A copper-haired waitress approaches a table with a hot carafe of coffee in hand. The table she's addressed is occupied by two achingly austere looking men who appear to be in the middle of a very sobersided conversation, as she stands right before them for too long a moment and they have yet to even notice or acknowledge her. She finally announces her presence on her own by gesturing towards the blond male. He's handsome and dressed well, like he's vocationally important and has the money to afford every bit of arrogance. “More coffee?” She tenses and feels awkward interrupting, but she's got a job to do and the daily grind doesn't have sympathy for missed opportunities to earn tips.
The two men finally cease their discussion, which she noticed had all occurred at hushed volumes to dissuade any wandering ears. The blond regards her and appears annoyed at the interruption, “Uh, yeah, sure, fine. Thanks, doll.” He gently pushes his mug her way towards the edge of the table, she refilling him despite her reflex to cringe at the nickname.
After dropping some additional packets of creamer on the table, she eyes the other man, who looks a fair decade or so older than his friend. She can see something has upset him, as he neglects to make any true eye contact and just stares at the table, his elbows atop it with hands clasped together. Before she asks him, he quickly shakes his head, “None for me.” She obliges and walks away, leaving them to continue their private conversation.
“Someone went to the press about Deborah,” the older male tells the blond. The blond's expression doesn't match any level of worry. He's calm, too calm. “Ben! You hear me? The press knows somehow and before you know it, shit's going to turn into a circus.”
Still maintaining an abrasive sort of placidity, Ben takes a drink of his refill of coffee, “Well, what do they know? And come to think of it, forget the press. Does Bill know they know?”
“If he doesn't, it's only a matter of time.” He sighs, his eyes suspiciously looking around, his body tense and on high alert. No one can be trusted. Not now.
Ben's once mild demeanor suddenly turns grave. He leans in close, frown firmly plastered, “Well, Hollenbeck, you're smart. I would strongly suggest you utilize that time to come up with a contingency plan. I trust that a doctor of your-- ingenuity--will be able to figure out something.”
The sudden responsibility doesn't sit well with Hollenbeck, he was on a short fuse the moment he sat in the booth. This just set it off; he slams a fist on the table causing the mugs to shake and silverware to rattle loudly on the table. He leans in to meet Ben, “You think this is a game? If the press or anyone goes poking their nose into any of this, we could lose everything!”
Ben, seemingly unruffled once more, smirks condescendingly at Hollenbeck, “You were hired to get this done for us. You want to keep your fancy science toys and research, then figure out how to spin this. And while you're at it, figure out how to get to Bill before the press does. Because he'll end you before I ever will.”
Hollenbeck, having noticed people eyeing their table at the sudden clatter of dishes, is practically shaking with anger. In a rush, he reaches into his back pocket and grabs his wallet, throwing a few bills on the table to cover his portion. “I'll happily take my research elsewhere before I'm threatened by Hitler's poster-boy.” Hollenbeck turns and begins to head out.
As he heads towards the front entrance, he can hear Ben call to him, “Hey, Kenneth! Might want to do some rethinking on that.” Kenneth Hollenbeck stops in his tracks at the sound of Ben's voice, but he doesn't turn around to outright acknowledge that he's heard. But Ben knows he has and watches as Hollenbeck finally exits the diner.
Dr. Hollenbeck gets in his car; it's a nice one, one that is afforded to him so long as he plays with his 'science toys' in a way that his superiors find efficacious and prosperous. He starts it up and adjusts the rear-view mirror, and, out of habit, flicks the tree-shaped deodorizer hanging from it. The new car scent has since faded from it, but he's far too inside of his mind to remember to swap out the damned thing for one that's fresh.
He weaves in and out of traffic, candy-apple red bobbing and hot dogging, his ire and anxiety at far too much a high to pay any mind to the innumerous honks and horns people are bitterly paying forward to him. He drives and drives without really knowing where he's going or what he plans to do. All those years getting a post-grad nearly thirty years ago, he's suddenly a spin doctor. How cheap, he thinks. Even if he'd mentioned packing up his things and leaving, he knows cutting ties with Ben Nash and Bill Withrow is an impossibility. Hollenbeck would have an easier go of it trying to wiggle out of a contract with the devil himself.
He gets off the highway and pulls into a gas station parking lot. With no need to refuel his tank, he parks at the front and gets out with coins in hand to use the payphone outside. He waits a moment or two and let's a stranger pass to keep some level of privacy in tact. Once he's certain no one is within earshot, he dials a number and cups the phone close to him. “Bill, it's Hollenbeck. We may have a problem on our hands...”
