December 17th 2012
Several blocks away from the police station, Quell waited patiently while I broke into a hover. I found an older model so I wouldn’t need any crackers just old-fashioned tools.
“I hope this isn’t going to be added to the list of charges.” I said and popped the lock.
“I haven’t decided yet.” She kept an eye out for the hitters.
“Just saying, this might qualify as entrapment.” I said as I worked on the ignition. “You know, this might go a little quicker without the shackles.”
“Well, life’s unfair.”
Two minutes later the engine sputtered to a start.
Quell got the cheapest room in the cheapest flophouse. There were specks of dried blood on the headboard of the bed. The roll-blinds on the window were rusted shut. It reeked of damp rotten fabric. I didn’t want to touch anything.
“You couldn’t spring for a better room?” I peeked into the bathroom, more out of morbid curiosity than anything. It did not disappoint.
“It’s low profile.”
“So’s a place with plumbing. There are a lot of those around.”
Quell turned on the wallscreen and scrolled until she found the news. They were doing a segment on the upcoming Sataball season so she went to the desk. I swept some crap off a chair and dragged it over by her.
She flipped on the light and examined the badge she pulled off the hulk’s body. It looked pretty official to me but, then again, I’ve managed to avoid having to look at them up close.
“See? He’s got people in your own bureau.”
“It’s a fake.” She said without hesitation. She picked at the encoded chips, incorporated into the badge to authorize the agent to bypass security protocols. They were stickers. “And one of the sloppier ones I’ve seen too. Someone did this in a rush.”
“Fine, they weren’t dirty Advocacy Agents. Hannigan still knew you were taking me to that station and just dressed up some thugs to do the deed.”
“Or it could have been any other criminal you’ve crossed in the past. Maybe someone with a good Tapper on their payroll who could access police bands.” She sat back and eyed me suspiciously.
“Think about it. Hannigan is on the Subcommittee for Development & Expansion, which means he’s got access to planets full of undocumented labor. He’s got the political juice to keep tabs and manipulate Imperial investigations. It explains why Caro has been as elusive as he has been.”
“I don’t know. The politician-moonlighting-as-criminal-mastermind thing seems too far-fetched to me.”
“Aren’t they one in the same?”
Raina Quell actually laughed. She ran the hulk’s photo from the ID. He had a record, a lengthy one too. Piracy, assault, murder-for-hire, he was multi-faceted muscle but nothing that tied him to Hannigan. Time to pull out the big guns.
“Does this screen have Recall?” I said, motioning to the wallscreen.
“I don’t know, probably.”
“A nicer room would.” I brushed past her to get to the screen.
“Drop it.” She glared at me.
I went to the SSNewsFeed Archive, brought up the coverage of Hannigan’s speech, and advanced frame by frame until I saw Laser-burn.
“That’s the guy. He clipped the trafficker in the landing park who said he could implicate Caro.”
Quell stepped up to the screen to get a good look at him. She leaned in a little closer to look at the mess of pixels. “The feed-compression’s too thick to pull an ID.”
She was weighing my story. I couldn’t tell how she was leaning but needed this to go my way.
“I’ll bet you my freedom.”
Quell looked at me, amused.
“Seriously. If I’m wrong, I’ll let you bust me.” That was the second time I made her laugh.
“You’ll let me? I already busted you.”
I dropped the handcuffs. I picked the key when she brushed past me. “I was going to save this until later, maybe the next time you left me in the car…”
I unlocked the leg shackles, laid them on the desk, and leaned back against the wall. Quell already had her pistol on me.
“For you it’s a win/win. If I’m right, you take down the most notorious trafficker in the ‘verse. If I’m wrong, you get me. What do you say?”
* * * * *
Quell was quiet for five minutes then laid down two rules. One, I couldn’t have a weapon. Two, if I left her sight she would consider that an escape attempt, find me, and shoot me.
Now, we were back in the stolen hover headed to the SSN News Archive to look at the uncompressed footage of Hannigan to try and pull an ID on Laser-burn. First, I had one request of my own: we go back to the police station. Most things I could part with, there was one in the trunk of her vehicle that I couldn’t.
Quell came within sight of the station and slowed the hover. There were cops everywhere assessing the destruction. Fortunately she had parked a little further down the block. So we walked. A couple of the cops eyeballed us as we passed.
“You mind telling me what’s so important?” She hissed at me. “For all we know they could still be here. Watching.”
“You’ll see.” We got to her hover. She went to the trunk and opened it. Inside was the LR-620 and one of my bags. I opened the bag and pulled out the Vanduul blade. That piqued her curiosity.
“Is that what I think it is?”
“Yup.” Sticking to Rule #1, I handed it to her. “Don’t lose it.”
“I thought only Vanduul could have these. Any other species would be marked and hunted.” She stared entranced at the exquisite craftsmanship of the metalworking; refined, intricate, and elegant in its simplicity.
“Special exception.” I glanced back at the station. A cop was watching us.
“I gotta hear this story.”
“Later. We should motor.”
It’s amazing what some authority will give you. At the SSNtv News Archive, the second Quell showed her badge, every courtesy and accommodation was extended to us. I had a fantastic cup of tea while they dug up the original back-up chips from the camera.
