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Roommates - Ch. 46 (Pieces of the Puzzle)

May 6th, 2017
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  1. Roommates has moved! You can now read it at Archive of Our Own: http://archiveofourown.org/works/11250126/navigate
  2.  
  3. Roommates - Ch. 46 (Pieces of the Puzzle): http://i.imgur.com/wxznRD1.png
  4. Inspired by Weaver's Five Nights at Freddy's Apartment AU: http://i.imgur.com/LnDJVNL.png
  5. Part of an ongoing series written for the /5N@F/ General Discussion Thread at /vg/.
  6. Sincerest thanks to Weaver (http://tgweaver.tumblr.com/) for all of the invaluable assistance in writing, proofreading, and editing this story as well as for illustrating the chapter title cards.
  7. Questions or comments? Drop me an ask at http://roommatesau.tumblr.com/
  8.  
  9. ---
  10.  
  11. "You want a cup of coffee, Mike? I just put on a fresh pot."
  12.  
  13. Hastily setting aside the newspaper you've been scouring for the last several minutes, you turn your attention to the bear looming over you from the left-side doorway.
  14.  
  15. "Uhh, I'm fine, thanks Fred," you reply, hastily stuffing some of your paperwork and photocopies into an empty manila folder. "No coffee for me, I'm good."
  16.  
  17. "Might be for the best. Looks like you've already had too much," he deadpans. "Still digging for homegrown arts and crafts projects?"
  18.  
  19. "Ha ha, yeah, Mango wanted me to get as many as I could find," you lie. "I really do appreciate you letting me camp out in your office, though. Would it be okay if I use your computer printer?"
  20.  
  21. "Help yourself. Toner might be running low, but there should be another cartridge in the cabinet under my desk."
  22.  
  23. "Gotcha. Thanks again."
  24.  
  25. After he leaves, you breathe a sigh of relief as you collapse at the desk you've temporarily claimed as your workspace. It occurs to you that there's probably a reason that movies always show exhaustive research in montage form. Turns out the act of actually digging into something is far more tedious (and also a lot more difficult) than you previously thought it was. You can't just show up at the library and get a table covered in relevant books all dog-eared at the precise passage you need. Between all the newspaper articles and copied searches spread across Fred's office, it feels less like you're trying to figure out what the hell happened at a pizza chain and more like you're writing a doctoral thesis.
  26.  
  27. Still, you're in high spirits today. The conversation with Mango and Peanut was eye-opening, to say the least. Between your trip to the library this morning and skimming records on Fred's home computer for the last couple of hours, you've made some incredible (if not unsurprising) discoveries. So many, in fact, that you're having a hard time keeping them all straight.
  28.  
  29. Going into this "investigation", you already knew -- from both firsthand experience and also information gleaned from your friends and roommates -- that misfortune surrounds the chain known as Jeremy Human's. After running the name of the restaurant through a search engine, though, you've come back with so many articles full of red flags like "mysterious", "unexplained", and "bizarre" that you're getting a headache trying to read through them all.
  30.  
  31. Forum after forum of anonymous posters push tinfoil-hat conspiracy theories, all of which read like they were written by burnt-out former part-timers who had to clean vomit out of the ball pit one too many times. You can't help but laugh at ridiculous stories about the government putting addictive ingredients in the restaurant's trademark pizza, or what happens to kids who aren't collected by their parents by closing time. At least one lunatic put forth the half-baked notion that the Humanimatronics are haunted by the ghosts of dead children murdered by a serial killer during the early 1980s. An amusing and elaborate concept, but not only did Jeremy Human's not even exist back then, its founder would've been in pre-school.
  32.  
  33. Shaking your head, you're pretty sure you can file that one away under "just a theory".
  34.  
  35. At least the library turned up slightly more credible information than some of the campfire stories and urban legends you've been reading about online. Thanks to the very friendly librarian assisting you with the microfiche machine, you're now in the possession of a number of photocopied newspaper articles, many of which boast ominous-sounding sensationalist headlines like "Misfortune strikes beloved video arcade" and "Family restaurant under investigation". Case in point, holding one of the printouts up to the desk lamp, your stomach flops as you skim the headline at the top of the page.
  36.  
  37.  
  38. πšƒπš†π™Ύ 𝙼𝙰𝙸𝙼𝙴𝙳 𝙸𝙽 π™΅πšπ™΄π™°π™Ί π™΄πš‡π™Ώπ™»π™Ύπš‚π™Έπ™Ύπ™½ π™°πšƒ 𝙻𝙾𝙲𝙰𝙻 π™Ώπ™Έπš‰πš‰π™°πšπ™Έπ™°
  39. "Two employees were caught in a mysterious explosion at a downtown family restaurant Saturday morning, according to the local fire department. The incident occurred at Jeremy Human's Funtime Family Arcade and Pizzaria. The victims, Archibald Rackham, 21, and Caroline Goose-Merrifeather, 23, were performing a song on stage for a birthday party when a loud burst came from one of the company's proprietary 'Humanimatronic' mascot characters, showering them with battery acid. Both employees are seriously wounded but reportedly in stable condition. The cause of this bizarre malfunction is still under investigation."
