After finishing up with the tech expo and getting lunch (I eventually decided to just pick up some quick food at the Fami by my apartment), I get pampered and ready for tonight’s dinner party. I go by the Atlanta Cares office to pick up the dinner jacket Larkins is letting me borrow, and switch my mind into the most professional mode it can.
If I’m doing something as awful as attending a rich person dinner party, I might as well blend in as well as I can, because this is my chance to do some major investigating.
With the jacket on, I get on the elevator and head up to the top floor of Peach Towers: floor 104. There’s a couple penthouses above it, but for anyone who doesn’t live there, Le Pêcher is the highest place you can go. It’s also an exclusive, extremely fancy restaurant where you need a reservation months in advance to get in, and somehow Larkins got the entire thing rented out for one evening. I know he’s been well-off financially since that (very crooked) deal with Blyth and Dreamtech, but how did he pull those strings?
This dinner jacket was most certainly fitted for a teenage girl, I’ll give Larkins that. I may be scrawny, but this is a bit much. My shoulders are just a bit too broad, making it extremely tight on me. It feels like the jacket is going to rip off at any moment. There were also some pants that I foolishly decided to put on, before realizing that this clearly-petite teenager was also around two or three inches shorter than I am. I don’t know why he said it would all fit. It feels like the lead-in to a prank TV show.
Still, I probably look really classy. I hear tight suits are in this season, anyway.
I reach floor 104 and and am immediately greeted by the lively clamoring of a bunch of rich people well into a dinner party that I didn’t know had even started yet. The restaurant is dim outside of the spotlights on the band playing smooth and funky synth jazz, and it’s a bit hard to make out anything from outside looking in except for the fact that there’s a bunch of people here.
The greeter at the front, uh, greets me. “Hello, what’s your name?” she asks.
“Morgan Harding. I’m an Atlanta Cares employee.”
She browses through her list and looks at my photo (I hope it’s a recent one, otherwise it might still have my fake glasses). She gives me a suspicious glare.
Then she laughs. “Oh, go on ahead, Morgan. Glad to have you at Le Pêcher.
I enter the restaurant, and now that I’m under the dimmed lights, I can see a lot better. Yeah, wow, everyone is really rich. This is EXACTLY the type of event Marge would attend, and I find a sickly dark feeling of happiness that I got invited and she didn’t.
Within seconds, Larkins sees me and comes up to me. He puts his arm around my back. This is a bit too friendly for me. “Harding!” he yells jovially. “C’mon. I got a good seat for you over here.”
He escorts me way to the back of the dining room and to a round table near the window, where there are three men I don’t recognize. Seeing how far away from the important guests this is, I now understand why Larkins was able to get me into the event.
“Here’s your table,” he tells me. “Everything’s free, so just get what you want and take it back here. Be social! Get drunk! Have some fun! Network!”
“The alcohol’s free…?”
My eyes light up in amazement, right before I realize that I shouldn’t be drinking while investigating a possible criminal conspiracy. Dammit. I hate my life. I… might anyway.
Larkins goes away to chat with a group of people in bright colorful African clothing, Kenyan I think. I sit down at the table across from these three men sitting here, all of whom look absolutely pitiful and are deep into their drinks. It’s almost certainly about women, so rather than learning their names and personal lives and get involved with their sob stories, I’m just going to… get up and go get some food.
Right in the center of the restaurant, in front of the synth jazz band, there’s a long table with foods and drinks of all varieties. The restaurant name is, what, French? But the cuisine here is a mix of Old American, Chinese, Thai, Italian, and of course good old Georgian food. I don’t know enough about French food to actually know if there is any here. What do they eat in France, french fries?
I grab some fried crab off the table, and from the auto-vender I accept a single, standard drink glass of wine in a plastic wineglass-shaped cup. Living fancy, here. Catering and stuff. There’s also a bar over at the side with a robot bartender for the real stuff, but I think I’ll stick with wine for now.
The guests here really live up to what Larkins promised. These are indeed the elite of Atlanta, from what I can tell. Exactly the people to be paying attention to. So instead of slinking back to my table in the corner of nowhere, I’m going to use my plate as a tray and eat as I check out who’s here.
I don’t recognize many corporate heads by face because I’m a normal human, but the nametags on the various round tables read off the gloating titles of many of the esteemed invitees. “James Hunter, USA Productions CCO”; “Faye Rupert, Rupert Foods CEO”; “Hiroshi Sakaguchi”, of the eponymous Sakaguchi Automations. That means there’s a chance Karina’s own father could show up here, since he’s one of the company’s high-up scientists, though I’m thinking he and Karina are still at the convention center trying to fix the mysterious malfunctions that hurt his Home Bot project.
Also in the mix are the obligatory politicians trying to vie for last-minute votes, since the primary elections are next month. I see one very obvious woman standing tall, dark, and handsome over by a corner soliciting interest from a few older businessmen: the Labor Party’s Aisha Baker. I thought she was way against corporate elites and tech companies and stuff, so why is she here, of all people?
