Very Quickly and Very Quietly (2.3)

Gaining access to a hotel room was easy enough, in an age when all the locks were electronic and only the absolute top-tier of establishments even cared who roamed their halls.

Unfortunately, Cassandra had no idea exactly what room she was going to. Whatever penumbra shrouded her quarry from electronic eyes was wide enough that Augury couldn’t narrow it down any closer than a floor and an end of a hallway.

So, she’d had to ask the night auditor if he had seen a guest with a scarred lip. When he asked why she was interested, she explained he was a person of interest in an ongoing criminal investigation and the contents of his room might be a matter of national security.

The man dithered, his hand hovering over the phone. Cassandra played another card.

“You know the president-elect was in town tonight, right?” she said. “So, you might guess this is a matter of some importance, and I’m sure you would believe me when I say I would prefer that this be handled very quickly and very quietly.”

The man froze. She pressed harder.

“I am sure you don’t want to get in any trouble with your employer,” she said. “But I have no intention of telling them you assisted with my investigation, and I’m equally sure you don’t want any trouble with Department 4B. If you pick up that phone, I can guarantee you’ll have it.”

“Damn it,” the clerk said. “I knew it! I knew there was something off about that guy!”

“All you have to do is tell me a name and room number,” she said. “That’s it.”

“Ronald Trumbull,” he said. “Room 217.”

“Thank you for your cooperation.”

“Ronald Trumbull,” she said quietly and not quite to herself as she walked away. Augury was already working: he had a picture of him floating in the air in front of her, along with a Facebook page and a Twitter account that had hardly been used before the 2016 election, when its activity had spiked. “Tell me about him.”

“He seems to be quite active in a certain subset of the conspiracy theory world,” Augury said. “He is a member of multiple mailing lists and web fora that deal with ancient astronauts, anomalous artifacts, cryptids, and the like. He appears to have been an active ‘redditor’ under multiple aliases, most frequently posting as ‘ooparthunter88’.”

“Oop-art? Accidental art? Like found art?”

“Assessing. It appears to be conspiracy jargon: OOPART, out-of-place artifact. An item that is anomalous for the time and place in which it is found. I am synthesizing an understanding of Mr. Trumbull’s web postings and correspondence. It appears that four years ago, he went from being a casual conspiracymonger to being quite interested in both superbeings and OOPARTs. Early on, he was quite public in expressing his belief that ‘objects of power’, as he termed them, were out there waiting to be found.”

“What, like the holy grail? The ark of the covenant?”

“More like the Blue Warrior’s ‘hero ring’ or the Sword of Virtue,” Augury said. “He related the superhero origins concerning magical or otherwise powerful artifacts to both ancient legends and contemporary mysteries involving so-called OOPARTs.”

“You said he stopped talking about that,” Cassandra said. She’d reached the door, which had a “do not disturb” tag hanging off the knob. She pulled a blank white card with a magnetic strip out of her pocket and touched the strip to her glasses, then swiped it in the lock. It clicked open.

She pulled on a pair of gloves and a hair net, stepped out of her shoes, then opened the door.

“Yes. But his internet search history and private correspondence on the subject did not drop off at the same time,” Augury said. “Over time he took additional steps to secure his privacy. End-to-end encryption, onion routing, private networks. The picture grows spottier, but it seems his theories only grew more refined over time. The core of it was the idea that what others had achieved by accident or chance, a sufficiently educated and motivated person might uncover through determination and will.”

“He wanted superpowers. He wanted to find a superpowered artifact,” Cassandra said. “What about his personality? Politics? Beliefs?”

“I’m afraid you’d find them quite deplorable,” Augury said. “I believe the 88 in his aforementioned username is a white nationalist code…”

“HH,” Cassandra said. “Heil Hitler.”

“He was also a devotee of a philosophy known as ‘the red pill’,” Augury said.

“He’s a Matrix fan?”

“Only in an incidental capacity. In this case, it consists of the belief that human society is a matriarchy that has men ‘blue pilled’ into…”

“I’m getting the picture,” she said. She looked around the hotel room. It was small and dingy. Trumbull had left his dirty clothes piled by an empty bag on the floor. Clean clothes were folded neatly in the dresser, though. There was a small writing desk in the corner, on which she could see a folder. “Let’s see what he left of himself. So, he figured out the Minoan piece was actually one of his objects of power, and he figured he’d seize it for himself? I guess he’s lucky it was on tour. Where was it before?”

“In the private collection of Socrates Andreadis, the Greek shipping magnate,” Augury said. “Likely on his island retreat. His love of privacy is well-known. Andreadis is known to employ powered armor troopers and is believed to have at least one mercenary superbeing in his personal security staff. His vault would have been quite the tough nut to crack, as they say.”