  40.  
  41.  
  42. With a track record of unlikely injuries and unexplained accidents piling up left and right, not to mention a host of murderous robots roaming the halls, how the hell Jeremy's has managed to stay in business this long utterly baffles you -- and yet, you've been to the store and you've seen with your own two eyes that business is booming. For crying out loud, when you visited it recently, there was a line to get in the door!
  43.  
  44. In spite of it all, though, you remain undeterred. You're finally starting to see pieces of the puzzle snap into place. Grabbing a pen and a piece of paper, you start excitedly jotting notes down as you go over what you know.
  45.  
  46. During the "apology lunch" you had with Fred, he explained that after graduating college, his older brother Goldie Fazbear formed a joint partnership with someone on a restaurant venture. Last night, Mango told you that partner was April May -- the very same April that inadvertently sent you down this road of bouncing from apartment to apartment, meeting these new neighbors, intertwining your fate with theirs.
  47.  
  48. At its founding, the pizzeria was just a simple restaurant with food and games. The animatronics didn't come in until some point later on. Fred also said that some mutual friends ("even a few faces you'd know") were involved with starting the business from the ground-up. On your morning visit to 93-B right before HumieCon, you learned one of those people was Bonworth, who apparently got the job because he was friends with Fred's brother. Cheeky also mentioned Goldie hiring her as well, even going so far as to personally interview her.
  49.  
  50. Goldie Fazbear's business quickly expanded, and other Jeremy Human's locations started opening up within a few years. One of the newspaper clippings in front of you -- this one sourced directly from Fred's memo board -- shows that the "sister location" was the first to feature the company's trademark "Humanimatronic" mascots. Initially, there were only two characters in the lineup: Jeremy Human and Safety Schmidt. Between seeing your doppelganger again and poring over news clippings, you can't help but feel like you've been down this road recently.
  51.  
  52. "There's that name again," you grumble, staring at the mechanical security guard.
  53.  
  54. While the photo is in black-and-white and the paper's faded with age, you can pretty clearly make out Goldie posing next to a pair of huge, unwieldy-looking mascot suits that vaguely resemble the Jeremy characters you know today. Much like his younger brother, the elder Fazbear was of an intimidating height and build -- and yet in this picture the mascot costumes utterly dwarf him in size. Interestingly, both the Jeremy and Schmidt animatronics have what appear to be large clock keys hanging out of their backs, not unlike wind-up toys. From what little you remember of Bonworth's story the night you went drinking with him and Faz, these must be the abandoned "turnkey" costumes, designed to be worn by employees -- one of which "malfunctioned", nearly killing Faz.
  55.  
  56. Jeremy Human's is now a major corporate restaurant chain with multiple locations across the state, but it didn't start out that way. It began as a family business with just a few employees -- one of whom, Nisha Marigold, has been with the company "for years" and "knows everybody". From your limited interactions with her, she certainly seems to know and have a considerable amount of respect for Fred, which implies a closeness to the Fazbear family and by extension, their friends and associates. After all, she felt comfortable enough to show up, in person, at Bonworth's residence.
  57.  
  58. While you know Goldie passed away some time ago, it was only during your conversation with Mango that she seemed to imply there was something more to it. She wasn't clear on the cause of death, and your searching's yet to turn anything up, but given everything else that's happened to these people, is it unrealistic to assume that Goldie's untimely demise had something to do with the restaurant too? Plus, shortly after his death, a freak fire ALSO just happened to claim the "sister location", and almost April with it.
  59.  
  60. That's not all, though. Several of your new friends were injured on the job in bizarre and gruesome ways at various points in time. When most people get injured in a workplace like a restaurant, it's because they slipped on a wet floor or burned their hand on a griddle. Bonworth had a safe quite literally dropped on him. Faz was nearly crushed to death by the aforementioned costume. Cheeky's rapid-onset cancer seems linked to the place as well, and whatever the exact nature of Haddock's accident really was, it's left him permanent brain damage. Add to the pile injuries like Rackham's eye and paw, Chiclet's beak, and Goose's blindness -- all caused by yet MORE "accidents".
  61.  
  62. Peanut said in parting last night that Nisha's official role with the company is as its CEO. As the old saying goes, "follow the money". And so far, the money's leading you in one direction.
  63.  
  64. Goldie was the founder and owner. To make his place of power and profit available, he had to die.
  65. Bonworth was there from the ground up, and he doesn't seem like a man who could be bought. It makes sense that his closest friends and even eventually even his own family would also be targeted in a hostile takeover.
  66. What was the "blood in the water" Haddock mentioned in his pirate story that both Bonworth AND Cheeky corroborated?
  67. Was Faz really given "the big pinch" in a tragic malfunction, or did someone loosen a few screws inside his deathtrap of a costume?
  68. Why was Cheeky made to work in hazardous environments intentionally? Or was she just a tragic casualty in the grab for profit at any cost -- even safety?
