Grace Kingsley walked out of the afternoon sun into the restaurant and encountered the Maitre'd. The room was classically elegant, wood paneling everywhere, lit with art deco lights. The walls and ceiling were a warm mustard color. She introduced herself to him, saying, "Grace Kingsley".
He said, "Yes, Ms. Kingsley, the rest of your party has been seated. Will you follow me, please?"
She followed him past the mostly empty tables – they were at the late end of the lunch seating. As she came up to their table Robert Lukeson and Brad Keels rose to greet her. They sat down and she looked pointedly at the empty seat."
"He sends his regrets," Lukeson said. "He had a plane to catch. I'll brief him later."
"All right," Grace nodded.
Their waiter was presented her with a menu, "Hello, I'm Thomas, I'll give you a chance to look at our selections and be back in a moment."
She looked over the menu for a moment then set it down with a grim expression. "The meeting did not go well."
"That's an understatement," Keels said. "We should never have let them get on the board. I thought you said you could control them."
"I'm working on it," Grace assured him. "I just didn't see them moving so fast."
Lukeson looked over her shoulder and she paused as the waiter returned. She glanced at Lukeson and Keels. "We've already put in our orders," Lukeson told her.
Grace looked at the waiter, "I'll have the Caesar Salad and the Bouillabaisse. I'd like a glass of the Jordon Chardonnay as well."
"Thank you," he noted her order.
Grace explained, "I think we got caught up in the mental tricks and abilities they have. We forgot that they also have an incredible ability to gather and process information. We were interested in the things they can do that we can't. We forgot how much better they are at doing the things that we can. As Stalin said, 'quantity has a quality all of its own', they can do a lot, fast."
Keels said, "We've spent the better part of the last twenty years building up our operations hiding them behind layers of ownership. We thought they were well hidden but the two of them glimpsed them within two weeks – and apologized because they weren't able to devote full time to the effort."
Lukeson protested, "They haven't really unraveled it and laid it out, they just have hints. Maybe they won't be able to see through it all. No one else on the board has, I think Crossgate has had suspicions, but he never got anywhere."
"You're fooling yourself," Grace shook her head. "Our work isn't all that well hidden. We were counting on no one looking hard. And no one has, until now." She looked around the table and continued, "They are going to be looking hard. Maybe it's time we close up shop, liquidate the enterprises and take our profits. Between us there's probably over a billion dollars. That should be plenty, do we really need more?"
"We'd wind up with a dime on the dollar if we try to do it in a hurry, and some of my assets view the word 'liquidate' in an entirely different light," Keels said. "No, we have to deal with this threat, not cave in to it."
Lukeson looked warningly over her shoulder and they paused while the waiter, with assistance, gave them their lunches. After the waiters had left, he said, "You called off the effort to threaten his girlfriend and family. That worked for some time. Maybe we should try that again."
"No, that will simply focus their efforts on removing the threat," Grace said, "and on us. At first, Kyle lacked the confidence to be pro-active, but he has learned that he can directly take on the source of threats. With Jessi working with him they will put all their efforts into removing any threatening agents. I don't want to be on the receiving end of their attention."
Keels suggested, "It may come down to taking them out."
Grace objected, "They are irreplaceable assets. We can't do that."
Keels leaned forward, "Grace, I think you're letting your interest in the boy cloud your judgment. As far as I'm concerned, I'm an irreplaceable asset and I'm not going to roll over or give up twenty years of work because of a couple of teenagers with stars in their eyes. I didn't let Adam Baylin dictate my future. I'm certainly not going to let them do so."
Grace sat back and thought for a moment, "As I see it, there are three approaches we might take in decreasing degrees of desirability. The first one is to persuade them that it would be better to leave us alone, to ignore our activities in exchange for a free hand with the rest of Latnok's activities. We help them use Latnok to make 'a better world', they leave us alone."
Lukeson said, "Could you negotiate something like that with them?"
"I couldn't," Grace admitted. "Even attempting it would be opening the box for them. I do have a player I can put on the field who may be able to encourage that conclusion. I'm not all that confident that it would work, but at lest it has the benefit of doing the least damage."
Keels objected, "It seems unlikely to succeed. What's your second option?"
"Good old fashioned board politics," Grace said. "We have four votes, two more that we can usually count on. We can block any board activity. We may not be able to successfully use threats against Kyle and Jessi, but we can certainly do so against some of our fellow board members if necessary. I know of a few opportunities for blackmail myself. We don't even have to get to the point of physical threats, although we could use that as well."
"That could work," Lukeson agreed. "We could block them at the board level so that the board decides to study things until hell freezes over. Crossgate and some of the others would fight, but as you say six votes and the board becomes impotent."
"Would they accept board inactivity?" Keels was skeptical.
"That's the problem," Grace agreed. "They've already shown themselves capable of mounting extra-legal operations. If the board doesn't go along, they are likely to move on to creative approaches to the problem, especially if some of the board members encourage them." She snorted, "They can be very creative."
"What is the third option?" Robert asked.
"Taking the girl out," Grace suggested. "I said that the two of them are irreplaceable, and that's true but we would have almost as much to study if we had just one of them. After all, the original plan was just to have Kyle. Jessi is spare. It's good to have a spare, but it might be too expensive."
"I should think, then, that Kyle would be the one to take out," Keels objected. "He's the obvious leader of the pair." He took a breath and continued, "I know you're attached to him, Grace, but it's us on the line here."
"Kyle may be the leader, but Jessi provides the drive," Grace disagreed. "There was a reason I volunteered to run the University of Washington group, I wanted to study them. And I have. I understand their dynamic. If Jessie were to suddenly disappear from the face of the earth without a trace, Kyle would drop everything and search for her. He could easily be convinced that she ran away like Sarah did. He would expect that she would be capable of hiding from him. He would eventually give up and, I expect, settle into an existence much like Adam did. I think we could work with that."
"That makes sense," Keels nodded, "Why not have Kyle disappear?"
"While Kyle would believe that Jessi ran away, Jessi would never believe that Kyle abandoned her and the Tragers. She would be relentless and bring down fire and brimstone on all of us. There would be nothing left standing when she was finished. If we take one out, it has to be Jessi, and it has to be done expertly, without a trace."
"I have lots of experts on tap," Keels said. "That should be easy to accomplish."
"If it comes to that," Grace cautioned. "But let's see what we can do with option one first. It doesn't close out any of our other options."