“Touring Under Pressure”
01: Feeling Overwhelmed
Anthony Barlow entered the dimly lit diner with some trepidation. Unused to such intrigue, his normal milieu was an office overlooking the downtown cityscape, not a crummy diner in a bad neighborhood. He wasn’t at all comfortable with the situation, but he was desperate and wanted a solution to his problem. He figured this Wittmore fellow didn’t have a traditional office he could simply drop in on during business hours. He’d asked Wittmore to meet him as soon as he could, so Anthony knew he really couldn’t ask for anything better.
There were only a handful of people in the dark establishment at this hour, and it wasn’t difficult to pick out Harry Wittmore. He was the only one watching Anthony as he stood just inside the door. Everyone else was either watching their drink or the legs on the waitress who slowly paraded past carrying everyone their orders. The Investigator looked gruff, unshaven, and worn by the years. But Anthony figured that’s the kind of man he needed for the job, someone who had seen the seedier side of life and who knew how to look through the dirt for messy little details. Having figured out what to do, Anthony stepped smartly up to the table Harry was sitting at.
“You Anthony?” Harry asked, knowing better than to use his client’s last names in even as unsocial an environment as this was.
“I am,” Anthony answered simply.
“Then have a seat. Can I order you a drink?” Harry inquired as he took the measure of his potential new employer. He was used to all types, focusing mainly on spousal abuse cases, and those tended to hit people of all stripes. But this man looked so out of place he was practically begging for someone to mug him when he left the building.
The man was older, with gray hair and dressed in a conservative and downright boring business suit. He also had a dour expression, as if tasting something that curled his lip for the past week. But Harry didn’t have to wonder what it might be since he was sure the man would tell him shortly.
“I think I should stay away from alcohol at the moment. In the mood I’m in, I’m likely to overdo it. I could use some coffee, though.”
“The coffee is crap in this joint,” Harry told him. “Wait till you get back to the city and get yourself a Starbucks. The only things worth drinking here are the beer and the whiskey. The beer because it’s in a bottle and they can’t water it down, and the whiskey because you can tell if they cut it with something.”
“I’ll do without then,” Anthony said, ready to get down to business right off the bat.
“Fine by me. Now what’s your problem? You mentioned something about your daughter getting into trouble?”
“Yeah, apparently it’s just started. Her boyfriend was agitated when he brought her home earlier today. I assumed he’d done something to my daughter, so I cornered him. He was evasive, but he told me enough for me to bluff my daughter into giving me the basics. Seems they met some charismatic charlatan in downtown Beaumont, and now I believe my daughter is getting involved in some kind of a cult.”
“I wasn’t aware we had many cults in downtown Beaumont?” Harry asked with no trace of humor in his voice. Somehow Anthony couldn’t picture the man having much of a sense of humor as he looked like he was too used to seeing the ugly underside of life.
“Apparently they caught this clown traveling between cities. He was traveling between New Orleans and Houston. They supposedly only talked for a short while, but it was long enough to cause my daughter to decide to run off to meet him.”
“So your daughter is missing?” Harry asked, more interested in knowing what the job entailed than in this suit’s personal problems.
“No, she went to some concert in Houston this guy was supposed to be attending. But she told me she was going and that there wasn’t anything I could do to stop her. She informed me that if I refused to allow her she’d leave anyway, and if I locked her in her room she’d just break a window. Normally she’s not very motivated, but she’s resourceful, so if she makes her mind up to do something you can bet she’s going to do it.”
“Yeah, so the problem is?” Harry asked, hoping to skip the minor theatrics.
“She’s ready to follow this guy wherever he leads. She said he wants her to study hard and get ahead, but I figure that was just to convince her he isn’t after her money. But I don’t trust him. From how she describes it, she’s willing to drop her entire life just to follow this kid at the drop of a hat.”
“Kid?” Harry asked.
“Yeah, the guy’s not even old enough to drink yet, but apparently he’s got a whole train of women following him around, doing his bidding. I don’t like the sounds of that.”
“I can understand,” Harry answered, not particularly caring how this kid or his potential employer entertained themselves. He was interested in what he needed to do. “So what do you want me to do? Hunt him down and hurt him? I’m sorry, but I don’t do that kind of thing. If that’s what you want I can give you a number, but I won’t get involved in it, and I don’t want to be informed about it either.”
“No, no. I want information. I figure my daughter is already convinced this guy is the best thing since sliced bread. What I want is for you to dig up some dirt on him. Hopefully, if I can show her this guy’s dark side she won’t be as susceptible to his claims.”
“You realize she’ll probably like him more, simply because you dislike him so much yourself?” Harry asked, getting as deep into psychology as he had any interest getting.
“Yeah, I realize that. I don’t think it’ll be easy, but she’s a smart girl. If she thinks she’s being taken advantage of she’ll fight back. She may not come home to me seeking solace, but at least she’ll be better able to look out for herself.”
“All right, that sounds like something I can do. I do surveillance all the time. Just who is this character and where can I find him.”
