"Even if the table has Chinese food on it?" Rex's smile was back.
Ace didn't yet crack a smile, but his gaze softened just a little. "Even if it has Chinese," he confirmed. A part of him wished he could explain exactly where he was coming from so that this man would understand--really understand. But he couldn't. Even if things went all fine and well, Ace knew that to disclose that information would only bring more chaos.
"Now, you obviously didn't want to hire us to take phonecalls and push papers around, so what do you want?"
"I’ll tell you what I have, and you tell me what I’m missing." Rex swept the now-empty take-out boxes off the table into the trashcan, and held it out for the rest of them. Ace was done with his first box and had then proceeded to consume his second, Portia had quietly finished two boxes by herself, and Avery's went in half-eaten. She continued to stare at Ace as Rex continued.
“The last time I talked to Laura was about two years ago. We didn’t really talk much after she moved out. She wanted to change the world; I’ve always taken the world as it is, figured out the rules, and used them to my own advantage. The house always wins, so you if you want to win, you’ve got to own the house. My first business was running horse races; I’ve never placed a bet in my life. Anyway, Laura went out and joined the Peace Corps or something as soon as she was out of high school; we only talked a few times after that. Not that I didn’t care about her, but she had her life and I had mine. That’s probably why I’m still around, eh? Not that I’m easy to find even if someone was looking for me.
“Anyway, she called to tell me about a story she’d stumbled onto; something deep, conspiracy and all that, no details. All I could tell her was be careful, and she was. The last time we can definitively say where she was, she was on a plane from London to New York under a fake name, over a year ago. It took them months to figure out it was her, I could have told them in five minutes. She just used her grandma’s name, Sybil Martin. She gets off that plane and that’s where they lost track of her.” Ace, if it weren't for his steeled facial features, might have cringed. He knew exactly what happened to Laura that night and he knew exactly why they lost track of her. He made sure they would. He spent an hour, at least, making sure things were in perfect order. Emphasis on the perfect. He gestured to the stacks of papers. "Most of it's useless. Once they hit a few blocks, they went off on tangents to keep themselves busy. That's how we got your picture. They wen't back through security tapes at the newspaper and individually ID'd every person who so much walked in front of it. And that was thier best idea. You got flagged because they couldn't ID you, by the way. I'm going to call you 'kid' until you feel like telling me your name. I assume you have your reasons for not telling me."
“So, she was onto something big. Big enough that she disappeared without a trace pursuing it.“ Rex seemed almost lost in thought. He looked from Ace, to Portia and back to Ace. “So now you know everything that I know.” There was a long pause as he continued to stare at the table. “I don’t know what you know, but anything you can tell me will get us farther than this.”
"That's a bit too vague. Specifically, what do you want to know?" Ace asked, not yet ready to just spill out all the information he had. He still wasn't sure what, of his broken knowledge, he would disclose to this man. After all, he still had his own affairs to deal with.
"Something you should note--something important--about me...Some two and a half weeks ago or so, I was in an accident. To be frank, I don't remember many details...Even my own name was a recent discovery. So...I'll do what I can to fill you in, but understand that my memory is spotty."
"Is that so... You should get that looked at. I know -- and I hope you remember-- that you were involved in all of this somehow, and even though she wasn't to start with, she is now. I figure if you're coming to me, you're probably in as much trouble as Laura, maybe more. Something big is out there that's after you, and would be after me too if it knew I was here, and on top of that you don't know if you can trust me. So I can understand your reluctance to tell me anything important, but recognize that whatever you're hoping to acomplish here, I'm probably the best chance you have of getting anything done. That's why you're here, isn't it? And I neither of us can get what we want if we don't know what we're up against, eh? What was she on to; Who's behind it; What exactly they're doing that's worth covering up; How high up this thing goes; Everything.
"But if you're not ready to let that cat out of the bag just yet, then how's this for a specific question: where is Laura? Maybe we can start from what happened, and then move on to why. We've all had our guesses, but tell me straight: Is my daughter alive or dead?"
"Legitimately, I probably ought to see someone about it...there...there's a chance I may have hit my head. Which...I know that's a strange thing to say since i can't remember anything, i mean, of course i hit my head, right? Trust me, it's a little more complicated than that. But anyway, I wonder if I have some kind of..permanent damage up there. I haven't had the chance to get help and--well, alright, if we're going for the honesty policy, here, I, quite simply can't just walk into a clinic somewhere and get checked, for a multitude of reasons. That's for later." Ace finished his second box of Chinese and tossed it in the trashcan.
