Alex got lucky. Ryan’s lawyer had a free hour during the afternoon, so he agreed to pencil her in for a phone call.
“Honestly, Miss Chen, it’s about as straightforward as a legal contract can get,” he was explaining as she sat on her couch, listening over the speakerphone. “You could practically use it as an example in law school. There aren’t any hidden traps, or shady language, or anything malicious.”
“No. You agree not to interfere with their business, and they cut you a check. Simple as that.”
“What if they get shady later?”
“So long as whatever they’re doing doesn’t involve your father or brother’s deaths, then you’re free to do what you want.”
She hummed. “… do you think I should sign it?”
“Well, it ultimately depends on what you want to do.”
“How do you mean?”
“This Ted fellow isn’t wrong. You could force an investigation and use the findings to have a lawyer sue Typhon. You would get more money, but that would be a very long, uphill battle that you’re not guaranteed to win. I’ve seen cases like these drag on for two, three, even five years.”
“Five years? Holy shit.”
“Well, that situation was particularly complicated. But however long it lasts, it would be very emotionally draining on you, and incredibly stressful. You’d have to be mentally prepared for that kind of fight, and I’ve seen it take a lot out of some very strong people.”
“So I should sign it.”
“If you don’t want the stress and drama, then yes, I would accept their offer.”
“Two hundred grand seems like a lot of money just to be quiet.”
“Well, Miss Chen, I’m not familiar with the mining industry. But I did do some work with a lumber company early in my career, and I imagine it’s similar, in which owning a work site costs the organization money whether people are working there or not.”
“Sure. You still have salaries, insurance, security, equipment upkeep, that sort of thing. And if nobody can work, those costs are going to really hurt the bottom line on the back end. My guess is that someone at SubTerra’s corporate office did some math and worked out that paying you was cheaper than having their new mining site closed for several weeks.”
“Ah.” Alex leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. “… I’m not even sure what I would do with all that cash.”
“Yea, I would recommend speaking to an accountant if you decide to accept their offer. There’d likely be tax implications for you come next April.”
“Still feels like blood money.”
“Don’t think of it that way. Think of how you could use the money to help make your life better. This money could open new paths for you, or you could just donate it to charity. But you can use it for something good.”
“Right.” She sighed. “Thank you. I appreciate the help.”
“Of course. Have a good evening, Miss Chen.”
Alex hung up and sagged back into her couch. “He isn’t wrong,” Steph agreed as she sat beside her. “I mean, that’s life-changing money, babe.”
“Like I said, I have no idea what I’d do with it.”
“You could go to college,” Ryan offered as he sat against the opposite wall, working his phone.
Alex scoffed. “My high school GPA was so miserable it’s not even funny. I don’t think a college would accept me. And even if they did, I’d probably bomb all my classes.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I’m still not really that interested in it.”
“What about a car?” Steph chimed in.
“I don’t have a license.”
“I don’t know.”
“Something really nice for your girlfriend’s birthday?”
She gave the brunette an amused look. “Your birthday’s not for another five months.”
“I know, just saying. Hey, this was him, right?”
Steph spun the laptop on the coffee table, showing a LinkedIn profile. Alex checked the photo closely. “Yep. What does it say?”
“Well, he’s been in the mining industry for a while. Since his early twenties, looks like.” Steph turned the laptop back to look at it. “Wow, he’s pretty educated. Two bachelor’s degrees, one in Geology and one in Occupational Safety.”
“OSHA stuff,” Ryan answered. “Workplace safety. Ensuring people are wearing protective equipment, chemicals are stored properly, that sort of thing.”
Steph shrugged. “Anyway, he started working for the Surface Mining department in Georgia’s Environmental Protection office, but he moved to Washington about ten years ago to work for Hartsfield Mining Company as a safety officer, then as a site director. Check this out.”
Alex looked over to see a photo of a younger Ted wearing jeans and a work jacket, accepting a clear trophy from a man in a suit. “He got an award?”
“According to the caption, it was a Sentinel of Safety Award from the National Mining Association. Looks like his mine was injury-free for at least four thousand working hours.”
“Huh.” Alex picked her phone back up, opening the calculator and doing some quick math. “That’s… almost six months straight.”