Right now, Aisha Baker is talking to none other than Nathan Nguyen, a rival mayoral candidate for the SiPubs, and both are laughing about something while both about halfway through their mojitos. Let’s see if I can’t step a little bit closer–whoops, fat woman with a pearl necklace, sorry about that–and listen in a bit. Gosh, I wish it were a bit less crowded in here, though. And I thought the tech expo was crowded. Luckily, I don’t have to get too close, with my very slightly enhanced hearing helping out.
“…interview with Cooper?” Aisha asks.
“They requested one, but I don’t like doing those kinds of things,” Nathan says. “Hokey politician stuff bores me. I don’t think you should, either. You’re a good woman.”
“Hey, it’s the way we all have to do it if we’re not billionaires,” she says.
“And if you aren’t running on some cheap gimmick like me.” Nathan laughs. “I have so many issues, but the only thing people talk to me about is that robot-for-every-household thing. Which will kill me if I end up debating you about that. I won’t be a billionaire after this.”
“Oh, don’t worry, you’ll…”
A couple passes in front of me as they head to the food table and blocks my ability to see or hear the two politicians anymore. A moment later, I realize who the man of this couple is– it’s Chief Baronowsky, who’s yucking it up with a woman who’s presumably his wife.
I’m really glad he doesn’t notice me, because I’m sure he’d think I’m getting involved in vigilante business again and interrupting his valuable time as the police chief of Atlanta. Which is one hundred percent true. I’ll do my best to avoid him as much as possible.
Still, it’s interesting seeing him mix it up with the elites of Atlanta, having drinks and socializing with some of the very same people who he is in charge of investigating and prosecuting as a result of all those Social Media Killer attacks.
Like, for one extremely specific example, Kendrick Deal, who’s sitting at a table typing a message on his portable PC.
Remember him? He was the New Hope Party guy who was trying to get Mayor Epstein recalled, then it turned out that he was doing some illegal finance stuff himself related to Dreamtech… the exact same project that got Esptein himself arrested.
Kendrick Deal’s here at this party because rich people don’t have to actually go to jail when they’re arrested; they pay their way out of it. Right now, he hasn’t been convicted or anything, so it’s not like he’s a goner for sure. Except for all of the public records of his corruption, but you know. Trials can take a long time.
His nametag by his seat reads, “Kendrick Deal, GWB Consultancy,” rather than “Kendrick Deal, Former (and Arrested) Atlanta City Council Member,” so it looks like even criminals can get a fresh start at a lucrative new job. That’s nice.
(I don’t sound too bitter, do I?)
Everyone around here feels like him to me. This whole party, for whatever purpose Larkins actually wanted to use it, has this air of pretentious criminality to it. Like everyone here is guilty of something, and they all know it about each other, and they’re supporting each other.
I’ve been searching for some possibly nonexistent “Ascendants” that are involved in some big technological conspiracy, at least that’s the guess. But maybe I should be looking at the much more obvious targets all around me. The people that got rich off the war, that have stayed rich by keeping Atlanta mired in the past for decades, the people that–
Who the hell is THAT? Holy shit, she’s gorgeous.
She’s about my height, not heavy but definitely curvy, and her long, glittery dress accentuates it. Her hair is platinum blonde, and aside from the pink lipstick, her face is almost ghostly white, with amber eyes poking out like glittering gold. I’d describe her as a knock-out. On a pure aesthetic level, she’s incredibly beautiful.
…And she’s looking at me. Coming my way. I’m not prepared for this. Crap.
She reaches me and hands me a glass with some brown liquid, looks like whiskey on the rocks. I wasn’t going to drink any more than that glass of wine, but…
“Pitiful party, isn’t it?” is her first remark. Catches me completely off-guard
“Oh, uh, yeah,” I say. “Bunch of jerks around here.”
“The rich and the vapid,” the woman says.
“Vapid is definitely one way to put it.” I sip the drink. Yep, whiskey, and very good whiskey at that.
“Disgusts me to be around these people so long while they talk about nothing but their insular drama and the world falls apart,” she says. “But you… you’re different, I can tell.”
“You can tell?”
She smiles, a friendly face but cold emotions. Her beauty is striking, to the point of intimidation. “I saw you eavesdropping on those politicians over there. And you haven’t talked to anyone since you got here.”
“Uh, well, I was invited here by my boss.”
“Mr. Larkins. He’s, uh, hosting this party.”
The woman shrugs. “I don’t know who that is. I was just told to come here, and I did. I hate it, so, so– Oh, hi, Earl. How are you?” A balding man in glasses comes by and shakes hands with the woman, and she turns on an enthusiastic happy mode… until she turns back to me with her sardonic smile. “That guy’s the worst of them.”
“Who’s he?” I ask.
“Earl Thomas, a bigwig at Blyth Industries. He’s involved with all the military contracting. Makes millions a year designing and selling new weapons to Georgia so they can go off and fight in awful overseas wars we aren’t even involved in.”
