Part Three

Chapter Eight: An Unlikely Team

"Well, what have you discovered?"
Rory Llewelyn leaned back in his chair, eying his companion with greedy, hopeful blue eyes. "Anything? Has she spoken about the computer at all?"
"For heaven's sake, Rory, give me a little time." Darren spoke impatiently, pacing across the office floor. "Listen. She's prickly. You underestimate how prickly. Even if I was to pull all the things I know about her and aim them at her full tilt, I think all I'd get out of it was a broken nose. As it is I've sat on the tidbits I've got in the hope that if I can make her trust me, she'll open up and tell me anything she knows. But at the moment it's damn inconclusive. She's hiding something, but I can't be sure it's about the computer. If you ask me, girls like her hide so many things at once, it could take a year to pry anything useful out."
"So you're saying you've had enough?" Rory snorted. "You've been in my company four days, Darren. Five, counting today. And that's it?"
"When Jerrica is old news, my interest in Synergy disappears." Darren said simply. "Listen. You can't get the information out of her on your own. The girl doesn't trust a word that comes out of your mouth. She doesn't even like you. Me, on the other hand, she barely knows. I can get her confidence. She will talk to me. Only you have to give me a little breathing space. She's not an easy nut to crack."
He sighed, dropping down into a chair. "If it had been that Marissa girl, I'd have had my story three days ago. But Stefana's another matter. She's used to keeping things to herself."
"Well, if I didn't know better I'd say you were using your time here to ferret out other stories on my stars." Rory raised an eyebrow. "I saw the little expose on Clay's family background. How you got that out in the open I've no idea. I had no idea of the half of it till that story ran, and I can only guess by the infuriated visit he paid to my office demanding to know what I'd told you to do that it was largely based in truth."
"Clay's story was waiting to be printed a long time ago. I just needed his word on tape to confirm it, and that's what I got." Darren shrugged. "I'm in this for me, you know that. Me and my paper. The reward money isn't the important thing. If you deliver to me the information I want, then I make sure you get it. But so far Stefana isn't delivering any information, and my patience is running out. Like I said, when Jerrica becomes old news, so does the computer. So if it really does exist, and she really does know something about it - she'd better decide to tell me about it soon. Before it's not current enough to print."
"Fine." Rory sighed. "Do what you think best. Just don't forget the other part of our agreement. I want to see what she tells you about it, before you go to print. I'd like the head start. And I think it's fair, since you wouldn't have had any lead on Stefana if it wasn't for me."
"That's what we agreed." Darren nodded. "And that's how it is. If Stefana talks about the machine."
"She's not as tough as you think she is." Rory snorted. "She'll crack, if you know where to apply the pressure. Hit her where it hurts. Find a secret and use it against her. She doesn't understand the nice way of doing things - she can't be charmed. Blackmail is the only way you'll get her to spill."
"Let me deal with her in my own way." Darren said lightly. "If there's a story there, Rory, I will get it. That's why I'm the best at what I do."
He got to his feet, heading for the door. "And we'll speak again then. For now I have things to do."
He pulled open the door, sauntering into the corridor towards the lift shaft.
"These music execs are all the same. Impatient, demanding, unpleasant company." He mused, as he pressed the button to call the car to the top floor. "But I swear there's a story here somewhere, and I'm going to be the one to nail it. And if Mr Llewelyn doesn't realise he's been doublecrossed until it's in print, that's fine. The Tribune isn't going to pay out a reward to a guy who hasn't got the information. And I'll be damned if Stefana's getting a cent of it, considering what a pain she's being."
"I'm sorry about that, Darren."
A voice came from the corridor behind him and he swung around, startled.
"You often talk to yourself?"
"Only when there's noone of better intelligence around to talk to." Darren offered her a smile. "Are you going down?"
"No, I think you are." Stefana's green eyes glinted with anger. "Do you think I'm a complete idiot, or are you just doing a very good impression of it?"
"I'm sorry, I don't think I understand."
"Well, maybe that makes you the complete idiot."
Stefana grabbed him by the arm, dragging him into the lift car as it reached their floor, and thumping the button for the front lobby. "And that's fine, because we're going to have a little talk."
"Good. I'd like to have a little chat with you, too." Darren leant up against the wooden panelling, folding his arms across his chest. "Shoot."
"First off, you have to know that I know there's something wrong with a guy when he wants to take me to lunch twice in one week, and actually chats to me as if I'm a decent human being." Stefana said bitterly. "And then there was the little story of Clay's in the Tribune, that was a bit odd, too. But you know, I'm trying this thing called giving people the benefit of the doubt, so I went with it."
"Is this charming tirade leading somewhere specific, Stefana? I am a little late for a meeting."
"I'm sorry, your meeting is cancelled." Stefana said darkly. "I told you that I'm not a nice person to mess around."
