A Call To Arms – Snippet 06

Either way, this uni-link call could make or break him. If they realized he was playing them, they wouldn’t care what he might or might not have seen. They would probably just shoot him where he stood — they were far enough out of the public eye here to get away with it.

On the other hand, if he could somehow produce someone to play the part of the party girl, there was at least the thinnest of possibilities they might just buy his entire story. It was unlikely, but some chance was a hell of a lot better than no chance at all.

But who could he call?

He could think of only one candidate. Only one person who might offer him a slim, vanishingly small opportunity to pull this off. She was smart, she was quick, and she might at least be stunned into silence long enough for him to somehow clue her in as to what was going on.

The two men were waiting. “Okay,” Chomps said, raising his uni-link. “I guess I can’t get in any worse with her anyway. I just need to remember — oh, right: that was her name.” He punched in the code for relay.

“Put it on speaker,” the first man ordered.

Chomps gave him a puzzled look, hesitating just long enough for the automated “Manticore relay,” voice to come inaudibly through before lowering the uni-link and keying the speaker. “Name?” the automated voice continued.

Chomps braced himself. One way or another, he thought distantly, there was a really good chance he was going to die today. “Donnelly,” he said. “Lisa Donnelly.”

* * *

Llyn had made it only three blocks when he discovered he’d picked up a tail.

An extremely amateurish tail. There were two of them, young men, dressed in running gear, with a military look about their faces and hair styling. The Cascan Defense Force? No — it was one of the visiting Manticorans. Their running outfits were identical to the one he’d seen a couple of minutes ago on that other, bigger Manticoran.

The more immediate question was why?

The men couldn’t have seen him leaving the scene of an obvious crime — surely they’d have called the authorities by now if they had. Had that brief conversation Llyn had had with the Manticoran a few minutes ago somehow caught someone’s attention? But unless the big man himself was under suspicion for something, and the tail was just following up on possible contacts, that made even less sense.

Ultimately, though, it didn’t matter. Llyn was being tailed, and he would have to deal with it.

There was a gap between buildings coming up on the left, probably leading into a service alleyway. It would do nicely.

Picking up his pace, he headed for the gap.

* * *

Lisa had just finished going through the breakfast buffet line, and was looking for a good spot to sit down to eat, when her uni-link trilled. Shifting her plate to a one-hand grip, she shot her left sleeve and peered at the ID.

It was Missile Tech First Townsend.

Her first, reflexive thought was that something must be wrong, possibly an injury on the exercise run that Commander Shiflett had ordered.

Her second thought was to wonder why in space Townsend was calling her about it.

Whatever it was, it had better be important. Clicking it on, she moved it closer to her face. “Donnelly.”

“Hey, Lisa, this is Charles,” Townsend’s voice came on, brisk and cheerful.

And completely and outrageously lacking in proper respect.

What the hell?

“You remember — we met last night at the party — I’m the guy who was telling you about my trip to Secour –”

Lisa’s frown deepened. Townsend hadn’t been aboard Guardian on the mission to Secour five years ago.

“– and that run-in I had with those rowdies — ”

What in the world was he going on about? Had he been trying for some other Lisa Donnelly and been transferred here by mistake?

“– and how my good buddy Mota and I got into deep cow mix when we got back?”

Lisa caught her breath. Mota, the murdered pirate from the Havenite recording? How did Townsend even know about that?

“Anyway, I’m trying to find your car like you asked me, only these two guys down here say the key you gave me isn’t a car key at all, so I need you to help me out here. Okay?”

There was a muted double finger snap from somewhere across the room, and the low hum of conversation abruptly evaporated. Lisa started, looking up to see Captain Marcello and Commodore Henderson gazing across the table at her, their expressions intent. Something about her face must have clued them in that something odd was happening.