In the warehouse of three heroes on a Sunday morning, there's never very much to report. It's one of the only days where they have unexpectedly no choice but to rest and do their own thing. John Byers stands before his wardrobe, picking out a tie to match the suit to match his existence. His attire, like him, is polished yet understated. Wearing suits everyday reflects the sort of era of days long past, where all men wore all suits all days. It is an idealistic look at how things used to be, and John Byers is nothing if not idealistic.
He finds a tie that is agreeable enough and attempts to straighten it. Sunday mornings are for rest and as he tries to take his time at taking it easy, Byers has a difficult time concentrating. Not that he had very many deep thoughts in this moment, but if he had, it would be impossible to hold them with Langly power-blasting his music at radically absurd volumes. “Langly! Can you turn it down a little!?” Byers shouts.
Langly is sitting in the spot he finds closest to heaven: within his chair and in front of his computer playing one of his many medieval real-time strategy games. Langly, hacker-extraordinaire, even needs a break from holding such a title. A change of title is almost always necessary every now and then, whether it's Lord Manhammer or something else fantastical. He hears Byers, but it's muffled beneath Filter. He can guess what Byers is shouting, but he doesn't care enough to turn down the music to find out for certain. He takes a hasty swig out of his beer bottle, gagging negligibly at it's dingy warmth and shouts right back, “I can't hear you!”
At the stove, Melvin Frohike makes breakfast for himself. He endeavors with minimal success to flip the pan in a way that folds over the omelet he's cooking. He chuckles scantly to himself, almost but not entirely as irked by the earsplitting music as Byers.
Byers sighs heavily and tries not to be paranoid that the music only seems louder now to get even further under his skin. He abruptly hears their phone begin to ring. He doesn't immediately jump to answer it, as Langly and Frohike are both closer to it than he is. But as it continues to ring and it becomes evident neither of them are rushing to get it either, Byers yells, “Is someone going to grab that!?”
No answer comes from Langly, but he can hear the faint answer from Frohike, “Kind of busy right now!” Byers shakes his head and closes his wardrobe door, impulsively turning around to dart to the phone.
As he rushes towards it to catch it before it stops ringing, he exasperatedly mutters, “Thanks for the help.” Byers promptly grabs the phone to answer and greets, “Lone Gunmen News...” Nothing and no one answers back. He feels like he pauses a beat too long before ultimately questioning, “H-hello?..” He hears a shuffle on the other end, but he can scarcely discern it due to the music. He rapidly makes one concluding attempt and covers the mouthpiece to yell, “Langly! Cut the music, I've got a call!” Byers hears Langly say something, but he's not convinced of what, because ever so suddenly, the music ceases and a voice begins talking without introduction.
“ Listen carefully to what I'm going to tell you. Turn on your television to channel four. Right now.” The voice instructing Byers is dull and practically a hoarse whisper.
Frohike, meanwhile, is seen walking towards Byers where he stands on the phone. Frohike is holding his plated omelet and casually eats it while standing. He sees an exceedingly befuddled look developing on Byers' face as Byers questions the man on the end of the line, “Who is this?”
The man without hesitation replies, “Someone with something very important to show you.”
Byers covers the mouthpiece again and whispers for Frohike to turn on the television. Once on channel four, it becomes evident that the news is broadcasting, the headline detailing information leaked on a missing woman. Frohike turns the volume up to hear better and Langly is seen inquisitively leaning back in his chair, also endeavoring to catch wind of what was being reported.
A female anchor continues talking, “Investigators are now attempting to cooperate with Benjamin Nash and William “Bill” Withrow of Withrow-Nash to gain some insight on the possible whereabouts of their former employee Deborah Cannon. Deborah is the second former employee of the government partnered pharmaceutical company to go missing within just the last several months. Investigators have stated they do not suspect anyone at Withrow-Nash and that both Ben Nash and Bill Withrow have been cooperative with all questioning.”
The news cuts to footage of a man in his mid sixties, he's dressed sharply and is exiting an even sharper vehicle. They identify the man as Bill Withrow and he appears to be arriving at the Withrow-Nash headquarters. His hair is white and his minor beard is whiter. A swarm of reporters flood him as he attempts to make his way to the front entrance. It's hard to hear every individual question, as is common when twelve different reporters from twelve different stations all vie for pursuing the same person. But among them were the questions, “Is there the possibility of this being an inside job?” and “Did Deborah give any clues as to why she maybe wanted to pick up and leave?” Despite the onslaught of questioning, Withrow remains both frigid and steadfast, altogether snubbing everyone and walks right on past and into the building.