“This is amazing. I should have been a cop.” I said, polishing off the cup. “You’ve really turned me around here.”
“Please. You wouldn’t have made it through training.” Quell grinned.
“I’ve seen Advocacy training regiments. I can jog too.” I motioned to the intern for another cup. Third time she laughed.
The extremely prim data manager hustled out of the back and apologized for the delay. He ushered us to a viewing bay. Sifting through the hours and hours of footage, we finally came to the moment of truth. With the uncompressed resolution, we could see the slight sweat on his brow. We’ll get an ID easy.
On the screen, Hannigan finished, headed off-stage, and went out of frame.
We both looked at each other. Quell scanned back and played it again frame by frame. It was the exact same result.
Laser-burn wasn’t there.
* * * * *
We raced back to the hotel to sort this out.
“Someone implanted him into the Feed. Do you have any idea how difficult that is?” I was rolling, my mind raced faster than the hover.
“Whoever accessed the SSN feed had to leave footprints. Which means we could track them, at least start to figure out who’s pulling the strings here.” Quell pondered it some more. “How are your System skills?”
“Definitely not at the level we need, but I got a guy I can contact.”
“Can we trust him?”
“Well, he’s a criminal so technically no, but we know they’re tapped into Advocacy channels so we don’t have a lot of options.”
Back at the room, I hit up Raj Benny. He used to be one of the best at cracking systems before he moved onto skulls. As luck would have it, he was doing some protection racket in the system and could be here the next morning.
“Look at this.” Quell said and threw the hulk from the police station’s record on the wallscreen. I scrolled through the data. It looked pretty much the same.
There was one fact added, buried in the chronology of crimes. The file now said he served in the military in some obscure unit and was dishonorably discharged.
“Huh. That’s weird.”
“Not really.” Quell said, a knowing smile on her face. She brought up another screen and sat back, waiting for me to be impressed. The unit he supposedly served in was one of the guard units assigned to a developing system. So that tied him to the Subcommittee of Development and Expansion, therefore, to Hannigan.
Quell leapt up, invigorated, and went to the screen.
“They’re perfect puzzle pieces building a case that Hannigan is really Caro. Obscure enough that any investigator won’t feel like they’re being duped.”
“Or a potential assassin with a vengeance for slavers.”
“Exactly.” Quell turned and looked at me. “They wanted you to start digging and constructed this narrative for you to follow.”
“So who’s at the end of this? Who wants Hannigan dead?”
“Well, now we know where to start looking. I mean, who’s got a grudge against Hannigan?” she said. I shook my head. This was unbelievable. She looked at me with a grin. “Looks like you might lose that bet.”
We spent the night talking and diving into Hannigan’s life. His political rivals. Contacts in the business world. Developers he might have crossed. Even his ex-wife. By the end, the list of potential suspects was long.
The sun peeked through the rusted roll-blinds when there was a knock on the door. Raj buzzed me as well with an all-clear. It was an old trick. Knock with no buzz means trouble.
Quell got in plain-sight; hand on her gun, just in case.
I opened the door. Raj shuffled inside. He looked like he hadn’t slept since I saw him all the way back at the Covalex Shipping Hub. The second he saw Quell his hand immediately darted for his gun. I got between them.
“Easy Raj. She’s level.” I put my hands up. Quell did the same.
“What the hell, Ethan?” He looked around suspiciously. “You running with Law now.”
“Trust me. When you hear this…” I said. The Tevarin slowly relaxed. We explained it to him. Everything, the cloaked assassin, the trail to Fake-me, Laser-burn and Hannigan, Caro, the deception, everything.
Raj listened, shaking his head in disbelief a couple times in the beginning. He stopped shaking near the end.
“So we need you to find out who accessed the feed. Trace it back to a terminal or even better a name.” I said.
“Can you do it?” Quell chimed in.
“Maybe.” Raj thought about it. “I might be a little rusty.”
Quell set up her system and Raj set to work. We sat on the bed and waited. About an hour passed.
“The report on this case is going to be a nightmare.” She finally said with a groan.
“Maybe you should switch to life of a crime? Very little paperwork.”
“I’ll think about it.” She smiled. Another few moments passed, she got up and went into the bathroom.
“Hey Ethan,” Raj mumbled, “Check this out.”
He moved out of the chair so I could sit down. I looked at the screen. He had all the files collated into a single directory.
And was deleting them.
I barely felt the needle slip into my skin. A cool numb feeling quickly expanded through my system. My body crumpled before I could react. Raj caught me and laid me on the ground.
“You couldn’t just play along like the predictable little rage-monkey you are.” He whispered.
I heard the toilet flush. No.
Raj smiled at me and drew a pistol. My pistol. The one I lost at the landing park. I strained to move. To scream. To do something.
Raj calmly walked by the bathroom door. She was fast. Much faster than Raj. She could get him. I only needed to warn her somehow.
The door opened. Raina Quell walked out drying her hands.
Raj shot her in the back of the head. She never saw it coming. Her body stood there for a second. Shocked. She hit the dirty carpet looking right into my eyes.
I saw the life leave her.
Raj opened the door. Laser-burn and a couple other thugs entered.
“Make sure she’s found.” Raj handed off my pistol to the thugs and looked down at me. “Looks like you just executed a decorated Advocacy Agent, Ethan.”