly, the security tapes for that day have been wiped clean. Again - this suggests to me an accomplice. And again, it was you she spoke of."
Ingrid whitened, then shook her head.
"I would never try to kill you." She said quietly. "You should know that."
"At the moment, I don't know anything." Rory admitted. "Sophie has said to me that she can't believe you capable of anything like this, and I want to agree with her - but I'm not sure that she always sees as deeply as I do and we have been friends since before Sophie was with us. I know you can be devious and I know you can lie. I just never thought you'd do so to me."
"So you think I wanted you dead?" Ingrid asked. "Riot, please, see sense! Yes, you frustrate me - lately you frustrate me a lot. But murder? That is beyond me. I am a Stinger, just as you are. It's a line I would not cross."
"From the little I've been able to find out, the assassin was electronically projected - a creation of Techrat's." Riot rested his arms on the desk. "You are the only person I know who can contact that man - you have to admit that it does not look good."
"Even I can't find him at the moment." Ingrid bit her lip. "Listen, Rory. I admit I spoke to Techrat. Ranted to him. Complained that you were not listening to me or respecting my position in this company - which is all true, as you should well know. I did not ask him to build any kind of contraption or program it to end your life. But he's strange in the head and Rapture used to say he was more than half in love with me. If he went off on a tangent of his own to attack you, then I can't be held responsible."
Rory eyed her long and hard for a moment, then he pursed his lips.
"So now I have to wonder what to do about it." He said contemplatively. "You have broken my trust, Minx. Whatever you did or didn't plan to do, your behaviour has not been acceptable. Sophie has begged me to forgive you - to keep you here in the company hierarchy because she is convinced there has been a misunderstanding. You may thank her for the fact you're not taking the first plane back to Berlin this evening."
Ingrid swallowed hard, twisting her fingers together.
"But I do not like insurrection within my company." Rory continued. "Misfits Music is the enemy, and we do not fight each other. It is what made the Stingers stronger than either the Holograms or the Misfits, back when it counted most. We always had unity. We never turned on one another."
"So what do you think you've done to me?" Finally Ingrid's temper broke free and she glared at him, banging her hands down on the desk. "I have worked for you and for Rebel Records constantly and loyally for fifteen years. Yes, I take work on the side, but you know I have always put this company first. Of late you have begun to take that for granted. You assume I will always be at your beck and call! Well, I am a songwriter and I do not wish to be employed by a faceless executive. I want my friend back - I want his understanding back. I want to feel that my music is worth more to him than dollars and competition. That is what the Stingers were created for, after all. We never had money then - but we had each other and we had our sound. That's what drove us to America and that's what made us stars. Yet you cannot even be bothered to tell me that you needed my help on your compilation and so I was driven to take another contract. If you do not speak to me, I cannot know what you want me to do. And if you do not respect me, then why am I even working here anyway? I am a good songwriter, Riot. One of the best in this city and you know it. Do you want me writing for your company or don't you? Because yes, I might have complained to Techrat about your behaviour, and I might have broken Stinger trust by doing so, but you broke my trust in you when you started treating me as you treat everyone else - as part of the company's furniture."
She frowned, taking in his expression.
"If I so wanted, I could find another company willing to handle my paperwork." She concluded. "But I want to work here - that is what I have always wanted to do. I had nothing to do with your electronic assassin, Riot - but I will not pretend to be happy. I am worth more to Rebel Records than that - and you have let too many people be driven away by your ego."
Rory was silent for a moment, digesting this. Then, at length, he sighed.
"I did not know that I needed you for the compilation until I told you I did." He said quietly. "And this is still my company, Minx. Don't forget that."
"Which is fine." Ingrid shrugged her shoulders. "But if I have no communication from you and I choose to take another project instead, don't expect me to drop it at the last second. I will not do it."
Rory glanced up at the clock over her desk, then got to his feet.
"I have a meeting." He said, then, as an afterthought, "Which you are welcome to attend, if you want, but it will probably bore you. It bores me."
A mixture of relief and amusement crossed Ingrid's face at this.