Byers hasn't so much as blinked since answering this phone call. “Okay, you have my attention.”
He hears an indistinct jeering tone when the stranger speaks again, “This is just the tip of the iceberg. You want what's under the surface? You'll figure it out if you really want to.”
Byers, not at all pleased with this outcome, questions, “Really? You can't provide anymore than this? How do I even know what I'm looking for?” In all reality, he didn't have the faintest idea. There was unquestionably a story here, but he barely had any subject matter to ascertain the next step. Was he looking for this Deborah Cannon? Was there more to Withrow-Nash that needed examining? While the news claimed Withrow-Nash was not a suspect, Byers and The Lone Gunmen knew better than to take mainstream media at face value.
The stranger laughs derisively and suddenly begins to list off various unfamiliar names, “Deborah Cannon, Larry Ward, Sean Strong, Carol Scott, Tim Donovan, Brian Landreth.” Caught off guard by the list of names, Byers gestures for Frohike to toss him a pen and pad of paper. Once pen and paper in hand, Byers starts attempting to repeat the names from quick memory, but isn't successful. His source calls out the names once more and Byers dowdily scribbles them all down on the pad. Right as he opens his mouth to ask for more information, he hears a click. The stranger hangs up and Byers stands there a moment, phone still pressed to his ear with silence on the other end.
After Byers fully realizes the stranger has hung up, he too hangs the phone up. His brain reacts immediately at processing what just happened. He's practically lost in his thoughts until Frohike wakes him, “Byers? Who was that?”
Byers still looking forward at really nothing, clearly still processing that call, he without truly thinking of the question answers, “I'm not sure...”
Langly, still tilting his chair back, is also eyeing Byers in his trance-like state. He then tears his gaze away from Byers and then to Frohike, as if hoping Melvin would understand what the hell is going on. But Frohike looks just as confounded as Langly and just shrugs. Langly sighs, “What did they want?”
The news anchor on the television begins covering an entirely other story, which none of them really pay too much attention to. She briefly remarks on a defense contracting convention that would be coming to Las Vegas in the coming months. Frohike grabs the remote and mutes the television altogether. “Byers?...” he calls out, verbally nudging him to come to.
Byers shakes his head a fraction and looks at Frohike and then to Langly, who has finally stepped away from his game to meet the other two where they stood. Byers stares at both of them, “I feel like we've just stumbled onto something huge.”
The other two wait around for some variety of explanation. But there is none. Langly nods haltingly, “Which means...?”
Byers, still piecing it together in his mind, does his utmost to explain, “I don't know who just called us or what they were really trying to tell me. But...they were suggesting that we should investigate that Bill Withrow.”
Frohike and Langly continue to look to one another addled through squinted eyes. Frohike, who heard a healthier majority of both the news anchor and Byers' conversation on the telephone, questioned, “What are we supposed to be investigating?”
Byers feels a tad thwarted, only because he knows so very little and the two others distinctly needed some amount of convincing before they were primed to simply jump on board. “I don't know, but you heard the news! That woman Deborah is missing and she's the second employee from that pharmaceutical company to go missing in just a few months.”
“ So?...” Langly shrugs. Yes, he's mildly curious about it all, but with with his game paused a few feet behind him, the idea of offing enemy soldiers seems more transparent and straightforward than whatever Byers is going on about.
Byers has shown in the past that he tends to get worked up pretty damn quickly; and as well-spoken as he comes across and actually is, sometimes the excitability causes him to still be in his own head and he struggles to get his two friends on the same page. “So? You heard what they said! You don't think it's the least bit odd that two employees go missing over a short period of time and the company they worked for isn't even considered suspect? And they've made no indication that the theory that it's an inside job is even being explored? There's obviously more there.”
Frohike looks at the plate holding his omelet that he'd set down on the small table next to him. He grimaces because he's certain it's cold by now. Eggs never stay warm long. “So, what do we look for?”
Byers tries to think, “Whoever was on the phone said that the news story is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Langly chimed in flatly, “Isn't it always...”
Byers ignores the comment, but still turns his focus to Langly, “What do we know about Withrow-Nash?”
Langly shrugs, almost as if not expecting the question. He looks to Frohike and Frohike shrugs as well and briefly explains, “Not a whole lot. The government uses them to provide healthcare to all their workers. They've been around for a couple decades, I don't know.”
Byers' brows furrow trying to connect dots that aren't incontestably there just yet. “They said the missing woman's name is Deborah. That was one of the names on that list the source gave me. Deborah Cannon.”