"Secondly, yes, i'll admit, i have a part to play in all this, the details of which will come in time as I'm ready to bring them to the table, for reasons you'll understand later. I will also admit that you are by far the least of my troubles. The challenges I face--we face, are large enough that I seriously wonder if you even can help us, and I don't mean that as any form of disrespect--i'm being serious. Again, we'll get to that later. But let's put it this way, the more I feel I can trust you, the more information you'll get."
There was a long pause there as Ace practically actively avoided the answer to the last question. He dreaded giving him this information, both for the reasons that it was bad news and that he was afraid he'd get drilled for questions as to how he knew, but at the same time, Ace had an appreciation for recieving straight, hard answers to a tough question. Ritchie did him that favor...Rex deserved the same courtesy, now.
"I'm sorry, Rex," Ace told him in earnest with the most genuine expression he had thus far. "She's dead. The night she disappeared was the night she died. And, despite my broken memory, I know that what she was pursuing was massive. Bigger than I think you understand..." Ace trailed off for a moment, letting his eyes drift before he fixed them back on Rex again.
"What else would you like to know? Specifically, I mean. I feel more comfortable answering more focused questions rather than, 'tell me what you know'."
Rex stared at the table for a moment, then out the window at the far end of the room. "Alright," he said. "Not that it surprises me, but it's good to know. Thank you." Finally drew his eyes away from the window. "So, focused questions. What exactly was it Laura was investigating?"
Ace gave his question long, hard thought, as if he was debating something silently to himself. He opened his mouth to speak and then shut it again, taking another few moments of thought before he looked back to Rex. "Understand that what I'm about to tell you is highly dangerous information. There's a reason Laura disappeared without a trace, and know that by hearing this information, you face the same danger."
"Any more danger than I'm already in for having the last name 'Noland' and being curious?" Rex gave an understanding chuckle. "Fine. Bring it on."
Another pause, then, "Laura was investigating a...death. It started when she found a young Floridian man named Ace Matheson after he'd crashed his motorcycle. She called an ambulance, and he later died. Her editor, when he heard about this, asked her to write a quick story on it. But the circumstances and the events following the accident were...suspicious. Enough that she had good reason to believe the man she found on the road that day was never actually dead, despite what all the records said. She started to dig and was certianly on to something...though...I can honestly say I don't know how far she got. I just know she got far enough that someone got too uncomfortable."
"But what happened to her research? If she was being careful, I'm sure she wouldn't have told many people, if she told anyone at all. But she must have been keeping what she found somewhere."
"I don't entirely know what happened, " Ace admitted--mostly, it was the truth. "But let me pose an idea, here. If you were running some kind of secret....i dont know, operation? Deal? Something? You'd want to keep it quiet, obviously. You'd also want to know when people were looking into your business, wouldn't you? You would have set up ways to monitor your assets, your connections, your information."
"Watch the comparisons, kid. I'm not in the habit of killing people just for getting in my way. But I see your point. Keep going."
"Speaking hypothetically, of course. As far as I'm concerned, if these people have the power to make her disappear without a trace in a single night, they've got more than enough power and resources to know when someone goes digging into their affairs. As for where this research went...If I had to guess, I'd say the people responsible for her death made sure to grab what they could and see to it that it never saw the light of day again."
Once again, Ace hesitated to go on, but something seemed to be burning on his mind, though he feared to verbalize it. Ace remembered vaguely how long it took him to sweep the office for Laura's work while Dominic dealt with her house; he'd guess about an hour on that element of the job alone, not counting cleanup and the actual deed itself. As far as he could recall, though, he never scanned the rest of the office building--just her personal space. What if they found other pieces? What if they held information that could help him? Or, alternately, what if they found information that would leave Ace with no other option than to come clean about Norman and about what he'd done?
"I wonder though..." he said, finally deciding it was worth looking into. "There's a possibility that there could be pieces floating around the office. I mean, what are the chances that whoever took the information went through every single page in that building? What if she gave a folder to her editor? I don't know, just an..." Ace trailed off, though 'stopped abruptly' might have been a better description. For two awkwardly long seconds, not a single muscle in his body moved an inch, then, blinking, he continued speaking as though the pause never even happened. "...idea, if you have the time or desire to pursue it."
"I have both, and don't you dare question it." That wasn't a threat, just an affirmation. "I know whatever happened, they did a thorough job covering thier tracks. Kept the boys in New York busy chasing thier tails for months, didn't they? I can't believe they'd leave anything obvious anything obvious, on the other hand, Laura knew better than to leave something important where just anyone could find it. But we don't have just anyone, do we?" Looking around the room, "we have her father, a co-worker and professional hacker, a security expert, and you, whoever you are."
"I have my own gifts and talents to bring to the table...I'm still discovering them, honestly, but I am useful."