“Well, she wouldn’t tell me where he is now, other than somewhere in Houston. But apparently he’s spent a lot of time in New Orleans where he’s developed quite a following as a religious figure of some kind. All I know is his name is Alex, but that name should be recognized by a bunch of people there.”
“So you want me to locate someone named Alex in the Big Easy? You know this is going to take some time, effort and expenses. I charge $150 per hour plus expenses, and New Orleans ain’t cheap. Plus, I may need to pay certain people off.”
“I understand. Just keep detailed records and if the expenses are justified I’ll cover them. I’m not going to pay for you to party or to pad your expenses, but if it’s reasonable I’ll pay.”
“That’s good to know. The other half of my business, my assistant, is very good with the record keeping, so you shouldn’t have a problem with the itemizations. Now, is there anything else you can tell me besides this guy’s first name?”
“Well, he’s supposedly been in the news down there recently. He also seems to go after women, so figure you’ll have to focus on the women surrounding him, or who knew him when he was there.”
“That’s not much to go on, but if he’s attracted that much attention it’ll help. The fact he surrounds himself with women could be difficult, as it may make getting access to his followers difficult. I may need to take a female associate along to gain their trust. That’ll increase the daily rate and the expenses, of course.”
“As I said, I’m not afraid to pay for good information. If you can get me some real dirt on this creep, especially if you can get a photograph of him showing his true nature, I’ll appreciate it.”
“I’ll need to leave right away,” the detective warned his businessman employer. “If he’s on the run he won’t be around long, so I’ll have to move fast. Any idea how long he’s going to stay in Houston?”
“Grace said she’s planning on meeting him at some concert in the city tonight and tomorrow, so I have no idea what he plans beyond that. As you can imagine, she wasn’t anxious to tell me much other than to defend the guy and tell me to screw off.”
“All right, there’s no telling how long it’ll take to dig up any dirt on this guy. I may not be able to get anything incriminating before he skips town again, but if he sticks around trying to soak your daughter, I may be able to follow him around after I learn some more about him. I’ll try to give you daily updates, as I figure the short timeline is going to involve a lot of changes of plan, and that’ll affect your bottom line. You got a number I can call?”
“Yeah, I’ll give you my business number. The wife and my daughter are bored by my work, so they won’t answer. That will keep anyone from finding out what you’re doing before I’m ready to reveal the results. I figure my wife won’t understand the implications unless I can show her what’s wrong with this guy, so I figured it’s better if I keep her out of it for now. But I appreciate this, since I didn’t know how else to address the situation.”
“Hey, don’t worry about it. Whatever dirt this guy has, I’ll find it. Now, if you’ll excuse me it sounds like I need to pack in a hurry and head out of state, so I’ll talk to you tomorrow evening after I see what I can find.”
“Thanks, I’ll take care of everything on my end, and I’ll keep you out of whatever I decide to do to him afterwards, as well.”
“OK, Alex, now that everyone is gone, we’ve got several things to discuss before Patricia gets here,” Cate warned her brother. “After all this time she’s going to be want some quality time with you, so how about you strip naked so I can get some quick time with you to discuss things before she gets here.”
“Ha! Like I’m going to strip naked when Patricia’s likely to stop by any minute with her whole band.”
“That’s hardly the ‘Rock and Roll’ spirit,” Cate teased, “besides, most of them wouldn’t mind seeing you naked.”
“Still, I’d rather not answer the door in my ‘all together’, just on the off chance it’s a 5-year-old from down the hall who’s been drawn to me. I’ll strip, but I’m keeping my pants on, at least.”
“Oh, phooey, you’re no fun. All right, that’s good enough for me to get my daily exposure to you, I guess. I was hoping maybe we could fool around a little, but I can work around your pants,” she told him with a leer.
Alex striped off his shirt and undershirt, opening his arms to her. She sat down, giving him a kiss and fishing his cock out. Alex didn’t mind her playing with it, but when she started to go down on him he protested.
“Hey, I thought you wanted to talk?”
“Hmm?” Cate asked with her mouth full. She removed it before answering. “Oh, yeah, I guess you’re right. How about we talk while you’re balls deep in me?” she asked playfully.
“No deal, you know you get lost looking in my eyes. The best I can offer is to spoon you while we talk. With my pants on,” he told her.
“Drat, well if you insist,” she responded, playfully pouting. She’d expected he’d be a bit hesitant as his mind was occupied with other things. She quickly peeled her top off. The fact she conceded so soon told him much more about how serious she was about this talk than anything else she’d said.
As she settled down against him, pulling his hands up to cover her breasts, she began.
“Now, there are several things you missed tonight that I want to cover before Patricia gets here and you forget everything else,” she told him while getting comfortable, worming her ass into a better position against his crotch. “First off, don’t go making arrangements with people when you don’t know what’s going on.”
“Huh? What’d I say?”
“You told those girls to meet you at the club tomorrow night, but Patricia was only scheduled to play there tonight. She made an arrangement with someone she knew to play here so they could see how well they performed before her first big show. I had to tell each of those girls where to show up and how to get in.”