Langly crosses his arms, “So we should probably be looking at the other names on that list.”
They all walk back to the computer where Langly has his game paused. Langly takes a seat and the other two are standing right behind him. Langly unpauses the game and starts playing to finish out the level. Byers has to try really hard to not expose his restlessness, “Really? You can't do this later?”
Langly, firing off catapults in-game, gets defensive, “No, I can't just stop mid-ambush. We're trying to take back our castle grounds, and if I stop now I'll have to restart everything later. And I'm about to level up my defense and magic.” Frohike and Byers both continue to wait impatiently, Byers nearly tapping a hole in the floor with his shoe.
Langly finally completes his palace coup and is named king of his dominion once again. As soon as it's obvious he's saved it, Frohike without asking reaches over Langly's shoulder and taps the escape button, effectively exiting the game.
Langly elbows his arm away and snaps, “I didn't need help with that, thank you.”
Langly does some logging in and the three of them take their first stab at trying to navigate their way below that iceberg tip. Right from the get-go they find some more information about the Withrow-Nash company. The organization is lead by the two namesakes; the older of the two is the sixty-four year old Bill, who has been the head of the company since the early 1980s. Benjamin Nash, forty-one, came aboard some time later. However, at first glance, they are incapable of finding any concise information about what the company was called prior to Nash leading alongside Bill.
They pull up another article dated from the previous year wherein the Gunmen learn that Withrow-Nash isn't merely a pharmaceutical company anymore. They read about the new relationship the company is exploring with their government partnership. Defense technology research and application. Frohike notes how sickeningly sugar-coated the articles read when describing the work of Withrow-Nash. “All this lip service...” he mentions.
Langly agrees, “You'd swear this company has groupies. I mean look at everything we've read so far. The media is so far up this company's ass, these new outlets are probably spitting Withrow-Nash rainbows by now.”
While they three agree that the articles they've perused thus far have given them a little information, it hasn't done anything substantial in the way of exposing any real holes or possibilities. If anything, the overt word-worshiping being done by the articles to Withrow-Nash has done a spectacular job at smoothing out any cracks that could potentially allow the boys to read between the lines. It's blatant to the group that this organization has the mainstream media in its back pocket.
Byers sighs again, not willing to accept he's hit a brick wall this soon, “Those other names.” He walks away for a short moment and grabs the pad of paper where he'd jotted the names just moments before. “Deborah Cannon we know has to be the Deborah they're talking about on the news. What about these other names?” He looks down the list and reads off the next one, “Larry Ward. Search for anything on that name in connection with Withrow-Nash.”
It doesn't take expert sleuthing to find something practically immediately. Articles upon articles about Lawrence Ward: former employee of Withrow-Nash that went missing. The three begin reading the results and Frohike shakes his head, “It never ceases to amaze me how stupid they think the people are...” He can't help but let out a breathy snigger, in a way that endeavors to find humor in something so depressingly true.
Byers remarks on that, “Seriously. I mean, look at these articles--”
Before he can continue his thought, Langly finishes his sentence. “They read like an obvious cut and paste job from the Deborah articles.”
Byers has a hard time reconciling that fact, even if it's right in front of him and borderline biting him on the nose. “They really assume no one is paying attention. That no one is going to find this or question it.” He draws his eyes downward once more and one by one, he instructs Langly to start seeing what he can find about the other names. And one by one, they begin to uncover that clearly something more forbidding is afoot. “Six names. That guy gave me six names. All six were Withrow-Nash employees. Two are missing within months of each other. The other four--”
“ Six feet under...” Langly finishes. The blond nerd's expressions appear bleak. Something is definitely going on, and it all seems too outrageous to be genuine, but nothing actually surprises him anymore.
Frohike tries to be sensible, even if it's unmistakable to all of them that there is unquestionably an iceberg and they've only chipped away at the tip of it. “The problem is, those other four are listed as having died under normal 'unsuspicious' circumstances. If it's alarms they wanted to avoid setting off, it seems to have worked for them. Clearly this has been going on for a while; I mean, look at that Tim Donovan guy. They're saying he died of a heart attack back in '87. Who's going to question that twelve years later?”
Langly leans back to stretch, “And no one is going to question how all four of our dead guys got cremated.”
“ So no one can look at the bodies.” he shakes his head. “That source wasn't kidding.” He stops to think for a moment. “I think we need to try to get into the actual system over there at Withrow-Nash.”