  69. Did Beanie really forget that she wasn't going to be on shift the day you rescued her, or did someone just conveniently choose not to notify her?
  70.  
  71. If Peanut's account is accurate, Nisha should have been the one working the night of the fire, but instead, she was conveniently "out sick". In her place?
  72.  
  73. April.
  74.  
  75. And what about the pizzeria's animatronics? You're hardly going out on a limb saying there's something very wrong with them. But what if this isn't simply aimless violence? What if they're intentionally keeping night guards and other employees at bay so that they don't have time to investigate? At the very, VERY least, it's clear the animatronics have been tampered with -- how they're acting now isn't normal, and that means someone had to make them this way. It'd be child's play for someone with even the barest technical know-how to do so; after all, their design is simple enough that at least SOME facet of them can be controlled from a tablet computer. You've seen the interface yourself. If you could figure it out, surely someone at the top could.
  76.  
  77. You hate to say it. You want to be wrong. You've met Nisha -- she doesn't seem like the malicious type. She was nice to you and has been good to Fred. It's not likely she could be manufacturing all of this heartache -- but right now, you have to follow the evidence. Because all of these people are company employees, if maiming them or having them killed doesn't work, all someone would have to do to silence them for good is issue an NDA and threaten their livelihoods if they don't comply.
  78.  
  79. You can hardly believe this is real life -- you've stumbled onto a vast conspiracy. An actual, legitimate evil scheme, and at the top of it all, a sinister, corrupt corporation.
  80.  
  81. Still, whoever's behind this, Nisha OR otherwise -- they made a huge mistake: when they tried offing April, they didn't finish the job. And now, you've got an in with someone who can finally start shedding some light on this mystery. Someone who's been in this from the start. Standing up from the desk, you shove the last of your scrapbook puzzle pieces into your growing folder.
  82.  
  83. This is it. This is the breakthrough you've been waiting for.
  84.  
  85. Time to go have a talk with one Ms. April Marchand May.
  86.  
  87.  
  88.  
  89. Doffing your jacket in the entryway floor without even bothering to hang it up, you hurry inside. The common area and the kitchen are both dark and quiet; seems most everyone's out for the morning. Fine by you. You're only here to see one person anyway.
  90.  
  91. Heading to the room you shared with Frederick, you steel your nerves. In your excitement to get over here, you hadn't come up with the best way to broach this sensitive subject, given everything that's happened (including your less than tactful history with Jeremy Human's on more than one occasion). You're determined to make this work.
  92.  
  93. "April?" you call out, knocking twice at the doorframe. "April, it's Mike -- can I talk to you for a few minutes?"
  94.  
  95. You hear footsteps on the other side of the wall, followed by the sound of a lock slowly turning. Seconds later, the door falteringly creaks open, and April steps out into the hallway, nodding pleasantly. She's been expanding her wardrobe since you last saw her; gone is the worn-out overcoat and the moth-eaten scarf; in their place, a thick, high-collared wool sweater and a long denim skirt.
  96.  
  97. Taking a step towards you, her voice rasps from behind a thick mask of fresh white gauze. "Hello, Mike. Feeling better?"
  98.  
  99. "I am, yeah," you answer as she gently embraces you. "A lot better, actually. Thanks for, um -- for everything."
  100.  
  101. She stares at you for an uncomfortably long time after the hug, and just as you're about to ask, she speaks up. "...Your hair."
  102.  
  103. You reach up instinctively, your hands groping at your special hairdo. "Oh! Oh yeah, the, uh, the mohawk. Long story."
  104.  
  105. She shakes her head in disapproval. "...look like a delinquent. Going out in public like that..."
  106.  
  107. "It was for a friend," you grumble as the two of you walk out into the living room, where she takes a seat on the couch.
  108.  
  109. "Sooo... starting to get pretty cold out there, huh," you ask, sitting down across from her. "I see you're staying bundled up. That's good."
  110.  
  111. "A bit cold." She gives you a lopsided nod. "I don't mind, though. Cozy."
  112.  
  113. "Yeah. Yeah, there's something about wintertime. It's like, the coziest season... well, next to spring, anyway."
  114.  
  115. "Don't start, Mike." Even though you can't quite see it through her bandages, you get the feeling she's smiling at you.
  116.  
  117. "Well, you can blame Chica for putting that pun in my head," you chuckle, thinking back to her 'spring' crack the day you first met April. In a way, you wish it had been on much better terms, considering how much you've grown to like the soft-spoken bunny since. "Speaking of Chica, how is she? How are the others, anything new since I was here last?"
  118.  
  119. April shakes her head. "Been quiet. Bonnie seems to be getting better, though."
  120.  
  121. "Good. She been keeping up on her medicine?"
  122.  
  123. "Yes, I think so. Mangle takes care... but sometimes, I help." She chuckles quietly, almost breathlessly. "Bonnie listens to me. Good girl."
  124.  
  125. "She is, yeah," you smile. "Bonnie is a good girl."
  126.  
