July 25th 2013
So the same shooter killed both agents. Anything else linking the two?” Gates asked.
Our analysts think their investigations point to the same criminal enterprise.”
Gates couldn’t keep the snark off his lips: “Such a difficult stretch for the analysts: smuggling dope and smuggling people are so very different, after all.”
Vasser cocked her head, expression revealing nothing, “There’s more to it than that. For the last two years we’ve been running up against some unusually tight-lipped crims working back and forth between Corel, Magnus, and Nexus systems. We’d arrest some mope for whatever crime and run the usual on them: offering reduced sentences and Advocacy Witness Protection in exchange for their testimony, but everyone stopped taking us up on it.”
“Someone get popped in Witness Protection?” he asked.
“Not that Witness Protection is willing to tell us about.” She shrugged, “Either way, someone probably took credit for killing a witness, telling all their minions they’d have the same done to them if they turned on the organization.
At about the same time the best source of informants we had started drying out, some less useful local assets started complaining about competition in the narco-trafficking arena. Les Inconnus, they called the new group.”
“Any electronic intelligence, some computer record of their existence?”
She shook her head, “Very little, and always from groups in conflict with them, never from anyone inside Les Inconnus.”
Gates cocked a brow.
She nodded, “Unusual, I know. That’s why my equivalent over at Narcotics Investigations sent Knowles in. The story was more or less the same with Nawabi.”
“Did either of them seem to be getting somewhere?”
“It’s all in the files, but the short answer is: no, they hadn’t accomplished much. Knowles had penetrated some small-time local distribution networks and Nawabi’s last contact with his handler mentioned a meet that was supposed to go down on Nexus, but we haven’t even confirmed he was upright and walking when he left Corel.”
“Advocacy assets in this sector are stretched thin and we didn’t want to tip the adversary off as to how thin by asking too many questions in the clear. Again, that’s where your suspension and reputation comes in handy.”
She nodded. “You’ll have full and public reinstatement once you’ve identified the principals in this case, should you wish it. Otherwise, I may need you to stay on in an off-the-books capacity.”
And there it is — a promise of future glory for an old warhorse, or a quiet pasture, should I fail.
“Any suggestions on where to start shaking trees?”
“Nexus. We know both Agents were there, however briefly.”
“Anyone in place I can talk to for the lay of the land?”
“No one we can trust, given recent results.”
“Any more good news?”
A partial return of that smile, “Just a new ship for you, everything else we have is in the file on your MobiGlas.”
“There a time-limit on this?”
She stood, “Sooner would be better … just close the case on whoever is behind the killings.”
Close it, with or without breathing suspects, Gates translated, climbing to his feet. “Yes, Ma’am.”
“Follow the blue line to your new ship, I think she’ll be to your liking.”
Thanking her, Gates withdrew.
With the Black Box’s lack of viewports, Gates didn’t know what he’d been assigned until he read the Origin Jumpworks GmbH and platinum-chased 325a etched into the ID plate set in the docking ring of the ship.
A 325a? A bit high-end for me, but I suppose I can play the well-to-do bounty hunter, if need be.
The absurdly-well-appointed cockpit was a shock after the Avenger, automatically powering up as he entered. He set the system to run a series of diagnostics while he examined her armament: a matched set of Omnisky VII laser cannon for close-in work and a pair of Talon SB missile pods to extend her reach. Not too high-profile for a successful bounty hunter… In fact, just about perfect.
Gates selected one of the 325’s multiple tags and set up the first of many jumps. I’ll have to contract a courier or two to send a few messages once I’m away — see if any of my sources can scratch something up on what’s going on.
A number of jumps later and several frustrating days lingering in the shadier bits of Nexus had earned Gates nothing but a few outrageous bar tabs, a couple of hard looks from the local lawmen, and the sneaking suspicion he’d have to break something to get anywhere.
Now, Kantor, a small-time dealer and sometime informant, was late.
