Chapter 7 – Turnabout is Fair Ambush (Part I)

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Frog positioned herself between Elaine and the stairs. Once there, she claimed the space; she spread her arms, hands slightly in, elbows out, effectively obstructing any easy route past her to Elaine. She took a deep breath and waited. The safari hat shaded her eyes from view, but she held a steady gaze on Casey’s feet—sighting her position in the middle of the stairs—and Larry.

“Not going to open the door?” Larry asked, he shrugged his shoulders as he walked to it. His eyes lingered on Frog for a long moment before he reached for the handle. “Fine, I can do the gentlemanly thing and open it for you.”

Brad Wright emerged from the open doorway followed by two other members of his DarkNet ARG team. By Elaine’s count, that meant the entire team had come to Larry’s rescue. They had much better comms than she’d anticipated. In fact, it seemed statistically probable that several of them had classes about this time and had to skip them in order to make this sort of raid. It had taken them mere minutes to coordinate and mobilize. An impressive feat, no wonder Zane felt the need to tap her for assistance against them.

“Sinking to a new level, aren’t you, Frog?” Brad said as he rolled to a stop in front of them. “And you,” he looked directly at Elaine, “blackmailing one of my people so that you can get an edge for your brother? You have a reputation, but not for that.”

Elaine didn’t reply. She had come to several conclusions about how she could use this to her advantage. Glancing at the data stream from Hadaly’s analysis of ASU grades related to the cheating suspects, Elaine wondered if she had enough to rattle someone like Brad. A few key presses later and she sent Hadaly on a fact-finding mission to give her everything she needed just in case.

Frog seemed interesting in handling the situation, so Elaine waited on deploying that particular “smartbomb.”

Having the three targets of the cheating research in the same room gave her an opportunity to gather observational data on them in person. She lifted her phone and switched on the video camera and pointed it at Brad and tried to get Larry and Casey also in frame. A difficult task to start with, especially with Frog’s hat blocking part of her view.

“Har, har,” Frog said. “So you caught us. We’ll leave your people alone. If you’ll just step aside we’ll be on our way.”

“No,” Brad said. “I think now that we have you outnumbered, we’re going to have a little chat.”

“We should get their phones,” Larry said moving towards Elaine. “They might call sec—ow!

Frog moved in a blur. She caught his forward hand as he tried to walk past her, rotated it and grabbed on with her other hand locking his wrist. Larry yelped and struggled as she bent his elbow and continued to twist his arm.

“Hands off,” she said, “or next time you lose that arm.” She shoved him hard and he stumbled into Brad, who caught him before he fell into the other DarkNet players standing nearby. They shuffled uncomfortably but their leader quickly took the mantle of control back while helping Larry regain his balance.

“I take back my outnumbered comment,” Brad said. “Let’s just try to keep this civil. We’re not here to threaten anyone.”

“You seem pretty intent on being intimidating,” Frog said.

Brad handed Larry off to Casey who looked at his wrist as he rubbed it.

“I think it’s going to bruise,” Larry complained.

“Don’t be such a woman,” Casey barked at him. “You don’t go grabbing at people. Pull that sort of mierda with me and I’d break your wrist too.”

“It’s broken?”

A larger student, up the stairs behind Casey rumbled with laughter at that. “I’ve seen a broken wrist,” he said. Elaine recognized Bernard “Ben” Osborn from his picture she’d taken at Zane’s house—large, blonde, Nordic features, and sleepy eyes. He leaned over the railing of the stairs. “Nicely done. You a wrestler?”

“Good catch. Jiu-Jitsu, actually…” Frog leaned forward to grin up at him. “I’m not into wrestling anymore, I’ve always been more of a striker but—”

“You can hold your martial arts convention elsewhere,” Brad said, waving his hand between Frog and Ben. She shifted her gaze back to him and the smile fell from her face. Having recaptured her attention, Brad continued. “We’ve had our eye on you two for a while now. Your brother happens to be a difficult enough opponent without his genius sister giving him equipment and intelligence. I’d like to appeal to your sense of fairness, but here you are trying to blackmail one of my subordinates.

“Of course, until a few minutes ago Zane hadn’t broken any DarkNet rules. That you’re here threatening Pilgrim’s academic standing violates several of the principles of the game and I could use that to get Zane disqualified.”

Brad didn’t smile, he didn’t need to, the other members of hisARGteam did. They grinned on either side of him, showing teeth like a wolf pack of flunkies expecting that they were about to get a piece of the kill.

Frog took a slow breath and shrugged with one shoulder. “We were just having a casual conversation,” she said.

“Really?” Brad said and held out his hand. “Larry, the recorder please.”

Larry reached into his breast pocket with his non-bruised hand, withdrew a shiny silver pen, and handed it over.

Brad brandished the pen at Frog. “Are you sure you didn’t say anything that suggests you were talking about an old cheating scandal that he was cleared of? Sure, all by itself that sort of thing doesn’t sound that damning…but with this recording I think I can spin it so that DarkNet will be forced to suspend him for rules violations.” He paused a moment to roll the pen over his fingers. He shifted his gaze to Elaine and shook an admonishing finger at her. “And don’t get any ideas, this is connected to his cell phone and it was broadcasting the entire time you all had your ‘casual conversation.’ You won’t be able to find the recording fast enough to keep me from taking it to the gamekeepers.”

“What do you want?” Frog asked.

“I want you two off the case, stop assisting Zane, or I get her brother blacklisted. That will dissolve his team, by the way.”

“Now who’s blackmailing whom?”

“Not my problem,” Brad said.

Frog tensed and she turned slightly, she kept her voice very low and spoke through her teeth, but Elaine could just hear her over the echo in the stairwell. “If you have anything, now’s the time to use it,” she said.

Elaine raised a hand: smartbomb armed.

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