“Why am I always the last to know about these things?” Alex complained.
“Because you’ve got more important things on your mind,” Cate reminded him. “Besides, if you don’t ask, we don’t bother you with the small details, just like you didn’t ask about our travel plans this past week.” Alex grunted, acknowledging she had a point while gently tweaking her nipples in appreciation. Cate mewed her thanks but continued on.
“The House of Blues isn’t much bigger than the clubs Patricia has played for years, so it isn’t much of a leap for her,” Cate explained.
“So where are we supposed to go tonight?” Alex asked.
“Reliant Stadium, it’s what replaced the Houston Astrodome,” she informed him.
“Wha…?” Alex managed to sputter. “You mean THE Houston Astrodome?”
“No, I mean ‘Reliant Stadium’,” Cate reminded him with a smile. “They closed the Astrodome some time ago and replaced it with the newer facility. It seats a few more people, but it’s about the same size.” Cate couldn’t see his expression, since she was facing away from him, but she could well imagine it just from his response.
“Damn, that holds a mess of people,” Alex responded in astonishment.
“It’s a little over 70,000,” Cate informed him.
“Shit! That’s a lot more people than we’ve dealt with before.”
“No, usually we’re in large cities with hundreds of thousands of people, but it’s more people in one place than we typically encounter, which is why Patricia was so anxious to set this tour up for you. She figured you’d be able to find quite a few people during each show.”
“Hell, we found three last night, and that was out of only…,” here Alex hesitated, since he didn’t know how many people were in attendance.
“The House of Blues holds 1,500 people, so Reliant Stadium would hold over forty times as many people,” Cate calmly informed him, enjoying his stunned mumbling as he tried to wrap his mind around the numbers. As much as Cate loved her brother, she knew visualizing large numbers wasn’t his strong suit.
“Wait a minute, 3 into 1500, multiplied by….”
Cate took pity on him. “You can expect somewhere around 120 Watchers, though there could be any number of Seers. That’s assuming full attendance, of course.”
“Holy Fuck,” Alex quietly swore.
“Not if you keep going on about this,” she informed him. “By the time you finally figure out the numbers Patricia and her band mates will be here. After all, it’s a ‘holy fuck’ with a nearby angel that I’ve been hoping for.”
“Wow, do you really think we’ll meet that many new people?” Alex asked.
“People, yes. Watchers and Seers, probably not. The club was packed tonight, and Reliant Stadium isn’t likely to be. Plus, even if it was, I doubt we’d manage to grab them all. We’ll have to manage the people better, but we need all of those girls.”
“Wait a minute,” Alex said, trying to wrap his head around another issue. “How the hell can Patricia pack an arena as large as the Astrodome?”
“Reliant Stadium,” Cate reminded him, trying to drill the correct name home into his memory. “And she can’t do it on her own. At least, not yet. But that’s just another thing you haven’t asked about. This isn’t exclusively her tour. She’s the opening act for Diane Kennedy.”
“Diane Kennedy?” Alex asked. “Hell, even I’ve heard of Diane Kennedy. She’s not as popular as she used to be, but she’s still a big name!”
“Yeah, she’s released a new album and she’s trying to stage a comeback.”
“How the hell did Patricia connect with Diane Kennedy?” Alex pressed, completely floored.
“The studio who agreed to do her next album thought a lot of it and pulled a few strings, and along with a lot of effort on Henry’s part, they managed to get her on the tour.”
“And Diane is starting in Houston?” Alex asked.
“No, they started on the East Coast with another opening act, but Diane wasn’t getting along with them, so when they suggested a replacement Diane’s people jumped at the chance. Diane isn’t real easy to work with,” Cate explained.
“Ah, that explains a lot I guess, though it makes Patricia’s role more precarious.”
“Patricia just needs to last until California, where they’ll cut her album. The album is where the sales come from. The tours are mainly designed to help sell the albums. Once Patty cuts her own, it won’t matter as much if Diane throws a fit over her.”
“OK, I get it now. So was there something else—?” Alex started to ask before Cate rushed ahead.
“Yeah, there’s a lot more. You did all kinds of things wrong tonight. First of all, that idea of standing in the entranceway as everyone walks into the concert was one of your stupider ideas. What would you have done if someone fell to their knees before you in front of 1,500 people?”
“Uh, I don’t know,” Alex replied honestly, since he hadn’t actually considered it.
“Right, you don’t. Which is why you have people around to do your thinking for you,” Cate replied with a smile. “Next time, and by next time I mean tomorrow, you’ll be hiding in the men’s room on the outer rim of the stadium. Since all your followers are women, you shouldn’t have much trouble there. Well, aside from hanging around a men’s room for an abnormally long period of time. That might attract its own attention,” she replied in jest.