Before Byers can even finish his sentence, Langly starts clicking and rapidly typing like a madman on a mission. “On it.” Langly isn't openly prideful on many things, but he knows his way around a computer and isn't afraid to showboat his skills in cracking into pretty much any system, network or government department. In his mind, he's already commending himself on the ability to get the job done, but is suddenly brought out of it when he hits a roadblock. Repeatedly, try after try, Langly is denied access. “Uhm, okay?..” he laughs nervously, trying again to no avail. “I've never come across anything like this before...”
Frohike, just as frustrated as Langly that they're having trouble gaining access, protests, “Why does a pharmaceutical company need security this tight?”
Byers replies simply, “They're hiding something.”
Langly is determined to get through and has no intention of giving up. Attempt after attempt, he remains unsuccessful until finally the entire display of his monitor flashes red once and turns blue right thereafter, shutting his computer off without warning. “What the hell, man?” Langly complains, out of reflex slapping the side of his monitor. He quickly reaches over and taps the 'on' button on the tower. Nothing happens. “Dammit, Byers! Your shadowy friend wrecked my computer!”
Byers responds, “I'm sure you can fix it.”
Langly sighs heavily with defeat, “Not today I'm not. It's probably fried.” He stands up and disengages from the issue of his defunct computer by walking away. Frohike unceremoniously follows shortly thereafter.
“ Hey, where are you guys going?” Byers questions, as he's not fully ready to stop chipping away at the ice. To him, there's work to be done. This could potentially be the biggest story they've come across in years, if not altogether entirely. Their fellowship and readers have dwindled over the past couple years due to an agreed upon lack of source material. And here, this new source calls them up and virtually points out the exact location of the rabbit hole. All they need to do is jump, and Byers was ready the moment he heard the telephone ringing.
Frohike smiles weakly, “Byers, I'm taking a break, going to try and salvage this omelet. Even if eggs are never good when you microwave them.” He scratches the back of his head and grabs the plate of cold leftovers before heading back to try and reheat it.
Byers looks to Langly, “What about you, Langly?”
Langly plops down on the red couch and opens a comic, replying without so much as looking at Byers, “Yeah, I'm not ready to break more equipment. I'm out for the time being. Maybe later I can pop that puppy open and survey the damage.” he nods his head towards the computer. “Until I feel like doing that, I have every intention of finishing this and taking a nap.” Leave it to Langly to redefine what it means to have a Lazy Sunday. Frohike and Byers operate on a relatively normal awake-sleep cycle, but Langly is on every distant edge of the map. Some days he's up until the early hours of morning and will finally fall asleep for most of the day, other days he seems dedicated to the cause and is early to sleep and early to rise. Today, nevertheless, he isn't so dedicated.
Byers is smart, and he also knows his way around a computer, but that thing was Langly's. It's so modded out he's surprised it doesn't glow in the dark. Langly would kill him if he even entertained the thought at trying to fix it himself. So, he did the only thing he could think to do: check their physical archives of newspapers.
Byers disappears into the back room; if it weren't for him, there would just be mainstream newspapers thrown and littered everywhere from various decades and years and no one would ever be able to find anything. In fact, in the Gunmen's earlier years of cohabitation, it was a jumbled mess. Langly never cared much for order, and in fact somehow saw order in chaos. Frohike, often complained about the mess but never actually did much to remedy it. So, Byers took nearly an entire week years ago and spent the time organizing every paper they'd gathered over the years and had it all organized by date and news outlet.
For the remainder of the day, he keeps himself prisoner to those archives. It's not until nearly 9:00 pm that he makes his first break in the case. And it is scarcely a break; it's virtually a tiny shard. A fragment. But it was something. In a local D.C. newspaper, in one of the middle pages where one would have to know to look there, he finds an article from 1989 and reads “America's leading pharmaceutical company, Withrow-Nash, is taking their dedication to our nation's government one step further with plans to invest in defense technology by working with the U.S. Department of Defense. Representatives state we can expect to see such a partnership in as little as five to seven years.” Byers' attention is then drawn away from the text and to a group photo adjacent to it. The caption reads, “Taken, 1986. Members of the Project 40 research assignment; left to right.” From there it named every single name listed on Byers' notepad.
There, finally, a smoking gun, albeit small compared to what he could only assume was a monumental conspiracy or cover up. In the photo, all six people stood together in a group. All of them in lab coats and all of them smiling, like they all were hiding the same secret but had no idea that secret would eventually bring about some detrimental fate. Byers has goosebumps and he can feel them down to the marrow of his bones.
They need to get into that facility.