Out of options, Gates stood waiting in the rain resulting from the non-stop operation of one of Nexus’ giant terraformers, still churning to maintain and improve the minimally breathable atmosphere. He wiped his bald scalp and shrugged deeper into the dubious shelter of an advertisement for a chemical company that claimed the cure for his condition.
Normally, Gates would have left and let the young dealer try and catch up with him some other day, but Kantor was the only crim Gates had spoken with who’d shown the least interest in dropping information on Les Inconnus. Even then, he’d asked for an exorbitant sum for his tidings. If a little rain and a few extra minutes were the only surcharge on the price of it, Gates would gladly pay.
The taverns, gambling halls and knocking shops, while open all hours catering to the stevedores that made up the bulk of Nexus’ population, were also the least likely places Gates could get dependable intel. Everyone in them suspected the other guy was reporting to Les Inconnus, with a result that no one was willing to talk.
Gates almost admired the intensity of the paranoia Les Inconnus had established regarding the identity of its members. Even better, they maintained it with very little obvious violence: he’d yet to see a single street killing, or even hear of one on the vidcasts. It all smacked of a highly professional outfit, which begged the question: why kill agents? Such was usually the death of quiet commerce as the Advocacy crawled up the ass of the offending organization and chewed its way out as messily as possible.
Were it a small-scale and violent operation, I’d just start offing street soldiers until they decided enough was enough and came after me. With this larger, more sophisticated group, that way’ll only serve to get me smoked. Still, it would be easier, short term, than this.
A shadow detached from the alley across the street, moved his way. Gates laid a hand on his weapon, turned to present a smaller target.
The shadow resolved into a young woman Gates didn’t recognize. She stopped some ten meters from him.
“Bounty hunter?” she called, peering through the rain at him.
“Who’re you?” he asked.
“Nobody, just here to tell you Kantor changed his mind, he don’t wanna talk to you or anybody else about nothing.”
“Where is he?” Gates asked, taking a step toward her.
Her only answer was to turn and run.
Knowing she had the advantage of a head start and intimate knowledge of the ground, Gates let her go. He turned and set out for the spaceport. Nexus is a dead-end just now, at least from the street. Grasping at straws here … but maybe D’Ivoire or even Zara, with her corporate contacts, can run something down.
He sighed. Damn, I hope so.
He was wait-listed for permission to take off. The spaceport was busy, even this far into the local night, vessels of all types and vintage come to the surface to transship and cross-load cargoes from any number of systems. The five jump points connecting the system to nearby stars gave rise to the name of Nexus, its high volume of trade, and, ultimately, the delay for Gates. Even if a couple of the jump-point systems were pirate-infested trash heaps, they still linked to systems beyond that had things worth trading.
Pirates. The word surged free of his subconscious, dangling ropes of thought. I wonder if the Navy has any data on Les Inconnus. Of course, getting them to open their books to a civili– Wait, someone — Morgan! — was hooked up with a rear admiral or some such. And he’s out here, somewhere … He tapped on the console, wracking his brain … Nemo? Yes, Nemo.
A shark’s grin. Time to call in that marker from Vega.
The comm console pinged, notification he was cleared for liftoff.
Gates slipped the 325 clear of her pad and smoothly built power until he was rocketing free of the thin, rainy tendrils of atmosphere and groping fingers of Nexus’ gravity well.
This one’s going to ruin me for any other ship.
The planet receding behind him, Gates called up the nav plot. Examining his options, he decided against making the run through Corel. If he had to come back and start asking questions on Corel IV, he didn’t want some busybody noticing he’d been through the system recently. He instead chose the Taranus jump point. The nav system began updating, switched to a sullen amber and displayed:
NOTICE: YOU HAVE SELECTED A STAR SYSTEM THE NAVY HAS RECENTLY IDENTIFIED AS HAVING A HIGH INCIDENCE OF PIRACY. DO YOU WISH TO CONTINUE OR SELECT AN ALTERNATE ROUTE?
Gates reached out and hit the ‘Continue’ key.