Detweiler swung his chair gently from side to side for several seconds, considering what she’d said, then grimaced.

“I can’t disagree with the downsides of either of your scenarios, Isabel. Still, I think it comes under the heading of what I said earlier — the fact that we can’t allow worry about things which may never happen to prevent us from using necessary techniques where we have to. And as you’ve just pointed out, the probability of anyone deciding it was us — or, at least, that it was us acting for ourselves, rather than simply a case of Haven’s contracting out the ‘wet work’ to a third-party — is low.”
“Low isn’t the same thing as nonexistent,” Bardasano countered. “And something else that concerns me is that I have an unconfirmed report Zilwicki and Cachat visited Harrington aboard her flagship at Trevor’s Star.”
“Visited Harrington?” Detweiler said a bit more sharply, letting his chair come upright. “Why is this the first I’m hearing about this?”
“Because the report came in on the same streak boat that confirmed Elizabeth’s cancellation of the summit,” she said calmly. “I’m still working my way through everything that was downloaded from it, and the reason I requested this meeting, frankly, has to do with the possibility that the two of them actually did meet with her.”
“At Trevor’s Star?” Detweiler’s tone was that of a man repeating what she’d said for emphasis, not dubiously or in denial, and she nodded.
“As I say, it’s an unconfirmed report. I really don’t know how much credibility to assign it at this point. But if it’s accurate, Zilwicki took his frigate to Trevor’s Star, with Cachat — a known Havenite spy, for God’s sake! — on board, which would mean they were allowed transit through the wormhole — and into close proximity to Harrington’s fleet units — despite the fact that the entire system’s been declared a closed military area by Manticore, with ‘Shoot on Sight’ orders plastered all over the shipping channels and newsfaxes and nailed up on every flat surface of the Trevor’s Star terminus’ warehousing and service platforms. Not to mention the warning buoys posted all around the system perimeter for any through traffic stupid enough to head in-system from the terminus! And it would also appear that Harrington not only met with Cachat but allowed him to leave, afterward. Which suggests to me that she gave fairly strong credence to whatever it was they had to say to her. And, frankly, I can’t think of anything the two of them might have to say to her that we’d like for her to hear.”
Detweiler snorted harshly in agreement.
“You’re right about that,” he said. “On the other hand, I’m sure you have at least a theory about the specific reasons for their visit. So be a fly on her bulkhead and tell me what they probably said to her.”
“My guess would be that the main point they wanted to make was that Cachat hadn’t ordered Rat Poison. Or, at least, that neither he nor any of his operatives had carried it out. And if he was willing to confirm his own status as Trajan’s man in Erewhon, the fact that he hadn’t carried it out — assuming she believed him — would clearly be significant. And, unfortunately, there’s every reason to think she would believe him if he spoke to her face to face.”
Detweiler throttled another, possibly even sharper spike of anger. He knew what Bardasano was getting it. Wilhelm Trajan was Pritchart’s handpicked director for the Republic’s Foreign Intelligence Service. He didn’t have the positive genius for improvisational covert operations that Kevin Usher possessed, but Pritchart had decided she needed Usher for the Federal Investigation Agency. And whatever else might have been true about Trajan, his loyalty to the Constitution and Eloise Pritchart — in that order — was absolute. He’d been relentless in his efforts to purge FIS of any lingering StateSec elements, and there was no way in the world he would have mounted a rogue operation outside channels. Which meant the only way Rat Poison could have been mounted without Cachat knowing all about it would have been as a rogue operation originating at a much lower level and using an entirely different set of resources.
That was bad enough, but the real spark for his anger was Bardasano’s indirect reference to the never-to-be-sufficiently-damned treecats of Sphinx. For such small, fuzzy, outwardly lovable creatures, they had managed to thoroughly screw over altogether too many covert operations — Havenite and Mesan alike — over the years. Especially in partnership with that bitch Harrington. If Cachat had gotten into voice range of Harrington, that accursed treecat of hers would know whether or not he was telling the truth.
“When did this conversation take place, according to your ‘unconfirmed report’?”
“About a T-week after Elizabeth fired off her note. The report about it came from one of our more carefully protected sources, though, which means there was even more delay than usual in getting it to us. One of the reasons it’s still unconfirmed is that there was barely time for it to catch the regular intel drop.”
“So there was time for Harrington to go and repeat whatever they told her to Elizabeth or Grantville even before she headed out for Lovat, without our knowing anything about it.”
“Yes.” Bardasano shrugged. “Frankly, I don’t think there’s very much chance of Elizabeth or Grantville buying Haven’s innocence, no matter what Cachat may have told Harrington. All he can tell them is that as far as he knows Haven didn’t do it, after all, and even if they accept that he was telling her the truth in so far as he knew it, that wouldn’t mean he was right. Even if he’s convinced Harrington he truly believes Haven didn’t do it, that’s only his personal opinion. . . and it’s damned hard to prove a negative without at least some outside evidence to back it up. So I strongly doubt that anything they may have said to her, or that she may have repeated to anyone else, is going to prevent the resumption of operations. And, as I said before, now that blood’s started getting shed again, the war is going to take on its own momentum all over again, as well.
“What worries me quite a bit more than what Zilwicki and Cachat may have told Harrington, frankly, is that we don’t know where they went after they left her. We’ve always known they’re both competent operators, and they’ve shown an impressive ability to analyze any information they get their hands on. Admittedly, that’s hurt us worse tactically than strategically so far, and there’s no evidence — yet — that they’ve actually begun peeling the onion. But if Cachat is combining Haven’s sources with what Zilwicki is getting from the Ballroom, I’d say they’re more likely than anyone else to start putting inconvenient bits and pieces together. Especially after they start looking really closely at Rat Poison and how it could have happened if Haven didn’t do it. Working on their own, they can’t call on the organizational infrastructure Givens or Trajan have access to, but they’ve got plenty of ability, plenty of motivation, and entirely too many sources.”
“And the last thing we need is for those Ballroom lunatics to realize we’ve been using them for the better part of a century and a half,” Detweiler growled.
“I don’t know if it’s absolutely the last thing we need, but it would definitely be on my list of the top half-dozen or so things we’d really like not to happen,” Bardasano said with a sour smile, and, despite himself, Detweiler chuckled harshly.