Days bled into one another as the atmosphere at the office grew more tense, and the news cycle worsened. Eve’s forecast about the situation in Chicago proved correct. Protests had transformed into riots in Chicago’s north suburbs and spilled into the rest of the city, as anti-fader protesters and pro-fader counter-protesters clashed. The police protected the anti-fader elements and footage showed them assaulting pro-fader factions with pepper spray and rubber bullets. Before long, anti-fader protesters had started storming businesses known to be friendly to faders.
At his desk, Mauricio sat with his eyes glued to his cell phone. He watched videos of shops and businesses on fire and people pouring into the streets of Chicago’s northwest side. He fought the temptation to ask Eve for AJ’s phone number as desperation weighed on him along with Charlie’s intermittent rantings. “The upside,” Cornelius said during a morning call, “is the protests are not focused on H2F.”
Yes, that’s a real upside. They’re only attacking faders and setting half of Chicago on fire. It had taken all of Mauricio’s strength not to end the call with Cornelius after that statement.
Now, as late afternoon approached, Mauricio got up and peered out his office’s interior window. In the lobby, a dozen or more staff members gathered around the tables, cups of coffee or tea in front of them, and tablets in hand. They leaned in close as they talked. He looked around his airy office, at his tidy desk, the bookshelf along the wall, the hardwood floors.
Walking to the center of the room, he squatted and sat down. He lay back against the cold floor and stared at the high ceiling. He thought about the state of emergency declared in Illinois, and his mind drifted to the fact that he still hadn’t heard from AJ, to the reality that he had no other leads. He was out of options.
His phone buzzed, and he struggled to pull it from his front pocket. When he saw the name on the phone, he sat up and wasted no time answering the call. “Eve? Are you all right?”
She stared at him through bloodshot eyes, her cheeks wet and her short locs looking uncharacteristically messy. “You’ve seen the news?”
“Yeah, about the riots. It looks terrible.”
“Not that news!” she exclaimed. “About AJ. She’s been shot.”
He shook his head and blinked, wondering if he’d heard her right. “What?”
“It happened in Uptown this morning, close by her apartment.”
Mauricio’s head spun, and he felt dizzy. “I didn’t even know she was back in the States. I thought she was still here.”
“She turned down the audition at the last minute and flew back yesterday,” said Eve.
He breathed in, bracing himself for the worst. “Wait…is she…”
“No, she’s not dead. She’s in critical condition for now,” said Eve, wiping tears from her cheeks. “The riots hadn’t reached her area, but that didn’t stop some anti-fader asshole from deciding to target her.”
“Who better to target than one of the most famous faders?” Mauricio muttered, his eyes watering as he replayed his last conversation with AJ. “They’re calling faders ‘baby-killers’ now. I saw that in one article. Jesus Christ, Eve. Where are you right now? If they attacked AJ, they must be thinking about coming for you, right?”
“Probably. I—I’m already trying to convince Zoey and Gabe to leave, to go get a hotel somewhere outside Illinois. Niles and Samuel are packing right now and getting ready to leave to spend some time at my family home in Indiana until the riots pass. My family home has been empty since my father passed a few months back.” She sniffled. “Mauricio, I’m so scared. I’m scared this is going to send us all back into hiding after everything we’ve done to not have to live like that anymore.”
He hoped she wasn’t right about that forecast as well.
“Is anything happening in London? Any rumblings?”
“Nothing here. Yet. But it might be a matter of time. The Chicago riots are all over the news, and we’ve seen an uptick in anti-fader hate crimes in the last few months.” He saw Charlie approaching his office and spoke with more urgency. “Eve, please convince Zoey and Gabe to get to safety. Charlie’s coming, so I’ll talk to him about what we can do to help ease tensions in Chicago. Can you keep me updated today about AJ and everyone else? And let me know if there’s anything I can do to help you?”
“I will.” She tried to smile through the tears, but it looked more like a grimace. “Mauricio?”
“Don’t let these people use you again. Don’t repeat the past,” she pleaded.
The call ended before he could respond. Charlie burst through the door, and the scowl on his face told Mauricio the meeting with Orson didn’t go well.
“He’s not going to help us fix this,” Charlie said and slammed the door. “Fucking evil bastard.”
Mauricio stood up and dusted himself off. “Hold on. ‘Evil’ is kind of a strong word. I think you two just have different visions, perhaps.”
Charlie laughed the sort of laugh that conveys red hot contempt rather than humor. “I’ve been in this business a long time, and I read people well. All politicians are bastards, but only a few are evil bastards. Orson Remington III is the latter. That Lex Luthor asshole wants this violence. I know it. One day I’ll put my finger on why.”
Deciding it was best not to question Charlie further on the matter of Orson, Mauricio nodded and informed him of what had happened to his main lead, AJ Taylor. “Cornelius said the riots aren’t our worry, but is there anything we can do about the situation? We have to try to help. A press conference seems in order.”
He dropped into the chair across from the desk as Mauricio finished.
“I’m sorry about your friend. I’m also sorry about what’s happening in Chicago, but there’s nothing we can do immediately. We have to watch it play out and continue with our initial plan.”
It was Mauricio’s turn to fume now. “Our initial plan is a bust,” he yelled.
Charlie’s eyebrows retreated to his gray hairline. “I believe this is the first time I’ve seen you mad. Impressive.”
“We got nobody with enough status willing to sign on and be the face of the campaign. AJ was my best hope, and now she’s struggling to live because somebody decided it was her fault that the kid who took black market H2F killed a bunch of other kids. We have to shift focus now and do something to help the situation there. Don’t you have Alderman contacts in Chicago? You know the Mayor, right? Get Senator Abbott on the phone to talk to elected officials in Illinois. People I care about are there. I can’t just stand back and watch this disaster unfold.”
“People you care about? You mean people you hurt and betrayed. People you allowed to be tortured to save your own neck,” Charlie replied, his voice low as he stared at Mauricio. “They weren’t your worry then, and they shouldn’t be your worry now. Remember the greater good here is more important. Remember why you joined the Harmony Project.”
“My daughter mentioned a social media personality, some Youtuber who’s a fader and might be interested in joining the campaign. For the right price. I’ve scheduled a call with her.”
Mauricio held up his hand and regarded Charlie with disgust, recalling Eve’s words. Rage grew inside him as he stared at the man’s pale and lined face. Fuck this. “I need some air.”
He grabbed his briefcase and exited the office without sparing Charlie another glance. On his cell phone, he opened the drafts folder in his email and found the resignation letter.
“Mr. Candela, is there a problem?” asked his assistant. Not interested in engaging with her or anyone else, he faded and headed straight to the elevator.
While he waited at the elevator, he texted Elisa, “I need you to meet me at Sereno’s. It’s urgent.”
It was time to make a choice, and he was ready.