“Once the band starts, you get out of the common areas and enter the back of the auditorium. Hopefully there’ll be enough people there that no one will notice any kind of commotion you may produce. Patricia knows to watch out for you, so she’ll start wailing right off the bat, so you shouldn’t disrupt things too much. As I said, I’m going to talk to the other girls and we’ll manage to station them around the stadium, herding any Watchers towards you. I’m assuming the Seers will find you on their own. Just expect a couple of women to be waiting for you when you get out of the men’s room.”
“OK, good point. I hadn’t thought out what might have happened tonight,” Alex conceded.
“No, you didn’t. That much was obvious,” Cate agreed. “But that’s why you have people like me, Patricia and Gail around.”
“OK, I can see putting all the girls to work tomorrow night, but what about after that?”
“You mean when we hit San Antonio on Thursday?”
“Yeah, how do we manage a crowd that large with only the three of us?”
“I guess you’ll have to do your magic and attract a few new followers. We can’t afford a new trailer to carry a bunch of new support people, and we can’t uproot all of your people, since the whole idea of this is to create communities of your people around the country. So either you find all new people at each stop, or we’re going to do a whole lot of running,” Cate informed her brother.
Alex sighed heavily in exasperation, but recognized there was no getting around it. After all, the last thing he needed was to have a large contingent of women following him around in each new city he visited.
“Another thing,” Cate continued, not waiting for him to get comfortable, “talking about obvious screw ups, you’re lucky there weren’t any obvious Seer activations.” When Alex quit playing with her tits in questioning silence, she went on. “It’s bad enough that anyone could snap a picture of you at any moment, but when you’re walking around with a name tag showing your face and loudly proclaiming your name, you’re just asking for trouble.”
“Damn, that was stupid, wasn’t it? OK, backstage pass goes into the pocket whenever I’m not backstage. Anything else?”
“Just the most obvious, Patricia has been very patient and very dedicated. She’s been working hard setting everything up in New Orleans for you. She set up that whole ‘hopeful potential mother of the day’ program for you, she covered for you whenever you screwed up in New Orleans, and she’s planned this whole concert tour as a cover for you. I think you deserve to show her one hell of a good time to repay her for it.”
“Yeah, I was planning on it,” Alex agreed, looking a little guilty since he was already aware how little time he’d manage to give her so far.
“And I just don’t mean a normal ‘it’s yet another girl’ type of response. She’s been one of your biggest supporters. She’s put in more legwork than anyone else around you. Not only that, but she was the only woman you met on our first trip to New Orleans that you didn’t sleep with. You only boosted her when she came to visit you for your birthday.”
“Yeah, well, she—” Alex said, starting to invent some excuse.
“I don’t want to hear it. She deserves several mind melting orgasms, at the very least. I’d tell you to treat her to a phenomenal date, but after what she’s been through today, I don’t think she’ll be up to it.”
“Actually, given that, I’d recommend some personal attention. The non-sexual kind,” Gail offered, reminding both Cate and Alex that she was still in the room. “I don’t know if her room has a hot tub, but I’d recommend a hot bath and a back and/or foot rub at the very least. And don’t you dare get distracted with anything else. You need to treat her like the wonderful princess she is, since she’s done more for you than anyone else has. It’s the least you can do for her.”
“Good points all,” Alex replied. “Now, is there anything else I need to be aware of?”
“Just to keep playing with those until Patricia gets here,” Cate said, indicating Alex’s hands that were still playing with her breasts.
“I’ll second that,” Gail responded. “Watching the two of you together is almost as good as having her to myself.” With that they all broke out in giggles, reassuring Alex that the lecture period was finally over and that both Cate and Gail were ready for some relaxation of their own after their own busy day.
The noise of several people moving about in the hall warned the three that they’d be having company soon, so they got up to welcome them. There was a knock on the door before they could get to it, then the door opened a little and someone peeped in.
“Hello? Everyone decent?” Mac asked.
“Yeah, we’re decent,” Alex replied, opening the door to reveal a tired looking band leaning wearily against the wall. “Hard night, huh? Come on in and relax. After all, you’re paying for the room.”
“Jordan and I will take the gear to your room for you,” Chelsea offered, which the others gladly agreed to. They stumbled in and collapsed on the beds and chair.
“Man, you always forget how tough a first night is,” Patricia said, as she stopped to give Alex a kiss before sitting down herself. “I mean, we’ve done this enough times that we’re used to it, but until you get some experience under your belt, doing it every day, it always wears you down until you adjust to it.”
“Can we get you anything?” Cate asked.
“Yeah, got any whiskey?” Sammy asked in a croaking voice.
“Uh, no, we didn’t think to stop at the liquor store,” Cate informed him.
“Oh, then I guess we could use some water. Once we’re rehydrated we’ll think of looking for something else,” Sammy replied.
“Coming right up,” Cate replied.
“So how’d it go?” Alex asked anxiously.
“We should be asking you the same thing,” Patricia replied. “After all, this was your first night at this as well.”
“Oh, we did fine. Several new girls, no Seers this time. No problems. But we’re not talking about us, we’re talking about you. How’d the show go?”
“It went well,” Erica told them. “The place was pretty busy, and Patty got them revved up as she normally does. It was hard getting out of there since there were so many well wishers afterwards.”
