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Ep. V Intermission: Charlie

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Wednesday 28th August

"I know honey."  Charlie's mom sounded weary in addition to as reluctant as he himself felt about the matter in hand.  "I know.  But he is still your father, and he still has certain rights."

"He's a philandering butt-"  Charlie's tone was solid condemnation, but he still gave a guilty start as his mother's admonishment cut him off.  Even over the phone, he could imagine her expression.

"Charles Cole, don't you finish that sentence in my hearing."  Hannah Fuhrmann, formerly Cole, held a sharp tone at first, but it softened to a more reasonable one as she went on.  "Look, Charlie, it's really simple.  The way the court sees things Lucius is your dad, and barring any sort of abuse or unsuitability, he has a right to see you.  Now we've not actually gone through the final divorce proceedings, but my counsel has told me that the more reasonable we are, the more favorable the judge will be."  She sighed.  "Lucius's attorney is good enough that if you refuse to see him he will claim parental alienation on my part, implying that I had something to do with your reluctance, that I poisoned you against him."

"But that would be bull."  Charlie protested, frowning as he paced to and fro in the shadow of the school cafeteria.  Through the window he could see Sophia, who gave him an encouraging wave and smile, and despite the conversation at hand he smiled back a little.

"Of course it's bull."  his mom agreed firmly.  "But it would let him muddy the waters, throw doubt on my fitness to have primary custody, and so on.  Just..."  she sighed.  "Go with him to this country club shindig tonight.  Smile and try to have fun.  It might even be fun."  She said more sadly.  "I used to enjoy them.  I don't like this, Charlie.  I don't like asking you to do things you don't want to do and shouldn't have to.  But I think this is the best way forward."

"If his airhead tries to dance with me, I'm stepping on both her feet."  Charlie grumbled into the phone, gratified to hear his mom laugh softly.

"That, I have no problem with, sweetie."  Her tone grew conspiratorial.  "In fact, you could invite your new girlfriend.  I'm not suggesting this is the reason, but it gives you an excuse to spend the evening talking to someone else..."

"Gotcha."  Charlie grinned a little.  "I'll call Dad, tell him I'll come with a plus-one."

"You should probably ask her first, Charlie honey."  His mom's voice sounded like it used to for a moment, filled with good humor, lighter of heart.  It was good to hear.

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"Yeah, oh course!" Charlie quickly chipped in, with a moment of embarrassment like he was half his age and did something silly. "I'm sure she'll say yes."

"Good." Hannah's good mood and voice seemed to suddenly turn impish again, and Charlie felt the back of his neck tingle like a warning signal. "Because I plan on having her over for dinner soooon!"

"Mom!" Charlie groaned, as any teenager did at those dreaded, awkward parental words. As a law of the universe, whenever parents want to meet their teenage offspring's boy-or-girlfriend, it's always too soon. The conversation didn't last much longer after that. Charlie and Hannah said their farewells and Charlie hung up. He exited and Sophia joined him, hand tangling up with his. "Everything go alright then?"

"Ish." Charlie waggled his hand. "Apparently, in the interest of not getting stuck with the philandering butthole," Charlie paused on reflex, somehow still expecting his mom to pop up and chide him, "I need to play nice and go to this event of his tonight at the Marias country club. Will you be my plus one and bear the slings and arrows of cruel fate with me?"

Sophia giggled, and Charlie had to work at keeping his eyes up, despite the jiggling. "My dramatic Romeo. I suppose I will."

"Excellent." Charlie beamed in relief. "And now to call it in." His smile disappeared, or perhaps looked suddenly fake, as Charlie dialed up his dad. "Hey kiddo."

Charlie sighed. "Well, I'm coming to your fancy party tonight."

"That's great-"

"And I'm bringing Sophia." Charlie cut in, before that man could get his hopes foolishly up.

"I was thinking it would be more of a father-son thing." Lucius replied, trying to wiggle around where Charlie was going with this. "You've got how many dozen guests." Charlie shot back, not planning to relinquish the conversational momentum. "Wasn't going to be one to begin with. Sophia's my plus one. Non-negotiable."

"Well, I was looking forward to meeting her." Lucius mused, trying to rewrite the conversational outcome into one he'd desired all along. "Great." Charlie said, not meaning it at all. "Time and dress code?"