  127. After a pause, April coughs. "Mike, you wanted to talk?"
  128.  
  129. "Yeah... yeah, I did."
  130.  
  131. Straightening up a little in her seat, April nods expectantly, prompting you to continue the conversation.
  132.  
  133. "I've been doing some... investigating into Jeremy's," you answer warily, carefully scrutinizing her bandaged face for the inevitable recoil or pained expression the name always seems to provoke. "I know it's a sore subject, but would it, uh -- would it be okay if I talked to you about some of it?"
  134.  
  135. "By all means."
  136.  
  137. You blink a few times. That's not quite the reaction you were expecting, but you're not about to look a gift horse in the mouth.
  138.  
  139. "You're, uh, not under any kind of hush orders or anything?" you ask, immediately looking the gift horse in the mouth. Damn it all.
  140.  
  141. "No. Why would I be?"
  142.  
  143. Well, this is a welcome change.
  144.  
  145. "Oh. Well uh, like I was saying, I've been doing some digging, and uh, I think there might be -- look, I've got a lot of, uh..." With so many questions on your mind, and an audience that's at least somewhat receptive, you don't even know where to begin. You hold up the folder you brought along, tapping it with your index finger a few times. "I've noticed some things, April."
  146.  
  147. "Some things."
  148.  
  149. "So like, I think there may be something -- uh, sinister? Going on at Jeremy Human's," you continue, motioning to her excitedly like you're conducting a sales pitch. "Well, I mean okay, I know 'sinister' might sound like I'm being dramatic, but uh, 'ominous' sounded a bit too, uh, theatrical. Is 'sinister' more theatrical, do you think--"
  150.  
  151. "Mike," April interrupts. "I know."
  152.  
  153. "You do know?"
  154.  
  155. "I've been--" She pauses abruptly, pressing her paw to her mouth and squeezing her eye shut, as if she's in pain. She tugs at the bandages on her face, loosening them, and you tense up -- is she okay? Is she having some kind of attack? Migraine? Bleed--
  156.  
  157. "Achoo!"
  158.  
  159. Oh.
  160.  
  161. "Bless you...?" you reply, relaxing slightly.
  162.  
  163. She fumbles around with a tissue box on the end table next to the couch, as the bandages around her mouth hang loose; you can see a broad, hairless patch of shiny, glossy skin poking out near her muzzle as she raises a tissue to her lips.
  164.  
  165. "Winter cold," she murmurs. "But yes, I'm... aware. Of the tragedies."
  166.  
  167. "Right. No, right -- being a victim of one of them yourself," you quietly add as she bandages her mouth back up. "Of course. Sorry, of course you'd know."
  168.  
  169. She nods, prompting you to continue. Taking a deep breath, you gather your wits and decide to just be direct.
  170.  
  171. "April, what the hell is up with Jeremy's?" you blurt. "Why is it that, everywhere I look, someone has been maimed, or sliced apart, or crushed? It's a pizza place! This kind of thing doesn't HAPPEN at pizza places!"
  172.  
  173. "It shouldn't... under normal circumstances," she finally manages after a brief interlude of dead air.
  174.  
  175. "So you think there's something going on, too, then."
  176.  
  177. "Yes. More and more." She looks at you with conviction in her lone, visible eye. "Only so many coincidences."
  178.  
  179. "I don't think there were any coincidences. I think ALL these things are connected."
  180.  
  181. "You do?"
  182.  
  183. "Oh, absolutely," you reply, feeling emboldened. Flipping open your folder, you riffle through a few of the articles inside it before pulling out one at random. "So like, take a look at this, for instance. This is when Rackham and Goose had their 'accident', right?"
  184.  
  185. "Yes," she replies hesitantly, looking it over as you hand it to her. "I remember this."
  186.  
  187. "Don't you think it's pretty suspicious that the batteries just HAPPENED to explode WHILE they were on stage?"
  188.  
  189. "Shouldn't even have been active," she murmurs. "Couldn't overload. We used lithium, but..."
  190.  
  191. "And then, look here," you continue, passing over another sheet. "Here's the report on what happened to Faz. 'The Big Pinch', he called it?"
  192.  
  193. "...yes."
  194.  
  195. "Again -- the suit malfunctions RIGHT when he's inside it? And while I don't have any article for it, we know that Bonworth was also involved in something -- lugging a safe up a flight of stairs. And they just -- he was the one pushing it from underneath?"
  196.  
  197. "I recall all of these incidents," April sighs as she hands back your printouts. "...where is this going?"
  198.  
  199. "April, I guess what I'm saying is -- there's only so much you can write off to bad luck. Between what happened to Goldie -- your partner? And then Bonworth AND his friends, and, well, what happened to you? I think someone," you carefully continue, "has been staging these 'accidents' -- to keep people silent. I think someone stands to benefit from every one of them."
  200.  
  201. April stands up from the couch, gently straightening her skirt out. For a moment, you think you've lost her.
  202.  
  203. "Follow me," April says.
  204.  
