Rory slipped open the door of the big, brightly lit bedroom, casting a glance around him for his partner. Sophie set down her book, glancing up from her seat in the corner as she offered him a playful smile.
"Well, hello." She said, amused. "You don't often come up here these days - is there something I can do for you?"
"That depends." Rory let the door bang shut behind him, coming to sit on the end of the bed. "Sophie, have you seen Minx today? Or at all, recently? I tried her office but she wasn't there and her secretary said she didn't come back to Rebel Records after lunch. I had the impression you met her for lunch - but I need to speak to her."
"Oui, we had lunch." Sophie's brows knitted in confusion. "But I do not know if she returned to the company or if she did not. I had my appointment with the dentist this afternoon, if you remember. Two fillings."
She put a finger to her cheek absently, then, "I'm still a little under the weather. I think it's time I changed my dentist."
"I don't want to talk about your teeth, woman." Rory snapped, and Sophie's dark eyes became big with surprise.
"Rory? Cherie, what is the matter? It is not like you to yell."
"Well, I'm upset." Rory said flatly. "I haven't had the best afternoon."
"What happened?" Sophie got to her feet, drawing her dressing gown more tightly around her as she came to join him on the bed. "Rory, you are tense. Did your meeting go badly?"
"No, the meeting went just fine." Rory said slowly. He sighed, then, "Listen, Sophie, something is amiss. Have you noticed anything, well, unusual in recent weeks at Rebel Records?"
"Unusual?" Sophie's features became thoughtful. "I'm not sure I know what you mean. You've all been, well, busy lately - but that's hardly different."
She let out a rueful laugh.
"And I am afraid that all this big business often confuses me. I'm sorry, Rory. I cannot say I have."
Rory pursed his lips.
"This afternoon, someone came into my office that I wasn't expecting." He said quietly. "They intended to kill me, but thanks to Stefana's habit of never knocking before she comes in, the attempt was foiled and the assassin fled."
Now the shock in Sophie's eyes was genuine, and she slipped an arm around her companion's shoulders.
"Rory! They tried to kill you? In your own office? But why? Who would do something like that?"
"You tell me." Rory glanced at his hands. "Sophie, this is unpleasant for me and it will be unpleasant for you, also. But before Stefana's opportune arrival, the assassin mentioned Minx by name. I'm afraid..."
"That Minx would pay someone to have you killed?" Sophie's voice was little more than a whisper. "Non! I won't believe it!"
"Well, I hardly do myself." Rory admitted. "I'm unsettled, if you want to know the truth. I've upset a lot of people, and I don't really care much if I have. But Minx is one of us - a Stinger. Something is going on, and I could have been leaving work today in a body bag. I want to get to the bottom of it and I need your help."
He paused, then ran a finger down her cheek.
"I need someone that I can trust."
Sophie was silent for a moment, digesting this. Then at length she nodded.
"I will see what I can discover." She said softly. "But...did you speak to security? The police? Anyone?"
"Not yet." Rory shook his head. "If Minx is involved, I want to know how and why before I take those steps. I got the impression that this was just a small part of a much bigger operation. If she's in trouble and I can get her out of it, I will."
"And if she really did want you dead, cherie?" Sophie raised questioning dark eyes to his brown ones. Rory glanced at her for a moment, then kissed her on the forehead.
"Don't you worry about that." He said carefully. "I don't do well with people who cross me. I won't have the scandal of an old friend imprisoned...but if I discover that she was more involved in this than I like, she'll be on the first plane back to Germany. I didn't spend the last fifteen years building up my company to have it undermined by a songwriter with a chip on her shoulder. So see what you can find out, Sophie - she trusts you, and she might tell you something that she wouldn't say in front of me. Okay?"
Sophie let out a heavy sigh.
"Very well." She agreed. "Though I think you are mistaken."
She got to her feet, glancing briefly at her reflection in the mirror, then slipping off her dressing gown.
"But for now, I still feel a little dizzy from this afternoon's endeavours." She added. "Do you mind if I take a nap?"
"No, of course not." Rory shook his head, standing. "I'll leave you to it."
