Mysteries and Mayhem

After returning from her jog, Eugenie used the palm scanner to get back into the cottage and grabbed a cold bottle of Perrier mineral water from the refrigerator in the kitchen. She unscrewed the cap and drank thirstily. It was a hot morning, already twenty-nine degrees centigrade, with the sun blazing down from a cloudless blue sky. Her exploratory trek had taken her halfway around the lake where amidst the tall conifers, oaks, and leafy crab apple trees she'd found the remains of campgrounds and what appeared to be an old golf course that had since overgrown. She'd have to question Atom further about this extensive abandoned property that spanned thousands of acres. She had also spotted an island on the lake with a—

Something interrupted her train of thought. Before heading out she had set her oatmeal bowl in the sink with the dinner dishes from the previous evening.

They were gone and the sink was empty.

Frowning, she checked the cupboard and found they had all been washed, dried, and replaced, along with the coffee mug she'd drank her tea from that morning. She didn't remember washing them. As far as she could recall, she hadn't washed a single dish since she had lived on her own attending university.

Eugenie tensed and looked around warily. Had Blackbird's men tracked her down? Was Wilson Simms having some twisted laugh on her?

She hurriedly went and removed a futuristic-looking gun from her purse. It was a subcompact Empusa pistol that fired atomically-charged plasmatic bullets. The impact from one was catastrophic. They could burn a hole through a human torso or blast off a limb just as easily as pierce titanium steel. Her father had wanted to get in on the lucrative small arms market, but had lost a bid to supply the next-generation guns to the US military due to recharging issues and the high manufacturing costs, leaving Chadwick Enterprises with a stockpile of the destructive weapons that the company wasn't allowed to sell.

She crept around the cottage, expertly keeping the Empusa out in front of her and scanning each room as she passed by. There was no sign of anyone. But there had to be an intruder; the dishes didn't wash themselves!

“That's really not the best home defence weapon,” a voice came from behind her.

Eugenie whirled, swinging the pistol around and aiming it at the debonair apparition behind her, finger tensing on the trigger. “Damn it, Atom! I almost shot at you!”

“Shot at me? You mean shot at the wall.” Atom glanced at the plasterboard behind him. “A high velocity plasmatic round would've gone straight through to the outside and incinerated some poor bird flying by, but gypsum is an inflammable mineral so the cottage likely wouldn't have caught fire. Not unless you hit the gas line of the stove three metres that way,” he said, turning and pointing. “The resulting explosion would trigger a conflagration that would burn the cottage to its foundation and likely kill you instantly from the force, if not the flames. Put away the gun, Eugenie. You're perfectly safe. There are no other human life signs for over two kilometres.”

“Is that so?” Eugenie lowered the weapon and gestured wildly toward the kitchen. “Well then who the hell washed the dishes this morning?”

A strange look crossed Atom's face. “What are you talking about?”

“Someone washed the dishes when I was out!”

“Is that why you're prowling around with a gun? Because the dishes were washed?” Atom asked, almost mocking her.

“I'm understandably a little on edge,” Eugenie said, her eyes cutting him like daggers. “How do you account for it?”

“For the dishes being washed?” Atom shrugged as if the subject was a tedious one. “Who can say, but I can tell you who didn't do them. Your ex-maid Jillian is being held in the city lock up.”

“For stealing my jewelry? You had criminal charges brought against her?”

“No, the CCPD are charging Jillian with vehicular manslaughter. After Wilson Simms exposed her petty thefts and you fired her, she drove off distraught and ran down a pedestrian in the city yesterday, a one Clifford Liam Lipinski.”

Eugenie frowned. “Lipinski? Why does that name sound familiar?”

“Clifford is the brother of Dr. Leonard Lipinski, the renowned entomologist.”

“Oh, really? Well, that's tragic. I hope they throw the book at Jillian, although after finding out what she was doing this whole time I had so wanted to chain her to a rocket and shoot her into space.”

Atom laughed. “You might want to reserve that method of execution for someone far more deserving. Our house visitor continues to poke his nose into things he shouldn't.”

“Simms again? Tell me the truth. Was he the one who washed the dishes?”

“No, he and his crew hit one of our warehouses last night.”

“One of our warehouses? Which one?”

“The one on West Turnville Court that houses, or rather I should say, conceals, one of our covert data centres. Simms orchestrated a police raid on the facility, making Capital City's finest think El Gordo was using the place as a hideout, duping them into rounding up and arresting all the warehouse's employees.”