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As it turned out, the dress code was semi-formal and the time was 8pm.  And dad had sent a limo.

"Wow."  Sophia breathed as greeted Charlie with a quick kiss as he held the door for her to get in.  "You scrub up good, Cole."

"Right back atcha."  Charlie grinned as she slid across the rear seat and patted for him to get in behind her, and he meant it.  Sophia was wearing a high-necked dark blue sleeveless cocktail dress that, whilst perhaps not at Marissa Jauntsen levels of expensive designer label, looked classy on her without being too much. As he got in and closed the door, she took his hand with a smile and an excited sparkle in her eye while she looked around the inside of the car.

"Is this for my benefit?"  she grinned at him, teasing a little.  Charlie smirked, shaking his head.

"I wish I had the cash to splash.  Dad's trying to make an impression - on you, on me, on anyone who sees us arrive probably."  he said with a touch of bitterness, then struck an oratorical pose.  "'I am Lucius, dad of dads.  Look upon my largesse, ye mighty, and despair'."  Sophia giggled, leaning over and kissing his cheek, then gently placing a finger on his chin and meeting his eyes.

"Hey.  I'm just happy to be with you.  So screw your dad, okay?  We're going to have fun."  she told him softly, her eyes warm.  "This still doesn't count as The Date, though."  she added as she sat back, grinning.

"No, I get it.  This is you doing your good girlfriend deed for the day."  Charlie smiled back.  "Not like we'll really be able to discuss everything at a cocktail party."

"Oh, babe, this is just me being generally awesome.  Good girlfriend deed comes later - if you play your cards right."  she teased, glancing out of the tinted windows as the limo sped through the gathering twilight.

The Marias Valley Country Club and golf course was an incongruity in community with strong farming and rural ties.  All that acreage, prime growing and pasture land, being used for a handful of rich folks to congregate, play golf and host social events?  When it had first been proposed, a lot of the movers and shakers in Toole County had pushed back on the idea.  Even now, ranchers and farm magnates with memberships to the club liked to joke self-deprecatingly about what an extravagance it was.  But the club had done some good works too - all that money and influence in one place made fundraising for public projects and charity causes a snap, and so the country club had gradually found the attitudes of the locals warming to it, at least somewhat.

The valet opened the door of the limo, allowing Charlie to assist Sophia out and up the steps to the main building, which tonight was lit up gaily with the strains of a string quartet coming from within.  Charlie wasn't even sure what the event was about until he caught sight of the signs at the door.  'Marias Valley welcomes Governor Steve Bullock', along with smaller, garish posters reading 'Bullock 2020'.  Of course.  Fundraising for the state governor's war chest.  A great way for Lucius and his co-owners of the country club to shmooze and gain important connections - naturally Dad would want his son present to offset the bad optics of the ongoing divorce.

"Charlie!".  His dad was waiting just inside the lobby, complete with manly hug and the three-second shoulder hold so everyone could see how close the two were.  Though Charlie was certain his dad actually did love him, and was proud of him, the Cole tendency for theatrics was not limited to the stage.  His dad was a master of the florid gesture to the point of being a ham.  "Glad you made it.  And I don't believe I've met your lovely companion..?"

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"Sophia Fingleman." Sophia politely extended a hand forward to Lucius, who seemed to perform a sudden release of Charlie, turn and upright shaking Sophia's hand that somehow was swift and seemed natural. "It's a pleasure, Sophia. I've heard so much about you."

"Yes." The crooning voice made Charlie grit his teeth, as a blond bombshell in a little black, backless dress sauntered over and pulled Charlie into a sudden hug, much to his chagrin. "Susanna." Charlie got out, on the right edge of polite when he wanted of course to say bimbo. "Mmm." Susanna cooed, before doing the same to Sophia, much to her surprise. "You two are so adorable. Susanna Chavel, Lucius' girlfriend, at least for now."

That little reminder and dig about Hannah being divorced, well, Charlie had to hold back from grinding his teeth. "I hope you enjoy tonight's festivities and telling your friends you met the Governor." She stepped back and looked at Lucius. "Oliver wants to speak with you ASAP, Luce."