He frowned, his lip curling with displeasure as he considered the afternoon's events. "I have more than enough to chase up myself in the meantime - don't you worry about that. I'm heading back to the company, now everyone has left. I'm going to discover exactly how an assassin got through my security measures if it's the last thing I do."
Sophie offered him a smile, then stretched out on her bedcovers, resting her head in the silk-covered pillow and closing her eyes as she heard the sound of Rory leaving the bedroom. She lay still, listening as his steps receded down the stairs and into the front room. Then she muttered a curse in her own language, opening her eyes and fumbling for her purse. Snapping it open, she rootled around inside for her cell phone, dialling Ingrid's number and waiting impatiently for her to pick up.
Ingrid did on the fourth ring.
"We have trouble." Sophie did not waste any time with pleasantries, slipping straight into her friend's tongue as she listened for the sound of Rory's car leaving the front drive. "Minx, you must come here, at once."
"Sophie?" Ingrid sounded confused, then, "Where is here? Where are you?"
"At home. Rory has just left." Sophie clambered off the bed, moving to the window and peering around the edge of the lace curtain as she watched her partner climbing into his vehicle, putting it in gear and backing out onto the road. "He goes back to Rebel Records to work late. And you must be gone by the time he is back - so do not waste any time!"
"Sophie, what is this about?"
"I need to know if you tried to kill my partner this afternoon."
"Sophie!" Ingrid let out an indignant exclamation. "What do you think I am, a murderer?"
"I don't know, but I'm going to find out." Sophie snapped back. "Techrat's holographic marvel tried to assassinate Rory this afternoon in his office, after his meeting. That's all I know...but I want to know where we stepped over the bounds of peaceful coup to violent homicide."
"She did what?" Now Ingrid sounded stunned. "But she assured me she knew what the plan was. What she was meant to do!"
"Well, obviously not so well as she should have." Sophie sighed. "Look, just come here. Okay? Now. Rory is gone. It is safe."
There was a pause, then,
"I will be there as soon as I can." Ingrid agreed.
Sophie terminated her call, tossing the phone down onto the bed as she gazed out of the front window, impatiently waiting for her friend to arrive.
"I don't know how long Rory will be away, and he does not yet suspect me." She murmured. "He must not, if anything is to be salvaged from this plan. But what exactly happened this afternoon? And Stefana...was her presence there involuntary or is she more of a liability than I thought? Did she barge into Rory's office by coincidence or did she hope to intervene in Athena's plans? I wonder. This grows messier by the hour!"
The sound of a car horn alerted her to the fact Ingrid had arrived and she hurried down the stairs, unlatching the front door and swinging it open.
"Quickly - in." She hissed.
Ingrid banged her car door shut, hurrying across the tarmac and into the spacious Beverly Hills home, watching as Sophie fastened the door behind her.
"Well?" She demanded.
"Well." Sophie pursed her lips. "You and I agreed that there was to be no violence, n'est-pas? Nothing aggressive? Just a gentle nudge to shift Rory from the seat of power?"
"That's what we agreed and that's what I thought was going to happen." Ingrid grimaced at her companion, following her into the lounge. "Are you for sure? Athena really tried to kill Rory this afternoon?"
"Rory told me himself." Sophie nodded her head, taking a seat and gesturing for her companion to do the same. "I certainly didn't give that instruction."
"And you think I did?"
"It's hard for me to know." Sophie admitted. "You know Techrat. You got him involved. You bargained with him over building this machine. You are mad at Rory...and he is in your way. I want to know, Minx. I want to know for sure that you did not plan this to happen."
"You should know me better than that." Ingrid spat out. "Of course I didn't! The computer must have got her wires crossed, that's all."
"You don't think...could Techrat have...?"
"I doubt it." Ingrid rubbed her temples. "He's a moron but I can't see him ordering a human murder. He doesn't even like people. He certainly wouldn't waste his time plotting to kill one. It's all machines with him."
"So who gave Athena that command, then?"
"Don't look at me. It wasn't me."
Sophie eyed Ingrid for a moment, then sighed.