“Awful overseas wars… Sounds like an indie band name.”
She laughs. “Do you keep up on what’s happening in Mongolia?”
“…No? What’s happening in Mongolia?”
“Exactly. The news barely covers it. We have almost three thousand soldiers in Central Asia right now, and the number is growing. It’s turned into a proxy war with us and China at this point. But since none of the people here give a shit, it’s just going to get worse and worse.”
“I can’t believe I haven’t heard of this,” I say. “I guess I don’t pay enough attention to the news.”
“The news is the problem,” she says. “Just like these people. Wealth is the problem. Maybe John Vann is right about everything… Maybe we do need a revolution.” She laughs to herself. “That was heavy. Guess we had this conversation in reverse order. But, what’s your name, anyway?”
“I don’t know, I kind of like it. Come at a person with a conversation about how dire and awful life is, then they’re punched out so far they’ll chat with you about anything. I like it.”
“Do you? I guess people will accept anything as long as a pretty girl says it,” the woman says.
“I’m not immune to your charms, I’ll admit, but I’m sure it’s the same with you chatting me up,” I say. “I have a way with women.”
“I’ll bet you do. Not me, but I’ll take your word for it.“
The music stops as the current piece finishes, and there’s some intermittent clapping.
“Anyway,” I say. “My name’s Morgan. Morgan Harding.”
I bat my eyelashes. She giggles. This woman’s not my type (not that I have a type), but hot damn if she isn’t one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever seen in my life.
“So what’s yours?” I ask.
She tilts her head to the side. “Really?”
“Oh, brother.” She shakes her head. “Just call me Hope. That’s enough.”
The music starts again, a slower, less peppy song. A jazzy waltz.
“What? C’mon, I gave you mine…” I sigh. “Well, Hope, it’s nice meeting someone who’s decent at this dinner party. I was worried I wasn’t going to speak to someone the whole time.” To be honest, I was actually hoping for that, but I don’t regret talking to her at all.
“Oh, are you leaving?” Hope asks.
“Well, I wasn’t planning on it, but…”
“It sounded like you were.”
“Do you want me to?” I ask.
“Only if you go with me. I think I want to keep chatting,” she says. “You’ve captured my interest, Morgan Harding.”
I know I did a little bit of flirting, but… I’m not ACTUALLY a master of attraction and charm, am I? “Uh, what’s the time?” I ask.
“Half past eight.”
“Ehhhhhhh… Maybe another time,” I say. “I’ve got a lot of work to do in the morning.” Which is true, not even a lie.
She looks not a bit disappointed by my answer. “One-time offer.”
“Sorry. I’m really tired.”
Hope shrugs. “Fine with me. I guess I’ll go home, too. Nice meeting you though.”
We put down our glasses and plates and walk to the entrance of the restaurant… where Larkins is currently greeting a new guest.
Larkins turns to me, goofy grin on his face. “Going home, Harding?” he asks.
Then I see the guest.
Or, rather, the guest and his entourage of bodyguards.
Black tuxedo, black gloves, balding blonde hair, pale blue eyes. It’s Donald Blyth himself. Next to him are large, tall men in matching tuxedos, one with scars on his face, and both immediately striking me as Motokawa thugs. Then, behind Blyth is a certain green mohawked man wearing an ill-fitting, oversized suit that he’s about thirty pounds too skinny for.
He’s the exact same man who Karina, Lamar and I encountered when we were investigating the secret behind Magitek Soda all those weeks ago. The exact same man who put my danger sirens on full alert back then… and right now.
I realize that, sometime in the last five seconds, I’ve instinctively put my arm in front of my female companion, as if to protect her from imminent attack. She gives me a weird look and I lower it.
I look Donald Blyth in those icy eyes of his and he meets my gaze.
He knows what I’m up to, and I know what he’s involved in.
If it weren’t for the bodyguards, or the fact I’d go to prison, I could attack him right now, get him to confess to something–anything. Whatever he’s done, that I can’t prove and don’t know the specifics of.
And if it weren’t for that pesky thing called the law, he could sic his bodyguards on me, probably kill me, Hope, and Larkins in about ten seconds flat.
It’s an impasse, so we stare at each other.
Then Blyth smiles and breaks his gaze, turning back to Larkins. “I didn’t know your secretary was here. Morgan was a great help to us during the Dreamtech deal. Lots of potential in the business world.”
Hope looks at me and gestures that she’s leaving, goodbye, and I wave. Larkins looks at her, then me, then back to her, then raises an eyebrow.
Blyth then looks back at me. “Had a nice night?”
“Yeah. Thank you. You?”
“I might. We’ll have to see,” Blyth says. He chuckles lightly.
“Good luck with that. Goodnight,” I say. “You too, Mr. Larkins.”
He’s still stuck in confusion mode, but nods.
I leave the restaurant, but I take one last look at Blyth and the men around him. The green mohawked man is still looking at me, and doesn’t look away until the elevator doors close.
When the coast is clear, I let out a sigh of relief and terror.