"Well, then don't let us delay you!" Charlie responded, tugging Sophia along and wanting to clear away from them. Sophia followed along, recognizing her boyfriend was reaching his limit. They skirted their way down the left, Sophia having the presence of mind to grab a schedule of the event along the way. Charlie ended up stopping at a spot next to a stairwell heading up, and flashed Sophia an apologetic look. "Sorry, but they just got on my nerves. Him and that trophy ho."

"She didn't seem that bad." Sophia disagreed, "though she definitely came on a bit too strong." Charlie snorted derisively. "There's nothing worthwhile about her except eye candy and the willingness to sleep with a married man." Charlie let out a huff, breathing to calm down. And as he did, something Susanna said did click in his mind, and as Charlie chilled out, he started considering this idea forming more.

There is a time for the script - most times really. But the stage still allowed for ad lib and improv, and some of the best, most memorable elements in film and television came from when the actor decided to throw that in. Harrison Ford shooting the swordsman. Robert Downey Junior declaring that yes, he was Iron Man. Now Charlie thought he might just have that moment. But it probably would be good to get a second opinion just to be safe.

"Sophia? Can I bounce an idea off you?"

"Yes?" Sophia asked, wondering what shift Charlie was taking. Charlie checked quickly. Nope, no one around to eavesdrop. And there didn't look like there were any cameras here. The Project (and Crossroads possibly since Dr. Klein was working with them) may have gone Big Brother on Shelly, but the odds of their having a reason to focus on the country club seemed unlikely.

"Right. So this is something I'm gonna explain more about Date Night, but in our previous investigations, Cassie dug up dirt on the prison and shady stuff going on there. At the meeting yesterday, the Sheriff said the state government approved the prison's construction. Atop of course, their utterly illegal and wrong lab." Charlie explained. "I can get Dad to give me a chance to meet Governor Bullock in private. Tell him about the covered up riots, mysteriously dying inmate, name drop Major Taggart so there's a convenient adult in authority who can back us up. Convince the Governor to investigate the prison - and Crossroads is going to have to waste time and connections trying to cover their butts. Sure, they'll probably bounce it in the end, but it's not something they'll expect to see coming. So... good crazy or just crazy?"

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Sophia gazed at him for a long moment, conflicting emotions in her eyes - the need to support the boy she was crushing on regardless of his personal insanity warring with the need to protect him from said insanity.  Fortunately(?) the latter desire won out.  She grabbed his arm and drew him further from the nearby buffet table.  "It's crazy."  she said in an undertone, looking as though she were fidgeting with his lapels as an excuse to run her hands over his shoulders.

"Firstly, Charlie, I love that you want to go all Bruce Wayne-by-day on this, but to quote Illidan Stormrage: you are not prepared, babe."

"A Batman and a Warcraft reference?  Be still my heart."  Charlie smiled lopsidedly, fighting back the urge to argue his corner and letting her finish, but unable to resist a small bit of banter. She grinned at him and looped her arms around his neck, smiling like a girl on a date should smile at the guy she was with - but the straight-shooting continued.

"First, you're either going to tell the tale of the misdeeds at the prison without a source, which means you'll end up looking stupid, or you'll tell them about Cassie's plucky investigative reporting, which puts your friend in the crosshairs.  And her dad, who these shadowy assholes still have mind-controlled somewhere."  She swayed a little in his arms, like they were starry-eyed young lovers impromptu slow-dancing and heedless of who was watching.  "And name-dropping Taggart?  Even if he has a rock-solid cover, he's still a member of a secret government organisation.  He'd be pissed, Charles.  Plus you'd risk collateral damage, maybe.  What if the normal authorities start really paying attention to Shelly?"

"Right."  Charlie nodded, feeling a little foolish, but Sophia wasn't quite done.

"And finally, my sweet man, while you might make Crossroads scramble a bit to cover their ass, once that was done they'd come straight after you with an eye to payback.  Not 'the mysterious bug boy'.  You, and by extension all of your friends, and even me.  And they wouldn't fight fair, squaring up.  They'd do shit like interfere in your 'rents divorce, or ruin your dad's finances, or repossess Bannon's farm."

Charlie winced, imagining how that would go down if people showed up to take Jason's home away from him: smug men with briefcases, confident that civil law and the social contract armored them from reprisal. The best case scenario would be a nightmare.  Worst case would be Waco-apocalyptic.  Sophia, seeing his expression, kissed him gently.