"Perhaps I will." She agreed, pushing her papers aside and getting to her feet. "After all, maybe it is time I see what it is you fat cat executives do all day!"
* * * * * * * * * *
Stefana blinked, opening her eyes as she brought her visitor into focus. A slight smile touched her lips as she recognised Aaron, and she struggled to pull herself into a more upright position on her pillows.
"Hi yourself." She returned, a little of her usual sparkle in her green eyes. "I didn't know you were the type to flitter round hospital bedsides."
"Well, this is a special case." Aaron cast her a grin, sitting down in the chair beside the bed. "I felt I owed it to you - and I wanted to be sure you weren't worse hurt than McMillan thought you were at the school. You were out cold the last time I saw you - I guess I was worried about you."
"Well, my skull's pretty thick." Stefana reached up absently to touch the big purplish bruise across her brow, wincing as she did so. "I'm just bruised and concussed. Nothing worse, but they want to keep me in overnight just to make sure that I don't develop any complications. Apparently it's important, since I blacked out."
She pulled a face.
"Honestly, I'd rather just go home and I'd have told the doctors I didn't. Unfortunately, Darren told them I did, and they're believing him."
"He is right."
"Yes, I know. But I hate hospitals."
Stefana sighed, making herself more comfortable. "And I'm sorry that he was there. I don't know what he saw, and they haven't let him see me yet, but I know I'm going to get a drilling. I'm not sure my brain is up to any quick-thinking at the moment."
"I wish I could help." Aaron pursed his lips. "But since I didn't see what happened, I'm a bit at a loss."
"I'm not sure I saw it, either." Stefana admitted. She shivered. "The last thing I remember was her pointing to this mess of ash on the floor and saying it was Techrat. Then nothing till I woke up here. I know she took the disk from me...I guess she must've run it after she clocked me out for the count."
"She did." Aaron eyed her keenly. "We were worried when she disappeared from the Drive Through. We realised she must have detected you - and neither Copper nor I knew how close you were to getting in there. You took your time."
"Well, I had company." Stefana rolled her eyes. "I thought I'd managed to lose him, but I guess not."
"He probably saved your life, you know." Aaron mused. "Athena didn't blow up - she's still in one piece, more or less - but there was a lot of smoke in there and if he hadn't pulled you out..."
"Yeah, I know." Stefana sighed. "The doctors told me he effected some kind of rescue. I hate it, because he has something over me now. But I suppose I'm grateful, too."
She looked rueful.
"Luca and Mari have been here. I've told them I don't remember what happened, and I'm going to tell anyone else the same thing." She added. "They're going to ask me a whole ton of questions, but I think it's better that they don't know what we've been up to. It's safe now, after all. I mean, if it worked and Cynthia's virus got Athena..."
She frowned, as something occured to her.
"Can I ask you something?"
"Sure." Aaron nodded. "What's up?"
"Aaron, about Cynthia." Stefana faltered, then, "Did she...? I mean..."
"She bought you as much time as she could manage." He said slowly. "But her power cells were totalled by the amount of energy she used. She had to fool Athena, and it took everything that she had to do it. It was too much for her in the end."
"Oh." Stefana was silent for a moment. Then she raised her gaze to Aaron's, tears in her eyes.
"It's dumb and all, because she was just a computer." She murmured. "And I didn't like her all that much to begin with. But this last week, well, she's seemed more real to me than she ever has before. I guess...I guess she seemed so perfect and superior, playing at being human as if it was all a joke to her. But...she had problems - like I did - and they scared her as much as mine scared me. She was pretty brave, too - going up against it with Athena. I...I guess I'm sorry."
"You were pretty brave also." Aaron agreed. He hesitated, then,
"If I tell you something, Stef, can you keep your mouth shut?"
"Another secret?" Stefana looked surprised. "Hell, why not? I already have a whole library of those - one more won't hurt."
"I kind of..." Aaron paused again, then a sheepish expression crossed his face.
"When the EMTs were arriving, and Copper and Darren were making sure you got safely to hospital, I went into the school looking for Athena." He said slowly. "I wanted to make sure she was really out for the count - that what we'd planned had really worked."