"I believe you." She admitted. "But you see how bad this is? Someone tried to kill Rory, and that someone dropped your name to him before her attempt was interrupted. He wants me to spy on you - find out if you're messing him over. He's fairly adamant that, if he finds out anything that suggests you are, he's deporting you back to Germany on the first plane available. If he finds out I've been helping you, it won't just be deportation for me. I might end up once more in France, but if I am evicted from America in suspicious circumstances, it might well re-open investigations into what Jacques and I did when we were in Paris."
"Or we could both end up doing time for attempted murder in a California hell-hole." Ingrid bit her lip. "Athena told him I was involved?"
"Well, Rory said as much." Sophie nodded. "Listen, Minx. Stefana was the one who interrupted the assassination attempt. We had discounted her - but do you think...?"
"Why stop a man being killed if you want the machine to kill him?" Ingrid demanded. Sophie spread her hands.
"This is all beyond me." She responded. "I am looking for answers and finding none. It seems Stefana accidentally arrived on Rory as Athena was ready to kill him, inadvertently saving his life. Rory seems to have no suspicion for Stefana, and she has made no contact with me since this afternoon. And if she had betrayed us, then Rory would surely know more. He would know that I am involved - and he would not have asked me to find things out about you. He said he trusted me."
"So we can think, then, that Stefana did not connect Athena to us when she walked in on them?" Ingrid asked hopefully. "I mean, Athena can look like many things or many people. Perhaps Stefana didn't know."
"Perhaps not." Sophie agreed. "But I will not be a part of something that is intending violence and murder, Minx. If Athena's program is confused, it must be corrected. You must speak to Techrat, and we must ensure this cannot happen again. Rory is already on his guard and I will already have to do as much quick-thinking as I can to get you out of hot water. Talk to Techrat and then lie low. Do not draw suspicion on yourself, and whatever you do, go along with whatever story I decide to tell him. Otherwise..."
"Otherwise I'm on my way back to Germany." Ingrid said soberly. "I know. And I trust you. We had a pact to protect each other, after all. I will speak to Techrat about his machine, and then we'll see what's happening. The greater distance I can put between me and this plot in Rory's eyes the better!"
* * * * * * * * * *
"So what exactly happened this afternoon?"
Topaz settled down on the couch in the front room of the Starlight Mansion, cradling her small daughter on her lap as she cast Cynthia a curious look. "You went to Rebel Records with Stefana and...was it as she said? Is there really a rogue holographic simulator cruising Los Angeles looking for target practice?"
"Indeed there is." Cynthia glanced up grimly from the mess of wires and circuitboard that she had been fiddling with. "Athena is not a figment of Stefana's imagination, nor a hallucination. She is real - and she is definitely dangerous. Thankfully, we were at Rory's office in time. But Stefana's involvement has brought her into danger in more ways than one. I fear that after this encounter, she is even more at risk."
She tightened one of the wires, then,
"Athena was impersonating Stefana when she attacked Rory. Had Stefana not been there, and me also, the security tapes would have shown a simple case of employee murdering employer."
"But you were there...so Rory knows there's a computer after him?"
Nancy glanced up from her manuscript book. Cynthia nodded her head.
"Some of it. Stefana told him something to keep his mouth shut, but really he doesn't understand what's going on and I think that's probably for the best." She responded. "He may review his security tapes, but he will be sadly disappointed."
She smiled slightly.
"They appear to have suffered some irreperable damage during that part of the day. Exposure to some magnetic source, or something similar. Most odd."
Sylva let out a low chuckle.
"You zapped his tapes?"
"I had to." Cynthia sighed. "Though they prove that Athena is not your average assassin and they lend credence to Stefana's story, I was forced to use holographic simulations of my own to protect Rory Llewelyn's life. The last thing I want is for people to perceive Synergy as any part of this. If ever it becomes public, the blame must all lie with Techrat and his computer. Synergy is dead and she must definitely stay that way. Even if it means destroying evidence which could, in time, lead to a conviction of the people really behind all this."
"Ingrid Krueger and Sophie Devereux." Nancy pursed her lips. "Talk about sleeping with the enemy. Do you think Llewelyn knows that his creepy belle is in on all of this too?"
"I neither know nor care." Cynthia said simply. "My business is with Athena. Rory Llewelyn can handle the insurrection in his company."
