A Call To Arms – Snippet 08


Khetha’s shuttle was exactly where Ulobo’s tablet had said it would be. The flight systems were cold — the Supreme Chosen One probably hadn’t used the vehicle for months — but they came up with gratifying speed. A quick check of the computer as the reaction thrusters did their self-check revealed a quasi-diplomatic priority launch code for the vehicle. The relationship between the Cascans and Khetha’s alleged government-in-exile, Llyn reflected, must have been an interesting one. Probably very expensive, too.

But the details didn’t matter. If the code got him off Casca in a timely fashion, that was all he cared about.

Meanwhile, Ulobo’s tablet had included information on the orbiting ship’s startup procedure. It would still be tricky to operate a ship like this alone, but as long as nothing serious happened with the engineering he had no doubt he could handle it. The only other option was to collect the pick-up crew he’d tentatively reserved over the past week and make this journey a group effort.

But he’d already killed enough people for one trip. Besides, a man like Khetha would be sure to keep everything in top-level shape. Leaning back in his seat, keeping an eye on the shuttle’s readouts, Llyn settled in to work through the manual.

* * *

“…and then they brought me down here,” Townsend finished.

“I see,” Quechua City Police Detective Dolarz said, nodding. “Okay. Let’s go back to the part where you first heard the gunshots –”

“Look, I know that’s the stuff you’re supposed to be asking me about,” Townsend interrupted. “But there’s another killer out there, remember? Maybe the guy who killed those other eight men, too.”

“Yes; your man with the criminal smile,” Dolarz said, his voice strained. “We’ll get to him soon enough.”

Townsend sent a frustrated glance at Lisa, sitting silently behind the detective, and for a moment she thought he was going to appeal to her.

But he didn’t. Which was just as well, because there was nothing she or the entire Navy could do for him right now. At this particular moment, Missile Tech Charles Townsend was about as deep in this growing firestorm as he could get.

Eight murders, right in the middle of Casca’s capital city. It was horrifying, it was virtually unheard of on this world, and the police were already apparently starting to feel high-level government heat over it.

They were searching frantically for answers. And if answers weren’t forthcoming, they might be willing to settle for scapegoats.

Lisa’s uni-link vibrated: Captain Marcello wanted to see her. Silently leaving her chair, she opened the interrogation room door behind her and slipped out.

Marcello and Commodore Henderson were waiting in the briefing room, along with a stiff-backed woman wearing a senior police officer’s uniform. Her eyes were fiery as she eyed the newcomer, but Lisa could also sense a bit of hunted animal in her face. “Commander Donnelly,” Marcello greeted her gravely. “This is Lieutenant Nabaum. She’s currently overseeing the investigation.”

“Ma’am,” Lisa said, exchanging nods with the other woman. “I hope the rest of the case is coming along better than Missile Tech Townsend’s interrogation.”

“Your petty officer is not exactly smelling like a garden rose at the moment,” Nabaum said acidly. “And yes, we’re making progress. We’ve identified the hit squad — they’re members of a criminal organization called Black Piranha. Very nasty group — we’ve been trying to wipe them out for over thirty years. As far as we know, though, this is the first time they’ve been involved in something with interstellar implications. Maybe this will finally give us the opening and leverage we need to take them out for good.”

“You’re sure they made the hit?” Henderson asked. “I understood from Townsend’s testimony that they didn’t arrive on the scene until after the gunshots.”

“You may also have noticed from Townsend’s testimony that he claims to have heard only two shots,” Nabaum countered. She waved a hand impatiently. “All right, granted — the room where the other six bodies were found was soundproofed, so forget the numbers. But his claimed timing is still suspicious. Especially since that ridiculous smiling-man theory of his is looking more and more like a deliberate red herring.”

“How do you conclude that?” Lisa asked.

Nabaum smiled thinly. “Because we found the message that was sent to the Piranhas, specifying that address and ordering them to deal with whoever they found inside. That order came in via the Havenite mail packet, which means it came in from off-world, which means it was put into motion at least a year ago. That pretty well eliminates the possibility that anyone aboard Soleil Azur was involved.”

“It does?” Marcello asked, frowning. “I was under the impression that the room where the bodies were found was pretty much an unused storage area. How could whoever sent the message have known the victims would even be there?”

Nabaum lifted fingers. “One: it might have started life as a storeroom, but it was rented three years ago and renovated as a private meeting room. Two –”

“Rented by whom?” Henderson asked.

“We’re still running that down,” Nabaum said. “We’ve worked through three layers already — no idea how many more there are. My money’s on someone connected with the Piranhas, though. Two: a private meeting room is typically the site of, not surprisingly, meetings. Often those meetings run on a regular schedule, which they apparently did and someone apparently learned. I know that because, three: the message listed no fewer than twelve possible dates and times for the Piranhas to do the deed, of which today was the fourth. Clearly, whoever set up the killing was well informed about his intended victims’ movements and plans, which means there was no reason he would need to be on Casca, let alone that he actually was.”

Marcello’s uni-link trilled. He raised his wrist and keyed it on. “Marcello.”

He listened a moment, and his already grim expression went a little grimmer. “Thank you, Commander. Bring it down here, will you?”

He put the uni-link away. “I had Commander Shiflett go to Townsend’s room at the Hamilton and take a look at that personal he brought from the ship,” he told Lisa. “She found a copy of the Mota murder recording on it.”

Lisa winced. So along with whatever Nabaum was considering charging Townsend with, he was also on the hook for the system hack Peirola had spotted last night. “So he was Commissioner Peirola’s hacker?” she asked.

“Looks like it,” Marcello said. “One other bit of information you don’t know: Commodore Henderson ordered a fresh facial-comparison scan run between the recording and Soleil Azur’s passengers and crew. The closest any of them come is thirty-eight percent.”

“What if the murderer wore a disguise?” Lisa suggested. “A wig, false mustache, and some facial builds could change his appearance that much, couldn’t they?”

“Of course they could,” Nabaum put in. “But why bother with a disguise when he was going to scramble the security recordings and retrograde the guards’ memories anyway?”

“Maybe he likes covering his trail with more than one layer of dirt,” Lisa said.

Nabaum puffed out a sigh. “Look, Commander. I realize Petty Officer Townsend is a fellow shipmate, as well as being a close friend. But the facts are –”

“Excuse me,” Lisa interrupted reflexively, the RMN rules on chain-of-command fraternization blurring across her vision. “Missile Tech Townsend is not a close friend. He’s a competent petty officer under my command, and that’s all.”

“Then why were you the one he called with his little verbal game?” Nabaum countered, a knowing look in her eye.

“I have no idea,” Lisa said, painfully aware of her captain listening silently to all this.

“Well, we’ll make sure to ask him about it later,” Nabaum said placidly.

“What about the victims?” Marcello asked. “Any luck identifying them?”

Nabaum’s gotcha expression soured. “Not yet,” she admitted. “The killers had already loaded the bodies into denature bags — standard pre-disposal practice among the more sophisticated of our criminals. Their faces, prints, corneas, and retinas were already too far gone for computer match, and their DNA was well on its way. We were able to retrieve enough to work with, but it’s going to be a little longer before we can match any names to them.”