  205. As you walk into April's temporary guestroom, you notice that Frederick's easel has been overtaken by a large corkboard. The corkboard is covered in polaroid photos, newsclippings much like your own, handwritten notes in fancy cursive and scraps of paper, all carefully arrayed in a circular formation -- not unlike a wreath. You take a moment to gawk at the spectacle of organized chaos, and its similarities to your own research. The entire display is webbed together with colored string, and in the dead center of the board is a conspicuously empty space where dozens of lines intersect.
  206.  
  207. "Holy shit," you breathe, tracing a finger over one the photos of Goldie. "So you've been looking into this too."
  208.  
  209. "You seem surprised."
  210.  
  211. "Yeah, I am," you answer excitedly. "This is kind of a shock to me. Hah, wow, I don't get this far with anyone. Uh, on this, I mean."
  212.  
  213. You study the photos on her board, shaking your head in awe at so many of the familiar faces. Goldie, Chiclet (with her beak, no less), Beanie, Fred Fazbear, Cheeky, Bonworth, Rackham (with both eyes), Peanut, and so many others. Every single picture is taken from the same angle against the same generic green background, and they're all wearing what appear to be employee uniforms. Must be from their photo IDs, if you had to guess.
  214.  
  215. Your eyes catch on a pair of photos near the edge of the board. Bonnibel is here -- and Foxglove, too, wearing a familiar, stiff, dull-colored cap.
  216.  
  217. "So, who goes in the middle?" you ask, your confidence faltering slightly. "In the middle spot on the board, I mean."
  218.  
  219. "That," April murmurs quietly, "is what I would like to know."
  220.  
  221. Taking a deep breath, you brace for impact. It's now or never, the moment of truth.
  222.  
  223. "April, it's obvious. At least to me, it is," you begin, treading carefully. "And if you think about it, it should be obvious to you, too. Let's look at it logically for just a second -- who would derive benefit from corporate sabotage?"
  224.  
  225. April folds her arms, nodding.
  226.  
  227. You press on. "Someone AT corporate, right? Someone who wanted to work their way up the ranks and make it into the top spot?"
  228.  
  229. "Nisha," April murmurs. "You think it's Nisha Marigold."
  230.  
  231. You reach into your folder, pulling out a single picture of Nisha from a relatively recent middle school newsletter interview. Holding it up to the board, you tuck it right into the center of the strings.
  232.  
  233. "I know. Believe me, April, I'm not happy about it either," you continue, tapping the photo. "But look -- the facts don't lie. 'Follow the money,' right? Well there it is, the CEO. She's the one on top."
  234.  
  235. Her face is so heavily obscured, it is a little difficult to ascertain what she's thinking. At any rate, she's certainly listening, so you continue on.
  236.  
  237. "Goldie passes away. He had to go to get all of this rolling, right?"
  238.  
  239. "My partner was... found dead in his workshop." April shakes her head. "But Nisha wasn't the one."
  240.  
  241. "...how can you be so sure?"
  242.  
  243. "The circumstances of his death were... extreme. Gruesome. Skull... sheared in two. If not an accident... an act of extreme passion... and violence. Not some white-collar bump-off." She shakes her head, her breathing strained, and your own eyes widen to the size of dinner plates. 'Sheared'? His head was cut in half?!
  244.  
  245. "April--"
  246.  
  247. "Also... Nisha was with me when he died."
  248.  
  249. Conversation dies off abruptly as the two of you look at each other in silence. You swallow, your mind drifting back to the horrifying vision of Goldie you saw that night in Chichi's kitchen -- eye sockets empty, jaw askew. He begged you to "stop it".
  250.  
  251. Whatever "it" is.
  252.  
  253. "Okay, but even still," you finally manage, pressing on. "Haddock -- whatever happened to him was serious, right?"
  254.  
  255. "Industrial accident. Pushed his head... too far inside machinery," April continues, pointing to a photo of some kind of mechanical piece that looks like a car's strut on the board. "This part? Small, holds panels together. Broke off when he was inside... machinery slammed shut."
  256.  
  257. You cringe at the horrifying visual of a prone Haddock, limply hanging out of an animatronic suit by his neck. "Was there anyone with him at the time?"
  258.  
  259. She taps Cheeky's picture.
  260.  
  261. "...and Faz?" you choke. "He was -- it was the turnkey suit, right? Surely HIS wasn't an 'accident' too!"
  262.  
  263. "No. Tampered with."
  264.  
  265. "Okay, so Nisha--"
  266.  
  267. "Nisha was out of the city. Business trip." She coughs into her fist. "Even if not... kept those suits locked up when not in use. In parts and service room. She didn't have clearance."
  268.  
  269. "The safe." You can see your theory crumbling to dust before your very eyes. "What about the safe?"
  270.  
  271. "Happened before Goldie went... he took full responsibility for Bonworth."
  272.  
  273. Throwing your hands in the air, you find yourself starting to get angry. "What about you?! You were burned alive in a restaurant that Nisha was SUPPOSED to be at, but she called in sick?! So you were there in her place!! What about the fire?"