“So, Trumbull was waiting for it to leave Andreadis’s custody,” Cassandra said. “All that security is for the man himself and his aggregate wealth, not one bronze statue, no matter how interesting its provenance. Once it was outside his direct custody, all Trumbull had to do was get past the museum’s meager safeguards and then he could blast his way out, or whatever. All his dreams fulfilled, just like that.”

“I am still assessing the full picture of Trumbull’s correspondence,” Augury said. “But I do not believe he was waiting for the bronze, exactly, nor did it represent the sum of his dreams.”

“What do you mean?” Cassandra asked. She picked up the folder and pulled out its contents, the top of which was a printed list with hand-written annotations.

“The Minoan bronze was not the only artifact he was tracking,” Augury said. “His goal was not to find one artifact that would grant him power…”

“He was looking for all of them,” Cassandra said, staring down at the list. “Every single artifact of power he could find and get his hands on.”

Three items had been crossed out with a black marker. The fourth item said, “Canopic Jar (Ammit’s Tears) – British Museum”. The fifth was something labeled “Shroud – private collector, Florence”. The seventeenth item on a list of twenty-three was “Minoan bronze – the Greek’s island”. A red asterisk had been added next to it.

“One, two, skip a few,” Cassandra said. “What did he know about the bronze?”

“At a certain point, he seemed to have stopped speculating in any venue that would leave a record,” Augury said. “But a topic of frequent discussion in his circles was something called ‘the vessel of the gods’, a container of some sort that literally held the power of the gods, or a god. Some believed this was the aforementioned ark of the covenant or holy grail, others believed those concepts were metaphors for it. In any event, it seemed to have been his holy grail.”

“It says something about his personality that he would still be seeking more artifacts after it,” Cassandra said. “Are they more powerful?”

“Not necessarily. Again, I am still assembling the picture, but I believe the items were ranked by difficulty of acquisition, from least to greatest,” Augury said. “It is logical to conclude that in some cases, he would be relying on the powers he believed he would have from previous acquisitions to overcome the obstacles between him and his next prize. Since in most cases the possessors of the artifacts are presumably ignorant of the nature of what they possess, the security placed on each item does not necessarily correspond to its actual power level. For example, the trident listed directly after the Minoan bronze is believed to hold the power to cure ailments in fish, but is in the collection of Baron von Feuerstahl.”

“So, our modern Prometheus wanted to steal the power of the gods and then use it to become an aquatic veterinarian, for no reason other than he knows the trident exists. And he evidently expected to be powerful enough to go up against the Steel Baron,” Cassandra said. “Alright, I want extra resolution scans of this and the rest of the papers.” She fanned the contents of the folder—which included a map of the museum, some handwritten calculations, and a few printed out email exchanges—on the desk. “Cross-reference with what you’re finding in his email to try to figure out what’s already crossed off on the list.”

“I believe I know the first item,” Augury said. “The Occluded Eye of Baghdad, a curiosity that disappeared from a roadside museum of oddities in Nevada in March of 2014. It was attributed to Hakim ibn Nur, an eccentric sculptor and purported clairvoyant active during the Abassid caliphate. He was regarded as something of a crackpot in his own age. He claimed the Occluded Eye was a talisman that would safeguard its bearer from the gaze of cycloptic insects that would one day hang at every crossroads, for instance. A theory among portions of the OOPART community held him to be a genius inventor along the lines of Leonardo. Under this theory, some portion of ibn Nur’s sculptures were in fact inventions that were quite literally ahead of their time, lacking only a modern material or a sufficiently strong power supply to function.”

“So, under this theory, I suppose the ‘Occluded Eye’ would interfere with electronic recording devices that wouldn’t be invented for a thousand years,” Cassandra said.

“That appears to have been Mr. Trumbull’s belief, at least,” Augury said. “And recent events suggest he was correct.”

“Alright,” Cassandra said. “Continue trying to reconstruct the other two items. Set up a parallel process to check for museum robberies and the like that were accompanied by mysterious camera failures, since March 2014.”

“Madame, I am already attending to it,” Augury said.

“Good. Now, give me a visual record of the room so I can put everything back and get out of here.”

“You aren’t taking the files with you? They represent a substantial lead, even to someone who lacks my analytical capabilities.”

“Exactly,” she said. “Trumbull is a danger, but he’s not my concern. If other eyes are on him, tracking him, that’s good. Especially since that keeps those eyes away from me… and away from Masterson.”