“Any more than normal?” Cate asked, as she and Gail returned with water for everyone.
“What, do you mean was there anyone asking about your brother?” Mac asked with a smile. “Nah, but it was a new city with new people. Back in New Orleans, after each session there’d be a ton of people anxious to talk about Alex. Here they were interested in us. I guess we should be glad he’s here now, so he’ll draw off the new followers and just leave us with the appreciative fans.”
Just then the inner door connecting the rooms opened and Jordan walked through. “We got everything situated. You guys have the bigger room, as I’m sure you were expecting. We have the smaller one on the far side and Gail and Cate have the one on the other side of this one.”
“Anyone need us to get anything for them?” Chelsea asked, peering into the room.
Sammy idly waved his hand. “Nah, we just want to chill. We’ll probably go wandering later, but right now we just want to unwind. If we can’t recover from a small event like this, we’ll never make it through the bigger events.”
“Uh, did anyone mention what’s going to happen tomorrow?” Patricia asked, glancing worriedly at Alex.
“Yeah, Cate finally brought me up to date, as well as reading me the riot act about everything I did wrong tonight,” Alex replied.
“Good, then you realize we’ll be at Reliant Stadium tomorrow night, then?” she asked, just to confirm they were talking about the same thing.
“Yeah, along with 70,000 people,” Alex said with a grimace.
“Not likely,” Patricia said. “This is a comeback tour for Diane, and she doesn’t even have the new album to help it. She’s trying to push a mix-up of old songs and a couple new ones.”
“They released a compilation album a while back, if you don’t remember or didn’t notice,” Mac explained. “They included two new songs on it, but they were hardly exceptional.”
“Yeah, so I wouldn’t expect a full house tomorrow,” Patricia added. “She’s struggling, and it shows in her mood, so I’d watch myself around her if I were you. She’s developed a reputation as a prima donna and has driven off all her opening acts, most of her workers and many of her associates. We got this gig because no one else would take it. The current opening act only stayed this long because I offered to take over but we weren’t ready to start until now, but they’re anxious to get away from her as soon as possible.”
“Sounds like it’s going to be difficult,” Alex said. “Think you can last?”
“I can last as far as California. But actually for us it’s perfect. We get the exposure of playing for a big audience, and you get the draw of a major auditorium without the media attention of a big-name act.”
“Yeah, I can see that. I can also see you’ve put a hell of a lot more thought into this than I was aware of.”
Patricia laughed. “Alex, you’re lucky if you notice whether your socks match. You’re not always the most observant person regarding what’s happening around you. But that’s because you’re always so focused on those you have to deal with, and that’s what makes you such a strong leader. Everyone feels you take a personal interest in them, and thus they want to do the best they can to earn your trust.”
“I focus so much on everyone because I do take a personal interest in them,” Alex said, getting a little defensive.
“Exactly, and that’s your forte. You need to do that, and the rest of us will work around your other shortcomings to make sure you can continue,” Patricia concluded.
“So let me catch up a little,” Alex said, hoping to get a handle on things. “We head to San Antonio after the show here tomorrow, and then…?”
“We play in San Antonio for two nights, Thursday and Friday, and then we make a mad dash to Dallas for a Saturday night concert. After that we have a couple of days to make our next stop in Oklahoma on Tuesday.”
“Three cities a week, huh? Is that the way it’ll be the entire tour?”
“More or less. Next week we’ll hit four cities, as we’re only stopping over in Amarillo and Albuquerque for a day before hitting Phoenix.”
“Guess I’d better get used to traveling, huh?” Alex laughed.
“Don’t take it too lightly,” Gail warned. “You’ll likely have to stop several times on the way between cities, but you won’t be able to stop for long, because the band needs to get there early to set up. Then you’ll only have a few hours to check the city for new followers before you have to make it to the stadium. We’ll likely leave before dawn each day to make the next city, so you’ll be limited in how much you can search for any new followers each time we stop.”
“I hadn’t considered that,” Alex said in surprise.
“We know,” everyone else chorused. They all giggled at Alex’s embarrassment.
“Don’t worry, it takes a while to get into a rhythm,” Erica told him. “Once you do you’ll be fine. But until then, life is going to be hell for a while.” Everyone in the band nodded sagely at that little bit of wisdom, before Patricia moved on.
“So I’m surprised, no young lovelies gracing your bed tonight?”
“Only one I’m afraid, and she’s the most beautiful and hardest working one I know. In fact, she’s set up this whole trip for me, and I intend to make sure she knows just how much I appreciate it,” Alex told her as he stepped up, took her hand in his, and kissed it gently while staring into her eyes. She giggled graciously at the gesture.
“OK, I think that’s my cue to disappear if I’ve ever heard one,” Sammy announced as he stood up. “You guys ready for a quick run to the hotel bar?”
“Are you kidding? This is romantic. We want to stay and watch how an angel seduces a fair maiden,” Erica replied.