"Like I said, it's awesome that you want to do something.  But if you're going to do a raid-pull, don't Leeroy Jenkins it."  she advised.  "Let's treat this as a scouting mission instead.  If there are people from Crossroads in Shelly, they might be here shmoozing with the governor too.  We keep our eyes and ears open, and learn all we can."

"That's... actually a better idea."  Charlie conceded.  He really wanted to kick the anthill, but Sophia had a point.  It might turn out to contain fifty-foot radioactive ants.  She leaned against him, making him aware of the soft press of her breasts through their clothing and the scent of her shampoo, and rested her head on his shoulder, smiling.

"Hope I'm not interrupting you two lovebirds?"  Charlie sighed - his dad's voice was jovial and teasing, and at any other time he might have smiled, but he had been enjoying the quiet moment with a girlfriend who, he realised not for the first time, had a lot more going on than her bra size.  He reluctantly unclasped his hands from around her waist, hearing her giggle a little as she likewise slid her arms from around his neck, and turned to greet his father, who was with an unknown gentleman.

He was well-dressed, in an expensive suit that was almost too formal for a semi-formal event.  He was of average height, average weight, perhaps a well-preserved fifty years old with a hairline that was starting to thin above a high forehead.  He had a warmly amused smile as he studied the two teens, and everything about him seemed avuncular, like a friendly face you would take sound advice from.  He also gave Charlie the heebie-jeebies.  It was no particular thing - he didn't have an ugly leering expression, or cold predatory eyes.  He was just... off, somehow.

"This is my son, Charles."  Lucius beamed as he indicated Charlie to the man, then swept the gesture over to Sophia.  "And his lovely companion, Sophia.  Kids, this is Mr Enterich from Crossroads Incorporated, one of the country club's secret backers."

"A not-so-secret secret backer."  Mr Enterich smiled good-humoredly, nodding to the pair.  "Charles and Sophia.  Delighted to meet you both."  It did not escape Charlie's attention that the man didn't offer a hand to shake, but at the same time, some sixth sense told him, he really didn't want to touch the dude.  "Lucius here likes to talk me up as a generous benefactor, when indeed my meager contributions were simple, inadequate recompense for the aid he has given us in getting the ordinances passed for us to break ground on the prison all those years ago."

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It was a really good thing that Charlie was an actor. Otherwise he'd have given away a sign of shock or dismay the moment after Enterich's introduction. Bad enough to know your father was a cheating asshole. But this? Sophia really thought this all through better than he had. "Ordinances?" Charlie asked, quite confused. "Since when did you have that kind of pull, Dad?" Because that too, was something. The country club provided Lucius Cole with wealth and perhaps some influence, but before the club even started? Well, this was practically before Charlie was born, and he hadn't really though about what his parents were before then.
 
Lucius smiled at his son's puzzlement. "Ah, yes. You were just a glimmer in my eye when I worked in the State land registry office, weren't you?" He nodded reflectively, as though recalling. "That's right - I'd just popped the question to your mom, and was looking for a sideways move out of the civil service. It was worthy work, mind you. Taught me a lot. But you take after your old man in this, Charlie - I like the stage lights too. Working away in an office somewhere on the second floor of a civil service building wasn't where I felt my destiny lay." He spread his arms in a theatrical gesture. "So I decided to trade up."
 
"Trade up?" Charlie turned his attention to Mr. Enterich. "Prison people have that kind of money?" This time the curiosity was a tad more feigned. Giles and Major Taggart had been pretty clear about how Crossroads made its money. But digging the story out would help.
 
"'Prison people!" Enterich laughed, nodding at Charlie. "I like that. Private prisons are just the latest venture for Crossroad Incorporated, of course. We are a very diverse family - both in terms of projects and holdings and, of course, in our employment demographics. All we ask is excellence." It was a perfect corporate sound-bite, but even so there was a ring of truth to the man's tone. "If you're interested in an internship, young man, by all means look us up online. If you're a chip off the old block as Lucius suggests, you'd do rather well with us."
 
Charlie gave Enterich a sour, offended look. "I don't cheat on my significant others." He moved his arm around Sophia's waist and pulled her in. A bit of intentional petulance, but Charlie really was uneasy about that comparison.
 