"And we're meant to be working on our song." Sadie put in from her corner. "But I'm finding it hard to focus on anything at the moment except all this sci fi craziness. Alex has had no luck at the Federal office, guys. This Techrat guy might as well not exist. He even scanned through a few databases they have access to which aren't to do with criminal records. Nada."
"Well, he is a real man." Cynthia remarked. "I spoke to Jetta this morning and she remembers him clearly from his days as an associate to the Misfits. She called him a maggot, however, so I gather he was not one to spend much time socialising."
"Mom knew him?" Nancy looked startled. "Did you tell her about all this?"
"How could I?" Cynthia demanded. "I would have to tell her that I was also Synergy, and I do not trust her with that secret. No. I pretended that his name was mentioned in something Jerrica left behind. She told me what she knew, but it was not much. It only confirmed he was real and that he was involved with both Misfits and Stingers, because of his employment with Eric Raymond. That explains his connection to Minx and backs up Stefana's story. Nothing more."
"Why don't you trust my Mom with this?" Nancy frowned. "It's not like she'd freak and blow your cover. You trust her enough to work with and for her and Aunt Phyl, after all. I don't get it."
"There are certain things that powerful and influential people should not be given the temptation to use." Cynthia said simply. "I like your mother, Nancy. I am fond, in my own way, of Phyllis Gabor and her frequent tantrums. But Synergy's secret is something else. The desire to manipulate what I can do for their own ends may prove too great. Besides, I am content with my current working relationship. If they knew, that would change. It is nothing personal. Just self-preservation."
"Well, I just think it's a touch mean. That's all." Nancy frowned.
"Yes, and you did not know your mother or Pizzazz when they were Misfits and I was the enemy." Cynthia responded. "So let us leave it there. For the time being, it is an irrelevance. Jetta knew nothing much of Techrat that could help. Our only way of tracking him down will be to track the computer. I have her signal logged in my databanks now and I can get a faint bearing. But the more I try and focus that signal, the more I realise that it would be a mistake for me to try and find her myself. It would be exactly what she would want. She would know then how to find me, and consequently the Starlight Mansion. That would place each of you in great danger."
She hesitated, casting the oblivious Hollie a glance.
"And some of you cannot defend yourselves."
"But even if your hologram was out and about hunting her mainframe, and her hologram was out and about hunting yours..."
Sadie faltered, pursing her lips. "God, that's confusing. But even if that was going on - wouldn't your sensors pick up her presence before she got here? And, like, shut her out?"
"Sadie's right." Sylva nodded. "You've always had the sweep of the grounds here and you'd know if we were in trouble. Wouldn't you?"
Cynthia was silent for a moment, then,
"I am preparing for all eventualities." She admitted. "Aaron has not yet had the time to look at the damage I sustained while Jacqui was dominating my circuits. That being the case, I am not able yet to do all the things I did do before. The bearing I have for Athena's signal is in a distant part of town. To project that far from my mainframe on my current power levels would probably mean compromising my security signals here. I am sorry that it is so, but at present it is the best I can do."
"She beat you up good and proper, huh?" Sadie looked sympathetic. "It's cool, Cyn. If you need our help, you only have to ask."
"I will need help." Cynthia agreed. "But I have not yet thought through entirely what must happen. When I have, you will all know, I promise. For now, however, I must complete this."
She tapped her collection of electronics and cables gently with her screwdriver. "In the event that my mainframe is unable to track her signal, I am hoping that this will be adequate. And if someone other than me should go hunting holographic computers..."
"That should lead us to her?" Topaz asked. Cynthia smiled.
"That is my hope." She agreed. "And if nothing else, it should tell you when you are in the presence of friend or foe."
"If she can look like anyone or anything, then it's something we might well need." Nancy bit her lip. "If Athena really tried to total Rory Llewelyn, and Stefana was really on the level with everything she told us, we are in way over our heads. She wasn't kidding when she said we needed you up and running and involved in this. None of us would have a clue what we were doing otherwise...and she wants to kill people."
"And that is why I am here." Cynthia said composedly. "Don't worry, Nancy. I will find her. I just want to ensure that, when I do, she does not realise I am tracking her until it's too late for her to do anything about it...and that takes time and energy on my part. But I will get there...if it's the last thing I do."
JACQUI'S LEGACY: PART THREE
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