“Yea. Apparently it’s pretty prestigious.” Steph kept scrolling. “He also got his MBA while he was up there too. Makes an undergrad dropout like me feel really dumb.”
“Anyway, it says he was just hired by SubTerra Industries as the Operations Manager for the Haven Springs uranium mine last week. Looks like this guy’s pretty legit.”
Alex looked at Ryan. “Did you find anything about his dad and grandfather?”
“I did.” Ryan tossed her his phone. “News story from Atlanta about his mom’s win in court. Check out who’s sitting right behind her.”
She wasn’t surprised to see a much younger version of Ted in a suit, staring at something out of the photo. The woman she assumed was his mother sat beside an attorney who was on his feet, speaking to a judge. “So, he’s telling the truth.”
“Looks like it. The judge hammered the North Georgia Mining Company to the tune of thirty-six million dollars, for misconduct that led to the deaths of twenty-one miners.”
Alex hummed, tossing Ryan’s phone back. “Good for them.”
“So he’s not lying about his past.” Steph closed the laptop. “Did you get anything from him during your conversation?”
“A little,” she allowed. “He got mad for a second, when I called him the new Diane. I think I offended him. And he was sad when I brought up Gabe and my father.”
“Did you pick up what he was thinking?”
“He… well, he really, really wanted me to sign the paperwork.”
Ryan snorted. “I bet he did.”
“No, it wasn’t like that. He wanted me to do it so I didn’t have to do things the hard way, like his family did.”
Her girlfriend didn’t speak for a bit, as she absorbed what Alex said. Then she reached out and took her hand. “What do you want?”
“I’ve been trying to figure that out for the past four hours.”
“Well, what are you thinking?”
“I…” Alex’s voice trailed off. “… he is right. Forcing an investigation seems kind of pointless when I already know what happened. All it’ll do is keep people in town from working. And I don’t know if I have the mental fortitude to take on Typhon in open court.”
Ryan nodded. “… sounds like you want to accept the settlement.”
“Kind of.” Alex looked between them. “What do you guys think?”
“I think it’s your decision to make,” Ryan answered.
“Maybe, but Gabe was your guys’ best friend. You both hate Typhon as much as I do.”
Steph pursed her lips. “… I definitely do. And I miss your brother like crazy. But… like you said, forcing the issue won’t bring him back.”
“You won’t hate me if I take SubTerra’s offer?”
“Of course not.” Steph lifted Alex’s hand, kissing the back of her knuckles. “I love you. If you want to take their offer, then you should. If you want to take on Typhon…” she paused. “Well, then I’ll be right next to you every step of the way.”
Alex looked back at the coffee table, and the manilla envelope sitting on top of it, not moving for several moments. She finally sighed as she opened it, retrieving the business card as she picked up her phone.
It didn’t take more than an hour for Ted to get back to the Black Lantern, just after the sun went down.
They were decidedly busier, though not packed. There were only ten or fifteen other people there, most of them in groups at tables. Other than Steph and Ryan at the far end of the bar, it was unoccupied when Ted opened the door, spotting Alex and making his way to the closest stool.
“Hey,” she greeted him.
“Evening.” He sat down with a sigh, setting his laptop bag at his feet. “Sorry it took so long. I was on a conference call with our corporate office.”
“No.” he paused. “Well, I did mention that we’d spoken, and you hadn’t given me an answer yet. But most of the conversation was about the upcoming inspections, and new training for the miners.”
Alex nodded. “Are you guys hiring all of the ones who worked for Typhon?”
“Most of them, yes.”
“Cool.” She thumbed over her shoulder. “You want another Jack and Coke?”
“Actually, one of the miners I was talking to said that I shouldn’t be ordering cocktails.”
She tilted her head. “Why not?”
“Something about me looking like a corporate shill. Which is definitely not the impression I want to make.” He shrugged. “Apparently I need to start drinking something called Colorado Kool-Aid.”
Alex smirked. “Is that what he said?”
“Yes. Though he wouldn’t explain what it was.”
“Do you want some?”
“Only if it won’t kill me.”
She chuckled as she reached down, retrieved a beer glass, and stepped over to the taps. Ted watched her place it under one and pull the handle, filling it in less than a minute.
“Here you go,” she said as she placed it in front of him.
“Coors? That’s really all it is?”
“Why is it called Colorado Kool-Aid?”