  274.  
  275. "What ABOUT the fire?" April asks.
  276.  
  277. "...what?"
  278.  
  279. "Not a movie, Mike." She brushes her good ear back thoughtfully. "The police... and fire department investigated everything. Not arson."
  280.  
  281. "You don't know--"
  282.  
  283. "They do. Experts. No mystery."
  284.  
  285. Shaking your head, you look at her like you've just been socked in the gut.
  286.  
  287. "It -- it had to be arson. Nisha was -- she wasn't there, April. The timing is too coincidental. You were there, and she wasn't, and..."
  288.  
  289. "Fire started in the center of the building. In the kitchen. Accidents happen, Mike." She shrugs. "We knew the risks. At least I made it out."
  290.  
  291. "But she's the, she -- everything hinges on her getting... she's on TOP now, April! Ask yourself: who benefits?"
  292.  
  293. April walks across the room, studying her corkboard for a long while. You notice down at the very bottom is Nisha, connected by a single string -- to a photo of the restaurant's downtown location itself. Reaching her paw out, she plucks loose the newspaper clipping of Nisha you pinned in place in the center of the photos, handing it back to you.
  294.  
  295. "She IS the CEO," April says. "...only temporarily. I don't know if you know this... but I'm the majority shareholder."
  296.  
  297. "What?"
  298.  
  299. "I own my original half... plus some more. Goldie's share is in trust... for his younger brother."
  300.  
  301. "Then why the hell are you living in a run-down apartment complex?!" you gasp. "You should be loaded, right?"
  302.  
  303. April lets out a dry chuckle.
  304.  
  305. "After Goldie died, then me... most company assets were frozen." She shrugs. "I've always been frugal."
  306.  
  307. "You're -- you're kidding. April, when you came in here, you looked like a-- well, you looked rough."
  308.  
  309. "Grew up on a farm. Not one for fancy things." You can make out the faintest hint of blush over her cheeks. "Jeremy's is under corporate scrutiny. So to get some of my money flowing... Nisha's helping me move it out. Under my orders."
  310.  
  311. "Like through back channels, or...?"
  312.  
  313. "Increasing disability payments to former employees... taken out of my own earnings."
  314.  
  315. You feel like your jaw is about to hit the floor. All this time, the livable monthly checks everyone's been getting are thanks to April and Nisha?!
  316.  
  317. "Nisha was Goldie's assistant. When he died... we moved her to bookkeeping. Handheld her the whole way. She's nice, Mike, but... not criminal material. Can barely make coffee. Never got the hang of phones. Forgets her own birthday." Shaking her head, April chuckles, and you find yourself deflating a little. "She's on fixed salary. No benefits. CEO's just a title. She's keeping the seat warm... until I can come back."
  318.  
  319. A chill rises through your spine. "...Unless you die."
  320.  
  321. "Even if I die, power transfers to my picked successor... not her. She DOESN'T get everything." April makes a show of wiping dust off the edge of the easel while you just kind of glare at the carpet in a mixture of frustration and apathy. "Every day... she calls me to check in. Get her orders for the day. Like I said. Nice girl... but couldn't run a lemonade stand on her own."
  322.  
  323. "So she's your puppet."
  324.  
  325. "A cruel way of looking at it."
  326.  
  327. You fumble, clutching at thin air as if to find an answer. "But -- but all this, the board, the clippings, the -- surely you suspect foul play!"
  328.  
  329. She sniffs, inhaling deeply through the loose gauze. "I do suspect. Not sure yet, not everything you do... but too many coincidences. Corporate sabotage. Someone fighting for the top."
  330.  
  331. "But not Nisha."
  332.  
  333. She turns to the board, tapping a photo of a man you don't recognize: a pale rat, or a mouse, perhaps. Not an employee ID this time, but an informal photo that must have been taken at a company party, judging by the costumes. The rodent, grinning at the camera, is dressed like a musketeer: he wears an ostentatious, puffy outfit of deep purple hues, topped with a lavish cavalier hat, and finished with a fake rapier at his side.
  334.  
  335. You glance between April and the photo she's indicating. "So who's the man in purple?"
  336.  
  337. "Kilroy." April sighs, staring at the photo. "Kilroy Afton. Worked with Goldie on early bots. Skilled engineer... delicate hands. I barely know him. Made... questionable safety cuts. Implemented new design. Don't... fully understand."
  338.  
  339. You study the smirking mouseketeer skeptically. "If you think it's him, why haven't you gone to the police?"
  340.  
  341. April turns away from the board to squint down at you from her impressive height. "Mike... these are serious allegations. To accuse like this, without all the facts... risky. Done wrong, could ruin a career... mine or his. And if I'm right... only lets him know I'm onto him. Could make myself a target."
  342.  
  343. "Along with losing whatever advantage you have," you reluctantly agree.
  344.  
  345. She nods.
  346.  
  347. "...shit."
  348.  
  349. She clears her throat, loudly. "Language."
  350.  