Henderson raised his eyebrows in silent question. Lisa shrugged her shoulders in silent response, touched her finger to her lips, and held out the uni-link as she keyed it to speaker. “Sure, Charles, I remember you,” she said. “Little fuzzy on the details of last night, though. What’s this about a car key?”

“Yeah, sorry about that,” Townsend said.

And in his voice Lisa could hear a subtle lowering of tension. Something strange was going on, all right, and he was clearly relieved that she hadn’t simply lowered the boom on him.

“Not surprised, the way you were drinking last night,” he continued. “Like there was no tomorrow.”

No tomorrow? Did that sound as serious as she thought it sounded? “You weren’t exactly falling behind,” she said, trying a little probe. It wouldn’t hurt to play along — if this was a practical joke, or he was trying to win some bizarre bet, she could always bust him to Spacer Third Class later.

“That’s for sure,” he agreed. “I sometimes drink like it’s my last night on Earth.”

Lisa shot a look at Marcello and Henderson. Both men were frowning in concentration.

“Anyway, you asked me to pick up your car this morning from the parking garage,” Townsend continued. “But like I said, these two guys say this isn’t a car key. Did you maybe give me the wrong one by mistake?”

“Let me think,” Lisa said, stalling for time. So Townsend wasn’t alone. Were the two men with him listening in on the conversation?

“Because it looks the same size as the key to my Zulu Kickback back home,” Townsend said. “So, you know, it could just be a case of mistaken identity. You know — mistaken key identity. That’s why I didn’t notice anything was wrong.”

A shiver ran up Lisa’s back. Zulu. The stress on the noun had been very slight, but she was sure she hadn’t imagined it. No tomorrow…last night on Earth…and now Zulu.…

This was no practical joke. Townsend was in trouble. Serious trouble.

There was a movement to her side, and Lisa looked over as a tablet was held up in front of her with a message scrawled across it. Uni-link locator being blocked — get his position. She looked over the top of the tablet to see Commander Shiflett gazing back at her. So the XO had caught on, too. “Okay, for starters, you’ve got to learn to listen,” Lisa said. “The key isn’t to the car — it’s to the key box under the hood. Remember all the car thefts I told you about?”

“Oh,” Townsend said, sounding embarrassed. “Right. The box has a kill switch inside.”

“And the actual key,” Lisa said, wondering if any of this even made sense with Cascan technology. If it was completely off the wall, whoever was listening in would call fraud in double-quick time.

“Right,” Townsend said. There was a slight pause, and Lisa caught the hint of a murmur, as if someone just out of hearing range was giving him instructions or a prompt — “It was a light-green Picasso Rey, right?”

Across the table, Henderson lifted an urgent finger from his tablet. “Black,” he murmured urgently. “Picasso Reys don’t come in light green.”

Lisa nodded. “No, my first car was light green,” she said, trying to put strained patience into her voice. Henderson and Marcello were murmuring together, she saw, Marcello watching closely as Henderson worked rapidly on his tablet. “You’re looking for a black Picasso Rey. Jeez, Charles, are you even in the right place?”

“Sure I am,” Townsend said with an attempt at wounded dignity. “Three apartment garages in a row; I’m down in the first one.”

“No, you’re down in the second one,” Lisa corrected. “I swear you are utterly useless. Do you need me to come down there and show you?”

“No, no, don’t do that,” Townsend said hastily. “You don’t want to be anywhere near me before I’ve had my morning coffee. You want me to bring it to your place when I get it?”

“Well, that was the idea of sending you,” Lisa growled. “Are you going to have to drive all over town until you remember where I live?”

“No, no,” Townsend said with an air of wounded dignity. “That I remember just fine. You’re four doors down from your office at Tinsdale Range Runners.”

“Right,” Lisa said. If that meant what she thought it did…

“Great,” Townsend said. “I’ll be there as soon as I can. Bye.”

The connection broke. “With all due respect, Commander,” a Cascan civilian who Lisa hadn’t yet been introduced to said, “what in the Holy Name was that all about?”