"I believe it, kid. If the four of us can't find it, then either they got it all, or she didn't leave anything and we're back to square one. That's one way to get around your amnesia and the dangers of digging ourselves, eh? She's already done the digging for us. Unless there's any other details you want to fill me in on first. What these people want with a not-so-dead man, for example?"
"These people? Well, that's what Laura wanted to know. She must have found some kind of evidence that suggested he was still alive...records or some other form of paperwork...maybe he boarded a plane or...I don't know." In truth, he didn't know how she figured it all out, but there had to be something. I guess the best reason I can think of as to why someone would want the world to believe an individual is dead is it keeps them invisible. Not many people go looking for a dead man when strange things happen. If you asked me, I'd say whoever is responsible wants to do a lot of things under-the-table and likely illegal."
"Now we're in my territory, then. Can't say I've ever done anything illegal per se, but under-the-table is something I know. I told you my first business was horse racing, eh? My next was investing, in mining and oil first, then branching out to other areas. You be amazed how much of legitimate business goes on under the radar." He looked at Ace. "Before you say anything, kid, I realize that we're not just dealing with business as usual here, we're talking about something on a level that neither I, nor this organization that I find myself at the top of, has ever had to deal with before. But I know something about keeping secrets: once a secret's out, it's out for good; and the bigger the secret, the harder it is to contain." He walked around the table and started pulling out files and papers as he talked.
"Here's another direct question, kid. What do you want to come from all of this? Because I'll tell you what I want: I will follow this trail as deep as it goes, and when I find who's ultimately responsible for this, I will expose every last secret they have, bring their lives down around thier ears, and leave them rotting in prison with nothing to do but think about what they've done. I won't even feel bad if I don't get the chance to look them in the eye and ask if it was worth it, but," he said with obvious anticipation, "I wouldn't turn down the opportunity. Like I said, I don't lose. Now, what do you want?" He looked up from his papers, directly at Portia, "You, I imagine, would like your life back. If you can think of a better plan than mine to acomplish that, I'd be happy to hear it." He switched his gaze to Ace, "You... are a wild card. I still don't know where you play into this, and I can see you're not going to tell me, but I'd be interested to know: besides room, board, and a new bike, what are you getting out of this? Answer if you want," he said, turning back to his papers, "otherwise, while we're talking about secrets, I'm intrigued by the question of where Laura might have kept hers."
"Portia can't have her life back until those responsible for Laura's death are taken down. They want her too, but for slightly different reasons," Ace explained. Slightly, and only slightly. The only difference was that Portia knew a heck of a lot more than Ace guessed Laura ever did. "As much as I hate that she's involved, she is now, and that can't be helped. Now, as for what I want....you and I seem to have remarkably similar goals, here, Rex. More than I think you know. See, Laura and I have a connection," besides the fact that I killed her, he thought. "As it turns out, the same organization that tracked her down is the same one at my heels. The difference is, they explicitly want me alive. That's another story for another day. I guess, what I want from all this is my life back as well, because mine's been taken from me in more ways than you might think."
Ace wondered what that would look like and concluded that he would have some difficulty with the fact that he once was friends with these people. Things were different now, of course, but a relationship like the one he had with, say, Dominic could not easily be forgotten. When it came down to it, could he really stand and watch them crash and burn?
Ace paused, tapping a finger absently on the table next to him. "Rex, I don't doubt your enthusiasm and your drive to watch those responsible pay for their sins...but I doubt your perspective on the gravity of what you're wanting to do. You don't know what you're getting into--take it from me. In good time, i'll elaborate so that you will know what you're getting into, but for now, let me just leave you with that caution...." Ace drifted off as a thought entered his head; he paced around the room a few steps before finally taking a seat, as he'd been standng the whole time. "It's becoming more and more apparent that you and I, to accoplish our same goals, need eachother's help. I can't do this without your resources, and you can't do this without the skills Portia and I have to offer and the information I know," he said, thinking of Dominic. If Ace could sack a whole building, so could Dominic, and that seemed, even to Ace, like a formidable foe to stand against.
"More on that later, i think. Now, on the subject of Laura's secrets, I think her office building would be the best place to start, honestly, and I'd look in..." Ace paused, instinct overriding conscious thought. Some deep memory surface and he continued, "In the archives. They're labeled by date, and hers would at least have a year or a month, I'm sure. It's been a year--someone there undoubtedly found it and unwittingly stuffed it in the archives where the old stories belong." Why did he know this? "That's my suggestion for a jumping point, anyway."
Rex looked at Portia, "I'll defer to your judgement in that regard, Miss Knoll. If you were a file full of things that somebody didn't want to be found, where might you be?"