"Charlie!" Lucius protested, but Enterich smiled, a slight curve of the lips that bespoke of wry amusement at the elder Cole's expense. "The moral certainty of youth." The Crossroads Inc. representative inclined his head. "It makes mockery of our adult pretensions to gravitas, eh Lucius?" "And to the idea of good manners." Lucius snapped, huffing as he turned away, obviously hurt as well as angry.
 
Enterich watched him go, then turned that sardonic amused stare back on Charlie. And for a moment, the young thespian could see past the mask, and as he had with Jason the other day, felt a thrill of cold terror run up his spine. The mask was better - a lot better. If it hadn't been for the amusement at Lucius Cole's expense, Charlie doubted he could have readily pierced it. But the type of intelligence behind those light brown eyes was something the empathic young man had only ever felt once, and that was two days ago when he'd looked an angry Jason in the eye and understood him better than he ever wanted to.
 
Enterich was a predator, a wolf in very expensive and well-made sheep's clothing who regarded those around him as interesting specimens, sources of amusement and expendable pawns at best, and prey at worst. It was like Jason Bannon, grown up and with his fangs fully developed. "Your sense of loyalty to your mother does you credit, Charles." Enterich smiled, the mask slipping neatly back into place - so neatly that Charlie could have doubted what he'd seen... if he hadn't seen it before. "I hope you will also learn to empathize with your father, though. Not to judge a man before walking a mile in his shoes, and all that."
 
"W-well." The stutter here was completely genuine. Because Charlie was freaked. Jason was Jason, a friend. Even when frightened, Charlie was prepared to try. This? Enterich didn't have the capacity to care, that however hidden, Jason did possess. "You saw what it did to our family. He made a choice."
 
"That is true. A rash, emotional choice, it seems." Enterich inclined his head again. "Apologies - it is not my place to step into family squabbles. I do admire your candor, however. Such a rare quality in the circles I move in." He smiled, a warm expression that Charlie knew must have been coached and practiced over and over again, because it conveyed a sincere bonhomie that he knew the being underneath the person-suit was not capable of. "And if you will forgive me, I am required to go and speak to Governor Bullock before he becomes entangled by others. Charles, Sophia - it has been a genuine delight." He nodded to them both and turned, moving away into the thronging socialites.
 
Charlie stepped back and sat on the stairs. "Fuck!" Truthfully, the idea of his dad tangled up in Crossroad's web disturbed him too. Adultery was one thing, but to get in bed with Crossroads, even unaware of their true nature? "Stage lights." He muttered. "A rash emotional choice." Like the utterly crazy one Sophia had talked him out of. But it was for a good cause, not selfishness - in either of Lucius' decisions. Right?

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The event proceeded apace. Fancy food, speeches, and the works. Somehow it passed like a blur. Somewhere along the line it came to pass that two people were in the woman's restroom, uninterrupted...

Sophia was washing her hands when Susanna came in. The older woman walked over to the adjacent sink and leaned against it as Sophia finished. "Can we talk?" Sophia looked over at her. "What about?" Susanna gave her an inquiring, expectant look. "What do you honestly think of me?" Sophia paused, not really sure what to say. All she knew was what little Charlie described of her. Words that others had cruelly used to describe her, because Sophia had really big tits.

So she was reluctant to throw those around, let alone to Susanna. Susanna nodded, recognizing Sophia's reticence. "You don't really know. Nobody here does. I get it. Hannah and Charlie are angry, but they're angry at Lucius, and projecting their thoughts about him onto me. Now, the whole town thinks I'm some gold-digging bimbo. A trophy wife-to-be." She sighed. "Truthfully, Lucius said he was divorced when I met him. He's charming, exuberant, the kind of man who you fall for quickly. I didn't learn the truth until much later."

"And you stuck with him, even though he lied to you and a married man?" Sophia asked, not condemnatory, but wondering.

"What can I say?" Susanna said. "I love him." Sophia nodded, understanding.

"For better or worse, I'm going to be with Lucius, whatever happens." Susanna explained, placing a hand on Sophia's shoulder. "I just want someone in this situation who actually understands. A friendly face, if not a friend yourself."

Sophia nodded, then hugged her. "I'll try to talk Charlie around. I think he's beginning to reconsider getting so dug-in."

"Thank you."

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Spoiler

Intermission wrapped.  +2 XP.  Good collaborative work, some weaker proactivity towards the end.  Overall decent.

 

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