"I don't think you're making yourself clear."
"Well, let me try harder." Stefana grabbed him roughly, shaking him then pushing him hard against the lift wall. "Did you know that, if you don't click Rory's door shut properly, anyone walking past can hear every word? And did you know that I'm not averse to listening at doors if I hear my name? Furthermore, did you know that I actually went out and bought a copy of the Tribune this morning, because someone told me that there was an article in it about Clay and Marissa. And would you guess what I found out?"
"Surprise me."
"Apparently the guy who writes the Tribune's top juicy stories happens to be called Darren McMillan." Stefana flew at him again, but this time he ducked out of her way. "Do you know where I've heard that name before? Oh, wait a minute, yes. I do. On the security pass of Rebel Record's latest PR guy!"
"Well, you're a smart girl, Stefana." Darren straightened his collar, offering her a benign smile. "It took you less than a week. Usually it takes them two or three. I give you credit for that. Being suspicious is a good survival technique."
"How dare you think you can manipulate me?"
"How dare you assume that I can't?" Darren met her gaze levelly. "In a minute, this lift is going to reach the ground floor. And then I'm walking out of this building, into my car. I'm going to my desk at the Tribune. And I'm going to write a nice big expose about Stefana Ranieri. Would you like to know how it's going to go?"
"You don't scare me." Stefana spat out. "You don't know the first thing about me."
"Don't I?" Darren's eyes took on a dangerous glint.
"Let's see." He held up his hands, counting off the facts one by one. "Born in Hartford, Connecticut. Dad died when you were fourteen, breaking your heart. Thrown out of home by your mother aged nineteen. Started taking drugs around the same time. Dropped out of high school and couldn't keep a job longer than a few weeks due to a bad attitude. Often bailed out by video artist Chimera, whose daughter you became pally with in high school. Came to Los Angeles with Diablo after being discovered by a talent scout for Rebel Records and signed to the label, but the career path has been anything but smooth. Arrested on suspicion of arson when Misfits Music set on fire, but released due to lack of evidence after plea-bargaining information about one of the later convicted suspects. Developed a dangerous obsession with Jewel's road manager Aaron Pelligrini, which resulted in two later suicide attempts."
He paused, eying her with a shrug. "Did I leave anything out? Because I would like to be as accurate as possible."
Stefana fell back against the wall of the lift, her face ashen.
"Who told you those things about me?" She whispered. Darren shrugged.
"As you so rightly surmised, Stefana, I'm a reporter." He said matter-of-factly. "It's my job to dig up the dirt. There isn't much that I don't know about people. And as you can see, that does include you."
He offered her a smile.
"Now I'll be honest with you." He said softly. "I could have printed all that stuff any time over the last week. But I haven't. And that's because I think there's a bigger story here. One that I want more than any other, and one that I think you can help me with."
"I don't understand."
"Yes, you do. If you overheard what was said in Rory's office, you understand me perfectly." Darren spread his hands. "I want the computer, Steffi. I want the scoop of the century. Jerrica's computer."
"What would I have to do with Jerrica's computer?" Stefana swallowed hard. "I never even met the woman."
"Another thing about being a reporter, kid, is that I tend to know when someone is lying to me." Darren shook his head. "No secrets any more. You're too intelligent for any more games. Here's the deal...I'll give you a day to think it over, then we'll speak again. Either you tell me what you know about the computer, or my scandal story...well, it hits the front page."
A slow smile touched his lips.
"Well, whaddya know. Maybe Rory's right about the blackmail idea, after all."
"You wouldn't dare print all that stuff! You have no proof!"
"I can find plenty of proof." Darren folded his arms, as the car reached the ground floor. "Think about it, Steffi. Ciao!"
He winked at her, stepping out of the lift and leaving her reeling.
"Now what do I do?" She murmured. "Is he bluffing? Does he really want to test if I know anything, or does he know that I do and does he mean every word? I'm in over my head yet again...but what do I do?"
She glanced at her watch, hurrying out of the lift and across the busy lobby to the parking lot.
"I've two hours till we're meant to be in studio." She muttered. "That gives me that much time to try and work out a way to best this guy at his own game. Oh, why is it always me this happens to? What is wrong with the I never going to catch a break?"
She put the car in gear, driving out of the company forecourt and onto the main road. "I've quit drugs. I've worked hard at my music. I've been a good girl. I've spilled my guts to Sadie in an attempt to regain some sanity. I even thought Rory was starting to lay off where I was concerned. Now this Jerrica death business has really thrown a spanner in the works. I never imagined that knowing about Synergy was gonna have such a high cost. And I could just tell Darren what he wants to know, but what good would that do me, really? He still has all the dirt he could print. And Synergy is dangerous. Yet if I don't give him a story...he'll print the dirt anyhow. And I'd die if the world knew all of those things. I'd die if Mom knew half of them! So think, Steffi. You used to be so good at think!"