"Dangerous much?" Stefana looked startled. "If she hadn't been..."
"I know, but I guess I was pretty mad at her right then." Aaron nodded. "I've always been a bit impulsive - so I just, well, kinda did it. She'd effectively killed Cynthia and knocked you for six. I wanted to be sure it was worth it."
"So?" Stefana looked curious. "Was it?"
"Oh, definitely." Aaron agreed. "It was pretty smoky in there, Stef, but the computer was definitely history. Her projectors had blown and her monitor couldn't even get a signal. Almost scary, really, how potent Cyn's virus must have been."
"She said she was basing it on the one Techrat designed for her." Stefana remembered. "Go on."
"Well, while I was in there, I...I kinda had a thought." Aaron glanced down, twisting his hands together. "Copper is the only other one who knows what I did, Stef, so I'm trusting you."
"Just get to the point, huh?" Stefana scolded. "What did you do?"
"I...kinda unhooked Athena's power cells and, well, stowed them away in the back of my car."
Aaron looked ashamed. "I know it was stealing, and I know it was interfering with a crime scene and that the FBI have been all over the joint. But, well, they were there, and...and I couldn't not take them. I don't even know yet if they work, or if they'd be remotely compatible with Synergy. But it's worth a shot, right? I mean, she deserves the chance."
Stefana stared at Aaron for a moment. Then she let out a peal of laughter.
"I'm a bad influence on you." She decided, amused. "But no, you couldn't do anything else. And hey, I was just starting to like Cynthia and the idea of sharing a secret like that with a friend."
"Well, it's still a long shot. Athena was thirty years younger and more powerful t'boot." Aaron nodded. "And I can't tell for sure if the virus affected the cells or not. But tonight I'm stopping over at the Starlight Mansion and I'm going to give it every shot I have. Just I'd rather the Feds didn't know what I'd done. Particularly Alex. He's already kept enough secrets for us."
"I promise." Stefana wriggled down in her bed, closing her eyes as she stifled a yawn. "Your secret is safe with me."
"I should go." Aaron frowned, glancing at his watch. "You're tired and you probably need to rest. But I'm glad you're going to be okay."
"I am, don't worry about that." Stefana opened one eye, offering him a smile. "Like I told you. Thick skull. I'll be great."
"Okay. Then I'll come by tomorrow if you're still here - or your house if you're not." He promised. Stefana nodded.
"Cool." She agreed. "Oh, and Aaron?"
"If Cynthia is, well, feeling better - will you ask her to come see me, too?"
"She might not be feeling better by tomorrow, Stef."
"Well, whenever she is." Stefana shrugged, closing her eye once more. "I'm patient. I'd just like to talk to her."
"All right." Aaron nodded. "If it's possible, I'll make sure it happens."
"Sweet dreams, Steffi. And take care, all right?"
But Stefana was already half asleep, and, with a slight smile, Aaron left the hospital sideward, making his way slowly back towards the main entrance.
"Hey, it's Aaron, isn't it?"
Darren McMillan hailed him as he went and he paused, casting the reporter a wary grin.
"Yes. Aaron Pelligrini. And you're Darren McMillan."
"Too true." Darren nodded. "Stefana awake?"
"She was dozing off when I left her." Aaron shook his head. "I don't know that they'll let you see her."
"I wasn't going to ask their permission." Darren looked amused. "I need to speak to her."
"Well, she has a concussion." Aaron pointed out. "Maybe you should let her sleep that off."
"And let her get all defensive on me again? No way." Darren shook his head. "The shrew is better tackled when her guard is down."
He cast Aaron a wink, then was gone up the corridor towards the sideward where Stefana was. Aaron frowned, then shook his head.
"Stef knows how to handle that dude better than anyone else." He murmured. "She'll handle him. Somehow."
Meanwhile, Darren had reached Stefana's ward, knocking on the door
causing the girl to stir.
"What are you doing here?" She demanded crossly, glaring at him from across the room. "I'm tired, my head is killing me and I'm trying to sleep. Is that too much to ask?"