“I suspect he’ll do it the way men have been seducing women for ages,” Sammy guessed. “The only difference is he does a mind meld at the height of their orgasm, at which point they forget all the stupid lines he used to get them there.” The others laughed along with him as they reluctantly got up and followed him out.
“We’ll head to our own rooms if anyone needs us,” Chelsea answered for both Jordan and herself.
“I doubt anyone will need you,” Patricia told them, “unless one of those clowns gets drunk and causes a ruckus, but it’s really too early in the tour for anyone to get that carried away. Enjoy your evenings, because I know I will.”
“I think we’ll leave as well,” Cate told the two lovers, who were currently too busy staring at each other to respond. “I’ve left your snack in the bedroom. I put everything in there while you were busy talking. Make sure you don’t overdo it, and we’ll see you in the morning. Gail and I will check downstairs for anyone looking for you down there.”
“Speak for yourself,” Gail corrected her. “I’ll be watching out from outside, then I’ll be next door. If there’s any trouble or anyone tries to get in the room, just pound on our door and I’ll be over in a second,” she explained, but they didn’t seem to pay any attention so she and Cate quietly left, leaving Alex and Patricia alone just as Alex was lifting Patricia in his arms to carry her into the bathroom to prepare her bath.
When Alex and Patricia showed up for breakfast in the hotel’s dining room the next morning she positively glowed, looking like she was walking on air. Cate wondered whether she looked like that after spending a night with Alex, and if she did, how could anyone miss the fact they were sleeping together, and if not, she wanted to try whatever Alex had done last night.
There had been several places they could have met nearby, instead of the dining room, but they were hoping to avoid meeting anyone new just yet. They knew they’d find them anyway, but maybe they could avoid it temporarily.
Cate had run down early and reserved a table large enough for everyone, both the band and all of Alex’s girls he’d wanted to talk to. So when the others entered there was a table full of anxious women waiting to speak with Alex. When they saw Alex they were each about to bubble over in their excitement. Cate observed how different this was from the responses they got in New Orleans, but there everyone they met was already a part of an established community, whereas here the girls were new to the experiences and they knew that Alex was only available for another day. She could understand their nervousness in that regard.
Patricia and her band sat at the far end of the table in order to give his new followers better access to him. In order to help out some more, Cate sent a couple of the girls to sit with Patricia, knowing that anything that Alex said could be relayed telepathically through Patricia.
“Hey, everyone,” Alex greeted them, sitting down quickly so he could get started. He knew he had a limited amount of time, so he wanted to cover as much material as he could as quickly as possible. “I want to apologize for giving you all the wrong information about tonight’s concert. It seems I wasn’t informed of the change in venue until after you left.”
“That’s fine,” Devon replied. “Cate explained where it was and what was involved. She also explained what she expected us to do tonight.”
“She did?” Alex asked, glancing at Cate with a worried look. “Exactly what did she say?”
“She told us we’d all need to work together to cover the expanse of the Stadium. She gave us zones to work. We’re supposed to shepherd any new followers we see around to you so you can handle them.”
“Is it OK if I just call it ‘Reliant’?” Alex asked. “I’m having trouble working out just what to call it.” Patricia just waved his concern away, not even bothering to reply.
“OK, it sounds like someone has things planned,” Alex sighed. “Given that, we’d best focus on other material. I don’t know how much time we have.” He then proceeded to give them all the standard introductory spiel. The women soaked up the information like sponges, and only had a few questions. Then Alex got to what he was really interested in.
“Now that we’ve got that out of the way, why don’t you tell me a little something about yourselves? How about you, Devon, what is it that you do?”
“I’m glad you asked,” she responded enthusiastically. “I work in a print shop downtown, and I can get you great rates on any printing you need for what you’re doing. I can either run off a small set of stuff for your own use, or if I’ve got a little more time, I can run off bigger projects for either the New Orleans or Carbondale communities.”
Alex’s mouth dropped open in shock, and he simply stared at her as if she’d suggested eating babies for breakfast. Then he started waving his hands.
“No, I don’t want you printing anything for the movement. And I want the rest of you to listen to this as well, never write down anything about the organization. Remember that anything that’s written down, either physically or electronically, can ultimately be traced back to others in the community. I want this to be a completely word of mouth movement.
“We printed out a small amount of material when we started this trip, using material that was very expensive yet behaved just like it was incredibly cheap. It would fall apart almost immediately. If you left it out in the sun it would be unreadable within a day. If you kept it indoors it would possibly last a week, but you’d only be able to read parts of it. If you stored it with other documents in a quality controlled environment it would probably screw up the other books due to the high acid content in the paper. Even then, we’ve stopped using that because our stock has already begun to disintegrate.”
“So we can’t e-mail anyone in New Orleans about our experiences?” Lacy asked.
“Only if you’re very careful. Remember that nothing ever disappears on the internet. There will be no mention of Watchers or Seers online or on the telephone. You can refer to types 1, 2 and 3, but don’t describe what that entails. If anyone asks, just tell them it’s how you rank how attractive someone is for your own amusement. I can’t stress this enough, the internet is filled with thousands of ways of identifying and tracking information, and anything you say could mean your friends end up in a concentration camp someday.”