As she turned left, she passed the big cemetary and a lone figure across the grass caught her eye. She rammed her foot on the pedal, screeching to a halt. Oblivious to the angry cries of other drivers, she pushed open the car door, hurrying through the big iron gates.
"Cynthia!" She exclaimed.
The figure turned from where she had carefully been laying flowers on a newly dug grave, and with a start Stefana realised it was Jerrica's. As she drew closer, she saw that the hologram was crying, and she frowned.
"Hey, I didn't know machines could do that."
"A little louder, Stefana. I don't believe they heard you in Cincinnati."
"I'm sorry. It just looks weird." Stefana faltered, suddenly uncomfortable. "I wanted to...well, I saw you, and..."
"And you wanted to come and gloat over my loss, perhaps?" Cynthia folded her arms. Stefana shook her head.
"No." She said gravely. "Death ain't something I find funny."
"So why are you here?"
"I saw you here."
"I need you to help me."
"Why would I want to help you?" Cynthia looked surprised. "I'm afraid I don't understand. I came here for some private time with my sister, and you're most definitely interrupting it."
"You need to help me, because I'm helping you." Stefana said grimly. She took Cynthia by the arm, leading her away from the graveside. "Listen to me. There's a guy at Rebel Records called Darren McMillan. He's pretending to be a PR guy, but he's really..."
"The chief reporter for a newspaper called the Tribune." Cynthia's expression darkened. "I have heard of him. What has this to do with me?"
"Rory brought him in to spy on me." Stefana responded. "Because he believes I know where you are. And he's right, because I do."
"What have you told him?" Fear leapt into Cynthia's eyes.
"Nothing." Stefana sounded impatient. "What you can do scares me too much to want the world to be messing around with you. I told Rory I made it up because I needed the money. But now this reporter guy is going to print a lot of unpleasant things about me in this rag of of his if I don't give him the computer story."
"So you have come to me." Cynthia looked thoughtful. "May I ask why? Surely it would hurt you none to give this reporter the story he wants? It does you no harm to betray me."
"Well, I made up my mind that that wasn't an option." Stefana said flatly. "I told you. You're not the kind of machine the world should know about. Besides, Sadie and I, we're friends. And it would reflect on her, if I betrayed you. I don't do that."
Cynthia was silent for a moment, eying the guitarist slowly.
"You are sincere." She said, surprised. "You do not mean to betray me, even though it puts you in an unpleasant situation to do so."
"I already said that. Are your microchips disconnected or something?" Stefana rolled her eyes. "Look. I don't really want all this crap in the papers. So if I'm helping you, I thought maybe you could also help me. Since we have a common goal here - to keep both of our private lives out of the national press."
"I see where you are coming from." Cynthia's eyes flickered thoughtfully as she considered. "This reporter is determined to have his story, and you are determined not to give it to him."
"So then, we must find him a story to report, which will keep him happy, yet protect both you and I from the Tribune's attention."
"You got it in one."
"Ah." A slight spark of mischief entered Cynthia's expression. "This sounds like an interesting challenge, Stefana."
"Do you think that it's even possible?"
"Oh, without a doubt." Cynthia looked pensive. "But I must know, Stefana, that you are truly with me on this. That there will be no changes of heart. Because I will require your help as much as you will require mine. And we must be an absolute team, or it will not work."
"If it means that my name stays out of the Tribune, Cynthia, I'm in." Stefana said fervently.
"Then we must ensure that that is indeed a part of the deal." Cynthia said evenly. "That he must turn over all evidence he has on you if he wants to know the secret of Jerrica's computer."
"And we will need Aaron's help, also."
"Aaron?" Stefana looked startled. "Why?"
"Because I have the starts of an idea." Cynthia responded. "I think I'm beginning to see exactly how to put Darren McMillan off the scent, by hiding Synergy in plain sight once more."
"I beg your pardon?"
"No, I am still formulating it." Cynthia shook her head. "Do you have your car here? I walked from work."
"Good. Then we must not waste time." Cynthia responded. "Not if we're going to teach the Tribune that they are no match for Jerrica's computer."
"Where exactly are we going?"
"The first stop." Cynthia's eyes sparkled. "The Starlight Foundation. I must confer with my other sister. It occurs to me that she might just have the thing which will provide the final proof. And then...Misfits Music. The sooner we speak with Aaron, the better!"

Chapter One: At The Funeral
Chapter Two: Stefana's Secret
Chapter Three: Nancy's Studio
Chapter Four: An Old Rivalry
Chapter Five: An Act Of Pique
Chapter Six: Darren Moves In
Chapter Seven: Daisy's Ghost
Chapter Eight: An Unlikely Team
Chapter Nine: Scheming
Chapter Ten: The Synergy Ruse
Chapter Eleven: A Legacy Reborn

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