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Short Story: "Unvarnished Siding" (8th in a series)

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"Well," Claire said uncomfortably, "he did start to attract a crowd."

"In a restaurant?"

"In this one." She considered him briefly. "Have you been to an FW Diner? I mean recently."

He shrugged. "Never. Why?"

"Have you read about how the employees are dealing with Reese's prison uniforms and all that?"

"Only that they're using it as some kind of ice-breaker, to get people talking."

"It's more than that, Wil. A lot more. They're using the whole prison theme as a conversational wedge. Customers idly ask what it's all about, and the employees, any of them, explain about the case. But then they turn it around and start asking the customers about the companies they work for, and whether there's anything fishy going on there. After that, it's open season on controversy. Once you've given people permission to drop their public self-censorship, they pick up the conversation and run with it."

"So you're saying that Reese's diners can get pretty noisy."

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She nodded. "Well, yeah. I heard people chatting about media consolidation, airport security and the war on terror. But once John got rolling, they dropped their own conversations and started listening to ours. Some had even left their tables. Sitting there, looking up at that eager crowd, I had a flash of what might go wrong, so I rose to break it up. I tried to, anyway, but that just made things worse. There was some shouting." She stopped briefly, visibly embarrassed. "That was when John told them all who I was. He claimed it was to defuse the situation, but all I felt was exposed."

Judge Clary nodded. "Overexposed, if you ask me. All it takes is one person with a phone-cam to toss a monkey wrench into all the good work you've done on this case. That diner is part of a chain, after all. And from what you tell me, they've all been turned into hotbeds of dissent. I've been getting reports from law enforcement all over the country as a result of your dinner chat. At least now I know why."

She winced.

"Fortunately, the media's been playing it for laughs. All those costumes and props. But I'm afraid we could be looking at something a lot more serious than that. We've essentially got a nationwide chain of riots waiting to happen. If the other diners are as easy to ignite as the one you were at, something that sets off one of them is likely to spread. I'm half-expecting Homeland Security to sweep in and shut the whole chain down. I doubt we'd have much chance of incarcerating any other businesses after that."

"So what can we do?"

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"I didn't think I'd ever say this, but we may have to muzzle the union. Keep them from stirring things up like that."

"What?" Claire said incredulously. "But that was the union's condition for agreeing to wear Reese's uniforms. They'll never agree to that."

"Then either Reese scraps his remodel, or loses his staff. Of course, we could just sit back and wait for something to snap, but I doubt the press would look too kindly on how we're managing this corporate incarceration. Or, more pointedly, how you're managing it. This could all explode in your face, Claire."

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Ever since I learned to speak binary on a DIGIAC 3080 training computer, I've been involved with tech in one way or another, but there was always another part of me off exploring ideas and writing about them. Halfway to a BS in Space Technology at (more...)
 

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