“Isn’t that a bit extreme?” Moran asked, looking worried over Alex’s excitement.
“My primary mission, above and beyond everything else, is to protect those that I care for. I’m not about to jeopardize those I love by being careless. If I’m being paranoid that’s fine, but I’d rather be paranoid with everyone I love safe, than to have been careless and someone important to me suffers as a result. If there’s a golden rule here, it’s this: take care of those in the community first, take care of your family second, after all, they can generally look out for themselves anyway, and then take care of your friends. Whenever you do anything, think of who it’s likely to hurt.”
They all looked chagrined, which bothered Alex because he’d taken a helpful suggestion to support them and attacked Devon over it.
“Just remember that sentiment,” Gail cautioned him. “I’m sure everyone here feels the same way about your risking yourself. Keep in mind that it works both ways. Anyone here would be willing to risk themselves to save you, and the others would gladly step in to prevent you from saving them if it puts you at risk.”
Alex considered that. He hadn’t really followed his own train of thought through to its natural conclusion.
“You know, speaking of crumbling paper, maybe you know how to properly dispose of old documents?” Cate asked, coming to his rescue by distracting the current thread of the conversation.
Devon still looked stunned for a couple of seconds before responding. “Oh, sure. I can put them through an industrial shredder. What’s more, the remains will be buried with a bunch of other financial documents from companies throughout the city that would be impossible to get a court order to examine, since it could potentially embarrass most of the movers and shakers in the city.”
“Good, then I can get that junk out of the car,” Cate said, speaking with a false enthusiasm to cover Alex’s short diatribe earlier. “We’re already starting to get little white dust all over the interior. It really looks like we’ve been living in the car when we climb out covered in paper fragments. I’ll be glad to get rid of the crap.”
“I’ll address one related item, and then I’ll let the discussion drop,” Alex added before finishing. “I don’t want anyone to have a complete list of all my followers in the city. Treat your contact lists like a phone tree. Everyone should have a list of contacts memorized, maybe a few friends in the community in their phone book, but don’t differentiate them at all. That way if anyone gets exposed, the whole community won’t be exposed. Right now there’s no way to identify who is or who isn’t one of us, and if we’re lucky no one will be able to track us. Now, that’s all I’m going to say on the subject.
“Devon, I hope you’ll extend your offer to the other people in the community, though, for use in their personal lives. There’s nothing wrong with helping friends. Don’t put yourself in debt doing it, though. Protect yourself while you protect others, understand?”
The other women all nodded, not quite sure how to respond yet. Realizing he’d scared everyone, Alex tried to get the conversation moving again.
“So Wilma, what do you do?”
Wilma looked a little stunned, and then started speaking. “I’m a court stenographer. I work at the local city courthouse recording the events of the trials.”
“Hmm, that’s interesting. I’ve never met a steganographer before. Do you use a machine, or do you use shorthand?”
Wilma smiled. “I do stenography. A steganographer is someone who codes secret messages. They’re similar but they’re completely different. Everyone uses a machine nowadays, but my grandfather used to work for the courts years ago, and he taught me how to do shorthand. It’s fallen out of favor because everyone develops their own shorthand, thus if someone died, no one could ever translate their old records because one stenographer couldn’t translate the work of another.”
“Interesting,” Alex replied, looking intrigued. “So if we were looking to pass secret messages, you’d be the one to talk to?”
She laughed again. “Only if they were trained, and only if we knew each other’s shorthand methodology, which nowadays is pretty rare. I learned to use my grandfather’s, so I’m not sure anyone could ever figure it out.”
“Hmm. Maybe we should appoint you to keep a master list of who has each of the other lists. Of course, you’d have to teach someone else how to read your messages, so they could figure it out if something happened to you, but it would be a nice subtle way of hiding information in plain sight. You could tell anyone curious about it that you’re keeping notes of your cases. No one would ever be able to validate that without a lot of effort, and even if they found you out they wouldn’t be able to decode your list.”
“Well, there are limitations,” Wilma replied. “Numbers are pretty discrete, so they’d be easy to figure out even if I tried to code them. Stenography has been around for ages, so people theoretically know how to decode it. You can’t really hide information with it, but someone couldn’t translate it freely enough to use it for official documents.”
“Ah, oh well, it was worth trying out anyway. But it’s still a decent idea for you to keep track of the master lists. If you code the messages, no one would question them since it’s tied into both your work and your personal history. Hopefully no one would look any further than that.”
“That may be,” she agreed.
“You know, just out of curiosity, Watchers have a better than average ability to discern things about people. They can’t perform as well as a Seer can, of course, but I think it would be interesting if you started marking your stenography with a symbol indicating whether you think the person is innocent or guilty. It would be interesting to see if you had better than random odds at it.”
“Well, it might not be so straightforward,” she cautioned.
