A Call To Arms – Snippet 05

“Not yet.” He could just picture what the dispatcher would say about a criminal identification made purely on the basis of a smile. Especially a smile he and Redko had had to hack into official government records to see in the first place. “Get the picture first. Then send it to them and tell them he’s a person of interest or something — say whatever you need to say to get them to pick him up.”

“Got it,” Redko said. “What about you?

“I’m going to check out some parking ramps,” Chomps said. “And watch yourself, okay?”

“Bet on it,” Redko said. “You, too.”

The six workmen had collected some large, heavy-looking bags from the rear of the van, and as Chomps continued down the street five of the men strode off into the nearest of the three parking tunnels, leaving the sixth leaning against the vehicle’s side. At least Chomps wouldn’t have to bother with that one — if there was a freshly-killed body in there he’d probably hear the workmen’s screams all the way out here when they spotted it. If Cascans were too manly for screams, he’d know when they beckoned silently but frantically to their loitering coworker.

Chomps frowned. Only the man leaning against the van wasn’t looking into the tunnel where he could be beckoned to. In fact, he was looking everywhere but the tunnel: at the street, on the walkways, up at the windows of the surrounding buildings, and at Chomps. Maybe even especially at Chomps.

And there was something about his stance and expression that was kicking off quiet alarms in the back of Chomps’s brain.

The man wasn’t just watching the van, or loafing off.

He was on guard duty.

And Chomps was headed straight toward him. Toward him, and whatever the others had gone into the tunnel to do.

Too late to turn back. The guard had him locked, and any sudden changes in direction would instantly brand him as suspicious. If the workmen were the source of the gunshots earlier, suspicion was the last thing Chomps could afford. There was no cover anywhere nearby, either, even if going to ground while unarmed wasn’t a totally useless waste of effort. Calling the cops was out, too — he was already too close to the guard for that.

Which left him really only one option. In for a centicred, the old saying whispered through his mind, in for a credit.

The workman and van were four steps away. Bracing himself, Chomps walked right up to him.

“Hi, there,” he said, putting on his best embarrassed smile. “Can you help me? I met a girl last night, and she asked me to pick up her car this morning. Is that the garage down there?”

“Yes,” the man said. His eyes flicked to the RMN logo on Chomps’s sweatshirt. “What was her name?”

“Sylvia, I think,” Chomps said. “Or Linda, or Katie. Something like that. I’m still working through the fog. Thanks.”

He headed down the tunnel, feeling the man’s eyes on his back. Whatever they were up to down here, they would hopefully shy away from the straight-up murder of a foreign national. That was the sort of thing that would likely kick them to the top of the Cascans’ find-and-nail list, and no one wanted that kind of trouble.

He just hoped they were smart enough to follow that same impeccable logic.

There was an open door off the tunnel to his left. Three steps away from it, Chomps lowered his eyes to his waist, fumbling in his side pocket as if looking for something. He passed the door, shot a quick look up from beneath his eyebrows, and continued on without slowing.

The glance hadn’t shown him much. But it had shown him enough.

Two of the workmen, kneeling beside a pair of long black sacks lying on the floor.

One of those workmen scrambling to his feet, as if belatedly trying to block the view.

Another door behind them opening into a small room, with three more workmen crouching beside something on the floor.

Something Chomps was pretty damn sure was a body.

He worked his pocket another two steps, finally retrieving the key to his locker aboard Damocles. Letting it dangle ostentatiously from his fingers, he continued down the tunnel, which he could see now made a hard right fifty meters ahead, presumably into the garage proper. Once out of sight of the men behind him, he would call the police, try again to convince them to get their butts over here, then find some place to go to ground until they showed up.

He turned the corner into the parking garage proper without anyone shooting him in the back. Puffing out a sigh of relief, he started to key his uni-link as he looked for an empty parking slot where he could go to ground. The closest was about halfway down the first line —

“You!” a voice growled from behind him. “Hold up.”

Chomps clenched his teeth. He’d hoped they would be slower on the uptake. Unfortunately, with nothing but deserted, echoing parking garage in front of him, there was nothing to do but continue playing stupid. He turned his head to look over his shoulder, coming to a casual halt as he did so.


Two of the workmen were striding toward him, their faces cool and suspicious. Neither was holding a weapon, but both had significant bulges in their right-hand side pockets and another inside the chest fastening strip. “You look lost,” one of them said, his gaze dropping briefly to the uni-link blinking its ready signal on Chomps’ wrist. “You looking for someone?”

“Not someone; something,” Chomps corrected. “A car. I met a girl at a party last night, and she asked me to come over here this morning and get her car for her.” He held up his key.

“She did, huh?” the second man said, eyeing the key. “Bad news, buddy — you’ve been chumped. That thing’s not a car key.”

“Well, sure it is,” Chomps insisted, peering at the key. “It’s the same size as my car key back on Manticore. What else could it be?”

“What kind of car did she say it was?” the second man asked.

Chomps thought quickly. One of the cars parked near the hotel had had the word Picassorey on the rear. “A light-blue Picassoree,” he said, mentally crossing his fingers.

The second man guffawed. “You mean a Picasso Rey?”

“Oh,” Chomps said, wincing. Sometimes playing it stupid was easier than expected. “Sorry. It was noisy in the bar.”

“Yeah, well, that’s still not a car key,” the man said. “Not on Casca.”

“Really?” Chomps frowned at the key. “Well, hell. I really thought she was interested. I guess not.” Jamming the key back in his pocket, he started to head back up the tunnel.

In unison, the men took casual sideways steps to block his path. “What’s your hurry?” the second man asked, all traces of amusement gone from his face.

“You just said she lied to me,” Chomps reminded him, letting his expression go confused. “I guess I’ll head back and join my squad. We’re all supposed to be out there running anyway.”

“Yeah, you don’t want to PO the CO,” the man who’d glanced at his uni-link commented. “That who you were going to call?”

“Huh?” Chomps blinked at him, then produced his very best sheepish grin as he held up his arm. “Oh, this? No, no — I was going to call the girl. From the party. She gave me her com combo, so I was thinking I’d ask where the car was. Pretty dumb, I guess?”

“Or maybe she just gave you the wrong key, like you said,” the other man said. “Go ahead — let’s hear what she has to say.”

And as Chomps’s grandfather used to say, the crapspreader had just reversed gear.

They weren’t completely sure of what he might or might not have seen, or at least not sure enough to drop him on the spot. But they were obviously suspicious as hell.

And he’d just painted himself into a corner, He could hardly contact the cops now, not while his new playmates were watching and listening. But if he didn’t call someone, they’d damned well know he’d been playing them.

But who on Casca could he call? No matter how Chomps pitched a story like this, he knew that none of the women in his division would catch on fast enough. If the workmen insisted he put his uni-link on speaker — and as he looked into their faces he realized that was exactly what they were planning to do — the puzzled response from the other end of the conversation would damn him in double-march time.

They might be hesitant about killing an offworlder. In fact, there was a fair chance their insistence that he call his imaginary girlfriend was some stalling of their own. One of the other men back there was very probably having a quick consult with some off-scene boss to decide whether Chomps was ignorant and stupid and could be turned loose or whether he’d seen too much and needed to be silenced.