“El Gordo?” Eugenie shook her head in amazement.

Atom made a face. “It might as well have been Al Capone or Aldolf Hitler; he seems able to bend most people to his will and to make them believe the most ridiculous nonsense. After the police left, he and his crew cut the electricity to the building and broke in, making me have to resort to lethal force and unleash the nano-bot swarm on them.”

Eugenie grinned and almost clapped her hands. “I would have liked to have seen the look on Simms's face when he saw that mass of microscopic buzz saws coming at him! So they all died horribly then?”

“No, not all... Simms escaped, by the skin of his teeth.”

“Oh," she said, with disappointment. "But you did stop them from causing any damage to the installation.”

Atom shook his head again, a perturbed look in his eyes. “Simms is clever and lucky; one of those irritating individuals who seem to win no matter what. Numerous files seem to be irreparably lost somehow due to his incursion. I'm still trying to assess what they were after and what was lost.”

Eugenie leaned against the wall and folded her arms in front of her. “As I recall, that particular facility was once used by Chromium as his main lair due to the bunker and tunnel system that lay underneath. Blackbird might have known about it from the old days. He and my father were quite friendly at times.”

Atom ran a hand through his hair. “Blackbird is a difficult individual to understand. I'm not confident I have a solid read on him as yet. Was this attack meant to lure his old chum Chromium out of the shadows? Or is he trying to provoke a war with us?”

“I hope the former and not the latter,” Eugenie said emphatically. “It appears my associate, Mr. Adams, failed to convince Blackbird of our view on the matter: that mutual nonaggression between him and ourselves is in both our interests.”

Atom fiddled with his gold cigarettes case. “Doesn't Blackbird know we manufacture some of the most advanced weapon systems on the planet? Bombs that could level each and every one of his buildings to the ground? Smart bombs that can be guided through air vents and even up water pipes?”

“To kill him, we'd first have to find him.”

“I'm working on that as we speak.” Atom put his cigarettes holder back in his pocket. “This is Blackbird's second hostile move against us. Sending Simms to interrogate you, and now this unprovoked raid on our warehouse. Two times is a coincidence, three times is a pattern. If he should come at us again...”

“If he should come at us again it needs to be the last thing the man ever does,” Eugenie finished with cold steel in her voice. “It's possible these hostile moves have some greater purpose behind them and he's not just simply reacting to the sight of my father appearing to be back from the dead. We need to learn what he's up to as soon as we can.”

“You must understand your enemy before you can defeat him.” Atom nodded, looking pleased and proud of his longtime charge. “I know your father made you read The Art of War. Remember that Sun Tzu also says the opportunity of defeating your enemy is provided by your enemy himself. If you're right, Blackbird has already tipped his hand and made a critical mistake.”

“How so?”

“He has brought the enemy to his gates. We would have left him alone at this early juncture, but he's made it necessary for us to take an interest in his affairs.”

Eugenie smiled. “Yes, that was rather stupid of him, but then he didn't know what he was up against, did he?”

“Simms has just been given an inkling of our technological edge, something Blackbird ought to have known from the outset due to his familiarity with your father. But this will eventually all come down to a chess match, and there again the advantage is also mine.” Atom popped a piece of gum in his mouth.

Eugenie had never seen him do that before. “When did you start chewing gum?”

“When I gave up smoking,” Atom answered casually.

She stared at him, incredulously. “Is this a joke? You gave up smoking?”

Atom gave her a small shrug as he worked his jaw silently. "At least for now."

“Well, colour me astonished!” Eugenie exclaimed, her face lit up with a bright smile, unable to believe it. “I’ve wanted you to kick the habit ever since junior high school. What made you stop?”

He shrugged again. “After all that happened yesterday I decided it would be best if I was more considerate of your feelings. You’re under enough stress as it is, and I don’t want you getting distracted or killed due to my self amusement.”

“It’s like you’re turning over a new leaf. I never thought I’d see the day, but I certainly appreciate the gesture. Whilst you’re at it, do you know you haven’t changed your hairstyle since I was fifteen? You look like someone from an early Two Thousands boy band.”

A disgusted look came over his face. “I do not! And as much as I’d like to stand here and be insulted all day, I have a few things I need to take care of.”

“What things?”

“You’ll get a full briefing tonight or tomorrow, barring further developments,” Atom promised, before quickly vanishing.

“Wait, what about the washed dishes? Atom? Atom! ATOM!”

But he was gone, and Eugenie found herself suddenly alone again. Or was she?

(Co-written with LSP)

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