“Because of a song by Johnny Paycheck.”
He looked at her blankly.
“A country singer in the seventies,” she explained. “It’s from the album Take This Job And Shove It.”
“A man after my own heart.” He sighed a took a sip. “Guess it could be worse.”
“If it makes you feel better, I don’t think anyone here cares if you order Jack and Cokes,” she offered.
“Well, I live here now, I may as well start acting like it.” He put the glass down. “Now, you said you had a couple of questions?”
Alex nodded, looking at her feet and biting her lip. “… the mine that Typhon destroyed. With the explosion they covered up, the night that my brother died.”
Ted’s aura flashed blue again, as he nodded for her to continue.
“Do you guys have any plans to dig there?”
“What about clearing it out? Or… recovering the miners who died?”
Ted sighed heavily. “You want a proper burial for your father.”
“I understand, I really do.” He leaned both elbows on the bar. “But unfortunately, Alex, Typhon was successful in their goal to cover up the accident when they set off that second blast. We did a preliminary survey of that mine, and the structural integrity is completely compromised. It’s about as unsafe as it can be.”
“I was down there. The tunnels are still intact.”
“You should not have been. It’s in danger of collapsing at any minute.” He shook his head. “The slightest disturbance could bring the whole thing down on the crew’s heads. I can’t in good conscious send people in there. We’re already working on permits to bring in a demolition crew and seal the mine permanently.”
“We have to. It’s the definition of an attractive nuisance otherwise. If someone broke in and got hurt, we could be on the hook for millions.”
“What about the miners?”
He shook his head. “Alex, I am truly sorry. But there’s no feasible way to retrieve the bodies.”
Alex noted that his aura was still a bright blue, as she focused on him.
What about my husband’s body? And my father’s? She heard a woman ask desperately.
The entire mine shaft fell in, ma’am. There’s hundreds of tons of rock and earth we’d have to move, and none of it’s stable.
Mommy, where’s Daddy? A little boy’s voice asked.
She hesitated. “Are your dad and grandfather…”
Ted glanced at his glass, before taking a long drink. “Still buried in that gold mine.” He mentioned as he put it down. “Trust me, I know how you feel. But there’s nothing we can do.”
Alex drummed her fingers on the bar as she came to terms with Ted’s answer. “… you’re gonna seal it completely, right? Make sure nobody can go inside and get hurt?”
“That’s the plan.”
“What about the ventilation shafts?”
“People can still fall down them now.”
“We’re getting steel plates and chain link fencing to block them off in a few days.”
She took a deep breath, slowly exhaling through her nose as she looked sideways. Ryan was watching closely, occasionally checking on the rest of the bar as he did so. Steph slowly thumbed at herself, made a heart shape with both hands, and then pointed at her.
Alex reached below the bar and retrieved the manila envelope, setting it on the counter and opening it before glancing around. “Um… I don’t suppose you have a pen?”
Ted produced one from his bag and gave it to her. She took it, clicked it open, and signed the bottom of the page.
“Second page, too,” he reminded her, flipping the paper. “And initial here.”
Alex did as instructed.
“Thank you.” He took the paperwork back, sticking in his bag and exchanging it for a large envelope that he placed in front of her. “As promised.”
She broke the seal to reveal some more paperwork. And a cashier’s check, made out to her full name, with the six-figure settlement amount printed on it.
“Your bank will need the paperwork when you give them that,” he explained. “It’s just a statement certifying that you were paid as part of a legal settlement.”
“Right.” Alex re-sealed the envelope, slowly setting it down on the bar. “Well… yea. That’s done.”
“It is.” Ted closed his bag. “SubTerra is going to do better than Typhon, Alex. I promise.”
“… thank you.”
“So… would you like me to leave?”
She glanced up at him. “We only kick people out if they get really drunk. Or if they start fighting.”
“Good policy to have,” Ted noted. “Only asking because I was considering one of your burgers. I hear they’re better than the ones at the diner.”
“I can put the order in for you.” Alex looked at his glass. “You want some more Kool-Aid?”
“Are there any miners here?”
She quickly checked around the bar. “No.”
“Then how about a Jack and Coke.” He pushed the glass away. “And let’s keep it on the down-low, I have a reputation to work on.”
Alex couldn’t help but to crack a smirk. “Sure thing.”