"Since I saved your life, you could be a bit nicer to me." Darren seemed unperturbed by her attitude, dumping himself down in the visitor's chair. "And there's twenty minutes still till visiting is over, so I'm being neighbourly. Have to see how my favourite vixen is doing, after all."
"Bull." Stefana said bluntly. "You only ever come near me for one thing - tabloid stories - and I'm getting sick of it."
"I'm getting sick of being lied to." Darren shrugged. "You weren't in that neighbourhood to pay off a drug debt at all. Your tox screens were clean when they admitted you here and I've put out to every lowlife in the area - noone's been selling you drugs in a long time. And I don't think it's a coincidence that you were at that school when I was - especially considering that there was a big holographic mainframe in residence."
"Darren, I'm not feeling well." Stefana grimaced at him. "Can't this wait?"
"Newspaper headlines don't wait for anyone. You dawdle and you get scooped." Darren shrugged. "All you have to do is tell me what really happened. You do that and I'll keep your name out of it - you know that. But something big was going on at that school, and I want to know what."
"I wasn't involved in it." Stefana said tiredly. "I was only there to deliver a disk. That's all."
"Mmm, and I don't believe you." Darren frowned. "Though what was on that disk? She took it and the next thing I knew, she was blowing a fuse all over the place."
"It was a virus." Stefana said quietly. "You were the one who put us onto all of this in the first place - the stolen computer parts, and then the hologram who accosted us in that restaurant. It's as if they wanted me to notice it - and you to believe that Synergy was running again."
"I don't believe Synergy is running again." Darren shook his head. "That's why I'm being so nice about your name not going in the story. I believe what Cynthia said - that she was taken out, and that what I printed before was the truth. Which is good for you, because the Tribune doesn't like printing things that aren't the truth."
"I tried to tell you."
"Yes, you did, but I didn't know there was another holographic computer in Los Angeles at the time."
"Nor did I, but I did some digging after things began to happen, and I went to Cynthia for help." Stefana said quietly. "That's what you interrupted at lunch the other day. She was building that virus, to take the computer out once and for all. It tried to kill my boss, Darren, and it threatened to kill me. I wanted to stop it, before it succeeded."
"So who was behind that thing, then?" Darren pursed his lips. "The name Techrat mean anything to you?"
"Where did you get that from?" Stefana looked surprised.
"A source." Darren shrugged. "Well?"
"He was an electronics obsessed crazy and I knew him once, a long time ago." Stefana nodded. "It's the kind of thing he'd do - build a machine like this one. But I don't know any more, Darren. And I'm tired, so let it go, huh? I've told you everything and I'm sick of being harassed by you for a story."
Darren eyed her keenly for a moment.
"Hey, it's not just about the story." He said with a grin. "I had to make sure you were okay, too."
"Why would you care?" Stefana eyed him suspiciously.
"Well, who would I get to be roundly abusive in my face every time we meet?" Darren asked. "You make life interesting, Stefana. The action follows you around and I like action."
"So I'm a guaranteed scoop?"
"Work it out for yourself." Darren winked at her, then got to his feet. "I gotta run. Deadline, and all that."
"Uh-huh." Stefana grimaced at him. "You are such a workaholic, you know that?"
"Papers don't print themselves." Darren shrugged his shoulders. "Feel better, Stefana. Can't be in on the action from a hospital bed."
"You wanna bet on that?" Despite herself, Stefana smiled. "And Darren?"
"Mm?" Darren paused, raising an eyebrow.
"Ah-hah." Darren's expression broke into a broad smile, and he grinned at her.
"I knew I'd crack you sooner or later."
He shrugged again. "But now I have to get to work. Don't do anything I wouldn't do and I'm sure we'll run into each other again. Steffi."
"I have no doubt that you're right. Darren." Stefana cuddled down beneath her covers, closing her eyes firmly. "But for now my head's spinning and I'm sleeping, so get lost. All right? I've had more than enough of you to last me a lifetime lately!"
JACQUI'S LEGACY: PART THREE
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