“Oh, I know, but still, it would be an interesting experiment. What’s more, if you had better than typical odds, if anyone started to apply heat to the community you could tell anyone you trusted to check your records. If they could document your successful odds, you’d have fairly convincing evidence of your abilities, but still have deniability that the marks could mean anything or nothing at all.”
“But—” she started to counter.
“And if they argue that you got many of them wrong, you could simply point out that those cases were probably correct, that they just imprisoned innocent people,” Alex replied with a smile. “After all, it’s hardly an unknown phenomenon.”
“Yeah, but one that no self-respecting Texan would ever utter in public,” Grace added.
“Yeah, it’s probably too farfetched,” Alex sighed.
“OK, that’s two of you. What about you Lacy? What do you do?”
“Oh, I write a blog. That’s why I was interested when you objected to writing about our experiences.”
“You didn’t, did you?” Alex asked nervously.
“No, I didn’t. I frankly wouldn’t even know where to begin. I could have done one for the community, but as you say, it would be fairly easy to trace to anyone who read or contributed to it. After all, most Americans aren’t as cautious as they are in Pakistan or India, where most people use community internet cafes they can’t be traced to. Most people here use an internet service which can track your digital signature on anything you do.”
“Good, I’m glad we’re thinking along similar lines,” Alex told her. “So what is it you blog about? Surely you can’t make much of a living writing free messages on the internet, can you?”
“Actually you’d be surprised. The blogs don’t cost anything, but the ads we carry pay us. Not a lot, but enough to allow us to get by, especially if we do other things as well. I also write reviews for various magazines, and do YouTube reviews as well.”
“Really, wow. But again, what do you—”
“Oh, sorry, I never answered your question,” she answered quickly, realizing her slip up. “I thought the answer was obvious. I write music reviews. I was at the club last night to catch Patty’s performance.”
“Wow, now that is really surprising. What did you say about the performance?”
Lacy laughed. “Nothing. If you remember, I didn’t actually watch the performance since I was distracted by someone in the audience. But I’ll tell you this, I checked the other reviews this morning, Patty has been getting some rave reviews.”
Patricia and her band perked up at this news and soon crowded around the table. “Really, what did you hear?” Sammy asked.
“We checked the paper, but our performance was too late at night for it to hit the papers. Where did you get your information from?” Mac asked as well.
“Actually, the owner of the club was excited about what he’d heard about you from his friends in the music business in New Orleans, so he put out an invitation to a number of local music reviewers, so there were quite a few in attendance last night. You’re right, it’s too early to appear in the paper, but they usually put them up online pretty quickly so those of us in the know can review them ourselves. As I said, the reviews for your performance were all excellent. They raved about the stage show and how you seemed to hold the audience in the palm of your hand.”
Everyone started talking at once at that point, so Alex eased back and let the band cluster around Lacy. It was then that Alex noticed movement by the door and looked up in time to see two young women looking into the dining room, apparently having just entered. One was pointing at him to the other one. Alex got Cate’s attention and signaled where to look and she quickly got up, taking one of the other girls with her to intercept the women.
That was Alex’s clue that they’d been there too long. If they were attracting people from off the street, then they needed to split up so they wouldn’t attract so much attention. It was one thing to create a scene when they encountered a new Seer, but it was another to do it with a full crew of women attending your every movement. They’d need to be more discreet than that if they wanted to avoid trouble.
The breakfast ended soon afterwards.
The rest of the day was pretty busy. Cate had been right. They hadn’t really noticed it, since they hadn’t had to stop and chat with each Watcher they observed in New Orleans, but here in Houston there were a lot of them. There were even more, now that Alex could assign people to go out and shepherd them in.
A small group set out to stake out the nearby Houston Center, an indoor shopping center next door to them. They handled it just like they had any other mall, but the amount of people they attracted were larger than they’d encountered before. Not only that, but they tried two other locations in the downtown area trying to find as many people as they could. They even found two Seers. However, as much as Alex had wanted to find someone he could put in charge of the Houston community, he was unable to find anyone he considered suitable. Out of the two he considered his best choices, one was a very competent but mousy woman who he thought couldn’t handle much responsibility, while the other was from out of town there on business. The mousey one didn’t mind helping Alex as much as she could, but Alex just didn’t feel good about putting her in charge. He was anxious to boost someone in order to give the community a little extra protection based on his paranoid fears that the government might try to arrest and interrogate his followers if anyone discovered their hidden abilities. He was starting to get nervous about finding an independent siren in the city who could alert the other Seers if anything happened to the community in Houston.
Dinner was similar, with a few people showing up in the middle of dinner, but there weren’t any major surprises so they handled it fairly well. Alex kept the people around him to a minimum, sending a couple of watchers out to round up anyone watching him, and sending the people they met to talk with a couple of other nearby watchers. That way they could use their numbers to get a maximum amount of work done while still maintaining a low profile.
Dealing with new followers in a large city had proved more difficult than they’d anticipated, though they’d managed it. Now all they had to do was weather meeting, activating and training a string of new followers during a concert at a large public stadium.