A Call To Arms – Snippet 09

“I see,” Marcello said. “I wonder if we can talk to Missile Tech Townsend privately. Once his interrogation is finished, of course.”

“I think that can be arranged,” Nabaum said. “If you’d care to wait here, I’ll have him sent down as soon as we’re done with him. If you’ll excuse me, I have other matters to attend to.”

She headed for the door. “I need to head out, too,” Henderson said. “There are a couple of angles I want to look into.”

“Of course,” Marcello said. “A suggestion, if I may: you might want to send Soleil Azur’s personnel photos to all commercial ground and air services. Just in case one of them tries to leave Quechua City.”

“Along with vehicle rentals,” Henderson said, nodding. “Already done. Let me know if you find out anything new.”

“I will, Sir,” Marcello assured him. “I hope we can get this thing straightened out quickly.”

“Amen to that.” Henderson smiled faintly. “Because so far, the Manticoran friendship tour is not exactly living up to our expectations. Good luck.”

It was another hour before Townsend finally arrived in the briefing room. Long enough for Commander Shiflett to join them. More than long enough for Marcello and Lisa to confirm that a purloined copy of the Deuxième Prison recording was indeed on Townsend’s personal.

After the incredible morning Townsend had just been through, Lisa had expected him to show up dragging like a new recruit just in from his first ten-klick run. But while the petty officer’s face was drawn, there was a simmering fire in his eyes and a flagpole stiffness to his back.

“I don’t know what else I can tell you, Sir,” he said when they were all seated around the table. “The smile on this man was the same as the one on the recording. Same lips, same shape, same almost-dimple, even the same hint of upper teeth.”

“And you got all this from a single glance?” Marcello asked.

“Two glances, Sir, actually,” Townsend said. “And the second time I already knew what to look for.”

“A remarkable talent, Missile Tech,” Shiflett said in a tone that suggested she didn’t believe it for a second.

“I don’t know if I’d call it a talent, Ma’am,” Townsend said. “I just saw what I saw.” He looked back at Marcello. “I take it, Sir, that the police aren’t taking this seriously?”

“They’re convinced that the men you saw disposing of the bodies were also the killers,” Marcello said. “Or at least were part of the same group as the killers.”

“Do they have any thoughts on motive, Sir?” Townsend asked.

“They don’t even know who the victims were,” Marcello said. “Let’s move on, shall we?” He tapped the cover of Townsend’s personal.

Townsend winced. “Yes, Sir. I know this is going to sound strange, but in fact I was asked to break into the Havenite pirate download and record it.”

“Were you, now,” Marcello said. “By whom, may I ask?”

“I was asked to keep it strictly confidential.”

“To the point of spending the trip back home in the brig?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“How about to the point of staying on Casca to face obstruction and possibly murder charges?” Shiflett put in.

Lisa felt her stomach tighten. Surely Shiflett wasn’t serious.

She was. Lisa had seen that expression before, and she knew with certainty that the XO was completely, deadly serious.

And on one level Lisa couldn’t blame her. As Commodore Henderson had said, the Manticoran visit was on the edge of becoming a public-relations disaster. If it took leaving a marginal petty officer behind to face local charges to bring things back on track, Shiflett might very well be prepared to pay that price.

Townsend knew it, too. He looked at Shiflett, then at Marcello, then at Lisa, then back to Shiflett. “No, Ma’am,” he conceded.

He turned to Marcello, squaring his shoulders. “It was Countess Calvingdell who gave me the assignment, Sir.”

At the edge of her vision, Lisa saw Marcello’s and Shiflett’s eyes perform a synchronized widening. “The Defense Minister?” Marcello demanded.

“Yes, Sir,” Townsend said, as painfully uncomfortable as Lisa had ever seen him. “She noticed there were some odd glitches in the Haven pirate data coming in via Casca, and wanted to know whether the glitches were in the original Havenite encryption or in the extra layer that the Cascans put on it. Since we were going to be here when one of the packets arrived, she asked me to pull a copy of the original data and encryption so that we could compare it with the version that Casca then sent back with us.”

“Ridiculous,” Shiflett said flatly. “If she wanted a direct copy, why not just ask Captain Marcello to get her one? Why go to you in the first place.”

Lisa had been wrong. Townsend was capable of at least one deeper layer of discomfort. “I think, Ma’am, that she was also concerned the glitches might be coming from somewhere in the Navy. Possibly even from inside her own office.”

For once, even Shiflett seemed to be at a loss for words. “All right,” she said at last, some of the antagonism gone from her voice. “Again, why you?”

“One of my uncle’s friends was part of the Intelligence department of the Meyerdahl System Defense Force before he emigrated to Sphinx,” Townsend said. “He’s advised the Countess before on clandestine operations, and suggested that I be given the job.”

“You have any proof of this?” Marcello asked. “Aside from our going back and asking Calvingdell, that is?”

“Nothing that would satisfy a Cascan court,” Townsend admitted. “And I’d ask, Sir, that you not tell them about this. Please. Countess Calvingdell’s instructions were very explicit on that point. I think she was worried about possible political repercussions.”

Marcello grunted. “I’ll just bet she was.”

“But there is a hidden clause in your own orders, Sir, which the Countess put in,” Townsend continued.

“Really,” Marcello said, his voice dropping half an octave. “I don’t recall seeing anything in there aside from the standard collection of contingency files.”

“It’s not just locked, Sir, it’s invisible,” Townsend said. “You can’t even see that it’s there unless you put in the password donnybrook.”

Marcello and Shiflett exchanged glances. “We’ll see,” Marcello said.

“Thank you, Sir,” Townsend said. “But with your permission, Captain, we can’t afford to wait until you get back to Damocles and confirm that. Let me offer you some indirect evidence right now. If you look through the record of my incursion, you’ll see that I was using the Havenites’ own decryption process. The only way I could have gotten hold of that is via a senior member of the Defense Ministry.”

“Or else you stole it,” Shiflett said.

“That’s possible, Ma’am,” Townsend conceded. “But a thief who’d obtained an official Havenite military encryption probably wouldn’t bother using it for a relatively non-critical file like this. He would more likely find a buyer and retire in luxury.”

“Maybe that was next on your list,” Shiflett suggested darkly. “In fact, maybe your smiling man was part of that deal.”

Lisa stiffened as a sudden thought flashed across her brain. If Townsend had copied more than just the Havenite data… “Excuse me,” she said as Townsend opened his mouth to reply. “Did you record anything besides the pirate data?”

Townsend’s lip twitched. “I got some of the rest of the packet, yes, Ma’am,” he said. “I wasn’t snooping — I’d seen the recording of the murder, and thought there might be more information elsewhere in the packet.”

“You have something, TO?” Marcello asked.

“Maybe,” Lisa said. “With your permission, Sir?”

Marcello waved a hand in silent assent. Lisa pulled the personal over to her, turned it on, and swiveled it around to face Townsend. “See if you got a message for a criminal group called — no, wait. Of course they wouldn’t have used their real name. Let me think how to do this…”