  351. "Sorry. I just -- I really thought I was onto something. Now I just feel powerless. If there's foul play, I can't just let it go." You run a hand over your stubbly head, staring at the ground and trying to make sense of it all.
  352.  
  353. Her sizeable paw on your shoulder brings you back to reality a mere moment later. "Mike. This isn't over. We can... keep digging. Find the answers. Together."
  354.  
  355. You manage a smile.
  356.  
  357. "Together," you agree.
  358.  
  359.  
  360.  
  361. You glance up at Peanut as you pad into the bedroom you're sharing with him. He's laying across the top bunk, a sack of potato chips and a small bowl at his side, and a comic book draped across his chest.
  362.  
  363. "Oh, hi Mike. You're back early."
  364.  
  365. "Hey, Peanut," you reply, taking care to step over the model train across the track playmat rug that takes up most of his floor.
  366.  
  367. He dips a cluster of chips into the bowl, drawing them out with a glistening yellow coat of what appears to be honey. "Stars sure are beautiful tonight, huh Mike?"
  368.  
  369. "...you mean the glow-in-the-dark stickers on your ceiling?" you reply, kicking your shoes off. You take a seat on your bunk, easing yourself back onto the pillow with a sigh. "I think Polaris is starting to peel, as a matter of fact."
  370.  
  371. "Hey, um -- I like 'em," he mutters defensively. "And I spent a lot of time forming constellations with 'em, too. We live in the city, so you can't see the stars at night."
  372.  
  373. "I guess. I can't really see them from here, either."
  374.  
  375. "Well, of course you can't. That's 'cause the top bunk's in the way," Peanut adds helpfully, rustling his bag of potato chips. "You can see 'em better from up here."
  376.  
  377. "Thanks, Peanut. I'll... keep that in mind."
  378.  
  379. It's still a little too early to go to bed, so you reach up and click on the flexible light attached to your headboard so that you can start digging through your collected articles one more time to see if there's any clue, any shred of evidence you might've missed. But after a few minutes of re-reading the same pages over and over, you give up in frustration and toss the folder onto the floor.
  380.  
  381. Was this all for nothing? In a way, you almost can't help but feel some level of relief -- yeah, you're no closer to finding the truth than you were when you first started, but on the other hand, like April said, you'd have felt miserable ruining Nisha's career without a shred of evidence to back it up. Maybe there's something to this Kilroy guy after all, whoever he is. Or maybe you and April are both looking for a conspiracy where there really isn't any, and maybe all this IS just some series of unfortunate, horrible cosmic coincidences.
  382.  
  383. Perhaps it's time to relax and let go -- focus on the future you have with your new friends and family. Settle in, get ready for the holidays. After all, you're well into December now. You still haven't gotten around to buying gifts, and you've got a lot more folks you want to buy for than just "Chiclet and her brood", as Cheeky might say.
  384.  
  385. "Hey, Peanut. What can you tell me about Nisha?" you ask. Too bad you never really were one to relax and let go.
  386.  
  387. "Ms. Nisha's great," he replies between mouthfuls of potato chips. "What do you wanna know?"
  388.  
  389. "I just -- what kind of person is she?"
  390.  
  391. "Man, she's amazing, Mike," he laughs. "She's really, REALLY smart, and nice, and just... oh, gosh. I think you'll really get to love her."
  392.  
  393. Smart might be overselling her, Peanut. You HAVE met the lady, and even April -- who doesn't seem the type to speak ill of others -- seems to rightfully think that Nisha's something of an airhead. "To hear April tell it? Nisha's a real philanthropist."
  394.  
  395. "Fell-- fellanthropizt?" he asks. "What's a--"
  396.  
  397. "Philanthropist," you repeat, slowly enunciating it like you would for a child. "It's like -- oh, it's like those really rich guys you see on TV, who own like a big company and then they give some of their money or assets away to help the sick or the elderly or whatever."
  398.  
  399. "Ohhhh. Yeah, kind of like she's taking care of Ms. April, then?"
  400.  
  401. You frown. "That's -- not really the same, since a philanthropist uses their own money."
  402.  
  403. "Right, just like Ms. Nisha takes care of Ms. April."
  404.  
  405. Peanut, come on. You drag a hand down your face, wondering if he needs a flowchart for this one. You briefly weigh the pros and cons of continuing the argument or just letting it go, but pedantry gets the best of you again.
  406.  
  407. "Okay, Peanut -- I'm obviously not -- look. When you're a philanthropist, you use the money YOU have that's rightfully yours and give it to somebody who needs help. So what Nisha is doing for April isn't philanthropy, since she's using April's money to take care of April. Nisha's just the CEO, not the majority shareholder."
  408.  
  409. "Yeah, I get it, Mike. I'm not stupid," Peanut retorts, rolling over to peer over the top bunk down at you. "But when Ms. April signed over her shares to the company to Ms. Nisha, it BECAME her money."
  410.  
  411. "She WHAT?" you blurt, sitting bolt upright in your bed, smacking directly into the overhead board.
  412.  
