Uncharted Territory - Excerpt
On her Wall of Truth, Kate Banes added a line about a news article speculating whether Brooks Inc. was considering taking over a small group of companies in Alaska. Since she and Jeff had discovered that “David Brooks” hadn’t aged a day, they had started wondering when Julian Brooks was going to announce his early retirement, and if that meant Christopher would take over the boat empire.
On the left side of the whiteboard, she had a special space reserved for her ongoing investigation: What happened in Brazil? Major White had implied the incident was real but not related to Wallace, as David Brooks had told her. A lot of reporters had pursued that story, and half believed it was a hoax, while the other half believed it was a government cover-up. She knew it was real, she just didn’t know where the dots would take her.
A knock on her door brought her back to the here and now.
“Your ten o’clock is here,” Jeff said, bringing a package to her desk. “And here are all the stories about Brooks Inc. from the past six days. You’re slacking off, Kate,” he joked. She’d been following so many leads that she was getting behind on her daily Brooks reading, but that was nothing a good cup of coffee and the weekend couldn’t solve.
Ever since Julian Brooks had come into her office and nearly seen her Wall of Truth, Kate didn’t allow anyone into her four walls. She met everyone in a conference room, and the man who had requested a meeting today was no different.
Patrick O’Connor was an independent top journalist who did research for major newspapers all over the world. She’d met him once a couple of years ago at a journalism ethics conference in Seattle, but that was as far as their paths had crossed. However, Kate had no doubt that Patrick was here for one reason alone: merfolk.
Veritas Co. was the news company that had out-scooped everyone when it came to merfolk stories. Even now, their speculative articles on merfolk life on the surface—presented as theories and not real life, even if they were one hundred percent accurate—had an active social media community and a wide range of readers. They had also been the ones to bring Roy Wallace, allegedly the first known merfolk hunter on the planet, into the light, and that had set the virtual world on fire.
As she entered the conference room, she wondered where Roy Wallace really was, and what would happen to him when the merfolk found him.
Patrick stood up to meet her, forcing her to look up, up, up. The guy was easily six feet tall, and as he shook her hand with a smile, his baby-blue eyes were already calculating how he was going to sweet talk her.
“Miss Banes, it’s so nice to finally meet you,” he said, as they both took a seat.
“Kate, please. I have to admit, your e-mail sounded rather intriguing. You said you wanted to share some sensitive information?”
He nodded, bringing a suitcase to the table. “I’m sure you must be bombarded every day with questions to reveal your sources—”
“Tons. But the ones threatening to expose me as a hack for fabricating that merfolk are real are the ones that truly make my day.”
Patrick took out a manila envelope, along with a pack of enlarged photographs. “I gotta say, what I find the most fascinating about your news coverage is that, for all you’ve managed to uncover, it must be very frustrating that you never got to see the merman in real life.”
The image of Scott Brooks glaring at her from the back seat of her car flashed into her mind. She’d seen the pale scales on his face—had driven him to Dr. Higgs so he wouldn’t bleed out, as a matter of fact—but Patrick here was right about one thing: she’d never met Christopher Brooks. His father, his “uncle”, and his little brother, sure, but not the merman himself.
“Well, you know how it is. I’m just happy there is enough evidence for the public to know. I can only imagine what we’ll discover tomorrow.”
Something about his smile made her uneasy.
“Well, Kate, I’ve been doing my own research for the past six months, and I think there’s much more to the story than you’re letting on.”
She blinked, feeling an imaginary spotlight encasing her. “I’m not sure I’m following you.”
“I was late to the party, I’ll admit that,” he said. “By the time I arrived in Maine, the town was already talking about commissioning a statue to preserve the exact place where Neil Thompson found Ray, the merman.” He paused to show her the first image of the beach, now a tourist trap that sold everything from keychains to magnets, towels to umbrellas, all printed with mermaids, mermen, fins, or scales. “So you see, I had to backtrack through a lot of rumors, misinformation, and non-existent witnesses. Even the hospital staff has clamped down after months of harassment.”
“There’s only so much you can say about an event,” she said, thinking back to the day when the hospital doctors had called a press conference to declare that merfolk were real.
“Exactly. So instead of threading where everybody threaded, I decided to thread where you had threaded.”
An alarm bell rang loud and clear in her head. “I’m sorry, what?”
“I’m sure I sound like a stalker, but hear me out,” he continued, presenting the next photograph of the hospital ER, a trauma room, and a blurry image of a hall. “There’s a reason why Veritas Co. broke this history-changing event first, so I reframed my research into understanding why. And to answer that, I went looking into what Veritas Co. was doing at the time of these events. Interestingly enough, you were in that exact same town in Maine the days after Ray arrived in the human world, but before it became worldwide news.”
“I was following an ‘internet hoax’ video,” she said, leaning against the back of the chair. “I thought it was a clever story, but ultimately, we wanted to unmask the truth. And we did. It just turned out that it wasn’t a hoax. Nothing but us doing our job, I’m afraid.”
