A Call To Arms – Snippet 10

“Are you talking about the Black Piranhas?” Shiflett asked, pulling out her tablet. “Hang on — Nabaum gave me the original of that file. It was in the will-call folder, number — well, here.” She turned the tablet so Townsend could see it. “See if you have this one.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” For a few seconds Townsend worked the keyboard, frowning intently at the display. Then his face cleared. “Got it,” he said. “But it’s encrypted, and I haven’t got the key.”

Shiflett gestured toward him. “Send it to me. I should be able to run it through the same decryption system the police used on the original.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Townsend said. “Sent.”

“Got it,” Shiflett said. “Let’s see if this works.”

“What exactly are you looking for, TO?” Marcello asked quietly into the silence.

“I’m not sure, Sir,” Lisa confessed. “Lieutenant Nabaum said the kill order had come in the packet from off-world. I’m thinking that if she’s wrong about that, maybe there’ll be something different between it and Missile Tech Townsend’s version.”

“Well, well,” Shiflett said, her voice suddenly intrigued. “Would you look at this? The version on the personal is just like the one the police have…except that the location of the hit is missing. Hello — so are those twelve date and time stamps she was so impressed by.”

“Interesting,” Marcello said. “So it’s possible that someone had the template in place in the packet, then added the location and time before the Piranhas picked it up?”

“That would certainly fit, Sir,” Shiflett said. “That way, the killer wouldn’t have to know in advance where the meeting would take place. Even if the victims were cagey enough to switch the place or time at the last second, he could insert the data into the message and it would still read out as having come from off-world.”

“So either the Piranhas were really quick on the uptake,” Lisa said, “or else the men you saw were just the clean-up squad.”

“It has to be the latter,” Townsend said. “I only heard two shots, which had to be the two outside men. That means the six inside had already been killed, which implies the killer was at the meeting by invitation.”

“Unless he shot the two outside men first and then went in and shot the others,” Lisa suggested.

Townsend shook his head. “You wouldn’t charge into a room and wait until you’d closed the door behind you before you started shooting, Ma’am,” he pointed out. “Even if you tried, your intended victims certainly wouldn’t give you that much time before they started shooting back.”

“Point,” Marcello said. “So when the message says to deal with whoever they found inside, it’s just referring to body disposal?”

“Apparently,” Shiflett said. “And contrary to how Nabaum’s reading it.” She gave a little shrug. “Nice plan, really. If Townsend hadn’t stumbled on them, and they’d gotten the bodies out of there, the murders would have just gone down as unsolved disappearances.”

“And even if they did get caught, there’s a complete disconnect between them and the actual killer,” Marcello agreed. “As an extra bonus, by making it look like the order came from off-planet, it could take months or years for the Cascans to back-track the message and pin down his identity.”

“If they even had the resources to try, Ma’am,” Townsend added.

“Gimmicking the Havenite packet that way couldn’t have been easy, though,” Marcello pointed out.

“He’s already screwed with a maximum-security prison’s recording system,” Shiflett pointed out. “This can’t be any harder.”

“Excuse me, Sir,” Townsend said. “But now that we know that Mr. Smiley might be involved, shouldn’t we ask the Quechua City Police to pick him up?”

“Afraid you haven’t given them much to go on,” Shiflett said.

“What about the picture?” Townsend asked. “Redko got you and the cops a picture, didn’t he?”

“What are you talking about?” Shiflett demanded.

“I pointed him to the killer and told him to get a picture,” Townsend said, sitting up straighter in his chair. “He didn’t –? Oh, no. Damn it.”

Shiflett had already keyed her uni-link. “Lieutenant Nabaum,” she ordered, her eyes smoldering. “When was this, Townsend?”

“Just before I got grabbed by the clean-up crew,” Townsend said between clenched teeth. “I sent them in pairs — he should have had someone with him.”

“His locator’s not registering,” Marcello muttered, glowering at his own uni-link. He shot a look at Shiflett, still waiting impatiently for Nabaum to answer, then turned to Lisa. “TO, get our people out there,” he ordered. “Get them on the streets and have them start a search. Starting at –” he gestured to Townsend.

“Barclay Street and Marsala Avenue,” Townsend supplied.

“Starting there,” Marcello said. “Have them look everywhere a human being could be hidden. Tell them they’re looking for EW Tech Redko.” His lips tightened. “Or,” he added quietly, “his body.”

* * *

It took the Damocles crew and, eventually, most of the Quechua City police force a solid hour to find Redko. He and a Spacer Second Class named Aj Krit were taped to the back wall of a dumpster in a service alley four blocks away from the corner where Chomps had left them, with a couple of trash bags strategically placed to hide them from view.

To Chomps’s surprise and infinite relief, they were alive.

According to the petty officer who found them, Redko swore for three solid minutes after they got the tape off his mouth while they were untaping him from the dumpster. By the time Chomps and Commander Donnelly arrived he had apparently run out of curses.

But from the look in his eye Chomps was pretty sure he was ready to do a repeat performance.

“About freaking time,” he bit out as he spotted Townsend. His eyes flicked to Donnelly, and Chomps could see him revising his vocabulary now that a senior officer was present. “I was starting to think you were going to let me get a private tour of the Quechua City garbage sorter. What the hell kept you?”

“It got complicated,” Chomps said, some vocabulary of his own very much wanting to come out. “What the hell happened?”

“What do you think happened?” Redko said bitterly. “He got the drop on us, that’s what. We never even saw him coming.”

“And how exactly was there even a drop he could get?” Chomps demanded. “You were supposed to take a picture. One. From a safe distance.”

“Well, I couldn’t, could I?” Redko shot back. “He never gave me a clear shot. So we figured we’d follow him, just for a minute or so, and try to get at least a solid profile on him.” He nodded back over his shoulder at the dumpster. “Only next thing I knew, we were wrapped up like bargain-priced mummies and plastered against the back of that thing. Plastered solid — I couldn’t even kick the sides to try to get someone’s attention.”

“Consider yourself lucky you’re able to complain about it,” Donnelly advised tersely. “We think the man you were tailing killed eight other men.”

“I was thinking –” Redko broke off. “Did you say eight, Ma’am? But –” he looked back at Chomps.

“Eight,” Chomps confirmed. “The two shots we heard were the last of a string. As Commander Donnelly says, consider yourself lucky.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Redko said, in a considerably more subdued voice. “Well…did you get him?”

“Not yet,” Donnelly said. “But the police have an alert out, and Commodore Henderson has the CDF checking all shuttle flights he might have been able to catch.”

“They’ll get him,” Chomps promised. “In the meantime…” He looked at Donnelly.

She nodded. “The hospital for a quick check, then to the police station for a debriefing.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Chomps gestured. “Come on, Reddy. I’ll help you to the car.”