  413. Peanut winces sympathetically, but continues. "Ms. Nisha was talking about it not too long ago, when I brought up the accounting problems from this quarter. She said Ms. April May signed over the company. So it's Ms. Nisha's company, and her money -- and that's why she'd be a philanthropist, right?"
  414.  
  415. Scrambling out of bed, you accidentally stomp one of the hard plastic train tracks, sending a wave of pain through your foot and all the way up to your kneecaps. You resist the urge to cry out as you hop up and down on the carpet.
  416.  
  417. "Nnnnnghh...! Wh-- but what about the extra money going out through the disability payments?" you croak, holding onto the bedframe as you ease your tender foot back down onto the carpet. Peanut puts his comic book down, looking at you obliviously. "Everyone -- they're getting the extra cash because of the freeze, and--"
  418.  
  419. "Whoa, they're going to start getting extra?! Oh man, Mike, that's AWESOME!" he cheers, shifting to a sitting position. You can hear the bed creaking and protesting under his portly frame as he turns to look at you. "I KNEW Ms. Nisha was listening to me! I've been telling her for MONTHS that it was really getting tight for Goose because the company's payouts have been getting smaller and smaller each month. She said there was probably nothing she could do!"
  420.  
  421. The weight of what he's saying hits you like a train -- a real one.
  422.  
  423. Follow the money.
  424.  
  425. "So that means Goose is gonna start getting more money each month for her disability, right?" Peanut grins. "Man, that's great. I can't wait to tell her!"
  426.  
  427. "Y-you know what, buddy, uh, hold off on that for right now. I want to be sure, first. Don't want to get her hopes up in case I'm wrong." You collect your shoes, hastily pulling them back on. You don't even bother to tie up the laces properly. "I'll be back in a little while."
  428.  
  429. "Oh, um... okay then," he says, shoulders drooping slightly. "See you in a bit, Mike."
  430.  
  431.  
  432.  
  433. "Michael, dear! What on earth is the hurry?" a blanket-swathed Mangle asks as you storm past, running up to April's door. You knock but don't wait for an answer, storming inside where April's seated with a laptop computer on her desk. She startles as you hurry over to her side.
  434.  
  435. "April," you pant. "You said you're the majority shareholder at Jeremy Human's, right?"
  436.  
  437. "...right," she replies, closing the laptop's screen and turning to you. "Nisha manages the account... but all my earnings go to a personal fund."
  438.  
  439. "And you've seen that fund, right?"
  440.  
  441. "Mike... you're paranoid," she says, starting to look a little frustrated. "She brings earning reports printed out... first of every month. For company profits and my own fund."
  442.  
  443. "But you've SEEN the fund for yourself, haven't you? You've gone to the bank with her, or at least--" Your heart's pounding. "Tell me you've seen it."
  444.  
  445. She turns back to her computer, placing both of her bandaged paws on the back of the screen wordlessly.
  446.  
  447. "April!!" you plead.
  448.  
  449. "Good HEAVENS, Bonnie!" Mangle declares, taking a hold of your shoulder and pulling you back. "Look at you -- you're going to give the poor woman a conniption fit! Am I going to have to sedate you again?"
  450.  
  451. "...no," April interrupts, turning to you. With visible difficulty, she takes a deep breath and speaks as clearly as her strained voice can manage. "No, Mike. I haven't seen the fund for myself."
  452.  
  453. "Haven't seen the fund -- what does THAT mean? What fund?" Mangle asks, twirling around your erstwhile room in utter befuddlement. "What are you both talking about? And why does it look like a crime scene investigation is going on in here? What's with that dreadful-looking board? And why is MY picture on it?!"
  454.  
  455. "Mike, do you really--"
  456.  
  457. Mangle stamps the floor. "Will someone please ACKNOWLEDGE me?!"
  458.  
  459. April turns. "Foxglove..."
  460.  
  461. "Mangle." Your tone's quiet and low, barely above a whisper. "You get a monthly stipend from Jeremy Human's... is that correct?"
  462.  
  463. "I-- well, yes," the fox mumbles.
  464.  
  465. "And has it gone up lately?"
  466.  
  467. "Freddy, dear! You know I'm forbidden to discuss the specifics of my settlement."
  468.  
  469. "You don't have to tell me how much you get a month... but by chance, has that check been getting larger... or smaller?"
  470.  
  471. "I can't--"
  472.  
  473. April's voice comes, shakily. "Foxglove..."
  474.  
  475. Pensively, Mangle turns and looks at April, then back to you.
  476.  
  477. "Err... well, let me just say that -- to tell the truth -- it's been..." A dry, embarrassed cough. "...increasingly harder to get by, lately. Hence my growing need for a, er, side-business."
  478.  
  479. As you turn to look at her, you don't have to see April's mouth to know what emotion she's feeling right now.
  480.  
  481. You gingerly brush past both of them and make your way over to the corner of the room where the easel rests. Walking up to the corkboard, you pull April's own photo of Nisha from the bottom and pin it dead-center over the web of interconnected strings.
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