He nodded, but she knew he wasn’t convinced. “Of course. I found traces of your own research as I did mine. It turns out a couple of hospital employees remembered you when I showed them your picture. One nurse in serious need of people skills, and a chatty janitor named Johnny.” He showed her the next photograph of an older man wearing a janitor uniform, holding a card with her name.
Johnny had stolen Christopher Brooks’s watch when it had been discarded in the ER, and sold it to her for ten grand. She’d given him the card so they could arrange the payment, and then she’d taken the watch to an expert, who had ultimately told her it belonged to Julian Brooks.
“You recognize him,” Patrick said with a smile that did little to settle her stomach. “He told me this incredible tale about a merman who wears watches. Diving watches, if I’m not mistaken.”
She leaned against the table, nodding. “He did sell us one very expensive diving watch. But we could never back it up. It’s not in the videos. Not in Neil Thompson’s original video, and not in any of the hospital videos other patients shot. It was a dead end.”
He nodded again, thoughtful. “I thought the same. I mean, I watched all those videos to the point I can recall them second by second. The things we do for our job,” he said, shrugging.
“I’m sorry, Patrick, I just—I’m not sure what you want me to say. I still don’t know what you want or why you’re here.”
“Honestly? I was hoping you would let me see the watch.”
She shook her head. “We no longer have it.”
“Not even pictures of it?”
“Between you and me? Let’s just say that buying potential stolen property is not exactly something my editor wants to admit, or cares to have a registry for. It’s as if it never happened.”
“It was a long shot,” Patrick said, smirking. “But even without the watch, maybe you’ll want to shed some light on some of my theories. Maybe you’ll want to add something else to this crazy merman story.”
“This ‘crazy merman story’ is unfortunately also my story. I can’t share any information with you, I’m sure you understand.”
“Right. We have such competitive jobs,” he joked, slipping his pictures back into the suitcase. But just when Kate thought this thing was over, he opened the manila folder he’d left out. Printouts and more photographs followed, along with receipts and handwritten notes. When he showed her the next photograph, she saw the fancy hotel where Julian Brooks had taken up residence while plotting how to get his son out of ORCAS. “So I went back to stalking you. The day Ray became known to the public, you checked into this five star hotel for three nights, a far cry from your motel when you were just following an internet hoax.”
It took her a second too long to come up with a suitable explanation, and he held up his hand before she could even start a reply. “Wait, let me finish. I think by that point you’d discovered something really big, big enough for Veritas Co. to foot the bill.”
“You think so?” she asked, with a nonchalant air. She reminded herself that if Patrick knew the entire story, he wouldn’t be telling it to her. No, if he knew the truth, he would be selling it to the highest bidder. “But, I’m afraid that’s none of your business.”
“Come on Kate, knowing is our business. So, here I am, staying at this fancy hotel of yours, thinking: ‘how does a merman get a diving watch, and how does that connect back to this hotel?’ So I went researching diving and Maine, and do you know what was dominating the news cycle in those days?”
Christopher Brooks’s diving accident, the words flashed in red bold letters in her mind at the same time Patrick said them.
“Shouldn’t you be talking to Christopher Brooks, then?” she asked, unwilling to let him see how much he was rattling her.
“He’s kind of a hard guy to find. Plus, research has been…well, consuming. Now, I have all these theories about how Christopher Brooks’s diving accident resulted in a merman wearing a diving watch in the ER the next day, and how his absurdly wealthy father was able to cover that fact up. And then I also have all these other theories as to how you found out, and for some reason worked out an agreement to get these exclusive stories before anybody else.”
She laughed, unexpectedly and a little too high-pitched. She’d sat down with Julian Brooks for one very short dinner to say almost the exact same thing, except she’d known the merman was Christopher, and at that time there was no deal on exclusive stories. If Patrick had followed another set of breadcrumbs to arrive at a dangerously similar conclusion, then she was doomed.
“So, what?” she asked, slightly apologetic for her outburst, “You think I’m part of some sort of cover up by a multi-million company and the government to hide merfolk?”
His eyes lit up. “Who said anything about the government?”
“Isn’t that a standard checkbox for all conspiracies?” she replied smoothly. “Look, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but how and when we find our stories here at Veritas has nothing to do with secret deals. We work hard, we follow leads.”
Patrick looked at her, his hands resting on the stack of papers and photographs. “I know where my leads are taking me, Kate. I might not have all the pieces, but I have enough. You’re a good journalist, and I don’t have to tell you how important this story is. Don’t be greedy now, this is bigger than you or this news outlet. Whatever your reasons to keep hiding things, I’m giving you this chance to come clean before this whole thing falls on your head. And don’t think for one moment it won’t.”
His words lingered in the air for just a little bit too long.
“I think you should leave,” Kate said, standing up.
He nodded once. “I’m sure we’ll see each other around.”
Underground - A Merfolk Secret is coming out in April, 2018.